Poetry in Times of Tragedy

"People turn to poetry in times of crisis because it comes closer than any other art form to addressing what cannot be said." - W. S. Merwin

According to UA Creative Writing Professor Jane Miller, "poetry, especially from such a humane and gentle voice as W. S. Merwin’s, awakens us with the first light and quiet of beginnings. From there, a place nearly like a dream, poems describe, and also transform, the landscape of our inner and outer lives. We are helped with our first steps out of ignorance toward consciousness, from innocence to experience. A great poet such as Merwin will translate universal feelings into language for us precisely, with the roots of words always in mind. Such elemental songs dignify existence and act as a guide, like Virgil, toward illumination."
William Stanley Merwin is the seventeenth Poet Laureate of the United States. The author of more than 50 books of poetry, prose, and translation, and two-time winner (1971, 2009) of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, W. S. Merwin holds a place in contemporary American letters that is impossible to overstate. He is a passionate advocate for the environment and a quintessential poet of reflection and compassion. His poetry reflects a constant spirit of stewardship and caretaking. 

Merwin’s long history of friendship with the Poetry Center is evidenced by his many visits to read for the Center, in 1969, 1975, 1977, 1984, 1990, 1998, and most recently in 2008. Five of these readings may be heard and viewed on the Poetry Center’s online Audio Video Library. An online exhibit of Merwin’s early work curated by Poetry Center staff can be viewed here.

About the role of poetry in times of crisis, Merwin says, "Poetry addresses individuals in their most intimate, private, frightened and elated moments. People turn to poetry in times of crisis because it comes closer than any other art form to addressing what cannot be said. In expressing the inexpressible poetry remains close to the origins of language." President Robert Shelton read the following W.S. Merwin poem at the January 12 memorial event concerning the January 8 tragedy in Tucson.

W.S. Merwin at the UA Poetry CenterTo the New Year

With what stillness at last
you appear in the valley
your first sunlight reaching down
to touch the tips of a few
high leaves that do not stir
as though they had not noticed
and did not know you at all
then the voice of a dove calls
from far away in itself
to the hush of the morning

so this is the sound of you
here and now whether or not
anyone hears it this is
where we have come with our age
our knowledge such as it is
and our hopes such as they are
invisible before us
untouched and still possible

from Present Company, Copper Canyon Press, 2005.
Used with permission of the author.
Photograph by Nancy Carrick Holbert. Taken at the Poetry Center in 1969.


A close friend of W.S. Merwin's and a tireless servant of Arizona, our own Richard Shelton's work is transformative and illuminating as it deals directly with the deepest human emotions.

I Have No Wings

but since I have feet I can walk
since I can walk I will arrive
and when I arrive the place will be there

if there are stairs I will climb
if there is water I will swim
if there are words I will speak

when I am desired I will be chosen
when I am chosen I will take my place
when no one else is near me I will be alone

a tired man carries only himself
a frightened man carries himself and his shadow
a vicious man carries the weight
of all he would harm

a loud voice is a stranger in any land
if there is silence let me guard it
a low voice rules its own country
if there is love let me hold it
a small room is enough to contain me
if there is hope let me give it a home

by Richard Shelton
from You Can't Have Everything, University of Pittsburg Press, 1975.
Used with permission of the author.


Anyone who has taken one of UA Creative Writing Professor Jane Miller's life-changing poetry classes remembers her saying that "the function of art is the transformation of sorrow, and also the transformation of consciousness."

from Palace of Pearls

...I’m at home excoriating

a surface a small matter never mind it feels

like my own skin unheroically grating a lime

in God’s hands but more ironically than some

Renaissance painters may have thought of the brush

to wit I am as free-spirited as any Roman

thinking about the surface as it reflects the depths

but history is the last thing poems should tell

and stories next to last so poetry is all

a scent of berry like a splash of destiny

which hints at the best of life and after its small

thrill passes like a small lost civilization

it can be solace and sadness as well

no matter how long I write how ill or well

the story say of a lost civilization

or that we might be last of the generations

the poem restores nothing

blueberries limes peaches my love zero

why then is the poet

the last to see as a god

that earth from the heavens is radiant fruit


by Jane Miller from A Palace of Pearls, Copper Canyon Press, 2005.
used with permission of the author.


The Poetry Center is a community resource open to the public. Our librarians invite you to come in and browse the collection. They would be happy to recommend volumes of poetry and anthologies that help to "transform the landscape of our inner and outer lives."

Arizona Board of Regents