Paul Matthews and Fiona Owen in Conversation
In 2012, Paul Matthews and I wrote a dialogue-piece, a ‘con-vers-ation’, entitled ‘Because we are doing this: Paul Matthews and Fiona Owen in poetic dialogue’. With the publication of Paul’s most recent gathering of poems This Naked Light (2018), it has been a pleasure to turn with Paul again in an exploration of new and familiar themes, with William Blake an abiding presence.
Well, Paul, it is more than good to be taking up another conversation with you, and congratulations on your wonderful new gathering of poems, This Naked Light. My opening question, to get the ball rolling, is about the cover image and your chosen title. I see it as uniting the collection and notice something new in it each time I look. What drew you to it – or did you go looking for an image that fitted what you had in mind? It is based on the work of the 17th century physician Robert Fludd, his ‘masterwork’ being Utriusque Cosmi, so perhaps you could say a little about him, too? Your title fits the image, even down to where it is placed on the cover. Did the title emerge for you during the writing process? Or did you begin with it?
I am glad, yes, for us to be in conversation again. My title, This Naked Light, came to me as seed or potential well before the book found its final shape. As for the image on the cover, I had long known and loved it, and one afternoon I just sat down with two bits of paper, yellow and red, that happened to be in front of me and it all fell into place. Have you had such an experience … that a poem or book knows what it wants to be before ever we become conscious of it? The top of the image did in the original contain the word ‘Fiat’ (‘let there be’). I deleted that, but the torn out white words of my title bring back Fludd’s theme and inspiration: ‘Let there be Light’… depicting the divine creative moment which sets the ball rolling for all of us! Robert Fludd? I take him to be something of a Rosicrucian, seeking to bridge the gap between ancient alchemy and the natural science that was emerging. Please say more about how you see the title uniting the collection.
I try always to trust a poem, words or a process that seems ahead of me in some way, acting as a leading or prompting – so, yes, I do understand. The cover image suggests to me that each life, in the form of a bird, is (as it were) blown outwards from that orange point of rupture and its journeying completes a circle in its return to that source. I love the way you have the image erupting at the source-point, tearing or burning through the dark, like lips blowing forth a gust of breath-light. And the bird seems to carry the light forward in that journey through darkness. I find it moving and profound, and the bird seems noble and heroic, somehow; not flashy-heroic, but simply valiant. Some winging speck, part of an immense mystery. I suppose I am thinking that it unites the collection because of the themes you explore in the book, where small things and our ordinary lives are ‘dear to us’ and ‘significant’ as in ‘The Light that I Know’, and where light breaks into the quotidian world in many poems. Writing itself seems an act of conflagration – is that how you experience it? Your whole first section, ‘Conflagrations’, opens with ‘Touchpaper’, ‘because when making poetry/fire does occasionally break out …’. I love the ‘burn marks’ you have included on various pages of the book, including right at the end, as if fire is indeed burning holes in the pages!
Thank you. You are finding meanings that I failed to notice. View it also as a response to the ‘Big Bang’ theory that I take issue with in a couple of the pieces here, my wish to ensoul it. Or is it an eye testing its rods and cones in a primal act of perception?
You will remember that when poetry editor of Scintilla you published a sequence of these poems, and then invited me to contribute to the splendid ‘Poets in Conversation’ series that you initiated on the journal’s website. Already these questions concerning a ‘fiery’ source of language were alive in you. ‘Tongues of Fire’ (the title under which you published them) carries a Whitsun image; but if any ‘bene diction’ came in the writing of the ‘Conflagration’ section of this book I quaked in the presence of it … the tongue as ‘blind amphibian’ inhabiting a zone between dark and daylight. And if, as I say, it sometimes ‘speaks for us what we don’t quite mean’, this might include Freudian slips and word play, but also foolish wisdoms that our daytimes shy from. In that earlier ‘Scintilla’ exchange I referred to a sense, beyond the usual ones, that can perceive ‘the feeling tone of language’ and which, once roused, ‘knows the power and origin of a word better than we do. It crosses some fiery threshold, then brings back metaphors which move and mean within a rightful resonance’. Don’t you in your Quaker gatherings seek to cultivate the art of speaking out of such deep listening?
I am not always comfortable with how my words often turn out to be the subject as well as the medium of my poetry, yet this search for a source of language beyond the ordinary seems to be a purpose I brought along with me, and need to follow.
