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Poems of sorrow and grieving for Japan

By Poetry Foundation

If poetry is good in the ways that we hope it is, then the despair generated by the ongoing crisis in Japan may be at least partially counteracted by poetry’s power to crystallize and to connect. Poetry can serve as a link between our individual despair and a more universal sorrow, between our personal, inarticulate confusion and a more eloquent and bearable expression. It can balance our feelings of helplessness with constructive or creative energy (derived from hope). It can allow us to begin speaking about what is happening, to cast off numbness, and to begin grieving.

With this in mind, we asked our Facebook fans to supply us with comforting or thought-provoking poems relevant to the unfolding crisis. There were many great responses—suggestions of poems that had helped people cope in the past, many of which were recommended or written by friends.

There were also suggestions from our list of “Poems of Sorrow and Grieving”, and here we draw special attention to Yusef Komunyakaa’s “Facing It,” Linda Gregerson’s “An Arbor,” James Schuyler’s “Buried at Springs,” and Christina Rossetti’s “A Daughter of Eve.”

With the others in this list, Gregerson expresses the inevitable sorrow of loving and deriving joy from that which will someday be lost:

I know
a stand of oak on which my father’s

earthly joy depends. We’re slow
to cut our losses.

Additional poems in our archive that provide solace, or at least connection:

Heather McHugh, “Acts of God”:

I can never
dream this storm away.

It was over for maybe minutes
then it was never over.

Joy Harjo, “Ah Ah”:

Ah, ah scrapes the hull of my soul. Ah, ah.

Zbigniew Herbert, “Episode in a Library”:

All that will be left after us in the black earth will be scattered syllables. Accents over nothingness and dust.

Cesare Pavese, “And Then We Cowards”:

And then we cowards
who loved the whispering
evening, the houses,
the paths by the river,
the dirty red lights
of those places, the sweet
soundless sorrow—
we reached our hands out
toward the living chain
in silence, but our heart
startled us with blood,
and no more sweetness then,
no more losing ourselves
on the path by the river—
no longer slaves, we knew
we were alone and alive.

C.K. Williams, “I Hate”:

I hate how this unsummoned sigh-sound, sob-sound,
not sound really, feeling, sigh-feeling, sob-feeling,
keeps rising in me, rasping in me…

Jane Hirshfield, “Rebus”:

You work with what you are given,
the red clay of grief,
the black clay of stubbornness going on after.

W.S. Merwin, “Separation”:

Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.

And, perhaps more than the others, these ancient Japanese poems resonate today:

Bashō, “In Kyoto…”:

In Kyoto,
hearing the cuckoo,
I long for Kyoto.

Izumi Shikibu, “Although the Wind…”:

Although the wind
blows terribly here,
the moonlight also leaks
between the roof planks
of this ruined house.


Posted in Uncategorized on Friday, March 18th, 2011 by Poetry Foundation.