As I write this, I’m thinking of all those times I’ve scanned a room or auditorium for evidence…
Like a hound dog, I cock my head sideways and listen carefully. Then get down low and sniff for the scent of wonder.
I search for “ah-ha” moments anywhere they lurk. I tell you; people get the most amazing, soft and attractive looks on their faces when their hearts are touched and their minds momentarily halted from the incessant thinking that drives us all crazy.
Suddenly, I spot that look, the unmistakable body language about halfway back in the room. Or at times close up in the front row. It’s that internal moment we’ve all felt when the heart’s complex, mysterious feelings become clear, important, and real.
It’s as though the words of the poem were coming from inside our own bodies. We are thrilled! And the feeling in groups can spread and be wonderfully contagious as well.
For at least a few moments, we feel connected to ourselves, to others and to some great other. Poet Robert Frost once said, “Every poem is a momentary stay against the confusion…”
Over the years conducting classes, workshops, and speeches, I’ve learned to identify when a poem sneaks up on us and grabs our attention.
People report being shocked and stopped-in-their-tracks by such poems. Always surprised.
Poems, after all (at least the best ones) have a punchline effect. A payload for the heart, the mind and at times the body as well, in the form of tingles, goose-bumps and other indications the neuroscientists now track.
The person being whirled about inside the vortex of a such a poem will often say, “I’m not sure if this is right, but…” Then, after this tentative, halting windup, they’ll often say something so real, so present, and so vulnerable that you can’t help but feel a jolt of connection, followed by a strong sense of empathy and warmth for them. Who knows… maybe it’s a kind of love?
My typical response is to simply stop, listen and marinate in their comments. Then I say something like, “Of course you are right! You are the expert in knowing precisely how that poem lands inside your body. Yours is the one authentic voice describing how it makes you think and feel.”
I beg of them, myself, all of us. Forget what you’ve been taught. Poems are not rarefied, esoteric things. They do not require a special genetic predisposition to get or understand them.
I don’t care what a poem means until I have no choice. Until I am coerced by its beauty to experience the poem. And when I feel a poem deeply, suddenly I know everything I need to know about that poem.
Who cares about explanations and analysis!
What does it do for you? How do you feel? What do you suddenly remember? How are you different? What new ache or loss are you now able to let loose inside your body so you are ready to more fully heal?
In other words, how does the poem help you discover your poet’s heart? We both know it is there and when it is open we feel more fully alive.
Here is a short, accessible poem I love by Yahuda Amichai. It’s featured in my book,“Poetry For The Leader Inside You.”
Without any concern, worry, fear or expectation, let me invite you to take this poem for a test ride. Give it a taste. Read it slowly. Take it in. Let it grab you only if you can’t resist.
The Place Where We Are Right
From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.
The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.
But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper
will be heard in the place
Where the ruined House once stood.
It is our certainties that crucify
Our doubts and our loves
Dig up the world
And the flowers can then grow.
— Yehuda Amichai Translated by Chana Bloch and Stephen Mitchell
Try not to think too much. Feel the images, words, and sounds. Was there any kind of jolt of surprise toward the end? Was there a feeling, an insight, perhaps a slight sense of yesthat’s the way it is?
Try letting yourself feel the forgiveness we all need for being so human and stubborn about being right. Forgive yourself for all those times you caught yourself arguing as though your life depended on it. Arguing about something you realized later was so small and trivial that it made you cringe.
Let your heart open with the realization that the need to be right is often a cover for some deeper fear or pain that needs to be recognized and healed.
Consider how many times your friends and loved ones overlooked your hardheaded, dog-with-a-bone, need to be right. Then turn right around and love yourself and then rejoice at all those times you did the same for them!
We all have clay feet, just as we all are capable of great empathy and yes, love.
Last year when my younger Sister was dying and we her family, friends and gathered loved ones had no idea what to do in so many situations, she simply showed us again and again what was needed. She did so in the most human, stubborn, miraculous, beautiful, rage-full, sublime way that can happen when we humans face our own mortality.
Toward the end, I found myself holding onto fewer and fewer certainties. One by one, they were gone. We were all forced to let our doubts and our loves dig up the world.We were forced to bond together in our common uncertainty, pain, beauty, fear, despair, grace and finally courage. We were forced to become a little more human as our hearts broke, healed and then broke again.
Here Is How To “Stack The Deck” To Have The Right Poems Open Our Hearts
I have three simple guidelines that my help.
1.) Realize poems don’t analyze them: The best poems have gifts for the head, heart, and body. However, if we go for the meaning first, it tends to close down the heart. For me, I’m always ready to get abstract and heady. Poems give me cover to let my heart go free and unfettered. Yes, it can hurt mightily, but it’s also when I feel most alive.
2.) Take poems sincerely, not seriously: Great poetry is practical and helpful because it does not try to be either. Poetry that triesto do such helpful things can easily fall victim to propaganda. Or fall into a sentimental trap, which we recognize as the absence of real life complexity.
So what is the point of poetry? It is to create the still point. It helps us experience life while staying more fully present and centered. We can be deeply sincere, without becoming tedious and serious.
3.) Delight in poems don’t deconstruct them: Understanding the technicalities and scaffolding up under a poem can be interesting, but it can also be like throwing away the food and eating the container it came in. Poet Billy Collins warns us to not tie poems to chairs and beat them with rubber hoses until they give up their meaning. Truth is, we are much more likely to want to understand a poem that we first love and are delighted by. Remember, no effort needed.
Here is what I’ll leave you with. Poetry reveals our selves, to our selves. It connects, caresses, and cares for all the parts of us. We are its experts when it comes to how we read, feel, use, and understand poetry.
And yes, great poetry helps us discover our poet’s heart while enchanting our poet’s mind and exciting our poet’s body.
PS: Poetry In A Time of Social & Political Turmoil… (In the San Francisco Bay Area) If you’re feeling anxiety over our current political climate, then I have the event for you. Please join me at the Marin JCC on October 30th from 1:00 until 2:30pm for an upbeat, hopeful romp through the world of politics and poetry. Sign up here: Registration for Dale Biron JCC Event.
PS PS: My friend, publisher, and writing teacher extraordinaire, Diane Frank has invited me to her October 23rd class at San Francisco State University in SF. You can register here if you are interested. Diane is an amazing writer, poet, and teacher. Here is the info on my session: Tuesday, October 23: Dale Biron — Author of Poetry for the Leader Inside You. Dale Biron uses poetry for soul retrieval in the business community.
PERMISSION: Amichai, Yehuda, “The Place Where We Are Right,” from The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai edited and translated by Chana Bloch and Stephen Mitchell, © 2013 by Chana Bloch and Stephen Mitchell. Published by the University of California Press.
NOTE: The last stanza in the poem featured in this article is by poet, Robert Bly, not the main translators listed above for the poem. I add it to the poem based on my on love for the additional stanza.