Despair about the place of poetry in American culture is nothing new. Writing for the North American Review in 1936, poet Joseph Auslander—in part lamenting the national state of things, “the tumultuous times” (as George Orwell might have put it) of his historical moment, and perhaps responding to the usual dismissals of the role of poetry in American life—declared:
… with progress and machine comfort and buttons and buzzers and contraptions and clever paraphernalia and infallible statistics and the deification of Fact, we are swinging back full circle to a very old and a very simple truth. We are being compelled, by the abject collapse of a material conception of living, to recognize once more the terrible necessity in our lives for that strength, that pillaring of the spirit, that informing and sustaining power which it has always been the special virtue and splendor of poetry to impart.
It’s easy to see that Auslander’s words could have been describing our own contemporary moment with its technological advances and myriad distractions. A year later, he would become the first Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, already having articulated in his essay the role he would assume: “to help put [poetry] back where it belongs in the lives and affections and affairs of our people.” His belief in the necessity of poetry—and contemporary poetry in particular—is evident in his assertion that it communicates the “noblest thought and feeling of our age to the people.” “To have poets,” Auslander declared, “we must have audiences… . And to have great poets, we must have great audiences,” thus reminding us of the symbiotic relationship between contemporary readers and writers. That a great poem had saved nations in the past was, to him, “beside the point.” Poetry, he insisted, “will do so again. When everything else fails, poetry will remain. Poetry cannot fail.”
Poetry cannot fail, yet the role of poetry waxes and wanes in the lives of many people. We turn to it when we need it. In the face of tragedy, reading poetry may serve as not only our silent reflection, but also our uttered lament, a container for our collective loss. Poetry possesses a cultural force in its ability to give shape to what we have witnessed and therefore inevitably must be articulated. For example, “Photograph from September 11” by the late Wisława Szymborska:
They jumped from the burning floors—
one, two, a few more,
The photograph halted them in life,
and now keeps them
above the earth toward the earth.
Each is still complete,
with a particular face
and blood well hidden.
There’s enough time
for hair to come loose,
for keys and coins
to fall from pockets.
They’re still within the air’s reach,
within the compass of places
that have just now opened.
I can do only two things for them—
describe this flight
and not add a last line.
How plainspoken this necessary utterance: The poem’s power is also in its sense of justice, its ability to witness without trivializing what happened with a “poetic” ending. It remembers without diminishing.
We do not turn to poetry, however, only when we are grieving. Though we may forget it for a while, we return again when we need the language of a poem to help us commemorate the birth of a child, to celebrate a marriage, to speak to the beloved in heightened terms in order to convey the depths of our emotional attachment. At these times many of us turn to the act of writing poems.
Either way, to be a reader or writer of poetry is to recognize the ways in which it is a cultural force, to believe in the necessity of it. Like Auslander, I believe in that necessity now more than ever, but it would not be wholly true to say that I have been here all along, at least not consistently. To have arrived at this point of certainty, or, more precisely, at a point of faith in poetry to give us something necessary that cannot be found elsewhere required a journey. This journey has had several beginnings, none more significant than the others, nor any one a prerequisite for the others. Only now do I see how these beginnings are inextricably linked.
Like many people, my childhood was full of the sounds of poetry, of meter and rhyme, the delight in the sensory pleasures of language: from nursery rhymes, to the Psalms I overheard during my grandmother’s weekly church meetings of the ladies’ auxiliary group, the memorizations I learned from my great aunt Sugar and in school, to my father’s recitations of poems, including parts of the epic poem Beowulf—first in Old English, then in translation—and often before I’d go to bed at night.
Perhaps because of this, one of my greatest pleasures of childhood was that sometimes I would hear my father before I could see him. Fee fie foe fum, he’d bellow into the long hallway, I smell the blood of an Englishman—the first two lines of the rhyme an invitation. By late afternoon, my father would have finished his work both as a poet and scholar reading and writing at his desk and as a stevedore unloading crates of bananas and other goods on the docks at Gulfport, Mississippi. Hearing fee fie foe fum signaled the beginning of our ritual. I’d have just enough time to scramble to a hiding place and wait for him to find me as he recited the next two lines. Each time he’d ferret me out, squealing with delight, then hoist me into the air and out the door for our afternoon walk.
On those longs walks my father would talk to me about the importance of justice, empathy, and our ethical responsibilities to others. To clarify his points with an element of pleasure, my father would recite poems—some well-known, others his own early poems on which he’d been working. As a graduate student he’d memorized some of William Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads and would often recite “Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey.” These lines, for example:
… and in after years,
When these wild ecstasies shall be matured
Into a sober pleasure, when thy mind
Shall be a mansion for all lovely forms,
Thy memory be as a dwelling-place
For all sweet sounds and harmonies; Oh! then,
If solitude, or fear, or pain, or grief,
Should be thy portion, with what healing thoughts
Of tender joy wilt thou remember me,
And these my exhortations!
