Learning Points: Poetry can help us make sense of the world, especially in lockdown

In Sulawesi, Indonesia, scientists in 2019 discovered, on the walls inside a dark cave, the earliest picture ever made by Homo sapiens.
Learning Points: Poetry can help us make sense of the world, especially in lockdown
Woman writing poetry in her journal - conceptual image of the creative process
Woman writing poetry in her journal - conceptual image of the creative process

In Sulawesi, Indonesia, scientists in 2019 discovered, on the walls inside a dark cave, the earliest picture ever made by Homo sapiens.

What makes this find so exhilarating is not only the fact that this cave is a portal into the distant past but it marks the intellectual breakthrough in human evolution when our cognition moved into the realm of higher order consciousness.

Once we had the ability to imagine, to dream, or to think in sophisticated abstraction anything was possible. The genius of our species was born. Our shared experience was captured through the process of art. This connected us. And we could all relate to each other through this artistic expression.

Over the last two months when things were bleak and we desperately sought comfort, art kept us warm with hope. The line that has come to encapsulate our experience is Heaney’s, ‘if we winter this out we can summer anywhere’.

Poetry has that unique ability to cut through the treacle of human façade and hit you straight in the ‘rag and bone shop of the heart’. Poetry has always been there with me, all down the years.

Whenever I experienced adversity or joy, the words of poets have always been in my ear, helping and guiding me.

I vividly recall the first time a dead poet reached out from the grave and said; I once felt what you are feeling now, you’re not alone.

I was sitting in Tom O’ Flaherty’s English class in Rochestown College Cork as he uttered ‘Let us go then, you and I/when the evening is spread out against the sky/like a patient etherized upon a table’ his broad Kerry accent slightly incongruous to the weight of American cadence in the opening lines of T.S Eliot’s ‘The love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’.

None the less, that was it. A life long love affair had been born. An affair my wife knows all too well. When she handed me my first-born daughter, I uttered the words of Sylvia Plath, ‘Your nakedness shadows our safety’. Many years before that event I was busy up in my bedroom writing my first serious Valentines card to my first real girlfriend.

I was whistling the words of Madness ‘it must be love, love love’ as I feverishly penned my heart onto paper. We had been dating for a month and hadn’t kissed. I called on Yates for this endeavour: ‘Tread softly because you tread on my dreams’. She married my best childhood friend. Bloody Yates!

A few years later when another relationship came to a sudden and abrupt end that girlfriend sent me a copy of Heaney’s a ‘door into the dark’. Bloody Heaney! Meagre food for a broken heart.

I should have listened to Kavanagh, ‘her dark Hair’ did indeed ‘weave a snare that I might one day rue’. ‘The course of true love never did run smooth’.

And later when my parents separated I was introduced to the ‘still sad music of humanity’. A melancholy came into my life that I found hard to express. So Hamlet spoke it for me, ‘I have of late, but wherefore I know not – lost all my mirth’.

It was in that same English class that I was introduced to the poetry of Robert Frost. His quiet sadness hit me with an intensity I’ve rarely felt since. The boy in, ’Birches’ was a mirror image of myself. I sat in that class eyes wide listening to each line as Mr O’ Flaherty delivered it in his dramatic tones, ‘once they are bowed for so long, they never right themselves’.

I took that as an image of sadness, sometimes we don’t pull out of it and I knew, thanks to Frost, I didn’t want that to be me, I didn’t want my spirit to be ‘bowed’.

I had that image in my mind and still do when I think abut teenage mental health. Philip Larkin haunted my early conversations with my wife about starting a family, ‘man hands on misery to man/it deepens like a coastal shelf/get out as early as you can/and don’t have any kids yourself’.

Luckily I didn’t really listen to him and had three daughters who are now the measure of my joy.

Patrick Kavanagh keeps me focused on my parenting responsibilities and not spoiling those girls. ‘Through a chink too wide/there comes in no wonder’. How true it is.

What an important message for all of us, as parents. The more we give our children the more they lose the ability to see the newness and wonder in everything.

As a family therapist poetry is very important to my process. It allows me to think in abstract ways about very dense emotions.

Clients often speak about their experiences in metaphors and images.

We have something we call the fifth province in systemic family psychotherapy, an abstract idea for moving beyond the physical constraints of our dilemmas.

Poetry has helped us remain resilient in these times of uncertainty.

We have almost wintered it out, very soon it will be time to summer.

  • Richard Hogan is clinical director of therapyinstitute.ie, a school teacher, systemic family psychotherapist, and father of three.
  • If you have a question, contact info@richardhogan.ie. His book, Parenting the Screenager, is out now.

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