Poetry As Therapy: A Brief Listening (and Reading) List

My grand plan for Lent this year was to post a poem a day using the Church of England’s #LiveLent reflections as a jumping-off point,  but life happened (we lost G and then went into a full COVID-19 related shutdown) and I ended up stuck on 17 days. Poetry as prayer seemed like a good idea given the difficult season of faith I was in, in which prayer felt alien. It is not an entirely novel idea as I found out with more than a few essays reflecting on the subject, two examples being these excellent pieces at Talking Writing and The Millions. There is a rich history of the poetic form in various religious writing and in their associated rites; some might even argue that the enduring allure of the King James Version of the Bible has more to do with the cadence of its words than anything else. Come to think of it, the Psalms sometimes read like the brain dumps of a conflicted person, like transcripts of therapy sessions.

Whatever arguments for or against prayer one might make, anything which helps us wrestle with our deepest darkest pains and the weight of life has its merits and given what the world is dealing with at the moment, we all need that in some shape or form. In a sense it is therapy.

Fortuitously, April is National Poetry Writing Month, and the daily prompts from NaPoWriMo.net have helped me get back to writing again which has led me down the rabbit hole of finding (and revisiting) various projects related to poetry as therapy. A brief list though, so feel free to point me in the direction of any others in this vein. Enjoy.

  1. Poetry Unbound (Pádraig Ó Tuama/ On Being): From the podcast description – “Immerse yourself in a single poem, guided by Pádraig Ó Tuama. Short and unhurried; contemplative and energizing”. My personal favourites include episodes featuring Joy Harjo,  Faisal Mohyuddin and Leanne O’Sullivan. Pádraig Ó Tuama’s Poets.org archive is also worth a read.
  2. Lifelines (Malcolm Doney and Martin Wroe): From the podcast description – “A poem a day through Lent.  A poem read by the poet and followed with a moments reflection on where the poem came from … and where it’s going.” It all began from a book which is also worth a read.
  3. The Poetry Pharmacy (William Sieghart): The book and the Intelligence Squared conversation are worth every dime and every second spent not least for the range of emotions they cover and the stellar cast that discussed the book on the Intelligence Squared conversation. A second edition of the book is in print, as is an actual (physical) store.
  4. Steph Burt’s TED Talk Why People Need Poetry: “We’re all going to die — and poems can help us live with that.”

17. A Prayer for A Season of Overwhelm

Photo by Dylan Sauerwein on Unsplash

For the Week 2, Friday’s #LiveLent Devotional, particularly apt given the state of play of the coronavirus pandemic.

***
Worn and weary
from the tears
of fitful crying
I find myself
stretched straining
like a string
to hold together;
one hand sinking
into a slushy earth
and the other
tottering like a tree
listing in a storm.
As these waters
reach my neck
as breath begins
to slip and my body
begins to yield
to these dark depths
Abba be a rock
be a shelter
from the storm
be my anchor.

15. Baptism

Photo by kaleb tapp on Unsplash

Today’s CoE #LiveLent Devotional invites us to reflect on baptism, and how it is a symbol of our death and resurrection with Christ. Here goes:

***
I come
to this water,
let me go
beneath its flood
and die, and then
arise reborn,
raised to freedom
and new desires.
Let me sense
your welcome,
your voice
speaking once
but echoing
across the hills
and the valleys
telling me, welcome
lost son, my prodigal
returned.

12. Water

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

For Day 10 of the CoE #Livelent Devotional, the focus being the second day of creation with water being brought forth…

***
First comes light,
making lost things
found, dark places
bright and clear
and beautiful again,
and then comes water
to wash and clean
and bring life
to all the dead
and dying things.
May the dark places
of our hearts be lit
and whole again
and our hands clean.

10. Light…

Photo by Milada Vigerova on Unsplash

For Day Nine, the invitation is to reflect on light and heat and the benefits access to electricity brings to people around the world. That immediately brought to mind the Parable of the Lost Coin, and how for all the sweeping and cleaning, the lost coin is found because of the illumination light brings. Here goes then:

***
You realise
that light is good
when the thing you lost
is found, wedged between
the corner of your bed
and the cold wall,
that tiny space
worn beige by
the tyranny of time.
When in the shiver
of a winter night
you wrap your hands around
a cup of warm tea,
its chipped edge and faded art
a reminder of all its seasons of use,
you realise that light is good,
and the darkness all around fades.

9. Song of The Light

Photo by Vladimir Fedotov on Unsplash

For Day 8 of the Church of England’s LiveLent devotional for Lent.
***
Tell
the darkness
there is no room here,
that though small
and weak and flickering
in the wind, your light
will be a bulwark, a
hedge against the
pressure closing in.
You’re a city on a hill
a light raised high
for all to see.
Shine.

4. Reconciliation

Photo by Mateus Campos Felipe on Unsplash

For Day 4 of the CoE #LiveLent Devotional.
***
All things –
the frail
and the sturdy,
the weak
and the strong-
hold together,
and consist in You
Who leaves
the saved
ninety-nine
to find the one;
lost sheep
who slips
into the dark
and unclear paths
where fear thrives.
You offer
redemption
and finding
and saving
from the miry clay.
Save me.

Christmas…

Snowed in on my first Aberdeen Christmas…

***

As I write this I am slouched in a chair, head banging and eyes sore from the remnant of a cold, the only hint of Christmas out here being the podcast I am listening to, profering explanations for the Star of Bethlehem. In my head though, I am back to my first proper Aberdeen Christmas from which this picture comes, the enduring image being one of snow, bitter cold and loads of time for introspection. Many years ago, when I still was in children’s Sunday School in the University Chapel my family attended, the carol service and reeling off lengthy passages committed to memory were most looked forward to, alongside rice and plentiful chicken. At one of those, I played the Magi with Myrrh, in addition to the scripture memory. Since then, the story of the Magi who bearing gifts has always intrigued me, particularly as it relates to the moving star.

At the linked podcast, Justin Brierley, Mark Kidger and Gillian Straine ponder the physical evidence for an event observable from the earth as a moving star and the theological implications of a natural explanation. Well worth a listen if that kind of thing is your bag. Merry Christmas regardless….

When I Still Don’t Desire God…

For Day 4 and 5 of the WordPress Finding  Everyday Inspiration Challenge

Struggling has hope of success, but forsaking the struggle does not

                                                                                                          – John Piper

John Piper is perhaps most famous for his espousal of Christian Hedonism, the idea that ‘God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him’. One of the essential tenets of this is that we are designed to, and should indeed, desire God not only on the level of mental assent but also at a deeper heart, emotional level. The reality of most people of faith is that our hearts and heart connections to God wax and wane, the strength of our feelings never really existing continuously in that Christian Hedonist space.

It is in a reflection on fifteen years since publishing that book that the quote above comes. This is both a source of hope and concern, hope because the struggle is proof that some life is still left in my faith, but also concern that they might just be the final thrashings of a thing recently dead thing. Food for thought!