ON SICKNESS AND GOOD POETRY
Why do poets crank out some of their best work when they are ill or watching a loved one battle illness? Maybe it’s the urge to create something that will survive, even if you don’t. Maybe it’s the inclination to make something that will help others, perhaps even people you don’t know, since you can’t heal yourself or the person you love. Maybe it’s instinct, an impending sense of doom that forces you beyond knowing the path to walking the path of making every day count (thanks to The Matrix for that scifi aphorism). Maybe it’s, as Proust suggests, a fresh, sad perspective. The reasons that poetic excellence and body-ravaging illness intersect are probably infinite, but here are some prime examples.
1. Rainer Maria Rilke left us with a veritable treasure trove of poems before his premature death from leukemia at 51. His empathy for people suffering from emotional and physical ailments was a lifelong hallmark of Rilke’s work, poetry and prose, as evidenced in this excerpt from his Song of the Little Cripple at the Street Corner:
Maybe my soul’s all right.
But my body’s all wrong,
All bent and twisted,
All this that hurts me so.
2. Jane Kenyon was also a victim of leukemia, leaving behind poems that resonate simultaneously with external and internal landscapes, often contemplating death and how one comes to terms with this certain, final human experience. Here’s an excerpt form Let Evening Come:
Let the fox go back to its sandy den.
Let the wind die down. Let the shed
go black inside. Let evening come.
To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop
in the oats, to air in the lung
let evening come.
Let it come, as it will, and don’t
be afraid. God does not leave us
comfortless, so let evening come.
3. Cynthia Huntington, New Hampshire’s former poet laureate, suffers from Multiple Sclerosis. Here, an excerpt from a poem titled for the disease that grapples with the ways the speaker refers to the disease, and struggles against it, and copes with her fear of it:
For ten years I would not say the name.
I said: episode. Said: setback, incident,
exacerbation—anything but be specific
in the way this is specific, not a theory
or description, but a diagnosis.
I said: muscle, weakness, numbness, fatigue.
I said vertigo, neuritis, lesion, spasm.
Remission. Progression. Recurrence. Deficit.
4. When a family member and/or loved one falls ill—especially with a terminal disease—one often feels a sense of the illness being a shared experience. You visit, you help with meals, you accompany the sick person to treatments, you mourn and prepare yourself for loss. Here’s Marie Howe’s Just Now , written about her brother, who died of AIDS:
My brother opens his eyes when he hears the door click
open downstairs and Joe's steps walking up past the meowing cat
and the second click of the upstairs door, and then he lifts
his face so that Joe can kiss him. Joe has brought armfuls
of broken magnolia branches in full blossom, and he putters
in the kitchen looking for a big jar to put them in and finds it.
And now they tower in the living room, white and sweet, where
John can see them if he leans out from his bed which
he can't do just now, and now Joe is cleaning. What a mess
you've left me, he says, and John is smiling, almost asleep again.
5. In On Hearing Your News by Kate Buckley, the speaker takes Howe’s saturation in her brother’s illness one step further by feeling such deep sorrow upon discovering her beloved’s illness that she feels the intolerable weight of the physical symptoms and her own body turning against her:
My organs weigh more
than they did the day before,
swollen with unhappiness,
gorged on regret:
tiny fists in my stomach pummeling
the hanging ball of my heart.