Poetry is subversive; it changes our brain chemistry, creating quirky, unfamiliar and offbeat ways of thinking. At the very least, it opens us up to fresh and unpredictable ways of seeing the world.
‘Every angel is terrifying,’ wrote Rilke in a poem, recalibrating the patterns of my thinking about angels and about terror.
Poetry feels like language at play: it moves to a rhythm, it paints pictures, it looks back over its shoulder, it juggles imagery, inferences, subtexts. There are layers, depths, contradictions, ambiguities. There is no one definitive meaning for a poem; it has multiple meanings and they emerge from the sound, the music, the images, and through association and suggestion.
Mary Oliver asks in her poem, ‘The Summer Day’:
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?’
Her question shocks me, wakes me up to what I really want and how I want to live. And I want to ‘live my life as a poem’, as Michael Dransfield once said.
I want to live in a way that disrupts my familiar thought patterns, surprises me, allows me to hear the tones in language, makes me feel more deeply. I look to a poem to show me truths – small truths or great heart-thumping truths – and I want my life to have moments that do that too. Moments that connect me to the world, open me to its secrets, entice my imagination.
When I’m living life as a poem I’m tuned into the resonances in things, what they hint at but don’t say directly.
Pablo Neruda believes that poetry is the ‘pure nonsense, pure wisdom’ of someone who ‘knows nothing’. And it opens you up. He writes that with poetry he ‘wheeled with the stars’, his heart ‘broke loose on the wind’. I want a life that – at least once in a while – does that to me.
People can’t live by poetry alone. But I know I couldn’t live without it.
The poetry in song lyrics has a special power – who doesn’t remember the words of the song that kept them sane when they felt they were going crazy, or that comforted them when they were in despair?
Rilke said ‘the point is to live everything’. So if I’m bored, I want to know it and go into it fully. The same with the daily grind, the tiredness, the ‘blah’ of a day. Sometimes I find that there’s a poem in even the most mundane thing if I let myself feel my way into it.
Poetry mirrors the state of being knocked off-centre by life because poetry comes to things at an angle. According to Emily Dickinson, it tells the truth but tells it ‘slant’ – a way of seeing that you’re particularly open to when your soul is in crisis, or you’re bereft and you long to hear something true.
Some poems are like Impressionist paintings, revealing what’s happening in a moment of time. They show me the poetry in the everyday:
wakes. bluejean morning, sound of
rain at the window. she has gone, leaving
what one leaves of the night before…
‘Geography’ by Michael Dransfield.
When reality is too much to bear, I like to step into the liminal space of a poem, out of direct light into translucence. There, I’m so often astonished by what I see, as with the Kevin Brophy poem, ‘Tulips’, which opens with this eccentric idea, this astounding image:
The tulip does not know the theory of tulips
not even the basic concepts.
No tulip can find a way in to the cup of its own head,
to the six black fingers in its mind.
Who would not want to read on? Reading favourite poems is like drinking very good wine.
– Paula Keogh , author of The Green Bell.