Toni Hurford asks: What Attracts me to Poetry?

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watercolour depicting a yellow rod and a green serpent

The rod of Asclepius © Anthony Hurford

Denis Joe O’Driscoll originally asked me to write this essay after a selection from my (still) forthcoming collection, A Staff of Asklepios, was published on Disability Arts Online in 2014. I’ve struggled to attempt to answer. Thinking too hard about it I found myself at one point having fallen in to writing no poetry for too many a month. But it has been a fruitful question to think about.

I was very glad to have had Denis Joe’s positive comments and this request. I remember he was taken with a haiku of mine. I remembered him as having asked me to include several poems and to reference Basho in doing so, though I find no trace of that now.

It was only having finally drafted this workable version this summer that I read Basho and understood that reference better. Denis Joe was supportive and patient when I told him I was still working on it two years after his request. I’m happy we can publish it now partially in tribute to that engagement he made with me as an emerging writer, and to thank him – if posthumously – for suggesting this.

I thought a lot about his question. I was overawed when I thought of the great things so many have said of poetics, most of which I’ve not read yet (of course). I’ve learned a lot by having the question with me in the last four years or so. All I can do is write personally and therefore maybe most generally, if I’m honest.

For me poetry is everything and nothing (see Borges’ short piece on Shakespeare), it is infinite whilst at its best it is often such precisely as it is so particular. It is honest, it is true, and maybe it is not… yet still somehow is. It is a straw, a life-line, that has helped me, my first and my last. It is certainly a Staff of Asklepios for me – yet without care that too can go wrong, though it hasn’t badly for me. But as I wind the sunlight I can seem lost again, be lost. Occasionally I find a clearing. It’s a direct engagement and experience of and with life and death, a breath of life, with life.

Tynemouth, Any Mouth

The gull cat-mewls a cry-baby protest
as it tugs at the grass, stuck in its fact,
fractal, part of the wave, particle surfing
its place in the blast, the explosion of fact.
The element stew of each filament hair
charged to glow in the current of time’s
time lapsed fire-fall tail swallow act.
We explore how it burns, what we may be.
Amber warning, let’s get back to the facts,
the star scattered sea, dancing with light,
eternal, the heart of all in each flash.
This is my cry, my tug at this earth,
the best I can do at this now on the wave,
part of the sparkle of a sea in a sun.

That breath of life is important. I always loved poetry but after my O levels did not study English again and I got curiously lost in my awareness of my own awareness of it. That lostness is linked too to my experience of gender – somehow I diverted myself from poetry as I diverted myself from how I felt and was not able to show. Feeling being linked to the feminine for me.

In so doing at the same time I became apparently someone who in some ways, socially at least, fitted in, had to. And therefore, by my own respect for poetry, was not cool enough to be one of the poetry crowd, not true enough (even though I’d have argued it is for everyone, and of course knew that for many poets there is a non-stereotypical awareness of gender and sexuality amongst everything else).

It was important to me but I couldn’t get too close to it, didn’t let myself do so. Then there were the usual practical demands the world makes about careers and futures, and paths can diverge. There is also something in poetry about getting used to reading it, and as I was following the prosaic it was hard to start to get that feeling. I neglected what I loved most, took for granted that it would be there. Neglected myself.

I always wanted to write, but did not at all. I did write a ditty once. But my aspiration would have been a novel or play/screenplay. I got lines in my head sometimes, out running maybe. Nothing really had prepared me to follow through. I didn’t even journal. Unsurprisingly I think this was all a huge part of how I came to be ill, though that is also a lot more complicated, and in many ways still misunderstood by some.

Somehow in my little reading of Jung and about his ideas I have an idea that if we speak to the universe it speaks back. My not speaking to the universe was a speech of its own, led to bad speech too and has been and is spoken back to. Poetry seems to be about listening to my best in tune with the world’s best, our true commitments.

Ill health was a huge confusion. Aspects of my therapy have also been confused, with glimpses of truth. For most of the last twenty odd years I’ve taken psychotropic medication. That too has been confusion – it dulls my awareness, it distances me from me, from life, aside from other life changing side effects. Psychotropic may mean to move the soul – it is astonishing to me how lightly that can be administered, even where it may not be wanted. I was wrong to take for granted that my feeling for poetry, my aliveness, would always be there, strong.

Winter

As the months approach year end,
days bleak, dark takes hold.
Stark images of leafless trees,
black against the autumn sky,
bend cheer away.
My life feels fallen into winter,
not due to natural rhythm
but medicine.
Silent watcher in life’s cinema,
wrapped in freezing fog
feelings permafrozen.
Each day, just out of reach,
listening for the sun
breaking in the words.

Still poetry was only round and about (poems came later). I read a little more, but mostly read novels and non fiction. My job was made redundant. That led me to go outside the medical support. I went to see a counsellor, a very good experience. They suggested I try training as a counsellor and I did so, despite at first thinking this a very unlikely idea (again not seeing myself really as someone that could).