I have noticed in your new book that you ‘take on’ some of our prevailing myths, such as our current creation story, the ‘big bang’. Obviously, I have many science-facing friends who would look at me askance at my suggestion that the big bang is a mere ‘creation story’! They will even think me a lost milk-sop for suggesting such a thing – even though it seems sensible to place the whole notion of ‘story’ central (rather than ‘mere) to what we are and do as humans. As David Loy says, in his book The World is Made of Stories, ‘The world is made of our accounts of it because we never grasp the world as it is in itself, apart from stories about it … This is not to deny (or assert) that there is a world apart from our stories, only that we cannot understand anything without storying it. To understand is to story’. In response to Muriel Rukeyser’s famous claim that ‘The universe is made of stories, not atoms’, Loy says: ‘Not atoms? Of course it is made of atoms. That’s one of our important stories’.
I admire the way you address some key proponents of our current ‘myths’, such as Stephen Hawking and Professor Crick, taking on, playfully, but with fire in your words, some of their theories:
How could a particle of mereness come to understand its nature? The universe (with all its parts) I’d say, understands itself in us. (‘A Birthday Particle’) My sense of identity finds it hard to reconcile the mercurial beauty of your double helix with this ‘no more than’ matter that you make of it. (‘No Man’s Land’)
We seem to be living in a period where meaning is being persistently stripped away, with human beings de-throned and reduced to being ‘mere’. You suggest that this has consequences, as you say in ‘No Man’s Land’ about the coming ‘Desolation … stamped into the loveless words you write’. The word ‘love’ is key – it is entirely missing from the myths you are attending to. But do you think there is anything to be gained from this stripping away and de-throning process? You are fully aware of the need to dismiss ‘idols’ that have emptied of meaning, as you say in your letter poem to ‘Professor Crick’: ‘I’d be with you in any mission to cast off idols which have stopped revealing …’ – which speaks for me too. But the baby is being thrown out with the water, isn’t it? Lots of babies!
I do indeed remember the ‘Poets in Conversation’ Scintilla series which you began – it is good to return to that here. When you speak of ‘fiery thresholds’, I am reminded of the crucial role of metaphor in language. Owen Barfield (who you introduced me to many years ago) says – as you will know – that idolatry is when we collapse all meaning into ‘the literal’. Is that right? He also says in History in English Words that ‘language is by nature magical and therefore highly dangerous’. This tallies with your ‘Touchpaper’ poem. He doesn’t, of course, mean ‘magical’ in any kind of whimsical way. I know from your own work in Sing Me the Creation, for instance, the way you see grammar as akin to ‘grammaire’ – which I think links to magic. Can you say more about this?
Finally, you mention how, in Quaker gatherings, we speak out of ‘deep listening’. That is precisely what we aim at, though it doesn’t always happen! When it does, it is powerful, moving and potentially transformative. George Fox was known for speaking with such a piercing acuity that his words could ‘cut through’ to the heart of a person, enlivening and awakening them. This is what ensouled poetry can do, too – for the writer and the reader.
That is a fulsome response! I hardly know which strand to follow. Let me start with stories … the way children sometimes ask whether a fairy tale is true or not. Head says ‘no, not really’. Heart however (beyond ‘milk sop’) knows without a doubt that Snow White’s household would be incomplete if only six dwarves sat down for supper. It is the same with the Big Bang story. My head, I do acknowledge, is not qualified to judge the mathematical truth of it; but if my aesthetic sense (centred in my place of breathing) contends that the Bang, besides being Big, is love-filled, word-filled, inlaid with grammaire, why should I be dismissive of that intelligence?
In my poem, ‘The Light that I Know’ that you mentioned earlier I ask: ‘How could a loveless bang engender such a kind/ outpouring of the light’? A private cry, perhaps, wrenched out of me when facing an empty universe? Keats, though, when he spoke of the ‘holiness of the heart’s affections’ was taking a stand for a more than subjective inner source of knowing. In some sense, yes, we are indeed all stories, but the one professed by the particles that made up professors Crick and Hawking feels incomplete to me. It stops me breathing. If, as Blake says, ‘we are put on earth a little space’ to learn something, what might that be? – that we ‘learn to bear the beams of love’, for sure; that we take up our potential to be free and creative beings and thinkers. This assumes, I suppose, that we are on an evolutionary journey, composing the true story of who we are through many lifetimes. A number of the poems in my new book allude to that possibility. ‘What other evidence than love is needed’?
I have not picked up on all your threads and questions, but in the context of what we have been talking about, what role do you think poets will have in facing the wave of artificial intelligence that is coming towards us?
