I believe in poetry. I believe that reciting a poem in your head or to friends or loved ones enriches your life and can help hold it together. I believe poems can help you find direction in life, and the strength to confront the challenges you will face.
My father died when I was in my teens, a cataclysmic event that threw the lives of all my family members into turmoil. He had struggled to be a good provider; struggled with depression, a weak heart, and with his own preference for literature to what is usually called work. A few years later, a brother died as a result of an auto accident and a close friend was killed in shooting, both senseless deaths. Sometimes the planet we live on seems to tilt and careen so that it seems we may just slip off. I had some trouble back then trying to figure the point of it all.
My father was a poet. He worked at other professions, but in his soul, he was a poet. When he died, I left school to work to help my family keep our home. I tried to save, too, against the day that I might return to school. Somehow, that year, we also put together enough money to publish a book of his poems.
“It’s hard to get the news from poetry, but people die every day for lack of what is to be found there.” It’s hard, too, looking at the problems people face around the world, sickness and hunger, war and oppression, to see any connection at all between life and words on a page that might not even rhyme. Listening to the evening news of hurricanes and mudslides, civil wars and insurgencies, or lying awake at night pondering insidious individuals and incompetent governments, I realize that it’s pretty hard to get the news from the news.
In Homer’s day, a poet could recite enough verse to fill what we’d now consider a hefty tome. My ambitions are modest, a handful of poems from each of my favorites. Before dinner, every night since my first child was born, we say our own prayer: A poem, or two, or three, recited by anyone at the table. My three-year-old daughter recites Robert Frost. My two-year-old is working on some AA Milne poems, and usually needs help. Sometimes work or worry render even this simple act – saying a poem at the table – difficult, almost impossible. So we keep a dozen short poems in our heads for those occasions.
Poems about nature give shape to our daily walks, and my older daughters’ conversations are sprinkled with literary references. Our evening ritual has helped keep my father alive in my heart. What I remember, in a place past the grief, is the breaking of bread, laughing and talking together at the dinner table, sharing a poem. I believe this tiny offering can help build a world or hold a world together.
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