Updated: Jun 8
By: David Xiang
Curriculum Developer: David Xiang is a History and Science concentrator at Harvard with a secondary in Molecular and Cellular Biology. In 2015, David was selected as a National Student Poet, America’s highest honor for youth poets. He gave his inaugural poetry reading at the White House at the invitation of former First Lady Michelle Obama. His poetry has since been widely published in various literary journals, and his poem “A river of forgotten things, or poetry” was nominated for the 2019 Best of the Net Anthology. In the Fall, he will attend Harvard Medical School.
Poetry Instructor: Emerson Monks is a History & Literature concentrator from Harvard College. Emerson is a writer for the Arts Board of The Harvard Crimson . In 2017, she won the Congress-Bundestag U.S. State Dept. scholarship for an exchange program in Germany. Emerson previously double-majored in creative writing and classical piano.
Why Poetry Matters
I first started writing poetry because I couldn’t fall asleep at night. With all my thoughts running amok in my head, I would be restless, until I found solace in a pencil and paper. By emptying my worries onto paper, by translating my thoughts into language, I felt calmer, I felt more at peace with myself. And so, poetry started out as a coping mechanism for me, as a way to wrestle with the happenings of everyday life. It gave me a safe space to vent, a place to represent myself in how I wanted to be represented. Poetry provided an escape, allowed me to create hundreds of tiny worlds where I could control every aspect. Especially as a new kid at a new school, poetry was my way of dealing with loneliness, with uncertainty, with fear.
Back in high school, as a National Student Poet, I had been given the opportunity to travel around the country and share my journey and teach poetry to students, but it always felt surreal. I didn’t even feel ready to teach myself, much less a class of 20 high school students. And so, as I entered college, I sought to learn as much about poetry as I could. Eventually, that late-night release valve became a lifelong hobby and passion. Now, 8 years later from when I first began writing, I can truly say that poetry has transformed my life and how I see the world. Each and every day, my belief in its transformative and inspirational power grows stronger.
I believe poetry is so important to our lives because it helps us develop skills that we do not often notice, but are crucial to not just being a good writer, but a good person. First of all, in a poem, every word matters. That level of precision, that attention to detail, forces us to consider everything that goes into a line: the word-choice, the rhythm, the length, the list goes on and on. It is almost akin to composing a musical score; write one word out of harmony, and it will stick out like a sore thumb. When I write, I consider not just the words themselves, but how they are arranged on the page, how the line breaks support the lines themselves. The more I write, the more the poem itself seems to come alive, and the writing process becomes an intensely dynamic relationship between myself and the words on the page.
Secondly, poetry helps us slow down and reflect. In a digital era where information comes in 2-second snippets and everything is easily accessible, poetry reminds us that sometimes what we think is mundane is incredibly beautiful. Poetry has helped me find deeper appreciation in everything: in myself, in the natural world, in the social interactions I have. When I write, I like to draw from personal experience, and poetry has helped me recollect memories with perfect clarity. Every poem feels like a living remnant of myself. We all live hectic and busy lives, and poetry helps us make even the chaotic seem serene.
And lastly, poetry gives us a way to express what we cannot express. With only 26 letters and formal rules of grammar, our language constrains us in certain ways. But in my opinion, poetry uses those same tools with none of the formal restrictions and allows us to be as experimental with language as we can possibly imagine. By doing this, we are allowed generative space to truly say what we want to say. For me, the value of a poem is not in describing something beautifully, but if a poem can show me something new, and help me realize something I did not realize before. It can be as simple as giving me another metaphor for moonlight, or as complicated as helping me challenge the insignificance of language itself, but as long as a poem resonates with me, I consider that a great poem.
Poetry is an incredible tool that helps me feel the most in tune with my emotions, memories, and current day-to-day life. It is a discipline that takes years and years of reading and writing, and even though I’ve spent almost half of my life learning about poetry, I feel like I’m just starting to scratch the surface.
But there’s a reason that poetry has been around for as long as humankind. It is an art that truly transcends space and time. It is an art that is at its core, full of raw humanity, and energized with the spirit we give it. It is an art that will always matter, no matter who you are or where you live.
David Xiang is a History and Science concentrator at Harvard with a secondary in Molecular and Cellular Biology. While at Harvard, David was the Associate Editor of The Harvard Crimson's Fifteen Minutes Magazine and Associate Poetry Board Member & Editor at The Harvard Advocate. His poetry has been widely published in various literary journals, and his poem “A river of forgotten things, or poetry” was nominated for the 2019 Best of the Net Anthology. He has also been recently published in the Cordite Poetry Review and the Bluffton Literary Journal.
For a full Bio on Emerson, please see our EWC team page.