I took an introductory year and then studied part time for an MA at Durham. It is easily one of the best things I have done in my life. Whilst I loved my first degree at Essex, counselling is easily the best formal educational experience I have ever had.

Durham focused on Person Centred Counselling and humanistic approaches, the third wave to therapy that has not been so in fashion in recent years. I find it sad this course and others like it have been closed or threatened with closure. When I started the initial course I had no academic expectations. When ill I thought I’d never write again, that it would be too much for me, had been.

The first course gave no grades other than pass or fail – that and how it was conducted by Dr Kathy Hunt and her colleagues allowed me to start to write. Then in studying for my MA my tutor, Hil Campbell, really engaged with me and explained what she thought I could achieve. I started to really try and not feel weighed down by the enormity of it all. Later during my dissertation research I couldn’t sleep one night until I got up and wrote down a line I’d got in my head, and of course that started everything before I went back to bed. I’ve been hooked on writing poetry ever since.

During the course one evening, in passing, the idea came up that poetry was the fullest understanding of anything. This is an idea that stays with me, confirmed in all my best observation.

true understanding
unlocks all gates to my well
heartfelt compassion

Surprisingly I had some more ill health. But poetry has been an important strand that I’ve stayed with since. It has strengthened my resilience and made my experience richer, opened horizons. Unsurprisingly it has been an important part of the development this second illness led to, to be far more open and integrative of gender and express that more freely rather than compartmentalise and hide it in general.

Transreality

Weird sister? No, your best self is released.
Soul whisper, condensed and born mid-life.
Rules demanded your breathing be self-ceased.
Set free now, you were never your own wife.
Hey, why not be yourself as another’s,
natural, with some woman’s golden hair.
No search for strength required, remember
your flame freed spirit’s ease is fair.
For whilst they’ll never know your strength to find
yourself beneath, it’s not so strange to be
in search of shape down this our knotted wind.
It’s quite normal as any me should see.
We struggle down a shady path toward
a dream of form, sure to be imperfect.

In this sense reading and writing poetry offers a route towards the best in life for me, with varying success, largely depending on myself, but in a way I trust.

I have come to realise that I am most interested in poetry of the heart, music that is true to that, whilst not unmindful of thought, poetry that balances this and speaks honestly. For all my openness to poetry being infinite I have a bias against poetry that seems more of the head.

My favourite of Shakespeare’s Sonnets is undoubtedly Sonnet 76, a poem about love at the heart of his sequence, with a sestet to live by. Maybe all poetry is somehow of the heart. I’ve sometimes doubted this distinction, but was glad in the last year or so to read Red Pine/Bill Porter express such a bias in his book Finding Them Gone, in which he visits some of the great Chinese poets of the past.

I suppose I am suggesting poetry has a connection to something spiritual to me – as for us all – you only have to read the entry on poetry in Encyclopedia Britannica to see how its roots may lie in the religious and spiritual. And in our connection to life and what gives us this.

For me this is very linked with being well – or glimpses of that. Whether in reading others’ poetry or in trying to hear some I get down. At its best I hesitate to say write, as it’s not like other writing, it’s more like it happens, is heard. Though I’ve also had a broad experience of trying to write it, usually unsuccessfully.

I was taken recently by reading Nadezhda Mandelstam’s chapter on her husband Osip’s experience of writing poetry in her memoir, Hope Against Hope. A powerful reminder to me of how I find poetry I trust most – an account of how he heard it it seemed and had to tune into it, clear away the superfluous and report it. Any hint of such experience seems quite rare for me. I just know that unless I am very careful that when I think I have an argument to make the poetry tends to disappear. It is tempting to chase it, but I don’t think that works. I can only work to be well and live in a way that promotes a rhythm in touch with feeling – something that can be strangely difficult.

In the process I read more, both prose and poetry (making up for lost time) and attend adult education classes (including film). I’m very grateful to all those classes and fellow students, whatever petty frustrations may arise and may be misspoken of, we are all trying to respect our hearts and life. Being able to attend as trans woman and being accepted has been a great thing for me, life changing. I also find that reading an even balance of authors by gender has a strangely therapeutic affect. If I distanced poetry and my own experience of gender then I had also distanced female authors, sadly, as is well known, so easily done in our world, especially by boys and men, its even encouraged sometimes.

In a way I am speaking of poetry as a therapy – even as it is not aiming directly to be such. Certainly, whilst I believe in writing for wellbeing (very much, I just joined Lapidus, I am very cautious of writing my poems with such an aim. They are more like reports back along the way, live from our correspondent, maybe though often this is long after the action is passed, from engaging with life and wellbeing in other ways. Though I’m certain journal writing helps my wellbeing directly.

