Sentinel Poetry (Online) #58 ISSN 1479-425X


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The Poetry in the Pity



Art is invariably therapeutic, whether so intended or not. The story, poetry, painting, pottery and most other art forms are ultimately autobiographical in the sense that art derives from lived experience – and a wish to touch, through creativity,  some inner core, where life springs from; hence the idea of poetry or even ceramics as therapeutic. Lived experience might be traumatic and may lead to psychological conditions capable of unhinging the individual. All art are an outlet for emotional abscess. Of course, here, the emphasis is more on writing.


It is easier and faster to write since the tools needed are, on the one hand subjective, and on the other, simple objects like a pen, paper, almost any rudimentary thing with a scratching tip to make marks with. This is why prisoners who take to dealing with their experience automatically choose writing as the form to express it in. Writing, which some Eurocentric scholars like Popper and Walter Ong, have rightly but exaggeratedly, credited with being the reason for technological advancements, is originally a medium of self-study, introspection, internal dialogue with the psyche, and intrinsically meditative and a form of and for emotional release.


This introspection is a matter of course, since writing is preceded by reading, that is, the reading of our own thoughts before they can take on the permanence of ink or print. As the alphabet displaced orality as a major repository of experience, writing became a more permanent aid to memory according to Walter Ong in “Orality and Literacy”; as such recourse to writing gives release while at the same time records stages in personal psychic development and healing processes, which become examples and an aid to the future reader.  The equanimity derived from writing is reflected in Roger Chartier’s discussion of “the practical impacts of writing” - within an essay of the same title – in the move from the public to the private sphere in England and the USA of the early modern to modern period. He also insinuates the libratory power bestowed by writing – through reading.


As an example it is then understandable that political prisoners, from Antonio Gramsci to Wole Soyinka, Jack Mapanje or Nelson Mandela easily took to writing to empower themselves and also to deal with private rumination, and the dangers of total mental breakdown.  Even career criminals and petty thieves do sometimes take to writing as a process of penance and self-correction and -elevation. Prison is enforced solitude and in this forced removal from the public sphere, there is a double principle at work: the privacy imposed on the individual by the state and the natural meandering of private thoughts, which leads to introspection, and a need to quieten such mental agitations through writing.


Seamus Heaney in The government of the Tongue, describes such an act of introspection, self-dialogue and release in the figure of Jesus writing with a stick in the sand, while being interpellated by the Pharisees and Sadducees, those eternal aggressive insects, forever biting with their spiteful proboscis.  To each of their hostile queries, Jesus the Christ described figures in the sand, with a stick, preoccupied by his ‘writing’ in full meditation before responding. There were subjective mental or inspirational processes at work before he carefully replied his interlocutors from within an inner inspired resolution.


The individual responds to his environment and experiences through writing in differing ways. Ironically, writing as therapy usually achieves its best effect and is most ‘inspired’ when it is unconscious - as in the case of a non-writer in crisis, who end up being a writer as a result of those crises – but not when it is contrived and artificial as in so-called ‘inspirational poetry,’ written as a panacea to all kind of ailments of the mind or weaknesses of character. Moral outrage can be an unconscious well-spring for powerful poetry as we see in the case of Wilfred Owen. He went to battle practically with a pen in one hand and a gun in the other. The professional necessity of killing further complicates, in this case, the poet’s ruminations. The horror of war made a poet out of Owen. In a planned foreword to a future collection he wrote:


“This book is not about heroes. English Poetry is not yet fit to speak of them. Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except war.  Above all I am not concerned with Poetry. My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity. Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory. They may be to the next.  All a poet can do today is warn. That is why true Poets must be truthful.”


In other words his book would contest “The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est /Pro patria mori.” Other individuals, the sensitive child, the outsiders and non-conformist, the oppressed and the ill become writers, through an accidental discovery of the therapeutic activity of writing, while those who are already writers even thrive more from returning to the soothing spaces between words. Enter St. Genet.


Jean Genet’s case is a quintessential example of the liberating power of writing. He was born to a prostitute mother, who gave him up for adoption; and progressing through an adoptive home as a child, a penal colony at fifteen, and an infamous stint with the French Foreign Legion from age eighteen, Genet seemed destined for a life of crime and dissolution.


 He was a prostitute, petty thief and vagrant, revolving through the doors of Parisian Prisons, where he discovered writing or writing discovered him and reached out its therapeutic possibilities. His writings were autobiographies in a literal and literary sense. In Paris he was severally jailed for petty thieving, identity fraud, public indecency and other offences. The privacy of prison resulted in the poem, "Le condamné à mort," and the novel Our lady of Flowers (1944). His life in Europe as a petty thief, homosexual prostitute and vagabond are recorded in The Thief’s Journal (1949).


As an adult even though still in the grip of kleptomania, he rose to become one the foremost French playwrights and leftist activists of the twentieth century, supporting the Algerian independence movement, subscribing to Negritude, according to Aimé Césaire, in his play, The Blacks (1958). His conversion and healing through writing was catalytic after the intervention of leftist Parisian intellectuals like Jean Paul-Sartre, Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, who, in 1949, saved him from the certain life-sentence of a repeat-offender by petitioning the French president. So promising a literary voice had Genet become.


He went on to help define and shape, with Samuel Becket, what has become twentieth century Absurdist Theater. Although his writings borrow from his dark life, it saved him from the gutters. The darkness that would have enveloped him was transferred unto characters in plays and novels. Genet’s life is reminiscent of the words of the character, Cecil Graham, in Oscar Wilde’s, Lady Windermere's Fan, Act iii: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”


Oscar Wilde was another tempestuous individual whose writing saved him. In his own words: “God knows; I won't be an Oxford don anyhow. I'll be a poet, a writer, a dramatist. Somehow or other I'll be famous, and if not famous, I'll be notorious. Or perhaps I'll lead the life of pleasure for a time and then—who knows?—rest and do nothing. What does Plato say is the highest end that man can attain here below? To sit down and contemplate the good. Perhaps that will be the end of me too” (Sheridan Morley, Oscar Wilde 1976, 31).


Writing delivers the individual from private demons in different ways. It helped William Styron battle depression, and the War poets like Siegfried Sassoon live trough the daily dismemberment of friends and foes on the battle field. Poetry has fuelled liberation movements and given succour to the down-trodden. W. H. Auden’s quip that poetry makes nothing happen is merely a pessimistic reflection of a poet in a moment of disillusion. Even the ability for him to make that assertion, write it down and disseminate it in book form, is itself an ironic testimony to the liberating act of self-expression. It is a kind of ‘talking cure’ in this case the ‘writing cure.’




Amatoritsero Ede





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