The Persian Sufi poet Hafiz wrote, “I wish I could show you when you are lonely or in darkness the astonishing light of your own being.” Such tender, compassionate words that one would long to hear when the darkness is tangible and one’s soul is anguished. Who was the poet speaking these words to? Anyone who now reads them; for that is the power of poetry, of the written word, that long after the author has died they continue to speak to us. They remain lights shining in the darkness for those who come after them.
This reminds me of that wonderful passage in chapter five of Madeliene L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, when Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which are talking to the children about the fighters who come from earth to battle the darkness.
“And we’re not alone, you know, children,” came Mrs.Whatsit, the comforter. “…some of the best fighters have come from your own planet…”
“Who have our fighters been?” Calvin asked.
“Oh, you must know them, dear,” Mrs.Whatsit said. Mrs.Who’s spectacles shone out at them triumphantly.
“And the light shineth in the darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.”
The list includes Jesus, da Vinci, Shakespeare, Einstein, Bach, and Gandhi.
How many of us would add names to that list because they have helped bring light into the darkness of our own lives?
For me, in my own life, there have been many, many poets. Poets like Hafiz, Rumi, Emily Dickinson, Rainer Maria Rilke, Walt Whitman, Mary Oliver, and Christian Wiman. When I think of them and all the other poets who have been ministers of balm in the midst of my own suffering, I cannot help but agree with Jane Kenyon when she said, “The poet’s job is to put into words those feelings we all have that are so deep, so important, and yet so difficult to name, to tell the truth in such a beautiful way, that people cannot live without it.”
Anne Sexton taught me that I am not alone in my awful rowing towards God. In the midst of my own bouts of depression, I understood her completely when she wrote:
God went out of me
as if the sea dried up like sandpaper, as if the sun
became a latrine.
God went out of my fingers.
They became stone.
My body became a side of mutton
and despair roamed the slaughterhouse.
I think of poor Anne as she felt like she was rowing and rowing with “oarlocks” that are stuck and rusty. I think of the old priest who came to visit her in the mental hospital, after one of her first attempts at suicide. She told him, “I cannot go to church,” to which he replied, “Your typewriter is your altar.” She then revealed to him, “I cannot pray,” and he understood and spoke truth, “Your poems are your prayers.”
Poems as prayers. There have definitely been periods in my own life when poems, including Sexton’s, were my only form of meditation and spiritual nourishment. I could not pray, I could not read scripture, I could not enter a church. But there, in that darkness, were the lights copied down onto pages. Rilke’s Book of Hours telling me what I felt but could not speak, could not write down (not even in my own private journals):
I am too alone in the world, and yet not alone enough
to make every moment holy.
I am too tiny in this world, and not tiny enough
just to lie before you like a thing,
shrewd and secretive.
I want my own will, and I want simply to be with my will,
as it goes toward action;
and in those quiet, sometimes hardly moving times,
when something is coming near,
I want to be with those who know secret things
or else alone.
In my own spiritual path, I grasped how Rilke felt when he stated: I am circling around God, around the ancient tower, and I have been circling for a thousand years, and I still don’t know if I am a falcon, or a storm, or a great song.
Rowing towards. Circling around. Both away from and outside of God. Yet I was not alone. These poets were with me during the dark night of the soul, during the acedia, during the dark depths of depression. When I did not have the strength, their words did.
Just as Gerard Manly Hopkins defiantly cried out, I cried out:
NOT, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist—slack they may be—these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
These poets, like dear, sweet companions spoke into my darkness and even let me know that the darkness, itself, could be a kind of gift (though it definitely did not feel like one that I wanted to keep. If only there were a receipt for darkness so that it could easily be exchanged for light). I clung to the words of Denise Levertov:
In the dark I rest,
unready for the light which dawns
day after day,
eager to be shared.
Black silk, shelter me.
more of the night before I open
eyes and heart
to illumination. I must still
grow in the dark like a root
not ready, not ready at all.
Only after we come out of the darkness, for those who do, can we begin to understand this. Depression, itself, is like a form of living death. To struggle with depression and still cling to even the faintest sliver of hope to get through the day is a courageous act. These poets and their words were often that sliver of hope. They taught me that there is growth in darkness, that the wounds I came out into the light with, were the very ways of empathy that I could enter the pain of others as they suffered. As the Buddha wisely understood, “If you light a lamp for someone else, it will also brighten your path.”
I think of these poets as a candle lighting the next candle to light the next throughout history. I am thankful and filled with gratitude for them, for their ability to translate their own suffering into beauty, into the art that helps others transform their own woundedness, their own brokenness into light. They have gone into the abyss (as John Berryman wrote, “We must travel in the direction of our fear”), come back and translated it into the most delicate and strong language, imagery that conjures up the reality and the struggle, and offers hope, even when the poet, themselves, felt it not. Their poems have, as Berryman suggested, “are not meant to be understood . . . They are only meant to terrify & comfort.”
To each of these poets who have made the pilgrimage to hell and back enough to write their poems, I offer my eternal and undying thanks. I count myself as one among the living because their words “support like bone” (to quote Peter Gabriel in his song “Mery Street,” a tribute to Anne Sexton).
Who are the poets who have been light in your darkness?