Use This Tool To Bridge Communication Gaps and Promote Empathy

One of the many things I like about poetry is that it can be a uniquely effective communication tool. It can reach people on an emotional, intuitive level that is not always easy to do with spoken words or with prose. I find this true even — perhaps especially — with my less poetically inclined friends and family members.

Maybe it’s an emotion or experience that’s otherwise difficult to put into words, or an area where you and the other person just don’t see things the same way. Or you want to express something that goes deeper than ordinary communication methods, or help someone understand something about you or your life that you otherwise don’t know how to explain, or that they haven’t been able to relate to.

Poetry can be a great bridge between people, a promoter of understanding and a helpful way to partake together of a feeling or moment in a way that can break down barriers between them. It can help to make the “other” (possibly you) seem less foreign to someone you show a poem to, or ease the burden of someone who felt isolated by a situation they had felt only they could understand.

One example of poetry that could be used in this way is the following poem by Bob Hicok, about caring for a parent with Alzheimer’s disease.


Chairs move by themselves, and books.

Grandchildren visit, stand

new and nameless, their faces’ puzzles

missing pieces. She’s like a fish


in deep ocean, its body made of light.

She floats through rooms, through

my eyes, an old woman bereft

of chronicle, the parable of her life.


And though she’s almost a child

there’s still blood between us:

I passed through her to arrive.

So I protect her from knives,


stairs, from the street that calls

as rivers do, a summons to walk away,

to follow. And dress her,

demonstrate how buttons work,


when she sometimes looks up

and says my name, the sound arriving

like the trill of a bird so rare

it’s rumored no longer to exist.

Anyone who has taken care of, or even visited, a relative with a similar ailment can probably relate to this poem. The particulars may not be the same, and they may not ever have thought of it exactly the way it is so unusually and poignantly expressed here, but it resonates with feelings we have had or can empathize with.

And anyone who has not been there will be better able to relate to someone who is going through it after reading this, maybe to a greater degree than if that person simply tried to explain it to them.

The vacant, elusive gaze; the need to be re-taught how things, like buttons, work; the changing of roles — needing to protect a parent from herself; and the unbreakable bond of love and gratitude a child feels for a parent, even as they are slipping away.

“I passed through her to arrive.

So I protect her from knives,”

Then there are those rare, surprising, heart-sustaining moments when you are reminded that you are known and loved, which the poet expresses so well in the last stanza.

Poetry can promote understanding and allow friends, family and strangers to live a shared moment, seeing something with newly aligned eyes. It highlights what is common and universal in the human condition, even by using the personal details that make us different.

Now just a moment on technical aspects of the poem. Again, there are many visual images you can see in your mind. And of course there’s always the matter of sound that helps bring the poem alive.

Though not a traditionally rhymed poem, there are repeated sounds, both vowel sounds, like in rhymes, and initial consonant sounds, that give it a musical, ‘poetic’ quality: “knives/arrive”; “through/rooms”; “new and nameless”; “nameless/faces’; “stairs/streets/summons.”

Even the sometimes unusual punctuation and sentence structure in this poem effectively convey the disconnect and disorientation both parties feel, and the attempts to make sense of the now familiar unfamiliar.

So much can be said in a poem, that reaches the mind, and the heart, and places that words may not otherwise reach.

The next time you find a poem you enjoy and find meaningful to your life, try sending it to someone you’ve had difficulty communicating with, or who is going through a situation you — or they — don’t know how to talk about.

You may be surprised at how gaps are filled in, differences are overcome, and the joy, or relief, of a shared emotional and aesthetic experience deepens your relationship.

April is National Poetry Month: Why is This Exciting News, and Why Should You Care?

Two notes before I start today’s post. If you’re not thrilled by the first one, then you’ll likely welcome the second one, but stay with me here and I’ll show why my temporary shift in content focus may be worth your while.

  1. To prepare our minds and build anticipation for National Poetry Month, which is April, the next few posts will consider a poem, or discuss some ways to enjoy poetry. Maybe you didn’t love poetry in school. Maybe you associate it with dry memorization; archaic, singsong rhyme; or with the frustration of feeling you weren’t getting it “right.”

So I’m going to show you it doesn’t have to be that way, by exploring what I love about this art form, and by introducing you to a few fun, accessible poems you just might fall in love with.

  1. Since we’re all busy, with plenty of reading material in our in-boxes, I’m going to experiment with posting on this blog every other Tuesday for awhile, instead of every week. Let me know what you think.

