from Blackbird, Spring 2015
Those of you whose interests have been piqued by my title—whether you are poets yourselves or practitioners of another discipline—already know the answer is, sad to say, no. To the best of my knowledge, poetry literally has saved someone’s life on only one occasion, and this example may well be apocryphal: Ben Jonson, the great Elizabethan poet and playwright, was also famously truculent. Although his best poems—consider his heartbreaking elegy on the death of his infant son—are work of the deepest sort of tenderness, Jonson was renowned as much for his mean-ass streak as for his conviviality. His admiring introduction to the First Folio of Shakespeare is a work of justified renown, but his reputed put-downs of the Bard of Avon are also the stuff of legend. Jonson reportedly claimed that Shakespeare knew “small Latin and little Greek” and his writings “wanted art”—in other words, they were awkward. This is a bit like those guitar players who in order to mask their envy feel compelled to snootily dismiss Jimi Hendrix because he couldn’t read music.
Remember that the sixteenth century’s equivalent to the smartphone, insofar as you carried it with you everywhere—and you were apt to finger it nervously in every public space—was your rapier. No gentleman in London went out without a sword at his side, a fact that law enforcement may not have liked any more than, in my native state of Virginia, policemen like the fact that you can carry a holstered handgun into a restaurant, a bar, or your church. As I’ve said, Ben Jonson was renowned as a hothead, and it seems almost inevitable that sooner or later he would kill a man in a duel. The London of Elizabeth and James was slightly more enlightened than contemporary Florida and other states—you could carry your sword wherever you went, but there was no such thing as a stand-your-ground law. Dueling was OK, as long as no one was killed in the encounter. Killing someone in a duel was in fact a capital offense, punishable not by beheading—the “dignified” form of execution reserved for reprobate nobility—but by hanging. So, in 1598, after killing the actor Gabriel Spencer in a duel, Ben Jonson was condemned to hang. But, if you’ll pardon my pun, there was a loophole to the laws regarding capital punishment in Jonson’s day, a “Get Out of Jail (or scaffold) Free” card, as it were. Thanks to an old English law, whose origins were obscure even in Jonson’s time, if a condemned man could recite what was charmingly called the “neck-verse,” a.k.a. Psalm 51, he would be allowed to go free.
Imagine the scene: Jonson stands before a magistrate, several witnesses having affirmed that during his altercation with Spencer in a tavern or on some muddy London lane, Jonson got the better of his adversary and stabbed him through the heart, killing him instantly. The judge reads his verdict, condemning Jonson to be hauled off to the gallows at Tyburn, the site of London’s public executions. (Fortunately, Jonson would only be sentenced to hanging, unlike another Elizabethan poet, Robert Southwell, who three years earlier had been hung, then drawn and quartered while still alive—but Southwell’s crime had been more severe: he’d been outed as a Jesuit.) After being asked if he has anything to say in his defense, Jonson raises his bowed head, looks the judge in the eyes, and without introduction commences his recitation. Jonson is, after all, a man of prodigious learning. (To recite any of the Psalms would probably have been a piece of cake for him.) Since he is also a bit of a show off, Jonson might render the “neck-verse” in the Latin version of the Vulgate, but it’s more likely that he recites the English translation found in the Coverdale Bible, first issued in 1535.
Haue mercy vpon me (o God) after thy goodnes, & acordinge vnto thy greate mercies, do awaye myne offences. Wash me well fro my wickednesse, & clense me fro my synne. For I knowlege my fautes, and my synne is euer before me. Agaynst the only, agaynst the haue I synned, and done euell in thy sight: that thou mightiest be iustified in thy saynges, and shuldest ouercome when thou art iudged.
Beholde, I was borne in wickednesse, and in synne hath my mother conceaued me.
But lo, thou hast a pleasure in the treuth, and hast shewed me secrete wysdome. O reconcile me with Isope, and I shal be clene: wash thou me, and I shalbe whyter then snowe. Oh let me heare of ioye and gladnesse, that the bones which thou hast broken, maye reioyse. Turne thy face fro my synnes, and put out all my mysdedes. Make me a clene hert (o God) and renue a right sprete within me. Cast me not awaie from thy presence, and take not thy holy sprete fro me. O geue me the comforte of thy helpe agayne, and stablish me with thy fre sprete. Then shal I teach thy wayes vnto the wicked, that synners maye be conuerted vnto the. Delyuer me from bloudegyltynesse o God, thou that art the God of my health, that my tonge maye prayse thy rightuousnesse. Open my lippes (O LORDE) that my mouth maye shewe thy prayse.
For yf thou haddest pleasure in sacrifice, I wolde geue it the: but thou delytest not in burntofferynges. The sacrifice of God is a troubled sprete, a broken and a cotrite hert (o God) shalt thou not despise. O be fauorable and gracious vnto Sion, that the walles of Ierusalem maye be buylded. For then shalt thou be pleased with the sacrifice of rightuousnesse, with the burntofferynges and oblacions: then shal they laye bullockes vpon thine aulter.
