“To Be Held” by Linda Hogan


To Be Held

To be held
by the light
was what I wanted,
to be a tree drinking the rain,
no longer parched in this hot land.
To be roots in a tunnel growing
but also to be sheltering the inborn leaves
and the green slide of mineral
down the immense distances
into infinite comfort
and the land here, only clay,
still contains and consumes
the thirsty need
the way a tree always shelters the unborn life
waiting for the healing
after the storm
which has been our life.


Linda Hogan, “To Be Held,” from Dark. Sweet: New & Selected Poems. Copyright © 2014 by Linda Hogan. Reprinted with the permission of The Permissions Company, LLC, on behalf of Coffee House Press, available for order here. Reprinted in Healing the Divide: Poems of Kindness and Connection (Green Writers Press 2019), available for order here.


Linda Hogan is the author of several poetry collections, including A History of Kindness (Torrey House Press 2020), Dark. Sweet. New & Selected Poems (Coffee House Press 2014), Rounding the Human Corners (Coffee House Press 2008), and The Book of Medicines (Coffee House Press 1993), which received the Colorado Book Award and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. She currently serves as writer-in-residence for the Chickasaw Nation and in 2007 was inducted into the Chickasaw Hall of Fame. Other honors and awards include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation, the Henry David Thoreau Prize for Nature Writing, a Lannan Literary Award for Poetry, and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers Circle of the Americas. She lives in Colorado.




Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

This week’s poem, “To Be Held” by Linda Hogan, is unmetered and unrhymed free verse in a single, 17-line stanza. Line length is variable but tends to be short, consisting in lines 1, 2, 13, and 16 of just three one-syllable words. The poem holds two full sentences, one ending with line 5 and one ending with the very last line, syntax that creates a 1/3 and 2/3 structure reminiscent of the shape of a tree’s long trunk topped by a crown of leaves.

Diction is markedly simple, with a preponderance of one-syllable words and only three (“sheltering,” “mineral,” and “infinite”) containing more than two syllables. The short lines and plainspoken, heartfelt diction combine to create a sense of something like imperturbable “being-ness” with the poem seeming to express a simple wisdom and confidence about what it is.

The primary poetic device is image as the speaker first expresses her desire to be a tree, and then in an extended metaphor, imagines herself as one. Other elements such as anaphora, careful line breaks, and very sparingly used consonance (“contains and consumes” in line 12) also come into play.

I found this poem in a new anthology I am pleased to be a part of: Healing the Divide: Poems of Kindness & Connection(Green Writers Press 2019), edited by poet James Crews and featuring work by Mark Doty, Ross Gay, Donald Hall, Marie Howe, Danusha Laméris, Naomi Shihab Nye, William Stafford, and others, along with an introduction by Ted Kooser.

In an interview about the book for Literary North, Crews says the idea for it came while he was in the shower one day reflecting on the way human connection, sometimes through language, can positively impact and even heal people’s lives. [Source here] Crews says the book is informed by his own always-evolving “practice of compassion and attention for the world as it is” and by a conviction that “if we’re really paying attention, we’ll see that we are not as divided as we think.” He believes that

poetry comes from some deeper place inside us—whether we call that the soul, the spirit, or the intuition—and as a result, it’s what we really want to say, it’s the truth as we know it. All art works this way, but poetry has a distinct advantage in that it’s made from the material of language that we use every day. Poets turn that democratic, raw material into something strange, harrowing, transcendent, beautiful, and often universal. I admit that I have a personal bias for poems that seek to uplift, and do so in accessible language, but creativity of all kinds has never been more important than it is right now at this political moment. [Id.]

In these difficult times, I find this editor’s worldview—reflected by the poems chosen for the anthology—so optimistic, refreshing, and restorative. Healing the Divide is a beautifully curated collection, one whose poems have given me much comfort over these past weeks and months during the pandemic.

