Poetry Inquiry at the Brink of a New Year

“When the inner and the outer are wedded, revelation occurs.” ~ Hildegard von Bingen

For the last several years, a group of friends have entered a mostly silent retreat for the several days over the new year. This year, on New Year’s Day we took a hike in the mist-jeweled hills along the Pacific coast. As we walked, we mingling silence, poems, and sohbet (Rumi’s word for soul-to-soul conversation). Before leaving the house, each of us had chosen a “poemcard” from my deck of about 100 favorite poems and poem fragments, which I have been collecting for the last 10 years.

Those of you who have been in a workshop or retreat with me have experienced the poemcards. Some frequent participants I’ve visited have a few here and there in their homes – on the fridge, on an altar, taped to the edge of the computer. One friend has a basket of them by her bathroom mirror. Every morning she chooses one (or as I often say, no metaphor intended, one chooses her.) Some people have even made their own decks.

At the beginning of every workshop, I invite people to choose a card at random, without reading it ahead of time. I never cease to be amazed at the accuracy and depth with which the poem reflects and illuminates the heart of whatever is going on for the chooser. Early in the workshop each will read her/his poemcard to the group, and speak specifically about why this poem may have appeared in their life as a guide and mirror at this exact moment.

On New Year’s, as my friends and I hiked through the exclamations of ravens and the occasional drizzle, I suggested each of us read the poem we’d chosen aloud then allow it to lead us into a monologue of self-inquiry, exploring our inner and outer lives at this turning point of the year. At first one person said, “Well, as usual for me with most poetry, I don’t understand a lot of this.” Nonetheless, he entered into the experience with the rest.

The poems burst us open to each other in ways we didn’t expect. Though we knew one another well, and had spent much time sharing sohbet, the poems pointed in directions within us that we had not known to look and articulated truths that we had no words for. For me, it was so tender and moving to hear the man who believed he didn’t “get” his poem find in each  line a deep truth naming a texture of his inner life that he did not previously know how to express.

The poemcard I drew sported a few lines from Walt Whitman:

I exist as I am, that is enough;
If no other in the world be aware I sit content
and if each and all be aware, I sit content

One world is aware, and by far the larger to me, and that is myself,
and whether I come to my own today or in ten thousand or ten million years,
I can cheerfully take it now, or with equal cheerfulness I can wait.

~413-415, Leaves of Grass

I had spent much time speaking this poem to myself over and over. It had been a fierce teacher as my book made its way into the world back in 2009. It helped me to sit in amazement at the beautiful welcomes it received and sometimes to peacefully accept the ways the world has been unreceptive. But in many moments I have churned with urgency to “do” something, to shake life by the shoulders and demand that everyone listen to me right now and “grok” the incredible key to happiness and healing that is right in our midst if we’d just open up our eyes and ears to the power of spoken poetry!

So, as we hiked up a bit of an incline, I joined my panting voice with the voices of the ravens and raindrops and shouted the poem to the misty mountaintops – as my prayer, my intention, my promise.