On Poetry, Grief, and Depression

I won’t need any help to be lonely when you leave me
It’ll be easy to cover, gather my skeletons far inside

“Slipped,” The National

The week leading up to April 1 and the start of National Poetry Month afforded me one of my most cherished elements of my Being: My Poet-Self was invited to speak to two local high school classes and a poem of mine, “the philosophy of gerunds (my mother is dying),” was published in the March 2019 issue of English Journal.

My drive into work is almost an hour, so today I began thinking about this blog post, and as part of my driving/prewriting, I listened to a few songs by The National—crying during both “Pink Rabbits” and “You Had Your Soul With You.”

There are song lyrics that break my heart no matter how often I hear them, and then, there are simply moments when my heart overfills and the results slip from my eyes.

As I was talking with high school students about how I came to realize I am a poet and how I write poetry, I once again heard myself tell a story I have told often, an explanation I have teased out for other people many, many time.

One day in the spring of my first year of college, I wrote a poem, mostly inspired by a speech class where the professor introduced us to e.e. cummings’s poetry. This act of mine was a sudden compulsion, not so much a choice.

And it was then I knew I was a poet, and despite working hard to be a writer throughout my 20s, completing one full novel draft and dozens of short stories and poems, I published very little—never finding any publisher interested in the novel—and eventually resigned myself to never being that kind of writer.

Moving to higher education in my early 40s, however, opened a different door to being a writer. I have had a very rich and full life publishing since then, mostly academic writing along with becoming a dedicated blogger. For this, I am very thankful.

Throughout this journey as a writer, the one constant has been writing poetry—regardless of the possibility for publishing.

My scholarly writing and blogging have very distinct differences from that poetry, however.

Poetry, you see, simply comes to me; I cannot beckon it, and I cannot write poetry on demand. Often poems come when there are new music albums to listen to or novels to read. My word lives cross-pollinate.

Whether I am drawn to a popular band, such as The National or R.E.M., or a novelist, such as Haruki Murakami or Han Kang, and when those poems come to me, I am deeply aware of another powerful presence—grief and depression.

As a writer, I suffer what I have found to be a common feeling among writers; once a piece is finished, I fear I will never write another, that the well has gone suddenly dry.

As a music lover and reader, I often feel deeply depressed after a new album finally is released and when I come to the end of a novel; what if this beautiful experience never comes my way again?

The poem published recently by English Journal linked above was originally scheduled for the January issue, but when that journal was released, my heart sank when my poem was not included. The editors were quick to note that the poem had been moved, and I had just not been notified.

It seems fitting, then, for the poem to come to me at the beginning of National Poetry Month because poetry remains something of my heart and my intellect. When I shared the poem with my department, several of my colleagues replied kindly, a couple even moved to tears.

When I reread this piece, I too feel the urge of my tears returning.

It was the summer of 2017 when my mother was discovered in the floor unconscious, having suffered, we learned later that day, a stroke. Just two weeks later, my father died having been moved to share a room with my mother in a high-care facility.

After his death, I spent some of most every day visiting my mother, who moved to another facility and suffered a series of problems with her health. The worst being diagnosed with stage 4 kung cancer, which took her life by early December of that year.

Over those six months and after, I have written poems and blogs trying to understand the grief and depression of watching my parents die, in many ways quite badly. I may as well be seeking as the British Romantic poets argued a way to render my parents immutable through art.

As I contemplate poetry, and try always to explain to others or understand myself the sources of my urge to create poetry, I wonder about the place of grief and depression in art more broadly.

My life is often rich with joy and happiness, but I am not sure that compels me to art as the moments of grief and depression. I am certain that sadness in other people’s art, like the darkness that runs through songs by The National, do not make me sad but offer comfort, even as I drive down the highway sobbing.

Moments of grief, I think, are small celebrations and recognitions of the joy that is life, an awareness that life and its joys are fleeting so we better pay attention.

We can reach out and touch it, even hold on, but we cannot stop it from moving toward the inevitable.

Watching my mother die, sitting beside her while knowing I could do nothing really to change the trajectory of her dying, was just as much about me or anyone living—I realized.

And was driven to words.

To me, living and dying are the very human of being human, but so are words. We have less control of our living and dying than we would like, I think, but some times we have such great control of our words, of language.

Few things are more marvelous than a human creating words in a way that drives other people’s heart to full. And it wells up inside of us pushing free through our eyes.

I reread my poem in print and see through the blurring of tears that I am a truly inadequate son. I am fully human.