Listening to Radio 4 in the mornings is a habit I think I started when I wanted to justify lying in. At least if I’m listening to something intelligent (or half-listening) then I’m not doing nothing. During times when I’ve most struggled to get out of bed and start the day, I have come across a range of fascinating topics that have kept me horizontal just that bit longer. Last week Hugh Bonneville was reading extracts from the newly published collection of letters from Philip Larkin. Lots of references to his poetry were combined with obvious affection for Monica and reviews of the collection have talked about how it paints him in a much less misogynistic light.
I enjoyed studying his poetry when I was at school and looked out the slim volume, The Whitsun Weddings again the other morning. There’s a quote from an interview with Larkin which I remember: how he said it’s unhappiness that provokes a poem. Perhaps in response to people who called his work depressing, Larkin explained that it’s the melancholy side of life which caused him to put pen to paper, and that people liked him for that. There are a few more cheerful examples in The Whitsun Weddings, but one of the more reflective ones, Days, begins:
What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
I can’t find anyone else on the internet making the connection, but I think Nerina Pallot alludes to Larkin’s poetry in her song, Mr King. An earlier line talks about how she’d read the books she’d been given and disbelieved them, “thinking poets are depressed”, but that later she admits she’d been wrong.
And the world was a good place
And in days were where I lived
I imagined life had purpose
And I’d something good to give
Pallot’s songs also expressed a range of difficult and at times more desperate emotions, though her website now suggests that she is happily married and settled. I’m pleased for her – when I heard her play live some years back I was a bit concerned for her well-being. Sarah Kane was another troubled artist who worried me when I was at university. She also turned her turmoil to creativity but sadly took her own life later that year.
I think some of the Psalms also probably started life as therapy for David and other song-writers, and can find something there to match my mood however I’m feeling. One of my current favourites is probably Psalm 42, which includes a refrain:
Why are you so downcast, O my soul?
Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God
For I will yet praise him
My saviour and my God.
The psalmist (one of the sons of Korah) urges himself to praise God anyway, but significantly still includes many verses of depression, disappointment, pain and sorrow. Being honest about feeling down is important, and seriously lacking in some Christian circles. I guess the question is how we deal with those feelings when they come, which they do. I’ve spent a lot of time in the past listening to artists who are honest about their struggles, including Joni Mitchell and Martyn Joseph, and I’m not sure whether that always helps my mood. It does help to know I’m not alone, and isn’t annoying like some of the ‘everything’s great and I’m so happy’ pop songs (and church songs, urgh). But actually I think being creative myself, writing songs or poems is maybe more productive and helps me more. I’ve tried writing my own versions of psalms sometimes, or just started with a blank piece of paper. Perhaps it’s some kind of an attempt to hearten my soul.