What poetry could teach a divided America
A good poem reminds us not only of who we are, but what it’s like to be someone else. Such exercises in empathy can strengthen our capacity for compromise. America would be better off if more of us read poetry this National Poetry Month – and throughout the rest of the year.
Baton Rouge, La.
With another April has come another observance of National Poetry Month, an annual attempt to raise awareness about one of the world’s oldest literary forms. Such a month-long salute to verse is necessary, one gathers, because not enough people are talking about the power of poetry the rest of the year.
One notable exception is US Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, whose recent, bestselling memoir, “My Beloved World,” takes its name from the line of a poem by Puerto Rican writer José Gautier Benitez. “Forgive the exile this sweet frenzy,” Benitez writes. “I return to my beloved world, in love with the land where I was born.”
For Ms. Sotomayor, the poem represents something more than a connection with her ethnic roots. She quotes Benitez in evoking a tradition that once resonated far beyond immigrant culture, touching households of many Americans from varied walks of life.
What Sotomayor describes, in tender detail, is the practice of reciting poetry at home, an activity that used to be common in the days before radio and TV dominated the family hearth.
The pastime of poetry was already receding from domestic life when Sotomayor was born in 1958, although her grandmother Abuelita kept it alive for extended family members during Sotomayor’s childhood. The woman who would eventually occupy the highest court in the land recalls gatherings at Abuelita’s apartment, where the room would suddenly hush as the family matriarch rose to recite poems by heart.
“I couldn’t understand the words exactly, but that didn’t matter,” Sotomayor tells readers. “The feeling of the poem came through clearly in the music of Abuelita’s voice and in the look of faraway longing in the faces of her listeners.”
Sotomayor suggests, without quite saying so, that poetry helped shape the way she thinks, prompting us to wonder about poetry’s power to inform the intellects of judges and senators, presidents and cabinet secretaries, lobbyists and citizens – all of us who participate in public life.