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How reading poetry like ‘Old Songs’ will make you happier

"Old Songs" by Olga Sedakova

John Touhey | Aleteia

Fr. Michael Rennier - published on 04/21/24

Poetry can sometimes seem intimidating, but there is much treasure to be found in this skillful, carefully observed collection by the poet Olga Sedakova.

“We’ll live a long, long time, as long/ as the trees live by the water,” writes Olga Sedakova in her poetry collection Old Songs, before continuing, “and earth goes off with them to heaven,/ Elizabeth—to Mary.” This particular poem is titled, “House.” It’s a simple poem, as are all of her poems, but each one, without drawing attention to itself or the skill of the writer, ascends. What house is she speaking of, and who is she writing to?

The house exists in two places, both earth and heaven. It’s like Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, a prophecy firmly rooted in this world. Then again, it is also like Mary Mother of God, through whom a miracle is wrought that draws us into the next world. It’s a paradox.

Although we don’t know for sure who she’s writing the poem to, we do know that two of the three sections in Old Songs are dedicated to Sedakova’s grandmother. The book is a testimony of hope, a collection of poems rooted in both the past and the future. It inhabits two houses at once. Somehow, both houses are the same.

Is poetry too complicated?

Often, people tell me that they cannot understand poetry. That it’s too complicated and obscure. (My opening paragraphs probably did nothing to dispel that!) Poetry is a high art that’s both intimidating and, at the same time, of little value to everyday life. This is why, for decades, it never would have occurred to me to pick up a book of poems and read it cover to cover.

I thought it was too hard for me and probably not worth the effort.

Poetry continues tradition

Sedakova makes an important point, though, about the importance of tradition and a shared language that spans multiple generations. Tradition, she writes, “exists before the birth of an individual person…it survives him or her and continues after his or her death. The tradition ‘extends’ private life in both directions, it also changes the time of human life.”

In other words, tradition enlarges our experience, slows us down, and in some sense even extends us beyond death. It knits an individual into a larger story, and this poetic language “itself enters the tradition.” Perhaps this is why Sedakova’s poetry is dedicated to her grandmother and given the title Old Songs. It’s a continuation of tradition. These poems teach us how to move through the world.

This isn’t to say that reading poetry is easy. It isn’t. I barely understand it. All I know is that, ever since I’ve started reading poems, I’ve become a happier person who is more thoughtful. I feel as though I’ve been put into my proper place and situated on my journey. This is what poems do. The difficulty isn’t that poetry is too hard. It’s too simple. Poems make us slow down to pay attention, but it’s not easy for us to not be distracted by constant entertainment and sideshows.

Poet Olga Sedakova

Writing in a culture stripped bare

Born in Moscow in 1949, Sedakova wrote Old Songs in the early 1980s, and it’s only now appearing in an English translation thanks to translator Martha Kelly, who in her work is trying to capture the simplicity of the original language, as she calls it, “a sense of words worn down as smooth as a river rock.” The book has been longlisted for the 2024 PEN Award for Poetry in Translation.

In the late-Soviet era of the 80s, when culture had been stripped bare, Sedakova quietly but courageously writes within an older tradition, often referencing folk wisdom and biblical stories. Like a song, the poems accompany us.

Czesław Miłosz wrote that Sedakova succeeded in, “conveying the sense of a forgotten directness of perception and relation — not a lost simplicity, exactly, but a larger and more human world…” That’s a better way of phrasing what I’ve been trying to get at, that life is more than what we suppose. It’s stranger, and more wonderful. This is why paradoxes, like that of the house, which can be bafflingly simple in conception, reveal so much.

Bringing order to disorder

Old Songsis full of words that are oddly familiar but seem to be surrounded by the sacred. For instance; “The dead don’t need a thing/ not houses nor dresses nor hearing./ There’s nothing they need from us./ Not a thing, save everything on earth.” It’s like something you always knew but couldn’t quite put your finger on in order to explain it to someone else. In this sense, a poem reaches out from a higher realm to put our own disordered, complicated, conflicted realm into a more simple but profound order.

I can tell you, as someone who began taking poetry seriously about twenty years ago, there are days when reading a poem feels like life and death. The words are fundamental to who I am and who I am becoming. This is because the words are so simple. They are embodied truth. It takes a poet with skill, craftsmanship, and above all, the willingness to observe and think carefully to gesture towards this truth. The poet herself disappears. The words are everything.

This is how Olga Sedakova writes; “In every word, you’ll find a road,” and each one is like a “cut gem.” Extraneous words are cut away and what remains is polished and set in proper place, each word modifying the ones around it like a gold band setting a diamond solitaire in relief. There’s treasure here.

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