Jonson sits down. Doubtless a few of his friends and admirers are in the courtroom, many of them theatre folk like himself, and surely they understand after a few lines of the speech that this is the performance of Jonson’s life. At any rate, Ben Jonson walks, probably after having first been admonished by the judge to henceforth keep that rapier in its scabbard. Poetry—not just any poetry but some of the earliest and most venerable verse of the Western canon, supposedly composed by the Ur-Bard King David—has saved the life of poet and playwright Ben Jonson. He will live on until 1637, will continue to write poems and plays prolifically, will become a favorite within the court of King James I, and his peers will regard him as a writer second only to Shakespeare.
This scene I’ve conjured is, I admit, a bit Hollywood-sy, and one can imagine it in a Ben Jonson biopic, where a pretty-boy actor of the pompous hack variety—James Franco, say, or Mark Wahlberg—plays Jonson, somberly intoning the psalm, which for dramatic purposes will be edited down to about a fifth of its actual length. It’s also worth wondering what Jonson thought of the Coverdale Bible’s rendering of the psalm. Let me further speculate that even as he was delivering the speech of his lifetime, Jonson was going over the lines in his head and thinking, I can do better than that. Sure, the poetry of the Coverdale Bible is serviceable, but only just so, and the version of Psalm 51 which appears in the King James (published in 1611, over a decade after Jonson’s trial and acquittal) is superior in several respects. The sinning speaker of the Coverdale version rather prosaically enumerates both his own failures and the largesse of the Almighty. The phrasing is bland and there’s little thought given to the language’s rhythms or rhetorical possibilities. Compare the opening few lines of the Coverdale to these from the King James:
Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.
Wash me throughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me.
Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight: that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest.
Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.
Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward parts: and in the hidden part thou shalt make me to know wisdom.
The emphasis in the Coverdale is largely upon the sinner’s abjection, which may indeed befit the language required of a neck-verse, but not that of poetry. The King James, in contrast, underscores the mysterious serendipity of receiving divine forgiveness: it’s no accident that a phrase such as “tender mercies” is found with such frequency in modern English, or that we think of “lovingkindness” as the most deeply profound sort of generosity. (The Coverdale employs this word elsewhere but misses a wonderful opportunity to insert it into Psalm 51.) Mind you, it is also possible that Jonson could have recited a version of the psalm done in rhyme and meter. Many poets of his day were attempting this, most notably Jonson’s contemporary, Philip Sidney, who had set out to render all of the psalms in received form. Upon Sidney’s death in 1586, he’d finished only forty-three of them, but the project was completed by his sister, Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke. Although what has come to be called the Sidney Psalter was not published until the nineteenth century, copies of it were circulating in manuscript, and Jonson may have encountered it. But if Jonson used Lady Herbert’s version in his performance, I suspect he would have done it for comic effect, for her rendering is unabashedly dreadful, not least because it replaces the abjection of Coverdale with something amounting to sadomasochism. The following quatrain suggests the spirit of the translation: “For I, alas, acknowledging doe know / My filthie fault, my faultie filthiness / To my soules eye uncessantly doth show / Which done to thee, to thee I doe confesse.” What an irony that in the only case I know of in which a life was literally saved by poetry, that it was likely saved by indifferent poetry.
I suspect, dear reader, that you have already guessed what comes next. Because I am a poet, and because poets are fond of metaphor, you have every right to expect that I will now offer up examples of how poetry can figuratively save one’s life. Here, though, I’m on more shaky ground, insofar as when a person asserts that a poem, a song, a novel or a dance performance saved her life, we want to take that person at her word. Of course we never can: Rescues at sea by the Coast Guard are dramatic and quantifiable. Having your life saved by Jeff Buckley whispering and keening his astonishing cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”—a song whose life-saving properties have been attested to so often that an entire book has been more or less devoted to the subject—is a claim we have to take on faith. In preparing this talk, I sought to find examples of some poems that saved their author’s life, both figuratively and literally, or with such figurative persuasiveness that the poem may just as well have literally saved its author’s life. But I have to report that my list of poems which perform this task is a very short one, and of course none of the poems on my list are quantifiably lifesaving. Here is a poem which comes close:
The Idea of Ancestry
Taped to the wall of my cell are 47 pictures: 47 black
faces: my father, mother, grandmothers (1 dead), grand-
fathers (both dead), brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts,
cousins (1st & 2nd), nieces, and nephews. They stare
across the space at me sprawling on my bunk. I know
their dark eyes, they know mine. I know their style,
they know mine. I am all of them, they are all of me;
they are farmers, I am a thief, I am me, they are thee.
I have at one time or another been in love with my mother,
1 grandmother, 2 sisters, 2 aunts (1 went to the asylum),
and 5 cousins. I am now in love with a 7-yr-old niece
(she sends me letters in large block print, and
her picture is the only one that smiles at me).
I have the same name as 1 grandfather, 3 cousins, 3 nephews,
and 1 uncle. The uncle disappeared when he was 15, just took
off and caught a freight (they say). He’s discussed each year
when the family has a reunion, he causes uneasiness in
the clan, he is an empty space. My father’s mother, who is 93
and who keeps the Family Bible with everbody’s birth dates
(and death dates) in it, always mentions him. There is no
place in her Bible for "whereabouts unknown."
