It’s Harder to Agree to Grief and Loss

From “Some Place Not Yet Known: An Interview with Jane Hirshfield,” The Atlantic, September 18, 1997: 

The Lives of the Heart Part of poetry's core activity, both within an individual and within a culture, is to attend to and make visible what Jung called the shadow life. Whatever it is that isn't being sufficiently attended to, poetry will be magnetically drawn toward. Perhaps these poems came to me because I hadn't been looking thoroughly enough at the activity of my own heart — I had fallen asleep in a way, or had been looking overly outward. And certainly the heart is denigrated by our culture, which values the intellect and neglects the emotional, or cheapens it to the dulled formulas of mass media. Perhaps I was looking in those poems for a container of concentration and words with which to try to do better, to counteract that dulling, both inward and outward.

It's also true that for some years a central task in my life has been to try to affirm the difficult parts of my experience; that attempt is what many of the heart poems address. It's easy to say yes to being happy, but it's harder to agree to grief and loss and transience and to the fact that desire is fathomless and ultimately unfillable. At some point I realized that you don't get a full human life if you try to cut off one end of it, that you need to agree to the entire experience, to the full spectrum of what happens.

People talk about poetry's having a diminished life in the current culture, or else they talk about its current renaissance, but I think that in good times or bad times for poetry as a whole, people will always have periods in their lives when they turn to poetry. Dealing with grief or falling in love, people will look for a poem or perhaps write one in the attempt to sort through and understand their most powerful experiences. Or, for the occasions of large transition — a marriage or a funeral — they will ask someone to read a poem that marks and holds the feeling. One of the jobs of poets is to keep making those holding words available, so that when other people need them they will be there.

I was deeply moved when Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis's lover Maurice Tempelsman read Cavafy's poem "Ithaka" at her funeral — and when it was then reprinted in every major newspaper in the country. "Ithaka" is an important and astonishing poem that holds enormous wisdom about what actually takes place in the scope of a life, and his bringing it forward on the occasion of her death made it available for everyone. The poem served the public purpose of shared grief and could then stay in the mind for private understanding. I think for poetry to have that kind of life in a culture is enough. It would be wonderful if more people wanted to read poetry every day, but it's more important that the poems be there when people need them.

[Thanks Linda!]