In advance of the forthcoming Psychoanalytic Poetry Festival at the Freud Museum in London, later this month, here are ten poems which mark significant moments and life-stages.

Jacques Lacan suggested that poetry was a supremely efficient coping mechanism, containing our fears and anxieties and traumas in a few carefully-chosen words. No one can deny that the poet is an exquisite craftsman. Sometimes the meaning is manifest, sometimes it remains a mystery. Sometimes it is inexplicable even to the poet himself or herself!

But it is always seductive, memorable and powerfully affecting. So we mark the special occasions and rituals of our life by poetry, and by its instrumental sister, music-making. They are the memory-catchers, the trauma-containers: we are the better for them, somehow. We cope better by borrowing the poet’s phrase, by reciting a stanza or two in careful modulation.

Ten poems, ten punctuations, some old, some more modern, all relevant to today. I’ve linked where I could to a rendition of each poem so that you may have a full-sense appreciation of each one.

  1. John Anderson, by Robbie Burns: Simple, short and disarming this love poem expresses John’s wife’s joy as they grew old together and her prayer that they may be united even in death. I first heard it on the radio, coming home from the clinic. Its beauty affected me so deeply that I pulled over to listen to Eddi’s subsequent singing of it. Like many of Burns’ poems, this has become a song, so I am linking to Eddi Reader singing this poem to a beautiful melody.
  2. Your children are not your Children, Kahlil Gibran: Gibran’s master-work, “The Prophet” has verses addressing various critical life-events including an excellent verse on marriage. This poem on children, addressed to parents, is a reminder of the existential bargain which parents make in conceiving their offspring, a gift of life but with no guarantee of anything in return. ‘They are the fruit of life’s longing for itself’ – not a Mini-Mex or a Mini-You but little individuals with destinies of their own.
  3. The Love-song of J. Alfred Prufrock, T.S. Eliot: who has not been struck by the enigmatic images and phrases of this poem, that ever heard it?

    In the room the women come and go, talking of Michelangelo.

    I should have been a pair of ragged claws, scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

    I have measured out my life in coffee spoons.

    I grow old.. I grow old. I shall wear the boottoms of my trousers rolled.

    It is one of the few surviving beloved fragments of my Leaving Cert English class. I didn’t fully understand it then and I don’t pretend to understand it now. But yet somehow it resonates with me and gives me pleasure.

  4. On Raglan Road, Patrick Kavanagh: the often disgruntled poet is here disconsolate for love of a woman who broke his heart on the eponymous Raglan Road. These words paint a tender picture of a love ventured and lost but yet nonetheless a love that endures in these lyrics. Click on the link to hear the definitive musical version sung by Luke Kelly, famous artist of the sung word.
  5. Covenant, Tennessee Williams: This is a tale of compromised affections, a love that bargains with Fate, against fear, against the inevitable demons that beset every couple venturing into a commitment to each other. Everyone hopes for a happy ending, while crossing their fingers and saying “I do” with ‘desperate calm’. I have no link, so instead here are the words:

    If you are happy, I will give you an apple,
    if you are anxious, I will twist your arm,
    and if you permit me, I will be glad to hold you
    close to my heart forever and do you no harm.
    If I am happy, will you give me an apple?
    If I am anxious, you may twist my arm.
    And if you would like me to, I would like you to hold me
    close to your heart forever and do me no harm.
    This is a bargain, only two can make it.
    This is a covenant offered with desperate calm,
    It being uncertain that lovers can drive out demons
    with the gift of an apple or the twist of an arm.

  6. The Statue of the Virgin at Granard Speaks, Paula Meehan: I was happily surprised to discover that this is on the current Leaving Certificate syllabus. The tragic death of this 15-year-old child and her infant divided popular opinion at the time; it has subsequently divided Irish political history. A generation grew up believing this could not be allowed to happen again, that girls and women, mothers and children must be protected and respected. The vehemence of that political movement can be heard in the rawness of its images, in the dissonant abruptness of its punctuation. This is a link to a seminar early this year, to mark the 30th anniversary of Anne’s death; at its end, at 2.00.00, there is a reading of the poem.
  7. Shylock’s Monologue, Shakespeare: Another Leaving Cert fragment that has stuck in my mind even all these years later. The masterful elocution of Al Pacino delivers the lines perfectly while still conveying their rage and fury. Reflecting upon the anguish in these words, “Hath not a – “ we may substitute various stigmatising labels, be they signifiers of race, religion, gender, mental health diagnosis or whatever. Whatever label we choose, Shylock’s words and feelings remain as relevant to contemporary social interaction as when the Bard first wrote them.
  8. Three Women, Sylvia Plath: Irish poet and artist Christine Murray introduced me to this poem recently. Plath has drawn upon her own traumatic experiences of pregnancy, miscariage and birth to voice these parts. Each part is singularly personal, articulating a different experience of pain: loss, separation and rejection. It is a supremely poignant poem.
  9. ‘Athair (Father)’, Nuala Nic Dhomhnaill: This poet’s poems take my breath away. Their sensuousness and earthiness and their Irish-ness resonates with me, as an Irish woman. I was an idiot and at first I disliked this woman’s personality and so came late to her poems. I read them now to calm myself, though they deal often with themes of pain and loss and betrayal. This is her poem about fathers and the father-myth we all struggle to connect with throughout our lives.
  10. ‘Digging’, Seamus Heaney: This is a tribute to his father and the generations gone past. It’s about history and belonging, about values passed on from father to son. A young man explained it to me, his tone matter-of-fact, understanding and appreciating the symbolism, loving the craftmanship that had gone into it. It is a supreme effort of mourning, anguished and yet celebratory.

These are the ten poems I chose. Which poems would you choose, and why?

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