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.