My deepest intuition is, and long has been, that you and Blake are right and that we are here to ‘learn to bear the beams of love’ and ‘take up our potential to be free and creative beings and thinkers’. That has always made sense to me, however much it flies in the face of materialist dominant ideologies. ‘The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of’ said Blaise Pascal. It’s my favourite ‘story’ anyway – and I am using ‘story’ meaningfully, as ‘worldview’. And yes, how can such a ‘project’ – if that’s the right word – ever be completed in one lifetime? I have noticed some references, in your newer poems, to the theme of ‘life after life’, albeit handled in your playful way – the ‘balance of gravity with levity’ I so admire in your work, as you know. One of my favourite poems in this collection concludes: ‘Life after life you tell me/we are given tongues/to sing our circumstance’. That quickens something in me, and is a heartening reminder to be present to simply what is in my life, and the life around me, and the his/her/their-stories, because here is the locus of learning. It also seems to tap into your life’s work, doesn’t it, which is about empowering each person to sing their own bit of the creation, in their own way. I also think this fully legitimises what you mention earlier, about not always being ‘comfortable with how my words often turn out to be the subject as well as the medium of my poetry’. Aren’t you simply ‘following’ what your life is bringing you – as you, in particular, I mean? It is, to my mind, a kind of faithfulness.
Faithful to pre-birth intentions? I do include in my new book a few lines about such a possibility:
Some fierce angel told me how my life would be. He pressed fire to my lip and said, Hush child, you authorised this story.
This touches back into what you were saying about the stories we are made of. I am not asking you to believe a word of this … and I only feel free to entertain it in regard my own story; but if we dismiss it as some artificial lack of intelligence then how to explain the little indentation that we all carry beneath our noses!
Well, Wordsworth did say that we come ‘Not in entire forgetfulness … But trailing clouds of glory’ … As for artificial intelligence (an interesting question!), my first thoughts are as follows: for all its potential cleverness, I can’t see how it will ever be able to touch another’s ‘soul’ in that ‘deep calling to deep’ way, and maybe that’s where poetry – and humans more generally – still have a role. Whatever may come in the form of robotics – and they are saying that it is this form of mechanisation that is the future threat to jobs, rather than immigration – it will always have at its roots the sterility of the machine. I bought an electric foot massager recently, thinking it might be helpful. It’s okay, but there is no ‘feel’ to it. It has the repetitive relentlessness of any automaton, with no ability to sense into a human foot and what it might need at any moment. I appreciate that it is a poor example of AI, given that it’s a simple device. Someone working in AI would tell me of the way a sophisticated system can and does learn, becoming reciprocal, taking in ‘my’ information and responding to it, tailoring data for my ‘benefit’. We see it, even, with our mobile phones and devices, the internet and so on. It is undoubtedly ‘clever’, but cleverness does not equate to wisdom – and the world seems lacking in enough of the latter, at present! The mystery of the world, and us in it – our relationships with others, including our animal-kin, as well as the themes that keep arising in us – that’s what poets can continue to explore in ways that are rich with nuance. But could these man-made machines ever gain consciousness, do you think, as so many sci-fi works have explored? Why did you ask about AI? Do you foresee a possible dystopian future, where the ‘dia-bolic’ reigns?
I raised the question about ‘artificial intelligence’ because, however useful, it will I suspect start doing our thinking for us. ‘Robot service in place of divine service’, is what Robert Duncan calls it. It might even have the thought built into it that there is no such thing as intuitive (inner) evidence, no space allowed for grace arising out of mistakes we make. You characterise the dangers very well out of your own experience, but what if coming generations just take them for granted? Often, as you say, I deal playfully with serious matters, but this battle with, yes, the ‘dia-bolic’ requires the ‘straight-talking’ of winter that you come to at the end of your poetry book, The Green Gate which I love so much. Your active concern for both animals and anima there and elsewhere is a brave example of the ‘Mental Fight’ against ‘Satanic Mills’ (the cogs of dead cognition) that Blake vowed never to cease from.
It is indeed a concern that we might end up allowing – submitting to – AI doing our thinking for us. We will become ‘trained’ by the machine. Surely, it is already happening. I’m thinking of those anonymous call-centre voices – you can hear them reading off some script. The humans are trained to be automatons, to stay ‘on script’, and they often flounder when asked for more than that. There are plenty of amusing clips circulating on social media of people who don’t have standard English or American accents (Scots, Welsh or Irish, for example) trying to get ‘Alexa’ to work for them. It’s funny, but the only way they can get it to work is if they modify their accents to fit. Ultimately, this is a move against ‘the natural order’, given that ‘nature’ in its extended form is replete with lavish diversity, singing the Creation in myriad multifarious voices. The ten thousand things are diminishing fast – I feel we must beware the machine metaphor extending its reach. I wonder if Blake saw this coming due to ‘Single Vision’ -? I am not against technology and machines, I hasten to add! I make abundant use of them and am often very pleased at what technology facilitates. It can be in service to the Good, the True and the Beautiful.