Each fall the graves of my grandfathers call me, the brown
hills and red gullies of mississippi send out their electric
messages, galvanizing my genes. Last yr / like a salmon quitting
the cold ocean-leaping and bucking up his birthstream / I
hitchhiked my way from LA with 16 caps in my pocket and a
monkey on my back. And I almost kicked it with the kinfolks.
I walked barefooted in my grandmother’s backyard / I smelled the
land and the woods / I sipped cornwhiskey from fruit jars with the
I flirted with the women / I had a ball till the caps ran out
and my habit came down. That night I looked at my grandmother
and split / my guts were screaming for junk / but I was almost
contented / I had almost caught up with me.
(The next day in Memphis I cracked a croaker’s crib for a fix.)
This yr there is a gray stone wall damming my stream, and when
the falling leaves stir my genes, I pace my cell or flop on my bunk/
and stare at 47 black faces across the space. I am all of them,
they are all of me, I am me, they are thee, and I have no children
to float in the space between.
The author of this poem is Etheridge Knight, who died in 1991. He was a poet of gravity and passion, very well regarded in the 1970s and ‘80s, but sadly underread today: you can find his work in the first edition of the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry—the book that for better or for worse sets the poetry industry’s standard for who is hot and who is not—but he’s been dropped from subsequent editions, and only one of his several superb books remains in print. Perhaps some of Knight’s neglect has to do with the fact that his poetry was always rather reductively labeled. As you can surmise from the poem, he wrote it while serving time in prison. He’d been given an eight-year sentence to the Indiana State Prison, on the charge of armed robbery, and his first collection, Poems from Prison, appeared shortly after his release from jail in 1968. So those with a passing knowledge of Knight’s work are apt to call him a “prison poet,” a faintly condescending term that bespeaks a kind of novelty—someone serving a sentence for armed robbery wrote that? Knight’s work has also been somewhat inaccurately linked with the aesthetic of the Black Arts movement, the dominant school in African American poetry in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Amiri Baraka and Sonia Sanchez are among the best-known poets associated with the movement, who in the words of critic Charles Rowell “asserted the right to commit their art to Black America’s political, social, and economic struggles.” This commitment tended to create a poetry based more on ideology than on the character portraits and self-reckoning that characterize Knight’s best verse. In “The Idea of Ancestry” there are self-reckonings aplenty. And they are deeply fraught ones. Some obviously stem from the poet’s guilt at being separated from an extended family for whom—as with so many African American families in the century and a half since the Emancipation Proclamation—to possess and record a detailed family genealogy is an act of necessity and piety (and no easy one when the only record of the existence of many of your forebears can be found in slaveholders’ account books that record the acquisition and sales of human chattel.) The grandmother’s scrupulous entries in the family Bible, and her decades-long concern for the disappeared uncle are seen by the poet as a kind of sacramental activity. And clearly the poet, separated as he is from his family and its annual reunions, and suffering the guilt from his unsuccessful attempt to kick his drug habit before his visit to the family, has come to see the importance of his familial community in a way he never has before. He does not want to follow in the path of his disappeared uncle, and his act of fetishistically taping the “47 pictures” of family members to his cell wall is itself a sacramental act, akin to the grandmother’s custodianship of the family Bible.
The poem’s emphasis on the grandmother’s Bible and the family photographs suggests that the function of the poem is meant to be their equivalent. The family is kept alive, and thus the poet, through his act of writing, is kept alive as well. The poem ends with the poet bemoaning his incarceration, but he has also been offered an epiphany: “I pace my cell or flop on my bunk / and stare at 47 black faces across the space. I am all of them, / they are all of me.” I make no claims to say even provisionally that “The Idea of Ancestry” saved the life of Etheridge Knight, but Knight himself likely did. In a short biographical statement, Knight—who served in the army and was wounded in the Korean war—summed up his life this way: “I died in Korea from a shrapnel wound and narcotics resurrected me. I died in 1960 from a prison sentence and poetry brought me back to life.” After his release from prison, Knight went on to a successful career as a poet. He received Guggenheim and NEA fellowships and taught at several universities, among them Pittsburgh, the University of Hartford, and Lincoln University. Knight’s resurrection through poetry was not an unalloyed success—his struggles with drugs continued for the rest of his life. But Knight was a man of charm and immense generosity, as I can attest from having for a short time been his student. (By the way, he once told me that the weapon he used in the robbery that sent him to prison was a toy gun.)