What caught my eye with today’s poem, “To Be Held,” was the inversion of syntax in its first few lines: “To be held / by the light / was what I wanted.” The usual order for that phrase would have been “What I wanted was to be held by the light,” or more simply, “I wanted to be held by the light.” Contemporary poets tend to avoid inverted syntax, maybe because of its associations with the forced rhymes and meters of what we think of now as old-fashioned, stilted (and often very bad) poetry. Here, Hogan reminds me that in the hands of experienced poets, there are no “rules” about what should or should not go into poems. This inversion puts the important, powerful material—the act of being held by the light—forward and ahead of the speaker’s wants and desires. It also gives the writer the chance to employ some very effective anaphora in the form of three repetitions of “To be” at the beginnings of lines 1, 4, and 6 together with a fourth repetition within line 7.

And what is it that the speaker wants “to be?” She wants to be “held” and moreover to be “held by the light” (note how that line break allows the poem to communicate both meanings). She wants to be a tree, held by the light and drinking in the rain, and to be its roots. She wants to “shelter” young leaves along with some mysterious elemental force that reminds me of Dylan Thomas’s “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower:”

the green slide of mineral
down the immense distances
into infinite comfort

Because the entire poem takes off from and is constructed by a powerful expression of longing for what the speaker wants to be (but presumably is not), “To Be Held” feels a bit like an elegy or poem of loss in its first few lines. For example, “no longer parched in this hot land” suggests that the speaker has lived before in other places (or at other times) where the land was not so sere. But, the poem makes a significant turn in line 7, one that converts it into not quite a poem of celebration but at least one of consolation. I still get the sense, though, that the speaker misses a more verdant land or time, and more fertile soil. The line “the land here, only clay” resonated with me and my sometimes-frustrating efforts to cultivate a garden in California where the hardpan has to be chopped out with a pickaxe to plant even a single bulb.

But, instead of hating on that desiccated landscape and hot climate, the speaker finds solace in it. The land is barren clay, and yet it “still” manages to hold (“contain”) and absorb (“consume”) what the speaker calls “the thirsty need.” By now, I am reading the poem as a kind of ars poetica or manifesto about poetry and the reason why the poet writes poetry at all. Maybe that “need” is a metaphor for the creative urge, and maybe the author is coming to realize that it can be nurtured even in a barren landscape. That is, some settings are less superficially nurturing than others, but they can still harbor life and creativity.

While the first sentence and entire first third of the poem communicate aching need or thirst, the latter two-thirds and last sentence fulfill that need by describing how a tree can survive even in a high-desert climate. For such trees, deep roots are especially critical, and the ones in the tree the speaker aspires to be are deep enough to create a “tunnel.” To me, this signals that much of what is happening in this deceptively simple poem lies below the surface.

We are not told but can guess that the speaker is not living in her childhood landscape and that the landscape of her childhood has been transformed (perhaps by climate change or overdevelopment) in some hostile way. Balancing all those images of privation and thirst are some really juicy and satisfying images of new life and potential (“inborn leaves” and “unborn life”). If you look at just the verbs or verb forms in the poem, most have positive, life-affirming connotations. On the one hand, “parched,” “wanted,” and “consumes” all communicate unsatisfied longing. On the other, we also have “drinking,” “sheltering,” “growing,” “contains,” “shelters,” and “healing” along with several instances of the verb (“to be”) that communicates ongoing existence and survival. If “To Be Held” is an ars poetica, perhaps the speaker is saying that despite difficult conditions—and maybe even because of them—art can still thrive.

By the end of the poem, I felt a sense of solace held in an overarching order that is severe but ultimately benevolent. There is a sense of wholeness, a sense that what we perceive as the bad is balanced by and maybe even somehow part of the good, with both forces operating in some larger order beyond our ken. In this context, the speaker is able to anticipate a “healing” following a storm and that storm as “our life.” This puts things in perspective—a human life, even all human life, is but a passing meteorological incident in the vastly larger frame of all weather and all time.

“To Be Held” falls within the pastoral tradition of a poet wandering in nature and finding inspiration there. In it, the speaker encounters a tree in her desert landscape that then becomes a springboard for a larger reflection about humanity, what Wordsworth called “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” that “takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” It’s a lyrical poem, a potent expression of personal feeling at an instant in time. I appreciate “To Be Held” for its brevity and simplicity that nevertheless communicates a profound sense of comfort and renewal. I have read it many times during our confinement, especially before the weather changed, to remind myself again that there is still a spring and a future for our world and that it is still possible to make art in it.



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