A Poetry Bank

After a recent talk about leadership, an audience member asked me about my vision for the future of the Community Foundation. I knew exactly how to answer. Every day, we are working to create a community that provides its people the fundamentals needed for dignified lives. Once all basic needs are met, people can pursue their loftier ambitions, passions, and goals, which then strengthen the community. It is a powerful virtuous cycle.

Strategic Community Foundation growth over the next two decades will increase our capacity to make successful grants and lead the essential collaborative conversations that will ultimately address the pressing needs of today and transform this vision into our community’s reality in the not-so-distant future.

After I finished that mouthful, I summarized by saying, “I don’t want our community to need a food bank anymore. I want us to create a poetry bank instead.”

The audience smiled, a few people laughed, and I shared my thanks for the opportunity to answer such a thoughtful question before stepping away from the podium. In the moment, I was using the concept of a “poetry bank” as a conversational placeholder, something that would signify a community that has solved every imaginable social problem.

As days passed, though, I couldn’t stop wondering what a poetry bank would actually do. Why would we ever bother to create one? Is this the height of frivolity? I felt like I needed a much better illustration the next time I was asked about my vision.

That was until I spent Saturday night with 9,000 people at a sold-out Bruce Springsteen concert in Rochester. Men and women traveled from all over the world to see Bruce and the E Street Band perform 34 of their greatest songs. For over three hours, we sang and danced with strangers who, just like my husband and me, find never-ending inspiration and comfort in lyrics written by The Boss over the past 40-odd years.

How many thousands of people have pressed play on “Thunder Road” to hear this particular verse?
The screen door slams
Mary's dress sways
Like a vision she dances across the porch
As the radio plays
Roy Orbison singing for the lonely
Hey that's me and I want you only
Don't turn me home again
I just can't face myself alone again*

Carefully chosen words have the power to prevent us from doing something dangerous. How many people considering suicide were helped by hearing a man sing, “I just can’t face myself alone again”?

Isn’t this a poem? All of a sudden, in an arena with 9,000 people connecting over words, a poetry bank doesn’t feel frivolous. 

Certainly a community plagued by high unemployment rates, a growing drug-addiction crisis, and crumbling infrastructure will be tempted to consider poetry a luxury. Not to mention we are far from the days of not needing a food bank.

But - let’s not get so burdened by facing these problems head-on that we lose sight of what life will be like once we solve them.  

With a chance to make it good somehow
Hey what else can we do now?
Except roll down the window
And let the wind blow
Back your hair
Well the night's busted open
These two lanes will take us anywhere
We got one last chance to make it real
To trade in these wings on some wheels
Climb in back
Heaven's waiting down on the tracks* 

It is clear to me now that a poetry bank isn’t the destination. It’s the map. So climb in back; we have a lot of ground to cover before dark.

*Springsteen, Bruce. “Thunder Road.” Born to Run. Columbia Records/Sony, 1975.