Storying Sheffield

Musings on ‘Why Poetry?’


This piece is for the project “A Dialogic Exploration of Gluten Ataxia” led by Ruth Chalkley.

I asked the poet Wendy French ( to write something for me about her creative writing work with cancer patients. We met at the Hippocrates Poetry competition day last year, in what was my first solo adventure since becoming ill, and we have corresponded since then, exchanging poetry and ideas and how we respond creatively, through her work and my routines in retirement.
“The mountain won’t go to Muhammad so Muhammad goes to the mountain”. This is so often misquoted as ‘Muhammad won’t go to the mountain so the mountain goes to Muhammad’. The story of King Cnut reversed. But that’s not what happens, so what is the proverb telling us that we don’t know? A mountain, part of the physical landscape, cannot move. Muhammad, in his wisdom, realises that the mountain is not going to move so he moves towards it. He doesn’t lose respect from the crowd. Muhammad then thanks God for not moving the mountain for he surmises that if the mountain had moved it would have crushed the people.
Cancer is this mountain. It’s there, waiting. Inhabiting certain people, destroying good cells for its own uses. Waiting to break good cells down and capture people to turn good into bad. Cancer is powerful. It resembles Ted Hughes’s Crow, trying to rule creation making itself responsible for who will or will not reach an old age free from disease. As a child, growing up in a doctor’s household, the significance of the word, cancer, grew on me. It inhabited my thoughts, a dread, a ghoul, a bad person trying to destroy all that is good. Since then, with advances in medicine and research, cancer does not present such the same fear (unless you are the patient) as it did to the non-sufferer. It is a mountain that we are beginning to move. We are beginning to conquer. It doesn’t matter that the mountain won’t come to us. We are going forward to understand the mountain.
Why this thought should suddenly come to me when we were driving through Goudhurst, a pretty town off the A21 in Kent, I don’t know. It’s the sort of thought that intrudes in the middle of the night, not when we were slowing down to 30 mph, climbing a hill, passing pretty shops, two pubs, one, The Star and Eagle Hotel facing the old church lit up and seeming to protect this place. In the graveyard here are buried Rachael, my beautiful niece, beautiful Rachael and her father Edwin. Rachel here because of a cycling accident and her father because of cancer in his early 60s. If there is heaven then this is it. Or rather, this is heaven here. A cemetery on the side of a hill surrounded by hills, overlooking a valley and vast expanse of sky. Here, the unknown is exaggerated, it’s almost understood in seconds, moments. Here, where many lie who have had their laughter, tears, joys, despairs taken away before their allotted time of three score and ten. Here I know that one day we will conquer cancer and the world will move forwards, thanks to all who have devoted their lives to research and treatment of this disease. About ten minute before Edwin died, he looked at his consultant, crossed two fingers and said, Here’s hoping. He kept his lottery ticket in his pyjama pocket. The finger crossing didn’t do much good for him but it may for others. Neither did he win the lottery that week.
Slowing the car in obedience to the 30 mph sign takes on a greater significance.
I am currently Poet in Residence at the Macmillan Centre, University College London Hospital. My remit is to run groups for patients and staff and to produce a chapbook of poems. The patients’ group calls itself The Creative Word and we have published a booklet of their poems called, it is as it is. The poems are based on different themes that I take to each group for us to reflect on, examine, and even argue about. What makes a poem a poem? Why is that a poem and not prose? The patients are in the group as people not as patients. It is their time. Some want to write about where they are now with cancer, some don’t want to think about it. Carers in the group want to write about their secondary involvement i.e. they are not their loved one who is suffering but they are more emotionally involved with the patient than the doctors and surgeons. It is an interesting and lively group who are keen to read contemporary poets and to write. The sessions start with a five minute exercise based on a sentence that I give to the group. The idea is to clear our heads before we begin the theme of the day. We read round our thoughts and then discuss the theme and read poets’ work on that theme. Then our writing begins. It brings laughter and tears. Poetry is an essential tool in making this group successful. As Coleridge said, It’s the best words in the best order. By thinking about this we are taking some control back over our lives where control has been lost. We are creating something new and positive out of disease. Individual thoughts are being shaped into a form that others will want to read. Lives are examined in a new context. What is the meaning now and how do we take this forward, learn to live with it? How can something positive be interpreted out of the negative? Clichés come flooding back but they are dismissed immediately. Life is not about clichés and making silver linings from every cloud. Every experience is unique. That’s the premise that we start with and take forward. One fact that is universally agreed is that what once seemed important no longer is and the importance of now is in the moment and the understanding of each moment. Poetry by looking at the very particular of moments can heal and help. Poems are written because something needs to be said. We can all learn from other people’s experiences.
The mountain isn’t going to come to us. We must go to the mountain.

Here is Wendy’s poem, The Half-Light, which she wanted to include with her blog.
The Half Light
Night let it be night
dark let it be dark
for when dark descends
it’s up to the roof garden
nearer to the stars away
from the bleep of machines,
the whisper on the stairs
and the clatter of trolleys.
There she wants to dig in the soil
sink fingers in the mulch
and squelch of earth.
She wants compost rubbed
into fingers, she want to feel roots
so hoping she’ll belong.
Soil will be rubbed into ears, up nostrils
down her throat. This garden.
Hating dirty boots she’d avoided
orchards, fields.
Now she wants to learn about worms,
slugs, earwigs. Their place in the world.
Away from a learned vocabulary:
stem cell, chemo, transfusion
and all the questions.
She wants to disown words,
stay up on the roof garden –
look out over London, live in a tent
– and forget that once
she loved fine clothes. Luscious lips.
Her eye follows the winding Thames,
There’s the peal of St Paul’s.

Wendy French