The Poetic Heart of Human Possibility

Sarah Wider Author Event Celebrates The Art of True Relations

By Mitch Bogen

View a photo gallery of the event

Open. Humble. Welcoming of all experience. These are attributes of the “kitchen table” that forms the central image of the Joy Harjo poem featured by Sarah Wider during her February 22, 2014, talk at the Ikeda Center. These attributes describe Dr. Wider, too. Speaking on the theme, “The Poetic Heart of Human Possibility,” the Colgate University professor of American literature and women’s studies structured her presentation to include significant contributions from attendees on the many meanings of the poetic heart and spirit in their own lives.

The afternoon’s theme forms the subtitle of the new Dialogue Path Press title, The Art of True Relations, which Dr. Wider co-authored with Center founder Daisaku Ikeda. During her remarks Dr. Wider touched on many subjects from the book, such as the ways we create conditions for human possibility, how poetry is born, and how we nourish one another both in times of well being and times of struggle. At the conclusion of the two-hour presentation and discussion, she signed books for many of the attendees.

Listening With the Whole Heart

After welcoming remarks from Center events manager Kevin Maher, editorial manager Jeff Farr reflected on the place of The Art of True Relations in the Dialogue Path Press catalogue, praising it as the dialogue with the greatest sense of flow and give and take between the authors. He also noted that this dialogue book is the third Mr. Ikeda has co-authored with an American woman, following dialogues with futurist Hazel Henderson in 2004 and peace studies pioneer Elise Boulding in 2010.

And he highlighted one of the book’s core ideas: the central role that listening plays in creating the relations and bonds that give life meaning. Quoting Dr. Wider from the book, he read: “Listening is a pivotal yet often overlooked value. At my parents’ home, a plaque hung in an often-seen place reminded the reader to ‘Take time.’ In her own handwriting, Mom added, ‘Take time to listen.’” Clarifying that the art of listening is made ever more difficult in “our relentlessly noisy age,” Wider continues: “when we begin to listen to our inner stillness, we can begin to listen, truly listen, to others. Such listening, with interest and without judgment, is key for building cultures of peace.”

Masao Yokota was impressed how the compassion of Dr. Wider's words matched the compassion of her behavior.In her introduction of Professor Wider, Center senior research fellow Virginia Benson also focused on the power of listening. In fact, Benson recalled, it was Wider’s commitment to this activity, this way of being, that first inspired then Center president Masao Yokota to invite her, soon after he met her at the 2004 meeting of the Thoreau Society, into the Center’s network of scholarly friends. In a recent conversation, Benson asked him why he was drawn to Dr. Wider that day. Mr. Yokota’s answer, said Benson, was that “he was struck by a special quality she has,” that she “listened with her whole heart to what other panelists had to say,” adding that he was impressed how “the compassion of her words matched the compassion of her behavior.”

From that day forward, Dr. Wider has contributed to the Center in critical ways, including as co-convener and keynote speaker for the 2006 Ikeda Forum for Intercultural Dialogue, “Emerson and the Power of Imagination,” where, at Wider’s urging, the Center for the first time featured Daisaku Ikeda’s poetry in the context of a public event.  She also was a co-convener of and panelist at the 2007 Ikeda Forum, “Women and the Power of Friendship,” and a speaker at the 2005 Ikeda Forum on Whitman and 2010 Ikeda Forum on the democratic spirit.

To close her remarks, Benson said, “I hope this sets the stage for us to enjoy together the adventure of our friendship with Sarah.” Much of what followed included unscripted dialogue among participants, making the rest of the afternoon an adventure of heart and mind.

The Conditions That Give Rise To Human Possibility

Two main threads distinguished Dr. Wider’s presentation, both of which formed the basis for spirited small and whole group dialogue sessions. The first theme considered the conditions that give rise to human possibility. Wider is a scholar of American Transcendentalism and her initial remarks built on Emerson’s notion of a “hospitality of mind” or “hospitality of soul.” Quoting the Sage of Concord, she referred to “how easily and happily we think in certain company,” and “how essential this commerce of good conversation is to fruitfulness in thought and words.” And she noted that Emerson spoke of “hospitality in degrees,” with the higher forms including what Emerson described as “thought of the guest: See what he can do and aid him to do that…. Let him feel that his aspirations are felt and honored by you.” This sense of hospitality focuses on bringing forth potential.

Next, she focused on the relationship between possibility and poetry. To illustrate, Wider shared a section from The Art of True Relations in which Daisaku Ikeda recalled a conversation with South African poet Oswald Mtshali in which the two men inquired as to how one becomes a poet. Mtshali said this:

My mother’s death was a shock to me, so great that I almost couldn’t recover from it. It took me a long time to get over it. But eventually, I noticed something. Whatever strength I had was something my mother had given to me, left to me. My mother’s words were alive in me; my mother lived on inside me. When I recognized that, a poem to my mother welled up spontaneously from the depths of my heart.

Those of us who have lost our mothers, said Wider, know this unique pain. Yet it was not the pain and emptiness that gave birth to his poetry. His poetry, Wider clarified, claimed its origin “not with absence or loss but in presence and strength.” “My mother’s words were alive in me,” he said.

Wider advised that we should take care to honor words that contain possibility and potential.If it’s true that others' words live inside us, Wider advised that we should take care to honor those that contain possibility and potential, and to be on guard against those that deflate us and shut down options. “I am still startled,” she said, “by how much resistance meets an invitation to imagine a different way of being.” So often, she observed, our expressions of possibilities are met with phrases such as “That will never happen,” “That’s idealistic,” “That’s not the way the world is.” She also lamented our tendency to categorize phenomena into pairs of opposites.

To celebrate the embrace of possibility, Dr. Wider invited her child, Taiward, a student at the Berklee School of Music in Boston, to lead the gathering in singing the beloved traditional peace song “Down by the Riverside.”

I’m gonna lay down my sword and shield,
Down by the riverside
Down by the riverside
I’m gonna lay down my sword and shield,
Down by the riverside
And study war no more

These beautiful sentiments, said Dr. Wider, echo the words of the prophet Isaiah from the Hebrew Bible, words among the most hopeful ever stated: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.” “Fundamental transformation is possible,” she added, “What was used to kill can be essentially changed into that which nurtures life.”

A vivid example of this, said Wider, occurred more than 1,000 years ago in the region of the Northeast that now includes the town of Hamilton, New York, where Professor Wider lives and teaches. She explained that

the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca peoples created themselves as a larger community dedicated to cooperation, burying their tools of war beneath the Great White Pine, known to the Haudenosaunee* as the Tree of Peace. In place of war, a towering tree rises, supporting life in its branches. Weapons literally decay and return to being indistinguishable parts of the earth.

To set up the first group dialogue, which would focus on sources of the poetic spirit and the place of poetry in each of our lives, Dr. Wider shared two quotes. The poet Audre Lorde, she said, believed that “poetry lays a foundation for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before.” And Oswald Mtshali encouraged us: “Poetry. . . . is the force that makes us decent people, people who are filled with empathy for those in need or in pain, those suffering from injustice or other wrongs or social ills.”

Asking attendees to gather into pairs and small groups, Dr. Wider said: Take a few moments to think about what makes the poetic heart possible in a given time or place. How do we nourish those sources and places? After ten minutes of discussion, Dr. Wider turned the floor over to participants who wished to share insights that emerged through their dialogues. Each person who spoke offered a unique perspective on the meaning and value of poetry in everyday lives:

  • Poetry, like art in general, “enables us to transmute or transform pain and loss.” Through metaphor and imagery poetry makes our experiences “accessible to one another.”
  • We nurture the poetic spirit by not comparing ourselves with accomplished poets. Just putting “thoughts, feelings, and impressions down on paper is so empowering—even if you misplace the poem!” By asking us to look closely at the world, poetry is a way out of “the rut of the mundane.”
  • A poem comes from the heart, even in the West, “where the mind tends to overrule the heart.”
  • One woman located a source of poetry in “her life with her children.” This poetry was marked by a shared sense of “receptivity” to what the other had to offer.
  • Poetry emerges from our actions, from the ordinary courage to make a new friend or try a new experience.
  • Poetry is a “source of life.” Seen poetically little things in life can provide us with pleasure, with resilience, and more. Thus, poems are “lived as well as written.”
  • Sources of poetry: the beyond; the deep; the universal. In practice, poetry is “full-bodied” and goes straight from heart to mind and mind to heart.
  • A poem can begin with the inspiration of a line or two, but there is a deepening process, a discovery process, as the poem is written.
  • The poetic spirit is discouraged by too much emphasis on “orthodoxy” and current vogues in the established poetry community.
  • Rather than talking just of the poetic spirit, we might prefer to speak of the “creative spirit.”

Throughout these remarks, Dr. Wider listened with clear delight. By way of summation she noted that she finds the notion that poetry should be “this way or that way” to be “horrific.” It was clear from all the shared comments that poetry touches aspects of everyone’s lives, always in unique ways, observed Wider, and that poetry “is the heart and spirit of everyone.” Referencing Audre Lorde again, Wider said that “poetry is for all of us”; it’s something you can do with just a piece of paper and a pen. It is the art form that requires the fewest externals, and in this way is truly accessible to us all.

The Kitchen Table

The other main thread celebrated the image of the kitchen table, which forms the heart of Joy Harjo’s poem, “Perhaps the World Ends Here.”

The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.
The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on.
We chase chickens or dogs away from it. Babies teethe at the corners. They scrape their knees under it.
It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human. We make men at it, we make women.
At this table we gossip, recall enemies and the ghosts of lovers.
Our dreams drink coffee with us as they put their arms around our children. They laugh with us at our poor falling-down selves and as we put ourselves back together once again at the table.
This table has been a house in the rain, an umbrella in the sun.
Wars have begun and ended at this table. It is a place to hide in the shadow of terror. A place to celebrate the terrible victory.
We have given birth on this table, and have prepared our parents for burial here.
At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and remorse. We give thanks.
Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.

