Today I woke up with the day’s work (leading a Sparks series day of reading at the Cunard Building, Liverpool) and last weeks reading of ‘An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow’…in my mind, I decided to read a poem by George Herbert, just to get myself warmed up for the day.
‘I haven’t thought like this since I was at school,’ said a man in the Shared Reading group I ran last week, in Blackfriars Centre, Southwark, a demonstration group for people undertaking the Ashoka Changemaker journey, where some members of our London groups and some London Reader Leaders had come together to help me demonstrate the model to a group of people who would have no idea what Shared Reading could be. The speaker was a businessperson, and probably (I’m making an assumption) very well-educated.
Two things flitted through my mind as he spoke (i) he thinks this is like studying English Lit. at school and (ii) how could you go through an education and working life without ever thinking like this again?
For me the two questions are related. Of course, for most people English Lit. is a pointless academic discipline that you forget about once you drop it at GCSE. Something like .5% of the population study English at University. Why would anyone think in this kind of way? So far, so fair enough.
I woke up this morning remembering how at school and university I used to have the idea that ‘the poet’ was a bit of a trickster. (We never seemed to think of them as a person with a name, and if we used a name it was always the surname, Herbert, not George Herbert. Does this matter? It needn’t, necessarily, but in context, I think it did.) ‘The poet’ had somehow constructed the poem like a crossword puzzle or a mechanical magic box that could be opened only once you had the knack – as if ‘ the poet’ had essentially put together, for no reason anyone would discern, at arm’s length, some sort of bomb-puzzle he didn’t want to you to ‘get’. It was hard, ‘not getting it’, but, on the other hand, once you did ‘get’ it, you were in the powerful position of judging whether or ‘the poet’ was ‘effective’.
What a weird set-up!
Poems are – mostly – real. People write them out of some sort of necessity, and they want you to read them because you have a matching necessity. Poems – mostly- have great information in then and about 98.8% of the population are missing out on this food for thought. This isn’t, as some people believe a matter of lifestyle choice. People don’t reject the reading of great literature because they’ve made a decision. They mostly reject it because they were badly scorched at school and don’t want to go back there – just like me, shivering miserably on the edge of the hockey pitch feeling humiliated – I’ve not made a decision to avoid playing sports, I’m traumatised! And I can be helped. We need to teach them very differently. See my post about getting into exercise aged 60, My Leaning.
But to today’s poem – I’ll spend most of the day reading George Herbert and Jeanette Winterson. When I ran this session in London a couple of weeks ago, we didn’t get round ‘The Forerunners’. Everyone who, like me, is gathering white hairs, will know the reality that caused George to put pen to paper.
The harbingers are come. See, see their mark:White is their color, and behold my head.But must they have my brain? Must they disparkThose sparkling notions, which therein were bred?Must dullness turn me to a clod?Yet have they left me, Thou art still my God.Good men ye be, to leave me my best room,Ev’n all my heart, and what is lodgèd there:I pass not, I, what of the rest become,So Thou art still my God be out of fear.He will be pleasèd with that ditty:And if I please him, I write fine and witty.Farewell sweet phrases, lovely metaphors.But will ye leave me thus? When ye beforeOf stews and brothels only knew the doors,Then did I wash you with my tears, and more,Brought you to church well dressed and clad:My God must have my best, ev’n all I had.Lovely enchanting language, sugar-cane,Honey of roses, wither wilt thou fly?Hath some fond lover ’ticed thee to thy bane?And wilt thou leave the church and love a sty?Fie, thou wilt soil thy broidered coat,And hurt thyself, and him that sings the note.Let foolish lovers, if they will love dung,With canvas, not with arras, clothe their shame:Let folly speak in her own native tongue.True beauty dwells on high: ours is a flameBut borrowed thence to light us thither.Beauty and beauteous words should go together.Yet if you go, I pass not; take your way:For Thou art still my God is all that yePerhaps with more embellishment can say.Go, birds of spring: let winter have his fee;Let a bleak paleness chalk the door,So all within be livelier than before.
This is hard to ‘get’ (as I used to complain in college days). This is like a dead-lift with too much weight. Don’t look possible. Might be dangerous. Ow my poor ligaments! How do you get to the place where you can do a hundred weighted squats? Practice! Little gains. Let’s just read the first verse.
The harbingers are come. See, see their mark:White is their color, and behold my head.But must they have my brain? Must they disparkThose sparkling notions, which therein were bred?Must dullness turn me to a clod?Yet have they left me, Thou art still my God.
You look in the mirror and there, for the first time, you really believe they are, ‘the harbingers’, the forerunners. What are harbingers? The ones who go on ahead to get stuff ready. But George Herbert – like me – quickly looks from the white hairs to the future: argh, all the great and terrible ‘d’s’…decrepitude, dementia, type 2 diabetes, death. Yes, all that flits through your mind as you look in the morning mirror. Great the word he perhaps coins here, ‘dispark’ is about the fear of losing your essential self. I look the word up – it means to throw open a private park and make it public, but I’m reading this as ‘take away the spark’, because the of ‘sparkling’ in the next line. Will he turn into mere physical matter, just body, clay: ‘ must dullness turn me to a clod?’ Even then, trustingly, George believes, he will still have God and God will not change.
I recognise the white hairs, the worry about decrepitude, but I don’t have ‘God’. What can I understand – for myself – by ‘Thou art still my God’ ? Is there anything that will remain, anything I can trust?
I’m short on time today and can’t think about this any more. But want to make a plea that we should all make time for thinking about our lives and that poetry and other great writing is a good way to do it. It is not an elitist occupation.
Weights are a great form of exercise for the over 60s – muscle mass, my dears. You wouldn’t say that was elitist, you’d call it public health. Do I want to be Hulk Hogan? Nope. But I want to be able to walk, to bend down, to sit on the grass with my grandchildren. And we all want to keep our spark.