I still remember
the night I first read ---that is, read well--- “Crossing
Brooklyn Ferry.” It was late at night; my wife and son
had gone to bed and, in my insomniac manner, I took a book
to the couch. Everything was quiet, even the mice in the cabinets,
even the boom box of the dope boys down the street. In that
silence, the poem opened to me in a new way, all elbows and
smells, voices and riversounds, rich, lively detail. But as
the poem proceeds, the poet begins to speak directly to the
Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes, how
curious you are to me.
On the ferry-boats the hundreds and hundreds that cross,
returning home, are more curious to me than you suppose,
And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence are
more to me, and more in my meditations, that you might suppose.
At this point, he had me. I was willing to go anywhere he
would take me. And then I came to these lines:
Closer yet I approach you;
What thought you have of me, I had as much of you—I
laid in my stores in advance;
I consider’d long and seriously of you before you were
Who was to know what should come home to me?
Who knows but I am enjoying this?
Who knows but I am as good as looking at you now, for all
you cannot see me?
I was sure, at that moment, he was right there in the room
I had the sense, a distinctly physical ---and not entirely
comfortable--- sense that Walt Whitman was speaking the words
of the poem directly to me, as if his beard was at my ear,
as if he stood just behind me, just out of sight, but present,
physically present, as no speaker in a poem has ever been
present to me before or since.
It might be possible to sort poets into polar opposites:
the recluse and the bard. Nothing pure about this; most poets
are something of each. The bardic, public poet must retreat
at least long enough to set words down on paper and even the
most private of recluses has dreams, at times, of having an
audience outside the walls of a small upstairs room. But some
tend more toward the one than toward the other.
The recluse ---I think of Emily Dickinson--- speaks small
(deceptively small) and does not appear to reach out to anyone.
I think also of Gerard Manley Hopkins, who would rather have
had his poems burnt than published. Or many thousands of others
of whom we will never hear because they wrote for themselves
alone and did not seek to reach out to others.
At the other pole, that of the bard, Whitman is the salient
example. The bard writes large and tries consciously to speak
for, of, and to a community. Even the shape of his or her
writing assumes on an audience. This would include the Beats,
rappers, slam poets, Dylan Thomas, and anyone who regularly
signs up at an open-mike reading.
But I do not think the bardic, public poets are the only
ones who create community.
I would like to argue, partly for the sake of where the
argument takes me, that any poet, if he or she writes true,
creates community. For if you write a poem and I read it well
(and if you have written it true) then there is a connection
between us. My spirit comprehends at some wordless level something
of your spirit. We are linked; we are connected. The connection
may be fleeting; it may be very short-lived. I may forget
all about you and your poem by tomorrow, or even later today.
Or I may be profoundly changed and the connection, as a lived,
conscious nexus, may last a long time. You may never know
you made this connection. And most times, as these things
go, you do not. But there has been a moment, however small
in the scale of all that is random and disconnected and alienated
and fractured in our lives, when one consciousness has reached,
through the medium of the poem, to another,
We have created ---you by writing the poem true, I by reading
it well—a kind of small, momentary community.
Does this connection change the world?
I would like to think so.
There are poems which appear to me to be deliberately counter-communal.
which seem to me to work against community. The language poets,
for example, do not seem to me to care whether they make a
personal connection to a reader or not. Yet, there does appear
to be a community of people who read and relate to this sort
of poem. So what do I know? I can recognize my prejudices;
at times, I can even overthrow my prejudices. And I can decide
not to judge. Which is something we learn to do in building
At various times in my life, I have worked as a community
organizer. For part of that time, I had a mentor in the field
who told me that what we were doing was not necessarily winning
victories for a community (he was not of the Saul Alinsky
school; he was, himself, something of a poet). In doing community
organizing, we were organizing community, he said, and the
creation of community was a victory, all by itself.
Leave aside for a moment political considerations (and leave
aside the debate about the Alinsky model of community organizing)
and think about what we build when we build community. We
create bonds among a group of people who share some common
interest and common need and in the process of addressing
that interest and need come also to share an identity and
a sense of fellow-feeling and an ethos of mutual support.
This is worth having even if we don’t win the new playground
or stop the power plant (though I won’t deny that winning
I would argue that the true poem does this work of community-building
as well. Even if it is only shared from you to me or from
me to you, if you write a poem true and I read it well, we
connect and that connection is of a fellow-feeling and identification
and is mutually supportive, even if we never know each other
and the community we build lasts only for the time it takes
me to get to the next poem.
Poets and their poems form community at various levels.
There is that one-on-one level by which your poem (or that
of Emily Dickenson, or that of Walt Whitman) speaks to me
and we have a connection, one human to another. We tend to
think of communities as larger entities than a pair of mutual
reader-poets. But as our world continues to isolate us, set
us one against another, dog against alienated dog, I think
we should be happy to see any barrier against understanding
and communication break down.
So let us give due respect to the recluse. She does not
go out often, but she reaches us from the study of her Amherst
house ---a little removed from the center of town, and she
tells us things about herself ---and ourselves--- that do
not leave us for she has known us from long ago. As we read
her, she stands just behind us, just out of sight.
