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.
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