Arts & Culture

‘The health of poetry’

5 min read

Radcliffe Fellow, Welsh national poet Gwyneth Lewis speaks on the process of poetical composition

As a graduate student at Oxford, Gwyneth Lewis wrote her dissertation on 18th century literary forgery. But as a working poet for three decades — and this year as a Radcliffe Fellow — she is as far from that fraud as conceivable.

Poets, in fact, are driven to uncover the sometimes uncomfortable truth, said Lewis in a lecture and reading this week (Dec. 2). “Part of our job is to say the things we ourselves don’t want to hear.”

Her talk, “The Health of Poetry,” was the Julia S. Phelps Annual Lecture in Art and the Humanities, heard by a late-afternoon audience of 200 at the Radcliffe Gymnasium.

Lewis, a writer in both English and her native Welsh, was named the first National Poet for Wales in 2005.

At Radcliffe, she’s finishing an epic poem about health care, inspired by her husband Leighton’s brush with a near fatal cancer. “I’ll kill you,” the opening line of Book I reads, “if you die on me now.”

The poem, in rare five-line stanzas, is a fanciful odyssey through the chaotic reality of a hospital world — “a territory more like ‘The Wizard of Oz’ than ‘ER’,” said Lewis.

Samples from this vivid and mellifluous work underscore Lewis’ power as a writer, a trade she has pursued as poet, scholar, filmmaker, memoirist, journalist, and opera librettist.

Lewis wrote her first poem at age 7 in her native Cardiff — a long, rhyming epic in Welsh about rain. From that time onward she was seized by the magic of words. “It hit me like lightning,” she said.

She published her first book in Welsh, in 1977. It was nearly 20 years later that her first book in English appeared. In between two languages, Lewis once told an interviewer, “there’s always that third place from which you can view two cultures.”

Writing, as an art and practice, is “at the center of my well-being,” said Lewis. “The process of poetical composition itself is a powerful force for health.”

In her 30s, while a producer at BBC Wales, Lewis struggled with clinical depression so profound that it numbed her, sent her to bed for days at a time, and even stripped her of dreams. She looked around for a helpful book, Lewis told her Radcliffe audience, but found them all depressing.

The result was her first nonfiction book, “Sunbathing in the Rain: A Cheerful Book about Depression” (Flamingo, 2002). It was both a triumph of humor and a therapeutic act. Lewis called it her “artistic autobiography” and proof of what she had suspected: that “my depression was long linked in some way (to my) work as an artist.”

The less writing, the more depression. “Unwritten poems,” said Lewis, “are a force to be feared.”

Poets are a force like that, too. Unlike the “fluffy” image they sometimes engender in the popular imagination, said Lewis, poets “inhabit difficult emotional terrain.” She quoted Dylan Thomas, who said that being a poet was like “walking over broken glass with your eyeballs.”

Thomas was among the modern poetic inspirations Lewis mentioned, along with Wallace Stevens. But for her epic poem, she found herself reaching further back — to Virgil, whose “Aeneid” she had once “tinkered with” in studying Latin; to Milton; and to Shakespeare, whose blank verse supplied “the most muscular shoulders of all.”

Lewis used passages from her long poem to illustrate the conventions of the epic, including the requisite journey into the underworld (in this case, a hospital basement).

She also uses metaphorical journeys into science and medicine to give the poem its energy — for which she thanked another inspiration, the 15th century French poet François Villon. He wrote with a colloquial directness, said Lewis, and with complete frankness about the body.

Lewis is a polymath. She is a writer steeped in the tradition of two languages — her “double life,” as she wrote in the preface to “Keeping Mum: Voices from Therapy” (Bloodaxe, 2003). “I swear in ancient Brythonic idioms … and surf the Net using the language of the Saxons.”

Lewis is also a writer who has explored how science and art illuminate one another, making her the perfect resident of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, an intellectual commons where the mission is the interdisciplinary penetration of intellectual borders.

Her writing draws on medicine, astronomy, psychiatry, and architecture. Her sailing and marriage memoir, “Two in a Boat” (Fourth Estate, 2005), was not only an “Odyssey”-like portrait of the wedded pair as “Sea Bitch” and “Captain Bastard.” It was full of technical drawings, and talk of hitches, hulls, splices, decks, and depressions of the weather variety.

At Harvard, Lewis is auditing a course on the neurobiology of language acquisition. Her lecture connected good health to the heartbeat of iambs, trochees, and metaphors that enliven poetry.

“Language itself,” said Lewis, “may be the world’s first mind-altering substance.”