April is National Poetry Month. Under normal circumstances there would be readings, celebrations, poetry in public spaces, book displays in libraries and bookstores, school hallways teeming with student poetry. Despite all the closures, taking advantage of social-media platforms, poetry readings are flourishing. Poetry is more than an aesthetic pleasure, it is a veritable life raft, a soothing balm providing solace, strength and connection.
On March 11, I started a blog, Poetry to Lean On. I asked Washingtonians to share a favorite poem, or a poem of their own, that seemed right for our particular moment. I wanted to provide a space to nourish each other during hard times, to foster community and offer resolve as we hunkered down in our effort to curb the virus spread.
The early responders sent in poems by others, but as time went on, I received more poems penned by the very person submitting the entry. I have said many times that we are all poets. I believe this wholeheartedly. We have the capacity to make words, we all have stories to share, and we are all sentient beings. Our isolation has forced a slowdown. This slowing down, this keeping close to our hearts, the gratitude we feel for all who are taking care of the ill, for those keeping our towns and cities running, our collective empathy, our tenderness for each other and life in general, that is poetry.
In the blog I ask that the person introduce their selection. These lines are as heartwarming and inspiring as the poems themselves. Nature is often cited as a place to find solace in uncertain times. Finding beauty and pleasure in the simple things is another recurring theme. Gail Ramsey Wharton precedes her poem thus: “Life is a reductive process, but the inevitable reductions in health are more than supplanted by the wonderful, distilling aspects of appreciation and gratitude.”
Yet the overwhelming feeling expressed is the irreducible nature of our human bond, our need to be in relationship with each other, our togetherness. Again and again, sentiments return to this notion. Bill Kelly in Tacoma states, “Like crises, in neighborhood or nation, poetry can reveal (…) the truth of our underlying connection to each other.” Leopoldo Seguel writes, “In my self-isolation, this poem came to me, thinking about our togetherness.” Rabbi Seth Goldstein in Olympia notes, “When we feel out of control, it is sometimes the simple acts between people, sometimes even strangers, that can sustain and empower us.”
I wish the poetry of the moment, the humanity and fragility we are now feeling so keenly, the realization of our interconnectedness, will extend with equal fervor well beyond April. May the poetry of compassion continue to extend to those who have been in need all along: the unsheltered, those with marginal health-care options, children and youth who suffer food insecurities, children separated from their families at our southern border.
Najma Abdul-Aziz prefaces her poem with these words: “Unity. There is unity in the word community. (…) Furthermore, I hope I can be of service to our community as this unrest subsides.”
From Holly J. Hughes, a poet and essayist. Her most recent book is “Hold Fast.”
Last week of August: too soon for falling
leaves, fog that rises at dawn, ghosts up
the beach, geese lining up in their ragtag V.
Beyond the sandstone ledge carved
like a torso by the waves, beyond
purple sea stars inching toward tide pools,
ribbons of bull kelp drift with the tide,
ebb and flow, anchored to the sea floor
by a half-inch barnacle called a holdfast.
It knows the principle of hunkering down,
riding out the storm, staying put. All
winter, beneath the sea’s relentless chop
it holds fast, gives over to each storm,
flows with each rising tide. All winter
it lets go what it can, holds fast to the rest.
That’s what we’ll do come November.
Hold fast to what sustains: our friends,
a steaming bowl of soup, this beach.
— Holly J. Hughes