“Mom, what’s your favorite poem?” Larkin asked this question dutifully, though with a slight whiff of resignation as well. My daughter’s 6th grade English teacher had assigned them the task of asking their parents this, and of bringing it in. She knew, though her teacher did not, just how much she was getting into. I am into poetry the way her friends are into pop stars. Books of poetry litter nearly every surface in our home. I carry at least three poems in my wallet at any given time, where the “big” bills should go, because I consider poetry to be the most valuable of currency. But, the kid in front of me was only twelve. She had two tests to study for. I figured, “Go easy on the kid!” And, I was thrilled that only one poem was coming to mind anyway, a really really short one.
“Sure, Honey! It’s an E. E. Cummings poem, and it only has four words! Here, let me show you!” With endearing stoicism, she followed me to my office. I found the poem and printed it out in large font:
I explained, too rapidly. “See, outside of the parentheses, one word, loneliness, is stretched out and down the paper. By breaking it apart, the poet found two separate letter “l”s and made them look like number “1”s, like how someone is when they are alone. He also found the word “one” in loneliness AND, at the end, “iness” looks like “I”-ness to me, like the quality of being I, just a me or a you or a someone, all by ourselves. Now, inside the parentheses, when you add up the letters it says, “a leaf falls”, and the words and letters themselves are arranged like they are falling down the page, like the path a solitary leaf would take as it fell down on a quiet day. And, that image, of a single leaf falling straight down, seems to me to perfectly capture the feeling of loneliness.”
“So! See, the poem is not just a verbal work of art, though he says a LOT with four words, don’t you think? It’s also a visual work of art on the page. He uses every last letter and punctuation mark to make a sort of word painting. It just amazes me! It’s just so beautiful!”
“You think loneliness is beautiful?” Larkin’s cute nose was rather crinkled up.
“Well… I think that empathy for the common experience of loneliness is.”
I was thinking that easy is certainly a relative term. I was also thinking that I am forever blessed to have children with such good attitudes about having a mom like me. Mainly, though, I was thinking that I was doing it again, talking more than listening, teaching more than asking. So I asked, “What do you think about loneliness?”
“Hmmm… I think it’s hard, but it’s necessary.”
“Wow! Why do you think that?”
“Because we have to be alone sometimes to really figure things out.”
Indeed. I dropped her off at school the next day and went back to the poem. I considered the word loneliness. Such a frightening word to so many ears. I thought about the word solitude as well. A word drenched in pathos for many as well, but a word which crops up quite a lot on any spiritual path. Many times, when it would crop up on my path, I would look for any intellectual off-ramp I could find. Anything to avoid considering, much less really being, solitudinous. That’s for monks and nuns! I need some better advice, here and now!
It wasn’t until I stumbled into poetry that I began to get a new appreciation for solitude. Because I came to poetry through the modern phenomenon of Poetry Slam (and, thank Buddha, not through academia… those guys just kill poetry generally), I began exploring poetry by reading it out loud, and alone. Listening for patterns and intonations and just feelings beyond the words. Mainly, I just enjoyed it. Really enJOYed it.
Poetry was a big step on my path of slowing down, of doing things to just do them and enjoy them. Of relaxing into my own presence, without need of affirmation from any other. It takes a lot of alone to begin to arrive at such fundamentally restful shores, but it is so worth it. It brings us to our center and centers us. It is the only way to truly bring anything to anyone else as well.
I try to bring so much to my children. Don’t we all? But, they are their own, they are fundamentally on their own, and need their own alone, as well. I found out later, when I asked her, rather proudly, about what her teacher had thought of my poem, that she hadn’t actually shown it. She had decided it was a little “embarrassing.” I laughed so loud. I love her autonomy. I want her, and me and everyone, to be joyfully each to our own. And, I’m still wondering what poem she did turn in. I hope it was one of her own.