A speck of white paint, off to the side
Just as songs can get inexorably linked to a season or a feeling, so can poems. There are poems that are tied to rooms and smells and people in my memory. There's one poem in particular that gets stuck in my head whenever I hear of a tragedy. It's an ekphrastic poem, a poem about a painting, a pretty famous one: W.H. Auden's "Musée des Beaux Arts." That link will also show you the painting in question, but on my screen its crucial detail – Icarus, drowning – is just a pixelated streak. So here's a better image, too.
There are layers of complexity to this poem that I'm not even going to attempt to carve open, 'cause Auden was a dang genius. But an opening like "About suffering they were never wrong" seems to anticipate the poem's fame. "About Suffering" sounds like it should be the title of a philosophical treatise, chock-full of eternal wisdom. The poem then delves into details and particularities about suffering: some situations in which it might happen, and go ignored.
Rereading it, I realized that this poem works very similarly to one of my favorite stories, Lydia Davis's "What I Feel" (which you can read at the bottom of this page). I've written a bit about "What I Feel" in the past. Both texts start by pointing to an external authority (the Old Masters, "several books") to make claims about how emotion works, or ought to work, in the world. Then they move into "its human position" – how suffering takes place "anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot" in Auden, and "in this dark living-room late at night, with the dark street outside under the streetlamps" for Davis's narrator. In both texts, suffering is (or ought to be) "off to the side, one of many things." And this is a comfort, or could be, if you could will yourself to feel the smallness of your suffering among all other things. That you know you just have to go ahead and suffer anyway is the irony in both works. If only, they imply, if only it could be so darn tidy. If only your suffering could be a splash of white paint in an old Flemish painting, a detail you could turn away from or ignore, and not a great force twisting your life up in knots.
I'd recently studied "Musée des Beaux Arts" when I experienced the first loss of someone close to me: weeks before my college graduation, my maternal grandfather died suddenly one morning at home. I remember thinking of my grief as an object outside of and surrounding me: a fog, or a frame, placed around everything I did.
I remember taking a long walk in the streetlights along the abandoned train tracks with my friends. That helped. And it helped to think this: "the dogs go on with their doggy life." And: "The sun shone / as it had to". Everything surrounding suffering, loss, tragedy — it all sails calmly on with time. And so does your own life. Not without scars, but it continues. I remember not laughing for days from sadness, then listening to "Golden Boy" and bursting into hysterics thinking of hell as the place eternally without delicious peanuts. My grandfather and I shared a love for delicious things and a disbelief in hell.
Of course, poetry has more places in the world than times of great tragedy or ceremony. Jenny Zhang's wonderful recent essay "How it Feels" talks about this:
When someone dies, we go searching for poetry. When a new chapter of life starts or ends — graduations, weddings, inaugurations, funerals — we insist on poetry. The occasion for poetry is always a grand one, leaving us little people with our little lives bereft of elegies and love poems.
But I want elegies while I’m still alive, I want rhapsodies though I’ve never seen Mount Olympus. I want ballads, I want ugly, grating sounds, I want repetition, I want white space, I want juxtaposition and metaphor and meditation and all caps and erasure and blank verse and sonnets and even center-aligned italicized poems that rhyme, and most of all — feelings.”
Reading poems is a way of saying "an enormous yes" to feelings — even dark ones, even ambivalent, confusing ones. I think this is why people so often claim they don't "get" poetry: because it's uncomfortable, it's askew, it forces you into the uncomfortable crannies of your own mind. And it's a lifetime's project to be at peace with that: to accept both the impossible calamity of the boy falling out of the sky, and the necessity of "the expensive delicate ship" sailing calmly on.
Thanks for reading, as always.