Poetry By Heart Blog

Contemporary Approaches to Poetry

21st October 2015

Image from 'I Amir' by Nisha Bhakoo

Image from ‘I Amir’ by Nisha Bhakoo

Writer and video artist Nisha Bhakoo explores her own response to poetry as both reader and writer.

 

I believe that honesty and courage are the most important things when writing poetry and that is probably true as regards the act of taking a poem to your heart and sharing it with others. It’s hard when you are first starting out as a poet because it’s natural to feel insecure about your work and to attempt to write like other poets. When I first started writing poetry, I spent a lot of time thinking about impressive words that I could slot into my poems. It was completely forced and I didn’t recognise myself in any of the work. I think that with time you understand that for a poem to work, you can’t write it for anybody but yourself. You have to write it in your own unique language and write about things that matter to you. Don’t worry about how others will respond to it; write about something that you would like to read. Every writer plays with language, form, imagery, and rhythm in different ways – the diversity of voices keeps poetry interesting and relevant.

You need courage as a writer because you are opening yourself up to scrutiny. Even the act of pursuing a career in writing is a courageous one because there are people who for all kinds of reasons will try to discourage you. I’m not saying that writing isn’t an insecure career, it is! You still need to make money and you will have to make many sacrifices, but in my opinion, it’s worth it. I have done everything from working at the council to teaching English to German kids to pay the bills, and I will continue to find ways whereby I can support my career. You have to be creative with that also.

The reader has to have courage and honesty as well. Your interpretation and opinion of a poem is worth a lot, and you don’t have to share the same interpretation as a critic, your teacher, or even the poet! Like music, there are no wrong or right answers in poetry. I think that one of the many reasons people are put off poetry is because they’re scared that they will get it wrong. Michael Rosen recently tweeted “Poets don’t know all the meanings of their poems. All the meanings of the poems are made by the poet and the readers”. I couldn’t agree more. The poet doesn’t seal the poem down after she’s finished writing it – it’s very much a two way street.

I have found that the people who harp on about poetry being dead usually haven’t read any poetry from the last few decades. There are so many exciting things going on with poetry at the moment. I’m especially enjoying the work of Emily Berry http://www.emilyberry.co.uk/ and Richard Siken http://www.richardsiken.com/. You have probably heard of them but if not Google them right away!

The Poetry By Heart competition is a fantastic way of getting young people into poetry. It shakes off the tired stereotypes of poetry being dull and only for the older generation. Through the competition, the young person reflects on the poem and recites it in a way that makes sense to them. This requires both honesty and courage because when you recite a poem by heart, there is no barrier between you and the audience. I’m sure this is an exhilarating experience and it is definitely a dynamic introduction to poetry.

Many contemporary poets have started using performance, sound and film in their work and it’s inspiring to see all the new ways that people are choosing to share their poems.

I decided to attempt to make a short poetry film last year. I have a passionate interest in video art, especially the work of Bill Viola and Gretchen Bender, so it seemed like a natural and rewarding thing to do. Through the B3 Media Talent Lab scheme, I managed to get some funding for the film. It’s called “I, Amir”, and it is an uncanny look at technology and identity. I didn’t write the poem specifically for the film. I chose it for “I, Amir” because it addressed the psychoanalytical themes that I wanted to explore. I don’t feel that the film enhances the poem but it does offer up something new to think about. Seeing poetry off the page also makes you question what poetry really is.

Poetry films and performance can also make poetry more accessible and draw in non-traditional audiences, which is fantastic because I think poetry is for everybody. This is why I think the Poetry By Heart competition is so powerful because it involves the young person and makes them an active participant.

I don’t think that poetry performance and films threatens the word on the page. I will always read poetry books because I enjoy reading poems at my own pace, being alone with them, and seeing their form on paper. I know that a lot of people out there don’t own or read poetry books but poetry is still part of their everyday life. Everyone from the hip hop fan to the headline writer at your local paper has a relationship with poetry. Poetry comes in many guises from a diversity of voices – it just isn’t always labelled as poetry.

 

Photo: Chris Schulz

Photo: Chris Schulz

About the author: Nisha Bhakoo is a writer and video artist. Her poetry has appeared in Poems in Which (Issue 8), Ink, Sweat & Tears, The Cadaverine, and Morphrog 11, and she is featured in the upcoming Mildly Erotic Verse by The Emma Press. She was shortlisted for Cambridge University’s Jane Martin Poetry Prize 2015, and selected for the GlogauAIR artist residency scheme, Berlin, in 2015. She has performed her work at a variety of venues in the UK and Germany. Her poetry film “I, Amir” (supported by B3 Media) will be exhibited at Rich Mix, London, from 24 Nov. to 5 Dec. 2015. You can find out more here: http://www.richmix.org.uk/whats-on/event/i-amir-by-nisha-bhakoo/

 

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‘A Momentary Stay Against Confusion’

7th October 2015

Rachel Kelly reflects on how the therapeutic power of remembered poetry helped her through serious depressive illness.