So, dear reader, a poem can, in some extremely rare situations, save one’s life. But as these situations are so very rare, you have the right to ask what sort of other functions poetry can perform. After all, contemporary poetry is endlessly accused, even by many poets themselves, as a “marginal” activity, a cultic endeavor that puts it on a par with people who attend Star Trek conventions or engage in Civil War reenactments. And make no mistake, dear reader, there are quite a few instances of poetry not saving your life, but shortening it considerably or simply making you miserable. The great British Romantic poet John Clare, after his poetry career had tanked, was condemned to live the second half of his relatively long life in Northampton General Lunatic Asylum. (He once opined to a visitor: “Literature destroyed my head and brought me here.”) And when the word got out that the greatest of modern Russian poets, Osip Mandelstam, had written a scurrilous epigram about Stalin and recited it at a party, Stalin himself eventually found out. And in a story that is probably apocryphal but characteristic of Stalin’s brutal sense of humor, the dictator supposedly phoned Mandelstam and asked him for a recitation of the poem. Imagine Mandelstam’s fright at this moment; the most ruthless man in the world is asking him to intone a piece which notes that Uncle Joe’s famous mustache is in fact made of “huge laughing cockroaches,” and that “he rolls the executions on his tongue like berries.” At any rate, the epigram was the cause of Mandelstam spending several years in internal exile, to be followed by a sentence to the Gulag. He was last seen in 1937, scavenging a prison camp garbage heap in search of food.
So what, then, is salutatory about poetry if it can only save your life in the rarest of circumstances? One glib answer would be that readers may find some poems entertaining. I suspect that the number of limericks set down during any given year vastly outnumbers the number of Miltonic sonnets. Besides, ours is a culture in which we have entertainments aplenty, ones that entertain in no small measure because they offer immediate gratification. Good poems rarely offer immediate gratification, at least not in the way that this term is regarded in contemporary society. After all, poems are not meant to be read as much as to be reread. I doubt if even the most stalwart fans of TV shows such as Survivor or Jersey Shore ever find themselves watching reruns of this fare: a single encounter with such a program is usually more than enough. But the pleasure and instruction I derive from a sonnet such as Robert Frost’s “Design,” which I surely have read hundreds of times and have taught on scores of occasions, is a satisfaction that has no shelf life—each time I read the poem new vistas and interpretive surprises confront me. The poem beguiles and, given its grim content, also terrifies me, and does so each time I encounter its fourteen lines of bile and wonderment. But the pleasures derived from this poem, and other great poems like it, derive from hard interpretive work. One has to practice to make sense of genuine poetry, just as a speed skater must practice in order to qualify for the Olympics. So, to be honest with you, it must be said that poems have little entertainment value in the commonly understood sense of the term.
But they can help you to endure your life, even when they most emphatically cannot save it. Witness a poem I’d like to discuss by Hungary’s greatest modern poet Miklós Radnóti, who lived from 1909 until 1944. As a stylist, Radnóti was something of a shape-shifter, a prolific writer who managed to, on the one hand, introduce surrealism and a particularly fluent sort of free verse to Hungarian poetry and, on the other, excel in strict meters and rhyme schemes, and to deftly modernize venerable classical forms such as the eclogue. But his death was hastened by something that surely also hastened the death of Mandelstam—Radnóti was a Jew. With the outbreak of World War II, Hungary’s fascist government aligned itself with the Nazis, enacted anti-Semitic laws, and became an Axis puppet state. From 1940 onward, Radnóti was conscripted to serve on various forced-labor details, often performing tasks thought too dangerous for regular troops—clearing minefields, for example. By 1944, as the Nazis faced defeat, conscripts such as Radnóti came to be seen as superfluous. So the poet was shot, and his body thrown into a mass grave. What makes his story more than simply another of the tens of millions of tragedies connected to the Holocaust is this: after Radnóti’s body was exhumed, a small notebook containing seventy-two poems was discovered in the poet’s raincoat. This work was subsequently published by Radnóti’s widow, Fanny, in 1946. “Forced March,” the poem which I present here, was among those poems, and is above all a love poem to Fanny. But it is also a powerful testament to the endurance of the spirit and the imagination even in situations of incomprehensible duress.
You’re crazy. You fall down, stand up and walk again,
your ankles and your knees move pain that wanders around
but you start again as if you had wings.
The ditch calls you, but it’s no use you’re afraid to stay,
and if someone asks why, maybe you turn around and say
that a woman and a sane death a better death wait for you.
But you’re crazy. For a long time now
only the burned wind spins above the houses at home,
Walls lie on their backs, plum trees are broken
and the angry night is thick with fear.
Oh, if I could believe that everything valuable
is not only inside me now that there’s still home to go back to.
If only there were! And just as before bees drone peacefully
on the cool veranda, plum preserves turn cold
and over sleepy gardens quietly, the end of summer bathes in the
Among the leaves the fruit swing naked
and in front of the rust-brown hedge blond Fanny waits for me,
the morning writes slow shadows—
All this could happen! The moon is so round today!
Don’t walk past me, friend. Yell, and I’ll stand up again!
The privations described here defy the imagination—exhaustion, starvation, brutality. It is no wonder that early in the poem the speaker wants simply to let go and die ignominiously in a ditch. But the memory of his beloved exerts a powerful counterforce to this impulse—“say that / a woman and a sane death a better death await you.” The poet in fact seems to literally die as the poem unfolds, only to be resurrected by his fantasy of home and of his muse—“blond Fanny waits for me.” She is Dante’s Beatrice, Petrarch’s Laura; she is both Clio, the muse of history, and Mnemosyne, the muse of memory. And the poem ends with the speaker’s certainty that her intervention will resurrect him. He will rise from the ditch, as surely as Lazarus from his crypt. Left for dead, he will cry out to his companions, be pulled up by their sturdy hands, and live once more. He will crawl the field of land mines, zigzag the labyrinth of barbed wire and bomb craters, all in the hope of reuniting with Blond Fanny. That this fantasy is understood by the poet to be unattainable—what John Webster called “a vain poetry”—makes it no less poignant. Without that notebook, Radnóti would surely have been a goner long before a Wehrmacht corporal’s bullet entered the back of his skull, and his body teetered forward into the ditch.
