This article was originally published in Therapy Today (April 2018) and we thank the editors for granting permission for its reproduction here.
‘Without her mirroring, maybe I’d have stayed in my poetry closet. Her affirmation was the turning point in my adult life. I felt I’d finally been given permission to have a voice’
Ten years ago, when I was 40, I saw an advert for a poetry course at Bristol University. It was an adult learning programme, which, sadly, is no longer offered. I had to submit six poems before being accepted. I’ve always written, and always used poetry as my mirror, to know and explore who I am. But I’ve always done so as a guilty pleasure, a closet hobby.
The course was run by a grounded, passionate and sometimes fearsome poet. It was challenging in the way that therapy is challenging; getting the poems to a level of truth and meaning, of genuine authenticity, isn’t easy. People often get the wrong idea of poetry; they think of it as something flaky. I was struck by how powerfully my teacher responded to my work. She was serious about it. She said it had value, more than I had chosen to give it. Tellingly, what she conveyed was that she believed in it.
Looking back, this was a huge moment. She opened a door that had been firmly shut. Without her mirroring, maybe I’d have stayed in my poetry closet. Her affirmation was the turning point in my adult life. I felt I’d finally been given permission to have a voice.
Up to that point I’d been working in publishing sales. I’d graduated in psychology as a mature student when I was 33. In my final year, I fell ill with Hodgkin’s disease. Even though I eventually came out with a top degree, when I graduated, rather than being full of confidence, I was broken. I had lost hope in my own future. I also felt I’d failed. The sales job was some bizarre gesture to my father; I was still trying to get his love, to prove to him I could be a man in a man’s world. It wasn’t me at all.
My relationship with him had been tense, difficult and baleful. I didn’t trust him, and that lack of trust fed into me. I wouldn’t trust myself or my own instincts. That poetry course opened the door to a side of my personality I had done my damnedest to shut away. Once open, there was no going back to the repressed darkness. I’d found a little light and began a process of reliving that opened out my 40s. I could no longer afford to not be myself. There wasn’t time.
I started to trust in my more nuanced skills – thoughtfulness and reflectiveness; to trust that I could be and offer something else. I entered therapy and was ‘blessed’ by a male therapist, week in and week out. It was a revelatory experience to trust a man. Like a new tide, I returned to my love of psychology, and finally had the confidence to start my counselling training. And, amid the study, my new job with the NHS, gardening work and marathon running, I followed on with a commitment to my poetry. I sent my poems into the world, and to my surprise, they were published.
Paul Deaton is a poet, writer and counsellor-in- training at BCPC Bath. Seren has just published his first full-length poetry collection, A Watchful Astronomy.
About A Watchful Astronomy:
‘A Watchful Astronomy is such an unclouded, moving and accessible collection it should be prescribed by the NHS for those who say they cannot stomach poetry because it’s too difficult or irrelevant.’
– Poetry School
Haunted by a father ‘like a wounded bear’, the poems in Paul Deaton’s debut collection, A Watchful Astronomy, are tense, exact and often beautifully formal.