Article - Autumn 2023

A Burning World

Can poetry truly supply the language to express the ineffable sensations of suffering and love?

By Christian Wiman | October 26, 2023
Stephen Lloyd-Smart/Flickr
Stephen Lloyd-Smart/Flickr


You only love
when you love in vain.

Try another radio probe
when ten have failed,
take two hundred rabbits
when a hundred have died:
only this is science.

You ask the secret.
It has just one name:

In the end
a dog carries in his jaws
his image in the water,
people rivet the new moon,
I love you.

Like caryatids
our lifted arms
hold up time’s granite load

and defeated
we shall always win.

—Miroslav Holub, “Ode to Joy,” translated from the Czech by Ian Milner


You only love when you love in vain. I am drawn, like any “common reader,” to poems that reach for succinct and universalizing statements like this. “Hope not being hope / until all ground for hope has / vanished” (Marianne Moore). “The end of art is peace” (Seamus Heaney). “We are what we are only in our last bastions” (me). Removed from the flesh of their poems, though, the statements become a bit bony and cold. They don’t pierce or reverberate; they thud and nag. The end of all art is “peace”? Can we really have no understanding of hope or identity until those things have been crushed? Do we love truly only when we feel fully the ultimate futility of such love? Etc.

One reason modern poets became suspicious of abstract statements is that life is often inimical to them. “Love is all you need” works fine in a pop song, but in a marriage, or in a boat full of refugees, or in any work that seeks to speak to life as it is genuinely lived, it grates. “Go in fear of abstractions,” thundered Ezra Pound, ironically but revealingly echoing the biblical injunction to go in fear of the Lord. There is severe contradiction between our need to speak of ultimate things and the immunity of those things from speech. There is also, sometimes, hope and rescue. “It may be, if you please, that contradiction is one of the signs that make us recognize that we are approaching the final truth, for it shows that man no longer feels the fear which ordinary criteria inspire in him” (Lev Shestov). We only love when we love in vain.

Is the statement, then, “true”? It’s the wrong question. Or at least it needs different phrasing: Does the poem create a space in which the statement can be true? Still off. Does the poem create a space in which the question of truth is, in some sense, suspended—not timorously avoided but savingly evaded? Does truth move through the poem as light moves through an elegantly constructed mobile (a late Lee Bontecou, say), heightening and refining what it, at the same instant, lets go? And is the space only in the poem, or is it opened in a life as well?

Poetry is not simply “good at” creating spaces for this paradox (the speech that gives presence to that which will not be spoken); it can enact and enable the proper fear one feels when approaching any absolute (including, if need be, the absolute truth of contingency), and it can enact and enable its (the fear’s) falling away. The faith that poetry engenders can be, for the poet, religious in terms of intensity and commitment, but it is, in my experience (both as poet and as witness to the lives of friends), both provisional and perishable. Poetic faith is a matter of nerve and instinct. Religious faith will likely emerge from the nerves (perhaps even from an experience in poetry) but requires a conscious leap.


There is a seed of horror buried in Holub’s sweet little “Ode to Joy”: those rabbits. As it happens, I have been reading about experiments on rats designed to find more effective treatments for human anxiety. Rats are “asked” to solve a problem first in normal circumstances and then after experiencing some trauma—being held under water, for instance. The result? Rats do not relish the sensation of drowning, it seems, and think better dry. Presumably those “hundred” rabbits killed for the sake of an experiment were also waterboarded, or had their paws relentlessly shocked, or had their cages severely tilted to make falling feel both imminent and permanent. Is Holub, who was a scientist by profession, missing or minimizing the horror because of that? Or is horror an absurd word in this context, because who cares about a boatload full of fucking rabbits—as drunk teens in Texas, we used to shoot them randomly from the back of pickup trucks and leave them where they lay—much less rats?

In upstate New York some 30 years ago, a dairy cow delivered four calves and each time brought them to the barn when they were steady enough to walk. Each time the calf was immediately taken from her and, if female, raised to replace a cow in the herd, if male, placed in a crate so that it couldn’t move (no untender muscles), fed synthetic formula to keep it deliciously anemic, and, in four months, slaughtered and served as veal. Mama cow was spared these latter details, presumably, or at least her actions when she became pregnant for the fifth time (dairy cows are kept permanently pregnant) make any feeling soul desperate to believe that.

The fifth pregnancy turned out to be two. She delivered twins one night before anyone was expecting it and was thus alone. She took one calf to the woods and filled its belly and licked it to sleep under a tree. She took the other to the barn and waited there with it until the Great Takers came.

We only love when we love in vain? Eventually the owners did unravel the ruse, as every evening the mother came to the barn inexplicably dry. This is where the story ends, or rather, where it refuses to be a story. (The calf was male.) Still, there remains a lot to ponder in the cow’s pondering of those two wet calves knobbling up for that first nuzzle at her teats. There is deliberation and initiative, action and consequence, memory and imagination. And where these things are, there is, inevitably, though its form may be eccentric or obscure, and though empathy is so easily and so often trumped by pleasure, suffering.