This poem fills me with awe, and to use it as a means to traffic in clichés about the indomitability of the human spirit does it a great injustice. The poem leaves me awestruck because it is tragic, but just as importantly it moves me because it alludes to experiences deeply tangible and at the same time deeply mysterious. There is “a home to come back to,” a place of pastoral wonder where “plum preserves turn cold / and over sleepy gardens quietly, the end of summer bathes in the sun. / Among the leaves the fruit swing naked.” All great poems, it seems to me, must reckon with the tragic, but they must also reckon with mystery. How should we seek to comprehend the militantly incomprehensible enigmas of creation? The great Polish poet Czesław Miłosz insists in one of his early poems that we must ask to understand them “not out of sorrow, but in wonder.” Poetry may not save your life, but it surely can enable you to understand how the wondrous and the sorrowful must inevitably commingle. Let me use, by way of example, a poem by Thomas Hardy that I cannot imagine living without, a poem that is completely inscrutable, immensely melancholy, and at the same time so lucid as to be self-evident.
During Wind and Rain
They sing their dearest songs—
He, she, all of them—yea,
Treble and tenor and bass,
And one to play;
With the candles mooning each face. . . .
Ah, no; the years O!
How the sick leaves reel down in throngs!
They clear the creeping moss—
Elders and juniors—aye,
Making the pathways neat
And the garden gay;
And they build a shady seat. . . .
Ah, no; the years, the years;
See, the white storm-birds wing across!
They are blithely breakfasting all—
Men and maidens—yea,
Under the summer tree,
With a glimpse of the bay,
While pet fowl come to the knee. . . .
Ah, no; the years O!
And the rotten rose is ript from the wall.
They change to a high new house,
He, she, all of them—aye,
Clocks and carpets and chairs
On the lawn all day,
And brightest things that are theirs. . . .
Ah, no; the years, the years;
Down their carved names the rain-drop ploughs.
Hardy wrote many remarkable poems, many flawed but interesting poems, and many poems that are overwhelmed by their flaws. But his greatest poems are utterly original thanks to the inventiveness of their strategies, their quirky verse forms, and their radical tonal shifts. And they can be compellingly strange while at the same time having the descriptive acuity and narrative breadth that characterizes Hardy’s fiction. “During Wind and Rain” is my favorite poem by Hardy, and it beautifully exemplifies all of the salutatory characteristics I have listed above. What are we to make of the poem’s abiding weirdness on the one hand, and its utter tonal and prosodic control on the other? We have no clear sense of who is speaking in the poem, but he has a capacity to exquisitely evoke moments of visionary intimacy—a family singing, a family gardening, a family breakfasting outdoors—while at the same time offering Cassandra-like warnings that such bucolic moments are invariably fleeting. And yet these warnings are offered in a tone of astonishment, as if the speaker himself cannot quite bear his understanding of how final our fates shall be: “Ah, no; the years, the years;” “How the sick leaves reel down in throngs!” And what is the relationship between the speaker and the group he is describing? We are never told, although we sense that a family saga is unfolding, a story of upward mobility of the sort we see so often in Victorian novels. After all, “they change to a high new house” and “the brightest things are theirs.” But it all ends in the boneyard, and in a final line that I would go so far as to say is one of the most remarkable in English verse: “Down the carved names the rain-drop ploughs.” It’s a prosodic tour de force: the line is composed almost entirely in spondees, and the spondaic movement is so relentless that we find it hard to read without almost involuntarily placing an accent on the second syllable of “carved.” And the image of the rain “ploughing” into the gravestones’ names is, like so much of the rest of the poem, both delicate in its precision and unspeakably brutal. Clearly, “During Wind and Rain” is not the sort of poem you’d choose to recite at a friend’s wedding: it’s not a poem one can love. But my astonishment at the poem grows each time I read it. Poetry may not save your life, but it has the means to render wonderment and awe in ways that are different from that of any other art form.
This function of poetry is one of no small importance, but I worry, ladies and gentleman, that I have at the same time painted myself into a corner, for I have yet to make a strong argument for poetry’s ability to save one’s life, save to claim that sometimes it can, but only sort of. Instead, I’ve told you poetry can, as in the case of Mandelstam, quite literally get you killed. It can help you to endure traumas and privation, as it did for Miklos Radnóti, but so can Xanax, Zoloft, and a couple shots of Maker’s Mark on ice. I’ve told you it can entertain you, but only in rather specialized and esoteric ways, ones that are not for the most part amusing. I’ve told you, by way of the example “During Wind and Rain,” that poetry can inspire awe and wonder, but so can a view of the Grand Canyon. I also made a promise, when I agreed to presenting this talk, that I would try to find some examples from my own life and work that addressed my topic. But if poetry can’t, generally speaking, save your life, and if most of us would rather down a couple of stiff ones than read translations of Radnóti, or if we’d prefer to marvel at the fact that we have paid several hundred dollars to sit with 50,000 others in a football stadium to be assured that the tiny spotlit reptilian figure onstage with a Gibson strapped on his scrawny shoulders indeed is Keith Richards—and he seems to be more or less ambulatory!—then what, finally, is poetry’s ultimate value, and how can I draw from my own life to help to answer this question?
