The One Living Poem

Tina Cane serves as the Poet Laureate of Rhode Island, where she lives with her husband and their three children. She is also the founder and director of Writers-in-the-Schools, RI and is an instructor with the writing community, Frequency Providence. Her poems and translations have appeared in numerous publications, including The Literary ReviewTwo Serious LadiesTupelo Quarterly, Jubliat and The Common. She also produces, with Atticus Allen, the podcast, Poetry Dose.

Cane is the author of The Fifth Thought (Other Painters Press, 2008), Dear Elena: Letters for Elena Ferrante, poems with art by Esther Solondz (Skillman Avenue Press, 2016) and Once More With Feeling (Veliz Books, 2017) and Body of Work (forthcoming in 2019, Veliz Books). In 2016, Tina received the Fellowship Merit Award in Poetry, from the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts.


A Sermon by Tina Cane

(author’s note:  this piece is spaced in accordance with my recitation style)

Part 1

To listen to Tina’s present Part 1 of her sermon, click on the arrow below:

Good morning and thank you all      for welcoming me into your church and

for inviting me to share     in this worship service with you    One of the

joys of serving as poet laureate of our state     has been occasions such as this

in which I find myself  brought into the fold     of a community that I might

not otherwise have had access to    and I am very grateful to be here


So…I am a poet     Not a preacher      And while I have been called “evangelical”

when it comes to certain issues   and I was baptized Catholic    I was not raised

within a religion    and so speaking here today    fills me with a degree of

reverence     the kind of reverence that is probably reserved    for those on the

outside of something      that they perceive to be intimate and powerful

which is what I imagine     your faith is to you      which is what poetry is to me

since over time      I have come to realize     that I turn to poetry much in the way

that people turn to spiritual practice


It was my friend   the poet Karen Donovan     who once called the work of Walt

Whitman her scripture     a phrase that captured how   I too   rely on poems—

Whitman’s in particular—to guide and instruct me     to comfort or challenge me

on a daily basis     for even if one is not affiliated with an organized religion

we all still need many of the values and lessons religions have to offer

I have found some of those in poetry


There’s a portion of the preface to Whitman’s Leaves of Grass     that I keep taped

above my desk—a poetic commandment of sorts      that I would like to share

with you:


This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give

alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and

labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence

toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or

number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with

the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of

your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss

whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the

 richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and

between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.


I love these lines because they’re all-encompassing    brimming with urgency

and aspiration      as they capture    not the life I lead    but the life I wish to lead

a life that     rendered in Whitman’s exuberant but accessible language     feels

like it just might be possible     if I can set my sites on truth and compassion

and not be moved by the superficial or temporal       most of us cannot claim

to function like this every day     but Whitman’s message contains no

judgment      only urges us     to deploy love where we can     to thus become

a very poem of life     a rich manifestation of humanity


But how to be an overflowing font of love      in this rapid-fire and violent world

where truth is elusive     and the suffering of others      makes itself known

in real-time at distances     too vast and paralyzing for any meaningful action?

I wish I knew.


To listen to Tina present part 2 of her sermon, click on the arrow below:

Recently, I’ve been spending time with a particular stanza by W.H. Auden,

searching—I guess   for clues      It goes like this:


All I have is a voice

To undo the folded lie,

 The romantic lie in the brain

Of the sensual man-in-the-street

And the lie of Authority

Whose buildings grope the sky:

There is no such thing as the State

And no one exists alone;

Hunger allows no choice

To the citizen or the police;

We must love one another or die


So, Auden wrote this poem    which is called September 1, 1939    on the day that

Nazi troops first entered Poland    prompting what is considered the start of the

Second World War    it’s said that Auden     disillusioned by the horrors that

would unfold     later changed that last line from We must love one another or die

to     We must love one another and die     a move which was effectively a

commentary on     the ineffectiveness of poetry     to have made any impact

whatsoever     on the state of the world     but     ever the poet    Auden thought

that this shift from   “or” to “and”      lacked rhetorical power and he decided to

remove the line altogether      when it was found years later in his drafts

Auden was convinced by editors to include it      as he had originally written it

perhaps  because enough time had passed     perhaps     because he wanted to

preserve the poem’s integrity in accordance    with his intention    rather than

with the world’s reality    he put the line back in       such is the freedom

he enjoyed as a poet     for not all poets    enjoy such freedom


This backstory resonates with me because in April     I was invited to write

a short essay for the This I Believe series on RI NPR     just like today    the task

was both an honor and a challenge     because like a one-woman debate team

I have a tendency to contest my own views as I write them     which makes

pinning down and expressing my beliefs       needlessly-problematical


I thought I’d read that essay   which I both    believe wholeheartedly

and which     I dismiss    summarily:


