In Praise of Poetry and the New Year

One of the greatest travesties of my education was the sad way in which I was introduced to and simultaneously turned off, poetry. To learn ‘by heart’ was a euphemism for learning by rote and bypassing the heart entirely. It became the one subject to be dreaded, as dry as history, with its lists of incomprehensible things to be memorized. This unfortunate state of affairs was compounded for me personally since I had poor recall for things that had no personal resonance.

Many people I’ve talked to tell a similar tale. So imagine as a seasoned adult, my great surprise while listening to David Whyte recite poetry one evening, actually, and for the first time experiencing the poem I was hearing, slipping down into the center of a whole new world, or maybe awakening to a world so old, I had merely forgotten.

In a previous time before electricity, even before books were widespread, we would gather around the fire at night to hear singers and poets, the storytellers of the community. The rhyme and meter of early poetry served as a memory prompt to those long tracks of myth or history which were all part of the oral tradition, part of the way most indigenous and early cultures organized to pull their communities together to weave a cohesive narrative, around which we could define the ‘us’ of belonging, versus the ‘them’ of other.

These days, the effort required to even bring a family around a dinner table at night appears to be a high achievement. At this most sacred time of the year when most of the natural world is in a dormant time of repose, most of us have managed to attend one too many parties, or may even have managed to pitch into high acquisition mode, sometimes confusing our attempts to give and get love with the sparkle of more stuff than we need. We drape our homes and cities with decorative lights as a way of celebrating the light within the dark, and preparing for the long winter yet ahead, and also as a hedge, a counter point to the natural world which is all about conserving before the great burst into new spring life. We are ‘captured’ by our collective culture, either by our full participation or by our virulent efforts to oppose it.

I consider myself deeply fortunate in this regard, for whatever the hurdles and highs along the protracted journey from first poem to ‘book in hand’, poetry affords me the rare opportunity of gathering friends, distant acquaintances and those not yet known to me, around the fire of our shared human experience through words, and the silence that engenders those words, as well as the space between them, to share the beat of these quiet winter nights, to harken back to the ritual that binds, if only for a wee while, to ‘soften’ the push and press of the week, through reading poetry aloud.

Poetry allows more space for the imagination than any other literary form, maybe because it is so distilled. It doesn’t tell the story (unless it is a narrative poem), it simply suggests, in a spare bare boned way, an entire world into which the actual writing in compressed, there to blossom out again (like those paper flowers you put in water) opening into the fertile waters of each listeners own imagery and understanding. It provides the mind freedom to roam the far reaches where cellphones cannot find us, there to rest, or waken to the sheer privilege of being alive within our paradoxical human pulls, which asks only one true thing of us, that we show up for the dance.

I leave you with a poem, an invitation, and the hopes that your new year unfolds many surprises, poems, songs, the chance to sit under a favorite tree, long walks in nature, good conversations with dogs, the sense of being well used, the wind against the weight of your earthly ties, the look in a beloved’s eye, the liquid comfort of warm water, the taste of food, and also hopefully many great patches of ‘nothing’ at all.

May it be so!

WINTER SOLSTICE

Staying true, we tiptoe
into our darkening days
wrap our arms around
diminishing warmth

touch with trembling fingers
the cratered face of our own
mortality

cuddle closer to the fires
of our love, move with faint
resolve into icy days
frigid nights

still we trust
the hardened earth
will turn once more

will spit us out
onto verdant soil
moist, dark

ripe for seed

the holy ground
of return.

 

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