Virtual Event Celebrates the Poetic Spirit

By Mitch Bogen and Lillian I

In a summer defined by the fight for racial justice and the battle with COVID-19, protests and policies are foremost in our minds. Which is as it should be. Yet, we should also take care in this charged moment not to forget about deeper modes of community building and personal and social change. With this in mind, on July 16, 2020, the Ikeda Center hosted its third virtual dialogue event of the year, called “The Poetic Spirit: Our Power to Reconnect a Divided World.”

The event centered around a panel discussion between Dr. Sarah Wider (Professor of English, Colgate University) and Ikeda Center Youth Committee members Isaiah Moon and Valentina Frasisti. Two hundred fifty participants from 19 countries joined via Zoom.

The poetic spirit, also referred to as the poetic heart or mind, figures centrally in Center founder Daisaku Ikeda’s philosophy of peacebuilding, a point emphasized by Center Program Manager Lillian I during her welcoming remarks. Crucially, she clarified that, for Ikeda, the poetic spirit isn’t just the possession of poets. In Ikeda’s words:

The poetic spirit can be found in any human endeavor. When the spirit of poetry lives within us, even objects do not appear as mere things; our eyes are trained on an inner spiritual reality. A flower is not just a flower. The moon is no mere clump of matter floating in the skies. Our gaze fixed on a flower or the moon, we intuitively perceive the unfathomable bonds that link us to the world.

Further, Ikeda insists that “real happiness is not found in more possessions, but through a deepening harmony with the world,” the very thing that poetry enables us to achieve, and the very thing we are so in need of now.

After an icebreaker activity during which participants came up with their own poet “pen names,” Center Program and Office Assistant Preandra Noel introduced the panel discussion, which she also moderated. She began by asking each panelist to introduce themselves and to talk a bit about a poem they have been inspired by recently.

Panel Discussion

Sarah Wider began by saying, “I’m so happy to be able to be here in a way that brings us together in so many wonderful ways across time and space!” Adding that she “lives for poetry” and that she is “certainly put back together by poetry,” Wider offered thoughts on a poem she keeps “gravitating back toward.” Called “Skeleton Fixer,” this poem by Leslie Marmon Silko of Laguna Pueblo in present day New Mexico tells the story of a “person who just keeps putting things back together, regardless.” In that spirit she offered this stanza:

Because things don’t die
they fall to pieces maybe,
get scattered or separate,
but Old Badger Man can tell
how they once fit together.

Valentina introduced herself as a PhD student in Italian Literature and Culture, saying that she wanted to share a poem written by a friend of hers that “made my day a few weeks ago.” The poem is called “Butterfly. Movement II” and includes in its final section these lines:

Where will you go,
I ask your hands.
In diaspora, I wait – patiently – to know.

These words captured Valentina’s own situation as someone waiting to know about her visa renewal, something pushed into limbo by COVID-19. She remarked on how the passivity of “to wait” contrasts with the activity “to know,” creating a tension. Then, she found the phrase “to know” conjured up a resonance in her mind with the phrase “to grow.” Her challenge, she said, is to “know and grow” and “keep smiling for a bit.”

Isaiah Moon opened by thanking the Center “for this opportunity” and “everyone here” for this chance to connect. Noting that he is originally from Philadelphia, he said that he is a writer of poetry, which he has done a lot of lately “since all we have is time!” He then shared a stanza from a poem he wrote especially for this gathering.

And just like that
The moment of inspiration came right back
This time two-hundred-fold
The type of feeling I had when I was eating candy at seven years old
The type of feeling where my name becomes in bold
A moment of clarity where I notice the forks in the road

For Isaiah, poetry is a vital “outlet” for the feelings we have that go beneath the surfaces of reality. As an example, he pointed to the Harlem Renaissance, during which artistic expression, and poetry in particular, captured the entire spirit of a time and place. He added that the poetic spirit “encompasses what we can’t explain.”

Sarah Wider extended these ideas, saying, “I’ve always felt that what President Ikeda calls the poetic spirit is a sense that there is this energy that’s connecting us…that the air and earth itself and the sky, this profound planet that we live on, is always feeding us with amazing energy.” This ties in with social justice movements, she said, in that the poetic spirit is transformative in a way that emphasizes “right relations, whether that’s with your human neighbors or whether it’s with all forms of existence. I feel that spirit moving in so many different ways and really connecting us all.”

Valentina distinguished between “the official way to be a poet” and the poetic spirit, “which is in all of us.” What she takes from Mr. Ikeda’s emphasis on the latter is that “when I feel powerless and desperate,” I can “make space for new words, new perspectives, and to start working not against my struggles, but with them as if they were the words of the poem I can write today.” She added that poetry and the poetic spirit can show how the “confrontations” in life aren’t matters of “opposites” colliding, but “are in fact of the same source that is our life and so they can be connected and interact.”

Picking up on these themes, Isaiah said that given the state of the country, with “racial tensions, the presidential election, and coronavirus” demanding our attention, responding with the poetic spirit means “digging deep and finding your true meaning, your divine mission.” He then referenced an Edgar Allen Poe poem in which the narrator can only see a cloud that “took the form…of a demon” even as “the rest of Heaven was blue.” Isaiah’s takeaway: to see the beauty that life has to offer and to “tackle fear” in a poetic way.

