Beat The Blues
with David Baker
David Baker is an American poet, professor and editor of the Kenyon Review.
What do I do to beat the blues, and how do I come back from the depths of darkness? These are good questions, especially given that artists and writers tend to kinds of depression anyway and given that our current historical moment is bleak. This bleakness is many-pronged – from environmental peril and climate change, to economic and social inequities across the globe, to the outrageous political contortions in this nation and in so many other countries. Every day, to paraphrase John Berryman’s Henry, there are things that sit on my heart “só heavy” I wonder how I can stand up.
But then I stand up. My work stands me up and stands with me. Much more so, the work – the poetry, the music, the art – of other makers stands me up and stands with me. When I am down, I don’t especially turn to “happy” music or happy poems. I turn to beautiful ones. They console me. They give me courage, encouragement, and company. They remind me of the rigor and concentration and hopeful devotion in the making of art. If I want gravity and serene rigor in my music, I might listen to Gorecki’s 3rd symphony; if I want to jump up and down and smile, I might listen to Earth, Wind, and Fire. Verdine White is a joy to listen to and a joy to watch. But then there are so many, like Bach’s odes and suites, Karen Carpenter or Renee Flemings’ perfections, Joe Pass in duet with Ella Fitzgerald. Music in so many of its different genres gives me – this seems obvious to say – a reminder of how harmony in sound can realign and retune the disharmonies I hear all the time. Or a lesson in how to live with those disharmonies.
For me, even more than music, poetry can restore and refresh. I read all the time, every day, lots of poems or one poem over and over. Of all the forms of language, poetry does more for me to give me complexity, depth, harmony, counterpoint, all those facets of beauty. Poetry is, Poe reminds, the rhythmical creation of beauty.
Again, I don’t especially turn to “happy” poems to make me happy. Happy poems tend to make me dour. I turn to beautiful ones. Whitman for courage, for hope. Keats for a glimpse beyond this life. Dickinson for fearlessness and sheer, inventive pizzazz. Brooks for her joy and amusement in her neighbors and friends. I read Issa for slivers and glimpses – in three lines – connecting the obvious and the eye-rubbing incredible. From our time, a time very rich with poetry, I turn more than to any other to W. S. Merwin for his visionary clarity, his transport, his plain magic.
I’ll show you what I mean. This is a poem called “The Present”, and it is the final poem in Merwin’s most recent book Garden Time. You understand he is talking about dying. He is talking about leaving the earth, this life, his love, everything...and he was in his late 80s when he wrote this: