Opinion | Thank God for the Poets

NASHVILLE — When the poet Amanda Gorman stepped to the lectern at President Biden’s inauguration, she faced a much-diminished crowd of masked people on the National Mall, but she was speaking directly to the heart of a bruised nation:

Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true:
That even as we grieved, we grew,
That even as we hurt, we hoped,
That even as we tired, we tried.

Ms. Gorman’s poem — addressed to “Americans, and the World” — was timeless in that way of the most necessary poems, but it was more than just timeless. After a year of losses both literal and figurative, she offered a salve that soothed, however briefly, our broken hearts and our broken age.

Poets have always given voice to our losses at times of national calamity. Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” is an elegy for Abraham Lincoln. Langston Hughes’s “Mississippi — 1955” came in direct response to the murder of Emmett Till. Denise Levertov wrote one poem after another after another to protest the war in Vietnam. In 2002, Billy Collins delivered a memorial poem for the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks before a special joint meeting of Congress.

The poems inspired by Black Lives Matter are almost too numerous to count, and their ranks continue to grow, in spite of the personal cost of “chasing words / like arrows inside the knotted meat between my / shoulder blades,” as Tiana Clark writes in “Nashville.”

Many Americans, probably the vast majority of Americans, feel they can get along just fine without poetry. But tragedy — a breakup, a cancer diagnosis, a sudden death — can change their minds about that, if only because the struggle to find words for something so huge and so devastating can be overwhelming. “Again and again, this constant forsaking,” Natasha Trethewey calls it in her poem “Myth.”

To name the forsaking wouldn’t seem to help, but it does. It always helps.

I was 18 when I learned that lesson in the hardest way such lessons can be learned: by burying someone I loved. For three years she was my beloved teacher, the kind of teacher who opens worlds but who could also somehow hear me saying much that I couldn’t yet say.

“Margaret, are you grieving / Over Goldengrove unleaving?” she would say, smiling, in autumn, quoting Hopkins when she found me among the dogwoods after school. If she knew I lingered there in hopes of continuing our classroom conversation far from my classmates’ ears, she never let on. Though she must have been in a hurry to get home to her husband and her little boys, she just listened.

When she died so young, the summer after my graduation, I could not believe how the world went on. People were still honking their horns in traffic. People were still balancing their checkbooks, still mowing their lawns, still hurrying to put supper on the table. Why hadn’t it all screeched into silence? How could there be anything left to do in this world but grieve?

Then I remembered Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts,” a poem she taught us late in her last year, when her voice was already growing fainter, quavering until she swallowed again:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along

About suffering Auden was also not wrong, and through many seasons of grief in all the years since I was 18, I have remembered that poem.

Nevertheless, as the poets remind us, too, suffering is not our only birthright. Life is also our birthright. Life and love and beauty. “When despair for the world” is all we can feel, as Wendell Berry puts it in “The Peace of Wild Things,” the world itself — with its wood drakes and its blue herons “who do not tax their lives with forethought / of grief” — may be our greatest solace.

The poets are forever telling us to look for this kind of peace, to stuff ourselves with sweetness, to fill ourselves up with loveliness. They remind us that “there are, on this planet alone, something like two million naturally occurring sweet things, / some with names so generous as to kick / the steel from my knees,” as Ross Gay notes in “Sorrow Is Not My Name.”

We are a species in love with beauty. In springtime you can drive down any rural road in this part of country — likely in any part of the country — and you will find a row of daffodils blooming next to the shabbiest homesteads and the rustiest trailers. Often they are blooming next to no structure at all, ghostly circles around long-vanished mailboxes, a bright line denoting a fence row where no fence now stands. The daffodils tell us that though we might be poor, we are never too poor for beauty, to find a way to name it while we are still alive to call the gorgeous world by its many generous names.

For isn’t our own impermanence the undisputed truth that lurks beneath all our fears and all our sorrows and even all our pleasures? “Life is short, though I keep this from my children,” writes Maggie Smith in “Good Bones.” “Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine / in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways.”

Carpe diem is the song the poets have ever sung, and it is our song, too. “I think this is / the prettiest world — so long as you don’t mind / a little dying,” Mary Oliver writes in “The Kingfisher.”

This April is the 25th anniversary of National Poetry Month, and it arrives in the midst of a hard year. Last April brought lockdowns and rising infections, but we didn’t know last April just how much harder the year was about to become. We know now. And despite the helpful treatments that have emerged, despite the rising vaccination rates, despite the new political stability and the desperately needed help for a struggling economy, it is hard to trust that the terrors are truly receding.

We know now how vulnerable we are. We understand now that new terrors — and old terrors wearing new guises — will always rise up and come for us.

Thank God for our poets, here in the mildness of April and in the winter storms alike, who help us find the words our own tongues feel too swollen to speak. Thank God for the poets who teach our blinkered eyes to see these gifts the world has given us, and what we owe it in return.

Margaret Renkl is a contributing opinion writer who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South. She is the author of the books “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss” and the forthcoming “Graceland, At Last: And Other Essays From The New York Times.”

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