Bittersweet: Voices in Poetry and Song

Bittersweet is the title of the new book by Susan Cain that I reviewed in yesterday’s post about life all its contradictions, all its agony and ecstasy. Art is a way to deal with bittersweetness. That is what art is for: to allow us to pour our darkness into it so we can go on living with joy. Literature as an art form, contains the sublime power to console, inspire and encourage us through the wisdom of words. And today, I like to share a few pieces of prose and poetry as well as a song on this theme.

I’ll start with the following pithy quote by Susan Cain:

The bittersweet is … an authentic and elevating response to the problem of being alive in a deeply flawed, yet stubbornly beautiful world … Bittersweetness shows us how to respond to pain; by acknowledging it, and attempting to turn it into art, the way the musicians do, or healing, or innovation, or anything else that nourishes the soul.”

Our next quote is by Louise Edrich, who is a novelist, poet, and writer of children’s books. Not mincing her words, Edrich has this to tell us about how to cope with life’s bittersweetness:

“Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and being alone won’t either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You have to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes too near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling, all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself that you tasted as many as you could.

Next are two wonderful poems I have read and revisited many times for the succor and consolation they’ve given me. Jimmy Santiago Baca, the first poet (b. 1952) is an American poet, memoirist, and screenwriter from New Mexico, and Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004) was a Polish-American poet who is recognized as one of the greatest poet of the 20th century. He won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1980.

‘This Day’ (Jimmy Santiago Baca)

I feel foolish,
     like those silly robins jumping on the ditch boughs
     when I run by them.
            Those robins do not have the grand style of the red tailed hawk,
            no design, no dream, just robins acting stupid.
They’ve never smoked cigarettes, drank whiskey, consumed drugs
as I have.
            In their mindless
            fluttering about
            filled with nonsense,
                 they tell me how they
                       love the Great Spirit,
            scold me not to be self-pitying,
            to open my life
            and make this day a bough on a tree
            leaning over infinity, where eternity flows forward
            and with day the river runs
                       carrying all that falls in it.
            Be happy Jimmy, they chirp,
            Jimmy, be silly, make this day a tree
            leaning over the river eternity
            and fuss about in its branches.

~ From Spring Poems Along the the Rio Grande by Jimmy Santiago Baca.

Faith (Czeslaw Milosz)

Faith is in you whenever you look
At a dewdrop or a floating leaf
And know that they are because they have to be.
Even if you close your eyes and dream up things
The world will remain as it has always been
And the leaf will be carried by the waters of the river.
You have faith also when you hurt your foot
Against a sharp rock and you know
That rocks are there to hurt our feet.
See the long shadow that is cast by the tree?
We and trees throw shadows on the earth.
What has no shadow has no strength to live.

~ From The Separate Notebooks: Poems. Translated from the Polish by Renata Gorczynski, Robert Hass, and Robert Pinsky, 1984.

I conclude with a song by indie folk group, Hollow Caves, with the hopeful title, “Anew.”

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