Finding my way through the world with poetry as my friend and guide

Finding my way through the world with poetry as my friend and guide
Corinne Cothern discusses how poetry has guided her through the world, sharing some of her favourite poets and poems.

I received an article from a friend where I encountered the phrase ‘iridescent readiness’ (W.S. Di Piero). Wow! How about that as a disposition with which to walk through life! Just holding those words in thought elicits an air of expectancy for a wonder or a poem (or a wonder in the form of a poem!) to show itself. 

One of the many reasons I love poetry is the particular way it finds me and says ‘hello’, how it slides in under the wire, knocks shyly at the door or marches right in, even when I resist a little and say, ‘I’m busy now, please come back later’. It is never false, never impatient and always appears perfectly on time, in its own way. It speaks beautifully in its own language but will speak to me in mine if I ask. 

Referring to poetry as ‘it’ feels a bit strange and inadequate, but – with exceptions – ‘he’ or ‘she’ doesn’t quite fit the bill either…like the way ‘it’, ‘he’ or ‘she’ doesn’t quite satisfy when referring to God and nature. But I suppose everything transcends its label, and regardless of what pronoun is used, there abounds a vibrantly alive relationship with the entity called Poetry, a relationship in which I feel a sense of wonder, excitement, devotion and deep trust…a lifelong, ever-evolving affair of the heart that never feels humdrum or tiresome but is renewed daily through attention and love. 

Devotion to poetry opens the door to new friends and offers me ways to communicate with those for whom I may not find the words to speak to on my own. Poetry arrives at all hours, occasionally as a casual visitor just dropping by, but more regularly with an air of intrigue and possibility that captures my attention and takes me with it, leaving me satisfied in the end, though excited for our next encounter. 

I view my relationships with poetry and prayer in a comparable light: as silent conversations, even if spoken aloud, asking only for my willingness to pay attention. This statement from the title of a Mary Oliver poem resonates: ‘The Real Prayers Are Not the Words, But the Attention that Comes First’. In a similar vein, Mother Teresa observes how ‘God speaks in the silence of the heart, and we listen. And then we speak to God from the fullness of our heart, and God listens. And this listening and this speaking is what prayer is meant to be.’ To me, these statements imply openness, receptivity, respect…a readiness to give and to receive. 

The poem 'Lost' comes to mind, in which its author, David Wagoner, instructs us if we happen to be lost in the forest to

…Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.

I have learned that this is how it is with life: when feeling lost or overwhelmed – unable to see the forest for the trees, so to speak – I stand still amidst thought and wait for the light of clarity to dawn, or some winged remembrance to alight, and then I can begin to make my way with a little more confidence, and hopefully, when it is called for, with a little more humility. More often than not, it is in the company of a poem that I find my way back. 

Poet Marie Howe said, ‘Every poem holds the unspeakable inside it. The unsayable…. Every poem has that silence deep in the center of it.’ To me, this is an invitation to approach a poem in a way that will allow me entrance into the inner chambers of its heart – with a curiosity that is alive with deep listening and roomy enough to hold whatever is in store. I ask myself: what if I met every encounter in life – with every person, object and creature – in this way? 

I had the thought once that when I am tempted to judge a person or situation as worthy or unworthy, repulsive or attractive, good or evil, I should remember: What we see, we be. As I consider it now, perhaps I would make an amendment: How we see, we be. The way in which the world (including my image of myself) appears is a reflection of my perception. As Rupert says, “The world is not what we see but the way we see.” 

I love the way a poem can guide me towards explorations I wouldn’t necessarily have planned and show me important things previously unseen in places and ways I hadn’t imagined – places I may not have wanted to visit – drawing me close to discover elements lying beneath the surface that I may have overlooked at first pass. ‘Start close in,’ counsels David Whyte, in his priceless poem of the same name… 

don’t take
the second step
or the third,
start with the first
close in,
the step
you don’t want to take.

There are certain poems that can serve effectively as a guide, inviting me to focus on a particular aspect of being and potentially to see the world and myself from a new, liberating perspective. Often these poems evoke courage and curiosity, opening me to the possibility that I can take a closer look, piercing through the surface layers of appearance in order to uncover the deeper layers of conditioning and view experience in a new way. As Rilke wrote in his Letters to a Young Poet: ‘Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.’ 

Rumi’s poem ‘The Guest House’ (translation by Coleman Barks) encourages me to reconsider those elements in my life that may seem inherently negative and difficult to bear, to pause for a moment before I come to a conclusion about the way I think things should be. 

'The Guest House' 

This being human is a guest house. 
Every morning a new arrival. 

A joy, a depression, a meanness, 
some momentary awareness comes 
as an unexpected visitor. 

Welcome and entertain them all! 
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows, 
who violently sweep your house 
empty of its furniture, 
still treat each guest honorably. 
He may be clearing you out 
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice, 
meet them at the door laughing, 
and invite them in. 

Be grateful for whoever comes, 
because each has been sent 
as a guide from beyond.