After this discussion, Preandra asked the panelists to return to their poem and consider how key lines might help us in “confronting these complexities of life.” Speaking first, Dr. Wider shared some further thoughts on “Skeleton Fixer,” pointing out how there is an irony in the story that sheds light on how humans can maintain perspective while engaging in the work of social change and “retuning.” As the poem proceeds, we learn that the creature that Old Badger Man has put back together is actually Old Coyote Woman. In indigenous lore, said Wider, the Coyote appears again and again as an agent of chaos and unpredictability. But this doesn’t discourage Old Badger Man, who knows that “things always need to be put back together and that you just keep doing the work.” Wider added that when things aren’t going as you might wish, you need to “trust the process,” especially when it is based on dialogue and the poetic spirit “working together.” “That’s going to be a trustworthy process,” she said.

Isaiah Moon returned to his poem by sharing its opening lines: “A moment of inspiration left / Just as fast as it came. / While I am passing through space and time / Trying to reframe.” The poem dealt with some “raw” emotions dealing with loss, he said. But looking forward is key, adding that “Miles Davis said that the last note might sound bad but it’s only as good as it sounds from the next note on.” For Moon, the poetic spirit is all about “the next line” and how it “defines the last line.” That’s what it feels like to be “connected with life,” in the flow of “cause and effect.”

Before turning back to her poem, Valentina said that over the last month she feels she hasn’t been in touch with her poetic spirit much, that “very deep part of me.” Still, it’s something she knows she can access when “hope and happiness” are hard to come by. Here, she offered an analogy: “It’s kind of like breathing when you are swimming. The time spent underwater is much more than when you’re actually breathing, but the breathing is what allows you to keep swimming.” Thus, “I think that my poetic spirit in these times is just like breathing in the pool of struggles.” She concluded with these lines from her friend’s poem: “The tree trained against the wall can / never be the thick oak in the middle of the plain; but it may / bear the sweetest fruit.” So if there are no “standards to prove our poetic spirit,” she concluded, we know it’s “there and growing.”

Poets Are Those Who See the Eternal

After the panel discussion, participants then had the opportunity to create their own poems in their small breakout groups of four or five people each. Each panelist contributed a phrase that participants could use as the opening line to their collective poem:

  • Sarah Wider: At the heart of listening, I hear …
  • Isaiah Moon: As I look into the future’s eyes this is what I say …
  • Valentina Frasisti: Walking with what I do not want to change …

After creating their poems, the groups discussed the following questions: First, based on today’s panel discussion and small group exercise, what do you think having a poetic spirit means? Then, how do you think you can use this poetic spirit to better navigate the current state of our world? Following the breakout groups, participants shared their poems in a virtual open mic session. (First, the panelists shared a poem they composed together, which you can read here.) Here are a few samples from the more than 40 poems that were created:

As I look into the future’s eyes this is what I say
Welcome home!
Welcome to the best time of your life!

A time riddled with strife
But filled with hope, happiness, courage, and pride
As we confront our greater self
A child-like innocence comes into play and engulfs our elf-like self.

At the heart of listening, I hear
The voices of those waiting to be born
Filled with dancing light to illuminate the world

* * *

At the heart of listening, I hear suffering.
And a yearning for a new hope

At the heart of listening, I hear
The sound of possibilities and promises
At the heart of listening, I hear them. And I realize I'm hearing myself
Out of chaos and upheaval, hope for the future of humanity

* * *

Walking with what I do not want to change
I gently face my weaknesses
And engage in joyful dialogue.

The event concluded with some thoughts from Sarah Wider. “My heart is just full hearing all your poems,” she said. Really, the creative cooperation of the event has been “beyond my wildest imaginings,” she added. It gives “credence to the fact that there really is this poetic spirit that we all share and that we are all held within it, and that we all connect through it.”

For a closing poem she turned to one from Daisaku Ikeda that’s “about the poets, and who the poets are. And I would say that all of us, all of us, whether we call ourselves poets or not,” can bring into our lives a creative sense, and a faith in our capacity to create. Further, Ikeda’s poem shows the importance of “always opening the space for something new to happen, for something new to be seen.”

Poets are those who see the eternal.
The constant flow of life
is forever in their gaze.
That is why they are awake
to the precious irreplaceability
of each moment of being—
this moment now,
this fleeting instant.

Because of their love
for each life-filled moment,
poets cannot refrain from giving expression
to the poetic spirit within.”

“These thoughts speak so powerfully,” Wider said, "to what you have all done now in terms of the poetic spirit within that you’ve given expression to for this fleeting moment.” More than that, she said, even as the event fades into the past, “I will take with me that kind of vivacious, vibrant, ‘Hello, I’m home!’” Dr. Wider then concluded with these hopes for everyone attending the virtual dialogue:

We are awake, I feel so alive right now. I’m so grateful for that sense of vibrancy; again, that you all have brought to this moment and that you’ve helped us create together. I certainly hope that you will take this forward, and that. . .we will just stay really vibrant within this poetic spirit that really does hold us and connect us all together and that makes a future possible in which we all can be together celebrating our vibrant and life-giving differences. So again, thanks to you all.

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