Can poetry save us?

Can poetry save us?

April is National Poetry Month, and I have been more aware of poetry than usual. When I listen to NPR, I hear fellow listeners share their poems on the air. Each

week this month my congregation has sent out a poem on the themes of spring, rebirth, and freedom, which are the themes of Passover, our festival of spring. And on the Shabbat that falls during Pesach, it is traditional to read Song of Songs, our beautiful biblical love poetry filled with imagery of nature awakening and love awakening, for “lo, the winter is past.”

Unfortunately, many people are intimidated by poetry. Too many of us were forced to interpret poetry in school and got the message that there was a right way and a wrong way to understand a poem. But poetry is meant to be experienced and felt, not analyzed intellectually. Poetry is the expression of the human heart — wonder, joy, pain, love, longing, fear, hope. Poetry puts into words a universal human yearning for connection to others and to nature and to something beyond our rational understanding.

In Hebrew the word shir means both poem and song. When poetry is set to music, our resistance seems to fall away. We have songs that make us want to dance and songs that comfort us and songs that remind us of what it feels like to fall in love.

How many of us have had the experience of gathering on Shabbat, exhausted, discouraged, irritated, or lonely, but as we began to sing together, our spirits were lifted, the worries and cares of the week dropped away, and we remembered that we were not alone?

During the pandemic, when we could not sing together, we needed poetry more than ever. Because poetry also has the power to lift our spirits and remind us of love and wonder and hope. At a time when we have been so lonely, poetry can remind us that we are connected.

In the “Poetry Handbook,” poet Mary Oliver writes, “Poetry is a life-cherishing force … For poems are not words after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down for the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry.”

In Mary Oliver’s conception, poetry can save lives. Many people have said that her poem Wild Geese saved their lives. When they were in despair, when they felt they could not go on, her poem was a “rope let down for the lost.” And in our broken world when so many feel lost and alone, I wonder if poetry might save us. Might poetry cut through our divisions, help us recognize our common humanity? Might poetry speak heart to heart, across the boundaries of nations, races, and religions?
I don’t know. Maybe that is too much to ask. But I do know that poetry matters. I am reading a book called “Who by Fire” by Matti Friedman. It tells the story of the poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen, who traveled to Israel during the Yom Kippur War. No one invited him. The IDF did not know he was there. He just showed up, joined some Israeli musicians he met in a Tel Aviv café, and went to the Sinai desert. There were no scheduled concerts intended to raise the morale of the troops, but wherever they encountered a few soldiers, they sang for them. These were young men and women who had watched their friends die and who were facing death themselves. Years later, they remembered that Leonard Cohen was there with them. He couldn’t stop the war; he couldn’t save them from dying; but he let them know they were not alone.

These days, many of us feel helpless when we hear the news from Ukraine. Each morning we wake to fresh horrors and atrocities. If we can, we donate money. We wish we could do more. We wish we could stop the tanks and the killing. And because we cannot, we struggle not to grow numb. We struggle not to turn away.

And this may be how poetry can save us.

I keep returning to a poem written by Hila Ratzabi at the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine. She’s the director of virtual content and programs at Ritualwell, a project of Reconstructing Judaism, and the poem is called We See You: For Ukraine.

Crowded in a subway station in Kharkiv
A student from another country clutches
A dog to her chest
Answering the reporter’s questions
As men rush down the stairs
Interrupting the interview.
Toddlers in snowsuits on blankets.
Teenagers, heads down to their phones.
Mothers’ eyes looking everywhere.
Svieta says she grabbed her documents and cash,
She has a car, but nowhere to go.
As she speaks, a boy in a blue winter hat
And black-framed glasses, a few years older
Than my oldest son, peeks out from behind her,
Smiles shyly as he eyes the camera.
A man stands behind him with his backpack
Pressed against his chest, holding himself.
We see you. In our living rooms,
At kitchen tables, as we pack lunches
And perform our morning routines,

We watch, helpless, holding your faces
To our hearts as we tend to the small luxuries
Of the mundane.
We fear from afar
The brutal waste of war
The extravagant arrogance of power.
We rage at the rage of men
Who refuse to see you, or rather,
Choose to see through you and thereby
Refuse to see themselves.

We see you. See the subway train
Stalled at the station, the indefinite
Pause of commute. We see you
Huddled from the thunder
Of bombs whose distance from you
Is incalculable but near enough
To tremble the heart.

We tremble with you.
From across the world
We hold you close
Not with thoughts or prayers
But the presence of the heart
A commitment to witness
A dedication to peace.

We see you. We hold you.
We will not leave your side.

I don’t know if poetry can save us. But I do know that we need the presence of the heart, the commitment to witness, the words to express that we are here, and we will not turn away. I do know that we need to connect heart to heart.

Hannah Orden is the rabbi of the Reconstructionist-affiliated Congregation Beth Hatikvah in Summit. She is a past president of the Summit Interfaith Council and is a founding and active member of the council’s anti-racism committee.