Here is my answer: The primary function of poetry is not salvation, not instruction, not diversion (even of the most breathtaking variety) but consolation. A poem such as “Forced March” allowed Miklos Radnóti to endure at least another day of horrific suffering, but even the most heroic efforts of endurance invariably end in mortality. The purpose of almost all great poems is, fundamentally, elegiac. Not all great poems are elegies, but nearly all great poems must reckon with the elegiac, whether the elegiac is approached through a meditation on transience and how fruition invariably leads to decay and death—as in the case of Keats’s “Ode to Autumn”—or whether the poem is a straightforward elegy for a specific individual, as in the case of Jonson’s epitaph to his infant son, which I mentioned at the start of this talk. The elegiac spirit arrives in many forms in poetry, but the purpose of elegy is above all to console, and to do so both by seeking to memorialize the departed and to ease the travails of those who mourn. But it does not end there. Elegies operate within a complex admixture of motivations. Ironically, the primary audience of a successful elegy is the dead themselves, an audience who cannot hear our addresses and entreaties.
And while elegies must above all seek to memorialize the dead, their makers cannot help but seek to memorialize themselves as well. After all, we read “Lycidas” because it comes from the pen of John Milton, and not because we care to better know of the life and demise of its subject, Milton’s college buddy Edward King. So the consolation a good poem so often seeks to offer involves those who have passed before us, those of us who are present and who suffer and mourn, and whatever conception we might have of a readership and of posterity. This all sounds immensely complicated, but in fact it is not: Allen Grossman claims that the task of poetry is to preserve the memory of the person. Grossman slyly declines to identify who that person is, and thus implies that the act of preservation (which, to my mind, is an act synonymous with consolation) involves writer, reader, the individual being recalled or elegized, and last but surely not least, humankind in general.
There are times in history, both in our cultural histories and our personal histories, when the task of preserving the memory of the person—a task which poetry may have some special abilities to address—becomes especially urgent. Readers often turned to poetry for consolation in the days following 9/11. And American poetry of the 1980s and ‘90s was deeply informed and haunted by the AIDS pandemic. Many important poems emerged in response to that event, and I would like to discuss with you one that speaks with special importance to me. It was written by Lynda Hull, who in many ways possessed the most formidable lyric gifts of all of the poets born in the boomer era. The poem, titled “Rivers into Seas,” appears in her third and final collection, The Only World. It is an elegy for a victim of the AIDS plague, the poet’s friend Wally Roberts, who passed away in early 1994. The poem is set in his place of death, Provincetown, Massachusetts, the outermost community on Cape Cod. It is important to mention this locale, for anyone who has spent a winter on the Outer Cape knows the eerie fog-bound majesty of its landscape. On winter mornings the divisions between sea and land invariably blur; one seems to dwell in a liminal place that is neither wholly terrestrial nor wholly nautical. The opening of the poem is an elegant description of such otherworldliness, and is lush and unsettling by turns.
Palaces of drift and crystal, the clouds
loosen their burden, unworldly flakes so thick
the border zones of sea and shore, the boundless zones
of air fuse to float their worlds until the spirits
congregate, fleet histories yearning into shape.
Close my eyes and I’m a vessel. Make it
some lucent amphora, Venetian blue, lip circled
in faded gold. Can you see the whorls of breath,
imperfections, the navel where it was blown
from the maker’s pipe, can you see it drawn
up from the bay where flakes hiss the instant
they become the bay? Part the curtain. The foghorn’s
steady, soothing moan—warning, safety, the reeling
home. Shipwreck and rescue. Stories within stories—
there’s this one of the cottage nestled into dune
snowed into pure wave, the bay beyond and its lavish
rustle, skirts lifting and falling fringed in foam.
But I’m in another season—my friends’ house adrift,
Wally’s last spring-into-summer, his bed a raft,
cats and dogs clustered and we’re watching television
floods, the Mississippi drowning whole cities
unfamiliar. How could any form be a vessel
adequate to such becoming, the stories unspooled
through the skein of months as the virus erased
more and more until Wally’s nimbused as these
storm clouds, the sudden glowing ladders they let fall?
Hull conjures a universe that seems beyond time and beyond form, exquisite but also menacing. And so intricate as to defy our attempts to give it dramatic clarity: “The foghorn’s / steady, soothing moan—warning, safety, the reeling / home. Shipwreck and rescue. Stories within stories.” When the speaker finally focuses upon a specific memory of her departed friend, this too is fraught. They are watching news footage on television, presumably of the Great Midwestern Flood of the summer of 1993: “Wally’s last spring-into-summer, his bed a raft, / cats and dogs clustered and we’re watching television / floods, the Mississippi drowning whole cities / unfamiliar.” This recollection in turn sparks another “story within a story,” further removed into the past. As the next few stanzas unfold, the speaker finds herself recalling another flood story, related by a former husband, an immigrant from China, and told in a “halting monotone.”
the Sinkiang’s floodtides murky brown, the village
become water, swept away. Three days floating on a door,
his sister, the grandmother weaving stories endless
beneath the waxed umbrella canopy she’s fashioned,
stories to soothe the children wrapped in the curtain
of her hair, to calm the ghost souls’ blurred lanterns.
