The Life of Poetry and the Poetry of Life

By Mark Nepo

I began writing poetry when my first love moved on. I was nineteen and my heart was broken. I didn’t have any true friends yet and so I began talking to myself, by writing. In time, I began to mend and realized that through my raw and honest reflection I’d begun a lifelong conversation with the Universe. This is the medicine of poetry: that through raw and honest reflection, we deepen our conversation with life. The purpose of poetry and expression is to make life real, to remove everything that gets in the way, and to help us live.

For me, the poems arrive with their wisdom. I retrieve them, more than create them, and they become my teachers. What they have to say becomes my inner curriculum and, by staying in conversation with the poems, I learn and grow. Whether you write or not, this way of learning is available to us all, as we meet and learn from the moments of our lives. Whether familiar with poetry or not, I invite you to receive these poems as you would a friend who’s eager to share intimately. Let the feeling reach you first. For the power of a poem is how it awakens your own feeling.

The longer I live, the more the life of poetry and the poetry of life blur. Early on, I wanted to write great poems, but when brought to my knees by cancer in my thirties, I needed to discover true poems to help me live. Now, in my sixties, I want to be the poem. After all these years, I’ve learned that, in the deepest sense, poetry is a way of engaging the world with our being and care. And more than understanding whatever a poet might mean in any given poem, the poetry is there to ignite your own exploration of aliveness.

So I want to thank you for pausing in the making of our modern hive long enough to explore the nature and workings of the inner life. The inner life is essential because we can grow hypnotized by a world that keeps building monuments to itself. Beforehand, our want to build can seem like a great dream of the future, and the intoxication of building itself can seem like a marvel of progress. But often, once built, the overgrowth of all we make can spread like the metastasis of an idea only concerned with its self-replication. There is nothing wrong with dreaming and building, but the dangers arise once we’re overgrown.

Ultimately, our devotion to the foundation of things is imperative because without our foundations, we would be buried under the collapse of our own constructions, both personally and globally. Without healthy roots, the forest would fall. And poetry is the study and care of roots—human roots, ontological roots, mystical roots, and the lineage of roots.

In this regard, the human experiment has always needed poets, philosophers, prophets, and social visionaries to point to the ways that we overgrow the simple miracle of life, to keep alive the ways we can self-diagnose our obsessions and excesses, and to encourage our self-repair and renewal.

As we begin, I ask that you listen to these poems with the angel sleeping in your heart, the one we carry around in case of emergency, in case the gift of life is suddenly revealed as precious enough that we should wake the red angel now—desperate for it to bring us alive in the deepest terms possible.

*  *  *

Beauty Is Everywhere

The old Asian man is playing one
string so completely that the hymns of
the Universe part the air, making me stop,
unsure where I’m going. He’s surrounded
by dollar bills and petals, each a currency
we can’t do without. It’s giving ourselves
to one small thing that makes beauty come
out of hiding. Like when you led the baby
robin from our garage and it hovered once
free, as if to thank you. Today I feel like
an old string plucked by what endures.
It makes me quiver. The tulips are so
bright. Or is it that I finally see them?

*   *   *

The Music Beneath the Music

I have tried so hard to please
that I never realized
no one is watching.

I imagined like everyone at school
that our parents were sitting
just out of view like those
quiet doctors behind clean mirrors.

I even felt the future
gather like an audience,
ready to marvel at how much
we had done with so little.

But when I woke bleeding after surgery
with all those mothlike angels
breathing against me, I couldn’t
talk and the audience was gone.

I cried way inside and the sobs
were no more than the water
of a deshelled spirit
soaking ground.

Years have passed and I wait
long hours in the sun to see the birch
fall of its own weight into the lake
and it seems to punctuate God’s mime.

Nothing sad about it.

And sometimes, at night,
when the dog is asleep
and the owl is beginning to stare
into what no one ever sees,
I stand on the deck and feel
the black spill off the stars,
feel it coat the earth, the trees,
the minds of children half-asleep,
feel the stillness evaporate
all notions of fame
into the space
that waits
for light.

Excerpted from The Way Under the Way: The Place of True Meeting by Mark Nepo, published by Sounds True.


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