Springtime Poetry

Sermon and moment for all ages copyright (c) 2024 Dan Harper. As delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. As usual, the sermon as delivered contained substantial improvisation. I did not have time to correct typos and other errors in the text.

Opening words

The opening words were the poem “Spring and All [By the toad to the contagious hospital]” by William Carlos Williams.


The first reading was “Winter Poem” by Nikki Giovanni.

The second reading was “Instructions on Not Giving Up” by Ada Limón.

The final reading was “Thank You” by Ross Gay.

Sermon: “Springtime poetry”

There’s an old Christian spiritual practice called “lectio divina.” That Latin phrase, which I’m probably mispronouncing, means “divine reading.” Supposedly, lectio divina dates back to the early sixth century when the monk Benedict, founder of the Christian Benedictine monastic order, instructed the monks under him to use it as a spiritual practice. It worked something like this: A monk would read one passage from the Bible to himself slowly, over and over again, trying to hear the voice of God in that passage. Then the monk would meditate on the passage as it related to his own life, waiting for an image or a feeling or a perception about God to arise in his mind. The third step in lectio divina would be for the monk to talk back to God about what had arisen for him, maybe even hearing some feedback back from God. In the final step, the monk is supposed to contemplate what he has felt and heard, and feel peaceful and contented, with new energy for living his monastic life. At least, that’s how I understand it. Some of you may use lectio divina as a spiritual practice yourselves, and if so please tell me about my errors after the service.

I first became aware of lectio divina in the nineties and the aughts. At that time there was a movement called the “emergent church” among both mainline Protestants and evangelical Christians. The emergent church folks saw that churches were losing the younger generation — Generation X, in those days — because the typical American church service had become too formulaic, too intellectual and lacking in spiritual depth. The emergent church movement had some real successes in attracting young people to return to churches, and some Unitarian Universalists started paying attention. (I myself started using some of the emergent church techniques when I led worship.) Lectio divina was one of the spiritual practices that gained currency among us, as both a personal and communal spiritual practice. And we Unitarian Universalists applied the lectio divina technique, not just to the Bible, but to poetry.

While I’ve never used the specific technique of lectio divina myself, I have found that reading a good poem can be a spiritual practice. To use a metaphor from electronics, I’ve found that a really good poem can rewire your brain. Back in the aughts, when I was experimenting with emergent church techniques, I was at the New Bedford Unitarian church. There were three or four published poets in that small congregation, one of whom was Everett Hoagland, the award-winning poet who came here last September to read his poetry. Not only was Everett an exceptionally good poet himself, he mentored other poets and organized events where they could read their poetry aloud. I discovered that listening to poetry being read aloud to a group of people made the poetry especially powerful for me. It did something to me. Just as listening to live music is more powerful than listening to music on your earbuds, I find that listening to live poetry is more powerful than reading it to myself.

With that overly long preface, I’d like to read some poems about springtime, and say a few words about each poem. To begin, I’ll remind you of the poem by William Carlos Williams which started our service this morning, “Spring and All [By the toad to the contagious hospital]” by William Carlos Williams. [During the sermon, I quoted the first 8 lines of this poem.]

A couple of facts about William Carlos Williams that are not well known, but may be of interest to us: he was Latino, and he was a Unitarian Universalist. Both those things place him a bit outside the mainstream of U.S. culture. Perhaps that gave him a broader insight into human nature. He was also a physician, and was the chief of pediatrics at Passaic General Hospital in New Jersey. This last fact helps us understand why he began a poem about spring with the phrase, “By the road to the contagious hospital….” In popular culture, spring is a season that all about pretty flowers and unicorns and rainbows. William Carlos Williams understands that the real-life season spring is much messier than the pop culture version. As he says in this poem: “…They enter the new world naked, / cold, uncertain of all / save that they enter. All about them
the cold, familiar wind — …”

No unicorns and rainbows here. Cold and warmth, winter and spring, joy and sorrow are mixed together in human experience.

The first reading, “Winter Poem” by Nikki Giovanni, also mixes seemingly discreet things together. Nikki Giovanni is another person who doesn’t quite fit the stereotype of a “typical” American poet: she’s been called the Poet of the Black Revolution, she writes children’s books, she’s a feminist, she likes hip hop, and she’s proud of her down-home Appalachian roots.

“Winter Poem” by Nikki Giovanni

While this is in fact a springtime poem about flowers, it’s a little bit weird. The “I” of the poem, whoever it is that’s narrating the poem, starts out as a human, then becomes a snowflake, then becomes a spring rain, then becomes a flower. Winter turns into spring without sharp boundaries, and there don’t seem to be sharp boundaries between humans, snow, rain, and flowers either. It’s all an interconnected web. Or maybe more precisely, it could be an interconnected web, if we let it. Back in 2019, Nikki Giovanni told this story about growing up in Appalachia:

“…if you had a flat tire in the old days when people had flat tires, the best place to be was in Appalachia…it’s always going to be a woman [saying], ‘Pa! Somebody’s car broke down!’ And he would say, ‘Be right there!’ and they would come down and help you. They’d help fix the tire. And you’d be sitting on the porch with the woman while Pa did that. And of course you didn’t have any money and they didn’t either. So, you’d be saying thank you. But it was a safe place.”

