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Richard Berengarten reflects on the curious and unexpected meeting between Anne-Laura van Harmelen's work as a scientist and his as a poet.

Anne-Laura van Harmelen and I met for a quiet coffee on a Monday morning in September 2019 at the Michaelhouse in Trinity Street, Cambridge. She explained that the main thrust of her work involves exploration of the complex and multiple factors underlying teenage suicide. She gave me some disturbing statistics: for example, that “at least 16% of adolescents think about suicide;” that “8% go on to make an attempt;” that “suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people worldwide”; and that “suicidal thoughts and behaviours typically emerge during adolescence.” Another page on the same website adds: “7,000 people in the UK take their own life each year” and “For young men, suicide is the leading cause of death.”

Yet despite these figures, the project that Anne-Laura directs has the acronym HOPES (Help Overcome and Prevent the Emergence of Suicide). At the end of our talk, I asked her what she would most appreciate in a poem from me. Her immediate reply was: “A message of hope.”

As I came away from our meeting, I was full of puzzled wondering and conflicting impressions. To be or not to be, that is the question, says Hamlet as he holds Yorick’s skull. As anybody who has ever experienced the slightest inkling of self-doubt, depression or despair knows – and what thinking person has not? – the issue of suicide touches us all at some point in our life, perhaps at many points. On the one hand, I was impressed by the immense potential value of Anne-Laura’s project. On the other, I wondered how her statistics had been achieved and whether and how they showed change over time. I also experienced a vivid sense of what seemed to me the equally enormous conceptual and practical difficulties involved in framing and conducting research into such a vast subject. For how can one deal adequately both in fully sympathetic human terms and dispassionately with an issue that lies so deeply rooted in subjective identity, and must also be influenced by such a huge array of other factors? Hereditary, environmental, geographical? Sociological, political, psychological? Topical, circumstantial, and perhaps even merely ‘accidental’? And I found myself in dialogue with myself, asking many more questions. For example: How might these multiple factors be ascertained and separated out, let alone interpreted and understood? And how could they be inclusive enough to lead to meaningful results? What paradigms are to be adopted? Might there be a paradigm of paradigms? And if so, wouldn’t this need to include metaphysical, religious and humanistic issues as well as ‘purely’ scientific ones?

Being in dialogue with oneself, of course, is usually the way that the voices  of an incipient poem begin to call to, call in, call on, call out […] a poet. What poetry and science have in common, perhaps, isn’t just the asking of questions, but asking (puzzling out) how the questions one wants to ask need to be framed.

What’s the value of a single human life? And who, if anybody, is to judge this? These are huge questions that resonate throughout the history of literature, philosophy and art, just as they do through law, medicine, politics, psychology and the social sciences. Just pause for a moment to consider the names of a few of the major poets, writers, artists, actors and philosophers who’ve committed suicide, from the 18th century to our own day: Augustina Andrade, Thomas Lovell Beddoes, Walter Benjamin, John Berryman, Dora Carrington, Paul Celan, Thomas Chatterton, Hart Crane, Branko Ćopić, Gerard de Nerval, Gilles Deleuze, Thomas M. Disch, Joan Dowling, Ernest Hemingway, Arthur Koestler, Primo Levi, Amy Levy, Jack London, Yukio Mishima, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Marilyn Monroe, Branko Miljković, Cesare Pavese, Sylvia Plath, Sophie Podolski, Mark Rothko, Anne Sexton, Lena Svedberg, Marina Tsvetayeva, Vincent Van Gogh, Robin Williams, Virginia Woolf, Sergei Yesenin, Hai Zi, Stefan Zweig [...]. And this is the mere tip of a Parnassian mountain of souls. In the wake of the death of the literary critic Al Alvarez in London last month, whose stirring book about artistic suicide, The Savage God, was published in 1972, the links between suicide and ‘artistic’ giftedness surely need exploring in yet more depth.

If Anne-Laura’s project focuses primarily on suicide among teenagers, and if, as her website says, “suicidal thoughts and behaviours typically emerge during adolescence,” might her work eventually also impinge on these wider issues of existential despair among adults, and not only among those with a ‘creative sensibility’? This topic has continued to trouble thinkers from Socrates to Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein, Durkheim, Freud, Jung, Camus, Sartre, Colin Wilson and Derrida – and right into our own times.

Since meeting Anne-Laura, I’ve also found myself wondering if suicide can ever be really “overcome and prevented”, and whether the assumptions underlying these terms might themselves need challenging. For is this language of combat actually conducive to anything approaching a full or clear understanding? In his book Suicide and the Soul (1964), the archetypal psychologist James Hillman suggests that the viewpoints of sociology, law, medicine and theology beg the question: “[T]he issue is not for or against suicide,” he argues, “but what it means in the psyche” (p. 37; his emphasis). Hillman frames his questions about suicide, and about the condition of mortality itself, not in terms of an illness that needs ‘curing’ or epidemic that needs ‘overcoming and preventing’, but rather by asking what is and what should be the appropriate response of a psychotherapist or psychoanalyst to a person contemplating suicide.

