One of things I wrote in my journal at Taproot Farm this summer was the sentence: “Teach out of your joy.” Poetry is an effortless way for me to bring an unbridled joy to my boys every single day. Before we start our main lessons, we take time for poetic recitation. Hearing poetry spoken aloud brings a musicality that is lost when the same words are read silently. I don’t stress diction, meter or meaning during this exercise. We simply read our poems, relying less and less on our papers as the month progresses. More often than not, we end up memorizing our own poems and each other’s poems as well. Some poems stay with us throughout the year and into the next; others are forgotten quickly. I believe the lines we can recall at the slightest provocation are true sustenance for the soul.
My personal spirituality is closely connected to specific poets and poems. Sometimes it is the entire corpus of a poet that resonates: Wendell Berry, John O’Donohue, Mary Oliver and Robert Frost come to mind. Sometimes it is single poems: “Sekhmet . . . ” by Margaret Atwood, “Winter” by William Shakespeare, “Your Laughter” by Pablo Neruda and “Full Moon” by Kathryn Stripling Byer. And then there are those exquisite individual lines that resound – a few words put together that make my heart melt. That famous line from Tennyson – “Though much is taken much abides” – is one of those lines. I have recited it countless times since I first underlined those words in a tissue-paper edition of some Norton anthology I had as an undergraduate. I find a quiet yet forceful strength implicit in that line to accept that which remains in the face of loss – acceptance without denying or discounting loss. It is just six words. Six words that I repeated over and over during a memorial service this time last year. Six words that somehow helped me to begin to frame an unbelievable loss. Six words that have carried me through a year of grief. Though much is taken much abides. Yes.
Below you will find the first poem I assigned myself this year. It is by Carl Sandburg and is one that has stayed with me. It perhaps better expresses what I am trying to say, and ultimately what I am trying to do when I set aside time every morning to focus on some words with my boys. Enjoy.
Little girl, be careful what you say
When you make talk with words, words –
For words are made of syllables
And syllables, child, are made of air –
And air is so thin – air is the breath of God –
Air is finer than fire or mist,
Finer than water or moonlight,
Finer than spider-webs in the moon,
Finer than water-flowers in the morning:
And words are strong, too,
Stronger than rocks or steel
Stronger than potatoes, corn, fish, cattle
And soft, too, soft as little pigeon-eggs,
Soft as the music of hummingbird wings.
So, little girl, when you speak greetings,
When you tell jokes, make wishes or prayers,
Be careful, be careless, be careful,
Be what you wish to be.