Poetry and Loss
by Russell Thornton

I think all people, at bottom, feel bound up in loss. They know something is missing and they want to get that something back. They feel abandoned -- but by what or whom, they don't know. They feel fallen -- they feel they've lost their innocence, the openness to experience that seems to be part and parcel of innocence, the loss of the good faith that is innocence, the cacacity for spontaneous, authentic living, and the loss of access to energies, energies either within or without a person.

I think poets are haunted by this sense of loss, and by the desire to try to work in words at recovering what is lost.

Words themselves are emblems of loss. The second you put a word to something, that something is gone, of course. You're left with that little emblem or representation of reality -- and reality is lost to you. Words recall what you have lost, what you will always have lost.

Inevitably, it seems, words put together in a poem describe or dramatize the creation of that poem. You're trying to recover something that's lost -- you're trying to re-connect all the infinite number of things of the world -- and a poem is a record of your failure. In the cases of the great poems of any language, the failure can be glorious, and the poem can allow us a glimpse of what we've lost -- and continue to provide us with that glimpse over and over -- but the poem will still be a failure. For the poems not to be failures, and what is lost to be recovered, the distance between words and reality would have to disappear. The distance between different words themselves would have to disappear. There would only be one single word -- and this word would be indistinguishable from everything in the world and indistiguishable from ourselves. Poems can only fail, but they try to recreate this oneness or this paradise, they try to recover it, by putting all the innumerable pieces of the world back together -- with words.

Everyone knows that phrase the ancient Chinese used in various contexts. They talked about what they called "the ten thousand things of the world." A poem attempts to unite those ten thousand disparate things. Those things are lost -- they're estranged from each other -- and a poem is an attempt to bring them back together, to marry them all. The American poet Delmore Schwartz used a line from the Talmud for the titles of one of his books in the 1940s. The phrase is: "The world is a wedding." I think it's true. The world's also an ongoing divorce.

I think everyone would probably agree that the essence of poetry is in its searching for and finding hidden resemblances between things. Like I say, it tries to find and find again the lost pieces of the world and make a oneness out of them. The voice of poetry seems to me to be that of one person, really. It's the voice of the strange unknowable person within every person. That person or being is good at finding and sorting out the clues to recovering what is lost. In fact, that person or being is all those hidden resemblances themselves found and revealed -- those ten thousand things made one animated world.

That voice of poetry, for me, speaks out of loss and is necessarily elegaic. It knows that we live in a state of loss, and that our lot as parcels of human consciousness, as bewildering contraptions of consciousness, is to lament. At the same, our lot is to praise. Poetry praises and finds what is lost. Even in its address to what it can never fully find, it seems to me that is necessarily ecstatic. Even as it laments the loss or a person who has died, for example, or of a person we have become estranged from, a poem raises a voice of recovery of the awarenesss of our unity with the unknown.

And this is where the connection between poetry and loss comes home for me most clearly and obviously. Some of the most marvellous poems are elegies -- elegies for loved ones, for those who have died. It's as if the experience of loss of a loved one thrusts an emotional urgency upon us, a duress, that breaks us, opens us, and reminds us of the terms of human life. Poetry, if it's unflinchingly true to those terms, can allow us to return to a state of innocence and creativity on the far side of painful experience. It can take our sense of loss and turn it into praise -- and transform us.

-- from opening remarks at a panel discussion on "poetry and loss" including Russell Thornton, Patrick Friesen, and Rhea Tregebov, held at Douglas College, New Westminister, Britiish Columbia, Canada, March 6th, 2004