For me poems allow a therapy that so often therapy does not allow, a full and clear(er) working out of what I mean, to myself no less, before my words can be interpreted, misinterpreted and judged in some process of ‘normativeness’. Listening for the holiness of the hearts affections. In a way a respite from some therapy, and from the social, to find myself, to find others. It is hard for a ‘helper’ to simply dismiss a poem. In some ways this seems similar to Petrarch’s Mount Ventoux experience, here the mountain being therapy and not just my own mountain really, but views given to me, my own doubted (in an early meeting I was told I’d be taught “how to think”, it did not help to point out my abilities or academic achievements).

This leads me to look the word ‘poem’ up and find again that in Greek it means ‘make’. Perhaps this is the best making (and then witnessing, dwelt upon). Sometimes my poems have been strong affirmations I might consider footnoting with reasons for caution (as I’m not saying we cannot argue with poems). But poetry allows me to make myself as I am and not as others tell me I am, often incorrectly on their part, especially so in some of my experience. I’ve certainly been disbelieved, you’d be amazed at the variety of ways my experience of gender alone has been interpreted. It really is possible for some people to feel they can tell an adult how they must dress and why you are mistaken about this. I have a line in an incomplete poem that therapy ‘gave me back as someone else’ – sometimes I wonder if that is inevitable even in good therapy, it is just that good therapy is open to it. At their best my poems don’t trap me in their understandings either. At my best none of this does, though my treatment has often trapped me in misunderstandings.

There are good things in therapy. I have a strong belief in humanistic Counselling and a grounding in Person Centred Counselling. And also in some of the therapy I have experienced of other types, and also have some practical experience of offering (and again trained in). I know, I have seen how they may work. Even medication has some good aspects, certainly at some times. Though being distant from the summer of your own life in the way I have often been, I do not recommend. It seems so unnecessary in the face of the reality of myself and my conduct. Even amid this confusion poetry was a source of hope.

I’ve come to see hope in this sense as one aspect of faith – in God and in humans and the world including in myself in the end, in life – a thread back to it all. All that has happened to me may be a crisis of such faith and much of it was a product of apparent loss of faith. It is strange that even amidst the doubt (by myself and by others) I don’t feel that faith at its core was ever really gone. But in practice in the way I had to be in the world and allowed myself to be it was hugely challenged and unable to show its true face, have confidence in others and the world, and again in myself.

Mostly medical treatment has had nothing to do with faith and belief in their biggest senses. To raise this was even discouraged when I considered early that I may need to speak to a priest, maybe due to the reaction imagined to trans issues. Aspects of treatment only further caused me to question faith, as reason for it was less apparent, it was undermined by misunderstanding. Of course true faith, somehow in the integrity of the world and people, of reality, I must always remember, is not conditional. That is something that has only been confirmed to me in challenge, though it can be challenged, it finds a way back.

Through this awareness of life, the need to honour it, to be in touch with your own soul, witness others’, then I come to the idea of poems as prayers. Suddenly I get scared writing in this way, of the reaction of the orthodox, of organised religion, to myself daring to say such as a writer of poems they may find, at best, controversial. Faith challenged again through awareness of hate and misunderstanding. But this is what I must say as a human being striving to be their best in life. In a way this is just to touch on Dylan Thomas:

“These poems, with all their crudities, doubts, and confusions, are written for the love of Man and in praise of God, and I’d be a damn’ fool if they weren’t.”(Dylan Thomas, Collected Poems 1934-52, author’s note.)

I may say (Wo)Man and also add something about explanation and apology, though sadly that may never suffice except in the eyes of infinite compassion. Of course sometimes these prayers are most affecting when they are not composed with that role in mind, but simply a product of attention, “the natural prayer of the soul” (as I learned Malebranche said from Paul Celan’s Georg Büchner Prize lecture).

The poem that closes my collection is:

Beginning

Sometimes I feel
my lines uncover
my humanity.
That I stop
where sanity begins.
Nothing special.
Just remedial.

Now that’s clear,
let me begin.

Perhaps it is then that poetry can start to be nothing. Perhaps in the sense I have understood Tadeusz Różewicz on this. Sadly I cannot now find a link to this, which I read in the early months of thinking on this, shortly after his death.

Poetry has been, is something very specific to me that I can’t really ever put wholly into words, a way back, a staff, a ladder, a ray of light, and in that it can be everything (sometimes even nothing). But once there then maybe then I can start to feel the world again more easily again as, all of it, poetry, as it dances for children, and therefore poetry nothing but that, everything and nothing, which if you’d asked me at any point has always been my belief even whilst it was, and is, distant.

Song of Shells

I shall not see my home
only know it
building it with love and sleep
now you hold it

What do you really know of me
from how its twisted
its structure seems so sound to see
not how it fitted

I beat my heart against these walls
no one listened
the sea beat back its song of life
quite insistent

Hold it empty, lost of me
up to your ear
that song you hear, the sea,
the truth of me