Poetry As Renewal

by Philip F. Clark

I tell you this to break your heart, by which I mean only that it break open and never close again to the rest of the world.” — Mary Oliver.

As we head into a New Year, reflection is a constant. Coming out of a year of isolation, disjunction, and often, anger, what lessons might we take from it that will help us reverse its demons? What are the things we can reach for that will move us to a metamorphosis of hope, growth, renewal? For me, poetry has been a place of solace in the worst of times; an innate call for us to go inside ourselves — and enter the lives and ideas of our own, and others, experience — to use reflection as a process of renewal. And if in going there, our hearts do indeed, break, let that be the lesson that brings us to an opening of ourselves and not a closing.

Poetry transforms the world, people, events in our lives and reconstructs them in a language in which they find new meanings; and if it doesn’t necessarily solve problems, it does transform our perspective, ask questions, and pose possibilities. That is its great strength — to give us reflection on what may be, as it asks us to look at what has been. During this past year’s obstructions and terrors, its injustices and failures, poetry did not fail. It provided that continual breaking-open that allows insight, power, and human connection.

More than ever, poetry is growing as never before; more and new voices are being heard. It is water for a parched world, and its solace is the difference between having it and tasting it, as the words of Emily Dickinson state so vividly: To one denied to drink / To tell what Water is / Would be acuter, would it not / Than letting Him surmise? // To lead Him to the Well / And let Him hear it drip / Remind Him, would it not, somewhat of His condemned lip? //.

Poetry is the greatest Congress. As a poet, editor, and teacher, there are any number of reasons I constantly find to use poetry in that very ‘congress’ — the bringing together of the indelible hope it provides even in the midst of calamity; the sharing of its community; the articulation of its debates, passions and the intention of its ideas. And that very community of poets, above all, that has been the foundation that the last year in poetry, and the year ahead, has provided me. I am continually grateful for the new poets I have met, the new connections that I have been given, and the renewal of old ones. In the fracas of laureling awards, the chaos of submissions and rejections, the lonely spaces of trying to write just one good line — there is always that community of poets I call upon in gratitude, who I can count upon, to remind me that the work is never alone; that somewhere, other pens are writing with me.

As the poet Carl Phillips has said, poetry is also an ‘art of daring,’ — a ‘risk and restlessness,’ that we need to find in ourselves in order to create in a space of trust a poetry that is informed by when we listen to those doubts that threaten growth: “What is the relationship between restlessness and uncertainty? Clearly uncertainty can be a catalyst for restlessness–in our not being able to know something absolutely, we somewhere have to acknowledge a vulnerability in ourselves. In knowledge is safety, of a least a sort; what we don’t know might not hurt us, but it could, insofar as we can’t rule out entirely that it can’t. The general consensus is likely to be for avoiding harm as well as those places where harm is possible. . . . But there is a sensibility that–instinctively, most likely unconsciously–recognizes vulnerability as a space of possible nourishment.”

To find that space of vulnerability is a great risk, yes; but it is also the place in which transformation happens. It is never easy, it is often fallible; it is always the cusp of renewal. So, if I wish you anything for the New Year, I wish you the restlessness that Phillips speaks of, and that you use it to continue to keep finding that one good line, that community of poets, and that unobstructed breaking open of yourself. Poetry is a matter of love, and reflection; in examining its past and present, and future, I think of the great Robert Hayden’s words in his ‘Those Winter Sundays’: ‘What did I know, what did I know / of love’s austere and lonely offices? //.

I remind myself of its lessons.

Carl Phillips, ‘The Art of Daring: Risk, Restlessness, Imagination.’ Graywolf Press, 2014.