The Poetic Narrative Of Our Times

It is the task of poetry to bring our eyes to bear on the heart breaking nature of our disappearances, which are unavoidable no matter our economic standing or our education.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

Night mist hangs on the Conamara mountainside above Mameen, hiding the immensity of its sleeping, background bulk and at the same time magnifying its presence, bringing out its depth and making known to us its essential rough, unspeakable mountain-ness even as it veils and takes full sight of it away from us. Over stone precipices, the lazy movement and hanging drifts of fine-silvered water vapor outline and enhance what we call the beauty of the mountains, by enabling us to see them again and again, as if new and reborn through each shifting pattern. We are strangely delighted by our imagined fears of what it would be like to be abroad in the dark and the mist and the stones, out on their ridges and peaks, in that night where so much is hidden. Then, above the ridgelines, a full moon suddenly appears from between clouds, accentuating its own luminosity and the luminosity of the mountains by its swift appearance, seeming to demonstrate its very essence through a sheer, round, isolated contrast with what it looks down upon.

Looking up from the lit door of Keanes's Pub in the heart of Conamara, these clouds, landscapes, and even the Irishness of the night seem fuller and more essential through their disappearances as much as through their appearances. Human beings stand at the center of these sometimes swift, sometimes slow, always moving patterns of presence and absence, but rarely intuit their own essence might be revealed and magnified by what is veiled and hidden, or by what has been taken away. Yet this form of subtraction may be the very hallmark of our time. At the present time we are asked to live in companionship with patterns and dynamics that are either disappearing, have not fully emerged or can never be fully named; patterns perhaps already changing into forms for which we have yet no language.

It is tempting, in this limbo time between the traumas of a world once said to be in ceaseless war with terrorism and a not yet fully formed future ideal, to feel righteously lost. Everything seems to be paused and hanging in a mist- wrought, barely moving dance. The world's economic systems, the world's ecological systems, the relations between haves and have-nots, the sovereignty of nation states upon which many millions of individuals have based their identities, all these are taking forms which we cannot quite recognize, and in that movement through form seem to be on the verge of disappearing. Even the recent worldwide enthusiasm for the American presidential elections has waned, as the poetic narrative that put Obama so enthusiastically in the White House is dissipated by the cares of office and the sense that he is already half-captured by the very denizens of Wall Street that brought everything so dangerously to the brink. The problems seem immense; the forces at play absorbing and able to deflect the need for reform.

Little wonder then that if we prefer the appearance of stability or clear unobstructed vision we will manufacture fake narratives to replace the complexity, changeability and raw beauty of real ones, especially if the stories we always wanted to be true seem to shimmer and disappear. The flat earth vision of Thomas Friedman is well articulated, but ultimately based on a human identity parsed solely through economics, as if human life can be defined by whether one is more productive or educated than the next person. It is the task of poetry, and the poetic narrative, to bring our eyes to bear on the raw immensity of these patterns and the heart breaking nature of our disappearances, which are unavoidable no matter our economic standing or our education; what Yeats called the terrible beauty that is a consequence of being alive in this world, no matter how relentlessly positive we may be. It is the province of poetry to be more realistic and present than the artificial narratives of an outer discourse, and not afraid of the truthful difficulty of the average human life. A good poem looks life straight in the face, unflinching, sincere, equal to revelation through loss or gain. A good poem brims with reflected beauty and even a bracing beautiful ugliness. At the center of our lives, in the midst of the busyness and the forgetting, is a story that makes sense when everything extraneous has been taken away. This is poetry's province; a form of deep memory; a place from which to witness the intangible, unspeakable thresholds of incarnation we misname an average life.

I think of a good friend, once robustly healthy, adventurous, hard working, inventive and entrepreneurial, now confined to a wheel chair and barely able to function intellectually after a terrible accident. His wife and children have lost many of the outer stories they had told themselves about their future but the central story, the one that lives under the busy surface of a family's life, the one that was always there, still remains clearly, luminously at the center. His wife has spoken many times of the essence of his spirit and the essence of her love for that spirit, which remains as a thing of beauty in and of itself, informing all the work that must be done to adjust and adapt to the new outer narrative.

It might be liberating to think of human life as informed by losses and disappearances as much as by gifted appearances, allowing a more present participation and witness to the difficulty of living. What is real can never be fully taken away; its essence always remains. It might set us a little freer to believe that there is no path in life - in the low valley, in the shelter of Keane's comfortable bar, snug by a turf fire or abroad in the mountain night, that does not lead to some form of heartbreak when the outer narrative disappears and then reappears in a different form. If we are sincere, every good marriage or relationship will break our hearts in order to enlarge our understanding of our self and that strange other with whom we have promised ourselves to the future. Being a good parent will necessarily break our hearts as we watch a child grow and eventually choose their own way, even through many of the same heartbreaks we have traversed. Following a vocation or an art form through decades of practice and understanding will break the idealistic heart that began the journey and replace it, if we sidestep the temptations of bitterness and self-pity, with something more malleable, compassionate and generous than the metaphysical organ with which we began the journey. We learn, grow and become compassionate and generous as much through exile as homecoming; as much through loss as gain, as much through giving things away as in receiving what we believe to be our due.

It may be that we live in a time of collective heartbreak, where for the first time in history we are being asked to witness the disappearance and reappearance on a global scale of what it means to be fully human; to give away our identity and see how it is returned to us through a sincere participation in the trials and necessities of the coming years. Part of that heartbreak is the sense that we might not be equal to the ecological, political and economic transitions that are necessary, that our own selfishness may be writ too deeply into our genes and that the future is therefore untenable and unreachable. We do not as yet know if this is true, but the old humanistic story around ourselves as a successful species, always on the up and up and appointed to some special destiny, is fading and silvering into the night air, and we are left, at this point in history, contemplating the unknown immensity of the night behind it.


Be infinitesimal under that sky, a creature
even the sailing hawk misses, a wraith
among the rocks where the mist parts slowly.
Recall the way mere mortals are overwhelmed
by circumstance, how great reputations
dissolve with infirmity and how you,
in particular, live a hairsbreadth from losing
everyone you hold dear.

Then, look back down the path as if seeing
your past and then south over the hazy blue
coast as if present to a wide future,
recall the way you are all possibilities
you can see and how you live best
as an appreciator of horizons
whether you reach them or not,
admit that once you have got up
from your chair and opened the door,
once you have walked out into the clean air
toward that edge and taken the path up high
beyond the ordinary you have become
the privileged and the pilgrim
the one who will tell the story
and the one, coming back
from the mountain,
who helped to make it.

- David Whyte
from RIVER FLOW: New & Selected Poems 1984-2007
Copyright 2006 Many Rivers Press

Go To Homepage

MORE IN Wellness