Friday, 5 June 2009

Dream Songs

"I am going to give you all some dream songs" said Michael Symmons Roberts early on in last Saturday's Poetry School workshop on writing the poetry sequence.

How wonderful! Everyone should have a dream song; dream songs should be lying on every surface of the house: the fridgetop, the kitchen counter (preferably beside the kettle), on your bedside table, and definitely in the bathroom.

But of course Michael was talking about the American poet John Berryman's great work, a huge sequence called "Dream Songs", written largely when Berryman was in hospital for a long period being treated for depression. And the poet was delighted because in this situation the work came to him and he got it down. Which made me think about the creative act and depression:

Caroline Smailes whose blog I read from time to time has been very candid in a recent post about her own fight with depression some years ago, and this is a young woman who is a very dedicated, enthusiastic writer. I'm not going to go into great lists here of writers who have struggled with serious depression through their lives; anyone can find any amount of examples.

But sometimes illness can trigger creative expression. I am thinking of the poet Molly Holden who was diagnosed with MS, and who wrote some of her most moving poems in the voice of someone shut in behind a window, looking out at a world that was calmly going on without her and which she was no longer able to get out into without help.

A diagnosis of MS is particularly numbing since there is so little that can be done for it. My own husband had MS and when he came out of hospital after receiving that diagnosis, following a crisis that left him paralysed and unable to speak, he recovered enough to throw himself into a fury of doing things, worked very long hours in the lab, and insisted on cutting down a half rotten tree in our garden, a sycamore standing on a slope. I will never forget the manic rage with which he set himself to that task, attacking only the trunk and refusing to do the sensible thing of first removing branches. There was no restraining him and perhaps he needed to express his own helpless despair and anger at being told he had MS, but I can only tell you that when that tree gave way and began slowly to topple down the slope, away from my husband, I have never felt so thankful in my life! It fell against another tree which stood firm.

He was not able to keep this impassioned activity up for long: the disease in his case was quite progressive and he rapidly reached the stage of incontinence, numbness in the hands, problems with speech, his memory shot to pieces, unable even to recognise close members of his own family. He died at the age of 47.

Maybe if he had been a poet he would have written his own dream songs. Instead I have written them for him.

Here's one:

For Finbar

The stars here are like apples
crowding the tree.
You could have picked them one by one,
kept them in the pocket
closest to your heart.

But it is I who watch the stars,
I who cannot name them as you did.
The pockets of my heart are filled
with holes, the bright apples
always out of reach.

This poem was originally published in Poetry Scotland, and later in my pamphlet "Uncertain Days" (Happenstance Press)

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