The Tide Recedes
The tide recedes, but leaves behind
Bright seashells on the sand.
The sun goes down, but gentle warmth
Still lingers on the land.
The music stops, and yet it lingers
On in sweet refrain.
For every joy that passes
Something beautiful remains.
What do you think of that little poem? Are you prepared to make a qualitative judgement? Yes, you probably are. We are taught to be critical, to rank things, to understand that there is good writing, bad writing, genres of writing, writing for Them, writing for Us. By the age of 14 we were backseat-driving Shakespeare, for heavens’ sake. It’s become a habit. We are all snobs, and snobs are not nice people.
I’ve used that little poem a few times at the close of a funeral. It’s been a good fit for families who like that sort of thing. Empathy, I flatter myself, guided me to pick it for them. And already I sound as if I am talking down. I don’t mean to, I really don’t. Yet if you were to get me in an armlock I’d confess that it wouldn’t do for me. If you were to advance on me with an electric cattle prod I’d whimper that I think it somewhat sentimental and mawkish. My shameful secret is that I know the difference between poetry, verse and doggerel. Once learned, never unlearned.
I guess a lot of celebrants feel this way about stuff they read at funerals. Arguably it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t show. Celebrants are role-players, after all.
Or does it matter? Does it? When a celebrant recites a prayer she doesn’t believe a word of, does that matter? Or ‘Do not stand at my grave and weep’, which she despises? Is this suspension of self? Or is it insincerity? I don’t know the answer to that. Do you?
Poetry at funerals tends to be, according to critical measurements, clichéd, corny or worse. So what? Isn’t the important thing that we like it? Why do we like it? We like it because at times of great grief poetry’s what we turn to. Why? It’s something very deepseated that makes us do this. And we don’t just read it, either, we write it. Look at the cards left at roadside shrines. We like it, dammit, for its own sake.
We like poetry rich in sound-effects: rhyme, rhythm, assonance. We like poetry which paints pictures – what posh folk call ‘imagery’. We like poems we can easily understand at one hearing even though we are not at our cognitive best. The right poem is a good ride.
It goes to the heart. It enables emotional release—catharsis. We feel better for it. Does it change anything for good? Does it deepen insights? Can bad poetry work as effectively as good poetry? Can it lead us on, only to cheat us? Can it wear off quickly and leave a bad taste, a hangover, a void?
Poetry reaches the parts reason can’t get anywhere near. It is psychotropic. It is verbal MDMA. And interestingly enough, the therapeutic benefits of MDMA are attested in cases of post-traumatic stress and high anxiety in both terminal cancer sufferers and their partners. So you can see where I am going, can’t you? I won’t, because I think you don’t want me to. For today, that is. I’ll be back.
Here instead is a poem by David Harsent. It is called Elegy.
On the day of your death there were leaves drifting
Down to English lawns as season
Drifted into season, winter coming; rooks were pouring
Across the sky, thick as falling leaves and giving
Their hoarse Kyrie Eleison,
The best of the day now fading, you yourself fading
For no good reason, it seemed, for no good reason.
And in every part of the garden dark doors closing.