Some years back, I started an experiment of sorts by sharing a poem each day on Facebook.1 Circa 2016, social media was becoming increasingly acrimonious, and I thought such a practice might be one way to shine a small but persistent light and beat back the darkness, at least in my little corner of the web.2
These daily poems, I hoped, might serve as witness to my friends—and myself—that there’s more to life than the worst of online fare: culture wars, hyper-partisanship, cheap entertainment, social strife, clickbait, outrage provocation. My intention was that these poems would punctuate the timeline with beauty and goodness, art and truth, love and grace. It’s not that I believed we should turn away from hard realities, but rather that we needed to reframe it. Whatever else comes in view, we should always keep it against the backdrop of our own humanity and that of the other. To never lose sight of our shared identity, made in the image of God and meant for so much more than bickering and worse. It seemed to me that reading poetry was well-poised to cultivate that enlarged vision.
At first, I found selecting these daily poems a fun challenge, identifying ones that could interest and speak to a broad readership. As an English professor who has taught her fair share of intro to lit classes, I know that most people find poetry a little daunting. Its charged, succinct language and often-unusual imagery can be difficult to decode, let alone appreciate. So, I worked hard to find verses that were accessible yet intriguing, relatable yet evocative. For me, that meant lots of Billy Collins.
As the first year of my experiment wore on, I realized more and more how valuable such a project could be, for myself if not for others. It became a discipline of sorts—reading poems, meditating on them, thinking through how others might receive them. I would often select poems to go along with a given day: T. S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi” for Epiphany, Mary Oliver’s “Gethsemane” for Good Friday, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Haunted Palace” for Halloween, that kind of thing. A friend teased me that I had a penchant for posting melancholy poems on Monday. Maybe I did. As I look back on the record I kept from that experiment, I see Mondays populated by the likes of John Donne and Countee Cullen.
But I also tried to include light-hearted ones, too: John Ormond’s “Cathedral Builders” and Shel Silverstein’s “How Many, How Much” come to mind. The best ones poignantly mingled sadness with hope, love with loss—Christina Rosetti’s “A Better Resurrection,” Yusef Komunyakaa’s “Rock Me, Mercy,” Langston Hughes’ “Mother to Son.”
Poetry is a deeply emotional expression of the human condition, and I aimed to choose samples that epitomized the literary form through their striking imagery, their celebration of language and creativity, and their invitation to contemplate vulnerable and intensely honest personal reflections. The more consistently I posted these poems, the more positive feedback I received, and that reinforced my commitment to offer these daily gifts of verse, as inspiration, stimulation, and edification.
I don’t deny that reading poetry can be challenging, but entering into that challenge is more than rewarding, and I often saw that payoff up close. Many times friends expressed frustration about a poem I’ve shared, especially if it’s an experimental one like Patrick Cotter’s “Time Traveler.”3 I’ve appreciated those times in particular because they have allowed me to extend my teaching beyond the classroom. Not by pronouncing solutions from atop the Ivory Tower but by demonstrating in public the skills it takes to read a poem well.
The nature of the project meant that many of these poems were new to me as well, which made my analysis fresh and often vulnerable as I, too, was making my way through the texts alongside others. I’m convinced that this daily immersion in poetry through recent years has reinvigorated my intro to lit classes in that I have rediscovered for myself the existential value of this verse and have a fresh angle to invite my own students to their own discoveries.
As an academic subject, poetry can appear dry, inscrutable. Bringing it out of the classroom and integrating it to my daily life has reminded me how truly enlivening it actually is. And restorative, too. Dostoevsky’s famous maxim suggests this much: “Beauty will save the world,” Prince Myskin of The Idiot proclaims.4 Michael D. O’Brien clarifies that through this character and the events of the novel, Dostoevsky shows that beauty can stimulate other-interestedness and can prod us to seek the good of another, even if that requires self-sacrifice.5
The beauty of poetry, by virtue of its complex form, requires something of us, too. It compels our attention and captures our imagination. It draws us out of our perspective into another’s. In a recent NPR interview (well-worth your time), former Poet Laureate of the United States, Natasha Trethewey, explained it like this:
Poetry asks, it demands of us in many ways, that we slow down. That we engage with language that isn’t soundbites and uncivil, language that allows us to see ourselves in the intimate experience of others. To hear the rhythms of our own heartbeats in the rhythms of someone else’s intimate voice, speaking across the distances. Speaking across the lines that would divide us. Reminding us not what makes us different, but what makes us alike, what we share.6
In our contemporary moment, especially on social media, division and animus run rampant. What I have found is that inserting poetry into the fray has helped me resist succumbing to those temptations. It has kept me attuned to other voices, aware of other readers, and conscious of unexpected delights.
Poetry, at its best, can help us remember the ties that bind, those qualities that make each of us uniquely ourselves but that also link us irrevocably to one another. And that, of course, is no mere academic matter.
- This post originally appeared in a slightly different form at MoralApologetics.com.
- I’ve gone through three cycles of this poetry FB sharing now and am working on my fourth. Click the links to explore the records for the respective year: 2016, 2018, and 2020. 2023 is in process.
- Here’s what I attempted by way of explanation when a friend asked about Cotter’s poem: this one is definitely challenging. I take the title as significant, which can help explain some of the paradoxes in the poem itself. Time travel stories inevitably come up against what seem to be intractable problems and stretch the audience’s imagination (perhaps to the breaking point). On another hand, you might think about it as exploring the notion of potentiality.
- Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot, trans. Constance Garnett (New York: Bantam, 1981), 370.
- Michael D. O’Brien, “Will Beauty Save the World?,” Dappled Things, 2007 https://dappledthings.org/4266/will-beauty-save-the-world.
- Natasha Trethewey, Interview, NPR, November 3, 2018, https://www.npr.org/2018/11/03/663448203/natasha-trethewey-poetry-speaks-across-the-lines-that-would-divide-us.