‘And suddenly it’s love, no matter who
I’m writing to. It used to be warm wishes,
kind regards or yours sincerely. Now
it’s lots of love to all with rows of kisses.
What’s going on? I only have to watch the news
to find I’m helplessly adoring half the world.
O holy humankind, I’m weak with gratitude.
I’m loose like laundry off the line and if I could
I’d hug the postman and the street sweeper,
I’d weep into the stiff neck of the woman
at the checkout, I’d smooch the doctor
and the nurse before I knew what I was doing.
O flamboyant faith, O trusting soul,
I am prostrate before you; keep me whole.
Joining the dots
Jacqueline Saphra is a T S Eliot prize shortlisted poet. To keep poetically limber during lockdown, she has challenged herself to write a sonnet a day. This one was liked, loved and shared widely from her Facebook page, because it taps, so eloquently and movingly, into how we were all feeling.
On BBC Radio 3’s The Verb, last Friday night, she told Ian McMillan how the discipline of sonnet writing, with its mathematical constraints, was helping to keep her sane. She talked about the sonnet’s ability to comfort and connect, ‘to give back to people, so they feel less alone with what they are feeling.’
When I read Jacqueline’s sonnet, I cried. I’d been noticing how, at the supermarket, shoppers were stopping others to ask whether they needed help, how in work emails, colleagues, juggling work, parenting and homeschooling with concerns for loved ones, were asking after each other, being kind. Digital groups were cropping up with offers to help, a register of volunteers assembled in the village. We were all coming out of our front doors on Thursday nights to show our appreciation for those making sacrifices to keep us well and looked after. The barriers were coming down.
I’d noticed too, how, in our separation from one another we were thinking more about connection – coming to a collective realisation about our interdependence on each other, on strangers; the impact of our actions on each other and the natural world.
A friend told me, during a call that, not used to crying, she suddenly found that she was crying at all sorts of things, that even a beautiful piece of music could make her dissolve. When she told me this I remembered the shock that came with new parenthood – the feeling of emotional vulnerability and the realisation, like a switch being thrown, that we were all connected; that everyone had been a baby once.
We are all adapting to a new awareness of our vulnerability. In his book of essays on writing, A Time for New Dreams, the poet Ben Okri says, ‘We concentrate too much on our differences. Poetry returns us to the surprise of our similarities. It brings us back to the obscure sense that we are all members of a far-flung family, sharing feelings both unique to us and oddly universal’ . This was what Jacqueline’s sonnet had done, voiced our connection and vulnerability.
Having a go
We turn to poetry in times of crisis and celebration, because of its ability to reach into the heartwood, to stretch in and pull out the truth. Poetry, with a capital ‘P’, can feel scary, a rarefied art form for an exclusive milieu, but I think that it’s about stopping and noticing, about paying attention. And what is love except for paying attention?
The poet Lemn Sissay says that, ‘Poetry is the voice at the back of my mind… it’s where the truth is.’ Writing poetry can be a comfort. It can help to process what you are feeling or to say the thing that you want or need to say. When I moved away to a new part of the country, I wrote poems to help me find my way. I walked my new neighbourhood. I talked to the people I met, listened to their stories. This act of paying attention grounded me, it told me who and where I was. You might want to write funny poems, or political poems, poems about your relationship with your mum, or the natural world, about climate disaster or love. Try, in the spaces, to stop and listen to what it is that you want to say.
If it would help, try to sit still and look, really look around you, for a few minutes, to connect with where you are. What do you see, hear, smell, taste, feel, touch? Write it down. Think of all the ways that you could say that thing and write those down too. Read it out loud, listen to what you are saying, the way that you are saying it. Does it get close? Could you say it another way? Try not to think too hard though, just connect with your senses and see where you get to.
And don’t worry at this stage what it looks like. If you asked ten different people to describe the same object or feeling you would get ten different answers. Your answer is good enough. When my son was at primary school I volunteered to do a craft activity with his class, a candle holder made out of clay, decorated with coloured glass beads. I prepared it carefully, going through the stages, imagining that we would all end up with something that looked the same. But of course we didn’t. Each child made their own individual interpretation. And they were all beautiful.
Once you have your draft you can return to it, polish it, make it into a gem that shines, but to start off with just get the words down on the page. You could join or set up a group online to give and receive feedback, it’s a great way to make friends and for your work to grow. And if you would like to say your words out loud, come along to Poetry in the Pub at The Lamb Inn, Sandford, when lockdown is lifted and life returns to ‘normal’ (whatever that turns out to be).
We’re in the pub, because pubs belong to everyone, too.
Huge thanks to the wonderful Jacqueline Saphra for permission to reproduce her work here. Hear her read a selection of her sonnets on BBC Radio 3’s The Verb (Friday 2nd May 2020)
Ysella Sims is a writer from Exeter. She co-hosts a monthly Poetry/Spoken Word Open Mic Poetic Licence:Poetry in the Pub and writes a blog called Roots and Redsand. Listen to the latest episode, Small Offerings, on new community radio station Crediton Radio.
A Time for New Dreams, Ben Okri: Ebony Publishing, London, 2011