Poetry: a universal language of friendship

“the giddy pen points out resemblances”
Joseph Brodsky

Our book (see the link at right) shares dozens of inspiring stories by women about relationships. Each week, we continue to publish stories in this online continuation of our project. Many of the stories surprise readers with the places friendships form. Other stories surprise readers with the medium of connection. This week, we’re sharing a story about media—in this case poetry—from Mary Liepold, who is Editor in Chief for Peace X Peace. That’s a global network of women working toward peace.

In today’s story, Mary writes about poetry as a universal language. At the center of her story is the late American Poet Laureate Joseph Brodsky, the subject of a new biography. Mary, an American Catholic, found herself connecting with Brodsky, who always described himself as a Russian Jewish poet—in an unexpected way. Here is her story …

Poem Power to the People

By Mary Liepold

In 1992, the year Joseph Brodsky was Poet Laureate, I went to the Library of Congress with two friends to hear him give a reading. He read about 20 poems in English, then paused. He said, “I wrote these next two in Russian, and they have been translated, but they still only sound right in Russian. Please indulge me.”

So he read them in Russian without translating, and though I’ve never learned more than nyet and perestroika, the emotion in his voice was so powerful that I felt as if I understood every word. The hair on my arms stood on end. When I got to the lobby afterwards and tried to tell my friends, we were all talking at once. They both said they’d had exactly the same experience. Nothing like that has ever happened to me before or since.

Brodsky believed passionately that poetry should be for everybody, not just the elite. He wanted to see poetry become the kind of cultural glue that it is in Iran and Afghanistan, where even people who can’t read have memorized huge chunks of classical verse, statues of poets anchor public parks, and no political persuasion occupies as large a share of the blogosphere as poetry.

I saw that amazing data represented on a map by Global Voices at a conference I attended a few years ago. I understood what was happening the moment I saw the chart, because I had already seen what happens to our Peace X Peace blogs when Alaha Ahrar contributes a piece. She’s a brilliant young woman who has earned a huge following in Afghanistan and beyond for her Persian poetry. When Alaha shares a poem or a story on our Voices from the Frontlines―even a simple “what I did last summer,” the number of comments soars way beyond our modest average. The girl is a rock star!

Remember, Persian poetry is the realm of Rumi, Hafiz, Omar Khayaam, and Sa’adi, whose lines beginning “The sons of Adam are limbs of each other” are inscribed over the entrance to the United Nations in New York City. Poetry is the medium of the most memorable passages in the King James Bible, which turns 400 this year. It’s the medium of Will Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson. Brodsky understood that power.

What still moves me about Brodsky’s life is that he didn’t just talk about such lofty ideas. He took action. He linked countless lives together with poetry. The same year that I heard Brodsky read, Andrew Carroll also sat in one of Brodsky’s audiences—and had a similarly moving experience. Soon, the two of them sat over coffee in Greenwich Village and cooked up the American Poetry and Literacy Project. They assembled a special little book of poetry, “Songs for the Open Road: Poems of Travel and Adventure,” which contained dozens of works by poets including Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Christina Rossetti and Edna St. Vincent Millay. Then, they found sponsors to print the books and freely distribute them. Thousands went into the glove boxes of new Volkswagens, into the hands of Peace Corps volunteers, into the duffel bags of U.S. Navy personnel—and 100,000 copies flew with passengers on American Airlines.

One of the poems Brodsky and Carroll chose for their collection is Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “The Tavern.” Its opening lines:

I’ll keep a little tavern
Below the high hill’s crest,
Wherein all grey-eyed people
May set them down and rest.
There shall be plates a-plenty,
And mugs to melt the chill
Of all the grey-eyed people
Who happen up the hill.

Please help us with Friendship and Faith!

As readers, we welcome you to contribute your own stories of cross-cultural friendship. (NOTE: There are helpful tips under “We’d like to publish your story”)

You can help in many ways! Purchase our book “Friendship and Faith,” which is packed with dozens of stories by women about their real-life experiences with cross-cultural friendships. Bookmark this page—or subscribe via the link in upper right. Share these stories with friends. (See links below.)

(Originally published at www.FriendshipAndFaith.com)

Print Friendly, PDF & Email