What to read in a Shared Reading group: Eating fruit with Denise Levertov

garden at evening
Front garden, evening 23 May

Today I’m hoping to finish my reading of , O Taste and See’,  a short poem by Denise Levertov.  I say short – I’ve been here three days, so no promises – it takes what it takes. You’ll find the earlier posts on this poem by using the search box and typing ‘O Taste and See’. You’ll find the whole poem here.

Yesterday I’d got a point of thinking about the miracle of being a  living creature: our bodies taking in food and oxygen to fuel the processes of living: literally, transformation.  I’m going to pick up here:

transform

into our flesh our
deaths, crossing the street, plum, quince,
living in the orchard and being

hungry, and plucking
the fruit.

I wonder now  where I am in this poem – still exiting the subway?

Standing at a kerb-edge, waiting to cross, risking my life by crossing the street?

The food, the oxygen, becomes flesh, and flesh must die. Therefore as soon as she writes the word ‘flesh’,  without the grace of comma’s pause, Levertov must also write ‘our/deaths’. I say no comma, but I wonder here about the line ending – always a good thing to notice in modern poetry because it is one of the few structural devices the poet has  in their toolkit. See how she uses it! We see the thought, logical, compelling, emerge across the gap of the line ending. If we have flesh it therefore follows we have death.

And does our death happen in the midst of life as we are crossing the street? is that why she writes it like that?

Now suddenly the poem jumps from thinking about death to plums, to quince. I look back at the other piece of fruit, the tangerine. Now I feel I am standing outside a subway exit in New York near a street fruit stall. All this is happening in my head.

I wonder if the plums are a quick glance at William Carlos Williams’ poem, This Is Just To Say. I think Levertov knew him ( I don’t look that up because I am trying to stay concentrated on the poem). But those delicious plums are in my mind now! (‘so sweet and so cold!’). That Williams poem is about unashamedly enjoying the eating of fruit. Which…

…and now I’m thinking of the ‘orchard’ and the story of Eden, of  Milton’s Paradise Lost, enters my mind. The lines I remember of the moment of the fall – Book 9 – when Eve takes the fruit:

So saying, her rash hand in evil hour 
Forth reaching to the Fruit, she pluck’d, she ate:
Earth felt the wound, and Nature from her seat
Sighing through all her Works gave signs of woe,
That all was lost.

I look back to Levertov:

plum, quince,
living in the orchard and being

hungry, and plucking
the fruit.

I don’t think it is an  accident that Levertov uses the same verb as Milton. As with the Wordsworth at the beginning, I believe these fragments of  other poets’ language are in Levertov’s head and imagination, in her store cupboard of  lines. They bang around in there and become our own: we use them. I use them in my real life, I quote them to myself. If you are a poet you use them in your poetry. But I’ll come back to this in a moment. Let me just finish reading.

Connecting hunger to ‘being’  Levertov  seems to believe that we were built to pluck that fruit, we were made with bodies that get hungry, and must eat to survive.  And, like Williams, not just to eat but also to enjoy.  This is an argument with or a response to Milton.

I notice that ‘being’ gets a line-ending. That’s a kind of pause, a kind of emphasis. Read it out, get the rhythm of it.

You have the pause at the line end,  then you get ‘hungry’. This is a new thought, not part of Milton’s  mindset at all. It’s as if, as with the Wordsworth thought (‘the world is too much with us’), she is in conversation with those thoughts/poems. She feels able to speak up, respond, say something. It isn’t rashness, says Levertov to Milton, as if they were both here in the present tense, it is hunger.  All the same, that final verb, ‘plucking’, is loaded with meanings, with echoes. Yet Levertov asserts, eat the goddam plums! Be in the world, be here, be physical, be a body, be a transformation, be alive.

 

I want to go back now to the problem of the fact that Denise Levertov is a highly educated poet, working in a tradition which she knows well – Wordsworth, Genesis, Milton, the Psalms, William Carlos Williams.  She knows all that well enough to have the language of those poems in her head as if they were natural to her. Indeed they have become natural to her – just as a simple chord progression CFG is natural to any  guitarist, just as an English  gardener would look for something to underplant roses, just as a cook might naturally think of  cooking chicken with rosemary and lemon and pine-nuts.

