Tag Archives: Poetry

On this day, and all the days to come

Some images, sounds, and words to lift darkened spirits and bolster the courage we’ll all need in the days and years ahead. There may be occasional updates. Feel free to make suggestions in the comments.

“We the People” Protest Art
By Shepard Fairey, Jessica Sabogal, and Ernesto Yerena, for the Amplifier Foundation. Download hi-res versions and find out more here.






Thea Gilmore, “Start As We Mean to Go On”
A song of joyful resistance.

Beyoncé, “Superpower”

Staceyann Chin, “Racism”
The spoken-word artist delivers a blistering call to arms.

Ursula K. Le Guin, always necessary, offers a meditation:

A Meditation

The river that runs in the valley

makes the valley that holds it.

This is the doorway:

the valley of the river.


What wears away the hard stone,

the high mountain?

The wind. The dust on the wind.

The rain. The rain on the wind.

What wears the hardness of hate away?

Breath, tears.


Courage, compassion, patience

holding to their way:

the path to the doorway.

And from her famed National Book Awards speech:

Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom – poets, visionaries — realists of a larger reality.

We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable — but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.

Rebecca Solnit, from “Hope in the Dark”

Anything could happen, and whether we act or not has everything to do with it. Though there is no lottery ticket for the lazy and the detached, for the engaged there is a tremendous gamble for the highest stakes right now. I say this to you not because I haven’t noticed that this country has strayed close to destroying itself and everything it once stood for in pursuit of empire in the world and the eradication of democracy at home, that our civilization is close to destroying the very nature on which we depend — the oceans, the atmosphere, the uncounted species of plant and insect and bird. I say it because I have noticed: wars will break out, the planet will heat up, species will die out, but how many, how hot, and what survives depends on whether we act. The future is dark, with a darkness as much of the womb as of the grave.

Turn your head. Learn to see in the dark. Pay attention to the inventive arenas that exert political power outside that stage or change the contents of the drama onstage. From the places that you have been instructed to ignore or rendered unable to see come the stories that change the world, and it is here that culture has the power to change the world. Often it appears as theater, and you can see the baffled, upset faces of the actors onstage when the streets become a stage or the unofficial appear among them to disrupt the planned program.

Stories move from the shadows to the limelight. And though the stage too often presents the drama of our powerlessness, the shadows offer the secret of our power.


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“We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world”

                                                         The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.

This is from the extraordinary poem “A Brief for the Defense” by Jack Gilbert — which, I think, elegantly and perfectly makes the case for optimism in the face of all the million ways this world can break. It’s worth reading in full here.

In a similar spirit, Bill Hayes offers an appreciation of aliveness:

What is the opposite of a perfect storm? That is what this was, one of those rare moments when the world seems to shed all shyness and display every possible permutation of beauty. Oliver said it well as we took up our plates and began heading back downstairs: “I’m glad I’m not dead.” This came out rather loudly, as he is a bit deaf. Even so, he looked surprised by his own utterance, as if it were something he was feeling but didn’t really mean to say aloud — a thought turned into an exclamation.

“I’m glad you’re not dead, too,” said a neighbor gaily, taking up the refrain. “I’m glad we’re all not dead,” said another. There followed a spontaneous raising of glasses on the rooftop, a toast to the setting sun, a toast to us.

I suppose it’s a cliché to say you’re glad to be alive, that life is short, but to say you’re glad to be not dead requires a specific intimacy with loss that comes only with age or deep experience. One has to know not simply what dying is like, but to know death itself, in all its absoluteness.

After all, there are many ways to die — peacefully, violently, suddenly, slowly, happily, unhappily, too soon. But to be dead — one either is or isn’t.

The same cannot be said of aliveness, of which there are countless degrees. One can be alive but half-asleep or half-noticing as the years fly, no matter how fully oxygenated the blood and brain or how steadily the heart beats. Fortunately, this is a reversible condition. One can learn to be alert to the extraordinary and press pause —- to memorize moments of the everyday.

The rest here.

More reasons for optimism here.

(h/t The Dish; image via National Geographic)

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Billy Collins animated, cont’d

My favorite living poet Billy Collins provides some context for his animated poems. Stick around for the hilarious piece he reads aloud at the end.

(via TED)


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What do teachers make? They make a goddamn difference.

