Saturday, April 8, 2017

Poetry, humanity, safety #NPM17

If we follow the American Academy of Poets suggestion number eight for how to celebrate National poetry month, we'll take time to "Review these concrete examples of how poetry matters in the United States today." Although I often agree with the good folks at, this time I respectfully beg to differ with their approach. I believe poetry matters, but we're not going to establish that with statistics, even impressive ones.

"make the earth smile" welcome mat
"make the earth smile" welcome mat
Photo by J. Harrington

In part, my bias goes back to my fundamentals of sociology course at college, in which the professor informed us lowly freshman that "there are three kinds of lies: Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics." Perhaps the professor derived his opinion from the alleged perspective of Stalin, who's reported to have observed that “If only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics.”

I believe that poetry matters because poetry makes us human. Just yesterday, I encountered an example of how that works, in an opinion of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. The opinion ends by citing a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye. Read the whole opinion, but especially the last paragraph, and Nye's poem. On a directly related matter, this morning I was reminded how important it is that we all become as human as we can. We need to keep our fear of "the other" from overwhelming our common humanity and our common sense.


By Steven Huff

You used to be able to flag a ride in this country.
Impossible now—everyone is afraid   
of strangers.   Well, there was fear then too,
and it was mutual: drivers versus hitchhikers.
And we rode without seat belts,
insurance or beliefs.  People
would see me far ahead on a hill like a seedling,
watch me grow in the windshield
and not know they were going to stop until
they got right up to me.  Maybe they wanted
company or thought I’d give them
some excitement.  It was the age
of impulse, of lonesome knee jerks.  An old woman
stopped, blew smoke in my face
and after I was already in her car she asked me
if I wanted a ride.  I’m telling you.
Late one night a construction boss pulled over.
One of his crew had been hit
by the mob, he said as he drove, distraught
and needing to talk to someone.
We rode around for a long time.
He said, I never wore a gun to a funeral before,
but they’ve gotta be after me too.
Then he looked at me and patted the bulge
in his coat.  Don’t worry, he said, you’re safe.

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Please be kind to each other while you can.