Times says Poetry’s Back! (& I reread Denise Riley & get tangled)

azalea buds
Azalea buds outside what will one day be the new Reader Cafe in Calderstones Park

Patricia Nicol writes a great story, in today’s Times, about the re-launch of Penguin’s Modern Poets series.

I loved the original Penguin Modern Poets when I was teenage reader, and still have, though can’t today find, my copy of  Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s Selected Poems (see it here).  So hurray for Penguin for this  collectible rethink, and thanks Patricia Nicol, because I had not noticed the new Modern Poets, I am ashamed to say. I haven’t been browsing in a poetry bookshop for a while. Must rectify.

Of the 12 poets Patricia Nicol offers as a sample of  current riches I only know the work of three or four, so lots of new stuff to try when I  get to the poetry shelves.

Of the known, two to mention. I was lucky enough to be present in the Royal Festival Hall when Sinead Morrissey won the 2017 Forward Prize for the Best Collection for On Balance (Carcanet). She read ‘Perfume’,  an outstanding reading  which had the audience hooting with stunned pleasure – Morrissey has a measured, knowing, intense reading voice and knew we’d enjoy the story of her aunt cleaning the Nottingham Odeon after The Beatles had performed to an audience of screaming teenage girls.

Another poet mentioned in Nicol’s list is Denise Riley. I’ve heard her read her work too, and found much of it moving and incomprehensible. I  don’t mind incomprehensible at all, if I’m moved.

So this morning I’m reading  ‘A Misremembered Lyric’ and trying to think about the problem of  facing those of us who might be leading a Shared Reading group for a long while, for years, when the tendency is often to go for easier things. Why? Because  we’re all a bit lazy and there’s a fear of hard poetry most people aren’t ever over, and easier seems, well, easier.  But as anyone who has ever done anything hard knows, hard is sometimes a bigger experience.

Denise Riley reads ‘A Misremembered Lyric’ here.

I’m reading the poem in All The Days of My Life  – my husband Philip Davis’s anthology ‘to console and inspire’,  found on Amazon at a bargain price!

Why I don’t bother with context

I can see the potential value of context: it’s like doing the dishes before you sit down to write: context puts off the awful moment of confrontation that is necessary for the act of creation that is reading. But the dishes are not writing. They are a precursor that may become part of a ritual of  off-putting that  is part of the ritual before writing.  But still  it is not writing. So context is not reading.

It’s a way in, someone will say.

No, it’s a way round, I’d reply.

It’s a sideways shuffle that  tries to pretend that some facts help. But facts don’t help with the fact that at some point you are going to have to get in there and make it your own.

Context says: Yes I do help! There is a day-to-day world and we can understand things in it.

Poetry says: Experience this.

As Denise Riley has said,  ‘Who anyone is or I am is nothing to the work.’ (Denise Riley, from ‘Dark Looks’)

Because the direct confrontation of the poetic experience is usually unsettling we might try to avoid it, even though we have decided to try to read a poem. That’s a clue to why we need poetry: we are not rational creatures. We both want to read a poem and don’t want to read it at the same time. So we reach for ‘context’, some outer thing that might tell us who the poet is, or who we are, or where we are, but all along,  being lost is the point. Forget everything and feel around in the dark. Trust the poem to find you.

Read the poem. I can’t reprint it here because I don’t have permission but find it here. Find someone to read it with. Read it aloud, read it a few times, take it line by line or take it sentence by sentence, or take it sometimes word by word. Give it an hour. It will repay.

I know the experience Denise Riley begins with, that soft catch you almost sing when a long forgotten lyric comes to mind. So far, not so scary.  And then the word ‘conscience’ appears, line 3,  and I wonder what she’s troubled about. Line 4 continues:

presence is clean gone and leaves unfurnished no
shadow.

Now comes the dark! What’s gone or who is gone?  As the reader here I am know nothing and  have not one fact. The poem swirls  dark around me, the lyric (by Dusty Springfield?)  beats its presence in an echo-chamber behind the words.  I take each little piece and meditate/read. I know it doesn’t matter if I am wrong because there is no wrong, there is only the poem and myself trying to reach each other in the dark of unknowing. ‘Rain lyrics’, she writes. I think  rain, lyrics, I think leaves, I think tears , I think falling. Am I beginning to get a feeling of immersion in an emotion of loss and yet ‘I don’t want absence to be this beautiful’.

Then a thought begins to emerge, Riley calls it ‘ the fear thought’.

you get no consolation anyway until your memory’s
dead: or something never had gotten hold of
your heart in the first place, and that’s the fear thought.

The sadness stays, of loss or breakage, it stays and only fades because we let other noises drown it out. If you let it back, there it is, as unconsoled as ever. Only not loving could prevent it and that would be a terrible thing, perhaps the worst thing.

I do not know the facts of where the next line comes from.  Maybe she was reading a newspaper. Maybe she was watching a documentary, maybe eating shrimp. But however it came, the thought  occurred:

Do shrimps make good mothers? Yes they do.

Any mother will make a connect here, any parent, anyone who has wanted to love well. Shrimps can do it!  Love pervades and disappears through the universe like spots of light, as does pain, loss, no consolation.

There is no beauty out of loss; can’t do it –

There are leaves, there is rain – I must have known it at the beginning from having read it here at the end. Is the ‘rhythm of unhappy pleasure’ the song? Is melancholy a pleasure? Sometimes it is, but behind Denise Riley’s experience here is ‘bossy death telling me which way to/go.’

The end of the poem seems to straighten up, pulls itself together as if leaving a graveyard and stepping back into the high street:

                                                                        Still let
me know. Looking for a brand-new start. Oh and never
notice yourself ever. As in life you don’t.

Talking to someone? Perhaps the dead. Talking to self? Perhaps some part of oneself that feels dead. But the last two sentences seem like after-thought advice. Keep going like this. Do this.

