Words – Do They Inspire or Divide?

I attended a poetry reading by Naomi Shihab Nye a few weeks ago and was again happily seduced by the power and rhythm of language.  With a few well-chosen words, I can feel my heart constrict with sorrow or expand and soar with hope.

When I was in school, the lessons on poetry were painfully dull and focused on form, not on language.  And I was convinced that there was some secret message that I was supposed to discover, but I didn’t have a decoder ring to translate the words into something that spoke to me.

In my explorations I’ve just scratched the surface of the wealth of poetry that has been written through the centuries.  I appreciate ancient Haiku poetry and the music of Rumi’s words (a Persian Poet).   I would never describe myself as anything more than a appreciative novice.

I’ve written a few poems of my own over the past few years and felt like a kindergartner coming home with my first finger-painting destined for the door of the refrigerator.  I naively even sent a poem or two to a couple of friends, proud of my beginner’s efforts.  As true friends, they were supportive and encouraging.  (Although I’m positive they didn’t print them out and post them on their refrigerators.)

Each time I hear a poet read his or her work I discover again the beauty of language.  I’m distracted from thoughts of how inadequate language is at times to express what we experience.   And I forget how words can be used to inflict pain upon others through name-calling, creating divisions among communities and fostering an “us vs them” mentality.

How is it that language can be used to describe beauty, wonder, awe, love, foster curiosity, and remind us of our humanity, can also be used to foster distrust, fear, and hate?

Perhaps it’s another reminder to pay attention to how we use and protect the gifts in our world: language, resources, nature, each other.   Rather than try to explain the beauty and power of words, I’m going to cheat a bit this week and share a few Haiku poems.   Haiku poems are comprised of 17 syllables, in 3 lines with a 5/7/5 pattern.   The beauty of a Haiku is capturing a single moment in few words.

If you haven’t read poetry or have been “schooled” like I was, to not appreciate it, try reading these poems out loud, slowly.  Try to feel the rhythm of the words, sense the phrasing, and feel the motion in your heart.  Allow yourself to be altered by the beauty and power of language.

Matsuo Basho (1644-1694)

Autumn moonlight

a worm digs silently

into the chestnut.


Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902)

In the coolness

of the empty sixth-month sky…
the cuckoo’s cry.

Take a few minutes and watch these videos of poets reading their work.

Natasha Trethewey – 19th US Poet Laureate

Mary Oliver – Reading Wild Geese

Kwame Dawes – A Poet, Teacher, Actor, Director, and more.

Dr. Maya Angelou – Reading Phenomenal Woman

Explore the world of poetry.  You might be surprised what you find and how you’ll be touched.