Poetry is far from the only means of human expression, but it is among our most flexible methods of conveying grand and difficult meaning succinctly. A little over two decades ago I arrived in Miss Idonia Cannady’s classroom with no interest in poetry, to speak of. But among her assignments that year was that we should each memorize a few of the great poems of the Harlem Renaissance – the creative explosion in Black art of roughly a century ago, centered in the Harlem neighborhood in northern Manhattan but extending throughout the African diaspora across North America and the Caribbean. I don’t remember all of the poems that I memorized that year perfectly any more. Words and verses have drifted away, and stanzas have become confused in their ordering. But I do remember the first one, because I had to perform it for the whole class. It was “Baptism,” by Claude McKay.
Into the furnace let me go alone;
Stay you without in terror of the heat.
I will go naked in–for thus ”tis sweet–
Into the weird depths of the hottest zone.
I will not quiver in the frailest bone,
You will not note a flicker of defeat;
My heart shall tremble not its fate to meet,
My mouth give utterance to any moan.
The yawning oven spits forth fiery spears;
Red aspish tongues shout wordlessly my name.
Desire destroys, consumes my mortal fears,
Transforming me into a shape of flame.
I will come out, back to your world of tears,
A stronger soul within a finer frame.
This morning, I want to spend a little time with you immersed in the poetic, exploring some of the breadth and depth of what wisdom it has to offer. So much feeling is concentrated in any poem worth repeating, that I feel I should warn you: you should expect a bit of a rollercoaster ride. So I remind you to keep your arms and hands inside the sanctuary at all times – unless you need to leave for some reason; take care of yourself. But for the seatbelt and the guard-rail, I offer you Claude McKay: the trial of fiery emotion may appear frightful, but it is also transformative. The prize at the end, when you exit the furnace, when the car comes to a full and complete stop, is that you may no longer be the same.
Some poems seek to impart a life lesson, expressing a theme so common as to be universal, or almost. And while poetry is an incredibly fluid medium – arguably the most flexible formulation of the written word – that flexibility includes the power to adopt structures and conventions that might seem at odds with the popular expectations of what a poem is or ought to be. Portia Nelson attempts both of these things in her poem, “Autobiography in Five Short Chapters”:
I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk
I fall in.
I am lost … I am helpless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes me forever to find a way out.
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in the same place
but, it isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in … it’s a habit.
my eyes are open
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.
I walk down another street.
But a poet can also operate something like a photographer, capturing the particularity of a moment in time, freezing it in an amber of verse, and drawing out the beauty in it, to be appreciated at a later date. This is Ted Kooser’s freeze-frame of a single figure on a city street called, “A Rainy Morning”:
A young woman in a wheelchair,
wearing a black nylon poncho spattered with rain,
is pushing herself through the morning.
You have seen how pianists
sometimes bend forward to strike the keys,
then lift their hands, draw back to rest,
then lean again to strike just as the chord fades.
Such is the way this woman
strikes at the wheels, then lifts her long white fingers,
letting them float, then bends again to strike
just as the chair slows, as if into a silence.
So expertly she plays the chords
of this difficult music she has mastered,
her wet face beautiful in its concentration,
while the wind turns the pages of rain.
Some poems are mysterious, in more than just the way that all other people, and anything that they create, must have some inherent mystery to them. But mystery, well-placed, allows – demands, really, if we are actually engaged with what we read or hear – demands that we must bring ourselves into the author’s words. They are incomplete without us. Some question is posed to or called forth from us. The words demand an answer, and there is none but us to give it. For just one example, consider all the high-school-aged breath and ink that has been spent on William Carlos Williams’ most famous poem:
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
A four word introduction and a single, simple image and we are left to fill in what it means. What depends upon the red wheelbarrow? Everything from the celebration of a passing storm to the aching grief of a personal loss can be fit into those four verses. The poem is like a mirror: it reflects back what you show to it. Like any mirror, its use appears to be in how it fits the norm of every other thing like it; but its character is in its subtle and specific variations. Williams said, “No ideas but in things.” In order to express the profound we must be rooted in the literal.
