I’ve written before in this blog about the fact that English was not my first language and that in my early days at school I struggled with language and in part as a result lacked confidence both in the use of English and as a result in some of the subjects I was taught in early primary. I always felt that I wanted to finish every sentence with a verb or adverb just as in Gaelic!
That lack of confidence began to change because of the inspiration of one or two individual teachers not least those who showed me that the world didn’t have to be boundaried by the tightness and restriction of prose, by the starchiness and structure I then felt it imposed, but that there was a dimension of the imagination and a world of possibility which was the realm of poetry. From very early on poetry became my love, energy and inspiration. It has thankfully remained so for most of my life since.
On Monday we will be celebrating World Poetry Day. It is 21 years since it was established by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1999. Two days later- the 23rd March will be the second anniversary of the Prime Minister’s speech which that evening put the nation into lockdown as we confronted the unknown fear and anxiety of a novel coronavirus for which we had no vaccine and about which we had in relative terms little knowledge.
I remember that evening well, and after all the organisation and calls, all the emails and bits of work I had to do, as I would on quite a few evenings after and still do, I took myself away and sat in a quiet room with a book of poetry. Poetry became for me both an escape, a consolation, a comfort and a challenge. I know I have not been the only one who has discovered or re-discovered a love of poetry during the period of the pandemic, and no doubt as I reflect in a moment of peace on Wednesday the events of the last two years, I will again do so with the words of one or more poets in my head.
I’ve often sat down and wondered why it is that poetry matters so much to me. Undeniably it is in part tied up with the discovery as a primary school child that in poetry that words and language were malleable and playful, that you could use and do with them as you wanted and wished, and that rules could be broken without meaning being lost. Poems were a form that offered freedom and possibility. But there was more. Probably it is poetry’s ability to describe intense emotions which is what rooted the genre in my soul and psyche. I think it is poetry’s ability to paint truth and insight in word and rhythm that for me is the very essence of poetry, and I think that’s why I still believe it has something to still teach me today not only about the pandemic but about how I need to live in the days and years ahead.
It is generally acknowledged that the first poems appeared in ancient Babylon some 4,000 years ago in the “Epic of Gilgamesh” which coincidentally I would later study at university. But in all likelihood probably from the moment someone used sound to structure sense, words to offer dream and meaning, poetry has been in existence both orally and in written form. The genre is so diverse from Shakespearean sonnets to free verse, from haiku to rap, from song lyrics to limericks. Poets have found a way to tell something of the story of their times, of their communities and society. Poetry has stretched our imagining into new visions, has helped to express the depths of pain and loss and has soared the heights of love, desire and passion. There is quite literally a poem for every emotion and feeling, every season and moment under the sun.
One of the reasons it appeals is that for me poetry is inherently rhythmic and musical, it is dynamic and energetic. I need to either hear a poem spoken aloud or hear it inside my head because it has an energy that struggles to free itself from the confines of a page into the air of my imagination. Whether it is an Angela Gorman, or a Benjamin Zephaniah or my all-time favourite Maya Angelou – poetry can become a performance which is an art in its own right; an experience separate from the words you take inside yourself. A good poem takes me on a journey whose destination is unknown but whose companionship is assured and confident.
I know I was lucky. Unlike so many children who have been put off poetry by the way it was taught – I was the opposite – I was inspired because as luck would have it I had teachers who brought poets to school, to inspire, encourage and enliven bored school children. I think every school should have a poet, whether in residence or not! Poetry helps to improve the ability of children to express emotions that might be locked in and imprisoned deep inside them, to find new rhythms and meaning, new insights and freedoms. It certainly did for me.
Poetry allowed me during the pandemic to see the world through different eyes, to see possibility rather than just pain; to find words to express my fear and my deepest sense of loss and sadness. I could never have found the energy which has kept me going were it not for the fact that someone before me, alongside me, has done that job for me and has gifted their insights through their poetry to make life better and richer.
Years ago when I was visiting a care home where someone I knew was a resident I came across Jean who I later discovered was a retired English teacher. She was living with what I would now recognise as advanced dementia. She had lost all memory of family and loved ones, had forgotten basic things and the knowledge of what actions to take in particular circumstances. To all intents and purposes, she required the most basic level of personal care and support. But… Jean continually and assuredly recited poetry to anyone who would listen. And I did. And from those lips tired of speech, having lost recognition of love, came tumbling words in rhythm and beauty, consistent in memory and recall. She was a marvel – when everything else had left her, her comfort were the words of the legion of poets she had gathered into her heart over decades. For me in that moment the sheer power of poetry to own and occupy our hearts was made visible.
On the night of the 23rd March 2020 I read words of one of my favourites, the Irish poet Derek Mahon, whose work I have shared here before. It was a night of anxiety and the unknown was palpable, and the words of two others came to my mind. The first was a very ancient piece from the medieval mystic Julian of Norwich who wrote in the face of both danger and challenge, ‘And all will be well”, “all manner of things shall be well”; the second the words of Bob Marley. I grew up with the music of Marley ringing in my ears every time I fell asleep such was my late brother’s fascination with him. Indeed, my brother’s gravestone has inscribed on it the words, “Don’t worry about a thing’ Cause every little thing gonna be all right.’
I turned to the poetry of Derek Mahon. Frequently challenging and uncomfortable and as I read it at different points during the pandemic it seemed at times almost cold and then at other moments reassuring – but that is a mark of great poetry it speaks differently at diverse times and in distinct circumstances.
Poetry does not have all the answers it just provides us with the silence to make sense of the sounds and the sounds to make sense of the silence. It takes us further along the road and it is usually a journey worth taking.
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.”
Derek Mahon, from Selected Poems