Poetry is making a comeback. Long relegated to the margins as an unpopular literary genre, Instagram has propelled its admiration to new heights, providing an outlet for authors to share their work. Even if Instagram is not the most mindful way to spend time, I can’t help but love that it’s helping poetry make its way into the mainstream discourse.
Poetry has the power to transform us, change our mindsets and bring us back to what matters. As Nayyirah Waheed wisely observes: “i walk into a poem and walk out someone else.” After reading poetry, I am more present, centered, and focused on the simple life that I am capable of living.
I’ve recently started the habit of reading a poem per day. Whether I am feeling optimistic, overwhelmed, or even-tempered, there’s a lesson waiting for me on the other side. Here are some of the best lessons on presence I’ve learned from poetry:
1. Embrace Unanswered Questions:
When life gives us a question, we so often desire to have an immediate and correct answer. Even if we are focused on trying to live meaningful lives, we can still obsessively deliberate over questions
As someone who struggles with perfectionism, it can be especially frustrating to indecisively navigate endless loops where “[o]ne question leads to another,” as the late Mary Oliver eloquently writes in “Some Questions You Might Ask,” a poem of almost entirely unanswered questions. Yet, these questions that appear for us are there to teach us patience. Sometimes the road curves and winds in an unexpected direction, sometimes there’s not just a single answer, and sometimes we learn we are asking the wrong question.
Whatever the case, we miss the scenery along the way by focusing on the destination. I’ve realized that greeting this unanswered silence with curiosity, instead of frustration, and exploring this liminal breathing room between knowing and not knowing can be more precious than having the answer.
2. Find Beauty in the Ordinary:
When we move quickly through our lives, we often miss the extraordinary in the ordinary. I am guilty of feeling like I must go somewhere exotic to experience beauty, ignoring the unexplored and unnoticed that is in my periphery. Although travel can open us to wildly different experiences and sights, there is something to experience right now if we open our minds and hearts to witness it. As Elizabeth Alexander writes in her beckoning call to examine the ordinary, “Ars Poetica #100: I Believe”: “Poetry is what you find in the dirt in the corner, overhear on the bus, God in the details, the only way to get from here to there.” Through poems like this one, I’ve learned the present joy that exists in the ordinary if I simply slow down and notice it.
3. Realize Everything is Enough:
In a society that teaches us that the next purchase or experience will finally make us happy, it’s an uphill battle to believe that everything is enough already. We spend our lives worrying about and planning for the next thing, missing the fullness we already have. The pleasures of a simple life remain at distance, including the objects, loved ones, and the natural world that already surrounds us. David Whyte describes this in his poem “Everything is Waiting for You,” weaving the intimacy of our everyday lives around us as the cocoon waiting for us to settle in: “The kettle is singing even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots have left their arrogant aloofness and seen the goodness in you at last. All the birds and creatures of the world are unutterably themselves. Everything is waiting for you.” Here in the present moment, where I can be exactly myself, awareness starts to seem more like a gift and not something from which I need to run or to which I need to add.
Poetry may be making a comeback through social media, an environment that we so often use to lose our present selves, but it’s also an invitation to pause among the distractions. There’s so much to discover in the present moment, even if it is uncomfortable to start looking.
When I let myself pause each day to read a few lines from my favorite poems, sweet moments and powerful realizations come after just a few words. I see how blindly I’ve been walking through my life and reset my compass to become aware of what I am missing. On the other side of the poem is an expanded appreciation of what simply is, including the simplicity in who we are, enabling us to walk out of the poem as someone else: the person who pays attention.