In all our sanctuaries we sit at risk

Talking of Art – why write poetry ?


Someone asked me recently for my thoughts on why  I still seem to write poetry, despite everything. This was my reply :

I think a lot of your day can flood out your sense of self. Writing a poem is a way of restoring your own distinctness and boundaries. The world can silence you. The poem, written on a blank page where there is no competition and no noise, restores your voice, is an answer back.

We all need a voice, and coupled to that, a way of making sense of what’s going on. Like you, I think even if no one hears your voice, the writing process is restorative, and one can always mutter one’s own words to oneself when the going gets rough.

I had a moving conversation once with someone suffering extreme but chronic back pain. It destroyed her capacity to work and was often so bad she would vomit. She felt the pain was changing who she was and in a sense replacing her with itself. She decided to make a sculpture of her pain. It made her feel better. Instead of her pain shaping her, she had now shaped her pain. She had restored herself to a proper balance. It’s a good image for any artist, I’d have thought.

But having ways of getting your voice heard makes things even better. All the poems I write are meant for the air, for declamation, me reciting to an audience, rather than for the page, where it’s just the words singing (or rumbling or muttering or whatever) inside a stranger’s head.

That declamatory element can be a weakness and I know there’s quite a lot of me that wants my poems to save the world, just as I myself want to save it. Oh come on, I say, from my poetry pulpit. Listen to this. It will do you good. It will make you be good. So the poem becomes preachy and uncentred. And yet…

There’s the “Poet as Shaman” school which regards the poet as a kind of seer for the community at large. I’m highly suspicious of that approach, yet the fact remains that it grabs me quite a lot. Certainly there is more to the business than just self and restoring one’s own boundaries and systems. One’s day is spent vulnerable and at the mercy of other systems and currents besides one’s own, and I think we are all particularly vulnerable and drawn to that which is unsaid, unrecognised, unspeakable. The more frightened we are of it, the shadowy demon in the cave, the more healing it would be to bring it into the light, and I think there’s an instinct to wrestle with the unspoken, to make sense of it, to chip out the words for it.

Maybe the real poet’s need to articulate and make sense of things, to restore self, can also involve being the community’s lightening conductor, truth teller, dragon-slayer. Or victim. “Thank you for saying the words I could not say myself but needed to hear and thereby share in” Or “How dare you say what we don’t want to hear, or want our cowering population to hear. To silence you, we’ll rip you to bits. To silence you we’ll put you in prison. To silence you we’ll simply pretend you did not speak.”

I like your community idea as well. Community implies connection between people, and poetry is about making connection particularly vivid and electric. Therefore community lives wherever a poem hits the mark.

I was once asked to write a poem about a tree-planting. The local member of parliament trundled along to put down a few spadefuls of soil in the park, around this little tree, and I read my poem to the assembled company.

Two park gardeners were waiting to settle the tree in properly once the ceremonials were over and we’d all gone away.

At the end of my poem one of the gardeners asked me for a copy of it. That was a good moment. The poem had ceased to be “art” restricted to arts pages and the like-minded, and became instead community, reaching out in any direction and finding a home where it may…