Perhaps unusually as an English student, for many years I felt that I didn’t ‘get’ poetry. I couldn’t seem to appreciate it like other people, finding it frustrating rather than consoling as I often struggled to understand the meaning or significance of a particular poem. Certain memorable lines, nevertheless, would stick with me, and I would find myself repeating them in the doctor’s waiting room, in the queue at the supermarket, or in times of crisis and anxiety.
When I lost my mum as a young teenager, coming back home to my dog barking at the door of an otherwise empty house, I recalled the opening lines of W.H Auden’s poem ‘Funeral Blues’: ‘Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone, / Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone.’ The poem was made famous by its poignant recitation in the film Four Weddings and a Funeral and having been one of my mum’s favourites, we even had a trinket box engraved with the lines sitting on our bookcase.
I’d absentmindedly picked it up from time to time, and read over the lines as unsentimentally as if I was reading the back of a box of cornflakes. It was only until truly experiencing grief for myself that I was able to really understand what Auden was getting at. While the clocks in our house continued to tick, the cars outside continued to pass by, and my dog looked up at me in expectation of an afternoon walk, for me time had stopped – so why couldn’t the world pause too? Having those lines course through my head helped me to make sense of the trauma I was going through, and I finally recognised the sense of connection that poetry can facilitate. I felt that not only did I ‘get’ what Auden was expressing, but that he understood me too.
Isolated from each other by the pandemic, most of us are lonelier than we have ever been. Although we live in a world where we have more platforms to communicate with each other than ever, social media fails to replicate the authenticity of the real world: people do not show their real selves online, but rather the idealised version that is perpetually partying or on holiday. We show the virtual world what we would like to be, knowing all too well it is not reality. Very few of us actually have the courage to admit when we feel lonely and miserable, or that we need a friend and a hug, resulting in a general sense of isolation and disconnection.
Yet despite this, poetry is becoming something that we are increasingly sharing with each other, with poetry book sales increasing year on year. Poetry has become a kind of secular liturgy through which we can express feelings that we would otherwise struggle to communicate, a way of holding hands with each other, and a way of connecting not only with other people, but with the past. There is something incredibly reassuring in finding somebody expressing how you feel rather more elegantly than you can voice it yourself. And when you discover that it was written before you were even born, you realise that you are not alone; that people have always felt like this, and in this sense, it normalises our difficulties and anxieties.
As well as loneliness, many of us feel that we have had a year, possibly two, of our lives ripped away as a result of lockdown. I often find myself swept away with a sense of what could have been, and a general sense of dissatisfaction with my achievements over the past year. Stuck at home, it becomes all too apparent that we might never have the lives that we see plastered over social media and on TV – top grades, the perfect house, and toned abs seem just too far out of reach. Yet poems such as Izumi Shikibu’s ‘Although the wind’ (translated by Jane Hirshfield) act as a grounding reminder to find magic and beauty amid the troubles of everyday life:
Although the wind
Blows terribly here,
The moonlight also leaks
Between the roof planks
Of this ruined house.
Shikibu’s poem not only offers a warming sense of reassurance in these dark times, but encourages us to see the wider picture and evaluate our lives in their completeness, making us realise that sometimes it is through struggle and trial that unique opportunities can present themselves to us. Poetry in this sense gives form to the chaos of life, and is therefore particularly pertinent in the turbulent times we are living in. Each day we wake up to ever more unprecedented news stories and political decisions that seem devoid of logic and reason, but poetry, in its orderliness, stands in defiance to this turmoil. Hence it provides a way for us to grapple with our demons, our worries and our woes, but also to escape from them.
Many people can be intimidated by poetry, but the simple rhythm and musicality of poems such as Shikibu’s have a universal appeal. The best advice I can offer to those who want to get over their fear of poetry is to read a poem out loud: never read a poem as though you’re reading a novel or a news story, for you will miss the cadences that make poetry so special.
Part of the fun is the crunch and feel of words in your mouth as they hit the tip of the tongue and resound. Even just reciting words and poems in your head can offer a sense of consolation, for there is something about the repetition of lines of poetry, ingrained in memory, that gives you something stable to hold on to. It is probably for this reason that when my life changed forever, at age 14, I found myself repeating the words of Auden before I’d even truly considered what they meant.
What I find most extraordinary and reassuring about poetry is that although it resonates with how we currently feel, the words have the ability to live through centuries. Despite the multiplicity of our circumstances, poetry shows how in a way our lives and our difficulties are fundamentally always the same. There is a poem that expresses every single human anxiety you can think of, and if you find that poem, just as Alan Bennett put it, “it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours”. And in times when we must stay 2 metres apart, that is a remarkable blessing.
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