poets

In Sickness and in Health – Poets in Pain

 

Pain has an element of blank, wrote Emily Dickinson:

PainofLove William Adolphe Bouguereau 1899

Douleur D’amour – William Adolphe Bouguereau

It cannot recollect
When it began, or if there was
A time when it was not.
It has no future but itself,
Its infinite realms contain
Its past, enlightened to perceive
New periods of pain.

Pain is inevitable. It is a symptom and a disease. It is transitory for some, persistent for others. Whatever the cause, pain and sickness can stop you in your tracks, causing upset at a minimum but can lead to despair, depression and sometimes death.

Sickness and ill-health are like sailing vessels adrift in the clear water of your body. If you’re lucky, a sudden breeze will whip up and steer the bow seaward, if you’re not, the captain drops anchor and you find yourself confined to your cabin. Illness can strike at any time and you either recover swiftly or you don’t. That’s when I turn to poetry for succour because on the subject of pain and sickness writers are voluble. Poets with the use of sensitive, graceful and eloquent language can express so intimately what it feels like to be sick. They invariably inhabit the sickness, reach inside the jaws of pain and feel its teeth, reporting back lyrically what it is, was and will be like for the rest of us. After enjoying more than forty years of good health, the last three or four have been difficult for me.  I’ve been unwell on and off, with bouts lasting anywhere from a couple of weeks to months at a time and like anyone, sometimes my resolve is low and I’ve got to dig deep to find the strength to make it through the day. I’ve read books on ill-health, many inspiring and motivational in their own way, but personally, I have never found anything more uplifting than a poem. Poets distil sickness and their poems are remedies for healing. Can a poem cure a physical or mental complaint? Well it wont make it worse! I think poetry operates along the same lines as faith, belief and conviction. Ancient physicians used to talk about the poetics of illness and were concerned with the rhythms of the body and soul. In fact, fifteenth century medicine viewed the body as a manifestation of the soul and considered emotions, desires, thoughts and personal history when administering to patients. It seems we’re much less imaginative nowadays; the passionate heart is just a pump, the meditative mind merely a muscle, the body reduced to a soulless machine. Poetry, I believe, helps the body reclaim the soul and opens the door to healing which can come in all forms and at varying speeds. Maybe today I won’t be pain free but I might experience less pain than yesterday; maybe I just need to believe that tomorrow will be better but if it isn’t then it’s still going to be okay – poetry helps. Read these heartening words from Northern Irish poet, Derek Mahon:

Everything is Going to be All Right

How should I not be glad to contemplate
the clouds clearing beyond the dormer window
and a high tide reflected on the ceiling?
There will be dying, there will be dying,
but there is no need to go into that.
The poems flow from the hand unbidden
and the hidden source is the watchful heart.
The sun rises in spite of everything
and the far cities are beautiful and bright.
I lie here in a riot of sunlight
watching the day break and the clouds flying.
Everything is going to be all right.

donal hall & jane kenyon

Donald Hall & Jane Kenyon

American poets Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon were no strangers to illness. They met in in the 60’s at Michigan University where Kenyon was a student and Hall an assistant professor of English. ‘Poetry,’ he once said in an interview, ‘was the great commonness between us.’ For twenty years they lived and wrote in rustic peacefulness on Halls’ ancestral New Hampshire farm. He battled Colon cancer in the late 1980’s and shortly afterwards Kenyon was diagnosed with the Leukaemia that would kill her a mere fifteen months later. She was only 47. They both lost their mothers during this time also. Compassionately, generously they documented their suffering in their collections of poetry. Jane Kenyon, who also battled depression for much of her life, published four collections and a translated volume of the work of Russian poet Anna Ahkmatova. Rural domestic life, relationships, nature and the unremarkable yet wonderfully messy realities of life were her themes; her style plain and uncomplicated, overflowing with humanity. Her posthumous collection Otherwise – containing some new and selected poems arranged by herself and Hall before her death – annals her life’s work. Spirituality, illness, everyday life, faith, love and resilience pervade the poetry that is more honest and resonant with each new reading. The Sick Wife was added with an afterward by Hall who included it as her last word, written weeks before her death. It’s about the life-transforming impact of illness:

The Sick Wife
by Jane Kenyon

The sick wife stayed in the car
while he bought a few groceries.
Not yet fifty,
she had learned what it’s like
not to be able to button a button.

It was the middle of the day—
and so only mothers with small children
and retired couples
stepped through the muddy parking lot.

Dry cleaning swung and gleamed on hangers
in the cars of the prosperous.
How easily they moved—
with such freedom,
even the old and relatively infirm.

The windows began to steam up.
The cars on either side of her
pulled away so briskly
that it made her sick at heart.

One day you’re out walking the dog, planning the dinner, collecting the kids and the next you can’t get out of the car, can’t button a button. Last time I was laid up I couldn’t walk for three weeks and suddenly, in the normally wet, grey and gloomy west of Ireland each day burst forth with sunlight and long evenings, blossoms everywhere and everyone out walking! It was like a new addiction, a plague; all along the highways and byways of my locality people were walk-walkedy-walking and I found it infuriating. Imagine how Kenyon felt? Loosing her independence, too weak to get out of the car, enviously observing the young and the elderly who are almost complacent in their health and mobility.

