Part of the reason people turn to poetry—its writing or reading—is that they have some belief, experience, perhaps foolish faith that language in itself is a reservoir, needed and almost infinitely useful.
I like to begin understanding almost any idea by looking closely, if I can, at the words that hold it. At the etymological root of both healing and health is the idea of “wholeness.” To heal, then, is to take what has been broken, separated, fragmented, injured, exiled and restore it to wholeness.
I think all of us these days feel a particularly acute awareness of the breadth of what feels currently injured and exiled. Many things beyond physical illness and physical fracture need healing. Some are personal, some are collective, and these two realms are not disconnected. We don’t live in compartments; we live in our lives.
There is almost nowhere on earth, I recently heard, where you can stand more than six feet away from a spider. Poems—and griefs—are similarly ubiquitous. Poems can be found, if they’re looked for, addressing every realm of what in our lives can feel broken: the heart’s injuries in the realms of intimate connection, in love, in friendship, in family. The distancing that comes with any form of grief, of fear, of anger. The brutalities and violence that occur among people whenever we feel ourselves set against one another, divided by any kind of boundary. Injustice. Powerlessness. The sense of erasure that comes with disrespect, nonrecognition, exclusion. The sense of our lost-ness, confusion, incomprehension. The sense of isolation and separation from one’s own participation in existence. The evasion of death, which is ultimately an evasion of life.
How can poems solve any of these conditions? Outwardly, they cannot. Yet we’re haunted by W. H. Auden’s statement that “poetry makes nothing happen” exactly because it stands so powerfully as its own disproof. Auden’s elegy for W. B. Yeats is itself an enactment of the shift from powerless grief to something, to use Yeats’s own words, utterly changed by its own terrible beauty, both born and borne. By a poem’s held beauty, our held terrors become bearable.
To be seated in full reality is to be seated also in permeability, interconnection, and compassion: the qualities of good poems. My experience, then, is that every truly good poem has in it, somewhere, an anchor dropped down into wholeness—findable even in poems in which that may be hard, at first, to see.
Wholeness does not mean unmarred, or simple, or ignorant of suffering. It does not exclude any part of experience or history. Consider kintsugi, a Japanese repair technique that is both an aesthetic and a philosophical stance. In reassembling a broken tea bowl, a cup, or a plate, the repairing artisan uses, in place of transparent glue, a mix of lacquer and powdered gold. The end result is not an object trying to appear as if it had never been damaged: kintsugi, done well, offers damage made visible as part of the cup’s history, damage made beautiful because the cup was repaired without denial. It may be that any fully rounded truth, seen without denial, will appear to us as beauty. John Keats believed so, anyway.
Kintsugi is thought to have originated in the late fifteenth century, when a Japanese shogun, Ashikaga Yoshimasa, sent a broken Chinese tea bowl back to China for repair. When it returned, it was held together with crude metal staples. The shogun decided to come up with a better solution.
I think this story must be either apocryphal or simplified. It may be that those staples were a message. Perhaps the potter was saying, “What a stupid, cheap idea to think your broken bowl could be repaired.” It could equally have been a reminder of the Buddhist concept of transience—an unsubtle suggestion to the shogun not to cling to some past or idea that no longer exists. It could have been a message that life and death are irreparable matters. The shogun must have understood these things. Kintsugi accepts life’s irreparability and embraces it. When Wallace Stevens wrote that “death is the mother of beauty,” he was pointing to a kind of kintsugi.
Poems are words that live in the fractures, and it may be that every poem is a work embodying kintsugi. Along with the many other things poems do, they make new by rejoining parts into a visibly changed whole. Of the fragility and the resilience of our lives and psyches, they make a mixed and single gesture, one that carries its quotient of mending lacquer and gold dust.
To find permeability in fracture and transience, in what is not wanted and what is not known, has always been one of the reasons I write and one of the reasons I read. The place of fracture is not simply closed: It remains also an opening. Writing that enlists the creative, the musical, the wingspan and reach of the imaginal mind and tongue, brings with it an increase of agency and an enlargement of the possible. It invites us into what lies beyond our first responses, first thoughts, first boundaries.
This enlargement of possibility is a taproot of how poems can work to heal even what can’t necessarily be outwardly changed. Among the fracturings of the psyche, powerlessness and invisibility are not minimal things. But a person who can ask words to do things words have not done before is not powerless. To make phrases that increase what is possible to think and feel is both exhilaration and liberation. To expand reality is to counter despair, depression, and impotence. Anyone who has written a poem surely has felt this. I think of it as the secret happiness of poems. No matter how grief-filled a poem may be in its contents, the making of it allows the poet to drink from the wellspring of freedom—and that increase of freedom and invention cannot help but afford the poet a balancing sense of happiness. When we call a poem “powerful,” that is the power we mean: the power to move the psyche and mind and through them, perhaps, the world’s future.
Stanley Kunitz once said, “At every stage in life we need to create a self that we can bear to live and die with.” Every time I think of that sentence, I find myself encouraged by its foundational premise: that we can create, and can create a self. Even the poems that come out of theoretical ground that pulls against what Kunitz describes are enactments of the indomitable resourcefulness of the creative mind and heart.
