Splitting The World Open: Celebrating International Women’s Day With A Poem

women's press (2)Sometime in the late seventies I bought an anthology of women’s poetry,  The World Split Open, edited by Louise Bernikow, published by The Women’s Press. That’s an easy sentence  to write in 2018  but it might have been nearly impossibly fifty years ago in the year of  the world’s youth revolution, 1968.  Earlier this week I opened The Faber Book of C20 Verse, edited  by J.Heath-Stubbs and D. Wright (1953), to find that only 6 of the more than 90 poets included were  women.  At University in the 1980’s a teacher, a man, told me that women weren’t concentrated enough for poetry.  I think that was a pretty widespread view.

Ah, the dear old Women’s Press. How I loved that little  iron, its logo.

I’d go to a bookshop and look for Womens Press books then choose from amongst them, books I knew might be of interest to me.  Virago was a women’s publisher, too, but The Women’s Press list was odder, more homemade, less corporate, more extreme. And all that seemed summed in that little steam-iron logo.

I was trying to become myself as a young adult, and that self was a woman writer and reader. I wanted books  to help me build my self up.  I wanted role models. But I hardly remember any of those books now (Gaining Ground, a novel by Joan Barfoot, notable exception.) But this excellent anthology of poetry has been  with me through nearly forty years reading.  I’ve just had to buy another copy, as the first literally fell to pieces in my  hand.

I had two books of poetry by women. This, and the Penguin Book of Women Poets. That was  it.

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Looking her up, I see Louise Bernikow is still going strong, writing and talking about women (also dogs).    Looking at the book’s cover now, I remember that it made me uncomfortable. That women in the photograph looks a bit  too masculine, I don’t know what the two metal balls are doing there and I can’t figure out the perspective. The cover may have unsettled me, but the contents inspired. Realising that Queen Elizabeth I, the centre of the Elizabethan age, an age of great poetry, was herself a poet delighted me.

 

 

 

 

The Doubt of Future Foes
The doubt of future foes exiles my present joy,
And wit me warns to shun such snares as threaten mine annoy;
For falsehood now doth flow, and subjects’ faith doth ebb,
Which should not be if reason ruled or wisdom weaved the web.
But clouds of joys untried do cloak aspiring minds,
Which turn to rain of late repent by changed course of winds.
The top of hope supposed the root upreared shall be,
And fruitless all their grafted guile, as shortly ye shall see.
The dazzled eyes with pride, which great ambition blinds,
Shall be unsealed by worthy wights whose foresight falsehood finds.
The daughter of debate that discord aye doth sow
Shall reap no gain where former rule still peace hath taught to know.
No foreign banished wight shall anchor in this port;
Our realm brooks not seditious sects, let them elsewhere resort.
My rusty sword through rest shall first his edge employ
To poll their tops that seek such change or gape for future joy.
Yes, the sonnet is long-distance interesting in the psychological cost of political trouble, but I didn’t connect with it: there’s was nothing here to latch onto my own experience at that time.  But this fragment, written with a diamond on her window at Woodstock, where she was being held prisoner,  seemed to zap through time, connecting her to me:

Much suspected by me,
Nothing proved can be,
Quoth Elizabeth prisoner.

It wasn’t so much the words, as the act of graffitti, of being moved in a strange way to write. I could almost feel that diamond in my fingers as I scratched.

behn

 

I was glad to meet Aphra Behn in this anthology, the first English women to make her living from writing.  I never really liked her poetry but I liked her, her drinking in taverns and brawling with the lads. And I remember later  getting involved in her novel, Oorinoko, which perhaps I’ll read again.

 

 

Love in Fantastic Triumph sat,
Whilst Bleeding Hearts around him flowed,
For whom Fresh pains he did Create,
And strange Tyrannic power he showed;
From thy Bright Eyes he took his fire,
Which round about, in sport he hurled;
But ’twas from mine he took desire
Enough to undo the Amorous World.
From me he took his sighs and tears,
From thee his Pride and Cruelty;
From me his Languishments and Fears,
And every Killing Dart from thee;
Thus thou and I, the God have armed,
And set him up a Deity;
But my poor Heart alone is harmed,
Whilst thine the Victor is, and free.

Emily Bronte, Anne Bradstreet, Sylvvia Plath are names that come to mindwhen I try to remember the anthohlogy but I don’t remember reading the poem from which the book’s title is taken.

What would happen if one woman told the truth about
        her life?
     The world would split open

Muriel Ruksayer’s words are famous – you’ll find them embroidered on Pinterest and made into posters. You’ll find the poem they come from, honouring the German artist Kathe Kollwitz here. Worth reading on this International Women’s Day.

And for growing humans everywhere, my poem of the day, Denise Levertov’s The Metier Of Blossoming.

I’ll be celebrating International Women’s Day  by visiting Greater Manchester Mental Health Trust , to talk and read with women in the Forensic Unit there. I’ll be taking Levertov’s Metier with me.

 

 

 

 

Silas Marner Day 38: What’s Love Got To Do With It?

