The best words are transformative. A carefully chosen spoken encouragement; a line of sparse poetry; a story that speaks truth – all these can change a life or even change a world...
This is an edited version of a talk given at the beginning of the Soul Manifestos poetry workshop at the second Trailblazers weekend put on by Campfire Convention at Selgars Mill in November 2019
"...for the simple poetic image there is no project, a flicker of the soul is all that is needed" *
Words as a force for change in the world…
“Only the poets can save us now”: Richard Reese was living as an eco-hermit a decade or two back, when he wrote an essay with this powerful slogan as its title. His point was that humans have gone too far with our technological, ecocidal culture and that all we can now do – need to do – is to tell new stories about how humanity can exist in the future. The sentiment was picked up and elaborated by the Dark Mountain Project which published its first manifesto a decade ago in 2009…
And I wrote an elaboration of this idea for Alchemy – a poetry and activism exhibition and residency – held last year in St Davids, Pembrokeshire, where I live and work:
“The best words are transformative. A carefully chosen spoken encouragement; a line of sparse poetry; a story that speaks truth – all these can change a life or even change a world. However, a poet cannot write a poem in the expectation that it will change anything. All we can do is to allow the poem to emerge and then set it free to see what might happen. Nothing might happen – or something – but we cannot expect anything big and fancy of a poem when we write it”.
Can words change things? Well, on one level we know that they can. The best (and the worst) political slogans underpin change and can symbolise something that is different from before:
“Yes we can”
“I have a dream”
“Education Education Education”
“Be the change you want to be in the world”
#BlackLivesMatter and #MeTo
and even “Drain the Swamp” or “Lock her Up”.
And Extinction Rebellion, in the UK, has three demands – short and simple:
Tell the truth: Government must tell the truth by declaring a climate and ecological emergency, working with other institutions to communicate the urgency for change.
Act Now: Government must act now to halt biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025.
Beyond Politics: Government must create and be led by the decisions of a Citizens’ Assembly on climate and ecological justice.
These might or might not be poetry, but they have been highly effective so far in terms of mobilisation and setting the boundaries of action for this new and rapidly growing movement.
So activism has long recognised the power of a good slogan, manifesto or, these days, a hashtag – but what about a poem or or a story? How on earth can poetry change the world?
Well it starts with the individual and is a lot more complex, subtle and deep than a political or cultural soundbite. To engage with a poem you have to open yourself up - and to write one you may have to open up even more. So maybe if we want to explore what XR calls 'Regeneration Culture', and develop resilience to deal with ‘climate anxiety’ and the other existential threats humans face, we have to consider what comes from deep inside us…
Poems as soul manifestos
A decade or more back, when I was going through a lot of change and challenge in my life, someone who cared for me gave me a crackly, old cassette tape entitled ‘The Poetry of Self Compassion’. It was a talk by the poet, David Whyte, and I can remember driving up to Newcastle one day with tears pouring down my face as I listened to his voice reading a selection of poems from a range of poets, all touching on this deep spiritual theme of self-compassion. One poet stood out – Mary Oliver – and one poem in particular: Wild Geese:
“You do not have to be good. / You do not have to walk on your knees / for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. / You only have to let the soft animal of your body / love what it loves. / Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. / Meanwhile the world goes on. / Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain / are moving across the landscapes, / over the prairies and the deep trees, / the mountains and the rivers. / Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, / are heading home again. / Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, / the world offers itself to your imagination, / calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting— / over and over announcing your place / in the family of things.”
You see, I’d been worn out by activism. Made ill by it. Made ill by the ills of the world that motivated me to keep going and fighting. The thing that had been missing for me when I was out there doing the activist thing – on health campaigns, the miners strike, race equality and so on – was not solidarity (I had plenty of that) but self-compassion.
THAT was why Mary Oliver’s voice became so important for me and, together with other writers and other developments in my life, helped me to bring a more gentle, empathetic and – crucially – more ecological mindset to my life and work. And this process included the growth of my own practice of writing, and with it the emergence of the idea of the poem (or story) as a soul manifesto.
After a career as a teacher and advisor in education, I trained and worked as a psychotherapist, and have come to know that having the right conversation helps us put words to something that we may be finding difficult or impossible to face. When the feelings are inside, we tend to ruminate and churn them over. When they are spoken to another person, then we have the opportunity to transform these feelings – gradually perhaps, but surely – into something that makes a little more sense to us. However, when they are expressed in written form, we gain access to another dimension of meaning. When I started writing seriously a decade and a half ago, I would find that something I’d written might only make sense to my life a few months later, as if the poetic self knew something that my ego didn’t!
The things we have to face can be both the stories we tell ourselves about our lives which might carry pain and negativity – but also the things out there in the world that also carry pain and that seem just as impossible to change as the inside stuff sometimes does.
Nothing stays the same
The reality is that NOTHING ever stays the same, inside and out. When we go back 40 years or so, when the carbon emissions that we are now dealing with were being churned out, our culture and worldview were very different from what it is now. Coal had an entirely different significance to me as a radical young man growing up in the North East of England and seeing mining and other working-class communities all over the land being torn apart.
So the meaning I gave my cultural life has had to change. And I know from my work as a therapist that people’s lives, even their historical experiences that they believe define them, can be transformed too – and this essential transition must take place both inside the psyche and out in the world, for these are, in reality, interchangeable.
In a conversation with journalist and writer, Michael Ventura in 1990, therapist and author James Hillman said this about our internally focused, self-centred psychology: “We’ve had a hundred years of analysis and people are getting more and more sensitive, and the world is getting worse and worse…We’re working on our relationships constantly, and our feelings and reflections, but look what’s left out of that…What’s left out is a deteriorating world”.
