Tag: compassion

‘In Memoriam: Poems of Bereavement’, edited by Carol Ann Duffy

In her introduction, Duffy reveals the intention behind this collection: ‘we hope that these poems… will hold your hand’. The image, taken from one of the poems included in the book, is simple, clear, effective: it’s about comfort and companionship, recognition and acknowledgement. And I’d say the book does what Duffy puts on the tin.

There’s a mixture of poems you’re likely to have encountered already and poems which are probably new; similarly, there are a lot of familiar voices—Tennyson, Rosetti, Thomas, St. Vincent Millay, Thomas, and Duffy herself—as well as new ones, and anonymous/traditional texts too. Some are suitable for reading at a funeral or memorial; some feel more intimate. I particularly like the fact that such a range of moods is represented in this volume: shocked, angry, bewildered, wry, consoled, consoling, defiant, felled by loss… even in such a small book, something to find you in most moods.

And if you’re new to the poetry of loss, this would be a great place to start.


thing 7: ‘come, poor Jackself’: a shiatsu session

“…and I don’t need to see your pants.”

Thus runs the unusual—and, to me, quite brilliant—strapline on a poster for a friend’s shiatsu practice.* For those of us with what Clive James has called ‘the right set of personal inadequacies’ (or rather, who feel we have them), the thought of physio, massage, or any other kind of body treatment is often tainted by the prospect of Having To Reveal Our Body To Someone Else.  (read more…)

‘Love (III)’, George Herbert

You can read this poem here. I tried to type it out on the page, as it’s in the public domain, but I wasn’t able to triumph over the pre-formatting on this blog template and I kept losing the indentations in lines 2,4 and 6 of each stanza, so eventually I gave up. It was that or throw the laptop through the window. You know how it is.

Anyway. This poem is the last in Herbert’s long sequence called The Church and, as is evident, is originally a religious poem, which presents a dialogue between a speaker and ‘Love’—Christ—who invites the speaker to receive the gift of the unconditional love of God, made possible through the freely-chosen sacrifice He himself has made on our behalf. Exquisite as this is as a fleshing-out of Christian theology, I add it here, and in connection with this particular post, because I think it can also be read as an extremely psychologically-acute dramatisation of the difficulty we can all feel, sometimes, in accepting love and kindness.

At its least important this might manifest as an exchange along the lines of ‘Your hair looks great today!’. ‘Oh… it really needs washing but I didn’t have time last night’. You know the kind of thing: we probably all know someone who simply cannot receive a compliment (and that someone might just be us ourselves!). This habit of rejection reminds me of Wonderwoman’s magic deflector bracelets, which enabled her swiftly to repel and deflect anything coming her way. That’s great if it’s bad stuff coming towards us; but there’s something sad and serious about how many of us feel only conditionally acceptable/nice/good and therefore find it difficult or impossible to receive the good stuff—be it a not-so-important compliment, or something much more necessary, like care, kindness, love. We can feel we don’t deserve it.

Thus ‘Love (III)’ shows the speaker eager, at first, to receive the love, then losing confidence—’grow[ing slack]/From my first entrance in’—and coming up with all sorts of reasons why he doesn’t deserve it. Yet Love persists—’took my hand, and smiling did reply’—and challenges gently but firmly. The guest (and isn’t it wonderful that he has been invited?: love is something offered and extended to us) comes us with all sorts of excuses, deflections of and proposed diminutions to the “feast” offered: “Me?? I can’t be a guest at this magnificent banquet. I shouldn’t even be here; I’ve got no right to it, I don’t deserve it… Oh, okay then, if you’re really sure; but at least let me help, let me do the washing up….” But then, in the end, because Love persists, the speaker just caves in and accepts.

That eventual collapse into receiving something can be sudden, and lovely, and often painful, because it means letting go of the fears and the hurt. Acceptance—self-acceptance—is (as I see it) at the centre of the work clients do in therapy; it’s my job to try to provide a relationship within which they can come to see that they are lovable. Just as in this poem, it can be such a struggle to dare to believe that you are OK, or OK-enough. It’s hard, hard work. But though the ‘sit[ting] and ‘eat[ting] is the end of a struggle (as it’s the end of the poem and of The Church as a whole) it’s also the beginning of something else: of a new and potentially beautiful way of being, where self-compassion and self-acceptance make it more possible to feel the same things towards everyone else. Happy drivers let someone else merge in from the side-road ahead of them; angry ones don’t. Happy people pay it forward.

Learning to accept kindness, from ourselves and from others, seems to be a lifetime’s work. This poem reminds me that I’m not alone in finding it hard, but that it is a worthwhile and wonderful thing to do.

The Art Of Losing, ed. Kevin Young

This is a wide-raging anthology of verse from a range of different cultures. Taking loss and grieving as its topic, the anthology is arranged into different sections. It doesn’t use the well-known—and sometimes unfairly-maligned—Kubler-Ross five stages of grieving. Instead, it groups the poems under: ‘reckoning’, ‘regret’, ‘remembrance’, ‘ritual’, ‘recovery’ and ‘redemption’. Apart from betraying the editor’s capacity skilfully to use alliteration (!), this grouping is, I think, a useful one, helping the reader to navigate the book and have a better chance of finding the right text for how that particular moment feels.

For me The Art of Losing is more stimulating than other collections of poems about loss and grief simply because every time I pick it up I meet a new author, or new poem, in which I can delight. Perhaps this is, in part, due to its focus on new and contemporary writing: Young explains that while he he has included a few ‘absolutely necessary’ C19th poems, he has ‘tried to stick to poems that are contemporary classics, or soon ought to be’. Other grief anthologies will give you wisdom, heartbreak and love from across the centuries, reminding you of what is universal in human experience over time. Those anthologies have their place: treasure remains treasure no matter how old it is. But Young gives us the chance to uncover new treasures.

There are too many authors included for me to be able to give any kind of representative list. All I can say is: buy this book. Whether you are grieving now, have grieved, work with those who grieve, or simply want to meet some new poems that will find you, then I don’t think this collection will disappoint. Treat yourself to it.