039: Conversation With the Spirit of Poetry

    Readers often ask me, “Will ReadTheSpirit write about poetry?”
    I reply, “We already have.”
    If you’ve been reading along with us this autumn, you know that we’ve featured poets from William Shakespeare to Bob Dylan.
    But there’s a deeper answer to this question: There is no way to write honestly about faith without touching on poetry, at some point. Faith is so close to the core of our lives — it’s so completely woven into our fabric — that the way we talk about faith becomes poetic, at some point.
    We can’t describe some spiritual truths except in potent phrases that echo multiple meanings. That’s poetry. If that idea sounds abstract, let’s bring this back to concrete examples:
    After several thousand years, Psalms rank among the most beloved poems in the world. Hindus cherish the Vedas, the sacred body of poetry that many scholars say is even older than the Psalms. The Quran is sacred poetry, as well. And so on around the world in each of the great faith traditions.
    The problem is that the term “poetry” has been tragically tarnished in recent years. For some reason, most people don’t take time to read poetry, anymore -– at least, the poetry printed in magazines and books.
    Poets Judith Valente and her husband Charles Reynard are devoting their lives to changing that situation through their book, “Twenty Poems to Nourish Your Soul.”

    (We strongly recommend this book for personal enjoyment and also for discussion groups. Click on the cover of the book, above, to jump to our review and to purchase a copy via our Amazon bookstore, if you wish.)

     There’s an irony in today’s problem with poetry, Charles and Judith argue. They are convinced that poetry is a powerful medium for slowing down our lives and leading us toward spiritual reflection -– but, ironically, most of us are so stressed out that we simply have no patience for a medium that wants to slow us down. The problem turns into a circle of frustration.
    But here’s the great gift we are missing, if we avoid poetry, Judith writes in the Introduction of their book: “An unforgettable poem enters our lives, and when it does it seizes us. It opens our spirit. It takes us to places in the self where we have never been -– or that we have not yet recognized. The great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda experienced poetry in much the same way that mystics have described the relentless love of God.”

    So, today, sloooooow down with us for a few moments of Conversation With the Spirit of Poetry –- through the voices of Judith Valente and Charles Reynard.
    She is a famous journalist. In the past, she wrote for the Wall Street Journal and People Magazine. Now, she is a correspondent for PBS’ “Religion and Ethics Newsweekly.”
    He is a judge in central Illinois.
    They were married in 2005. In addition to writing poetry themselves – and writing about the enjoyment of poetry –- they lead workshops for teen-agers who are incarcerated as well as for adults through various spiritual-retreat centers across the U.S.

      DAVID: In your book, you’ve each chosen some of your favorite poems to share with readers –- some of them from famous poets. You’ve got Walt Whitman, Gerard Manley Hopkins. Some of the poets are not that famous, but all of the poems you collect in the book were important at some point in your own lives.
    Then, you write personalized sections of the book about how these verses connected with your lives. I think readers are going to enjoy those memoir sections as much as the poetry.
    JUDITH: We shared our stories in the book, because we believed that the more personal we made this book, the more universal it would become. People connect things in their own lives with details from other people’s lives.
    In poetry, the more specific a poem is, the more universal it becomes.
    For example, I’ve written a poem about my mother going to work at a factory to pay for sending me through school. It’s very specific. It names the factory. It names girls I went to school with. And yet, wherever I go, people come up to me and tell me: That was exactly my story! I know that factory. I know those girls. That was me in your poem!
    They’re connecting with the details. We needed to be courageous enough to be vulnerable in the book –- so that the book would be meaningful to people.
    CHARLES: To say that I’ve been humbled by people’s response to our book is an understatement. So many people tell us they identify with our stories. They tell us that our stories are like their own stories and, hearing our stories, they feel permission to tap more deeply into their own stories. That’s how the process works.
    We’re just ordinary folks ourselves, but this is how sharing our stories helps other people to share their own.
    DAVID: This is a point that’s crucial to our ReadTheSpirit project, too. We talk about this all the time: the universal connections that we can find in the lives of ordinary people. Each of us has a powerful spiritual story to tell –- and we each can learn things from the spiritual stories of others.
    JUDITH: Right. We didn’t write about our lives as therapy. We included stories from our lives in the hope that other people could enter into the narrative along with us. We hoped that people would recognize things about their own lives in our experiences.
    So, the goal wasn’t to spill our guts or to have a therapy session. It was to invite people to think about the narratives of their lives as they read about our experiences with poetry.