You don’t have to know  music theory, the history of English gardens or the molecular science of taste to appreciate lovely planting, musical flow or good chicken. For someone who has never experienced the chords C F and G the thing would be to have the experience, not to have the knowledge that those are the names of those chords. So that is why The Reader’s basic pedagogy is about shared experience: we share our reading, we experience it together. If you have facts, put them to one side, they get in the way of the poetic, the literary experience. (See my post against footnotes here.)

But part of the problem here, for a Shared Reading group leader is that some of the fibres of this particular poem are made from the other poems. those aren’t just ‘allusions’, they aren’t just footnotes. Part of the experience of the poem is the echo of Wordsworth, of William Carlos Williams, of Milton.

If you didn’t hear those echoes at all, you’d still have an experience of the poem, but some of the poem would be missing. It would be as if , for some reason, your ears just couldn’t hear the F chord, or your taste buds couldn’t pick up the rosemary.  It’s not a killer, but a workaround would be good.

For me,  if I  was taking this poem to a group (and I hope one day I will) the workaround would be to bring the Wordsworth sonnet, and the Williams, and a fragment of the Milton. I wouldn’t stay on them long, but they’d be there to take away, or maybe the group would want to read one or more of them another time. For today, we’d just have them there and look at them in passing. They are there to be a sort of additional flavour in the Levertov dish.

For reading this short poem I’d need a whole session – at least an hour maybe an hour and half, maybe two hours (I love a two-hour session, which always seems to me the time needed to really complete some small piece of reading).

So I’d perhaps have this as a poem-only session in the week after the completion of a novel or long story. That way  this poem could pick up some of the ideas in the novel – thinking of Bernard Malamud’s novel, The Assistant, which could be great with this.  But there would be many others. So many stories have come out of  the garden, the fruit, the fall, the need to be in the world, of it and not of it at once.

Tomorrow,   we’re turning back to Silas Marner

 

How does imagination taste? Read More Levertov

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Front garden at evening, 22 May

Yesterday I started reading the poem O Taste and See by Denise Levertov. You can find it here.

I’d only read a few lines, and stopped at the point where Levertov is thinking about the meaning of the subway Bible poster:

meaning The Lord, meaning
if anything all that lives
to the imagination’s tongue,

I had to stop at ‘imagination’s tongue’. This is rather like what, in his neuro-experiments, my husband Phil Davis (CRILS at University of Liverpool)  refers to as ‘functional shift’. The writer shifts bits of grammar into different places, for example  a noun becomes a verb or a verb a noun (‘he godded him) and the result is a great deal more electrical activity in the brain. We are being asked to think harder, and in surprising ways. When Levertov asks me to think of the ‘imagination’s tongue’ a number of possibilities flit through my mind.  I’m waking up!

Firstly, oddly, because there is nothing in the poem to suggest it, I think of tongues of flame. Perhaps I’m  thinking of that moment in the Bible where the disciples are visited by the Holy Ghost. I don’t know the Bible very well, and mostly my knowing anything is based on memories from childhood. I remember the strangeness of this moment – the fire above each head.  Now I look it up and see it is not even clearly fire, just cloven, like fire: ‘And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them.’

So, that flits across my mind. Then almost at the same time I am thinking of imagination  – yesterday I mentioned Wordsworth, because Levertov does – and I think now of the power of imagination in Wordsworth’s writing. For him it is the creative power.

So that too flits across my mind. Imagination’s tongue is the work of poetry, the divine, words of fire. ‘The Lord’ she is reading is now God and God is in her, making poetry. What does this transforming act make its speech from? I read on, in stanzas three and four.

grief, mercy, language,
tangerine, weather, to
breathe them, bite,
savor, chew, swallow, transform

into our flesh our
deaths, crossing the street, plum, quince,
living in the orchard and being

I am moved and surprised that the first word should be ‘grief’, of all things. Who would have thought to start there? But perhaps grief is the greatest act of translation we humans have to make. The verb she is building on is a powerful one: ‘all that lives to the imagination’s tongue’. Certainly ‘grief’ lives and if there is something creative we can do with it, if there is some translation, then its wall like stopping power is  somewhat undone.

