by Dick Allen
The recent tragedy in Newtown, Conn., brings forth, understandably, questions about poetry.
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.
Being occasional, written in the heat and sorrow of the moment, sadly most often these terribly sincere 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.
Can one find solace or an answer in poetry?
I think so.
An answer may arise because in reading a fine poem, already 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 -
’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 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 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:
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 brief time, as the Newtown children were, is marvelous, a gift, an unforgetableness. It may remind us of a poetic admonition by a Zen Master, one expressed to his disciple as they were walking in the rain. It says simply what must be said always:
"Do not walk so fast, the rain is everywhere."
Dick Allen is Connecticut’s state poet laureate.
Reprinted by permission of the Savannah Morning-News, which published this essay on December 26, 2012.