I believe that poetry saves lives—not the way that paramedics do, as

they rush to restore a patient’s breath or shock a stopped heart back to beating—but

slowly, over time, poetry can alter the texture and course of a life—and that change can

be something of a salvation—by which I mean an opening—by which I mean     

the making of essential space for reflection and connection–for I believe

that poetry—through its fusion of intellect and emotion–compels us

to consider more deeply our experience in the world and to cultivate connection. 


If, as Socrates said, The unexamined life is not worth living—then poetry

can only enrich us, because the effects of an unexamined life exert their own kind

of urgency—one that a doctor may not readily recognize and that medicine will not

remedy—but which undermine as steadily as any pathogen.


I believe that just as everyone should have an annual check-up, we should

also check in with ourselves and others—through poetry—and more than

once a year–for there is a poetry out there for each of us, for every day of our lives.


I once heard of a doctor who prescribed poems to his patients—a radical and ingenious

practice that, for some, might conjure a 19th century lady sprawled on a fainting couch—

since poets and poetry are often mistakenly considered delicate of composition—like

snowflakes or butterflies. But I believe–to quote the intrepid explorer Ernest

Shackleton—that poetry is  “vital mental medicine”–and that poetry builds grit, for poets

are among the most resilient, determined people I know–because writing poetry is really

an attempt to engage intensely with humanity, and to embrace what John

Keats called negative capability—which is the ability to endure uncertainty and mystery,

 to accept not having answers. I believe that presidents, like Abraham Lincoln,

Vaclav Havel, and Barack Obama–who read and wrote poetry—were better equipped

as leaders–in an uncertain world–for having grappled with meaning and nuance,

for having tackled intricacy of thought, and for attempting intimacy through words.


I believe that–while poems won’t block malignant cells or stop a hail of bullets—

poetry is an antidote to the alienation of the unexamined existence–that through poems

we can save lives–our own and each other’s– by which I mean expand —both our inner

and outer lives—by which I mean entire lives, by which I mean: the point.


So, the day before I was to submit this piece      seventeen people were murdered

at Marjory Stoneman High School in Parkland, Florida     and like everyone

I was stunned and horrified     yet again     and I grappled     I grappled

with the absurdity of claiming that poetry saves lives     when not a single poem

has managed to save a single life      in any of our schools      on any battlefield

or on any of the  NY streets where I grew up      such an assertion seemed vain-glorious

and frankly     kind of infuriating     and so for 30 hours I mulled and grieved and tried to

figure out what I really believe      in the end I added the line     while a poem won’t block

malignant cells or stop a hail of bullets      poetry is the antidote to alienation     if you’re

thinking the phrase   hail of bullets    does no justice to the lives lost     you are right and

really nothing    that I write    ever could     such are the frustrating limits of language


I grapple with this essay still     some days I do believe that poetry saves lives

some days I don’t     every day though     I know that poetry saved me     by offering itself

as a form     through which to explore and understand my experiences in the world


A couple of months ago     the wonderful poet Michael Klein   put out a call on social

media     for thoughts on how poets and poetry could actively mount a viable resistance

movement against the Trump administration     he was offering free tickets to see the

poets Sharon Olds and Ocean Vhong read in NYC     to the person whose response he

liked best    I don’t think I won      but I sent Michael the This I Believe essay  with the

following email      in which I think I get closer to my real point:


Hi Michael,

I was invited to write an essay for the This I Believe Series on RI NPR

to air during National Poetry month. I did and I think, at its heart, is has to do

with resistance. The illness at the core of this seemingly global tilt towards

nativism, fascist tendencies, and general hostility seems to me about alienation—

the breakdown of connections between communities and individuals. For all our

supposed connectedness through digital media–some of which can be very

positive–people on the whole are increasingly lonely and isolated. The boy

joining ISIS and the boy shooting up the movie theatre are not so different.

The man in the White House and any other charismatic leader are not so

different; they prey on people’s yearning and purport to give them purpose.