Think there are two people in the poem – her and someone not there, either dead or lost. Love is gone, perhaps died. She is still there, still, watching the rain, the leaves. Is this ‘life’ or this consciousness, self-consciousness? Is she noticing herself and at the end remembering that when life goes on you don’t notice? Is the end sad?  Should be, but it feels kind of sensible. Keep going like this.

I reread the poem. The fear thought at its centre. What if something had never gotten hold of your heart in the first place?

Is she a good mother? Would you havethe thought in mind if not worried about it? I don’t know! I think of my own self reading. The thought that shrimps might be good mothers is both delightful – motherhood, a universal ! – and seems to set a bar I might , as an evolved mammal, still be missing. Do I make a good mother?

The fear thought and bossy death seem to provide two deep places in the poem to which I must return. Still not knowing.  Be there. Face it. No context.

This morning I found ‘Hope’ through a woman I’ve hardly met

pink shrub.JPG
Anyone know the name of this beautiful,slightly scented, shrub in profuse flower?  It’s on the back wall in the Old English Garden at Calderstones, August 2017 

London day yesterday and no time to slot my morning reading and writing into a very busy early start day. But this morning,  browsing through All The Days of My Life, the anthology put together years ago by my husband for me, because I wanted a good anthology of religious poems, and which became a book, which is now out of print but often available secondhand on Amazon, I found ‘Hope’ by Ann Finch, Countess of Winchilsea. I may have read it through in the past, but I’ve never read it properly and though I know Ann Finch’s name, I don’t think I know any of her works. So, a woman and a poem new to me. And hope is always welcome.

Once you start reading, you need to know something about the Christian story of the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve. Had Ann Finch read Milton’s Paradise Lost ? She was born a few years before it was published. Was it well read, or well-known, twenty, thirty years later?  I don’t know – possibly. But Ann may more likely have been drawing on the Eden story as it appears in The Bible – King James Version would have been the one she used. Either way –  the Eden story is a model of experience in her mind, and opens up a series of thoughts for her:

Hope

The Tree of Knowledge we in Eden prov’d;
The Tree of Life was thence to Heav’n remov’d:
Hope is the growth of Earth, the only Plant,
Which either Heav’n, or Paradise cou’d want.

Hell knows it not, to Us alone confin’d,
And Cordial only to the Human Mind.
Receive it then, t’expel these mortal Cares,
Nor wave a Med’cine, which thy God prepares.

The poem is written to someone, perhaps to herself, though that is not immediately obvious. It seems to start like a set of facts, almost scientifically laid out, like an  argument, the colon at the end of line two acting as a sort of hinge which holds the two  parts of the argument together.

The Tree of Knowledge we in Eden prov’d;
The Tree of Life was thence to Heav’n remov’d:

There were two important trees in the Garden of Eden: the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Adam and Eve were forbidden to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil ( but not forbidden the tree of life ) and were tempted into doing so by the serpent. I can’t see any reference to the Tree of Life being removed to heaven after the eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, as Ann finch asserts here, though there is a reference to the Tree of Life being in Paradise in Revelation 2:7  so I’m going to take it that that was a common understanding  – we ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge and tree of life  was removed …those who get to heaven will experience it…)

But I’m getting lost in biblical textual history !! Let me get back to the poem:

The Tree of Knowledge we in Eden prov’d;
The Tree of Life was thence to Heav’n remov’d:

In my Shared Reading group I’d be asking, can anyone paraphrase this – can you put it into modern English? What do you think ‘prov’d’ means? Proved it existed? Proved (by eating the fruit) that it was the tree of knowledge?  It’s a sort of test, isn’t it?  Proving bread –  proving as in test? Here’s my modern English version:

In Eden, humans were tested and found disobedient to God, and proved that there was such a thing as the tree of knowledge, and became knowledgeable about sin.

No so concise as poetry! A lot rests on the verb ‘prov’d’. It faces in two directions, proving something about us as well as about the tree.

To continue with my modern translation. Once the above had happened, then:

The Tree of Life was thence to Heav’n remov’d:

Interesting to look up ‘thence’ – I had no idea! (‘From a place or source previously mentioned’.) Is is a combination of time and place – is it related to ‘hence’? Heaven hasn’t been previously mentioned. It’s like ‘then’ – a time word. but it is also place, from thence= from there. Or to heaven – thence to Heaven. Online etymological dictionary  tells me it means ‘from that place’. So the tree of life was from that place (Eden ) removed…and taken to heaven.

Sorry everyone! What a long palaver!

But we have the facts established. I suppose now I want to think, what does it mean that the tree of life is unavailable to us , is up there, is out of reach…

We get the hinge, the colon at the end of that line and the first word of the next is ‘hope’. Read it again:

The Tree of Knowledge we in Eden prov’d;
The Tree of Life was thence to Heav’n remov’d:
Hope is the growth of Earth, the only Plant,
Which either Heav’n, or Paradise cou’d want.

It now feels to me that the poem has been heading to this word ‘hope’ from the beginning – read it again and feel the rhythm of it. A lot of stress falls on the word – it’s as if the previous two lines have been building to it, their semi colon and colon leaning forward to announce it: hope!

But it is hope in the absence of the tree of life, is it, grown from earth, of earth. And  does it comeafter those other two have caused us a lot of pain? and yet it is now all we need, better than the tree of life?

the only Plant,
Which either Heav’n, or Paradise cou’d want.

Oddly, when I first read this I read it as ‘either Heav’n or Earth could want….’ I assumed it was a comparison but actually of course it is just two different names for the same place. if hope wouldn’t be out of place in ‘Heav’n or Paradise’ it’s odd that it is a growth of earth, is it?

I’ve spent a long time this morning looking at the King James Bible, so used up my time and only 4 lines of poetry read… finish this one tomorrow.

