[In honor of National Poetry Month, I’ll be writing about specific poems and the moments they’ve created in my life.]
“This just doesn’t make sense to me,” she said from across the classroom. “I mean, has anyone really ever felt this way?”
It was the worst possible semester to say something like that, and I was probably the worst possible person to say it in front of. It was poetry that prompted it, a poem that – while perhaps heavy-handed – certainly deserved more than just a passing thought.
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crêpe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.
The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
~ W. H. Auden
Many things had compounded in my life to make me a good reader of mournful poetry. My boyfriend and I had just broken up, and while I wasn’t in this exact state of mourning, I did recognize the echoes of helplessness. It was fall, and despite my love of red leaves and the smell of the fireplace, I was entering my annual melancholy period. It was my senior year of college, and all that lay ahead was frightening and unknown, and I mourned for my soon-to-be-ended college experience.
So I sat across from this girl and my mouth dropped open and words flew out and I leaned over the table in my earnestness.
Have you seriously never felt this way?
You’ve never felt like things were irredeemable?
You’ve never felt darkness more than you felt light?
And I knew the class was staring at me because this was an outburst and I should have been embarrassed. Instead, I felt good. I felt heard. I felt like I had spoken for so many people who’ve lost someone they loved. I’d spoken for people who entered darkness – even for a short period – and for a moment forgot what it meant to have hope.
I don’t remember what she said. I don’t remember how the professor brought the class back together and steered the conversation down a tamer road (because the classroom is not the place to really delve deeply into things). Later that evening, though, I had an email from a fellow student. We had only chatted a few times, but she’d written me a message. She thanked me for speaking up, and she said sometimes people just don’t understand experiences outside their own.
So why is it so painful when I’m not understood? Why do I care if someone has never felt despair? Isn’t that a good thing? Isn’t that something I should rejoice over?
It’s not that I want them to have a broken heart. It’s that I can’t stand my experiences or my feelings being disregarded as “unbelievable.” Because that’s what she was saying, even though she didn’t mean to. Has anyone really ever felt this way? is another way of saying, I don’t believe this.
I reread this poem sometimes when I begin to forget the hurting and scared young woman I was. I’ve sent it to friends who were going through surprising and uncontrollable things.
It doesn’t take just a breakup to break your heart.
And yes, as I read it now, I sense more the dramatic, the delusional self. I can see how it is perhaps a poem for an emotionally-wrought college student than a well-seasoned adult who has realized that no, the world does indeed go on.
I just don’t want to disregard the person who hasn’t yet realized this.
I wonder where that girl is now. I wonder if she’s come across Auden’s poem since that day in college. I wonder if she read it any differently, if maybe the clocks stopped for just a moment.