Odd but true

Grace reading at Howth Bay by William Orpen, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Grace reading at Howth Bay by William Orpen, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

“It’s odd but true that there really is consolation from sad poems, and it’s hard to know how that happens. There is the pleasure of the thing itself, the pleasure of the poem, and somehow it works against sadness.”Carol Shields

When I first read this quote, I thought about the song  Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman.  That’s a song, of course, not a poem, but it reminds me of poetry in its grace and power.  Like the pleasure of a sad poem, the haunting sorrow of Chapman’s lyrics somehow work against sadness when I listen to it.  Perhaps it gives me perspective, or helps me feel less lonely.  Or maybe it’s just the resonant beauty of Chapman’s voice, dissolving my sorrow into her artistry.

I’ve found that reading poetry is sometimes exactly what I need to move into a sense of resolution when I feel troubled.  A great many poems — maybe most of them — are not particularly cheerful.  Some are downright heartbreaking.  Among my favorite sad poems are The Broncho That Would Not Be Broken by Vachel Lindsey, Losers by Carl Sandburg, Incident by Countee Cullen, One Art by Elizabeth Bishop, and Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night by Dylan Thomas.  Are there any sad poems that you love?

I think learning to defeat despair means accepting that sadness is inevitable, part of the fabric of what it means to be alive.  For centuries great artists have captured the depths of human emotion in art and literature, proving to generation after generation that however much times may change, all humans carry universal baggage.  Happy endings and humor and whimsy are all wonderful and necessary, but we also need those voices that remind us of the somber truths we cannot escape.

Whether you are feeling happy or sad today, I hope you’ll pause for a few minutes and read a poem or two.  You can choose one from a favorite, well-worn volume, or you can search the wonderful archive at the Writer’s Almanac.  Or you can ask me for an alternate recommendation if you are not in the mood for the sad ones linked above.  However you choose to access it, find some time to lose yourself in the pleasure of a poem.

This post was first published seven years ago today. One blessing I’ve had during the mostly-difficult period since then has been the chance to study poetry at Oxford University, via the weekly classes that were forced online during the Covid shutdown. During one workshop, our assignment for the week was to write a villanelle, a difficult form that I’ve always enjoyed reading and writing. I wrote a reply to Dylan Thomas’s famous villanelle linked above, and my Oxford tutor told me that I had “really pulled it off,” which I took as a great compliment. I am not going to publish it here (in case I decide to try someday to publish it elsewhere) but if you’d like to see it, you can leave a comment here and I’ll contact you via the email you include (hidden from public view, of course) when you leave your comment.

The original post, comments and photo are linked, along with two other related posts, below. These links to related posts, and their thumbnail photos, do not appear in the blog feed; they are only visible when viewing the individual posts by clicking on each one. I have no idea why, nor do I know how they choose the related posts. That’s just the way WordPress does things.


  1. mike

    Coincidentally- Judy Collin’s song “River” came to me last night in a moment of somnolence. Probably the saddest Xmas song ever written-but hauntingly beautiful.
    Tracy Chapman is also genius.

    • I like Judy Collins and am familiar with much of her work, but I had never heard of that song, so I looked it up and listened to it after reading your comment. Yes, Tracy Chapman is one of the greatest folk singers to emerge in recent decades. I sometimes wonder why she is not more famous, but I suspect that is by her own choice. Maybe my favorite of all her songs is Say Hallelujah which I loved long before I faced so many personal goodbyes. This song became a true comfort to me when so many deaths of friends and family came within the 2-3 year period that I lost both Jeff and my parents.

  2. Chris

    Hi Julia,
    Interesting post. Very nice. I won’t pretend to know much about poetry, but I would like to see your villanelle that you wrote. Please send. Thanks!

    • Thank you, Chris! I’m catching up on emails that arrived while I was traveling this past week, but I’ll try to send you a copy of the poem soon. It will make better sense if you read it alongside the Dylan Thomas masterpiece, because it was written as a direct, verse by verse response to him (imagined as coming from his father – the title of the poem is “A Consolation from Mr. Thomas”).

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