6.POETRY AFFIRMS AND CELEBRATES MORE THAN IT DENOUNCES OR CRITICIZES.
When we read poetry, we are often made aware of those positive qualities of human existence that everyone appreciates, such as happiness and joy, beauty, generosity, love, hope, gratitude, and forgiveness. Not that poetry doesn’t address such things as grief, tragedy, crisis, and loss. It does, of course, since all these are also part of being human. Often, however, when a poem does call up negative emotions and experiences, it can still be affirmative. The first two stanzas of “This Being Human is a Guest House,” by the ancient Persian poet Rumi (translated by Coleman Barks), are an example of what I mean:
This being human is a guest house
Every morning new arrival
A joy, a depression, a meanness
Comes as an unexpected visitor
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they're a crowd of sorrows
Who violently sweep your house
Empty of its furniture
Still treat each guest honorably
He may be cleaning you out
For some new delight!
Rumi ends his poem by saying that we should “Be grateful for whoever
comes/Because each has been sent/As a guide from the beyond.”
I like to think that Rumi has some wise advice for us in his poem.
My main point in this article is that the most memorable poems, and lines from poems, are ones that tend to affirm life, to say yes to life.
It shouldn’t be surprising that when big national disasters take place, poetry flourishes. We saw this just after 9-11, and after the death of Diana, who had been married to Prince Philip. Thousands of poems were written, collections of 9-11 poems appeared, and in the case of Diana’s death, thousands of flowers with notes and poems attached to them were placed on the huge lawn outside Diana’s home. Trouble and catastrophe tend to cause people to respond with words that can be helpful, both to those who suffer and to those who wrote the words. When we are in the presence of suffering, we often feel the power of our connection with others.
Consider the following lines, which I have for this article deliberately recalled from memory without looking them up in books. What I’ve found with this enumeration of lines is that my memory has a very strong bias toward positive, affirmative lines rather than ones with negative connotations or denotations. I’m personally glad this is so, since it seems to be evidence that I’m more optimistic than I sometimes assume! You might want to try this yourself and see what happens. Just let favorite lines from poems (and even songs) occur to you, and write them down. I would guess, based on my example, that they too would be mostly positive and upbeat. And if my little experiment is valid, doesn’t that say something about the usefulness—even the necessity—of poetry? I think it does. I also think that many of the readers of my blog will already know by heart some of the lines I quote here (Note: some of the line breaks may not have been accurately remembered):
Put your arms around me like a ring around the sun.
Give me the splendid, silent sun . . .
Oh beautiful for spacious skies . . . (song)
When to the sessions of sweet, silent thought,
I summon up remembrance of things past . . .
I believe a leaf of grass is no less
than the journey work of the stars . . .
I celebrate myself and sing myself,
and what I shall assume you shall assume,
for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
Ah, love, let us be true to one another . . .
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
and a small cabin build there . . .
You are so beautiful . . . to me (song). . .
But thy eternal summer shall not fade . . .
That’s the way (that’s the way)
I like it (I like it) . . . (song)
Fair and fair and twice so fair,
And fair is any may be,
The fairest shepherd on the green,
A love for any lady.
I shake my white locks at the runaway sun . . .
Springtime is my time, is your time, is our time,
for springtime is love time, and viva sweet love.
In a dark time, the eye begins to see.
I love you all day. It is that simple.
Jenny kissed me when we met,
jumping from the chair she sat in . . .
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways . . .
Earth has not anything to show more fair . . .
We die, and rise the same, and prove
Mysterious by this love . . .
And death shall have no dominion . . .
Your eyelashes are a narcotic.
How shall we praise the magnificence of the dead?
And the Sabbath rang slowly in the pebbles of the holy stream . . .
The mind is an enchanting thing,
is an enchanted thing . . .
I measure time by how a body sways.
Be with me, early and late.
I will study wry music for your sake.
You are my sunshine, my only sunshine,
you make me happy when skies are grey. (song)
The bird is on the wing.
Drink to the bird.
And therefore, while youthful hue
sits on thy skin like morning dew . . .
There will be an answer,
let it be . . . (Beatles’ song)
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
unless soul clap its hands and sing,
and sing for every tatter is his mortal dress . . .
Drink to me only with thine eyes.
Smile, though your heart is aching,
smile, even though it’s breaking (song)
Here are a few more ending lines of poems from memory (there are some above too):
Look for me under your boot soles.
I stop somewhere, waiting for you.
Lord let me die, but not die
I must lie down where all the ladders start,
In the foul, rag-and-bone shop of the heart.
I move at the heart of the world.
As you from crimes would pardon’d be,
let your indulgence set me free.
The wives, the beautiful wives,
are with their men.
And miles to go before I sleep,
and miles to go before I sleep.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
We are such stuff as dreams are made on,
and our little life is rounded with a sleep.
Never again would birdsong be the same,
and to do that to birds is why she came.
Affirmation. Optimism. Gratitude. Hope. Love. Courage. Kindness. All these feelings and thoughts make us feel worthwhile as persons whenever we experience them in our everyday lives—as well as in poems. Nothing makes me feel better as a poet than to have someone say that they appreciated a poem I wrote, or that the poem affected them in a good way. I’m sure this is true of any poet.
Robert Frost once called a poetry “a momentary stay against confusion.” I agree, but I also believe that within that “momentary stay,” poetry has the power to show us how to live. Think of those poems and lines of poems that you have carried in your mind for years, perhaps decades. How have they influenced your life? Have they been useful to you? Have they been, in fact, downright indispensible at times? Would your life be the same now without them?