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Mimosa tree  coming into flower-bud,  Calderstones Park, Feb 23 

This morning I’m going back to Silas Marner (find an online text here) … and thinking about class. But is it class? Or is it education? Or is it education of the feelings?  Eppie is the daughter of a drug-addict mother and a nogoodnik posh-boy father. She’s got, like most of us, a pretty mixed gene pool. So there’s nature for you.

Now, as to nurture:

The tender and peculiar love with which Silas had reared her in almost inseparable companionship with himself, aided by the seclusion of their dwelling, had preserved her from the lowering influences of the village talk and habits, and had kept her mind in that freshness which is sometimes falsely supposed to be an invariable attribute of rusticity. Perfect love has a breath of poetry which can exalt the relations of the least-instructed human beings; and this breath of poetry had surrounded Eppie from the time when she had followed the bright gleam that beckoned her to Silas’s hearth; so that it is not surprising if, in other things besides her delicate prettiness, she was not quite a common village maiden, but had a touch of refinement and fervour which came from no other teaching than that of tenderly-nurtured unvitiated feeling.

I notice with a slight flinch ‘she was not quite a common village maiden’ and have to stop myself and try to  think carefully about what this means so as not to knee-jerk a class-based response.  I ask myself, what is fervour? What is refinement?

What’s meant by refinement, I wonder? It seems a class word, about being posh, but when I look it up it’s about being pure or full of feeling. I think of Jeanette Winterson, (read her memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal) little fighting kid of Accrington, and I’d say, she had her own kind of refinement. And what is fervour? It, too, is a feeling word, warmth, heat of feeling. I think of Jeanette as different from many other Accrington kids -why? She felt a lot and what she felt propelled her – few other homeless gay kids of her time got themselves into Oxford to read English.  What Jeanette didn’t have was  the kind of love Silas gives to Eppie. I look back at the beginning of the paragraph:

The tender and peculiar love with which Silas had reared her in almost inseparable companionship with himself, aided by the seclusion of their dwelling, had preserved her from the lowering influences of the village talk and habits, and had kept her mind in that freshness which is sometimes falsely supposed to be an invariable attribute of rusticity.

Still something for me to worry about in lowering influences? I’ll come back to that. Eppie grows up in a tiny world  made up Silas – himself cut off from most of the village – and visits from Dolly Winthrop. The seclusion of their dwelling sets her apart physically, mentally and emotionally. What are village talk and habits, I wonder?   The modern equivalent is  life with the Kardashians, I suppose.  Silly, commonplace, superficial influences about bums and jewellry. No one at the most serious times of their lives, real love, real pain, will be getting through life’s biggest or deepest moments with those influences uppermost. But they are there, lowering away, on a day-to-day basis. Eppie is set aside from all that by being in an intense parent-child relationship which is full of love.

I take some time here because it is easy to read badly, too fast, and make  modern, mocking judgements about class. Eppie’s refinement and fervour

came from no other teaching than that of tenderly-nurtured unvitiated feeling.

‘Unvitiated’ = uncorrupted, pure, unsullied.

Perhaps such feeling is only possible at some distance from the world of Kardashians, or whatever the nineteenth century equivalent was? I’m thinking about Wordsworth – whom George Eliot read.

She was too childish and simple for her imagination to rove into questions about her unknown father; for a long while it did not even occur to her that she must have had a father; and the first time that the idea of her mother having had a husband presented itself to her, was when Silas showed her the wedding-ring which had been taken from the wasted finger, and had been carefully preserved by him in a little lackered box shaped like a shoe. He delivered this box into Eppie’s charge when she had grown up, and she often opened it to look at the ring: but still she thought hardly at all about the father of whom it was the symbol. Had she not a father very close to her, who loved her better than any real fathers in the village seemed to love their daughters? On the contrary, who her mother was, and how she came to die in that forlornness, were questions that often pressed on Eppie’s mind. Her knowledge of Mrs. Winthrop, who was her nearest friend next to Silas, made her feel that a mother must be very precious; and she had again and again asked Silas to tell her how her mother looked, whom she was like, and how he had found her against the furze bush, led towards it by the little footsteps and the outstretched arms. The furze bush was there still; and this afternoon, when Eppie came out with Silas into the sunshine, it was the first object that arrested her eyes and thoughts.

It’s interesting that Eppie never thinks about her biological father – she has no need to, because she has Silas, ‘who loved her better than any real fathers in the village seemed to love their daughters.’ The mother is a missing element, only known indirectly as a model in Dolly Winthrop and it is this missing element that Eppie is driven to seek, asking,

again and again asked Silas to tell her how her mother looked, whom she was like, and how he had found her against the furze bush, led towards it by the little footsteps and the outstretched arms.

Now we enter some pages of dialogue and plot, which I’m going to read through fast – Eppie raising the subject of her likely marriage and Silas doing his best not to be frightened at the change that is bound to come.

