Does poetry make nothing happen?

Charles Cowling

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.

MD Hughes

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.

8 thoughts on “Does poetry make nothing happen?

  1. Charles Cowling

    Charles, I feel as if your comment implied enough is enough, but there’s one more thing…

    it’s got me thinking about a tribute to a stranger. I find I feel on firmer ground speaking such a creation than I could ever do reciting a poem. Why’s that, I wonder. I think it’s because it’s not the person who died I’m talking about, in fact, but her effect on those who asked me to show them that effect, and how it may last, which I’ve found out about by listening to them.

    I think I’m going to come back to that one in the future; but meanwhile I wonder if any other celebrants have thoughts about who and what they’re talking about at a funeral.

    Blue touchpaper smouldering,

    stand back!

    Charles Cowling
  2. Charles Cowling

    Jonathan, I’ve got to cut and paste your superb “Lord’s Prayer,” hope that’s OK, and I’ll try the mirror idea. As always, thanks.

    Charles Cowling
  3. Charles Cowling

    Thank you for these comments, which my original post (it got a bit lost, yes Jonathan, in speculations about the uses of poetry (and well done on picking up the Auden ref, GM, but then I knew you would)) scarcely deserved.

    I’m with you, GM, on thin lines. Gosh yes. Actually, I prefer Do Not Stand to delivering the eulogy because I can’t picture the person who’s died in anything I say. But I can speak to the images in DNS and I actually really enjoy doing so – because I want them to enjoy it as much as they think they do.

    Claire, the only counter-argument I would make is that a poem may be lost in transmission, but the witness to a hurting heart isn’t. And that is possibly more valuable.

    Jonathan, you are wonderful. Much of the value of this blog is that it lights your blue touchpaper. Your Lord’s Prayer is brilliant. And the poem about your little boy…

    Thank you for taking the time, everyone.

    Charles Cowling
  4. Charles Cowling

    Claire, I couldn’t agree more, up to a point:

    “De diddle dum, de diddle dum,
    De diddle-diddle dum,
    De diddle dum, de diddle dum,
    De diddle-diddle dee”…

    doesn’t do it for anyone. But what works is that it was SHE who mumbled it when no-one else had the nerve to say anything at all, and their gratefulness to her can do more than any amount of well-spoken verbiage by a coherent celebrant.

    Even a well-read poem is only of any actual use if it stays forever with those who hear it because it touches something real in them that won’t go away afterwards, so it has to be even better on its own merits than his niece’s otherwise meritless efforts. And I don’t know more than a handful of those, whichever linguistic genius wrote them. Do you? I’d be glad to read them, honestly.

    Gloriamundi, speaking of acting, next time you’re asked to read ‘The Lord’s Prayer’, try reading it out in front of the mirror as if you meant it. You can do it SO much better than any minister I’ve ever heard reciting it –

    “Da dada,
    da dada dada,
    dada dada da.
    Da dada da,
    da dada da,
    dada dada dada dada….”

    know what I mean? If that’s as hard for you as it is for me, try thinking of it something like this:

    “That which is, in our minds, responsible for Existence,
    we respect you.
    Let idealism be a force for action,
    and let your intentions for good be realized
    in the physical universe as they are in the theoretical.
    It would be nice to eat something today;
    and while you’re at it,
    please remind us when we’re being complete twats,
    just as we show you how to do it
    when we’re patient with other people who don’t deserve our tolerance.
    Please don’t let us be distracted by worldly considerations,
    as the advertising industry, for instance, would have us be,
    but remind us of our greater values, which give meaning to our lives.
    Because yours, like ours, are the values that truly matter,
    and what’s more that’ll never change because it’s a fundamental truth.

    So be it.”

    Do you know, I’ve actually felt moved by this method.

    Charles Cowling
  5. Charles Cowling

    Yes, that’s such a quandary isn’t it Claire: either I read it, because I can do it better (well, come on, of course, in 90% of cases, that’s why I’m up there) but I’m not the best person in all other ways; or a family member does it – the right person, identitywise – and the risk is you can’t hear ’em. Actually, I’m impressed with how often they do a pretty good or good enough job, but it is a risk, at the purely practical level. Audibility matters!

