I don’t like to be thought of as an angry person. I’ve always regarded anger, quite rightly, as a negative emotion, something to be avoided, but I believe my assessment of what anger is has been clouded by how I’ve seen anger expressed by others. It’s not a word I use and I’d like to think it would take a lot to make me angry but what I mean when I say that is, of course, to make me express my anger – there is a difference.
I’m a writer and, as I’ve said many times, I define a writer as someone whose natural response to life is to write about it, so when I’m in love I’ve written love poems and when I’ve lost love ones I’ve written elegies. When I read over my poems one thing I don’t see any immediate evidence of is anger. After thirty years of writing don’t you find that a bit strange?
I went to see a psychotherapist a while back when I was sick and not for the first time. This particular lady brought up anger quite a bit but I always resisted going there. I would admit to often being frustrated but not angry. Allowing myself to be angry felt like a losing of self-control. The fact of the matter is I was angry. But what is anger? Potted definition time:
Anger is a negative feeling which often happens when a person thinks that someone or something has done something wrong, bad or which puts them in danger, and they want to stop the risk, or punish the person for what they have done. – Wikipedia
In the olden days ‘danger’ was probably at the top of that list. Wild animals would attack you without any provocation and try to kill you. I guess that’s a decent enough reason for feeling angry. Although even there I still struggle with anger as a natural response to a threat like that. Why? Because the animal is not doing anything bad per se. It has no concept of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and is working purely on its instincts. It’s hungry, I’m food – where’s the problem? Yes, by all means I want to stop it killing me and I would go as far as killing it if I had to but I’m not sure being angry with the beast would do any good. Of course there are physiological effects that come into play when one is angry making defending oneself against a wild animal – or fleeing one – that bit easier but I find equating the survival instinct with anger a bit hard to swallow.
Now, if a foreign power decided to send men over here to hurt or kill me then that might get my dander up. What right have they? But that doesn’t happen very often. I don’t think anyone has ever seriously threatened my life. They’ve said the words but I would expect you’d know when someone meant, “I’m going to kill you,” and when it was just words especially if they say something like, “I’m going to absolutely kill you.” I mean, what’s the difference between killing someone and absolutely killing them?
So what threats do we have to face in the real world that might make us angry? On the Cambridge University Counselling Site they put it very simply:
For 'life threatening', substitute 'identity threatening'. In today's society some of the things that make people feel angry and stimulate aggressive thoughts are:
- Perceived disrespectful treatment: Of thoughts, beliefs, feelings and needs
- Perceived threat: To the continuation, or success of something to which we are strongly committed, e.g. one's partner, university course, lifestyle
- Perceived unfairness
- Perceived provocation or suspicion and hostility: "They" did that on purpose, just to "wind me up". The best form of defence is to attack before they do.
For example: Peter says, “My anger came from a frontal assault on my concept of myself as a teacher;” Kathy says, “My anger came from a false belief;” Eli says “My anger came from my preferring to blame the world for my dislike of myself” and Ruth says “My anger came from everyday injustice.” There are a lot of things out there ready to make us angry. It’s a wonder we’re not all fizzing all the time.
What prompted me to start thinking about anger was a comment made by Joan Didion. She argued that writing by its nature is…
…an aggressive, even a hostile act [that] the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind…setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the readers most private space.
What is interesting is that I wrote up to this point without having double-checked that quote. In my head she was talking about “anger” and, as you can see, she doesn’t mention it at all.
So what is aggression? Aggression is predatory behaviour. Lions are aggressive. But are they angry? Probably not since anger is a response whereas aggression can just as easily be proactive or reactive. Anger often results in aggression but it can also be passive and I think that’s where I get confused over anger. Because I don’t express my anger through hostility I talk myself into thinking it’s not there. I don’t want it to be there. I don’t want to live in a house, a society or a world where things or people exist that might make me angry – like that’s going to happen soon.
Since I can’t change the world or society nor can I do much to change my house as I’m a writer would it not be natural to attack the issues that trouble me – by that I mean the things that make me angry – through my writing? Well, here is, I think, a good example:
I took sick this morning
but I was not surprised.
When I saw you there so ill
I knew then I was helpless
and there being no one to punish
I turned on myself in frustration
dragging my love with me
screaming, "This is not the way!
This is not constructive."
And I said, "No,
but it is something."
17 October 1989
The B. in question was a young woman I had a terrible crush on. I was married at the time and did nothing about it although I think at the end she’d added two and two together. I know my wife had despite my protestations. I don’t remember the exact details behind the poem but I know what the illness would have been. B. suffered from terrible migraines. If she was with us and felt one coming on she’d up and leave and take to her bed. They would knock her out for days on end. She couldn’t hold down a job or anything because of them either. I was angry. I was angry that she was ill. I was angry that I couldn’t do anything to help. I was angry that I couldn’t at least be with her. And so I did what I do. I internalised my anger and
grew an ulcer wrote a poem.
