O thou who art attracted by the Fragrances of God!
. . . I read thy poem, which contained new significances and beautiful words. My heart was dilated by its eloquent sense. I prayed God to make thee utter more beautiful compositions than this.
The BBC Poetry Season currently unfolding is causing me to reflect on why I think poetry matters.
There may be a clue for me in how my interest shifted, when I left the Catholic Church, from poetry to novels as my favourite reading matter. It’s true that my disillusion with religion was influenced by poetry as well: one of my favourite poets at the time was Byron. Others, though were Wordsworth, Coleridge, George Herbert, the Tennyson of In Memoriam and Gerard Manley Hopkins — a spiritually troubled bunch maybe but not exactly godless.
Even though I spent another decade teaching English Literature, my love for poetry remained prematurely buried: occasionally I could hear its finger nails scraping at the coffin lid but put it down to rats behind the skirting boards.
When my career change came and I took up with Psychology you would have thought that would be the end of it. The undead in the coffin should have given up the ghost and turned into a corpse. But strangely enough it didn’t. I threw myself enthusiastically into my new calling and was two years into my degree course while working at a day centre for the so-called ‘mentally ill,’ before I had a strange dream to remind me that my love for poetry might be buried but it wasn’t dead.
I can’t now recall all the details but the key moment in the dream was when my car broke down. I clambered out to look under the bonnet to see what was wrong. (This was at a time when I often had to cook the spark plugs in the oven in the morning before the car would start, so at this stage it would’ve been tempting to dismiss the dream as simply revisiting a prosaic daytime anxiety.) When I lifted the bonnet though everything changed. Instead of the engine there was the most beautiful golden horn — the instrument not the sharp pointed weapon of the rhinoceros.
When I woke I knew that something needed explaining here. What on earth was a golden horn doing under the bonnet of my car in place of the engine?
It’s certain that fine women eat
A crazy salad with their meat
Whereby the Horn of Plenty is undone.
(Before dismissing this as sexist, it’s important to take into account that there is a particular emphasis on the word ‘fine’ here which, in the context about his worries concerning his daughter’s future, is partly to do with being made proud by beauty and unconcerned about defects of character.)
There is more, fuelled by his experiences with Maude Gonne who was a bit of a fanatic:
Have I not seen the loveliest woman born
Out of the mouth of Plenty’s horn,
Because of her opinionated mind
Barter that horn and every good
By quiet natures understood
For an old bellows full of angry wind.
There were obvious surface implications here which I had to consider and weren’t excluded by the main message I finally took away from the dream. It was asking me how I might have undone the Horn of Plenty in some way, perhaps by disowning something important to me that the dream was trying to remind me of. What might an ‘opinionated mind’ have to do with it? What were the good things understood by ‘quiet natures’? And what, if anything, was my ‘old bellows full of angry wind’?
The bottom line for me was that the dream was telling me in no uncertain terms that I had sold out poetry (‘song’) for prose, heart for intellect (‘the opinionated mind’), and intuition for reason and most of all was emphasising that this choice was ‘breaking down,’ that perhaps even the car (an ‘old bellows’?), symbol of a mechanical approach, was the wrong vehicle to be relying on so exclusively.
Discounting, in existential therapy, cuts both ways. You don’t solve the kind of discount I was making by throwing away the car of prosaic mechanical psychology and picking up the horn of poetry and blowing it for all your worth in everybody’s ears. You find a way of balancing both, of integrating them at a higher level of understanding which dissolves their apparent incompatibility. You can’t drive a horn to work or play a haunting melody with an engine but you might need to find the right place for both of these in a complete life..
Interestingly my work with ‘psychosis’ helped me do precisely that.
The psychotic experience, looked at from this angle, is all metaphor. Hallucinations are imagery taken literally: delusions are stories mistaken for plain truth. Both hallucinations and delusions are rooted in reality in the same way that poetry and dreams are, and they point towards truths that we might otherwise ignore or cannot otherwise express. They only become dangerous when we unreflectingly act them out in ways that you would never act out a poem and most people do not act out dreams because their motor system has been shut down in sleep.
The great power of poetry is to articulate for us and convey to us the otherwise inexpressible aspects of experience that cry out to be integrated if we are not to die spiritually, emotionally and intuitively. I was rescued by my dream from continuing to disown the creative force of poetry. Reintegrating poetry into my life was a critical step, not only in becoming a better clinician than I would otherwise have been by the aid of psychology alone, but it also led me to a greater openness to the spirituality of Buddhism than I would otherwise have been capable of, which in turn led me to the Baha’i Faith whose poetic and mystical writings were easier for me to absorb than would have otherwise been the case.
In a very real sense I owe the rich texture of my present life at least in part — and it is a significant part — to poetry.
. . . many a poor man that has roved,
Loved and thought himself beloved,
From a glad kindness cannot take his eyes.
And in the Bahá’í Writings we are told:
A kindly tongue is the lodestone of the hearts of men. It is the bread of the spirit, it clotheth the words with meaning, it is the fountain of the light of wisdom and understanding….
They both seem to be speaking of the same appealing quality in their different ways.
That’s why it is so good to know that the BBC is seeking to bring the creative and transformative power of poetry to people who might otherwise be tempted to ignore it.