While the wheelbarrow gestures towards the ocean of grief, some poems dive deeply into it. And some, then, swim back up for air. This Mary Oliver does here in “Heavy”:
I thought I could not
go any closer to grief
I went closer,
and I did not die.
had his hand in this,
as well as friends.
Still, I was bent,
and my laughter,
as the poet said,
was nowhere to be found.
Then said my friend Daniel,
(brave even among lions),
“It’s not the weight you carry
but how you carry it –
books, bricks, grief –
it’s all in the way
you embrace it, balance it, carry it
when you cannot, and would not,
put it down.”
So I went practicing.
Have you noticed?
Have you heard
that comes, now and again,
out of my startled mouth?
How I linger
to admire, admire, admire
the things of this world
that are kind, and maybe
also troubled –
roses in the wind,
the sea geese on the steep waves,
to which there is no reply?
But a poem does not have to be heavy to be wise. The great Scottish poet Robert Burns, whose birthday some of us marked a little over a month ago, was renowned, in part, for the lightness of his words. Willing to chide and to jest, he wrote in the manner of speech that he and those around him spoke. So if I share one of his pieces with you now, it comes with apologies for my mangling of the Scottish dialect – if I did not attempt it, the poem would only become less intelligible. One of Burns’ most famous poems is “To a Mouse.” This is his follow-up, written one year later:
To A Louse
On Seeing One On A Lady’s Bonnet, At Church
Ha! whaur ye gaun, ye crowlin ferlie?
Your impudence protects you sairly;
I canna say but ye strunt rarely,
Owre gauze and lace;
Tho’, faith! I fear ye dine but sparely
On sic a place.
Ye ugly, creepin, blastit wonner,
Detested, shunn’d by saunt an’ sinner,
How daur ye set your fit upon her-
Sae fine a lady?
Gae somewhere else and seek your dinner
On some poor body.
Swith! in some beggar’s haffet squattle;
There ye may creep, and sprawl, and sprattle,
Wi’ ither kindred, jumping cattle,
In shoals and nations;
Whaur horn nor bane ne’er daur unsettle
Your thick plantations.
Now haud you there, ye’re out o’ sight,
Below the fatt’rels, snug and tight;
Na, faith ye yet! ye’ll no be right,
Till ye’ve got on it-
The verra tapmost, tow’rin height
O’ Miss’ bonnet.
My sooth! right bauld ye set your nose out,
As plump an’ grey as ony groset:
O for some rank, mercurial rozet,
Or fell, red smeddum,
I’d gie you sic a hearty dose o’t,
Wad dress your droddum.
I wad na been surpris’d to spy
You on an auld wife’s flainen toy;
Or aiblins some bit dubbie boy,
But Miss’ fine Lunardi! fye!
How daur ye do’t?
O Jeany, dinna toss your head,
An’ set your beauties a’ abread!
Ye little ken what cursed speed
The blastie’s makin:
Thae winks an’ finger-ends, I dread,
Are notice takin.
O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion:
What airs in dress an’ gait wad lea’e us,
An’ ev’n devotion!
A poem like Burns’ satirizes the commonalities of life and reminds us of how different – and sometimes ridiculous – we look through other people’s eyes. But a poet can also do entirely the opposite, to powerful effect: asserting how they seem themselves despite the countless misjudgements and misunderstandings of the world. Jae Escoto does exactly this in his poem, “The Formula for Forgiveness”:
If I am she 34 times in a day
And I am only he twice
What is the difference between me and her?
How do we add up?
If 34 times in a day
Multiplies by 2
Each time a she
Takes me by the neck
What is the product of my identity?
Old habits die hard
We’ll get there
It’s going to take everyone some time
That’s not what I meant
It’ll take some getting used to
You have to be a little more understanding
Just be patient with us
It’s hard to remember
Hey, just a reminder my pronouns are he/him
Hi, can someone chat her to let her know what my pronouns are?
