Japanese Defense Ministry, via Associated Press
In our weekly “Poetry Pairing” series, we collaborate with the Poetry Foundation to feature a work from its American Life in Poetry project alongside content from The Times that somehow echoes, extends or challenges the poem’s themes. Each poem is introduced briefly by Ted Kooser, a former United States poet laureate.
This week we put three pieces together: the poem “The Word That Is a Prayer,” a photograph, above, from a Times slide show of over 100 images of the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and a March 11 blog post by the Op-Ed columnist Nicholas D. Kristof, “Sympathy for Japan, and Admiration.”
The Word That Is a Prayer
By Ellery Akers
One thing you know when you say it:
all over the earth people are saying it with you;
a child blurting it out as the seizures take her,
a woman reciting it on a cot in a hospital.
What if you take a cab through the Tenderloin:
at a street light, a man in a wool cap,
yarn unraveling across his face, knocks at the window;
he says, Please.
By the time you hear what he’s saying,
the light changes, the cab pulls away,
and you don’t go back, though you know
someone just prayed to you the way you pray.
Please: a word so short
it could get lost in the air
as it floats up to God like the feather it is,
knocking and knocking, and finally
falling back to earth as rain,
as pellets of ice, soaking a black branch,
collecting in drains, leaching into the ground,
and you walk in that weather every day.
Times Selection ExcerptIn a March 11 post to his On the Ground blog, “Sympathy for Japan, and Admiration,” Nicholas D. Kristof wrote:
Our hearts are all with the Japanese today, after the terrible earthquake there — the worst ever recorded in Japan. But, having covered the 1995 Kobe earthquake (which killed more than 6,000 people and left 300,000 homeless) when I lived in Japan as Tokyo bureau chief for The New York Times, I have to add: Watch Japan in the coming days and weeks, and I bet we can also learn some lessons.
It’s not that Japan’s government handles earthquakes particularly well. The government utterly mismanaged the rescue efforts after the 1995 quake, and its regulatory apparatus disgraced itself by impounding Tylenol and search dogs sent by other countries. In those first few frantic days, when people were still alive under the rubble, some died unnecessarily because of the government’s incompetence.
But the Japanese people themselves were truly noble in their perseverance and stoicism and orderliness. There’s a common Japanese word, “gaman,” that doesn’t really have an English equivalent, but is something like “toughing it out.” And that’s what the people of Kobe did, with a courage, unity and common purpose that left me awe.
… This stoicism is built into the Japanese language. People always say “shikata ga nai” – it can’t be helped. And one of the most common things to say to someone else is “ganbatte kudasai” — tough it out, be strong. Natural disasters are seen as part of Japan’s “unmei,” or fate — a term that is written by combining the characters for movement and life. I remember reading an ancient account, I believe from 16th-century Jesuit visitors, of an earthquake devastating a village, and then within hours the peasants began rebuilding their homes.
After you’ve read the poem and article, tell us what you think — or suggest other Times content that could be paired with the poem instead. To learn more about the collaboration, and to find ideas for using any week’s pairing for teaching and learning, see this post.
Ms. Akers’s most recent book of poems is “Knocking on the Earth.” This poem is reprinted by permission of Ms. Akers and the publisher, Sixteen Rivers Press, from her 2010 book “The Place That Inhabits Us.”