The dragon's breath: approaching death through poetry
Poetry helps us approach death because it tells the truth the way a sharp knife cuts. It holds up for our contemplation the bald facts of death (and life) in words and metaphors acidic yet beautiful which smash apart the avoidance of the subject in everyday speech. Poetry is a purification of our words and our desires in other words. This is why I often use it in therapy. My words, and the words of the client before me, sometimes fall short of the cutting truth we sometimes near to hear, or they misrepresent and obscure what it is we're both trying hard to bring into focus. And with death we're trying to bring into awareness nothing - and nothing is what we spend much of our lives turning away from: the end of us, the end of our loved ones, the end of all things. On November 24 2019 the writer and poet Clive James died. His last book - which came out only a few weeks prior to his death - collected together all his writings on the poet Philip Larkin. One of Larkin's most celebrated poems - and certainly one of his best - is 'Aubade'. It was written late in his life, in a life that would become rather infamous for the eventual and complete drying up of poetic inspiration. So there is much that is remarkable about this rather remarkable poem as it effectively came out of nowhere, creatively speaking. For a long time there was silence from Larkin and then the words started to flow out again just as they had done during his fertile years.
These bleak and unflinching lines take us very near the heart of Larkin's well known fear and loathing of death:
This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast, moth-eaten musical bro-
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No ra-
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not see-
That this is what we fear - no sight,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none
come round ...
And yet, in spite of my admiration for naming what many of us feel about death, I don't often give it to clients to read and consider. Why? Because it's got little hope or redemption in it - not so much about an afterlife, but properly this-worldly hopes that our dying might actually be good and not just a horrid prelude to nothingness. And though my need, and the need of many, for some light in the darkness is not (I hope) some sort of 'spiritual bypass' of pain and loss, therapy is, at the end of the day, in the optimistic and life-enhancing business. It is about helping people return to some joy and pleasure in living, in spite of the fact that we all owe nature a death. With Larkin's poem there is very little sense of any desired turning back from the thought of death to life itself. There is something claustrophobic, almost suffocating about the poem; I come away burdened by his words, beautiful and haunting though they are.
An interesting comparison to Larkin's poem is Ellen Bass's 'If You Knew':
What if you knew you’d be the last
to touch someone?
If you were taking tickets, for example,
at the theater, tearing them,
giving back the ragged stubs,
you might take care to touch that palm,
brush your fingertips
along the life line’s crease.
When a man pulls his wheeled suitcase
too slowly through the airport, when
the car in front of me doesn’t signal,
when the clerk at the pharmacy
won’t say Thank you, I don’t remember
they’re going to die.
A friend told me she’d been with her aunt.
They’d just had lunch and the waiter,
a young gay man with plum black eyes,
joked as he served the coffee, kissed
her aunt’s powdered cheek when they left.
Then they walked half a block and her aunt
dropped dead on the sidewalk.
How close does the dragon’s spume
have to come? How wide does the crack
in heaven have to split?
What would people look like
if we could see them as they are,
soaked in honey, stung and swollen,
reckless, pinned against time?
The therapist Irving Yalom has coined a great metaphor for contemplating death: it is like staring at the sun. It feels like it might be something hazardous to our health. But it isn't: we can approach death and our own dying without fearing that we're really doing is plunging ourselves wilfully into the cold, black pools of depression and nihilism.
I'll round things off by coming back to where this blog began - with the death of Clive James. James, himself a poet, is closer in tone, voice and existential commitments to Ellen Bass than Philip Larkin - though James felt the truth and sting of Larkin's poems over and over again in his life. But if anyone ever did who wasn't openly religious, James loved his life with a transcendent passion and he hung on to its glories until the very end (if the media record of his last few years, snuggled warmly amongst his books and his family, is to be trusted). Larkin found the going much harder at the end of his life. Like Bass, James' death poems are really life poems. The following extract is taken from 'Event Horzizon'. It was written when James knew his own life was drawing to its conclusion. It's not hard to spot the echoes of 'Aubade' throughout. But fear doesn't get to dominate this poem the way it does with its inspiration. James ends his poem not with the darkness exultant but with the light. Light we're just damn lucky to have seen at all.
Into the singularity we fly
After a stretch of time in which we leave
Our lives behind yet know that we will die
At any moment now. A pause to grieve,
Burned by the starlight of our lives laid
And then no sound, no sight, no thought.
What is it worth, then, this insane last
When everything about you goes down-
This much: you get to see the cosmos
And feel its grandeur, even against your
As it reminds you, just by being there,
That it is here we live or else nowhere.