During his wife’s illness, Hall wrote the poetry she couldn’t, about what she was going through. He also wrote plays, prose and children’s books and was of the 1950’s vintage, attending university alongside Frank O’Hara and Adrienne Rich. Like all writers and poets he has the gift of being able to transform torment into something else, something more, something other; a healing perhaps for himself and for us who see our own pain reflected. In the elegiac works following his wife’s death, it’s apparent that it is precisely this creative gift that sustains Hall through those dark times of illness, decline and loss. Without (1998) and The Painted Bed (2002) are intimate collections chronicling their lives, their love and dedication. In the poem The Ship Pounding, Hall keeps vigil at his wife’s side, comparing the hospital to a ship:

The Ship Pounding
By Donald Hall

Each morning I made my way
among gangways, elevators,
and nurses’ pods to Jane’s room
to interrogate the grave helpers
who tended her through the night
while the ship’s massive engines
kept its propellers turning.
Week after week, I sat by her bed
with black coffee and the Globe.
The passengers on this voyage
wore masks or cannulae
or dangled devices that dripped
chemicals into their wrists.
I believed that the ship
travelled to a harbour
of breakfast, work, and love.
I wrote: “When the infusions
are infused entirely, bone
marrow restored and lymphoblasts
remitted, I will take my wife,
bald as Michael Jordan,
back to our dog and day.” Today,
months later at home, these
words turned up on my desk
as I listened in case Jane called
for help, or spoke in delirium,
ready to make the agitated
drive to Emergency again
for readmission to the huge
vessel that heaves water month
after month, without leaving
port, without moving a knot,
without arrival or destination,
its great engines pounding.

There is no safe harbour however, only the pounding engines; the directionless journey of this floating infirmary. In Her Long Illness, Hall is once again sitting with his wife, reading to her aloud. Faced with the inevitable, they reaffirm their love for one another and her desire to catch even a scent of snowy air reflects her determination, her willingness to fight to the death.

Her Long Illness
By Donald Hall

Daybreak until nightfall,
he sat by his wife at the hospital
while chemotherapy dripped
through the catheter into her heart.
He drank coffee and read
the Globe. He paced; he worked
on poems; he rubbed her back
and read aloud. Overcome with dread,
they wept and affirmed
their love for each other, witlessly,
over and over again.
When it snowed one morning Jane gazed
at the darkness blurred
with flakes. They pushed the IV pump
which she called Igor
slowly past the nurses’ pods, as far
as the outside door
so that she could smell the snowy air.

The pain of loss is crippling. I’m reminded of Emily Dickinson again There is a pain so utter-/it swallows substance up. Writers and poets like Hall learn to live with pain by writing about it but they don’t have the monopoly on creativity. At any time, you can pick up a pen and start writing. Slowly at first if it’s new to you, you can write about what you’re doing right now, how you’re feeling, what’s going through your mind. There is huge therapeutic potential in writing, creatively or otherwise. Give sorrow words, wrote Shakespeare in his dark tragedy Macbeth, the grief that does not speak whispers the oer’fraught heart and bids it break – i.e. don’t bottle things up!

I have a somewhat ambivalent relationship with doctors. So does Anne Sexton, a poet

anne sexton

Anne Sexton

who spent more than her fair share of time in psychiatric units. Here’s an extract from her poem Doctors:

They work with herbs
and penicillin
They work with gentleness
and the scalpel.
They dig out the cancer,
close an incision
and say a prayer
to the poverty of the skin.
They are not Gods
though they would like to be;
they are only a human
trying to fix up a human.
Many humans die.
They die like the tender,
palpitating berries
in November.
But all along the doctors remember:
First do no harm.
They would kiss if it would heal.
It would not heal.

As a woman, I’m not alone in this love/hate relationship. All of my female friends have had negative experiences with flippant GP’s (mostly male), who’s dismissive approach to women’s health concerns is dangerous and grievous. It’s rare you get the understanding and compassion you hope for when you’re sick and vulnerable. ‘Are painyou sure it’s not psychological?’, my GP asked. If he’d taken me seriously or maybe even opened his ears a little, I probably wouldn’t have needed that emergency Laperotomy a week later! Would that we all had a doctor like the American writer and poet Raymond Carver. Carver’s life was marred by alcohol, violence and broken relationships and he died from lung cancer at only fifty years old. In What the Doctor Said, from the collection All Of Us, Carver receives a terminal diagnosis and despite the physicians poor communication skills (although this does reveal a welcome humanity), both men are led to somewhat of an epiphany:

He said it doesn’t look good
he said it looks bad in fact real bad
he said I counted thirty-two of them on one lung before
I quit counting them
I said I’m glad I wouldn’t want to know
about any more being there than that
he said are you a religious man do you kneel down
in forest groves and let yourself ask for help
when you come to a waterfall
mist blowing against your face and arms
do you stop and ask for understanding at those moments
I said not yet but I intend to start today
he said I’m real sorry he said
I wish I had some other kind of news to give you
I said Amen and he said something else
I didn’t catch and not knowing what else to do
and not wanting him to have to repeat it
and me to have to fully digest it
I just looked at him
for a minute and he looked back it was then
I jumped up and shook hands with this man who’d just given me
Something no one else on earth had ever given me
I may have even thanked him habit being so strong

In the absence of recovery, the doctor prescribed resolve and grit, the kind of steadfastness required to meet the harrowing challenges ahead. Spiritual medicine.

Carver wasn’t the only poet to write from his sick-bed. Awaiting death, the comedic and good-natured Romanian poet Marin Sorescu wrote a collection of poetry entitled The Bridge. He was suffering from Cirrhosis and with almost Zen like objectivity

marin sorescu

Marin Sorescu

considers his fate, reflects on his life and illness, the nature of pain – he is played like a cursed organ in Balance Sheet and a diver who lost his oxygen tank in Pure Pain. The collection was his parting gift both dictated and dedicated to his wife Virginia:

 

Balance Sheet
By Marin Sorescu

I have two serious diseases,
A few others, extremely serious,
Plus three more, no less than dreadful
(Every one, I’ve been assured, is incurable).
Each hurts in its own particular way.
An acute, differentiated pain,
Requiring all my energy
And power of resistance.
In sum they add up to a kind of
Essence of torture and anguish,
Something unimaginable.
I am played like a cursed organ,
Assailed around the clock
By a thousand tempests.

