This April, National Poetry Month, after the death of our dear relative, I've searched every poem for some sort of comfort or solace. Then to my surprise I stumbled upon a new(ish) volume in the 'Ten Poems' series, Ten Poems for Difficult Times, published in 2018. I ordered it immediately and started reading it the moment it arrived.
In the preface Housden does a nice job explaining why poetry is the perfect medium for difficult times:
Poetry is a concise and elemental means of expressing the deepest of human emotions: joy, sorrow, grief, hope, love, and longing. It connects us as a people and a community; it speaks for us in a way few other forms of writing can do. [...] Poetry not only matters; it is profoundly necessary. Especially in times of darkness and difficulty, both personal and collective. [...] Poetry rescues the world from oblivion by the practice of attention. Our attention honors and gives value to living things... When I pay attention, something in me awakens... I am straightened, somehow, brought into a deeper life (1).
Poetry, he says, often says the unsayable. He uses a line from a poem by Robert Lowell as an example. It describes illness this way: I hear my ill spirit sob in each blood cell. Clearly the poet is speaking of someone who is not physically ill but has a sickness in their soul. The sobbing soul is accentuated by all the bs and ls. "All this makes the line thick and heavy in the mouth, which is what sobbing does. Lowell gives us a visceral experience, not just the information that he is sick." This is the kind of information and examples Housden gives for each of the ten poems, opening up my appreciation and understanding.
I'd read the first poem, "Good Bones" by Maggie Smith before but didn't realize why. Apparently "Good Bones" became a bit of an internet phenomenon in 2016, just a year after it was published, because of its dual message: the world is awful, but we still believe it is worth it for my children's sake. "Life is short and the world / is at least half terrible, and for every kind / stranger, there is one who would break you, though I keep this from my children. I am trying / to sell them the world." Can't we relate? Bad things happen every day, yet we still have Easter egg hunts, take our kids to swim lessons and on nature hikes. We still believe in the future and we want to shield them from the bad parts of our world for as long as we can.
"The Thing Is" by Ellen Bass is a poem which not only describes grief but embodies it so much so that "your throat filled with the silt of it." Here Housden compares Bass's ability to look inward and this gives the poem credibility. It spoke strongly to me, so embroiled in my own grief right now. Thank goodness for poets and their poetry that can speak to us where we are, not just where we want to be.
William Stafford's poem "Cutting Loose" also addresses grief, though the point is more related to our ability to recognize and listen for the "Arbitrary, a sound comes, a reminder / that a steady center is holding all else." We may feel adrift now but in the center of us is song, a sound that will guide us and hold us. Stafford is a poet I definitely want to read more. Housden says this, "His poems are intimate songs of praise for the beauty and innocence that thrives in the midst of a world of suffering." I don't need, right now, to read poems about problems. I need to read poems about healing and hope.
I enjoy reading Housden's comments almost as much as reading the poetry. For example, this is what he had to say about the fifth poem by W.S. Merton: "Except for the third line, the lines of "Rain Light" all have nine syllables, and the sustained harmony casts a spell, as all great poems do, that takes the reader into a state resembling a waking dream" (56). Through his guidance my eyes are often opened to deeper meanings in the poems. I like the idea of poetry being like living a waking dream, don't you?
Just last night I was attending a church meeting and the subject of God's light came up. We were talking about prayer and how to use a visualization of God's light permeating dark corners to allow for healing and answers. Jan Richardson's poem "How the Light Comes" seems to address this same issue without using the word God. "I cannot tell you / how the light comes, / but it does. / This it will. / That is works its way / into the deepest dark / that enfolds you..." What a lovely and hopeful message. Light finding its way into the deepest, darkest places that enfold us and keep us trapped. "May we open / and open more / and open still / to the blessed light / that comes." It gives my heart a jolt of joy just to type these words.
Jack Gilbert "In Defense of Joy" is a wonderful reminder that even in and among all the horrors this world has to throw at us, we need joy. He is adamant about it, in fact, "We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure, / but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have / the stubbornness to accept gladness in the ruthless / furnace of this world..." Later the poem reminds us about the arts and the role they play in joy, "We must admit there will be music despite everything." Several of the ten poems in this collection mention music and singing as a remedy to what ails us.
The new-to-me poet Nazim wrote beautiful, hopeful words while in prison for being a political dissident, in his poem "It's This Way." Even in prison he was able to find beauty so overwhelming that the scent of carnations blooming somewhere overpowered the rank smell of medicine. "It's this way: / being captured is beside the point, / the point is not to surrender." I doubt I will ever be detained for my political views, but I am often trapped by my circumstances. Thank goodness for poems that remind me that I need not surrender to them, but rise above, allowing the beautiful scent of carnations to waft over and fill me with wonder.
Every single one of the books in the Ten Poems series has done this to me -- has caused me to stop, to reevaluate, to ponder, to relax. Ten Poems for Difficult Times may have been published in 2018, but it is very relevant in 2022. I highly recommend it especially if you find yourself unsure where to turn in this confusing days full of turmoil and grief. Roger Housden provides us with a perfect place to start a journey reading poetry, also.