 

Courtesy of Glacier NPS Rainbow from Logan Pass parking lot. Creative Commons

Courtesy of Glacier NPS Rainbow from Logan Pass parking lot. Creative Commons

Shortly before his death, the seventeenth-century religious poet George Herbert sent the collection of prayers and poems he had written privately throughout his life to a friend. He requested that his friend only publish them if he believed they could ‘turn to the advantage of any dejected soul’ and would be ‘of use’.

 

Fortunately for us, his friend opted for publication, and Herbert’s poems have been a source of comfort and enjoyment ever since. Herbert’s idea that poetry should be of use is central to my own love of poetry and informs my working life: after many years as a journalist, including a decade at The Times, I now run poetry workshops for mental health charities including Depression Alliance, Mind, and Cooltan Arts as well as for bookshops such as The Idler Academy in West London and Alain de Botton’s The School of Life.

Poetry first provided solace for me when I was struck down with severe depression nearly twenty years ago. It was then that my mother – my constant nurse and companion – would sit by my bedside and repeat a line from Corinthians (the Bible being naturally rich with poetry): ‘My grace is sufficient for thee: my strength is made perfect in weakness.’

These thirteen words were at the heart of my recovery as they helped reverse my feelings of despair. I would become stronger because of the ordeal. I often think of depression as like a trapdoor opening inside me, and so I would repeat the words my mother gave me endlessly, mantra-like, when I felt in danger of falling through.

Since that first depressive episode I have continued to battle with depression, but thanks to drugs, therapy and above all poetry, I am keeping my ‘Black Dog’ on a tight leash. When I was very unwell, I could only absorb the odd line, which I would focus all my attention on, stilling the anxious chatter in my head. Favourites include the last lines of Arthur Hugh Clough’s ‘Say Not the Struggle Naught Availeth’, famously quoted by Winston Churchill in his wartime speeches.

In front the sun climbs slow; how slowly,

But westward, look, the land is bright’. 

Another favourite is almost any line from Emily Dickinson’s ‘“Hope” is the Thing with Feathers’ in which the poet compares hope to a bird. Hope is ever-present, even if it’s small and in your peripheral vision.

‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers –

That perches in the soul –

And sings the tune without the words-

And never stops – at all –’

I began to discover that I was not alone in finding poetry helpful in dark times. The healing power of words has a long history, dating back to primitive societies who made use of chants. By the first century AD, the Greek theologian Longinus wrote about the power of language to transform reality, to affect readers in deep and permanent ways, and to help them cope with the vagaries of their existence. Spool forward to the twentieth century and by 1969 the Association of Poetry Therapy was established in the USA.

I began to put my own belief that poetry can help those facing adversity into practice, initially as a cottage industry. I swapped poems with friends and became a volunteer at our local prison’s education department where I ran poetry workshops. For me, one of the ways poetry helps most is by recharging the spent batteries of my own language. Take Herbert, for example. His poem ‘Love’ begins:

Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back

Guilty of dust and sin’.

The line ‘Guilty of dust and sin’ describes exactly how I feel when I’m depressed: worthless, hopeless – guilty. What a perfect capturing! Herbert also offers a compassionate voice: that of Love, who ‘bids us welcome’. He knew how to perfectly balance the darkness of his descriptions with consolation. http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/love-iii/

A powerful poetic line can diminish the sense of being alone. This was particularly striking to me when I came across poems written hundreds of years ago which describe a similar blackness to that which I was experiencing. Poetry also brings one’s mind into the present moment and back into ‘the flow’ of life. Mental illnesses such as depression tend to cripple our sense of time: involvement in the present is overwhelmed by worries about the future or regrets about the past. But the complexity and subtlety of poetry requires you to concentrate on the here and now.

Robert Frost put it best when he said that a poem can offer a ‘momentary stay against confusion’, which is what happened to me all those years ago when my mother sat at my bedside and recited those words to me. Now I know those lines by heart and many more besides: a golden store to be used as and when. I find learning a poem especially helpful when I’m awake in the small hours. There’s something hugely comforting in the mind’s secure possession of a literary work.

In my new book, Walking on Sunshine: 52 Small Steps to Happiness, I record a diary of my year and the week-by-week strategies that have helped to keep me calm and happy and manage my depression: from the philosophies I try to practise, to spring cleaning, to new ways of communicating, breathing exercises and more.  These strategies have all proved invaluable to me, but one of my favourite things about the book is the poems I have included at the beginning of each season. I think poetry will forever be at the heart of each new chapter.

 

Rachel Kelly Colour High Res About the author

In her memoir Black Rainbow, bestselling author and former Times journalist Rachel Kelly tells the story of how poetry was at the heart of her recovery from two depressive episodes. Now she campaigns to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness, speaking at schools, universities and literary festivals on the healing power of words. She also runs poetry workshops at her local prison and at mental health charities. Rachel is an ambassador for UK charity SANE and Vice President of United Response. Her new book Walking on Sunshine: 52 Small Steps to Happiness will be published by Short Books in November 2015. For more info on Rachel and her work please visit www.rachel-kelly.net.

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