Poetry has immense reverberating power. Verse has that ability: We keep snippets and sections of it in our minds, carry our favorite poem’s lines with us like pendants, thinking on them in our time of need.
Poetry’s elasticity, the breadth of its expressiveness given the sparseness of its text, is immeasurably powerful. Poetry can pull us from fear and ground us in our reality, but perhaps — most remarkably — allows us to sit with someone, to feel their pain, their fear, their love and the wideness of their experience.
And poetry has always been a space for embodiment. This is something audaciously intrinsic to the medium: You, the reader, are involved in poetry’s invention and intention, transfigured by the word and the chasms of the page. To me, empathy in the written word is all about this active practice of embodiment: When something is written so wholly to the nature of a thing, we get a true sense of its weight. Empathy, after all, is not something that you are but something you do. We can all listen, we can all learn from one another — and here are three collections that will help you do just that.
“Empathy” by Mei-mei Berssenbrugge
Empathy, in Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s lauded collection “Empathy,” goes beyond human connection and asks: What does it take to become someone, something beyond human existence? Empathy not only manifests humans in understanding and solidarity but is all-encompassing — bringing forth widened images of her speaker as a natural subject, of incorporeal feelings and sensations. In the book, we are asked to look beyond humanity, to understand what it may be like to be unexamined or animal. The poems feel more like fields of energy — Berssenbrugge so carefully created speculative worlds in lieu of poetry. By allowing us to sit in the discomfort of the world, she forces us to grapple with the subjects, and in turn, empathize with them.
“Words Under the Words” by Naomi Shihab Nye
If there is one thing celebrated Palestinian-American poet Naomi Shihab Nye is known for, it’s her sensitive approach to writing: Her poems are chaste in their verbiage. Her language is plain and simple as her metaphors concerning “bread,” “mountains” and “rivers” brim with the kindness and warmth of the human spirit. In “Words Under the Words,” Nye views the world with the utmost humanitarian spirit. In her work, every story, no matter how paltry, is one worth examining. Every person she recalls is a site of great tenderness and love. If there is one thing Nye loves, it’s the little things — what she loves more is understanding those things with the tenderness her poetry provides to the world. The collection’s most regarded poem says it best: “Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore / only kindness that ties your shoes / and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread, / only kindness that raises its head / from the crowd of the world to say / It is I you have been looking for, / and then goes with you everywhere / like a shadow or a friend.”
“Dream Work” by Mary Oliver
Mary Oliver, throughout her long-standing poetic career, spoke through nature. Reigniting pastoral poetry for a modern audience, Oliver’s work, derived from her long walks and nature excursions, aims to ruminate with nature in its most essential form — alone — and examine it with the utmost attention. Oliver’s care, her constant need to uncover something, is an immense act of poetic empathy. Perhaps, one of her most famous poems (first appearing in “Dream Work, Wild Geese”) exemplifies just this, saying, “You do not have to be good. / You do not have to walk on your knees / for a hundred miles through the desert repenting. / You only have to let the soft animal of your body / love what it loves.” Geese, to us, are maybe aggressive nuisances; Oliver, in her kind, empathetic mind, tells us more about them. She tells us what it means to be human. It is her curiosity, where a thing — say — an iris, a poplar, a band of wild geese making their way south, is not just that thing, but just as lived and just as loved as we are.
Daily Arts Contributor Yumna Dagher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.