May 14, 2021

Opinion | Thank God for the Poets


The poets are forever telling us to look for this kind of peace, to stuff ourselves with sweetness, to fill ourselves up with loveliness. They remind us that “there are, on this planet alone, something like two million naturally occurring sweet things, / some with names so generous as to kick / the steel from my knees,” as Ross Gay notes in “Sorrow Is Not My Name.”

We are a species in love with beauty. In springtime you can drive down any rural road in this part of country — probably in any part of the country — and you will find a row of daffodils blooming next to the shabbiest homesteads and the rustiest trailers. Often they are blooming next to no structure at all, ghostly circles around long-vanished mailboxes, a bright line denoting a fence row where no fence now stands. The daffodils tell us that though we might be poor, we are never too poor for beauty, to find a way to name it while we are still alive to call the gorgeous world by its many generous names.

For isn’t our own impermanence the undisputed truth that lurks beneath all our fears and all our sorrows and even all our pleasures? “Life is short, though I keep this from my children,” writes Maggie Smith in “Good Bones.” “Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine / in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways.”

Carpe diem is the song the poets have ever sung, and it is our song, too. “I think this is / the prettiest world — so long as you don’t mind / a little dying,” Mary Oliver writes in “The Kingfisher.”

This April is the 25th anniversary of National Poetry Month, and it arrives in the midst of a hard year. Last April brought lockdowns and rising infections, but we didn’t know last April just how much harder the year was about to become. We know now. And despite the helpful treatments that have emerged, despite the rising vaccination rates, despite the new political stability and the desperately needed help for a struggling economy, it is hard to trust that the terrors are truly receding.

We know now how vulnerable we are. We understand now that new terrors — and old terrors wearing new guises — will always rise up and come for us.

Thank God for our poets, here in the mildness of April and in the winter storms alike, who help us find the words our own tongues feel too swollen to speak. Thank God for the poets who teach our blinkered eyes to see these gifts the world has given us, and what we owe it in return.

Margaret Renkl is a contributing opinion writer who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South. She is the author of the books “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss” and the forthcoming “Graceland, At Last: And Other Essays From The New York Times.”

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