    Usual advice – if you need to stop for a gulp, fine, we’re all on your side, etc – but it is a tough call for most people. If only we had more time, to dress-rehearse (as with weddings,) coach and encourage. Though maybe many people would just say, let’s do the best we can and get the hell out of this dismal crem for a restorative pint and a talk through what it all means.Or will they just talk about the traffic on the M25…

    Charles Cowling
  6. Charles Cowling
    Claire Callender

    I totally agree with gloriamundi. it’s SO not about us. Although the main problem I find is that most poetry that is read by family or friends can be read so badly ( through understandable nerves, a desire to just get through it and limited experience of public speaking) as to be rendered almost meaningless.

    Charles Cowling
  7. Charles Cowling

    Your post, Charles, could go into the training manual for ministers – we probably don’t think deeply enough about how we use poetry. And whilst I respect your powerful view of poetry (and indeed your poems) Jonathan, I have a different view of poetry in public.

    As private readers and writers of poetry, or as both in an intimate circle, we may fruitfully view poetry through the graduation of values and emotions our reading experience and training has equipped us with. We may even grind through, yet again, “when is it a poem?”

    But at a funeral, I think it entirely legitimate – perhaps necessary – to see poetry as in a way similar to pop music. (Gasp! Horrors!)

    No, that’s not snobbish. Much pop music functions so powerfully because it says things for millions of people that they can’t say for themselves, and thus creates fellow-feeling. (Its charms totally elude some people, of course, as with poetry.) And of course we know that it’s not as “good” as Miles Davis or Bach – but that’s not the point.

    We may know that “How Long Does a Man Live” is not as “good” as “Nocturnal Upon St Lucy’s Day.” At a funeral, that’s not the point. Which poem will speak for these people? That’s the only valid question. Yes, ministers are actors. That doesn’t mean they are inauthentic. It means that whatever they feel somewhere inside them, they must act well. It’s not about me, and my preferences; although it involves me, moves me, it’s about them. We don’t accuse an actor of insincerity when he plays Hamlet, because he’s not Prince of Denmark – it is the power and effectiveness of his acting by which we judge his performance.

    And that’s not a return to the laziness of the dominant performing minister syndrome. However participative a funeral is, if you have a minister, someone upfront who is not actually bereaved by the death, you have an actor. She’d better be good at it. Maybe one day we’ll all be so literate about mortality that we won’t need any ministers, but till then…

    I believe there is a danger in assuming that people won’t like poetry. Depends on the poem, depends on the people. Ask the family. In the funeral, try side-stepping cultural prejudices by not announcing it as a poem, just say “I’d like to read you something that…”

    I acknowledge that it is dangerously easy to provide a comfortably emollient poem that doesn’t help people grieve. It is also easy to patronise people by assuming that our critical preferences are more valid than their need for hearing thoughts expressed by a poem. It’s a thin line, but then this whole business is a thin line, isn’t it?

    And I think Auden was wrong. Poetry may not blow up buildings, but it does make things happen, in people’s thoughts and emotions.

    Charles Cowling
  8. Charles Cowling

    No, Charles, I’m not sure I can see where you’re going. You’ve disappeared into the fog, and I’m anxiously awaiting your return to see what treasures you bring back. But then I rarely use poetry at a funeral, because it often falls flat for a family who never read or listen to poems, and who are the ones who, when they choose at all, choose DNSAMGAW for, I suspect, the dubious reasons we all suspect, or at least, if I understand you at all, you do. David Harsent seems to know what to say, but not how to balm a necessary pain with platitudes. I like him.

    Besides, for me, poetry is like a private member – I prefer my own, to share with the few others who understand it rather than to transport crowds of people to Ecstasy. But my own tends to be of little use for the effects you mention; it’s more to say what otherwise gets left unsaid, or to hear those who otherwise get left unheard. Here’s an example that arose when my son had appalling toothache, and distressing as it was to hold him for two days before the dentist could cure him, I realized it was nothing compared with wishing he was dead:


    Yesterday, or a year ago,
    your laughter left on the last train.

    He and I couldn’t even wave goodbye.
    I was occupied holding you tight
    while you screamed and screamed at me
    to send your agony in his place,
    and I couldn’t because the ticket was written in his name.

    He was only the first of many to run for his life
    and leave a gaping hole in you for that parasite to occupy.
    Even my arms around your heart didn’t stop it
    from eating your organs alive
    and drinking your blood through my fingers.

    Tantalizing memories flapped butterfly wings
    in the hurricane that blew you away from me.
    And now my shame devours me to know forever how,
    in that last eternity,
    which ripped me in half like a steak between dogs
    as it snatched you carelessly in an instant,
    I traded my soul with the Devil
    for one last glimpse of your smile.

    A deal He accepted with alacrity;
    but He never paid up.

    Charles Cowling

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>