Pure Pain
By Marin Sorescu

I don’t feel ill in order to feel better,
I feel ill in order to feel worse.
Like the sea with its green, treacherous waves,
You cannot sound the bottom of pain.

I dive into pure pain,
Essence of scream and despair,
And I return to the surface blue and pale,
Like a diver who lost
His oxygen tank.

To the emperor of fishes, I beg,
Kindly send me your most trustworthy shark
To cut short my passing.

What could be more distressing than your own illness? Your child’s. My younger sister had a tough time as a kid. She was sick a lot; always in and out of hospital or cuddled-up on the sofa in the sitting room with a Sindy doll or a book of fairytales. I know she suffered but I used to love coming home from school and finding her there, and snuggling up beside her and my mother on the couch. Although it was difficult for her, I sometimes contemplate how strenuous it was for my mum. The stress and worry with each medical emergency, the vigils by her bedside, the long convalescences. All of this in addition to looking after two other children, holding down two jobs and keeping a marriage together! The strain must have been immense but she never let it show. Calm, measured and graceful through what were undoubtedly tumultuous times. Her resolve, her strength of character and mind has always been remarkable to me and I thought about her while reading this next poem by American poet Philip Levine. It describes a night vigil over a child, the feelings of helplessness and despair, that there’s no-one there to hear our anxious prayers. Levine, confessed to over-dramatising his role in his sons illness, revealing that his wife did most of the work (surprise, surprise!). Like a true poet though, he turned his misfortunes into a poem:

Extract from:
Night Thoughts Over A Sick Child
By Philip Levine

Numb, stiff, broken by no sleep,
I keep night watch. Looking for
signs to quiet fear, I creep
closer to his bed and hear
his breath come and go, holding
my own as if my own were
all I paid. Nothing I bring,
say, or do has meaning here.

Outside, ice crusts on river
and pond; wild hare come to my
door pacified by torture.
No less ignorant than they
of what grips and why, I am
moved to prayer, the quaint gestures
which ennoble beyond shame
only the mute listener.

No one hears. A dry wind shifts
dry snow, indifferently;
the roof, rotting beneath drifts,
sighs and holds. Terrified by
sleep, the child strives toward
consciousness and the known pain.
If it were mine by one word
I would not save any man,

myself or the universe
at such cost: reality.
Heir to an ancestral curse
though fallen from Judah’s tree,
I take up into my arms my hopes,
my son, for what it’s worth give
bodily warmth.

Speaking of kids. Ever tried feigning an illness to avoid going to school? Award winning American songwriter, cartoonist and children’s writer Shel Silverstein did:

Sick
By Shel Silverstein

“I cannot go to school today,”
Said little Peggy Ann McKay.
“I have the measles and the mumps,
A gash, a rash and purple bumps.
My mouth is wet, my throat is dry,
I’m going blind in my right eye.
My tonsils are as big as rocks,
I’ve counted sixteen chicken pox
And there’s one more—that’s seventeen,
And don’t you think my face looks green?
My leg is cut—my eyes are blue—
It might be instamatic flu.
I cough and sneeze and gasp and choke,
I’m sure that my left leg is broke—
My hip hurts when I move my chin,
My belly button’s caving in,
My back is wrenched, my ankle’s sprained,
My ‘pendix pains each time it rains.
My nose is cold, my toes are numb.
I have a sliver in my thumb.
My neck is stiff, my voice is weak,
I hardly whisper when I speak.
My tongue is filling up my mouth,
I think my hair is falling out.
My elbow’s bent, my spine ain’t straight,
My temperature is one-o-eight.
My brain is shrunk, I cannot hear,
There is a hole inside my ear.
I have a hangnail, and my heart is—what?
What’s that? What’s that you say?
You say today is. . .Saturday?
G’bye, I’m going out to play!”

Physical pain is debilitating; mental anguish even more so. One feels as if one were lying bound hand and foot at the bottom of a deep dark well, utterly helpless -Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother from the grip of mental illness. The stigma surrounding mental illness can be almost as hard to bear as the symptoms. I mentioned the poet Anne Sexton earlier whose battle with depression is widely documented. She was good

sylvia plath

Sylvia Plath

friends with a fellow American poet Sylvia Plath, clinically depressed for much of her life too. Actually, many writers and artists struggle with psychological issues. Both states involve unconventional thought processes. Creative writing requires creative thinking and similarly mental illness concerns thoughts and behaviours that also differ from the norm. I was reading an article as well recently about how misery can improve creative performance! – So maybe there’s something to the correlation between creativity and mental illness but it’s worth noting that there are just as many mentally well writers out there too. Plath and Sexton shared with us and with each other their demons, despair and desire to escape it all. They were young women, mothers who felt imprisoned by domesticity; writers, trying to carve out successful careers but curtailed also within a predominantly male-dominated literary world; all of this under the shadow of depression. Both ultimately succumbed to suicide. Plath first in 1963, leaving behind a husband and two children; Sexton ten years later or so. In Sylvia’s Death, Sexton not only mourns her friends passing but envies it:

Sylvia’s Death
By Anne Sexton

for Sylvia Plath

O Sylvia, Sylvia,
with a dead box of stones and spoons,
with two children, two meteors
wandering loose in a tiny playroom,
with your mouth into the sheet,
into the roof-beam, into the dumb prayer,
(Sylvia, Sylvia
where did you go
after you wrote me
from Devonshire
about raising potatoes
and keeping bees?)
what did you stand by,
just how did you lie down into?
Thief —
how did you crawl into,
crawl down alone
into the death I wanted so badly and for so long,
the death we said we both outgrew,
the one we wore on our skinny breasts,
the one we talked of so often each time
we downed three extra dry martinis in Boston,
the death that talked of analysts and cures,
the death that talked like brides with plots,
the death we drank to,
the motives and the quiet deed?
(In Boston
the dying
ride in cabs,
yes death again,
that ride home
with our boy.)
O Sylvia, I remember the sleepy drummer
who beat on our eyes with an old story,
how we wanted to let him come
like a sadist or a New York fairy
to do his job,
a necessity, a window in a wall or a crib,
and since that time he waited
under our heart, our cupboard,
and I see now that we store him up
year after year, old suicides
and I know at the news of your death
a terrible taste for it, like salt,
(And me,
me too.)

