Example poetry

A special poetry challenge: what little kindnesses do you appreciate?

What small, graceful things do others do for you that make you happy?

Think not only of your closest family and friends, but also of your acquaintances or strangers in your community, on your daily commute, at school, at church, at your job, or wherever you spend some time. Also consider the online worlds you are part of. What little kindnesses from others – some perhaps so small you hardly notice them – cheer up?

We ask this question in honor of national poetry monthfor which we are trying something new: We invite you to contribute to a collaborative poem on this theme! To enter, simply use our comments section to post a few lines of your own poetry about the little kindnesses you appreciate.

Collaborative poetry is an old tradition. You may know the game”Exquisite Corpse“, which the French surrealists invented in the 1930s, or the collective epic poem “The family” that Juan Felipe Herrera, the 2015-2017 American Poet Laureate, created with lines submitted by people across the country. Or you may have heard a collaborative poem on National Public Radio. Kwame Alexander, NPR’s Poet-in-Residence, has created participatory poems responding to coronavirus pandemicthe murder of Ahmaud Arbery, anti-asian hate and Continued.

For our own collaborative poem, we rely on The New York Times Magazine’s Poem column, which features new verses every week. In September 2019, the column featured the “Small Kindnesses” by Danusha Laméris, chosen and introduced by poet Naomi Shihab Nye.

Here is the poem and its introduction in full:

Sometimes a poem just hits a specific moment. “Small Kindnesses”, by Danusha Laméris, seems absolutely necessary in our time – a poem celebrating minor and automatic kindness within a community, which can shine a penetrating light. It’s a catalog of little encouragement, unfolding like a child’s palm filled with shining stones. It almost feels like another hope we remember having. Acknowledging the modern plight of self-reliance and so many separations, the poem then easily cuts through them, breaking compliments and simple cares. Selected by Naomi Shihab Nye

little niceties

By Danusha Lameris

I thought of the way, when you walk
in a crowded alley, people tuck their legs
to let you pass. Or how strangers still say “Bless you”
when someone sneezes, one remains
bubonic plague. “Don’t die”, we say.
And sometimes when you spill lemons
out of your grocery bag, someone else will help you
Pick them up. Above all, we don’t want to hurt ourselves.
We want to be handed our cup of hot coffee,
and say thank you to the person who hands it over. smile
to them and for them to smile back. For the waitress
to call us honey when she puts down the bowl of clam chowder,
and that the driver of the red pick-up let us pass.
We have so little of each other now. Until there
of tribe and fire. Only these brief moments of exchange.
And if they are the true dwelling place of the saints, these
ephemeral temples that we build together when we say: “Here,
have my place”, “Go ahead, you first”, “I like your hat.

Students, read the poem and its introduction at least twice, then tell us:

  • What “little kindnesses” would you list if you wrote a poem with this title? To think, go back to the questions we posed at the top of this article.

  • When thinking about how to phrase your submission, you may be guided by the poem you just read. Think about what words, phrases, or lines stand out to you and how they could inspire your own writing. For example, notice how specific and vivid the images are – not just fruit spilling out of a grocery bag, but “lemons”. Not just the driver of the next car, but “the driver of the red van”. Notice also how all the examples are relatable: we’ve all experienced similar “little kindnesses.” As you add your own ideas, think about how you could make your lines just as vivid and universal.

  • When you’re ready, post your submission in the comments section. Be sure to include your first name as well as your school and location.

  • And finally, we are thrilled to announce that Danusha Laméris — the author of “Small Kindnesses” — will help select from your submissions to create the collaborative poem. We plan to publish it in the coming weeks as a special article in our Current Events Conversation column. (If your work is chosen, you will be credited.)

Want more write prompts? You can find all of our questions in our Student Opinion column. Teachers, check out this guide to learn how you can integrate them into your classroom.

Students aged 13 and over in the US and Britain, and 16 and over elsewhere, are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by Learning Network staff, but remember that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.

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