It’s a short Substack this week. I’ve been a little under the weather, a phrase I rarely use, but I enjoy. What other option is there but to be under the weather, whatever the weather may be?
Anyway… you may have noticed my tendency to interrupt myself; and then to notice my interruptions; and then to offer a little analysis. For those who like it, hallo; for those who don’t, hallo to you, too.
The brilliant British poet Patience Agbabi said, “I write because my ink must flow like blood. The written must be spoken.” I think about this often, and especially this week when so many words about politics overlap with words about earthquakes and war in the news headlines.
She’s echoing the questions of many writers who wonder what the purpose of language is, especially in the face of human aggression. Does language feel like decoration on top of events that are catastrophic? I understand when people feel like language is empty.
What moves me when I read Patience Agbabi’s words is the link between ink and blood; between what is thought and what is said; between language and living. They’re all combined. In this sentence — and for me, it feels like a sentence to live by — the evidence of language’s necessity is found in the enactment of it through preserving life.
I gave a talk at the US Institute of Peace last weekend alongside investigative journalist Amanda Ripley, looking at the poetry of war and conflict, and used Patience’s words to hold it together. For years I’d read, write, and edit poems for a few hours in the morning before going to work in conflict mediation. Jokes abounded: the flowery language of poetry with the brutal language of conflict. But flowers bloom in fields of war, and where would we be without growing things? Language, for me, is about what can be used to remind us of what is most essential, and therefore remind us of what we do, and what quality of blood flow it is that we ensure in our common life.
I do not look to poetry to gather easy hope. I look to poetry to deepen courage, resolve, and commitment to the language that might save us by changing us. I know you do, too: I read your comments every week, and am moved by them.
So the question for this week is:
What’s a sentence that changed you? What did you hear? And what did you do?
For these small poems of response, and for all the ways you work in the world, thank you friends.
PS – In a wonderful moment of synchronicity, we just released Krista’s conversation with Amanda Ripley, recorded last month as an episode for our new season of On Being.
Poetry in the World
I have two poetry readings coming up in — both in the US, while I’m here for a stretch — and I’d love to meet you there if you’re in the area.
Abingdon Friends School
Thursday, February 16, 7pm ET
I’ll be spending the day with the AFS community and leading a workshop with some of the students as part of their Mary Lynn Ellis Poetry Program. There’ll be a reading and lecture that evening, open to the public, with $15 admission.
Kent State University
Tuesday, February 21, 7pm ET
UPDATE from KSU following Feb 12 posting:
Due to an overwhelming response, we have changed the location of Pádraig Ó Tuama’s reading on Tuesday, February 21.
The reading will be in the Michael Schwartz Center at Kent State:
800 E. Summit Street, Kent, OH 44242
Parking is available in the Kent State Student Center parking lot (1075 Risman Dr., Kent, OH).
Pádraig will offer two workshops that week, both free, with space limited. We invite you to sign up for one (either Feb 21 or Feb 23) by Feb 16: register here.
“I read and walked for miles at night along the beach, writing bad blank verse and searching endlessly for someone wonderful who would step out of the darkness and change my life. It never crossed my mind that that person could be me.” -Anna Quindlen
I heard: This is up to you
I did: Stop drinking
Here and clear for 8 1/2 years❤️.
Feel better and eat some soup, Padraig!
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
This section from Mary Oliver's poem Wild Geese has comforted me in times of extreme loneliness, and still does. Sometimes it can feel like loneliness is unbearable, and you can't possibly keep living in such a state, but knowing that you belong to the world and can go out and be in it gives me strength. I don't doubt that this poem has saved lives.