The healing power of poetry
Poetry has been a lifeline for me. ‘Flower Press’ is an elegiac collection, written through a cloud of regret and grief
Alice Kinsella: Writing these poems became a way for me to simultaneously remember and let go
Poetry has been a lifeline for me for a long time. I started writing poetry regularly when I was about 19 and recovering from a period of severe clinical depression. There was very little structure to my writing process, and I didn’t really plan to do anything with the poems. In those days, I aimed mostly to just keep going. Poetry developed as a part of my life that kept me balanced. There was something about putting the words down on the page that lessened the burden, like I was taking those feelings, those experiences, out of me, and giving myself space away from them.
My first book, Flower Press, is a collection that explores the growth of love in childhood, the loss of innocence, and the fallout of that loss. It’s an elegiac collection, written through a cloud of regret and grief. It’s not a book I intended to write. I was working on a very different collection of poetry when I received the news of the death of someone I hadn’t seen in a long time, someone with whom I used to be very close. Suddenly I was left with incredibly complicated feelings of guilt and grief. It felt like a story I’d long told myself was unravelling. I became completely consumed by these emotions and thoughts, questioning how they related to both my memories of childhood, and my entire adult psyche. This monomania forced its way into every poem I wrote. I gave in and allowed myself to write the poems in Flower Press.
Poets have used their work to mourn and lament their dead for many centuries. The elegy as a poetic form has its origins in classical Greek literature. I first encountered elegiac poetry in school, studying Wordsworth for the Leaving Cert. I was completely bewitched by his Lucy poems, a series of five poems in which the poet laments a young girl who has died. Something about them always stayed with me, the tragic interminable sense of longing.
A perhaps more morbid strain of the elegy exists in Irish and English folklore, in which many songs and poems feature a mourner who waits by the grave of their dead, or is haunted by those they love. This can be seen in I Am Stretched on Your Grave; The Unquiet Grave; and Sweet William’s Ghost, to name but a few.
The ‘haunting’ in these pieces does not have to be taken literally. It could be read as a metaphor for something else, something we find impossible to let go. When someone dies, we almost always find ourselves wishing we’d said something to them – expressed more love, forgiven more readily, apologised for our wrongdoings. We’re left with something unfinished. In popular culture, ghosts return to their living because they have unfinished business. But the dead do not have unfinished business, maybe it’s the living trying to solve the question of grief.
While the presence of the supernatural is no longer common in poetry today, the tradition of the elegy is still strong. The most recent collections of Denise Riley, Emily Berry, Victoria Kennefick and Katie Donovan, among others, explore grief with incredible delicacy. While editing Flower Press I was drawn to such collections, to feel within them the echoes in poetry of my own experience with death. Poetry, after all these centuries, is still a place where people can turn with their grief. Why is that?
I’ve always been attracted to the kind of intimate poetry in which the poet bares their soul to the reader. Even within incredibly confessional poems that reveal their innermost feelings, poets are always present, in order that they can control what they offer. However, readers want to feel the echoes of themselves in a poem, and the poet must leave room for that. When writing Flower Press I needed to use that control to let the reader in. By taking that step back to let the reader in, I was able to put the poems into a kind of narrative structure that gave me solace. It was like taking a story that lived inside of me, an unsolvable story with only beginning and middle, and giving it an end.
Writing these poems became a way for me to simultaneously remember and let go. I could honour the past while giving myself permission to heal
I am not, nor have I ever been, a religious person. The comfort of heaven was not a part of my childhood. This shaped a particular attitude to death that seemed relatively rare in Catholic Ireland. Perhaps this was why I relied so heavily on poetry to process my emotions around death. I needed an outlet, I needed someone to listen, even if at the start that listener was just an empty page. Writing poetry about, or to, someone who has passed is not unlike praying. While I personally have no spiritual faith, I believe it’s incredibly cathartic to say the words you didn’t get the chance to in life.
The poet in this book, this version of myself, goes on the age-old journey of grief. The poems explore all those stages: the denial, the anger, the bargaining, and in a way, the acceptance. Writing these poems became a way for me to simultaneously remember and let go. I could honour the past while giving myself permission to heal. Perhaps it’s the same for many poets who write after a loss. Writing allows us to feel the consolation of memory, without feeling haunted.
The person I am now is not the person in this book, precisely because I wrote the book. Poetry became the only way in which I could make sense of my thoughts and feelings. By turning real life into the story I couldn’t stop telling myself, I was able to slowly begin to move forward. Perhaps reading it will help others let go, by learning how to keep the memories close without letting them pull you back?
You left pieces of yourself behind
when you tried to erase yourself.
Maybe you thought that your life
would dissolve like salt in water,
leaving only the faintest taste.
But I can still find
the smell of sweet sweat in turf smoke,
the iris of your eyes in your mother’s tears,
your child’s curiosity in church choirs.
You may not remember this world anymore
but it remembers you.
Flower Press (The Onslaught Press, 2018) will be launched in Books Upstairs by Kerrie O’ Brien on February 22nd at 6.30pm