What The World Needs Now Is Poetry

Two books open to pages with poems on them next to a cup of tea on a table with daisies strewn across it.

My friend Larry Janowski is a Franciscan priest and fine poet who has published two collections. Larry emails his friends a daily poem during the month of April, National Poetry Month. The poems are welcome gifts in any year, but even more so this year as the world reels from the unspeakable death and destruction in Ukraine.

More than ever, poetry feels to me like an anam cara, what the ancient Celts referred to as a “soul friend.” I have never forgotten something former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins told me when I interviewed him after the tragedy of 9/11. He said in times of crisis, “people don’t ask what short story should I read, or what film should I see. They’ll ask: do you have a poem?”

Last month the Mellon Foundation hosted a wonderful online conversation between two exceptional poets — Elizabeth Alexander, who is the foundation’s president, and Joy Harjo, whose term as U.S. Poet Laureate will soon end. Harjo said she looks upon poetry as a form of energy, one that takes hold of us and becomes a kind of guardian.

Poetry has the power to transform, Harjo went on to say. “It can take something unbearable and find a little piece of light in it.”

Watching the images of devastation in Ukraine, aren’t we all are seeking a few glimmers of light within that agonizing darkness? Poetry reminds us that there is indeed beauty and light in the world, a “real behind the real.”

In her Poetry Handbook, the much-loved American poet Mary Oliver calls poetry “a life cherishing force.” Poems are “not words, after all,” Oliver says, “but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry.”

If we are lucky, poetry will find us. It happened for me as a child growing up outside New York City, listening to an AM Radio show where the host read a poem every night at eight o’clock. I heard Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem “Recuerdo,” about riding “back and forth all night” on a ferry. I often took a ferry to visit relatives in Staten Island. Millay described what I too experienced, from the feel of the wind to the brilliance of the sun over water.

What she did for me in that poem, I wanted to do for others. I have been writing poetry ever since.

U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo says you don’t have to be a poet to write poetry.

Joy Harjo said something else in that conversation last month that I also believe. “You don’t have to be a poet to write poetry.”

Anytime we feel deeply and have no way to contain those feelings, poetry can hold them for us. What’s more, poetry can offer them with open hands to others. Poetry always “wishes for a community,” Mary Oliver has said. It reminds us that we are not alone.

Fortunately, there are many fine online poetry sites. I often visit the Poetry Foundation website, www.poetryfoundation.org, where you can seek poems by theme or by author. I also enjoy Poetry Daily, www.poems.com, a joint venture of the Poetry Daily Association and George Mason University in VA, which publishes a new poem daily, often related to events happening in the world.

This week, can you make a space in your schedule to read a poem? Perhaps include it as part of your prayer or meditation practice. If you experience a moment that causes you to pause and feel a part of something larger than yourself, can you take a few moments to write how you feel? Remember, poetry wishes for a community.

Here is a wonderful poem by Ada Limón about the resilience of nature that I came across on the Poetry Foundation website while searching for poems about spring. The poem speaks to us as well in this crisis time about the vigor of the human spirit:

Instructions on Not Giving Up

Ada Limón

More than the fuchsia funnels breaking out

of the crabapple tree, more than the neighbor’s

almost obscene display of cherry limbs shoving

their cotton candy-colored blossoms to the slate

sky of Spring rains, it’s the greening of the trees

that really gets to me. When all the shock of white

and taffy, the world’s baubles and trinkets, leave

the pavement strewn with the confetti of aftermath,

the leaves come. Patient, plodding, a green skin

growing over whatever winter did to us, a return

to the strange idea of continuous living despite

the mess of us, the hurt, the empty. Fine then,

I’ll take it, the tree seems to say, a new slick leaf

unfurling like a fist to an open palm, I’ll take it all.

Books stacked on a worn desk next to an empty teacup and three roses on a stem.

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Author of 4 spirituality books & 2 poetry collections. Award-winning reporter for Wall Street Journal, PBS-TV, Washington Post & 2 IL public radio stations.

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Judith Valente

Judith Valente

Author of 4 spirituality books & 2 poetry collections. Award-winning reporter for Wall Street Journal, PBS-TV, Washington Post & 2 IL public radio stations.