Thursday, 29 June 2017

On Poetry I

Feeling My Way in the Dark

I’ve been thinking about poetry, ever since I read Dark Mountain: Issue 10 – Uncivilised Poetics last year, and particularly after I read Jay Griffiths’s Tristimania a few months back. As a consequence, I decided that I was not only going to try to write some poems (some of which I have shared here), but that I was also going to write some posts about poetry. This, therefore, is my beginning, my way in to the subject. I hope that, over the next weeks and months, I will gradually be able to say more, though I want to make it clear that this will be a very personal exploration. I’m no expert on poetry. I merely want to find in it what speaks to me—and perhaps to some of you, too.


The editors of Uncivilised Poetics had this to say:

There’s something dishevelled and unsettling about poetry. In 2016, at a time of escalating global violence and uncertainty, poetry might seem irrelevant. What’s the point of poetry when the streets of Syria are being bombed? What’s the point of poetry when the permafrost is melting? But poetry matters because it offers an alternative reality – it refuses the logical, reductionist, materialist aspects of industrial culture; aslant, it invites us to feel our way in the dark. And most importantly, it matters because it often fails. Poetry often fails to speak universally, but succeeds in trying over and over again to speak. Poetry is a shabby, uncivilised failure that we badly need in these unravelling times; if for no other reason than as a mirror for our human imperfection. (1)

As an ‘alternative reality’, perhaps what poetry can provide is closer to ‘real’ than what civilisation currently offers us. Our world is too skewed in the direction of left-brain, overly rational, intellectual, and, dare I say it, ‘masculine’ thinking, and this means that we do not perceive the world as it truly is, nor how it could be. Thus what we need is to turn our focus towards the right hemisphere of the brain, the more visual, creative and ‘feminine’ side. This, I would argue, is where poetry comes from (and art, visions, dreams and so forth). Though poems are formed from words, they do not emerge wholly from the verbal left side of the brain, but primarily from a more visual, imagistic and feeling place. And though they may then be edited and consciously reworked by the left brain, they still retain their ability to speak to the right side.

This is so very important. I myself am guilty, from time to time, of over-intellectualising, so I recognise the importance of developing my right hemisphere, of being able to think, and, most crucially, to feel, in a more creative and embodied way—beyond civilised or patriarchal paradigms—sometimes even beyond words. I like the idea that poetry can be radical, rebellious and wild, and therefore connect us with those necessary but very underused parts of ourselves. Hence, Uncivilised Poetics caused me to start to think about how poetry can be a revolutionary force, alongside all other creative work that resists destruction.

And then I read Tristimania, Jay Griffiths’s account of a year-long episode of manic depression (bipolar disorder), and what she had to say inspired me further. There is a strong relationship between suffering and poetry (and art, in general), and ‘If there is no doubting the relationship between the ability to suffer and the need to write poetry, so there is also no doubting the way in which poetry eases suffering’. (2) She says:

To heal is to make whole, and when the mind is broken poetry can work towards healing it, uniting it with itself and reconnecting it with the world. Art comprehends us – it is through language that we are understood – and poetry, above all, steps into the heart and saturates it with understanding. Whenever I read poetry which has this kind of knowledge, I know that I am known. I am seen. I am not alone. How to understand a text is a matter of pedagogy. How to be understood by a text is a matter of healing. In the awful loneliness of depression and the bleak, mind-swept realms of madness, poetry comes kind to hand, offering to unpuzzle silence.

When the psyche is ill, the world can seem inchoate and unwordable, but poetry, shaping words, gives form to formlessness; it threads words like beads on a line to lead you up from the underworld. (3)

This made me think of how I could also use the writing of poetry to explore the situation I am in, to express what I am feeling (however incompletely or inchoately), and to find ways to heal.

Poetry as rebellion 
as antidote to 
too much civilisation 

Poetry as healer 
as reconnection 
with self – and world 

This seems like 
a good place to start 
to begin to feel my way 
in the dark 
towards whatever wild words 
want to be written

1. Em Strang, Nick Hunt & Cate Chapman (eds.), Dark Mountain: Issue 10 – Uncivilised Poetics, The Dark Mountain Project, Autumn 2016, p. 1
2. Jay Griffiths, Tristimania: A Diary of Manic Depression, Penguin, 2016, p. 125
3. Ibid, p. 126 


  1. I always turn to poetry when my brain can't cope with sentences... it's why there's so much in my Book of Comfort :) But I know I don't like angry poetry (of the Kate Tempest variety) - I find it disturbing she is so lauded... Surely, in such times as these we need calming poetry, soothing balm for troubled souls poetry, don't we? Looking forward to your thoughts, Therese...

    1. I think we need different poetry for different reasons. You don't need angry poetry, perhaps because you are not holding any anger within; but some of us are, and that kind of poetry might give us a way to release that anger, and be creatively energised by it. I'm certainly not planning on writing about angry poetry—though anger has been on my thoughts recently, as I am sure you noticed—but I do like poetry that challenges us to think or feel differently, so it won't all be calming or soothing. Some poetry can be energetic, empowering, a call to action, and I think that is important too.

  2. So interesting. I find poetry is, for me, something that lives beneath the skin of life, a dark water being, an undersong. One can tap into it, or one can stop and take notice when it naturally wells up. I hope your own poetry brings you healing and more.

    1. Thank you, Sarah. Having just read 'The Tree of Meaning' by Robert Bringhurst (brilliant!), I wholeheartedly agree. I think poetry is what the world is made of.


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