April 18, 2014 - No comment
Today’s post–the third in my National Poetry Month series–is especially meaningful because its author is the person who first inspired me to take a second look at poetry. Please enjoy this honest, timely meditation from my friend Katherine. –Nishta
I don’t remember the moment that I was introduced to poetry. My mother read poetry to me amidst my bedtime stories as a child. My father sat at the kitchen table and wrote poetry on Saturday mornings. The first poem I remember crafting by myself for myself was during a long car ride sometime my seventh grade year. I wrote poetry off and on through high school and into college, but I only began to read poetry in those college years. That’s not quite right. I read poetry – a lot of poetry – in high school courtesy of the specially printed Tome that girls of my era at my school toted around risking permanently stooped shoulders. I was introduced to poetry, but I didn’t fall in love with poetry. We were cordial.
It might have been Jorie Graham who baffled and intrigued me; it might have been Li-Young Lee with his peaches. Something began to connect. I read the poems of Denise Levertov and found someone whose heart flickered with faith. I laughed with Billy Collins, and I breathed deeply with Mary Oliver. My poetry crush began to develop. Somewhere along the way as I met these poets, I found that I loved reading poetry and somehow that reading poetry loved me. Poetry certainly accepted my attention span, and then I discovered that poetry enlarged my faith with its metaphors and its loose ends. Then I learned that poetry swelled my voice as it hunted for beauty. We weren’t just cordial, and the flush of first love had passed, we were partners now.
I don’t write much poetry these days (insert usual litany of excuses here), but since I climb in and out of church pulpits with some regularity, I find myself leaning on others’ poetry as a second scripture. Those metaphors, so much like parables. Those loose ends, so much like my weak grasp. The hunt for beauty, so much the truest call to faith I can claim. Poetry is part of why I’m a believer, and often offers me the best words for what I believe.
I figured out somewhere along the way that I can be most faithful to poetry in its wide span. I love an anthology more than a single poet’s voice – perhaps the Tome shaped more than my vertebrae. Or maybe it’s because poetry is another scripture, and my Bible is an anthology of stories and poems and perspectives and strangeness and of the faithful seeking forward. If you’re looking to fall in love or just interested in meeting a poet or two, try Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems or the (often unfortunately named) anthologies curated by Roger Housden. They are as worn as my Book of Common Prayer.
As for my choice of “Kindness” by Naomi Shihab Nye, this isn’t the first poem I loved. It’s not even my most recent favorite. But it’s the one that I thought of immediately when Nishta invited me to share. Now she tells me that my post will go up on Good Friday, a day of darkness that for me as a Christian must be lived and not avoided. A day for all the hurt and the pain that is all too real. “Kindness” speaks to that, and also professes the hope that follows. If, as someone has said, our bruises and wounds are how the light gets in, then when we rise battered but not broken, that’s how the light gets out.
“it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,/ only kindness that ties your shoes/
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread”
Before you know what kindness really is you must lose things, feel the future dissolve in a moment like salt in a weakened broth. What you held in your hand, what you counted and carefully saved, all this must go so you know how desolate the landscape can be between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride thinking the bus will never stop, the passengers eating maize and chicken will stare out the window forever. Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness, you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho lies dead by the side of the road. You must see how this could be you, how he too was someone who journeyed through the night with plans and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside, you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing. You must wake up with sorrow. You must speak to it till your voice catches the thread of all sorrows and you see the size of the cloth. Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore, only kindness that ties your shoes and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread, only kindness that raises its head from the crowd of the world to say it is I you have been looking for, and then goes with you everywhere like a shadow or a friend.
“Kindness” by Naomi Shihab Nye, from The Words Under the Words: Selected Poems. © Eighth Mountain Press, 1995.
Katherine McQuiston Bush is a wife of an actual public servant, mother of twin boys, younger sister, second daughter, all too fair-weather friend to many, Episcopal priest, school chaplain, occasional writer, secret blogger, poetry reader, and friend of Nishta’s for something like 15 years now.
Today I am pleased to bring you the second entry in my National Poetry Month series, from my dear, dear friend Courtney Rath. Special thanks to Lisa Seger of Blue Heron Farm for letting me use these wonderful photos. –Nishta
For a long time I thought poetry was something to be worked at and worked on, something to be studied, perhaps appreciated, but only after careful explication. Poetry was not about my life.
Until it was.