 

American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson had a way with words – It is one of the blessings of old friends, he said, that you can afford to be stupid with them. I’d go further and suggest that you can be sick with them too! Friends are great healers. They cut your problems in half and double your chances of surviving even the darkest of times. When you’re sick and most of the people you know would rather be anywhere else, your friends are by your side. Renowned 7th century Chinese poet Po Chu-I knew only too well the value of good friends. Often unwell, the death of his mother and daughter severely affected his health and similar to censorship under communism, Po Chu-I’s poetry sometimes made him unpopular with officials and he spent a good deal of time in exile. His conviction that poetry should be simple, clear and accessible to everyone assured his place as one of the most loved and widely read of all the Chinese poets of the classical tradition. His poetry was unpretentious yet deeply philosophical.
Here, he’s been sick so long he doesn’t know what day it is; everything glum, even the sparrows. But then the cavalry arrive! They place his couch out in the sunshine and converse intimately as friends do, gradually restoring him to some level of well-being – a tonic more effective than any other medicine:

Being Visited by a Friend during Illness
by Po Chu-ï (772-846, tr. Arthur Waley)

I have been ill so long that I do not count the days;
At the southern window, evening – and again evening.
Sadly chirping in the grasses under my eaves
The winter sparrows morning and evening sing.
By an effort I rise and lean heavily on my bed;
Tottering I step towards the door of the courtyard.
By chance I meet a friend who is coming to see me;
Just as if I had gone specially to meet him.
They took my couch and placed it in the setting sun;
They spread my rug and I leaned on the balcony-pillar.
Tranquil talk was better than any medicine;
Gradually the feelings came back to my numbed heart.

 

If you’re sick for long enough or have recurring bouts of illness, it’s difficult to hang on to that joie de vivre. Being present, being with the pain seems theoretically sensible but when you’re suffering your objective is to escape it. Sometimes we run in the wrong direction. Why are we so clever at making things worse? Don’t struggle against the pain in life, said the Buddha. Struggling increases suffering. Buddhist wisdom says that anytime we suffer misfortune, two arrows fly our way. The first is the actual event the second is the suffering, which apparently is voluntary:

Life often shoots an arrow at you and wounds you. However, by not accepting what has happened, by worrying about it, by saying it is unfair and wondering how long the pain will last, we tend to shoot a second arrow into the open wound and increase and prolong the pain. Pain is often a given, but suffering is optional.

We can choose not to add to our woes simply by accepting what is. So I guess rather than questioning why me? It’s better to accept that it is (why not me?) and work on dealing with the consequences of that. And that’s more than enough to be getting on with. Struggling against the pain is like shooting the second arrow. Let’s take a leaf out of Robert Frost’s book, from the collection West Brook Running to be exact:

Acceptance
By Robert Frost

When the spent sun throws up its rays on cloud
And goes down burning into the gulf below,
No voice in nature is heard to cry aloud
At what has happened. Birds, at least must know
It is the change to darkness in the sky.
Murmuring something quiet in her breast,
One bird begins to close a faded eye;
Or overtaken too far from his nest,
Hurrying low above the grove, some waif
Swoops just in time to his remembered tree.
At most he thinks or twitters softly, ‘Safe!
Now let the night be dark for all of me.
Let the night be too dark for me to see
Into the future. Let what will be, be.

Nature and poetry are interchangeable for me. The rhythm of life and line, the absorption of the senses, immersion of spirit, the patterns and hidden meanings, the souls music! I reach out to nature for the same reason I reach out to poetry: for comfort, protection, rescue. In search of spiritual connection there’s a place I go not far from my home near the village of Cong. Along the banks of the river Corrib the

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hawks rise high in the Cedar Pines and salmon leap in the meandering waters of Ashford Castle. It’s an outstanding place of natural beauty and an hour there, for me, can replenish and reinvigorate my soul like nothing else. Last week, standing on a grassy verge I faced an impossibly beautiful vista that looked almost as if it had been prearranged. The fallen log in the sandy bank overhung by Willows and downy Birches; the grey heron I startled from his patient hiding place at the waters edge; the mute swan preening her white feathers, bobbing in the ebb and flow, the bees and ducks in the dappled sunlight, the gentle breeze – it was so uplifting! But out where the current was stronger, I watched the water rush and hustle its way around a dark, mossy rock. I thought to myself Tracy, you are that rock! Out there, up to your waist in a river of pain. And, I thought, just like that rock you’re going to stand your ground! Let the pain lap at your heels and rush about, but don’t let it in, it will make it’s own way around you. It’s easier to get beyond than through! Reminds me of a quote by novelist Toni Morrison – all water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was – with a bit of luck, maybe the same holds true for pain.

robert frost

Robert Frost

Nature too is the lifeblood of Frost’s verse, yet he is not just purely a nature poet. His motivation is human psychology and his poems are moral messages. Mary Oliver works in this way too, making comparisons between the natural world and the human condition. In the above sonnet, the approaching darkness draws attention to the significance of the light. He’s saying that acceptance is our greatest weapon against fear. He gives us such a violent description of a sunset and yet the birds don’t ruffle a feather, they simply find their safe place in a night that is mercifully too dark for them and us to see our anxieties, to face whatever it is to come tomorrow; all we can do is let what will be, be.

