Blue Umbrellas

Peacock_With_Fanned_Tail_600  Since my last workshop at Staffordshire University the other Saturday, I’ve been thinking about blue umbrellas. Not that it rained on the day. In fact, I was impressed by the commitment and goodwill of the twenty-four counselling students sat indoors on a sunny April day, studying the therapeutic aspects of writing. No, ‘Blue Umbrellas’ was a poem that came to mind after a student’s passing comment. Alongside the benefits of writing for wellbeing, I’d asked the group to think about potential pitfalls. ‘Words can close things down,’ said one student, as I passed round the next handouts. ‘They can box things off.’

’Blue Umbrellas,’ by D. J. Enright, opens with a child asking the word for ‘The thing that makes a blue umbrella with its tail.’ The speaker’s response is apologetic: ‘all I can call it is a peacock.’ The poem explores how words can limit imagination as our vocabulary becomes more sophisticated. You can read the whole poem here But perhaps even more pertinent is Robert Graves’ much-anthologised poem ‘The Cool Web,’ which you can read here.

In our workshop, we looked at how putting words to experiences and difficult feelings can enable us to see these more clearly. When our issues become conscious and articulated in front of us, it is easier to work through them to a constructive resolution. This is best done in a safe space, whether in a counselling room with another or on a blank page with a pen.

For Graves, things are not so simple. He asserts that the ‘cool web of language’ dulls vivid experience  into mere information. It makes things safe in the wrong way, cauterising our sensitivity. His images of the rose and the soldier underline that blocking our receptivity is a two-edged sword: What soothes our fears of soldiers also neutralises the scent of the rose (itself called ‘cruel’ at one point) When we open up, we cannot select the stimuli that come our way. We must risk tasting fear alongside joy, or insulate ourselves against both.


The risk does not stop there: If we remove the ‘watery clasp’ of language that mutes our senses, the poem asserts, the resulting intensity is enough to overwhelm and drive us mad. And Graves knew what he was writing about. ‘The Cool Web’ was published in the aftermath of the First World War and his own traumatic experience as a soldier.

Graves looked to poetry rather than the fledgling practice of psychotherapy for healing ; he favoured a writing cure rather than a talking one. But whilst seeking words for internal conflicts and their resolution through poetic expression may be therapeutic, at times it seems the process left Graves anxious: If it was too successful, perhaps the dynamic that drove his poetry would peter out, leaving him in ‘sea-green’ stagnation.

His fears are understandable: How many of us find that our own personal writing is more prolific in the tough times?  Yet we may turn to words, not ‘to chill the angry day,’ as Graves feared, but to contain it; not as cautious ‘retreat’ but necessary relief. Of course, we can spin words to cloak what is deep or raw, but words are only ever the slaves of our intentions.

The antidote to Graves’ concerns may be to reclaim the potential of words to enrich our lives as well as heal them. If we can use words to channel the intensity of experience, we can also use them to recover it. Where we have become reliant on given words as short-cuts to label our world, we can choose to look afresh for our own.

The adult speaker of ‘Blue Umbrellas’ saw the peacock in a new light as the child’s vivid imagery described what he saw. We do not have to share the poet’s laments for language acquisition; we can use words as tools to express new and extraordinary ways of looking at what has become too ordinary. We do not have to wait for pain to push us beyond our verbal comfort zone. Words can be part of a dynamic that opens up our creativity, rather than dampening our sensitivity.

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