And so to the next chapter, XVII, where the scene changes and we are  back with the posh folks. Nancy née Lammeter and her sister Priscilla are also discussing gardens, and also dairies, and finally, Nancy’s inability to bear children; then Nancy is left alone, reading her bible and letting her thoughts wander. They wander towards  this issue of having children and her husband’s response to it. And this, George Eliot seems to imply, is in itself a kind of  prayerful meditation:

But Nancy’s Sunday thoughts were rarely quite out of keeping with the devout and reverential intention implied by the book spread open before her. She was not theologically instructed enough to discern very clearly the relation between the sacred documents of the past which she opened without method, and her own obscure, simple life; but the spirit of rectitude, and the sense of responsibility for the effect of her conduct on others, which were strong elements in Nancy’s character, had made it a habit with her to scrutinize her past feelings and actions with self-questioning solicitude.

I look up rectitude. It means straightness. Nancy’s a person who tries to be straight and decent, and has self-knowledge, examining herself and her actions.

Her mind not being courted by a great variety of subjects, she filled the vacant moments by living inwardly, again and again, through all her remembered experience, especially through the fifteen years of her married time, in which her life and its significance had been doubled. She recalled the small details, the words, tones, and looks, in the critical scenes which had opened a new epoch for her by giving her a deeper insight into the relations and trials of life, or which had called on her for some little effort of forbearance, or of painful adherence to an imagined or real duty– asking herself continually whether she had been in any respect blamable. This excessive rumination and self-questioning is perhaps a morbid habit inevitable to a mind of much moral sensibility when shut out from its due share of outward activity and of practical claims on its affections–inevitable to a noble-hearted, childless woman, when her lot is narrow. “I can do so little–have I done it all well?” is the perpetually recurring thought; and there are no voices calling her away from that soliloquy, no peremptory demands to divert energy from vain regret or superfluous scruple.

George Eliot is very interested in the lot of women who have nothing to do. In real life she was Marian Evans, an incredibly  intelligent, self-educated midlands woman, who  in her early years had run her father’s house, and in mid-life developed a career in the London literary world ,editing the Westminster Review before beginning her work as a novelist at the age of thirty-nine. She had no children.

I’ve gone away from the book! Back to the text, go back, go back!

But will pick up here next time –  lots to do today, garden calling.

Paradise Lost 17: Skipping Over Legions of Fallen Angels

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Single Red Camellia  18 February

A quick explanation for anyone who wouldn’t naturally find themselves reading such a poem:   I’m interested in acts of translation from one way of thinking to another, particularly from Christian  thinking in poetry – Dante, Milton, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan and many others – to  my own a-religious thoughts. Many years ago, when I wrote my Ph.D, on what I called ‘Visionary Realism’, I realised that I was interested in what happens to religious experience when people no longer believe in religion. Are there, for example, still experiences of ‘grace’? Do we ever  experience ‘miracles’? Are there trials and tribulations of the soul? Is there ‘soul’? …and so on.  I came into this area of thinking through Doris Lessing’s novel-series Canopus in Argos, and particularly the first novel in that series,  Shikasta. There’s a partial account of this in previous blog post, ‘Lifesavers’.

You’ll find a good online text here.

In the last reading of Paradise Lost I had I short half hour and managed to read a couple of lines. That brought me to about line 375 in Book 1.  Now Milton asks his Muse to help him list the names  of fallen angels:

Say, Muse, thir Names then known, who first, who last,
Rous’d from the slumber, on that fiery Couch,
At thir great Emperors call, as next in worth
Came singly where he stood on the bare strand,
While the promiscuous croud stood yet aloof? [ 380 ]

In what order of power/evil/fallenness do they appear? What is, Milton’s eyes most evil?

The chief were those who from the Pit of Hell
Roaming to seek thir prey on earth, durst fix
Thir Seats long after next the Seat of God,
Thir Altars by his Altar, Gods ador’d
Among the Nations round, and durst abide [ 385 ]
Jehovah thundring out of Sion, thron’d
Between the Cherubim; yea, often plac’d
Within his Sanctuary it self thir Shrines,
Abominations; and with cursed things
His holy Rites, and solemn Feasts profan’d, [ 390 ]
And with thir darkness durst affront his light.

Those pagan gods whose shrines resided inside the temple come first. This is interesting to me, as someone who has shied away from organised religion since the age of  nine or ten.  Are there still false gods intertwined with real God? can bad stuff be housed within good?  I move from thinking about religion to say thinking about Social Care.  Is Social Care, paid for from our taxes a good idea? I believe so.  Is some very bad stuff done within Social Care? I’m sure so.  Is Milton’s thinking about his religious  universe a different layer of the same reality I think of in terms of  Social Care?  That thought is what  keeps me going in this very long – two hundred lines long – list of fallen angels. I read through it, but I’m reading very fast, getting the rough outline, looking for anything that interests me, that connects to something I know. I rush through  the ancient middle Eastern deities and places of  Old Testament history, and stop for a moment at this:

For Spirits when they please
Can either Sex assume, or both; so soft
And uncompounded is thirEssence pure, [ 425 ]
Not ti’d or manacl’d with joynt or limb,
Nor founded on the brittle strength of bones,
Like cumbrous flesh; but in what shape they choose
Dilated or condens’t, bright or obscure,
Can execute thir aerie purposes, [ 430 ]
And works of love or enmity fulfill.