I’ll conclude on a hopeful note with a blessing from award winning African-American writer Lucille Clifton. As a black female writer Clifton’s staying power was

lucille clifton

Lucille Clifton

commendable. She wrote candid and profound poetry, suffered her own personal tragedies and illnesses including several battles with cancer, her last in 2010. Her poem blessing the boats (a commemoration in honour of the blessing of the English boats that carried the first settlers to Maryland in 1633) is about letting go, facing your fears; venturing out into the unknown and trusting the wind to love your back! From her award winning eponymous collection:

blessing the boats
By Lucille Clifton

(at St. Mary’s)

may the tide
that is entering even now
the lip of our understanding
carry you out
beyond the face of fear
may you kiss
the wind then turn from it
certain that it will
love your back may you
open your eyes to water
water waving forever
and may you in your innocence
sail through this to that

And that is my wish for everyone out there suffering – that you sail with some ease through this to that.

I’ll leave you with a quote that I’ve been trying to drill into my head. It comes from a guy called Ajahn Chah, a Buddhist teacher with a simple philosophy: Don’t hang on to anything. He said: If you let go a little you a will have a little peace; if you let go a lot you will have a lot of peace; if you let go completely you will have complete peace.

Poetry and Politics

So where does dreamy poetry meet gritty politics? Well according to English poet Percy politicsShelley in his essay In Defence Of Poetry ’Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world’ , what does he mean? That poets have some sort of moral power or influence? I think what he means is that poets are not just writing poems, just like politicians are not just making laws, but they’re both engaged in imagining new ways of perceiving and being in this world of ours.
So in this way, passion and emotion run deep in both poetry and politics, appealing to the sense that things could be otherwise.  Both are concerned with values, rights and nationhood. Rhetoric is a big deal, the basic purpose of political rhetoric is to move men to action or alliance, poetry moves us in emotional, individualistic and immeasurable ways.
Poets are in the business of communication and expression, and have always invoked controversy for their social and political commentary. Politicians use poetry to their advantage too, in terms of speech-writing say. A little bit of flair can make any speech artistic and create lines that will be remembered for generations. Think of JFK’s inaugural speech “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”. Style is substance in political speech writing and poetry with it’s imagery and rhythm can strike the right chord. Poetry has always been read at Presidential inaugurations, JFK had Robert Frost; Bill Clinton had Maya Angelou and Obama had Elizabeth Alexander and here in Ireland we went a step further, and got a two-for-one offer in our poet-president Michael D Higgins!

Political poetry is a poetry of social concern and conscience, a way to exercise ones right to freedom of expression, which is what today’s poets have done.

In his poem Negro, Langston Hughes gives us a gripping account of the African-American experience through history. Hughes confronted racial stereotypes and his African-American themes made him a primary contributor to the Harlem renaissance of the 1920’s. He wrote the poem around the time of the birth of the civil rights movement, a time of racial pride. It is a direct and comprehensible lesson in black history, violent and oppressive yes, but this is a vital culture, central to the development of the world as we know it, the sense of pride is palpable, I am a negro, black like the depths of my Africa, powerful, there’s a huge freedom there and still a hope for that oft elusive future.

From his prison cell, the romantic communist poet Nazim Hikmet urges us to live life as if there’s nothing named death. Hikmet was a Turkish poet, playwright, novelist and memoirist.  He was repeatedly arrested for his political beliefs and spent much of his adult life either in prison or in exile in Russia. Why did I choose him? Well he was a rebel, a romantic and he stood up for his beliefs, whatever the consequence – which was usually incarceration. His poem On Living, informed in part by his communist leanings, and the length of time he spent behind bars, is concerned with the politics of living; working at ones life as one would an occupation; making it as passionate and fulfilling as possible – living is no laughing matter he says, whatever our circumstances we must live as if we will never die.
Jean-Paul Satre once said ‘Everything has been figured out, except how to live’, but here Hikmet urges us to be happy, achieve our potential, never let our fears or societal expectations hold us back. Our purpose, as is sees it, is to live life, not just look for the meaning in it. For one day this world will grow cold.

We also read The Mother, today, recollecting the emotions aroused by the Easter rising, from Irish revolutionary poet Patrick Pearse. The Rising was an insurrection in Dublin of about 1,200 men and women from the Irish Volunteers, Irish Citizen Army and the women’s group, Cuman na mBan. They were fighting for independence from the UK and although the rebellion failed, it did pave the way for the creation of a free state six years later. The rising was led by intellectuals and artists – sixteen of them were executed including the teacher & poet Patrick Pearse whose poem The Mother, written the night before he died, describes a mother’s thoughts on the death of her two sons (both Patrick and his younger brother Willie were executed). Why this poem above other rebel poems of the rising?  Well it’s intensely emotional, it’s the Irish the mother thing, we all know they live for their children.

Political poetry does more than just arouse feeling, it can take us right into the heart of society, it will always be there to remind us where we are, who we are, to move us, to offer solace, to carry news, sometimes that news inspires, sometimes it enrages – ‘Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry’ Auden wrote in his elegy for Yeats and as we’ve seen from Hikmet and communism to Chinese revolution and Irish rebellion, from Shelley after Peterloo in 1819 who said ‘ye are many and they are few’, Gil Scot Heron ‘the revolution will not be televised’ it seems that politics has hurt a lot of poets into poetical response.

One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics, is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.
Plato

Also on the show: Adrienne Rich, Li Young Lee, Muriel Rukeyser along with music from The WaterBoys, Sam Cooke, Billie Holiday & John Grant.

