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?
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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.