Ruminations on the Nature of Sadness in Poetry

I love poetry. It’s hard to pick a favourite poem but if forced, I’d perhaps choose Blue Bird by Charles Bukowski (That or The Weight of Oranges.) I’ve listened to this poem more times than I can count and yet every line still hurts, stirs sadness. In poetry, poets often share their fascination or preoccupation with sadness. It’s an enigma, this draw to despondency… an ironic love and yet it persists.

What intrigues me most is how writers use poetry (though other genres are fair contenders too) to explore what aches, what is tender and violent. In Bukowski’s poem he writes “I do not weep,” and yet the poem is imbued with emotions difficult to pinpoint… regret, perhaps? It is, nevertheless, melancholic and confessional. The words themselves seem to weep.

there’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I pour whiskey on him and inhale
cigarette smoke
and the whores and the bartenders
and the grocery clerks
never know that
in there.

-Excerpt from Bluebird

A link to “Bluebird”

But are poems always sad? No. But are they predominantly sorrowful? This I’ve debated with many fellow writers, pulling collections off my shelves and it seems true that many are nostalgic, wistful, infused with heartache, political despair or sexual frustration, anger or regret.

I have found that some of the most common perceptions regarding poetry is that poems are sad, boring, must rhyme or useless. It’s difficult to define a poem, especially when explored outside the confines of conventional style. Of course there are poems that rhyme… there are eye rhymes and slant rhymes and rich rhymes among others. And like anything, there are poems that are boring to one and enthralling to another.I believe that one of the leading reasons people understand poems to be boring or reliant on rhyme is because of how they’re taught… but that poems are always sad? This conception intrigues me. In fact, I feel slightly troubled by it. Like I said, I love poems, but when I think about my favourite poems they are, indeed, quite sad. I can’t help but wonder why. I suppose a poem is home to emotions that have no where else to go and so often those lost and confused emotions are unhappy.

When asked to think of a “happy poet” the first who comes to mind is Mary Oliver, a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winning poet.

Below is a poem of Oliver’s titled “Breakage”

I go down to the edge of the sea.
How everything shines in the morning light!
The cusp of the whelk,
the broken cupboard of the clam,
the opened, blue mussels,
moon snails, pale pink and barnacle scarred—
and nothing at all whole or shut, but tattered, split,
dropped by the gulls onto the gray rocks and all the moisture gone.
It’s like a schoolhouse
of little words,
thousands of words.
First you figure out what each one means by itself,
the jingle, the periwinkle, the scallop
       full of moonlight.
Then you begin, slowly, to read the whole story.


I do not believe that poetry requires gloom or overt intensity to become treasurable. Poetry, in my mind, is an extension of our perception- perception that, in some cases, frames sadness, in others, the world’s smallest, most colourful details.

Nevertheless, I also believe that poetry is, in a sense, a kind of writerly compass. I know I have personally come to terms with many events or navigated difficult times through writing (admittedly, poems) and as a result, those poems are often weighted by own sense of confusion, loss or fear.

Another consideration…  what do we think is “sad”? A poem, for example, like Maya Angelou’s Still I Rise, was inspired by horror and oppression (for those of you unfamiliar with Angelou, she was an Afro-American poet and civil rights activist- someone worth checking out) and yet the poem of which I speak provokes hope and ambition.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

-Excerpt from Still I Rise

So many poems totter on this dichotomy, a dichotomy wherein sadness and hope become family, dependent and yet competitive.

I am making it a goal of mine to discover more “happy” poets or poems so as to further develop my understanding of how poetry relates to all emotion so please feel free to drop a comment below if you have any poems/poets/ideas you’d like to share!




2 thoughts on “Ruminations on the Nature of Sadness in Poetry

  1. Anonymous says:

    I just watched the ‘Bluebird’ video. I don’t profess to know anything about poetry, but I enjoyed this poem. And as much as it has a sadness about it , I thought it had hope too. The ‘bluebird in your heart’ is a choice you make. That was my take on it…and I guess that is what poetry is about…what it means to you and not everyone else.


    • thereadersaffair says:

      I love your perspective. Poems can be interpreted in so many ways and there’s a real beauty in that. Thanks for sharing your thoughts:)


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