An Experiment in Poetry: Celebrating the Good, the True, and the Beautiful

Photo by Álvaro Serrano, on Unsplash

Photo by Álvaro Serrano, on Unsplash

This entry is the first in a weekly series here at spotlighting poets whose work points to transcendent values and encourages us to contemplate questions at the heart of the human condition.

At the beginning of 2016, not quite knowing what was coming but aware an ominous change was in the air, I started an experiment of sorts. Rather than bemoaning the ugliness that spewed forth from social media daily, I tried to change at least my little corner of it, to bring a little loveliness to my timeline. I began posting a poem on Facebook each day.

I don’t deny that reading poetry can be challenging, but entering into that challenge is more than rewarding. It’s enlivening and, I think, restorative.

At first I found it a fun challenge, finding poems that could interest and speak to a broad readership. I teach English, but know that most people find poetry a little daunting. Its charged, succinct language and often-unusual imagery can be difficult to decode, let alone appreciate. So I worked at selecting verses that were accessible yet intriguing, relatable yet evocative. For me, that meant lots of Billy Collins.

As the year wore on, I realized more and more how valuable such a project could be, for myself if not for others. It became a discipline of sorts—reading poems, meditating on them, thinking through how others might perceive them. I would often select poems to go along with a given day: T. S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi” for Epiphany, Mary Oliver’s “Gethsemane” for Good Friday, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Haunted Palace” for Halloween, that kind of thing. A friend teased me that I had a penchant for posting melancholy poems on Monday. Maybe I did; as I look back on the record I kept from that experiment, I see Mondays populated by the likes of John Donne and Countee Cullen.

But I did try to include light-hearted ones, too: John Ormond’s “Cathedral Builders” and Shel Silverstein’s “How Many, How Much” come to mind. The best ones poignantly mingled sadness with hope, love with loss—Christina Rosetti’s “A Better Resurrection,” Yusef Komunyakaa’s “Rock Me, Mercy,” Langston Hughes’ “Mother to Son.” If poetry’s an expression of the human condition, these poems epitomize the literary form in their striking imagery, their celebration of language and creativity, and their invitation to contemplate vulnerable and honest personal experience. 

I could never have dreamt that there were such goings-on
in the world between the covers of books
- Dylan Thomas

I don’t deny that reading poetry can be challenging, but entering into that challenge is more than rewarding. It’s enlivening and, I think, restorative. Dostoevsky’s famous maxim suggests this much: “Beauty will save the world,” Prince Myskin of The Idiot proclaims. Michael D. O’Brien clarifies that through this character and the events of the novel, Dostoevsky shows that beauty can stimulate other-interestedness and can prod us to seek the good of another, even if that requires self-sacrifice. The beauty of poetry, by virtue of its complex form, requires something of us, too; it compels our attention and captures our imagination. It draws us out of our perspective into another’s. In a recent NPR interview (well-worth your time), former Poet Laureate of the United States, Natasha Trethewey, explained it like this:

Poetry asks, it demands of us in many ways, that we slow down. That we engage with language that isn't soundbites and uncivil, language that allows us to see ourselves in the intimate experience of others. To hear the rhythms of our own heartbeats in the rhythms of someone else's intimate voice, speaking across the distances. Speaking across the lines that would divide us. Reminding us not what makes us different, but what makes us alike, what we share.

Our current political discourse seems intent on stirring up division and animus. What I found in 2016, and again this past year as I undertook the experiment a second time, was that taking time for poetry helped me resist succumbing to those temptations. It kept me attuned to other voices, aware of other readers, and conscious of unexpected delights. For that reason, I am planning to expand the poetry project in 2019, focusing on specific poets and highlighting aspects of their work I find inspiring and worthwhile. Poetry, at its best, can help us remember the ties that bind, those qualities that make each of us uniquely ourselves but that also link us irrevocably to one another. I hope you will join me this year as we consider some of those examples together.

Links for This Week’s Featured Poems

“Introduction to Poetry” by Billy Collins

“Ars Poetica” by Archibald MacLeish

“How to Eat a Poem” by Eve Merriam

“Notes on the Art of Poetry” by Dylan Thomas

“A Poem Is a Spider Web” by Charles Ghinga