The Heavy and the Light in Poetry

Postmodern Yeats

Found Erasure


I am troubled and challenged by Hannah Gamble’s How to Write a Good Rape/ Suicide/ Break-Up/ Genocide Poem, or Lightness as the Necessary Companion to All That’s Sad and Disturbing. Troubled because if we react to unrelenting sadness and oppression by regarding it as a game or as something boring and settled rather than as a challenging problem to solve, that says something deeply unpleasant about human nature. Challenged because I recognize that kind of numbness or acclimation as a common enough response (even if some people do appreciate Dancer in the Dark) that, as a writer, I must address it. This is especially important to me now, as I am currently working on a long poem in the voices of victims of Aktion T4, the Nazi mass murder of disabled people.

Gamble’s examples of bringing lightness into a heavy poem tend towards content—“[t]he old woman who died of a heart attack when the grocer’s security guard caught her putting bags of wasabi peas into her purse”—or obviously antic language (Hamlet’s “uncle-Father” and “aunt-Mother”).

She borrows this latter example from Italo Calvino, but it is Calvino’s definition of lightness (which Gamble quotes and describes as slippery) that raises the possibility of other kinds of lightness, especially in a poem:

whenever humanity seems condemned to heaviness, I think I should fly like Perseus into a different space. I don’t mean escaping into the irrational. I mean having to change my approach, look at the world from a different perspective, with a different logic and with fresh methods of cognition and verification.

Poetry may remain emotionally pure in content, but it must in some way convey that something else is possible. Sylvia Plath’s most painful poems achieve this end with sound; the aesthetic pleasure of hearing “Daddy” reminds us that beauty is possible. In Julie Buffaloe-Yoder’s “Don’t Write a Poem about Rape” the lightness is in the ability of the poet to write about, to own, what was done to her, and there is, too, an aesthetic experience to be found in the use of repetition. In Magdalene & the Mermaids, I tried to combine this kind of reclamation of violation with the use of mythological figures to create alternative views of the world.

What I have done in this blog post is mostly to refine and extend what Gamble has to say. But I remain troubled. While I recognize the resistance of readers to wholly heavy poems, I wonder how much that resistance to “emotional purity” actually amounts to a resistance to a more challenging experience than the combination of lightness and heaviness provides. It is difficult to accept that there is pure and senseless horror in the world, but I remain uncertain how, as a writer, I can deal with readers’ resistance to heaviness other than with lightness.



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