The only way to collectively resist, the only practical way to resist–other than

bloody revolution–is to rebuild and reinforce genuine connection where we can-

as individuals, in our families, in our workplace, as poets, as people. When

people feel connected to other people, they see more clearly, they stay open,

they tend towards reciprocity. This makes it more difficult for them to shun their

neighbor, to shoot a child. I do believe that poetry saves lives. But it’s people

really. Because people make the poems. For other people.


P.S. I was stuffed up when we recorded so I am kind of whispering,

because I was afraid of snuffling into the super sensitive mic 🙂

smiley face emoji


So, there’s a line from that Auden poem which keeps coming back to me:

All I have is a voice    how true this is     for every one of us     and therefore

how devastating to be silenced     whatever the circumstance


Just as it’s said      that prejudice is an emotional commitment to ignorance     I think

that     to accept being silenced      is to make an emotional commitment to inequality

and that    to silence is to make unequal   


because to use one’s voice is to proclaim one’s right to exist     and it’s to make an

offering       to seek the possibility of response     and maybe even of conflict

either way    words make bridges     it’s about connection


It’s what the Parkland survivors felt compelled to do     to undo the folded lie  

to love one another or die      to proclaim that love      in the form of protest

so that perhaps fewer people would die down the line


Part  3

To listen to Tina present part 3 of her sermon, click on the arrow below:

So, my only real experience with organized religion came in the form of Quaker

Silent Meeting     which I observed with students and colleagues at a Friends

school in downtown NYC      where I worked for many years as a French and

English teacher      it’s difficult to overstate the power that silence had in my life

at that time     long periods of silent reflection in a meeting house filled with

people generated a kind of energy    I had never experienced before     and

when children mustered the courage     to break the silence and speak

it never failed to be a moment of deep truth      and hearing the adults

sometimes use that right    as a chance to pontificate    as I fear I may be doing

here 🙂    was a lesson in how the process of growing up     can sometimes lead us

away from the truth of our voices


So, my years teaching at this school    were a kind of second education

for me     I saw what mindful and loving edification entailed     I saw how

time for deep reflection created a sense of peace      many of you may already

know this from your faith     but for me     it was a revelation


One aspect of silent meeting    that I particularly love    is the importance of

expression   for if     as is often the case   you have something you are moved

to say     but miss the chance      or feel too shy to stand     you are invited

urged even   to share your message privately with someone after meeting


it’s a beautiful exercise of giving voice     which I practice still today     meaning

that when I have been carrying a deeply felt sentiment     I make a point of

sharing it     and sometimes that sharing takes the form of a poem     like this one

in which I am reflecting on my experiences reading the newspaper and also

of being a woman:



I commit to reading accounts of the torture before the beheadings

as a form of emotional engagement with world turmoil     a juncture

at which to decide     which side of the dream I am on     one side being

to study the invention of women by men     by which I mean     to understand

women as men’s vision of the female version of themselves


I typed remale just now     flickering on the screen     another side of the dream

to remake things     to put the head back on the body     to commit to reading

loving accounting for

                                    the body of each man as my own


So, the public high school I attended in the Bronx     was nothing like the private

Quaker school where I taught     in fact it was quite literally the opposite

an impersonal concrete block teeming with thousands of kids     it had a great

reputation but its vastness prevented a feeling of connection     at least for me


A few weeks ago     a man named Milton Kopelman  passed away      he was

the principal of my high school     and well into his eighties     he had

enjoyed a long and respected career in education     stunned    I shook my fist

when I read the news over social media    not because it was shocking     or

untimely    but because I had kept his  home address    scrawled on a yellow

post-it in my wallet  for months

finally losing it somewhere in New Hampshire


See, I had been meaning to write Mr. Kopelman a letter     not because I knew

him well   I had   in fact    only met him once   when I was summoned to his

office a couple of weeks before graduation    which was kind of a big deal   since

our school had close to 4,000 students    and only a handful of us   had ever even

seen Mr. Kopelman up close   in all our years    from what I could tell    across the

immense auditorium      he looked kind of like my Uncle Marty


When I entered his office    he was holding a piece of paper filled with

grids and numbers     “Tina,” he said    “I am looking here and it says

you haven’t attended enough school days   this year    to graduate    “Whoa,”

I  said     “I didn’t know there were rules about that”    “Do your parents know

that you’ve been absent this much? “he asked     “Well, I said   I live with my dad

who’s really my stepdad     but he and my mom were never married so     he’s

technically not my guardian    but my mom’s not around and the college

counselor wanted me to be an       “emancipated minor” so I could apply for

more aid     but I don’t earn enough money   and my dad works nights    so

he doesn’t really know  and…


“Stop” said Mr. Kopelman    “Why don’t you like to come to school?”  “I don’t

know,” I said “I mean, I like English and I love my friends…”


“I see you’ve managed to keep a B average without being here most of the time.

