An American elegy


Poetry can heal an ailing heart,” says distinguished American poet, Robin Metz. Currently, Sir Philip Sidney Post Professor of Creative Writing at Knox College, Illinois, Metz has mastered this mantra from his time spent in the Himalayas.

During his visit to the Himalayas, Metz right away grasped the rationale that defines the basics of creative writing. “Disturbance in the rest of the world is so great,” he opined, “that to be in the Himalayas is to learn the beauty of that delicate balance which defines the essence of all creative writing.”

The swift flow of the Ganges at Haridwar moved his heart so deeply that he literally got swept away in its wild currents. Metz had gone there to watch the ‘lighting of the Lamps’ the nightly ceremonial floating of candles on the sacred waters in the memory of dead ones. He was so charged by the ritual and incantations that he forgot the peril that lay in bathing on the banks of Ganges.

“The people there came to my rescue, risking their own lives, and pulled me out of the fearsome waters,” Metz recalls of the fateful evening. “They saved my life and took me to a temple nearby. Later I was declared an honorary Hindu by the head priest.”

Why did Metz go to the Ganges? Why watch the floating of the lamps in memory of dead ones? The questions involve the strands that weave the tapestry of his life and creative world.

The first time I saw Metz at one of my readings in a boat on the river Thames, I could sense he was a deeply anguished man mourning over the loss of someone dear to his heart. Later as he presented me his book of poems, Unbidden Angel, I learnt that his wife, Elizabeth Jahnke Metz, had died unexpectedly some years ago, not long after their marriage. The book remains an elegy for his deceased wife and offers concrete images of anguish and subsequent attempts to overcome the loss.

A closer look at Metz’s life reveals how bereavement has been central to his entire life. He grew up in Pittsburgh, on the plateau where the confluence of the Allegheny river from the northeast and the Monongahela River from the south forms the Ohio River. As a young boy, Metz saw this idyllic landscape being devastated by senseless industrial growth. Thus, he grew up as an elegiac man mourning the loss of his beautiful birthplace.

“Pittsburgh was so notorious for the pollution caused by its steel industry,” laments Metz, “that when Charles Dickens visited the city, he called it, ‘Hell with the lid taken off.’”

Accordingly, the metaphor of loss echoes in his works where the public and private mingle. Here is an elegy not only for his deceased wife but also for the America whose dreams have shattered. Referring to contemporary chaos in American politics and the Iraq war, Metz says, “There is virtually no support within literary society. So little support, in fact, that we did not even realise such a bizarre thing could occur. However, we do bear responsibility for not addressing the Iraq war.

“We are in a crossfire of fundamentalisms, be it Islamic or Christian,” argues Metz. “Technological progress,” he adds, “came so fast that people feel intimated by it. People think it is generated by America, which is not entirely true. Muslim and Christian fundamentalists share many psychological and philosophical perspectives. I was offended by the Taliban’s destruction of Buddha’s idol, which was not acceptable by any standards.”

An avid enemy of Puritanism of any kind, Metz thinks it was appropriate to engage in Afghanistan, “but I am very sorry we did not follow through to ensure democratic life in Afghanistan.”

And Iraq? “The war in Iraq will go down as one of the greatest mistakes of our time, the foolhardiness of it, the lies and duplicity of it.”

On the question of which contemporary writers in the States are most prominent, our river man uttered an answer based on Himalayan metaphor: “There are so many peaks that you cannot see Everest.”

The writer can be reached at