The day after the most recent round of bad news, I woke, mournful, and palmed my cup of coffee in silence. I read Mary Oliver’s "Mindful," a poem that of late I have found to be of comfort.
I see or hear
that more or less
that leaves me
like a needle
in the haystack
It is what I was born for—
to look, to listen,
to lose myself
inside this soft world—
to instruct myself
over and over
The poem ends by turning the reader’s eye to “the ordinary, the common/the very drab." I fall deeply in love with poems, and reading and rereading a poem is often instructive in training my eye fully on what and who really matters in my daily life, but I’ll admit I grumbled into my mug late last week, unable to instruct myself in joy, even if April is National Poetry Month. I was worried. So were people I loved. We’re still worried and uncertain and waiting.
Poetry has sustained me since I was a child, opening Where The Sidewalk Ends to Shel Silverstein’s marvelous “Invitation” which seemed to peer right through my skin and muscle and bone to my heart, calling, “Come in! /Come in!” It’s a poem for wishers and liars and magic bean buyers. For pretenders. I was all of those things as a child, and maybe still, on some days, as an adult. But Mary Oliver’s “Mindful” harkens the “soft world” and the state of our state is anything but soft—it is all hard edges these days. And so as I sipped my coffee, I was acutely aware of the limitations of poetry. It can’t feed a family a hot meal or pay the mortgage, rent, or car payment. You can’t go to the laundry mat and feed the machines poetry.
And I thought of a funeral I attended where I watched an adult son rise and recite, from memory, one of Shakespeare’s Sonnets in honor of his mother, whose life we were honoring. I cannot read that sonnet now without crying, for the recitation was measured and without melodrama. He folded his hands in front of him and at one point closed his eyes. We all sat there, deep in the complexity of mourning, and listened to words, published originally in 1609, take shape over 400 years later. There was no comfort to be had, not really, but the sonnet articulated the condition of our hearts, the shape of our grief. While poetry will never be the currency we buy houses with, it has such power to connect us, to engage and enlarge our hearts and minds, to assist us in thinking critically and speaking truth to unquestioned power, and to remind us what it means to be deeply human. It acknowledges that we’re all going to die someday, so why not live entrenched in our fives sense and the dance of language?
I am who I am because of poets—those who have been my teacher on the page and in workshops and in the world. Last month, our community lost Dr. Forrest Robinson. I was lucky enough to have this kind and generous poet as a teacher in my first semester at WIU. He was the first poet I’d met who shared his work with his students, and who encouraged me not only to keep writing, but to call myself a writer. He delighted in language, and his delight was contagious. As an adult, I think moments of delight and joy matter. Bearing witness to the suffering our world contains matters too. Poetry reminds me that our job is to hold the duality of both, often at the same time, and this tension and struggle connects us as humans.
Let us delight in language and celebrate poetry as a community at the first Macomb Poetry Festival slated for April 21st-23rd. This festival includes events for all ages, from wee ones to wise ones, with opportunities to pocket poetry, to listen to contemporary poetry, share your favorite poetry, write/create and black out poetry, and come to a new understanding of two “Poets of Community and Human Struggle: Edgar Lee Masters and Carl Sandburg” in a Friday morning presentation by Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Dr. John E. Hallwas. All festival events are free, and all are welcome.
Barbara Harroun is an Assistant Professor of English at Western Illinois University.
The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the University or Tri States Public Radio. Diverse viewpoints are welcome and encouraged.