When you ask people to name a poet, they will most likely name one of the literary giants that school kids have learned about year after year: Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman or Edgar Allen Poe.
But on the campus of the University of Mississippi, a new popular answer might be Ada Limón.
Limón is an American poet and author who has published several books. In 2022, she was named the 24th U.S. Poet Laureate by Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden. On Tuesday, she appeared on campus to host the annual Edith T. Baine Lecture for Scholars and Writers.
The objective of Limón’s lecture was to tackle the question, “What can poetry do?”
Limón answered this question with poise and elegance as she walked the audience through the power of poetry.
Limón’s demeanor was graceful and invigorating, timeless yet contemporary. She quickly captivated the audience members, keeping them on their seats and hanging on to every word she spoke.
“Poems make us curious,” Limón said. “They do not make us wise. They make us interrogators of our own lives. Each poem, like music, like paintings, will hit each person differently at different times.”
Limón’s ability to illustrate wit and thought-provoking ideas throughout her lecture exemplified her talent as a writer and speaker. She explained how difficult it can be to relay one’s poetic experience in a relatable and humorous manner.
“No one will be moved by the same poem, the same song,” Limon said. “It’s why sometimes it is hard to teach poetry. We can love a poem and stand in front of a class and expound on its delights while the whole class is looking at us while we’re jumping up and down with excitement and they think it is as boring as dishwashing liquid or salt.”
Limón’s passion for poetry began in a bookshop in her hometown of Sonoma, Calif. Countless hours passed as Limón skimmed through poetry book after poetry book, waiting until she found a poem that “hit.” A poem that “hits,” as Limón refers to it, speaks to the reader directly.
It is art doing its job — connecting the viewer or reader to something unearthly in a memorable manner. The solace Limón found grazing through the bookshelves and silently reading behind the counter inspired a lifetime of storytelling.
“This was the quiet bookstore I worked in, and on hot summer days when no one was out on the plaza, I was left alone with poems,” Limón said.
With heartfelt and realistic words, Limón encouraged the audience to explore complexities found in everyday life.
“Poetry is a way of connecting to the Earth, to the tree, to the stock of goldenrod rogue and blooming between two roses by the post office.” Limón said. “Poetry is an argument not just for our survival, but for our flourishing. We need poetry to remind us to feel, to love, to grieve. Perhaps an argument for poetry is an argument for our humanity.”
Limón reminded the audience of how we can become numb in a society full of hardship and loss. As she does in her writing, she touched on relevant issues and events.
“When careening from one crisis to another, whether it’s the pandemic, the war in Ukraine, a new racialized violence, a new climate catastrophe, each moment we often subvert our feelings in order to just get through the day,” Limón said.
As the lecture neared its end, Limón read a few of her poems, such as “Dead Stars” and “Heart on Fire.” Her work explored themes of love, grief and the human condition.
Limón closed her lecture by offering a rather ambiguous statement for the reader to consider. One that evoked questions, but also promoted a special peace of mind.
“I love poems because ‘What even are they?’ And sometimes, a poem makes me say, ‘Wow, I love life, because what even is it?,’” Limón said.