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David Kirby: Why you should think like a poet

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Illustration by Pierce Thiot

Editor’s note: This essay is part of Deseret Magazine’s cover story “How to heal America’s partisan divide.”

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Illustration by Kyle Hilton

Icame of age in the rural South in the 1950s, and what I saw there had as much to do with my becoming a poet as anything else. I remember the “White” and “Colored” signs over water fountains and the doors of waiting rooms in train stations. Everyone in my elementary school classes looked like me. It dawned on me slowly that the world I was moving through wasn’t put together right.

So I got out pencil and paper and began to make another world without knowing what kind of world it would be, because poets are never sure what they’re going to find.

Poets don’t lollygag in sylvan settings, waiting for inspiration. Like itinerant humans and certain species of birds, poets wander the world without any expectations, picking up one thing or another and wondering what to do with it. Poets, or at least the good ones (because there’s bad poetry, just as there’s bad everything), are the busiest people I know.

Before he became a full-time poet, John Keats trained as a medical student. One of his teachers was Sir Astley Cooper, who said a surgeon needed three things: the eye of an eagle, the hand of a lady, and the heart of a lion. When I read that, I thought, “Wait, in what profession do you not need the eye of an eagle, the hand of a lady, and the heart of a lion?” Sharp vision, subtle execution and boundless confidence are essential to everyone, poets included.

And these are the qualities we need if we are to cross the partisan divide. Certainly we need to keep our eagle eyes out for the people who will help us narrow that gap. But, and this is the tricky part, we won’t know who these people are until we find them, and often they’re the ones we least expect. 

Like poets, then, we need to be clear-eyed, careful and confident, and we also need to get out there and stumble around until we come across the people who can help us, even though we don’t know who they are yet.

That’s how politics work. Think of Lyndon Johnson with his big belly and Texas drawl. He looked and sounded like a diehard segregationist, but it was Johnson who fought like hell for the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and got it passed.

When I began to question the way of life that had been handed to me in my Southern hometown, I was told that things had always been that way and always would be. Yet only a few years later, the races were mingling freely everywhere. I remember an old timer saying, “If we’d known it would be this easy, we would have done it a long time ago.”

Like poets, then, we need to be clear-eyed, careful and confident, and we also need to get out there and stumble around until we come across the people who can help us, even though we don’t know who they are yet. Poet May Sarton said, “One must think like a hero to behave like a merely decent human being.” Since she was one, Sarton might have added that one must also think like a poet.

David Kirby is an American poet and the Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor of English at Florida State University.

This story appears in the January/February issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.