How do you feel about poetry? My guess is that your answer to that question depends to a large extent on how you were introduced to it as a child. Most people will encounter poetry for the first time at school and it's generally a matter of luck whether or not it is presented in such a way that you will be enthused by it rather than put off it for life. I had a wonderful, inspirational teacher in my secondary school in Scotland, Mr Goodall. Without him I wouldn't have ever made poetry such a important part of my life. Because of him I discovered that a poem can be funny, it can make you cry, it can be a source of wonder: Poetry is life but not everyone is able to see it like that and I blame school.
We use poetry a lot when we run our 8-week mindfulness courses. I try to incorporate at least one poem into each class, sometimes more. There is a sort of standard collection of poems that seem to be used fairly regularly in courses throughout the world. However, with a few exceptions, I tend to deviate quite a bit from that and use poems I've discovered myself. I have certain, vague criteria that I employ when I decide to use a particular poem. However the most important of these criteria is that the poem speaks directly to me. This is important because a good poem is not an intellectual exercise; it's not something that needs to be worked out and understood, it needs to be felt. It's not uncommon for someone who's attended a course to comment, at the end, that they enjoyed the course but didn't "get" the poetry. It's as if the poem is some sort of puzzle and we need to apply our minds to finding the solution. In a way this is how it was (and maybe still is) at school. A poem was seen to contain some hidden meaning; the construction, the language, the symbolism, all had to be analysed in order for us to fully appreciate it. That's nonsense and it's also the reason why so many people have such a problem with poetry. But let me be very clear here; poetry doesn't need us to understand or interpret it but it does want us to experience it. John Keats wrote this in a letter to a friend,
"A poem needs understanding through the senses. The point of diving into a lake is not immediately to swim to the shore; it's to be in the lake, to luxuriate in the sensation of water. You do not work the lake out. It is an experience beyond thought. Poetry sooths and emboldens the soul to accept mystery."
So the first and most important thing we must do when we read a poem is to drop any need to know what it means. The next thing we must do is simply to open ourselves to the sensations the poem creates within us - the felt sense. Good poets are often very clever, and a clever poem can be a thing of great delight, but the poet's first impulse is simply to communicate how it feels to live in this moment, as you read or listen to the words. To put it another way, a poem is a meditation.
So here's a practice for you to try. Sit with your breath for about five minutes. Watch the gentle movement of in-breath and out-breath. Watch the mind settle and, when you're ready, read this, out loud if you want to. Don't worry about what it means or try to make sense of it, none of that matters, just notice how the words make you feel. Stay with a line or two and savour them. Notice how certain images evoke certain sensations and notice if there is discomfort or ease in the body as a result. Poetry, like life, is seldom comfortable or reassuring but it is there to be experienced.
Now, as a bit of an experiment, repeat the practice, at a different time, only this time read this. The poem is part of your mental furniture but let's just see how your relationship to it changes when you employ some "beginners mind" and drop all your prejudices or expectations about it. Most of all, remember you're no longer at school, so let the poem just happen.
Until next month. In the meantime why not add a little poetry to your life? And please click on the links in this post and let us know how you responded to the poems you find there.