And it says here    you are going to the University of Vermont     Is that true?”

“Yes,” I said    “I got a full scholarship”    “Okay, Tina, “ he said, placing the

paper on a stack, “You can go back to class now”


So, when I was allowed to receive my diploma at the Felt Forum in Madison Sq.

Garden with the other 974 students—I thought      in in my adolescent

foolishness    that I had gotten over on Mr. Kopelman   that I had gotten away with

something   not that I had been given something     it was through my many years

of teaching that I came to realize that Mr. Kopelman was not just reading my

record     he was reading me     seeing me     as a young person who was grappling

but who might come out on the other side     if allowed to find her way


I procrastinated and missed my chance to write  to Mr. Kopelman —so I am

breaking the silence of thirty years    and telling you     I am sure that    even if

prompted    Mr. Kopelman would have not have remembered me     and my

penchant for truancy    but I wanted him to know that I remembered him

and the gift of his compassionate judgment     at a time when my own judgment

was pretty poor     I doubt that I am the only student whose case   he took into his

own hands      as we know    the world is filled with kids    who need someone on

their side     I just happened to be in the right place      with the right guy


So where am I going with this?

The writer Annie LaMott once wrote  “I’ve decided that the most subversive

and revolutionary thing I could do was to show up for my life and not be



I realize now that I was    quite literally     not showing up   for my life at that time

What Mr. Kopelman gave me was another chance to do so

And I did  and I am still trying     because it’s a process never stops and   it’s

important for me to honor my luck


just like it’s important     for us to also resist what we oppose      by showing up

to commit to reading more     poetry sure      but    each other

and for us to practice compassionate judgment    born not from authority

but from opportunity     for us to find those opportunities where we can

to seek them out

Part 4

To listen to Tina’s present the fourth and final part of her sermon, click on the arrow below:

So, when asked to give a title to this service, I called it  “The One Living Poem”

which is how I refer to my husband and our three children    in a poem of mine

I write “the one living poem I’ve made”   which is to say

the most important thing I’ve managed to do      which is to say      they are

the poem    of the richest fluency to me   by which I mean my life

by which I mean a creative act     by which I mean    like Whitman

that life is a poem     and when I think of how I make poems     the kind written

on paper     I realize that they take shape from fragments—bits scrawled on

shopping lists and bank receipts–     which I gather and read and which

often reveal a system     of communication    of a message I want to send

in the form of a poem     that I may be heard


When I am teaching    I assert that a poem is largely defined by intention     since

poetry is a most flexible form    the only way a piece of writing can be

definitively a poem   is if the poet    says so


So where   I’m going with this    is

What if we built our lives the way a poem is sometimes built?     Not through

sentimental yearning or deep thoughts      but through a precision of intention


What if we all step back and look at the fragments    our acts and

accomplishments     and seek a system?     a coherence of purpose ?

desired intention?      what messages do the disparate fragments hold?


What if like writers   of our lives    we work each line with care and attention

what if we forgive but correct     our own clichés and awkward turns

And what if vigilant in our assessment     we cut the stanzas that are not working

strive for a leaner integrity   of expression and purpose?


Would we be like Walt Whitman?     I don’t know     Would we be heroes?

Hardly     But we might be more like Mr. Kopelman     who preserved enough

humanity to see possibility    where others might not have    which is akin

to living with an open hand      rather than a clenched fist   and as we know

the world needs more of this        ……but important questions persist

as I wrote in one of my own poems:


proof that I am American     is my callousness     I care but how much      do I spare

anything     with which I am reluctant to part


This is a question that haunts me     and should    I believe     haunt all of us

which is why    I voiced it in a poem      and broke the silence     to share it

with you     with   what I hope      is an open hand     for that is my intention