Have you ever memorized a poem by accident? Happened to me a few years ago. A poem called “Eros Turranos” by the 19th-20th century American poet Edwin A. Robinson. I was going through a very bad breakup about which I don’t want to say more. I could say “out of respect to the parties involved” but what it comes down to is: because privacy is still a thing. Anyway, if you’ve been involved in a bad breakup, you know the drill. I was in pain all the time.
It was my first year of grad school and I was throwing myself into my work during the day. But. Then night came. And night lasted forever. Until I finally went to sleep sometime after midnight. Then I woke up, dragged myself out of bed, attended class or went to TA a class or went to the grocery store or whatever, and then night came and lasted forever. Until…
Managing Grief through Art
I didn’t just do one thing to pass the time. I watched movies I’d never seen before: Brighton Rock, a bunch of Daniel Day Lewis films (because of course; and yes, I drank IPA while I watched). I think I imagined I would hit some kind of video-game-type checkpoint by unlocking the holy trinity of bitterness: from my life, my media consumption, and my beer consumption. I spent time with friends; mostly people from my department. And I also practiced piano for at least an hour a night.
Some nights–not many–I picked up a novel and, when I had finished reading it, I put it down again. Honestly, in the third year of the pandemic I’m wondering where the fuck that coping mechanism is now that I really want it again. One night I read the entirety of The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty (for a class), and followed it up with The Robber Bride by the same author (for the hell of it). I don’t really remember what either one was about. Well. One of the two books had a character in it who had a tendency to look on the bright side of things. He had a daughter, I think. I forget which book though.
Rediscovering “Eros Turranos”
One night all of that wasn’t enough. There was a poem I already knew and liked. I’d heard it read aloud some years ago and was impressed with the musicality, the depth of emotion. But that was all. I hadn’t had any part of it tattooed on my arm or framed in calligraphy on my wall. Then one night, for some reason I just started… reading it out loud to myself. And then when I got to the bottom of the poem, I flipped back to the beginning of the poem. This may have gone on for an hour. Here’s the poem:
Eros TurranosEdwin Arlington Robinson
She fears him, and will always ask
What fated her to choose him;
She meets in his engaging mask
All reasons to refuse him;
But what she meets and what she fears
Are less than are the downward years,
Drawn slowly to the foamless weirs
Of age, were she to lose him.
Between a blurred sagacity
That once had power to sound him,
And Love, that will not let him be
The Judas that she found him,
Her pride assuages her almost,
As if it were alone the cost.—
He sees that he will not be lost,
And waits and looks around him.
A sense of ocean and old trees
Envelops and allures him;
Tradition, touching all he sees
Beguiles and reassures him;
And all her doubts of what he says
Are dimmed with what she knows of days—
Till even prejudice delays
And fades, and she secures him.
The falling leaf inaugurates
The reign of her confusion;
The pounding wave reverberates
The dirge of her illusion;
And home, where passion lived and died,
Becomes a place where she can hide,
While all the town and harbor side
Vibrate with her seclusion.
We tell you, tapping on our brows,
The story as it should be,—
As if the story of a house
Were told, or ever could be;
We’ll have no kindly veil between
Her visions and those we have seen,—
As if we guessed what hers have been,
Or what they are or would be.
Meanwhile we do no harm; for they
That with a god have striven,
Not hearing much of what we say,
Take what the god has given;
Though like waves breaking it may be,
Or like a changed familiar tree,
Or like a stairway to the sea
Where down the blind are driven.
Why THIS Poem?
How did I know of this poem? How did I know it was what I needed to get me from seven o’clock to eight o’clock on one of a seemingly endless string of nights that each, in turn, seemed endless? And how did I know that this dark, sad, bitter poem (really the IPA of poems) would be the balm for my grief on a night that nothing else was? Perhaps most importantly, how did I know that this poem would be part of the treatment that would one day see me get up from that chair of mourning and move on from that grief into a world where the nights never seemed long enough? How did I know, in short, that bathing in that particular poet’s well of grief would allow me one day to experience joy again?
It sure wasn’t anything on the surface. The only think I know I have in common with Robinson–a century dead, from a New England Christian family–is that our respective initials spell out an acronym. Mine is ASK; his is EAR. I got relentlessly teased for that coincidence in middle school; and I must confess I haven’t lingered over one of Robinson’s biographies to discover if he experienced the same kind of derision.
Poetry as Connection
No, it was something else. Poetry itself is connection. It is a tool for the poet to access the deepest recesses of their own mind and share them with another who then in turn is able to access the deepest recesses of their mind and maybe, just maybe, feel a little bit less alone for a minute or an hour. So it didn’t matter that this poem tells a different story from the story I was living through at the time. What mattered was the idea that someone could write a poem this beautiful about a grief this hard.
It was a clue for me; for my subconscious. It was a clue that even in the depths of grief and depression, one person could connect with another. And if that was true it means that the pain I was feeling was not permanent, much as it seemed permanent to me at the time.
So in a sense, this is the story of how I learned that the weight of grief feels like it’ll crush you forever, until one day it doesn’t feel like that anymore.
I was younger and sillier then. Now? I know that pain isn’t permanent. I know it the way I know that I like putting eggs on buttered toast with a dash of hot sauce. It’s just a fact of existence. But we aren’t born knowing the facts of existence. We need to learn them one at a time. So in a sense, this is the story of how I learned that the weight of grief feels like it’ll crush you forever, until one day it doesn’t feel like that anymore. And one of the ways I learned that was that one night I read this poem over and over and over until I’d accidentally memorized it.
Poetry as Pregnancy Craving
So how did I know that this poem was the key? Or a key? I didn’t. The best way I can explain it is to liken what I was experiencing to a pregnancy craving. Have you ever been pregnant? Or talked to someone who was pregnant? People who have gone through the experience report of having bizarrely telescoped tastes: “I could only eat this one thing.” Or they report craving combinations that smoking all the weed in New York City wouldn’t lead you to imagine. I’m convinced the first person who put pineapple and ham on a pizza was pregnant.
Anyway the aesthetics of pregnancy cravings are as inscrutable as they are horrifying, but the science of them is relatively transparent, at least in the broad strokes. A person has a need for certain nutrients and an aversion to certain stimuli. Somewhere between the two, there’s a sweet spot that might only include cottage cheese or might only include… well, fill in one from your own history.
I was experiencing something like that. My mind just developed a vague premonition that this poem would make me feel better. And I followed that premonition, and was the better for it.
From Eros Turranos… Back to Joy
The point is that, at some point we all experience a week or a month or a year like I did towards the beginning of grad school. And it may take some time before we feel joy again. I mean really feel it. Before we can be captivated by joy; carried away by it; before joy can become the standard. The way grief is the standard when we are in the throes of a breakup or a death or an illness.
Anyway, during those weeks or months or years of grief, depression, etc., you will not be casting about from one book of poetry to another looking for the song that is your grief’s equivalent of a pregnancy craving. So. Best start reading now. Unless you’re already in your grief-and-depression phase. A lot of us are. It’s been a long pandemic. In which case, come find us on our facebook page and ask for recommendations.
In the fable of the ant and the grasshopper, the ant had all of the tools to survive the winter; all but one.