Today, one year on from the EU membership referendum, I’m posting an edited version of a piece I wrote for Agenda, at the invitation of Patricia McCarthy, back in June 2016, which now seems like a hundred years ago. That issue of Agenda – ‘The Power of Poetry’ (Vol 50, nos 3-4) is bursting with interesting stuff.
‘Late afternoon. Midsummer light is greying outside. Thunder crashes through the sky for the umpteenth time this month. The Sussex downland landscape all around me seems heavy. I see splits and wounds everywhere. I am writing this on the 24th June 2016.
At times of intense pain, I tend to retreat into silence, trying to find the still space inside myself, wanting to feel what I must feel first of all in my body. Only later, when the feelings come to my mind, do I find that words arrive – the words of poems I love, usually, because these are the most memorable.
Yesterday morning I lay in bed for an hour after hearing the Brexit news. Then I thought of WB Yeats’ poem ‘The Second Coming’ and Raymond Carver’s ‘Caution’ and Robert Frost’s ‘The Road Not Taken’. When I had recited to myself the parts of these and of various other favourite poems that I could recall, I no longer felt alone, no longer quite as frightened.
Poetry has been central to my life since I was given my first anthology of poems at the age of six. My spiritual journey so far has been long and complicated. But perhaps the most important stage of it has been discovering that, in the end, I find more spiritual succour in poetry than I do in organized religion.
When I was a regular church-goer (I am a lapsed Roman Catholic convert), it was the poetic language – in hymns, psalms and other texts – that harnessed and focused my spirituality. But about fifteen years ago, caught up in a lengthy storm of loss, I found myself in tears every time I went to church and whenever I sang or spoke or heard the wonderful words I loved. After a while I decided to stay at home and read in private. No embarrassment and no exposure, but just as much comfort and insight, and a similar but different form of connection and community. I had become a fully signed up member of the broad church of poetry.
Here are some of the reasons I think poetry is important, why it makes a difference:
- Poetry engages the reader with the intricacies of the most skilled use of language – the kind that chases and refines thought.
- When we read poetry we commune with all those other poetry readers – past, present and future.
- Poetry is a place where silence is truly as important as sound.
- Poetry – in its dynamic, contemplative, lyrical, dramatic, narrative and many other forms – offers so many opportunities to feel, be, meditate. For me, standing in this welcoming but rigorous space is the same as praying.
- In the music and metaphor of poetry, we find release, comfort. We feel refreshed and renewed. We feel better.
In my case, joining the church of poetry also meant taking on a continuing apprenticeship and trying to write it – I was setting out as a poetry pilgrim and hitching my small wagon to the long, winding caravan.
I write in order to become a better reader. And I read partly in order to become a better writer. It’s two-way traffic. Reading and writing are of course both part of one activity.
My relationship with writing poetry is very much like my relationship with reading it. I have to feel things first in my body, relate to the feelings later with my mind, and then try to enter the language. Reading and writing poetry – both have helped me to keep on keeping on through illness, bereavement, confusion – in love, in fear, in hope, in despair. It is in poetry that I find out what I feel, who I am, how to communicate. How to commune.
Some years ago, during an intense fortnight of running poetry reading and writing workshops in HMP Shepton Mallet – working with a room full of men who had committed the most serious of crimes – I was amazed to witness poems acting as ambassadors and interpreters, literally allowing the men to say and feel things they had not been able to articulate until that moment. It was astonishingly moving, for all of us, and confirmed my sense of the powerful work of reconnection that poetry can do.
When I was trying to make the decision whether or not to undergo risk-reducing double mastectomy in 2006, I read widely. It was poetry that helped most – Elizabeth Bishop, Adrienne Rich, Raymond Carver, Seamus Heaney… the list goes on and on. Poems gave me sustenance and I could always cope with reading a poem – even in moments of tension, anxiety, pain and exhaustion when I couldn’t easily engage with fiction.
After my surgery I wrote of my own experiences, lifting up words and memories like offerings. I wrote not because it helped me – actually, it was really tough to write – but because I had to. However, just as in every other demanding situation of loss and dramatic change, writing did help in the end, often in ways I could never have envisaged.
I find that the process of sensing, feeling, uncovering, writing and honing a poem takes me to new levels of understanding the initial impulse. Each stage of crafting helps me to make sense of things. Every poem I attempt to write is both a departure and an arrival. A step along the way.
Sometimes I sit down to write with just a feeling, like an itch. The physical movement of writing, and then the pacing around the room or shifting in my chair between bursts of writing, these move the feeling, the itch, through my body until I sense what it might be. Then my mind joins in. Five times out of ten, words don’t appear, or a poem fails to grow out of the words that do appear. But I have still felt the beginnings of the poem, in the strange itchy stillness. I have known something like prayer. I have dwelt in the communal space and experienced its energy and power.’