A family recipe, a childhood memory, a Depression-era handout
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When we talk about poetry, my psychologist rests his elbow on the window ledge just to the right of his chair, then rests the side of his head in his hand. I look at him — black beard speckled with white, black hair pulled back in a ponytail, black shirt, black tie, black trousers, black socks, polished black shoes — and think he looks perfect in this position. Sometimes his shirt and tie are dark blue. I wish I could figure out how to write a poem about him sitting like this.
When we talk about poetry, my psychologist, The Lovely Harry, will lean forward, legs spread apart, hands held together, his diary on the floor near his chair. This is his favorite position if we’re talking about what writing poetry is like. Well, less us talking about it and more me talking about how it is for me. I can see his brain tucking all this away, trying to understand it, wanting to see how it grows.
I ’m a bad poet. I mean, I have a decent-enough list of literary-journal publications, and (before the pandemic) I left New Zealand for a month-long writing residency in Vermont. But, still, I’m a bad poet. Bad in that I don’t love every poem that I read — or even most poems that I read — because I don’t understand them. Poets aren’t meant to say that. For years I’d say, “I hate poetry,” and mean it, when really I just didn’t like any of the poems I was reading. I still often sit there, lost, while others rave about a particular poem. I tell people that I’m a simple reader, that I’m not interested in decoding poems or untangling them like an algebra problem. Tempt me into a poem, and I’ll reread it over and over, finding new things each time. But the ones that make me feel shut off from the poem, from the poet, I don’t get. I don’t have the energy or interest to figure them out.
Reading poetry often makes me feel stupid. It’s so alien to what I write that I think I can’t possibly be a poet.
It started during my second session with The Lovely Harry. We were discussing the rather spectacularly poor job my parents had done at parenting me when I asked Harry if he knew Philip Larkin’s poem “This Be the Verse.” You might have read it: They fuck you up, your mum and dad. / They may not mean to, but they do. / They fill you with the faults they had / And add some extra, just for you. The Lovely Harry replied, “Of course. It’s a wonderful poem.” He thought it should be mandatory for all psychologists to know this poem, to understand it, to see it as more than words on the page. I wanted to hug him for this — or, at least, give him a high five, which is possibly more acceptable in terms of psychologist-patient interactions.
The psychologist I’d seen the previous year hadn’t known “This Be the Verse,” and after I sent it to her, she said it seemed a very negative outlook on life, and anyone who liked the poem, well . . . She left a long, judgmental pause. I thought, Yes, but sometimes a negative outlook is actually a reasonable response to a situation.
But The Lovely Harry knew the poem. The Lovely Harry even told me about a documentary he’d seen on Larkin. (Inside my head: Holy shit, he watches documentaries about poets?) He said Larkin seemed like a man who was somewhat afraid of life; what did I think of that? Did I think I’m perhaps a bit like Larkin in that way? Harry said I brought to mind Larkin’s poem “Love, We Must Part Now,” which I didn’t know, so I went home and immediately looked it up: There is regret. Always, there is regret. And I thought, Oh, yeah, there’s a bit of me in that, and I cried.
At the end of our weekly sessions, as I’m about to walk out the door, I hand The Lovely Harry a manila envelope of poems I’ve written that week. Some weeks it’s a thin envelope; other weeks the pages inside push against the seams with their folded energy. On the outside, in my black Ergoline 0.6-tip pen, I write, “Harry,” and underscore his name with a gently curved line. I sometimes question why I do this — we both know who it’s for. Maybe I do it in case the envelope somehow falls out of my bag and gets picked up by some random person walking the corridor of Community Mental Health Services. Whoever they might be, I doubt they’d appreciate my poetry.
For nearly two years now I’ve been giving The Lovely Harry my poems. He may or may not comment on them the following week, depending on whether we get distracted by other things. But I don’t give them to him so that he can comment. I do it so that . . . I don’t know. So that someone will read them, I suppose. So that I won’t disappear. Because I don’t have any writer friends — or friends, period — so I’ve got no one else to talk with about words. Because this is what he and I do: we sit in a room and connect, and then I sneakily send him home with little pieces of me on paper, and we secretly connect a little more.
“I think you might want to read some Stevie Smith,” The Lovely Harry told me one day. “I don’t think you’ll like the rhyming, but she wrote about dark things, like you do. Yes, yes, you should read her.” I went home and read “Not Waving but Drowning.” I read “Deeply Morbid”: It was that look within her eye / Why did it always seem to say goodbye?