A Universe-bending proposition from Thomas Traherne

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Climbing black fuschia in the rain, back garden, 7 August

I am continuing to read the Thomas Traherne poem ‘Shadows in the Water’ : search ‘Traherne’ and you’ll find the posts. Here’s the poem – always worth re-reading aloud to get into the flow;

I’m adding numbers to the stanzas, for easy of reference.

Shadows in the water

1

In unexperienced infancy
Many a sweet mistake doth lie:
Mistake though false, intending true;
A seeming somewhat more than view;
That doth instruct the mind
In things that lie behind,
And many secrets to us show
Which afterwards we come to know.

 

2

Thus did I by the water’s brink
Another world beneath me think;
And while the lofty spacious skies
Reversèd there, abused mine eyes,
I fancied other feet
Came mine to touch or meet;
As by some puddle I did play
Another world within it lay.

3

Beneath the water people drowned,
Yet with another heaven crowned,
In spacious regions seemed to go
As freely moving to and fro:
In bright and open space
I saw their very face;
Eyes, hands, and feet they had like mine;
Another sun did with them shine.

4

’Twas strange that people there should walk,
And yet I could not hear them talk;
That through a little watery chink,
Which one dry ox or horse might drink,
We other worlds should see,
Yet not admitted be;
And other confines there behold
Of light and darkness, heat and cold.

5

I called them oft, but called in vain;
No speeches we could entertain:
Yet did I there expect to find
Some other world, to please my mind.
I plainly saw by these
A new antipodes,
Whom, though they were so plainly seen,
A film kept off that stood between.

6

By walking men’s reversèd feet
I chanced another world to meet;
Though it did not to view exceed
A phantom, ’tis a world indeed,
Where skies beneath us shine,
And earth by art divine
Another face presents below,
Where people’s feet against ours go.

7

Within the regions of the air,
Compassed about with heavens fair,
Great tracts of land there may be found
Enriched with fields and fertile ground;
Where many numerous hosts
In those far distant coasts,
For other great and glorious ends
Inhabit, my yet unknown friends.

8

O ye that stand upon the brink,
Whom I so near me through the chink
With wonder see: what faces there,
Whose feet, whose bodies, do ye wear?
I my companions see
In you, another me.
They seemèd others, but are we;
Our second selves these shadows be.

9

Look how far off those lower skies
Extend themselves! scarce with mine eyes
I can them reach. O ye my friends,
What secret borders on those ends?
Are lofty heavens hurled
’Bout your inferior world?
Are yet the representatives
Of other peoples’ distant lives?

10

Of all the playmates which I knew
That here I do the image view
In other selves, what can it mean?
But that below the purling stream
Some unknown joys there be
Laid up in store for me;
To which I shall, when that thin skin
Is broken, be admitted in.

Yesterday I’d got as far as stanza 8, and that’s where I’m picking up today:

O ye that stand upon the brink,
Whom I so near me through the chink
With wonder see: what faces there,
Whose feet, whose bodies, do ye wear?
I my companions see
In you, another me.
They seemèd others, but are we;
Our second selves these shadows be.

Here Traherne looks more closely –  ‘through the chink’ –  at the people in the other world of the puddle/window. These are people who ‘stand upon the brink’,  at the very edge of our world. Traherne asks about particularities – what faces do these people have? And then the surprise realisation:

I my companions see
In you, another me.
They seemèd others, but are we;
Our second selves these shadows be.

There’s a strong slide of meaning, possible meaning slipping into possible meaning, in the syntax of these lines – who is seeing what, where? The slippage is compounded by the rhymes: I, my, see, me, we.

I my companions see
In you, another me.

I just don’t know who ‘my companions’ are here – the people under the water?  Or the people alongside me in this world? Yes, it’s that latter: it means  ‘I and my companions see’. The syntax (the ways the words, punctuation, lines are arranged)  is so clever here: the more you look the more you can’t tell what you are seeing, as if the puddle has ripples in it which break up the  reflection into lots of parts, yet they are all still essentially ‘I’, ‘my companions’, ‘you’, ‘me’.

Finally we get to a resting place where the water, the vision, clams and we see clearly:

Our second selves these shadows be.

And now, in stanza 9, having achieved a moment of calm, Traherne flings a new, dizzying question into the pool:

Look how far off those lower skies
Extend themselves! scarce with mine eyes
I can them reach. O ye my friends,
What secret borders on those ends?
Are lofty heavens hurled
’Bout your inferior world?
Are yet the representatives
Of other peoples’ distant lives?

Now Traherne unleashes a stream of questions which can’t be answered: it’s as if the walls of the universe have fallen away. How far does this go? What does that unendingness mean? ‘What secret borders on those ends?’  When Traherne asks ‘Are lofty heavens hurled/ ’bout your inferior world’  it is as if he in free-fall, not knowing which way is up. Is there an ‘up’ in this place we look down into? If  there are reflections in that other world, what do they reflect? Are they ‘the representatives/ Of other peoples’ distant lives?’

I’m remembering something Doris Lessing wrote in her ‘Remarks’ at the beginning of The Sirian Experiments.

It has been said that everything man is capable of imagining has its counterpart somewhere else, in a different level of reality.

Traherne loves to inhabit this place between fixed points – the place where those different levels of reality meet, or touch, and  he is not all scared, but childlike, full of wonder at the  far-reachingness of  his own possible thought, or experience.

Of all the playmates which I knew
That here I do the image view
In other selves, what can it mean?
But that below the purling stream
Some unknown joys there be
Laid up in store for me;
To which I shall, when that thin skin
Is broken, be admitted in.

He puts the question, ‘what can it mean?’ squarely and without fear. What can it mean that  ‘I do the image view, In other selves’? – It means ‘unknown joys’ await him.

