Poetry, Loss, & the Practice of Listening
Good conversations begin with listening.
That's true of any conversation, and especially one that concerns the hopes and fears of someone confronting an advanced incurable condition. A good listener knows how to be still, how to wait patiently as the shy, wild creatures of another's feelings step hesitantly into the clearing of words. This is what it means to suspend judgment, to let our own feelings rest quietly while we open our hearts to another. And of course, to move beyond our own feelings in this manner requires us to know them in the first place; we have to listen well to ourselves in order to listen responsively to others.
And that's where poetry comes in. I have loved poetry all my life, but it was only at age forty, while caring for my father as he died of congestive heart failure, that I experienced the profoundly consoling connection between a poem on the breath and the mystery of loss in the heart. Actually, I think this connection begins, like grief itself, in childhood, when we first experience poetry as a living thing, a savor of sounds, an awakening of the senses in the breath’s delay in song. Poetry’s beyondness was already there for me in the voices of A.A. Milne’s Now We Are Six:
There’s wind on the river and wind on the hill...
There’s a dark dead water-wheel under the mill!
I saw a fly which had just been drowned—
And I know where a rabbit goes into the ground!
Good poems invite us to listen deeply to one another and to ourselves. This invitation comes less from what the poem says than from the broad margin of what it does not say and from the way it feels on the breath. There are some (in fact, way too many) overtly consolatory poems that hit me over the head with sentimentality and shut me down with answers. A truly consoling poem is all about the questions— the troubling heart, the feelings for which we have no words— and it approaches these things stealthily, indirectly, sparingly, acknowledging that loss often comes to us on little feet. We never know what ordinary thing might open us unexpectedly to the mystery of our place in time.
A truly consoling poem gives voice to feeling the way a scent triggers memory. It longs to be said out loud; it invites us to inhabit its voice. The way a poem feels on the breath and in the body carries us to the edge of what we feel but cannot say, know but cannot name, and that's all there is to meaning. Some of the poems gathered here may not seem at first glance to be about loss or grief at all. But linger in the poem's voice for a while, and let the world grow quiet around and within you.