A woodsman. A designer. A cloistered nun. A Star Trek actor. A pope. What do all of them have in common? They are all people who knew the power of evocative and expressive language.
Poetry is the shared thread that links these people — all of them are poets, in their own way.
A few years ago, my cousin took her final vows as a cloistered nun. I went with my family for the ritual and celebration. The sisters of the community made us dinner one evening, but because they were cloistered and abstained from contact with the outside world, they supplied the meal through a rotating compartment inlaid in the wall.
Along with the food came a hand-written poem.
Apparently, it had become traditional for those receiving the meal and poem to respond with a poem of their own.
The room was full of my extended family and everyone started throwing out ideas. To my surprise, one of my cousins opened up and turned out to be quite knowledgeable about writing poetry. This struck me as odd because he was a woodsman — a guy in love with cars and machinery and hunting. Yet, in that moment, I glimpsed a more creative side of him that I had never seen before.
The process of writing a poem together brought the family into a shared project of expression. We put words down on a slip of paper to express an abstract idea. Language and images send our imaginations soaring and give us ways to communicate things we often can’t say any other way. It’s a worthwhile journey, that journey into self-expression — one that’s overlooked all too often because it seems whimsical, perhaps nonsensical. But it is dignifying — it is noble. It is wholeheartedly human to reveal ourselves in new ways. For that’s what expression is — offering a part of ourselves to another.
This kind of expression — writing poetry, composing a song, or simply journaling — brings things to the surface. It captures joy and gratitude, which can be fleeting, and shines light on old wounds and the cold places of the heart. Once they are on the page, outside of us, we can pick up those thoughts, ideas, or emotions and examine them a bit more clearly. We see our longings and our troubles from a fresh perspective. It can be therapeutic.
The key is to take it up as a practice of expression. The words you get out on the page don’t need to be shared with anyone to have value. And the more you write, the easier and more graceful it becomes.
People I would never associate with the literary arts have used poetry and creative writing as a means of expression. My dad, who has been an automotive parts designer for practically his whole career, has a poetic side. His job entails crunching numbers and rendering computer models, using his mind in a very systematic manner. But there was a time when he was writing songs.
In the glory days, my dad had been part of one of the great all-American neighborhood clubs: a band. They wrote songs and music. They practiced in the afternoons and evenings. Countless hours slipped by in the garage. My dad would play his guitar. Though he shied away from singing, he was the mastermind behind the lyrics of the band’s original songs. And they were songs that reminisced about love, untapped opportunities, and memories from his past. They gave me a window into another side of him and his personal life — they gave me a window into the kind of person he was on the inside.
In the 1980s, a Star Trek legend had his poetry published by a small press. Leonard Nimoy, the man responsible for immortalizing Mr. Spock in the pop culture universe, authored a little volume of prose poetry, These Words Are for You. In a simplistic style, Nimoy wrestled with what it means to be human. He delved into the need for companionship and for loving people in community. He described the fulfillment of work well done. And he gave shape to feelings that define our lives but are difficult to communicate. Something inside him made him strive to put those notions into writing.
Another passionate poet can be found in Karol Wojtyla, who later in life became renowned as Saint Pope John Paul II. This was a man who lived a rich and fulfilling life. As a young man and seminarian, he wrote plays, and that urge to express the interior life never left him. Whether he was hiking or striving toward world peace, he kept writing — even for personal reasons. And poetry was not least among his bold endeavors.
Poets come from all walks of life because it’s a genuinely human trait to seek new ways to share what we’re thinking and feeling. It’s a way to reveal ourselves to others — it’s a way to be known. Poetry is one of the most flexible and accommodating forms of expression — all you need is a pencil and words and you’re on your way to pondering and creating. If you try your hand at it, there’s a good chance you’ll discover something new about yourself.