Sunday, 16 March 2008

Poetry is for life

Several years ago, when my elderly father had to undergo an operation, I looked up some poetry and prose that I thought would be nice to remember him by in the awful event he might not survive the op. I knew that if that happened I'd be a wet and sniveling wreck, incapable of doing the necessary research.

And, strangely enough, very satisfying research it was too. I left out any flowery or sickeningly sentimental pieces and discounted any that were overly religious, morbid or dirge-like too. Instead I found some that either touched on my feelings or were in some way relevant to his life.

The most obvious poem was Dylan Thomas', Do not go gently into that good night, because my father hung on to life tenaciously and "Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light" most definitely applied to him.

And the poem, All That I Have by Leo Marks, beautifully expresses love and loss as does Anne Bronte's poem, Farewell,

Farewell to Thee! But not farewell
To all my fondest thoughts of Thee;
Within my heart they still shall dwell
And they shall cheer and comfort me.

Life seems more sweet that Thou didst live
And men more true that Thou wert one;
Nothing is lost that Thou didst give,
Nothing destroyed that Thou hast done.

Choosing a poem by my father's favourite poet - and I think the only one he knew - John Keats, was more of a challenge because the sonnets and poems are either too long, too melancholy or just downright miserable. He had been introduced to Keats' poetry by some girls when up at Oxford and I think that coloured his regard for the poet! Finally I did find one (strangely) entitled Sonnet: On Leigh Hunt's poem "The Story Of Rimini" which does express quite subtly a love of nature and a place of peace.

Of course the poem, Remember by Christina Rosetti - of pre-Raphaelite fame circa 1870 - is very well known and, I think, beautiful, although others tell me that they find it maudlin. But what it expresses so well is the selfless encouragement that the living should live:
"Better by far you should forget and smile
Than you should remember and be sad."

And another equally famous example that does just that is Death is Nothing At All by Henry Scott-Holland, 1847-1918, Canon of St Paul's Cathedral, and one that suited my father in particular because he definitely wanted to be remembered and he liked to laugh. Here is an extract:

Whatever we were to each other
That we are still
Call me by my old familiar name
Speak to me in the easy way you always used
Put no difference into your tone
Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow
Laugh as we always laughed
At the little jokes we always enjoyed together
Play, smile, think of me, pray for me
Let my name be ever the household word it always was
Let it be spoken without effort
Without the ghost of a shadow in it
Life means all that it ever meant
It is the same as it ever was

Having done all the above I understood how terminally ill people – people who have no influence or power over the ravages of their disease or condition – must achieve a precious feeling of control by choosing the content of their final ceremony: by picking out readings, poems and music that they love they're able to personalize the service and imbue it with a particular atmosphere, whether that be one of beauty or one with an upbeat and positive tone.

And this exercise was a salutary lesson for me: I should read poetry more. The resulting introspection can be intense if the poems are moving and occasionally they're difficult but equally many are beautiful and some great fun. Certainly, poetry should not just be for special occasions, it should be for life.

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