In a previous conversation you speak of how your husband Gorwel , a recording engineer, ‘plays the studio like an instrument’. So, this new technology can prepare the ground for us – to create out of nothingness, to love in freedom.
It can. But also, as with everything, it can serve the murky and outright dangerous, as well as vices like greed and selfishness. I do think it is always worth questioning what anything we do is in service to, in order to avoid ‘Robot service’. We must perhaps peer into the shadows to gain our ‘night vision’, see what is there, so we can know and integrate it, instead of letting unconscious forces drive us – that is what I came to in that poem you mention. ‘What winter brought’ was that being stripped by ‘winter’, ‘descent’, ‘night’ – a kind of ‘tough love’ experience – can initiate us into a vision that is more whole, where we can then ‘rise up from the dead’.
Do you think we must make that shift from innocence to experience to ‘grow’? And can we then keep our feet in both terrains, or must we sacrifice innocence to gain experience? Given that there is a theme of ‘light’ in your collection, what would you say about ‘darkness’? I’m thinking of what you say here in your ‘letter to William Blake’ poem: ‘Only through our daring to step wide-eyed into the Abyss does the word light up in us’.
I am sure there is a value in the way our traditions, cultures, idols, attitudes are being stripped away. I used to assume that we are all clothed and grounded in a shared language of myths and stories. Not now, though. It is a ‘naked light’ we stand in, words stripped of their histories. Surely the delving into etymologies that we both love has something to do with resurrecting them. Most powerfully that theme appears in Wilfred Owen’s vision of Christ standing in No Man’s Land between opposing trenches. And what about H.D’s ‘War Trilogy’ when in another dark time, in the extremity of the London Blitz, the vision of a Lady came to her… ‘but she wasn’t hieratic’. The book she carried was no ‘tome of the ancient wisdom’. It was, as H.D says, ‘the unwritten volume of the new’. Is that the abyss, maybe? I turn again to your poems and find the theme in even the humblest of them … this one that begins: ‘It’s about wishing for nothing’ – sitting in your car as the rain ‘runs in rivulets / down the windscreen’. In response to your question, ‘What do you think about darkness’, I want to ask: is Blake’s Urizen just a literary conceit? I can’t help thinking of St. Paul’s stark statement: ‘We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against … the rulers of darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places’.
Am I reiterating old themes? With the publication of This Naked Light I feel some phase has ended, but hardly know what’s next. Grand ‘visions’ are welcome, but common eyesight is always a more likely source. Is any new source opening for you, I wonder. What things commission you?
One thing that still commissions me (it has all my life) is my ‘joy and woe’, my ‘inter-est’ and deep concern for our animal kin. I so wonder how it has happened that, throughout our human history, we have seen the animal world in largely instrumental terms, there to be used and (as is so often the case) abused, often terribly. As South African novelist JM Coetzee says in The Lives of Animals, we have created terrible normalised death camps that animals are born, live and die in, industrialised horror camps that seem the epitome of what Blake talks about in ‘Auguries of Innocence’, a poem I read when young and knew the truth of then. The hell-zones are never far away (human and animal), it seems, and are located very firmly in this world, rather than some place we go to ‘if we are bad’. I know nothing in nature that equals the human harms done, driven by Urizen’s ‘single vision’ or unintegrated shadow forces. Blake’s ‘Auguries’ tries to work through many examples of violation: the ‘dog starvd at his Masters Gate/Predicts the ruin of the State’, ‘Each outcry of the hunted Hare/A fibre from the Brain does tear’ – he seems to see the profound connection between animal harm and its social/metaphysical implications – the con+nectere which reminds us how bound we are to each other, across the so-called species line. Animal – most of the word means soul! My personal tweaked version of the Lord’s Prayer goes ‘for thine is the kindom’ – because, to me, this is a core article of personal faith, as it were. ‘Everything that lives is holy’.
King and kin and kindness … aren’t those words all of a kind?
Too many actual kings haven’t made that connection, unfortunately. But king as metaphor for some potential in us – that works for me. In your ‘letter poem’ to Blake, you meditate on his complementary paintings of Adam Naming the Beasts and Eve Naming the Birds.
You suggest, it seems to me, that humans in the form of Adam and Eve are redeemed for their potential as ‘namers’, this being ‘an act of love’. I agree. But, to ‘name’ (and love), which is to fulfil our potential – our ‘human dignity’ – we require ‘a deep humility … an annihilation almost, an attention that can bear such nakedness’. Is that right?
