Friday, 23 September 2016

The Magical Power of Poetry by Steve Gladwin

There is only one subject I could write about this month so forgive me if I do so. At the end of July my partner suffered a serious breakdown, from which she seemed to be recovering well, only for a serious relapse to occur a month later and for myself and members of my family to have to take one of the most difficult decisions you will ever have to face. Now she is recovering and regaining herself a little at a time, although we both know it will be a slow process. She is lucky enough to find herself in the only women’s recovery unit in Wales, rather than in some distant mixed ward where, as a non-driver, I wouldn’t even be able to see her.

I could just as easily write this blog on the theme of art imitating life, because this year has been yet another instance of it. It is a year where I completed my latest book about a professional Victorian mad-girl, where I have developed a near obsession with the work of Robert Schumann, (who ended his days in Endenich Assylum), where both Rosie and I spent much of this year contributing to a forthcoming book on change and loss called The Raven’s Call, and where I am currently in Week 3 of the futurelearn course I'd already signed up for on Mental Health in Literature (this week ‘Bereavement’) long before any of this happened, I now find myself facing a totally unexpected challenge and series of changes whose sequence and results are as yet unknown. I am again living a solo life interspersed with visits to see Rosie when she is well enough, and almost daily ‘check in’ calls to her or one of the staff. I am thrown back on to myself and my own resources without the moral support of the person I have had by my side for the last seven years.

The odd thing – as I have written in The Raven’s Call – is that when these things happen there can occur a phenomena which I can only call, ''The other side of the fence. It’s when at the same time you experience both the thing itself - the feeling you’re having say -, while somehow also being able to observe it from a distance and congratulate yourself on how you’re doing. Didn’t I do well there? Didn’t I choose just the right words? Look at me getting on the bus like nothing’s happened?

And then there are the times that you feel yourself so gloriously in the actual moment – no matter how bad or harrowing it might be – that you could almost shout for joy. Such a thing happened two weeks ago.

I had arranged to see Rosie as usual in the afternoon about 2.30, but when I arrived she was very anxious and agitated and seemed uncertain about joining me or sitting down. At one point she disappeared altogether and I wasn’t sure that she’d even return. But she came back and brought with her a new drawing she’d done to show me. Something – perhaps the act of picking up something she’d created – had calmed her enough, and now it was time for me to read some poetry from the book I’d bought. It was there that the real miracle happened.

Rosie loves poetry as much as she loves art and is very skilled at both. She is a brilliant academic who as a mature student, narrowly missed a first at Aberystwyth University. Last year she won the inaugural Disability Arts Wales poetry competition where the judge, poet Menna Elfyn, said that her winning entry, ‘I Once Had A Heart’,’had haunted me for days’.

The book I brought in - appropriately enough - was ‘From The Heart’, a  selection of poems chosen by Ted Hughes. As we settled back down on the sofa in the visitors room, I set about picking a few which I thought she would enjoy. These included over the next hour, poems by Yeats, Frost, Elliot and Betjeman. But we both agreed that our particular favourite was The Way Through The Woods by Rudyard Kipling. We were both haunted by its message and especially its ending –

‘You will hear the beat of a horse’s feet,
And the swish of a skirt in the dew,
Steadily cantering through
The misty solitudes.
As though they perfectly knew
The old lost road through the woods …
But there is no road through the woods.

It wasn’t this poem alone which soothed her anxiety and – bit by bit – brought that bright but over-burdened brain into clarity, but it was that poem which seemed to encapsulate the specialness of that afternoon, where just being with someone and connecting them back to all the things they held dear, was enough – quite enough.

That same week I had poetry very much on my mind because the first week of the excellent futurelearn course on Mental Health and Literature with Professors Jonathan Bate and Paula Byrne was on the theme of Depression and Stress and particularly how poetry can combat both. I had already found – that just doing simple things on the course like reading out loud poems such as Wordsworth’s ‘On Westminster Bridge’, Yeats ‘Lake Isle of Innisfree’, Edward Thomas ‘Addlestrop’ and Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach, ( a wonderful poem I hadn’t come across before) - brought me very quickly to those moments of calm and clarity which at the moment are much needed.

You see the truth is that it has taken me an awfully long time to 'get' poetry. I have certainly written it intermittently - and especially in the last two years when I have been almost prolific – Since childhood I have appreciated many poems here and there. I have fallen completely in love with poems like Frost’s ‘Stopping by Woods’, Rossetti’s ‘Silent Noon’, and Rosenberg’s ‘Returning We Hear The Larks’. I used to love Hardy and Blake more and would like to do so again. I can still find endless fascination in ‘The Waste Land’

No something has happened with poetry lately and especially on this course, for it is as if I do finally ‘get’ what I never did before – that ability and quality a poem has of stopping a moment or idea dead, so that you can rummage around in it to your heart’s content. Last week, part of the course was on the examples of 'heartbreak', (that week's theme) in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility and the very different ways that Elinor and Marianne deal with it. I’ve never taken greatly to your average internet article, ( my fellow bloggers aside) but reading even short extracts from the book wasn’t something I could easily engage with. I think I was missing the space of the poetry and in comparison the lines of packed prose seemed just to crowd in on me and I just wanted the air and freedom of the poem .