A classic performance by the fiery spoken-word poet, teacher, and teachers’ advocate Taylor Mali:

A more recent version, coinciding with the publication of Mali’s book, What Teachers Make:

I love this poem for what it says about teachers’ passion, commitment, and the undervalued importance of their sacred trust to help shape the next generation. But it also seems to present a one-sided version of education: the strict, no-nonsense, sit-down-and-shut-up teacher who needs to whip reluctant and undisciplined students into shape. That’s not a model that will work for everyone; why is there no mention of kindness, encouragement, and the importance of letting students ask questions rather than slapping them down? How do you get kids to love and look forward to learning, rather than view it as medicine that they have to swallow? A wise comment on YouTube (a true rarity!) points out:

I love the message of the video — that teaching is about more than just a salary, but without context, some of the pedagogy in the video is straight up flawed. Encourage group work/ collaborative learning (when appropriate). If students are constantly looking for a way out of the classroom, it’s a good indicator that you need to make your lessons more engaging. Teachers should never strike fear in parents. Parents can be valuable resources. Finally, NEVER tell students they can’t ask questions.

Yes. Mali says he makes students wonder, but I wish he’d elaborate on that. Kids are born curious and wondering; how do we avoid squashing that, and just get out of the way?

Nevertheless, point taken: Teachers have a difficult and tremendously important job, and should be valued and supported in this country more than they are. I’d add that not only shouldn’t they be judged by how much money they make, but they also can’t be judged by flawed rating systems such as New York City’s — a ludicrous calculation involving “value-added scores” that lets good teachers slip through the cracks. William Johnson, supposedly a “bad teacher,” explains:

[T]he reality [is] that teachers care a great deal about our work. At the school where I work today, my “bad” teaching has mostly been very successful. Even so, I leave work most days replaying lessons in my mind, wishing I’d done something differently. This isn’t because my lessons are bad, but because I want to get better at my job. […]

The truth is, teachers don’t need elected officials to motivate us. If our students are not learning, they let us know. They put their heads down or they pass notes. They raise their hands and ask for clarification. Sometimes, they just stare at us like zombies. Few things are more excruciating for a teacher than leading a class that’s not learning. Good administrators use the evaluation processes to support teachers and help them avoid those painful classroom moments — not to weed out the teachers who don’t produce good test scores or adhere to their pedagogical beliefs.

And an excellent point about the student-teacher relationship:

That said, given all the support in the world, even the best teacher can’t force his students to learn. Students aren’t simply passive vessels, waiting to absorb information from their teachers and regurgitate it through high-stakes assessments. They make choices about what they will and won’t learn. I know I did. When I was a teenager, I often stayed up way too late, talking with friends, listening to music or playing video games. Did this affect my performance on tests? Undoubtedly. Were my teachers responsible for these choices? No.

Schoolteacher Laura Klein chimes in:

[W]ith teaching, it’s always hard to know just how much of the results are the result of good teaching. Perhaps it is good parenting, or the work of previous teachers. Sometimes it is just the result of a child maturing and coming into her own.

Still, when a child succeeds in your class for the first time in her academic career, it is one of the rare occasions when you can feel as if you had something to do with it. And you are probably right. There’s a good chance that the relationship that you have with that student has played an important role in her success. But that’s not necessarily a good thing. […]

Kids who succeed because of us are not kids who have the tools to succeed in the long run.

“Don’t do it for me; care about yourself,” my co-teacher often says to our students […]

A good relationship can change a child’s year, but it doesn’t usually change her life. For that, we have to change the way that students relate to themselves.

What to make of all this? Perhaps that Taylor Mali is right — that teachers make a goddamn difference — but also that students aren’t automatons, waiting for the right programmer. They’re human individuals, needing encouragement and direction, but ultimately choosing their paths for themselves, as we all do.

Another excellent spoken-word piece by Mali here.


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Falling upward

In her marvelous essay “The Wetfooted Understory,” written for the collection The Joy of Secularism, Rebecca Stott examines the idea of “transcendence” and how to approach it from a secular perspective. A key passage:

[I suspect] that the idea of transcendence is kin to that fundamentalist prioritizing of “up there” above “down here,” that it might be cousin to that expectation of uplift, the longing to be raised up and out of a world we can no longer bear. It is almost impossible to resist metaphors of transcendence; they are, after all, deeply ingrained in our patterns of thought and in our language and metaphors, in the way we talk about the sublime in terms of spiritual revelation: when we hear Mozart’s Requiem or a blackbird sing at dawn, or watch the setting sun stain a mountain peak red, we say we are exalted and uplifted; we describe the feeling as rapturous. How do we find a way to describe the often cleaving and searing epiphanies of everyday life when we no longer believe those moments to be god-cloven or god-searing? What words do we use to articulate the new-seeing that comes to us in those moments when epiphanies make us glance not heavenward with wonder and awe but rather earthward with wonder and awe? It is a perpetual struggle for all poets and writers whose business is with the sublime.