The idea of the ‘thin skin’ between this world and another pleases him – he wants to be ‘admitted in.’ You get the feeling that is what he has wanted all along – to dive in, to go there…there is a fascination with the world reflected in the puddle, and with the thoughts that then grow from that experience

There’s nothing in the poem about  heaven, Christianity, any sort of expounding of doctrine, though Traherne was a priest.  If there was only this poem in existence Traherne would seem to me a true Romantic –  though he lived way before ‘Romanticism’ emerged as a movement, and  was unknown to Wordsworth and the other Romantic poets, because his work was unknown and unpublished until into the twentieth century.

Why do I say Romantic? Because he apprehends the world through his feelings and tries to think from there. Because he has a naive, childlike belief in those first feelings, which I’m glad to celebrate. Because ‘God’ doesn’t seem to come with human thinking attached, but rather as a direct and ordinary experience – the limilessness of God in a puddle.

And that’s what this poem is, isn’t it?  A small thing happens – child looks in puddle, see other  people there, other sky. From that experience comes this echoing hall of mirrors universe/time/space bending proposition which is about the thin barriers between states of being,  between life and death, this earth and heaven, whatever that is – this is what Wordsworth, a hundred years or so  later will call an of immortality’.

Read about Thomas Traherne here.

 

 

See the possibilities? Thomas Traherne’s ‘Shadows in the Water’

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Japanese anenomes, white hydraganea and couchgrass, 6 August

I’ve been reading Thomas Traherne’s poem ‘Shadows in the Water’ for a few days: search ‘Traherne’ and you’ll find the posts. Here’s the poem – always worth re-reading aloud to get into the flow;

I’m adding numbers to the stanzas, for easy of reference.

Shadows in the water

1

In unexperienced infancy
Many a sweet mistake doth lie:
Mistake though false, intending true;
A seeming somewhat more than view;
That doth instruct the mind
In things that lie behind,
And many secrets to us show
Which afterwards we come to know.

 

2

Thus did I by the water’s brink
Another world beneath me think;
And while the lofty spacious skies
Reversèd there, abused mine eyes,
I fancied other feet
Came mine to touch or meet;
As by some puddle I did play
Another world within it lay.

3

Beneath the water people drowned,
Yet with another heaven crowned,
In spacious regions seemed to go
As freely moving to and fro:
In bright and open space
I saw their very face;
Eyes, hands, and feet they had like mine;
Another sun did with them shine.

4

’Twas strange that people there should walk,
And yet I could not hear them talk;
That through a little watery chink,
Which one dry ox or horse might drink,
We other worlds should see,
Yet not admitted be;
And other confines there behold
Of light and darkness, heat and cold.

5

I called them oft, but called in vain;
No speeches we could entertain:
Yet did I there expect to find
Some other world, to please my mind.
I plainly saw by these
A new antipodes,
Whom, though they were so plainly seen,
A film kept off that stood between.

6

By walking men’s reversèd feet
I chanced another world to meet;
Though it did not to view exceed
A phantom, ’tis a world indeed,
Where skies beneath us shine,
And earth by art divine
Another face presents below,
Where people’s feet against ours go.

7

Within the regions of the air,
Compassed about with heavens fair,
Great tracts of land there may be found
Enriched with fields and fertile ground;
Where many numerous hosts
In those far distant coasts,
For other great and glorious ends
Inhabit, my yet unknown friends.

8

O ye that stand upon the brink,
Whom I so near me through the chink
With wonder see: what faces there,
Whose feet, whose bodies, do ye wear?
I my companions see
In you, another me.
They seemèd others, but are we;
Our second selves these shadows be.

9

Look how far off those lower skies
Extend themselves! scarce with mine eyes
I can them reach. O ye my friends,
What secret borders on those ends?
Are lofty heavens hurled
’Bout your inferior world?
Are yet the representatives
Of other peoples’ distant lives?

10

Of all the playmates which I knew
That here I do the image view
In other selves, what can it mean?
But that below the purling stream
Some unknown joys there be
Laid up in store for me;
To which I shall, when that thin skin
Is broken, be admitted in.

and had got to  this point in stanza 4:

Strange….

…We other worlds should see,
Yet not admitted be;
And other confines there behold
Of light and darkness, heat and cold.

As I reread this morning I was arrested by the opening of stanza 3 which I’d passed over rather quickly the first time round;

Beneath the water people drowned,
Yet with another heaven crowned,
In spacious regions seemed to go

It was ‘drowned’ that struck me – partly because yesterday I’d been thinking of the oddness of this world being vulnerable to a thirsty ox, and thinking of  in almost sci fi way about ways to move between worlds or modes. That thoughts developed after I’d read ‘drowned’ yesterday and I didn’t go back to  this word – but now with the odd thought firmly established in my mind, as I reread, ‘drowned’  is a clue.

A clue to what? To the strange point of  view Traherne is inhabiting – where he can see two worlds, he’s in a virtual doorway. Looked at from one point of view (this world) the people  he can see are drowning. Looked at from  inside the puddle-world they are not drowning they are ‘freely moving to and fro’.

If I was reading this in a group I’d want to open up a conversation about what we all know about different worlds, different possible worlds, and whether we ever sense them.  I’d be looking for an example.  Time and chance  offer the easiest examples, perhaps. You meet an old boyfriend after twenty years in some unexpected situation, there he is, selling you a new car, working as an ambulance driver, the police detective who comes about your burglary, at a school reunion/  Possible lives – what if we had stayed together? – open up. You look at them briefly. Most likely the possible closes down.

Another example? You were injured in an accident when you went on a VSO project, you lost a hand. Wouldn’t the moment of choosing to go on that adventure keep replaying? Possible lives where you chose something else?  How close are those worlds?

