In our column Poetry Rx, readers write in with a specific emotion, and our resident poets—Sarah Kay, Kaveh Akbar, and Claire Schwartz—take turns prescribing the perfect poems to match. This week, Claire Schwartz is on the line.
There are so many poems that I’ve read about being hurt. But what about hurting those whom you truly love? I need a poem to navigate this feeling of being the bad guy.
When I sit down to answer these letters, I often find myself reflecting on the purpose of my response. What should the poem offer? Challenge? Company? Direction? Language for an old feeling? A way toward new possibility? Your note made me consider the particular challenges of writing about causing harm. Writing about one’s own violence sometimes feels like flaunting one’s complex interiority—a beautiful rendering would be its own kind of absolution. The harm doer’s persuasive telling can draw us willfully into their orbit.
I want to offer you a poem not of solace or pardon, but one that crucially refuses reconciliation and, in so doing, holds space for the difficult work of reckoning: Sharon Olds’s “I Could Not Tell.”
I could not tell I had jumped off that bus,
that bus in motion, with my child in my arms,
because I did not know it. I believed my own story:
I had fallen, or the bus had started up
When I had one foot in the air
The title marks both the speaker’s shame of leaping off a bus with her child in her arms and the impossibility of assembling a narrative one cannot fully know. The distortions of both shame and memory pose a problem for language. Can one ever really tell the truth about the harm one does, or is the real work in positioning ourselves to listen well, to do better? The anxious repetition of negations that opens each stanza—“I could not tell,” “I would not remember,” “I have never done it”—structures something powerfully irreconcilable in the poem. This is a poem that breaks open the speaker’s own story about herself. It takes seriously the vulnerability of precious connection:
I have never done it
again, I have been very careful.
I have kept an eye on that nice young mother
who lightly leapt
off the moving vehicle
onto the stopped street, her life
in her hands, her life’s life in her hands.
I hope Olds’s poem keeps you company as you learn how to love better. Continue that guardianship of holding yourself accountable.
I am a poet too. But I am a poet who doesn’t write. I started off well: I wrote without too much effort and with a great deal of pleasure and drive. I won some important awards here in Mexico, where I live. And then it stopped. It’s been thirteen years now. I’ve written a couple poems now and then, perhaps even good poems, or good drafts, but I can’t keep writing steadily enough to finish any of my projects. Every day that passes I feel angrier and more disappointed with myself. Everybody around me seems to be writing and publishing and giving public readings while I just read and read and try not to punish myself too much. I try to enjoy thinking in verse, I try to write a small piece every now and then, but I fail in every attempt. Sometimes I think that it doesn’t really matter, that I should just relax, give up, and keep on reading the rest of my life, without envying those who are on track. But I just can’t. And I don’t want to keep on hurting myself for being a poet who doesn’t write anymore. Do you think you can point to a poem for this feeling?
With my love and admiration for your work here,
A Poet Who Doesn’t Write
Dear Poet Who Doesn’t Write,
It strikes me that you’ve identified two distinct issues, the first related to the pen-to-paper act of writing and the second concerning the culture industry. The latter fills you with the illusion that everyone but you is constantly producing. But writing is not publishing, and one of poetry’s teachings I most cherish is the way it refuses the capitalist logic of production value. Awards can offer recognition and amplification of your art, but the worth is in the work, not in its reception.
Now back to the first issue: writing. The work of writing is large. Live expansively. Notice abundantly. Love deeply. Reckon with the harm you do. Learn the histories that make you. And the work of writing is small. Spend the morning staring at a line—changing a comma to a semicolon and back again. All of that is writing. Anne Boyer’s “Not Writing” gloriously sources the expansiveness of not writing:
When I am not writing I am not writing a novel called 1994 about a young
woman in an office park in a provincial town who has a job cutting and
pasting time. I am not writing a novel called Nero about the world’s richest
art star in space. I am not writing a book called Kansas City Spleen. I am
not writing a sequel to Kansas City Spleen called Bitch’s Maldoror.
When you are focused on a particular project, you hone your attention. But when you are not writing, you are not writing everything. What bounty! Boyer’s poem is a reminder that even refusal can be a way in. What an archive you’ve amassed in all of your not-writing-writing time. You can draw on it now.
Of course, even Boyer’s “Not Writing” is written. If you want to have written, you need to make a mark on the page. Then another. There is no substitute for that. But neither is there a timeline that dictates how your work makes its way into the world. You’re right where you should be. Now keep going.
I am a dreamer, in not only the literal sense of the word but also in the governmental sense of the word. I worry about my future. Everything I know is these lands, this country, my America. I know very little of the “home” that is listed on my birth certificate, and the uncertainty of it all crushes me daily. I would love a poem that I can carry with me, each and every day, a mantra, to give me strength, to come back to, to call home.
A Worried Dreamer
Dear Worried Dreamer,
I am so sorry that you are caught in the cross fire of this nation’s immense violence. I wish we could all have true well-being and respite in homes that we know and love, homes that know and love us back. For you, Lucille Clifton’s “won’t you celebrate with me.” It’s a poem small enough to carry inside of you and mighty as words have ever been. Clifton’s poem summons the reader to join the speaker in exulting the unprecedented miracle of her being: “won’t you celebrate with me / what i have shaped into / a kind of life? i had no model.” Clifton’s joy takes stock of the structural conditions of her making—“born in babylon / both nonwhite and woman”—not as circumscription but as creative imperative and infinite resource:
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up.
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand
And the glorious final invitation summons all who would affirm the triumph of the speaker’s living, diminishing everything that opposes her thriving:
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.
A poem is no match for white-nationalist violence. But I hope “won’t you celebrate with me” provides a form of homecoming—it’s a never fully completed call to form a rejoicing and protective circle around the speaker who, in the midst of it all, goes on living.
Claire Schwartz is the author of bound (Button Poetry, 2018). Her poetry has appeared in Apogee, Bennington Review, The Massachusetts Review, and Prairie Schooner, and her essays, reviews, and interviews have appeared in The Iowa Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, Virginia Quarterly Review, and elsewhere.