I am equally surprised by the second word in this list of things that live: ‘mercy’.

‘Mercy’ is a thing I struggle to feel. For the person in my life who has done the most damage to me and to mine, I do not want to have mercy. I want to have anger, I want to imagine I might hurt back, though I have never done so. This animal all too human response to attack seems right to me. It is one of the reasons I cannot become a Christian, much as some part of me would be glad of the rigor of an external discipline and shape.I know that it is also wrong.

I’m trying to think if I practice ‘mercy’ in less enormous situations.  I feel as if I don’t know what the word means. I look it up in the OED: ‘compassion or forgiveness shown towards someone whom it is within one’s power to punish or harm’ . I look it up in the etymological dictionary and am surprised to see the first thought there is of God being merciful to me, not me to my enemy.

Because I do not believe in this kind of  God I find it impossible to imagine being forgiven. Perhaps that sentence should go the other way round? Because I  find it impossible to imagine being forgiven, I do not believe in that kind of God. I’m not sure ewither of these sentences is true. I wonder if I only think that, and that what I think can be dead, old , stale, not living to imagination’s tongue.

Either way, finding that word, ‘mercy’, here as a key piece of  the act of living to imagination’s tongue, I am thrown into serious thinking.

If one could find mercy, receive it, practice it…

I feel as if these two words are going to live in me all day or at least in those parts of the day when mindless thoughts sink down into me (which is one reason why I am trying to digitally disconnect: I do not want to keep filling those useful blank spaces with the static of checking the phone).

The next word is less surprising: ‘language’. Of course, for a poet, language would be one of the three key things. It is here a kind of key – the mention of it switches mode – the next line brings in direct, lived experience of external stuff ‘ tangerine, weather’.

So Levertov has begun with two big primal inner movers, ‘grief, mercy,’ but then finds ‘language’ and is able to move to the outside world, to  ‘tangerine, weather’. There are two worlds here and the hinge holding them together is her language. The sense of things being translated, transmuted, moving from one world to another, is connected to imagination’s tongue. Language is the outcome, imagination’s tongue makes the outcome.

The original verb was ‘lives’; now Levertov moves on to a more detailed thought about how that lives comes about:

grief, mercy, language,
tangerine, weather, to
breathe them, bite,
savor, chew, swallow, transform

into our flesh

I suppose ‘to breathe’ arises out of the thought of weather. I imagine stepping up out the subway, to find – how surprising! – weather – perhaps it is raining, perhaps the street is steamy with hot summer New York train. You breathe it in. But there is also ‘tangerine’. ‘bite, savor, chew, swallow’. This is happening.  We are taking the world into us, through air and food and water, and it is becoming part of us. Those things, air, food, and we, our bodies, become transformed, as food becomes flesh, as oxygen becomes carbon dioxide.

This suddenly seems a miracle, but it is what we simply are: I am seeing differently.

Time’s up for today.

I will finish reading this short deep poem tomorrow.  Then back to Silas! I’m missing him.

Getting to know Denise Levertov

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The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov waiting for me to open it

One of the largest and most transformative reading experiences I’ve had was reading the Complete Letters of George Eliot when writing my Ph.D. You don’t often see the Letters for sale at a price anyone would be able to afford and you’d probably need a university library to find them on the shelves, so a good way to get at a short version of them is through her husband John Cross’s biography, which is based on extracts from the Letters. (You can read Cross on Project Gutenberg). I’d read the Cross biography, but wanted to look something up in more detail so I went to seek them out and there they were, thousands of letters, in nine fat brown volumes. I started reading and realised I could feel George Eliot’s (or rather Marian Evans’) presence in them, and not just the bits John Cross had selected, but all of her: her kindness to friends, and her irritability, her toothaches, mistakes in love, her dogs, family problems, travel, thinking, music, anger with a friend who borrowed money for a cab from her servant, her continuing toothache,  her unwillingness to back the founding of Girton College, her singing, her loves,  more toothache… she was all here and across time: the young teenager, the struggling young woman, the world-famous writer. I wanted to devote some months to the sweep of the lot – I wanted to get to know her.

