In the conversations I’ve had lately, with friends, family, colleagues, and students, there’s a common thread that appears again and again. “I’m just overwhelmed,” I keep hearing folks say. It’s schoolwork and jobs, it’s family responsibilities and relationship complications, it’s money stress, it’s the weight of the ongoing pandemic, and often it’s some combination of all of these factors, plus more. A friend of mine, novelist Phong Nguyen, recently coined a new word to capture this feeling’s current persistence: everwhelmed.
But one thing I love about poetry is how it anchors us. Reading or writing a poem can be a perfect way to focus on what is present and immediate, and to reground our thinking, at least for a little while. Poems work their magic through detail and close attention. Imagine, for example, that I said something vague like, “This place is beautiful and peaceful.” What do you picture? Odds are, not much. While you might come up with somewhere that feels that way to you, without any details in my language, you’re not likely to feel transported to that place. Now imagine I said, “The loblolly pines rustle softly overhead. A woodpecker taps in the distance. Nearby, a small creek ripples.” You’d understand the beauty and peace of this place right away, and you’d immediately be able to imagine yourself into it through the details. Paying close attention to the physical details of the world around us is a way to momentarily slow the pace of our lives.
This Month’s Poetry Break: Rooted in Nature
Think of a natural place you love and know well. It can be anywhere: a forest, a particular beach, your grandmother’s garden, your backyard, a public park. If you can actually go to this place while writing your poem, that’s ideal, but if not, writing from your memories can be just as powerful.
The name of this place will be your poem’s title.
Now make a list of observable details about this place. Use as many of the five senses as you can, and the actual names of things, if you know them (not just “tomato” but “Big Boy tomato,” not just “bird” but “chickadee”). Use a mix of fragments and full sentences if you like; feel free to use one-word sentences, as well. Don’t explain what this place feels like. Rather, trust the details you’re using to convey the feeling. Devote most of the poem to describing this place, but include a line or two about yourself somewhere in there, too.
Summer Evening in the Backyard, Starkville, MS
The air is soft and damp.
Mosquitos. Low-flying bats.
A gray squirrel chitters from the dogwood,
and as the sky turns indigo,
the fireflies start their blinking.
On a stump, a snail’s trail gleams.
The breeze smells like pine
and the meat from a neighbor’s smoker.
A cicada shell clings to the porch door.
One year, my son and I collected
all the cicada shells we could find;
like the explorers we were,
we called them treasure.
It can be easy, in the hubbub of our lives, to forget about the wonders of this planet. I’m sure I’ve walked by countless astounding things—hibiscus! hummingbirds! honeysuckle!— without even noticing them. But poems offer us a gentle reminder that the world is right here, and if we take a few minutes to notice it, we’ll be right here, too. Enjoy those minutes of noticing. Pay attention to what surrounds you, or what you remember, and describe it as accurately as you can. Take a breath. Tell the truth. Write your life.
Catherine Pierce is the Poet Laureate of Mississippi and the author of four books of poems, most recently “Danger Days.” She co-directs the creative writing program at Mississippi State University.