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.
I am one of you. I have been for a while. I am also jaded and worldly and often write with plenty of saltiness, irony, and smarty-pants-ness (enough to be taken seriously). I teach my students to “avoid cliches like the plague.” I tell them to keep their crushes out of their poems at all costs. I tell them to find new words for new feelings and to always surprise themselves with what they pen and present to others. But lately, I’ve fallen in love. I’ve fallen in love and all I have are platitudes. Percy Shelley is not helpful. W. B. Yeats is not helpful. Christian Wiman is too sad. Most of the contemporary poets I read are too angry or skeptical for what it is I actually feel—relief and an overwhelming joy that I have found a human such as the one who last week surprised me with the delivery of a baby pumpkin (a baby pumpkin, poets!) just because.
Give me fresh eyes. How do I write of such happiness and adoration while … “avoiding clichés like the plague.”
Dear Dumbstruck Poet,
You don’t have platitudes. You have a baby pumpkin! And you do have fresh eyes. Love gives them to you. What you need now is to give yourself permission. Finding ways to wrap this ineffable feeling in language requires innovation. Words can’t ever entirely hold that thing, not really. That’s why there are so many poems trying to say, I love. E.E. Cummings: “love is more thicker than forget …” June Jordan: “I SAID I LOVED YOU AND I WANTED / GENOCIDE TO STOP” Ross Gay: “Here is a cup of tea. I have spooned honey into it.” There are so many shapes to that failure. There are so many things of beauty created in that attempt.
Cultivate a reciprocal relationship between your art and your expansive living. Sometimes language will surprise you into new experiences. Sometimes, experience will surprise you into new language. In Heather Christle’s whirlwind work, it feels to me like that scrim between language and other forms of experience has been gorgeously exploded—everything known handed back to me anew. For you, her poem “Wallpaper Everywhere Even the Ceiling,” the torqued syntax of which jolts us out of the familiar:
What is that thing that can happen A garden
is that thing You are walking around and sudden
Oh no dahlias You know that feeling …
When you told your students to keep their crushes out of their poems, did you believe you already knew what you would find there? I imagine you might have warned your students not to write a flower-laden poem about love. But have you ever read anything like this before?
unabashed and blooming like another thing that can
happen love That is just an example Love is this
thing an example of love is the wind moves the warm
air square along a face and then love I love you tethered
like a rose sudden Oh no love and all alive in the garden
Irony affords a self-protective distance. Joy can be very serious. To risk losing something you love, to love the world enough to gift it that vulnerability—that is the work.
I’m a student in a demanding program and I’m taking a year off school due to depression. I had hoped to make the most of my newfound free time by reconnecting with the hobbies I used to love. Instead, I’ve been off for months and have barely gotten out of bed. I’ve had all the free time in the world and yet could hardly care enough to spend it on worthwhile activities. I feel I’ve lost my sense of direction and don’t want to waste the rest of this year just lying around. Please give me a poem to bring me back to my motivation and sense of self.
Tired of Being Tired
Dear Tired of Being Tired,
I’m sorry you’re experiencing depression, and I’m glad to hear that you’re taking the healing time you need. I hope you’re also seeking other forms of support. A poem is not a therapist. A poem is not medication. A poem is one site of interior fortification that can, in my experience, work alongside other forms of support. In that spirit, I want to give you Nâzim Hikmet’s “Things I Didn’t Know I Loved”:
it’s 1962 March 28th
I’m sitting by the window on the Prague-Berlin train
night is falling
I never knew I liked
night descending like a tired bird on a smokey wet plain
“All the free time in the world” sounds glorious in theory, but it’s an impossible unit to work with. And it’s an illusion. Even the world doesn’t have all the time. For the speaker, awareness of time catalyzes the journey into what they didn’t know they loved; it is precisely the knowledge that time is fleeting that sharpens the speaker’s noticing.
I just remembered the stars
I love them too
whether I’m watching them from below
or whether I’m flying at their side
I have some questions for the cosmonauts
were the stars much bigger
did they look like huge jewels on black velvet
or apricots on orange
my heart was in my mouth looking at them
they are our endless desire to grasp things
seeing them I could even think of death and not feel at all sad
I never knew I loved the cosmos
To reconnect with motivation is a beautiful aspiration, but it’s a formless task. You cannot get there from here. Try instead beginning where you are. Look out the window. What do you see? Where does that sight lead you to? What do you love? What you love will lead you back.
I am in my first year of community college and I’ve come to know it as a strange halfway place, like a train station. It’s a good place to get you where you want to go, but it’s nowhere to build a life. Everyone I meet moves away after a few months. People don’t go to the train station to make friends. I understand now the nature of this place, but I struggle with a loneliness that seems incurable and I still have a year and a half left here. Do you have a poem for the feeling when you’re waiting for your train to come, but you know it’s still a long way off? When you want to build, but you know nothing you make will last? When you’re faced with a year of loneliness, but can’t bear the thought of it?
Waiting for My Train
Dear Waiting for My Train,
You’re right. A train station is an unusual venue for making friends. But I love watching people in train stations: greeting each other after a long separation, idly flipping through a magazine, or rushing past you, face etched with purpose. There’s something beautiful in those crossings, and there are so many ways of being that happen in those itinerant spaces. Those spaces can absolutely make you lonely as well. Presence in a place defined by contingency is difficult. Sometimes, the knowledge of an elsewhere is necessary nourishment—not to refuse where you are, but to steady yourself to more fully receive the particular forms of immediacy offered there.
For you, Nomi Stone’s “Waiting for Happiness,” which in putting language to the beauty of what’s coming, nourishes the present:
Dog knows when friend will come home
because each hour friend’s smell pales,
air paring down the good smell
with its little diamond. It means I miss you
O I miss you, how hard it is to wait
for my happiness, and how good when
I love how dog knows that friend’s scent dissipating in the air is not a disappearance, but the promise of a new emergence. I love how Stone reminds us that loneliness can map the distance to somewhere else.
Here we are in our bodies,
ripe as avocados, softer, brightening
with latencies like a hot, blue core
of electricity: our ankles knotted to our
calves by a thread, womb sparking
with watermelon seeds we swallowed
as children, the heart again badly hurt, trying
Keep going. Happiness is coming.
But it is almost five says
the dog. It is almost five.
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.