Therapeutic Poetry: Connecting with Words

Therapeutic Poetry: Connecting with Words

Poetry: often regarded as the domain of lofty, high-brows: difficult to understand, and even more difficult to write. In its traditional sense, it almost could be argued that poetry has lost its flare, its ability to connect. When I say traditional, I mean rhyming couplets, clear stanzas, sonnets, etc. Stuff dead people write. My response would be that that is absolute nonsense.

Poetry today is dominated by slam poetry. The outcries of the young and the broken, the abused. The neglected. Simply, those who want to be heard. Poets loudly project their stories, and through public events and the power of the internet, people everywhere can listen and appreciate. Now I mention slam poetry not because there is anything wrong with it, in fact one might say that it is the next step in the evolution of poetry.

It has become popular, and it is meant to be heard by many. Some people benefit much from it. But its purpose is to excite–it can be chaotic in its ferocity and passion.

I am not arguing for a step-back in poetic technique, but I do think that some of us could benefit from experimenting with closed form poetry–as a sort of therapeutic device. An almost zen-like state can be achieved through simple, closed poetry.

The Haiku

matsuo-bashoOnce again, I know what your probably thinking: in the first sentence you mentioned that poetry is “difficult to understand” and “difficult to write.” Poetry, in many forms is actually quite simple, at least in a basic sense. And what I am trying to push is not brilliant poetry for the masses, but private, calming poetry. Sort of like knitting or cross stitch. A mix of accomplishment as well as focus and harmony.

Consider this haiku by Matsuo Basho:

Spring going–

birds crying and tears

in the eyes of the fish

This poem comes from Basho’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, in which he wrote based on his travels through Japan. It might be a tad intimating at first, considering that Basho is considered to be a master of the haiku, but the haiku is one of the most accessible forms of poetry.

A common technique is the first and last lines consist of five syllables, while the middle line consists of seven syllables. Anyone can do it. Many haikus have nature themes, but the syllables are variable. For example, Jack Kerouac wrote hundreds of “American haikus,” which rarely ever followed the rule. Take this one for instance:

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Glow worm

sleeping on this flower–

your light’s on.

Simplicity. That’s the emphasis in these poems. They allow you to simple process the world around you, and document your experience. Poems like this allow one to condense the complexities of life into a few short lines. And I mentioned before, it can be extremely calming.

The Sonnet

Moving towards more complex poetry, one might look at the sonnet–popularized by none other than William Shakespeare. Again, sounds intimidating, but it’s not. A few more rules are required than in a haiku, and it takes more time, but it can be quite a rewarding process.

There are two main types of sonnets: the Shakespearean, consisting of three, four line stanzas, followed by a couplet (two lines), and the Italian, which is broken into two parts, an octave (the first eight lines) and a sestet (the last six lines). Additionally, both types of sonnets follow specific rhyme schemes.

The Shakespearean: william-shakespeare-portrait11

a b a b

c d c d

e f e f

g g

The Italian:

a b b a a b b a

c d c d c d

Okay. Maybe it’s a tad more complicated than a haiku, but that’s besides the point. Once you get going, the sonnet can provide a frame for your life experience. A meticulous mosaic, simplifying the complicated and providing closer. Sometimes, the best thing for someone is a bit of restriction, some rules to provide organization for the chaos that can be life. The sonnet provides that. For example, here is Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 73”

That time of year thou may’st in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day,
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by-and-by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
   This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
   To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

In Conclusion…

Poetry allows for people of all ages to connect with the world around them, and more tradition forms like the haiku and the sonnet allow them to do it simply and privately. It can be a modest form of expression and analysis, and can be done on a personal level.

Poetry can be found in all things. Anything and everything can be poetry if the effort is put in–if the author has purpose. I argue that poetry can be used as a tool to mend, helping one understand that facets of one’s own life and connect with the nuances of others. A means to serenity and awareness, realization and unity.

