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Scott’s Column: The Consolations of Poetry

Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
December 31 2020

I encountered my slogan for the year 2020 in the Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan:

This cracked year
with its rotting crust of
madnessbread.

 

Back in March, when we were first stuck at home, I began reading books of poetry stacked in my to read pile.  Soon the pile was empty, and I was ordering more.  I read 34 books of poetry this year, ranging widely—the Ghazals of Ghalib, Basho’s haikus, the devotional poems of George Herbert, the collected poems of Emily Dickinson, Auden’s Age of Anxiety, a volume about the 1918 influenza pandemic, one from the Ivory Coast about African migrants dying crossing the Mediterranean, contemporary Anishinaabe prayers, and lot of recent American poetry of all kinds.  Reading poetry became one of my main pandemic consolations and spiritual practices.  Constantin Cavafy offered the explanation:

So I turn to you, Poetic Art,
for you know something about remedies;
experiments to quiet the pain.

 

One of the first consolations I encountered was by W. S. Merwin, entitled “Living with the News:”

Can I get used to it day after day
a little at a time while the tide keeps
coming in faster the waves get bigger
building on each other breaking records
this is not the world that I remember

This poem concludes:

endless patience will never be enough
the only hope is to be the daylight.

 

Joy Harjo, the current Poet Laureate, offered this apt wisdom from “For a Girl Becoming:”

Now, breathe,
And when you breathe remember the source of the gift of all breathing.

Robert Hass encouraged further reading:

Good reading
is acute listening.  It models
the transformation of otherness
that is the mystery at the heart of ordinary kindness
and also the possibility of a moral life.

Ocean Vuong, despite his young age, provided this profound reminder:

If you must know anything, know that the hardest task is to live only once.

 

How to deal with the pain, suffering, and loss of this awful year?  Christian Wiman offered:

Lord, suffer me to sing
these wounds by which I am made
and marred, savor this creature
whose aloneness you ease and are.

 

The first Sunday in June, Pentecost actually, as this city and the nation where aflame with social unrest and an uprising against racial injustice, I walked early that morning pondering how to rewrite my sermon for the third time that week.  I returned home to sit on the porch and sought encouragement in T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, a sublime work I had just read and wished I’d read decades ago.  He writes of the Holy Spirit:

The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error,
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre–
To be redeemed from fire by fire.

This just a few lines after he borrows Julian of Norwich’s phrase, “All shall be well, and All manner of thing shall be well.”

 

When Louise Glück won the Nobel Prize for Literature in the autumn, I kicked myself that I had never read her work.  But this proved fortunate, for arriving at her work precisely now is right.  Her poems express beauty deeply acquainted with darkness and suffering that leave you pondering whether they are completely despairing or if there is a glimmer of vital hope.  She was exactly the poet I needed at the close of this year.

I think here I will leave you. It has come to seem
there is no perfect ending.
Indeed, there are infinite endings.
Or perhaps, once one begins,
there are only endings.