Poetry in a Time of Tragedy

The Hartford Courant

The recent tragedy in Newtown brings forth, understandably, questions about poetry.

Can I communicate my grief by writing a poem?

Can I find solace or an answer in poetry?

Newspaper and magazine editors know, to their chagrin, that the response to the first question is "yes." After any major tragedy readers besiege editors with many well meaning and deeply felt poems.

The avalanche of poems comes partially because all humans live in a daily fog that only now and then somewhat clears. A life-altering event — a significant birthday, a wedding, a death — causes the fog to lift. We suddenly feel ourselves wrenched from normal reality. For a while, we're seeing, hearing and feeling with new clarity. The urge to share this clarity and its immediate realizations leads to the writing of poems.

And why poems?

Because poetry, particularly traditional rhymed and metered poetry, is at its best a heightened use of language. It's a form of art that can "lock" a realization into place, seemingly for all time. As one of my old professors used to say, "language measured and super-charged" at its best can be short enough to focus upon and even to memorize. It is not unusual to have poems used in ceremonies and rites.

So the poems come to our besieged editors. Well meaning. Scared. Haunted. Angry. Grieving. Devastated.

Being occasional, written in the heat and sorrow of the moment, sadly most often these terribly sincere poems are not very good. Even when written by leading poets, they're not very good. Anyone who reads the poems in anthologies constructed in the national grief following the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, following 9/11 and following Hurricane Katrina knows that in retrospect … well, these occasional poems are not very good.

Why not?

Poetry, wrote William Wordsworth in his famous "Preface to Lyrical Ballads," is "the spontaneous overflow of powerful emotions recollected in tranquility." I'd argue that "recollected in tranquility" is what provides poetry's greatest use: perspective. In addition to containing considered, crafted and revised and uniquely put language, one does not likely have perspective when responding immediately to a situation.

This element of perspective leads to the second question, Can one find solace or an answer in poetry?

I think so.

An answer may arise because in reading a fine poem, more than likely a poem that's already become well known, the reader is taken outside himself and encouraged to think clearly. The evocation may be as simple as in the lines from Archibald MacLeish's "Ars Poetica,"

For all the history of grief

An empty doorway and a maple leaf

or A.E Houseman's observation on the brevity of human life:

And since to look at things in bloom,

Fifty springs are little room,

About the woodlands I will go

To see the cherry hung with snow.

or Emily Dickinson's poem, quoted here in full — a poem among others that I couldn't get out of my head following the horrific Friday in Newtown:

There's a certain slant of light,

Winter Afternoons -

That oppresses, like the Heft

Of Cathedral tunes -

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us -

We can find no scar,

But internal difference,

Where the Meanings, are -

None may teach it – Any -

'Tis the Seal Despair -

An imperial affliction

Sent us of the Air -

When it comes, the Landscape listens -

Shadows - hold their Breath -

When it goes, 'tis like the Distance

On the look of Death -

Over and over, the great poems provide needed perspective. They remind us, as W. H. Auden did in "September 1, 1939," that "we must love one another, or die." This admonition was even more true when Auden later altered the line to read, "We must love one another and die."

Reading poems, writing them, thinking about them, memorizing them are acts of devotion. Any good book of poetry, any excellent poem, focuses one's attention. Poems clarify us. A poem may be an act of meditation, as it might have been for the poet writing it and as it is now for those reading it. It may be a prayer. It can tell us that no matter what it is we're feeling, others also have felt this way. It may gentle us. On occasion, with its ambiguity, it may make us see many ways at once.

Or it may instruct us. In T. S. Eliot's words from his "Ash Wednesday,"

Teach us to care and not to care

Teach us to sit still

Even among these rocks,

Our peace in His will …

And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,

Suffer me not to be separated

And let my cry come unto Thee.

Poetry causes us to be, in the Zen Buddhists' term, "mindful." And to be mindful is to become acutely aware of every moment. It is to cherish each individual moment even in our stunned lack of comprehension of the whole of life and death — as certainly the Newtown tragedy has caused us for even a short while to be so stunned.

The Japanese poet Matsuo Bosho's haiku, the most famous poem in Japan, lets us focus on this Present. No moment is trivial:

Furuike ya

kawazu tobikomu

mizu no oto

or translated:

The old pond —

a frog jumps in,

sound of water

This focus on the acute perception that just to hear a frog splash, just to have a chance to be alive, even for a very brief time, as the Newtown children were, is marvelous, a treasure. a revelation, a gift, an unforgetableness. It may also remind us of a poetic admonition by a Zen Master, one expressed to his disciple as they were walking in the rain. The admonition says simply what must be said always:

"Do not walk so fast, the rain is everywhere."

Dick Allen is Connecticut's state poet laureate. His eighth poetry collection, "This Shadowy Place," will be published next year.

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