What follows is a fascinating exploration of, among other things, Charles Darwin’s troubled relationship with poetry, Walt Whitman’s contradictory thoughts on Darwin, and the poet Elizabeth Bishop’s self-identification with Darwin and her preference for his writing over that of her own literary peers. (The essay, and the collection, are worth seeking out and reading in full.)

Stott ends with another poet, Amy Clampitt, whose piece “The Sun Underfoot Among the Sundews” crystallizes Stott’s central epiphany: that for the secularist, the atheist, the humanist, “transcendence” isn’t located beyond the fabric of reality, but within it; a secular poetics does not lift us out of the world but immerses us in the world. This is the experience of poetic atheism, of the marriage of science and poetry, beautifully expressed:

[Clampitt’s] poems are exquisite expressions of what we might call the Darwinian sublime or the poetics of immersion. In this extraordinary poem she asks us to imagine stepping into a bog full of sundews, the bog a metaphor for the lives we lead. She reminds us that we will be swallowed up, that we will not get out of here. But there is so much to see, she says, so much light, so much of the sublime. If we look properly, she writes, once we begin to see the sublime beauty here in this Darwinian underworld, in this wetfooted understory, we will begin to fall upward.

Here is the poem.

The Sun Underfoot Among the Sundews
by Amy Clampitt

An ingenuity too astonishing
to be quite fortuitous is
this bog full of sundews, sphagnum-
lines and shaped like a teacup.
                                      A step
down and you’re into it; a
wilderness swallows you up:
ankle-, then knee-, then midriff-
to-shoulder-deep in wetfooted
understory, an overhead
spruce-tamarack horizon hinting
you’ll never get out of here.
                                      But the sun
among the sundews, down there,
is so bright, an underfoot
webwork of carnivorous rubies,
a star-swarm thick as the gnats
they’re set to catch, delectable
double-faced cockleburs, each
hair-tip a sticky mirror
afire with sunlight, a million
of them and again a million,
each mirror a trap set to
unhand believing,
       that either
a First Cause said once, ‘Let there
be sundews,’ and there were, or they’ve
made their way here unaided
other than by that backhand, round-
about refusal to assume responsibility
known as Natural Selection.
                                      But the sun
underfoot is so dazzling
down there among the sundews,
there is so much light
in that cup that, looking,
you start to fall upward.

(Image via The Conservation Report)

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Neil deGrasse Tyson and Stephen Colbert on all things science

Another long-but-absolutely-worth-it video: Neil deGrasse Tyson talks with Stephen Colbert (out of character!) about all things science. If you’re a Tyson junkie like me, you’ve heard much of this before — the Titanic story, Apophis, how he fell in love with the universe, the NASA budget, the importance of letting kids feed their curiosity, the value of being at the frontier of discovery, the poetry of science — but it’s always wonderful to see him make his arguments with such passion and wit, and a joy to see him sparring with Colbert here. (And if you’ve never seen Tyson before, clear your schedule for an hour and a half and watch. You’re welcome.)

Here are a couple of exchanges that particularly interested me, as my family goes through the middle school application process for our daughter and we reexamine our ideas of what education should be for. At around 30 minutes in:

Colbert: If I have a lot of facts in my head, if I can absorb a lot of facts, am I a scientist?

Tyson: No. No, you’re a fact-memorizer. In fact our academic system rewards people who know a lot of stuff, and generally we call those people smart. But at the end of the day, who do you want: the person who can figure stuff out that they’ve never seen before, or the person who can rattle off a bunch of facts? At the end of the day, I want the person who can figure stuff out.

And at around 1:15:

Tyson: In the schools, I don’t have a problem with the fact-memorizing. But don’t equate that with what it is to be wise or what it is to be smart. Smart should be some combination — of that, yes, but also: what is your lens on the world? How do you figure things out? And you promote that by stimulating curiosity. And I don’t see enough stimulating curiosity in this world.

Indeed. Kids should be learning not just what to think, but how to think; and as much as possible they should be encouraged to do so for themselves. And they are not served well by an educational system that emphasizes rigid rules and tests — and stifles innovation and joy as a result.

