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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Elemental: One Wet and Windy July in Ireland

monochrome image of trees blowing in strong wind on a widswept hillside

Image citation https://www.flickr.com/photos/euanzkamera/7916292824 Euan Morrison (September 2012), Trees in the Wind II, Lomond Hills

Many ancient traditions, as well as some modern belief systems, view all life and existence as being made up of five elements: earth, air, fire, water and spirit. While each element brings unique qualities to the mix, they all blend together to create the dynamic manifestations of our perceived reality and experiences.

It is, perhaps, in the midst of nature that we humans sense our existence most deeply, feeling connected to the planet while we walk our gardens and even to the wider Universe as we gaze at the night sky. I believe that these sensations happen through direct contact with elemental aspects.

Think of a windswept hillside or rustling trees; a loud downpour of heavy rain or a silent fall of light, fluffy snow; a golden sunrise or crimson sunset; sand sliding through your toes or waves splashing around your ankles; the emotions of relationship and the inspirations of spiritual practice, whatever you perceive that to be. The list of possibilities is endless. I’m captivated still by the Louis MacNeice poem The Sunlight on the Garden, particularly when I look out at the pale streaks or sunrays across our hedge on a winter morning.

Though sun basking is a favourite activity when I get the chance, today I am a little more fixated on wind (air) and water, both very powerful yet both also capable of being soothing and gentle. In the part of Ireland where I live, weather is relentlessly changing and notoriously unstable. Rainfall levels are at the higher end of the spectrum and seem to be living up th their reputation as July progresses; winds bluster and blow from the Atlantic Ocean or North Sea and most winters involve some snow, although we are considered a temperate clime.

Many friends and neighbours complain about the weather and understandably so – I have done my fair share of moaning about it too, especially when it becomes necessary to drive in poor conditions in order to get to work or school. But in recent years I find myself less likely to resist the wearisome weather and more inclined to accept and see the beauty in it all. I find wet, windy days exhilarating now; cold, crisp nights uplifting; frosty mornings enchanting. While I love summer, Autumn gives me some kind of earthy pleasure. It is all so elemental.

Here’s the band Earth, Wind and Fire singing September.

Farewell Maestro #DavidBowie

Album Cover, Hunky Dory, contains song Changes

David Bowie on Hunky Dory album cover

Saddened by the passing of my all time favourite artist David Bowie, I’ve been looking back over my old posts and collections, celebrating his work and asking myself ‘What did David Bowie and his work mean to me?’

A series of images, tunes and words spring to mind. Here are just a few of them.
Youthful yet ageless, renowned yet humble, epitome of fearlessness, imagination, glam rock, the seventies, the eighties, colour, metallic, snazz and pizzazz, style, freedom, inventiveness, creativity, oxygen, emotion, sophistication, underground, challenge, way out, pure artistry. A while back I expressed my love of Bowie’s portrayal of the central character in the film ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’. To complete my hymn to our departed hero I have included that post as an appendix to this one. With thoughts and meditations towards his grieving family, I add

>>Rest in Peace Maestro and Thank You for the Music<<

 

 

Here’s an earlier blog post:

Falling Into Life: David Bowie as Archetypal Energy

Famous for his shapeshifting and experimental, entrancing songs, David Bowie’s role in the film The Man Who Fell To Earth is rarely noted nowadays. For me this is one of his finest pieces of work, alongside the song Changes from the 1971 Hunky Dory album. As a rare example of a movie that closely mirrors the book, Walter Tevis’s novel of the same name published in 1963 tells the story of a Martian who comes to earth to find a way to save his planet, his species and his own family. Bowie captures perfectly the loneliness and at times despair of the alien as he tries to make himself understood by the people he becomes involved with on earth. There is always an archetypal quality to Bowie’s work and in this role, he seems to me to mirror the Jungian process of  individuation, that always requires some kind of descent into the unknown and often alien realms of the  unconscious.

Other symbols of a pending descent into the inner world include dreams of stairways down to a cave or basement, or sliding into a lake or ocean. The classic example is Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland, whose descent down the rabbit hole and encounters with numerous archetypal characters represent the way in which humans can grow through encounters with the unconscious (see Clifton Snider’s article at http://www.csulb.edu/~csnider/Lewis.Carroll.html ).

Ancient myths also reflect this theme, like Orpheus in the underworld and Persephone’s cyclical return. But the ultimate goal of descent is to touch base in some way before returning to the world a more expanded and integrated person, like the hero returning with the elixir of life or as Jung expounded, the alchemist finding the lapis lazuli.

While not everyone’s cup of tea, The Man Who Fell To Earth gives me a sense of the ultimate creativity of the hero’s journey and takes the sting out of uncertainty and change, for though the hero may not achieve his or her initial plans, they often find connections and meaning in the new world, so that ultimately it is the journey, not the destination that matters.

What does David Bowie mean to you?

From Belfast to Paris: A Gesture of Empathy and Solidarity

image of guitarist band member onstage wearing a tshirt with PARIS on it and a black armband

Stiff Little Fingers guitarist Ian McCallum performs at the Back of the Mill venue in Paris, as the band opted to continue with the gig as planned following the terrorist attacks on Friday evening. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Tuesday November 17, 2015. The veteran Northern Irish punk band defied safety concerns to perform in trouble-hit Paris, telling the crowd: “The world has their hearts with you.” See PA story POLICE Paris SLF. Photo credit should read: Steve Parsons/PA Wire

Read the full article here:

Belfast Band ‘Stiff Little Fingers’ first to play Paris post-massacre, in a gesture of empathy and solidarity.

[citation: http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/northern-ireland/paris-attacks-belfast-band-stiff-little-fingers-defy-safety-concerns-to-play-paris-gig-34211070.html ]

There were numerous reasons for this Belfast band to defy fear in order to honour their booking in the Paris venue yesterday. Mainly, though, it was through deeply experienced empathy, the band members having grown up during the worst years of the North’s troubles in the 1970s, when few music acts (with the exception of ‘The Clash’ and ‘The Bay City Rollers’) ventured into this neck of the woods.

It was a pity, since like young people everywhere, we were obsessed with music and bands; they are part of a rite of passage. All of which makes the recent Paris tragedy more poignant given the young age of many of the victims. Reaching out and expressing solidarity is perhaps the most admirable of human traits and like all human communication is often manifest in symbolic and archetypal language and action. Music and performance in all its guises provide comfort, empathy, outlets for emotion, opportunities for interaction and identification and can facilitate healing of all kinds of ills, especially grief.

Most people I know are struggling to hold back tears when we hear and read the news reports of the happenings of Friday last. While there are certainly numerous pockets of human suffering across the globe over which we all grieve, Paris has caught us particularly badly because, I feel, of the seeming randomness of it and the exuberant youth who were wiped out or injured at the concert along with all the others relaxing in Paris’s renowned café culture.

We need to believe that peace is possible. ‘You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.’

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