The heart wants
Her horses back
Ada Limón – Downhearted
Increasingly this year, as time has slithered past, I have been considering and questioning my relationship with poetry, both the reading and writing of it. What is it for? Do I still think it’s important? Why do I feel ambiguous about it? Can I get the old love back? Where has my own creativity gone? Is it because writing into the face of a pandemic feels futile? After all, what can poetry do to help.
I began to understand that at least in part, these feelings were coming from social media. Every day on both Facebook and Twitter my time line is full of poems or links to poems. Sometimes this is a lovely thing, for example today someone posted an Anne Sexton poem that I didn’t know, Consorting With Angels (thanks Jack Grady). At other times it can feel like an indiscriminate flood of poetry that leaves me with the sensation that everyone is talking at once. So many poems clamouring for attention.
Then there is the fact that on-line there is so much emphasis on competitions and getting published; it can feel as if it is the getting published or the prize that is important, not the poem. Poetry as competitive sport.
The third element that I have found personally uncomfortable, is the particular focus there seems to be on poems that offer solace, mostly involving Nature in some way. I know this poetry is posted with the best of motives, to be a comfort, but this has been sitting at odds with my own sense of despair. How can poetry offer solace in the face of such human misery? How can a poem about the soothing influence of nature, soothe in a world where climate breakdown is happening? When asked to read a poem about beauty in a landscape or hope in the signs of spring, my inner eye flicks to burning animals, trees engulfed in flames, hundreds of thousands of dead migratory birds, starving polar bears. I say this as someone who has previously always found solace in the natural world. I found myself writing this little fragment
Nature is offering her condolences –
the high sky, the geraniums,
the gleam on the horse’s coat;
seedling, raindrop, rainbow,
stone and bird, weight and lift –
my heart is having none of it.
Then I read an article by Jonathan Zecher, Research fellow at the Australian Catholic University. He talks about the ancient term ‘acedia’, referred to by the 5th century monk, Cassian as ‘the noonday demon’. It particularly afflicted monks living in the special social constrictions of a monastery and resulted in ‘a strange combination of listlessness, undirected anxiety and an inability to concentrate.’ When I read this, it made sense of the phrase that has been running around in my head – my twelve months as a monk. We have been thrown into this monk-like-state by the pandemic, and government responses to it. Lockdown constricts physical space and movement, social distancing limits our physical contact with each other. In the early days of lockdown, at a distance from my first and new born granddaughter, I found myself with an almost overwhelming desire to simply touch her head, the soft skull of her. We also have the guilt that others are having it much worse. We have enforced isolation, constant uncertainty and a barrage of bad news to contend with, topped off by a large dollop of fear. Perhaps worst of all, we have emotional isolation.
In the midst of this, I was asked by Maria McManus to co-curate the 11th edition of her Jukebox Project that brings poetry out onto the street. The title of this curation is ‘no word for ‘Stay’, from the Seamus Deane poem, Strange Country and the idea was to gather poems from poets of the North who had lived experience of the ‘Troubles’. It was commissioned by the Centre Culturel Irlandais in Paris to sit alongside photographs from Gilles Peres, portraying the awful events of Bloody Sunday and the seemingly endless violence of the 1980s. These poems, from poets such as Ciaran Carson, Joan Newmann. Leontia Flynn, Jean Bleakney, Gail McConnell and others, do not offer comfort or solace. It was profoundly emotional to read them, to read and be reminded of the reality of living through those very dark days. During this process, it came to me that – of course – this is one of the things that poetry does. It articulates our shared humanity. Gearóid Mac Lochlainn’s poem in the curation, Second Tongue –
‘I am the tongue in the kidnapper’s sack
lips stitched, feet flailing
I am the tongue on the butcher’s block
in government offices
– reminded me that a good poem can speak in many ways, can curse as well as bless, challenge as well as comfort. I remembered why, as a troubled and mixed up teenager, I had fallen in love with poetry. The poems I loved were the poems that made me feel not so alone – even though reading them was a solitary pleasure. They felt like treasures I had found out for myself. From John Donne, wanting God to batter his heart to Edith Sitwell’s fire of heart and fire of mind; from Eliot’s rolled trousers to Plath’s Black Rook in Rainy Weather. So many great poems. Even when I didn’t fully understand them, I have always loved poems that faced our human longings, triumph and despair, pain and loss – and turned these things to art; rhythm, language, connection to mind and heart.
So – simply put – I came to the conclusion I had simply forgotten the intimacy of each individual’s relationship with poetry. When I was teaching in the Crescent Arts Centre, one evening I brought in poems by Ocean Vuong, I had just discovered him and had fallen in love with his work. Never had a poet divided opinion more; some loved the poems and some absolutely hated them. Thousands and thousands of people love Mary Oliver; I don’t really connect with her work. What resonates with one person, may be an anathema to another and that’s ok. Recently I had a conversation with someone whose love of poetry came from reading the War poets whilst at school – poetry that bears witness. There is poetry for everyone. I have stopped just receiving what the internet gives me and instead gone looking for what sustains me, for connection. I have gone back to some old favourites, reminded myself of the many poems that have meant so much to me over the years, and returned to what I need – the poetry that I really love.
The last poem in the jukebox curation is the beautiful, Everything is going to be all right by the brilliant Derek Mahon. We hear it read by him, while little garden birds sing in the background. In the context of the curation, I felt as if I really understood this poem; it was not a statement, but a prayer, it was a wish not a fact, an example of ‘la méthode Coué’ and that is why it is so moving. It was with deep shock that I heard of his death and I returned to read his poems – poems that I have always loved. There is darkness in many of these poems, but it is always set against the art of his work, his technique. Paul Muldoon said ‘he was one of the few whose technical brilliance was somehow adequate to the successive terrors of our age’ and Mahon himself said ‘… there is all this ambiguity. That is poetry. It is the other thing that is the other thing.’
So of course poetry is as important as it ever was. I just needed to remember how to relate to it. When I was growing up, I would copy out the poems I loved into a notebook to carry around with me; my own personal anthology. That’s the intimacy I’m re-finding.