I live in Boulder, which has just been named the happiest city in the country! But this happy person has a confession to make: I love sad poems. Love reading them, love writing them. And I don't think I'm alone.
In the poetry bookclub that I run, it's often the case that the favorite poems of the group are not the "sweet" ones or the "touchy feely" ones, but the ones that devastate you with poignant images and metaphors, almost all of which are sad. In my writing group last week, every poem dealt with a death or a divorce or a loss of some kind. And they were beautiful!
What is it about them?
One could argue that someone's sadness can be easier to relate to than someone's happiness, since the things that makes us sad are often more universal than the things that make us happy. Or there could be a sense of relief in reading about someone else's pain (and therefore being separate from it). Or maybe there's more of a wealth of metaphors for sadness.
I got to thinking about this topic over Valentine's Day when I was considering writing a love poem for my boyfriend. This is hard. I once had a writing group where we challenged ourselves to write a love poem that held merit AS A POEM, for readers outside of the intended love. Only two people could write ANYTHING!
More input on this topic came from Sandra Beaslee:
I’ve been writing love poems. Or rather, I’ve been trying to write love poems. To be precise, I’ve been cursing the blank page where my love poems should be. I’m in love, damn it. Where are the poems? When I’m sad, I can write about sadness. When I took a cable car up Mount Pilatus, I could describe the view from 7,000 feet. . . . William Butler Yeats, in “Meditations in Time of Civil War,” diagnosed the problem. “Only an aching heart,” he said, “Conceives a changeless work of art.”
In the end, I have no answer to the riddle of what draw sad poems have. I know I love reading poems that make me ache for the writer, that reveal a grand hope or truth in a moment of despair. But I also know a good love poem when I see it. Here's a few that blow me out of the water as much as any:
Quality of Wine, by Hayden Carruth
This wine is really awful
I’ve been drinking for a year now, my
retirement, Rossi Chablis in a jug
from Oneida Liquors; plonk, the best
I can afford, awful. But at least
I can afford it, I don’t need to go out and beg
on the street like the guys
on South Warren in Syracuse, eyes
burning in their sockets like acid.
And my sweetheart rubs my back when I’m
knotted in arthritis and swollen
muscles. The five stages of death
are fear, anger, resentment, renunciation,
and – ? Apparently the book doesn’t say
what the fifth stage is. And neither
does the wine. Is it happiness? That’s
what I think anyway, and I know I’ve been
through fear and anger and resentment and at least
part way through renunciation too, maybe
almost the whole way. A slow procedure,
like calling the Medicare office, on hold
for hours and then the recorded voice says, “Hang up
and dial again.” Yet the days
go by fast enough. They fucking fly like the wind. Oh, Sweetheart, Mrs.
Manitou of the Stockbridge Valley,
my Red Head, my Absecon Lakshmi of the Marshlights,
my beautiful, beautiful Baby Doll,
let the dying be long.
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