poems for my friends
I was recently at Wilderness Festival, held in the beautiful Cornbury Park, Oxfordshire. Apart from the blazing guitars of Rodrigo y Gabriela, an insane production of La Haine with live soundtrack by the Asian Dub Foundation, gentle games of croquet to work off the whisky, rowing boats and pond swimming, late night parties and delightful woodland wanderings, one of the best things about this festival were the talks that were given, hosted by the Idler Academy and Secret Forum.
I particularly enjoyed a talk from regular Guardian columnist, Oliver Burkeman, who spoke of the benefits of a little negative thinking. As Burkeman argues, we live in a society that encourages us to focus on the good, which emphasises the power of positive thinking as a medium for change, and which rather frowns upon dwelling on the negative. In fact, he argues, positive thinking is not quite as useful as the self help gurus make out: not only can it actually make us feel worse about ourselves (Burkeman referred to the particular self-help technique of telling yourself, for example, I am a loveable person, which, if you’re already suffering with low self esteem, seems more likely to foster doubt about this than to reassure you), it can limit our capacity to confront the issues that are making ourselves feel bad in the first place, therefore essentially stopping us from getting on and making the changes that might improve our situation.
Instead of trying to make the best of a situation, Burkeman argues, we ought to look at it clearly. Considering the worst-case scenario instead of the best-case is a) less likely to induce complacency in us, therefore more likely to make us work a little harder to avoid ending up in that scenario, and b) probably show us that the worst-case scenario isn’t necessarily as bad as all that. What we fear the most often turns out to be a whole lot less frightening when faced – which brings us to…
I actually talk and think about death quite a lot. But in most western society I think I’m right to say that it’s something we are not encouraged to think about, and we don’t tend to talk about it so much. Death is one of our great unfaced and faceless terrors to be avoided and ignored as far as possible. Yet not every culture has this relationship with death. In Mexico the Day of the Dead holiday in November is a celebration of death with the great and gruesome costumes you’re likely familiar with; it is a time to remember the deceased and indeed to reflect upon mortality. One of the traditions of the Day of the Dead that Oliver Burkeman mentioned was the writing of poems addressed to friends and loved ones, suggesting how they might die. Naturally this seemed like an excellent idea to me and my equally gruesome friends, Sam and Rose, who came to the festival with me.
Later on we went to a workshop given by the poet, Clare Pollard, entitled ‘How To Write a Poem’. This was a really lovely talk which left me inspired, so later that day I began to write a poem for Rose. I’ve said before that poetry is not something I’m terribly comfortable with. I enjoy using metaphor, simile, alliteration &c. but counting syllables and sticking to a meter is something I’ll never have the patience for, and will, therefore, probably never make a good poet. Writing poems imagining the horrible ways in which my friends might die, was, however, a lot of fun and I think that if you have any poetic/morbid inclinations you should definitely try it too. So in order to encourage you, I’m presenting my own attempts collectively titled, This Is How You’re Going to Die. Rose and Sam, I hope you like them!
This is how you’re going to die,
Rose, the pale lady,
You’ll ride the pale horse
That turns your blood to rubies
That burst your china flesh
In boils and buboes.
Then your golden body full of guts
Will decompose alive
‘Til what remains
Is but porcelain
Bones to be buried
This is how you’re going to die,
Sam, the rumpled cat,
Stalked in shadows
By a surly crook
Who cared not for your Wit.
With a silver claw
He tore your throat
And the laughter gurgled out.
If you do write your own I’d very much like to know, and invite you to post them in the comment section below. Happy writing!
Oliver Burkeman on The Guardian and, if I’ve sufficiently persuaded you of the power of negative thinking, you might be interested to have a look at his book: The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking
Clare Pollard’s blog
The Idler Academy