So can poets make a difference?

Well, can they? The last two years have been quite horrible for the world, and yet poets continue to write poems. Is there any point to it? Is an Isis bomber going to take his finger off the detonation button because a line of Shakespeare comes into his mind? Is a gun-laden American fanatic going to turn his automatic weapon away from his fellow citizens because he remembers some Wordsworth?    Auden wrote of a tyrant; he wrote poetry ‘that was easy to understand,’  and little children died in the streets when he got angry.  I doubt that Donald Trump either writes, or reads poetry.   Does it make any of us nicer?

Well, probably not.  But perhaps that isn’t what poetry is about.  Poets aren’t necessarily even very nice people.  But yet we – those of us who aren’t Donald Trumps – do continue to read, and to love, poetry.  You don’t need to share George Herbert’s beliefs to feel  greatly comforted by his poem which begins ‘Love bade me welcome, but my soul drew back.’ Or to be uplifted by Wordsworth’s assertion that there is ‘a motion and a spirit that impels, all thinking things..’ when you’re looking out at a scene of stunning beauty. Or,  remembering the sensations of your own pregnancy with Sylvia Plath’s beautiful poems on motherhood and babies; confounding the male critics who used to assert that these things weren’t suitable subjects for poetry. Every time I lose something, I think of Elizabeth Bishop’s stunning poem about loss, ‘One Art’.( Though this morning,  I kicked something that went tinkling over the floor, and discovered that it was the earring that I thought I’d lost the other day. There has to be a poem about the joy of finding.) I don’t normally like those ‘inspirational’ poems that people are prone to post on social media, but Derek Mahon’s ‘Everything is going to be all right,’ and R.S.Thomas’s  ‘The Bright Field’  can make me feel positive and optimistic, even on a bad day.

Yes, poems can be beautiful and enrich our own lives. But do they make any difference to the world? Looking at the favourite poems of those who are actually in charge of politics can be a bit depressing. Margaret Thatcher’s favourite poem was apparently ‘If’. (Though I also have a  memory of her lovingly quoting Rolf Harris’s ‘Two Little Boys.) Gordon Brown likes ‘Invictus.’ Michael Foot was fond of Shelley’s ‘Mask of Anarchy’ – ‘ye are many, they are few.’  All rather predictable.

What of W.H. Auden’s stunning ‘September 1st 1939′  with its stunning ending ‘We must love one another or die.’  Yet it’s not to be found in his Collected Poems, because he felt that the ending didn’t work – we’ll die anyway even if we love one another. Yes, but I wish he’d left it there. Even if the Donald Trumps of this world wouldn’t read it, or understand it if they did.

So poetry probably doesn’t make much difference to the world. But it does colour the lives of those of us who read it, letting us share for a moment the insights and imaginations of those far more insightful and imaginative than us. ‘What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.’

This, I suppose is the motivation behind two of my books, ‘A Bracelet of Bright Hair’ published in 2012, and its companion ‘Dancing in the Chequered Shade,’ published this year. Each is a journal of the events of my year, and how reading poetry has informed and enriched those events.  But I describe my second volume ‘Dancing In The Chequered Shade as ‘poetry in a difficult year.’ No need to enumerate the events that made 2016 a difficult year, or those which are making 2017 just as nasty.  For the first time in my life I find myself depressed and  negative   about the world I’m living in. Even our 1960s panic about the Bomb, or the unpleasantness of the Vietnam war didn’t make me feel quite as grey as the world does now- fanatical religions, insane gun attacks, unending wars spewing out unending streams of refugees. Reading poetry can seem like an indulgence, a fantasy, a turning away from reality.

But we go on reading it, and poets go on writing it. Can this be a bad  thing? I just don’t know? Can poets make a difference? I find , as I grow older, there are more of these questions I just can’t answer. And maybe there isn’t an answer, maybe I shouldn’t try to find one. Maybe just posing the question, and stopping to think about it is enough.

