My posting about poetry from a few days ago (see April 1 below) drew some thoughtful and insightful responses. Here’s one from my dear friend and gifted poet Nicole that deserves highlighting up front.

There are two thoughts I have regarding your posting on poetry today. As an instructor at a historically black college, I struggle with trying to communicate across a chasm created by generation and by race. My students come from a variety of backgrounds and there is never the luxury of getting to know students as thoroughly as I’d like. I do my best. I sit us in circles. I ask questions. I get personal.

Students don’t want to read literature. There is much more adrenaline in the other forms of input for them. In reading, one has to be with oneself. Last Friday, I asked my students if anyone ever purposely sat in silence. No. I asked what it would be like if I collected their cell phones for the weekend just to give them a chance to spend more time with themselves. For the first time all semester, they became animated. I heard “no way”, and “I’d die” and “Naw, uhuh. No way.”

If we are a world in a feedback loop of our destructive making, then what matters is surviving. For many people, this means staying revved up in whatever way possible. Literature invites us into some kind of contemplation. It is not about getting high, but, in a sense, it is about getting low. Particularly if one spends time with the words. If we pause and savor every beautiful phrasing like the subtle flavors of an artisan stew.

There are many poems that arise out of connections with nature. It seems to me that when our culture nurtures a connection to nature, it is superficial–a purely aesthetic connection to the way nature looks. An experience for the eye. A flower on a bottle of shampoo. A happy pig on an advertisement for ham. Or, more subtlety, a orchid rich vista as a backdrop to an “escape.”

Even our farmers are different. Most of the people who we have regarded as being connected to the land are in fact “agribusiness” people. They are not in sacred relationship, but in touch with the methods to force from the planet the hugest yield regardless of the toll it takes. And, we all want them to do this. We like things cheap.

But, back to a fruit born of my challenges in accompanying students as they encounter literature.

In an effort to help my students connect with the character Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s play, “Death of a Salesman,” I emphasized the way Willy, when he was upset, would gripe about the inability to grow a carrot in the back yard, or how the apartment buildings were taking up the experience of the sky. In my search for articles on the spiritual dimension of the human/nature connection to give to the students, I encountered the Spanish term “susto.” This word means having a heart-sickness from being disconnected from nature.

Throughout the semester, I ask my students questions like, have you ever been on a ship in the middle of the ocean and felt what it feels like to see no land?

Blank stares.

Anybody ever grow your own garden, or grow up with a family member who did?

One hand.

Anybody ever accompanied a person as they journeyed toward dying?

Two tentative hands creep up.

These people in my classrooms are young. But there is, in addition to inexperience, something sorely wrong. There is one young man in my class who is from Africa. He has a different relationship with these things, having grown up in a small village. He has slaughtered his own animals for food. He knows some significant dimensions of his relationship to living and nature.

I think that part of the decline in the reading of poetry has to do with a decline in the capacity of humans to have a heart connection with creation.
I believe there is a powerful connection between this loss and the loss of our connection with elders in society. We must have this capacity nurtured within us. In our obsession with youth and youngness, we forget to emphasize the wisdom of age, and of the ages. In old age, there can be a kind of acceptance that so many are starving for. There is a perspective in maturity that sees the broader context where competition is the bratty cousin of insight, compassion and patience.

Most of us seek to dominate life.

Poetry presumes a desire to be intimate with life.

Poetry assumes the capacity for wonder, the willingness to be thwarted by awe.