Poetry has waned somewhat in its importance for me in the last year or so, and I’m the poorer for it. Perhaps it’s because of my father’s sudden death late in 2013, perhaps it’s the “running to stand still” process with which I wrestle in order to meet the day. It’s more likely, though, that I’m submerged in a prolonged spell of grief avoidance. That which cannot be named can always take a back seat, while the spuds have to be peeled or the school uniform needs washing the dog has to be walked. Can’t it?
And yet it is in poetry – the poetry of others, I hasten to add – that I have found those words which prompt me to exclaim “Aha! There it is! That’s what I’ve always thought, too – wish I’d said it like that!” It is in poetry that I’ve discovered words for love, for anger, for disdain, for bliss. But I shudder to think of exploring the poetry of loss.
Who hasn’t turned to Yeats in the first flush of yet another bout of “true love”? Who hasn’t thought of spreading their dreams underneath another’s feet, and who hasn’t asked the love object to tread softly, having them stomping all over our dreams? But of course love isn’t the only song that poetry sings.
As the centenary commemorations of WW1 rumble on, the voices of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon come back to haunt us, describing military battle as “…obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud”. Lest we forget, everyone keeps saying. But we did forget, of course. We keep forgetting, again and again, and we keep imposing military “solutions” on questions which cannot be answered by might and force.
I can’t think back on my hectic single days, my own personal “Roaring Twenties” – and their abrupt ending – without thinking of Louis McNeice’s wonderful, sing-song “Bagpipe Music”. There’s something about what someone called its “tremendously exhilarating pessimism” that describes perfectly my youthful experience of a tired and depressed Dublin in the eighties.
And who hasn’t turned to the poetry of Leonard Cohen, albeit set to music, when rejection makes its inevitable call? I remember the drink-addled fug of many a night, those delicious troughs of whiskey-sodden wallowing, with Laughing Lennie in the background, crooning about climbing a mountain “…to wash my eyelids in rain”.
Ultimately I must of course face grief instead of dodging it. But rather than listen to the platitudes of some well-meaning but misguided therapist who would tell me that time heals everything, I know instead I will return to poetry to find some dimension of consolation. Auden’s much-quoted “Funeral Blues” no longer fits the bill. I need to find poetry which explores the long-reverberating aftershocks of bereavement, rather than its immediate crippling impact. And in the meantime, while walking the dog and mopping the floor, I can console myself with Patrick Kavanagh’s lines about unacknowledged sorrow, while “Every old man I see reminds me of my father”.