How Poetry Can Strengthen Democracy

“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free…it expects what never was and never will be.”

Thomas Jefferson

The World Factbook, published annually by the CIA, lists literacy attainment in the US at 99%. Perhaps this is true, if “literacy” is defined by merely being able to recognize the letters of the alphabet. The more frightening reality is that we are in the midst of a literacy crisis: roughly 1/3 of the U.S. population reads at or below minimum functionality and only one of eight adults reads well enough to understand our founding documents. The implications of this crisis for individuals, and for our nation’s democratic processes, are profound. What does it mean if only 12.5% of adult citizens understand the constitution? The link between literacy and citizenry is clear: Those who cannot read, write, or speak for themselves are the most alienated from the benefits of democracy.

The sorry status of American literacy is neither a surprise nor a recent phenomenon. Even though we have a plethora of organizations and initiatives pledged to eradicate illiteracy in this country, the needle hasn’t moved one iota in the past 35 years. The sector of the population most affected is poor people, with the emphasis falling on poor people of color.

There is no single ‘magic bullet’ solution to this problem, but one promising approach involves poetry. In the last decade, the reading, writing, and reciting of poetry has blossomed into a vibrant youth-driven communal phenomenon. Fueled by the creative energies of rap and hip-hop and focused through the mock-competitive lens of the poetry slam, many youth have embraced the poetic form. Because it can be free form and because, at its core, it is about self-awareness and self-expression, poetry has won a place on the youth cultural stage.

Poetry is invaluable as a transformative and empowering tool, both for individuals and societies. As a literary form, it is complex, subtle, and supple, requiring mastery of a rich vocabulary, rhythm, and a vast array of literary devices.  What I have found while teaching and observing young poets is that as they become more comfortable with this art form, their literacy skill set inevitably improves. And with mastery of literacy comes a host of gifts that empower authors to be the writers of their own life stories and formidable community advocates.

A still from the documentary To Be Heard

Amongst the poets in my classes over the years, one young woman, who had been certified as ‘uneducable’ and learning disabled by the public school system, wrote liberating confessional poetry about her sexuality, which won her a Peabody Award at 17. Another so-called troubled student, a “hall-ghost”, parlayed his poetic skills into a full scholarship at Brandeis. Today he is a college counselor at an NYC charter school. A third young man, who hid under his doo-rag, wrote the most exquisite love poetry, embedded this poetry in his college applications and won both Posse Foundation and Gates Millennium scholarships. He went on to earn a Ph.D. and is now a school psychologist. Our students have won millions of dollars in scholarships by using their poetry to distinguish themselves.

While scholarships are important byproducts of real literacy, the framework for courageous self-exploration and agency that poetry can provide is even more critical. Learning to recite and perform poetry makes for more eloquent public speakers, more powerful and persuasive community leaders. At 16, one of my students organized and led a rally of 900 students, teachers, and parents to protest the relocation of their school from their own building on a beautiful college campus to a crowded structure across from a juvenile delinquent prison. Her fiery speeches laced with her poetry got her quoted in the New York Times and helped her win a coveted full scholarship to an elite New England liberal arts college. Remember, these youngsters come from America’s poorest congressional district.

The question: Is poetic expression a path to empowered literacy?

The challenge: Is to test this hypothesis beyond a local boots-on-the-ground setting. We have been doing just this at Power Poetry. Launched in 2012, it is the world’s first digital poetry community for youth. With more than 147,000 registered users from all 50 states, we now have the database in place to see how poetry affects the literacy skill set.  So far the analytical evidence suggests we are on the correct path. It will be an exciting road ahead—at stake is the chance to move the literacy needle and strengthen our democracy through poetry.


Roland Legiardi-Laura is a documentary filmmaker, poet and educator. He developed Power Poetry based on his work in New York City public schools and serves as the organization’s executive director.  To Be Heard, his most recent film, is a documentary about three high school poets from the Bronx. The New York Times called it “One of the best documentaries of the year.” Roland has been a board member for the Nuyorican Poets Café for the past 25 years. He also created the world’s first traveling troupe of poets, Words to Go. He lives in the East Village in New York City.

04.21.14 by Roland Legiardi-Laura