Delineated: Prose Writers on Poetry

What Sparks Poetry is a serialized feature in which we invite poets to explore experiences and ideas that spark new poems.

In Delineated: Prose Writers on Poetry, we invite prominent writers of fiction and non-fiction to reflect on the poetry that inspires them. Our featured writers describe how poetry illuminates their creative lives, whether as inspiration, a daily practice, or a thread of hope through difficult times.

Lauren Groff on “Carrion Comfort”

“Carrion Comfort” is music; it is magic; it is my old companion during the long dark nights I lie sleepless and wracked with hopelessness, clinging to the poem as evidence that another soul has met the struggle and come out of it burning, come carrying a beauty so dazzling it is hard to look at directly; it is a lullaby to calm my long white nights as I watch the streetlights and shadows on the ceiling, trying to land true upon each line, each word twisting itself strange in its antique vigor and vocabulary; it recreates a replica of that darkness of suffering in the reader, the particular stutterstep of a night galloping so close to desperation that the question to be becomes the fragile pin the world spins upon, the syntax showing the anguished mind in its uncouth stammering, with so many repeated nots they knot into a double negative that turns itself palely neutral, with the other repetitions of the cans the darknesses the thous the mes the Os the foots the ones the Gods, with the endless questions pitched so far beyond the rhetorical as to end up blooming into their own answers; it is a poem as catharsis, the speaker drawing himself out of the immediate crisis of the soul in the opening stanza when he apostrophizes with chilly anguished inwardness the despair he is refusing to feast upon, until the despair collapses into the figure of the great raven that buffets the suffering soul with elemental fury, the speaker having come to see himself from the outside, “heaped there…frantic to avoid thee and flee,” and then as the poem progresses ever outward it begins to open into the calmer shoals of the rhetorical—why this is happening, who the protagonist truly is, are the wrestling self and the despair actually two and not a single soul at war with itself—and at last with the final collapse into the end, the struggle is “done darkness,” it has passed, it has become a distant storm on the horizon, the new day has dawned, the speaker has emerged out of his bleakness wounded, the poem itself the tattered flag of his wretched victory, and now his wrestling can seen from this other side, with terror and trembling, to have been, all along, against something so elemental and dark and terrible that the only name he can find to match it—and just barely—is God.

Writing Prompt

One of the most effective moments in “Carrion Comfort” is at the end of the first stanza, when Hopkins releases the pent-up energy of despair in a pile-on of imagery; it’s like being tumbled in a stormy ocean, with no rest between the waves.

Your mission in this exercise is to set a timer for five minutes to access a moment of powerful emotion in your life, and to come up with as many images to describe it as possible. Go wild. When you’re done, set the timer for another five minutes to bring order to the chaos, choosing the most accurate or interesting images and ordering them to build in strangeness or accuracy or vividness to a kind of breaking point.

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© Kristin Kozelsky

Lauren Groff

Lauren Groff is the author of five books, most recently Fates and Furies and Florida, both of which were finalists for the National Book Award. Her sixth book, a novel called Matrix, is slated for publication by Riverhead Books in September 2021.