I wonder if Milton has been reading The Tempest and met Shakespeare’s Aeriel? It’s interesting, too, that the nature of spirits does not change even after the fall – they are still pure Essence, uncompounded and can take any shape they choose in order to do their works of love or emnity. What does that say to me abou t the way works of love or emnity come to me/from me?

I wonder what purpose this lists serves or served?

It has to be a different experience for us reading now, mostly not knowing any of the Biblical source material. But to Milton and his contemporary audience (fit audience, though few, as he says)  is it a making live an old  text, is it reanimating the old material and making it now: here  they are, those ancient names of bad gods, and here they are – somehow – with us still –

Belial came last, then whom a Spirit more lewd [ 490 ]
Fell not from Heaven, or more gross to love
Vice for it self: To him no Temple stood
Or Altar smoak’d; yet who more oft then hee
In Temples and at Altars, when the Priest
Turns Atheist, as did Ely’s Sons, who fill’d [ 495 ]
With lust and violence the house of God.
In Courts and Palaces he also Reigns
And in luxurious Cities, where the noyse
Of riot ascends above thir loftiest Towrs,
And injury and outrage: And when Night [ 500 ]
Darkens the Streets, then wander forth the Sons
Of Belial, flown with insolence and wine.

We move from Old Testament (To him no Temple stood/Or Altar smoak’d😉   into the present tense:

In Courts and Palaces he also Reigns
And in luxurious Cities, where the noyse
Of riot ascends above thir loftiest Towrs,
And injury and outrage: And when Night [ 500 ]
Darkens the Streets, then wander forth the Sons
Of Belial,flown with insolence and wine.

and then we move from the Old Testament to another mode of being, Ancient Greece, so that Milton is covering all knowledge bases: whichever civilisation you trace it through – Greco-Roman, Judeo-Christian – same story: the fall from Heaven and corruption  brought to Earth:

These were the prime in order and in might;
The rest were long to tell, though far renown’d,
Th’ Ionian Gods, of Javans Issue held
Gods, yet confest later then Heav’n and Earth
Thir boasted Parents; Titan Heav’ns first born [ 510 ]
With his enormous brood, and birthright seis’d
By younger Saturn, he from mightier Jove
His own and Rhea’s Son like measure found;
So Jove usurping reign’d: these first in Creet
And Ida known, thence on the Snowy top [ 515 ]
Of cold Olympus rul’d the middle Air
Thir highest Heav’n; or on the Delphian Cliff,
Or in Dodona, and through all the bounds
Of Doric Land;

I’m reading very fast, because there is not much here for me. But as the list begins to wind down, I pay more attention:

All these and more came flocking; but with looks
Down cast and damp, yet such wherein appear’d
Obscure some glimps of joy, to have found thir chief
Not in despair, to have found themselves not lost [ 525 ]
In loss it self; which on his count’nance cast
Like doubtful hue: but he his wonted pride
Soon recollecting, with high words, that bore
Semblance of worth, not substance, gently rais’d
Thir fainting courage, and dispel’d thir fears. [ 530 ]

I’m thinking about the psychology of mass despair and mass revival: the fallen angels see  their chief  ‘not in despair, ‘  Good, isn’t it,  the way Milton puts it so that the key word, ‘despair’ is still hugely present, only slightly made negative by the much smaller ‘not’. The fallen angels still see loss in him, ‘which on his count’nance cast/Like doubtful hue’ yet their sense of despair is overcome by Satan’s  semblence, his appearance  of ‘not despair’, his pride carries him through , and carries the fallen angels through, too. I can imagine in  real life being carried by such pride, or allowing myself to be tricked. I think of dictators and false leaders, the willingness to follow, to be duped.

That’s my time up for the day. Must get out into the garden while the sun is shining.

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The Winter’s Tale Day 3: Being 3-D, In The Round & Slo-mo

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Light on late afternoon trees at Calderstones Park

One great thing about Shakespeare plays is the totality, the wholeness, the 3-D-rounded-in-time-ness.

Perhaps this  is true for all works of literature ? But I don’t have time to think about that today and it is definitely true of these plays. They are  like 3-D objects, knit together, made of the same complex, changing, stuff all through.

And the more time you spend in them the more that solidity and wholeness is revealed. If I was to read a  play new to me or one I’ve forgotten (I don’t know Alls Well That Ends Well very well, probably read it  three times in thirty years, and only seen it once) would that 3-D solidity seem so obvious? I don’t think so. It’s something to do with knowing what is going to happen, not just in narrative terms but in terms of who people are. The less well I know the play the more like a ‘play’ it seems. The ones I know very well (King Lear, As You Like It, Hamlet, MacbethOthello and above all, The Winter’s Tale) hardly seem like ‘plays’ at all. I don’t know what to call them. They seem like little working models of  what is to be human.

