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Yesterday, in my advanced poetry workshop at Colorado Christian University, three of my students gave a presentation on poetry and healing. Among other things, they considered the relationship poetry can have to emotional and physical healing. To me, this is one of the most important considerations in life.

Did you know, for example, that mummies in Egypt have been discovered with scraps of Sappho’s poetry in the wrappings?

What kind of permission does Psalm 88 give to faithful believers to honestly express their sorrows  when the last line does not turn toward trust or praise but simply says “the darkness is my only companion”?

Are you interested in programs that combine poetry and medicine, wherein doctors actually prescribe literature as something that could bring healing to the soul and therefore to the body? (What would it be like if there was a library in every hospital?)

One of the presenters paid particular attention to the braided relationship between love, truth, and reconciliation. Truth is so important to any real healing, but truth expressed without love can brutalize another human being. She read poems that have emerged from the Holocaust, South African apartheid, and the genocide in Rwanda to illustrate her deeper meaning.

One poet fully engaged with this problem today is Brian Turner. The title poem from his collection Here, Bullet is a good example of being truthful about trauma. Here it is:

Here, Bullet

If a body is what you want,
then here is bone and gristle and flesh.
Here is the clavicle-snapped wish,
the aorta’s opened valves, the leap
thought makes at the synaptic gap.
Here is the adrenaline rush you crave,
that inexorable flight, that insane puncture
into heat and blood. And I dare you to finish
what you’ve started. Because here, Bullet,
here is where I complete the word you bring
hissing through the air, here is where I moan
the barrel’s cold esophagus, triggering
my tongue’s explosives for the rifling I have
inside of me, each twist of the round
spun deeper, because here, Bullet,
here is where the world ends, every time.

Brian Turner
Here, Bullet (Alice James Books, 2005)

 something worth thinking about

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…as T.S. Eliot puts it:

Who then devised the torment? Love.

Love is the unfamiliar Name

behind the hands that wove

the intolerable shirt of flame

which human power cannot remove.

We only live, only suspire,

consumed either by fire or fire.

It takes great faith to open oneself to this purifying fire, to believe that it is the power of love. The extraordinary thing is that it is often imagined as a fire of roses. Eliot concludes Little Gidding, from which I have just quoted, with these lines:

When the tongues of flame are in-folded

into the crowned knot of fire

and the fire and the rose are one.

In The Princess and the Goblin, George MacDonald describes the fire of roses into which the princess must plunge her hands to be burned and purified. And Dante uses this metaphor in The Divine Comedy. Where did the fire of roses originate? I supsect it goes back beyond human memory.

Dare we open ourselves to this purifying fire … ?

Madeleine L’Engle
Walking on Water:
Reflections on Faith and Art
(1980, rpt. 2001)

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Last night, I went to see the film “Bright Star” directed by Jane Campion. It is the love story of the 19th century, Romantic poet John Keats and the muse who inspired him, Fanny Brawne. The film gave me a whole new vision of Keats, a different perception of his poetry, one which is based more on empathy than on judgment.

Campion has done a beautiful job of creating a script with language taken from the poems and letters of the poet. The imagery of the film alludes to Keats’ poetic imagery constantly. How beautiful Campion’s snapshots of the bee in a red flower or the latch of the door turning between the wings of a blue butterfly! Keats wrote the words that directed Campion’s attention to these ordinary, extraordinary moments:

“It has been an old comparison for our urging on — the beehive! However, it seems to me that we should rather be the flower than the bee. For it is a false notion that more is gained by receiving than giving — no, the receiver and the giver are equal in their benefits. The flower I doubt not receives a fair reward from the bee … its leaves blush deeper in the next spring … and who shall say between Man and Woman which is the most delighted?” (Letter to J.H. Reynolds, 19 February 1818)

“For myself i know not how to express my devotion to so fair a form: I want a brighter word than bright, a fairer word than fair. I almost wish we were butterflies and liv’d but three summer days — three such days with you I could fill with more delight than fifty common years could ever contain.” (Letter to Fanny Brawne, 1 July 1819)

The whole film is radiant with desire.

The memory and the fear of death intensifies love’s longing in the story. Fanny’s father’s death and Keats’ brother’s death, remembered at the beginning of the film, foreshadow the end when Keats dies of complications of tuberculosis in Rome. After Fanny learns of the poet’s death, we see her cut a black thread that she has stitched into a white cloth. The image, so powerful in its simplicity, recalls the Greek myth of Atropos cutting the thread of a man’s life.

Throughout the film, as Fanny and Keats converse, they quote some of Keats’ most famous poems, beginning with his claim that “a thing of beauty is a joy forever — its loveliness increases! It will never pass into nothingness, but still will keep a bower quiet for us, and a sleep full of sweet dreams and health and quiet breathing” (from “Endymion”). As the film goes on, they speak verses that Keats wrote after he met Fanny, and it becomes clear, so clear, that she was a great source of inspiration for him. His poetry was not coming from some abstract place, but from the center of his being responding to the center of hers.

I’ve read Keats poems many times — he and Coleridge are my favorite Romantic poets — but somehow I never grounded my understanding of the poet’s work in his relationship to the love of his life. Only a college education could have blinded me to something so obvious. The film cuts through academic preoccupations to the heart of the matter. Never a word do we hear in it of “negative capability” because that philosophical idea was not the main focus of Keats’ emotional life or poetic inspiration. But after watching the film, no one will never forget that he wrote things like:

“Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
to feel forever its soft swell and fall,
awake forever in a sweet unrest,
still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
and so live forever …” (from “Bright Star”)

or

“All my thoughts, my unhappiest days and nights have I find not at all cured me of my love of Beauty, but made it so intense that I am miserable that you are not with me … or rather breathe in that dull sort of patience that cannot be called Life. I never knew before what such a love as you have made me feel was. I did not believe in it, my fancy was afraid of it, lest it should burn me up. But if you will fully love me, though there may be some fire, it will not be more than we can bear when moistened and bedewed with Pleasures.” (Letter to Fanny Brawne, 8 July 1819)

Fanny was a real, beloved person to Keats, and Campion makes her and her poet real to us. Campion does this in a new, fully-alive, sensuously rich way. Her film is like a living poem speaking from the past into the heart of the golden present.

I went home after watching the film and read dozens of letters and poems by Keats: sonnets like “On Sitting Down to Read King Lear Once Again,” “When I Have Fears that I May Cease to Be,” and “Bright Star” as well as odes like “To Psyche,” “To a Nightingale,” “On Melancholy,” and “To Autumn.” How different to meditate on the romances “Eve of St. Agnes” and “Lamia” with Keats’ relationship to Fanny Brawne acutely in mind! For these songs came from Keats’ secret life, the one he revealed in letters to Fanny, letters that he covered from the sight of his friends even as he wrote them in their houses.

Of course I admit that the film is a love story that simplifies some of the uglier jealousies and misogynies Keats sings out in his letters to male friends and even to Fanny herself sometimes. But it still gives us something important to remember. Love gave Keats life.

p.s. In the film, Keats says, “Craft is a carcass … If poetry doesn’t come as naturally as leaves to a tree than it had better not come at all.” This made me laugh! Yes, Keats made his metaphoric comparison between poetry and tree-leaves in a letter to Benjamin Bailey, but did he therefore mean that poetry comes easily? I’ve watched the leaves split open twigs to emerge after winter, and I think the growing process is neither painless nor easy, though the revivification of the tree is, of course, a wonder to behold.

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