Poetry in Times of Sorrow and Joy
Last month—National Poetry Month—I wrote about the importance of poetry during this time of war in Ukraine. Joining together in empathy for those grieving the loss of lives or homes helps us feel like we’re at least doing something.
And when you’re experiencing your own loss, reading or writing poems raw with grief can be cathartic. I’ve certainly found that to be true. The poems I admire most are those in which the poet’s experiences, emotions, and observations sound a deep chord in me. When my 31-year marriage was ending in divorce, I cried all the way through Sharon Old’s Pulitzer-winning book, Stag’s Leap, which deals with the end of her long marriage. And oh what a healing cry that was! Here’s a sampling from a poem in the collection:
Known to be Left
After tears, the chest is less sore,
as if some goddess of humanness
within us has caressed us with a gush of tenderness.
I guess that’s how people go on, without
knowing how. I am so ashamed
before my friends—to be known to be left
by the one who supposedly knew me best,
Those first three lines express how cleansing it can be to cry. And I definitely relate to the whole idea of being ashamed “to be known to be left.” Before reading Stag’s Leap, I’d been expressing the multiple—and often simultaneous—stages of grief and healing by writing poems and journal entries that later became poems. Sharon Olds inspired me to write even more as I traveled the path of being on my own again.
Another book that brought about streams of tears for my own losses and the losses of others was Donald Hall’s Without. A former US Poet Laureate, Hall was married to poet Jane Kenyon who died of cancer. Without is the gorgeous, poignant poetry collection dealing with that journey. In an Amazon review of the book, L. Bouche, who also lost her spouse to cancer, writes “To me, the shock of hearing the diagnosis and the trauma of the ensuing months is never spoken of, but Hall has written beautiful and honest poetry to help us open up and really feel that time. And now I am navigating life without [my husband], and Hall’s poetry shows me that I am not alone.”
Not alone. Yes, good writing can put you into the author’s shoes, which—especially if very similar to your shoes—just makes you feel better, safer, known. Poetry is particularly good at making the personal become the universal.
The poet’s writing experience
I love this interview (listen here), where Hall says of his grief, “Writing was the only happy time in my day. It was as if I was doing something about it [the grief]: writing as good a poem as I could. The poems are full of grief and some horror, but it was not grief and horror to write them. It was making them into poems. It was making grief and horror into poetry.”
When I heard him say that, it explained perfectly my own efforts to craft good poems from my experiences of sorrow. Somehow the poem becomes a “thing”—a work of art, if you will—that takes me a step or two out of the sadness and gives me such relief, at least for some amount of time.
Several poems in Without are in the form of letters to his wife, and here’s the first stanza of one of them. I’m guessing working on these letter poems in particular was an important happy time in his day.
Letter in Autumn
This first October of your death
I sit in my blue chair
looking out at late afternoon’s
western light suffusing
its goldenrod yellow over
the barn’s unpainted boards—
here where I sat each fall
watching you pull your summer’s
—Donald Hall from Without (You can hear Garrison Keillor read the whole poem here.)
Sometimes grief and joy almost intermingle, don’t they? In “Letter in Autumn,” Hall is appreciating the late afternoon in his garden, but he can’t do so without seeing his wife there—she had died that April. There’s sadness and peace in his memory. There’s also the beautiful metaphor of life and afterlife with summer’s garden giving way to fall’s goldenrod light.
When Joy Makes You Cry
I’d like to end with a joyful poem, because if we didn’t know grief, we couldn’t know joy. Think of times when something wonderful made you cry, even if whatever you were doing didn’t remind you of a sad event. Every spring in the Blue Ridge Mountains, I visit Hamilton Gardens, home to the largest collection of rhododendrons in the southeast. When the azaleas, dogwoods, and/or rhododendrons are blooming, I get that overwhelming feeling of being in love with everything. I must have taken a thousand photos over the decade of walking on the lakeside trails there. Here’s a poem about that kind of overwhelm.
The Woman Who Can’t Stop Taking Photos of Sunsets
—to my mother and to my self
Beauty hurts and feels good
at the same time: She can’t get enough.
Knockout roses give her a one-two punch.
Mountains slay her. The ballet stabs. She cries
when sinewy runners cross the finish line
or a bride glides toward a groom.
At 16, when Brahms spilled from Interlochen’s stage,
she tried to swallow the music. To hold
the cellos’ crescendos inside her gut.
Her summer self still hangs
in the branches of those Michigan pines.
She slept with Catcher in the Rye under her pillow.
Now she wants to swim the sun’s gold path
across Lake Chatuge, up the Blue Ridges,
into the pinking sky. Someday, she might just do it.
Or, she’ll pull the sinking sun
into her solar plexus. It will rest there each night.
And each day, bloom from her chest.
—Karen Paul Holmes from No Such Thing as Distance
Your turn: Poetry in Times of Sorrow and Joy
Have you written a poem out of extreme grief or extreme joy or have you read one lately that especially touched you? Please link to it or post it in the comments.
(Note, if you plan on submitting your unpublished poem to a journal, please be advised it will be considered previously published if you post it here. Publications like Every Day Poems, however, gladly welcome previously published work! A good poem is a good poem, after all. Worthy of being experienced again.)