Why do I say ‘little’?  They last only two or three hours, whereas, we last, if we are lucky, threescore years and ten.  The plays seem like what John Donne calls ‘a little world made cunningly’ .

If you’ve never read a Shakespeare play before and are reading it with a Shared Reading group for the first time – that is great: you wonderfully free and untramelled by experience, like youth. Read, struggle, enjoy!

But age and experience has its bounty. It helps deepen the experience if you know what is coming.

Here, the fact that I know what is going to happen affects how I read/hear Camillo’s line ‘the heavens continue their loves.’ Soon, the heavens will not continue their loves.  The heavens will smash them.

When we are new to play, we don’t know that. Of course, in one sense, we are always new to the play because the story has to play out in time, a narrative unfolding before our eyes. So at this point I both  know (because I’ve read the play before) and don’t know because I’ve just started again and I am also in  the experience of narrative unfolding time. I’m in two timebands, two parallel, connected but different universes.

So I have two ways of understanding Camillo: the one in which he is speaking  in normal-speak and by saying ‘the heavens continue’ he is only saying something rather empty (something standard, such as  ‘god willing’, ‘godspeed’ – a figure of speech, a politeness); and another in which, with the resonance of what is coming, the line is loaded with anxiety.

At this point, like someone with superhuman powers, I see two possible futures unfolding -the one in which the heavens do continue their loves and a return state visit takes place in the predictable and normal course of events; the other in which the heavens do not continue their loves and all hell breaks lose. These two strands are woven together. I suppose that is what I mean about the 3-D-ness. This moment, short as it is, feels like a solid object. As all human time might, if we were able to slow it down enough to see what was happening, what was potentially unfolding.

 

CAMILLO

Sicilia cannot show himself over-kind to Bohemia.
They were trained together in their childhoods; and
there rooted betwixt them then such an affection,
which cannot choose but branch now. Since their
more mature dignities and royal necessities made
separation of their society, their encounters,
though not personal, have been royally attorneyed
with interchange of gifts, letters, loving
embassies; that they have seemed to be together,
though absent, shook hands, as over a vast, and
embraced, as it were, from the ends of opposed
winds. The heavens continue their loves!

Looking in slo-mo at Camillo’s words,  and lit with my anxiety about what I know is going to happen, I now see more worrying words: I’d like to paint them red with my highlighter.

Cannot / betwixt /cannot /branch /separation /seemed /absent /opposed

The genius of the great Director/reader is to feel the power of that  set of words in what is a politely civil-servant normal-speech set of  words.  How are we going to get that foreboding, gently, into the room?  In the theatre – good job we have one here on the table in front of us  – maybe by lighting, or music, or stops and starts in Camillo’s inflection?

Agh, time’s up.  More anon.

The Winter’s Tale Day 2: Two Men Walk Into A Room

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Snowdrops emerging near some Buddlea cuttings – hurray for soon to be Spring

My main feeling when I start reading a Shakespeare play with other people is the excitement of  wanting them to love it. But love can’t grow in an atmosphere of fear and many people fear Shakespeare.

So my main task in an opening session, before anything has happened, but when my fellow readers may be  fearful or anxious, is to make it real and human, so that readers can see it is not a foreign language, or out of their league and  is going to be o.k.

Shakespeare writes about Kings, about courts, so first we have to  get past that strangeness and think what might be the equivalent to a King or a court  in our lives today. Boss, parent, family, boardroom, gang.  The Council. Government.

Here’s a play that begins in the middle of a state visit – I’ll say remember Mrs May and her husband Philip in China?

I  will ask my group to imagine a little mini-theatre, here in the room with us, in the middle of the table. We might want to decorate our table-top theatre with  posters made of blown-up photos of that China trip, or  we might want to make it your Auntie Sheila’s visit from Australia – she hasn’t seen your Mum for fifteen years…Let’s use family photos as a backdrop – here they are when they were little girls together in the Lake District. And say Auntie Sheila has brought all her friends and relations…  or  that’s getting a bit unreal, let’s make it LFC visiting the Boston Redsox for a summer training camp. All those hangers-on and old coaches coming along for the ride, all the wives and girlfriends and children, and Klopp’s Mum because she loves Boston.

I want to get some ideas of visits, of the fun and tensions of visits. And when I’ve got my theatre set up, with various possibilities, I’d let the first two actors walk in.

Here are two  men, one from the home family (business, country, team) and the other from the visiting team.  Who do you know who could play a good careful, intelligent civil servant – not a Yes Minister! More of  Jane Tennison visiting a distant New Zealand Police Force as part of a Royal Tour.

I’m like Whitman’s spider, casting out filaments, hoping one or more will catch somewhere and connect this old play with our lived reality.

Camillo is our man, the home player, Archidamus the visitor. They are perhaps parallel players – equally  matched in their home organisation, uncle with uncle, Chief Operating Officer with Chief Operating Officer.  Goalie with Goalie.  Cousin with Cousin. Let them walk on  – Enter Camillo and Archidamus. Anyone like to read?  No? ok, I’ll do them both. But I can’t do them with different voices.

