The Only Thing That Matters

“Write poetry, for God’s sake, it’s the only thing that matters.”

—e.e. cummings

Poetry isn’t en vogue these days but it should be. I think we need it. I know I do. My guess is that most people don’t think they have much use for poetry – they don’t relate to it – they find it obscure or archaic. Perhaps it isn’t in our nature anymore. We’re too hurried and intellectual. Too focused on doing and being productive. En masse, it seems we’re too self-sufficient to need and to take what poetry offers. But I disagree.

I’m not one of those people. I’m not self sufficient enough, nor am I stable enough. I need poetry (among other things) to help keep my sanity, to find calm, and to see the other side of things. I regard poetry a fundamental part of my education in taking life on life’s terms and learning to love it – or at the very least, to survive it. When I hear a man has used a truck to run down families on a road in Nice, or about any one of the countless tragedies that takes place every day, I need something to help carry the weight. And poetry does. It can hold what we can’t. It can hold the unimaginable, the unendurable.

Poetry lives perfectly and powerfully juxtaposed the worst in the world and the worst in us. It contradicts the hate and violence that seem ubiquitous today, and challenges the vapid and rancorous parts of our selves, coaxing us to live an examined life.

So, in a world both harrowing and sublime, I encourage you, if you haven’t already, to consider this lifeline. Sift through the innumerable varieties of poetry and like everything else, take what you like and leave the rest. It’s not all uppity and esoteric and I assure you, if you search, you’ll find something that will transform you. Here are a few that have changed me. Enjoy…


Magdalene – The Seven Devils

By Marie Howe

The first was that I was very busy.
The second — I was different from you: whatever happened to you could
not happen to me, not like that.

The third — I worried.
The fourth — envy, disguised as compassion.
The fifth was that I refused to consider the quality of life of the aphid,
The aphid disgusted me. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
The mosquito too — its face. And the ant — its bifurcated body.

Ok the first was that I was so busy.
The second that I might make the wrong choice,
because I had decided to take that plane that day,
that flight, before noon, so as to arrive early
and, I shouldn’t have wanted that.
The third was that if I walked past the certain place on the street the house would blow up.
The fourth was that I was made of guts and blood with a thin layer of skin lightly thrown over the whole thing.

The fifth was that the dead seemed more alive to me than the living

The sixth — if I touched my right arm I had to touch my left arm, and if I touched the left arm a little harder than I’d first touched the right then I had 
to retouch the left and then touch the right again so it would be even.

The seventh — I knew I was breathing the expelled breath of everything that
was alive and I couldn’t stand it,

I wanted a sieve, a mask, a, I hate this word — cheesecloth — to breath through that would trap it — whatever was inside everyone else that entered me when I breathed in

No. That was the first one.

The second was that I was so busy. I had no time. How had this happened?
How had our lives gotten like this?

The third was that I couldn’t eat food if I really saw it — distinct, separate
from me in a bowl or on a plate.

Ok. The first was that I could never get to the end of the list.

The second was that the laundry was never finally done.

The third was that no one knew me, although they thought they did.
And that if people thought of me as little as I thought of them then what was

The fourth was I didn’t belong to anyone. I wouldn’t allow myself to belong
to anyone.

The fifth was that I knew none of us could ever know what we didn’t know.

The sixth was that I projected onto others what I myself was feeling.

The seventh was the way my mother looked when she was dying—her mouth wrenched into an O so as to take in as much air…
The sound she made — the gurgling sound — so loud we had to speak louder 
to hear each other over it.

And that I couldn’t stop hearing it—years later—
grocery shopping, crossing the street —

No, not the sound — it was her body’s hunger
finally evident. —what our mother had hidden all her life.

For months I dreamt of knucklebones and roots,
the slabs of sidewalk pushed up like crooked teeth by what grew underneath.

The underneath —that was the first devil.
It was always with me.
And that I didn’t think you — if I told you — would understand any of this —


The Road Not Taken

By Robert Frost 

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth


Then took the other, as just as fair

And having perhaps the better claim

Because it was grassy and wanted wear

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,


And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black

Oh, I kept the first for another day

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.       


I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –

I took the one less traveled by

And that has made all the difference.        


I Felt a Funeral In My Brain

By Emily Dickinson

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain, 

And Mourners to and fro

Kept treading – treading – till it seemed 

That Sense was breaking through – 


And when they all were seated, 

A Service, like a Drum –

Kept beating – beating – till I thought 

My mind was going numb – 


And then I heard them lift a Box

And creak across my Soul 

With those same Boots of Lead, again,

Then Space – began to toll,


As all the Heavens were a Bell, 

And Being, but an Ear, 

And I, and Silence, some strange Race, 

Wrecked, solitary, here –


And then a Plank in Reason, broke, 

And I dropped down, and down – 

And hit a World, at every plunge, 

And Finished knowing – then –


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