Traverse City Record-Eagle

Northern Living

March 2, 2014

On Poetry: Difficult winter drags on in life and poetry

You’re probably hoping for a little cheer this cold, snowy March day. There’s enough in the newspaper to mourn about.

How about a poem that makes you smile? Sorry. Last month was Valentine’s and crazy love. This month, sadness. Pretty much like life.

I have two friends in dire health. One friend just died. Another friend just called this morning to tell me his disease is out of control and he’s afraid. What can poetry do in the face of bedrock sorrow?

When I was poet laureate of Delaware, I was asked to write something about why people seemed to post — on the web and on telephone poles — so many poems after Sept. 11. I quoted the poet Emily Dickinson, the beginning of one of her poems: “After great pain, a formal feeling comes.” A poem is a container, a singing container of words. It is itself a way to keen, to weep. It puts its arms around us and holds our utterly out-of-control grief.

We are all inexperienced mourners. Every grief is new. What strikes me about Robert Winner’s poem is its honesty. The speaker seems to be trying to learn from the old man, but actually, he’s showing us what he’s already seen there, and wished to be able to emulate: the old man figuratively lying in his own misery.

It seems to me to describe as well as I’ve ever heard it described the process of deep grieving, the kind that cleans out the soul.

The self has been pushed aside, the self that wants to be decorous, to mourn “properly.” The body is willing to be disgusting, to let the face be contorted and red and raw. It is a full-blown protest against loss. Which means there is a full-blown recognition of the depth of loss. Which means there can be a full recognition of joy when it comes again.

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