 

A Poet Walks Into A Bar …

The double negative didn’t walk into no bar!humour

What’s a Grecian Urn? About twenty thousand drachmas a year after taxes!

Okay I’ll stop now, so today we’re talking about HUMOUR and like poetry, humour is everywhere and we all respond to it. Cracking jokes can take the awkwardness out of some social situations; at work it can help build relationships; it’s a coping strategy too that relieves tension taking the edge off daily stresses which is critical to promoting harmony in our lives and diffusing negative emotions. In the serious business of poetry, humour is often viewed with suspicion and yes there are a lot of nonsense verses out there, fun nursery rhymes and terrible gibberish but then you get the great stuff, the satire, the irony the comic timing from writers like Billy Collins who uses comedy to lighten the pain of loss in his poem Putting Down The Cat which we’ll read later, but also here about his dead parents in No Time, he writes:

In a rush this weekday morning,
I tap the horn as I speed past the cemetery
Where my parents are buried
Side by side beneath a slab of smooth granite
Then, all day, I think of him rising up
To give me that look
Of knowing disapproval
While my mother calmly tells him to lie back down.

So through humour he crafts a poem that is full of feeling without being over sentimental. This reminds me of something Russian playwright Anton Chekhov said about having a necessary coldness when you write ’when you want to make the reader feel pity, try to be somewhat colder … the more objective you are, the stronger will be the impression you make’. So using poetic devices such as humour, satire and hyperbole ensure that otherwise serious topics pack more of a punch.

When we laugh, we temporarily give ourselves over to those who make us laugh and that’s what we’ll do now. Today’s show features Putting Down The Cat by Billy Collins, The Cremation Of Sam McGee by Robert William Service (read by Johnny Cash), God Says Yes To Me by Kaylin Haught, Symposium by Paul Muldoon and also, in Ill-wishing Him British poet Dorothy Nimmo takes a stoical approach to her lovers departure. You know it hurts when somebody leaves us and I think that how we heal depends on how we deal. Our outlook is everything and sometimes humour can help to mend the wounds of loss. Humorists have one cardinal rule: Don’t be inhibited. It’s better to take a rebellious attitude toward sensitive subjects than to pussyfoot around them. Nimmo writes from a pared back place, of a strength gained through painful insight, and with clever sleight of hand, she wittily gets her own back on the man who walks out on her.

Now there’s a joker in every pack isn’t there. There’s always someone who will, I don’t know, lets say eat the food someone else was saving! We know who you are William Carlos Williams! Somebody has eaten all the plums – and New Jersey doctor and poet William Carlos Williams gives us a poem written in the form of a note or memo left on a kitchen table, probably a note to his wife that turned into a poem, or as the experts call it – a found poem – where you take an existing text and refashion and reorder it. Was it a fair trade for the plums she was saving for herself? Is he really sorry? Known as an innovator, his poem This Is Just To Say is written in the imagist style, a poetic form that focuses on precise imagery and sharp language.  It reminds me of younger days when I used to house-share with people and we’d all have our names left on random grocery items in the fridge or in the cupboard and woe betide anyone who put their hands on my plums!

Next, the American poet and playwright Kenneth Koch gives us a spoof on the plum poem in his Variations On A Theme. Labelled as just a comedic poet, Koch himself spoke of the comic element as something that enabled him to be lyrical. But he was a very funny poet and here in Variations On A Theme By William Carlos Williams, Koch extends the original poem from one to four topics in what seems like almost a retaliation for Williams having eaten the plums! The plums were being kept for breakfast but with Koch now having nothing to do he chops down Williams’ house and so on, asking for forgiveness as Williams does in the original.

Remember humour can have a significant positive effect on our lives. Laughter, as they say, is the best medicine and it’s one of the first things we learn to do as newborns. And funny people receive a lot of attention and admiration don’t they? Most studies find humour to be a highly desirable attribute, which probably explains why the acronym GSOH is so popular in dating ads. Humour is big business too, when you think that it influences many of our daily decisions about what books or magazines to read, TV shows to watch, marketers’ are constantly trying to grab our attention with funny ads and products, all with their own in-house humorists writing them. And for writers, its all about imagination, constantly asking what if?, looking at ordinary things in extraordinary ways, it’s imagination that drives comedy and practically everyone has an imagination – or else no one would ever get married BOOM BOOM!

Music from Clem Snide, The Divine Comedy, Morcambe & Wise, Cathy Davey & more.  Enjoy the show!

… p.s.

funny dog sign

 

 

Don’t Regret Your Regrets

To regret deeply, is to live afresh. Henry Thoreauundo

Regret is a way of thinking, in which we blame ourselves for things that happened, or when we feel responsible for a decision that came out badly.  But lamenting things that occurred in the past is part of life, it’s a universal pastime, and this show is more about seeing regret as a reminder of things we can do better as opposed to things we believe we’ve done badly. It’s all about how you look at life really isn’t it.  Regret is an emotion, and we experience it when we think we could be happier now, had we done something differently in the past. Our writers to day are going to help us understand regret, like WS Merwin as he considers that some regrets haunt us more than others. Of the many studies and theories on the subject, it’s been found that regrets over things we didn’t do, persist longer than regrets over things we did. Mainly because, psychologically, when it comes to inaction, our mind’s are then free to imagine in limitless ways, what might have been, what we could have done and how it would all be playing out now in the present. Whereas if we had done something, then there is only one alternative to play with and that’s not having done it, so there’s less opportunity for regret.

We’ll consider where some regrets come from on a familial and marital level, with thoughts from Ann Truitt, who realised too late the necessity for complete honesty in marriage and in love.  Regret can feel so awful because it kind of implies we’re at fault in some way. With thoughts from Parker Palmer and Rumi we’ll consider the benefits of being reckless when it comes to affairs of the heart.