The poem that changed things for me was Galway Kinnell’s “St. Francis and the Sow.” I remember reading the fourth line, “for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing,” and stopping short. “Um, no. No.” But then the next two lines, in the moment of my reading them, made something real in the world that had never been possible for me before: “sometimes it is necessary/ to reteach a thing its loveliness.” Yes.
This poem finds its way back to me in moments when I need it most. For example, during National Poetry Month last year, I was trying out some yoga classes at a local studio. Though I’ve developed many ways to compensate for it, I am really quite shy, and newness (finding my way around new spaces, figuring out the procedures at new places, talking to new people) is often anxiety-producing for me. Before class, I was nervously wandering in the hallway reading the notices on a bulletin board when I discovered an envelope full of folded paper. It was the paper I noticed first, lovely and marbleized, folded and secured with a paper strap in a contrasting color. Inside each little paper package was a poem, offered to yogis to celebrate National Poetry Month. When I unfolded my selection, I rediscovered St. Francis.
St. Francis and the Sow
stands for all things,
even for those things that don’t flower,
for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;
though sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness,
to put a hand on its brow
of the flower
and retell it in words and in touch
it is lovely
until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing;
as Saint Francis
put his hand on the creased forehead
of the sow, and told her in words and in touch
blessings of earth on the sow, and the sow
began remembering all down her thick length,
from the earthen snout all the way
through the fodder and slops to the spiritual curl of the tail,
from the hard spininess spiked out from the spine
down through the great broken heart
to the sheer blue milken dreaminess spurting and shuddering
from the fourteen teats into the fourteen mouths sucking and blowing beneath them:
the long, perfect loveliness of sow.
I have offered this poem as a gift, too, my version of paying it forward. Last fall, I taught my first class to teachers-to-be; once again, the newness of it—along with the fact that teaching teachers is what I’ve come to graduate school to prepare for and here I was doing it for the first time—was terrifying. My students were terrified, too, overwhelmed by the workload of courses and student teaching, the prospect of changing the lives of their students, and the project of discovering themselves as teachers. I offered St. Francis to them in our last night of class. To me, teaching is about helping students to see possibilities for themselves, to help them be the best version of themselves, to retell them, in words and in touch, that they are lovely.
Most days I think poems are the best teachers.
Courtney L. Rath is a former high school English teacher and current Ph.D. candidate in Education at the University of Oregon. She is currently engaged in a dissertation project that works to disrupt typical (and typically unhelpful) narratives about teaching and replace them with multifaceted stories that paint a realistic, complex picture for pre-service teachers. When she’s not grappling with articles on theoretical physics and posthumanism, Courtney spends her time cooking, knitting, and dancing. She lives with her husband John and their dachshund Tillie in Eugene.
Some days you feel hollowed out and broken open, extra vulnerable to everything.
There isn’t a reason, though there may be some contributing factors: your partner’s unexpected four-night absence, your subsequent binging on young adult novels, your face-to-face visit with friends whose gleam of brightness despite a recent string of trials both broke and mended your heart. Except that you don’t think this is something that can be explained anyway.
This is our thrown state as human beings, full of terror and awe. You lie in bed at night and think about, really think about, the fact that you will someday have to mourn the woman you love, or else she will have to mourn you first. You think, the world is full of more beauty and more sorrow than I can comprehend, and you try to cry, you try to write about it, but that doesn’t help, so you go to the gym to sweat through some of what you feel, but you forgot your headphones so there isn’t any music, just all of your thoughts that swirl and swirl. It is the most first world of all first world problems: too many feelings and not enough earbuds.
This is why we need poems.
I, like many people, did not “get” poetry for a long time. I thought it was always either vague or cheesy or deliberately obtuse, and I had no patience for it. Even as I got to high school and college and graduate school, and lovely, kind friends and teachers shared poems with me, poems that I could begin to appreciate, to enjoy, to consider, I still felt like I didn’t really get it.
Then my father died, and I understood what poetry was for. Poetry is for the times that you feel so tenderized that you are too raw for complete sentences. When fragments are all you can find room for. When you need someone to serve witness to what you see, to know that another has seen it too. This is what a poem is for. This is how I fell in love with poems.
I had the great pleasure of meeting the poet Tony Hoagland in February, at a poetry workshop he conducted for teachers. It was a perspective-shifting weekend that had me fall in love with poetry all over again, and for a whole host of new reasons. Tony has argued, in his tremendous Harper’s Magazine piece “Twenty Little Poems that Could Save America,” that we teachers need to re-think our approach to poetry so that we can bring its power to our students.