I don’t know whether this was because of what happened last Friday or just maybe because I have a profoundly ill partner in hospital and perhaps my patience and indeed concentration isn’t always at its best. What I do know is that poetry is helping both of us in different ways and that it is a connection which we have shared and will continue to share - long after this crisis is resolved - for many years to come.

One of the great joys of the new year, was that we both read the ‘Daughters of Time’ collection by The History Girls,  both getting equal enjoyment and value from it in different ways. For Rosie however it became a true source of inspiration because she decided there and then to write a series of poem about the women in the book whose stories had most got to her.  She wrote poems about Amy Johnson and Emily Davison and others and then raced to the back of the book to find new inspiration from the other women suggested there and wrote poems about a couple of them. We were both however inspired to write about Mary Anning after reading Joan Lennon's wonderful 'Best After Storms', and it was almost a race to get ours down, (I won in the end) first. It was fascinating for us how we could both have such a different take on one subject.. We went on after that to write the animal poems for The Raven’s Call with Rosie taking on Hare, Wren and Swallow and me Raven, Wolf and Butterfly. In those moments of composing and reading and sharing we felt a true connection in a way which we perhaps couldn’t get anywhere else. I'm sure that that deep creative connection applies to many more people than us and provides equal comfort. 

Last week I also gained two very different instances of the healing power of poetry from the futurelearn course. The first was course tutor Paula Byrne’s moving interview with a teacher Jack Lankester. He relates how - following a severe depression after the break-up of a relationship at university - in the end a sympathetic tutor suggested he read a a sonnet sequence by Sir Philip Sidney

.“I believed in my naivety that no one had ever been as heartbroken as I was. No one understood… When I started reading him, the penny dropped in that instant, I felt wildly less alone. And the fact that he had been writing these poems 500 years ago, really did make me realise that being heartbroken or sad or lost is in many ways inevitable. And it’s a part of the human condition.”

 Of course this wasn’t immediately a miracle cure but he did find enough in a single poem alone to give him something to cling on to, where despite the old fashioned language and style the sentiment and feeling came through to illuminate his particular darkness.

Astrophil and Stella 31: With how sad steps, O Moon, thou climb'st the skies

Related Poem Content Details

With how sad steps, O Moon, thou climb'st the skies! 
How silently, and with how wan a face! 
What, may it be that even in heav'nly place 
That busy archer his sharp arrows tries! 
Sure, if that long-with love-acquainted eyes 
Can judge of love, thou feel'st a lover's case, 
I read it in thy looks; thy languish'd grace 
To me, that feel the like, thy state descries. 
Then, ev'n of fellowship, O Moon, tell me, 
Is constant love deem'd there but want of wit? 
Are beauties there as proud as here they be? 
Do they above love to be lov'd, and yet 
Those lovers scorn whom that love doth possess? 
Do they call virtue there ungratefulness?

(Thanks to the Poetry Foundation website)
The second and yes – literally heart-breaking instance - is in the poem Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy by poet and psychiatrist Richard Berlin, where he is dealing with an elderly man who has suffered a suspected heart attack following the sudden death of his wife. In exploring both his own and the old man’s feelings, he marries the technical medical jargon with the image of the over-burdened left ventricle - which now with its narrow neck and rounded bottom, resembles a Japanese octopus pot or Takotsubo . In the end, in commiserating the old man on his loss, the poem ends with him expresssing the wish that he had eight octopus arms to hug him with. You can find this wonderful and moving poem on 

Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy - The condition and the inspiration.

NB As close as you can come to a broken heart, Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy is actually a weakening of the left ventricle which looks like a heart attack but is actually caused by intense stress.

This blog was essentially about three hearts, so let's end with a poem about three more.

I once had a heart       

I once had a heart
all red muscle and hard work. Battle-
scarred and bullet ridden. Never the
victor, always the victim. Wouldn't
win a beauty competition. Yet full of
spirit. But that's what matters most
isn't it?

And so intricate. Would have shamed the 
universe's complex plans. Ad infinitum

tiny arteries that whispered a claret
red, rich susurrus in spiral after spiral.
The life-giver.
How aptly named you were. And worked 
as a heart should. But for one thing.
That endless Thud, Thud. THUD. Too
many memories trapped in the blood.
echoing. Echoing. ECHOING.

For sanity's sake I traded it in.
The new one - a beautiful thing. Hand-
carved. Some said it had a hollow tick.
A heart void of any characteristic
important to life. But in time, I grew
to love it as my own. Then -

in a heartbeat, Woodworm.
Countless tunnels, raised up like embroidered

So the choice was made. One last fling
in the arms of fate. What seemed a faultless 

A heart to die for. A 'work of art'.
And what's better - no flesh, no wood,
or boiled-up blood.

But it had a single flaw. A long-held
tear shattered its core. Fractured red
into yellow and green, bled blue into
indigo, edge by edge into nothing. Like
all the atoms that have ever been.

