A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
The other night I was eating dinner with some friends and the conversation turned, as it does these days, toward the coming apocalypse. There was some talk about Victory Gardens, protesting Monsanto, whether any of us had artesian springs in our back yards, and then someone said: “It’s kind of hard to figure out how to think about all this and still enjoy life. It’s all so depressing.”
“Ah,” I said. “There’s a wonderful poem about that idea, by Jack Gilbert.” Which is how I came to be reading off an iPad at the dinner table, something I’m sure both my grandmothers would deplore, although everyone seemed moved by the poem, and one person even cried.
This little story illustrates two things. First, that poetry is one of the ways complicated ideas can be explored and perhaps explained. Even though the form is also concise, a poem is the opposite of a TV sound-bite, which generally aims to simplify information and make it glib. Poems encompass contradiction. And second, it’s useful to have a person in your midst — a poet or a reader of poetry — who can refer you to the relevant lines when you need them.
As we get closer to a big change in our lives, whatever it will end up being — not enough food, a breakdown in transportation, weather disasters creating refugee populations, the collapse of our currency — some of us are worrying about what role we’ll be able to play in the new order. Will we be useful and capable, or irrelevant? Ellen Bass had a poem in The New Yorker about slaughtering guinea hens, so she’ll be alright. That’s a very practical skill, and transferable. All these pot farmers in my county will be great to have around when the time comes to grow large amounts of food.
I, on the other hand, almost threw up just reading Ellen’s poem, and so far have been known for a black rather than a green thumb. I’m good at knowing which poem is relevant at the dinner table, but there may not be any iPads to look them up on, come the revolution. I think I’d better start memorizing pretty soon. That way people will at least let me keep warm at their fires in exchange for a recitation.
Jack Gilbert died a couple of years ago, aged 87. His poem, “A Brief for the Defense,” is in his book Refusing Heaven, published by Knopf in 2005. Here’s how it ends:
…If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.
Copyright 2017 Molly Fisk