I wrote a poem about 2020, called “Year of the Murder Hornet,” the title of a collection I composed during the Trump administration and the global pandemic. The poem is part of the Academy of American Poets’ “Dear Poet” project, in which students across the country write letters to poets whose work they’ve read.
I have always been a letter-writer and still enjoy snail mail correspondences with a few fellow poets and old friends. So, when a high school teacher in New Jersey emailed to ask if one of her students could send me a hand-written letter about my poem in the actual mail, I was thrilled. A girl after my own heart, I thought.
Kristen’s letter arrived a couple of weeks later on saffron-colored stationary, with a magnolia bud pressed between its pages — a nod to my line, “year I was overpowered by flowering magnolia petals / in a windstorm on my way home.”
“What a wonderful touch,” I responded, adding, “I am struck by the longing you express and the intense desire to understand and find meaning you mention--how despite your youth, you convey a yearning and a wistfulness that I would associate with a person much older. Maybe you are a poet?”
Turns out Kristen is a poet. But what radiates most from her letter is youth in full bloom — with all its optimism, self-doubt, resilience, searching and, most poignantly, grappling — under the strain of a pandemic. Kristen wrote that my poem’s final line, “year my mind cradled me,” particularly resonated with her, because during this past year her mind had become “a safe haven” while the rest of the world spun into “chaos on multiple fronts.”
“Yes!” I thought. “If her young mind can be a haven, then the kids are all right.” I dared to hope that mental fortitude would carry all of us through, even as I continue to wonder and fret about the pandemic’s effects on my own three children, on children everywhere.
Three years ago, I wrote a piece about how poetry saves lives — not in the literal sense of “blocking malignant cells” or “stopping a hail of bullets,” but through its capacity to foster empathy and intricacy of thought, by compelling us “to consider more deeply our experience in the world and to cultivate connection.” I quoted the explorer Ernest Shackelton, who called poetry “vital mental medicine,” and mentioned John Keats, who coined the term “negative capability,” which is the ability to endure the mystery of not knowing, to choose openness over certainty.
The Parkland school massacre happened the day before I was to submit my essay. Yet again, the nation reeled. And in the face of such horror, I grappled with the limits of language. I considered rewriting my piece, since it was clear: poems don’t stop people from dying. But I handed it in anyway, because neither does silence.
Over the past year and a half, I’ve thought a lot about “negative capability,” because although Keats saw it as part of the creative process in connection to truth and beauty, I believe a heightened acceptance of uncertainty could help us all process this pandemic and its aftermath. It’s an aptitude that writing poetry requires and reading poetry can nurture.
In a poem, as in life, there’s usually an image, a phrase, a word we can recognize and appreciate to help us gain our bearings, to anchor us until we more fully comprehend. If we can exert this mental flexibility, discomfort dissipates, and things reveal can themselves over time.
“Negative capability” is what I think Kristen exercised when she “came to embrace chaos on multiple fronts.” I would even say the growth she experienced was a result of her embrace — and that it has to do with the fact that she reads and writes poetry.
There may be other life skills that enabled Kristen to find her “safe haven” within herself, but her experience with poetry undoubtedly strengthened them and gave rise to expression.
If expression is what we seek and need, we should consider inoculating our young with poetry. It boosts existential resilience and creative grit. It gives them tools to look inward when the outside world is falling down.
Tina Cane is the poet laureate of Rhode Island, and the founder and director of Writers-in-the Schools, RI, for which she works as a visiting poet. Her forthcoming novel-in-verse for young adults, “Alma Presses Play,” will be published by Random House Children’s Books on Sept. 14.