Written for a talk William gave on 6.7.2020 for Online Events called
Men & the Quest for Soul: A Mythopoetic Journey



On the Uses of Poetry

I’m occasionally asked, what possible value poetry can have in today’s demanding world. My usual response is to say “none” because the question implies an extrinsic value – as opposed to an intrinsic worth – that somehow misses the point. In mellower moments I say that a poem operates on a different level of exchange. It is a gift, offered free from any expectation of return – a gift, which connects us to each other, and to the world. More importantly, it can connect us, to alienated, or undiscovered parts of ourselves – thus helping us to re-member and gather ourselves. Thus a poem, like a prayer or a dream, may have very little quantifiable value but have huge and lasting significance – as well as a great potential for healing.

In general, poetry can give us access to those parts of ourselves which tend to become dried out in the world of “getting and spending”. It can re-awaken our compassion, remind us of our grief, re-confirm the presence of love, the realities of loss, or any of the things that invisibly matter in our lives. Just as importantly, it can break our relentless, sometimes blinkered focus on the literal, left brain world of ‘fact’ and detail – and open us to the sensory, right brain world of metaphor, feeling, empathy and context.

In terms of healing, poetry offers more than a piece of pop wisdom. Societies the world over have always respected that rare ability of poets to touch, enlighten and re-connect people. There is an immense cannon of works that can literally enlighten, move and change people. It is for this reason that tyrants and bullies fear and suppress poetry, while visionaries, teachers and those experienced in the pastoral care of others, turn to it as a vital resource.

In the work that I have been doing for the last twenty years – in rehab and prisons, personal development, gender work, and leadership development – I have been using poems in various ways to help and heal individuals and groups. These methods vary from occasion to occasion, but generally they have certain core practices that I have come to recognise.

Working with the American poet Robert Bly and archetypal psychologist James Hillman, I learned that a poem, properly placed, can elicit feelings and induce sharing amongst those who might be deemed to be shut down and un-reachable. In rehab centres and prisons I discovered that even the ‘hardest’ individuals respond and open up to a remarkable degree. When presented with poems that speak in the right vocabulary and tone, addicts and career criminals have been able to share their vulnerabilities, fears and stories with surprising ease.

Reading a poem – in the ‘bardic’ sense of embodying a poem while reading it out loud – can have a strong effect on a client/participant/group. The therapeutic taboo of disclosure is momentarily set aside as the reader appears to be physically and emotionally present and open. A paradoxical intimacy is experienced, in which emotional availability is balanced by the formal distance of the performer. This can have a similar effect to musical performance and can be profoundly moving.   

Writing poems (having first checked for levels of literacy) can also be a great stimulus, being both cathartic and revelatory. The physical sensations of putting pen to paper, and reading back the truths put down, can bring about realisations and understandings that can move people forward in their processes. The fact of creation can also be liberating – especially for those who may be shame-bound or lacking in self-confidence.

Whether spoken by us or written by them, a poem’s ability to clarify an issue, or get at the human realities behind our jargon and rhetoric, never ceases to astonish those we work with. Quite often someone will ask for a copy of a particular poem that has touched or inspired them. Such a poem can stay with that person for years; its lines recurring again and again, like a riff from a song, or a scene from a movie. It hangs on a wall or sits in a drawer, offering itself at odd moments, providing support or a space for reflection – an oasis of inspiration in a humdrum day – a visible anchor to a moment of healing.

© William Ayot

Poetry, Story & Ritual:

The Three Strange Angels

Was the skald who first recited Beowulf a poet or a storyteller? The answer of course, is both. It was only later that story and poetry separated out, like the various liquids in an apothecary’s jar. In our over compartmentalised and reductionist world, poems are one thing, stories another, and yet it has always been true that “a metaphor is a myth in brief” and that images in poems are the seeds of narrative. From both a developmental and a healing perspective poems and stories are interchangeable. Be they parables, trickster tales, fairy stories or ancient myths, they have the metaphorical and imagistic ‘otherness’ to engage, transport, and purge. Moreover, there’s an increasing body of science that is beginning to ‘prove’ what poets, storytellers and shamans have instinctively known for millennia – that storytelling and poetry helps to grow the brain: by laying down neural pathways, or ‘bridges’ and strengthening them through repetition; by developing linguistic, rhythmic and memory skills, by altering brainwave patterns, and by engaging both hemispheres of the brain.

