I know what you're thinking. "If you think I am going to pick up the 'Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry' -- or the Norton anything for that matter -- you are crazy." We all know I'm a little crazy, but there's a method in the madness. Here's why reading poetry really matters, especially for writers.
1. It's Concise.
Well, duh. With the exception of of certain long-winded poets who just had to keep going (I'm looking at you, T.S. Eliot), poets are incredibly adept at saying a lot with a little. Hmmm, does that sound a lot like picture-book writers?
Consider this from Pablo Neruda in "Ode to a Couple":
If snow falls
upon two heads,
the heart is sweet,
the house is warm.
Can brevity get any better? Sure, it's a poem, but couldn't you see this illustrated in a quiet picture book, a la "Snowy Day?" In poetry every word counts. How many times have you heard that advice for picture book writers?
2. It's Beautiful.
Without coming off as a little bombastic here, there is simply merit, as a writer, in surrounding yourself with beautiful words. They are everywhere: children's books, popular books, music, etc. But if you're not turning to poetry as well, you are missing out.
A volume of poetry sits on my bedside, and I read one or two poems every night before I go to bed. As if my brain can suck in the beauty of the words via osmosis while I sleep. Right now I'm reading Neruda, but I just finished Elizabeth Bishops' complete poems, and my next will be my very favorite: e.e. cummings. To become better at their craft, architects must visit inspiring buildings, musicians must listen to inspiring songs, and it goes without saying: Writers must surround themselves with inspiring words.
3. It's Hysterical.
You don't have to be a children's book writer to pick up Shel Silverstein. It's actually bizarrely morbid and I think I get a lot more out of it reading it as an adult. A poem about your finger being bit off by a monster the further you stick it up your nose is a cautionary tale of sanitation to a kid. To an adult, it's a metaphor for the consequences of pushing the limits too far. But it's all said from a child-like POV, and it's funny and fascinating, and, as often in his poetry, completely heartbreaking.
So for aspiring children's book authors, I say, don't forget your Shel, your Lewis Carroll, your traditional nursery rhymes. (I will do a post on nursery rhymes in the future, which are completely morbid and amazing in their own right.) Inspiration abounds in children's poetry.
4. It Captures the Human Condition.
Isn't that what we are trying to do, really, when we write? Some writers spend 500 words trying to capture a slice of humanity. (See: practically every title on the Modern Library's Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century list. "Ulysses at No. 1?" Really?) Poets can do that in one page. I love this from W.B. Yeats's "All Things Can Tempt Me":
All things can tempt me from this craft of verse:
One time it was a woman's face, or worse --
Sounds like a 400-page D.H. Lawrence saga full of unnecessary, flowery description to me. Or, in the case of Yeats, you get it all in two lines.
You get my drift.
"BUT JILL, POETRY JUST ISN'T FOR ME."
Fine, I get it. I love words but not everybody else does. But there's something you probably do like: music. The best songwriters are actually just the most multi-talented people on the planet. They are writers who can sing. I have a ridiculously varied musical taste (a post for a later time), but take a look into your iTunes library and find the truly talented singer/songwriters in there. Listen to John Mayer in "Clarity":
I worry, I weigh three times my body
I worry, I throw my fear around
But this morning, there's a calm I can't explain
The rock candy's melted, only diamonds now remain.
Or my favorite, brilliant, Dave Matthews in "Why I Am":
I grew drunk on water turned into wine
Till I was slave and master at the same damn time.
In summary, after this loooong post (thank you for sticking with me): Listen to the words. Get inspired. There are masters out there; you just have to know where to look.