When you say: ‘It is fashionable to condemn this act of naming as a domination over nature’, what would you say to those who blame that Biblical instruction for ‘man’ to ‘have dominion’ over the earth and ‘subdue it’? Some argue that this edict has fed straight into that part of us that can and does inflate its own power over others and the Creation -?
Whether or not the biblical edict about our dominion over nature has been misinterpreted, it has undoubtedly caused great harm. Blake, though, in his paintings of Adam and Eve, and in his ‘Auguries of Innocence’ poem, seeks to redeem this – towards stewardship, at least, but more than that … into (now Rilke’s words) ‘such a saying as never the things themselves hoped so intensely to be’. The notion that human self-consciousness and free-will make us superior to the mineral, vegetable and animal kindoms of nature is perhaps the only position that our materialist times can come to and, as you say, it has painful consequences. My studies, however, of Goethe’s ways of observing nature encourage the almost ungraspable thought that the world and its creatures become, or can become, self-conscious in us, through us. William Blake attests to this in his painting. Adam (and anyone) listens so attentively under the bardic oak tree that the animals streaming through his larynx (so deep is the kinship) are confirmed and fructified in their essential being as they tone their names through him. In ‘singing the Creation’ we have the potential, through respons-ible exercise of our free-will, to be co-creators.
The last part of your new collection you’ve named ‘Distillations’ and some of my favourite ‘animal’ poems of yours are there, especially ‘The Night God Heard Something Shaking His Firmament’, which I am very close to. I’m glad you have given Minikin Mouse the final say!
This poem brings me on to your question about ‘new sources opening’ for me – though, again, this area isn’t that new, either, as it has long been present in both my experience of writing and in my teaching work – and in reading! But yes, what I have turned towards much more explicitly, recently, is that writing is (or can be) transformative and ‘therapeutic’. When Minikin Mouse asks to be of service, I feel s/he is in right orientation with the ‘spiral galaxies’ – but it can take a wee while (a whole or many lifetimes!) to get to that quality of selfhood. Your advocation to ‘sing the Creation’ is, to me, an important therapeutic permission. I am awake to the meaning hidden in that big word, i.e. that part of therapeutein means to ‘do service, take care of’ and is related to therapon ‘attendant’. Do you see your writing and work as ‘therapeutic’? If language as ‘angelology’ can help, I wonder if first we need to diagnose the disease -? Or maybe it’s the other way round!
Very good. That is the theme which, I gather, is addressed in ‘The Eye of the Storm’ sessions that I have been reading about on your website. Could we explore this further? From my own experience of doing ‘Creative Writing’ in groups, I know that the very realisation of our potential to be ‘creative’ can be transformative and healing. Sometimes the permission is all that’s needed. But in ancient days the word itself, besides being a vehicle for meanings and feeling, was experienced as charged with magical creative will. And not so ancient, actually; I remember scornful news reports about immigrants, newly arrived in our clever country, pinning doctors’ prescriptions on their clothes, as though the written word itself could be a remedy. In medieval Europe there were fierce scholastic arguments between Realists (who claimed names and things were twined together) and Nominalists who dismissed that foolish notion. The ‘Nominalists’ won out, and mostly it is they who now shape our language and our culture, but (to quote from this new book of mine): ‘Once upon a time words watered the vineyards … I would have them well again…’.
So, the remedy is in our relationship with language itself, for us to perhaps see or relate with it as ‘language alive’, rather than something dead? And in doing this, we too are brought to life? That seems to be a furrow you have long been ploughing, through your teaching work and in Sing Me the Creation, and I too feel its truth-force. This year, as you have mentioned, I set up my Eye of the Storm project, which is all about creating a space to explore in group contexts these very kinds of issues, ‘to share’, as I’ve written on the website, ‘the exploration of writing and reading as an act of generative empowerment and self/world enquiry’. Some writers deny the therapeutic aspects of writing, though perhaps their meaning of this differs from mine. For them, writing is ‘work’ – and I do understand that writing a novel, say, involves the strategic mind as much as the imagination and language skills. However, for me, working with words and engaging in the imagination is akin to an alchemical process. I feel I am being wrought in the process, somehow – in perhaps incremental ways.
‘Whoever was beaten by this angel’, said Rilke ‘went away proud and strengthened’. I’m taking him here to mean our wrestling with the being of language, the ‘angelology’ that you referred to earlier.
Ah, yes! And interestingly, the contemporary philosopher and psychotherapist Mark Vernon has published an article recently saying this:
The English philosopher Owen Barfield, a member of the Oxford Inklings in the 1930s and ’40s, whose work as a philologist convinced him that the Romantic tradition was broadly right, put it succinctly. Words have soul, he said. They possess a vitality that mirrors the inner life of the world, and this connection is the source of their power. All forms of language implicitly deploy it. Poets are arguably more alert to it because they consciously seek it out.
