What Can a Poem Do?
thoughts on singing in dark times
Where to begin? It’s hard for me to write right now. Maybe it’s hard for you, too. These are harrowing times, and even talking about them, even attempting to articulate our grief and anger and fear, is harrowing.
I’ve been thinking about the lines of Bertolt Brecht: “In the dark times / will there also be singing? / Yes, there will also be singing. / About the dark times.”
And I’ve been thinking about something Hannah Aizenman wrote about these lines in The New Yorker:
People often seem to share this verse—published in 1939, while Brecht, a vehement anti-Nazi, was exiled from his native Germany—as a token of hope, a testament to the human spirit’s eternal resilience. But it also articulates the stultifying effects of crisis on the imagination. During dark times, all anyone can talk about is the dark times, and it’s hard to say anything original or useful; the talk becomes treacly, or else cynical, the echoing clichés lulling listeners to sleep. Brecht assumed a responsibility to keep readers attuned to the sound of his era’s brutality and banality. He was less interested in song as a source of relief than in its power to awaken an audience—and provoke a reckoning.
What can a poem do? A poem is a not a tourniquet when you’re bleeding. It’s not water when you’re thirsty or food when you’re hungry. A poem can’t protect you from an airstrike, or from abduction, or from hate. It’s hard to write when our words feel like they’re not enough—they can’t do the real, tangible work of saving lives, or making people safer.
But can they remind us of our humanity? I think they can, and I think we desperately need a reminder.
In an earlier For Dear Life post, I shared a long list of poems: Poems that make you glad to be alive. I need those poems now. Maybe you do, too? And maybe you have some poems to add to our growing list? Please share them in the comments.
Sometimes a poem is the stone you carry in your pocket—the one you rub when you’re worried. Let’s fill our pockets with poems.
I’ll share some more good things soon—we need them! As Toi Derricotte wrote, “Joy is an act of resistance.” But for now I’ll leave you with this beauty emergency, spotted by my daughter during my son’s soccer game last night. “It’s a narwhal!” she said. And it was…and then, the next time I looked over my shoulder, it was gone.
Be well, seek joy where you can find it, and take good care.
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