I wrote “Optimism” at a time when the resilience it speaks of was needed. As poets do, I waited for some image or idea to open the hard field those weeks and months were. What came was “crown shyness”: the way that trees, rather than compete for light, sometimes withdraw from their neighbors’ shade and grow instead toward any available brightness. A basic and exemplary sanity. The poem began, then, at the confluence of personal crisis and ecological pondering. But poems have their own fates, and this one has had many. It’s been framed on hospice walls and put into a series of letterpress broadsides responding to the invasion of Iraq. Throughout the 2008 presidential race, I gave it at readings as an expression of hope for our country’s saner future. Most recently, a young writer from Zimbabwe, Petina Gappah, used it as the epigraph for her first book. When I e-mailed to ask how that happened, she answered that someone had sent her a copy and she’d thought the words “embodied perfectly the spirit of the Zimbabwean people.” Marianne Moore once said, “Poetry watches life with affection.” In this spirit, poetry itself is an instrument of resilience, reflecting life’s continuing embrace of its own implausible, risky existence. Both poetry and life take whatever challenge comes — painful or joyous — as a lattice for invention, a chance to increase possibility, variety, beauty, warmth, endurance. Each holds a limitless capacity to surprise and go on.
(Editor’s Note: To see this poem laid out correctly on paper or on your screen, click the Print button in the Toolbox.)
More and more I have come to admire resilience.
Not the simple resistance of a pillow, whose foam
returns over and over to the same shape, but the sinuous
tenacity of a tree: finding the light newly blocked on one side,
it turns in another. A blind intelligence, true.
But out of such persistence arose turtles, rivers,
mitochondria, figs — all this resinous, unretractable earth.
“Optimism” first appeared in “Given Sugar, Given Salt” (HarperCollins, 2001). Jane Hirshfield will be a featured presenter at the Poetry and Prose Pavilion at the National Book Festival on September 26 on the National Mall from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.