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, 8 April 2014

why poetry matters

It seems a long time since I wrote a blogpost. It's been an extraordinarily busy few weeks, and now, on the run-up to my annual writing retreat on the Isle of Iona I seem to be whirling in a welter of Things Undone and Things Still To Do.

Most of my deadlines re writing projects and others' work (mentoring, commenting, offering creative 'tasks') have been met, but now come the small health issues; the practical issues like why Sky has suddenly become my broadband provider without my knowledge or agreement, and my switch to the Phonecoop, an ethical provider; the planting and weeding to do in the garden before 3 weeks away; the fact that the campervan, essential to my and my daughter's accommodation during the Hebridean trip next Monday morning, has packed up; the dog's op wound has not healed; and the fact that I have yet to prepare the course – and get some rest before that and the long drive north!

SO it's even more essential, right now, not to lose the sense of depth and spaciousness that a whole weekend of poetry created for me, and I hope for the others who joined me. (However, because part of me is still somewhat swamped in the practical, this post may not be very inspiring. Apologies!)

Spring is drifting up the valley in its damp Devon way, cherry blossom and birdsong in its skirts. With all the blossoming outside, poetry for me is a way of bringing things to flower inside, too.

I've been leading an intensive invitation-only poetry group, Two Rivers, once a month for 20 years now. Some of the original members are still with me. This last Saturday I decided to do something different, and instead of the freeflow writing followed by a specific exercise that is my normal workshop offering, we spent the morning looking at and talking about the impact of just one line of a published poem, a different one for each of us; and then writing in response to that. 

This was a surprisingly effective and deep session, allowing us to explore without any particular expected outcome the power of poetry to move us, to bring things to the surface, to allow us to examine responses verbally, to show us what we didn't know we knew, and why it is important.

The afternoon session, traditionally an intense 'crit' of the individuals' work but undertaken in silence and through written comments, I led as a freer open forum, which also allowed the verbal flow between participants to offer a more interactive response to the brought poems. I notice over and over how what characterises this group is an appreciative kindness to each other, and a willingness and ability also to offer genuinely honest and constructive feedback. In these conditions, people and their poetry both flourish.

Because the group members are invited not just on the quality of their work but also on how I feel they'll benefit the group as a whole, and its focus, as personalities, we seem to operate with no competitiveness and with a supportiveness that is inherent, I think, in the fact that every person in that group knows that our work is not 'just' about poetry, but very much about the life of the soul, though some people wouldn't use that word to describe it.

And this is what poetry offers, to me: a place, of course, for creative expression and for sharing the fruits of that; for meaning and exploring meaning; a place for making sense of our experience; a place for speaking of what is hard to speak of, and for which there are few forums ('fora'), in a materialistic culture; a place for healing and uplifting; a place for direct connection with soul; a place where we may bring together the transcendent and the immanent; a crucible for transformation, and so on (I've written at such great length in my various publications, in my online course and here too about this that I feel as if everything I write about the need for and meaning of poetry is both self-parody and grandiose, so I shall stop there. More or less.).

I believe that poetry is unique in our culture and even amongst artforms in that it speaks directly and simultaneously, via image, music and language, to both head and heart. A rare convergence is possible, which in itself has a cohering and integrating effect on the writer and the reader of poetry. When I immerse myself in poetry something fragmented is restored to wholeness.

What joy, then, to spend the whole of Sunday, too, in the company of other poets (some of whom travelled quite a distance to join us) and the inspiring poet, scholar and publisher Peter Brennan, who works as a tutor for, amongst other establishments, City Lit. Peter was facilitating a day for us on the spiritual aspects of T S Eliot: 'The Heavy Burden of the Growing Soul', the phrase a pivotal line from 'Animula'. 

Whereas my workshops focus on the creation of one's own particular verbal expression (and also as an undercurrent the creation of one's life as an imaginatively lived experiment towards one's unique way of being), P focuses on the understanding of what has already been written, by the Greats, in order to shed light. It's an approach that's complementary to my own, and for me it's so valuable to attend another's workshop, and to shut up (a bit!).

TSE's 'Four Quartets' remain for me THE work of the C20th. I know them inside out – or believe that I do. And yet, looking at excerpts from them along with excerpts of other poems through the erudition of Peter and the informed comments of the group members they shift and change under my gaze, reveal less and then more of themselves depending on how I look. This is hugely exciting; and always, reading poetry of depth and quality aloud allows a penetration below the surface, allows other possibilities to cohere into existence and hijack habitual modes of consciousness.

Peter is also an authority on the work of poets such as Keats, Coleridge, Blake and many others. I'm delighted to say that TM, scathing of much poetry, comes along to and engages with P's days. That is in itself a major testament. Let's hope P will be offering more such days in my little upstairs lair in this quiet Devon valley. (Contact me if you'd like to be put on the mailing list to know about such workshops and seminars.)

Meantime, 'These fragments I have shored against my ruins' (from The Wasteland), to bolster me towards the Hebrides, from where I'll post more (as usual). And it makes me chuckle to quote this fragment from Eliot, writing on Coleridge: 'Sometimes... to be a "ruined man" is itself a vocation.'

And if, like many of us, you are feeling tossed by life at the moment – for disasters seems to be occurring in every quarter, the dire effects of climate change are rushing towards us, everything seems unstable 'and the centre cannot hold' – be reassured that the cosmic climate is one of strife and turbulence with, astrologically speaking, the symbolism of significant planets in very challenging aspect to each other: a Grand Cross in cardinal signs, where the energy seems to shuttle back and forth along the same taut line until change has to occur. Not reassured? – I meant that you are not alone, and this too will pass.

Here's William Carlos Williams: 'Every work [of art] comes into being in the same way as the cosmos – by means of catastrophe.'

Write as if your life depended on it.


  1. Great encouragement to keep on writing, even when we have doubts about its quality!

  2. Thank you, David! I think writing is worth doing for its own sake; for the fact that it makes us more fully, wholly, human, perhaps.

    At some stage I'll post on here an article of mine that was recently published in MsLexia, a women's writing journal, on the evidence for writing as therapy, which is of course also about healing our fragmentedness. Writing is so good at helping that.

  3. Thank you, Roselle, for a thoroughly worthwhile and stimulating day spent with you. I can certainly share your wise words:

    'When I immerse myself in poetry something fragmented is restored to wholeness.'

    I always find it joyous to share such a day with other enthusiasts ( and what delightful people they are) all bringing different and exciting contributions to our understanding and appreciation of poetry or anything else which matters as much and deserves constant, deep consideration. Every time this happens, like you, I find so much more in Eliot's writing, and realise how much I crave this sharing of ideas and inspiration in order to live more vitally.
    I felt very much at ease, and appreciated Peter's erudite yet approachable style. As always, my understanding deepened and yet I never felt threatened by my lack of learning. I'm really very unscholarly about most things and the beauty of these events is that I rarely feel that it matters how little I know.

    The memory of your 'white room': the trapped butterflies set free; of Ash slumbering, greyish and elegant; of the soft drizzle greening the grass of the bosomy land; all of us completely engrossed, sharing thoughts, listening, learning. All this will stay vivid for as long as I have the wits to retain it!
    With love, Miriam.

  4. Miriam how lovely of you to post this eloquent and generous comment. Thank you.

    With love



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