I’ve hardly ever read Shelley 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