Skip to main content

Speeches & Media

Poetry of Life

Good poems can ease grief, provide peace, and strengthen our humanity

Kathleen McCartney, Smith Alumnae Quarterly, Fall 2022

When I was 35 or so, a friend invited me to a philosophy lecture at Bowdoin College. I don’t remember much about the lecture; however, I have reflected many times on a comment made by an older woman in the audience about the value in not knowing the way forward. With a clear, strong voice, she recited these lines from T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets:

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

The idea of waiting, rather than rushing to act, resonated deeply with me, given some personal challenges I was facing. So, the next day, I went to the bookstore at the University of New Hampshire, where I was teaching, and bought my first volume of poetry. Many volumes have followed. Several years ago, Ellen Doré Watson, then the director of Smith’s Poetry Center, organized an event in which members of the community were invited to read their favorite poems; I read the same lines I had heard at that lecture more than 30 years ago.

Emily Dickinson, perhaps the greatest American poet, defined poetry in this way: “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” Her words describe precisely what I experience when I read a good poem. Dickinson is saying, I think, that a poem can take your mind to a place it has not been before.

An alumna who is a poet herself sent me a moving memoir by the poet Jill Bialosky titled Poetry Will Save Your Life. Bialosky views the best poems as guides, teachers, and healers, especially during pivotal moments in our lives. This has certainly been my experience. When my mother died in July 2010, a good friend sent me a poem by Lisel Mueller. In her poem, “When I Am Asked,” Mueller writes about her mother’s death, also in summer, when everything is blooming. There is a phrase about “the indifference of nature”; for Mueller, beauty seems at odds with her mother’s death. In voicing this tension, Mueller gave me some peace because my experience mirrored hers—and so, I felt less alone in my grief.

In an interview, Ada Limón, the U.S. poet laureate, said that “poetry can really help us reclaim our humanity.” For me, this is one of the best statements about why poetry matters—the best poems concern universal truths about the human condition and thereby connect us with others.

Given my love of poetry, I was eager to learn more about Smith’s Poetry Center when I became president. Annie Boutelle, a faculty member in the English department, founded the center in 1997 with the support of President Ruth Simmons; it is one of only a handful of college poetry centers in the country. A poet herself, Annie influenced many students, including Tammis Day AC ’05, an Ada Comstock Scholar who wrote and published poetry with encouragement and mentorship from Annie. When Tammis died in 2016, the trustees who managed a foundation in her name contacted the college about making a transformational gift in Tammis’ name. Fittingly, Smith now has the Boutelle-Day Poetry Center, an endowed program that enriches our community in myriad ways.

Under Matt Donovan’s leadership, the center continues to attract members of the Smith and Northampton communities to poetry readings with renowned poets of the day. Student poets are attracted to Smith as well, like Kara Jackson ’23, a 2019 youth poet laureate from Oak Park, Illinois. Smith students have the opportunity to participate in workshops or enroll in our poetry concentration. I especially appreciate that the Boutelle-Day Poetry Center collaborates with other departments and groups on campus, like the Campus School, which has produced an illustrated volume of poems about the Mill River.

Several faculty on campus write and publish poetry. Soon they will be joined by Yona Harvey, who will be the first person appointed to the Tammis Day Professorship in Poetry. She will begin her appointment in July 2023, following her Guggenheim fellowship, in which she will serve as visiting poet at Saint Mary’s College of California and conduct research for a new book in Japan. I look forward to reading her latest volume, You Don’t Have to Go to Mars for Love.

Like many poetry lovers, I collect and trade poems with friends, especially Amy Ellis Nutt ’77, a journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner who received the Smith Medal in 2014. The first poem we read together was Mary Oliver’s “Pink Moon—The Pond,” a poem about death and rebirth. Last March, Amy sent me five poems written by Iryna Shuvalova, a 36-year-old Ukrainian poet. One poem, entitled “A Poet Can’t Write About War,” has stayed with me. Consider these two powerful lines:

the war gave everyone a role—what’s yours?
covering your mouth with your palm?

While poems are evocative of every human emotion, what unites the best poems is a fresh lens to wisdom, illustrated in Shuvalova’s provocation to her readers.

During Vespers, the president reads the last poem of the service, a Smith tradition I treasure. Last December, I read Alberto Rios’ poem “When Giving Is All We Have” because I wanted to read a poem about hope, despite all the challenges we face individually and collectively. Rios’ simple words offer an earnest belief in humanity. I leave you with the last lines:

You gave me blue and I gave you yellow.
Together we are simple green. You gave
What you did not have, and I gave you
What I had to give—together, we made
Something greater from the difference.