“[W]e need its aliveness, its respect for the subconscious, its willingness to entertain ambiguity; we need its plaintive truth-telling about the human condition and its imaginative exhibitions of linguistic freedom, which confront the general culture’s more grotesque manipulations. We need the emotional training sessions poetry conducts us through. We need its previews of coming attractions: heartbreak, survival, failure, endurance, understanding, more heartbreak.”
And it’s not just the students who need poems. It’s grownups, too.
Since April is National Poetry Month, I decided to ask some of my favorite people—poets, readers, and teachers—to share about a poem that carries special meaning for them. For some, it’s the first one they fell in love with; for others, it’s one that they return to, over and over again. I want to drape my little piece of the internet with poetry because I believe in its power, and in our inherent human craving for it.
Mary Oliver was, in a sense, a gateway poet for me, as she has been for many others, my first toe-dip into previously unexplored waters. I kept her collection House of Light—a gift from my friend Katherine, my first poetry apostle, if you will–at my father’s hospital bedside during the three weeks it took him to die. I read the poem below, from that collection, aloud to him each day, and then again at his funeral, during my eulogy. For me, this poem will always and forever carry the urgency of that day, the freshness of grief, and the conviction that the world is more hopelessly beautiful than I can ever say.
The Summer Day
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
The one who has flung herself out of the grass,
The one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
Who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
Who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention,
How to fall down into the grass,
How to kneel down in the grass,
How to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
Which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?
“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” Exodus 20:8 (KJV)
I am a lover of ritual: blame it on the Hindu/Episcopal school upbringing. I have spent my life enacting the rituals of others and creating my own. I believe in the power and potential magic of observance, of setting things aside, of distinguishing.
I refrain from eating meat or drinking alcohol on Tuesdays, because that’s what I watched my parents do. I observe Lent—which I started doing in middle school as an imitation of my Christian classmates—but which came to mean more to me, ironically, than it did to many of them.
Many of the most important rituals in my life seem secular on the surface, but are nonetheless sacred. As Meredith Striker puts it in her poem “The End of the World”:
is a burning bush
Each year, three of my closest girlfriends from college and I pick a weekend and spend it together, live and in person, come hell or high water. We’ve learned that we have to make this gathering happen, because if we don’t, life takes over and too much time will go by without being in each other’s presence.
After my father died, I instinctively began gathering friends and family together on days connected to him—his birthday, on the anniversary of his death—as a way of remembering him, but also as a way to create and keep community. Many of the people who now attend these gatherings never met or knew my dad; we became friends after he was already gone. But inviting them to share in celebrating him, I’ve found, communicates a kind of trust and desire for intimacy that is difficult to put into words.
One of the most meaningful rituals in my life is a weekly one: our family’s modified observance of the Sabbath. You may remember, I work at a Jewish school, so each Friday at the end of assembly, we welcome Shabbat by lighting the candles, chanting the brachot (blessings), drinking the wine—er, grape juice—and eating the challah. It’s a beautiful way to start the weekend.
Inspired by this, Jill and I started spending every Friday at home; we make no plans to go out and turn down all invitations we receive. Around sundown, we turn all electronics off—no TV, no computers, no cell phones—until after we make and eat breakfast together on Saturday morning. We’ve been doing this for the last two to three years, and it’s basically the best thing ever.
There is something very civilized about self-imposed rest. In our often frenetic world, it’s tempting to try and “sneak in” errands, chores, tasks, etc. whenever possible, leaving little time behind to just be. I’m not always good at being self-disciplined, which is why rituals probably work so well for me; one thing I am good at is following rules. So if I’m tempted to get some laundry done, or catch up on a little grading, or do anything that can be construed as “work,” I stop myself.
Now that Shiv is in our life, he participates in the family Sabbath, too: walking around the lake with Jill at dusk, helping me prepare the meal before sundown, and lighting candles at the dinner table. Of course, he doesn’t know exactly what any of it means or is for just yet, but he will learn. We plan to maintain our observance as Shiv grows older, making Friday night for family: game night, reading aloud night, camping-in-the-backyard-and-looking-at-the-stars night. Saturday will come, and with it, the opportunity to spend the night at a friend’s house, to go out to dinner as a family, to run errands or do homework, to clean the house and work in the yard. But on Friday we remember the Sabbath, to keep it—and our family life—holy.