“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—“
Charles Dickens, from A Tale of Two Cities, 1859
IT’S TIME TO WRITE again about poetry.
We’ve now read 33 books together—our Poetry Pals Reading Group. We began on Zoom during the early months of the Pandemic and continue coast-to-coast meeting monthly. While I’d love to sit in one room with these brilliant heart-women, it’s such a delight to visit with friends who live in New England, D.C., and near the Oregon Coast without needing to fly or drive.
Next month’s choice is Good Bones by Maggie Smith. The title poem emerged on the scene after the 2016 election and speaks of joy and sorrow and how we must offer hope to the next generation (and to ourselves) amid the hardest of times. Readers were hungry for such poetry—and “Good Bones” won many awards
Which seems an ongoing predicament: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” Dickins wrote in the 19th century. Surely these words in some form have been written or spoken forever—which leaves the human being to grapple with finding and making meaning, nonetheless.
We often expect so much. We do it with our partners, our parents and children, our friends. We are the center of our own universe and forget it’s the same for each soul that breathes. We get caught up in what we want, what we like—and how wrong someone else has been to us.
Which is part of why we read books—to escape and to broaden ourselves, to grow more compassionate, and sometimes simply to laugh.
Reading collections of poetry with a book group is a special delight. A book of poetry is fewer words than most novels. Word-by-word, it takes less time to read a page of poetry than it does to read a page of prose. And yet, each page of poetry wants to be read and reread and sometimes again.
To make the most of reading Good Bones for our meeting, I’ll reread it—and take notes. I’ll listen to an interview or two with Maggie Smith, and (since I chose this one) see what else I can learn to share with the group.
There’s been another wonderful development when it comes to reading poetry with others. Those of you who know me know I’m married to a mechanical engineer. Though I’ve nudged him over the years to tread my world of verse—not a nibble until 2022.
Back in August, he picked up the anthology of poetry set on our coffee table (built from wood he salvaged from our 1907 home while remodeling). A friend had given me Poetry of Presence: An Anthology of Mindfulness Poems as a birthday gift.
“Would you like to read a poem?” he asked that morning.
“How about you read it to me?” I said.
He opened to a random page and read me a poem. Then he passed it to me, and I read it to him.
This anthology is not John Asberry or Alice Oswald. This collection of poetry is more like verse you’d find in The Sun Magazine—poetry you can feel and digest without academic rigor—not to say the poems do not invite reflection and multiple readings.
We now read a poem in the morning often—always twice. We talk about it, and it’s been a lovely way to start the day.
I’ve been slow to learn—back to that wanting what I want! Last year he began reading Tarot cards with me—from the Osho Zen deck. This year we’ve found our way into reading poetry together. He’s wandered into my world when I stopped trying so hard to make it happen.
Last evening we celebrated our 19th anniversary. I wanted to “go somewhere!” Anywhere!!!!! But our “plans” over the holidays had changed. And soon it didn’t make sense to go away because we’d already been away.
I let go and agreed to try a new restaurant. He chose a Peruvian place not far from our neighborhood—and we enjoyed our Pisco and ceviche and split a dessert while reminiscing on our weeks in Arequipa and Cusco.
It’s all temporary. Even the books I hold in my hand might soon catch fire or fall into a lake and dissolve into fish-food. But I’m trying to notice my thoughts and feelings in the moment, a feather blowing by, to pause and admire my in-breath, then my out-breath.
While this breath is my own, it also connects me to all life: dog, chicken, cow—friends, strangers, and not-so-easy-to-love people.
Without the breath, we are not moving, not laughing or crying, not happy, sad or angry. The breath is so easy for many or us—and yet so fragile, short-term.
Thank you poetry for helping me to pause and consider many ways of seeing, believing, loving, and failing.
Thank you friends and my loving partner for sharing the time with me to read and reflect together, to bumble along the days and years.
Happy New Year! May 2023 be filled with wonder, and may we welcome surprise and walk toward challenge and even toward our fears—and comfort each other when we want to run away.
Links you might like:
Poetry of Presence: An Anthology of Mindfulness Poems. Eds. Phyllis Cole-Dai & Ruby R. Wilson. Grayson Books, 2017.
Good Bones. Maggie Smith. Tupelo, 2016.
Maggie Smith – Good Bones – Bing video (4:27 minutes)