Ten Poems Emailed To Me By Strangers And Friends

Last week I was added to a poetry chain letter and for the last seven days I’ve been getting poems sent in to my inbox from friends and strangers. Many used the occasion of the chain letter to find a poem, or quote, that spoke to the moment we are in — reflections on hope, challenge, and struggle. Others shared writing that reflected on creativity, community and the act of writing itself.

I should note, that I have never participated in a chain letter before, but for some reason I did this time. I’ve so enjoyed the sporadic versus delivered to my inbox that I decided I wanted to share the collection. Here is all the poems people sent in, with an occasional note of context from me.

One of the first notes I received included this passage by Victoria Safford, and I marveled at how words can come around full circle. Earlier this year, speaking to a groups of journalists, I read this passage aloud and so I was delighted to see it come back to me from someone else entirely.

1) The Gates of Hope, Victoria Safford

Our mission is to plant ourselves at the gates of hope — not the prudent gates of Optimism, which are somewhat narrower; nor the stalwart, boring gates of Common Sense; nor the strident gates of self-righteousness, which creak on shrill and angry hinges; nor the cheerful, flimsy garden gate of “Everything is gonna be all right,” but a very different, sometimes very lonely place, the place of truth-telling, about your own soul first of all and its condition, the place of resistance and defiance, the piece of ground from which you see the world both as it is and as it could be, as it might be, as it will be; the place from which you glimpse not only struggle, but joy in the struggle — and we stand there, beckoning and calling, telling people what we are seeing, asking people what they see.

Another passage that draws connections between words and listening, hope and community, was sent to me by a different person.

2) From Ursula LeGuin’s “Words are My Matter”

“Nobody can do anything very much, really, alone. What a child needs, what we all need, is to find some other people who have imagined life along lines that make sense to us and allow some freedom, and listen to them. Not hear passively, but listen. Listening is an act of community, which takes space, time, and silence. Reading is a means of listening.”

“Reading is not as passive as hearing or viewing. It’s an act: you do it. You read at your pace, your own speed, not the ceaseless, incoherent, gabbling, shouting rush of the media. You take in what you can and want to take in, not what they shove at you fast and hard and loud in order to overwhelm and control you. Reading a story, you may be told something, but you’re not being sold anything. And though you’re usually alone when you read, you are in communion with another mind. You aren’t being brainwashed or co-opted or used; you’ve joined in an act of the imagination. I know no reason why our media could not create a similar community of the imagination, as theater has often done in societies of the past, but they’re mostly not doing it.”

This time of year I often return to Mary Oliver, who was a good friend of Orion Magazine where I serve on the board of directors. I often read a poem of hers for Thanksgiving, and this will be the first Thanksgiving since her death. This poem feels fitting for all those reasons and I was grateful it came when it did.

3) “November” by Mary Oliver, from Why I Wake Early

The snow
began slowly,
a soft and easy
sprinkling

of flakes, then clouds of flakes
in the baskets of the wind
and the branches
of the trees —

oh, so pretty.
We walked,
through the growing stillness,
as the flakes

prickled the path,
then covered it,
then deepened
as in curds and drafts,

as the wind grew stronger,
shaping its work
less delicately,
taking greater steps

over the hills
and through the trees
until, finally,
we were cold,

and far from home.
We turned
and followed our long shadows back
to the house,

stamped our feet,
went inside, and shut the door.
Through the window
we could see

how far away it was to the gates of April.
Let the fire now
put on its red hat
and sing to us.

I have known and appreciated Naomi Shihab Nye’s writing for a long time but somehow this poem had escaped me until now. But I was struck how it spoke to me and seemed in ways to be in conversation with the other poems I received.

4) Kindness by Naomi Shihab Nye

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.

Ross Gay is another poet who has worked with and been published by Orion Magazine and I have returned to this poem often. Having it sent to me by someone else helped me see a new connection with the person who sent it, and I look forward to talking about it with her when I see her next.

