Does poetry make nothing happen?

Charles 8 Comments

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.

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13 years ago

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… Read more »

13 years ago

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… Read more »

Claire Callender
13 years ago

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.

13 years ago

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,… Read more »

13 years ago

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… Read more »

Charles Cowling
13 years ago

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… Read more »

13 years ago

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.

13 years ago

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… Read more »