When we call on poetry, we hope and expect to find something deep and genuine. In a time of rampant misinformation and so-called ‘alternative facts’, poetry serves as a Cassandra-like truth-teller, writes Judith Valente.
Some of the most beloved lines of American poetry come at the beginning of Walt Whitman’s great anthem to life, Song of Myself:
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you …
The words get to the heart of the communal nature of poetry. When we gaze upon a painting, we usually stand alone. When we read a novel or a short story, we are alone with ourselves. Reading a poem, we are always in conversation with another person. The poet is our companion. If we reflect on the Latin root of the word companion – cum pane, with bread – we can say that we ‘break bread’ with both the poet and the poem.
I would go further. I would say poems are like what the ancient Celts called an anam cara, a soul friend. Like a good friend, the words of a poem will often come to us just when we need to hear from them.
The friendship of poems is particularly necessary in these chaotic times. With war raging in Ukraine, with the ravages of climate change all too evident, and a pandemic that keeps galloping across the globe, it can seem as if our world is undergoing a collective nervous breakdown.
I recall interviewing former US Poet Laureate Billy Collins not long after the terrorist attacks of September 11 stunned the world in 2001. Collins said something I’ve never forgotten. He told me, “At a time like this, people don’t ask, ‘What short story should I read, or what film should I see.’ They ask, ‘Do you have a poem?’”
When we call on poetry, we hope and expect to find something deep and genuine. In a time of rampant misinformation and so-called “alternative facts,” poetry serves as a Cassandra-like truth-teller.
Pablo Neruda wrote a wonderful poem titled, aptly enough, Poetry, in which he says poetry “found him”. He distills what that experience was like:
And I, infinitesimal being …
felt myself a pure part
of the abyss.
I wheeled with the stars.
My heart broke loose with the wind.
If we are lucky in life, poetry will find us too. I remember vividly that very moment in my own life. I was listening to a tiny transistor radio one evening in the bathroom of my family’s cramped home outside New York City. I must have been eight or nine. The disc jockey read the poem Recuerdo by Edna St Vincent Millay, about taking a ride on a ferry. The poem begins:
We were very tired, we were very merry –
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry …
And you ate an apple, and I ate a pear,
From a dozen of each we had bought somewhere;
And the sky went wan, and the wind came cold,
And the sun rose dripping, a bucketful of gold …
The poem goes on from there, but what sparked my child’s imagination was how perfectly Millay described what I experienced riding the ferry between the New York boroughs of Manhattan and Staten Island. I could feel that cool wind on my face smell the pungent, tarry scent of the water. I thought, whatever Edna St Vincent Millay is doing in that poem, I want to do. I want people to be able to enter into my experience in the same way.
The English poet WH Auden famously said, “Poetry changes nothing. It survives.” I like to say poetry changes everything. Poems are not only our companions in difficult times; they can also help us to heal. A poem I return to repeatedly is What The Living Do by the wonderful contemporary US poet Marie Howe. Marie was one of my first poetry mentors and also imparted to me one of the most important spiritual lessons I’ve learned. She said, “The wounded have to become the healers.” The wounded have to become the healers.
Marie would often assign those of us who participated in her poetry workshops to reflect on a difficult or traumatic experience in our lives, then write a poem that finds something to praise in that experience. What The Living Do is very much a praise poem. It begins, though, with the poet having what most of us would describe as a bad day. It’s winter. Her lips are chapped. The drain in her kitchen sink is clogged, the heat’s on too high in her apartment and she can’t turn it off. Walking down the street with a bag of groceries, the bag breaks and the coffee in the cup she’s carrying spills down her wrist and sleeves.
All this takes place, though, not long after Marie’s younger brother Johnny has died of AIDS. At a certain moment in the poem, the poet stops. She realises that these inconveniences, these petty annoyances, are the privileges of the living. As she describes it:
… There are moments, walking, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the window glass,
say, the window of the corner video store, and I’m gripped by a cherishing so deep
for my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that I’m speechless …
Thus, a poem born from grief becomes a celebration of life and love — a reminder that every day we are still alive is a good day.
