Poetry as a Tool for Processing Life

No amount of mindset training will fully prepare you for some of the trials and tribulations life can throw at you. The use of meditation, mindfulness, and various mental programming techniques has set me in good stead for withstanding a variety of mental and physical challenges. It has also helped me to bounce back from setbacks.

This article considers the role poetry can play in helping us to strengthen our mindset by processing events in a positive and creative way.

Mindset Helps

From preparing for and taking part in full-contact kickboxing bouts to juggling the demands of life while having to cope with my son’s slow and unstoppable deterioration (and eventual death), developing the right mindset has helped enormously. My perspective meant I could conserve energy by accepting the things that were out of my hands.

Unfathomable Traumatic Events

No one is immune to trauma, and some things are so difficult to comprehend that no amount of mindset training will prevent damage. Nothing can prepare you for the loss of your child, for example, no matter how old they are, or how much notice you are given. But some things help a lot.

Saying the Unsayable

I haven’t thought of myself as a poet since I was a young psychology student and even as a songwriter, the musical composition came much easier than the lyrics. That is not to say the poetry I wrote was poor or that I wasn’t sometimes proud of what I wrote, but it wasn’t my preferred form of written expression.

What I have learnt over the years is that whether we think we are poets is irrelevant, and no amount of expertise, intellectualising, knowledge of literature or academic prowess makes a scrap of difference to how strong your poetry is.

What counts isn’t what the critics think. What counts is how effectively it can cut through the mind’s obsession with logic, explanation, and things making sense, and deliver truth right into the listener’s heart.

Skilful writers are able to turn abstract, hard-to-reach ideas into simple concepts that anyone can grasp. The greater the writer, the more truth they can capture, but even if you had achieved such a level of verbal mastery that you could give the meaning of every word invented, you would still not be able to describe experiences fully with words.

How to Pack a Punch with Words

Nine months ago, I ripped my medial collateral ligament (MCL) – that’s there to stop the knee from buckling inwards towards the other one – and strained my anterior collateral ligament (ACL), which stops the bone from the top of the knee overlapping and slipping forward over the bottom bone. ‘Kneedless’ to say, I lost all stability in that knee.

Yesterday, the MCL twanged while I was training. There are no words to describe the sensation. The closest I can come is to say it was similar to how the ‘funny bone’ can feel when that gets knocked. Or I could ask you to imagine a very thick rubber band, slipping from one side of a joint to another – intense pressure and pain as it crosses the joint followed by a twanging sensation as it snaps into a new position on the other side.

Those words don’t come close, but if I kicked you hard enough on the outside of your knee, damaging your MCL, you’d get the picture. How can I achieve that with words?

Sometimes, it feels as though our lips are zipped tightly shut!

That’s where poetry comes into the equation.

Too Much Pasta!

Trigger warning – this next bit’s not for those who can’t face the realities of being a living breathing animal.

I’ve never been able to write poetry to order. It’s like taking a visit to the porcelain throne. Most of us don’t get to decide when we need to empty our bladders or take a dump. When the time comes, we can hold on until a more convenient moment comes along, but we can’t force ourselves to do something our bodies are not ready for.

Writing poetry can be like giving birth to a large dump!

The similarity between writing and poetry and taking a dump doesn’t end there. Sometimes, when the time is right, nature doesn’t take its course as easily as we’d like. Anyone who’s eaten far too much pasta will know how that can play out in the bathroom. At such times, we need to be patient – pushing might make matters worse or even cause us harm – but once the deed is done, we usually feel relieved.

Other times, almost as soon as our backsides make it to the seat, it’s a done deal in a minute or two, and we can get on with life.

And so it is with poetry. At least, that’s how it is for me. It doesn’t happen often but when it does, it is usually brought about by a series of highly emotional events. I have identified several stages in the process.

The Process

  1. Stuff happens that is hard to compute (most recently, my son’s terminal cancer)
  2. I discuss my feelings with others
  3. I reflect on my feelings
  4. Talking about my feelings allows several themes to rise to the surface
  5. Reflection brings those themes into focus
  6. Poetic ideas and phrases are revealed to me – seemingly from another dimension that I tap into when I’m meditating
  7. The urge to write reaches a critical mass
  8. The writing process begins

Going back to my earthy analogy, it’s easy to see how I can’t start writing without the first seven steps. Step one happens when I am eating and drinking life – the sweet, the savoury, the bitter, the chewy bits, the easy-to-swallow, and the foods that get stuck in my teeth.

Steps two to five start happening as soon as those life experiences are swallowed; and from step six, the poem almost becomes as inevitable as the morning trip to the bathroom.

I wonder if other poets go through the same process.

Reflections

How could I even begin to explain how I felt about my son’s illness? I couldn’t. Although I tried my best to express my feelings, nothing I could say was nailing them. In the end, as though cancer was standing in front of me, I found the words I wanted to say to it, and the poem followed naturally.

How Dare You?

How dare you break into our lives uninvited?

You knocked. We answered. We slammed the door.

You knocked again. We ignored. You knocked some more.

