Over the past two months, I’ve learnt a lot about writing as therapy. Since early October I’ve written more pages of poetry than I usually muster in a year, though I still have a long way to go. Day poems about walking and madness, night poems in which I confront past and present ghosts one at a time. My latest poem, which begins as one of the darkest, ends on a somewhat positive note, but now I’ve been stuck for a week. I’m nowhere near finished, and need to dig deeper.
Transforming your pain into something meaningful, wild and musical (the Maltese endekasillabu works wonders) can be of significant help, however gradual. But there are dangers.
1. Firstly, you’re walking a delicate tightrope. The most expressive images and emotions will probably rise to the surface whilst you’re half asleep, but at the time of actually writing, you need full concentration. The banality of your thoughts is beneath you, around you, above you. Don’t try to blurt it all out in one go, and don’t be afraid to remain still whenever necessary. And of course, beware of the temptation to simply let yourself fall. Finding the right balance between the literal and the figurative, and the right tone and mood, takes time.
I used the word ‘banality’ – no one wants to read about your guilt, your hang-ups and your fuck-ups, but that’s not the point. You’re writing first and foremost for yourself. (And by helping yourself, you relieve the pressure off those close to you.) Each depression is highly personal and specific, the result of a number of intertwined factors – some so deeply linked to childhood that you may not remember where or how they actually originated -, so any attempt to write an impersonalised poetic manual for curing depression will be devoid of substance and will soon slip into failure. To poeticise the unpoetic is never going to be easy. Catharsis is to be found in image, metaphor, rhythm, surprise. There is a dark beauty in the macabre, and humour too, but don’t overdo it.
2. Despite the simile of the tightrope, depression is not linear, but moves spirally. It’s inevitable that you will repeat yourself. Use this repetition wisely. Anaphora can be powerful, but can also be a sign of laziness if abused or hackneyed. Each time you mention a particular symbol, try to give it a new trait or a new link. Don’t look for total coherence among poems. Depression and fear contradict themselves continuously.
3. Do not over-obsess over a past episode for the sake of your poetry, as you may end up falsifying the emotion, or worse still, deepening your madness or paranoia unnecessarily. Perhaps more importantly, do not cling too tightly to the poetry itself, as if it were your only road to salvation. On a day in which the poem doesn’t seem to want to piece itself together, you’ll have your stomach in a twist and may wish to pack it all in. Don’t wring yourself like a towel for the fun of it. Be patient, and focus on something else – go for a long walk, listen to music, read other poets. Beware also of euphoria upon completing a poem you’re proud of. The higher the wave, the harder it will hit you against the rock when it crashes down.
4. Finally, it’s important to observe the writing process, but not too much. If you re-revise your poems too often, they will lose meaning, perhaps even to the point where you’ll find yourself moving backwards, having to go through the same cathartic process again.
The sooner I get to the final poem in the series, the sooner I can get back to writing about islands, coastlines, maps and migrations. But I can’t rush it. Hopefully this block won’t last for too long. A week without writing has helped me gain some perspective, but I’m desperate to get back into the thick of it. (There are also translations of the ‘Passport‘ waiting in the wings to be revised, edited and printed, and I hate to keep postponing my collaborations with such wonderful people. But I’ll be in touch soon.)
For readers of Maltese, here’s one of the ‘lighter’ examples from the series I’m working on. (Apologies, no English translation yet.)
Il-ġenn dejjem pass ‘il bogħod, jekk mhux inqas.
Oqgħod attent fejn tirfes, u tgħaġġilx.
Il-moħħ bħal żiemel. Trid titgħallem tirkbu
u tiġbidlu l-ilġiem bla tweġġgħu wisq.
Il-werqa niexfa ċċaqċaq hemm taħt sieqek
mhijiex ruħek. Sempliċement ħarifa.
Il-vojt taħt dan il-pont mhuwiex isejjaħ.
It-tokki min-naħa l-oħra tax-xmara
qed idoqqu għax ħinhom u xejn aktar.
M’hemm l-ebda wiċċ fil-forma ta’ dis-siġra.
In-naffar f’nofs l-għalqa mhux mostru antik.
Il-mitt ċawlun itiru bejn iċ-ċmieni
mhumiex qed isegwuk jew jidħqu bik.
Il-mara għaddejja bil-kelb xejn ma tixbah
lil dik li ħlomtha appik li timbuttak
bl-eleganza kollha minn tarf l-irdum.
Il-kelb riesaq lejk. Turihx li qed tibża’,
ħares ‘l hemm ħa taħbi l-abjad ta’ wiċċek,
titlaqx tiġri għax malajr jilħqek bi snienu
ħa jniżżilhom fi rkopptok u jibgħatlek
dil-penitenza kollha għand ix-xjaten.
Għaddew. Ħu nifs twil. Erħih bil-mod. Ħu ieħor.
Erġa’ erħih. Ħu ieħor. Erħih. U ieħor. U ieħor.
Tgħoddx. Tgħoddx sa tmienja. Tgħoddx l-ittri t’isimha
bħalma kont tagħmel int u tgħumha ‘l ġewwa
fid-dlam ċappa lejn ir-ramla moħbija
fil-bidu tal-Wied. Le. Ibqa’ għaddej. Nifs
wara nifs. Pass wara pass. Ħoss l-ossiġnu
jonfoħlok il-pulmuni bħall-qlugħ bojod
ta’ dgħajsa tmewweġ lejn gżira mitluqa.
Ħoss ir-raded ta’ ġildtek jiġmgħu l-melħ.
Ħoss is-sħaba f’rasek teħfief, tiċċara.
Ħoss l-imnifsejn qed jagħrfu l-ħjiel tax-xagħra.
Ħoss iż-żiemel li issa telaq għal riħu
iħaffef kemm kemm it-trott lejn ix-xamma
ta’ ħarrub frisk li ġejja mill-istalla.
Ħoss ir-riedni jiżolqulek bil-ħlewwa.
Ħoss fil-mixja ħielsa s-serħan mill-għafsa.
Għal tikka. Għal mument. Għal ftit. Għal darba.
4 thoughts on “On poetry as therapy”
Really appreciated this open and honest piece. Thank you Antoine.