Poetry is the Place for Joy: or How We Praise the Mutilated World

July 13, 2016

I just came across this terrific essay by Jonathan Farmer at Literary Hub.  Take a look. 

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  • Reply Robbie Gamble July 27, 2016 at 9:46 am

    Jonathan Farmer’s essay is a wonderful deep reflection on how joy can be manifest in poetry, and the examples he draws from Ross Gay and Gabrielle Calvocoressi are stunning. I take exception though, to his premise that Adam Zagajewski’s poem “Try to Praise the Mutilated World” is not at all joyful. I find it to be profoundly joyful, but in a subtle, perhaps more European manner than the Gay and Calvocoressi pieces. Farmer states that Zagajewski’s strategy is to lecture, to instruct the reader, to make a logical case for the need to praise a world that has been mutilated. I don’t read the poem as a lecture at all, I feel that Zagajewski is pleading from the depths of his heart: Look! There are horrible things in this world, we’ve seen the agony of refugees and the cynical false joy of executioners, but still there are moments that are praiseworthy and we must hold on to them: wine and music and an intimate encounter in a white room. Perhaps this is a particularly Eastern European perspective from a poet who knows all too well the terrible recent history of his country, but refuses to be completely done in by it. I am moved in particular by the last lines, the soft but urgent imperative, no longer conditional, “Praise the mutilated world…/ and the gentle light that strays and vanishes/ and returns.” Surely there is hope and joy in the understanding that the gentle light will somehow return. This is not an easy American trope, a superficial pledge to “make America great again” (whatever that would mean), but a clear-eyed understanding that a society can be plunged through calamity, mortally wounded, and still the survivors can come out and find reason to be fully, joyfully human, not by forgetting the past, but by continuing to bear witness to it and try to understand how it happened. I recently found an echo of “Try to Praise the Mutilated World” in another Polish poem, Wislawa Szymborska’s “Our Ancestor’s Short Lives”: “Hence, if joy, then with a touch of fear;/ if despair, then not without some quiet hope.” Not a bad perspective to hold, in our uncertain present age.

  • Reply sharonbryanpoet July 27, 2016 at 10:57 am

    Robbie, I agree with everything you say here. And I think the speaker in Zagajewski’s poem is talking at least as much to himself as to anyone else, that it’s almost a prayer: let me keep finding ways to praise, despite all of the obstacles to that, and the distractions. If we don’t do that, if we are submerged by all the terrible things and can’t take pleasure, what’s the point? Joy is hard won–that’s why it’s so valuable. And we should feel grateful, not guilty for being able to find and feel it, exactly because that happens in total awareness of, in Creeley’s words, “the darkness that surrounds us.” I find it a compelling vision of how to live our lives, one that realistically includes and acknowledges the whole range of experiences.// I’m also reminded of Robert Hass’s second book, Praise, a very important book to me when I was beginning to write. In my memory of it there’s more focus on praising than on the undertow we have to work against to do it, but I’m going to go back and look.

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