Sara Teasdale’s Poem, ‘The Answer’

Simplicity in poetry is what I seek. I appreciate someone well-versed in language and able to wield it expertly in service of a great technical poem, albeit, I’m not exactly well-trained in what is good technically and what isn’t. But at the end of the day, I want that gut punch, and that often is only achievable through more direct, simple lines.

Consider Sara Teasdale’s poem The Answer:

When I go back to earth
And all my joyous body
Puts off the red and white
That once had been so proud,

If men should pass above
With false and feeble pity,
My dust will find a voice
To answer them aloud:
“Be still, I am content,

Take back your poor compassion,
Joy was a flame in me
Too steady to destroy;
Lithe as a bending reed
Loving the storm that sways her—

I found more joy in sorrow
Than you could find in joy.”

“Teasdale’s work had always been characterized by its simplicity and clarity, her use of classical forms, and her passionate and romantic subject matter,” according to a biography by the Academy of American Poets.

So it seems like I came upon the right kind of poet for my particular tastes in poetry: simplicity and clarity.

Writing poetry in the early 1900s (and she was quite acclaimed, too, as she won the precursor to the Pulitzer Prize in poetry known as the Columbia University Poetry Society Prize), Sara Teasdale had a rather tragic end becoming an invalid due to pneumonia and then ultimately killing herself in 1933.

But there’s something optimistic, perhaps, in The Answer, because even in death “my dust will find a voice,” she said. Again, that’s a simple but beautiful line.

She’s content. She doesn’t want to give quarter to any “false and feeble pity,” and as it happens (here’s the gut punch), “I found more joy in sorrow than you can find in joy.”

Sorrow is a wellspring that seems endless when it comes to inspiring art and conjuring a life full of searching and ultimately, even meaning. And it seems, also a life of joy. Or as Ta-Nehisi Coates likes to say (he even named a book after it), life is about “the beautiful struggle.” There’s beauty in the struggle, the sorrow, and the pain. Sometimes it certainly doesn’t seem that way, but I suspect that Teasdale is saying that there is more beauty and joy within sorrow — a measure of a life well-lived is one that isn’t free of sorrow — than there is in a false sense of joy, a showy joy, if you will.

I don’t read that as cynical or woe-as-me or art/creative martyrdom (I do think some can take it too far in terms of thinking, for example, addiction or other issues is what fuels their art), but beautiful. If you make it through life unscathed, did you really live it?

Misery loves company, as the cliche adage goes, but sometimes, misery is a good friend, in its own way. As she says, “Loving the storm that sways her.” In other words, misery could be a “good friend” to the extent that the swaying storm while in the moment may not be ideal, it could lead you in a new, joyful direction that you wouldn’t have taken otherwise. That’s why I find it a more optimistic understanding of sorrow than a somewhat nihilistic reveling in it.

What do you think about this poem? How do you interpret finding “joy in sorrow”?

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