I found it interesting to discover this recently published article while writing this with you. Do you still find Barfield’s work a source of inspiration? I’m interested in what you say about language once being ‘experienced as charged with magical creative will’ and still being so in some instances (that’s a moving story about the migrants). And what can you say about the role of playfulness in helping words (and perhaps ourselves) be ‘well again’?
And not just to ‘be well again’, but to ‘well again’… I think of Robert Duncan’s reworking of an Egyptian text: ‘Oh stream of the Nile, Great River, I speak out, / my words flowing, feeding the land of my speech’. And, yes, Owen Barfield, tracing through etymologies the evolution of human consciousness back to a time when breath, wind and spirit were apprehended in a single act, continues to nourish and heal my work in poetry. I don’t write with any therapeutic intention in mind, but I do know that the poetic act heals (if only momentarily) the subject/object rift that is such a painful feature of the time we live in.
In earlier times, though, when word and world were two sides of the one thing, people experienced the very rhythms, sounds and repetitions of spoken or written language as having power for both healing and destruction – spells, charms, invocations, runes considered direct conduits to particular gods, alphabetic characters once known as ‘Elements’. We modern users of conceptual language call that superstition, but doesn’t each child coming new into the world live in, recapitulate, that earlier magical experience of language? They are intensely open, but also vulnerable, to what language does to them. In my occasional work with trainee teachers I have explored the making of verses and therapeutic stories suited to the needs of particular children. And a few years later, when language becomes a vehicle for strong personal feeling, young people bring some order to the upwelling of their inner life by writing in their private diaries. Beyond that, am I to understand in your ‘Eye of the Storm’ groups or elsewhere you have worked with Creative Writing as a consciously therapeutic practice? Or maybe you know of others who do so. I would like to know what those practices entail.
For the last few years, I’ve been doing some training with a wonderful mentor called Jill Teague, of iaPoetry (the International Academy for Poetry Therapy), with view to qualifying as a poetry therapy practitioner. However, over the summer this year (2018), I did some personal stock-taking and realised that I was using up a lot of my time counting hours and doing write-ups/getting behind with the write-ups due to work, getting stressed – and so on. It dawned on me that I am almost sixty and won’t be qualified until into the first half of my sixtieth decade. Time felt suddenly short and I don’t actually need the qualification at this stage of my working life – so I decided to stop the official training. I am still, of course, deeply interested in ‘writing for wellbeing’ (WfW) and have loved the learning and practice. I have, though, always drawn on this area in my teaching of creative writing, aware of the effects of writing and reading on ‘the person’.
In WfW, the balance is tipped towards the wellbeing and development of the participant rather than on the quality of the writing. Working with people in a ‘poetry therapy’ way, according to my training, means, however, not seeing ourselves as ‘therapists’. We create a space and provide exercises and material for participants to respond to, as in a creative writing class, but, rather than responding to the writing, as writing, we respond instead to the effect and meaning of it for that person – we open a dialogue about it. The WfW approach provides ‘permission’ for a participant to respond to an exercise, piece of writing, image and so on in any way they like, with whatever skills they have, knowing that it will be received in a non-judgemental, supportive way. As you have said above, ‘sometimes the permission is all that’s needed’. In this kind of setting, over time, a participant can gain confidence and build courage in the writing process, potentially gaining valuable insights about themselves, too, that may prove ‘therapeutic’. Practitioners don’t provide writing instruction. I understand the reasons for this – though, in my experience, ‘working the material’ and finding a form and the most fitting, alive words are part of how we ourselves are ‘wrought’. However, encouraging an awareness of language – the quickening qualities of words and the news they can bring – is certainly something that can be fostered. I call my ‘Eye of the Storm’ sessions ‘creative writing’, so we do have permission and some flexibility to gently explore some of these ‘writing’ issues, if they are relevant, but the work I have done in WfW is inevitably woven in. The emphasis is on exploration in an inter-supportive setting – there is always a theme which provides the focus.
Your own work, Paul, is already very close to these practices. I often use Sing Me the Creation in my teaching and facilitation – in the work I do with Open University undergraduates, in other creative writing contexts, as well as in WfW settings. Have you never thought of that work ‘as a consciously therapeutic practice’?