Walking beside my father or dashing just ahead, I’d listen, bending now and again to pick for my mother the weeds I thought were flowers. The red conical tips of the plants had the appearance of strawberries and were so small I’d have to gather a great many of them to make a bouquet. They grew in the median or alongside the four-lane highway we walked. Though I know it was a busy road, I recall only the sound of my father’s voice, the cadences of the poems, coupled with my desire to keep something of those afternoons, and to bring something back to my mother.
I can remember a particular walk during which we found a dead turtle, parts of its shell cracked and missing, exposing the delicate flesh underneath. This was perhaps one of my first encounters with death, and I remember being deeply saddened by it as my father, who never hid from me the difficult truths of our lives, tried to explain the nature of things—of tragedy and loss. Maybe he recited a poem. This is what our shared memory of the day tells us.
No doubt you can sense in my words, as I do, the determined feel of foreshadowing, so full is my description of this scene with my contemporary knowledge of what was to come. As poet Eavan Boland put it, “retrospect flattens chronology.” And so, I am constrained to see this past in light of the present moment—my attempt to find and make sense of the origins of my faith in the necessity of poetry in my life. Perhaps early on it was the way my father used poetry, and thus metaphor, to present to me a version of the world I was coming to inhabit—a tool for making sense of it. About poetic metaphor Robert Frost wrote:
What I am pointing out is that unless you are at home in the metaphor, unless you have had your proper poetical education in the metaphor, you are not safe anywhere. Because you are not at ease with figurative values: … You are not safe with science; you are not safe in history.
It occurs to me now that my father could have been preparing me, through a poetical education in metaphor, for so many things to come and all the reckoning with the past—with history both personal and collective—that I would have to do in order to survive.
My parents divorced when I was six years old, and even though I was not with my father during the school year, I was still fortunate enough in my early education to have had poetry. In Atlanta I attended what had formerly been an all-white school but had become a black school after integration and white flight. Because of this, the curriculum included a focus on African-American literature and history. We learned to recite James Weldon Johnson’s poem “The Creation” and his “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” what was called the “Negro National Anthem,” which we sang along with “The Star-Spangled Banner” at assemblies. The walls were covered with posters and portraits of Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and Martin Luther King Jr. We studied the poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and Gwendolyn Brooks. From that curriculum, I learned that there were poems that could help to make sense of the past and reckon with the ongoing injustices of the present. When I started eighth grade, bused into a white school where I encountered children who hissed “nigger go home” as they brushed past in the halls, I could recall Countee Cullen’s “Incident.” It’s a short poem, and in its musicality, its rhyme, quite memorable:
Once riding in old Baltimore,
Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,
I saw a Baltimorean
Keep looking straight at me.
Now I was eight and very small,
And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, but he poked out
His tongue, and called me, “Nigger.”
I saw the whole of Baltimore
From May until December;
Of all the things that happened there
That’s all that I remember.
In that strange new school and as an adolescent trying to find my place in the world, I saw kinship in these lines from Langston Hughes’s poem “Cross”:
My old man died in a fine big house.
My ma died in a shack.
I wonder where I’m gonna die,
Being neither white nor black?
Poems showed me the ways of the world, spoke back to what was wrong in it, and created in language a kind of justice. Because I turned to poetry again and again, it seemed as though I was destined to be an unwavering devotee.
But later, something changed. I think that what happened to me happens to a lot of people. I have heard a similar story from people across the country, many who have not yet returned to poetry. In high school, because we focused so intently on the meaning of a poem while ignoring its pleasures—its sound and imagery and figurative language—I became frustrated, certain that I could never figure it out, understand its cryptic depths, certain that it could not speak to me or to my experience. These lines from Billy Collins’s poem “Introduction to Poetry” sum it up best: he writes, “I want them to waterski / across the surface of a poem / waving at the author’s name on the shore. / But all they want to do / is tie the poem to a chair with rope / and torture a confession out of it.”
Before that, as small children, it seemed we understood poems because we enjoyed them, heard the music of them, and could sense their rhythms. I think of how I love Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening,” love to recite it, to consider again and again the way it voices its timeless truth about our human condition—but that in high school, I did not. Poetry had become as remote to me as a foreign language I could not speak or understand. To come back to poetry after having abandoned it so many years ago would be another beginning, now rooted in utter necessity.
If my love for poetry could be said to have begun in childhood wonder, in the afternoons spent with my father, in the excitement of early school days, my need for poetry, my faith in it, began with a single poem—or, more precisely, a singular experience and the intervention of poetry.
