From Bad to Verse


Thousand-year-old yew tree,  Kelburn Castle, UK.

Recently, at a meeting of a local poetry society, I encountered the ultimate denial.

I innocently read a recent poem of mine that described the winter trees expressing various emotions, in the tradition of pathetic fallacy, and ending

But then, the winter willow

Broken by winds

Kneels as if in pity on the lesser rest of us,

Who do not live as long or stand as strong as trees.

We who do not last the winter.

Once everyone had read their poems, discussion was opened. Someone queried, “What did that last line mean?”

Is it not obvious, gentle reader? Read those last two lines. I think it is so obvious that her question was really a demand that it mean something else. I had stumbled upon the penultimate denial: of the inevitability of death.

Painful as it is to explain a poem, I explained. Winter is death. Trees are reborn in spring. We are not. 

“But trees don’t really die in winter,” another then piped up. “And pine trees don’t die in winter. Coniferous trees don’t die.”

Imagine that; someone at a poetry meeting not understanding metaphor. And only barely a metaphor at that: I might have responded that the only proof that trees do not die in winter is that they are born again the next spring. But we were getting into quibbles about semantics.

Of course she understood the metaphor. The problem was the subject: death, whenever encountered, must be denied to exist. That ought to work.

“Even if you take it literally, trees live longer than humans,” I responded.

“Sometimes,” she said. 

Almost always, if they are not cut down. Perhaps she had never thought of it—it would require, after all, thinking about death. Perhaps, as soon as the subject of death comes up, a hysterical “no” forms in her mind. Perhaps that is what was happening here. I had mentioned the unmentionable.

Another participant, from India, chipped in, “In India we believe in reincarnation; you are born again just like the trees are in spring.”

Someone else eagerly responded, “So it depends on your philosophy.”

No, it does not. You cannot simply wish things to be true. This is denial in its perfect form. 

Of course, reincarnation might be true. Not my business to write a Buddhist or a Hindu poem. Few in Canada would have understood.

But this person had not thought out the consequences of reincarnation either. 

There is nothing scary about death itself, if death is simply the loss of consciousness. Are we afraid to go to sleep? Are we worried about what is happening in Addis Ababa right now that we might not be conscious of?

People fear death because they are aware that the universe inclines toward justice, and the afterlife might bring retribution.

That is the real, ultimate denial: the denial of right and wrong, the denial of guilt.

Reincarnation is not infinitely extended life as you are. It is ruled by karma; your next life exacts punishment for this one. In fact, as I pointed out, in lands where reincarnation is assumed, the desired goal is “nirvana,” “cessation,” like the blowing out of a candle. You wish for final death. Breaking even is your best hope.

And that pretty much ended the conversation. Better to move on to other subjects, I guess. Like violence in the streets. What could cause it?

One of the participants, black, lamented the rising tide of violence in the city. But, she said, she had no solution. What was the solution?

The obvious solution would be more policing. But she had cited the recent murder of Tyre Nichols by police as one example of the violence. And this was fair enough. More policing may not be the solution.

Another participant—she who could not accept the death of trees in winter—immediately pitched in that the problem was mental illness. Yes; mental illness. More money for police, say, was a bad idea. We needed to put more resources into the treating of mental illness.

I chipped in that the new ingredient, causing the rise in violence, seemed to be the rise in drug use. New and more potent drugs had become available. Addicts need to steal to support their habit.

That comment, debatable as it was, was simply ignored. It dropped into the void of denial. She went back to lamenting the problem of mental illness. It had to be mental illness.

I held my tongue;  there was no point arguing with denial. But the problem with blaming violence on mental illness is first, that, statistically, the mentally ill as currently defined are no more likely to be violent or to commit crimes than the general public. This, remarkably, remains true even though we now actually define anyone who does violence or habitually commits crimes as mentally ill. “Antisocial behaviour disorder.” “Oppositional defiant disorder.” And so forth.

In other words, the “real” mentally ill, the depressed, manic, chronically anxious or schizophrenic, are probably far less likely to be violent than the general population. 

By claiming they are the source of all violence, we are scapegoating them. As if they didn’t already have enough problems, with suffering and with stigma.


Because by doing so, we are able to deny the existence of human evil. Nobody is ever evil; if they do something evil, they must not know what they are doing. Hence, “insane.”

And we are not insane. So we cannot be guilty of evil, no matter what we do. Any guilty conscience to the contrary.

This is why attributing it to drug use, although it can be done, and the suggestion need not be reacted to violently, is much less acceptable. Despite the current insistence that “addiction is a disease,” drug use still does look somewhat intentional. There is a whiff of guilt about it.

No; better to claim it is the insane.

Speaking now of poetry, and art; for we are at a poetry meeting.

The rising tide of denial is surely why poetry and the arts are moribund in our time. Art and poetry cannot exist without speaking truth. That is their whole purpose.

The rising tide of denial is also the ultimate reason why drug use, and violence, is escalating. Those who deny are those most likely to become violent; and those most likely to resort to drugging themselves. To escape their guilt with attempted unconsciousness.

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