A Special Poetry Challenge: What Small Kindnesses Do You Appreciate?

What minor, gracious things do others do for you that make you happy?

Think about not only your closest family and friends but also acquaintances or strangers in your community, on your daily commute, at school, in church, at your job or anywhere else you spend time. Consider, too, the online worlds you are apart of. What small kindnesses by others — some perhaps so small you barely notice them — lift your spirits?

We ask this question in honor of National Poetry Month, for which we’re trying something new: We’re inviting you to contribute to a collaborative poem on this theme! To participate, just use our comments section to post a few lines of your own poetry about the small kindnesses you appreciate.

Collaborative poetry is an old tradition. You may know about the game “Exquisite Corpse,” which the French Surrealists invented in the 1930s, or the epic collective poem “La Familia” that Juan Felipe Herrera, the US poet laureate from 2015 to 2017, created with lines submitted by people all over the country. Or you may have heard a collaborative poem on National Public Radio. Kwame Alexander, NPR’s “poet in residence,” has created crowdsourced poems responding to the coronavirus pandemic, the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, anti-Asian hate and more.

For our own collaborative poem, we’re drawing on The New York Times Magazine’s long-running Poem column, which features new verses every week. In September 2019, the column featured Danusha Laméris’s “Small Kindnesses,” chosen and introduced by the poet Naomi Shihab Nye.

Here are the poem and its introduction in full:

Sometimes a poem just strikes a precise moment. “Small Kindnesses,” by Danusha Laméris, feels utterly necessary for our time — a poem celebrating minor, automatic graciousness within a community, which can shine a penetrating light. It’s a catalog of small encouragements, unfolding as might a child’s palm filled with shiny stones. It almost feels like another hope we remember having. Acknowledging the modern plight of autonomy and so many separations, the poem then easily passes through them, breezing compliments and simple care. Selected by Naomi Shihab Nye

Small Kindnesses

By Danusha Laméris

I’ve been thinking about the way, when you walk
down a crowded aisle, people pull in their legs
to let you by. Or how strangers still say “bless you”
when someone sneezes, a leftover
from the Bubonic plague. “Don’t die,” we are saying.
And sometimes, when you spill lemons
from your grocery bag, someone else will help you
pick them up. Mostly, we don’t want to harm each other.
We want to be handed our cup of coffee hot,
and to say thank you to the person handing it. to smile
at them and for them to smile back. For the waitress
to call us honey when she sets down the bowl of clam chowder,
and for the driver in the red pick-up truck to let us pass.
We have so little of each other, now. so far
from tribe and fire. Only these brief moments of exchange.
What if they are the true dwelling of the holy, these
floating temples we make together when we say, “Here,
have my seat,” “Go ahead — you first,” “I like your hat.”

Students, read the poem and its introduction at least twice and then tell us:

  • What “small kindnesses” would you list if you were writing a poem with that title? To brainstorm, return to the questions we asked at the top of this post.

  • As you think about how to phrase your submission, you may be guided by the poem you just read. Think about the words, phrases or lines that stand out to you and how they might inspire your own writing. For instance, notice how specific and vivid the images are—not just fruit spilling from a grocery bag but “lemons.” Not just the driver of the next car but “the driver in the red pick-up truck.” Notice, also, how all of the examples are relatable: We’ve all experienced similar “small kindnesses.” As you add your own ideas, think about how you might make your lines equally vivid and universal.

  • When you are ready, post your submission in the comments section. Please make sure you include your first name as well as your school and location.

  • And finally, We’re delighted to announce that Danusha Laméris — the author of “Small Kindnesses” — will help choose from among your submissions to create the collaborative poem. We plan to publish it in the coming weeks as a special post in our Current Events Conversation column. (If your work is chosen, you will be credited.)

Want more writing prompts? You can find all of our questions in our Student Opinion column. Teachers, check out this guide to learn how you can incorporate them into your classroom.

Students 13 and older in the United States and Britain, and 16 and older elsewhere, are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.

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