• August 1, 2021

Exclusive: Poems Can Change Your Life, NBD

 Exclusive: Poems Can Change Your Life, NBD


Ethan Hawke

Ethan Hawke gave a TED talk about creativity, and this part took my breath away…

Do you think human creativity matters? Well, hmm. Most people don’t spend a lot of time thinking about poetry. Right? They have a life to live, and they’re not really that concerned with Allen Ginsberg’s poems or anybody’s poems, until their father dies, they go to a funeral, you lose a child, somebody breaks your heart, they don’t love you anymore, and all of a sudden, you’re desperate for making sense out of this life, and, ‘Has anybody ever felt this bad before? How did they come out of this cloud?’

Or the inverse — something great. You meet somebody and your heart explodes. You love them so much, you can’t even see straight. You know, you’re dizzy. ‘Did anybody feel like this before? What is happening to me?’ And that’s when art’s not a luxury, it’s actually sustenance. We need it.


My mother‘s husband is 95 (26 years older than she is), and he thinks a lot about death and dying. He loves this poem, which he says makes him feel seen at this stage of his life:

Downpour
by Billy Collins

Last night we ended up on the couch
trying to remember
all of the friends who had died so far,

and this morning I wrote them down
in alphabetical order
on the flip side of a shopping list
you had left on the kitchen table.

So many of them had been swept away
as if by a hand from the sky,
it was good to recall them,
I was thinking
under the cold lights of a supermarket
as I guided a cart with a wobbly wheel
up and down the long strident aisles.

I was on the lookout for blueberries,
English muffins, linguini, heavy cream,
light bulbs, apples, Canadian bacon,
and whatever else was on the list,
which I managed to keep grocery side up,

until I had passed through the electric doors,
where I stopped to realize,
as I turned the list over,
that I had forgotten Terry O’Shea
as well as the bananas and the bread.

It was pouring by then,
spilling, as they say in Ireland,
people splashing across the lot to their cars.
And that is when I set out,
walking slowly and precisely,
a soaking-wet man
bearing bags of groceries,
walking as if in a procession honoring the dead.

I felt I owed this to Terry,
who was such a strong painter,
for almost forgetting him
and to all the others who had formed
a circle around him on the screen in my head.

I was walking more slowly now
in the presence of the compassion
the dead were extending to a comrade,

plus I was in no hurry to return
to the kitchen, where I would have to tell you
all about Terry and the bananas and the bread.


Another time that poetry mattered to me was during my wedding. I wanted so badly to express my depths of feeling yet everything seemed pat. Until. At our ceremony, our friend Kenan read ‘Our Union’ by Hafiz, which made me weep; and my dad read this years later when I went through a depression, which also made me weep!

Our union is like this: You feel cold, so I reach for a blanket to cover our shivering feet. / A hunger comes into your body, so I run to my garden and start digging potatoes. / You asked for a few words of comfort and guidance, and I quickly kneel by your side offering you a whole book as a gift. / You ache with loneliness one night so much you weep, and I say here is a rope, tie it around me, I will be your companion for life.


Parenting can also turn your world upside down, and poet Kate Baer — a mother of four — couldn’t understand that more deeply.

Deleted Sentences
Dear husband. Dear lover. Dear darling of my
heart. No, I do not want to attend the barbeque
scheduled cruelly over naptime. I do not want to
go to the recital either. Can you tell your sister
that too? In the morning I saw you dancing with
our daughter and for a moment, I almost cried.
I hate when people say I almost cried. Why even
mention it at all?

What time will you be home? What time do you
think you may be home? What time should we
wait for you outside on the lawn while the pasta
boils over and the baby cries because he misses you?
Oh, before I go — what time will you be home?

Sometimes I wonder what would happen if you
died and I had to write a eulogy while lost in my
grief. What would I say? And who would take out
the trash bins on dark Sunday nights or hold our
children while they cried through fever dreams?

What time will you be home?


And while some poems make you feel understood, others help you understand people around you.

Widow’s Lament
by Richard Brautigan

It’s not quite cold enough
to go borrow some firewood
From the neighbors.

Oh, my heart. What poems have resonated with you in your life? I would love love love to hear.

P.S. The perfect evening activity, and Kate Baer’s wonderful beauty uniform.

(Photo by Chris Pizzello. Via Kottke.)



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