And it was a safe place whether you were White or Black. In Nikki Giovanni’s opinion, the people in American politics who are fostering hate and divisiveness tend to be people driving expensive cars who can hire other people to fix their flat tires, and they’re using poor people for their own ends. According to the poet Asha French, “Nikki Giovanni’s deep sight sidesteps easy stereotypes to get to the heart of the matter: economic justice for all Americans.” (1) Or as we Unitarian Universalists might put it, the heart of the matter is that we are all interconnected in the web of existence.

Ada Limón, the current Poet Laureate of the United States, wrote another atypical springtime poem, which she has titled “Instructions on Not Giving Up.”

While Ada Limón grew up in Sonoma, California, and still lives there part of every year, to me this sounds more like a New England poem. When she says that the new green leaves that come out in springtime are “Patient, plodding, a green skin / growing over whatever winter did to us, a return / to the strange idea of continuous living despite / the mess of us, the hurt, the empty” — that sounds more like winter and spring in New England than in Sonoma, California. However, having spent 13 years living just south of Sonoma, California, it is true that northern California winters can can be hard in their own way. Northern California has had an especially hard winter this year: storms with hurricane force winds, intense rainstorms, flooding, landslides. A hard winter can take it out of you. All the difficult parts of life can take it out of you. Life is messy, it hurts us, it can make us feel empty. Yet like the trees in springtime, we too can put out new life. We can take all of life — the meanness of hurts and emptiness, and also the sublime glory of springtime.

And so it is that we conclude with final springtime poem by Ross Gay titled “Thank You.”

Parts of this poem remind me of another poem, one written twenty-five hundred years ago. When Ross Gay says, “All will one day turn to dust” I can hear echoes of the ancient poet who wrote the book Ecclesiastes: “dust returns to the earth as it was.” Yet the poet of Ecclesiastes ends by repeating the opening lines of their poem — “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity” — while Ross Gay ends his poem quite differently: “Say only thank you. Thank you.”

I sometimes feel that most religion today does not give thanks often enough. The first thing the conservative Christians tell us is that we are sinners. The first thing that Unitarian Universalists and other religious progressives tell us is that the world is full of injustice that needs to be corrected, which isn’t so very different from saying that we are all sinners. And what does Ross Gay do? He tells us to say thank you. This to me is something that’s missing from too much of today’s religion. Watch your breath steam out from your mouth on a cold spring morning, walk through your still-dormant garden, and say thank you. We need to give thanks more often.

It would be easy to dismiss Ross Gay as hopelessly idealistic. After all, he’s just another privileged college professor. Yet he’s also a Black man living in the United States, who said in a 2021 interview that he’s always aware of racial justice when he writes poetry. (2) Or as he put it in an NPR interview: “Joy is the evidence of our reaching across to one another in the midst of — or as a way even of — caring for one another’s sorrows.” (3) Ross Gay sees joy and sorrow as being connected. He also believes that joy does not happen in isolation; joy only happens through your connection to others. You can’t have joy unless you’re connected to other people, and to the whole universe; joy arises because we pare part of the interconnected web of all existence.

And this is why we say thank you. Yes, we know that we’re all going to die sooner or later, and there’s a great deal of sorrow in that knowledge. Yes, we know that there is much that is horribly wrong with this world, and there’s a great deal of sorrow in that knowledge. But when we reach out to others in the midst of our many sorrows, when we care for one another in the midst of sorrow, joy can arise.

I began by telling you how reading poetry can be a sort of spiritual practice. To reuse that overused electronics metaphor, a good poem can rewire your brain. And I don’t mean that it changes the way you think so much as I mean a good poem can change the way you are in the world. Poetry can change your very being.

Lately, I’ve been finding that I need to have my being changed. Between COVID and climate change and race relations and Gaza and presidential politics — all this on top of the individual sorrows and griefs that we all face in our personal lives — the past few years have been difficult for me, and I think for most of us. There’s a lot of sorrow floating around in the world.

In these times, it is all too easy to say, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity” — and stop there. But I hope these poems about springtime prompt you to go beyond the vanity of vanities. With William Carlos Williams, may we see that even outside the contagious hospital, new life is emerging with spring. With Nikki Giovanni, may we understand that we are connected with snow and rain and flowers, and with all of humanity as well. With Ada Limón, may we realize that like the trees in springtime, we too can put out new life. And with Ross Gay, may we remember to say thank you. Over and over again, may we remember to say thank you.


(1) Asha French, “Deeper Than Double: Nikki Giovanniand her Appalachian Elders,” Pluck: Journal of Affrilachian Arts and Culture (University of Kentucky, June, 2020) https://pluckjournal.uky.edu/welcome/2020/06/03/deeper-than-double-nikki-giovanni-and-her-appalachian-elders/

(2) “Poet Ross Gay explores a joy informed by deep sorrow,” interview with Leah Rumack, 11 Jan. 2021, Broadview magazine website, https://broadview.org/ross-gay-interview/

(3) “How Ross Gay Finds Joy In The Smallest of ‘Delights’,” interview with Christina Cala, 19 August 2021, transcript of NPR “CodeSwitch” radio program, https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2021/08/19/1029287927/how-ross-gay-finds-joy-in-the-smallest-of-delights