Dr. Wider’s meditation on the poem revealed the character of her own poetic heart:

The table welcomes all experience. Babies can soothe their sore mouths and teeth on it; wonderful food is shared at it. There is no end to the strength-giving comfort this table offers. I think of a line my students always love: “Our dreams drink coffee with us.” And yet, or because this table encompasses all of human experience, it too is the site where war has been brought into existence. How much easier to imagine that war belongs to . . . the official furniture in the Pentagon. Even our kitchen tables are not exempt, though of course I invite you to make them so.

To conclude her prepared remarks, Dr. Wider offered recollections of a place where too few kitchen tables remain: the Tohoku region of Japan destroyed by the tsunami in early 2011. She said that by the time of her visit in October 2012, “the mangled buildings had mostly been torn down, the broken toys and tables and TVs and computers and beds had been carted off elsewhere or collected into massive piles and screened from view.”  

One family had been mourning their losses by making music together.Wider did meet with a family in the kitchen of a newly rebuilt home, where she was offered the red beans and rice that Japanese serve on auspicious occasions. She also joined families around a different kind of table, a conference room table at the SGI’s culture center in the region.* There she met with local men and women, who, with carefully chosen words, shared their stories of loss and renewal. To become whole again, some had taken to writing to connect with the loved ones and family members who died. Another family had been mourning their losses by making music together, creating what Wider described as, borrowing from Mr. Ikeda, “resonance” amid “the devastation.” Others simply shared food with one another and with visitors. “Nourishment in the moment,” Dr. Wider called it.

The final dialogue session centered on questions that included: What is your “kitchen table”? What makes it possible for listening to take place at this table? Using the same structure as earlier, ten minutes of small group dialogue was followed by sharing of perspectives with the whole group. These are some of the ideas expressed:

  • A kitchen table is where you “ask someone how their day was.” It’s where we express appreciation for each other and for our lives.
  • The gifts of the kitchen table happen when you are “being open without any agenda” regarding others. Where you let go of ego and fears of being wrong.
  • The table and the sharing of food are a metaphor for community connection and the ways that “something life giving” emerges from many of our gatherings.
  • At times when we feel like closing ourselves off, due to being too busy or sad, the kitchen table encourages an open heart that promises connection.
  • The kitchen table is the place where the “treasures of the heart” flourish. These are the treasures Daisaku Ikeda urged families to value in the aftermath of the tsunami in Tohoku.
  • A woman who works with children with cancer, told of how families suspend judgment in the presence of children that suffer, choosing to be fully present. This is a kitchen table created in the most trying circumstances.
  • For one man, his family kitchen table was transformed into a ping-pong table where he and his brother could get past their differences and play together. And that same table was where his mother encouraged him to overcome his fear of holding his new baby niece.
  • A kitchen table was for one woman the site of her Buddhist practice, where, as the poem said, all things could happen, from birth to preparation for death. It was here, at “this worldwide kitchen table,” she cried tears over the tsunami.
  • Another woman’s kitchen table, once covered with bills, was cleared to properly host a houseguest. Now, she has determined “to keep the table clear so I can invite people to sit there to share with me.”

 Each Line Equally Important

Earlier in her presentation, when Dr. Wider told of the Great White Pine beneath which the Haudenosaunee buried their weapons, she also spoke of another tree of peace, one more humble and immediate, a tree cherished especially in Japan: the cherry tree. Specifically, she shared a memory that Daisaku Ikeda included in The Art of True Relations. In this story, said Wider, Mr. Ikeda demonstrated the meaning of the wonderful Japanese concept of kokoro, which means heartmind – not heart plus mind, but the two melded together as one. “No hyphen, no separation,” she said. “No opposition, no division.”

Recalling the cherry trees that flourished in the garden of his family’s home, Mr. Ikeda commented: “One spring, as we sat watching their petals dance down, my oldest son started a poem with the words ‘Blossom blizzard.’ I continued with ‘On the father’s shoulders’; my wife completed it with ‘On the mother’s hair.’ This haiku we composed together is one of my fondest memories.”

Pausing to reflect, Professor Wider said: “Poetry written together. A poem arising from a distinct place, from the moment in which three people perceive, experience, and share what is distinct yet common to all. There is no hierarchy. Each line is equally important.”


* The Haudenosaunee is the name given to the five nations mentioned in this quote. In 1722, the number of nations became six, when migrating peoples were welcomed into the confederation.

** The Soka Gakkai International does not have temples or churches in the traditional sense. Each region has a Culture Center which hosts a wide range of activities. The main site of religious activity is in people’s homes, where weekly meetings promote and reflect on the practice of Nichiren Buddhism.

Learn more about The Art of True Relations here

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