Poets like Marie Howe speak not just for poets, academics, or those majoring in English literature. They speak for all of us. They remind us how much poetry deepens our understanding of ordinary life. In doing so, they give the rest of us permission to use poetry to help us make sense of what takes place daily in our lives. As the great Trappist monk and spiritual teacher Thomas Merton famously once said, “We are all poets here.”
My husband, Charles, was a state court judge for many years in our home state of Illinois and handled numerous cases involving troubled youths. He often said that the court’s ‘juvenile days’ were both the best and worst days of his week. He was particularly affected by a young man we’ll call Danny, who suffered abuse at the hands of his parents, once tried to swallow thumb tacks, often acted out violently and was prescribed an array of anti-depressants and anti-anxiety drugs.
My husband tried to make sense of the teen’s life, and his own often futile efforts to salve the young man’s pain, in a poem called Juvenile Day. The poem ends with these moving lines:
Blessed son, I hold you in my hand,
so helpless to help, so blind to watch
over you in your garden of griefs.
My husband went on to publish a collection of poems based on his experiences in the justice system. He also began a creative writing workshop for judges that became a regular part of our state’s judicial continuing education program. The judges often expressed gratitude for this workshop because poetry gave them permission to express all of these emotions that they thought they had to keep locked inside.
There are countless ways to bring poetry into daily life. A friend of mine, a Presbyterian minister, recalls how she recited a different poem to her children every night at bath time. To this day, she says all three of them can recite by heart Robert Frost’s famous poem Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening.
The state of the world today is also returning poetry to its rightful place in the public arena – a practice that had faded in recent decades. The war in Ukraine has caused many to turn again to poetry. As the writer Noura Mahmoud notes in an article in Foreign Affairs Review, poets in Ukraine “took up their pens as soldiers took up their guns”.
The Russian-speaking Ukrainian poet Lyudmyla Kheronsky’s gets to the heart of the absurdity of war in a poem published in April 2022, titled Hide Under the Blanket and Pull It Over Your Head. The poem ends with these powerful lines:
… Turn your back to the war:
now that it’s behind your back, it can thrash and shred,
you just close your eyes, pull the blanket over your head, stock up on bread,
and when you just can’t deal with caring for peace anymore,
tear off some chunks, and when the night comes, eat what you’ve stored.
(Translated from the Russian by Olga Livshin & Andrew Janco)
War is “a distortion of human life,” Noura Mahmoud writes, but war poetry “answers a need to report and a need to remember.” That description could well apply to all poems. Poems that companion us report on the world with a clear-eyed vision of the truth.
They remind us of what it means to be truly human. That is perhaps poetry’s most important purpose — and its greatest gift.
By Judith Valente
Every morning I think about how bland
my world would be without dawn,
when the tongues of the lawn mowers have gone dumb,
replaced by the rising/falling hiss of the cicadas,
the dickcissel’s whistle and the crows’ repeating caws.
Or without the skunk who arrives at midnight,
leaves his gamey scent on the front doorstep,
like a calling card. To all this I say thank you.
And thanks to my dreadlock-sporting
newspaper deliverer Orlyn, a post-modern Elijah,
who arrives bearing The New York Times
so I can read about a spacecraft named Juno
hurtling toward Jupiter to pierce its inner core
and I feel grateful I read Bulfinch’s Mythology
in high school Latin class and can grasp the symbolism:
the jilted wife finally lancing her philandering husband’s heart.
Soon there will be Bengal chai tea
with milk steamed in a silver pot from Siena,
a half-moon of grapefruit, some ten-grain bread,
dollop of I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter,
and blueberry yogurt on the side.
I will look in the morning light at the face in the mirror,
the fine mouth lines, the brow crevices
that shout thank you for having lived this long.
Then who will judge me poorer,
drunk as I am on this cocktail of blessing?
(Blessing first appeared in US Catholic magazine.)