Of course, these examples  are linked by choices, and Traherne’s are not – his are wild and unpredictable  glitches in the universe.  Have you ever  experienced anything like that? Sometimes landscape seems to open up other ways of seeing – for me, very big landscapes – the Lake District, the Bay of Kotor, the Pembroke Coast seem to offer intimations of  the world in a different mode – rather like  in the Coventry Patmore poem last week.

But Traherne’s vision is odder than that. That’s what  I love about Traherne. It’s all very strange for him.

So in stanza 3 Traherne sees that double vision, and in stanza 4 he comments the strangeness of his own (our own) position, ‘strange’ he says ;

We other worlds should see,
Yet not admitted be;
And other confines there behold
Of light and darkness, heat and cold

The experience seems increasingly about vision – I am just noticing all the words that are about seeing, a list which begins early on with the word ‘seeming’; which contains ‘seeing’ ; it’s Traherne’s eyes which are initially tricked by the experience (stanza 2) in stanza 3, ‘saw’, stanza 4 ‘see’, stanza 5 ‘saw’ ‘seen’, stanza 6 ‘view’, stanza 8 ‘see’ ‘see’ and ‘seemed’, stanza 9 ‘look’ ‘eyes’, stanza 10 ‘image’ ‘view’.

Here is something we can see but not enter, not touch, not talk or otherwise communicate with and yet the seeing is strong;

I called them oft, but called in vain;
No speeches we could entertain:
Yet did I there expect to find
Some other world, to please my mind.
I plainly saw by these
A new antipodes,
Whom, though they were so plainly seen,
A film kept off that stood between.

‘Antipodes’ is a great word to have here ; it means ‘having the feet opposite’ and signifies usually  in English, Australia and New Zealand – the opposite sides of the earth.  These were places people once couldn’t imagine. In flat earth days it would have been impossible that there could be another side to the planet.  butthat thinking about possibility grew outmoded – we found ‘the antipodes’ and learned  more about our planet.

What is the child who plays in this puddle learning ? (Thinking of Emerson asking what does the wave teach the fisherman).  The child is learning that things can look very different – that there are other worlds, other beings…that we can’t communicate with them in the usual ways – because

though they were so plainly seen,
A film kept off that stood between

How important is this ‘film’, this thin but apparently impermeable barrier? And is it a metaphor for something else? I’m not sure yet, so I read on into stanza 6;

By walking men’s reversèd feet
I chanced another world to meet;
Though it did not to view exceed
A phantom, ’tis a world indeed,
Where skies beneath us shine,
And earth by art divine
Another face presents below,
Where people’s feet against ours go.

This joining at the feet, this mirroring, seems very important now.  This is the place of the film and yet it is also the place of view – not a doorway, as I thought earlier, but a window which opens a view –  yes, a view of a phantom, yet ’tis a world indeed’. The repetition of the joining point, the keeping coming back to it ‘where people’s feet against ours go’.

Now I come to  stanza 7 which I’ve found  most hard to understand when I’ve been reading through;

Within the regions of the air,
Compassed about with heavens fair,
Great tracts of land there may be found
Enriched with fields and fertile ground;
Where many numerous hosts
In those far distant coasts,
For other great and glorious ends
Inhabit, my yet unknown friends.

Does Traherne look up at this point? He has been (remembering) looking down at the world in the puddle, but suddenly now he’s talking about ‘the air’, ‘heavens’. The puddle world wasn’t so much a metaphor as a clue to possibility: there may be such worlds in other  places and look up! there’s all that space up there. Given what we have just seen in the puddle, is it possible that there are worlds, lands;

Great tracts of land there may be found
Enriched with fields and fertile ground;

And beyond the land, may there be creatures, my yet unknown friends, (walking foot to foot with us?)

Where many numerous hosts
In those far distant coasts,
For other great and glorious ends
Inhabit, my yet unknown friends.

Host is often a word for angels – the heavenly host – and if they are there – we may not know what they are doing, we will not understand their ‘great and glorious ends’, just as there is no communication between the people in the reversed world of the puddle. Now we come to stanza 8 where Traherne makes his leap of thought explicit:

O ye that stand upon the brink,
Whom I so near me through the chink
With wonder see: what faces there,
Whose feet, whose bodies, do ye wear?
I my companions see
In you, another me.
They seemèd others, but are we;
Our second selves these shadows be.

 

But that’s it for today – will read  this stanza tomorrow. But look at the skies today, look up.

A Thirsty Ox Connecting Thomas Traherne to Terry Pratchett?

sweetpeas.JPG
Post-admin aromatherapy: sweetpeas and other flowers scenting my desk, 5 August

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yesterday I started reading Shadows in the Water by Thomas Traherne – a longish poem which I’ll be reading for a  few sessions.  Need it this morning because I did a bit of admin before starting my Daily Reading Practice, something I never normally do, and it has got me into a very bad temper. Passwords, timed outs, and verifications –  hours of it. You all know how irritating that is. and it is a sunny morning and I want to get gardening.  So – deep breath. Read.

Shadows in the water

In unexperienced infancy
Many a sweet mistake doth lie:
Mistake though false, intending true;
A seeming somewhat more than view;
That doth instruct the mind
In things that lie behind,
And many secrets to us show
Which afterwards we come to know.

Thus did I by the water’s brink
Another world beneath me think;
And while the lofty spacious skies
Reversèd there, abused mine eyes,
I fancied other feet
Came mine to touch or meet;
As by some puddle I did play
Another world within it lay.

Beneath the water people drowned,
Yet with another heaven crowned,
In spacious regions seemed to go
As freely moving to and fro:
In bright and open space
I saw their very face;
Eyes, hands, and feet they had like mine;
Another sun did with them shine.

’Twas strange that people there should walk,
And yet I could not hear them talk;
That through a little watery chink,
Which one dry ox or horse might drink,
We other worlds should see,
Yet not admitted be;
And other confines there behold
Of light and darkness, heat and cold.

