FT Life and Arts: Poetry probably saved my life


Please don’t say that I’m alone. Or perhaps I am, and that’s why I do it. Yes, I know some of you, the captains of industry, the retired teachers, were forced to learn bushels of poetry, in the good old days. You can declaim “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” and “I wandered lonely as a cloud” if called upon . . . but you never are. Memorising couplets may train your intellect, and keep the great voices of the canon alive but, otherwise, does it sustain you? I suspect not.

However, if carefully chosen, by either the conscious or unconscious brain, poetry can save your life. I truly believe this. It has probably saved mine.

I was lucky; a brace of great English teachers and a father with a memory like the British Museum convinced me of the value of poetry. Thanks to them, wisps of Shakespeare and Edward Lear, Auden’s “Night Mail”, Eliot’s “Macavity: The Mystery Cat” and the hoof beat of Hilaire Belloc’s “Tarantella” drift through my muddled thoughts barely noticed. They aren’t the point. The poetry I mean, that which soothes and feeds me, adds meaning and magic to the world, is a much more random collection. Without early immersion in the gloriously dated The Penguin Book of Contemporary Verse, and The Dragon Book of Verse, my brain would be a wasteland, dotted with advertising slogans about peanuts and terrible joke punch lines. Admitting it now feels dangerously intimate, like revealing the folds of my frontal lobe, but, like the Ancient Mariner, I want you to understand. I want the same joy for you.

Right now, deep in the sun-speckled glory of early autumn, all turning leaves and conkers glistening like horses’ flanks, I constantly think of the Bard of sexually frustrated vicars, Gerard Manley Hopkins: “Glory be to God for dappled things.” In spring, passing the ornamental cherries which fill London’s streets, I remember AE Housman’s “Loveliest of trees, the cherry now/Is hung with bloom along the bough”, or unfashionable Henry Reed’s “Japonica/Glistens like coral in all of the neighbouring gardens”. Grey front yards suggest Coleridge’s “Down to a sunless sea”; passing certain private landmarks reminds me of Louis MacNeice’s “all of London littered with remembered kisses”. It’s not that I think: aha, yes, I remember that poem. It is instinct. The words float into my mind and illuminate what I’m seeing, several times a day; a rare burst of spontaneity, a dash of lyrical joy.

Yet these aren’t the lines which nourish my soul, which have helped me through my darkest hours, days. Despite my terrible memory, I have, since adolescence, laboriously stuffed a handful of poems into my brain on purpose, for the strength they give me: Hopkins, again, with his ode to leaf mould and mortality beginning “Margaret are you grieving/Over Goldengrove unleaving?”; Elizabeth Jennings’ “I visited the place where we last met. Nothing had changed, the gardens were well-tended”; Emily Dickinson’s “There is a pain — so utter — /It swallows substance up”; James Fenton’s “Nothing I do will make you love me more”. Recently, Kay Ryan’s “It’s hard not to jump out instead of waiting to be found” taxed my memorising powers but has given me courage; ditto, at 23 and for rather different reasons, Carol Ann Duffy’s “Oppenheim’s Cup and Saucer” which begins “She asked me to luncheon in fur. Far from/The loud laughter of men, our secret life stirred”.

I’d love to pretend that I’m sucking up sonnets like a Hoover, but the effort involved in stuffing them permanently into my puny mind is colossal. It’s always worth it. I can barely remember more than a line or two of Mary Oliver but she has become essential: “Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine” and “what is it you plan to do/With your one wild and precious life?” Some of my favourite poems are barely more than a sensation, a ghost of an image: my beloved Frank O’Hara’s “Having a Coke with You” about pitying everyone who hasn’t seen the orange-shirted yoghurt-loving man he adores, or MacNeice’s “Snow”. I’m still not sure what “soundlessly collateral” means but knowing that “there is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses” adds beauty, adds weight, to my life.

It’s like a secret weapon. Just as curiosity — people-watching, plant-obsession — makes train journeys and bus stops bearable, so too having a private store of beauty and sensitivity insulates and strengthens. Think of the poor souls who endured the Conservative party conference this week, of the women grimacing behind Brett Kavanaugh during his hearing. Couldn’t someone have handed out a few lines of Plath or Akhmatova at the door, to help them hold fast?

