Small Fork Day (and the Wedding, still going on)

Sneaky undergroud roots of my enemy, with something lovely in the background

Good morning, and for readers in the UK, happy Bank Holiday weekend. I need to get some gardening done! Spring is not in the air, but it is nearly here. I have much work to do to meet it. That work is the Battle Between Good and Evil in the Garden.

My Deeside patch is largely sand, despite 20 years of importing manure from the horse field up the road. And in this very easy-going sandy soil, so easy to slink through, lives my secret and then not so secret enemy: Couchgrass.

Couchgrass! The insidious underground creeper! I realised about 17 years ago that Couchgrass, secretive, entangling, hidden from sight, would never be defeated, would always be with me, whether I could see its brittle white tentacles or not.

A garden is an exercise in patience and courage and hope. There is always something nasty in the garden – ah Milton, thou should’st be living at this hour – you can’t get rid of it, you can’t  create a little clean patch where no bad stuff is, it’s not the nature of the planet! No, our job is to dream, and plant, but also to prop, prune, bind and tie, and to wield the small fork when necessary.

To make the best garden you can, even while the weeds, led by  the ringleader, Couchgrass, keep coming back at you, is the task of a lifetime. Poetry helps. And sharp forks.  Today, Couchgrass, is Small Fork Day. Beware the small fork.

But before I turn to Couchgrass, I turn to poetry. I’ve been reading Prothalamion, and I’m planning to finish it today. We were up to this bit:

Then forth they all out of their baskets drew
Great store of flowers, the honour of the field,
That to the sense did fragrant odours yield,
All which upon those goodly birds they threw,
And all the waves did strew,
That like old Peneus’ waters they did seem,
When down along by pleasant Tempe’s shore,
Scattered with flowers, through Thessaly they stream,
That they appear through lilies’ plenteous store,
Like a bride’s chamber floor.
Two of those nymphs meanwhile, two garlands bound,
Of freshest flowers which in that mead they found,
The which presenting all in trim array,
Their snowy foreheads therewithal they crowned,
Whilst one did sing this lay,
Prepared against that day,
Against their bridal day, which was not long:
      Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song.

I want to read this very fast now, having broken my fear, and cleared some of my own anxiety about the Greek stuff. It’s not a poem for long and repeated contemplation (like for example Derek Walcott’s Love After Love, a poem much-read in many Shared Reading groups, and which I’ve found I can come back to time after time. Not like any poem by George Herbert, whom I want to read tomorrow.) In the catalogue of poems, it’s a happy song, and the lyrics are sweet, but not deep. The verse above is all flowers (ha! no couchgrass here!). The nymphs dressing the swans in crowns of flowers. One nymph sings the following verse, which I am skipping over. It’s a  blessing and a  looking to a happy future. The bridal party approaches London, and Spenser is moved to remember, for a moment his own situation (remember how at the beginning, he was worried about some workplace matter?). Now they are near the Inns of Court (I’m guessing)

Next whereunto there stands a stately place,

Where oft I gained gifts and goodly grace
Of that great lord, which therein wont to dwell,
Whose want too well now feels my friendless case.
But ah, here fits not well
Old woes but joys to tell
Against the bridal day, which is not long:
      Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song.

Spenser is out of favour, perhaps out of favour with a great Lord (who? haven’t looked up, don’t know my history) ‘whose want too well now feels my friendless case.’ A moment of tricky syntax, where even though we’re motoring now, a reader would want to go carefully and make sure she’d understood. The want of the great lord’s favour: I’m reading want as absence, lack. This lack ‘too well now feels’  – it is interesting that as soon as the idea of the loss, the absence of favour comes into mind, Spenser despite being in the middle of a rather glorious wedding – feels it, feels the nub of it, ‘friendless’. And yet he is at the wedding! so ‘here fits not well / Old woes but joys to tell’. And yet he can’t now get political thoughts out of his mind. Can’t help but wonder why he has let this into the poem, must have some relevance…need to look at a footnote!

Had a quick look at Wikepedia. Hmm, helps a bit. It’s a double marriage! Makes sense that the two swans are the two brides, not the bridegrooms. That’s why they are so white. I should have seen that in the poem itself.  The nymphs are bridesmaids…Wonder if  the next bit  is about the father of the women getting married? It’s a trumpet blast of praise, like raising a toast;

Yet therein now doth lodge a noble peer,
Great England’s glory, and the world’s wide wonder,
Whose dreadful name late through all Spain did thunder,
And Hercules’ two pillars standing near
Did make to quake and fear:
Fair branch of honour, flower of chivalry,
That fillest England with thy triumph’s fame,
Joy have thou of thy noble victory,
And endless happiness of thine own name
That promiseth the same:
That through thy prowess and victorious arms,
Thy country may be freed from foreign harms;
And great Elisa’s glorious name may ring
Through all the world, filled with thy wide alarms,
Which some brave Muse may sing
To ages following,
Upon the bridal day, which is not long:
      Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song.