 

 

Life is full of choices. Some go well, others go badly wrong, and those that go wrong lead to regret. And as we’ve discussed, some regrets are worse than others. Doing things or not doing things that affect our own lives is bad enough but doing something that has a negative impact on somebody else’s life, is a difficult regret to live with. But we have to live with it, making peace with regret is essential to healthy living.
There’s some comfort in numbers though I think, knowing that there are millions more of us feeling the same level of regret, maybe worse, over education, career, marriage, kids, that hair-cut or dreadful tattoo, consoles me a little. Don’t get me wrong, I mean I torture myself with regrets about not staying in college longer, coming back to Ireland when I was doing well in Europe, I regret the things I say when the red mist comes down, (I have a terrible temper :)), the list is endless but in order for me to move forward, for us to move forward, we have to find ways of forgiving ourselves, having more compassion for ourselves and learning to welcome regret as we would joy or any other emotion, preferably without judgement. Accepting it as part of the human experience, which is easier said than done. American poet and novelist Charlie Smith, I believe, exemplifies this idea of embracing the negative, in his poem In Praise Of Regret.

 

The Pulitzer Prize winning poet, Galway Kinnell, reminds us of all we have to be thankful for. Reminds us of the importance of engaging with  the ordinary things in life. Despite the horrors of the world, the atrocities committed by us and to us, we are a blessed and fortunate people, living in and with the miracle of creation. In his poem, Why Regret? from his collection Strong Is Your Hold, he pretty much turns regret into gratitude.

 

You know, I’ve always believed that people who say they have no regrets are simply lying. If we’re living we’re regretting. And that’s okay, it’s possible that our regrets aren’t as bad as we think they are and they can be important teachers. Obviously we can’t change the past but we can change how it affects our present. Forgiveness is crucial. I guess instead of beating ourselves up about things beyond our control, we could recognize more the productive side of regret, improving ourselves and putting things right. And remember every moment is an opportunity for change, we can change our attitude, our thinking, we are free to begin again, in the words of Rumi “Be melting snow. Wash yourself of yourself.”

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.
Mark Twain.

Music today from Midge Ure, Morrissey, Ben Lee, Yann Tiersan & more…

 

Hope Floats

 

There is surely a future hope for you, and your hope will not be cut off. – Proverbs 23:18

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Our show today is all about HOPE. A salv to last weeks poetry of FEAR we’ll take a slightly more optimistic attitude of mind to look at what role hope plays in our lives. The things we hope for in people, politics, health and in society.  Puritan American poet Emily Dickinson famously called HOPE

The thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all

Creating a beautiful metaphorical description of hope as a bird singing in the soul. And it’s interesting she does that because two symbols of hope that come to mind are the Dove and the Swallow, the swallow being the first bird to appear at the end of Winter, heralding the beginning of Spring. She goes on:

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

Meaning that nothing, not even the worst hardship or storm could weaken the strength and resolve of the human spirit of HOPE. So with the help of our featured poets we’ll be looking at the places we might expect to find hope, or where we may be surprised to find it with Lisel Mueller.  It is spiritual and physical we are surrounded by it. ‘It hovers in the dark corners’ she says, it’s hope that’s in the earthworm segment, the dogs tail, ‘it drops’ she says ‘from the mushroom gills.’ Sometimes it hides in these places making it difficult for us to maintain hope in tough times, but it is there, inventing our future, inspiring us, it is she says ‘the singular gift we cannot destroy in ourselves’. Meaning hope is intrinsic to life. It is our survival mechanism.

Khaled Mattawa reminds us that it was the hope of a better future that kick-started the Arab Spring five years ago. Young people in the Middle East and North Africa led a major uprising demanding political, economic and social change.  In the early days of the revolution, Mattawa wrote ‘Now that we have tasted hope, we would sooner die than seek any other taste to life’. Hope in the sense of it being a provocative day-dream as opposed to a passive one, people were not content to just accept the bad that exists. It’s true that many cities involved in the uprisings were left traumatised and beleaguered, and fatal mistakes were made, but there were victories, not just ends, but beginnings, evidence that sometimes we can win, hope and  encouragement to keep going.

Irish poet Derek Mahon reconciles the shadow and the light to reassure us that despite the worst that is certain to happen, everything is going to be alright.

You know hope can an have impact on everything from health to work to personal meaning. And as we’ve learned from our poets today, the hard times are going to come but as Emily Dickinson said, it would take some sore storm to abash the bird of hope.  But when I think of Ernest Dowson’s poem on how fleeting life and everything in it is, I just wonder how much it really matters whether we choose hope or despair, neither are wrong, they each reflect human feeling. Story-teller Maria Kallman says We hope. We despair. We hope. We despair. This is what governs us. We have a bipolar system. And I suppose, at the end of the day, we do whatever we can to get ourselves through situations. I know for me anyway I can’t be positive everyday, but on those days, when I can’t be hopeful that everything is getting better I try, at least, to hope that everything is not getting any worse.

Hope is important, because it can make the present moment, less difficult to bear. If we believe that tomorrow will be better, then we can bear a hardship today.
Thich Nhat Hanh

Music today from Glen Hansard, Foy Vance, India Arie and more ….

 

 

The Other Side Of Fear

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate, our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. Nelson Mandela Fear Headlines

We live in a generalized culture of fear don’t we.   Advertising, politics and news coverage, communicate messages that produce fear and the perpetuation of it through these media has become so insidious, ’if it bleeds, it leads’ is a well known maxim for what determines newsworthiness these days. For example: media coverage of crime and violence seems to be on the increase while actual crime rates are falling. Terror groups appear to have a free media platform, with suicide missions receiving extensive coverage which probably explains their popularity among these groups. Fear is the most powerful force in society, we are preoccupied with it: ISIS, Ebola, Gun Violence, Climate Change and these fears only pave the way really, for a more authoritarian society giving governments more reasons to intrude on our lives and rights. What do our poets think though? Charles Simic put it like this:

Fear passes from man to man
Unknowing
As one leaf passes its shudder
To another.

