Working Blue

Advice and insight from a professional poet.

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Why are all the best poems sad?

— Your father

That’s a good question, though I’m sure not everybody feels that the best poems are sad; they think that the best poems are the erotic ones by the 14th-century Indian poet Kabir.

But seriously, people tend to think that the best poems are the ones they can understand and identify with, and it’s not difficult at all to understand and identify with sadness, so it’s true: A lot of people think that the best poems out there are the sad ones. I think that’s because many societies often encourage overlook feelings of sadness or pain. Something bad happens, and we are pushed to move on, look to the future and not to the past. That’s not necessarily bad; it’s society’s job to mold each member into a productive contributor in the present, and we aren’t very productive when we’re sad. But a poet’s job is to capture emotion, be it humor, eroticism, or grief, and grief often seems the most poignant because we never look at grief as intimately as a good poem does. And maybe someone doesn’t want to look at grief. Maybe someone thinks that life is too damn depressing as it is and they don’t need a poem to tell them that. But poets draw the reader in with lyrical devices and concise language, so that when a person sees a short poem called “Saint Monday,” she’d probably read it because she just had a horrible Monday herself and she might think that the poem will make her cast Mondays in a whole different light.

Saint Monday

Without a raincoat

I can not go out

looking for work

so I sit in the kitchen

looking at old snapshots:

She thinks, “Yeah, that’s pretty good. I remember moments when I did that,” so she continues to the next stanza.

the dead at parties

or at the beach,

you nude at three

reading the New York Times!

Love, it is winter:

It started off sad, but she is compelled by the rhythms and the concise language, and she’s so surprised by this precocious child!  She reads on.

the summer broke us.

I might find work

before next Sunday

so we can take a stroll

with money in cold weather.

(Alan Dugan)

Then she realizes how truly sad that poem is, how much it resonates in these days of humid summer and dire finances. But instead of being dispirited, the poem lifts her up. Sad poems shake us up in a way that makes us more attuned to life, its unfairness and challenges, its beauty and preciousness.

If you’re wondering (and I know you are) why only the best poems are sad, but not necessarily the best movies, scores, or novels, I would have to say that that’s your personal choice, but if I needed a better response than that (and I know I do) I would say that poems are processed temporally, as are films, music, and other forms of the literary and performance arts, but they are so much more concise. You read a sad poem, and almost instantaneously you feel its sadness in your gut. You perhaps nod your head or mutter a heart-felt “Aw.”

The heart is a muscle, and if our muscles grow bigger after we break them down, then the heart also grows bigger with each heartbreak — the heart grows bigger every time we read a poem that opens us up to another facet of sadness. Often it hurts, but we know that it’s good for us, just like we know that leg lifts or five-mile runs are good for us, but they hurt, too, and as we get older, they really hurt.

Poets are like personal trainers, but nobody pays most poets for the exercises they design, and when we say, “You are not using ‘The Waste Land’ to optimize your growth,” people think we’re crazy. • 10 August 2009

Kristen Hoggatt lives, works, and writes in Boston, where she received her MFA from Emerson College. She volunteers at 826 Boston.
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