The Poet Tree: while you wait to rock out, don’t forget to read the screen!

May 22, 2017 · Print This Article

In his review of the Joshua Tree revival for the New York Times, music critic Jon Pareles notes Bono’s lyrical debts to “language that drew on the Bible and Beat poetry.” This connection between sacred canon and subversive counterculture is an important one, and the summer rock recital of the 80s classic also invigorates the band’s respect for American writing, poetry in particular. As a matter of fact, fans waiting for the show will be treated to a digital anthology of poems, curated by U2.

When we got to our seats at Levi’s Stadium last Wednesday, we were early. With more than an hour before the show, this anticipation could have easily produced boredom or frustration. But we were not bored, not this night. As the sun started to set over the hills, we turned our attention to the mammoth stage that filled the south endzone.

The gold-hued backdrop would later double as an IMAX-style movie screen for the films that would accompany the concert, but for now on the right-hand side of the screen, the texts of poems, chosen by the band, scrolled before us. My sweet wife and I spent our time reading the poems out loud to each other. Each was incredibly powerful, and even though I am a huge poetry reader and poet myself, many were new to me.

Although U2 is an Irish band, these were all American poems by American poets, as American writers inspired the legendary 1987 album that they are touring behind to celebrate its 30th anniversary, playing all eleven tracks of the record in sequence for the first time in a live setting.

We heard from contemporary writers like Naomi Shihab Nye, Alberto Rios, or Elizabeth Alexander. We got challenged to our core by the late Nuyorican poet Pedro Pietri. We heard from classic writers like Carl Sandburg or the legendary Walt Whitman. Whitman warmed us with his words from Leaves of Grass. Words like “argue not concerning God” or “give alms to every one that asks” or “dismiss whatever insults your own soul” because according to good old Walt, these ideals will turn our entire lives into a poem.

What a great sentiment for the living fandom of the thousands not just watching, but participating in, this historic tour. Let’s make our entire lives a poem, or maybe a U2 song, or perhaps a psalm, a beatitude, or a Bible verse.

These particular phrases from Whitman remind me of the Kentucky farmer, poet, and believer Wendell Berry when he declares, “Love the Lord. Love the world. Love someone who does not deserve it.” Or “be joyful though you have considered all the facts.” I hope that perhaps U2 will add that Appalachian poem to their spontaneous anthology when they play shows in Tennessee and Kentucky next month.


A hardcore fan and fellow U2 scholar suggested that about 1% of the masses would read the poems, busy as they were, we suppose, with beers and merch lines, with Mixlr and Twitter. I hope that his estimate is low, but it might be high! But even if a mere one hundred of the thousands got excited about the poems and their messages, that is a great thing.

It didn’t matter to me about the other fans, because under the spell of these poems, I was enthralled. The very next day, I was hunting for poems on websites like or or before heading out on a pilgrimage to North Beach to the Beat mecca City Lights to collect some works by some of the poets I learned about and add to my always growing book collection.

Over at the Beat Museum, we found fellow U2 fan travelers, including Beth Nabi (@bethandbono), enjoying the city of San Francisco, before heading south for the Pasadena.  shows. For at least some of us, books and poets and converging countecultures go hand-in-hand with rock fandoms. I’m excited to see if and how the digital anthology evolves or changes at the coming shows.


Check out some samples of the poetry shared on #U2TheJoshuaTree2017

William Matthews, “Why We Are Truly a Nation” from Selected Poems and Translations, 1969-1991

Because we rage inside

the old boundaries,

like a young girl leaving the Church,

scared of her parents.

Because we all dream of saving

the shaggy, dung-caked buffalo,

shielding the herd with our bodies.

Because grief unites us,

like the locked antlers of moose

who die on their knees in pairs.

William Matthews’s poetry has earned him a reputation as a master of well-turned phrases, wise sayings, and rich metaphors. Much of Matthews’s poetry explores the themes of life cycles, the passage of time, and the nature of human consciousness. In another type of poem, he focuses on his particular enthusiasms: jazz music, basketball, and his children.


Pedro Pietri, “Puerto Rican Obituary” from Selected Poetry

All died yesterday today

and will die again tomorrow

passing their bill collectors

on to the next of kin

All died

waiting for the garden of eden

to open up again

under a new management

All died

dreaming about america

waking them up in the middle of the night

screaming: Mira Mira

your name is on the winning lottery ticket

for one hundred thousand dollars

All died

hating the grocery stores

that sold them make-believe steak

and bullet-proof rice and beans

All died waiting dreaming and hating

Nuyorican poet and playwright Pedro Pietri was born in Ponce, Puerto Rico, and raised in Manhattan. A few years after graduating from high school, he was drafted into the Army and served in the Vietnam War. Upon his return to New York, Pietri joined the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican Civil rights activist group. In the early 1970s, he co-founded the Nuyorican Poets Café with Miguel Piñero, Miguel Algarín, and others.

Carl Sandburg “Prairie” from Cornhuskers

I am here when the cities are gone.

I am here before the cities come.

I nourished the lonely men on horses.

I will keep the laughing men who ride iron.

I am dust of men.

