Last week I posted a link to a blog post telling about someone going around a refugee camp in Nakuru, Kenya, and reciting poetry to the people there. I have been thinking about that all week, and wondering what kind of poetry would be comforting to refugees.
Garrison Keillor writes, in his introduction to his anthology Good Poems for Hard Times, "The meaning of poetry is to give courage. A poem is not a puzzle that you the dutiful reader are obliged to solve. It is meant to poke you, get you to buck up, pay attention, rise and shine, look alive, get a grip, get the picture, pull up your socks, wake up and die right. People have many motives for writing..., but what really matters about poetry and what distinguishes poets from, say, fashion models or ad salesmen is the miracle of incantation in rendering the gravity and grace and beauty of the ordinary world and thereby lending courage to strangers."
One poem that came to my mind immediately was Emily Dickinson's "Hope is the thing with feathers." Here it is:
Hope Is The Thing With Feathers
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
I've heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.
I don't know, though - I think you'd get some funny looks if you recited this poem to people who had just been chased from their homes.
This one seems to fit, when I think of so many people killed for no reason in the past couple of weeks in Kenya. Many of them never had much in their lives and worked hard for every bit they had. But it's not exactly comforting:
To The Dead Poor Man
Today we are burying our own poor man;
our poor poor man.
He was always so badly off
that this is the first time
his person is personified.
You can read the rest of it here. There used to be a link where you could hear it read, but it doesn't seem to be working right now.
Eighty percent of Kenyans consider themselves Christians, and that's why I think this poem would be appropriate:
Light Shining Out Of Darkness
God moves in a mysterious way,
His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.
Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never-failing skill,
He treasures up his bright designs,
And works his sov’reign will.
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take,
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy, and shall break
In blessings on your head.
Here's the rest of it.
Really, though, the best I could come up with is the following, which I put together from many places in the book of Psalms. Of all the poetry that gives me comfort, the Psalms are the most reliable when things are impossible. I'm calling this "Psalm for the Refugees." I wish I could go to Nakuru, and other places in Kenya where refugees are waiting to see what will happen next, and read it to them.
Psalm for the Refugees
(from Psalms 69,70,71,77,80,85,88,89,90)
Save me, O God,
for the waters have risen up to my neck.
I am sinking in deep mire,
and there is no firm ground for my feet.
I have come into deep waters,
and the torrent washes over me.
I have grown weary with my crying;
my throat is inflamed;
my eyes have failed from looking for my God.
Those who hate me without a cause are more than the hairs of my head.
Let my prayer enter into your presence;
incline your ear to my lamentation.
For I am full of trouble;
my life is at the brink of the grave.
Be pleased, O God, to deliver me;
O Lord, make haste to help me.
Let those who seek my life be ashamed and altogether dismayed.
In you, O Lord, have I taken refuge;
let me never be ashamed.
In your righteousness, deliver me and set me free;
incline your ear to me and save me.
Be my strong rock, a castle to keep me safe;
you are my crag and my stronghold.
Will the Lord cast me off for ever?
will he no more show his favor?
Has his loving-kindness come to an end for ever?
has his promise failed for evermore?
Has God forgotten to be gracious?
has he, in his anger, withheld his compassion?
And I said, "My grief is this:
the right hand of the Most High has lost its power."
How long will you hide yourself, O Lord?
will you hide yourself for ever?
how long will your anger burn like fire?
Remember, Lord, how short life is,
how frail you have made all flesh.
Who can live and not see death?
who can save himself from the power of the grave?
Where, Lord, are your loving-kindnesses of old?
I will remember the works of the Lord,
and call to mind your wonders of old time.
I will meditate on all your acts
and ponder your mighty deeds.
Restore us, O God of hosts;
show the light of your countenance and we shall be saved.
Lord, you have been our refuge
from one generation to another.
Show us your mercy, O Lord,
and grant us your salvation.
Truly, his salvation is very near to those who fear him,
that his glory may dwell in our land.
Mercy and truth have met together;
righteousness and peace have kissed each other.
Truth shall spring up from the earth,
and righteousness shall look down from heaven.
The Lord will indeed grant prosperity,
and our land will yield its increase.
Righteousness shall go before him
and peace shall be a pathway for his feet.
A friend just sent me this blog post from someone else who was thinking along the same lines of Psalms for Kenya.
What poems would you recite for refugees, if you had the chance?
2 hours ago
This, from Psalm 147:
'The Lord builds up Jerusalem;
he gathers the exiles of Israel.
He heals the brokenhearted
and binds up their wounds...
The Lord sustains the humble
but casts the wicked to the ground.'
This reminds me of the link you posted a while ago to Doris Lessing's speech - that also spoke of the power of books and poems, even where physical needs are so great.
Your prayers are the truest "miracle of incantation," though. They're heard by One who can save, even now when so much has been lost. Keep the faith.
I like your choices, and the last one best.
I think I might go with the poem I posted last week: "The Tide Rises, The Tide Falls" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
I couldn't get past the Neruda. I'll have to sit on that one for awhile, and then come back and read your other selections. The Neruda is very heavy, almost too much to swallow in one sitting.
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