Jacqueline Saphra on the value of poetry
November 19, 2021
This is an extract from ‘Keep Ithaka Always in Your Mind: On the Journey and the Value of Poetry’ by Jacqueline Saphra which appears in Why I Write Poetry edited by Ian Humphreys (Nine Arches Press). Jacqueline describes the value of poetry and how it provides us with a kind of nourishment.
The value of poetry to the writer does not lie in pure self-expression, but in alchemy: 'There is always something to be made of pain', wrote Louise Glück. Poetry can turn the base metal of experience into the gold of art, weaving something beautiful and medicinal out of grief or rage, creating something lasting out of joy and love so it can be relived, not just by me the poet, but sometimes, if I’m lucky and hit the right spot, by readers too. So many poems besides Cavafy’s 'Ithika' have helped me navigate my life. For example, Charles Causley’s ‘Eden Rock’ and Tony Hoagland’s final collection Priest Turned Therapist Treats Fear of God helped me truly engage with the evanescence of life, Lucille Clifton’s ‘won’t you celebrate with me?’ taught me about the persistence of joy in the face of oppression, and Audre Lorde, Denise Levertov and Marge Piercy’s poems taught me about political activism and solidarity. As Sharon Olds puts it, 'Poets are like steam valves, where the ordinary feelings of ordinary people can escape and be shown.'
I began to imagine myself as walking a parallel path with the person who delivers meals on wheels, providing a different kind of nourishment, performing a service. I sometimes think that the highest praise a poem can receive is that it affirms or recognises the experience of a reader
I’ve never experienced the connection with readers more keenly than when I set myself the task of writing a sonnet a day during the first lockdown of the Covid pandemic. This was a project I devised to keep myself sane the only way I knew how, to give myself some structure in an unstructured time. It was all about the journey: just coming up with those fourteen lines every day was my only objective. In my reports from my study in lockdown London, I was rapidly taking the pulse of the day, often responding to the latest news or headline or charting my internal weather. Occasionally I shared these drafts and I began to receive messages from people who resonated with them. I started to feel the remote but palpable power of a community of readership. There was also the familiar, tensile strength in the compression created by a musical and precise received form like the sonnet: a means of immediate and direct communication. Form is a tried and tested way of engendering 'that / which arrives at the intellect / by way of the heart' as R. S. Thomas put it. While I was working on this this sequence I began to imagine myself as walking a parallel path with the person who delivers meals on wheels, providing a different kind of nourishment, performing a service. I sometimes think that the highest praise a poem can receive is that it affirms or recognises the experience of a reader, although of course it can have many other uses and functions.
Jacqueline Saphra is a poet, playwright and teacher. Recent collections are All My Mad Mothers, shortlisted for the 2017 T.S. Eliot prize and Dad, Remember You are Dead (2019), both from Nine Arches Press. A Bargain with the Light: Poems after Lee Miller (2017) and Veritas: Poems after Artemisia (2020) were published by Hercules Editions. Her most recent play, The Noises was nominated for a Standing Ovation Award. One Hundred Lockdown Sonnets was published by Nine Arches Press in 2021.