Wait: Galway Kinnell’s Beautiful and Life-Giving Poem for a Young Friend Contemplating Suicide
“Be there to hear … the flute of your whole existence…”
By Maria Popova
“To decide whether life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question of philosophy,” Albert Camus famously wrote — a statement that has only swelled in intellectual notoriety and spiritual significance in the half-century since. But beyond philosophy, when the will to live or die plays out in the personal realm, it creates a vortex of pain — not only for the anguished person contemplating suicide but for those who love them, to say nothing of the perilous social contagion of suicide.
Pulitzer-winning poet Galway Kinnell (February 1, 1927–October 28, 2014) addressed this elemental question of existence with extraordinary compassion and spiritual grace in a poem he wrote for a student of his who was contemplating suicide after the abrupt end of a romance. Originally published in Kinnell’s beautiful and beautifully titled 1980 collection Mortal Acts, Mortal Words, it was later included in A New Selected Poems (public library).
In this recording courtesy of the Academy of American Poets, Kinnell brings his miraculously life-giving words to life:
Wait, for now.
Distrust everything, if you have to.
But trust the hours. Haven’t they
carried you everywhere, up to now?
Personal events will become interesting again.
Hair will become interesting.
Pain will become interesting.
Buds that open out of season will become lovely again.
Second-hand gloves will become lovely again,
their memories are what give them
the need for other hands. And the desolation
of lovers is the same: that enormous emptiness
carved out of such tiny beings as we are
asks to be filled; the need
for the new love is faithfulness to the old.
Don’t go too early.
You’re tired. But everyone’s tired.
But no one is tired enough.
Only wait a while and listen.
Music of hair,
Music of pain,
music of looms weaving all our loves again.
Be there to hear it, it will be the only time,
most of all to hear,
the flute of your whole existence,
rehearsed by the sorrows, play itself into total exhaustion.
I am grateful to Rosanne Cash and the New York Public Library’s Paul Holdengräber for bringing this enormously enlivening poem to my attention. Complement it with Diane Ackerman on what working at a suicide prevention hotline taught her about the human spirit.
For more beloved poets performing their work, hear Sylvia Plath reading “Spinster,” “The Birthday Present,” and “The Disquieting Muses,” Billy Collins reading “Aristotle,” T.S. Eliot reading “Burnt Norton,” Lucille Clifton reading “won’t you celebrate with me,” Elizabeth Alexander reading “Ars Poetica #100: I Believe,” Sarah Kay reading “The Paradox,” and Mary Oliver reading “Wild Geese.”
Published May 16, 2016