Here I am near the end but the couchgrass is calling…I feel as if Prothalamion has been a kind of poetry work-out… I like the flowers, the Thames, the slow rich joy of it, and the sunny atmosphere. I’m interested in the poet mentioning but putting aside his own difficulties (but is it odd,  or a pointed  political act, to leave them in the finished poem?). I don’t regret it because spending a couple of hours on it has clarified something: I want a poem that is more than story or song. The bit I’m most interested in here is Spenser’s own state of being. I want more of that. Which is why I’m reading George Herbert tomorrow.

Forks awaiting the call to arms

Euphorbias & Viburnums v Sullenness & Rage

euphorbia close.JPG
Euphorbia asserting its noble beauty in an unkind world

March has been a difficult  month on almost every front, but I don’t want to describe or even list any of those difficulties.

Instead,  after a particularly difficult day yesterday, in which I felt a lot of feelings I did not wish to feel, including – rare one for me – rage, and in which the good that happened (Teamwork, time with Megg, euphorbias, Carys Bray, my dear and loving husband) all seemed overshadowed by bad stuff,  I woke up with these words in my mind;

Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.

These words come from the Bible, Letter to Phillipians 4:8, but I first got them from Iris Murdoch, in her strange, wonderful and difficult book, Metaphysics As A Guide To Morals. She’s talking about what you can do if you don’t have religion to assist with difficulties of living, and writes about filling your mind up, deliberately, with good things.

The book came out in 1992 and I think I first read it then or the following year. Soon after that I was in the thick of the hardest time of my life and in my desperation I found her advice helpful. I particularly found the quotation from Philippians helpful and what’s more, it seemed to stick. I used it like a mantra but it also gave me something active to do. When bad stuff came into my head I would recite, ‘whatever is good…whatever is honest…whatever is just…’ and the very presence of  such words, and the thoughts associated with them, seemed to help me. As one of our readers in a special project where volunteers read with children in extremely difficult situations said, ‘when Jess reads with me it makes all the bad memories go away and good memories come in…’ I know that feeling well.

So, whatever is good, think on these things.The habit is a useful one. It also works with poetry.

Well, grandchildren  – all babies! –  are good and make me feel great joy. I think  on them, and see them whenever I can. Birdsong is heartening at this time of year. Dogs rarely fail to delight me (you know who you are, you dogs who don’t delight). Euphorbias display such energy that I find they restore my faith in life, and the small pink viburnum (don’t know what variety it is and need to know because I want one in my garden) on the right of the gate into the  walled gardens at Calderstones Park is currently providing daily inner restoration through its gentle colour therapy. I do think on these things.

viburnum close.JPG

An unequivocal good has been changing my morning routine so that I read and write about my reading every day before I go to work. There is never enough time but even the smallest amount of it seems to do me some good. After years of ‘no time to write’ and reading while falling asleep, it feels a breakthrough. This change is the result of a chance meeting with a kind stranger on a train the day Bearhunt blew away. That’s how it happens isn’t it?

I’ve been reading Wordsworth’s Intimations of Immortality for the past three mornings. The whole poem is here. But I’ve been reading a few lines each day. Yesterday we got  to the point where Wordsworth, feeling some ‘glory’ is lost from life, finds something ‘glorious’ in the world and tells himself

Oh evil day! if I were sullen
While Earth herself is adorning,
This sweet May-morning,
And the Children are culling
On every side,
In a thousand valleys far and wide,
Fresh flowers; while the sun shines warm,
And the Babe leaps up on his Mother’s arm:—
I hear, I hear, with joy I hear!

The word ‘sullen’ seems to do for bad feeling what ‘whatever is good’ does for good. It puts it in my mind.  It’s foul. And then I see it, hiding behind ‘sullen’,  ‘Oh evil day’  as if Wordsworth first feels the evil before he has identified where/what it is. Evil emanating from my sullenness. Ouch. Thinking bad things is not good.  Is that how ‘evil’ starts?

Instead of continuing with his feeling (‘sullen’) he lets it go, looks around, looks for good and sees it;

…Earth herself is adorning,
This sweet May-morning,
And the Children are culling
On every side,
In a thousand valleys far and wide,
Fresh flowers; while the sun shines warm,
And the Babe leaps up on his Mother’s arm:

I love that line, ‘the Babe leaps up on his Mother’s arm’ and it is an important one for me, but I am out of time and need to carry on tomorrow.

viburnum form.JPG



Noticing feels like love


Viburnum in front garden, delicious  sweet clove scent


Wordsworth’s  Intimations of Immortality.

I’m picking up yesterday’s reading, which I was suggesting could be good in a Shared Reading group.  I hadn’t got beyond the title, so this morning I am determined to crack on and  make some progress.

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.

Wordsworth begins with a loss and memories of what is lost (‘there was a time when…’) but we quickly move from the expected, ‘earth and every common sight’ to something extraordinary. ‘Every common sight’ was ‘apparelled in celestial light’.  This opening stanza hinges on the third line, ‘ To me did seem’. This is personal.

