At the end Elif Batuman’s memoir Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, she writes—and I promise this won’t spoil the book should you choose to read it:
"If I could start over today, I would choose literature again. If the answers exist in the world or in the universe, I still think that’s where we’re going to find them.”
This may, for me, have been the best line in a book full of great lines, and I couldn’t imagine a more appropriate ending for her memoir, which weaves literary analysis with artfully crafted, incisive portraits of writers, scholars, literary landmarks and personal experiences.
Maybe answers are possible through literature because of its ability to make us feel deeply, which in the practical world can cause pain and so we try to prevent ourselves from doing it. And literature can prompt understanding of otherness by plunging us into the other’s experience, which some of us also try to avoid, I suspect.
Despite my deep faith in literature to prompt empathy and insight, poetry and I have never been the closest of confidantes. Lately, I’ve taken to thinking of poetry as I would an acquaintance admired from afar, that one inscrutable person who, when you speak with her or hear what he’s been doing, you’re impressed. But somehow, you can never get past the surface pleasantries when in that person’s presence.
I’m thinking about this today because March 21 is World Poetry Day, established by UNESCO in 1999 “to recognize the unique ability of poetry to capture the creative spirit of the human mind” and “to communicate the innermost values of diverse culture," according to their website. I would add that poetry can capture universal experiences across cultures.
Out of deference to my enigmatic acquaintance and in honor of World Poetry Day, I offer a personal favorite, melancholy but beautiful, that renders an experience universal to all living things. And I do mean ‘all’:
“Nothing Gold Can Stay” by Robert Frost
Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
Have a favorite poem to share? I'm always looking for recommendations!