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Recently I spent some time in hospital.  Ironically, it was the same Galway Hospital in which the Western Writers' Centre had initiated the very first hospitals’ writer-in-Fred Johnstonresidency, with poet Nuala ní Chonchúir, some years ago, an initiative quickly imitated.  Here I was, then, in residence in a somewhat different manner.  Now and again I would encounter a framed poem of one kind or other in a corridor or shaded room; but like most people confined to a hospital, I wanted only to get a bill of health clean enough to permit me to go home.  I found that I had little interest in books or newspapers, was too nervous to read and was like a child drifting parentless around a vast and strange supermarket.  I had absolutely no use for poetry.

On reflection, and in the comfort of my own acre, I began to write, attempting to interpret to myself what I had experienced through poems.  I don’t write poems in English any longer, but have been working them in French, with surprising success for some time now.  Just as, in hospital, I found that I’d lost the voice necessary to create anything out of what I was experiencing, I’d some time since felt that I needed a different voice, a different tongue, to describe what I’d experienced in the world of Irish matters.  I envied those who could write in Irish.  Events had accumulated to sufficiently block out my ability adequately – in my belief – to engage in the world of Irish poetry through English; I had to go outside of English to see anew the things I wanted to write about.

The framed poems on the hospital walls reminded me, if they had any effect on me whatever, merely of a world that belonged to someone else; a freer creature, not bound, as I was, by regulations and borders, an individual for whom innumerable things were still possible.  Now everything I might dream or hope for was, to a greater extent, hemmed in by the decisions and conclusions of others.  Hospitals are benevolent dictatorships.  I was reminded of Alphonse Daudet’s account of his time under medical care, In the Land of Pain (edited by Julian Barnes), in which Barnes, in a harrowing introduction that describes the novelist Turgenev being conscious throughout a surgical procedure, asks: ‘How is it best to write about illness…?’  Daudet, suffering from syphilis, advised his fellow patients that ‘illness should be treated like an unwanted guest … Daily life should continue as normally as possible.’  Daudet responded to his illness and its accompanying pain by writing about it.  That indicated to me a settlement of mind of which I was not – and as any kind of patient, I am no – always capable.  Many Irish poets have written about illness, hospitals, the deaths of relatives.  Brendan Kennelly comes to mind.  One thinks too of John Berger’s fictional novel, The Foot of Clive.  There is Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward.  Clearly writing about illness – that is, making proper literature out of it – even has political uses, for is shows illness as a leveller, where social class, rank and status are irrelevant.  Illness can, one might suggest, be political.

But as I lay in bed waiting, desperate for visitors, I could not create one single poetic phrase nor think upon or plan one decent sentence.  I had no use for poetry and suspected that poetry had little use for me.  I was not settles and had no creativity in me, only needs, and childish ones.  The medical and nursing care was excellent: my condition of creative atrophy had nothing to do with that.  I began, later, to understand that when ill the mind turns inwards; you’re wounded in your lair, the brightly-coloured cave-paintings of yesterday no longer speak.  As the sharp needle inserts itself into the tightening muscle, there’s no relief in running a line of poetry through your mind.

So what use is poetry these days?  None, I can safely say.  At least not for me.  Language, when it did emerge, came out of me in tight-throated squeaks, plaintive and urgent; ‘Let me go!’  Not, ‘Let me create!’  No, poetry belonged to those others who dwelt out there, over the cropped lawns in the burling city.  Having no tranquillity, I could recollect nothing of poetry and had no need of it.

That came as a great surprise to me.  A sobering one.  I had no need of poetry here, its occasional mischievous tugging at the mind’s sleeve; here, poetry simply wasn’t important.  I offer this, mind, as a personal observation and do not doubt that for many people in all kinds of situations, poetry is a solace and a friend.   But looking at an elderly man with an oxygen mask over his face, the only reachable conclusion you can reach is that reciting a verso of poetry to him is neither necessary nor of any use.  It lost its ability to heal, as it has lost its ability to be magical.  The industrialisation of poetry over the last quartet of a century has produced all the vices of industry anywhere and of any kind, the plots, the board-room coups, the malign intent, the graven ego.  The magicians have been few in number, the healer fewer still.  Continually talking to ourselves, we have lost the common language of the world in which the majority of people live; we are in frames, on walls, voiceless.  Overdosed on glittering prizes, residencies, competitions and festivals in exotic places, we see the ordinary as banal and beneath us.  We circle the wagons to protect our brothers and sisters from criticism, even, in some cases, from deserved public censure.  We have become a church, with all the scripted language of denial and rebuke.

But I have learned that none of this counts for anything in the great ordinariness, the great banality, of illness.  Write all we like about it afterwards, well and breathing in daylight: but we can never properly recreate that dumbness, that loss of language, on being able to speak in tongues ordinary folk do not know.  When a nurse tells you, as you lie in your awkward-fitting pyjamas smelling your own sweat, to roll up your sleeve, not all the majesty of Dante can save you.

Fred Johnston is a poet, novelist and critic.  Director of the Western Writers’ Centre, Galway, he now concentrates on writing poetry only in French.  He was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 1951.

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