How rats swam to their raft, soaked cats, spirits
she said, ghosts held tranced by the storied murmurous
What binds these narratives? Perhaps it is only that they so acutely represent our helplessness before the forces of nature and what Richard Hugo called the “inescapable drone of our mortality.” But how does the poet fashion from such a desolate realization something which serves as adequate memorial for her friend, and a respite from her own grief? The next few stanzas of the poem pose this question in several ways, and every answer, no matter how fluently expressed, seems provisional: “And isn’t it so / we’re merely vessels given in grace, in mystery, / just a little while, our fleet streaked moments?” “How to cipher where one life begins and becomes / another?” But the final stanzas of the poem do seem to result in a resolution. The speaker’s relentless interrogations cease.
Part the curtain and here’s my voyager
afloat, gentle sleeper, sweet fish, dancer over
water and he’s talking, laughing in
that great four-poster bed he could not leave
for months, a raft to buoy his furious radiant soul,
if I may so hazard to say that? Yes,
there was laughter, the stories, the shining dogs—
gold and black—his company. Voyager afloat
so many months, banks of sunflowers he loved spitting
their seeds. Tick. Black numerals on the sill.
A world can be built anywhere & he spun, letting go. . . .
The last time I held him, the last time we spoke, just
a whisper—hoarse—that marries now this many-voiced mansion
of storm and from him I’ve learned to slip my body,
to be the storm governed by the law of bounty given
then taken away. Shush and glide. This tide’s running
high, its silken muscular tearing ruled by cycles,
relentless, the drawn lavish damasks—teal, aquamarine,
silvered steel, desire’s tidal forces, such urgent
fullness, the elaborate collapse, and withdrawal
beyond the drawn curtain that shows the secret
desert of bare ruched sand. I’ve learned this,
I’ve learned to be the horn calling home
the journeyer, saying farewell. And here’s
the foghorn’s simple two-note wail,
mechanical stark aria that ripples
out to shelter all of us—
our mortal burden of dreams—
adrift in the sea’s restless shouldering.
What knowledge can the dead impart to us? Only the stark understanding that each death we are witness to must be a rehearsal for our own deaths: “and from him I’ve learned to slip my body, / to be the storm governed by the law of bounty given / then taken away.” Yet this knowledge does not leave us inconsolable, if only because of the exquisite lyric grace to which the final passage of the poem aspires. The purpose of poetry is to preserve the memory of the person. Through the alchemical properties of language, properties which Lynda Hull controlled with unerring refinement and expertise, the dead are countenanced.
This poem was finished in the winter of 1994, twenty years ago, almost to this day. It was the last poem Lynda Hull ever wrote. I know this because she read it to me over the phone on the morning she felt the poem was finished. I know this because Lynda Hull was my wife, and because in the ten years of our marriage, she and I were always the first readers of one another’s poems. What I did not know at the time was that in a few weeks Lynda herself would be dead, just short of her fortieth birthday, that her car would careen off a sleet-slick highway en route from Boston to Provincetown, killing her instantly. What I did know at the time was that Lynda was in a bad way, and our marriage seemed to have no future. Lynda’s story, like that of Etheridge Knight, is one in which travail alternates with triumph. Trauma figures in the narrative, as does substance abuse. This is not the place to dwell on Lynda’s biography—the salient details are there in the introduction to her Collected Poems, which Graywolf issued in 2006, and on the websites of the Academy of American Poets and the Poetry Foundation. But I will say that in the winter of 1994 we were living apart, she on the Cape and I in Chicago, and for how long neither of us knew. Reconciliation seemed unlikely. But every day we talked on the phone. Our last conversation took place on the afternoon before her death. She was trying again, after more stays in rehab, to stay clean. She’d found a psychiatrist in Boston whom she trusted, and on that day she had an appointment. She vacillated about keeping it, mainly because the weather looked bad. But the last few days had been difficult, and she believed that talking to her shrink might ease her sorrow. She would be leaving for Boston in a few minutes, and she asked me to do something to cheer her up. “I wrote a poem this morning,” I told her. Surely it’s a bit absurd and self-congratulatory to think that this particular piece of information might shake a loved one out of abjection, but this information delighted Lynda. “You never write a poem in one sitting,” she told me—and this was true: most of my poems take a long while to compose. “Read it to me before I leave.”
