“Thank God for our poets, here in the mildness of April and in the winter storms alike, who help us find the words”

From a column in the New York Times by Margaret Renki headlined “Thank God for the Poets”:

NASHVILLE — When the poet Amanda Gorman stepped to the lectern at President Biden’s inauguration, she faced a much-diminished crowd of masked people on the National Mall, but she was speaking directly to the heart of a bruised nation:

Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true:
That even as we grieved, we grew,
That even as we hurt, we hoped,
That even as we tired, we tried.

Ms. Gorman’s poem — addressed to “Americans, and the World” — was timeless in that way of the most necessary poems, but it was more than just timeless. After a year of losses both literal and figurative, she offered a salve that soothed, however briefly, our broken hearts and our broken age.

Poets have always given voice to our losses at times of national calamity. Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” is an elegy for Abraham Lincoln. Langston Hughes’s “Mississippi — 1955” came in direct response to the murder of Emmett Till. Denise Levertov wrote one poem after another after another to protest the war in Vietnam. In 2002, Billy Collins delivered a memorial poem for the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks before a special joint meeting of Congress.

The poems inspired by Black Lives Matter are almost too numerous to count, and their ranks continue to grow, in spite of the personal cost of “chasing words / like arrows inside the knotted meat between my / shoulder blades,” as Tiana Clark writes in “Nashville.”

Many Americans, probably a vast majority of Americans, feel they can get along just fine without poetry. But tragedy — a breakup, a cancer diagnosis, a sudden death — can change their minds about that, if only because the struggle to find words for something so huge and so devastating can be overwhelming. “Again and again, this constant forsaking,” Natasha Trethewey calls it in her poem “Myth.”

To name the forsaking wouldn’t seem to help, but it does. It always helps.

I was 18 when I learned that lesson in the hardest way such lessons can be learned: by burying someone I loved. For three years she was my beloved teacher, the kind of teacher who opens worlds but who could also somehow hear me saying much that I couldn’t yet say.

“Margaret, are you grieving / Over Goldengrove unleaving?” she would say, smiling, in autumn, quoting Hopkins when she found me among the dogwoods after school….

When she died so young, the summer after my graduation, I could not believe how the world went on. People were still honking their horns in traffic. People were still balancing their checkbooks, still mowing their lawns, still hurrying to put supper on the table. Why hadn’t it all screeched into silence? How could there be anything left to do in this world but grieve?…

The poets are forever telling us to look for this kind of peace, to stuff ourselves with sweetness, to fill ourselves up with loveliness. They remind us that “there are, on this planet alone, something like two million naturally occurring sweet things, / some with names so generous as to kick / the steel from my knees,” as Ross Gay notes in “Sorrow Is Not My Name.”

We are a species in love with beauty. In springtime you can drive down any rural road in this part of country — probably in any part of the country — and you will find a row of daffodils blooming next to the shabbiest homesteads and the rustiest trailers. Often they are blooming next to no structure at all, ghostly circles around long-vanished mailboxes, a bright line denoting a fence row where no fence now stands. The daffodils tell us that though we might be poor, we are never too poor for beauty, to find a way to name it while we are still alive to call the gorgeous world by its many generous names….

We know now how vulnerable we are. We understand now that new terrors — and old terrors wearing new guises — will always rise up and come for us.

Thank God for our poets, here in the mildness of April and in the winter storms alike, who help us find the words our own tongues feel too swollen to speak. Thank God for the poets who teach our blinkered eyes to see these gifts the world has given us, and what we owe it in return.

Margaret Renkl is a contributing opinion writer who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South. She is the author of the books “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss” and the forthcoming “Graceland, At Last: And Other Essays From The New York Times.”

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