Wednesday, 12 September 2007

Writing on white tribbles and Anne Sexton

Over a meal at the Peterloo Festival I discussed with HW and AD the old saying that ‘happiness writes white’.

Despair, misery, grief, anger and depression seem to nurture a far greater number of good poems. Should a poet feel personally content and happy in the present they usually have to delve into a time when they weren’t happy or look outward to situations in the world that are far from happy. It is far harder to get in touch with your 'inner happy' and reflect upon it let alone write about it. Are we somehow superstitious that if we examine our own happiness and put it into words it will disappear or become lessened?

Poets and writers don’t seem to think this of unhappiness, a whiff of a personal trauma or misery and things start getting cross filed into the potential poem pigeon holes, even if the poem may not be written for years. We usually like to be in touch with our inner Nelly-no-friends in the playground, misunderstood teenager, unrequited or inappropriately requited lover, the screamer in the skull…all this begs to be written on, words scratched onto its hard surfaces. Our inner happy on the other hand scurries away screaming and demands to be left alone in its happy fluffy warm and fuzzy state. It is so much easier to write on a hard surface than on a soft fuzzy one, it isn’t so much about the colour as the texture.

Of course our inner unhappy tends to speak in a universal language, it is its own Babel fish for all to understand and when we read of it we can hear echoes of our own unhappiness and that is both seductive and engaging. Happiness however seems more particular and tailored to wrap round the one body it inhabits; unhappy is more of a whore she'll wrap herself round any passing stranger. Anne Sexton was a woman who knew all about depression and plunging naked into the dark pools of mental illness whilst letting us watch her try to keep afloat there in her poems. In the end, of course, she didn't keep afloat and I sometimes feel almost guilty at reading some of her open confessions about that struggle.

She, amongst others, exemplifies so well the way poems can almost articulate the unspeakable, as she describes it in her poem ‘With Mercy for the Greedy’

they are the tongue’s wrangle,
the world’s pottage, the rat’s star.

Of course I would rather be deeply happy than unhappy, which might be a statement of the obvious and some may feel that the current state of the world demands we reserve a certain part of ourselves for unhappiness/anger/despair. Having written about our inner fuzzy happy world I keep thinking of the early Startrek episode ‘ The trouble with tribbles’ happy purring soothing creatures that seem to grow exponentially and threaten to take over The Starship Enterprise. Perhaps this episode was a metaphor about the trouble with happiness; it can grow, make you complacent and eventually clog your engines.

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