In working with groups and individuals in the field of mytho-poetics for over twenty years, I have come to see poetry, story and ritual as the ‘three strange angels’ invoked by D H Lawrence in his poem Song of a Man Who Has Come Through. Put together these three angels offer us an extraordinary palette of options for growth and healing. If used judiciously and adeptly, they really can ‘bring us to the Hesperides”, the Happy Isles that Lawrence imagines us getting to, beyond our tribulations. 

Historically, e-mail is less than twenty years old, and the postal service less than two hundred, while the printing press has been around about five, and written language less than forty centuries. Stories, poems and rituals however, are as old as man – maybe a million years old. They hold the building blocks, the very foundations of every culture in the world. There’s a line, a golden thread, that runs back from Shakespeare through Chaucer and the Beowulf poet, through Virgil and Homer to a chanting ‘medicine’ man in the caves of Lascaux – and beyond him to an alpha male and his ‘tribe’ of chimpanzees in Africa holding formal rituals (i.e. witnessed, structured and led) to warn off the threat of an approaching storm. Our all too dominant and rational left brains think of ourselves as post enlightenment, logical beings, but the human reality is that of infinitely older creatures – vulnerable, suggestible, creative and wise. Today’s healers and urban shamans, ignore these extraordinary tools at their peril.

And if we follow the golden thread back, starting long before the separation of mind and body, we find poetry, story, theatre and the performing/ritualising arts inextricably linked to healing and initiatory growth. En-chant-ment and incantation were vital tools passed down from the earliest practitioners and were as intrinsic to healing as the creation of spells. These dark and primitive practices were left behind long ago, of course, as we moved into the world of modern medicine and computers – except that prescriptions, are still written to be repeated like a chant or mantra to this very day. “Take one tablet, twice a day”… says the little incantation on the side of the pack of Prozac. You are even enjoined to ritualise this activity, regularly repeating the dose at the same time of day for a very specific period…. There’s a deeply wired, instinctive relationship in people’s minds and hearts to the repetitions and rhythms of poetry and chants, and between image and song, on the one hand and symbolic action (ritual, dance, activity) on the other.

No matter how sophisticated we become, we still have a fundamental, if unconscious need for ritual. As much as the cat that welcomes us every time we enter her territory by ritually circling around our legs, we seek out opportunities to ritualise; symbolically marking changes of state – such as marriage – by ritual acts such as the placing of a ring on a finger, so that the psyche/soul (which deals in symbols not data) may take in and digest the facts of change.

I learned much of my story (and poetic) technique from shamans, medicine teachers, what some people call witch doctors. Living in exile and mainly dispossessed now, these men and women eat, sleep and dream their stories as vital, essential, life-giving mythologies. They talk in terms of story as a living entity, and say that it needs nurturing and feeding. They think of a myth or a tale as something that holds more than just a message or a “learning opportunity”. They know that it carries the weight and wisdom of an entire culture.  These people are weavers of stories, who deal in incantation and enchantment. They bind spells and formulate rituals using their stories and chants with almost surgical precision. They astonish, move, teach and empower. They are entertainers and visionaries, leaders, priests and healers. They are the true inheritors of the ancient traditions. At our best, as artists and healers, I believe, we can fold their unique skills into our own practice. In short we can be like the bards of old.

Sadly, in the West, we have lost much of our indigenous magic. In fact, it’s fair to say that there is something in the modern world that actively works against the mysterious, that seeks to suppress the imagination and stifle dreams. There’s a part of us that doesn’t want to listen to stupid old stories.

Meanwhile the god has left the garden

The muse lies minimised at the corner of our screens

Not dead, not buried but ignored and unseen

Like a doodle at the edge of an action plan…

Fortunately there is another part of us, which I think of as an alert and curious six-year-old, who only has to hear the word story to become fully engaged and attentive. This is the part of us that storytellers meet on a daily basis – the part that wants to follow Theseus into the Labyrinth, the bit that fights dragons and trolls. Shamans know that this is the bit that needs to be met, the bit that’s capable of awe and wonder, hatred and compassion, the bit that’s capable of anything and eager to learn. As healers, this is the part we need to connect with, so that, picking up the ancient thread, we can then lead people away from the devouring Minotaur.

