This week I met Johnny, a homeless twenty-something. His hair was curly and long, covered by a baseball cap. He wore glasses which struck me as odd, like a sign he hadn’t been homeless very long. The soles of his shoes were wearing thin, and he was unable to find a pair that fit right in the assorted shoes I was helping pass out to the homeless people in a local park. He had hiked a long way to get there.
But that didn’t seem to bother Johnny too much. He was actually more focused on offering his help to us. His friend approached us and asked if someone would pray for Johnny’s protection. Alliances form in the homeless community and apparently Johnny wasn’t in one. Johnny was quick to pipe up, “That’s nice, but there is someone who needs prayer much more than me. She’s dying of cancer. I can’t go see her because I’m on parole and can’t leave the area.”
Johnny’s friend went on to describe Johnny as a poet. Johnny looked down for a moment, then looked up at the sky and waved his hand across. He talked about the canvas of the world and how there was so much material for poetry. It made me think of a movie my husband and I just watched on Netflix called “Before Sunrise” about a young man and woman who meet on a train in Europe, and wind up spending one romantic evening together in Vienna. Unfortunately, both know that this will probably be their only night together. During that night, they run into a homeless man who offers to write them a poem for money. The poem brings out each of their true essences–he’s skeptical the guy just wrote it, she takes it for the beautiful creation it is.
Poetry is everywhere, in castles and in caves. It fills the cracks in between. We can choose to focus on it, or we can ignore it completely.
“In this media-drenched, data-rich, channel-surfing, computer-gaming age, we have lost the art of doing nothing, of shutting out the background noise and distractions, of slowing down and simply being alone with our thoughts.“
~ Carl Honoré
I know I have. Johnny reminded me about that. And I’m going to argue that “doing nothing” is doing something really important.
April is poetry month, or so the Academy of American Poets tells me in my monthly newsletter. It’s a time I always think about poetry in all its shapes and forms. Like Johnny, I feel I am a poet in my core. When I see a duck fly across the sky at dusk, and hear it announce its passing, my mind composes Haiku. When I feel love so deeply I can’t put it into words in just one way, I think sonnet. When I think back about our first meeting, poetry and me, I think of the poem my step-dad had me memorize for money and rehearse at cocktail parties. (Though that in itself was more than obnoxious, the poem has never left me, and that’s a gift.) Here it is–just imagine me at age 7 in my party dress:
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too:
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim,
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same:.
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build’em up with worn-out tools;
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings,
And never breathe a word about your loss:
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!”
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much:
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!