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  • Writer's pictureKen Chamlee

A Pause at the Crossing Gates

Remember when railroad crossings had caution signs that read “Stop. Look. Listen”? Paying attention might save your life, the terse imperatives warned. Slow down.

Reading poetry is a great way to slow down. It requires you to stop, look carefully at a text, listen to its music in your head, or read it out loud. Let a poem sift inward, dredge memory for connection, resonate with your own experience.

An oncoming train makes a fine analogy for another peril, the runaway doom of the evening news. You know the litany: it’s overwhelming. Poetry, taken as a whole, offers more variety than the news, which is hyper-selective and predictably depressing. Poetry often conveys hope, breathes empathy, points out the beautiful particulars around us. Imagine this reporting scenario during your local broadcast:

I’m here at the intersection of I-40 and I-26 where construction of a new overpass has reduced traffic flow to one eastbound lane, now backed up for over two miles, but what I want viewers to see-- just swing the camera to the left, Matt--is this stunning sky behind Mount Pisgah. The clouds are stacked and folded like bolts of red flannel. White zippers of sunlight are flaring down to the mountain tops, and…

which is about when the news director would cut to commercial and tell the reporter to get a grip. A live camera won’t cut away from stalled traffic and frustrated motorists. The news is more likely to ‘seize the fear’ than seize the day. No carpe diem here.

A carpe diem moment is anti-narrative; it’s lyrical. If nothing “exciting” is happening, it is bad for the news bite but possibly good for one’s soul. Robert Frost called such lyric experience “a momentary stay against confusion.” Carpe diem implies being in the moment, putting the future on hold to enjoy the day you are living, which is the only day you ever actually live.

In truth, the daily news is a definitive but unintentional purveyor of carpe diem philosophy. Seize the day before the car wreck, the plane crash, the earthquake, the plant closing. You know what can happen. But reporters never follow bad news with any wisdom regarding tempus fugit.

What is needed are countermeasures, ways to resist the train wreck of negativity that media often generates. Poetry is one such measure. Slow down and relish the day with a book of crafted words and unexpected insight. Pick up a pen and a blank journal, look both ways, and wander your own path.

Whether you’re reading it, thinking it, or writing it, poetry lowers the crossing gates and gets you to hold up for a while. When the noise and clatter fade and the gates lift again, resume your journey on a clearer and quieter road.

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