Arts/Literature

Is that a poet in your pocket, or…?

“You will never be alone with a poet in your pocket,” John Adams wrote to his son, John Quincy, in May of 1781.

Today, nearly 230 years later, plenty of people are packing poets in their pockets. It’s national “Poem In Your Pocket” Day.

First celebrated in 2003, “Poem In Your Pocket” Day is sponsored by the Academy of American Poets. The basic premise, as you might guess, is for poetry lovers to carry their favorite poem in their pocket for the day. As opportunity presents itself, they can then share those poems with coworkers, friends, family members, and classmates.

Here’s mine:

“I felt my life with both my hands
To see if it was there—
I held my spirit to the Glass,
To prove it possibler—“

The lines come from Emily Dickinson’s poem “#351.” Dickinson is not, I admit, my favorite poet, although I do love the fact that she made up the word “possibler.” It makes me think that all things are not only possible, they’re more than possible—they’re possibler.

That reminds me of another line, this one from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”—one of my favorite lines of poetry ever: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio/Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” In other words, there are things possible in this world that we’ve not even imagined. That’s one of the coolest ideas ever because it suggests the world is full of wonder.

I like a world filled with wonder.

And to me, that’s one of the great things about “Poem In Your Pocket” Day. A poem is a little window to the world, and a little window to the heart, and both places are wondrous indeed.

Poems, too, are wondrous things. For instance, consider the cryptic sense of possibility suggested by William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow”:

so much depends
upon

the red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

The real majesty and mystery of the poem lies in its line breaks and layout. Believe it or not, the whole experience and meaning of the poem changes if you just string it all together:

“So much depends on the red wheel barrow glazed with rainwater beside the white chickens.”

That line hardly seems like poetry, does it? Yet Williams, through careful arrangement of the words, gets us to see them—and the experience he describes—in a whole new way.

As a rule, though, people undervalue poetry. Poetry requires us to pay attention to the world in a quieter, softer, more reflective way that we typically have time for in today’s hustle-bustle. Even poetry that’s brash and ferocious requires this of us.

That’s because, as poet Charles Wright has said in his poem “Sundown Blues”: “There are some things that can’t be conveyed—description, for instance….” Yet a poem nonetheless tries to do just that, to capture a snapshot of experience and convey it in words, and with a rhythm, that surprise, evoke, and reveal the universal by exploring the intimacy of the specific.

A poem may have other agendas, too: to inspire, to anger, to challenge, to comfort, to woo, to amuse, to insult, to excite, to dazzle, to watch, to share, to cry out a barbaric “YAWP” over the rooftops of the world and then to howl.

That’s an amazing list of verbs—of things poems can DO. They can do much more, too.

And you can carry all that activity, all that power, in your pocket.

I carry those lines from Dickinson in my own pocket courtesy of the local library, which has been celebrating “Poet In Your Pocket” Day all week long by passing out business cards with lines of verse on them. That is how I came to be friends with Miss Emily this week, though I’ve read her poems many times before. I decided to keep her lines, rather than choose a poem on my own, because she’s the one who brought me to the dance in the first place.

On my own, I might’ve chosen a Wright poem or something by Shakespeare. I might’ve picked T. S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men,” which is my favorite poem but also bleak and sad, as is Poe’s beautiful, tragic “Annabel Lee.”

I also like “Birches” by Robert Frost. One could do worse than be a swinger of birches, Frost reminds us, escaping the cares of the world for a while and then coming back, alighting carefully on the ground. “Earth’s the right place for love,” he says. “I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.”

A poet in your pocket, as Adams suggested, is like a great friend who helps you rediscover wonder over and over.

In honor of that friendship—and in honor of the friendship I have with you, dear reader—I celebrate “Poet In Your Pocket” Day with you by sharing a poem written by the thirteenth century poet Rumi called “Fierce Courtesy”:

The connection to the Friend
is secret and very fragile.

The image of that friendship
is in how you love, the grace

and delicacy, the subtle talking
together, in full prostration,

outside of time. When you’re
there, remember the fierce

courtesy of the one with you.

6 replies »

  1. Thanks for bringing this to our attention, Chris. I just printed out my two favorite poems (yes, I selected two instead of just one) and posted them on my cube. We’ll see if anyone comments on them.

  2. Thank you Chris for this post – and the others for their contributions.

    Here is mine:

    If by Rudyard Kipling

    IF you can keep your head when all about you
    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
    If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
    But make allowance for their doubting too;
    If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
    Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
    Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
    And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
    If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
    If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
    If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
    And treat those two impostors just the same;
    If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
    Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
    Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
    And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

    If you can make one heap of all your winnings
    And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
    And lose, and start again at your beginnings
    And never breathe a word about your loss;
    If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
    To serve your turn long after they are gone,
    And so hold on when there is nothing in you
    Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

    If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
    ‘ Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch,
    if neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
    If all men count with you, but none too much;
    If you can fill the unforgiving minute
    With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
    Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
    And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!

  3. More than anything poetry asks us to trust words. No small accomplishment when the general public has acquiesced to being spun and lied to. We don’t look for truth in words anymore. But it’s often there in poetry.