There are not many experiences like that in a reading life but a ‘collected poems’ may be of the same order. Realising a few weeks ago that I love the two poems by Denise Levertov that I know well (‘Variation on a Theme by Rilke’, and the poem I read here a few days ago, ‘The Metier of Blossoming’) I thought I would buy her Collected Poems, and get to know her better. The book now sits beside me, a thousand pages deep. I thought I would add my readings in Levertov’s Collected Poems to the projects underway on this blog. ‘Poem of The Day’ will continue and will often use the Oxford Book of English Verse, the slow reading of Silas Marner will continue a couple of times a week, and now getting to know Denise Levertov will be added. I’m not going to read the book chronologically, at least not at the beginning. I’m going to flip through and find things that make me want to dive deeper.

There is the old problem of reproducing works in copyright…a problem I will try to solve, but meanwhile for today I’ve found a link to a poem I’d like to read.

‘O Taste and See’ by Denise Levertov – read the entire poem here.  There is other stuff on that page – don’t read it, or not yet. Just read the poem: this is Levertov’s gift to us, let’s not  let someone else get in the way of the  direct exchange the poet offers.

Read it, read it slowly,  read it aloud and read it a couple of times. Here I read the opening  seven lines:

The world is
not with us enough
O taste and see

the subway Bible poster said,
meaning The Lord, meaning
if anything all that lives
to the imagination’s tongue,

I a sort of excitement in the first couple of stanzas,  but they present me with an interesting problem as someone who leads Shared Reading groups.

Levertov’s lines draw on other lines, from other poems and from the Bible, which I recognise, but which I’m not sure that my reading group members will recognise. What am I going to do about that? Regular readers og this blog wil lknow my antipathy towards World of Footnotes.

My first task is to read the poem as myself. I need to come to it clean, without thoughts of other readers or their needs, I need to experience the poem myself. Later, I’ll work out what to do about this – if anything – in my group. My first duty is to read well for myself, because the reading I can make happen in my group will be based on that.

Those two  first lines are a sort of joke, a conversational response, almost banter. I think of Wordsworth in Levertov’s mind: as well-known as a family member, chuntering on in the way he does, and I remember his poem. What she has written is a kind of chiming for someone who has the Wordsworth poem in their head already and it makes me laugh slightly. I love Wordsworth, so what’s making me laugh? The fact that she knows him so well and he is in her head as she meditates on the subway Bible poster and that she is arguing with him. I don’t need to remember the whole of Wordsworth’s poem (though I print it here) the first line will do.

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn
I do not  know the Old Testament in the same way that I know Wordsworth, but I bet that ‘O taste and see’ is from the Psalms.
But I don’t want to get caught up on the references. I read the whole of Levertov’s poem through again, and do not look up the Psalm, though I will do that later. Levertov takes the Wordsworth thought about our mechanical, exchange-relation to the world and casually turns it. Nah, William, it’s the other way round. ‘The world is/ not with us enough’. She’s changing the nature of the word ‘ world’,  which is being  influenced by ‘O taste and see’. The world is a thing or series of things we might know by our senses.
Next comes a leap of thought, taking me suddenly into no joke seriousness :
meaning The Lord, meaning
if anything all that lives
to the imagination’s tongue,
I like the bold type, as if taken directly from the poster. I notice the repetition of ‘meaning’, where the second meaning changes the first.
The lines areasking,What does ‘The Lord’ mean to someone who doesn’t believe in ‘The Lord’?
That’s me: I do not yet know enough about Denise Levertov to know if it is also her. I haven’t looked her up on Wikipedia, didn’t read the book’s intro – though I might, later. But from the two poems of hers I do know well, I know  she’s somehow religious. She describes the numinous, the spiritual. I hate all these words, ‘religious’, ‘numinous’, spiritual’, loaded with their dead-to-me meanings. Yet now, reading again,  I notice that Levertov isn’t letting herself be distracted by those feelings , in fact she is remaking the vocabulary and remaking it so that it is full of new meaning:
If ‘The Lord’ is a kind of code for real experience, she says, it is code for ‘all that lives/to the imaginations tongue.’
Wow – now I’m out of my depth, and feel the deeps below, above me. This is the best of the experience of  poetry. Hurrah! I’ve got years of reading this huge lovely book ahead. But for today, frustratingly, time’s up.