It’s not always automatic, nor is it easy. I have stood in rehab centres, prisons, boardrooms and business schools around the world and I have seen that little part coming alive in people who then practice not responding to it. They deliberately defend against it – such is the power of the left brain’s tyranny. If we want to help, develop or heal such people we need to find ways of cracking the ‘defences’ of those who, long before, shut down and armoured up for survival’s sake.

This is where a poem can serve – to reach across a chasm, to break down a wall, to kick in a door or throw a life-belt. Poetry’s psycho-active ability (like music or drumming) to elicit emotions, and break through barriers, calls for confidence and authenticity. That means knowing your material and having the sensibility and presence to embody the poem so that it lands in the body of the listener, so that you transmit the poem as an experience.

This is what Lawrence’s three strange angels promise and deliver. Poetry, story and ritual each have, in their different ways, the ability to outsmart, confront, or bypass the controlling mind; to access and present the grounded reality of experience. Joseph Campbell, the great mythologist, once went against received wisdom by saying that we don’t look for meaning in our lives. He said we are looking for something deeper. “I think what we’re seeking”, he said, “is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonance within our innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive”.

If through poetry story and ritual we can help others to experience this rapture, and by doing so heal the broken and diminished parts of themselves, we will have done some good. We will also be a part of an ancient continuum that connects us to the core of human experience.

© William Ayot

Poetry & Practise

The Lost Art Of Speaking Out Loud

Poetry as a vocal and communal art has been greatly underused during the last hundred years. In ancient times poetry was a vital part of the oral tradition. Celtic bards and Nordic skalds held stockpiles of poems and stories in their heads, what Anglo-Saxon poets called their “word hoard”. With the coming of literature things changed as our culture began to be stored in books rather than in poets’s memories – though the old methods used for remembering, such as rhyme, repetition and assonance remained. What we have today is an extraordinary resource for students of both public speaking and healing. By reciting and learning poems by heart we get to practice and become comfortable with the idea of public speaking (and developing our per-sona, the sound by which we are known). By delivering poems with confidence and authority as healers, and therapists we save time, get to the point and circumvent blocks and defences.  

Robert Bly, the American poet and doyen of the men’s movement (specializing in emotional development for men) says that when poetry is spoken aloud people feel connected, in company. This is true, the act of oration creates a speaker-audience relationship with all its demands and expectations. More importantly a poem is a highly focused piece of ‘sense’, a handy bite-sized chunk of words that can be memorised, played with, practised and ultimately delivered. Furthermore the musicality and rhythmic qualities of poetry are psycho-active in the same way that a great piece of music or a shamans drum or rattle stimulates the emotions and ‘loosens up” the unconscious. A poem in the right hands is a very powerful tool.

Learning poems by heart is a great way to practice making meaningful sound – and effective delivery is all about practice. The late Nicholas Albery made a point of learning a poem every day! We don’t have to go that far but those who’ve tried the discipline report some startling results. Firstly diction improves – the tongue is a muscle and like biceps or deltoids, it benefits from exercise. Secondly, vocal skills and presence increase exponentially. In exactly the same way as children practise whistling or humming, we can practise more sophisticated techniques – pausing for effect, variations of speed and pitch, heightened emotional ‘weight’ and lowered or raised volume, to name but a few. Perhaps most importantly, by learning to deepen our breathing, we can drop the voice into our chest, giving it both power and colour. In this way we can learn to embody our chosen poems, to really enter into the pieces we read.

If you don’t want to learn reams of poetry, of course, you can simply read poems out loud. That said, it is still worth rehearsing: practising grounded delivery, and exercising the muscles of tongue, mouth and throat. Once you have a little privacy, you can begin to play with the piece, the way a musician plays with a tune, repeating it until it ‘sits comfortably in the mouth’. In your spare time you can also read poems out loud (families can be surprisingly supportive once they know what you are about). 

Because so much poetry is and has been written with its “music” in mind, we are able to pick poems that challenge us, in the areas we or our clients need to work on. Poets of great emotional range and weight, who address personal issues, and are easily readable include:

Dannnie Abse

Raymond Carver

Imtiaz Dharker

Emily Dickinson

James Fenton

Jackie Kay

Galway Kinnell

D H Lawrence

Sharon Olds

Mary Oliver

Brian Patten

Alden Nowlan

Pascale Petit

C K Williams

W B Yeats

A Poem That Speaks For Itself

                                  I am not a piece to be left on the page,

                                  to be flicked over, licked at and spat out by the eye.

