January is a confusing month. First you get the sort of upswing of energy that comes from making it through Christmas, and it’s an emotional, albeit somewhat arbitrary fresh start. It ushers in the pledging allegiance to the delusions of New Year’s Resolutions, though if you read my post about resolutions, you know my thoughts on that. But then comes the emotional and psychological downswing of the fact that it’s actually January. Two more months of winter (if you’re lucky), on top of the insanity of the fact that in your least reliable state of mind you have new self-imposed stuff that you feel like you have to do (if you’ve made resolutions), like lose weight, be nicer, be happier, be more organized, work harder, transform your personality so you fit in with the rest of the world, just generally try to be a more acceptable human being, blah, blah, blah. And also, it’s cold and gray.
My personal fantasy about January is that should be declared The Official Month of Freedom. In other words, you don’t have to do ANYTHING. Of course, your kids would still go to school and/or daycare, but every adult would receive vouchers for massages, home food delivery, housecleaning, esp. the crap stuff you never get to like the floorboards, behind the washing machine and dryer, and that one spot behind the toilet that you know you have to get to because your mother-in-law would, but you don’t really have the energy or generational self-respect to try. For a week or two, you would have Staff. Does anyone agree with me on this? Should we start a petition?
Luckily there are things that make winter endurable, and that even contain their own exquisite stillness and beauty.
Anyone who has heard me talk about why poetry is an essential part of being human has heard what I’m about to tell you already, so apologies if there are some of you reading who are hearing it again. But here are the two main reasons, in my opinion, why everyone should care about poetry:
1) There is no part of the human experience that poetry will not touch. The deepest grief, the most exultant joy, and every single mundane, normal life experience in between is a subject for poetry. Freud wrote, “Everywhere I have been, a poet has been there before me.” Poetry reminds us over and over that we are never alone. Think Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese.” Think Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Kindness.” Think e.e. cummings “I thank You God for most this amazing day.”
2) When we choose to write or read poetry, we are choosing connection over isolation. To choose to speak is to choose to believe that you have a voice and that your voice matters. Poetry is human, even and perhaps especially when its subjects are loss, fear, confusion, and pain. Think Rilke’s “Pushing Through.” When pain and confusion is what you have to give, that is what you give. And that matters just as much as anything could. I have worked with so many people with this poem, and they have told me that it was the first time they have ever felt that they were not alone. And of course, poetry is also about love and humor and friendship and being a human being in the world (think Billy Collins’ “The Lanyard”). Poetry speaks to all of it, and it includes everyone.
These the two main reasons are why I am so passionate about sharing poetry in what I hope is an accessible way. It’s also why I feel heartbroken when poetry is taught in a way that feels exclusive and “ivory towerish” to people, which is how I learned it. It took me years to learn to love poetry again (I wrote about that here), and to believe that it could touch and comfort everyone.
One of the things that has happened to me since I started this blog back in March 2010 (almost 20,000 views ago! Can you believe that??), is that people have said to me, “If I learned poetry from you, I would have loved it!” And, “I’m going to pick up a book of poetry this year because you’ve totally inspired me.” And more stuff along those lines. There are no words for me to convey what an honor it is for me to hear things like that. And here are my recommendations if you really want to get into poetry in a non-exclusive way: (1) any book in Roger Housden’s “Ten Poems” series (available on Amazon for pennies), and/or David Whyte’s CD “The Poetry of Self Compassion.” Extraordinary beyond words, and available at www.davidwhyte.com. There are other audio recordings of poems at public libraries, but I really believe that we all need a little help in making our way into the world of poetry.
This poem that I’d like to share with you today does what I believe all good poetry should do: it reminds us that we aren’t alone, and the small, prosaic details of our everyday lives teach us that if we pay attention, miracles happen, no matter who were are. Also, it’s sort of a January poem, when maybe, for whatever reason, we all need to be talked off the edge. Blessings to you, my friends. I’m still here, and thank you for being here too.
For the Sake of Strangers
No matter what the grief, its weight,
we are obliged to carry it.
We rise and gather moments, the dull strength
that pushes us through crowds.
And then the young boy gives me directions
so avidly. A woman holds the glass door open,
waits patiently for my empty body to pass through.
All day it continues, each kindness
reaching toward another- a stranger
singing to no one as I pass on the path, trees
offering their blossoms, a retarded child
who lifts his almond eyes and smiles.
Somehow they always find me, seem even
to be waiting, determined to keep me
from myself, from the thing that calls to me
as it must have once called to them –
this temptation to step off the edge
and fall weightless, away from the world.
from What We Carry
What a wonderful piece this is, Leslie. This poem speaks to my heart. Believe what you write. Everything will be fine.
Hi, Editor of the New Yorker. Thanks for your frequent comments. I know you’ll be offer me syndicated column soon…
No, seriously Sr., thank for for your on-going support in all areas!
Leslie, Have you submitted to the New Yorker. I think they’re waiting.
If only that were true….
I truly enjoy every single post!
I must admit though, I don’t always read the poetry. I usually start reading it and then give up on it. Yesterday I picked up a poetry book off the library shelf ( something I never would have done, if not for your blog) and then put it back-I think poetry intimidates me.
After reading today’s post, I’ve decided to give it another try and read one of your suggestions.
Thank you so muc for your post, let alone because I KNOW others feel the same way. Please look for any audio CD by David Whyte (a little pricey but the single ones aren’t too bad) or any of the Roger Housden books. And as alwasy, keep coming here and share your thoughts and I will do my best to share mine! I’ll share a little secret with you that will appear in a later post: I found a book at the Champaign library called “Poems for Dark People” and I was overjoyed to find something that might speak to me! But it was for African Americans. I can’t even find it anymore. You can imagine my disappintment. I firmly believe that if you want to learn more about poetry, any of the CDs that are under $25.00 on the David Whyte are more than worth it. Keep me posted! L.
The juxtapositioning of your initial joy regarding “poems for dark people” and realizing it was for African Americans made me laugh out loud. And I agree, you make poetry meaningful. Thanks, Leslie.
Thanks for reading and commenting. Your support on this journey is invaluable. You’re a wonderful friend.
Hi Leslie, After reading your post and thinking about connections, I went to my bookshelf to reread one of my favorites. Reading the poem, I felt connected to the poet because of our shared experience, childbirth. I don’t remember feeling exactly like this when I was laboring with my three pregnancies. It’s more in hindsight that I can adopt or relate to the poet’s boast. My sister just had a baby and so this topic is on my mind. So proud of her, so proud of me. Poetry captures/expressess this pride in a way that nothing else can. So I guess what I am getting at is, I concur. The poem I am referring to is Sharlon Olds- The Language of the Brag. Wondering what you think of this poem and how you connect to it.
Sharon Olds was the first poet I fell head over heels in love with! I read this poem who mentioned last night, but I need to sit with it a little more to let in sink it. I promise to get back to you on how I connect with it. Thanks SO much for sharing. I love it!
What a lovely post and wondeful poem, Leslie. It was a joy to open my email today to find your post there – the first thing I have read since having laser eye surgery yesterday – a gentle and loving way to start my new journey of seeing without glasses/contacts!
OMG! I should be thanking you for your comment but am I DYING to know how your surgery was. Was it Lasik? Did it work? I TOTALLY want to do this and maybe in the next year I can! Good for you! Leslie 🙂