One of you might take pity on me and help me read. A clue about reading  – use the punctuation! Head for a comma and then have a rest. And if you do read, and you realise you haven’t got a clue what you’ve just read… stop and call for help!

When I’m talking like this I’m just vamping, passing time, while waiting for someone to offer to help me with the reading. I know that someone in the group may be willing, and they just need a little time to get ready to offer to help. So I’ll keep talking for a while.  And then Lucy offers.

Oh thanks, Lucy, you’ll do some reading. Ok – I’ll be Camillo – you set off as Archidamus.

(I’ve set out the parts like this on purpose, because I am not sure if Lucy can read well, or will want to go on very far. Camillo is a big part – she might be stuck in him for ages. Giving Lucy a short part gives her a get-out, and she can always come back in as someone else once we get going. Or I might have said :we’ll each just do a couple of lines while we get going)

Arch-i-dame-us. Or maybe it’s Ark-i-damus?  Not sure. Vic, can you keep a list of the names – you’re a great pronouncer! We’re going to need to remember them.  So Lucy, when you are reading Archidamus – are you going to be Helen Mirren? Inspector Jane Tennison. Very capable, professional. And I’ll be David Morrissey.

If Lucy hadn’t offered, I would read both parts, but I’d moan about it a little,  how hard it is trying to  do both voices! so as to keep saying, indirectly, come on, someone, help me! And someone would, in the end, help me.

In an established group there would be no trouble with this – people love reading  once they’ve got used to it and will, in my experience, have a crack at anything.

 

ACT I

SCENE I. Antechamber in LEONTES’ palace.

Enter CAMILLO and ARCHIDAMUS

ARCHIDAMUS

If you shall chance, Camillo, to visit Bohemia, on
the like occasion whereon my services are now on
foot, you shall see, as I have said, great
difference betwixt our Bohemia and your Sicilia.

CAMILLO

I think, this coming summer, the King of Sicilia
means to pay Bohemia the visitation which he justly owes him.

ARCHIDAMUS

Wherein our entertainment shall shame us we will be
justified in our loves; for indeed–

CAMILLO

Beseech you,–

ARCHIDAMUS

Verily, I speak it in the freedom of my knowledge:
we cannot with such magnificence–in so rare–I know
not what to say. We will give you sleepy drinks,
that your senses, unintelligent of our insufficience,
may, though they cannot praise us, as little accuse
us.

CAMILLO

You pay a great deal too dear for what’s given freely.

ARCHIDAMUS

Believe me, I speak as my understanding instructs me
and as mine honesty puts it to utterance.

I’m going to stop it here, just as we get going, because I want to be sure that everyone is with me. Lucy, reading Archidamus with the actor Helen Mirren in mind might not, for all our laughing here, be very sure about the language of what she has just read.  Or she might be struggling. Others in the group may be troubled or feeling agitated.

I want to know how everyone is doing. I want to take the temperature.

What do you think so far, Mikey?

I mean this as a way of making eye contact with Mikey, the least able reader in the group, but Mikey takes it as an exam question.  He pulls a face. Agh, my mistake! But, surprising me, Mikey is ok.

Well, he’s like saying, you coming to ours later, isn’t he? He’s going to go round to his?

Spot on – that’s it, I reply.

Jean says, but isn’t Archidamus saying –  he’s going to be ashamed? What of? He says, ‘Wherein our entertainment shall shame us…’

Mikey, ‘but he’s already said there’s a difference , maybe he’s really wealthy and  they’ve been laying it on…’

Jean, ‘like when Trump comes here for his state visit and wants a golden carriage and everything?’

Kay, ‘This was it when  my cousins from Tobago came – you know they haven’t got much they are  from the north, and they just fish and take tourists fishing… they couldn’t see I was not wealthy, you know because I have a car and a washing machine and big TV…’

Mikey ‘Big TV, eh, Kay?

We’re off text now, but I’m happy. My group is reading Shakespeare. Very slowly, yes, but making it our own. We connect things in the play to things we know. It’s like doing a jigsaw puzzle. Does this piece fit with any piece of my experience?

Let’s start again I’ll say. Enter Camillo and Archidamus. We read again.

 

 

Mikey, what’s ‘sleepy drinks’?

Kay, Ovaltine, isn’t it?  Like hot milk drinks, get’s you to sleep.

No, it’s drugs, says Kev, speaking for the first time today.  He’s saying  we’ll have to drug you so you don’t notice how we don’t match up.

Me: Could you read it, Kev?

Kev: Ok – blows out a long stream of air –  here goes  – We will give you sleepy drinks, that your senses, unintelligent of our insufficience, wow that’s a mouthful. Unintelligent of our insuffience may, though they cannot praise us, as little accuse us.

Kay: we can’t  give you back what you’ve given us.

Me – but that might not be true – this is court –  it would just be the way these people talk. It might be just politeness?

I say this because I want to throw an extra layer into the mix.  It may or may not be true. But I want to remember that these two men are not just men, family visitors from Australia or Tobago, but also courtiers.  I ask everyone to think of the protocols of China and Mrs May. It might be rude to say you could match your hosts hospitality.

