Poetry’s Unique Power to Change Its Readers and Sustain Them Too

During a Pandemic, Poems Offer ‘a Space of Words Where You Can Dwell’

Poetry’s Unique Power to Change Its Readers and Sustain Them Too | Zocalo Public Square • Arizona State University • Smithsonian

Panelist and Arizona Poet Laureate Alberto Ríos telling a story of how he got into writing poetry. Courtesy of Zócalo Public Square.

What is it about poetry that allows us to escape our greatest anxieties, find space for introspection, or even achieve catharsis? What is it about the poetic combination of meter, rhyme, and carefully chosen words that hits us so hard in hard times? Why, when faced with uniquely modern problems and pandemics, do we reach for this oldest of art forms?

Last night, United States Poet Laureate emeritus Juan Felipe Herrera, poet and author Inez Tan, and Arizona Poet Laureate Alberto Ríos visited Zócalo to speak about reading and writing poetry. The conversation, which asked “What can poetry offer us in distressing times?,” was moderated by Carla Hall, Los Angeles Times editorial board member, and aired on Zócalo’s YouTube channel.

The event sparked a lively conversation between the panelists and audience members, who wrote in via a live chat. Just like a poem, a conversation like this one has no real ending, and this morning Inez Tan wrote to share the two poems that she read during the evening to further the dialogue.

To share your favorite poems, please write us a “Letter to Zócalo,” or let us know on social media at @ThePublicSquare. You can also read more from Juan Felipe Herrera, Inez Tan, and Alberto Ríos, and moderator Carla Hall in our virtual Green Room.


Sitting in the Rubble
by Inez Tan

Still, outwardly,
I go to work, I cook my meals,
I do my laundry, as though
my life consisted of acts like these.
Six of my friends lose a child,
three get into car accidents,
two survive shootings,
and only one says,
“It’s not a competition,” meaning
we shouldn’t believe we have to win
as if only the winner gets to grieve
while the rest of us bleed empathy.
Through it all, I think of you.
Every day, I miss you.
Happy are the brokenhearted,
for they do not condemn
what they have come to understand.


A Quiet Night Alone
by Inez Tan

Tonight, let others consume themselves
in a panic of meteor dust. This evening
the owls have no quarrel with the stars.
A quiet night alone is like a secret mission
to restore a hidden weft of heirloom threads.
Endless summer, lights at sea, a cream quilt
when the wind sifts the soft offerings
of the unhurried earth. Linger over
second supper, butter the bread, pour another
glass of wine or cup of wild chamomile.
Forget everything as you read but the pleasure
of reading itself. In the gentle glow of such solitude,
shadows are only shadows, thoughts are only thoughts.
How strong you are to sustain this stillness,
the hours slow, the phones dead and the wolves
a quiet curve on the threshold.


Want more poetry? Also check out Inez Tan’s own “Letter to Zócalo,” which lists 10 of her favorite poems for being present and 10 of her favorite poems for dwelling “elsewhere.”


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