Kristen’s letter arrived a few weeks later on saffron-colored stationery, with a magnolia bud pressed between its pages – a nod to my line, “the year I was overpowered by blooming magnolia petals / in a windstorm on the way home.”
“What a wonderful touch,” I replied, adding, “I am struck by the yearning you express and the intense yearning to understand and find meaning you mention – how, despite your youth, you convey longing and melancholy who I would associate with a much older person Perhaps you are a poet?
Turns out Kristen is a poet. But what shines most from his letter is the youth in full bloom – with all its optimism, self-doubt, resilience, search and, most poignantly, struggle – under the pressure of a pandemic. . Kristen wrote that the last line of my poem, “the year my spirit rocked me,” particularly resonated with her, because over the past year her mind had become “a haven of peace” while that the rest of the world was spinning in “chaos on many fronts”.
“Yes!” I thought. “If his young mind can be a refuge, then the kids are fine.” I dared to hope that mental toughness would carry us all through, even as I continue to wonder and worry about the effects of the pandemic on my own three children, on children around the world.
Three years ago I wrote an article about how poetry saves lives – not in the literal sense of ‘blocking malignant cells’ or ‘stopping a hail of bullets’, but through its ability to fostering empathy and complexity of thought, forcing us “to consider more deeply our experience in the world and cultivate connection. I quoted explorer Ernest Shackleton, who called poetry “vital mental medicine “, and I mentioned John Keats, who coined the term ‘negative capacity’, which is the ability to bear the mystery of not knowing, to choose openness over certainty.
The Parkland school massacre happened the day before I submitted my essay. Once again, the nation wavered. And in the face of such horror, I struggled with the limits of language. I considered rewriting my play, because it was clear: poems do not prevent people from dying. But I returned it anyway, because silence either.
Over the past year and a half, I have thought a great deal about “negative capacity” because although Keats saw it as part of the creative process in relation to truth and beauty, I believe that an increased acceptance of uncertainty could help us all deal with this pandemic and its consequences. It is a skill that writing poetry requires and that reading poetry can nurture.
In a poem, as in life, there is usually an image, a sentence, a word that we can recognize and appreciate to help us find our bearings, to anchor us until we understand better. If we can exercise this mental flexibility, the discomfort dissipates and things can unfold over time.
The “negative capacity” is what I think Kristen wielded when she “came to embrace chaos on many fronts”. I would even argue that the growth she has experienced is a result of her embrace – and it has to do with her reading and writing poetry.
There may be other life skills that allowed Kristen to find her “refuge” within herself, but her experience with poetry undoubtedly reinforced them and gave rise to expression.
If expression is what we seek and need, we should consider inoculating our youth with poetry. It strengthens existential resilience and creative courage. It gives them tools to look within when the outside world is collapsing.
Tina Cane is the Poet Laureate of Rhode Island, and the Founder and Director of Writers-in-the Schools, RI, where she works as a guest poet. His next verse novel for young adults, “Alma presses play”, will be published by Random House Children’s Books on September 14.