     DAVID: However, you do describe some very powerful situations in the book; and, a few of these stories are just heart breaking. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the poem you describe that was written by a girl in one of the juvenile facilities where you’ve held workshops. She wrote this poem for you in one of your workshops.
    You asked the teen-agers to capture their lives in a poem, and she revealed something pretty shocking: how she was abducted in her neighborhood and raped at age 12. In her poem, she writes that, after this happened:

    “no one
    “shoulder to cry on
    “no one to
    “lean on
    “no mother to run to
    “it was just lonely in my

    Now, I would say that girl’s poem is a contemporary Psalm! That’s the same voice we hear when the Psalmist cries out to God: “O Lord, I am alone in my despair! I am deep in a pit and no one hears my cries!” (CLICK ON the cover of Alter’s Psalms to read our review.)
    CHARLES: Your reference to Psalms is very much on point.
    Particularly the youth we’ve worked with at the juvenile detention facilities have so much pain that they need to give voice to. They’ve experienced such trauma that their pain really reaches out to us and squeezes very hard.
    I don’t think that privileged youth have quite the same direct route to poetry as these troubled youth do. There’s something about the connection between pain and insight that is unmistakable.
    We find it in Psalms. And we find it in the poetry of these young people.

     DAVID: Have you seen the movie, “Freedom Writers,” which recently was released on DVD? (CLICK ON the cover to jump to our review.)
    It’s based on a true story of a teacher in California who tried to teach English students in a very tough high school situation. There was so much racial and cultural tension in her classroom that it was almost impossible to teach -– until she finally convinced her students to look inward at what was troubling them and to write about their lives.
    JUDITH: I’ve seen it. I liked it.
    DAVID: You’ve worked with young people who’ve been involved in even worse situations than the kids in the movie. But, what did you think of the film? If people do see the movie, can they take what they see in the movie and imagine the kinds of situations you’re talking about in your book?
    JUDITH: We’ve worked with minors, aged about 13 to 17, who are in juvenile detention because they’ve been involved in major felonies. So, it’s a different situation than in the classroom in the movie.
    In the movie, I think the teacher was portrayed as too much of a Superwoman kind of character.
    But, beyond that — the writing that you see in the film, produced by those kids, sounded real to me from what I’ve seen working with kids in very difficult situations. Many of these kids had significant losses in their lives, just like the kids we’ve worked with. That kind of trauma and loss makes young people seem wise beyond their years.

    DAVID: There are specific lines and details in many of the poems you’ve chosen that are unforgettable. In that poem by the girl in your workshop, I don’t think I’ll forget the details she gives us.
    There also are beautiful details in some of the poems. You have a poem about a cup of tea with details that I’ll remember, too, for their precision and their beauty. At one point, the poet says the swirling tea, as it brews and mingles with milk and sugar is “smoky as an eye.”
    That struck me as a very vivid detail –- brewing tea “smoky as an eye.”

