Article - Autumn 2023

A Burning World

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

By Christian Wiman | September 5, 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.

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