Recent evidence suggests that rats are capable of metacognition. That is, they can think about their own thinking; they know what they don’t know. Imagine a test that grows progressively more difficult: distinguishing between duration of sounds, for instance. If you make it to the end of the test successfully, you receive a wonderful prize—a new house, say. But if at any point you realize that the test’s difficulty is beginning to exceed your brain’s capacity, you have the option of bailing out and receiving a lesser prize—a new car, say. A few humans are geniuses and will successfully complete the test without doubting themselves at any instant. A somewhat larger number will overestimate their abilities and end up with nothing. Most humans, though, will accurately recognize when they have reached their own limits and choose the car. Rats respond to different prizes, but respond they do, and in roughly the same proportions. For humans, metacognition is a prime example of what we call consciousness. Does this mean that rats are conscious? And if rats are conscious, for Christ’s sake, then …

The first cancer drug I took was what is known as a chimerical agent and was made from a combination of molecules from humans and mice. I doubt the mice signed consent statements. Other drugs that have prolonged my life first burned out the eyes of rats and rabbits, ate through the insides of zebrafish and wriggly-nosed little guinea pigs. It never occurred to me until now to even wonder about these unwilling animals, much less to think of them suffering one by one by one. Now I feel … nothing. That is, I feel the nothing of not having felt.

As the crickets’ soft autumn hum
is to us
so are we to the trees
as are they
to the rocks and the hills.

—Gary Snyder

In his wonderful book The Spell of the Sensuous, David Abram, building on the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, argues that in all human discourse there is “a dimension of significance beyond the merely expressive power of the words.” This dimension comes from humanity’s original embeddedness in the natural world, comes, in part, from the sounds and silences of the natural world. To extricate human language from this matrix of meaning (by way of modern orthography, according to Abram) is to hold the world at a distance, to conceive of the world as distance. Great things can come from this. Modern medicine, pretty much all of Western philosophy, history, and theology, endless bananas. But of course there are costs, and not simply the environmental ones that have become even more obvious in the almost 30 years since the publication of Abram’s book. “For meaning … remains rooted in the sensory life of the body—it cannot be completely cut off from the soil of direct, perceptual experience without withering and dying.”

Well they’d made up their minds to be everywhere because why not.

Everywhere was theirs because they thought so.

—W. S. Merwin, “The Last One”

It requires no great prophetic power to recognize that we as a species, as a communal soul, have withered, and that as a direct consequence, the world around us is dying. The despair is too much to turn one’s attention to, so most of us turn away. If the entire sky is blotted out, why worry about the small smoke that keeps you, for the moment, warm? And art? What’s the point of that at this late date? Either you don’t really believe in the doom you so loudly and lamentingly deplore, or you have developed an impressively deplorable capacity for cognitive dissonance, or you really do believe we only love when we love in vain. A dear friend of mine whose work has come to nothing (publicly, that is) writes in a letter, “I remain loyal to the irrationality of it,” which makes perfect piercing sense to me, because what else that most matters in life do we find and keep by way of reason? Love? God?

Then, too, I would argue that poetry is where human language retains, resuscitates, protects, and extends its natural origins. Poetry is both nerve and notion, instinct and abstraction. The tectonic volatilities and more-than-conscious calms of its soundscapes can reach way, way back—and powerfully, paradoxically forward—in both time and mind. Poetry makes nothing happen? Might as well say nature makes nothing happen.

metal, the ore in the mountain, exists,

darkness in mine shafts, milk not let down
from mothers’ breasts, an ingrown dread where

whisperings exist, whisperings exist
the cells’ oldest, fondest collusion

consider this market, consider this import
and export of fathers, half bullies
half tortured soldiers, consider

their barren last vanishing, metal
to metal, as the amount of unsown maize
grows and the water shortage grows

speak now of mildness, now of the mystery
of salt; speak now of mediation, of mankind, of
courage; tell me that the marble of banks
can be eaten; tell me that the moon is lovely,
that the extinct moa eats green melon,

that merriment exists, is thriving,
that moss animals and mackerel shoals exist, that
means of giving up, of descent, exist, and
physical portioning out, as in poems, of matchless
earthly goods, that pity exists

—Inger Christensen, Alphabet,translated from the Danish by Susanna Nied

I have come a long way from the love I started out with—both in this odd little essay and in my life. Does it all hold together somehow? (A group of rats is called a mischief.  ) You only love when you love in vain, you only love when you love in vain. Say it enough times, with just the right balance of faith and futility, and some ghost of the truth that the whole poem first enabled might make itself felt on your pulse. Do you feel set free? Me neither. “Keep your mind in hell,” said Silouan the Athonite, “and despair not.”

To train myself to find, in the midst of hell
what isn’t hell.

The body, bald, cancerous, but still
beautiful enough to
imagine living the body
washing the body
replacing a loose front
porch step the body chewing
what it takes to keep a body

this scene has a tune
a language I can read
this scene has a door
I cannot close I stand
within its wedge
I stand within its shield

Why write poetry in a burning world?
To train myself, in the midst of a burning world,
to offer poems of love to a burning world.

—Katie Farris, “Why Write Love Poetry in a Burning World”

This essay is adapted from Christian Wiman’s forthcoming book Zero at the Bone: Fifty Entries Against Despair, to be published in December by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

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