At the end of the tour of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., I sat in a theater space watching interviews with Holocaust survivors. Each story mesmerized, but one in particular has stuck with me almost verbatim, in which two people describe liberation as they experienced it.
One interviewee offers the perspective of an American lieutenant who arrives at a camp; the other is that of a woman who had been imprisoned in the camp and brings the lieutenant into a factory where female prisoners lay on scant beds of straw, sick and skeletal, many with the look of death, barely moving.
The American recalls the scene:
The girl who was my guide made sort of a sweeping gesture over this scene of devastation and said the following words: ‘Noble be man, merciful and good.’ And I could hardly believe that she was able to summon a poem by the German poet Goethe, which was called, is called, ‘The Divine, ‘ at such a moment. And there was nothing she could have said that would have underscored the grim irony of the situation better than what she did.
I was struck by the poetry, and how he was struck by the poetry—and how in the midst of suffering, she had that line ready.
Poetry is often what we turn to when our own words would fall flat.
As Gerda and Kurt tell their story, we can see how they have benefited from telling their story, including the initial connection made through a line of poetry.
Noble be man,
Helpful and good!
For that alone
Sets hims apart
From every other creature
—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Das Göttliche (The Divine)
Let the noble man
Be generous and good,
What is just and useful:
Let him be a model
For those beings whom he surmises.
—Goethe, Das Göttliche (The Divine)
One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words.
—Goethe, Bk. V, Ch. 1, Wilhelm Meister’s Lehrjahre (Apprenticeship)
The Healing Power of Art
At TEDMED, Melissa Walker presented the effects of combat on the psyche and how, through art therapy, she is working with servicemen dealing with PTSD. As an art therapist, she has to convince service members—big, tough military men and women who often refuse to talk about their trauma—to try art-making as a psycho-therapeutic intervention.
She has succeeded. “Vivid, symbolic artwork is being created by our service men and women, and every work of art tells a story.” Making the art, they can begin to leave behind the trauma. She reminds us that “the power to create is very closely linked to the power to destroy.”
Art—mask-making, in particular—frees afflicted men and women to express what haunts them, by “finding the resources within them they can call upon to heal themselves.”
Photo by Jimmy Brown, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post by Ann Kroeker, podcaster, Tweetspeak editor, writing coach, and co-author of On Being a Writer: 12 Simple Habits for a Writing Life that Lasts.
“Megan Willome’s The Joy of Poetry is not a long book, but it took me longer to read than I expected, because I kept stopping to savor poems and passages, to make note of books mentioned, and to compare Willome’s journey into poetry to my own. The book is many things. An unpretentious, funny, and poignant memoir. A defense of poetry, a response to literature that has touched her life, and a manual on how to write poetry. It’s also the story of a daughter who loses her mother to cancer. The author links these things into a narrative much like that of a novel. I loved this book. As soon as I finished, I began reading it again.”
—David Lee Garrison, author of Playing Bach in the D. C. Metro