                                  I am not to be read on the way to something else.

                                  I take time. I’m a poem. I was made to be spoken.

                                  I hold the sounds that connect you to the world;

                                  the clicks and the splats and the crunches of life.

                                  In me you can hear the song of the nightingale,

                                  the yell of the vixen and the boom of distant waves.

                                  When you speak me, when you utter me,

                                  note the home of your voice: where it settles,

                                  where it lives, what part of you it inhabits.

                                  Now move on, explore the geography of vowels;

                                  place an “ee” in your head, an “aah” in your chest.

                                  Sense the well of emotion below every sound.

                                  Next, take a careful quantity of consonants.

                                  Mix them with the vowels, add meaning to feeling.

                                  Say “hurt”, say “desire”, say “beauty”, say “loss”,

                                  say, “the woods are empty”, say “I long to belong”.

                                  Now you know the form, you can improvise,

                                  become a curlew, or a monkey, or a blue guitar.

                                  You can free the music, conjure up some fun,

                                  make the madness yours, let the laughter flow.

                                  Above all, you can let the silence in me speak.

                                  Don’t be afraid… Let it hold what it will.

                                  When you finally get to the foot of the page

                                  you can put me down and walk away.

                                  Until then, I want you to speak every syllable,

                                  to embrace every solitary, sensual word.

                                  I may be no more than another page of poetry,

                                  but when you recite me, we both come alive.

© William Ayot 2001

Further Reading

Poetry, Art and Science

Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More Than Human World.  David Abram A tour de force by an anthropologist, explaining the alienation and separation of mankind from the natural world. Vintage 1997 (pbk)

Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology David Abram A truly sublime follow-up to his first more scholarly book in which Abram gets down and dirty with animism, language, story, and the rejuvenation of oral culture as a ecological imperative. Vintage 2011 (pbk)

Staying Alive. Neil Astley (ed).   A magnificent anthology of extraordinary poems, most of which are just itching to get spoken! Probably the best anthology of poetry published in England since Palgrave. Bloodaxe Books 2002 (pbk)

The Inheritance William Ayot a twenty year collection of poems that follows a journey from shame-bound, anger-wrapped abandonment and neglect to self-acceptance and creative expression. PS Avalon 2011 (pbk)

The Rag and Bone Shop if the Heart  R. Bly, J. Hillman & M. Meade (ed) Originally marketed as an anthology for men but of interest to both sexes. Includes powerful sections on cracking denial, and anger. All poems selected to be spoken. Harper Perennial 1992 (pbk) 

Healing the Shame That Binds You John Bradshaw A 1990s recovery classic which, amongst a dearth of academic literature on the subject, still holds up as both a probing and yet sensitive study of the mechanics of shame, and a guide to dealing with its toxic effects. Could be important for both those who have no experience of shame , and those who have too much. Health Communication Inc Revised edition 2006 (pbk)

The Power of Myth Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers Moyers’ wide ranging and fascinating interviews with an aging Joseph Campbell take in all manner of mythic roots and lay out Campbells profound understanding of myth as “the song of the universe and the music of the spheres”.  Bantam Doubleday 1989 (Large format pbk)            

Descartes Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain  Antonio Damasio A brilliant and long overdue exploration of the connection between emotions and rationality by neuroscientist and author of The Feeling of What Happens.Vintage 2006 (pbk)

By Heart: 101 Poems to Remember. Ted Hughes (ed) A good selection of poetry’s most speakable classics, with a brilliant introduction on “How to Learn a Poem”. A great start.  Faber & Faber, London, 1997 (pbk) 

The Rattle Bag, ed Ted Hughes & Seamus Heaney. A Massive collection of poems from across many times and cultures, including old rhymes, narrative poems and pieces from the aural tradition. A great anthology Faber & Faber, London, 1982 (pbk)

The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World  Ian McGilchrist A brilliant left brain exposition of the tyranny of the empathic right hemisphere, by its more detail obsessed neighbour and onetime servant. Yale University Press (hbk, pbk, kindle)                          

Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art Stephen Nachmanovitch An original and inspiring book that takes us into the art of living and creating in the moment. By no means just for artists. Jeremy P Tarcher 1993 (pbk) 



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