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How to Breathe With the Trees

Even on a computer screen, Ada Limón, who is serving her second term as poet laureate of the United States, projects such warmth and reassurance that you could almost swear she was sitting beside you, holding your hand. This kind of connection between strangers, human heart to human heart, is so rare as to be startling, especially these days.

April is National Poetry Month, and it strikes me that no one is better positioned than Ms. Limón to convince Americans to leave off their quarrels and worries, at least for a time, and surrender to the language of poetry. That’s as much because of her public presence as because of her public role as the country’s poet in chief. When Ada Limón tells you that poetry will make you feel better, you believe her.

In her nearly weekly travels as poet laureate, Ms. Limón has had a lot of practice delivering this message. “Every time I’m around a group of people, the word that keeps coming up is ‘overwhelmed,’” she said. “It’s so meaningful to lean on poetry right now because it does make you slow down. It does make you breathe.”

A poem is built of rests. Each line break, each stanza break and each caesura represents a pause, and in that pause there is room to take a breath. To ponder. To sit, for once in our lives, with mystery. If we can’t find a way to slow down on our own, to take a breath, poems can teach us how.

But Ms. Limón isn’t merely an ambassador for how poetry can heal us. She also makes a subtle but powerful case for how poetry can heal the earth itself. At this time of crisis, when worry governs our days, she wants us to look up from our screens and consider our own connection to the earth. To remember how to breathe by spending some time with the trees that breathe with us.

In the United States, about half of poets laureate spend their terms developing a signature project that fosters a greater appreciation of poetry. Ms. Limón has two: “You Are Here: Poetry in the Natural World,” an anthology of nature poetry that will be released on Tuesday; and “You Are Here: Poetry in the Parks,” a series of poetry-centered picnic-table-style installations in seven national parks. Each will be inscribed with the words of a poet associated with that landscape and also with a writing prompt designed to nudge readers to try their own hands at making a poem. These initiatives will be formally introduced on Thursday at the Library of Congress in conjunction with the library’s inaugural Mary Oliver Memorial Event.

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