So where is the community that the poem builds? When I was
a community organizer, it seemed fairly simple to define the
community. I could point to the geographic boundaries of the
community I supposedly organized. We had the Mill Creek to
the east, the Ohio River to the south, Maryland Avenue to
the west, and Ernst Street to the north and everything within
those bounds was the “community.” But that was
deceptive. The community I hoped to help was defined only
in part by geography. The real community was only that part
of the “community” where I worked. The real community
to be organized was among that group of people who shared
a concern for the issue ---in this case, environmental justice---
and who more importantly shared a concern for each other,
a fellow-feeling, and an ethos of mutual support. We had to
build this community before we could hope to impact the “community”
as a geographic whole.
I believe that this happens with the poem, though it happens
in the ether, beyond geography, within the poem-reader nexus,
in a mind-to-mind or (if the poem is true enough) soul-to-soul
connection through the medium of the poem.
There is, I believe, a world-wide spiritual community made
up of poets and readers who have constructed these human ties
in spite of time and place, indifferent to all that seeks
to divide, atomize, and break us down.
But can the community of the poet-reader nexus happen on
a more direct, person-to-person level? The most obvious place
to look is where people are reading their poems to one another,
as in a writers group or a poetry reading, in kitchens and
coffeehouses, in church basements, bars, and writing centers
like The Loft in Minneapolis or InkTank in Cincinnati. The
impetus for the poem to build community in such a setting
is explicit. A poet reads, and if the poem is true, or true
enough, and if the people in the room listen well, or well
enough, then something in them will say Yes, this is what
brings us together. This puts into words what we have been
feeling. How deep a Yes depends on how deeply true is the
poem (and on how deeply the hearers have listened). But if
a poem is true, not in its literal or factual truth, but in
the emotional and symbolic way of a poem, then the group’s
connection takes on some of that truth and the group becomes
that much more of a community.
The poet-scholar Jenifer Vernon describes the building of
“new kinds of lumpy-shaped community” through
a multi-cultural open-mike poetry series in San Diego and
of the connections created among disparate individuals who
might not otherwise ever meet. She quotes the San Diego poet
There’s definitely a thing where there’s a
between you and the audience, the audience is feeding your
art and you’re feeding the audience art, it works
and it’s the best thing, man. I mean, art in isolation
sake is dead! Art is for the upliftment of society, and
better way than in a very direct, public context, like
Art, he says, is for the upliftment of society. And how does
the art of the poem uplift society? By the creation of identity,
fellow-feeling, and mutual support. By creating community.
Again, does all this community-building make a difference
in the world? I would like to think so. I would like to think
a poem has the sort of power that makes a difference in the
In 2003, all over the United States, poets, instigated by
Sam Hamill, organized readings and events under the aegis
of Poets Against the War. We wrote and read our hearts out,
but we didn’t, obviously, stop the war. We spent several
evenings reading and ranting and the war went right on ahead
We did not stop the war. What we stopped was the feeling
that we were alone. Yes, we were preaching to the choir. But
the choir at that time felt very isolated, powerless, and
threatened. Sharing the poems, everything from ghazals to
raps, allowed us to speak to each other. We had, for that
time at least, a mutual concern, a fellow-feeling, and a period
of mutual support. We still have not, as of this writing,
stopped that damn war. But we stopped feeling alone.
I belong to a conscious community of poets and writers called
the Southern Appalachian Writers Cooperative. If I have the
history right, the thing that brought the original core together
was love of poetry and beer and hatred of strip-mining. We
hold two regularly scheduled meetings a year, we hold occasional
readings, and we publish a little journal we call, for reasons
I have never understood, Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel.
We read, we talk, some of us drink the beer, we plan our next
meeting, and we do not appear to otherwise change the world.
We also do not appear to be much of a threat to the mining
industry. But something does happen. Richard Hague ---the
under-recognized poet who is, I believe, one of the finest
poets writing in this country today--- describes it in this
poem which I cite in full:
Annual meeting of the Southern Appalachian Writers Cooperative,
Highlander Center, Tennessee, l982
Lord, how our voices often mingle,
creeks rounding down from a thousand miles
to wed the same bright river
And how we mouth our favorite names:
say poplar, sycamore, broom sedge
And how we have seen the same birds
flock among the white pine groves
of the oldground we’ve helped heal,
And how we seem to have heard the same stories,
seen the same men on street corners
of small towns so barren
they have no football team
And how we have loved women who look and speak like sisters
And how we have hunted the same deer
on stands decades apart,
And how we have found the same stones in creeks
And how we have seen the same wonders at night
in places hundreds of miles distant
(wild cherry branches shuttling in the breeze,
Arcturus living like an eye above the oak)
And how we have failed the same jobs,
workers slumped over Chevys and Fords,
machinists hurt in our hearts by slivers of steel,
hunters limping upridge with bloodied feet
And how, when we find ourselves together,
standing around gas pumps or stoves in old stores,
waiting for tires to be changed,
for children to be drilled by the clinic dentist in town,
for fathers to die in the hospitals of county seats
We find something to say that means us,
that names us neighbors and kin,
that finds within us words to connect:
coon hounds loved in common,
a relative with the same name,
a character true to type in all our places:
Lord, how our lives often mingle,
how we mouth our favorite names,
how we sing in voices old, flat, or sweet:
How we know one we know another,
how we love even what we hate
for how it brings us together. 2
At the end of our meeting, we drive down from the mountain
with a little more courage. We feel a little more engaged
with the world, a little more resolved to act out of fellow-feeling
and mutual support, a little more likely to share that with
That, in a fractured, disconnected, and alienating world,
is a victory in itself.