Something Sublime for January ~ a beautiful old hymn

IMG_3937In an effort to live a more poetic life this year, I am actively seeking the sublime ~ things of excellence, grandeur and beauty. I’m convinced these things exist in our ordinary lives, and I plan to write about something sublime on the third Wednesday of each month.

I was only a few hours into the first day of the new year when something sublime unexpectedly found me. It was the hymn It is Well with My Soul penned by Horatio Gates Spafford in 1873. It is a hymn I’ve known since I was a child, a hymn I can still hear my grandmother playing on the piano and my father singing in the pew next to me. And it is a hymn I like to hum to myself when life gets dicey, as it is apt to do.

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul. 

If those words don’t instantly make you feel a calming wave of peace, please read them again and again until they do.

A couple of years ago my best friend, not knowing how much I love that hymn, gave me a pretty linen tea towel with those very words printed in blue. It hangs in my kitchen perfectly pressed and arranged as if to say, “Don’t even think about actually wiping your grubby hands on this towel!” Each time I see it, old Horatio sings me his faithful words and I swim in a river of peace.

As I stood in church that first day of January, I was overcome with the simple sublimity of the moment. A fresh new year stretched out before me, with a difficult one well behind. A community of friendly folks lifted their voices in joyful praise. And a message of blessed assurance, from auld lang syne, wrapped its arms around me as I loudly sang off-key…

It is well (it is well)
With my soul (with my soul)
It is well, it is well with my soul! §

“To bring the sublime into the mundane is the greatest challenge there is.”
~Hazrat Inayat Khan

January Poetry ~ by Tennyson and Me

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I realize it is slightly ridiculous and quite irreverent to place poems written by Alfred, Lord Tennyson and yours truly in the same title, but it is my year for living more poetically. So on the first Wednesday of each month this year, I plan to share a classic poem along with a poem I’ve written. The first I hope fills you with the beauty and wisdom of classic poetry. The second I humbly hope expresses my own dreamy thoughts and maybe even encourages you to write a poem yourself.

The following poem was written in 1850 by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, one of the most well-loved Victorian poets. I always looked forward to teaching this poem to my literature students the day we returned after winter break. Tennyson wrote it in memory of his sister’s fiancé who died at the age of 22. It is surprising how relevant this poem remains today. If you lost someone close to you in the past year, as I did, this poem helps express the grief and desire to step into the new year with positivity and hope. Consider reading it aloud to feel its rhythm and meaning more deeply.

In Memoriam (Ring Out, Wild Bells) by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light;
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow;
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind
For those that here we see no more;
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring our false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.Cl

And now for a poem I wrote based on an experience I recently had early one bright and cold morning…

Birds of a Feather by Alicia Woodward

Through a frosty bedroom window
Shone the rising sun
Waking up my hands and toes
My dreaming nearly done

Sleepily I caught a glance
Of a yellow bird
Sitting on an icy branch
She spoke without a word

I looked into her shining eyes
Black with flecks of gold
Sending songs up to the sky
And secrets never told

In the morning perched together
Little bird and I
Pretty bird with yellow feathers
Teach me how to fly §

How to Live Like a Poet This Year

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A new year is upon us, and it is time again to choose a word that will serve as a guide for living more intentionally throughout the next twelve months. I’ve long given up resolutions and instead dedicate each new year to a particular word or phrase to be sprinkled liberally through all facets of life. My past words have included simplicity, joy and wisdom. For me, 2023 is the year of living poetically. 

In his 1929 book, Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, “If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself, tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches; for to the creator there is no poverty and no poor indifferent place.” The quote always grabs me by the shoulders and shakes me into remembering that every day, every moment, is a gift filled with beauty that is mine for the taking. 

Living a poetic life requires a shift in how we move through the world, in what and how we choose to see, speak, act and think. Sitting on the cusp of a new year, we have no idea what adventures and challenges await us. Like years past, there are likely to be moments of monotony, heartache, rage and splendor. Some of us will sleepwalk through it all barely allowing it to register in our souls and reaching the end of our year, and eventually our life, wondering how we missed it. Here are ten ways to poetically call forth the riches of daily life, as Rilke so eloquently urged. 

  1. Notice the sublime. That which is sublime possesses awe-inspiring excellence, grandeur and beauty. In literature, sublimity refers to elevated language that is said to strike the listener with the mighty and irresistible power of a thunderbolt. The sublime exists in everyday moments, the quiet of the morning, the notes of a song, a juicy grape, and the hand of a friend.
  2. Stay present. In his poem, What We Need is Here, Wendall Berry wrote, “And we pray, not for a new earth or heaven, but to be quiet in heart, and in eye, clear. What we need is here.” We just need to pay attention, stay mindful and be present. 
  3. Observe nature. Poetry is often filled with images of nature’s magnificence. It seems impossible to watch a ruby-throated hummingbird or see an orange-pink sunrise and not be somehow moved. Lord Byron wrote, “by the deep Sea, and music in its roar: I love not Man the less but Nature more.”
  4. Seek solitude. Emily Dickinson was a poet who understood the benefits of being alone. In her poem There is a solitude of space, she explores the idea of being alone even amongst a sea of humanity. It is only in occasional solitude that we can sort out our thoughts and disappear into them without the influence of a noisy world.
  5. Read poetry. One of the surest ways to live more poetically is to read more poetry. Keep a book of poetry on your nightstand and read a poem every morning or evening. If you prefer to read poetry online, sign up for a poem-a-day at https://poets.org or read the Poetry Foundation’s poem of the day at https://www.poetryfoundation.org. 
  6. Write poetry. Thirty years ago I had the pleasure of meeting the late poet Robert Bly who told me he instituted the routine of writing a poem every single morning before getting out of bed, drastically changing his life for the better. In 1997, he published the book Morning Poems. I can think of nothing that would help us live more poetically than actually writing poetry.
  7. Follow your dreams. Living poetically means living deeply and fully. We are reminded of this in Mary Oliver’s poem The Summer Day. In it she poses a burning question we might constantly ask ourselves, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” 
  8. Explore your senses. We experience life through our senses ~ sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. Poets lean into these senses to create strong images. Walt Whitman joyfully wrote, “I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear.” Maya Angelou wryly appealed to our sense of taste in The Health-Food Diner and William Carlos Williams wrote how the nose knows in Smell! Tuning into our senses will help us live more poetically.
  9. Show gratitude. In the busyness of life, we can take things for granted. In Our Prayer of Thanks, Carl Sandburg thanks God “For the gladness here where the sun is shining at evening on the weeds at the river, our prayer of thanks.” A poetic view of life increases our awe and appreciation for the simplest things in life. 
  10. Create beauty. The Cambridge Dictionary defines poetic as anything that is very beautiful or expresses emotion. Living poetically means elevating our daily life. John Keats wrote, “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever; its loveliness increases; it will never pass into nothingness.” In how we dress, keep our home, talk to our children, and treat our neighbors, we can add beauty to all we do.

    Even if we never publish, or even write, a single poem, we can live like a poet in every little thing we do from morning to night through each new day of the next twelve months. Welsh poet Dylan Thomas wrote the poetic life  “makes your toenails twinkle.” That seems like a pretty good way to step into the new year. §