But look, Mikey says, pointing. He says he means it. Archi – Archi –  he says…Believe me, I speak as my under … under …standing in…structs me and as mine honesty puts it to utt…utt…utterance.

We’re off. I think that’ll do for today.

 

 

 

The Winter’s Tale Day 1: Flying Upward

sparks.jpg

Being a human isn’t easy,  even for a very lucky human like me, born in England in the twentieth century,  having had some education and not having to work at manual labour and having food and warmth and house insurance and many other luxuries…being human isn’t easy. So it’s not surprising that people often want to stay on the surface in Shared Reading and not go too deep into sorrow. We’ve got enough of it already!

Yet the fact remains that for most of us, even wealthy third-worlders, life is hard, as the Book of Job (6th century BCE) asserts:

Yet man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward.

The implication – look at the picture –  is, how should it be any other way? We  are mortal. yet we live with powerful consciousness that feels immortal.  There’s always death, pain, illness, breakages. Lots of the time, naturally, we want to  keep whistling and pretend it is not so.

Yet the very best experiences in Shared Reading often come when  we stop whistling and look up and listen to the crackle of the sparks and the silence behind  them. You  gotta go down to get up.

A Reader Leader  developing a group has a tough job on, partly coaxing non-readers towards literature in the first place, then keeping a balance between the wishes of some  members to ‘stay light’  (as one reader said to me, ‘we’ve got enough sorrow at home’ ) and the  task of creating the intense experience that comes from sharing the most complex, and often sad or troubling, texts.

In groups I’ve run I’m always aiming towards the best and greatest,  even if it might take a while to get there. For me that best and greatest is usually Shakespeare (other great writers are harder to share: I’ve only once read Dante and rarely Wordsworth, and never Milton in a normal weekly community Shared Reading group, though have read all of them on Saturday Dayschools. Would I try it?  Yes probably, depending on the stability of the group). When I say best and greatest, I think I am talking about levels of complexity. Which writers use up the greatest proportion of my brain and heart?

And  while there are many great Shakespeare works you might decide to start trying to talk your group into starting – I’ve read Hamlet, All’s Well , Macbeth and probably others that I’ve forgotten in Shared Reading groups – for me the play I love and would most like to share is The Winter’s Tale.

Starting The Winter’s Tale here is partly for myself – haven’t read it for a couple of years, so I’ll enjoy spending some time with it. But partly I offer my reading as an encouragement to anyone who can’t imagine reading a Shakespeare play in their Shared Reading group. And for readers who don’t run groups ( why don’t you?)  I hope it will simply be a meditative joy to read some complicating deep stuff very slowly.  Breathe! Breathe!

There’s an online text here, and you’ll find paper texts  in libraries and bookshops everywhere. We don’t need a text with  exceptional scholarship, though it’s fine if you have one.

How to start?

Talk them into it!  Start talking about it long before – in the middle of  run of short stories, or half way through Silas Marner. Sell it! Tell them how great it will be, and  remind them it won’t be like school.

Some tips before you begin:

  • If you can,  watch it in a couple of different productions (I still  like the 1981 BBC Shakespeare version directed by Jane Howell and starring the great Margaret Tyzack as Paulina.).
  • Close your ears, now The Reader Quality team, but I’m not a great fan of prep for Shared Reading – I like to find my reading live and without a safety net. Of course I’ve been falling off that highwire for decades so I’m used to landing with a splat. But here I’d definitely recommend you working on the text in advance if possible, because you want to feel reasonably confident.  Get a scene or so in advance of your group.
  • Make sure your group know this is going to take a while: we’re not going to rush. Treat it like a poem, let every word, every phrase and sentence have its right amount of time.
  • Be prepared to say, many times over, ‘I don’t know! I haven’t a clue!’
  • Let discussion wander all over the shop but keep coming back to the text and asking everyone to think again or try to imagine it.
  • To imagine it, build a little invisible theatre-in-the-round in the middle of your reading space and ask group members to visualise the play – try it with different sets, costumes, actors from the telly. Make it move!
  • Know the story and be able to tell it to entice your more reluctant group members towards the play – be ready with translations into modern-day life – who do we know who is like this? Have you ever seen a person do this?
  • Ask one of your group to keep a list of characters (and clues to who they are) which could be pinned up in the room as you read –  people new to Shakespeare will really struggle with the names in the this play.  (Polixenes= King of  Bohemia, boyhood friend of King Leontes / Mamillius= son of King Leontes, aged about 9 or 10. / Paulina= wife of courtier Antigonus, speaks her mind).
  • Beware the academic – no fancy talk. Your job as Reader Leader is to keep it real – this is not an old studied for A level play, it’s a piece of our heart.

Ah, run out of time now. But here is the opening scene, which I’ll pick up next time.

ACT I

SCENE I. Antechamber in LEONTES’ palace.

Enter CAMILLO and ARCHIDAMUS

ARCHIDAMUS

If you shall chance, Camillo, to visit Bohemia, on
the like occasion whereon my services are now on
foot, you shall see, as I have said, great
difference betwixt our Bohemia and your Sicilia.