    JUDITH: That’s “Twinings Orange Pekoe,” the poem by Judith Moffett.
    That’s one of my favorite poems in the whole book because the way I came across that poem was at a retreat for busy professionals. Being a tea drinker myself, I liked the beautiful, loving way this poet stops to carefully observe the simple act of making a cup of tea. I want people to think in fresh ways about the rituals of their lives.
    DAVID: That’s a major theme in the book, isn’t it? You’re inviting people not just to enjoy poetry with you –- you’re trying to show them the importance of slowing down and becoming mindful in new ways of the things right in front of them in their daily lives.
     JUDITH: Yes, we want people to slow down and very closely observe the rituals in their daily lives. And I don’t mean rituals that just happen at church like baptism or communion or incense. I’m talking about the rituals throughout our daily lives, things we do over and over again and that become a very important part of our lives.

    DAVID: Talk a little more about that. What are some of your daily rituals?
    JUDITH: Well, immediately when I get up in the morning I say an Our Father and three Hail Marys — and I remember in prayer anyone who is sick among my friends and family. That’s a prayerful ritual for me that I do immediately when I wake up.
    I’m Catholic and I do other things, too. I go to the crucifix and I kiss it and I take a moment and thank God for another day, for my health, for my marriage, for my work, my family, my friends.
    Then, there are other sorts of daily rituals like making my cup of tea each day. That’s a ritual for me, too.
     And, at sunset, I always try to be somewhere that I can see the sunset. We all have rituals that become sacred to us, but we don’t realize it unless we slow down and become mindful about what’s right there in front of us in our lives.
    DAVID: You and Charles are Catholic, but you’re talking about ideas that connect with ancient traditions of mysticism. Your description of mindfulness sounds almost Zen.
    JUDITH: Yes, we’re both Catholic, but this book isn’t limited to people of any particular religious background, not by a long shot.
    What we’ve been talking about here can be found in whatever religion you turn to. I happen to be doing a lot of reading in Buddhism right now. I’m reading a lot by Thich Nhat Hanh. It’s all about mindfulness as the basis of religious experience.
     Think about the words that Jesus uses most in the gospels. He’s always saying things like: Look! Or, listen! He’s always saying: Be not afraid.
    And that’s what poetry does. It makes us mindful. It asks us to look and then to look, again. It asks us to listen carefully. When we do that regularly, the world becomes less of a scary place.

    CHARLES: I am currently a trial court judge in the 11th Judicial Circuit, a five-county circuit in central Illinois.
    The discipline of reading and writing poetry has slowed me down to the point that I can more meaningfully attend to the people whose lives are in crisis who are coming before me.
    Really, the most profound need in people’s lies is to be attended to –- to be heard, to know they’re not alone. In court, so often lawyers and judges make the process something that’s about them -– instead of about the lives of these troubled people who come before us.
    I think there’s a strong identification between poetry and mindfulness, paying attention to other people –- and a connection with prayer. Poetry is very intense. The discipline of poetry calls us to pay close attention to life and, when we do, poetry allows us to make profoundly authentic connections with other people.
    JUDITH: I think people are hungering for what poetry has to give –- and they don’t even know that it’s poetry that they’re hungering for.
    In the end, poetry is hunger for union with something that’s larger than ourselves. And that’s a religious connection.
    Now, there are many poets who would laugh at what I just said. They would say I’m crazy. They’d say art is art and it doesn’t have to have any deeper meaning.
    But I think that the connections that can come through poetry are spiritual. And I’ve seen so many people out there craving what comes from poetry, even if they cannot name what they’re after as poetry.
    We simply want to help people satisfy their hunger.

Coming Up: DON’T MISS Thursday and Friday this week!
    Thursday, we’ve got news about “Amazing Grace” that you won’t want to miss.
    And, Friday, we’re talking about a fascinating new area of inquiry for thousands of families with adopted children: How do we search for our spiritual roots, when our roots have been uprooted?
(Think about this subject: Do you have a friend you’ll want to invite to read Friday’s story along with you? After all, more than 2 million children in America live with adopted parents today.)

    As always, you can Click Here to email me,
David Crumm, but we’d welcome your comments on our site, as well. If you’re reading this by email, click on the headline of today’s story, jump to the site — and there’s a “Comment” link at the bottom of today’s story.

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