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Poetry now: Insights from a poet on the art form’s place today

By candlelight sits an open book. On the left is Mayakovsky’s poetry in Russian and on the right, the English translation. Next to the candle is a mug with the following text written in black bubble letters "They told me I could be anything, so I became a [unintelligible text]"
Mayakovsky’s poetry. 
Ellen Li / The Daily Princetonian

April is National Poetry Month, a time to honor poetry in all forms and poets from all backgrounds. In honor of the celebration, Princeton Professor of Poetry Lynn Melnick offered reflections on the art form — from reading and writing, to students’ misconceptions about poetry, and its prevalence in our most significant life moments. 

Melnick has authored three original collections of poetry: “Refusenik” (2022), “Landscape with Sex and Violence” (2017), and “If I Should Say I Have Hope” (2012). 


First, poetry month can redefine what poetry means to people. Melnick believes that “how poetry is taught in high school isn’t the greatest.” It is taught as “something that you cannot understand right away” and that it is “difficult and fancy.” She hopes that Princeton students can encounter poetry at least once in their undergraduate years, as poetry is a relevant art form that is “being written right now by living people.” In high school poetry curricula, often the only poems that are taught are the classics. “[It] is important to learn the roots of the art form, but it is also important to remember that poetry is being written right now … that is coming from our moment,” said Melnick.

The month of April is also an opportunity to introduce poetry to new readers and writers. In teaching Creative Writing (Poetry) at Princeton, Melnick has numerous goals for her students. In guiding those who may feel uncomfortable or intimidated in expressing themselves through poetry, Melnick states that poetry “isn’t far off from song lyrics.”

Melnick believes that many students read one poem that they dislike and develop a distaste for poetry as a whole; however, there are numerous forms and types of poetry for students to explore. Melnick says that developing a taste for poetry and developing a taste for music are similar processes: You try different genres and styles to find a few poets you genuinely connect with. As a teenager, Melnick was drawn toward feminist poets. Reading their expressive work inspired her to become a poet. Her discovery is an example that a taste for poetry can be developed by anyone at any age. 

Melnick emphasized that anyone can be a poet, no matter their major. She remarked that some of her thesis advisees were public policy, computer science, and engineering majors who put together remarkable pieces of work. “My hope is always that my students at least become readers of poetry.” In taking Creative Writing classes like poetry, “writing is its own reward.” If one elects to pursue the Creative Writing Minor, students have the opportunity to leave Princeton with an entire manuscript of poetry from a creative thesis. 

April is not just to honor the art form of poetry and poets across the globe, but it is also to remember and reflect on its impactful nature, especially during times of distress. Melnick remarked how poetry sales skyrocketed during the global pandemic. Melnick recalled how “Good Bones” by Maggie Smith went viral after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Fla. “Good Bones” is “a poem about the world being terrible and how to make it better for our children,” and according to Melnick, the poem brought comfort to millions across social media, as poetry has the power to “help us process things like grief and overwhelm. Poetry has a way of touching our hearts that most other art forms do not.” Throughout her lived experiences, Melnick has observed that poetry helps her to process, understand, and humanize issues that may seem distant. 

Melnick remarks how “the public often forgets about poetry,” despite its presence at inaugurations, weddings, funerals, and other events. April is a poignant reminder of poetry’s enduring nature and emotional resonance. “Allowing poetry into your life just a little bit will change it in ways that you will come to appreciate,” said Melnick. 


Connor Romberg is an assistant editor for The Prospect from Winneconne, Wis.

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