WHAT DO YOU MEAN WHEN YOU CALL POETRY A "WISDOM MEDIUM"? It means that it carries with it, in the hands of really good practitioners, the possibility that something in the poem will help you to become more enlightened. And [it] will allow you to think better about something or to do your own work. I have many examples of this. I worked with foster grandparents in Rhode Island . . . And there's this one guy Lenny who I've known for a couple of years. Lenny loves poetry and he loves doing it in classrooms. And Lenny was a jazz pianist in Providence [who] performed at all the jazz clubs and was by all accounts a really great performer. I knew that he had had open heart surgery the year before. And I also knew, from him, that his dad had abandoned the family when he was a very young boy. And so, I say the [Robert Hayden] poem ["Those Winter Sundays"]:
Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I'd wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he'd call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love's austere and lonely offices?
So that day I just said, "In this moment, express gratitude or thank somebody for something that they have done for you, some 'lonely office' or service they have done for you. And do it now for the first time." That was the prompt and Lenny was done in 15 minutes. And he asked if he could read even though everybody wasn't done, but we all nodded our head. And he stood up and he read this poem and tears were rolling down his face — a man in his 80s. And what he was writing about is that, before his father abandoned the family, he would take Lenny to jazz clubs and bars where music was being played. And he realized that was probably the seed of his own love and passion for music. And so he was expressing gratitude toward his father who up until that moment, I think, he probably felt nothing but resentment toward and anger and frustration and of course a sense of profound isolation, abandonment, and loneliness. And he's reading the poem and he's crying and I just felt like we all witnessed years coming off of his life. Or at least a burden that he had been carrying and didn't need to carry anymore. That's the work that poetry can do, right there.