Hello, I would appreciate it if you would use my pronouns
Just a reminder my pronouns are he/him
You didn’t use my pronouns at all today
I mean he
I’m sorry, I meant he
His pronouns are he/him
You mean he
His, not hers
That has not been said
On my behalf
From my family
She — with no follow-up
With no correction
With no apology
Just this bomb
Just the salt into the wound I’ve learned how to disguise
Into a chuckle
Into a smile
I forgive you
I forgive you all
I will solve this problem for you all
Don’t worry about the math
I will solve this on my own
Communing with another person through poetry sometimes means exposing ourselves to their pain, as here. I find that pain is even more challenging than it otherwise might be, when it is a pain that I myself am implicated in causing – as here, again. But a poem can also be a source of solace, offering the comfort of a warm blanket in a cold season. The blanket is borrowed – not quite as familiar as one brought out from the linen chest at home. Yet still, it warms. Here’s a bit of what I mean, from David Whyte – “Sweet Darkness”:
When your eyes are tired
the world is tired also.
When your vision has gone,
no part of the world can find you.
Time to go into the dark
where the night has eyes
to recognize its own.
There you can be sure
you are not beyond love.
The dark will be your home
The night will give you a horizon
further than you can see.
You must learn one thing.
The world was made to be free in.
Give up all the other worlds
except the one to which you belong.
Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive
is too small for you.
I think I memorized six poems as proper assignments for Ms. Cannady’s class. Some of them I can remember most of, a few of them only scraps. The only other one I know that I know correctly and by heart is by Langston Hughes. It comes from his collection, Montage of a Dream Differed.
What happens to a dream differed?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
and then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load
Or does it explode?
Finally, not because this is the final possible category of poetic wisdom, but because I must stop somewhere, sometime, we come to the poem as a direct exhortation. This is the hallmark of much religious poetry, though it is not the province of religion, exclusively. The Hebrew Bible’s Book of Proverbs is made up of this form, almost entirely, framing moral instruction in lyrical verse. Here is one more contemporary example, from Unitarian Universalist and Methodist theologian and author, the Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker:
Your gifts—whatever you discover them to be—
can be used to bless or curse the world.
The mind’s power,
the strength of the hands,
the reaches of the heart,
the gift of speaking, listening, imagining, seeing, waiting
Any of these can serve to feed the hungry,
bind up wounds,
welcome the stranger,
praise what is sacred,
do the work of justice
or offer love.
Any of these can draw down the prison door,
abandon the poor,
obscure what is holy,
comply with injustice
or withhold love.
You must answer this question:
What will you do with your gifts?
Choose to bless the world.
The choice to bless the world is more than an act of will,
a moving forward into the world
with the intention to do good.
It is an act of recognition,
a confession of surprise,
a grateful acknowledgment
that in the midst of a broken world
unspeakable beauty, grace and mystery abide.
There is an embrace of kindness
that encompasses all life, even yours.
And while there is injustice, anesthetization, or evil
there moves a holy disturbance,
a benevolent rage,
a revolutionary love,
protesting, urging, insisting
that which is sacred will not be defiled.
Those who bless the world live their life
as a gesture of thanks
for this beauty
and this rage.
The choice to bless the world can take you into solitude
to search for the sources
of power and grace;
native wisdom, healing, and liberation.
More, the choice will draw you into community,
the endeavor shared,
the heritage passed on,
the companionship of struggle,
the importance of keeping faith,
the life of ritual and praise,
the comfort of human friendship,
the company of earth
the chorus of life welcoming you.
None of us alone can save the world.
Together—that is another possibility, waiting.
I close with this because the choice to use your gifts to bless the world applies in equal measure to the poet, as to the reader, as to the listener, as to even anyone who eschews the flowery world of Calliope, Erato, Euterpe, and Polyhymnia – the four Greek Muses who govern poetry – in favor of more literal, tangible things. Something there is in you to write a poem, or to share another’s poem with someone else, or to leave the poetic aside all together, but do something someone else might one day see fit to eulogize. The car has now come to a stop, the guard rail goes up, you are now permitted to exit, once you feel you have your feet underneath you again. The ride is over, for now, until you decide to begin it, anew.