Poet Laureates Know What the High Holidays Are For

This morning, the Library of Congress announced Philip Levine as the next Poet Laureate of the United States.

Levine talked to The Atlantic years ago about his relationship to the work at hand:

“The process of writing poetry depends on being alone in a room, and being comfortable being alone for long periods of time — almost reveling in solitude and slow time. I’ve had friends tell me, younger poets, that when they came back from their early reading tours they’d get very depressed. I guess they were waiting for applause as they picked up pen and pencil. But there is no applause.”

Levine hits on something: there is no applause.

When we are doing work that is meaningful to us, it often doesn’t take place in front of an audience. In fact, we’re all probably familiar with the old wisdom that observing an event fundamentally changes it. Watching a genius at work, really isn’t – that genius isn’t probably her most focused or doing her deepest work while watched. She will get to work when you leave.

Still, we want to be acknowledged for our own moments of genius, or accomplishment – and that’s fine, and can encourage us to greater heights.

Yet, what Levine “gets” fundamentally, is that that’s not the real work. Our real work comes when we are thinking and acting according to our highest selves.

Levine has talked about turning experience into poetry, giving it new value and dignity.  I think prayer works the same way (in whatever form you might pray/hope/wish). Taking what we know from our lives and turning it into prayer (or “prayer”), acknowledges the value and dignity in our own experiences, and allows us to build from there.

The Library of Congress seems to know this real work of ours isn’t done in public spaces, and keeps the Laureate’s official duties to the bare minimum: Levine will open and close the literary season, which will undoubtedly come with applause. Then, everything else in between is up to Levine.

The literary season at the LoC opens on October 17, just after the High Holidays. As they approach, we consider what a new year can mean, what we want it to mean. Do we pursue our passions, our values? Do we advocate for those in need, either on an individual or national level? Are we kind with one other?

Perhaps during this period, Levine will be considering what to do with this year that has been gifted to him, while he has an elevated position from which to speak. At the close of Yom Kippur, there won’t be applause for whatever important work we’ve done; only the year stretching out ahead of us, ours to do with what we will.

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