You kicked and you thumped until the house shook.

Cracks became splinters became holes became an entrance, and you were in.

How dare you take hold of the ones we love?

You could have gone for me or somebody older.

You could have taken them or him or her or nobody at all.

Where’s the thrill in going for those who least deserve it?

How dare you expect us to bow down to you?

We cannot kick you out of our lives.

We cannot get you to let go of our most precious.

We cannot hurt, maim, or kill you.

But you can’t take away our spirit, and you never will.

How dare you expect to see our tears?

We cry, we struggle, we suffer, we question, and we feel pain.

We feel the loss before it has happened.

But none of that’s for you. You will only get our smiles and our defiance.

How dare you expect to be a welcome guest?

We will not look at you.

We will not hear you.

We will not feel you.

You are nothing to us.

How dare you expect us to stop for you?

Life will go on no matter what.

We will laugh, we will live, and we will appreciate it all,

Until the end.

Love conquers all, and it will conquer you!

©Martin Morrison 2022 All Rights Reserved


By not mentioning my son’s enemy by name, I have been true to the sentiment of the poem but also left it open for the reader. Your enemy might be diabetes, heart disease, or even depression. It can be whatever you want. Sadly, life comes with many uninvited guests.

Before my son passed away, I told him that I’d find him in the forest. Every morning, I practise my Tai Chi and meditation, and being mindful in the forest helps to reconnect me with the world. Once Matty had left us, it was only a matter of time before my yearning for reconnection would manifest as a poem.

A photo of the small area of woodland near my home.

I’ll Find You in the Forest

Between the in-breath and the out-breath,

In the sound of silence,

In wordless moments,

When I stare into the eyes of my kitten,

Or hug a living being…

Resonating with every sound,

Every feeling,

Every experience,

Every sensation,

Every visit to the inner world…

With the opening of my eyes in the morning,

And the splash of cold water on my sleepy face,

The whirring of the electric toothbrush,

First coffee of the day,

As the computer boots up…

In the tears that pour out generously and spontaneously

And the heaving of my chest

And the sound of sobbing

And even in the knowledge that something’s missing…

I know you are there,

Watching me,

Loving me,

Knowing every thought I ever had,

Understanding every decision I ever made,

Always a part of me, within and without.

You’re in the birdsong,

The blackbirds, crows, sparrows, and squirrels,

The trees, shrubs, flowers and blossoms,

The wind and the rain,

The Sun and the Moon.

I can find you anywhere and at any time,

But your presence is strongest

When I tap into the pulse of the universe,

And listen to the breathing of the planet.

I’ll find you always.

But most of all,

I’ll find you in the forest.

Dedicated to my firstborn son, Mathew Morrison (2000–2022)

©Martin Morrison 2022 All Rights Reserved


Twenty-one years ago, within hours of my son’s birth, I wrote a song about it. As you can imagine, it was full of joy, optimism, and hope. Strangely and perhaps paradoxically, given that my son’s journey has come to an end, remembering and singing his song has brought me a lot of comfort.

Sometimes, it prompts me to cry, which is fine, but even then, I feel better after I have sung the song. That’s when you realise the healing power of poetry.

I will always feel my son’s presence but especially when I am in the forest and when I sing his song. How Dare You and I’ll Find You in The Forest will also soothe me (and others) in the years to come. They are being included in an exhibition being put together to encourage people to think about and discuss death, grief and bereavement. It is an honour for my work to be included in such a useful project that I am sure will touch many young hearts and minds.

Here is the song that I wrote for my son. I wrote it for acoustic guitar, but another musician is now collaborating with me to produce it properly. It’s called ‘You Took Your Time Coming’ because he was late arriving.

You Took Your Time Coming

FIRST VERSE

You are the one we were waiting for,

We were fighting for, hoping for, praying.

You took your time coming.

You took your time coming.

A message from the Lord with a few home truths,

Better than money, wealth, gold.

You took your time coming,

But you’re here now.

(CHORUS)

Say goodbye to sadness.

It takes a back seat.

Troubles seem so far away.

You are our future.

You’re our number one!

No more worries anymore.

SECOND VERSE

We’re gonna love you, gonna hold you, gonna keep you safe,

‘Cause you’re our little Matty, and we think you’re great.

You’re a classic.

You’re our little classic.

And everybody loves you, we think you’re ace.

And love to see that smile on your beautiful face.

You’re a classic.

You’re our little classic.

CHORUS

So, we’ve said goodbye to sadness.

It takes a back seat.

Troubles seem so far away.

You are our Matty.

You’re our number one.

No more worries anymore.

No more worries anymore.

No more worries anymore.

©Martin Morrison 2000 to the present. All Rights Reserved


Thanks for taking time out to read about my thoughts. If you have never written a poem, perhaps you will be tempted to give it a go. Either way, I hope my poetry has touched you in some way.

I’ve enjoyed dabbling with poetry – it felt more like a compulsion than a choice – but I am not considering it as a new profession. Who knows what the future holds, but I have no plans to give up my day job (ghostwriting) any time soon!