April is National Poetry Month: Why is This Exciting News, and Why Should You Care?

For those of us who love to read or write poetry, who have really seen the value and joy of giving poetry a place in our life, a whole month of poetry readings, contests, and chances to read and share poems is really something to look forward to.

But not everybody feels that way. Maybe you think of poetry as being boring or not really related to your daily life. Maybe you find it intimidating and difficult to “understand.” Maybe you hated having to memorize, or analyze, poems in school.

Whatever the case, I hope to take you gently by the hand and lead you into a wonderful world that just may turn out to be far more exciting, approachable, and relevant to your life than you ever imagined. At the least, you’ll try something new and maybe have some fun along the way.

I’ll share a few poems I like, and try to show how the subject or some aspect of the poem can relate to your lives, and how you can use it and other poems to enrich your lives and relationships in various ways.

Since one of the reasons many people seem to shy away from poetry is that they find it difficult to understand and feel there is some specific meaning they should be getting out of it — like there’s one “right” way to see it and a danger of getting it “wrong” — I’d like to help dispel that fear by presenting this playful poem by former poet laureate Billy Collins, fittingly titled “Introduction to Poetry.”

It’s from a collection of accessible, easy-to-like poems he edited, called “Poetry 180,” to indicate a 180 degree turn, back to poetry.


I ask them to take a poem

and hold it up to the light

like a color slide


or press an ear against its hive.


I say drop a mouse into a poem

and watch him probe his way out,


or walk inside the poem’s room

and feel the walls for a light switch.


I want them to waterski

across the surface of a poem

waving at the author’s name on the shore.


But all they want to do

is tie the poem to a chair with rope

and torture a confession out of it.


They begin beating it with a hose

to find out what it really means.

(Note: I could not get the formatting to keep the line breaks, so I’ve put dashes where a line break should be.)

OK. Take a moment and read it again, out loud this time, and let the images come alive in your mind. Let it speak to you. Play with it.

Now I’ll tell you what it “means” to me.

I think the overall “message” of this poem is pretty clear: enjoy a poem, experience it, approach it in different ways, and see what it has to offer you. Don’t try so hard to define it in terms of “what it means,” as if there were a secret code hidden within its words that you must find or you will be found wanting.

What does it mean to you? Or, better yet, what does it say to you? How does it relate to your experience of life and literature? What do you enjoy about the way it presents itself?

This poem, like much poetry, has a lot of highly visual images in it that will likely appear quite vividly in your mind. It uses imaginative, unusual mental pictures to convey its ideas in a way that opens the reader up to a more creative, associative approach.

Though not a traditionally rhymed poem, it also makes use of sound repetition. For instance, light/slide/hive; waving/name; want/waterski/waving.

A poem can be much like a spoken song, highlighting sound and musical qualities. That’s part of why reading a poem out loud enhances the experience.

I like the way it turns the tables and presents the poem as being tortured, whereas often it is the reader who engages in self-torture, trying too hard to find out “what it really means.”

Not all poems will be this easy to “define,” but that really isn’t necessary. Just experience the poem. It will mean different things to different people, and you may see something different in it each time you read it.

Of course most poets intend to convey something specific of their ideas and experiences in a particular poem, but a poem is also an invitation to bring your own experiences and point of view to the process, making it relevant to your life. Reading a poem can become both a highly personal experience, and a kind of conversational exchange with the poet.

Don’t worry about getting it “wrong.” Just “listen” to what the poet, and the poem, have to say, then make of it what you will.

Now if you haven’t yet discovered Billy Collins’ collections of poems by various authors, “Poetry 180” and “180 More,” or the library of congress website for the poetry education project (Poetry 180), that would be a great place to start exploring the world of poetry. All the poems chosen are meant to be easy to approach and relate to, even if you have limited experience reading poetry.

Although I have been reading and writing poetry for many years and have studied it academically, I have also found these not too demanding poems greatly enjoyable as well as helpful in my efforts to share my love of the art of poetry with others.

The website address is: 

I’ll end with these inviting words from the intro to the site, by Billy Collins: “Welcome to Poetry 180. Poetry can and should be an important part of our daily lives. Poems can inspire and make us think about what it means to be a member of the human race. By just spending a few minutes reading a poem each day, new worlds can be revealed.”

Enjoy, and see you in two weeks.