That is helpful. Robert Sardello was the one who in his introduction to Sing Me the Creation woke me to the healing aspect of what I was doing and, as you note in your review of the new edition of that book (Raceme No. 5), I do now make this explicit. Let me quote you quoting me quoting Wendell Berry: There are:
‘two diseases of language’ that exist in our present times, two imbalances, one where ‘the speaker is present but the world is absent’ and the other where ‘the world is present but the speaker is absent’ … it is ‘only when standing in the ground between, speaker and world together in the act, that our words (and thus personality and community) will be made whole’.
New insights keep emerging for me out this dynamic polarity, and if others arise for you please tell me.
In the same review you also say that the book ‘has at its heart our coming into right relationship with language – Right Speech in the Buddhist sense’. This is fundamental to our theme – how can our words work therapeutically if our own tongues are not healed of the slanders, lies, hurtfulness and trivia that pervade them? These, according to the Buddha, are the dis-eases we are sure to encounter if we set out on a path of ‘Right Speech’. Forgive me for reiterating here what I said at the end of our first poetic dialogue (‘because we are doing this’), but I feel it all the more strongly now that these shadows have been so blatantly loosed into our politics.
Like you, I don’t generally write ‘with any therapeutic intention in mind’ – anything that happens comes as a kind of grace, a side-effect of the writing – but I have experienced what can come when you allow a body part to sing its poetry. Years ago, I had been having trouble with painful feet. I remember sitting at my desk, fed up. In frustration, I turned to my feet: ‘Okay: speak. What have you got to say?’ I took up my pen, waited in listening mode and then ‘dictated’. A poem flooded forth (words ‘welled’) that showed me at least something of what the pain was about on an inward symbolic level.
Into that poem about ‘feet’ came the downtrodden, the exiled, the creatures …
We are every ass, every worn, weary, broken, tethered thing, every creature, every part of the whole over-ruled, over-looked, over-ridden, walked on, tested on, cast out thing.
Into the poem came men of power in high office, divorced from ‘the people’, aspects of myself, too …
You are filled with your own noise so full of thoughts in their grooves, mission control high up there, head so full in the clouds. And we, way down here, weighed down, weighted down, are carrying you, weight-bearing (not bearing you) not bearing (no longer bearing) today must bare ourselves to you as we are: bone-aching, pain getting through. Our pain - yes - is yours. It is true. Where is the line that separates us from you? 'Rant of the Buckled Feet' in Going Gentle (Gomer)
This poem still brings me news, still surprises me with its ‘truth-force’. The writing was therapon, ‘attendant’ to that erupting from the deeps, from my feet, from sole!
Do you have a poem that has does that for you, that brought you something you hadn’t seen before in quite that way?
‘Weight’ and ‘way’, ‘bear’ and bare’… in answer to your earlier question the truth you come to in this poem arises out of some serious word play, don’t you think? Words, having gathered meanings over millennia, are so much wiser than us. Not that I wish to be just a channel for meanings moving through me, but I do think that we can be ‘servants of the Word’ as well as responsible and crafty employers of it. I have certainly experienced the physical shock of what poetry can do to us … how it takes hold of our breathing, tears and laughter, sending tingles up my spine, making my hair stand on end – a freeing of emotional complexes, I suppose, unlocking the ‘word hoard’.
That reminds me that the word ‘emotion’ comes from the Latin ex movere , ‘to move out’ – as if emotions can help to loosen and free ‘knots’ in us, perhaps – as you say – at least potentially, if the right words can come -?
The poems I return to carry a tone, a tonic even, which somehow cleanses my whole system. ‘In olden times when wishing still helped one’ people utterly trusted that their spells and alliterations had the power to cure physical ailments.
I wonder if the trust those people had in their charms and spells was efficacious enough to help their ailments physically heal, though? Perhaps some ailments could be relieved through the lifted spirit and visceral response of poetry, but they would be minor illnesses, I suspect -?
Are we not to take literally, then, the biblical accounts of people being healed through the power of the word? Perhaps in the very ‘olden days’ physical bodies were more malleable, more open to the subtle influences of spoken language.
Well, what I do know is that poems and stories can indeed help as ‘tonics’ and we can gain insights, comforts and meanings through them even from tough life experiences such as the breakdown of health. Having just had a knee replacement operation, I must admit that I’m very grateful to modern medical techniques. However, language and its powers still come into this. One consultant I saw had a habit of listing, in detailed fashion, all the things that can go wrong in knee surgery – all the risks. Whatever his reasons for doing this, I found him deeply unskilful as a doctor; instead of finding in the encounter the beginnings of healing, hope and trust, I instead experienced fear-seeds planted and reinforced. Because of him, I put the surgery off until my knee was so damaged I had no other choice. The lovely surgeon who actually did my knee operation, however, used a different style of language which gave me hope and a sense of trust. Though they are modern surgeons, there is still a kind of witchcraft at work in their use of language. I go back to your poem ‘No Man’s Land’ and Professor Crick, who had the notion that we are merely ‘a vast assembly of nerve cells and their attendant molecules’. If a doctor holds that world view, then he or she may fail to actually see the complex human being that is before them, the recipient of their words. As you say, ‘a handshake is a holy place’, no less so when the relationship is between a doctor and patient.
