The Poet Makes Grief Beautiful: Revisited

gillian-welchI just read a terrific column at Salon.com by someone known more for setting words to music than journalism, the wonderful singer-songwriter Gillian Welch.

The crux of the piece is best explained by Gillian in her opening paragraph:

I want to talk about the tradition of tragedy in Southern folk music. This tradition connects with why people make art – to deal with the gnarliest, most painful events that occur. Things beyond your control, almost beyond human understanding. This is why we sing about them: the sinking of the Titanic, hurricanes, rapes, assassination, murder, suicide, drugs …

I highly recommend reading the rest, but the reason I’m sharing it here is because it reminded me of one of my earliest posts here at Fish & Bicycles, published five years ago in only my second month, something titled The Poet Makes Grief Beautiful.

In that post, I covered some of the same territory visited by Ms. Welch, and so I thought I’d share this excerpt:

[Poet James] 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.

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