We have had National Poetry Day in Britain this week and unlike, say, National Milk Day, it touches thousands of lives. Somewhere in Lincolnshire an 11-year-old will have won £10 for their poem on the subject of change. In Oundle and Liverpool and Dundee, library visitors have been able to read their favourite poems aloud. A phrase, an image will have caught at the heart of a depressed pensioner, a frustrated telemarketer, a despairing schoolgirl or a hairdresser newly in love and given them hope, or succour. Absurdly, given my memory, I was asked to judge the annual Poetry By Heart competition at a local school and, although I love to hear the girls recite Keats’s “To Autumn”, they generally choose cheerful verse about sex trafficking and self-hatred. Let’s not worry. It is a blessing to learn that poetry can feed one, describe beauty and wonder and despair, and give a name to some of the inarticulate tangled experience of being human. Poetry proves to us we are not alone.

Onward and Upward in the Garden: from the New Yorker

Why are you so good at killing your house plants?

For most of us, apartment dwellers and city types, houseplants are an admission of defeat. We look wistfully at plants in the supermarket—tendrils and fronds, furry flaps, spines and holes and soft neon shoots—persuading ourselves that they might bring us comfort. Is the particularly unusual leaf structure of a tapioca plant a substitute for the innocent frolicking of a small photogenic mammal? Hardly. Will a fiddle-leaf fig come when I call and lick my nose? Might a yucca plant, in time, support me during retirement? Possibly not. But the Zeitgeist’s many willing servants will try to convince you to go ahead anyway.

Photographers, journalists, and next-door neighbors claim that houseplants are the answer: babe magnet, hipster kryptonite, warmth-bringer, and reason to live, all in one. They insist that, unlike babies, partners, or pets, plants are easy; the usual sump of worry and responsibility, the constant questioning (“Do I want you? Do I like you? Will I kill you?”), doesn’t apply with peace lilies, cheese plants, and bonsai. Look at this photograph of a magnificent jungly something climbing toward a sunny skylight. “Oh, that old thing,” Jeffrey, an eco-architect, says. “I found it on a sidewalk. I water it once a year with craft beer, and that’s the lot.” Jeffrey is lying. He spends his days manicuring this photosynthesizing albatross, unable to get its mealybug problem out of his mind.

The life of the houseplant owner goes like this: first, you buy a sweet little cactus. “Water rarely,” the label says—but, come on, really? It must have grown thirsty since yesterday. So you give it a generous drink at night, pour on cold tea in the morning, and, before you know it, it’s a soggy spongelet, black of heart. Next you try supermarket herbs. But you let the rosemary dry out and the basil wilt and, within a week, both are sitting on the front step, waiting for the Second Coming, which, generally, never arrives.

And still you persist. You take in your late granny’s hideous yucca plant, a mostly etiolated stump with a couple of yellow ribbon-like leaves. You adopt the dust-clogged ficus that no one wanted at the office. Because you are a conscientious person, you read up before hitting the garden center; there’s confidence in knowing that the rainforest-derived Monstera obliqua needs a sunny, steamy room, but the fluffy asparagus fern, to which you lost your heart, requires dappled shade. Then you stagger home bearing a Chinese money plant because you heard that they’re desirable, an Alocasia “Stingray” because of its name, a small succulent labelled only as “succulent,” and a glamorous burro’s tail, which eventually sheds its jade-green leaves and starts to resemble a sad octopus. None of your rooms offers optimal conditions. The bathroom is steamy in the evenings and constantly dark. The kitchen is either boiling or freezing. You have no window sills, and all the sinks are too shallow to fit a watering can. But you can’t give up on your new companions now. You must press on.

One of the most nefarious myths—a true enemy of modern happiness—is the idea that some of us have green fingers or thumbs. Nonsense. It’s a question of care—of learning what works, observing what doesn’t, and muddling along with the survivors. The difficult truth is that, like all living things, houseplants die. Research all you like; polish leaves with moistened tissues, if you will. But soon you, too, will know the joys of tending twenty-plus houseplants in a heat wave, of ripping dead fronds from your Kentia palms and ruining your favorite copy of “The Portrait of a Lady” with the dank spillover from a watered Calathea orbifolia. Those you don’t destroy by accident, you might have to kill. In the brutal badlands of our living rooms, euthanasia is unavoidable; murder is par for the course. See that hideous aloe vera? Stop pretending; its time has come. That flagrantly ugly Sansevieria, the thyme that you fancied growing by the kettle, now a tragic merkin—say farewell to them all. Be brave. They’re not kittens.