November 01, 2010

Why Poetry Matters: Poetry and Pain —– October 2010

I recently joined the Nittany Valley Writer’s Network in Pennsylvania, and I have been trying to convince some of the other members of the wondrous nature of poetry. Consequently, they’ve asked me to write a column in the newsletter on “Why Poetry Matters”, the title taken from Jay Parini’s excellent book Why Poetry Matters.

“To write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric.” This famous statement was made by the philosopher Theodore W. Adorno and it expressed his view of the valuelessness of writing after the unspeakable violence of the Holocaust. Adorno’s vision is bleak, yet poetry has a funny way of delving into pain and suffering and commemorating human endurance.

One of the poems that has moved me the most in all my years of reading poetry is John Berryman’s ‘The Song of the Tortured Girl’. Berryman himself had a colorful life as a member of the American Confessional movement – a group of writers who forced themselves to probe even their most disturbing thoughts. He committed suicide in 1972.

‘The Song of the Tortured Girl’ is wonderful because it looks unflinchingly at human suffering, and it is worth remembering that people all over the world are experiencing such violence at this very moment:

Often ‘Nothing worse can now come to us’
I thought, the winter the young men stayed away,
My uncle died and mother broke her crutch.
And then the strange room where the brightest light
Does not shine on the strange men: shines on me.
I feel them stretch my youth and throw a switch.

Berryman offers us a glimpse of the life of the girl – her family, the weather, her community – and then brings us back to the terrifying reality that she must now bravely face: the faceless torturers and her clinical cell. Most wonderful, however, is the end of the poem, which dwells not her current pain and suffering, but on a joyful memory of a better time that she returns to again and again:

High in a pass once where we put our tent,
Minutes I lay awake to hear my joy.
- I no longer remember what they want. -
Minutes I lay awake to hear my joy.

To read the full poem see this link at my blog, The Midnight Heart: Thanks to
George Ttoouli for introducing me to this poem.

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