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Poet Katie FordI used to teach The Grapes of Wrath, and I remember it was such a strain on my students’ imaginations. I’ve been thinking a lot about the Joad family these past few months, with the staggering the numbers of people losing jobs, and collecting unemployment, and I wonder how the Joads’ experience can offer some insight into the current economic crisis.

Honestly, it feels like a strain on my imagination to think about how the Joads endured. They lived on lard, flour, and potatoes. (The potatoes I can figure out, but I don’t even know what I would do with lard and flour.) They lost everything except what they could pack in their truck, along with over a dozen people — some too old to live through that kind of journey — and drove, slowly, across the country to find a job, to survive.

I invited Katie Ford to join Speaking of Faith’s conversation about the current economic environment. She studied theology at Harvard University, and she studied poetry at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She’s just come out with a new book titled Colosseum; it’s a collection of poems about Hurricane Katrina and the devastation it left behind.

In our conversation, Katie Ford talked about turning to literature to find wisdom and comfort during times like this. She looks to James Wright, a poet who grew up during the Depression in a working-class family and knew what it meant to struggle through economic turmoil. She mentioned one of his poems, “In Terror of Hospital Bills,” and talked at length about some of his most well-known poems like “A Blessing” and “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota.”

We thought this might be an ideal time to ask you about poetry and its role in your life. What poems and/or poets are you turning to in this economic environment? What insight are they offering you? Share your story in the comments section below or, if you prefer, write us here.

Share Your Reflection



a somewhat tangental comment, but i have recently read a great non-fiction companion to Grapes of Wrath that others might be interested in: "The Worst Hard Time" by Timothy Egan - the stories of those who, rather than becoming "exodusters", stayed on the plains during the great dust bowl period. the level of hardship faced is extreme and painful, especially in light of the knowledge that the greatest contributing factors to the disaster were human.
i'm now rereading "i know why the caged bird sings" by Maya Angelou, also describing poverty in the1930s. both books have made for interesting reflection on what we understand by "economic crisis". both also depict the respective roles of racism and religion in the midst of hardship.

as for poetry, i guess it represents for me the importance of looking beyond the things "you can't take with you". we need water, food and a roof over our head in order to have health but the things that nourish and fulfill our lives beyond basic and necessary comforts are not more of the material but the nourishment of our emotional, spiritual, creative, relational selves.

two poets have dominated the past year for me... Mary Oliver's collection, Thirst, deals with death of a life partner and place of faith in grieving. i think her poems are often best described as the search for the moments in life that make one truly rich, moments of encounter with real beauty, even when one is in pain.

we have built so much of contemporary culture on what is on the outside, not on the inside. on what makes for a "successful" life rather than what makes for a beautiful flourishing, love filled life. poetry, like all creative forms means something to me when it speaks to what matters to me deep on the inside as a human being.

the other poet is John O'Donohue. he had a deep impact on my life and my community, as did his death. when i feel despair, i turn to my memories of him and his words to be reminded of what matters most.
as i look to a future in uncertain economic climate, their words help me as i seek to live out what i truly value. i no longer think in terms of career, but in terms of what my vocation as a human being might be.

I feel like I'm in too much of a hurry to read poetry. Time seems so short, and I have so much I want to accomplish. I'm impatient with a longer poem like Wright's about the grave of the executed man. His short one was kinda like a joke with a good punch line, the one about the ponies. Gotta go!

I'm in tune with all that you have said. I' reach the age of 50 on easter sunday and this is the turning point in my life where i am making time for me. Too much running around for everyone else. Anyway, I'm not 50 yet so I've got to go too.
John K

OneLittleBird, have you heard our program with John O'Donohue? Krista interviewed him shortly before he passed away. If you haven't heard it yet, you can listen here:

hey Andy
John's interview was my introduction to SoF. myself and some friends listened to it together when it first came online.
i've listened to it many times since. it's been a lovely way to remember him over the past year.
i'm extremely grateful for that program and all the others i've enjoyed since.

Mary Oliver and John O'Donohue: two of my most favourite writers. And John's voice - listening to it in that interview shortly before his death, it's like bathing in warm liquid honey.
Have you read Sarah Maitland's "A book of silence", which came out recently here in Britain? Am currently reading and enjoying. Am ever on a quest to simplify, longing for more silence in my life.
Love solasan

i hadn't heard about the Maitland book, solasan. just checked it out online - looks like a very interesting read. thanks for the headzup. may your quest bring you what you need.

