The Fragility of Being Human and the Power of Poetry to Mend

blue word cloud composed of poet names and recurring words

The Power of Poetry

In a recent BBC2 documentary on W. H. Auden and ‘The Age of Anxiety’, Poet Paul Muldoon reflected that Auden’s work reveals the ‘fragility’ of human societies, indeed of what we think of as ‘civilisation’. It was this insight that struck me as one of the reasons for the intensely therapeutic nature of poetry, both reading and writing it. For if poetry and poets help us understand the human condition and our own experience in the world, or as Muldoon has it, in the ‘moments’ in which we find ourselves, then it can help us to fully engage with the world, with our lives and with our authentic selves.

To do this, I am convinced we need to work with all shades of existence, including, as Jung maintained, the realm of shadow. For again it was Jung’s contention that denial of the shadow gives it tremendous destructive power, acted out in political contexts in the guise of oppressive ideologies and mass violence. And Auden saw this too in the mesmerism of crowds by the rise of fascist tyrants during the 1930s,

‘And the poetry he invented was easy to understand; / He knew human folly like the back of his hand,’

 

Louis MacNeice, another poet who arose during the thirties, also imbued significant chunks of his work with a sense of human mortality and the weariness of war, yet with a balancing opposite that revelled in human connection and in moments of ‘Sunlight on the Garden’.

Even in child development we can see reflections of the poet’s worlds of fear and destruction, opposed and challenged by growth, light and creativity. Melanie Klein constructed her whole model of child development around ideas that every human child goes through a period of depression and alienation, which must be negotiated successfully in order to grow into a balanced, happy, functional adult. How is this trial surmounted? By being steeped in an environment full of opportunities to channel feelings and fears and to use creative energies to construct and express the self. This also requires being surrounded by emotionally healthy, loving carers who can become positive, constructive internalised role models. A fragile existence and perilous journey, indeed, for if these conditions are not met at least in some measure, all sorts of distorted relationships and ideas may develop, allowing for powerful defensive, negative shadow material to fester into self-destructive or outwardly violent actions.

Auden understood this dynamic and pointed it out, not I believe to be a doom warrior, but to show the way out of the cycle of destruction, through understanding and validating other humans and their experience, and by addressing our needs for safety, belonging and expressive outlets. In September 1, 1939 he writes,

‘I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.’

 

As Muldoon and other commentators in the documentary explained, the individual experience is inextricably linked to the contexts in which it emerges, and these contexts are multi-layered: time, history, place, biological, social, political, cultural. Poetry as a therapeutic resource must surely be more widely acknowledged and funded. For my own part, I find poetry encouraging and validating, which is why I seem to be on a bit of a bender of late, catching up with some of the classics like Auden and MacNeice as well as more modern poets like C. K. Williams and Paul Muldoon. Here are a few links to sites I’ve come across recently. I hope you find them as uplifting and exciting as I do.

The Interesting Literature blog

The Poetry Foundation

And the word art motif above was created free on wordart.com 

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Re-discovering Philip Larkin through word, image and jazz.

the poet Philip Larkin holds a drink and smiles.

A rare smiling image of English poet Philip Larkin.

My old copy of The Whitsun Weddings by Philip Larkin, hidden on the bookshelf for years, was pulled out for a nostalgic read the other day after an intriguing documentary about the poet on BBC4 earlier this week. In the Whitsun Weddings collection, in the poem For Sidney Bechet, the poet describes (earlier era) jazz music as falling upon him,

‘Like an enormous yes’ and refers to it as

‘the natural noise of good, / Scattering long-haired grief and scored pity.’

While commonly known for a somewhat melancholic approach to life, this does not sound like a person who has no time for passion. It was news to me too that alongside his poetry, Larkin had also made significant literary and journalistic contributions to critiquing Jazz music such as the perhaps controversial (maybe just honest) All What Jazz.

The television documentary revealed even more interesting aspects of Larkin’s artistic dimensions, that included skill with a camera as well as with the poetic word. Some of his images are black and white with a haunting or melancholy quality, reflected in his poetry too, such as Home is so Sad.

Yet much of Larkin’s photographic work is also personal and full of emotion like the multiple shots of intimate friends, male and female, with whom he shared his life, albeit within certain strong constraints and clear boundaries, evident in the ending of Talking in Bed,

‘Nothing shows why / At this unique distance from isolation / It becomes still more difficult to find / Words at once true and kind, / Or not untrue and not unkind.

More surprisingly, a significant number of the photographic portraits are of himself, taken with the delayed shutter function of his high-tech Rollieflex camera. The original ‘King of the Selfie’, Philip Larkin was a complex, intense human being whose work continues to intrigue, inspire and invite debate. Some of his photos have been published in The Importance of Elsewhere 2015.

image courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/norfolkodyssey/1426630717

 

 

Music and Song: the magical de-stressors.

 

Music and singing have always been my go-to anti-stress therapy. From an early age I was afraid of the dark and of being alone in my bedroom. So I used to sing myself to sleep every night. My repertoire consisted of songs I learned at school, at Sunday School and from the radio. The Seekers were major stars in my world and A World of Our Own was a frequent choice. The Beatles too, especially She Loves You Yea, Yea, Yea. Honestly, music and singing have never failed to comfort and lift me through many years of both a happy and a challenging life.

It was, then, no surprise to discover the power of music in helping patients feel better in all of the mental health contexts where I have trained, worked and researched. My first placement as a student nurse was in a care of the elderly ward in Purdysburn Hospital, Belfast and a well-known local performer arrived once a week to play the piano and sing. It was joyful to help those old ladies gather around the day room and to hear them sing along to old favourites from their era. Often they would continue singing for the rest of the evening, even after the entertainer had taken her leave.

Scholarly reports also attest to the power of music for mental health, especially in a community setting and a selection of their papers and findings can be discovered in a chapter of my book on Creativity and Social Support in Mental Health: Service Users’ Perspectives [Palgrave 2014]. 

For now, here’s another favourite from the one and only Abba. Thank You for the Music 🙂 

 

Round Ireland with an iPhone: Belfast#2

Hello again from Belfast Botanical Gardens. Several weeks of mid-summer heat, a rare enough treat in these climes, along with intermittent heavy rain, have brought about a magnificent swathe of blooms of all colours and variations. Most striking is the wild flower patch with deep blue cornflowers and lazy daisies. I’m doing the best I can to squeeze in a morning walk around Botanic at least once each week and catching a coffee with Fintan or a daughter into the bargain. While I tend to enjoy each season for it’s unique beauties, for now summer’s where it’s at. Happy Summertime folks!

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