As we approach Christmas, poetry may help you keep body and soul together.
For while mid-winter is a season of joy and cheer, is also an anxious time for many. I measure my own sense of overwhelm by how often I lose my keys and whether I resort to keeping them chained round my neck. (They are sitting heavily on my chest as I type.)
A couple of poems have helped stem my worries during the mad busyness of the last few weeks, secular prayers which have brought consolation. One is a classic and long-time favourite, the other not yet published. Both in their way have been of practical help: I love the idea of poetry being of use, a phrase used by the great seventeenth-century metaphysical poet George Herbert who originally wrote his poems as prayers. As he lay dying he asked a friend whether he thought his verse would be of use: only if so would he entrust it to be published. Thank goodness the friend said yes.
“Don’t Quit” by Harvey Conroy has been of particular use, flooding me with calm and meaning and helping me sleep more easily at night. I came across Conroy’s poem thanks to Magdalen Evans, an education volunteer at HMP Wormwood Scrubs and in charge of the scholarship programme at the Longford Trust which funds education for ex-prisoners. She gave me a copy of ‘Voice” a magazine produced and edited by prisoners which came out earlier this year in which I chanced upon Conroy’s work. There’s no doubt that the fact it was written while Conroy was incarcerated adds poignancy to his message that we must perservere in the face of adversity. If Conroy can summon up his courage, so can we.
Here are some chosen poems to help with anxiety:
Don't Quit, by Harvey Conroy
When things go wrong as they sometimes will
when the road you're trudging
seems all uphill,
When money is low
and the debts are high
and you want to smile
but you have to sigh
When care is pressing you down a bit,
rest if you must, but don't you quit.
Success is failure turned inside out,
the silver lining of the clouds of doubt.
You can never tell,
how close you are,
it may be near,
when it seems so far,
so stick to the fight
when your hardest hit
IT'S WHEN THINGS SEEM WORST
THAT YOU MUST NOT QUIT
Like e.e.cummings, Conroy deliberately uses punctuation to convey meaning and I can almost hear him shouting the last capitalised lines for all to hear.
I enjoy the way the poem is a fresh modern update on Rudyard Kipling's 'If', repeating 'When' instead of 'If' but conveying many of the same messages that somehow we must keep going. As Father Michael Hollings, the wonderful late Catholic priest of St Mary of the Angels Church in Bayswater and theologian used to say, “If you can’t press on, plod on”. Conroy’s image of ‘success’ as ‘failure turned inside out the silver lining of the clouds of doubt’ struck me as powerful and good as I confronted my own doubts and fears.
The second is a classic poem which I hope will also keep you steady and calm in the next few weeks, ‘Up-hill’ by Christina Rossetti (again note the punctuation in the title.) Rossetti fills her poems with religious imagery and here she writes an example of an allegory, a poetic technique which tells two stories at the same time. The conversation is about heaven, the ‘inn’ where people can rest after life’s long journey, using a question and answer format. I like the fact that as with all good poems, you can read ‘Up-hill’ in multiple ways. It is not clear who is speaking or who replying: perhaps it is a child seeking reassurance or an old man speaking to God. It is for the poem to speak to each of us individually, thinking of questions and seeking answers.
Up-Hill by Christina Rossetti
Does the road wind up-hill all the way?
Yes, to the very end.
Will the day’s journey take the whole long day?
From morn to night, my friend.
But is there for the night a resting-place?
A roof for when the slow dark hours begin.
May not the darkness hide it from my face?
You cannot miss that inn.
Shall I meet other wayfarers at night?
Those who have gone before.
Then must I knock, or call when just in sight?
They will not keep you standing at that door.
Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak?
Of labour you shall find the sum.
Will there be beds for me and all who seek?
Yea, beds for all who come.
If you need help for anxiety, try finding the right therapist today