Filling the space between the words

Barry Morgan says the launch of the H’mm Foundation demonstrates why poetry matters to the Welsh

H’mm …… you could be forgiven for assuming a foundation devoted to promoting poetry would have a slightly grander title than ‘H’mm’. Nothing poetic about that – it doesn’t rhyme, doesn’t have a rhythm, it’s not polished and precise, glittering with alliteration or metaphor. It isn’t even a word. It’s just a sound, a noise you make to fill in the space between the words you haven’t yet thought of. Sometimes, it’s a thought, possibly even the sound of your brain whirring.

But to my mind, H’mm Foundation is a very good name for an organisation which wants to promote poetry. You got it from the priest poet R. S. Thomas who has a whole volume of poetry entitled H’m (but with one ‘m’). It is not clear whether Thomas is saying H’m – that is – here is poetry – make of it what you will – because, as someone else has said, poetry which can be understood is not poetry. Poetry makes you think. Or is the apostrophe between the H and m in Thomas’ volume meant to indicate the omission of the letter ‘I’? In that case the volume is about Him – that is God because in the Old Testament, God is never called by his proper name in order to respect His otherness. So Thomas’ poetry is about asking questions about the meaning and value of life and existence, a question discussed by many poets.

But perhaps H’mm is meant to draw attention to the importance of pauses.  It was W. H. Auden who said. “Poetry makes nothing happen.” In a world full of busyness and clamour, good poetry makes us pause. It seeks to make us stop and stand and ponder about questions of life and death. Good poetry like lager touches parts of us which more mundane words fail to touch – our imaginations, our feelings, our emotions, our hearts.  It has no defined aims – it just is.

As one poet put it,

“A good poet champions myths, which are age-old markers for our journey in the inner and outer world; a good poet celebrates the extra-ordinary in ordinary events and lives; a good poet uses satire to save us from being bewitched by what looks obvious and likes us to think it’s obvious; and finally a good poet employs lament to give us ways of looking at our losses and failures in order to save us from apathy and despair”.

Or as R S Thomas would put it, “poetry is that which arrives at the intellect by way of the heart”.

Poetry deals with everyday events and feelings providing apposite words to match them. The words used give shape and form to sentiments which elude the ciphers of script and text. Poetry enables us to look at things in a new light. As the American Wallace Stevens said, “the poet is the priest of the invisible”. Poetry affirms our human experiences and extends the boundaries of such experiences; it seeks to make the unseen discernible. It raises questions and suggests possibilities.

Christian communities and Christian liturgies know the importance of poetry. It is embedded in the Scriptures, embodied in our hymns and hinted at in the cadences of Cranmer and his ilk. It plays an increasingly key role in weddings, funerals and commemorations, stepping into the gap created by our struggle to find something to say.  On such occasions, poetry provides a perfect focus for the quiet, personal devotion or for very vocal, communal paeons of praise.

So poetry is an immensely powerful medium. It moves and affects all strata of society. Children take delight in the rhyme and rhythm of nursery rhymes and can express themselves freely within the flexible parameters of free verse. Many adults carry a copy of a favourite poem, one that has helped them in bereavement, or which was given to them in the first flushes of romance. Dylan Thomas said:

“Poetry is what is in a poem that makes you laugh, cry, prickle, be silent, makes your toe nails twinkle, makes you want to do this or that or nothing, makes you know that you are not alone in the unknown world, that your bliss and suffering is forever shared and forever, all your own”.

Poetry, like music, matters to us in Wales. Whether our senses are touched through the notes on the stave or the words in a stanza, we have a tradition of recognising all that the arts can do to uplift and en-noble our often ephemeral existences. Above all, poetry can play such a role in so many different contexts: at work, at play, in joy and sorrow, in hope and in trouble.

That is why the H’mm Foundation is a cause for celebration. It seeks to safeguard within the heart of our nation, a place for the mind and the soul, to secure a place for poetry, especially, in the work-place.

We are, today, much more enlightened about the environments which are conducive to people giving of their best. So sweatshops and mindless processing are, thankfully, increasingly rare in the work-place. But sometimes, of necessity, work can still be difficult, demanding, mundane or tedious. In such circumstances, poetry can help.  Whether through a well-placed poster, brightly displaying words of encouragement or affirmation, or through the presence of a poet him or herself, offering a fresh perspective on things, the things that we do as we labour in life, can be made the more purposeful and even palatable by the words we speak.  There is a time for silence and time for speaking and a time for poetry, in all of life’s events.

Barry Morgan is Archbishop of Wales. This is the text of an address he gave at the launch of the H’mm Foundation in the Millennium Centre last Thursday evening. The Foundation is supported by the IWA as well as the Church in Wales, the Institute of Directors, Literature Wales, and the Western Mail.

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