I called them oft, but called in vain;
No speeches we could entertain:
Yet did I there expect to find
Some other world, to please my mind.
I plainly saw by these
A new antipodes,
Whom, though they were so plainly seen,
A film kept off that stood between.

By walking men’s reversèd feet
I chanced another world to meet;
Though it did not to view exceed
A phantom, ’tis a world indeed,
Where skies beneath us shine,
And earth by art divine
Another face presents below,
Where people’s feet against ours go.

Within the regions of the air,
Compassed about with heavens fair,
Great tracts of land there may be found
Enriched with fields and fertile ground;
Where many numerous hosts
In those far distant coasts,
For other great and glorious ends
Inhabit, my yet unknown friends.

O ye that stand upon the brink,
Whom I so near me through the chink
With wonder see: what faces there,
Whose feet, whose bodies, do ye wear?
I my companions see
In you, another me.
They seemèd others, but are we;
Our second selves these shadows be.

Look how far off those lower skies
Extend themselves! scarce with mine eyes
I can them reach. O ye my friends,
What secret borders on those ends?
Are lofty heavens hurled
’Bout your inferior world?
Are yet the representatives
Of other peoples’ distant lives?

Of all the playmates which I knew
That here I do the image view
In other selves, what can it mean?
But that below the purling stream
Some unknown joys there be
Laid up in store for me;
To which I shall, when that thin skin
Is broken, be admitted in.

Yesterday I’d only got as far as stanza one, so picking up where I left off…Traherne is about to tell us about a childhood error, a mistake due to what he explains as believing a ‘seeming’ rather than seeing a true ‘view’.

Thus did I by the water’s brink
Another world beneath me think;
And while the lofty spacious skies
Reversèd there, abused mine eyes,
I fancied other feet
Came mine to touch or meet;
As by some puddle I did play
Another world within it lay.

Have you ever seen this ? In a powerfully clear puddle of water on a strongly lit day – the blue of sky reflected, the sense of another world opening up at your feet? It is the great height (or depth) of those ‘lofty, spacious’ skies that provide the ‘seeming’. The verb is ‘abused’ –  a strong word. But is there an older less dangerous meaning?  Ab + used  – used wrongly?  No used up…(from the online etymological dictionary: early 15c., “to misuse, misapply” (power, money, etc.), from Old French abuser “deceive, abuse, misuse” (14c.), from Vulgar Latin *abusare, from Latin abusus “an abusing; a using up,” )

In the first stanza, this kind of mistake is called ‘sweet’, and is seen as having a true intention behind it – ‘mistake though false, intending true’, therefore an error of no bad intent which may ‘instruct the mind’.  All this makes me think I can’t take that ‘abused’ too strongly.  The experience is what it seems – a child, playing by puddle, imagining another world. Provoked or tricked into imagining but with no bad intent.

Beneath the water people drowned,
Yet with another heaven crowned,
In spacious regions seemed to go
As freely moving to and fro:
In bright and open space
I saw their very face;
Eyes, hands, and feet they had like mine;
Another sun did with them shine.

Hard to tell whether these are totally imaginary people or reflections of real people, like Traherne himself, near the puddle. I’m going with imaginary, because he used the word ‘fancied’ – and there’s a connection between ‘fancy’ and ‘imagination’ (fantasy). But the opening line – ‘people drowned’ is  worrying – is this about a kind of margin between this word and the other. If we have our head in this word,  then those upside down in the puddle must be drowned. but if that world is the real world then they are ‘with another heaven crowned.’

I fancied other feet
Came mine to touch or meet;

I notice that we get the word ‘spacious’ again in this stanza ( ‘the lofty spacious skies’ feature in the previous). Somehow this word is key to the experience – the  largeness of the sky, and of the reflected sky, giving Traherne a sense of  vast room, which somehow makes me think about room for other things, things we haven’t yet imagined or thought.

It’s rather like that line in Paradise Lost  when Satan feels the roominess of hell and gloats as he sees Adam and Eve for the first time

Hell shall unfold,
To entertain you two, her widest Gates,
And send forth all her Kings; there will be room,
Not like these narrow limits, to receive
Your numerous offspring;

Room, space, as potential. As Thomas Traherne watches (or remembers watching) this world gets more real – the people  no longer seemed drowned, they seem close-up and very particular ;

I saw their very face;
Eyes, hands, and feet they had like mine;
Another sun did with them shine.

But there is a gap,  which Traherne calls ‘a watery chink’.  I’m thinking about doorways, margins, cross-over points. He can see these people very closely but he can’t hear them, he’s not in the same world as them:

’Twas strange that people there should walk,
And yet I could not hear them talk;
That through a little watery chink,
Which one dry ox or horse might drink,
We other worlds should see,
Yet not admitted be;
And other confines there behold
Of light and darkness, heat and cold.

Great to imagine the thirsty beast who might close this chink with the practical necessity of drinking! Suddenly every thing seems very odd,  very sci-fi, very unstable. Worlds open up at your feet,  but a  thirsty ox can close them down – it’s like something from  Terry Pratchett! And  things are stranger still, Traherne continues:

We other worlds should see,
Yet not admitted be;
And other confines there behold
Of light and darkness, heat and cold.

I’m breathing normally now and have got over my admin tensions…and what’s left of my Daily Practice time is up, because the sun may no last all morning and the gardening must begin. More of this tomorrow.

Shadows in the Water

 

fennel shivering.JPG
Fennel shivering in front garden, August 4

This morning I have used up some of my hour looking for what to read next. I’ve been reading more Coventry Patmore and then drifted over towards Wordsworth, but neither seemed to be what I wanted to  think and write about this morning.  I plan to write about some more Denise Levertov poems, but must get organised to get  permissions sorted first. I glanced through  All The Days of My Life, thinking, is there anything in there that I haven’t already read? And here, there was this poem by Thomas Traherne, whose work I love, that I don’t think I’ve ever read. It’ll take more than  one post  to read it.

