Text of an article I wrote for Bloomsbury’s Writers and Artists website

Poetry is intensely valuable to me and it always has been. It is my antidote to despair, tiredness and loneliness; a thread that runs through my life. I solve problems with its lines—not just their lexicon, but the life breathed into form by rhythm, rhyme or meter: a riddle; a moment of joy. It is my borrowed voice.

A favourite is Louis MacNeice’s ‘Meeting Point, which I have always thought was a magisterial coming together of the ordinary and the the extraordinary; of quotidian rhythm and something magical. When I read this poem, I am caught up by its concept of the loved ones part of, yet isolated in happiness from the world; they are separate while they participate in daily activity. Something absorbing, supernatural and cosmic happens in the poem. And it is transporting.

So, if you feel sad or if you find anxiety about your daily life is skewing your experience of the beauty around you, anchoring yourself in a poem might help. Is there, beyond or daily our even bland experience, something extraordinary and connecting us to a myriad things? You’ll see that ‘God or whatever means the Good‘ is a phrase used. For you, faith may be about your place of worship; here the notion is broader. It is there, just not grasped; and so you might find something in this poem to cheer you and give you solace. It’s about the transformative power of love, too—its possibilities and the idea of time being suspended. I think we may feel this in love, but also in finding something that absorbs us, whatever that is. And that is truly valuable.

As for the structure of the poem: how might that make you feel better? I mean in any poem. The words lean on and support one another; they are interlocked in their sense and in their rhythm and this busy, subtle action draws forth, I might say, a music whose melody and beat speak to us and delight us. So read a poem aloud and test it on your pulse. What does it do to you? For me, the ‘time was away‘ refrain in the MacNeice poem of which I spoke, is comforting in its repetition, both of words but also of rhythm. You don’t need to know about metrical feet to hear this and feel it.

Here’s an idea. Learn the poem. Learn any poem. By heart. Then, when you feel your mood slump or you feel scared, pull it out and hear it in your head, mouth it quietly, or say it loudly and clearly.

It’s not that a poem is a talisman, but why not let it be an anchor? Every time you encounter it, you might see something new or notice you read it or say it slightly differently.

We are busy—so very busy nowadays; we are assailed by the images that tell us how flawed we are; a steady stream of information is constantly with us through digital media and I might argue that we have more, yet often we have less because we refuse to accept that difficulty and frustration are normal or to aim less for getting and achieving and more at being? It is not coincidence that we see a rise in the understanding and use of mindfulness techniques, as we aim to be stilled and in the moment.

But these are not new techniques, but refinements of much, much older ones and I think that reading a poem can be part of that. Why not be swept away by Porphyro’s extraordinary feast in Keats’s ‘The Eve of St Agnes‘? Find yourself utterly absorbed by epic simile and astonishing breadth of imagery and allusion in Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost‘? The middle English of Chaucer’s ‘The Canterbury Tales‘ is not as difficult as people may think to read and, in trying, a whole new world comes to a life. As it touches us, might we feel less alone in a world where we are often always ‘on’ and yet potentially more isolated?

Sometimes, we create in lines of poetry a little room – a world, even. For example, not long ago, I worked with a rather sad boy in the final year of GCSE. We tore up what we were doing and I watched his mood shift and his eyes go wide as we explored T.S. Eliot’s ‘Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats‘. He became relaxed; lively—enjoying the characterisation and the jolly repetition.

I do believe—and studies bear this out—that we are seeing children and adolescents bowed down under stress from all angles and suffering more from mental health problems. Sometimes, I work with students who have had enough of schooling and see little hope for the future. I am not their counsellor, but I am happy to try and offer up some poetry to cheer them. It’s the rhyme and the rhythm that strike home. Like soothing stories for an older ear, no longer read to or quietened at bedtime by song or nursery rhyme. And an awareness, young or old, that poetry, as Dylan Thomas had it, ‘ is what in a poem makes you laugh, cry, prickle, be silent, makes your toe nails twinkle, makes you want to do this or that or nothing, makes you know that you are alone in the unknown world, that your bliss and suffering is forever shared and forever all your own.’

Poetry is always there; always important. For a challenge for us or a challenge to the status quo; to bring us joy or relaxation; it is that cordial handshake which brings with it words to surprise, delight and chronicle. It will always have its place and always be important. And maybe, as Shelley had it, poets are, after all, ‘the unacknowledged legislators of the world.’

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