coming to poetry

coming to poetry

{ in this piece, antler founder and director dave harrity reflects on coming to poetry. this piece, run by tweetspeak last year, is being reposted here to honor williams stafford‘s birthday today. the piece will also be included in harrity’s forthcoming book, “making manifest” }

I began reading poetry because I could never finish novels. I’m not sure this is how many people come to poetry, but it was my route. In high school, I only read a handful of the assigned novels (a mistake I deeply regret now as an adult!) but I read every single poem. When I got to the end of a poem I felt like I had accomplished some- thing, been invited into something—I felt like I’d been given a key.

I liked poetry at that point in my life, but I didn’t love it.

I began writing poetry because I wanted to impress a girl—maybe this is how most young men come to poetry. I really wanted to date her. Poetry—something she liked— seemed a good way to break the ice. I wrote her a terrible poem (I hope to this day she hasn’t kept it!) and slipped it into her locker. She read it and loved it; we dated a while.

Still, I liked poetry at that point in my life, but I didn’t love it.

I was in college when I began taking poetry seriously—I imagine this is where most people get serious about poetry, if they haven’t already or ever do. I realized it wasn’t a means to an end—not to make myself feel better about being slower than everyone else, not to help me round the bases. I was taking a writing class for an extracurricular requirement, but I was excited to be there. We were sent home with a packet of poems to read for the next class.

Dead center in the packet was William Stafford’s “Traveling Through the Dark”—a brilliant poem about the author’s experience finding a dead deer on a narrow road and getting out of his car to move the animal for the good of the order, so that animal might not cause an accident. He soon sees there’s more to the situation—that the doe is pregnant and her fawn is still alive inside her. He then makes a tough decision—a decision that echoes through the wilderness all around him.

That’s when it happened—that’s when my “like” modulated to something else.

My reaction to this poem was bizarrely physical—nothing like it had ever happened to me while I was reading. And though that was my experience, I recognize that I’m probably in a minority. It’s okay if people aren’t pierced by a poem like I was, but that doesn’t negate their value or the reader’s ability to glean some wild and beautiful truth from the poem. Or, more likely, you just haven’t read the right poem yet.

As I read the Stafford poem’s title, I got up to get an apple from the kitchen. By the time I came back to the couch—apple in hand—the deer’s secret had been revealed. My breath got a bit short, my neck tensed—I’m not sure why. My heart was pumping a little harder. I felt like I had been punched—the moral imperative, the cruel grief of accidents. All of it made me sit up straight, lean forward with intent. By the end of the poem I was dumbfounded—speechless and still. I sat for quite a while; it was all I could do.

For such a short poem, “Traveling through the Dark” is incredibly varied and complex— the worlds within worlds and the movement between them; the narrowing of the natural world leading to the realization of life, then the broadening of the natural world as it moves outward again; the still, small, peaceful sensibility of intention; and the ethical question at the pith: is it ever right to kill? All packed away with vivid coolness.

As he makes his decision, the speaker says “I thought hard for all of us . . .” A gripping clarity—it’s the moment in the poem where the speaker in the poem—in this case, William Stafford himself—reaches out beyond himself and hopes one of us might grab his hand, that one of us might join him in witness, in mourning, in a community awake to graces and tragedies of our lives together.

Stafford was thinking hard for me. Stafford was thinking hard for you. And he was thinking about something we probably haven’t been thinking about much at all. Shame on us.

Since that moment, I’ve believed very deeply that poetry’s sole purpose is to attach us to one another, and I’ve allowed that guidance to shape my life—the connection has grown.

If a poem isn’t reaching out its hand in peace, in reconciliation, in contemplation, in witness, then I get bored and move on from it. I want poems of the bystander trying to make sense of the world. I want poems of rich experience written by women and men unable to turn away from what they must see and what they must say. I want poems that awaken me and call me out of my inertia. If the poem is too detached or too ecstatic, I bristle—they’re fallacies of human emotion, in a way. I want the poem that gives life by being true to life.

It’s funny that one little poem altered the trajectory of my existence in such a way. After that day, I woke up. I adopted a new way of being—one rooted in daily writing and poetry, one that I haven’t left since. For better or worse, all of my decisions have been made with this in mind. And I do my best to go forward every day into the world and see it for what it is, render it in my words. I’m going forward every day with the knowledge that my vocation is to bring people together, to write the story of who I am and the decisions I’m making—of the person I’m becoming.

I’m trying my best to read and write poems that think hard for all of us. I’ve maybe come close a couple times—a lofty aim, right?

Wish me luck.


Dave Harrity is author of “Making Manifest: On Faith, Writing, and the Kingdom At-Hand” available from Seedbed later this year. The 28-day devotional-style book features meditations and writing exercises designed for individual and communal spiritual formation. His poems and other writings have appeared in journals and periodicals stateside and abroad. As Director of Antler, he travels far and wide conducting workshops on faith, imagination, worship, and creative writing. He’d love to come visit your church, seminary, college, or other religious community.

Follow Dave on Twitter: @daveharrity

4 Responses to “coming to poetry”

  1. nicholas says:

    Awesome post, Dave!

  2. Laura Brown says:

    I don’t know of any poet more quietly stunning than Stafford.
    “What the river says, that’s what I say.”

  3. Dan Erickson says:

    I’ve written songs all my life, but have recently taken to writing poetry and novels. I agree that poetry, like song can create community. I like what you’re doing here and will be back soon. Thanks de

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