“Still, what I want in my life
is to be willing
to be dazzled—
to cast aside the weight of facts
and maybe even
to float a little
above this difficult world.”
— Mary Oliver
Every weekday morning I read our son awake with a poem. The idea was not mine, but the renowned poet Naomi Shihab Nye’s. In an interview with Krista Tippett, Nye referred to a ritual of hers -- she read a poem to her son every morning when he was still living at home. I pounced on that idea and decided to incorporate it into our own household. I started with our daughter. "How would you like it if I read you awake with a poem every morning?” She is a teenager and her expression was B horror film perfect. I might as well have had tarantulas emerging from my ears. What was I thinking? She takes my dorkiness in stride, however, and when I must have looked a bit crestfallen she swiftly added, "It’s OK Mom, the dogs already do a good job of getting me out of bed.” Our son is not interested in being cool, not just yet, and was ten at the time. He didn’t flinch. “Sure, that sounds like fun.”
And so it began. I like to think I'm exposing our son to great poetry as he transitions into his conscious form, and that it all is seeping in and will propel him into a life of creativity, inspiration and imagination. But I know I gain the most from this discipline. It forces me to read a poem a day, to study poets that I haven't yet met, and reacquaint myself with old favorites.
Poetry is part of my family fabric. My sister was a published poet, my mother, a closet one. My aunt was a Yeats scholar. They read poetry all the time. My mother’s poetry books were vigorously underlined and annotated. My sister, mother and I would share poems, and my journals are filled with them; but none of us could recite them verbatim the way my father could. He believed memorizing a poem a week was not only a sign of moral character but also helped to fight dementia. He was convinced that our country began its descent into darkness when memorizing poetry and prose fell out of curricular fashion.
Percy Blythe Shelley’s Ozymandias was taped to his mirror when he died:
“I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
The other day I explained to our son why I am such a poetry junkie. I told him a good poem could blanch a bit of darkness or make me feel more connected to this vast network of ours. And that a great line will cast something familiar into a different relief and make me look again. But, most of all, poetry gives me the next clue. "Like in a treasure hunt you mean,” he said. Exactly.
A few favorites..
“Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.”
Naomi Shihab Nye
“Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —” Emily Dickinson
“The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other's welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.” Derek Walcott