Your inner poet can end the war in Ukraine

Poetry does make better writers and also better people

Illustration by Oteph Antipolo

In 2011, at exactly 8:58 p.m. on Dec. 31 the year before, English author Neil Gaiman wrote in his digital journal, “May your coming year be filled with magic and dreams and good madness. I hope you readsome fine books and kiss someone who thinks you’re wonderful, and don’t forget to make some art—write or draw or build or sing or live as only you can. And hope, somewhere in the next year, you surprise yourself.”

It’s been 12 days since we rang out the old and rang in the new, knowing somehow we are ringing in the same, old things. By this time, I suppose many of us are wondering if any of our New Year’s resolutions will stick. It’s still a brand new year, not even half a month old, after all, and it’s a good time as any, including the last day of this new year, to make a change.

Personally, I think I will return to the craft of writing, to “always be a poet,” as French poet Charles Baudelaire once said, “even in prose.”

On New Year’s Eve, I was in Bangkok, listening to the booming fireworks. I couldn’t see them from where I sat by the lotus pond of the Sukhothai Hotel, but I could hear them, like bombs falling from the sky at wartime. I could also see their reflection on the glass windows of the hotel wing across from me and on the dark surface of the pond.

TRANSCENDENCE A pink lotus, a symbol of strength, resilience, and rebirth, floating at a pond in Sukhotai Bangkok (Photo captured by the author on a recent trip)

I was trying to write a poem to usher in 2023, but a former student sent me a New Year greeting and asked what my advice would be if he were to pursue his writing dreams. I wrote back and said, “Everybody’s writing as they speak now. Try to be craftier with your words. Be a writer.”

Here’s where poetry comes in. Don’t ask me what poetry is for, there is no right answer. Nobody reads a poem to know what might happen, poetry just is—the journey, not the destination. Each line does not necessarily lead you to the next by way of logic. Sometimes, it’s just the sound, the connections between words, the visual conjured with every phrase, the feelings evoked between the lines. But poetry—or the practice of it—does make better writers. There’s a mindfulness to it that is not often required in regular writing, a sense of hyperawareness and a propulsion to go beyond surfaces. As such, poetry—or the practice of it—does make better people, too.

In 2023, kindness is top on the agenda. I don’t know why. It seems to be a common refrain when I ask around for what people wish for in the new year. I guess because we ended the year before with a war raging in Europe and a new iteration of the Cold War lurking in the dark horizon, and we cannot seem to understand that, after everything, after all our breakthroughs in science and technology, after all our changing perspectives on racial, gender, and socio-economic equality, youth, etc., we’re still pissing over each other for supremacy.

WAR CLOUDS Kiev abandons negotiations and settles into a more determined resistance with the support of western forces (Aris Messinis/AFP)

I suppose climate change, now more undeniable than ever with every storm or drought or a heatwave in the winter regions, is also pushing the agenda of kindness. Judging from the humanitarian crises we needed to confront in 2022, we’re going to have to be even kinder this year or kind enough to pool resources together to come to the aid of those who may suffer the brunt of climate catastrophes worsening at every turn.

Someone, I tell you, in another time, will remember us. —Sappho

In “Kindness,” Poetry Foundation’s designated Young People’s Poet Laureate (2019-2021) Naomi Shihab Nye wrote, “Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside, / you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing. / You must wake up with sorrow. / You must speak to it till your voice / catches the thread of all sorrows / and you see the size of the cloth.”

Robert Burns’ “Auld Lang Syne,” his take on a Scottish folk song with a long history, is a call for kindness toward old friends and the memories made with them. “For auld lang syne, my Dear, / For auld lang syne, / We’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet, / For auld lang syne,” wrote Burns in a letter he wrote in 1793 to an editor, claiming that the old Scot song “has never been in print, nor even in manuscript, until I took it down from an old man’s singing.”

But yes, every new year is bittersweet, sometimes more bitter because it signals what we must leave behind and only promises what we may gain in its place.

In “New Year,” Scottish poet Carol Ann Duffy wrote, “I drop the dying year behind me like a shawl / and let it fall. The urgent fireworks fling themselves / against the night, flowers of desire, love’s fervency. / Out of the space around me, standing here, I shape / your absent body against mine. You touch me as the giving air.”

In an older poem, “Burning the Old Year,” Nye also associates the new year with loss. “Where there was something and suddenly isn’t, / an absence shouts, celebrates, leaves a space / I begin again with the smallest numbers. / Quick dance, shuffle of losses and leaves, / only the things I didn’t do / crackle after the blazing dies,” she wrote.

So yes, I guess kindness must be abundant as we turn a new leaf at the start of every year—kindness toward ourselves as well as kindness toward others, who are themselves going through the same thing or what’s ahead of us might turn out to be what Brian Bilston, whom the UK describes as “poet laureate of Twitter,” calls “This Was the Year that Was Not the Year.” Here’s a couple of lines from his poem: “This was the year that was not the year / I spent less time on my phone. / Nights of passion did not happen / in boutique hotels in Rome / This was the year that was the year / I didn’t get that much done – / much the same as the year before, much like the one to come.”

From all these, I therefore conclude that, more than kindness, we should aim for mindfulness or enlightenment, for being, instead of just doing. As a Zen kōan, defined as “a story, dialogue, question, or statement used in Zen practice to provoke the ‘great doubt’ and to test a student’s progress in Zen,” puts it: “Before enlightenment; chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment; chop wood, carry water.”