I’ve glanced at the poem, I’ve scanned it. I’ve realised ‘I don’t know it.’ Now I’m going to read it slowly and try to get the lie of the land – not understanding or even trying to understand most of it, but  getting the feel of its shape and outlines, areas of  difficulty, the words or clauses or lines that seem most important.  If not writing on-screen, I’d be doing this reading with a pencil –  marking bits even when I didn’t really know why I was marking them. I’m going to use a different colour to mark  those points here – but read it yourself at The Poetry Foundation, with none of my marks, first.

Shadows in the water

In unexperienced infancy
Many a sweet mistake doth lie:
Mistake though false, intending true;
A seeming somewhat more than view;
That doth instruct the mind
In things that lie behind,
And many secrets to us show
Which afterwards we come to know.

Thus did I by the water’s brink
Another world beneath me think;
And while the lofty spacious skies
Reversèd there, abused mine eyes,
I fancied other feet
Came mine to touch or meet;
As by some puddle I did play
Another world within it lay.

Beneath the water people drowned,
Yet with another heaven crowned,
In spacious regions seemed to go
As freely moving to and fro:
In bright and open space
I saw their very face;
Eyes, hands, and feet they had like mine;
Another sun did with them shine.

’Twas strange that people there should walk,
And yet I could not hear them talk;
That through a little watery chink,
Which one dry ox or horse might drink,
We other worlds should see,
Yet not admitted be;
And other confines there behold
Of light and darkness, heat and cold.

I called them oft, but called in vain;
No speeches we could entertain:
Yet did I there expect to find
Some other world, to please my mind.
I plainly saw by these
A new antipodes,
Whom, though they were so plainly seen,
A film kept off that stood between.

By walking men’s reversèd feet
I chanced another world to meet;
Though it did not to view exceed
A phantom, ’tis a world indeed,
Where skies beneath us shine,
And earth by art divine
Another face presents below,
Where people’s feet against ours go.

Within the regions of the air,
Compassed about with heavens fair,
Great tracts of land there may be found
Enriched with fields and fertile ground;
Where many numerous hosts
In those far distant coasts,
For other great and glorious ends
Inhabit, my yet unknown friends.

O ye that stand upon the brink,
Whom I so near me through the chink
With wonder see: what faces there,
Whose feet, whose bodies, do ye wear?
I my companions see
In you, another me.
They seemèd others, but are we;
Our second selves these shadows be.

Look how far off those lower skies
Extend themselves! scarce with mine eyes
I can them reach. O ye my friends,
What secret borders on those ends?
Are lofty heavens hurled
’Bout your inferior world?
Are yet the representatives
Of other peoples’ distant lives?

Of all the playmates which I knew
That here I do the image view
In other selves, what can it mean?
But that below the purling stream
Some unknown joys there be
Laid up in store for me;
To which I shall, when that thin skin
Is broken, be admitted in.

By stanza 8, I was lost, couldn’t work out what was being said. I marked it all, and thought I’ll stop reading here, mind overload. Start again more slowly.

Did I get a  glance at the shape of the poem, a rough outline?  Yes – something about the sense of  other worlds, other modes of being perhaps,  which Traherne gained from seeing reflections in a puddle. That this leads him to think something about … hmm, but  I’ve lost it. Need to start again and get it bit by bit.  Odd feeling, because much of the poem is very simple but then you have the suddenly down a rabbit-hole feeling.

In unexperienced infancy
Many a sweet mistake doth lie:
Mistake though false, intending true;
A seeming somewhat more than view;
That doth instruct the mind
In things that lie behind,
And many secrets to us show
Which afterwards we come to know.

I felt at first, I’ll understand this better when I know more about the rest of the poem. But I’ve read through the rest of the poem and am still not very clear, so going to start making a stab at understanding it, knowing that I’ll have to come back later with more understanding… But now I read the opener… I see that may be what he is talking about – that learning process I’ve just described.

As I read this stanza again, I’m thinking of two things: (i) how babies learn and (ii) how I learn.  ‘Inexperienced infancy’ might apply to a child learning something for the first time but it also applies to me  now – with regards to  this poem, I am in ‘inexperienced infancy’, it’s all new to me. I might make a mistake – and as Owl said to Winnie the Pooh, ‘no blame can be attached’, it is a ‘sweet mistake because it comes from ‘inexperience’.

It’s a mistake but it was ‘intending true’, so the intention behind was good – was in itself true – though what you did with it wasn’t quite right. Thomas Traherne  explains this with that series of clauses – look at the punctuation – colon, semi colon, semi colon – as if one thought leads on to another and comes from or winds up inside another.

I look again at the line ‘a seeming somewhat more than view’ – not sure whether it is coming out of the line that preceded it;

Mistake though false, intending true;
A seeming somewhat more than view;

or leading to the line that follows;

A seeming somewhat more than view;
That doth instruct the mind

Now I’ve split them out like that I can it is both, it’s a transitional line – you make a mistake out of ignorance because you had a slightly false/unclear idea of  something rather than a clear view. That  ignorant, unmeant, misapprehension, ‘doth instruct the mind’. It’s not your fault! It is a fault of not knowing.

At the beginning of learning to understand something, the something – let’s say someone else’s state of mind – it is cloudy: you often can’t see it clearly because you have don’t have the mental sight lines, coordinates to  get the perspective.