So pleased that someone has metioned Mary Oliver. Your comment is a pleasureable read. I'm deeply affected by the closing words relating to John O'Donohoe and in particular to the impact on your life and your community and would love to know more. If I'm not imposing?

hey john
nice to meet you.

i don't think that's imposing, although i'm not sure what will suffice as an answer...

i didn't know john particularly well, although i met him on several occasions and enjoyed his company greatly. i have friends who experienced his death as the loss of a close personal friend so i guess i want to choose my words carefully out of sensitivity to their loss. i have many more friends, who, like me encountered him mostly through his public speaking and through his writing. our conversations continue to be punctuated with recollections of his humour as much as his deep wisdom - and i love that he is remembered by us with laughter.

for me his legacy is in his words. he lives on them. and it is in the lives of those he has touched and will continue to touch through his words.
and i guess i see his great gift as being able to so poetically communicate the wonder of being alive. without ever shirking from the acknowledgment of pain and loneliness, he taught me a lot about being rooted in the world...

the importance of remembering that one comes from the earth and one returns to the earth and that the time we get in between should, if we can, be spent in wonder...that part of being fully alive is to be able to breathe in the wind, or stand on the shore, or look into the face of another, or indeed into the mirror, and exclaim, "this being human is a marvellous experience, isn't it?" to be open to the world, willing to embrace it. to be present to it and to oneself in it.

i've learnt from him that what matters to me most is to have a rich experience of life.
john described death as being like walking on a cliff edge. you don't know how far you are from the edge. so drink it in while you're here. seek beauty in all things and all people.
that heart that is open will be broken by pain for sure, but the joy that comes with being open to the world, that's the measure of a heart that is truly alive.

as i step out of a dark period, i find it is that wonder i want to find blossoming in me again.

sorry that was a rambling answer. i hope something in that was adequate.

As a poet I have been ever more keenly aware of the importance of the ongoing practice of cultivating simplicity, in my life and in my own poetic work, in order to more fully hear and listen to the voice of the divine. For me, simplicity is intimately interwoven with abundance, which is interwoven with gratitude, which in turn is interwoven with blessing. (As an aside, I recently learned that in the Middle Ages, the word "silly" (seely or sele) meant spiritually blessed, enjoying the blessing of God, as well happy, blissful; fortunate, lucky, well-omened, auspicious. See the OED for more.) It is a challenge in these days, to be sure. The material ground beneath so many people's feet is rocky and unsure. Two of the poets that I have been reading a lot lately to aid in my meditations include William Stafford and John O'Donohue. I've also been reading and re-reading Margaret Guenther's essay on "The Fear of Abundance" which isn't about material abundance but spiritual abundance.

I'd like to have Emily Dickinson's little masterpiece, "I'm Nobody" engraved on my tombstone because it echoes Jesus's challenge to reduce ourselves to "naught." I had previously thought the poem to be about that which the textbook editors said it was - privacy. But one day I heard a PBR interview of a world class ballerina. The interviewer asked her what she thought about just before she went out on stage. She said she thought of nothing. He pushed her a bit: "Maybe, in the same way a track star envisions the first few steps out of the blocks, you see yourself going through the first few steps of your dance." The ballerina said that if she did that, then the audience would see, when she went out onto the stage, HER, dancing. "Isn't that what you WANT them to see?" the interviewer asked. "Oh, no!" she said. "I want them to see the DANCE!" And then I "got" Emily Dickinson. She did not want to be burdened with "tell(ing) (her) name the livelong June/To (that) admiring bog." She wanted to be empty of ego - free and available to receive everything.

Is This My Space?
I breath to be inspired by the living and the dead.
I follow the road that has already been paved,
avoiding paving one that may go nowhere.
My journey and adventures continue beyond this space.
I might even make a friend that will walk part of the way,
with me?
Who knows.
Are you this friend?

In these comments you write are your thoughts.
Your inner emotions that none can see but certainly feel.
These careful words you choose to express all that you need.
Important enough to share.
A luxury that one can enjoy.
Mmm,this is my chocolate.

A message from space it could be,
but no, as I am now part of this, new, community.
Random gifts of thoughts that are welcome, but are uninvited,
So many visitors into my space.
Alone I am not, but here I am on my own.
Yes, … I am … on my own.

I have read all your comments posted to date, and have enjoyed reading these, which inspired me to write the above. It's a lovely blog and one that I will call my favoutite, at least for the time being. Do I have anything to contribute? Probably nothing of interest, but interesting you all are. Please continue to write.