“Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are,
Up above the world so high/
I’ll bet I can tell you what just happened. Whether you’re 25 or 45 or 75, you just finished the next line in your head. This poem, written more than 200 years ago, is likely one of the first poems you ever heard in your life, probably sung in a rhyming voice by someone who loved you. You responded with a soft smile, a coo of admiration — and then you never forgot it. You carried this poem around with you for the rest of your life.
You passed it on, along with others. Pat-a-Cake. Old MacDonald. There was an old woman who lived in a shoe. You know these verses by heart.
By first grade, you wrote your own verse, scrawling “Roses are red, violets are blue” on a Valentine, and maybe you discovered Dr. Seuss. Then later came Shel Silverstein and still later e.e. cummings and Langston Hughes and Robert Frost and William Carlos Williams and by then, for you, poetry was no longer a treat; it was a requirement.
The poems stopped rhyming, and you stopped reading, and that’s when the love ended. Poetry got hard. Who knows why he ate those plums in the icebox? Who cares? Do I dare disturb the universe?
Then comes lack of time. And loss of interest. Poems aren’t delivered by mail, they’re not on television, they rarely show up in the newspaper. After high school, after college, years go by before you — before we — ever read another poem. It doesn’t even cross our minds to do such a thing.
But here’s what I’m afraid of: that in eliminating poetry from our lives, we miss discovering a pursuit of pleasure that we didn’t even know we needed.
The right poem can change how we see the world.
Several years ago, I came across Sharon Chmielarz’s “New Water.” She’s not from North Carolina, didn’t write this about North Carolina, but it doesn’t matter — these words — the words of all poetry — transcend geographical boundaries. I’ve seen this scene played out before, with people I care about. I know you have, too.
All those years — almost a hundred —
the farm had hard water.
Hard orange. Buckets lined in orange.
Sink and tub and toilet, too,
once they got running water.
And now, in less than a lifetime,
just by changing the well’s location,
in the same yard, mind you,
the water’s soft, clear, delicious to drink.
All those years to shake your head over.
Look how sweet life has become;
you can see in the couple who live here,
their calmness as they sit at their table,
the beauty as they offer you new water to drink.
I love this poem. I keep it pinned at my desk, and I read it nearly every day. It reminds me to look for those small opportunities to make life better, the ones that may have been right in front of you, if you’d only noticed, if only you’d done something about it. “All those years to shake your head over, look how sweet life has become.”
That’s what poetry can do. It reaches beyond our backyards, crosses our borders, and captures something elusive, those diamonds in the sky.
When we find the right verse, the one that makes us laugh, or cry, or sing out loud, we put those words in our pockets, and we carry them for the rest of our lives.