When I learned that one of my friends were battling a breakup, I gave her a poem I had written on the subject. The poem catalogued the typical final response of most breakups, namely, we weren’t meant to be. Of course, it was slightly more scathing than that. It was more, you never could’ve satisfied my thirst for romance and intimacy.
As my friend neatly tucked my poem away, though, she thanked me and commented, “Oh, I used to write poetry when I was younger.” She was only about twenty-two at the time, but her tone suggested that writing poetry was juvenile even for her. Still, the next couple of months proved tough for her, as she systematically alienated all of her friends, including me, out of anger and shame over her breakup.
It looks like her “more mature” manner of handling problems wasn’t as effective. Using extensive metaphors to sort out your feelings and thoughts may be melancholic and childish, but like Housman mentioned in his great poem, poets must ‘face (trouble) as a wise man would,/ And train for ill and not for good.’ So much for poetry being solely the realm of the young.
Poets do resemble kids, though, the way they ask terribly important questions that most adults have ceased asking.
Being an annoyingly sensitive kid growing up, my existential question was “why do people treat each other so badly?” I’m not talking about wars, murders, thefts (although they are heinous examples, too), but what so-called normal, everyday people do to each other, emotional and psychological wounds. There is perhaps nothing we fear more than emotional pain, yet we can’t stop hurting and disappointing each other.
It turns out that I am not the only one who has struggled with this question throughout my life. In one of my favorite poems by William Wordsworth, “Lines Written in Early Spring,” the speaker reflects on the beauty and harmony of nature. An unsuspecting reader believes that the poem will merely extol the wonders of nature. Yet, Wordsworth uses the joys of the birds and flowers to compare and contrast it to the terrible things that humans do to each other. He could not believe that nature could be so happy and unified while humans destroyed one another. He ‘laments/ what man has made of man.’
Yes, what seems like a juvenile question becomes the question of a lifetime, one that Wordsworth brings up twice in the poem, though he never answers it. Perhaps there is no clear answer, but the point is, we should never stop searching for it. Adults tend to be very dismissive about questions that don’t have ready answers, questions that may shake the boat, depress us. Yet, poets, like children, must ask. It’s the only way we will ever change.
Unlike children, though, poets have a reputation of being moody brooders, because they are constantly having such existential crisis. For example, in the poem, the speaker’s melancholy hatches out of his appreciation of Spring. Some of us, I think, are genetically predisposed to focus on the bad. But, as Housman wrote, it’s training so that we can find answers, solve problems.
And wouldn’t we all agree that learning how to treat each other and how to value the humanity of each other is a worthy problem to solve?
Here is Wordsworth’s “Lines in Early Spring” in its entirety. For a more modern and hilarious take on this question, also check out Ron Padgett’s “The Absolutely Huge and Incredible Injustice in the World.”
I HEARD a thousand blended notes, While in a grove I sate reclined, In that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts Bring sad thoughts to the mind. To her fair works did Nature link The human soul that through me ran; And much it grieved my heart to think What man has made of man. Through primrose tufts, in that green bower, The periwinkle trailed its wreaths; And 'tis my faith that every flower Enjoys the air it breathes. The birds around me hopped and played, Their thoughts I cannot measure:-- But the least motion which they made It seemed a thrill of pleasure. The budding twigs spread out their fan, To catch the breezy air; And I must think, do all I can, That there was pleasure there. If this belief from heaven be sent, If such be Nature's holy plan, Have I not reason to lament What man has made of man?