“Poetry is a language against which we have no defenses,” says poet and author David Whyte. And to hear him say it with his beautiful accent born of England and Ireland makes it all the more arresting.
There is a wonderful book called Ten Poems to Change Your Life. It was a birthday gift several years ago from a dear friend, and I had the idea that I’d compile a book of sorts in this post with the working title A Smattering of Gems That Might Change Your Mind About Poetry.
With a nod to National Poetry Month, which starts tomorrow and has been held every April since it was established in 1996, this post includes stanzas from some of my favorite poems. (Click on each of the poem titles to read in its entirety, and please note there are some mild formatting issues with the stanzas that appear here that I was unable to solve.)
Culling this list was both simple and without any authority or expertise. Some of these poems are well-known and well-loved, others more obscure, but I find them all to be both accessible and universal in their message.
As I tell folks in workshops I conduct (which often begin with a poem) there is nothing to get. It either resonates or not, and there is no need to strain to find the meaning. Instead, it should stir you.
“For me, poetry is the unexpected utterance of the soul. It is where the soul touches the every day. It is less about words and more about awakening the sense of aliveness we carry within us from birth,” says poet, philosopher and teacher Mark Nepo.
Poet I am not, but I have dabbled with the genre. Often on the topic of love – former, lost and/or unrequited – it’s more personal therapy and fancy journaling than anything worth sharing with another. (Though I did once, sheepishly, and that intentional act of vulnerability didn’t kill me and was graciously received.)
Paying proper homage to the inspiration of this blog post and included in the book Ten Poems to Change Your Life, let me dive right in with some highbrow erotica. I could call it merely evocative, but I wouldn’t be doing it justice and I would be diluting the truth of things. Feast, here, on Galway Kinnell’s poem “Last Gods.”
She sits naked on a rock
a few yards out in the water.
He stands on the shore, also naked, picking blueberries.
She calls. He turns. She opens
her legs showing him her great beauty.
One of my closest friends and a published poet, Kathie Collins, reminisces on a marriage long since gone, and how the soul has its own calendar. She reflects in her beautiful and moving piece,“Unbidden:”
Now I think of it, of you,
only in passing, in practical terms –
college funds graduation celebrations,
our parents’ funerals coming all too soon.
The ties that civilly bound us
Still for a week or so each year,
you skulk unbidden into my bed at night –
In David Whyte’s “Sweet Darkness,” he challenges us to find the world to which we 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.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
Love what it loves.
It doesn’t interest me
if the story you are telling me
I want to know if you can
to be true to yourself.
If you can bear
the accusation of betrayal
and not betray your own soul.
If you can be faithless
and therefore trustworthy.
As a person who is often flying through life trying to get somewhere, evaluating more than actually experiencing along the way, there is an oldie but goodie to remind us that it’s better to travel than to arrive. C. P. Cavafy admonishes us in his poem “Ithaka:”
Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is not what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
For a long time it has watched your desire,
Feeling the emptiness growing inside you,
Noticing how you willed yourself on,
Still unable to leave what you had outgrown.
It watched you play with the seduction of safety
And the gray promises that sameness whispered,
Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent,
Wondered would you always live like this.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Willing to experience aloneness,
I discover connection everywhere;
Turning to face my fear,
I meet the warrior who lives within;
Opening to my loss,
I gain the embrace of the universe;
Surrendering into emptiness,
I find fullness without end.
Spoken word poet, Sarah Kay, imagines having a daughter one day and teaching her the ways of the world in “If I Should Have a Daughter…” (a beautiful 3:30 minute performance at the beginning of her TED talk). Spoken word poetry is designed to be heard and not read, though the last line in this snippet reads beautifully in my mind.
When you open your hands to catch and wind up with only blisters and bruises; when you step out of the phone booth and try to fly and the very people you want to save are the ones standing on your cape; when your boots will fill with rain, and you’ll be up to your knees in disappointment. And those are the very days you have all the more reason to say thank you. Because there’s nothing more beautiful than the way the ocean refuses to stop kissing the shoreline, no matter how many times it’s sent away.
I have found poetry to be an important companion along my journey. So many times great beauty or great despair is best captured by a piercing poem…expressing the otherwise ineffable. It lovingly offers us a channel of understanding.