It was June of my freshman year in college, in the middle of final exam week, when I received an early-morning call. My mother had been killed, gunned down in a parking lot by her second husband—her then ex-husband—a troubled Vietnam veteran with a history of mental illness. Grief set in quickly. I must have been in shock. I can remember riding in the back of a police car on the way home to Atlanta. Every fifteen minutes or so the officer would pull over to use a pay phone to, as he put it, “check for updates.” I kept thinking that he would return to the car to tell me that it had all been a mistake—that either my mother was only injured, not dead, or that they had identified the wrong woman altogether.
At the police station, they put me in a room by myself. There were no windows, only a conference table and a few chairs. On the table was my mother’s briefcase. Though I sat there for hours waiting for my father to arrive, I never touched the briefcase to see what it held inside, what remnant of my mother’s life I might find there. Like that oxblood leather case with its dull combination lock, my mother was now closed to me. It was another education in metaphor. Looking back, I can see how the figurative values of things were there and are, in fact, everywhere. I can see now that in most of the informal photographs in which I appear with my mother, or with both my parents, she is never looking out toward the camera. In one, the three of us in tight focus, my father holds me, the hat from his baseball uniform on my head. It is summer. I am between them, and my mother is looking down at me, smiling—a look of anticipation on her face—while my father looks straight ahead, meeting the gaze I will bring each time I take out the photograph to look. His gesture, it seems to me now, suggests of the possibility of speaking across time, the distances, as poetry does. My mother, in her watchful and loving gaze toward my childhood self, has turned away from a future she will never enter.
I do not recall the moment during those first six months after my mother’s death that I turned to poetry—an attempt to put in elegant language what I was feeling, to make sense of it. I know only that I could think of no other place but a poem that the pain of my loss might find its just articulation. So I tried writing one for the first time since those heady days of elementary school because something catastrophic had happened. It was an awful poem, but I had needed to do it. Then, in a college English class, I read W. H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts:”
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
I was immediately taken by those first lines: “About suffering they were never wrong, / The Old Masters …” It was as if the poem were speaking directly to me, and I was ready, almost daring it to prove something it knew in the abstract about suffering that I now understood intimately. “About suffering”—those first two words of the phrase were arresting not only in their proposed subject matter, but also in the syntax, an inversion that places the emphasis not on “the old masters” as the noun of the sentence, but on the knowledge of what it means to suffer.
It seems a natural response after a traumatic experience and the range of emotions—including anger—that comes with it, to believe that no one can understand what it feels like, that we are alone in our pain. In many ways, this is true. The world goes on, and the poem proceeds with this notion, setting out its argument with a series of images as examples. In titling the poem “Musée des Beaux Arts,” Auden allows us to consider several paintings he does not name but that are familiar, paintings that address the juxtaposition of suffering and the mundane dailiness of the world—how small the individual tragedy or loss can seem, ignored or unnoticed in a corner. I can’t remember if I had seen all of the paintings to which he refers—The Massacre of the Innocents, for example—but I was quite familiar with the story of Icarus. My father had told it to me repeatedly when I was a child—a cautionary tale he must have used so that I would listen to him and follow his instructions. It was comforting to find something in the poem I knew from my past education in metaphor. What’s significant to me now is the other comfort I found in the poem.
Some would find it unsettling to be reminded that the world goes on oblivious to tragedy, to our individual losses. But I heard, in Auden’s matter-of-fact tone, the plain truth of the opening statement that my grief had prevented me from recognizing. In Auden’s vision, if suffering isolates us, it connects us, too. The poem showed me that I was not alone in the experience of being alone in my suffering, that—across time and space—others had and would continue to suffer, and that a single voice could speak into the silences, the emptiness that my mother’s death left in my life. This is the great cultural force of poetry. In its intimacy, the individual voice of the poem can show us ourselves by showing us the interior life of someone else, can inspire in us great empathy—a sacred gift—and can bring us back from the depths of despair.
There was for me yet another gift in Auden’s poem: the invitation to speak back with my own necessary utterance, to enter a conversation on the nature of loss that poets had long undertaken in the tradition of poems in an elegiac mood. When I began again to try to find in language the expression of my grief, I had in mind a distant and listening ear. It took me years of attempts and failed drafts before I began to finally complete the elegies I had desperately needed to write. One in particular made it into my journal first as a list of words that suggested my early and late education in poetical metaphor. On a single page, these words:
And on another page: myth, Orpheus, Eurydice. I was entering the conversation, it seems, through another set of characters from mythology, and from my childhood stories—two avenues opened to me by Auden’s poem.
