Ten Poems for the End of the World

EndNick Ripatrazone at The Millions:

We don’t know when it will happen — whether some April or July or December will be the cruelest month — but we know poets are fascinated with the end of the world. Novelists and essayists ponder the apocalypse, but poems are particularly suited toward capturing the anxiety of the end.

Consider Robert Penn Warren’sEvening Hawk,” which narrows from the grand expansive — a hawk’s wing that “scythes down another day” along the “crashless fall of stalks of Time” — to the airless and anxious: “If there were no wind we might, we think, hear / The earth grind on its axis, or history / Drip in darkness like a leaking pipe in the cellar.” The relative brevity of Warren’s poem enables its power. We don’t need volumes upon volumes to proclaim the end: we need one final, focused gasp.

In a letter dated May 16, 1945, Wallace Stevens posed a question as a statement: “At the moment, the war is shifting from Europe to Asia, and why one should be writing about poetry at all is hard to understand.” Faced with destruction and death, the action of criticism feels cold and academic. Poetry, on the other hand, becomes necessary as the world crumbles. After 9/11, poetry seemed natural; many of us in New York City and its shadow carried folded copies of W.B. Yeats’sThe Second Coming” and “September 1, 1939” by W.H. Auden.

If we accept Stevens’s definition of the poetic act as “the desire to contain the world wholly within one’s own perception of it,” then poems about the end are simultaneously selfish and heroic attempts at survival. Here are 10 poems to prepare us for the end of the world.

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