Once when I was small, after my dad had told me that I’d be going to the U.S. Poetry Academy, I thought I should get some practice. Or actually, I don’t remember thinking very much when I was small, so maybe my dad thought I should get practice, and one day he taught me to recite Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” I was good with language from an early age, and the poem’s rhyme scheme aids memorization, so my dad thought this was an appropriate exercise. He started out by reading one of Frost’s lines and then having me repeat it. I knew how to repeat every inflection of his somber tone, but I didn’t know what the poem was about. The only thing I understood was that there was a little horse, and I liked him.
“He gives his harness bells a shake,” my dad said.
“He gives his harness bells a shake,” I repeated, parodying even the jiggle of my dad’s neck.
“To ask if there is some mistake.”
“To ask if there is some mistake,” I repeated, following the iambic rhythm and end rhyme without flaw.
“The only other sound’s the sweep/ Of easy wind and downy flake.” My dad recited these lines together and asked me to repeat, confident that my hunger for the end rhyme would enable me to perfectly repeat them.
“The only other sound’s the sweep/ Of easy wind and downy flake,” my tone was somber then, like my dad’s. His voice told me that the poem was sad, but I wasn’t sure why. For all I knew, maybe the little horse was cold, and at the time, growing up in southern Arizona, I thought that cold was the cruelest form of punishment. Even though the poem was sad and I was only 6 years old at the time, I liked it.
This past summer I taught a poetry workshop at the Burlington Public Library. I had hoped that many teenagers would attend, and accordingly the poems I brought for discussion centered on themes I thought teens could relate to, among them “Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden:
Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?
I thought that maybe the generation gap between the speaker and his father would resonate in these young ones. I thought the poem would lead to a discussion about the things our parents do that we don’t appreciate. I thought many things about the other poems I brought that didn’t materialize, because as it turned out, the young ones in attendance included children as young as 9, and many of the younger children complained that all the poems I brought were too sad.
“Don’t you like these poems?” I asked.
“Yes, but where’s Shel Silverstein?”
Ah, Shel Silverstein. I should have thought of that. Not all my poems were sad; I did bring Naomi Shihab Nye, a couple of poems from Variations of Ghazal, which is classified as a children’s book, but her poetry does lack the rhyme and humor of Shel Silverstein. If the poet is historically the shaman figure, as Michael Ryan argues in his essay “Poetry and the Audience,” the one who keeps the tribe together through songs and stories “because he is close to the gods through his ‘divine madness’,” then Shel Silverstein is the quintessential shaman for the tribe of English-speaking children. Shel Silverstein can bring that tribe together like no other voice. But the truth is that our tribe — the human tribe — is bigger. It includes our elders, youngers, those who have a different culture, geography, wealth, taste, and even language. It includes people, myself not included, who aren’t amused by someone picking their nose (Silverstein has that great poem about a sharp-toothed snail that lives up the speaker’s nose and bites his finger off when he picks it). So what is it, truly, that brings our diverse tribe together?
I’m not being pessimistic to suggest that it’s sadness, weaving through life like a shared strand on all of our genes. We’ve all felt sad — young and old; rich and poor; East Coast and West Coast; English, Nigerian, Guatemalan, and Palestinian. That’s why I liked “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” when I was a child. That’s why, even though they missed “Harriet Cynthia Stout” and Silverstein’s other light-hearted counterparts, those young students in my workshop still liked the sad poems. When a good poem captures sadness, it reminds us of the times we’ve been sad, whether after a death, a failed romance, or even no dessert; of when we’ve been more humble, more understanding and open, more certain that we would never want anybody to feel sad in any way, ever. Sad poems bring a subject or situation justice by endowing it with apt, concise, beautiful language. That’s why, oddly enough, sad poems satisfy us, making us happy and at peace in our sadness. And that’s why poems written across oceans and continents resonate in English readers:
The bearer who brings the tea
who keeps the lighter in his pocket
and who gets a couple of tākā as a tip:
he’s divorced his first wife for her sterility,
his second wife for giving birth to a daughter
he’s divorced his third wife for not bringing dowry.
Returning home, this fellow beats his fourth wife
over a couple of green chilis or a handful of cooked rice.
(Bengali poet, Taslima Nasrin, “At the Back of Progress,” translated by Carolyn Wright)
Many readers read that and think, “That’s sad — that’s really sad, but at least someone cares about it enough to write about it. Maybe one day, things will be different.” Sad poems move us, stimulating the vagus nerve, the system of nerves passing through the medulla and branching throughout the body, which slows the heart rate, calms defense mechanisms, and aids digestion. Research shows that the vagus nerve is why women who have complete transection of the spinal cord can still have orgasms. Social psychologist Dacher Keltner wrote in his recent book Born to Be Good that when the vagus nerve is stimulated, it increases “the likelihood of gentle contact in close proximity with others.” Now, I answered an “Ask a Poet” question many months ago, “Why are the best poems sad?” — a question from my father — and honestly, I was initially embarrassed; I thought I was exposing my family’s twisted psychology, so I tried to keep my response light and humorous, attempting to shush what I perceived as a faux pas: “Oh, Dad, that’s just your preference!” But the best poems are sad — and I know there are exceptions and that it’s hard to use superlatives about poetry — because sad poems bring the tribe together.
“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” was the first poem I learned to recite in its entirety, and I remember it to this day. It’s gotten sadder, but I still like it. When I learned to recite the poem, my dad was so proud of me that he asked me to recite it all the time. When I went to work with him at the Public Defender’s office in Bisbee, sometimes I recited it for his coworkers. I recited it for my parents’ friends. One time my grandparents came for a visit, and I recited it for them. They had just bought a new video recorder and they wanted to film me, so we went outside in the setting sun to catch the best light. I was against the brick wall of our house in Douglas, Arizona, and the setting sun made me squint, but I recited that winter poem flawlessly, imitating the cadence of my dad’s voice, driven by the rhymes of “ache” and “weep.” • 18 February 2010