When we talk about poetry, The Lovely Harry will press his back more into the right side of his chair and close his eyes, his legs stretched out long and crossed at the ankles. With one of his arms he’ll hug himself. Sometimes, when his left leg hurts, he’ll press his hand against his thigh while we talk. This room where we meet feels more like a junk room than a proper therapist’s office — a forgotten paper shredder in the corner, two fans that are never plugged in. Behind Harry is a bookshelf with no books, but on the top shelf are a toy train and a pink teddy bear and a blue teddy bear. There’s a mess of conference-room chairs pushed against the walls or circling a formica coffee table. A whiteboard wears the shadows of previous staff meetings. The big windows look out onto the hospital-staff car park.
Once he giggled softly and said, “That poem of yours just had a lot more penises than I’d expected it would. It makes my Irish Catholic upbringing have a bit of a struggle within itself.” We both laughed at his former Irish Catholicness and how many penises I’d put into the poem.
Sometimes he’ll rock back and forth in his chair as he laughs, slapping his thigh so hard I worry he might hurt himself. When a journal editor rejected my work, telling me that what I write isn’t poetry, Harry could barely breathe for laughing: “But you see why I’m laughing, don’t you, Paula? You’re getting to them! You’re getting under their skin! You’re almost there!”
Random things I know about Harry: In university he protested fox hunts. He’s a vegetarian. He thinks I should lead the revolution, because I don’t fit in anywhere and therefore I’m the sane one. He’s married. He’s asexual. He thinks a psychologist’s notes should be, at most, penciled into their diary, and their diary should be destroyed when they die. He likes listening to blues.
From reading my poems, Harry knows that I was raped when I was twenty-one. After he read my poem about a sexual incident when I was fourteen — a poem I’d written purely to get down my feelings of being dirty and perverted — he commented on how my uncle had been grooming me, gaining my trust so I would give him what he wanted.
Yes, grooming, possibly without awareness, but grooming.
I went home and reread the poem and saw what I hadn’t before: a beginner’s guide to being groomed. All my feelings of guilt and perversion lifted. I felt light and free. The poem didn’t free me, but Harry’s observation did.
Once, in the envelope of poems I gave Harry, there was one that briefly mentioned my plan to kill myself. Well, not my plan, but my intention. This wasn’t news to him — it’s part of my diagnosis, after all — but I spent all week overwhelmed by the thought of my stupidity: Here I was, handing my therapist evidence of my insanity. He could just turn over every single poem to a psychiatrist with a knowing look, and I’d be back in the psych ward again.
At our next session he started out by saying quietly: “You seem very anxious today, Paula. It’s radiating off you.”
I could barely speak. I croaked out something about the poem.
“Ahhh,” Harry said in his soft Northern Irish voice. “You’re afraid I’ll use it to get you put back on the ward.” His voice got a little fierce. “Oh, Paula. I never would. Your poems are a gift, a personal gift you give to me, and they’re art. And it would be so hurtful to give any artist back a work that they had gifted you, let alone use it against them in such a painful way. No one should ever do that to an artist.”
I keep giving him poems. Even the ones that mention suicide. Even the ones that are only about suicide.
When we talk about poetry, The Lovely Harry will light up, and he’ll rock back and forth, and he’ll look at the ceiling while he tries to remember some lines or a slippery title or a detail about a poet’s life. His tastes run more classical than mine. Yeats is a favorite. He suggested I read the eighth section of Yeats’s “A Woman Young and Old” (“Her Vision in the Wood”), because he thought I might get something from it, but he also broke down the language for me because he realized, quite rightly, I wouldn’t understand it without some explanation. He knows I’m not a complicated-poetry reader. But I read the Yeats with his explanation in mind, and, yes, it’s quite a stunning read. It would’ve been lost on me otherwise.
This week we talked about the reasons why people have children, and Harry suggested I might like Larkin’s “Dockery and Son.” He talked about the themes in the poem, the shifts in time.
To be honest, I’m not a massive Larkin fan, possibly due to my not having read much of his work in the past, just bits here and there. I’ve read more of his poems now, because of Harry’s suggestions, but often I wouldn’t get their meaning without Harry’s insights to help me. “This Be the Verse,” though, speaks to me so very, very much. It feels like an exhale.