What to read in a Shared Reading group: Coleridge’s Work Without Hope

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Hostas in the long border at Calderstones. Slugs are leaving their lairs…

Yesterday’s reading of Silas Marner, concentrating on Silas need to weave and to hoard money, reminded me of ‘Work Without Hope’ by  Samuel Taylor Coleridge, so I’ve chosen that for today’s reading. If we were meeting in a weekly Shared Reading group, and in the thick of chapter two of Silas,  I might well bring it along next time…but it would need most of a session for itself. Short it may be  but it doesn’t seem a quick read.

Here’s a poem about feeling out of kilter with everything:

All Nature seems at work. Slugs leave their lair—
The bees are stirring—birds are on the wing—
And Winter slumbering in the open air,
Wears on his smiling face a dream of Spring!
And I the while, the sole unbusy thing,
Nor honey make, nor pair, nor build, nor sing.
         Yet well I ken the banks where amaranths blow,
Have traced the fount whence streams of nectar flow.
Bloom, O ye amaranths! bloom for whom ye may,
For me ye bloom not! Glide, rich streams, away!
With lips unbrightened, wreathless brow, I stroll:
And would you learn the spells that drowse my soul?
Work without Hope draws nectar in a sieve,
And Hope without an object cannot live.
The mention of the slugs sets up a sort of revulsion in me.  When I hear, or remember, ‘All nature seems at work’, there’s an instinct of pleasure – hurray, life is coming back. Then Coleridge completely undercuts that good feeling with a bad one. Slugs!
He goes back to  parts of nature I am more keen on ( bees, birds) but he’s put those  slugs in my mind, and there they are,  bothering me. Still, I try to get over it and think of the bees and the birds and what they promise:
And Winter slumbering in the open air,
Wears on his smiling face a dream of Spring!
Winter isn’t quite as horrible as the slugs, but I’m conscious that various  forces are pulling me about here as I read – good Spring, bad winter, good Nature, horrible slugs. Now I come to a reason for this  tussle: Coleridge feels at odds with the movement of the earth.
And I the while, the sole unbusy thing,
Nor honey make, nor pair, nor build, nor sing.
It cannot quite be the case that Coleridge is the ‘sole unbusy thing’ yet the feeling he suffers  is strong and leads to a lot of  strong negatives  in the final line of this stanza. It’s as if the mind  is moving to and from, attracted and repulsed by good liveliness and then bad retreat. Good things in that last  line – honey, pair, build, sing. I feel their presence. But also feel the almost deadening power of those four times repeated ‘nors’.
Yet well I ken the banks where amaranths blow,
Have traced the fount whence streams of nectar flow.
Bloom, O ye amaranths! bloom for whom ye may,
For me ye bloom not! Glide, rich streams, away!
With lips unbrightened, wreathless brow, I stroll:
And would you learn the spells that drowse my soul?
In the second stanza Coleridge remembers  good things he has experienced in the past – he tells us of ‘amaranths and nectar’. He may be thinking about lovely things in nature or he may be  using these as metaphors for pleasure, creativity, joy, fulfillment. He does not feel these things now, though he has known them in the past. The final couplet may be a go at explaining why, but it is hard to get at, though the rhyme gives the impression of something being concluded.
Work without Hope draws nectar in a sieve,
And Hope without an object cannot live.
‘Work without hope’ is the phrase that connected my reading of Silas to this poem. Does Silas ‘work without hope’?  Until he falls in love with the collection of coins he does. Now his ‘hope’ is for the gold, an outcome of the work. But there is no hope for him, for example in human relationships. no hope, no working at it.
Fo9r Coleridge, there may nectar ( for which I’m reading  creative pleasure) but without hope, it cannot be retained. What’s the hope? I feel stuck and need to translate this into something I can practically understand!
Let me turn to bindweed. ‘Bindweed!’ said John the Gardner, when I was looking at the long border at Calderstones with him last week, ‘If you’ve got that you’ll never get rid of it.’
Well I have got it. When I see it my heart sinks. There is work without hope. I will continue to try to get rid of it, but I do feel it has already beaten me. I can do an hour’s weeding but bindweed can undercut my pleasure (it doesn’t actually, because I don’t really care about it, so this isn’t a very good example, but bear with me! Imagine I do really care and feel that bindweed is ruining my garden). If bindweed had so overrun my garden my work wold be work without hope.
But back to the poem – what about Coleridge? He adds bit more ‘And Hope without an object cannot live’.
What’s the object?  And why is this all mixed up? It seems as though Coleridge is telling me this in the wrong order – I feel I am having to twist myself round to follow what he means in this closing couplet.
Work without Hope draws nectar in a sieve,
And Hope without an object cannot live.
Let me  start again, at the end  – hope without an object cannot live.  When Silas was banished from the Lantern Yard community he had no hope because he had no object- he knew he  could not get back. It was all over.  Now he must work ( to live) and does so, mechanically. There is no pleasure in it – work is ‘nectar in a seive’. Until he starts to love the gold, then he has hope.
But for Coleridge, working without hope, the sad thing  is there is still a strange taste of ‘nectar’ – you just can’t keep hold of it, ‘nectar in a seive.’
Coleridge doesn’t give any explanations: this is a simply description of the state he is in. Great thing about it? He has been creative even with his depression. He has produced something.
Lots of questions arise: Does it bother you to read a poem about what we’d probably call depression? What would group members want to talk about? What would you do as a Reader Leader to create a safe place for talking about the feelings of negativity the poem might illuminate?
But time is up for today.

