Robyn Sarah on Beauty

Welcome to the third installment of On Beauty, a series of interviews with poets about their relationship to beauty. For an introduction to the project, see  Poets On Beauty. The first interview, with Sonnet L’Abbé, can be found at L’Abbé On Beauty. Today I’m pleased to bring you the thoughts of Robyn Sarah, whose poetry I admire for its exquisitely fine-tuned sensitivity. ‘Sensitivity’ is one of those double-edged words, much like ‘beauty,’ that can be compliment or dismissal, but knowing something of Sarah’s intelligence, I feel confident in assuming both that she is well aware of this and that she will understand the compliment—and if ‘sensitivity’ has introduced any question about her backbone, her responses below should set it to rest. (For more information about Sarah’s work as poet and editor, see the biography at the end of this post.  The author photograph on the Lemon Hound homepage is by D. R. Cowles.)

I have asked Sarah the same three questions I am asking of all the interviewees:

Can you point me toward a poem you find beautiful? In what way do you think of or experience this poem as beautiful?

Do you hope for, look toward, seek out beauty in your work as a poet? Why or why not?

Do you hope for, look toward, seek out beauty in other aspects of your life?

In answering these questions, Sarah has reordered them to suit her line of thought:

I find it almost impossible to think of singling out one poem as a poem that I find beautiful; I find most if not all poems that I like “beautiful”, in one way or another: that is why I like them. But the very fact that I can say “in one way or another” suggests that “beauty” is a multifaceted word, and this is another thing that makes these apparently simple questions a bit of a conundrum to me.

Aside from the fact that one person may find beautiful a painting (e.g.) that another would call ugly (matters of personal taste), we apply the word in such diverse ways, to such diverse categories – to objects that we perceive with the eyes, the ears, the mind, or a combination. What do we mean by “beautiful”? Consider: a beautiful painting, sculpture, piece of architecture. A beautiful song or piece of music. A beautiful poem, story, novel. Beautiful scenery, “beauties of nature.” A beautiful face. A beautiful thought or idea. A beautiful mathematical formula. A beautiful machine. A beautiful move in chess. A beautiful scoring play in competitive sports; a beautifully executed move in any athletic activity…

Let us say that where consensus would call a thing beautiful, we are speaking of such qualities as formal organization, harmonious proportion, balance, symmetry, economy and unity of design and intention, and perhaps a bit of surprise—something unique, even anomalous, that serves only to enhance the effect of the foregoing qualities. Beyond this, I think we are also speaking of an emotional response. To see (or hear, or read) something beautiful gives us a momentary lift, a frisson of pleasure and delight. It elevates us. It moves us. It is a balm to the spirit. So, to answer the last question first: Do I hope for, look toward, seek out beauty in other [i.e. non-literary] aspects of my life? Of course I do. Don’t we all? Isn’t it only human to seek out what lifts us, delights us, and comforts us?

I’m well aware that there are those in the contemporary art world who believe that “beauty”, as a value in the arts, is retrograde, reactionary, bourgeois, decadent, or at best irrelevant. Art, this thinking goes, should not be a balm. Art should challenge us, shock us, shake up our assumptions, disturb us. The word “disturbing”, applied by critics to the work of an artist, has taken on the connotation of an aesthetic value; critics use it (over-use it) as an accolade. It has become the new “beautiful.” Personally, I do not look to art to be “disturbed”; I find more than enough to disturb me elsewhere. I look to art to balance what is disturbing in the world.

Second question: do I hope for beauty in my work as a poet? Certainly I do; I am always looking to bring into play the various formal and aural devices that infuse language with music (rhyme, repetition, alliteration, assonance, meter, cadence, stanzaic structure) and the figurative devices that invest a thought with “lift” (namely, metaphor in its various forms). These are the devices that make it possible for poetry to deliver, in compressed form, and almost subliminally, thoughts that would otherwise take a weight of verbiage to express, and a corresponding plodding effort on the part of a reader to absorb.

Third question: Can I point to a poem I consider beautiful? As I mentioned, I find different poems beautiful in different ways, and the poetry-lover in me protests vigorously at being asked to single one out. But for the purposes of this exercise, here are two short poems by A. E. Housman.  Both are from More Poems:


I to my perils
Of cheat and charmer
Came clad in armour
By stars benign.
Hope lies to mortals,
And most believe her.
But man’s deceiver
Was never mine.

