Monday, November 28, 2005

Poetry is a cure, not a painkiller. It should be subsidised by the NHS

By Jeanette Winterson
November 19, 2005

Taken From Times Online

I GO TO POETRY THE WAY THAT SOME people grab an espresso; for an energy shot, a hit of warmth, and to clear my head.

I never go out without a poem — usually in my pocket, always in my head — and I try to learn some poetry every week. This is as good as a crossword puzzle for mental agility and, in times of stress, it is better to be thinking “Though much is taken, much abides”, than “Sneeze catcher (12 letters)”, although I think that the Sneeze Catcher might figure in my next book for kids.

We are in a good time for poetry. Strangely, the soundbite and snapshot culture has worked in poetry’s favour. People like something short and vivid. Poetry readings are a big success, partly because poets tend to be better performers than novelists, but also because listening to a series of shorter poems read a loud allows the mind to concentrate, while refreshing it through the change of theme, tone and rhythm. Above all, the mind is not fixed on following the plot, which is a left-brain activity. A poem activates the right-brain, and just allowing the brain to change hands as it were provides relief for a time.

Almost everything we do is left-brain work. Poetry should be subsidised by the National Health Service on the grounds that it is one of the few things in our mad world that offers a counterbalance. One-sided people need help — poetry, like music, is the help that we need.

On my website I feature a Poem of the Month — whatever it is that I fancy — and this is the most visited and revisited spot. I had an e-mail from an oncologist last week. He tells me that while he is sitting late at night in the hospital waiting for test results he often looks at the poems on my site and that they seem like friends to him in the long low hours.

The comfort of poetry is real, but poetry is not a painkiller; it is a cure. Where there is no cure, poetry helps us to live with the problem. Poems don’t hide things, they reveal things about ourselves, they “put into words things difficult to think” (Dante), and this difficult thinking won’t mask the trouble for a while, like an aspirin for a headache, but it will work to bring out the grief, the pain, the confusion, the mixed feelings, the anger, the impotence.

We talk about being “lost for words”, about “having nothing to say”, but the poem finds the words, and has something to say, which is why poetry is worth our time.

Making time for poetry is making time for a different rhythm and a different understanding. Now that we are obsessed with factoids, docudrama, reality TV, confessionals, live footage, 24-hour rolling news, we are forgetting that truth often lies elsewhere too — in what we can imagine, in what we can invent.

The wonderful Irish poet Eavan Boland has just issued her New Collected Poems (Carcanet). There is a striking reminder of what poetry is and does in First Year (2001) “. . . I am writing this/ not to recall our lives/ but to imagine them”.

Poetry always bears witness, but it is witness of a different kind to the front page of The Times. Only by imagining our lives can we fully understand them or remake them. Recording them is not enough. This is not to say that we have no need of history or politics or daily news — of course we do, and poetry that is made separate from life is not poetry at all. But the poet speaks differently to the historian or the politician or the journalist. The poem itself has other work to do. In a world drowning in useless information, poetry returns us to what is meaningful. The poem acts as a pocket of air in an upturned boat.

To the bean counters and economic gurus, a poem looks like the most useless thing on earth. It is not a money machine; you can’t sell it to Hollywood or use it for product placement. You can’t say long it will take to make or how long it will last (how maddening in an economy that depends on throwaways, that a poem can last for ever).

The poem, by its very nature, questions the dominant values of our world. As William Carlos Williams put it, “it is hard to get the news from poems/ but men die miserably every day/ for lack of what is found there”.

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