Poetry By Heart

Practice of the Week
Poetry By Heart

Category: Might Be Your Thing (This practice is not for everyone -- but may be just the thing for you!)
"Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words." (Robert Frost)

"Poetry is not only dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives. It lays the foundations for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before." (Audre Lorde)
Read poetry. When a poem stands out for you as a favorite, stay with it. Copy it into a "favorite poems" notebook. Learn it by heart. Repeat it often, murmuring to yourself or reciting it to appropriate others.

Unitarian Universalist ministers Rev. Harry Scholefield and Rev. Laurel Hallman have articulated a spiritual practice Hallman calls "Living by Heart." Collect and write down poems, songs, stories that have spoken lyrically and wisely to human beings since time immemorial. Scholefield called these words and music the "Singing River" that represented for him the continual dawning of the human spirit.

By recording words of wisdom that have personal meaning and "living" with them until they become one's "heart wisdom," those words come to occupy a place beyond memory. When you live with a poem so intimately that it enters your heart, it becomes a constant resource, companion, and guide. Years and innumerable experiences accumulate, yet the rhymes and rhythms we stored deep in our brains stay with us.

The pace of contemporary life is often hectic and can seem unmanageable. Taking time to take in, to receive and hold wisdom in a form that can be accessed and used as a reminder of what holds our life can re-focus us in a helpful way.
"Poetry is a particularly rich genre because it speaks to both head and heart. It has carried the wisdom and stories of the ages. Think of the Illiad, the ancient Greek tale that has served for centuries as a metaphor for the journey away and back to self; consider the Psalms in Bible, poetry that carried the ancient Jews through the tribulations of exile and on to the promised land; recall the work of Shakespeare the greatest secular literature of all time that leaves no aspect of the human condition untouched. Consider the work of Mary Oliver and Wendell Berry and May Sarton and Denise Levertov and ee cummings other contemporary poets used liberally in our UU worship to celebrate the wonders of the natural world and our place in it." (Rev. Karen Gustafson)
Words of poetry and poetic, wise prose, taken to heart, become, as Hallman says “the words that sustain, inspire, and give voice to my life. They are words that call me back to a place of gratitude when the perspective that I face is dissatisfaction and disappointment.”

Some dozen or so years ago I watched a video of Hallman and Scholefield describing the life of spiritual deepening and, particularly, this practice of learning poetry by heart. I began to hand copy favorite poems into a small spiral-bound notebook dedicated to that purpose. Below is a sampling of some of my "heart wisdom" words. Perhaps some of them will also resonate with you and get you started on a path of gathering words to live by. Gather the words, and the words will gather you.

WILD GEESE by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting --
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

THE GUEST HOUSE by Jelaluddin Rumi (Coleman Barks trans)

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.


When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

A GIFT by Denise Levertov

Just when you seem to yourself
nothing but a flimsy web
of questions, you are given
the questions of others to hold
in the emptiness of your hands,
songbird eggs that can still hatch
if you keep them warm,
butterflies opening and closing themselves
in your cupped palms, trusting you not to injure
their scintillating fur, their dust.
You are given the questions of others
as if they were answers
to all you ask. Yes, perhaps
this gift is your answer.

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