sylvia plath

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.

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