What follows is the poem I read to her. I’d written it, in some respects, as a response to Lynda’s poem for Wally, and for Wally’s partner, the poet Mark Doty. I wanted it not to be a poem of sympathy, but a poem of something more intangible and mysterious. Not a poem about mourning, but a poem about how, in time, we can be relieved of the burden of mourning. I’d been reading David Ferry’s brilliant translation of the oldest major poem in existence, The Epic of Gilgamesh, and I’d marveled not just at the miraculous circumstances of how the text of the poem had survived on cuneiform tablets unearthed in the ruins of King Sargon’s palace in Nineveh, but also at a breathtaking passage in the epic, in which the hero Gilgamesh travels to the underworld to meet the Lord of the Dead, and asks that the deity resurrect Gilgamesh’s great friend and companion Enkidu. But the Lord of the Dead is adamant in his refusal of the request. “The Companion Enkidu is clay,” he tells the hero. My poem, which is titled “Before the Words,” is about the finality of death, surely, but also about the possibility, however unlikely, however serendipitously, of something like rebirth. Much of the language of the poem is archaic, for to employ such language felt befitting of the subject matter. Thus the word selah—a term found often in the Old Testament.Selah is sometimes translated as “amen,” but it more accurately seems to be a kind of interjection within a text. Consider it a way of saying “pay attention” or “stop and listen closely.”
Before the Words
—for Mark Doty
The companion Enkidu is clay. Sharp March dawn
at my study window, at my view of twenty-seven
budless lakefront elms. By May the water vanishes,
blurred green, embowered, lost beyond
the fat arc of the leaves. The companion Enkidu is clay
and not even the godlike Gilgamesh
shall retrieve him from the world below.
I set the book down, to the white cat’s
white-noise purr, and half a continent away
my friend wakes alone, to Cape light’s blue-glass sheen,
and one more morning beyond his lover’s death.
There the dog’s nails click the wooden floor
and the sun through the curtains
in the hypnogogic dawn begins
its etches and erasures—nightstand, dresser,
photographs, ox-eye daisies in a fluted jar.
The bright diagonals lap the room. Is this
how the day prepares its naming, the hesitant tongue
to the gateway of the mouth?
Before the words can be inscribed
they issue from the throat, and song of a kind is invented,
a crumbling harp from the burial pits at Ur,
to testify first to lamentation.
From the throat to the tablets, crosshatched
to point the way, crosshatched in clay and baked
in Euphratian sunlight. The voice
raised first in lamentation, and the voice
entombed, seven hundred generations buried.
But also the voice reborn, its dry bones ablaze.
To cleanse the tablets with a fine horsehair brush
selah. To photograph by silver emulsion
the excavation where they’re piled selah. Burnooses
of the grinning Fellaheen. To sort the lamentation
onto wooden crates, catalogued and labeled,
hoisted on a river barge for Baghdad, its sky
a hundred years from the black, infernal poppy heads
of antiaircraft fire, elided wail of siren
selah. Istanbul, then London selah or Berlin.
A basement room, the lamentation shuffled
under gaslamps. The sudden pince-nez glint
as Herr Von Dobereiner rubs his eyes,
the inkwell dipped, the letters molten
on the notebook page, unscrolling as the cry
emerges selah from its clay. The Elamite,
the Hittite and the proto-Babylonian,
and the cry as it hovers and its music sweetens.
And the lamentation selah fills the pages,
fills too oh lord the vaulted caverns of the world
below. The companion Enkidu is clay.
Selah selah selah. The tablets have been broken
and the tablets now shall be restored.
“I like that,” Lynda told me. “It makes me happy to know you wrote it.” We spoke a few minutes longer, about what I can’t remember. It was Tuesday, the 29th of March. The year was 1994.
The poet who in some ways I regard more highly than all others, C.P. Cavafy, reportedly said this: “If poetry is not remission, then let’s not expect mercy from anything.” That statement once filled me with wonder. Now, I’m not so sure. I sometimes think that uncertainty began at the end of March, twenty years ago. But thanks to my friend Cynthia Huntington, I encountered a statement about poetry that I can unequivocally endorse. It comes from John Berger, whose powers of observation and awareness of the intricate relationship between observation and politics—among other things—is unparalleled in recent literature.
Poems, regardless of any outcome, cross the battlefields, tending to the wounded, listening to the wild monologues of the triumphant or the fearful. They bring a kind of peace. Not by anaesthesia or easy reassurance, but by recognition and the promise that what has been experienced cannot disappear as if it had never been. Yet the promise is not of a monument. (Who, still on a battlefield, wants monuments?) The promise is that language has acknowledged, has given shelter, to the experience which demanded, which cried out.
That promise, when I allow it to, sustains me, sustains me in a way that may not have saved my life, but has certainly offered me comfort in a way that is unlike any other kind of comfort, and a comfort that I am only beginning to understand.
* * *
About the Author
David Wojahn’s eighth collection, World Tree, was published by the University of Pittbsurgh Press in the spring of 2011. His previous collection, Interrogation Palace: New and Selected Poems 1982-2004 (University of Pittsburgh, 2006) was a named finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and winner of the O.B. Hardison Award from the Folger Shakespeare Library. He has received numerous awards and honors, among them a Guggenheim Fellowship, two NEA fellowships, the Amy Lowell Traveling Poetry Scholarship, and the Carole Weinstein Poetry Prize. Wojahn teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University and at Vermont College of the Fine Arts.
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