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Stop! This is the Empire of the Dead

Stop! This is the Empire of the Dead

Six million people beneath your feet. Meticulously arranged and organized. Hundreds and hundreds of years of history. The Paris Catacombs are famous for being one of the most ominous and interesting sites below the city’s streets. I recently had the pleasure of visiting the Catacombs and experiencing its allure, and I found myself curious about the nuances of the former mining tunnels.

Into the Past

The Catacombs of Paris came out of necessity. The Les Innocents cemetery was rancid and overflowing. The cemetery, which since the mid-12th century had been Paris’s primary burial site, was a home to remains dating back hundreds of years. To account for all the city’s dead, the church began to place the bones of the deceased within the cemetery walls. Galleries, they were called. It became a mass grave.

Things became complicated when the basement of the church began to collapse under the weight of the cemetery. This was in the late 18th century. Consider the amount of bodies that must have been amassed by then, as burials with the Les Innocents cemetery did not stop despite the overwhelming conditions. Mines and other subterranean areas within the city were put up for consideration as the situation became more and more desperate.

FullSizeRender(1).jpgThus began the moving of millions of bones into tunnels beneath the surface of the city. The transfer took two years. The cemetery at Les Innocents was not the only burial ground emptied, it was only the largest and most problematic. Bones from at least five cemeteries were exhumed and moved.

The Catacombs Today

When you walk through the Catacombs of Paris, you are experiencing the bones of revolutionaries and soldiers. The bones of the elite, of the peasants and workers. The bones of the sick and the bones of the deprived. All of them together, connected. Where else might you see such a gathering? A true city, and community, of the dead.

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The arrangement of bones is fascinating. In the early 19th century, an effort was headed by the Paris Mine Inspection Service to transform the catacombs from a mere collection of the deceased into a mausoleum of sorts. Walls of femurs and skulls were constructed to contain the bones. Various patterns were used to compliment the dead. Traditional cemetery trappings were added to various sections of the tunnels, too: these included arches and inscriptions, as well as displays and memorials. It is truly a wonder seeing bones transformed into such beauty.

Since its renovation, the Catacombs have been open to the public. People have been witnessing the site for nearly two hundred years. Though it has been closed a few times due to vandalism, the Catacombs have endured through revolution, upheaval, and war. Of late, it has become an extremely popular tourist site, with lines stretching far away from its entrance in Montparnasse.

Through My Eyes

My experience in the Catacombs was hair-raising. Never before had I witnessed so much history in one compact space. “Stop! This is the Empire of the FullSizeRender(2).jpgDead” reads the entrance. And an empire it is, truly. There I was, walking through the lives of six million people. The empty eye sockets of skull atop skull staring me down. As an American, I almost felt out of place, like I was interrupting something profound. But there was nothing, only silence. The air in the cavern chilled me to my bones.

The attention to detail is astounding, almost haunting, as one display contained a heart shaped out of skulls, another a small diorama of buildings and other structures. Clever and beautiful, and quite utilitarian. You almost forget that you are underground, that there is an entire city bustling above your head. It almost humbles Paris: not only is it unique above the ground, but below as well. In a very different way, of course. It is quite literally a testament to the depth of such a city.

You may say that there are bones beneath every settlement, below every forest, every plain, every step, wherever you walk, but it’s nothing compared to the feeling of stacks and patterns of visible history: bodies of bones, an empire of the dead.

 

Posthumous Remorse

When you will sleep, O dusky beauty mine,
Beneath a monument fashioned of black marble,
When you will have for bedroom and mansion
Only a rain-swept vault and a hollow grave,

When the slab of stone, oppressing your frightened breast
And your flanks now supple with charming nonchalance,
Will keep your heart from beating, from wishing,
And your feet from running their adventurous course,

The tomb, confidant of my infinite dreams
(For the tomb will always understand the poet)
Through those long nights from which all sleep is banned, will say:

“What does it profit you, imperfect courtesan,
Not to have known why the dead weep?”
— And like remorse the worm will gnaw your skin.

 -Charles Baudelaire (translated by William Aggeler)