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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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.’

With Music in Mind and Memory

My earliest memory of being moved by music is playing on the stairs of our Carlisle Street maisonette while singing along to The Beatles’s She Loves You Yeah Yeah Yeah. That particular song has eluded my search so I’ve started this post with a Beatles video from the same era, singing Love Me Do in 1962. My first singing memory hails from a little later, 1964 when I was three years old, though the song She Loves You came out in ’63. From then on, songs of the early sixties enlivened my existence and became imprinted on my psyche as the radio formed the backdrop of daily life in our home and my Dad played Bob Dylan records religiously.

I continued steeped in popular musical culture throughout the seventies during my early teens, firstly with The Osmonds, The Jackson Five, The Carpenters, Gilbert O’Sullivan and Slade, then on to T. Rex and David Bowie. But it was during a high school music lesson and an encounter with Stravinsky’s The Firebird  that the full blown power of music hit me. I will never forget the way that piece penetrated every fibre of my being and created such an intense visual world that I can see it in my mind’s eye to this day.

Later favourites included Abba, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Disco, Sade and Simply Red. As I researched music and mental health for my thesis-turned-book last year, I realised that it is also tremendously therapeutic for mental health recovery as well as general well-being.

Today, I love all kinds of music and get a great sense of energy and uplift from many artists’ work. I recently had the pleasure of finding a great music blog here on wordpress which stimulated this post – thanks Rich Brown at Good Music Speaks. One of the most exciting bands of this century has to be The Killers (much favoured by my daughters), which is why I end with this absolute gem of a song. Thanks for tuning in, let me know what music fuelled your memories; and until next time, happy listening 🙂

How we can improve the mental wellbeing of young people

Anj Handa at Anj Handa Associates writes about the need to improve on the mental wellbeing of young people. I couldn’t agree more and would add a few points: I worry though that society is focusing too much on diagnosing and medicating young people and not enough on dealing with the social conditions that could have an impact on growing the positive mental health of citizens. Very interested in positive mental health promotion, especially for young people and I believe it to be bound up with strong self-esteem and a vibrant society full of opportunities for people of all abilities.

Anj Handa

Image

A shocking report published recently by The Prince’s Trust revealed that one in five young people is suffering from mental health issues. Tragically, it also highlighted that long-term unemployed 16 to 25-year-olds are twice as likely as their peers to have be on anti-depressants and believe they have nothing to live for. This number equates to around three quarters of young people.

Now, leading Mental Health charities, such as Rethink Mental Illness, the Mental Health Foundation and Sane have joined the debate, saying that not enough is being done on mental health for young people and that lives are being put at risk. They have called for more training for teachers and GPs and for awareness to be raised among parents and teenagers to be able to spot the signs.

Personally, I feel that awareness-raising is crucial, but that we also need to equip young people with the tools to…

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