Poetry of Pain, Poetry of Hope

When I posted my newest poem yesterday, we weathered winter (silence & shouting), I realized this is my first poem of 2021. It is unusual since it is mostly a poem of hope, a poem uniquely set in the Covid-19 pandemic.

As I looked back, I also realized that the last poem of 2020 was about my aunt’s suicide, a human throat (ineffable), a poem of pain anchored to the frailties of being human—although this poem too cannot avoid the ghost of the pandemic lingering there.

My newest poem feels out of character for me, a person prone to cynicism and a general negative outlook on life paraded as a “realistic” view. The poem is also unusual because most of my poetry comes in bursts; first there are entire sections that come to me whole (often in sleep or near sleep) and then several hours of tinkering and shaping the poem that is calling to me to bring it forth.

I ended 2020 in the paradox of writing about the ineffable, a suicide of a family member who filled me with contradictory and confusing emotions. So starting 2021 with some hope feels both odd and perfect as I sit in South Carolina where spring is teasing us with warm weather and pollen.

we weathered winter (silence & shouting) is a spring poem, and I could have written something like it even before a pandemic. But the poem did not come in a burst; it came over many weeks and quite unexpectedly:

we weathered winter once again
the sun slipping away later & later
daylight & hope expanding

this winter like all winters
was unlike any winter before
unlike any winter ahead

The opening section above did come in a burst, which I typed out on a Word document many weeks ago. It sat on my screen since then, was eventually closed out, and then almost nearly forgotten.

A couple nights ago, I had what I consider sort of a poem vision that accompanies words, specifically “everything ascending into the trees.” In my slumber brain, I was writing a post-apocalyptic science fiction novel, and I was jumbling literally all people climbing into trees with some nondescript memory of watching a nature show about monkeys scurrying into the trees when avoiding predators. I also was thinking about the Crakers from Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy.

When I woke up, I began playing with that kernel and eventually the second section appeared:

i imagine late at night
you do not understand
the silence & shouting

everything ascending
into the trees
completely quiet & afraid

But this could not have developed if I had not remembered the “winter” section abandoned weeks ago. I opened the file, thought about the need for section dividers, and plopped in the section section, drafting and playing with the original ascending idea as well as the “do not understand” part that also came to me during the night.

What developed was a poem with three-line stanzas, with two each per section. What I began to imagine, though, was how this ambiguous ascending scene matched the winter/end to the pandemic idea of the first section.

The silence/shouting contrast along with the sense of fear in ascending to escape something, to feel safe, needed something to combine the impressions. That is when I began to think about two beings huddled together, a conflating of two beings huddled together in a tree and two beings cuddling in sleep; and thus the third and last section:

how we huddle here
like lovers entwined asleep
hoping with spring

maybe there will be drums
maybe there will be horns
maybe there will be singing

One of the many things we have lost due to the pandemic is music concerts so my message of hope—imagining us all sitting in trees, afraid of Covid-19 and hoping for a return to something closer to normal (not a tree life)—about the possibility of returning to large crowds at a concert (drums, horns, singing).

The sound motif—silence, shouting, music—works, I think, to create the sort of tension that comes from the change of seasons. In the case of winter to spring, that tension is the feeling of hope resting against a nagging fear that spring somehow may not come after all.

My initial joy over the first section—the “W” alliteration of the first line I dearly love—were mostly affections of language, although I thought the idea of pandemic winter being more different, just as every winter is different, was clever enough and engaging. But there was no poem there.

The missing elements were about breathing a story into the “we” and also allowing those characters to develop even as I left much of the context ambiguous and even not directly spoken.

What is the job of poetry? I have been wondering. My poetry of pain next to my poetry of hope.

I understand that poetry is essentially concrete—images, characters, plot, setting; poetry is about the physical world doing stuff. But I also know that poetry is about what is not stated, what is not specifically identified.

My poem of pain ends with a sort of brutal specificity that attached itself to my own experience of discovering the cold details of the suicide. My poem of hope is suggestive, elusive, and in the most basic sense, hopeful.

Hope became symbolized by attending a concert, The National. Something I have done before so something I can reconstruct and imagine. During the writing of the poem, I had “I’ll Still Destroy You” on replay in my brain, although mostly different lines than what I chose to preface the poem: “Put your heels against the wall/I swear you got a little bit taller since I saw you” cycling over and over in my mind’s ear.

2021 is now racing by, and with spring, many of us in the U.S. are overwhelmed with hope for more than the usual joy associated with longer daylight and warmer weather.

What if the vaccinations allow us to return to something we have missed—gathering close together to sing along and sway to the drums, the horns, and the singing?

I am hopeful because it is too painful not to hope.