Silas Marner Day 9: Feeling Connected To Things

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Aquilegias nodding a welcome at the front door 18 May 

Continuing my slow reading of George Eliot’s Silas Marner. You’ll find a whole e-text here and previous posts can be found by typing ‘Silas Marner’ into the search box.

We are in chapter two, and reading a paragraph beginning ‘Silas now found himself and his cottage suddenly beset’, which is giving us an account of how Silas became completely cut-off from his neighbours. People think he can work magic cures:

But the hope in his wisdom was at length changed into dread, for no one believed him when he said he knew no charms and could work no cures, and every man and woman who had an accident or a new attack after applying to him, set the misfortune down to Master Marner’s ill-will and irritated glances. Thus it came to pass that his movement of pity towards Sally Oates, which had given him a transient sense of brotherhood, heightened the repulsion between him and his neighbours, and made his isolation more complete.

I’m interested in the second sentence here, ‘thus is came to pass…’ which points to another in a series of misfortunes which have hit Silas and broken his life. Silas has suffered expulsion from his original community on Lantern Yard, now without ever having been properly connected to them Silas is increasingly cut off from his neighbours in Raveloe. The fact that he has had a ‘transient sense of brotherhood’ and lost it again is painful, and may be part of that strong word, ‘repulsion’ – which is not one way – Silas feels it as much as the villagers.

The next paragraph takes on the analysis of the growth of habit. Silas weaves to comfort himself and is paid in gold, and he ‘loves’ the gold as a kind of companion. Is it impossible to imagine how man might come to love coins? George Eliot asks us to  look at our own habits and extrapolate from what we do know:

Do we not wile away moments of inanity or fatigued waiting by repeating some trivial movement or sound, until the repetition has bred a want, which is incipient habit? That will help us to understand how the love of accumulating money grows an absorbing passion in men whose imaginations, even in the very beginning of their hoard, showed them no purpose beyond it.

It’s interesting that her analysis of a habit is ‘repetition has bred a want’, which I think is almost exactly what contemporary psychology believes about the formation of habit. I’ve been reading Charles Duhig’s book Habit, (don’t have it with me as I write so can’t look it up) a really fascinating account of what habits are and how they form and may be broken. Becoming a miser, George Eliot seems to be saying, is not about deliberate will, based in imagination (I want to be….) but rather more like becoming an alcoholic.  The repetition creates a need, which becomes the habit.

Marner wanted the heaps of ten to grow into a square, and then into a larger square; and every added guinea, while it was itself a satisfaction, bred a new desire. In this strange world, made a hopeless riddle to him, he might, if he had had a less intense nature, have sat weaving, weaving–looking towards the end of his pattern, or towards the end of his web, till he forgot the riddle, and everything else but his immediate sensations; but the money had come to mark off his weaving into periods, and the money not only grew, but it remained with him.