Another element of poetry’s capacity to act as a force of healing is its grounding in connection and interconnection. There is solace in recognizing that whatever happens to a person, someone before us has known it as well. Poetry’s evidence tells us that we are not singled out by our suffering; we are brought into the shared life of all who have lived and died before and with us.
Think of the Buddhist parable of the mustard seed. A woman whose child has died is inconsolable. She goes to the teacher Shakyamuni, who she has heard teaches a way to lift human hearts from their suffering, and asks him to bring back her dead child. He answers that he will of course do this, if she can bring him a single mustard seed from any house that has not known death. As the woman goes from house to house, finding no one who has escaped mourning and loss, her grief changes: not a weight erased but a weight made bearable.
Poems connect us to this sense of shared fate by awakening in us both the remembrance of shared exposure and a fundamental, precise experience of empathy. They loosen us from the loneliness of separation and the erasures of generality. The particularity and unexpectedness of poetry’s language shake us from sleepiness, complacency, habitual mind. Empathy breaks us from the hypnosis of ego’s grip on its own sense of purpose. Empathy brings us to feel that whatever we are aware of becomes part of the larger self. Any image, story, or metaphor is understood by our interior inhabitance of its parts and our recognition that each of those parts is our own face. We understand the image of a mountain because we have seen mountains, heard mountains, walked their loose-rock steepness.
This process is closer to physiological than rational. When the eighteenth-century German poet Novalis said that poetry heals the wounds inflicted by reason, he was speaking against the kinds of narrowing that reduce a person to only body or to only mind—the fallacy, on one side, of believing a person can ever be merely a body or merely a “means of production” and the equal fallacy, on the other, of disembodiment, which reduces us to abstractions, ideologies, and labels. The rational mind, untempered by poetry, divides; its task is to examine part by part, to be both unimpassioned and compartmental. Intellect of this kind is not unneeded. Blind trials in medicine need to be run without weeping. But that fierce rational power, in isolation, is inhuman. Art dwells at the crossroads between what in us is body, what in us is emotion, what in us is history, and what in us is mind. To step into wholeness of seeing and feeling, under any conditions, is in itself restorative. Think of the courts of restorative justice in Rwanda—through the full telling of the stories of what had happened, the ability of people to live together, even after the terror and madness of genocide, was slowly, tentatively, necessarily returned.
The images, words, metaphors, and sounds of poems harness passion and, with it, compassion, to do this work of mutual recognition and expansion. Reading these records of connection, witness, and experience, we begin to remember our continuity, our permeability, our kaleidoscopic participation in a shared whole, the colors and scents, the stories of earth.
I’d like to close with one brief poem I often turn to, a poem of brokenness, permeability, and inclusion. The process of figuring out what it meant, when I co-translated it with Mariko Aratani for The Ink Dark Moon, was, for me, permanently life-changing. This five-line Japanese tanka, written a thousand years ago, taught me that to be whole requires letting into your life what you might believe you’d prefer to keep out. It showed me that a fully rounded human life means agreeing to everything—hard or embraced—that all lives will bring.
Although the wind
blows terribly here,
the moonlight also leaks
between the roof planks
of this ruined house.
A Few Poems That Turn Toward Wholeness: A Personal Anthology
This handful of poems is almost arbitrarily drawn from the Borgesian, idiosyncratic anthology that anyone who lives by words will come to carry. Any good poem can be, in its rightly matched moment, a reservoir of recalibration, remembrance, restoration of the capacity for joy. The following five poems have offered me repeated sustenance, solace, and a renewed sense of that strong antidespairant, amor fati.
- “In the Desert,” Stephen Crane
Stephen Crane’s “In the Desert” draws its salutary power not least from its strangeness. Commitment of the self to the self is its own verification.
- “Poetry Reading,” Anna Swir
Most of what happens to us is not fixable, yet a person goes on. Anna Swir’s “Poetry Reading” is for me a poem of both solace and relief because it (like so much that is comic) simply says out loud what is true. There are times when admitting defeat and confusion is both all that can be done and more than enough.
- “Prayer,” Galway Kinnell
Galway Kinnell’s “Prayer,” like Stephen Crane’s “In the Desert,” is a poem whose reading re-knits me into agreement with existence. Implausibly abstract in language, impossibly brief, chiasmic in structure, at its heart a high wire juggler’s act of repeated “is”s—Kinnell’s poem is also as emotionally rich, pressured, and restorative as a few notes played by a master on a violin made by Guarneri.
- “Untitled,” James Baldwin
James Baldwin’s “Untitled,” like Galway Kinnell’s poem, is an explicit asking for help in circumstances overpowering and unspoken. Both poems summon from the hat the magician’s rabbit: they make manifest that poetry’s asking is poetry’s answering. And like Anna Swir’s poem, Baldwin’s is salted with the recalibrating comic.
- “Postscript,” Seamus Heaney
Seamus Heaney’s “Postscript”—at first meandering, conversational, descriptive. Heaney’s offered advice seems casual, happenstance. But by its end, the poet has applied one of the great, unexpected poultices for the broken spirit or heart: a stepping beyond the personal into amazement and wonder.
This essay originally appeared in the Spring-Summer 2018 issue of American Poets, the biannual journal of the Academy of American Poets. Copyright © 2018 by the Academy of American Poets. All rights reserved. To receive American Poets, become a member.