Last week on a writing workshop with Ann Sansom I read Poetry as Survival during my free afternoons. In this book Gregory Orr, the author of many highly praised poetry collections, explores how writing, reading and listening to lyric poetry has enabled people to confront, survive, and transcend suffering.
In the introduction, Orr writes: When I was twelve years old I was responsible for a hunting accident in which my younger brother died. Two years after this accident, Orr’s mother died suddenly, aged thirty-six, after a “routine” hospital procedure. A few years later, he experienced further trauma as a volunteer for the Civil Rights movement, including being abducted at gun-point and being held in solitary confinement for eight days. Orr then discovered poetry: I knew that if I was to survive in this life, it would only be through the help of poetry.
I gained a great deal from the book, especially the first part. Here Orr uses examples from around the world and from all ages to illuminate how lyric poetry helps us to find solace. Theodore Roethke’s poem My Papa’s Waltz was written in the late 1940s, a child’s encounter with violence. Below is my own poem along these lines, dedicated to my father who died in 1990:
When I was a child I was scared
of him – the biting voice,
the it’s never good enough look.
I saw the crack in the cupboard door,
the oak dining chair with kelim seat
that he threw with his right hand.
Over breakfast my parents
flung cutlery at each other,
then the metal teapot.
Wall-paper stained brown.
Tonight, I sift photos in my head,
see a scared young man
alongside the mother
who preferred his dead sister.