For a whole galaxy of wonderful poems check out The Poetry Foundation website.

You can find Richard Berlin's Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy on 

If you're interested in catching up with the futurelearn course on Mental Health in Literature, tutors Professor Jonathan Bate and Professor Paula Byrne, or any more of their courses, check out the futurelearn website. You can also find many of the fascinating intrerviews with psychiatrists, actors and academics on youtube.  


Susan Price said...

Steve, I'm so sorry to learn of your partner's illness. But you have each other and are both lucky in that. I wish for you both a recovery from this unhappy time.

But what a wonderful post! It says so much. I hadn't thought of poetry as healing, but it is. Like the student in your blog, I felt, as a teenager, a similar connection over hundreds of years with Hamlet's 'To be or not to be' speech. I thought: This man has been prying in my head!- From 400 years ago.

I love the Kipling poem, The Road Through The Woods, too. Dover Beach is another of my favourites. I shall certainly look up the others you recommend!

Penny Dolan said...

What a very moving post, Steve, honouring poetry and all that it can do for the human heart. Good wishes to you and your partner and hope that easier times arrive for you both.

Susan Price said...

And Steve, you don't give a credit for 'I Once Had A Heart.' Is that yours? It's terriic.

Joan Lennon said...

Thank you for this post, Steve and Rosie. I was feeling such a close connection to you both as I read, and then you mentioned "Best Before Storms" and the feeling of connection turned into an 8-armed octopus hug from both of you and to both of you. And Rosie's "I Once Had a Heart" is wonderful. Sending lots of courage and patience.

Joan Lennon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joan Lennon said...

Sorry, I meant to say "Best After Storms" - you'd think I'd know the title of my own story!

Sandra Horn said...

What a wonderful, moving post! Thak you so much, Steve. you mentioned several of my favourite poems. I find so much that is unspoken in Robert Frost's 'Stopping by woods on a snowy evening' and that whatever-it-is under and behind the text is so powerful. Rosie's poem is a real tour-de-force - marvellous! Very best wishes for full recovery.

Nicola Morgan said...

So moving, Steve. The Way through the Woods and Frost's snowy woods piece are two of my absolute favourite poems. I wish you and Rosie all the very best.

Steve Gladwin said...

Thank you all of you for your kind comments and I'm so glad you enjoyed the blog. Rosie will be delighted at the responses to her poem and she's happy that I've written this blog about her. Joan I think you should write 'Best Before Storms'next, but we both really did love the sequel. Thank you for connecting so thoughtfully with the Octopus metaphor. Glad you appreciated 'Once I had a heart' Sandra and I agree - that's exactly the quality I find in 'Stopping By Woods'. Thanks for you kind comments Sue. I'm sure we'll get there. Festina Lente has become my watchword. Thanks again.

Sue Purkiss said...

Wonderful, Steve. All best wishes, as ever, to you and Rosie.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Thank you for sharing this very personal and moving account. I'm passing this on to a psychiatrist friend of mine and reaching for the poems you've written about. Very powerful that you sat writing those poems about the women from Daughters in Time, together but differently. What an amazingly way to work towards inner calm.

Mary Hoffman said...

Steve, I'm so happy that Daughters of Time, which I edited, brought inspiration and enjoyment to you and Rosie. And wish you both all the best.

Stroppy Author said...

I'm so glad that our book helped you both. When I went through a bad period of depression a few years ago, poetry was absolutely key in helping me cling on. Very best wishes to you and Rosie and I do hope she feels better very soon.

Steve Gladwin said...

Thank you so much everyone - it's my turn to be overwhelmed. Thank you Mary, we both got so much out of Daughters of Time and I always thought about sending you Rosie's poems and Joan - both of our efforts on Mary Anning. Thank you Dianne too for your wonderful story and suitably disguised stroppy author too. I love the peeping at the corners of history rather than always right in the centre. And for your kind good wishes too Nicola and Sue. I think doing the futurelearn course is helping me to find inner calm more through poetry. I think words do it for me more than silence if that makes sense.

Stroppy Author said...

Sorry, don't mean to be disguised - Anne. I wrote the Amy Johnson story :-)

Joan Lennon said...

I'd love to see what you both wrote but didn't know if I should ask! Please send - I'll message you on FB.

LynnHC said...

Beautiful post - it chimed with so many experiences hidden away in my heart. Sending much love to you both x

Jenny Alexander said...

This is such a wonderful honest and moving post, Steve. At various times in my life, I've come across poems that have popped up next to me like lifebuoys after a shipwreck and really kept me afloat. I go on poetry workshops, and now offer poetry workshops myself too, although I never felt the point of poetry until I hit middle life. I think the way we were taught poetry in school, and the particular poems we learnt, really put me off. Thank you for sharing these wonderful poems, and my best wishes to you and Rosie with what you're going through right now.

Steve Gladwin said...

Thank you Jen and Lynne. I'm so glad my post has struck such a chord. And I know exactly what you mean about the point of poetry Jen - that's exactly how I was. I should also have mentioned The Sandpiper by Elizabeth Bishop which Rosie read out to me that day. Love and best wishes to both of you. x