By Dr. Mark S. Burrows, writer, scholar, poet and teacher

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We often think of fruit ripening, but we might well imagine this of ourselves as we grow and change through the years. One of the great poets of our times, the late W. S. Merwin, once wrote a lovely little gem of a poem, aptly entitled “Worn Words,” where he confesses that it is “the late poems/ I turn to first now/ following a hope that keeps/ beckoning me.”i Why the late poems? Because, as he answers in the poem’s final lines, they “have come the whole way/ they have been there.” Where have they been? Presumably there where they always were, where we always were, even if they give voice to what lies at edges of the imaginable, giving us glimpses of a measure of their wisdom that was “almost in sight,” as Merwin puts it.

I, too, have long been drawn to the later writings of poets. I come to them as if meeting old friends with whom I’ve shared much over the years, not hoping for something flashy or novel, but rather longing for a clearer sense of a wisdom patient and deep and thoughtful. At times, this comes to us in moments of longing for what we most need to find our balance again, reminding us of life’s strength in its flow from places we’ve not seen, toward a horizon we might only have dimly imagined. Poems that offer us such glimpses come to us across the long arc of  experience. They offer to gather us with insights that offer a truer view of life – mine, yours, and ours. Rarely am I disappointed when I turn to such sources, for the later poems of seasoned writers are often borne of convictions tested by life’s inevitable losses and burdens alongside gains and delights we all experience with age. They speak to us having “come the whole way,” a claim gesturing toward the wholeness we ourselves long to find as the measure of our lives.

Of course, usually what such poems reveal are glimpses of truths gleaned in the heart’s deep cavern where despair and hope contend with each other. Rarely do they claim to offer what Robert Frost once called the “great clarifications” of life, offering us something closer to what the poet referred to, memorably, as “a momentary stay against confusion.” As Frost went on to say, the delight they offer us “is in the surprise of remembering something [we] didn’t know [we] new.” This is a wonderful characterization of what poems bring to us in their wisdom, and I trust this will shape the day we spend together during this retreat.

Over the course of our day we will linger with a selection of poems that promise to widen our heart’s vision and deepen our soul-sense. Such poems will want to have their way with us, perhaps taking shape within us in the manner Frost went on to describe: “Step by step the wonder of unexpected supply keeps growing.” They bring us insights we might have longed for, offering us words bearing a vision we might not have expected even as we immediately recognize its sudden flash of truth.

What welcome if unexpected messages might we glean from poets in their ripening years? Consider this one, a poem written by the German poet Hilde Domin in her 90th year:

Don’t go as one who extinguishes
Don’t go as one who extinguishes
Don’t go as one who extinguishes
into the extinguishing

We are torches my brother
We are stars
We are something burning
Something rising
Or we’ve not

This is not simply another version of Socrates’ insistence that “an unexamined life is not worth living,” though it keeps company with such a claim. It is, rather, a bold invitation—by a passionate nonagenarian—to live into life’s intensities, to give ourselves over to what flames our hearts rather than being those who, out of doubt or reluctance, try to extinguish the fire for fear of its heat. For we are “stars,” we are “torches,” we are “something rising”—or “we’ve not been.”

I look forward to exploring such wisdom during this online retreat, a day shaped by poems that matter with the spaciousness we need to invite the wisdom they carry to ripen in us – and, ultimately, to ripen us.

Mark S. Burrows
Camden, ME

i W. S. Merwin, “Worn Words,” in The Shadow of Sirius (2008).
ii Translation by Mark S. Burrows (©2021).