The thoughts of others
Were light and fleeting,
Of lovers’ meeting
Or luck or fame.
Mine were of trouble,
And mine were steady.
So I was ready
When trouble came.


Stars, I have seen them fall,
But when they drop and die,
No star is lost at all
From all the star-sown sky.
The toil of all that be
Helps not the primal fault;
It rains into the sea,
And still the sea is salt.

The meter and rhyme in these terse, graceful, songlike lyrics – and the metaphor in the second one; how much Housman is able to pack into eight short lines! – make them almost instantly memorizable; and to speak them aloud is to feel comforted in spite of their deep pessimism. These poems address the inevitability of “trouble” in human lives, and an imperfect world whose “primal fault” cannot be righted. Yet what they say, they say so musically, so simply, with such economy, equipoise and dignity – such an absence of sloppy sentimentality (or its flip side, exploitation of the bad and ugly) – that their own loveliness as lyrics becomes a counterbalance to the sombre note they sound.

Follow-up Question:  In your response, you twice mention beauty as a comfort; in the case of the Housman poems you show us that their sounds, imagery, and figures allow us to be comforted “in spite of” the poems’ pessimism. You refer to comfort as a basic human need, but a person might think that comfort is a problem in a world replete with problems that are, as you say, disturbing; one might worry that to be comforted by beauty is to put those problems aside and hence to be irresponsible. Can you say something more about the relation between seeking comfort in beauty and political responsibility? Your Housman discussion seems to indicate that we need to strike a balance between comfort and experience of the world’s troubles, which is interesting because ‘balance’ is often associated with beauty; to my eye, you seem to be pointing toward a second-order beauty…thoughts?

I am not sure what you mean by a “second-order beauty”*… but if I may answer a question with a question: Wherein does finding comfort in beauty suggest political irresponsibility? Can one not appreciate beauty in the arts without abdicating the social contract? Does the one preclude the other? Since when? I am familiar with this line of argument and, frankly, I find it at best puritanical and at worst, fascist. Does art need to be “political” to validate itself? Why should it have to validate itself at all? What is this fear of beauty and guilt at finding comfort in it? When did “comfort” become a dirty word? And who is to say that a person who finds comfort in beauty, or creates beautiful art, is any less likely to vote, give to charity, volunteer in the community, write a letter to the newspaper or to their MP about some perceived evil, than one who does not? I would argue that if anything, such a person exhibits sensitivity and is therefore more likely to be socially responsible. Where is it written that an artist must needs make her art the vehicle for exercising her political responsibility – or that art is “bad for us” unless it is overtly political?

One has only to turn on the news to be made aware that we live in a “world replete with problems that are disturbing.” This is our steady diet. In my life I have been wonderstruck and comforted by beauty in works of art, literature, and music. The heart-lift that these works have given me renews my courage and strengthens my better nature – both to go on living gracefully in a troubled world, and to work (where I can – and with the “wisdom to know the difference”) towards changing what can be changed. I would like to return the gift (or rather, pass it on) by leaving behind a few poems that might give to others what poets of the past have given to me, and by being able to play a few pieces on the piano in a way that can make faces glow. In what way is this politically irresponsible?

*As I wrote to Sarah afterward, I had wondered whether “second-order beauty” was needlessly obscure. To clarify: my thought was that there’s the beauty of music and image, and that this beauty seems to be part of another kind of beauty that lies in the balance (and tension?) between music/image and the sad state of the world the poems describe.


Robyn Sarah was born in New York City to Canadian parents and grew up in Montreal, where she still lives. A poet, writer, literary editor, and musician, she is the author of nine poetry collections as well as two collections of short stories and a book of essays, Little Eurekas: A Decade’s Thought on Poetry. Her poems have been anthologized in Fifteen Canadian Poets x 2 and x 3, The Best Canadian Poetry in English (2009 and 2010), The Bedford Introduction to Literature, The Norton Anthology of Poetry, Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems for Hard Times, and Modern Canadian Poets: An Anthology (UK). She edited The Essential George Johnston, The Essential Don Coles, and The Essential Margaret Avison for The Porcupine’s Quill, and is currently poetry editor for Cormorant Books in Ontario.

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