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Poetry can heal a divided America, but it has to be read

Danny HeitmanThe Christian Science Monitor

With another April has come another observance of National Poetry Month, an annual attempt to raise awareness about one of the world’s oldest literary forms. Such a month-long salute to verse is necessary, one gathers, because not enough people are talking about the power of poetry the rest of the year.

One notable exception is US Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, whose recent, bestselling memoir, “My Beloved World,” takes its name from the line of a poem by Puerto Rican writer José Gautier Benitez. “Forgive the exile this sweet frenzy,” Benitez writes. “I return to my beloved world, in love with the land where I was born.”

For Ms. Sotomayor, the poem represents something more than a connection with her ethnic roots. She quotes Benitez in evoking a tradition that once resonated far beyond immigrant culture, touching households of many Americans from varied walks of life.

What Sotomayor describes, in tender detail, is the practice of reciting poetry at home, an activity that used to be common in the days before radio and TV dominated the family hearth.

The pastime of poetry was already receding from domestic life when Sotomayor was born in 1958, although her grandmother Abuelita kept it alive for extended family members during Sotomayor’s childhood. The woman who would eventually occupy the highest court in the land recalls gatherings at Abuelita’s apartment, where the room would suddenly hush as the family matriarch rose to recite poems by heart.

“I couldn’t understand the words exactly, but that didn’t matter,” Sotomayor tells readers. “The feeling of the poem came through clearly in the music of Abuelita’s voice and in the look of faraway longing in the faces of her listeners.”

Sotomayor suggests, without quite saying so, that poetry helped shape the way she thinks, prompting us to wonder about poetry’s power to inform the intellects of judges and senators, presidents and cabinet secretaries, lobbyists and citizens – all of us who participate in public life.

Survey the national mood at the moment, so fraught with deadlock and discord, and it’s easy to conclude that our body politic is suffering from a poverty of imagination, a crippling inability to see beyond partisan boundaries. At times like these, throughout history, healthy cultures have looked to the arts, including poetry, to refresh their sense of possibility and transcend narrow assumptions.

That’s why poetry was more than a mere pastime in ancient Greece, the cradle of democracy. For the Greeks of antiquity, poetry stood at the center of civic life, helping to sustain the thinking that conceived representative government.

Poetry holds this promise because a good poem, properly embraced, reminds us not only of who we are, but what it’s like to be someone else. Which is why, as a child of the muggy South, I was able to read Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” and momentarily become a chilly New Englander shivering in a forest. Or why, as a young man, I could read Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” and connect with the travails of womanhood. In reading Carl Sandburg’s Chicago poems, I temporarily traded the shoes of a suburbanite for a city dweller.

Such exercises in empathy can strengthen our capacity for compassion and compromise, the central virtues of civil society. America would probably be a better place if more of us read poetry this April – and throughout the rest of 2013, too.

Danny Heitman, an author and a columnist for The Baton Rouge Advocate, is an adjunct professor at Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communication.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.