everyday poetry

This poem from Wendell Berry’s New Collected Poems captures my feeling that poems do not have to change the world, though some do.  They can simply add a song from a person who is like no other.  That’s what we all have in common–we are distinctly ourselves.  Celebrate and develop that  unique voice by continuing to sing.


He comes along the street, singing,

a rag of a man, with his game foot and bum’s clothes.

He’s asking for nothing–his hands

aren’t even held out.  His song

is the gift of singing, to him

and to all who will listen.


To hear him, you’d think the engines

would all stop, and the flower vendor would stand

with her hands full of flowers and not move.

You’d think somebody would have hired him

and provided him a clean quiet stage to sing on.


But there’s no special occasion or place

for his singing–that’s why it needs

to be strong.  His song doesn’t impede the morning

or change it, except by freely adding itself.


p.s.  I don’t yet follow Berry’s statement, “that’s why it needs / to be strong.”  Strong in what sense(s)?  Why does not having a special occasion require this strength? I enjoy the poem because it renders one of my beliefs about the value of regular poetry.  Even so, I need to wrestle with this mysterious statement.  Any ideas, anyone?


Filed under challenge, expression, reasons for writing

2 responses to “everyday poetry

  1. “that’s why it needs / to be strong”

    I’ve always liked this Chinese metaphor (or conceit?) for different types of travelers: Some are songbirds, going everywhere in a gilded cage; others are chickens, and wherever they go they peck at the ground; still others are pigeons, and wherever they go they roost and eat and make it their home. (We strived to be pigeons in our own travels.)

    For me, Berry’s mysterious statement conjures this image. A songbird, though undeniably beautiful, is captive to its cage, totally dependent, and therefore, in a way, made weak. The “rag of a man” in this poem is, on the other hand, definitely a pigeon: roaming, in no way pampered, at home wherever he happens to be. To survive and thrive in such a life, without the structures and supports of a cage (gilded or celluloid or electromagnetic) requires strength: a raw sort, adaptability in the Darwinian sense. To be heard on the street where everyone is a stranger in some ways is harder than on a stage, where everyone is ready to listen. I notice also the poet’s surprise that noisy engines and busy flower vendors don’t stop to listen: he at least is entranced by the power of this man’s song.

    • Thank you for the Chinese traveler’s metaphors; I had not heard those before. I wonder what the Chinese stories and metaphors do with uncaged songbirds–that is, freely flying birds who sing, like this ragman. The Chinese metaphor has helped me see a possible source of his strength. Another source, or possibly an effect, is his generosity. I started my post by suggesting that poetry does not have to, or even try to, change the world, yet the last lines suggest that this man’s song can, IF someone listens. This relationship reminds me of Camus’s statements about the nature of art. These last lines also remind me that (a) the speaker wants to listen to this ragman and (b) the singer freely offers his gift, without asking anything in return. I think that kind of generosity, that sort of love, can change the world. Does it impede the morning? Perhaps insofar as it disrupts the typical morning of people’s wanting something in return for whatever they give–a kind of quid-pro-quo normalcy.

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