Today, on the world stage, we are seeing great distortions in the way language is used, where ‘fair is foul and foul is fair’ and blatant lies are sworn as truths. Is repair possible, would you say?
How about through an education which (alongside instruction) includes beauty and goodness in its curriculum, and which carries the imagination that each child ‘put on earth a little space’ is potentially a free being with a unique creative task to fulfil.
That would indeed be radical, in all senses of the word, reaching down into the roots of a child awakening to its life in the world. If only! Your concern with ‘true naming’ pits you at odds with our age – but that was true of Blake and his times, too, wasn’t it?
Is that not true of every age? Wilfred Owen, contradicting the glorification of trench warfare, says it bluntly: ‘the true Poets must be Truthful’. Maybe when in our time it is so difficult to distinguish fake news from true I do feel an urgency to speak up for such ideals, but if ever I find myself ‘Expecting Benediction’ (which is the title of my poem below) I am soon brought down with a bump:
All morning I sat within myself and waited. Rain rattling down from a clogged gutter could not distract me. My tongue sloughed off superfluous utterance and lay meek and still. Almost I was afraid of it, that blind amphibian. I have heard the rumours – how it lurks in wells then darts out suddenly and assumes a place at table near the cup we drink from. It speaks for us what we don’t quite mean. It smoulders in the dark with a quenchless fury. The gargoyle on the roof spewed out its gutturals.
A well-loved story in Steiner schools is that of Parzival who, meeting the wounded Fisher King at the Grail castle, asks: ‘What ails you uncle’, and thereby brings healing not just to the suffering King but to the whole community, and even to the wasteland which surrounds the place. It is a moving imagination of someone who, having healed his own use of language, stands in his words and mends through a question the rift between world and speaker. Here is the last sentence of the essay in which Wendell Berry writes of such things: ‘We are speaking where we stand, and we shall stand afterwards in the presence of what we have said’. Well, I read once that on average we each tell 279 lies every day, so if ever we do stand in such a place of judgement let it be tempered with a bit of mercy.
You’re right, of course, that, in our quest for ‘speaking where we stand’, and standing by those words, we often catch ourselves in acts of betrayal, as your poem suggests – when our tongue ‘speaks for us what we don’t quite mean’ or omits to speak when something apt was needed. There is never room for complacency, for notions of arrival or completion. I am suspicious of the word ‘enlightenment’ for that reason – as in something that is finally achieved or finished – though I like the story of the Buddha! Still, the very attempt to slough off ‘superfluous utterance’ seems to me a good practice, an attempt at Right Speech.
I’m glad you’ve brought Parzival along, as we draw our conversation to a close. Lindsay Clarke ends his version of Parzival by saying that ‘we who are neither wholly good nor wholly bad, we who consist both of shadow and of light, we sad, wounded creatures standing between earth and heaven, striving to be whole’ – in that very state, he says, we can ‘be among the healers’. I like that. It undercuts ideas (ideals) of having to be in some way ‘perfect’ before we can be of service. It’s as if asking that question – ‘What ails you uncle?’ – shifts us from a sense of ego-centric consciousness to something more expansive which includes concern for ‘other’. Parzival had to journey through conflicts and hardships to find that, though, as we all do. Given our human frailties and fallibilities, then, it seems the least we can do – to paraphrase you – to temper our words with mercy.
Some key works mentioned
Wendell Berry, 1983, Standing by Words, North Point Press
Owen Barfield, 1967, History in English Words, Lindisfarne Books
Lindsay Clarke, 2001, Parzival and the Stone From Heaven, HarperCollins
JM Coetzee, 2001, The Lives of Animals, Princeton University Press
Robert Duncan, 1968, Bending the Bow, New Directions Publishing
David Loy, 2010, The World is Made of Stories, Wisdom Publications
Paul Matthews, 2015, Sing Me the Creation (2nd Edition), Hawthorn Press
Paul Matthews, 2018, This Naked Light, Matador
Fiona Owen, 2007, Going Gentle, Gomer Press
Fiona Owen, 2015, The Green Gate, Cinnamon Press
Mark Vernon, 2018, ‘The say of the land’ in Aeon: <https://aeon.co/essays/words-have-soul-on-the-romantic-theory-of-language-origin>