April 8, 2014
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?