When all the campaign rhetoric is over, the election concluded, and a presidential inauguration ceremony planned, tradition will call for a poem to be written and delivered for this national ritual.
In fact, many public ceremonies include an “occasional” poem. And the many cultures that make up our United States hold centuries of living poetry in their history. How does poetry endure when so many eyes glaze over at the mention of poetry, when so many persons insist that poetry is not their thing or complain that poetry should “just say” whatever it is the writer or speaker is trying to say?
As I come to the end of my term as Greenburgh poet laureate, I would like to focus a light on some of the ways in which poetry “lives” locally in a time when texting and other electronic communication seem to be overtaking the language we use with one another. Poetry is about making connections in a time when public discourse is often about emphasizing divisions and separation.
Last Saturday, as part of the “Poetry: A Doorway to Prayer” series, I gathered with nine other local poets at the Divine Compassion Spirituality Center for a few hours of reading, writing and sharing our poetry. We found in the ancient poetry of the psalms, in the contemporary poetry of Americans like Billy Collins, Wendell Berry, Mary Oliver, and in international writers like Rabindranath Tagore, Antonio Machado and Wislawa Szymborska deep connections with our own longings, relationships, questions and experiences of ambiguity and contradiction.
There were many “aha’s” and pleasurable moments as we listened for the first time to one another’s writing around the general theme of journey—life journey, spiritual journey, human journey. There was no doubt that this little community, formed for a few hours on a Saturday, experienced deep connections with one another, with the wonderful and fragile humanity we share, and with the earth and universe of which we are a part.
One of the original planners and presenters of this series was Brenda Connor-Bey Miller, whose untimely death this summer is being remembered and her life celebrated this weekend at the Arts Center in White Plains. Brenda, Greenburgh’s first poet laureate, was a person who exemplified the power of poetry to make connections. A gifted and published poet, educator and mentor, she helped so many, both young and not so young, to find their voices and express those voices with authenticity and beauty. In addition to the many workshops she initiated, e.g., her legacy “Learning to See,” Brenda also worked at connecting poetry with other arts. Not too long ago her work was part of an exhibit linking poetry and the visual arts at Upstream Gallery in Dobbs Ferry.
Along with well over 30 local poets, Brenda was part of the Poetry Caravan, a community of writers whose mission is to bring poetry to places where poetry is likely to be absent, e.g., hospitals, nursing homes, senior residences, group homes, etc. Members of the Caravan volunteer to read poetry, their own and that of others, at many different Westchester venues. Once a month a poetry caravan reading takes place at Cabrini of Westchester Nursing Home where I am part of the Pastoral Care Department. In each session, Poetry Caravan members are joined by ten to fifteen participants, including Cabrini residents, day care program participants, staff members, volunteers, and guests.
There is a sense of shared understanding and joy during all the readings and a special delight in listening to poetry written or selected by residents. Consider the connections made within this nursing home community when a Poetry Caravan member read a poem she had written about the Lone Ranger or when one of the volunteers read his own poem reflecting on the personal experience of aging—its inevitability, its darkness and its hope.
Poetry Caravan readings abound and so do many other readings and workshops throughout the county. Local libraries, arts and spirituality centers are a good source of information about them. The Arts and Culture Committee of the Town of Greenburgh has a long-term commitment to advancing poetry and publishes in Let the Poets Speak the winners’ and finalists' poems from its annual poetry contest. Since poetry tends to create community, “word of mouth” is possibly the best source of information.
Read or listen to some poems to discover how poetry connects us with ourselves, our experience, imagination, intuition and with divine mystery. Experience how it connects us with one another, with our humanity, and with the larger horizons of the world around us. Learn how it fosters compassion.
Here are the closing words of Alice Walker’s paradoxical advice for the journey of life, “Expect Nothing.”
. . .Discover the reason why
So tiny a midget
Exists at all
So scared so unwise
But expect nothing. Live frugally