the possibility of miracle

Mar 5, 2020 poetry appreciation

I’m writing this at Gladstone’s Library in North Wales. It’s St David’s Day in 3 days’ time (it’ll be in the rear view mirror by the time this goes live) and a watery nearly-spring sunshine is lifting the air outside. How fitting, then, to read ‘Miracle on St David’s Day’ by Gillian Clarke, a wonderful Welsh poet, about springs of different sorts and the magic wrought by poetry. Be moved by this lovely poem here.

I rejoice in the poem’s tribute to poetry itself: how its music can pierce us, reach us, return us to ourselves, if only for a moment. That Clarke prefaces the poem with Wordsworth’s lines about the ‘bliss of solitude’ sets up an ironic contrast; for the solitudes at this place, which ‘might be a country house’ but isn’t, are far from blissful. The bluntness of ‘I am reading poetry to the insane’ belies the tenderness of the action and the attitude the poem as a whole conveys. Indeed, part of the poem’s power lies in this juxtaposition of the vocabularies of the medical and prosaic alongside the extraordinary and spiritual: ‘the insane’ and ‘schizophrenic’ are set against ‘beautiful’, ‘miracle’, ‘music of speech’. There’s such tenderness in this poem, such compassion for these ‘presences, absences’.

The poem speaks for itself: it has the unfussy clarity of water, and water’s beauty and movement, too. I love the fact that it doesn’t make huge claims: it’s only ‘Miracle’, not miracles, and the poem acknowledges that the woman ‘[i]n a cage of first March sun [is] not listening, not feeling/ … absent’. But then, there’s nothing mere about even a single miracle; and that the ‘big, dumb labouring man’ finds a voice’, ‘remember[s] there was a music/ of speech and that once he had something to say’ is enough—more than enough: everything. It doesn’t cancel out the tragedy of ‘the dumbness of [his] misery’, nor the other absences. But it sits alongside them. It’s what there is of good in this moment, and deserves the commemoration Clarke gives it. I’m so glad she found a way to write this poem, after all this time.

‘Miracle on St David’s Day’ puts me in mind of the scene in Schindler’s List where Schindler, having “bought” as many lives as he can, faces the fact that the list is now closed. He can never do “enough”, but Stern reminds him that there is nothing limited in what he is doing: ‘the list is an absolute good’. Later Stern quotes from the Talmud: ‘Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire’. (You can watch two scenes here and here). ‘Miracle on St David’s day’ lets us share in a passing experience of redemption, fleeting but nonetheless real. And I love it for that.

2 thoughts on “the possibility of miracle”
  1. That’s the second time in three weeks that you’ve introduced me to a poem that’s brought tears, the empty wineglass did too, though my reading of it differs from yours. No matter.
    Thank you so much

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