I mentioned on Facebook that poetry saved my life. Adam and I were discussing Gerard Manley Hopkins (Adam had written a few lines of poetry that I thought played with language, particularly in describing Nature, the way Hopkins did, particularly in his famous “Pied Beauty“).
I was a somewhat moody child, but it wasn’t until college that I had my first major depressive episode. It’s the time schizophrenia starts manifesting in some people; I guess the brain goes through changes in chemistry at that point in life. At any rate, I had never experienced the sort of smothering bleakness which William Styron would later write about so articulately in his powerful memoir Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, and in the winter of my junior year, I had a full mental and emotional breakdown. Most days found me hiding from friends in my dorm room, crying in a fetal position on my bed, sneaking out only after dark to get some food.
About a month in, I started reading a collection of Hopkins’s writings. Two poems in particular became my sustenance, my lifeline. Both were written by a man who was manic depressive and whose periods of despair were translated into words with astounding clarity.
First I found “No Worst,” and I realized that someone else has understood my experience precisely. To realize you’re not alone, amid all that pain, is an incalculable blessing:
No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring. . . .
My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief
Woe, world-sorrow; on an age-old anvil wince and sing—
Then lull, then leave off. . . .
O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there. . . .
Then I found “Carrion Comfort,” and it was the tool I used to dig myself out of the abyss. It quite literally pulled me back from the brink of suicide. Here it is in full:
NOT, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist—slack they may be—these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?
Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, chéer.
Cheer whom though? the hero whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot tród
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.
I memorized “Carrion Comfort.” I repeated it, chanted it, over and over, day after day. It helped me come back into the sunlight.
And that, I think, is why I love poetry so much. It has a power we take for granted. What are magic spells but poetry invested with great emotional energy and repetition? What is a mantra but a poetic phrase repeated until it begins to speak itself? What are ancient, sacred plainsong chants but the place where the human heart and the mind of God touch?
* * * * * * *
Adam has a workshop he presents called “Poetry as Power: From Spellcraft to Statecraft,” and he kindly posted the notes on his blog, Adamus at Large. It’s a fascinating discussion of the power (often quite literal power) of words in general and poetry in particular.
What are magic spells
but poetry invested
with great emotional
energy and repetition?
What is a mantra
but a poetic phrase
repeated until it begins to
What are ancient, sacred
but the place where the human heart
and the mind of God
Then I have a debt of gratitude to Hopkins. I have read Hopkins and am reading more of his work now. Doing so is well worth the time and effort.
Funny, it is writing that helped dig me out of depression, not reading. Although one could make a case the constant reading of poetry and prose was one of the factors that lead to my desire and ability to use those same arts as others had. As Hopkins had. To write for my survival.
Art saves lives.
Even more shining that Hopkins’s words, your last paragraph, quoted by Indigo. Amazing writing, Craig.
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