Lines that Come When You Need Them

One of the best reasons to read poems, reread them, and learn a few by heart is that lines come back to help you when you need them. A haunting turn of phrase will turn out to provide a fitting response to a moment for which words don’t come easily. An apt image will protect us from the seductions of popular clichés. A clear and simple sentence will speak our sorrow.

I wrote a list recently of answers to a question students have posed in various ways over the years as public events and personal pressures have seemed to render poetry irrelevant: why read a poem at a time like this? (Surely public debate, technical training, good journalism and service at soup kitchens are more urgent, are they not?) I believe the not so obvious reasons to read a poem are especially pertinent at a time like this — in the aftermath of an election many of us fear will unleash a cascade of consequences, especially for the poor and vulnerable, people of color, immigrants, women, and the earth’s ecosystems, that are hard to face.

Rather than recite those reasons, it occurs to me to share lines from poems that have returned to me since November 8 and have given me moments of consolation, direction, clarity, renewed resolve, sober reflection and even laughter in the midst of the torrent of reaction that has been unleashed. My intention is to reflect on lines from particular poems over the coming days in the hope that what comes back to me and gives me encouragement may serve similar purposes for any of you who read this, and perhaps lead you to the poems I plucked them from and receive other gifts offered there.

Here’s the first of several, from Wendell Berry’s “Manifesto: Mad Farmer, Liberation Front”

So, friends, every day do something

that won’t compute. Love the Lord.

Love the world. Work for nothing.

Take all that you have and be poor.

Love someone who does not deserve it.

Denounce the government and embrace

the flag. Hope to live in that free

republic for which it stands.

I read this poem, and these lines with particular emphasis, to a class of graduating seniors on commencement day a few years back. Some of them had been in classes where I had urged them to “keep one foot outside any institution you inhabit, and a careful, critical eye on its processes.” I have to admit that right now I’m more inclined to denounce the government than embrace the flag, but Berry is right to call our attention to the hope those colors represent, and to reclaim that hope even when, to some of us, the immediate future (and, with climate-change deniers in power, the long-term future) looks bleak. Hope is a form of energy. It is a measure of intention, and of faith. It is a gift and a virtue — a spiritual muscle that operates on both voluntary and involuntary impulses.

To do what won’t compute is a cryptic reminder that what we need most as we struggle to live in healthy communities on a healthy planet is the capacity both to organize our knowledge, foster collective impulse control and also to imagine and dare what doesn’t fit the norms of the moment. Yesterday I read a valuable blog entitled “This is Not Normal” ( that reminded readers that “the one thing authoritarians want you to do is to accept that their conduct is normal, even when it is not.” As norms shift and behavior once regarded as unacceptable by both legal and moral standards is tolerated and, by some, celebrated, the challenge to challenge those norms every day seems pertinent, even if only by saying, in effect, “Wait — what are we doing?”

I love Berry’s lines for their hospitality: he speaks to us as friends. I love them for their openness to others’ imaginations: the “something” that won’t compute could be any of a number of acts of creative resistance to dangerous compliance. I love them for their clear allusion to the Gospel challenge to give all that you have, to serve, to hope. And for their affirmation of a patriotism that knows its place and is rooted in a wider vision of peace and freedom. I recommend the whole poem, which recommends, a bit further on that we laugh, that we be crafty, and finally that we “practice resurrection.”

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