from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Thursday, 10 March 2011

on poetry (and sickbags, canoes and zebra bowls)

Poetry, said Adrienne Rich, can save your life. At least three of 'my' 'regular' poets have voiced something similar to me; and I'd echo that.

The goldfish bowl
I'm about to confess two things to you: one is my goldfish memory ('that's a nice castle', 'that's a nice castle', 'that's a nice castle'). The other is that I am – shush, just whisper – a Page-Corner-Turner-Downer. There. It's out. (Well, why waste rainforests each week with Post-Its?) And to reassure all you lovely people out there – and I know of two of you at least – who are librarians, or who lend out books: I don't ever do that with books other than my own. Promise. Ever.
  But oh the joy of knowing that tucked into my plethora of bookcases is a forest of ideas, or extracts from ideas, from others, that I can revisit whenever I need that little shot mainlined into my system.
  And so? Yes? Why, you might ask, am I mentioning this? Because my inner goldfish had forgotten the many many wonderful quotes in Nicholson Baker's The Anthologist that I mentioned in this blog no more than three months ago (probably fewer) ('and so to books', maybe). But the page corners have reminded me after a friend Mandy, writer and writing tutor, reminded me of some of his words earlier this week.
  In a minute I want to slip you a little sample. Sniff deeply, or inhale, or swallow neat, or lie down and inject – whichever.

High-voltage jolts to the heart
Before that, though, I want to raise that resonant little question: what is poetry for? Oh ho, four such simple little words. Over the months I might come at this obliquely (which is often the best way to approach the writing or reading of a poem too), but for now a few words before I hand the page to NB (metaphorically speaking):

I say, in my brochure for my poetry correspondence course: 'A poem in its way is a small self-contained unit of mystery that, as we approach, might just give us a high-voltage jolt to the heart. A poem can enlarge our experience; if it reveals something to us we are nourished by it, even if we don’t entirely understand it, even if the subject matter of the poem is strange, or sad, or difficult.'

‘...this deeply instinctual yet self-conscious expressive language, this regenerative process, could help you save your life... Art is our human birthright, our most powerful means of access to our own and another's experience and imaginative life.’ (Adrienne Rich)

‘It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.’
(William Carlos Williams; and he should know, he was a GP)

    ‘Poetry is that
which arrives at the intellect
by way of the heart.’
R S Thomas

So poetry speaks a priori direct to the heart. I'm sure I've said this before, but I know I've read a good poem when head, heart and gut all chime together in response. This isn't the same with prose, for me; but it is akin to my (yet different) response to music – music however will not require that I employ my intellect too, on the whole.
  Like story, poetry is, we could say (echoing obliquely Keats), to do with soul-making. However you read that word, there is something it brings that is connected with wholeness.
  Philip Pullman in last Saturday's Guardian Review, in response to an interview question by a 13-year-old boy ('Why do you think it's so important that young people read?') puts reading in the same category as breathing, eating, drinking, sleeping, running about, fooling around and having people who love and look after them. He says: 'It's part of what makes us fully human... [If I had] to get through life without reading an enormous part of my mind, or my soul if you like, would be missing. No one should be without the chance to let their soul grow.'

Nicholson Baker's white plastic chair
Where was I? Wasn't there a neat little castle somewhere I was wanting to take a look at? Ah yes, Nicholson Baker.
   Many people (this is me, not NB) come to poetry at a time of great change in their life; often as a result of a loss. Poetry, the reading and writing of, both, is cathartic. (This is not by any means the only reason to go to poetry, and I'm not suggesting that poetry is or ever should be a kind of emotional sick-bag. What I am suggesting though is that there are few places to go when you're grieving, but this place, this poetry-place, can offer refuge.)
  NB says: '[Y]ou have to be willing to be sad. If you go to the doctor saying that you've experienced some sleeplessness, perhaps some sitting in the sandy driveway late at night in a white plastic chair, accompanied by thoughts of mortality and aloneness – maybe some strong suspicions that none of the poetry you've published is any good – the doctor is probably going to say, Ah, you're depressed... [and] give you some pills... Isn't crying a good thing?... Why would we want to give pills to people so that they don't weep?... Poetry is a controlled refinement of weeping... And if that's true, do we want to give drugs so that people won't weep? No, because if we do, poetry will die.'
  NB makes an argument for poetry with its rhymes and rhythms being a powerful form of self-medication, a tightrope over a personal canyon of despair. It's an addiction, he says (he uses the notion of rhyme here but I think we could widen it out to the whole thing of tracking down just the right word for just the right space), like chain-smoking – lighting the next line from the embers of the last. 'You set up a call and you want a response.'
  It's like a crossword puzzle, he continues, but better, because you're creating (or co-creating if you're reading a poem) something beautiful. 'The addicts of crossword puzzles are also distracting themselves... [from facing] the world's grief head-on... But has anyone ever wept at the beauty of a crossword puzzle?' It's all about suspense, he says. That's why 'poets who have reached a certain point of depression are great letter writers, because they write a letter, and they send it out, and until they get a response they are in suspense about what the response will be. That helps them get through three days... or a week or a month... I never answer letters, so I keep my correspondents in a state of permanent suspense.'

On why not to be a poet
He also lists all the poets who are or were also depressives, or suicides. Rather a lot of them.
  'God I wish I was a canoe,' he says. 'Either that or some kind of tree tumor that could be made into a zebra bowl but isn't because I'm still on the tree.'

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