Carl Sandburg (January 6, 1878 – July 22, 1967) was an American poet, writer, and editor who won three Pulitzer Prizes: two for his poetry and one for his biography of Abraham Lincoln. During his lifetime, Sandburg was widely regarded as “a major figure in contemporary literature”, especially for volumes of his collected verse, including Chicago Poems (1916), Cornhuskers (1918), and Smoke and Steel (1920). He enjoyed “unrivaled appeal as a poet in his day, perhaps because the breadth of his experiences connected him with so many strands of American life,” and at his death in 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson observed that “Carl Sandburg was more than the voice of America, more than the poet of its strength and genius. He was America.”

Alberto Rios, “The Border: A Double Sonnet” from A Small Story about the Sky

“The border is a moat but without a castle on either side.”

Born in 1952, Alberto Ríos the inaugural state poet laureate of Arizona and the author of many poetry collections, including  A Small Story about the Sky (Copper Canyon Press, 2015). In 1981, he received the Walt Whitman Award for his collection Whispering to Fool the Wind (Sheep Meadow Press, 1982). He currently serves as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.


Sherman Alexie, “The Powwow at the End of the World” from The Summer of Black Widows

I am told by many of you that I must forgive and so I shall after

that salmon leaps into the night air above the water, throws

a lightning bolt at the brush near my feet, and starts the fire

which will lead all of the lost Indians home. I am told

by many of you that I must forgive and so I shall

after we Indians have gathered around the fire with that salmon

who has three stories it must tell before sunrise: one story will teach us

how to pray; another story will make us laugh for hours;

the third story will give us reason to dance. I am told by many

of you that I must forgive and so I shall when I am dancing

with my tribe during the powwow at the end of the world.

Sherman Alexie, a Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian, was born on October 7, 1966, on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington. He received his BA in American studies from Washington State University in Pullman. His books of poetry include Face (Hanging Loose, 2009), One Stick Song (2000), The Man Who Loves Salmon (1998), The Summer of Black Widows (1996), Water Flowing Home (1995), Old Shirts & New Skins (1993), First Indian on the Moon (1993), I Would Steal Horses (1992), and The Business of Fancydancing (1992).

Shirley Geok-lin Lim, “Learning to love America” from What the Fortune Teller Didn’t Say

because I walk barefoot in my house

because I have nursed my son at my breast

because he is a strong American boy

because I have seen his eyes redden when he is asked who he is

because he answers I don’t know

because to have a son is to have a country

because my son will bury me here

because countries are in our blood and we bleed them

because it is late and too late to change my mind

because it is time.

Born in Malacca, Malaysia, Shirley Geok-Lin Lim was raised by her Chinese father and attended missionary schools. Although her first languages were Malay and the Hokkin dialect of Chinese, she was able to read English by the time she was six. Lim emigrated to the United States after college, settling eventually in California. Her several books of poetry include Monsoon History: Selected Poems and What the Fortune Teller Didn’t Say.


Naomi Shihab Nye, “Kindness” from Words Under the Words: Selected Poems

Before you know what kindness really is

you must lose things,

feel the future dissolve in a moment

like salt in a weakened broth.

What you held in your hand,

what you counted and carefully saved,

all this must go so you know

how desolate the landscape can be

between the regions of kindness.

How you ride and ride

thinking the bus will never stop,

the passengers eating maize and chicken

will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness

you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho

lies dead by the side of the road.

You must see how this could be you,

how he too was someone

who journeyed through the night with plans

and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,

you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.

You must wake up with sorrow.

You must speak to it till your voice

catches the thread of all sorrows

and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,

only kindness that ties your shoes

and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,

only kindness that raises its head

from the crowd of the world to say

It is I you have been looking for,

and then goes with you everywhere

like a shadow or a friend.

Naomi Shihab Nye gives voice to her experience as an Arab-American through poems about heritage and peace that overflow with a humanitarian spirit.

Robinson Jeffers, “Juan Higera Creek” from Californians

There have I stopped, and though the unclouded sun

Flew high in loftiest heaven, no dapple of light

Flecked the large trunks below the leaves intense,

Nor flickered on your creek: murmuring it sought

The River of the South, which oceanward

Would sweep it down. I drank sweet water there,

And blessed your immortality. Not bronze,

Higera, nor yet marble cool the thirst;

Let bronze and marble of the rich and proud

Secure the names; your monument will last

Longer, of living water forest-pure.

Elizabeth Alexander, “Preliminary Sketches: Philadelphia” from The Venus Hottentot.

Which way to walk down these tree streets

and find home cooking, boundless love?

Double-dutching on front porches,

men in sleeveless undershirts.

I’m listening for the Philly sound—

Brother            brother            brotherly love.

Elizabeth Alexander’s career as a poet has been impressive. Her book American Sublime (2005) was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize, and in 2005 she was awarded the Jackson Poetry Prize. She is often recognized as a pivotal figure in African American poetry. When Barack Obama asked her to compose and read a poem for his Presidential inauguration, she joined the ranks of Robert Frost, Maya Angelou and Miller Williams; her poem, “Praise Song for the Day,” became a bestseller after it was published as a chapbook by Graywolf Press. Alexander writes on a variety of subjects, most notably race and gender, politics and history, and motherhood.



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