And in a similar vein, this revelatory poem from Mary Oliver: 

'The Uses of Sorrow' 

(in my sleep I dreamed this poem) 

Someone I loved once gave me 
a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand 
that this, too, was a gift. 

Although I certainly feel an innate impulse to view the world as a place of beauty and wonder – a place to daily ‘instruct myself over and over in joy and acclamation (as Ms. Oliver writes in her wonderful poem ‘Mindful’) – there is another part of my character that looks through a darker lens, sometimes accompanied by a narrative that is not so kind or filled with affirmation. What is seen through this lens can be frightening, even after all these years. I have found, though, that if I am able to be still enough to detect and then breathe in the silence beneath that terrible voice, I can stand fast, trusting through experience that the darkness will not swallow me up or suffocate me. Rilke’s words spring to mind: ‘Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror / Just keep going. No feeling is final.’ (Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, [I, 59,], translation by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy) 

In the following beautifully haunting poem, Wendell Berry describes what I now know for myself: that truth and beauty can be found living and moving in the shadowy, dark places, too, if one is honestly willing to go there. 

'To Know the Dark' 

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light. 
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight, 
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings, 
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings. 

In David Whyte’s poem ‘Sweet Darkness’, every stanza sings. This poem has lived in me for over a decade and continues to make its voice heard, encouraging me to be gentle and nurturing with myself when I might have been harsh and demanding... but also to practice discernment and (dare I say it?) a bit of discipline when I am tempted to allow myself to settle back into old ways of acting and perceiving ~ habits born of conditioning that no longer serve my heart’s desire to live a life devoted to openness and integrity, filled with explorations into the nature of beauty and truth. 

'Sweet Darkness' 

When your eyes are tired 
the world is tired also. 

When your vision has gone, 
no part of the world can find you. 

Time to go into the dark 
where the night has eyes 
to recognize its own. 

There you can be sure 
you are not beyond love. 

The dark will be your home 

The night will give you a horizon 
further than you can see.

 You must learn one thing. 
The world was made to be free in. 

Give up all the other worlds 
except the one to which you belong. 

Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet 
confinement of your aloneness 
to learn 

anything or anyone 
that does not bring you alive

is too small for you. 

If I were to offer advice to a friend, I would say: When poetry calls, answer! Whether you feel an urge to write a few lines, to look for a poem to share with a friend, or to just spend a few moments learning by heart a poem that has been on your mind, please just do it! Don’t ignore the call! What if it is a call from your very own heart? Or perhaps from the heart of the world…It might be the very most important activity you could undertake in the moment – a moment you may later remember with gratitude for having listened. It has been this way for me. 

We are surrounded by ever-renewing fountains of poems…orchards of fresh poems ripe and ready for us to pick! It is incredible, really, to consider all we have access to, so freely available, making it so very easy to say Yes! to poetry whenever it wants to come for a visit…or a stay! 

There is something transformative about the capacity to call forth a poem at will. Even if you can’t recite all the words by heart on a whim, if you spend time with a poem that you love and really get to know it, it will become a traveling companion, informing the path of your days. You never know who will come along for you to introduce it to…and if not the poem verbatim, then the spirit or soul of the poem. 

And we can always write our own! The intention to come up with little poems here and there seems to encourage me to pay attention to the particular people and creatures and things that surround me – to what is alive in myself and the world. I often turn to the traditional haiku syllabic structure: 5-7-5. I find this simple structure freeing and discover my mind regularly coming up with little haiku word-bouquets while walking, driving, cooking, showering, lying in bed… 

To my husband, sparrows and sky 

So happy the way 
We awake together here 
New every morning. 

Teeny little anytime messages that can say anything or nothing in particular, but just want to come into being… 

What do I love? This! 
The way laughter is easy 
And fear doesn’t stay. 

I stop and notice: 
Even though I’m not perfect 
Life fills me with praise.

I imagine a world in which everyone finds a place in his or her life for poetry! Why? Because I trust that what Dante says in the poem below is true. And I believe that the expression and embodiment of poetry (in its infinite variety of form and voice) can help us to grow clear and open, resonant with love. 

The love of God, unutterable and perfect, 
     flows into a pure soul the way that light
     rushes into a transparent object. 

The more love that it finds, the more it gives
     itself; so that, as we grow clear and open,
     the more complete the joy of heaven is. 

And the more souls who resonate together,
     the greater the intensity of their love,
     and, mirror-like, each soul reflects the other. 

* Dante Alighieri, translated by Stephen Mitchell. 

In closing, I offer a prayer:

May our relationship with poetry live long. May it open itself to us with untamed freshness, revealing our forgotten innocence – our original beauty – and may it help us to look for the same in others. May its presence weave in and out through the fabric of our waking and dreaming, and its wisdom and enchantment settle in us deeply. May it refine our seeing and purify our hearing. And may all the beings, seen and unseen, whose lives we touch (in darkness and light), find and know themselves in joy and belonging.

If you enjoyed Corinne's essay, why not check out one of Rupert's own poems, Every Time I Open my Eyes ? 

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