HIs words seem even more relevant today, three decades on, in these days of climate emergency, on the one hand, and endless self development and personal happiness projects, on the other. So, when we are talking about any personal change/transformation/wellbeing – whether it is based on poetry or any other set of practices – it needs to take on this dimension of the ‘deteriorating world’. To recognise that we humans (at least on this part of the planet) may be suffering from deep grief at our disconnection from our 'Mother Earth', and also experiencing a kind of madness that comes from the roller-coaster way in which this market-led capitalist culture drives us up and down and round the bend.
How can poetry and words hope to get near to dealing with this pain? How can it be possible to live a good life when the world seems like it is deteriorating? Hope is one way, and hope requires imagination (or denial, though I prefer imagination!), and poetry is what happens when we open up our imaginations to the world and. are prepared to look at it in an entirely different way.
So we start to consider the world as if… trees are people who talk to us; as if…our mind is connected to the red kite circling above us; as if…we can make things right by accepting ALL the contradictions in the world and not taking a stance or a position, but staying – always, always – with the uncertainty.
Some poetry might make change possible – or might have the potential to to do so – and this can occur at an individual level and wider in our collective culture. Conversely, some poetry does not claim to do any such thing – and stays with the observational, the technical and the practice of word-smithery. There is nothing wrong with poems that make us smile or think or admire a good rhyme or metaphor – but a poem that does these things, and then can go beyond to make us think more deeply, or to practice the alchemy of personal and collective change can be regarded as a soul manifesto for our troubled times.
So much radical poetry emerged out of the struggles of the second half of the twentieth century, and it almost seemed as if those post-war battles for peace and equality had been fought and even sometimes won – Greenham Common, CND, the Civil Rights Movement, the Roads protests in the UK, Anti-Apartheid and so on. Perhaps we believed the myth of progress – that everyone and everything is bound to get better; to evolve and transcend?
Now, in the 21st Century, things seem a bit more complicated than they did back then (and of course not all these battles were won!) Ecological themes are stronger now; social and political themes seem less clear. The problems we saw in the 20th Century that we hoped were behind us are back again in different forms and contexts: Where there was nuclear winter, now there is climate change. Where there were refugees from one ‘great’ war, now there are refugees from multiple smaller conflicts and crises. Where there were struggles against discrimination, segregation and Apartheid, now there are Black Lives Matters, #MeTo and the challenges of intersectionality. Where there was a belief that democratic values and institutions would solve things, now there is a suspicion that they have caused a whole bunch of other problems.
We know that what we are facing is bigger than we have ever imagined, and we are realising that we can’t take this on with the kind of tribal politics that has been played out so many times. I am hopeful, for the longer term but, as many times before, we may have to go through times of uncertainty and chaos before something settles.
The best writers today are those who are able to connect up the ecological, personal and the political in their poetic ‘manifestos’. They recognise that what is needed is for the individual – each one of us – to grow our own souls and heal our own hurts – not as a prerequisite or alternative to doing our thing in the wider world – but so that these two strands wind around each other. And they are also (alongside musicians, artists and others) the soul guides who help us see clearly, and to settle and find our way.
Picking up words
At the recent Campfire Convention Trailblazers event at Selgar Mill in November, I invited people to develop their own ‘soul’s manifesto’ – a poetic statement that serves to lie at the foundation of their own life, work and activism – whatever that might meant to them! This poem was my invitation to the gathering group and more widely:
"I pick up words from around the place and make stuff from them / They’re sometimes big and horrid words and sometimes nice and / sometimes short and simple words and I get love from them. / Sometimes the words are things and and sometimes they’re living, / or have lived, and I pick up sadness until it gives way to another emotion, / less straightforward. Someone tells me to pick myself up, and so / I pick up fear, and anger, and something else nearer to grief and nearer / to the ground. This is where I should pick up stuff, beneath the trees, / beside the ponds, from the edges of pathways that wend to the river. / When I was a boy I would have made stuff from this stuff I’m picking up, / and now, I’m picking up words that are living, crying, despairing, dying, / and, as I walk slowly around this place, I will make them into something. / I will make a poem, a story, a song and a manifesto; a mandala made / from leaves and sticks, a flag and a whisper that carries its way around / the world in soft transmission and in birdsong. And the stuff I make – / and you make too – will be soul-touched in the moment, ferocious in its love".**
What emerged from this exercise were beautiful, poignant, angry, loving, connecting, gentle, fierce and eloquent poetic manifestos of the soul. These are seeds of new stories for our times drawn from deep inside shared knowledge and humanity we all carry inside us. In gathering words, connecting them and making them into something – we begin to conjure the psychological resilience and motivation that feeds the flames of our activism – "keeping the fires burning through winter" – as the Campfire Convention Trailblazers slogan put it.
Poetry changes us by sustaining us, drawing deep from our imagination and feeding our courage and creativity. And these poetic soul manifestos change and evolve as we grow and move through the world. Often, these days, my poems and manifestos have my granddaughters in them. My love for these two little girls gives me a different set of motivations for this work than I have found in the past; and my words, in turn, help me to connect this ‘close-in’ love with a broader, deeper seam of love that contains the Earth and all its inhabitants. Each one of us will have own constellation of these connections, sometimes deep inside us, waiting to emerge as simple poetic images that translate into words, poems and 'flickers of soul'.
Contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org if you're interested in working with me around poetry, deep wellbeing and soul manifestos for yourself, a group, organisation or community)
* The quote: "...for the simple poetic image there is no project, a flicker of the soul is all that is needed" comes from Gaston Bachelard's book, The Poetics of Space, 1969.
** The poem: 'Picking Up Words' was written for the Trailblazers 2 weekend and is copyright, Steve Thorp, 2019.