Alienation, Angst, Critiques, Jane Paterson Basil, Life, Outstanding Bloggers, Poetry, Quality of Life

Poetry Critique: “Existential Angst” by Jane

(About a 6 minute read)

Dear Reader,

I have on occasion wondered whether it was possible to compose existential angst poetry without, however, coming across as so much whining.

The occasions have usually been when someone has asked me to read an angst-ridden poem of theirs.  That hasn’t happened recently, but it used to be fairly common back in the days I hung out with a lot of young people in their teens and early twenties.

So far as I can recall, the one thing all those poems shared was that they came across as whining.  Some of the poems were quite powerful: I still recall one that I thought at the time was so moving it could force me to eat three-o’clock-in-the-morning darkness.

Yet even that poem seemed to whine.  At least to me. And most likely because it whined to me, I recall thinking the poem had stopped short of the greatness the poet herself obviously had in her.

Yesterday, I came across a poem by Jane — who is fast becoming my favorite contemporary poet — that, to my mind, ingeniously evokes angst without at all coming across as whining.

And how does it do that?  I’ll save the explanation for after you’ve read the poem.  See if you agree with me!



Existential Angst by  ©Jane Paterson Basil

My thirst: 

When did it surface?
Is it right to lay the blame
on a fly in my DNA, a crack in the egg,
a badly-placed step in the dance of the sperm?
Did it seep in while I swam in neo-natal simplicity?
Is it lack or a perverse surplus; missing mineral or toxic germ,
or is it quickening depletion?

Can’t slake my thirst.

Oozing through a bruising birth canal,
keening for unseen  freedom, did I forget to collect
my nourishing any-time drinks?

I started to burst

Lying naked at the wide end of space,
thin flesh tingling with echoes, did I relish or regret
my clamorous exit from the womb?

while mother nursed

My mouth spelled an O
around a milky breast, my ready tongue reached to feed –
did not the food fulfil my need?

and dreams were rehearsed

When shadows
ignored each command, did they steal
my core of stability?

and knowledge reversed

When my expanding brain saw
that the world was not me, and I was not the world
did abandonment hurt?

and faith was submersed

When young fingers
plucked springtime flowers that died,
did I mourn mortality?

and pain interspersed

When oak trees
offered me gifts that I could not reach,
did the distance scrape me?

and thunderclouds cursed.

When I tried,
yet failed to describe my existential angst,
did I itch to die?

Flew head-first

When a slick film
thickened over whimpering blood – a second skin to protect me,
did it block entry to the piece which was missing?

for the limits of verse.

How can it be
that even as I embrace life, my lungs
would like to cease breathing?

Still the ache of thirst;

can’t slake my thirst.

Dear Jane,

As I see it (and remember — I don’t know much about poetry), the challenge to creating a good angst poem is two-fold.  First, to evoke some emotion, usually angst itself.  Second, to do so in a way that is not self-defeating, that does not weaken or destroy your ability to accomplish the first goal.  For instance, to come across as whining would weaken or destroy the accomplishment of your first goal, in my opinion.

Your poem in no way comes across to me as whining. Nor does it seem to have any other serious flaws that weaken or destroy it’s ability to evoke emotions.

In fact, so much could be said in favor of this poem that I feel it would be easy to write a university undergrad paper on it.  But not even the master of lengthy (unread) blog posts that I am, am I going to tackle a 5000 word essay here.  So a few highlights — and only a few highlights:

(1) How fascinating it was of you to combine two poems!  The one in bolded words, and the one in italics.  The one raw, the other refined.

(2) These lines make me ache — in large part because they do NOT call upon the reader to feel pity or even sympathy:

How can it be
that even as I embrace life, my lungs
would like to cease breathing?

What a beautiful way to express angst.  First you acknowledge the value of life.  It is a common mistake in angst poetry to condemn — even to passionately condemn — life, as if the more forcefully you condemn it, the more you will force the reader to feel your pain.

Of course, it doesn’t work that way, as you very well know, Jane.  In practice, to condemn life alienates all but a dysfunctional few.

But you go beyond acknowledging the value of life there — you are also quite careful to state that it is your lungs that wish to cease breathing, rather than you.  Wonderfully done! It distances you (and the reader) from being forced to either agree life is not worth living or abandon the poem.

Beyond that, there is subtle way in which the last line is punched up, made more poignant by the phrasing — the message is your desire to die is something so strong in you, you have as little control over it as you do breathing.

(3) One more thing.  It cannot escape me the main poem is a series of questions, each question providing a vivid image for why you will, in the end, declare your lungs want you dead.  But here, the same principle is at work: By phrasing these images as questions, you are able to avoid coming across as in any way whining.

When young fingers
plucked springtime flowers that died,
did I mourn mortality?

How easily a less accomplished poet such as myself could have messed up that image as something along these lines:

All the pretty flowers
Died and rotted when I plucked them

I do have one question of you, Jane: What is the relationship between the two poems in you poem?  What did you hope to accomplish?

All the best,



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