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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In 1973, when Barry Singer was a fifteen-year-old student at New York’s Yeshiva University High School for Boys, the vice principal, Rabbi George Finkelstein, stopped him in a stairwell. Claiming he wanted to check his tzitzit—the strings attached to Singer’s prayer shawl—Finkelstein, Singer says, pushed the boy over the third-floor banister, in full view of his classmates, and reached down his pants. “If he’s not wearing tzitzit,” Finkelstein told the surrounding children, “he’s going over the stairs!”

“He played it as a joke, but I was completely at his mercy,” Singer recalled. For the rest of his time at Yeshiva, Singer would often wear his tzitzit on the outside of his shirt—though this was regarded as rebellious—for fear that Finkelstein might find an excuse to assault him again.

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About fifteen years ago, my roommate and I developed a classification system for TV and movies. Each title was slotted into one of four categories: Good-Good; Bad-Good; Good-Bad; Bad-Bad. The first qualifier was qualitative, while the second represented a high-low binary, the title’s aspiration toward capital-A Art or lack thereof.

Some taxonomies were inarguable. The O.C., a Fox series about California rich kids and their beautiful swimming pools, was delightfully Good-Bad. Paul Haggis’s heavy-handed morality play, Crash, which won the Oscar for Best Picture, was gallingly Bad-Good. The films of Francois Truffaut, Good-Good; the CBS sitcom Two and a Half Men, Bad-Bad.

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For time ylost, this know ye,
By no way may recovered be.
—Chaucer

I spent thirty-eight years in prison and have been a free man for just under two. After killing a man named Thomas Allen Fellowes in a drunken, drugged-up fistfight in 1980, when I was nineteen years old, I was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Former California governor Jerry Brown commuted my sentence and I was released in 2017, five days before Christmas. The law in California, like in most states, grants the governor the right to alter sentences. After many years of advocating for the reformation of the prison system into one that encourages rehabilitation, I had my life restored to me.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

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