I had been thinking about the myth and how my dreams of my mother echoed the action of it: Orpheus’ descent into the underworld to bring Eurydice back. Perhaps I also began to think about that journey into sleep, into dream, as similar to Orpheus’ journey, and the fresh grief he must have felt, as I did, when he realized she had vanished and was gone from him again. An Erebus is a kind of otherworldly, liminal space, and so I had to work on the lines that include the phrase “sleep-heavy, turning, my eyes open” in order to create an image that would suggest Orpheus’ turning to look as Eurydice vanishes, and that would echo my waking and banishing my mother back into the space of that other world of dream where she still exists, alive but out of reach. It was my own articulation of the idea that “about suffering they were never wrong”—that it returns to us, is ongoing as suggested in the poem’s form. “Myth:”
I was asleep while you were dying.
It’s as if you slipped through some rift, a hollow
I make between my slumber and my waking,
the Erebus I keep you in, still trying
not to let go. You’ll be dead again tomorrow,
but in dreams you live. So I try taking
you back into morning. Sleep-heavy, turning,
my eyes open, I find you do not follow.
Again and again, this constant forsaking.
* * *
Again and again, this constant forsaking:
my eyes open, I find you do not follow.
You back into morning, sleep-heavy, turning.
But in dreams you live. So I try taking,
not to let go. You’ll be dead again tomorrow.
The Erebus I keep you in—still, trying—
I make between my slumber and my waking.
It’s as if you slipped through some rift, a hollow.
I was asleep while you were dying.
Looking back on the experience of writing the poem, I can see that Auden’s words, giving way to my own necessary utterance, offered many gifts—most of all the realization that poetry could bring my mother back to me in the experience of intense emotion evoked by the rhythms of syntax, the heft of certain words on the tongue, and the vividness of imagery and figurative language that can make the mind leap to a new apprehension of things. No longer closed to me, my mother could be resurrected in the sacred language of a poem, brought back for a moment of recollection—a stay against the inevitable—through the bittersweet pleasures of the elegy.
Years later, I’d find another poem, this time by a contemporary poet, Lisel Mueller, that spoke to me in the way that Auden’s had—but even more directly as it seemed to describe exactly my particular experience. I hear in “When I Am Asked” echoes of Auden, too.
When I am asked
how I began writing poems,
I talk about the indifference of nature.
It was soon after my mother died,
a brilliant June day,
I sat on a gray stone bench
in a lovingly planted garden,
but the day lilies were as deaf
as the ears of drunken sleepers
and the roses curved inward.
Nothing was black or broken
and not a leaf fell
and the sun blared endless commercials
for summer holidays.
I sat on a gray stone bench
ringed with the ingenue faces
of pink and white impatiens
and placed my grief
in the mouth of language,
the only thing that would grieve with me.
That last line bears repeating: “the only thing that would grieve with me.” In that simple invocation of the power of language, I find again what is not only comforting, but revolutionary about poetry—its communal nature, how one can be absolutely alone with it, but at once part of something larger, ancient, and ongoing. “Grieve not as others grieve,” I heard a minister preach at the funeral. His sermon was not designed to comfort the bereaved, but to inspire ever more religious devotion in the believers who were promised, because of their faith he reminded us, the afterlife. Poetry offers a different kind of solace, one that can be felt here on Earth.
I see now, in our contemporary moment, that it is more necessary than ever to receive the gifts that poetry offers. Each day we are faced with sound bites and catchphrases deadening and trivializing our language, the widening gulf of our ideological differences eroding civil discourse and our ability to truly communicate with each other, to hear each other. For all of that, poetry is the corrective, the sacred language that allows us to connect across time and space, across all the things in everyday life that separate us and would destroy us. That’s because poetry allows us to reckon with our troubled past and to imagine the better, more just society that we must continue each day to build. It evokes in us “the better angels of our nature,” eliciting our most humane impulses to engage the humanity of others through the projection of our own emotional knowledge, our empathetic understanding—the best knowledge we have for dealing with each other. And deal with each other we must. I have faith in poetry’s ability to help us do so, to wield its ennobling influence on us, and to save us—perhaps not as a nation, but one life at a time.
Thanks to Michael Salcman for the Whitman attribution of the quote about great audiences. Trethewey’s wonderful article uses powerful quotes from so many sources – an inspiration to read. The final quote, “the better angels of our nature,” is from Lincoln’s first inaugural address (thanks, Google). I also wanted to comment on Trethewey’s own shattering poem about her mother’s death. Not only is the heartbreaking subject emotionally captured, it is beautifully expressed in a most difficult form, a mirror image. Is there a name for this form? I recently saw it in a poem in Rattle 42 by Lynne Knight. I would love to see more examples of it.