Man of Sorrows

Introduction to a Reading by Henri Cole
Tuesday, July 24, 2012
The New York State Writers Workshop
Skidmore College
Saratoga Springs, New York

“He is despised and rejected of men, a Man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.”

That’s the famous passage from Isaiah, chapter 53, verse 3.

This despised and rejected man of sorrow from the Hebrew Bible, this aquaintance with grief, has been read for centuries as a prefiguring of Christ. And it is a character and image that became an idée fixe of Christian piety, so popular that in 1350, Pope Boniface would grant you an indulgence taking 14,000 years off your time in purgatory if you would make a pilgrimage to the Santa Croce church in Rome and pray in the presence of a miraculous byzantine mosaic of the Man of Sorrows: Christ with the visible wounds of his Passion, wearing his crown of thorns, his eyes lifted and piercing in a direct gaze at the venerating pilgrims.

I visited Santa Croce last fall when I went to see our hosts tonight, the writers and Salmagundi editors, Bob and Peg Boyers, who were on sabbatical in Rome. Unfortunately, the Man of Sorrows mosaic is long gone, so I still have at least 14,000 more years in Purgatory than I might hope.

But while I was in the Eternal City, I was reading Henri Cole’s extraordinary book of selected poems, Pierce the Skin and his newest book, Touch. And I was reading a lot about Cole as well: the immense and deserved praise that his new books and the prestigious Jackson Poetry Prize have brought to one of our greatest living poets. Whether that praise comes from Harold Bloom or Louise Gluck or younger poets and critics who seem to have just discovered Cole’s work, the word “sorrow” comes up a lot: Cole’s poems are “impelled by sorrow,” “buffered by sorrow”; they express “fear and sorrow,” “humor and sorrow,” “an unspoken sorrow.”

So there I was in Rome searching in Santa Croce when I actually had my Man of Sorrow close to my chest in my neoprene and nylon satchel.

I don’t want you to think of this description as something grey and monochrome. Cole’s poems are anything but. Buried in the word “sorrow” is its old English root, the word “song.” As long as there is hope, or humor, a sense of play, an ability to make art, sorrow is twinned with song. Suffering has its beauties.

As Cole writes in “Dead Wren”: All that breathes suffers./ Yet the waters of affliction are purifying./ The wounded soldier heals. There is new wine and oil.”

Or, as he writes in “Apollo”: “The human self is undeconstructable montage, is poverty, learning, & war, is DNA, words, is acts in a bucket, is agony and love on a wheel that sparkles, is a mother and father creating and destroying, is mutable and one with God, is man and wife speaking, is innocence betrayed by justice.”

It is impossible not to hear Crane and Whitman. But thinking about Cole this way, I also hear Blake.

There is only one poem in “Songs of Innocence and Experience” where Blake speaks in his own voice, where he employs a tone of private intimacy. The poem is titled “On Another’s Sorrow.” Blake asks the fundamental question of whether God is listening and whether he cares, whether he feels pity for us in our suffering. The question itself implies grave doubts, but Blake answers emphatically that Someone is listening. He assures himself and us: “Till our grief is fled an gone/He doth sit by us and moan.”

It is one of Henri Cole’s great achievements that his own poems, which speak so directly of his personal history, his own family, his private loves and struggle and solitude, somehow become a voice for our own sorrows. Cole “doth sit by us.” It is a kinship that Crane called in “Voyages,” an “Infinite consanguinity.”

And it is not only with us that Cole shares this sympathy. Increasingly, his poems have an ecology of sympathy with the vulnerabilities of all living things—whether it’s a hen in the Adironacks, a mosquito, burning sycamores, or an ape at the Berlin zoo. The ape, Cole writes, was “gazing at me longer than any human has in a long time,/ you are my closest relative in thousands of miles.” And Cole “cannot tell which of us absorbs the other more.”

That intense absorption, that identification with other living things, is one of Henri Cole’s most startling gifts as a writer. It is not simply the intense discipline and skill he brings to observation—what the writer Nora Delaney has called his “nervous vigilance”—but it is also an extraordinary generosity, a brave abandonment of self that I think is unique in contemporary poetry.

As Cole writes in “Kayaks”: “Everything I feel I am feels distant or blank as the opulent rays pass through me, distant as action is from thought,or language is from all things desirable in the world.” Cole’s newest work seems determined to bridge this unbridgeable distance we have from the world.

Just ten days ago in The New Yorker, Cole wrote a beautiful post about visiting Hart Crane’s family cemetery plot on his journey back home to New York from teaching at Ohio State. Embedded in the essay are wonderful photographs Cole took on his trip, including one of the small granite plinth for Hart Crane’s father. The top belongs to the father-his full name and dates, but caught in shadow on one side are words carved in memory of the poet son: his own name and dates and the words, “Lost at Sea.”

And yet, what intrigued me most was not Cole’s pilgrimage to the memorial of this other Man of Sorrow, not the charm of his photographs or his modest eloquence in describing the visit. What struck me was a sentence near the end of the essay that almost comes as an aside: “I know it sounds foolish, but I would do very well as a tree: giving shade, watching the lives of others drift past—as in slow-motion film—permitting little arms and legs to climb over me.”

When you know Cole’s work, this makes perfect sense. In his poems, he often inhabits the natural world, endows it with sentience. I think it’s high praise to agree, that yes, he would do very well as a tree. And if any of us were Zeus, we might grant him that selfless wish, the fate, say, of Ovid’s Baucis and Philemon.

But I would grant this on one condition: If you ever choose to become a tree, Henri Cole, you must become a tree that blossoms, that bears fruit with the fragile, sheltering truth of your poems.

We need that truth. And as men and women of sorrow, acquainted with grief, we need that shelter.

Related: Introduction NYS Writers Institute Saratoga Springs poetry