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8. The redeeming power of poetry

When things get difficult, I look to books for reassurance. On my weaker days, I might chastise myself — or, more accurate maybe, the voice in my ear chastises me — for indulging in escapism when I should be concerned not about books but about the real world outside my front door.

Last March, when the first waves of the pandemic began to crash on shores all over the world, I sought out books.

In particular, I found myself drawn to poetry.

Poetry and I have had a decidedly mixed relationship all these years. When I was 14 or 15, I remember our English teacher talking to us about poetry, and something once written by the great modernist poet TS Eliot in one of his prose essays.

Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.

Eliot was writing in 1929 about the work of Dante, who lived between 1265 and 1321. He added:

The enjoyment of the Divine Comedy is a continuous process. If you get nothing out of it at first, you probably never will; but if from your first deciphering of it there comes now and then some direct shock of poetic intensity, nothing but laziness can deaden the desire for fuller and fuller knowledge.

There are two things about this jump out.

The first is to do with words, the second is to do with poetry.

The first: Words.

These words — first Dante in the early 1300s, then Eliot in the early 1900s, then my English teacher in the late 1900s — have been saved through the long years by a combination of safekeeping and printing-presses and libraries and teachers and Internet servers, and are available to me through a simple search from my home office in rural Ireland, any time I please. I find that sort of staggering.

The second: Poetry.

The “direct shock of poetic intensity” is what poetry can give us. Poetry is not about banal simplicities. It’s about that shock of intensity, the transcendent moment caught by a poet through an almost-perfect combination of words and tone and rhythm. It is these moments when everything comes together in one emotional glow — moments of joy, or bliss, or awe, or sadness, or grief — that give life so much of its meaning.

For a long time I struggled with poetry. I struggled through the text books, trying to make sense of complicated sentence structures or dense references to other works, places, times. (WB Yeats,  a constant throughout the schooling of every Irish man, woman and child, was especially devoted to both complicated sentences and dense references…)

But then you find a poem or a poet that describes an experience in precisely the way you need it to be described, in a way that seems like it was written just for you.

It could be Michael Rosen on a particularly strict schoolteacher, or Seamus Heaney on the funeral of his younger brother, or David Whyte on the sometimes conflicting invitations the world offers to us, or Mary Oliver on our oneness with everything.

Poetry tells us that our experiences, no matter how small or insignificant we might fear them to be, are not just valid, but sacred, because they are experiences not just of you here now, but experiences shared by everyone everywhere throughout all of history and all of what’s to come.

Poetry can tell us that no matter what we are going through, we are not alone and never will be alone.

Poetry can tell us that we are together in the family of things.

Poetry can help us through all of the challenges that life presents to us, up to and including death, because it can speak a universal language that finds us at the precise moment we need it.

As John Keating, the teacher played by Robin Williams in the movie Dead Poets Society, put it:

We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.

Here are a few poems for different moods on different days, read by the authors.

“Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver

“The Bell and the Blackbird” by David Whyte (skip forward to 12:35 for the poem)

“Mid Term Break” by Seamus Heaney

“Strict” by Michael Rosen