(p.s. I just googled Donald Trump’s favourite poem; apparently it’s a song lyric called ‘The Snake’ about a kind woman who rescues a snake, only to be poisoned by it. The Trumpians to whom he read it out applauded loudly – and of course it’s a poem about not letting in nasty refugees. So that poem might have made a difference in a bad way)

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Five Books and a Cancer Diagnosis

Well,  nobody wants to be diagnosed with cancer. At the very least, it does  rather upset your plans. There are various ways you can react; my attitude has  been, Sod you, cancer, I’m not going gracefully.  You’re there, and I can’t avoid you, but you’re not who I am. The cancer I have has been described as Incurable, but Manageable, and the fact that I’m still here, admittedly running at half-speed,  four years later, seems to bear this out. And it can have some good results. Without the cancer, my last five books probably wouldn’t exist. And thanks to two excellent self-publishing companies, they’re now here and readable.

Two of them I’d already written; these were the first of a projected trilogy on the girls who played a part in the Trojan war, and the first one went through the dispiriting process of being rejected by conventional publishers, despite me being a published author, who’s won prizes. These kind of books don’t sell, said some. Your heroine isn’t feisty enough, said others (I think feisty now means she’d have to dress up as a boy and go around shooting people.) She spends too much time spinning and weaving, said others, as though women in ancient Greece didn’t have to do this. My heroines do their share of this but manage to get out of it wherever possible. If that’s not feisty , then I think feisty isn’t for me.

So I thought I had no choice but to forget about these two books, never mind the third of the trilogy which I had just started to write. These days unpublished books aren’t even manuscripts, they’re simply holes in cyberspace somewhere which only the writer knows how to find. They don’t exist in any real way.  Without you there to press the few buttons that lead to them, they’re nowhere.

That was where the cancer diagnosis came in. My first thoughts were the usual ones, worry for my family, for myself, anxiety about how the treatment was going to be, etc. But pretty soon down the line came the thought of those two books.  And again, my reaction was aggressive and angry rather than ladylike and accepting. Sod you, publishers, I thought. I shall publish them myself.  The excellent Silver Wood Books enabled me to do this, and the impetus of wanting to finish the series gave me an incentive to write the third, despite then being rather knocked out by chemotherapy treatment.  (I hope not being well at the time doesn’t show in the text – I don’t think it does.)The first book, Helen’s Daughter, and the second, The Burning Towers both came out in 2014, and the last, The Silver-Handled Knife in  2015.  They have lovely covers, and I like the look of them as much as anything I’ve had conventionally published. Self-publishing certainly isn’t to be sneered at.

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And there was even a bonus – SIlver Wood invited me to do an ebook for a new series they were running, and this, The Beautiful One, the story of Helen of Troy as a girl, turned my trilogy into a quartet. The  chemotherapy had become less aggressive by now but I was pleased to find I was still able to write.

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The fifth of my post-cancer books was something quite different. In  2011,I’d published a book called A Bracelet of Bright Hair, which was a sort of a journal of my poetry reading over the year and how it had enhanced my life.  It wasn’t the sort of book which fitted into any convenient category, and my agent wouldn’t look at it. Self publishing was the only answer, and Arima books did a lovely job with it. Although it hasn’t sold in huge quantities, it has acquired a loyal following, and people like to buy it as a present, often for those who are ill or bereaved, who can find comfort in poetry.

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Well, the peculiar circumstances of my cancer years impelled me to start another such, which I wrote during 2016. This wasn’t a nice year, both politically and personally, yet my overall  mood I hope, was optimistic. It gave a sense of purpose to the year, to write about my daily routines, and the things going on around me, and find poems to suit the day.  The cancer stuff gets mentioned – it has to – but I wanted to show that there can be a lot more in a cancer patient’s life than just having cancer.  And while the world  was in a bad way, I managed to be fairly cheerful throughout – illness can concentrate your mind like this. I call this book Dancing in the Chequered Shade, because that suggested  the contrast of light and darkness which was that year to me.

Again my agent wouldn’t touch it, and self publishing was the only option, and I turned again to Arima. Now the book is in the final stages of preparation – they’ve promised me it will be out by Christmas, and I’ve already had the lovely jacket design.  So while I can’t exactly say thank you, cancer, for making this all possible,  there’s some good to be found in all situations.

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