Then I remember how it is that, say, a poem can bring exactly the comfort, or compassion, or the insight, or the opening to the numinous, or the breaking-open of the heart that leads us to the best we can be in the face of our own or the world's tragedies. And a poem can be too a kind of communion with others, humans, other species, living or otherwise, frail and brave, like us all.
I'm dipping into a loaned book: Lifelines, a collection of poems chosen by well-known people, accompanied by their letters in relation to their choice of poem put together by pupils of Wesley College, Dublin, under the tutelage of their English teacher.
The volume I have is 2006. The project was initiated in aid of famine relief in Ethiopia in the 1980s, and is prefaced by forewords from Seamus Heaney, Paul Durcan and Eavan Boland. I borrow here some words from Heaney: '... individuals still continue to recognise that some part of the meaning of their lives is lodged in the words and cadences of cherished passages of verse.' He continues: '...it has been said, for example, that it would be worth a poet's while to spend a lifetime at work in order to leave behind one limerick that might distract somebody walking the last few yards to the electric chair.'
Durcan picks up: '[We must not] lose faith in the power of art and surrender to despair. In his beautiful poem "The Harvest Bow", Seamus Heaney quotes Yeats, who was in turn quoting Horace: "The end of art is peace".
'Only in what we call art lies our salvation... Art is the last repository of humane values... In the West our consumerism has caused a spiritual famine... Only in art have old, perennial humane values survived.'
We need something to set between ourselves and the daily dose of ugliness and brutality served up on our TVs, in our media. Art is a way of reminding us that we are more than this.
And poetry, as Adrienne Rich has said and I've quoted here, can save your life.
High tide, a wild morning, wild and stormy,
and you take the leaf-deep stony path
above seal-grey waters
where the geese are dragged
through the sodden air like ripped-away prayer flags
in a crazy disordered dance, and the waves
slap hard on the mudflats’ flanks,
and for once questions like
what use is poetry, if you’re starving, or a refugee
squeezed between torture and war, or bleeding alone
in some dark alley
have momentarily flown, though left you unguarded;
but bent low over the creek the damson tree
drops unremarked a cargo of fruit
on the water–
mornings like this
grey and green with straggled leaves
and the rain storming the opaque sky
let it be enough now to hear this one curlew keen,
to have one last bedraggled swallow skim the thick air
over your head, see the inkcaps’ effortless
to winess one small flower–
samphire, or a late marsh marigold–
struggling through black mud on its journey upwards
against gravity, pointing the way–
let each day be a small triumph, let it be
two fingers to death.
© Roselle Angwin, from Looking For Icarus (bluechrome 2005)