5) A Small Needful Fact by Ross Gay

Is that Eric Garner worked
for some time for the Parks and Rec.
Horticultural Department, which means,
perhaps, that with his very large hands,
perhaps, in all likelihood,
he put gently into the earth
some plants which, most likely,
some of them, in all likelihood,
continue to grow, continue
to do what such plants do, like house
and feed small and necessary creatures,
like being pleasant to touch and smell,
like converting sunlight
into food, like making it easier
for us to breathe.

We read a Wendell Berry poem at our wedding. It was this specific poem but this one is one of my all time favorites. Berry is another author affiliated with Orion Magazine, and was originally introduced to me by a long time mentor and friend from my first job out of college.

6) The Peace of Wild Things by Wendell Berry

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

This was one of the last poems that was sent to me and in many ways I saw each of these poems like the “unexpected visitor” which Rumi writes about below.

7) The Guest House by Rumi

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

8) The Dash by Linda Ellis

I read of a man who stood to speak at the funeral of a friend. He referred to the dates on the tombstone from the beginning… to the end.

He noted that first came the date of birth and spoke of the following date with tears, but he said what mattered most of all was the dash between those years.

For that dash represents all the time they spent alive on earth and now only those who loved them know what that little line is worth.

For it matters not, how much we own, the cars… the house… the cash. What matters is how we live and love and how we spend our dash.

So think about this long and hard; are there things you’d like to change? For you never know how much time is left that still can be rearranged.

To be less quick to anger and show appreciation more and love the people in our lives like we’ve never loved before.

If we treat each other with respect and more often wear a smile… remembering that this special dash might only last a little while.

So when your eulogy is being read, with your life’s actions to rehash, would you be proud of the things they say about how you lived your dash?

This was one I wanted to hear out loud. Someone in my coworking space gave me a weird look when I read it at my desk.

9) Wise 1 From Transbluesency

If you ever find
Yourself, some where
Lost and surrounded
By enemies
Who won’t let you
Speak in your own language
Who destroy your statues
& instruments, who ban
Your omm bomm ba boom
Then you are in trouble
Deep trouble
They ban your
Own boom ba boom
You in deep deep
Trouble

Humph!

Probably take you several hundred years
To get
out!

This was the shortest thing I received. It comes from “Beautiful Losers,” Leonard Cohen’s second book.

10 ) Leonard Cohen

“I am an old scholar. Better looking now than when I was young. That’s what sitting on your ass does to your face.”

Finally, this was the poem I sent. It is one that I revisit often and that touches many parts of my life.

Ode to the Present by Pablo Neruda

This
present moment,
smooth
as a wooden slab,
this
immaculate hour,
this day
pure
as a new cup
from the past —
no spider web
exists —
with our fingers,
we caress
the present;
we cut it
according to our magnitude;
we guide
the unfolding of its blossoms.
It is living,
alive —
it contains
nothing
from the unrepairable past,
from the lost past,
it is our
infant,
growing at
this very moment, adorned with
sand, eating from
our hands.
Grab it.
Don’t let it slip away.
Don’t lose it in dreams
or words.
Clutch it.
Tie it,
and order it
to obey you.
Make it a road,
a bell,
a machine,
a kiss, a book,
a caress.
Take a saw to its delicious
wooden
perfume.
And make a chair;
braid its
back;
test it.
Or then, build
a staircase!

Yes, a
staircase.
Climb
into
the present,
step
by step,
press your feet
onto the resinous wood
of this moment,
going up,
going up,
not very high,
just so
you repair
the leaky roof.
Don’t go all the way to heaven.
Reach
for apples,
not the clouds.
Let them
fluff through the sky,
skimming passage,
into the past.

You
are
your present,
your own apple.
Pick it from
your tree.
Raise it
in your hand.
It’s gleaming,
rich with stars.
Claim it.
Take a luxurious bite
out of the present,
and whistle along the road
of your destiny.

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Director, Public Square Program at the Democracy Fund. Journalism and democracy of, by and for the people. Formerly: @grdodge @freepress

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Josh Stearns

Director, Public Square Program at the Democracy Fund. Journalism and democracy of, by and for the people. Formerly: @grdodge @freepress