Some days I can’t stand having to see Harry, because he’ll want to talk about my mother and my childhood, or my past relationships, or how I perceive myself, and I don’t have the energy. I don’t see the point, when talking about it won’t change anything; I’ll still be depressed and suicidal and lonely. He’ll say how child abuse is a criminal act, and I’ll think, Sure, sure, whatever. He’ll tell me I could still find a good relationship one day, and I’ll think, That’s never going to happen. In those sessions I’m often quiet and find it hard to pay attention. I’ll respond with “I don’t know” or “I really don’t give a fuck, Harry.”
Some days I just want to be there for the human interaction, not to have someone try to make me better.
I ended up taking a lover because Harry and Philip Larkin convinced me I could. Harry had encouraged me to find a hobby, so that I could make friends, but I’d resisted. Friends aren’t something I find very reliable. One day Harry mentioned how Larkin had had several lovers, and this was so against the image of Larkin I had in my head that it got my attention. If some tweed-jacket-wearing nerd like him could have several lovers, then surely I could find just one. Harry kept talking about Larkin and his lovers while I sat there wondering whether I could really have a lover one more time. Maybe I could? Maybe someone would find me attractive enough?
When I first started seeing my lover, I told Harry very clearly that I had no desire to be cared about or to care about someone else. “I just want sex,” I told him. A couple of months later Harry commented on the number of poems I was writing about my lover. Internally I braced. “It’s a sign that you care about him, that’s all,” Harry gently lobbed at me.
It’s hard to ignore the truths that my own poems are laying out.
You know those sessions when I’m not interested in whatever it is Harry has in mind to talk about? I can’t even begin to tell you how exhausting they are. At least twice I’ve told Harry that I don’t want to see him anymore: I’m just too worn out. It often takes a few weeks before I feel comfortable sticking around.
“What a bastard I am,” Harry said to me. “Picking your scabs off and then making you look to see what’s there.”
I already pick at those scabs enough by myself; I don’t need his fingernails digging into them as well.
Harry read this essay and asked if I would make one small change. But it was OK with him if I didn’t, he said. It was just that T.S. Eliot means a lot to Harry. So if I could add Eliot in somewhere, he’d really appreciate it.
I’d forgotten about Eliot. I can’t remember which Eliot poem Harry suggested I read, but here you go, Harry. Here’s Eliot for you.
I asked Harry recently, “Do you talk about poetry with all your patients?” Surely he didn’t, I thought. A large chunk of his patients are farmers, and I couldn’t imagine them making a note to go home and read some Wordsworth as their homework. Surely he talked about drenching and crop rotation with them.
Of course he discussed poetry with his other patients, he said. “Not as much or as often as I do with you, but every patient, yes, yes. I’d say pretty much every patient, I’ll mention a poem or two. Poems can say more sometimes than we can talk about.”
Go on, swoon a little. But maybe everyone needs a psychologist who loves poems and will offer poetry as part of their therapy. We all need a Harry.
Early on, when I’d been giving Harry envelopes of poems for only a month or two, he said to me at the end of one session, “I just want you to know, I don’t read your poems here. I wait till I get home. They’re too precious. I don’t want them to be tainted by this place.”
By “this place” he meant Community Mental Health Services.
I blinked so that I wouldn’t cry in front of him, confused that he would protect me and my poems like that.
When we talk about poetry, The Lovely Harry and I should each be reclining on a chaise. Here’s how I picture us: I sip on absinthe while he slowly drinks a whiskey. (In real life The Lovely Harry drinks Diet Pepsi, but if I’m drinking absinthe in this fantasy, then he can handle a whiskey.) We are surrounded by small, artful stacks of books, and we talk about poetry and writing and being human. Butterflies flitter in through the open sash windows; the car park slowly turns into a meadow. His left leg never hurts. My head isn’t broken.
I was gratified to read about Paula Harris’s approach to poetry in her essay “The Lovely Harry, Philip Larkin, and Me” [May 2021]. Those poems she can grasp, she loves, but there are many in vogue these days that she just can’t. Many times I’ve thought of Marianne Moore’s “Poetry,” in which she writes, “When they become so derivative as to become unintelligible, the / same thing may be said for all of us — that we / do not admire what / we cannot understand.”
I have had the exact same experience as Harris, an articulate and compelling writer whose poetry I would love to read in The Sun. It’s a comfort to know I’m not the only one who sometimes can’t appreciate fine art.