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Twenty Little Poems

Rebecca Spears

Old books “It is that incidental, almost accidental, encounter with memorable beauty or knowledge—that news that comes from poetry—that enables us, as the poem by William Stafford says, ‘to think hard for us all.’" — Tony Hoagland, “Twenty Little Poems That Could Save America

A friend sent me a link to Tony Hoagland’s article, “Twenty Little Poems That Could Save America.” I am a poet and an instructor, so I should read this, right? The grand title gives me pause, but the case that Hoagland makes for his canon of twenty poems is astute. I have been trying over the years to inculcate in my students not only the pleasures of poetry, especially contemporary poetry, but also the necessity of poetry.

The word “save” is always intriguing. Often I use the “save” function on my computer to hold onto an article I’ve been reading or to keep my written work safe. Sometimes I will save something in the Cloud. I think about saving grace and salvation sometimes. Hoagland is suggesting a kind of salvation that comes from reading poetry, a national salvation no less. And he may be onto something. I have often thought that poetry has a saving power, a way to put us in touch with the magnificent and the miniscule. To read a poem well, we have to slow down and look closely. The close looking that poetry requires is akin to meditation, which is not exactly what Hoagland is advocating, but close looking often translates to thoughtful actions in life.

To acquaint students with poetry, Hoagland suggests using living, well-wrought contemporary poetry in the classroom, and working our way back to the classics. This is, in fact, how I approach poetry with my students. It makes so much sense to work our way backwards in literature, because language becomes less familiar the further back in time we go. But to return to the theme of salvation: Hoagland calls poetry “our common treasure-house” and explains:

"We need its aliveness, its respect for the subconscious, its willingness to entertain ambiguity; we need its plaintive truth-telling . . . . We need the emotional training sessions poetry conducts us through. We need its preview of coming attractions: heartbreak, survival, failure, endurance, understanding, more heartbreak."

If we all subscribe to Hoagland’s argument, then we can collectively save ourselves culturally through a common currency of poetry. So Hoagland also offers up several ways to read poetry and acquire a common language. These categories are especially helpful to me, an instructor who likes to organize curriculum thematically. Hoagland’s topics range from poetry that teaches the ethical nature of choice or respects solitude and self-discovery to poetry that stimulates daring, rehabilitates language, and acknowledges trouble ahead. If as a culture, we had more poetry in common among us, language to help us appreciate the beauty and trouble of everyday living, we might also be shored up collectively, and eventually feel closer to that great shalom we often wish for among ourselves.