In the waning days of National Poetry Month, I keep sifting what we owe each other. Poets and their readers. People moving about the planet together, bearing common responsibility for the words we absorb and the ones we ignore. Each shift reveals a relationship that more closely resembles prayer than math or science.
Poems are not proof texts or logic puzzles to solve. Few scenarios come to mind where a single line might unlock a perfect response or pure sense of direction.
As devastating as it is, reading Matthew Olzmann’s “Letter Beginning with Two Lines by Czesław Miłosz”—“The classroom of grief / had far more seats / than the classroom for math / though every student / in the classroom for math / could count the names / of the dead,”—is unlikely to produce a comprehensive response to gun violence. Not any more than reciting Shakespeare sonnets will seal an aspiring romance. Not in real life, anyway.
I suppose poems aren’t insurance policies either. We learn to read them—and love them—not because of how they lead us, but for who they make us.
Not enough people read a poem before making a critical decision or having a hard conversation. And every little world we inhabit suffers the unconnected dots.
So many of us developed stunted relationships with sacred texts in early life. People instruct us to crack the Biblical code in order to find the way of life. The promise arrives implicitly more often than not; repeat enough pre-written prayers, and the answers will settle into a groove. Where to go. Who to marry. When to say “yes” to Jesus, when to shout at the devil. The idea hung thick in the air—read between the lines, or at least read the lines enough times, and you can know the mind of God.
Anything worth reading over and over again shapes us more than it dictates to us.
But the more I pored over the pages, the less certain I became. Reading the Bible front to back sowed a sense of dissatisfaction with the ways we define discernment. We search the text for confirmation, seeking specific answers to specific questions. Brow sweat soaks the pages while we ignore how much of Jesus’ sermons and Paul’s letters focus on which garments we remove and replace, the condition of the heart and the countenance of God’s children.
The Bible leaves me with the distinct impression that God cares more about becoming than deciding. Follow me with the heart, he whispers, and the head and hands will know what to do next. Even direct moral instruction reminds us that certain and chronic sins don’t suit the types of people God is molding and remaking.
Anything worth reading over and over again shapes us more than it dictates to us. Disappointment and agony follow the disciple who reads the Bible looking for the name of a city, a major, or a girl. Just as it does for the seeker who expects Mary Oliver to supply the answer to her own question “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
Read Ted Kooser on light and dark, Tomas Transtromer on weather, Christian Wiman on dysfunctional worship. Stand with Louise Gluck as she smokes against the blackness of the night, longing for characters from cherished books. Absorb everything Franz Wright said about baptism and soak up Nikki Giovanni’s lines on Blackness. Take the cadences of Octavio Paz to heart, then run your eyes across a great Rachel Welcher kicker on redemption. Peel back the layers of personhood with Ilya Kaminsky and float above the Carolinas with the ghosts of Tyree Daye’s relatives.
Then go out to say and do what you will.
Recently another writer turned me on to a Dostoyevsky quote that means everything to the project of my life. Tasting the sweetness of a second chance, the venerable writer let his lips drip the truth:
“To be a human being among people and to remain one forever, no matter in what circumstances, not to grow despondent and not to lose heart — that’s what life is all about, that’s its task.”
Before you walk through the door of decision or reach across an expanse to the estranged, do what makes you come alive.
We live in a world under the influence of so many disruptive forces—bad theology, social-media misdirection, talking heads who fill the frame with nothingness. Against this backdrop, poetry allows us to be and remain human. Its style and substance soften us for the task. In its shadow, we become more receptive to other souls—and to the holy hum which beckons us to tune our lives to God.
We carry this spirit with us into life’s crucibles; the softness matters more than any script.
Not everyone bows before poetry—and I understand the reserve. Teachers coldly elevate technique, forever separating the student from a poem’s soul. Not every art form lands with equal import. So, for your purposes, define poetry however you wish. Before you walk through the door of decision or reach across an expanse to the estranged, do what makes you come alive.
Watch back-to-back episodes of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” no matter how old you are; wander miles deep into the consolation of trees; harmonize with a child’s song; plunge your fingers into dough or break up soil; lose yourself in a field of Rothko colors; beat your feet across trails less traveled; sit with each syllable Sam Cooke sings. Whatever keeps you soft and whatever makes you human, think on these things.
What do we owe each other? A world decided by people who let go of making the perfect decision long ago. They care far more about who and how they are, then choose to fashion a world that’s every bit as gentle, curious, and content.