I’ve also wondered about how the ideologies of martyrdom and willed self-sacrifice connect with Anne-Laura’s work. The Japanese Kamikaze pilots in the Second World War were all young, as are most contemporary Jihadi suicide bombers. These facts pose huge and multiple ethical issues.

I haven’t yet had the chance to ask Anne-Laura for her thoughts on these questions.

In my poetic response to meeting Anne-Laura, I’ve aimed to think about and around her work while hinting at (at least) some of these issues. My poem too is called ‘HOPES?’ The question mark borne by this title, of course, has more than one possible implication.

The poem’s first part adopts the persona of a teenage girl. The name that came to me for this girl was May. I’d like to emphasise here that this name, May, which also clearly embeds more than one possible meaning, isn’t based on that of any particular person, living or otherwise.

The poem’s layout – or phanopœia – is formed spatially as a pair of diamonds. I’ve been working for a while on poems with this pattern, influenced by George Herbert and Dylan Thomas, as well as by the European tradition of visual poetry (poesia visiva) from Guillaume Apollinaire to Roberto Sanesi and Ian Hamilton Finlay. My series of poems is entitled Rough Diamonds. I prefer the term ‘visual poetry’ to ‘concrete poetry’.

This particular pair of diamonds might be either black or white, and each of the diamonds has two parts (aspects, sides). I’ve some inklings why this is so, but suspect that my own ideas are less relevant than a reader’s. It also occurs to me, as it always does after writing a poem: if I were to receive a reader’s response, perhaps I might learn from it. Is a poet best thought of as an agent or a vehicle through which the latent poem expresses itself, and so comes to consciousness? Shelley writes in his ‘Defence of Poetry’: “Poetry is not like reasoning, a power to be exerted according to the determination of the will. A man cannot say, ‘I will compose poetry.’” A poem often expresses not just what the poet wants to say but things s/he has never consciously intended at all. Ted Hughes said something similar in his Paris Review interview (1995): “Maybe all poetry, insofar as it moves us and connects, is a revealing of something that the writer doesn’t actually want to say but desperately needs to communicate, to be delivered of.” Did Hughes really mean “doesn’t want to say? Or perhaps “wants not-to-say”? Either way, every offering of a poem to a reader (i.e. publishing it) must be a kind of submission, a testing out.

As Karl Popper would have it, what we regard as the body of science attains a kind of provisional certainty by the accumulated submissions of any hypothesis to the test of “amenability to disproof”. Hence clarity (clarification) is achieved by the exclusion not only of what’s false (impossible) but also, at least ideally, of ambiguity. Perhaps the same could also be said of what most lawyers and some philosophers would like to achieve – at least ideally. But the poet, who needs to be in a state of uncertainty, not only works inclusively with ambiguity but delights in it. “I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow / I learn by going where I have to go,” writes Theodore Roethke in ‘The Waking’. John Keats calls this state or condition “Negative Capability”, adding that it occurs “[…] when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason […].” So poetry embraces no single or exclusive meaning but a rich nexus of meanings and associations (both plural). In a poem, meaning(s) can’t and won’t be reduced. Meaningfulness in a poem is always multilayered, multifaceted, multivalent, polysemic.

This double-diamond poem, then, which I’ve dedicated to Anne-Laura, represents a curious and unexpected meeting between the directions of her work as a scientist and my own as a poet. Thanks to the Connections project, it’s been a pleasure and a privilege to meet her personally and to find out a little about HOPES. I hope to learn more.

Richard Berengarten. Cambridge, 21-22 October 2019

Acknowledgement: I’d like to thank Dr. Melanie Rein, analytical psychologist, for her invaluable comments and suggestions on a draft of this piece.

Richard Berengarten is a poet and author of more than twenty-five books, including The Manager, Black Light, The Blue Butterfly, Manual, Notness, Imagems and Changing. He has received an Eric Gregory Award, the Keats Poetry Prize, Duncan Lawrie Prize, Jewish Quarterly-Wingate Award, Manada Prize (Macedonia), Morava Charter Prize (Serbia), Xu Zhimo Silver Willow Award, several Arts Council Awards, and a Royal Literary Fund Fellowship (at Newnham College) followed by a Project Fellowship. In 1975, he founded and launched the international Cambridge Poetry Festival, which lasted until 1985. Richard has lived in Italy, Greece, the USA and former Yugoslavia, and his work has been translated into more than a hundred languages. His latest online multilingual Albero Project combines poetry and ecology. Currently a Bye-Fellow of Downing College and an Academic Associate at Pembroke College, in June 2020 he is scheduled to appear at the 30th International Poetry Festival in Medellin, Colombia.

Anne-Laura van Harmelen is a Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Fellow and Senior Research Associate at the Department of Psychiatry, University of Cambridge and a Fellow at Lucy Cavendish College.   Anne-Laura directs the Risk and Resilience Group which aims to investigate why some children and adolescents develop mental health problems, and others do not. My work is funded by the Royal Society and MQ.

Click here to see the image gallery from the Connections event