A few words about some poems I’ve found helpful
In dark times it seems inappropriate to make any claims for the efficacy of poetry, or any art form, in effecting social and political change. It might also seem too soon or too difficult, or impossible, to express an immediate response to violent and traumatic events through words. But there are also innumerable instances of poetry being a vehicle or outlet at times of heightened emotion: funerals, commemorations, public events, tragedies. The artwork, or the poem, is not a solution to a problem, or a proposal for a better world, but a way of comprehending or addressing an issue. Some of the poems by New Zealand poets I come back to time and time again were written in the twentieth century in response to the nuclear threat. Like Dinah Hawken’s sequence ‘Writing Home:’
. . . The U.S has gone obsessively
ahead with another nuclear test. Crudely, profanely
they gave it a name. ‘Mighty Oak.’ Do they truly believe
they are doing something beautiful?
Or Hone Tuwhare’s ‘No Ordinary Sun’:
Tree let your arms fall:
raise them not sharply in supplication
to the bright enhaloed cloud.
Over the last week I have been thinking a lot about the poems and the music I have found comfort in during times of deep distress. I have struggled to make it through, and make sense of, the entirety of Ezra Pound’s Cantos. However, during a period of trauma in my own life I read and re-read Canto 116. These lines in particular stand out:
I have brought the great ball of crystal;
Who can lift it?
Can you enter the great acorn of light?
But the beauty is not the madness
Tho’ my errors and wrecks lie about me.
And I am not a demigod,
I cannot make it cohere.
If love be not in the house there is nothing.
Why turn to such a complicated and politically conflicted poet as Pound, and why the Cantos, which has been described as a ‘fascist epic’, when looking for threads of humanity? Because there in those lines is the recognition of failure to comprehend or to put pieces together: ‘I cannot make it cohere.’ And the inescapable reminder ‘If love be not in the house there is nothing.’
Or there is another great American long poem, Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself, which constantly reaches out to the community, nation and world around the speaker. What a weird, and nowadays odd-sounding, piece of writing Song of Myself is. And yet it’s full of passages that are profoundly comforting, like:
I pass death with the dying and birth with the new-wash’d babe, and am not contain’d between my hat and boots,
And peruse manifold objects, no two alike and every one good,
The earth good and the stars good, and their adjuncts all good.
How can we think of the earth and stars as ‘good’ in a time like this? But how useful, not to be contained between one’s hat and boots: to invoke the communal spirit.
Or, perhaps conceived more in reference to the natural environment, but also relevant to human concerns, is Gerald Manley Hopkins’s ‘God’s Grandeur’, which even in bouts of committed atheism I’ve deeply loved:
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs –
In similar vein is Philip Larkin’s poem ‘The Trees.’ I’ve been thinking of this one in particular this last week, because I saw it painted on a wall last time I was in Christchurch, in October of last year. Tim Upperton and I had gone to Christchurch for a poetry reading Tim was involved in. We walked around town and found Tim’s old house, and looked at all the pop-up gardens that people have planted in the spaces left by the quakes. There’s something about community gardens I find always raises my spirits. The idea of people growing something together goes against all antisocial tendencies. There’s also something subversive about planting shared, not-for-profit vegetables in an area traditionally kept aside for commerce. On a corrugated iron wall adjoining a plot of raised beds and worm farms somebody had painted, in big splashy letters, in test-pot colours, Larkin’s poem. Larkin is another poet it seems odd to turn to for solace. A lot of his poems have the opposite effect. Perhaps the simple force of ‘The Trees’ comes in part from a contrast with the poems that surround it. If Larkin’s collected poems were all about trees coming into leaf and other such subjects it might sound naff. But a darkness creeps into the poem in the first stanza:
The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.
And it goes on, and ends, and the poem painter’s letters got bigger and bigger towards the last line:
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.
This must have seemed pertinent to the person who painted it, making a communal space in the wake of the earthquakes. Like the other poems I’ve quoted, it doesn’t give us an answer. It gives the reader a place to rest. In discussions of poetry and politics, people often quote W.H. Auden’s line from ‘In Memory of W.B. Yeats’, ‘For poetry makes nothing happen’. As is often the way with popular quotes, the next bit gets sidelined, but it’s the good bit:
. . . it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.
Airini Beautrais grew up in Auckland and Whanganui. She studied ecological science and creative writing at Victoria University of Wellington, and worked for several years as a science teacher. Her first book Secret Heart (VUP, 2006) was named Best First Book of Poetry in the Montana New Zealand Book Awards 2007; it was followed by Western Line (VUP, 2011), Dear Neil Roberts (VUP, 2014) and Flow: Whanganui River Poems (VUP, 2017). She lives in Whanganui.