David Biespiel’s Poetry Wire: Brief Inner Happiness


Q: What is poetry?

A: Poetry is the art of compassion. Poets, who take pleasure in ordering language, aspire to know suffering and then, through knowledge of suffering, gain enlightenment.

Q: Gain enlightenment? Kind of Zen, isn’t it, for something as ordinary as poetry?

A: Gain it and then refashion their new knowledge into the gift of a poem.

Q: Are poets devoted to knowledge then?

A: Poets devote themselves to developing ways to order language. Moving from the chaos of life to the triumph of poetry asks a poet to develop an art of fostering compassion.

Q: How do you learn to do that?

A: The first step is developing empathy and learning to weigh joy and misery. The closer a poet comes to knowing human beings in misery, the more difficult it becomes for that poet ever to become free of the knowledge of suffering.

Q: And, an example of this is…?

A: Well a few lines from Book 3 of John Milton’s epic poem in blank verse, Paradise Lost, convey the idea that compassion is sensed first as “ambrosial” and then shifts into a feeling that is unutterable where the “ineffable” is “diffus’d,” and finally shifts from the sensuous into an utterance. As you might expect from a poem with a mission statement to “justify the ways of God to men,” Milton characterizes compassion in the form of the Son of God:

Thus while God spake, ambrosial fragrance fill’d
All Heav’n, and in the blessed Spirits elect
Sense of new joy ineffable diffus’d:
Beyond compare the Son of God was seen
Most glorious, in him all his Father shon
Substantially express’d, and in his face
Divine compassion visibly appeerd,
Love without end, and without measure Grace,
Which uttering thus he to his Father spake.

Q: Got an example from something written, you know, since the 1660s?

A: Early in Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Renascence” which was published around 1917, I think, she defines the very character of compassion as the poet’s act of being profoundly alert and profoundly moved by suffering into a spirit of appreciation, holding dear, treasuring life, and revering existence:

A man was starving in Capri;
He moved his eyes and looked at me;
I felt his gaze, I heard his moan,
And knew his hunger as my own.
I saw at sea a great fog bank
Between two ships that struck and sank;
A thousand screams the heavens smote;
And every scream tore through my throat.

No hurt I did not feel, no death
That was not mine; mine each last breath
That, crying, met an answering cry
From the compassion that was I.
All suffering mine, and mine its rod;
Mine, pity like the pity of God.

Q: Any example from the 21st century?

A: Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s poem “Permanent Home” ends with the depiction of how you use a “form of compassion” to cross thresholds of understanding into a place where there is “wilderness.” I take her meaning to be that “wilderness” is a place of fear and suffering as well as rebirth and renewal:

Give a house the form of an event.

Relate it to something there, a form of compassion.

Your point of view is: it’s solid already, so there’s warmth.

In this primitive situation, pure form translates a former empire of space as wilderness.

Q: Are these meant as examples of a poet feeling responsible for understanding suffering?

A: Yes, and more important they are examples of a poet feeling responsible for understanding suffering and then using language to reflect upon what can be cherished in life.

Q: How do you know if a poet is successful at this?

A: I guess, if a poem’s metaphors bring the reader, if not the poet even, some brief inner happiness, that might be as close to success as one is likely to come. I like poems that offer respect to the world in this way, and I’m less aroused by poems that are overly obsessed with technique or poetic identity or topical content that they appear to us to be strangely lacking in, well, human virtue. I am attracted to poems that witness the less fortunate but do not take advantage of them.

Q: Again, what examples are there for that kind of aspiration?

A: I remember the opening of a poem by the late Craig Arnold called “Very Large Moth” that celebrates what I’m talking about. It’s a poem that celebrates affinity and rapport:

Your first thought when the light snaps on and the black wings
_____clatter about the kitchen ____is a bat

the clear part of your mind considers rabies the other part
_____does not consider ____knows only to startle

and cower away from the slap of its wings though it is soon
_____clearly not a bat but a moth ____and harmless

still you are shy of it

Q: Are you advocating for metaphors that inspire new empathies?

A: Writing poetry is cultivating the empathies of metaphor—and therefore the metaphors of empathy. That kind of focus asks a poet to pay attention and be mindful of the patterns of existence that we all share. Every poem then becomes dependent on the harmonies and coalitions and give and take and cooperation and symbiosis of its particulars and the sources for those particulars.

Q: As when Arnold writes, “the clear part of your mind considers rabies / the other part // does not consider knows only to startle…”?

A: Right, exactly. Every aspect of a poet’s writing is due to an empathetic negotiation with his or her materials and metaphors and language.

PWQ: In some sense, you’re suggesting that everything a poet writes has been provided by others, is that right?

A: Isn’t that so? Memories include other people. Metaphors include other images not of your own invention. Cities and landscapes and all the various particulars that make up a poem come from a shared consciousness of language and experience, of history and time, of the unknown and the mysterious, of the known and the learned. None of these materials would exist for a poet to use and explore if they were not already created before we came into consciousness.

Q: So for a poet to think about one’s materials empathetically is the day-to-day job of writing?

A: When you think about writing poetry this way, a poet’s appreciation for his or her materials evolves and grows, and with it so does his or her empathy for life and for a common language to appreciate and transfigure life into poetry.

Q: What is a poet dependent on then?

A: A poet is dependent on the world. Recognizing the language to write about the world brings the poet—and the readers of poetry—closer to life. That’s why writing requires sustained attention to what figures, disfigures, and refigures our imaginations and includes a vision that takes every experience into account—such as experiences that include the fact and nature of suffering as well as joy.

Q: You’re saying that recognizing the suffering and joys of others allows a poet to develop compassion.

A: Exactly. And then—to write poems of compassion so that someone reading them will then experience compassion as well. Well, I should say re-experience compassion. That would be more honest. A poet should assume a reader knows something about life, too. I’m not sure that I agree completely with the last line of Wislawa Szymborska’s “Advertisement,” but the rest of it is a wonderful distillation of all the above:

I’m a tranquilizer.
I’m effective at home.
I work in the office.
I can take exams
on the witness stand.
I mend broken cups with care.
All you have to do is take me,
let me melt beneath your tongue,
just gulp me
with a glass of water.

I know how to handle misfortune,
how to take bad news.
I can minimize injustice,
lighten up God’s absence,
or pick the widow’s veil that suits your face.
What are you waiting for—
have faith in my chemical compassion.

You’re still a young man/woman.
It’s not too late to learn how to unwind.
Who said
you have to take it on the chin?

Let me have your abyss.
I’ll cushion it with sleep.
You’ll thank me for giving you
four paws to fall on.

Sell me your soul.
There are no other takers.

There is no other devil anymore.

Q: Last question is, do you think poetry can offer compassion to everyone?

A: It’s not for me to say what poetry should do. You can only take it one poem at a time—that goes for both writing and reading. A specific poem can widen the scope of our compassion, I think that’s possible. And a specific poem can help us embrace our strongest feelings of compassion in life as well—and then it can free us, even briefly, into what Millay calls an “answering cry.”

David Biespiel is a poet, literary critic, memoirist, and contributing writer at American Poetry Review, New Republic, New York Times, Poetry, Politico, The Rumpus, and Slate, among other publications. He is the author of numerous books, most recently The Education of a Young Poet, which was selected a Best Books for Writers by Poets & Writers, A Long High Whistle, which received the 2016 Oregon Book Award for General Nonfiction, and The Book of Men and Women, which was chosen for Best Books of the Year by the Poetry Foundation and received the 2011 Oregon Book Award for Poetry. More from this author →