bittersweet poetry

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When Bitter Meets Sweet


In poetry writing we see many dancing pairs. Sometimes they are pulled tight into a slow dance, and other times one spins off from the other for a bit of solo work before magnetically returning home to her partner.

This came to mind as I read Stephen Dunn’s poem “Sweetness.” It starts with generalities and philosophical abstractions about life, then settles in to some specifics by finding its way to a concrete example. The camera slowly pans across life, then zooms in on a specific life.

In this case, the poem is tracing life’s bittersweet roots. How can something so bad be so beautiful? Watch for the poem’s “turn” in the sixth tercet:


by Stephen Dunn

Just when it has seemed I couldn’t bear
one more friend
waking with a tumor, one more maniac

with a perfect reason, often a sweetness
has come
and changed nothing in the world

except the way I stumbled through it,
for a while lost
in the ignorance of loving

someone or something, the world shrunk
to mouth-size,
hand-size, and never seeming small.

I acknowledge there is no sweetness
that doesn’t leave a stain,
no sweetness that’s ever sufficiently sweet.

Tonight a friend called to say his lover
was killed in a car
he was driving. His voice was low

and guttural, he repeated what he needed
to repeat, and I repeated
the one or two words we have for such grief

until we were speaking only in tones.
Often a sweetness comes
as if on loan, stays just long enough

to make sense of what it means to be alive,
then returns to its dark
source. As for me, I don’t care

where it’s been, or what bitter road
it’s traveled
to come so far, to taste so good.


Most interesting here is how sweetness arrives, staying “just long enough / to make sense of what it means to be alive, / then returns to its dark / source.” It seems passing strange to see sweetness described this way, but that is one of the functions of poetry, to explain the passing strange, or at least to make it a possibility for startled readers.

When sweetness travels a “bitter road,” Dunn seems to imply, it is most like life. It has come far for this epiphany, this understanding that blending and contrasts most often bring out the true nature of life.

Dance on, paradox.