by Dr Angel Adams
Sometimes you hear a voice through
the door calling you, as fish out of
water hear the waves or a hunting
falcon hears the drum’s come back.
This turning toward what you deeply love
— Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks
No New Years Resolutions for me this year! Resolutions are often just a set up to feel like a failure. Instead, I’m going to let the beauty of what I love be what I do. For me that is something inexpensive, uplifting, and even life changing. I’m going to spend more time reading great poetry. Poetry is the most universal language of the world in my eyes. When I read it, I know that I am not alone in my human longing, vulnerability, sorrow, hope and joy. Last February here at London’s Sotheby’s, a single painting of Lucian Freud by his friend Francis Bacon sold for more than £23 million.
Yet poems are extraordinary immortal works of art and they don’t cost a penny! Anyone can own an original of Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 116” or Adrienne Rich’s ‘Diving Into the Wreck‘, or Walt Whitman’s ‘Song of the Open Road’. You can carry it where ever you go. When you take the time to learn the words by heart, then that poem will answer the door whenever you call upon it. I memorised Psalm 23 as a child and it has since comforted me through several dark nights of the soul.
I read an interview with Jack Kornfield in which he described an amazing incident that happened when the aged poet Pablo Neruda recited his most loved poems in Caracas before a huge audience. He read for quite a long time, and then asked, “Is there anything else you’d like to hear?” Someone raised their hand and said, “Would you please read poem 19 in the book Twenty Love Songs and A Song of Despair?” He replied, “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t bring that with me” (a book published in 1924 when he was 20 years old.) Then suddenly 400 people stood up and recited the poem in unity to him! If only our culture today had the voice of the poet so deep in their hearts.
Yet there is a renaissance of poetry in several parts of the world today. Recently I looked up the poem called “The Thought Fox” by Ted Hughes, and fortuitously found a remarkable YouTube channel in which hundreds and hundreds of poems are read by the same person. The reader who calls himself anonymously “Tom O’Bedlam,” (a name taken from a 17th century poem about a lunatic) has attracted over 6 million uploads from his site. This illustrates the longing for poetry in the hearts of many, specifically the spoken word. His satisfying deep solemn and familiar voice makes the poems come alive and brings an enthusiasm for discovering the new and the old.
When I was student at University, English literature classes were taught in an analytical and impersonal way. The syntax and structure of poetry was probed and then dissected in way that it might have well been a dead frog! When the poet Mary Oliver was asked by educators how to inspire young readers, she advised them not to ask what a poem was about, but to ask how it made them feel. We need to see the colours and vivid images; touch, smell, taste and most of all feel our emotions when reading poetry. Ruth Padel, a poet, and the great great granddaughter of Charles Darwin, states: “A good poem is a love affair of sound and sense.”
Great poets speak in a condensed and crystallised language: A few short stanzas give us inspiration for self-inquiry and ideas to contemplate, like this one by Emily Dickenson.
If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain
Poetry is healing and transformational. It can help us to face the challenges in our lives with grace. It can help us embrace our losses and prepare us for those to come. I recently read Pablo Neruda’s poem “A Dog Has Died” and it evoked such grief for my loyal companion of 14 years when I was a young woman. This excerpt dug up memories of being loved unconditionally:
Joyful, joyful, joyful,
as only dogs know how to be happy
…but, with those eyes so much purer than mine,
he’d keep on gazing at me
with a look that was reserved for me alone
all his sweet and shaggy life,
always near me, never troubling me,
and asking nothing.
Reading great poems can help us to cultivate mindfulness in our lives. When we focus on beautiful and potent poems our thoughts become less distracted and we become quiet and contemplative. Like a sacred mantra we can repeat the line again and again. Our hearts need poetry. It is the music of life. David Whyte’s proclaims:
All the birds
and creatures of the world are unutterably
themselves. Everything is waiting for you.
Wendell Berry writes:
And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye,
clear. What we need is here.
A year from now when I look back on 2012, I will remember it as a year of rebirth, of spoken revelations not broken resolutions. Just as “there are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground” (Rumi), there are also a thousand ways to read great poetry. Thus, I shall end with the words of David Whyte, a modern day poet who has breathed life into verse for me. This is an excerpt from his amazing book called Everything is Waiting for You (©2003 Many Rivers Press)
The Lightest Touch
Good poetry begins with
the lightest touch,
a breeze arriving from nowhere,
a whispered healing arrival,
a word in your ear,
a settling into things,
then like a hand in the dark
it arrests the whole body,
steeling you for revelation.
In the silence that follows
a great line
you can feel Lazarus
even the laziest, most deathly afraid
part of you,
lift up his hands and walk toward the light.
– David Whyte
What is it that you find beauty in and will you be spending more time experiencing this in 2012?
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