Ok – that’s all about me, me thinking about how I make mistakes and the effect of not knowing… but when I look again at the stanza, and an hour into my reading of this poem, I can see that Traherne is talking about how kids misunderstand things and sometimes that  creates something beautiful. A silly example:

My mum told me that when she was a child they called the cupboard under the stairs  ‘The Glory Hole’ or The Glory for short. At the end of the Lord’s Prayer, Anglicans say or said in her day, ‘For thine is the Kingdom, the power and the glory…’ Mum, in her child ignorance made the ‘sweet mistake’ as Traherne would call it, of  assuming that meant that God somehow owned ‘The Glory’ under their stairs, that it was a  His place. Lovely mistake, does no harm, is sweet. Based on a ‘seeming’ rather than on clear sight.

Thomas Traherne is now going to tell us such a story of his own. But that’s for tomorrow.

 

A Slight Glitch and Shakey

Morning, readers. Today I’ve changed my site format and that’s done something odd with my photos in previous posts. Hope to sort this double vision soon. Advice gratefully received.

But don’t want to let that glitch interrupt my morning reading and writing.

I am still thinking about Thursday’s meeting with Sonya Hale, and about Daniel Magariel’s novel, One of The Boys, (see yesterday’s post) and about the deep resonances and ancient feelings that meeting and that novel provoked into life. For that reason, this poem by William Shakespeare caught my attention this morning. I must have read it before but I really don’t remember it. Why not? Today it is full of meanings. If you are new to Shakespeare read it aloud. Read it aloud anyway.

Sonnet 110
Alas, ’tis true I have gone here and there
And made myself a motley to the view,
Gored mine own thoughts, sold cheap what is most dear,
Made old offences of affections new.
Most true it is that I have look’d on truth
Askance and strangely: but, by all above,
These blenches gave my heart another youth,
And worse essays prov’d thee my best of love.
Now all is done, have what shall have no end!
Mine appetite, I never more will grind
On newer proof, to try an older friend,
A god in love, to whom I am confin’d.
Then give me welcome, next my heaven the best,
Even to thy pure and most most loving breast.
I felt a delight in the opening line. There is nothing like recognition for provoking pleasure, even when it is recognition of having made a fool of yourself.
As I read on  the poem seems to be about having been unfaithful yet it didn’t feel to me only about sexual fidelity.
The shame of the opening is about having been disloyal to yourself. And ‘Here and there’ made me think of things Sonya said about the moving about from town to town when she was street homeless.  There is real, sad recognition (as much as guilt) in  ‘made myself a motley to the view’. (‘Motley’ is the name given to clothing worn by fools). It’s not only the humiliation of that idiocy but the shame of having done it to myself.
By the time I got to line 3, ‘Gored mine own thoughts, sold cheap what is most dear’, I was thinking about old mistakes and infidelities, not to my beloved, but to my better self. The violence of ‘gored’ gave me pause to reflect on the self-injury of bad thinking.
Alas, ’tis true I have gone here and there
And made myself a motley to the view,
Gored mine own thoughts, sold cheap what is most dear,
Made old offences of affections new.
Now I read the next four lines together, another  little lump of thought:
Most true it is that I have look’d on truth
Askance and strangely: but, by all above,
These blenches gave my heart another youth,
And worse essays prov’d thee my best of love.
Is Shakespeare is responding to something another person has said – in a row, perhaps?  ‘You’ve looked on truth askance and strangely!!’ Thus he begins ‘Most true it is…’ but going off after others, or dishonesties, or cheating  or whatever he means by ‘these blenches‘ , it  ‘gave my heart another youth/and worse essays prov’d thee my best of love.’ Thus, out of bad something good may come? I realised you were the one for me!
The ‘askance and strangely’ is resonant of the ways in which, when you are not able to be true, all things are twisted. In Magariel’s novel, the father’s love for his sons is a twisted ‘askance’ version of something which is more like ownership. Will he one day go into recovery and see what he has done to his sons?
Now all is done, have what shall have no end!
Mine appetite, I never more will grind
On newer proof, to try an older friend,
A god in love, to whom I am confin’d.
Shakespeare’s saying he’s never going to go off with someone else, never again! I’m back, forever. Would you believe him? Well, no, I wouldn’t, much as I often don’t believe myself when I promise myself I’m going to keep my room tidy.  What? After all these decades of chaos? You’re really going to change?
No, this is the return of a philanderer. Don’t give him welcome. As my friend Shelley once memorably said, ‘Chuck him, love, he’s a loser.’
But say I overrode these thoughts and feelings about the top-level  experience of the poem, the  unfaithful lover, and  went to something under the  lines, something about not being true, not necessarily about love or sexual relationship.
There are many ways in which a person can be unfaithful. Because of my conversation with Sonya, because of Magariel’s book  I’ve been thinking about the way in which one is required to practice faithfulness to a true ideal (I want to be a decent person, I want to be responsible and honest). How many times in that long effort have I ‘gone here and there/ And made myself a motley to the view’?  if you a re not going to get stuck at that point, you absolutely need to believe there is a place to which to return.
Thinking of Daniel Magariel’s book; the addicted parent may try to clean up, to get sober, to become  good parent (in another book!). The boys may grow up and want to learn to be decent men, not easy after growing up with a Dad like that. But these desires for change can and do happen even after we have ‘sold cheap what is most dear/made old offences of affections new.’
Believing in hope and change, you’d have to find a way to say ‘welcome back’ to the sinner that repenteth, wouldn’t you? When that sinner is yourself, when the offences are against your self, the only place you have to come back to is your self. I see the poem is ‘about’  a lover returning after shenanigans with others, and I read that at one level, as if it were a story I can lend myself to. But to understand it, and to feel it, I have to make the underlying connection with my own experience. So  I read as myself, returning to myself, after messing up again.  It would be good to be welcoming, pure, loving.
Then give me welcome, next my heaven the best,
Even to thy pure and most most loving breast.
And that makes me think of Derek Walcott’s poem, Love After Love.
Excuse me, I need to tidy my room.