Saturday, December 19, 2015

Poetry Helped Save My Sanity

I’ve never been a fan of poetry. Arthur always thought that was silly of me. And it was, since Arthur, a songwriter, was actually a poet.
The book on Arthur’s bedside table when he died was Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Whitman was Arthur’s favorite poet; Arthur believed Whitman expressed the theme of universal love in an exquisite way.
A story from Arthur’s youth that speaks eloquently of his heart involves Whitman: on the night John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Arthur stood alone under a streetlamp and read “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” the first poem in Whitman’s “Memories of President Lincoln.”
When we were married (the first time…it’s a long story) our vows were passages from Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road.”
Seeing this book by Arthur’s bedside was quite moving, and I picked it up the day after he died. Little did I know in that moment what comfort and solace those poems would bring me. For months I started every morning with a poem or part of a poem. Whitman helped me hold on to my sanity in the darkest hours of my grief, and that is not an exaggeration.
Six weeks or so after Arthur died I read Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. This is a memoir of the year after her husband died. Didion felt the same way about poetry; she wrote that poetry was the most soothing literature, and it was the most “exact” about the experience of grief.
In my journal I speak almost daily of the beauty I’ve found in that morning’s reading of Whitman. Here are some of the passages that moved me most deeply.
“Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” from “Sea-drift”: In this poem Whitman is a child, living near the ocean shore, who often goes to watch a pair of birds tending their nest. Then one day the female disappears, and for the rest of the summer the male grieves.

There’s a passage where Whitman translates the male bird’s song of grief, and I cried at the way it described my experience:
Hither my love!
Here I am! here!
With this just-sustain’d note I announce myself to you,
This gentle call is for you, my love, for you…
O darkness! O in vain!
O I am very sick and sorrowful.
O brown halo in the sky near the moon, drooping upon the sea!
O troubled reflection in the sea!
O throat! O throbbing heart!
And I singing uselessly, uselessly all the night.
O past! O happy life! O songs of joy!
In the air, in the woods, over fields,
Loved! loved! loved! loved! loved!
But my mate no more, no more with me!
We two together no more.
Arthur and I were soul mates, and it feels as if part of my soul has been torn from me.
Whitman finishes the poem by saying that this experience, hearing the message of the bird’s song of grief, changed his life and allowed him to hear thousands of songs of sorrow.
In “The Sleepers,” there were a couple of lines that spoke of what the early days of grief were like for me; Whitman is imagining himself as all the various sleepers and dreamers around the world, but there’s one who’s not sleeping:
It is I too, the sleepless widow looking out on the winter midnight,
I see the sparkles of starshine on the icy and pallid earth.
There were many a night when I was up at 3 and 4 am looking out at the stars and the moon shining on the icy February landscape out my bedroom window.
“From Noon to Starry Night” talks about the primacy of love, and ends with joy, ecstasy, and getting to the place where it is enough just to be.
Blow again trumpeter! And for thy theme,
Take now the enclosing theme of all, the solvent and the setting,
Love, that is pulse of all, the sustenance and the pang,
The heart of man and woman all for love,
No other theme but love—knitting, enclosing, all-diffusing love…
Love, that is all the earth to lovers—love, that mocks time and space,
Love, that is day and night—love, that is sun and moon and stars,
Love, that is crimson, sumptuous, sick with perfume,
No other words but words of love, no other thought but love.                               
Joy! joy! in freedom, worship, love! joy in the ecstasy of life!
Enough to merely be! Enough to breathe!
Joy! joy! all over joy!

No comments:

Post a Comment