I also love this (at around 26 minutes, in the middle of a discussion of the most beautiful truths in science):

Tyson: Some of the greatest poetry is revealing to the reader the beauty in something that was so simple you had taken it for granted. That, I think, is the job of the poet. And so the simplicity of the universe [as revealed by Einstein’s equation E=mc2] — I think if it doesn’t drive you to poetry, it drives you to bask in the majesty of the cosmos.


Want more? You can watch a couple other Tyson talks here and here.

(via FlickFilosopher)

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Voices from the 99%: the Occupy Wall Street Poetry Anthology

You must download this: a massive (and still-ongoing) compilation of poetry (and, it seems, a few prose pieces) submitted to the People’s Library by people from around the world, professional writers and amateurs alike, in support of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Editor Stephen Boyer explains the philosophy behind the anthology:

First of all, we don’t say no to anyone. Everyone that sends their work gets their work into the anthology. It’s not that I’m against anthologies that are critical about what they print. It’s just that this movement is a move toward inclusiveness and the Occupy Wall St. Poetry Anthology must reflect that. And this inclusiveness allows for a range of work that I’ve never seen. Children are sending their poems. Queer writers are sending their poems. Kids obsessed with hip-hop are sending their poems. Grumpy old men are sending their poems. Daydreamers are sending their poems. Professors are sending their poems. Homeless people without access to computers or places that put out calls for submissions are sending their poems. Famous poets are sending their poems. It’s truly an anthology made of and by and for the people. It seems that someone from every walk of life is making space for their vision in the anthology.

The first poem, “Taking Brooklyn Bridge” by “Stuart,” is a sprawling, soaring, joyous, and brave response to Walt Whitman that embodies the anthology’s spirit. A taste:

I came to atone for my apathy,
I came to teach the future vigilance,
better to be loud, be awkward, be dirty, be flawed,
you who are to come, make the people uncomfortable
because they are too timid to join you,
make the leaders uncomfortable
because they know you are unafraid,
I tell you that it is better to be one of the great democratic
people than it is to be a lord or a peasant.

We began to march from Liberty Square, a place
that now fully deserves its name, toward
the Brooklyn Bridge, and we chanted and sang
and called to those who watched to join us,
and there was a feeling in the air, a passion that
joined together every hearty soul, we all knew
we were on the side of the just, that we meant
no harm to any person, that we sought no more
than what was fair and sought it not only for ourselves,
and several times on the march my eyes welled with tears,
my emotions overwhelmed by the chaotic, brilliant
beauty of those marchers, of that which we marched for.

The long line of the protestors wound beneath
the towers of those who would squander the world,
devouring all that is good with their insatiable appetites,
making our way to the Brooklyn Bridge and when I saw
the towers of the bridge before me I started to laugh,
what better way to pay back Walt Whitman than to honor
his song at the crossing to Brooklyn, to march across the bridge
over the waters he crossed so many times, the bridge that poets
have embraced as a symbol, not only of ingenuity and progress,
not only of endeavor and perseverance, but as a symbol of democracy,
of the great crossing of humanity from tyranny to freedom.

They are here Walt and I am with them, the African father
pushing his daughter in a stroller, she holding a sign that proclaims
she too will fight for her future, the old man singing
‘Happy Days Are Here Again’ with wit and irony,
the veterans who know only too well of betrayal, the young girl
with bright fiery hair whose strong voice chants, “We got sold out,
banks got bailed out!” the unshaven college boy who has slept
in the park for two weeks seizing the future with determined hands,
the middle aged lady, vibrant and experienced, rallying us
to raise our voices, the mother and daughter holding a sign
that reads — America, Can you hear us now! All ages, all races,
all voices, songs and chants overlapping, strangers becoming comrades.


I knew that we had come to the Brooklyn Bridge and given it the
poets had sought to give it in their words, we had brought
the rough, sacred spirit of democracy to the Brooklyn Bridge,
we had restored Whitman’s song to it’s very birthplace,
for he had called to us, the future, in his song, he sings to us now,
he knew that we would be here, he stands with us, chants with us,
and here I am on the Brooklyn Bridge on a day as important
as any day that has ever passed, watching Walt Whitman
above the bridge towers, sounding his barbaric yawp
above us, calling down the sign of democracy,
calling us to remember, not just one amazing day,
but the task to come – Sing on – Sing on – Sing on!

More — much more — here.

(Image by mollycrabapple)


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