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Recently, at my mother's funeral, there was a time for us to speak about her life and the impact she made. I did not know what to say, but when the time came for me to speak, I recited a line from Wordsworth: "What we have loved, others will love, and we will teach them how."
Aside from my mother, I think the most powerful teachers in my life have all been poets.
I recall the profound shock of recognition I felt as I slogged through Wordsworth's endless poem, "The Prelude", a poem I disliked intensely until I got to the last of the 14 books into which it is divided. Wordsworth climbs a mountain in the dark, the moon comes out from behind an obscuring mist, and not only can he see around him, he can understand the meaning of his life. And he says, "The mind of man becomes/A thousand times more beautiful than the earth/On which he dwells."
I recall Walt Whitman confiding in me: "This hour I tell things in confidence,/I might not tell everybody, but I will tell you." And I remember learning from him that democracy and love are intertwined more deeply than most politicians conceive.
From New Jersey poet William Carlos Williams, I learned to look closely at the wonders that surround us every minute of every day. Right now, it's springtime in D.C. The cherry trees and red buds have finished blooming, but tulips and azaleas are blossoming. But I knew two months ago that spring was on its way because of these lines by Williams about earliest spring:
...All about them/the cold, familiar wind/Now the grass, tomorrow/the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf/One by one objects are defined...
It doesn't always happen, but poems teach me remarkable things often enough to have kept me reading and teaching poetry for almost 40 years. They leap over what we are not allowed to say, or what we are embarrassed to say, or what we are afraid of hearing. That leap is what poets dare to take. Their words cross, what seems to me, a chasm of silence and immense solitude in order to talk to us, as directly as human beings can talk, about what maters most.
I believe if we allow ourselves to listen, we can learn from poems. Not just about what might be "right" or "wrong", or "beautiful" or "profound," but about what life is, what it can be, and what it feels like to others.