Like everything in life, poetry comes in all shapes and sizes, forms and styles, dealing with almost every subject imaginable. You can go instantly from ecstatic joy and wonder to sorrow and confusion, from the sombre to the slightly silly in the turning of a single page in a poetic anthology. Often you don’t even need to venture away from the works of one poet to go through a torrent of emotions; no sooner do words flow like the widest ocean to describe the first flushes of love and fascination with a lover than they are detailing heartbreak to devastating effect. Again, it’s a good mirror for life, whereby things can shift instantly and take the most unusual of turns. But at least when it comes to poetry there is the choice to pick what we want, leave aside what we don’t completely ‘get’ or concentrate on what will make us feel soothed rather than challenged.
Not long ago I watched the film adaptation of the Alan Bennett play The History Boys, which featured a couple of quite distinct mentions of the poetic form. In the first, poetry recital causes a few groans of dissatisfaction, especially from one pupil who says “I don’t always understand poetry”. The eccentric and charismatic General Studies tutor Hector responds by saying “You don’t always understand it? Timms, I never understand it. But learn it now, know it now and you will understand it…whenever”. Of course, treating poetry as something to be dusted off, committed rigidly to memory and known for knowledge’s sake is missing the point quite considerably but there is a lot to be said for not always understanding – or at least, not over-analysing, picking everything apart at the seams and driving yourself around the proverbial bend in a bid to understand. Quite often we may have to wait for something – sometimes significant, sometimes not – to happen in our own lives for us not simply to understand a poem, but for the poem to understand us. And in the meantime, it can be read again and again and again, slowly, carefully. With each reading, something new, if only something very small will emerge; and that’s the beauty of not ‘getting it’ straightaway. The ‘eureka’ moments – when the lightbulb doesn’t just flash but floods everything in a golden glow – seem to occur when we’re stumbling rather than searching. And such discoveries can be deeply powerful. In a later exchange while exploring Drummer Hodge by Hardy, Hector makes an observation even more truthful than the last: “The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – that you’d thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it’s as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.”
Though when we’re seeking solace from the harsh realities of life, it’s more likely that we look for someone else’s positive words to balance out our negative thoughts and feelings, the deeper, darker and occasionally more uncomfortable poems are often the ones that reach out and touch us in this most profound way. This poem by Gerald Manley Hopkins is full of darkness, pain and suffering but also beauty, empathy – and understanding. Understanding of everyone who has felt incredible pangs of grief, a dense fog of depression, an inescapable inner world full of torment. It won’t act as a replica of life for everyone – what poem does in every sense? – but it does extend the hand to many who feel unable to grasp one elsewhere.
No Worst, There Is None
“No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?
My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief
Woe, world-sorrow; on an age-old anvil wince and sing –
Then lull, then leave off. Fury had shrieked ‘No ling-
-ering! Let me be fell: force I must be brief’.
O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.”
Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)