Poetry holds the knowledge that we are alive and that we know we’re going to die. The most mysterious aspect of being alive might be that — and poetry knows that.
I read these sentences, from Terry Gross, on Beth Kephart’s beautiful blog last week and I simultaneously gasped and welled up with tears. As I wrote in Beth’s comments, the lines reminded me of a Stanley Kunitz quote I shared over the summer:
“Years ago I came to the realization that the most poignant of all lyric tensions stems from the awareness that we are living and dying at once. To embrace such knowledge and yet to remain compassionate and whole – that is the consummation of the endeavor of art.”
I write incessantly about the same thing here: about the passage of time, about the deep way that unavoidable truth gouges into my spirit, about the tears that surprise me with their frequency and power, about the surpassing joy that exists in the tiniest moments of my life. Isn’t this all simply a less articulately-conveyed description of the very lyric tension Kunitz describes, of what Terry Gross avers that poetry knows?
Perhaps my inclination towards melancholy and my exquisite sensitivity to the clock’s forward tick is inextricably linked to my passionate love of poetry. Maybe all of these things – traits, preferences, leanings – are manifestations of the same central seam of meaning that runs through the human experience. Maybe the shadow that flickers across everyone’s life is universal, and it’s just that I’m particularly sensitive to it. Wouldn’t be the first time.
As you know I am often frustrated with myself for what feels like an endless circling of the same question, like I’m turning over a stone incessantly, hoping that somehow I’ll eventually uncover some message etched into its surface. Several people have commented that instead of a circle, maybe it’s a spiral; a continued revisiting of the same themes, but with new understanding with each trip around.
The image that recurs for me is of the exhibit at the science museum that was the first thing to hold my attention when I visited as a child with my father. It’s the one where a black ball makes circles around a gradually sloped surface, tighter and tighter circles, drawn inexorably towards the hole in the middle, into which it finally drops. I believe the exhibit is a display of centrifugal force. It’s that circling black ball that I think about, over and over: I’m drawn in a way I can neither understand nor particularly name, in a spiral that grows ever tighter, to a black hole in the center of my life. And that black hole, I realize, when I read Terry Gross’s words, and Stanley Kunitz’s, is perhaps at the center of all of our lives.
The challenge, for me, is to incorporate my understanding of this most mysterious aspect of life into my experience without being utterly paralyzed by it. The question is how to find peace despite this yawning abyss. Is it possible, though, that life is full of grandeur, beauty, and blinding pain not despite but because of this black hole?