All at once the whole tree is trembling
And there is no sign of the wind.

Meaning that fear is contagious, suddenly we’re all afraid and nobody remembers why. To further expand on the theme of Fear we’ll read about issues of xenophobia with Thomas Lux who lists the various acts of violence and retaliation carried out over time by different civilizations.  Since the dawn of time one culture has always been pitted against another. The Greeks v Persians, Romans v Phoenicians, the Mongols v Chinese. We fear the ’other’ and in The People of the other Village, Lux highlights this hatred that mankind often exhibits towards itself. He explores the brutal human condition.

The media have a huge role to play in the level of fear in any society. Most of us form our opinions about what’s going on in the world based on what we see or read in the media. Sensationalist media coverage of things like Zika, Cyber Attacks, Terrorism, even Gluten! only serves to keep us in a constant state of fear. Adrienne Rich explores the problems within cultures, the things that keep us afraid. An Atlas Of The Difficult World is basically a mural of the American landscape painted with images of ordinary people, especially women and their experiences. It could be any country’s failures really, its broken promises, poverty and oppression of women. She concludes however, that it’s how one views the world that is important.

We fear what we don’t understand and that fear can lead sometimes to brutality. Our failure to accept people because of their race, gender, religion or sexual orientation keeps us tied to what we fear, to bigotry and misunderstanding. Mark Doty’s poem deals with homophobia in particular and thinking about it, religion is the worst propagator of this. It’s preposterous, but the Catechism of the Catholic Church States that, homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered. All major Islamic sects too, forbid homosexuality, which is a crime under Sharia Law and treated as such in most Muslim countries. Charlie Howard’s Descent examines the damage that this kind of intolerance can do to people and communities. In Maine in 1985 a 21 year old gay man named Charlie Howard, was harassed and chased by three teenage boys and despite his pleas that he couldn’t swim, they threw him over the State Street Bridge. He drowned. I cried and cried after reading this poem, the imagery is unapologetic as Doty imagines what the boy must be thinking, it’s stark yet warm because despite the bullying, the hatred and discrimination, this innocent boy bears no grudge. Grace is the order of the day and I think simply that the only way for us to fear less is to try to understand more.

Educating ourselves about what’s going on around us politically, socially and economically is the only defence we have against being frightened to death by media coverage of the next new threat. We can no longer afford to lounge around content in our mediocrity, mindlessly accepting as truth, what we’re being fed by those who maintain control by keeping us stupid and very afraid.

We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.
Plato

Other poets on today’s show Sara Teasdale, Anne Michaels and Randall Jarrell along with music from Ben Howard, The National, Sarah McLachlann, Blue Oyster Cult and more.

 

Journeys: Travelling within

Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.  Emerson

The idea of life as a journey is a well worn theme in poetry and it’s the focus of our show this week.  And what’s the message?  What great wisdom can we expect from our featured poets? Well, I guess it’s that life is a trip we have to take, no matter how bad the roads or the accommodation! In his poem The Journey, journeys 2American poet James Wright finds the secret to living in this world, in a quiet moment of reflection while visiting the medieval village of Anghiari.  Accepting life for what it is, its experiences and burdens but not being weighed down by them is the message he imparts to us.  ‘Step lightly all the way through your ruins’ he says.  We have a tendency to over-criticize and pick holes in every little thing we do, hold on to negativity and not let go of the baggage of the past, but Wright urges us to walk free from all of that and just be.  Be here now.

Life is is a voyage of discovery, of ourselves and others and we have nothing to fear on this journey only what we’ve conceived in our minds before we set out.  We spend so much time worrying about what might happen in the future that we’re sometimes blind to the magic that is happening around us.  Greek poet C P Cavafy prepares us for a great adventure to Ithaka, metaphorical destination and home of the legendary Greek king Odysseus.  I think Ithaka is about enjoying the pleasure of being alive – the people we meet, places we visit and knowledge we gain along the way.  Dreams and goals are important but I think the real value is gained through the process of living.

In Journey To The Interior, Margaret Atwood compares the rough Canadian landscape to the inner journey of self-discovery. Something not to be undertaken lightly as ‘only few have returned safely’ she warns.  I can completely relate.  Sometimes these inner journeys can be tough to navigate, there’s a fear of going too deep, of making discoveries you wish you hadn’t, but the reverse is also true and can lead to some self-illuminating moments.  Sometimes I find I just need the distraction away from myself though and take a journey out of my own psyche and into someone else’s … that can be illuminating too!

Mary Olivers’ recognition of the inner voice, the true authentic self is the subject of one of her best known poems The Journey, where she tells us to go out into the ‘wild night’ and find the voice that will ‘keep us company’ as we go deeper and deeper into the world. For most of us, the decisions we make are based on externals like what other people think.  We think it’s better to fit in, but you know what fitting in is?  Fitting in is resisting yourself … and resisting yourself can only lead to a life full of uncertainty, self-doubt and self-reproach.  Being honest with ourselves is risky business but big risks yield big rewards.  So take a friendly attitude towards your thoughts.  Be bold enough to live your truth, turn up the volume on your inner wisdom and in the words of (I think) Allen Ginsberg “Follow your inner moonlight; don’t hide the madness”.

Audre Lorde and Philip Levine also feature on todays show, along with music from Mick Flannery, Tom Petty and Bjork.

photo credit: http://www.trans-siberian-travel.com