The Your Voice section of The Poet’s List showcases articles and blog posts written by poets. These pieces may or not be about poetry. Most often, they are on topics with which the poet finds passion. You can find more of these posts, here: Your Voice.
By Christina Patterson
“My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains my sense.” This is what I thought when I couldn’t sleep on Saturday night and ended up listening to a podcast about the European Union referendum.
On another occasion, after climbing into a bath without testing the water: “Too hot, too hot!” I screeched, and then, a bit less relevantly, “To mingle friendship far is mingling bloods. I have tremor cordis on me: my heart dances; But not for joy; not joy.”
I have been quoting Leontes in the bath ever since I studied The Winter’s Tale for A-level. I have been quoting Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale ever since I studied it for O-level. I think of it when I’m fed up. I think of it when I’m tired. I think of it when I’m broken-hearted. And I think of it when I order a nice glass of Rioja, or what Keats would have called “a beaker full of the warm South”.
“There are some people I know,” said Salman Rushdie at the Hay literary festivallast week, “who are just able to carry around absurd amounts of poetry in their heads.” Memorising poetry, he added, had become a “lost art”.
If it really is lost, it’s a shame. It’s a shame not just because random scraps of poetry from childhood can make you giggle in the bath, and because there’s nothing like a Keats ode to turn a minor irritation into a full-blown drama. It’s a shame because poetry really does do powerful things to the brain.
Memorising poetry works as a kind of Zumba class for the little grey cells. Learning poems takes focus. You know, that thing you used to have – before email, Twitter and Facebook photos of your friend’s dogs chewed up what was left of your brain.
But to argue that learning poetry is good for your brain is a bit like saying “clean eating” is good for your body (eating, that is, without most of the ingredients most of us would call food, and certainly without most of the joy).
It reminds me of the forms I used to have to fill in for the Arts Council when I was running the Poetry Society. Poetry, I was meant to argue, would improve young people’s communication skills and their ability to get jobs. I wanted the funding, so I did; but what I really wanted to yell was: “Have you ever met a poet?” I’ve met some of the greatest poets of the 20th century, but I can’t say that “employable” was the first word that popped into my head.
Poetry is not Ryvita. It is, as the late, great Seamus Heaney suggested, more like electricity. In his poem Electric Light he remembers the “candle-grease congealed, dark-streaked with wick-soot” gloom of the first house he saw that had electric light and how, as a small child, if he “stood on the low-backed chair”, he could just reach the switch. He started writing poetry after hearing Gerard Manley Hopkins read aloud. “It was,” said Heaney, “the voltage of the language”.
Yes, it’s the voltage of the language, the voltage that turned poems in the Soviet Union into a precious cargo that had to be smuggled, or hidden, or scratched on soap. It was the voltage that had poets imprisoned or executed under Stalin, the voltage that filled football stadiums in Russia in the 1950s, for readings of poems that used metaphors and symbols to say what couldn’t otherwise be said.
It’s the voltage I saw in Iran a few years ago, at the tomb of the great 14th-century Persian poet Hafez. Men in black suits and women in black chadors wept as they recited words about a nightingale and a rose.
Writing poetry is hard. Even the greatest poets often worry that they will never write another good poem. And reading poetry isn’t easy either. A great poem works at many different levels. The more you read it – the more you live with it – the deeper you can go.
Poetry is the opposite of instant. In a sea of information, poetry is an anchor. It can help you stop the world and tap into words and images and rhythms that pulse in your blood and heart and veins: words and images and rhythms that have become a part of you.
Poetry is there for your numb heart and your hot bath. It’s there for your hopes. It’s there for your fears. It can, for example, make sure that when you hear Boris Johnson talking about Brexit, what leaps into your head, in a way that makes your heart dance, but “not for joy”, is the famous stage direction from The Winter’s Tale: “Exit, pursued by a bear”.