Of course I didn’t feel as if I felt angry. There was no one to be angry with apart from God who I was trying to believe in at the time and failing badly. I felt frustrated. If there was anyone I should have been angry with it should actually have been me for losing perspective.
When I look objectively at the body of my writing a lot of the time I’m responding to a feeling of powerlessness, the inability to do something, change something, understand something. I suppose my poems are often the voodoo dolls I stick my pins in. It bothers me . . . no, it actually embarrasses me to write something like that because no matter how much justification I might have I still believe that expressing anger, even in a poem, is bad. No one taught me that. My parents were often given cause by us kids to be angry and they always rose to that challenge. So it’s not as if I grew up in an overly passive environment because I didn’t. My brother I have to tell you was a very angry young man, always just under the boil.
Writing a poem is something to do when there is nothing to do. This is especially true in the case of ‘The Empath’ but I think that’s the case more often than it’s not. Writing is not living. I write often because I can’t live. I didn’t want to write about B. I wrote because I couldn’t be with her. This is only one of a great many poems I wrote for her. I wrote this one three weeks before ‘The Empath’:
TUNNEL OF LOVE
Love is not a thing you fall into
but an experience you go through
like a long tunnel.
Sometimes I just like to sit
in the dark in ours and pretend
I don't see the light at the end.
26 September 1989
It’s one of the poems in my collection This Is Not About What You Think but I can’t honestly remember now if the love in question was the love I felt for my wife or the love I felt for B. not that it matters. You could read it either way. Am I lashing out in this poem? If I am it’s very half-hearted clawing at air, a gesture, nothing more.
Poems can’t change my world. But they can deface it. The writing is on the wall.
I’m not the only one who has come round to this way of thinking. On her blog Nicole Fuentes wrote this:
When I wrote Keeping Her in the Light, I was in a state of confusion, followed by a state of anger. It was either self-destruct or do something useful with that powerful yet dangerous anger. The result of my decision was Keeping Her in the Light. Just like the darkness Hector speaks of, anger can be bent too into something that won’t hurt us. I’ve done push-ups and sit ups when frustrated, because of the restless energy. It’s like converting that energy into something more useful–something productive. Some would tell us not to do anything when angry or else we might do something we’ll regret later on. With writing, it can be similar, but if you can mask that anger through analogies and allegories, why not vent through writing, through dialogue, through characters, through a story?
I’ve always acknowledged how I’m affected by negative emotions like sadness but I’ve shied away from admitting that one of those negative emotions might be anger. I’d use any other synonym under the sun rather that admitting to the a-word but ‘frustration’ would be my first choice I think. The poet John Trudell had this to say about how he coped with the loss of his family:
The poetry, the writing kept me alive. Anger kept me alive. Anger is a healthy thing, although we live in a society that tells us to manage our anger, to suppress it. If you accept your anger, if you understand that it's OK to be angry, you won't go mad. The madness would have destroyed me. There's no coherency to madness.
It’s semantics I know but I think what he did and what I did are actually forms of anger management. Anger is a directionless force racing around inside you looking for release. It’s looking for a crack. The trick is to use that force constructively, productively. It surprises me I don’t write more poetry that I do to be honest. But it also probably explains the dearth of ‘happy’ poetry in my collection.
I found this interesting article called The Four Faces of Anger which I have to say has made me think. In it Mark Gorkin proposes a broader definition of anger:
Is your anger expression "purposeful" or "spontaneous"? Is your anger expression "constructive" or "destructive"? Let me briefly and loosely define my terms:
- "Purposeful" - when anger expression is intentional, with a significant degree of consideration or calculation; there is also a significant degree of self-control
- "Spontaneous" - when anger expression is immediate with little premeditation or planning; there is little-moderate self-control
- "Constructive" - when anger expression affirms and acknowledges one's integrity and boundary without objectively intending to threaten or violate another's integrity or appropriate boundary
- "Destructive" - when anger expression defensively projects and rigidly fortifies one's vulnerable identity and boundary by intending to threaten or violate another's integrity and appropriate boundary (whether the intention is conscious or not)
This he says can be summarised as:
which he argues can be reduced to:
all of which makes me realise that perhaps I’m a lot angrier person that I have been willing to admit. I’ve just managed to avoid expressing it in destructive ways. It still bothers me that there are things that can make me angry but we don’t live in a perfect world. It would actually be unnatural not to be angry a lot of the time. I’m still more comfortable to say that something had offended or upset or frustrated me but they’re just words and words may be quite good at capturing meanings but they don’t do so well with feelings. And that makes me…