The Grief and Consolations of Poetry

There is something wondrously expressive about a perfectly written rhyme. Its appeal lies in invoking a long-suppressed feeling in its readers. A perfectly composed verse abruptly brings to the surface the tenderness of past memories, often to the surprise of its readers, who at once become aware of how fragile the purdah to their past is. Yet, to know that it became a subject of art by somebody who went through a similar experience can be comforting.

Much of our initial introduction to poetry is through curriculum subjected poetry, an infliction of English classes in school. I always found the excessive emphasis on interpretation in the early days made it an over boiled and overall a sour experience. I also found the not-easily-comprehensible verse of yester poets to be a cause of strain and not engaging enough for me to continue. To be freed from this compulsion is something to be thankful for. A private rendezvous with poetry, therefore, took much longer than otherwise could have been.

My affair with poetry, which is still in its infancy, began with my arrival in law school. As a person with a preference for habitual surroundings, to be thrown into a new college, with new people was all too disorienting and poetry began a means of getting by. I quickly and rather painfully became aware that I am better off reading poetry than to be writing my own, and since have continued to collect the verses that inspire me, provides a sense of solace or tinkers with my tear glands. Some of are a source of great reassurance in times of distress and others provide great solace and consolation in times of abjectness.

On Grief

One is reminded of the simple verse in Auden’s ‘Funeral Blues’, which at once take you back to the sudden halt in a relationship by unfaithfulness or untimely death.

“He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.”

Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘Dream Within a Dream’ has a similar effect with a reminder of paying heed to public caution in tumultuous love affairs that are likely to end abruptly.

“And, in parting from you now,
Thus much let me avow —
You are not wrong, who deem
That my days have been a dream;
Yet if hope has flown away
In a night, or in a day,
In a vision, or in none,
Is it therefore the less gone?”

But more relatable is the cautious approach of Larkin in ‘Love Again’, who is too vigilant to make a conscious effort to approach the lady and unsure of his reason to recall his brief encounter except for a suppressed jealousy.

“Love again: wanking at ten past three
(Surely he’s taken her home by now?),
The bedroom hot as a bakery,
The drink gone dead, without showing how
To meet tomorrow, and afterwards,
And the usual pain, like dysentery.
Someone else feeling her breasts and cunt,
Someone else drowned in that lash-wide stare,
And me supposed to be ignorant,
Or find it funny, or not to care,
Even … but why put it into words?
Isolate rather this element”

To recall these is an important reminder of the brittleness of human relationships and how glum can be an outcome for indulging or as well as having to stay away from attachment, percolating simply into a choice of being cautious or throwing caution to the wind. Another equally extensively covered grief is that of departing, the suspense of which is beautifully captured in Ommar Khayyam’s ‘Rubaiyat’

“There was the Door to which I found no Key;
There was the Veil through which I might not see:
Some little talk awhile of Me and Thee
There was–and then no more of Thee and Me.”

But the urgency of this realisation of fading away is more accurately produced by John Keats in his poem ‘When I have fears that I cease to be’, which immediately dissolves the love cherished and the fame earned to an unfortunate awareness of death.

 “That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love—then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.”

I also always found the moving lines of A.E Housman in ‘To an Athlete Dying Young’ to be deeply emotive of premature death, especially in the line of duty. In my opinion, these verses far exceed their limited purpose.

“Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.”

The ones that always manage to upset an evening, however, are ‘A Death Bed’ by Rudyard Kipling and ‘Aubade’ by Larkin, better to read in their entirety. Reading them for the first time instills an uneasiness of being incapacitated at a certain point in life, a thought that can be a cause of many sleepless nights. But reading them is also an emancipating exercise, to be insulted from sudden remorse, or if not then to be less unprepared when things hit us in the gut. For preventing further gloominess, I must move to consolations now.

The Consolations  

Auden can also be a source of a stoic consolation in his poem ‘The more loving one’, which masterly takes the burden of unrequited love with a firm acceptance.

“Admirer as I think I am
Of stars that do not give a damn,
I cannot, now I see them, say
I missed one terribly all day.

Were all stars to disappear or die,
I should learn to look at an empty sky
And feel its total dark sublime,
Though this might take me a little time.”

The evocation of a fractured destiny with the eulogy of stars is also found in Joseph Brodsky’s ‘Song of Welcome’, which is again a poem to be read in its entirety. It canvasses a mundane life in an effortless verse, jolting most to realize the likelihood of being on a similar trajectory.

                            “And here are your stars which appear still keen
on shining as though you had never been.
They might have a point, old bean.

              Here’s your afterlife, with no trace
of you, especially of your face.
Welcome, and call it space.”

The universal indifference to one’s state of being can provoke equal measures of anger and realization of the futility of perpetual grief. I find both emotions as necessary replacement of grief at some point. The other consolation of poetry is its appeal to a sense of persistence and steadfastness in times of distress, which I often resort to when mental callousness begins to take over. I often recall the words of Edgar Guest’s in ‘Hard Luck’ which convinces you of the pettiness of your troubles.

“Ain’t no use as I can see
In sittin’ underneath a tree
An’ growlin’ that your luck is bad,
An’ that your life is extry sad;
Your life ain’t sadder than your neighbor’s
Nor any harder are your labors;

Alfred Tennyson’s bidding lines in ‘Ulysses’ can also be a source of great comfort in times of unyielding research, especially for a law student. I often found myself repeating these lines on a, particularly unproductive day.

     “Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

Then there are Robert Frost’s enchanting lines in ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ shunning romantic attachment to give way to responsibility, which I have often recall whenever there is a clash of personal life with professional life.

                “The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.”

On a lighter strain, the poetry of Wendy Cope has always been a delightful break from the seriousness of all subjects especially because of her ability to capture happiness in daily routines. Her composition ‘The Orange’ is one such poem.

“At lunchtime I bought a huge orange—
The size of it made us all laugh.
I peeled it and shared it with Robert and Dave—
They got quarters and I had a half.

And that orange, it made me so happy,
As ordinary things often do
Just lately. The shopping.  A walk in the park.
This is peace and contentment. It’s new.

The rest of the day was quite easy.
I did all the jobs on my list
And enjoyed them and had some time over.
I love you. I’m glad I exist.”

There is also Philip Larkin’s ‘An Arundel Tomb’ that reassured me of stability of companionship in life and I often used its bidding lines in my musings on love.

‘Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.’

But it seems to be losing its charm on me and now threatens to completely fade away from memory, perhaps for good. I am much more convinced of the realism of his lines in an untitled poem he wrote in Feburary of 1976 and I suspect in the early morning.

“Morning at last: there in the snow
Your small blunt footprints come and go.
Night has left no more to show,

Not the candle, half-drunk wine,
Or touching joy; only this sign
Of your life walking into mine.

But when they vanish with the rain
What morning woke to will remain,
Whether as happiness or pain.”

Image Courtesy: The British Library Board FG1891-2.31

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