Tag: love

‘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.

 

‘Meeting Point’, Louis MacNeice

You can read this poem here.

Like Betjeman’s ‘In a Bath Teashop’ (which you can also read here), MacNeice’s ‘Meeting point’ captures an  experience both ordinary (in the sense of common) and extra-ordinary: the exalted, exalting human experience of being “in love”. Though very different in tone, these poems both emphasise the time-out-of-time quality of the state of “in love-ness”. It is a privileged state in so many ways, of which ‘Meeting point’ reminds us; but, in the repeated refrain ‘time was away and somewhere else’, MacNeice emphasises how being in love frees us —for however long or short a time—from the usual human condition of being, and knowing ourselves to be, unavoidably subject to time. Indeed, by the end of the poem, the repeated refrain ‘time was away and somewhere else’ has become ‘time was away and she was here’. This underlines how the presence of the beloved obliterates and as it were replaces time.

I love so much about this poem. Aside from the refrain, however, what stays with me always is the line ‘God or whatever means the Good’. Particularly in a time when religion seems to be so divisive (though perhaps ’twas ever thus), this is, for me anyway, such a simple, beautiful and therefore useful way to refer to something/someone. It acknowledges the existence of different concepts and understandings—’whatever means the Good’—at the same time as it invites us to see what is common to them all.

And that penultimate stanza is so neatly circular. The word-for-word repetition in the first and fifth lines, and the way the stanza’s argument seamlessly moves us from statement to restatement, seems somehow to enact the process of “proving” something, which the stanza describes. ‘[T]he body’s peace’ manifests ‘what the heart has understood’, which itself verifies ‘God or whatever means the Good’; which whole process is a cause for praise to ‘God or whatever means the Good’. The process works forwards, backwards and probably sideways for all I can tell. Brilliant. Just brilliant.

Do have a look at the Betjeman, too. Some of the diction feels of its time, and may grate on 21st century sensibilities; but this poem, too, exalts the state of exaltation in a way which those of us lucky (?) enough to fall in love cannot but recognise.

‘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.