Poetry as “Bread for the Journey”

October 21, 2015
by Michael S. Glaser

By Michael S. Glaser

The inspiring poet Naomi Shihab Nye was the keynote speaker at a recent conference called Bread for the Journey:  A Celebration of Poetry and the Human Spirit held at the Kirkridge Retreat & Conference Center in Bangor, Pennsylvania.  Her presence and poetry served to reawaken my understanding of how importantly the arts convey the heart of the humanities and help us gain perspective on issues that matter to our personal and communal lives.

Ms. Nye began her remarks by sharing some observations about the negativity and focus on violence in today’s media. She recalled advice from the journalist Marie Brenner: “Stand back from the negative,” and then shared some poems that pointed to how anger and fear can blind us to the need for understanding and compassion.

Negativity can be a trap, Ms. Nye asserted, a quagmire out of which it becomes difficult to extract ourselves.  And she illustrated with poems how, when we do find ourselves trapped in the negative, we can “unhinge” and pivot away from where we are standing in order to find a new direction forward.

“This is the world I want to live in . . .”

Ms. Nye writes about her experiences in her poem, Gate A4.

“ . . . . The shared world.

Not a single person in this gate – once the crying of confusion stopped–

Seemed apprehensive about any other person

. . .

This can still happen anywhere.

Not everything is lost.”

Ms. Nye also spoke about the need for kindness: “It is the deepest thing inside,” she writes in her poem, Kindness, and what we “have been looking for.”  Acts of kindness are, for her, a way to “pay forward” her gratitude for the generosity of human beings which, while not often covered by the media, we can find most everywhere and anywhere.

Nye also reflected on how we seem to be in danger of losing our ability to see “the big picture.” How did all the little messages on our phones get such a hold on us that we have trouble hearing all the other messages in the world?”  she asked.   Living with poetry, she stressed, helps us learn to live more present to and more comfortably with the paradoxes and metaphors that embrace so much of our lives.

She also talked about how our busy-ness can be another hinge that holds us back from attending  to larger life issues, and noted how often we take “just a moment” to check the messages on our cell phones or computers.   “Busy busy busy” seems almost a mantra for so many of our lives.

Ms. Nye’s concerns echoed the voice of Lucille Clifton – one of Maryland’s foremost poets – whose spirit infused the conference.  Clifton wrote in her poem “we are running”:

oh pray that what we want

is worth this running,

pray that what we’re running


is what we want

Poetry calls us to such reflection.  It invites us – and sometimes urges us – as Ms. Nye did – to stay awake, to pay attention, to make time to consider what we might be missing or overlooking.

We are surrounded with various forms of media that encourage fear and anger, judgment and a sense of privileged superiority. The humanities remind us to “stand back,” reflect, and consider our choices so that we might make informed decisions rather than simply assume that what we are doing is what must be done.

The conference ended with the poem, “You, Reading This,” by Ms. Nye’s friend, William Stafford, which urges us:

Starting here, what do you want to remember?

Will you ever bring a better gift for the world

than the breathing respect that you carry

wherever you go right now?  Are you waiting

for time to show you some better thoughts?

When you turn around, starting here, lift this

new glimpse that you found; carry into evening

all that you want from this day.  This interval you spent

reading or hearing this, keep it for life–

Poetry reminds us about the importance of compassion, generosity and kindness.  It reminds us of the necessity for fairness and justice in our lives and in our communities.  Like all the humanities, poetry reminds us that the unexamined life is not worth living. It serves to encourage us to reflect thoughtfully on the choices we are making and the opportunities that are there, right in front of us, when we unhinge and turn around.

Naomi Shihab Nye reminded all of us that the very act of writing things down helps us to better understand the possibilities in our lives and to engage thoughtfully in the choices that shape our future. When we write, she noted, we have a way of putting our voice into the world – through poems or op-ed pieces, letters to newspapers or to politicians.  When we write, we have something to share with anyone who might be listening.

Michael S. Glaser is a former Poet Laureate of Maryland, Professor Emeritus at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, and a member of the Maryland Humanities Council Board.