CAMILLO

I think, this coming summer, the King of Sicilia
means to pay Bohemia the visitation which he justly owes him.

ARCHIDAMUS

Wherein our entertainment shall shame us we will be
justified in our loves; for indeed–

CAMILLO

Beseech you,–

ARCHIDAMUS

Verily, I speak it in the freedom of my knowledge:
we cannot with such magnificence–in so rare–I know
not what to say. We will give you sleepy drinks,
that your senses, unintelligent of our insufficience,
may, though they cannot praise us, as little accuse
us.

CAMILLO

You pay a great deal too dear for what’s given freely.

ARCHIDAMUS

Believe me, I speak as my understanding instructs me
and as mine honesty puts it to utterance.

CAMILLO

Sicilia cannot show himself over-kind to Bohemia.
They were trained together in their childhoods; and
there rooted betwixt them then such an affection,
which cannot choose but branch now. Since their
more mature dignities and royal necessities made
separation of their society, their encounters,
though not personal, have been royally attorneyed
with interchange of gifts, letters, loving
embassies; that they have seemed to be together,
though absent, shook hands, as over a vast, and
embraced, as it were, from the ends of opposed
winds. The heavens continue their loves!

ARCHIDAMUS

I think there is not in the world either malice or
matter to alter it. You have an unspeakable
comfort of your young prince Mamillius: it is a
gentleman of the greatest promise that ever came
into my note.

CAMILLO

I very well agree with you in the hopes of him: it
is a gallant child; one that indeed physics the
subject, makes old hearts fresh: they that went on
crutches ere he was born desire yet their life to
see him a man.

ARCHIDAMUS

Would they else be content to die?

CAMILLO

Yes; if there were no other excuse why they should
desire to live.

ARCHIDAMUS

If the king had no son, they would desire to live
on crutches till he had one.
Exeunt

 

Silas Marner Day 37: Time Travels in Us

Ness gardens in summer.JPG
Remember there was summer? Ness Gardens 2017

Picking up where I left off yesterday in Chapter  XVI – and not got long today. We move from the conversation with Dolly – trusten, trusten –  to fifteen years later, when Eppie, the child he found and learned to connect to human life through, is now nearly grown-up.

When we’re reading prose it’s so easy to rush on and get story… story… story…but there is more to life than narrative unfolding.  There’s time travel in us.

Our older and younger selves and the experiences of those younger and older selves mash together, though we hardly know it, but great  prose like this shows some of that complexity. It’s worth slowing down to the slowest possible pace to pick up whatever the complex text offers. Here, two periods of time sit side by side, as if related:

This dialogue took place in Eppie’s earlier years, when Silas had to part with her for two hours every day, that she might learn to read at the dame school, after he had vainly tried himself to guide her in that first step to learning. Now that she was grown up, Silas had often been led, in those moments of quiet outpouring which come to people who live together in perfect love, to talk with _her_ too of the past, and how and why he had lived a lonely man until she had been sent to him.

‘This dialogue’ refers back to the  piece we read yesterday, Silas’ conversation with Dolly, about what went wrong in his early life, how he was traumatised and how he has learned, through Eppie’s presence in his life, to trust. ‘This dialogue’ was more than a decide ago but it connects to the second sentence in this paragraph, which begins  ‘now’. Now that she was grown up…the step-father  has often reprised this dialogue, gone over his life-story, told Eppie of the change her presence has wrought in him.

Think of your life – think of a fifteen year period and how what happens at one stage sets up or changes what is going to happen in the future.  The ‘then’ creating, allowing, bringing into being the ‘now’. Wonderful to see Silas wisely sharing this vital life-information with the child.

For it would have been impossible for him to hide from Eppie that she was not his own child: even if the most delicate reticence on the point could have been expected from Raveloe gossips in her presence, her own questions about her mother could not have been parried, as she grew up, without that complete shrouding of the past which would have made a painful barrier between their minds. So Eppie had long known how her mother had died on the snowy ground, and how she herself had been found on the hearth by father Silas, who had taken her golden curls for his lost guineas brought back to him.

Silas had a choice: to trust or not to trust that Eppie could live with the truth of her own story. He might have created a ‘complete shrouding of the past’ – though of course gossips would have whispered it – but he would not contemplate creating ‘a barrier  between their minds’. Therefore Eppie knows her own story. I find it very moving that ‘Eppie had long known how her mother had died…’  it’s as if in this second go at having a life, Silas is choosing trust, and trust in love, even more strongly than the did the first time round in his previous life in Lantern Yard.  The scar tissue isstrongerthan the unbroken bone. And the child has  grown strong in that love and trust.

I’m thinking of the long  piece of human learning that is the experience of adult life –  fifteen years! Why don’t we think  moreabout development in adult life? We’re not finished! But learning hurts as well as bringing joy.

Time to stop now, this morning. But I think I am feeling my way towards are-reading of The Winter’s Tale.  The long gap of time.