Something lovely about the golden faces of the coins breaks up the robotic compulsion to weave. ‘The money had come’ and the money ‘remained with him.’ They very fact of not losing it, it being a constant in Silas’ broken life, creates an emotional bond for him:

He began to think it was conscious of him, as his loom was, and he would on no account have exchanged those coins, which had become his familiars, for other coins with unknown faces. He handled them, he counted them, till their form and colour were like the satisfaction of a thirst to him; but it was only in the night, when his work was done, that he drew them out to enjoy their companionship.

Of course the loom is not conscious of him and neither are the coins: that attribution of consciousness is a kind of  love, an animation of inanimate objects into companions, or to use George Eliot’s word, ‘familiars‘. He is not a witch, and yet the word is used  in both its senses here – they are members of his family, they are his intimate associates. And they are in some sense his creatures that do his bidding. They stack up. They make patterns. They are an external manifestation of  something within Silas.They provide order.  This makes a sort of life.

So, year after year, Silas Marner had lived in this solitude, his guineas rising in the iron pot, and his life narrowing and hardening itself more and more into a mere pulsation of desire and satisfaction that had no relation to any other being. His life had reduced itself to the functions of weaving and hoarding, without any contemplation of an end towards which the functions tended. The same sort of process has perhaps been undergone by wiser men, when they have been cut off from faith and love–only, instead of a loom and a heap of guineas, they have had some erudite research, some ingenious project, or some well-knit theory.

Here we come to a sort of nub – remember a few days ago I wrote about ‘what counts?’  ‘Faith and love’ affect life and without them, all lives, not just the lives of simple men like Silas become ‘reduced’ to mere ‘functions’. Those ‘functions’ may look more interesting or respectable, ‘some erudite research, some ingenious project, or some well-knit theory’ but the mechanical ‘pulsation of desire and satisfaction that had no relation to any other being’ is the problem, not the  nature of the work. ‘Faith and love’ and ‘any other being’ are the key components George Eliot recognises here as  part of the character of a fulfilled life.  Silas’ life is ‘narrowing and hardening itself’ into one channel.

One of the things George Eliot is almost obsessed by is how, as in this part of the story, small daily actions lead to big life-breaking consequences. I’m suddenly struck, as I read this morning, with the thought that Silas is himself like something caught in a web. Gradually, he is losing the ability to move – or be moved by anything but his gold. But not quite:

Yet even in this stage of withering a little incident happened, which showed that the sap of affection was not all gone. It was one of his daily tasks to fetch his water from a well a couple of fields off, and for this purpose, ever since he came to Raveloe, he had had a brown earthenware pot, which he held as his most precious utensil among the very few conveniences he had granted himself. It had been his companion for twelve years, always standing on the same spot, always lending its handle to him in the early morning, so that its form had an expression for him of willing helpfulness, and the impress of its handle on his palm gave a satisfaction mingled with that of having the fresh clear water. One day as he was returning from the well, he stumbled against the step of the stile, and his brown pot, falling with force against the stones that overarched the ditch below him, was broken in three pieces. Silas picked up the pieces and carried them home with grief in his heart. The brown pot could never be of use to him any more, but he stuck the bits together and propped the ruin in its old place for a memorial.

So, objects seem to have expressions and attitudes and to call up emotions:the pot ‘had an expression for him of willing helpfulness, and the impress of its handle on his palm gave a satisfaction mingled with that of having the fresh clear water’. Silas is still alive to feeling and when he sticks the bits back together it is almost an act of love or of  thanks or gratitude. He props the ruin ‘in its old place for a memorial’.  If he has human friends, so he would mark their passing.

If we were together in a group now, we would spend some time thinking about ways in which we imbue objects with personality ? Does your mug seem friendly,  does your sink full of dishes look accusing? And what does this mean for the human tendency/necessity for ‘relationship’?

 

 

Travelling to the Realms of Gold

peony
Tree Peony in Japanese Garden, Calderstones Park 16 May 

I’ve hardly ever read Shelly but I’ve been reading some this morning. I didn’t want to write about it though, which is like saying I didn’t want to take it to my Shared Reading group.

