Why Are We Not Better Than We Are: How Poetry Saves Lives

“…a stillness in which the germ of what is not yet palpable pauses and gathers to begin one more time.”

Why Are We Not Better Than We Are: How Poetry Saves Lives

“A life of patient suffering… is a better poem in itself than we can any of us write,” the young poet Anne Reeve Aldrich wrote to Emily Dickinson shortly before her untimely death. “It is only through the gates of suffering, either mental or physical, that we can pass into that tender sympathy with the griefs of all of mankind which it ought to be the ideal of every soul to attain.”

Suffering is the name we give to how we live with life’s imperfection, and with our own — which is so often the wellspring of our profoundest suffering. This is the great living poem: how we carry this inevitability, and what we make from it.

It is evident throughout Serious Face, a collection of essays (public library). Jon Mooallem — one of the finest magazine journalists of our time, and one of the most original storytellers. The preface is written by him:

20 years ago I worked in New York City at a literary magazine. There, I screened the piles of submissions and sorted out what the editors would be interested in publishing. Please know that passing judgment on all these people’s poems made me queasy. Twenty-two was my age. I wasn’t particularly well-read and had only one previous job. It was what I loved that I enjoyed. I felt extremely sad. My father had died a year earlier, and the grief and bewilderment I’d kept tamped down were beginning to burble upward. I felt alone. I felt lost. It was hard to understand why it was all so difficult, and what was wrong. Some evenings, I’d walk the fifty-eight blocks home from the office, excessively serious-faced, wrenching my mind around like a Rubik’s Cube, struggling to make it show a brighter color.

And then, from among the thousands of poems whose literary merit he was uncomfortably tasked with brokering, one stopped him up short: “Frost in the Fields” by Eric Trethewey, no longer alive; one particular line in it crowning the lyric of landscape:

Why isn’t our world better?

This would become the animating question of Jon’s life, as a writer and as a human being; a question that each of the essays whispers or bellows, none more poignantly than one titled by a kindred question: “Why These Instead of Others?” — his account, across the abyss of twenty years, of a trip to the remote reaches of Alaska he took with two of his college friends in the spring of life.

Winter, MoonlightRockwell Kent. Available as both a printed copy and stationery cards.

Three young men, one epoch following Rockwell Kent’s voyage there to discover the core of creativity, arrived in a world so far removed from their urban consciousnesses that it appeared completely alien.

As the boat that delivered us vanished, the drone of its engine dampening into a murmur and then finally trailing off, it became unthinkably quiet on the beach, and the largeness and strangeness of our surroundings were suddenly apparent… It felt like those scenes of astronauts who, having finally rattled free of the earth’s atmosphere, slip into the stillness of space. Except we weren’t in space. We were on earth — finally, really on earth.

But this transcendent idyll was soon interrupted by the brute impartiality of nature — a boom, then a crash, then faster than the speed of reason, a colossal tree atop one of the three friends. Jon was also named.

The couple managed to call for help. The pair began to worry that their location was far too remote and uncharted. The only thing they knew was that they had no choice but to maintain his consciousness until assistance arrived.

Some animal instinct had him kneeling in front of the other Jon. This made it possible for the semi-automation to take over his thoughts.

Can a person really say anything? Two literature professors taught me poetry in college. Their claims were that they didn’t know when certain lines would prove useful. One of them liked to boast that when he was traveling through Ireland, Yeats allowed him to drink free of charge if consumed at a pub. That is how Jon and I met.

That poem was “The Shampoo” by Elizabeth Bishop. He moved on to Auden’s “The More Loving One.” Then some Robert Frost, some Kay Ryan. He recounts the following:

Jon and I spent about an hour and half alone in the woods. I ran through everything in my quiver—Kay Ryan, A. R. Ammons, Michael Donaghy—padding each poem with little prefatory remarks, while Jon said nothing, just signaled with his eyes or produced a sound whenever I checked in. The feeling was that of a radio DJ, playing music in the middle the night. Unsure if anyone was hearing. And here’s one about owls by Richard Wilbur, I would tell Jon, and off we would go.

He was unsure — how can anyone be sure? — that he was doing the best thing, that he couldn’t do something better, be better. It was all he could do.

Jon, the other Jon, survived. He will always remember that the poem on the forest floor was peaceful in the midst of the terror and adrenalized pain. This Jon writes about the experience after reflecting on it, both Jons now being twice their age.

Even my reciting those poems, which to me had always felt like a moment of utter helplessness, became, in Jon’s telling, a perfect emblem of that streak of serendipitous problem-solving. “You conveyed a calmness,” he told me recently.

This was poetry as time-dilation and poetry as prayer — a way to keep a drifting mind anchored in the questions that daily keep us from sleeping and quicken the creative restlessness we call art, we call meaning. One way to answer that long-ago question: with this tenderest testament to how, sometimes — and mostly when life boughs us to our knees on the forest floor of crisis — we These areWe are better and more successful than ever before, even if we live in the illusion of safety.

Moved by the improbable way in which a stranger’s poem had helped Jon save his friend’s life and had shaped his own, I asked him to read it for us half a lifetime after his chance encounter with it in the submissions pile of his entry-level job, with a side of Bach:

Complement with Gwendolyn Brooks’s lifeline of a poem and Mary Oliver on how books saved her life, then revisit the strikingly kindred story of how Oliver Sacks saved his own life by reciting poetry.

Giving = Being Loving

Since a decade and a half I’ve been writing for hundreds of hours each month, spending thousands of dollars every month. MarginalianThe magazine, which bore for fifteen years the unsettling name Brain Pickings. The site has survived despite being ad-free, and thanks to readers’ patronage it is still free. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. Donations are a great way to make your life better. Every dollar counts.

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