Odd as it might sound, often the most comforting poetry is the darkest.
I know this from personal experience, as a mental health advocate who has been running Healing Words workshops in prisons and for mental health charities for five years now.
I set up the workshops as I myself had found poetry helpful during two severe depressive episodes when I was in my thirties. During the workshops, I explain and share poems which help us to understand and allow our feelings, whether despairing or joyful, and to feel we have a poem to keep us company. Therapists are rarely available at three in the morning.
I organise my selections according to the ‘season’ in which they more or less ‘belong’: we all have seasons of our minds, from the wintry and dark, to the more spring-like and hopeful.
And surprisingly, perhaps, my first Winter session is often the most popular among attendees.
Why might this be so? Well, first there may be relief in realising that others have been desperate too.
Take the story recounted by Eileen Simpson, who was married to the famous American poet John Berryman. Eileen remembers a time when another poet, Galway Kinnell, met a woman who carried around a copy of Berryman’s poem He Resigns in her handbag (described by the American Kinnell as her ‘purse’).
Berryman’s poem is dark indeed, and is one I include in the Winter section of my new book about the therapeutic power of poetry You’ll Never Walk Alone.
It ends with the lines:
I don’t think I will sing
any more just now; ever.
I must start
to sit with a blind brow
above an empty heart.
Berryman pares his vocabulary down bleakly to the bone, just as he himself has been pared down. He is hollowed out with nothing linguistic to offer, just as he has nothing emotional to offer, other than sitting with a ‘blind brow’, blind here meaning lacking perception, and judgement. His normally extremely (and scholarly) active and reliable equipment has let him down and is no longer working.
The word ‘ever’ seizes our attention in the last verse, after the unnerving and only semicolon in the poem makes it sit alone at the start of the line, with nothing to distract us from its finality. We are suspended in the purest state of loss: a purity that, in a paradox, lends a richness and beauty to Berryman’s nihilistic vision. He allows us to be open to our own pain.
On being asked why she would carry around such a desolate poem, the woman explained that she had discovered it when on the brink of suicide and finding someone else who had felt the same emptiness as she had brought her such comfort as to save her life.
This anecdote comes from the preface of the 1990 edition of Poets in their Youth by Eileen Simpson, and confirms that dark poems can be powerful because they reassure us that we are not alone in the darkness.
The difficulties that we face are not new. They have echoed through the generations and across the globe. We are, temporarily, part of a community that has suffered, and beneficiary of a kinship that transcends the limits of time and place. There’s something comforting in that.
A second reason that dark poems may paradoxically cheer us is that they allow our own darkest feelings to find expression, and thereby some sense of ease. We can feel into our own darkness, which counterintuitively relieves it.
Dark poems give us the words when we cannot find them: It may be impossible to beat the descriptive language of some of our greatest writers. They provide the most astonishing written record of the reality of suffering.
I remember this feeling when I came across Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem No Worst, There is None. He evokes the unending, unrelenting nature of despair with the unforgettable image of a mind having mountains — cliffs from which we fall.
O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed.
Hold them cheap May who ne’er hung there.
Repeating the word ‘mind’ in a grammatically odd way makes the phrase more striking still. The terrible twist is that we never reach the bottom. I remember that same feeling of falling when I was depressed.
Our hearts go out to Hopkins even more when we realise that he wrote the poem in the 1880s, while experiencing severe depression himself. By sharing his experience, and giving us words for what he was feeling, he throws a lifeline out at sea: his images give us something to hold on to.
And I think there is a third reason that dark and sad poems comfort us.
These writers have succeeded in expressing their experience of sadness with such extraordinary skill. However bleak that time was, and unwell they were, they found the courage and imagination to record their ordeals.
To me, these acts of creation feel like symbols of hope and a triumph of the human spirit over any anguish.
And I think the fourth and final reason that these texts can help our mental health is that they can be useful on a practical level, to explain to someone else how you are feeling. Returning to the Hopkins poem: It is one that allows someone who has not known despair –
‘hold them cheap /
May who ne’er hung there’ –
to feel something of that descent into dizzying horror. I remember when I was ill myself sometimes my husband would share a poem with someone to explain how I was feeling, rather than explain himself. “The poets expressed things better than I could,” he remembers, “and it saved time when I needed my resources for looking after you.”
So while at first it might seem odd, poems that express sadness unexpectedly can comfort us, by making us feel less alone, giving us words for our suffering, allowing us to appreciate astonishing creativity, and giving us a way to share our feelings with others.
Accept their gift, then and let dark words nurture you in unexpected ways.
Rachel Kelly’s You’ll Never Walk Alone: Poems for Life’s Ups and Downs is published by Yellow Kite.