Why not? It would require me to think about the political situation and I really do not want to do that, not here and not anywhere.  It would require me to think about some things  that are wrong with the world and I prefer to think about things that are right, unless the wrongs are things I can act on. And yet there are some thoughts a little reading of Shelley would allow me to look at it. Oh, like Frost in his yellow wood, I saved it for another day.

I went on into Keats, whom I also do not often read.  I’m not interested in most of his poetry, the poetry of stuff, as I think of it, though I love the line ‘ Bright Star! would I were steadfast as thou art…’  and keep it in my Collection of Useful Lines of Poetry.

I  flicked though The Oxford Book of English Verse I paused at On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer, which I last read when Howard Jacobson did a Reader Patron’s event for us at the home of one of our supporters. He built his talk around the poem, and I read with a group very soon after.

Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
It reminded me of conversation I had with a colleague earlier in the week and which I mentioned here the other day: should  we be teaching people that Shared Reading consists of reading some poetry and some prose in a session?  Colleagues view was, we have  so little time to teach people. Many of them are strangers to poetry, if we don’t make it part of the format many people won’t do any.
I wonder if there are other ways of encouraging the reading of poetry – we could be saying, in whatever format you do it, make sure about 50% of your reading time is spent on poetry.
But, echoing one of the naughty daughters in King Lear, the voice of a liberal objector in the back of my head (an educated voice, a don’t-make-value-judgements about types of literature voice, a voice I’ve heard many times) asks, why specify fifty? Why five? Why any?
People often say to me – why not just let people read what they want? If they have already chosen a lifestyle which includes no poetry, just let them alone: stop imposing your cultural values on readers!
To which I’d want to answer in the words of Mike, who was in my first Shared Reading group way back at the turn of the millenium, who said of his experience reading literature in that group, ‘you need it, but you don’t know you need it.’
The value of poetry is the most surprising thing that has appeared out of the whole Reader enterprise. I valued poetry before I started it, but I don’t think I valued it  as much as I do now after having seen it profoundly affect people in groups over this long period of time. Prose has a magic of its own, but poetry takes us elsewhere, very quickly, very deeply. That’s what Keats’ poem is about. Only he goes up for depth, ‘on a peak in Darien’.  Worth reading with a group, if you want to open a conversation about the value of reading poetry.
There are quite a lot of off-putting words in the poem, but I love the fact that the rush of excitement overcomes my resistance to those words – the last ten lines rush toward that uplift. Sometimes there is a struggle with the ‘realms of gold’ : where are they ? what are they? Because of the verb, ‘travelled’, and because Cortez is a historical explorer, and because ‘Darien’ is a real place some people take the idea of the realms of gold to be a literal place (where gold comes from) and you might have to spend some time thinking of other kinds of realms of gold, not material. What are best and most valuable human experiences?
What does fealty mean? What are these western isles? We should have started with the title! that would have helped set the scene – we’re reading a book! We’re reading an amazing – ‘loud and bold’ – translation of one of the world’s greatest poets ever. Keats has been round Greek poetry – the western isles – before and has read a lot (in translation) but  reading Chapman’s translation of Homer, Keats feels like a discoverer or something completely new.
How do you feel when you meet your experience or some truth you had not realised translated into words?  Often readers are stunned into silence.
Might you want to find a little bit of Chapman’s actual translation of Homer to go with this poem in a session? I’ve never done that,  but it might be a good idea.
Always have a blooming good go yourself first, but once you’ve had a good attempt at reading, there’s an excellent account of this poem by a wonderful poet, Carol Rumens, on the guardian website, here. Don’t get caught up on the facts and bits of history – a poem is much more than a historical object, so just let those facts hover in the background.  In Shared Reading we do the reading ourselves. But we can let Carol into our group for a while, can’t we, without being over-influenced by her? Listen to her contribution, pick what you want, read again, think about the value of reading poetry.  got to get our groups to realms of gold as often as possible. Once people have been there, they are then in a position to make ‘a lifestyle choice’ about whether to return. I’ve seen thousands of readers, new to poetry, travelling back over and over to that peak in Darien. It’s the point where your view of the world changes forever.
Forgive today’s worse than usual proofreading – am rushing for the London train