The Poet Makes Grief Beautiful


The title of this post is a line from Irish poet James Stephens, from his poem Strict Joy. I found the poem in the liner notes of a CD my wife just bought me, an album that takes its name from the Stephens poem, the latest album from The Swell Season, otherwise known as Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, the guy and gal from the 2006 film Once.

I was blown away when I saw Once. It made me want to quit my job, grab my guitar, and busk around Europe indefinitely. But then I remembered that I had a job, a wife, a kid…so I just watched it again, several more times, living vicariously.

At the beginning of the movie, there’s a scene of Glen Hansard’s character, alone at night on the streets of Dublin, singing his song Say It To Me Now, and it literally gave me intense chills. Sadly, there’s no current clip of the scene up on YouTube right now, but there is this clip, and Glen plays the same beat up guitar in the film.

I hadn’t seen a performance like that in a long time, hadn’t seen something so visceral, something born of true heartache and anger. As I’m also a guitarist and singer, I can tell you that you can’t fake that kind of performance, and I can tell you that the scars on that guitar come from many such outpourings of authentic feelings.

Stephens writes:

For, as he meditated misery
And cared it into song — Strict Care, Strict Joy!
Caring for grief he cared his grief away:
And those sad songs, tho’ woe be all the theme,
Do not make us grieve who read them now —
Because the poet makes grief beautiful.

This is why art is so important. It is nothing less than our humanity in action. We work through our experiences, experiences of grief and hardship and joy, shaping them into words, melodies, images, movements, theatrics, structures, etc., and the care we take to make something meaningful of these experiences is an incredibly powerful, positive, hopeful thing. And we receive these gifts from artists and find that these works speak to similar experiences we’ve had, making us feel sympathetic solidarity, enabling us to feel less alone with the pain and love and even terror we have been through.

I can honestly say, without exaggeration, that discovering great music, literature, and visual art saved my life, and I can’t imagine surviving a life void of this Strict Care.

Once and the songs of Glen and Marketa contain their share of melancholy and grief, made beautiful through their earnest expression, but they also contain wonderful moments of sweetness, as well as surprising moments of humor. The Swell Season’s album Strict Joy is a wonderful continuation of their work together, and I feel deeply grateful for it.

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