May 15, 2024

William Curius of the Poem Store in Taos plying his trade. Mercado Market in Santa Fe, 2024. Photo: Burt Kushner For Need Poetry Newsletter


Dear friends, seekers, imaginers,

In “Mariska, Poland, 1946,” one of the poems from my collection M, the speaker is a young girl hiding from Nazis. She is in a forest with other refugees. Describing her experience, she says:

Large countries swallowed smaller countries &

vowels of the old language choked in our throats.

Soldier’s uniforms changed colors, but

we were not saved. Not even

clouds that promised rain did we trust. We wondered

if we would ever be human again.

I wrote the poem before the current wars in Ukraine and the Middle East began. Now I get chills reading my own words. What does it mean to be human? What conditions provoke us to become inhuman? What transforms us into predators and prey?

We wondered if we would ever be human again.

Historians are not the only chroniclers of history. So are poets. The British poets Rupert Brooke, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, soldiers during WWI, awakened the public to the atrocities specific to the ironically named “Great War” and rendered palpable the tragedies encountered by a civilian population in battle.

The great Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca and renowned Chilean poet Pablo Neruda bore witness to the Spanish Civil War during which Lorca lost his life.

In her book, Thomas and Beulah, a sequence of poems loosely based on her maternal grandparents, Pulitzer Prize-winner and U.S. Poet Laureate (1993-1995) Rita Dove offers a sweeping lyrical narrative about her ancestors, the experiences of an African American couple in the early twentieth century. Their story is not one transcribed in history books. It is a story about individuals, but the poems depict a collective aspect of our history which belongs to all of us.

As we live in a terrifyingly misinformed and propagandized world, my need for poetry (and I hope yours) grows more robust. Sadly, poetry is an outcast in popular culture, scorned by some as the privileged domain of elites. Not so in other countries. In Ireland, where the bardic tradition continues to flourish, I’m told one can go into any pub and raise your pint with farmers and academics, bricklayers, and barons, and each will recite for you their favorite poem by William Butler Yeats.

Concerning class and poetry, the poet Diane Seuss smashes the notion of poetry as an elitist art form and dares the reader into her gritty but sublimely inspirational underground world. In her poem, “My Education,” she asserts the value of what she calls her cobbled together education as a poor rural white girl from Michigan. She writes:

Not just what I feel but what I know

and how I know it, my unscholarliness,

my rawness, all rise out of the cobbled

landscape I was born to.

Poetry presents a paradox. Have you heard a poem spoken at a wedding or funeral? We mark significant ceremonial rituals like these with poetry, and yet in our daily lives, poetry is dismissed or ignored.

I’ve come to think of poems as a form of resistance and resilience, an intuitive and instinctive welling up against clichéd language and dogmatic thought. Poetry asks us to have the courage to peer into the darkness, again and again, and to discover something new and possibly revitalizing each time.

Why am I going on and on about poetry? Because I am afraid. I am afraid of language becoming emptied of meaning and truth. I am afraid of seductive rhetoric that emboldens violence, hatred, and malevolently misinforms. We all know this is happening and some of us are mesmerized by the seducers. Some of us are bewitched.

Is poetry a cure-all? Can it change the world? I doubt it.

And yet, poetry presents an alternative mode of listening and seeing the world. It is not trying to convince you of anything. It doesn’t ask you to vote for a candidate, turn you against a group of people or sell you a supplement.

Richard Blanco is an award-winning poet, professor, and the Education Ambassador of the Academy of American Poets. He champions education initiatives for poetry, including the organization’s free resources for teachers and students. In 2013, he read his poem “One Today” at Barack Obama’s second presidential inauguration.

It was an honor for me, and a lovely surprise and affirmation, to have Richard Blanco post my recent column for Psychology Today about poetry on Facebook and Instagram with this comment. I have never met Richard, but clearly, we are sympatico in our message about poetry.

“Of course, this article in Psychology Today (by Dale M. Kushner) resonated and confirmed what I’ve always believed to be true. I hope it brightens your day as it did mine.

“[Poetry] reveals us to ourselves and reveals the world to us. It is the language of the heart’s unspoken truths.” Are We Hardwired for Poetry? | Psychology Today

#inspire #poetry #uplifteachother”

Are you interested in exploring how poetry can be a friend? Here are some resources for your investigation.

Poetry Foundation— the website of The Academy of American Poets

The Slow Down Show — Poet Major Jackson offers a poem and moment of reflection every weekday.

Lastly, please save these dates. I would love to see you at one or all of these live in-person events.

May 22 at 7 PM ET — Poetry and Beer Night with Host Richard Vargas and Guest Dale M Kushner (Minocqua Brewing Company, Madison, WI) — no advance registration required.

June 21, 22, 23 (multiple times) — Step Right Up, Ma’am — Stories of Resilience featuring the work of Fabu Phillis Carter, Dale M. Kushner, and Danielle Dresden (Overture Center’s Promenade Hall, Madison, WI) — $30 tickets available for purchase now.

With gratitude for your continued interest, and care,


P.S. In the words of my friend, the author Mark Nepo: If so moved, please share this offering, and spread the word. Anyone can subscribe at this link. You can keep up with everything I’m doing and thinking by following me on Facebook and Instagram. If you’d rather not receive these occasional emails, just let me know and I’ll promptly remove you, or you can unsubscribe at the link below.

Top image: William Curius of the Poem Store in Taos plying his trade. Mercado Market in Santa Fe, 2024. Photo: Burt Kushner