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

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

what is poetry for? & poetry as cultural therapy

Backtracking a post or two: gob not always connected to brain, by which I mean that I don't always plan things to make sensible sequences.

A couple of days ago I posted on poetry and the heart. I thought – afterwards, of course! – that it would be useful to look first at what poetry's for, so I invite you to give up your notions of the logic of linear time where you might naturally enough expect that I would follow Part 1 on poetry with Part 11, and follow the flight of the bird with me here a little. (I'll come back to Parts 11 and 111.)

I'll open a little of the ground touched on in my poetry correspondence course by asking here: what's poetry for? Below are some thoughts; I have many more, believe me! – as does every poet – essays worth. But this is a reasonable starting summary; and if you would like to post comments in response I'd love that discussion! (This is not a coherent essay; just a number of thoughts, separate but interconnected. And by the way the usual applies: because I have copied things from a Word document I may have lost some formatting – sorry!)

What is poetry for? 
‘A poem can express deep, significant feeling and thought more concentratedly and lastingly than anything else. Poems move you – that’s what they are for.’ Ruth Padel

‘A poem can make an order as true to the impact of eternal reality [as it is] sensitive to the inner laws of the poet’s being… I credit poetry […] for making possible a fluid and restorative relationship between the mind’s centre and its circumference… there are times when a deeper need enters, when we want the poem to be not only pleasurably right but compellingly wise, not only a surprising variation played upon the world but a retuning of the world itself.’ Seamus Heaney

T S Eliot talked of the poet’s ‘obligation to explore, to find words for the inarticulate, to capture those feelings which people can hardly ever feel because they have no words for them’.

‘One of poetry’s jobs is to transform real life imaginatively so we understand our lives new-paintedly, more fully.’ Ruth Padel

‘Poetry wrenches around our ideas about our lives… It is not a healing lotion, an emotional massage, a kind of linguistic aromatherapy.’ Adrienne Rich

‘A poem should be part of one's sense of life.’ Wallace Stevens

‘Poetry is an interplay between music and meaning... between sentence and line... a dance... registering elemental presence in the ordinary... Every poem is a memory of some kind, a celebratory elegy.’ Eamon Grennan

‘…[P]oetry is, as Wallace Stevens argues, a means of redemption… For me, poetry is such a means, whether I am in the presence of poetry, or in the act of making poetry.’ Eric Pankey

‘"If there were no poetry on any day in the world," the poet Muriel Rukeyser wrote, "poetry would be invented that day. For there would be an intolerable hunger." In an essay on the Caribbean poet Aime Cesaire, Clayton Eshleman names this hunger as "the desire, the need, for a more profound and ensouled world."’ Adrienne Rich

‘A poem can enlarge our experience and reflect back to us things perceived but previously undiscovered or unrecovered. It speaks to the heart. If it reveals something to us, we are nourished by it, even if the subject matter of the poem is strange, or sad, or difficult.’ Roselle Angwin

Chase Twichell views writing a poem as ‘an act of questioning, what it means to have human consciousness and the language to truthfully and accurately convey it, so that the finished poem throws a fresh and surprising light on what it means to be sentient’. (She is a practising Buddhist, and her poetry reflects her spiritual practice within the ancient tradition of Basho and Dogen and the contemporary company of Gary Snyder and W.S. Merwin.)

Here below, too, are some words from Mandy Pannett, a poet and tutor and friend of mine, who also completed working through my correspondence course recently. She's interviewed this morning on everyday poets online:
Mandy Pannett: ‘The Hurt of Man’ (prizewinning poem)

‘What role do you think poetry and poets play in today’s world?’

‘I do think poetry is a way of life as well as an art form, so the idea of being attentive to people and things and communicating with others must matter and make a difference in the world. Poetry can, of course, have a tremendous effect on political and social changes and viewpoints. I think a huge amount of people read and write poetry, even if they never share it with a wider audience. Festivals, book fairs, arts cafes and writing groups are very important too.’

Poetry & consciousness
For me, a big question and very much part of my own raison d’être is to do with how poetry can bring a greater awareness, and maybe even felt experience, of the interconnectedness of all things; and therefore maybe even, by affecting the way we see and think, affect the way we live. Poetry for me therefore is part of the greater project of consciousness, perhaps specifically within the fields of ecophilosophy/ecopsychology, and contributes in a unique way certain insights into how we live and how we might live.

In relation to some of this here’s the wonderful ecopoet Jason Kirkey (I'll speak more of his work, and his new book Estuaries, another time) in an article entitled ‘What use are poets?’

He opens with a question posed, he tells us, by Holderlin, Heidegger and John Moriarty: ‘What use are poets in times of need?’ This question, he says, gets to the heart of what his life has been about. ‘I often wondered what was the purpose of the work I was doing. I wanted to know if I would be more effective in creating change if I were to chain myself to a tree, or blow up a dam. Can poetry change the world? This is what I wanted to know. Poets in the widest sense’, he continues, ‘are not only those who speak and write poetry, but storytellers, mythmakers, philosophers, scientists, teachers, musicians, artists and shamans – those involved in the ongoing creation of culture. It is also at the heart of what I have been doing at the California Institute of Integral Studies...’

Ours, he continues, is a time of need, with species becoming extinct at an unprecedented and accelerating rate. But all is not lost:

'Poetry begins in the earth, emerges 
in the clear dark water from the mountains,
so I, wanting to know the sunlight on my back
and feel the cool slap of water on my feet,
will take these strong spring currents and
weigh them against the steady words of the heart…’

Kirkey suggests that rather than responding to this with terror, we can instead use it as a creative opportunity to view our current crisis as a ‘planetary-scale ritual of initiation involving the whole Earth community, and the initiation of the human being as a species into the integral functioning of the ecology of the planet. The use of poets in times of need is that they are cultural therapists and, in the words of John Moriarty, are “healers who, healed themselves, heal us culturally; heal us, or help to heal us, in the visions and myths and rituals by which we live, and to do this effectively they must in some sense be… ones of the Dream.”’ (Think Rilke.) The Dream, Kirkey says, is what the poet creates and communicates. Poets not only change the way we think, but also our very way of being in the world. ‘In doing so poets give birth to a new story that speaks to the needs of the time.’

It’s been more than clear enough for a very long time that our current culture’s stories do not nourish us; do not offer us ways to wholeness or a co-operative vision. I’ve spoken of this myself in two of my non-fiction books, ten years apart; I’d say that although a shift is starting to happen on subtle levels – in part forced by apparently-external events – we have a very long way to go.

Last word to Kirkey: ‘So what is the new story we want to construct? …I would argue that its fundamental attribute must be that it integrates us into the Earth community and into the cosmos at large.’

1 comment:

  1. A comment from Beatrice in Switzerland via me:

    'Poetry is a most enchanting way to our own selves – enigmatic and revealing at the same time, and if we are willing to find paths into other selves we might do so when reading other poets - reciprocally revealing and enigmatic. If more people read and wrote poems the earth would be a healing planet, as we would find it mirrored in us.'


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