Suggestion — April 11, 2013, 5:15 pm

Twenty Little Poems That Could Save America

Imagining a renewed role for poetry in the national discourse — and a new canon

( 3 of 10 )

POETRY RESPECTS SOLITUDE AND SELF-DISCOVERY

Here’s another scenario. A woman, recently divorced from her husband of twenty-five years (he fell in love with his yoga instructor). Living in the city where they shared a life together, she’s discovering what it’s like to be single at fifty. She has a busy professional life and can handle the daylight hours, but the nights are hard, and she’s decided she’d better stay away from wine in the evening. She believes she might be alone for the rest of her days.

One night on the train home, she remembers a poem from tenth grade called “Bamboo and a Bird.” When she gets back to her apartment, she looks it up on the Internet. It’s by Linda Gregg.

In the subway late at night.
Waiting for the downtown train
at Forty-Second Street.
Walking back and forth
on the platform.
Too tired to give money.
Staring at the magazine covers
in the kiosk. Someone passes me
from behind, wearing an orange vest
and dragging a black hose.
A car stops and the doors open.
All the faces are plain.
It makes me happy to be
among these people
who leave empty seats
between each other.

Reading the poem, the divorcée finds focus. “It reminded me,” she says to her friend the following week, “that there can be dignity in being alone. Remember the woman in the poem? She sees everything so clearly because she’s alone.”

“Yes,” says the friend. “She has this pride about being alone.”

“No, it’s not pride, exactly — she just sees what is in front of her. Because she’s tired. She can see because she’s exhausted and by herself. And even though those other people are maybe unhappy and poor, like her, she isn’t responsible for them. They don’t need to be changed. They can’t change. All of them, they just are what they are.”

“No shame, no pity.”

“It’s all right to be lonely, because everyone else is, too. There’s company in loneliness.” She pauses.

“It’s like existentialism with a hand warmer.”

“What about that guy in the poem, who goes past, pulling the hose? We could never figure that out in class. “

“I don’t know what that hose is about. Does everything have to represent something?”

’s books include What Narcissism Means to Me (Graywolf). He teaches at the University of Houston, and through the organization The Five Powers of Poetry.

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