Turning poison into medicine, with poetry.

1 Aug

Here, poet Angus Ogilvy speaks about how poetry helped him cope with cancer.

Poetic expression has always felt like home. From early in my life, crafting the language of thought seems to have developed into a habitual tendency. I’ve noticed that the urge intensifies the more I open to my own vulnerability, let the protective barriers fall away, acknowledge the softness, accept the wounds and direct the inner energy out.

Cancer is vulnerability: there is your own physical and mental vulnerability of course, but there is also the reminder of vulnerability that you present to those around you and their unpredictable reactions to that. From the moment of my first diagnosis, I had the great good fortune to open out rather than to close down. It was not a conscious decision. It came to me as a natural reaction to a situation over which I had essentially no direct control: no parachute, no safety net, no magic elixir. Just free fall and possibly the imminent end of life. As I felt that free-fall, I began to appreciate the appeal of extreme sports like base jumping and sky-diving to people who are expected to be in complete control of their intense lives: the adrenalin surge and the moment of release and the opening to another reality.

This opening out involved a deeper conversation with myself and poetry seemed the natural way for me to give this expression. It was also a way of opening to others: those close to me and those with whom there might be affinity through their own experiences of cancer or other conditions. I saw no purpose in moping. I wished to continue to enjoy my life and appreciate all that comes with it, whatever that may be. A teacher once expressed it thus: What connects you heals you. What disconnects you harms you. I wanted to connect with others in helpful ways, somehow universalise this intensely human experience; search out the learning and the good in it. I remember once toiling wearily up the side of a steep volcano in the mid-morning heat of Java and watching one heavy foot follow another on the dusty path ahead and wondering when, if ever, I would find respite. Then I stopped, turned around and was stunned and elated by the most beautiful vista behind me that I had been blind to for what seemed like an age of exertion. All I needed was to see an alternative view that had been right there behind me all the time. I learned then what it meant to turn the poison into medicine. There is something special to be gained from almost any situation.

There was a practical element involved too. The effects of the condition and the treatment meant that I did not have the energy to engage with tomes of writing. The prospect of reading a book, even a slim one, was exhausting merely to think about. But I found that I could engage with reading or writing a poem. All I needed was a notebook and a pencil which I could have with me anywhere except in the shower, or the toilet where I passed my cytotoxic waste, or the CAT scan.

I documented the experiences, the facts, the practicalities, the ironies, the feelings, moods and revelations in poetry. It was my map, my personal therapy, more relevant to me than my bulging medical records, and, hopefully, a means of helping others with something accessible they could empathise with and open to. Part of that journey was about examining my perceptions of death; coming out of the bush and facing the animal, seeing its eyes, recognizing it was as vulnerable as I. That meeting, like the view in Java, was accompanied by the sense that everything was relevant, in its place, and amazingly, intricately, wonderfully alive. In many ways the poetry put me on a roll.

I have had the great good fortune to come through my treatment and be restored to reasonable health. I feel within myself that the poetry was part of the healing. Of course my world has changed, but I have no reason to see that change as a negative thing. It just is. I continue to write poetry and it continues to flow from my experience. I was given the opportunity and privilege to share my poems with others through Maggie’s Centre in Edinburgh and people have responded positively and found them helpful. Now I will use them in my addresses to conferences at which I have been invited to speak on behalf of patients on the journey with cancer.

My next post will be some of Angus’s poems which deal with this subject.

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