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In her interview with Krista Tippet, poet Elizabeth Alexander spoke on the increasing relevance of poetry and the many ways in which it affects us, especially as a way to fill the need for love and community between people by serving as a way to get to know people. This notion of meeting someone else through poetry is, in my mind, closely related to the idea that it is important to notice small details in poetry. Through a single word in her inaugural poem, she allowed her audience to have a short encounter with farmers. This is similar to our discussion in Poetry class at the beginning of the semester over Ada Limon’s “A Religion of Noticing Things” interview, which also highlighted the importance of noticing details in a poem. This theme was carried out throughout the semester as we discussed poems like “Nuns Fret Not at Their Convent’s Narrow Room.”
At Barak Obama’s inauguration in 2009, Elizabeth Alexander read a poem with the word “lettuce” in it. This resonated with the United Farm Workers: “‘So with that word lettuce,’ they said, ‘you made visible the work of the people who feed the nation, with one word.’” This is an example of poetry serving as a medium through which different kinds of people can be exposed to each other. Everyone in the audience at the inauguration was reminded, even if just for a short moment and through such a minute detail, about the work that farmers do. This could, of course, happen on a larger scale, with an entire poem written about someone or a group of people. Either way, it allows the audience or reader to be more aware of other people that exist, which eventually leads to a growing sense of community among people.
When Alexander mentioned the importance of such a little detail in her poem, it reminded me of a phrase that has stuck with me throughout the semester— “a religion of noticing things.” It comes from an interview with Ada Limon, who believes that people can find peace in poetry just as they find peace in religion. Poetry, to her, is like a religion that requires you to pay attention to details. Perhaps poetry is similar to religion in another way as well. Religion unites people, and poetry does this by giving the reader exposure to other people and insight into other people’s experiences of the world. This can, of course, be through details in the poem that are very small.
In Poetry class we focused on how important it is to read a poem slowly and to notice all that you can about it. I specifically remember studying the nuances of “Nuns Fret Not at Their Convent’s Narrow Room” by William Wordsworth. We discussed words in the poem that describe captivity like “bound” and “weight” and contrasted them with the word “liberty.” These simple word choices allow Wordsworth to make an interesting point about writing sonnets; being confined to the fourteen lines of a sonnet can ironically create freedom, whereas the freedom to create outside of the confines of a sonnet can be burdensome. Through this poem, the class had the opportunity to peek inside the minds of poets who write sonnets. In a way, we met, or encountered, them.
What amazes me about poetry is that each detail in a poem holds so much power. Every word is chosen carefully and adds something to the meaning. Perhaps we can learn from poetry that details are important. We can read a poem and encounter the author, the subject, the addressee, or other people who exist in society (like the farmers) through small words and phrases, but only if we are paying attention. If we take our way of looking at poetry and apply it to our day-to-day interactions, we would appreciate small details in our lives, in the world, and in other people. That is poetry’s relevance in the world.