I notice now the rhymes (stream, seem, dream/sight, light) which at first I didn’t notice. They give a kind of order to what at first seemed a slight sense of  disorder – lines are of different lengths and the whole stanza seems to me like something broken. It’s all heading towards

It is not now as it hath been of yore;—
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

I feel as if Wordsworth is looking, distractedly, worriedly for  the thing that is lost, the way of seeing, or being, that is gone. It’s like having woken up in a grey rainy concrete reality, no light. Is it like being depressed? You can’t fix it by trying to see things differently.  (I’m still noticing the way the rhymes cut against the line length chaos (‘yore/more’, ‘may/day’.)

He looks again, seeing something, yes but it feels as if everything is prefaced with an invisible ‘but’;

The Rainbow comes and goes,
And lovely is the Rose,
The Moon doth with delight
Look round her when the heavens are bare,
Waters on a starry night
Are beautiful and fair;
The sunshine is a glorious birth;
But yet I know, where’er I go,
That there hath past away a glory from the earth.

It’s  worth giving these lines a time to unfold –  it’s good to remember the joy we feel sometimes at catching a glimpse of a rainbow, at the loveliness of a rose.  It’s worth stopping to notice how the  objects Wordsworth is describing seem to have agency;

The Moon doth with delight
Look round her when the heavens are bare,

It’s not just the way we look at them, Wordsworth seems to be suggesting, but  how these natural wonders are active in the universe. Yes – accept all that, know it. And can appreciate it each day, the ‘sunshine is a glorious birth’  – which makes me think this is not like depression, not the grey concrete hat. He is able to  recognise joy, enjoy joy. There is even something ‘glorious’ in it all. But even so something is missing;

But yet I know, where’er I go,
That there hath past away a glory from the earth.

I wonder about the relation of  ‘glorious’ to ‘a glory’. Does ‘glorious’ seem a shadow, an off-shoot? Is  ‘ glory’ something  particular, magnificent, a massive noun denoting a real thing.  and that thing is gone. Is ‘past away’ (wonder if that was synonym for death in Wordsworth’s time as it is now

What I’m doing this morning as I read is trying to get back to fresh, uncluttered reading of the poem, without my old memories of having read it many times before. I’m not trying to connect it to my own experiences  – not yet – I’m just trying to read what is there as best as I can.  But at some point I am going to want to ask myself – do I know what he is talking about? Is this  known, or is it new information about something I haven’t experienced

If I was reading this in a Shared Reading group I’d be asking a lot of questions to get people thinking about memories of ‘rose’, ‘moon’, feelings of ‘glorious’. And I’d want to spend time talking about the difference between ‘glorious’ and ‘a glory’. And then at some point, I’d want to know, has anyone ever felt this?

I think  I experience it but I’m not sure I’m conscious of it. I know that  I am on the look out for  the ‘glorious’ and see it everywhere in nature, trees, moss, flowers, all natural forms, rock, water, the buzzards flying slow and circular overhead in the park yesterday. That noticing feels like love. I’m not sure it is the same thing Wordsworth is mourning when he says,

But yet I know, where’er I go,
That there hath past away a glory from the earth.

I don’t think I know what he is talking about. I don’t recognise it. That’s ok – I’d be saying to my group. Let’s read on and see if it gets any clearer. But not today – out of time.

Yesterday I didn’t get finished with ‘Quickness’ by Henry Vaughan. Sun is shining today in West Kirby and I want to get out for a walk or to the garden before the wind brings rain.  So I must be quick myself.

I begin today not by re-reading the poem (do that in a moment) but by looking up the word ‘quick’. One of my favourite sites, The Online Etymological Dictionary, tells me that in amongst the roots of ‘quick’ = lively,  ‘ there is a notion of ‘sudden’ or ‘soon over.”. Yes indeed. See all those spirits in Lincoln in The Bardo for more on that.

I re-read the poem:


False life, a foil and no more, when
Wilt thou be gone?
Thou foul deception of all men
That would not have the true come on.

Thou art a moon-like toil, a blind
Self-posing state,
A dark contest of waves and wind,
A mere tempestuous debate.

Life is a fixed, discerning light,
A knowing joy;
No chance or fit, but ever bright
And calm and full, yet doth not cloy.

‘Tis such a blissful thing that still
Doth vivify
And shine and smile and hath the skill
To please without Eternity.

Thou art a toilsome mole, or less;
A moving mist;
But life is what none can express:
A quickness which my God hath kissed.

Yesterday seemed to be about  the distinction between  false and true and this morning as I read I’m still aware of that but also  of something about types of time. I wonder now how long Vaughan has been  aware of the ‘false life’ – is it about going along with things you know to be unreal? How, sometimes, in order to get along with other people everybody has to do that? It’s deliberate, the action of  life perpetuated by people who ‘would not have the true come on.’ Trying to think of myself doing this – it’s easy enough to think of others! –

Thinking about doing jury service, and how much of a false life was the life of that court, trying its faulty best for justice. How much a humanly arranged show, the dance laid out, the semi-tricks, presentational slants of the lawyers, the sorry human reality, the likely truth almost invisible, glanced between the cracks in the facade. Yet I didn’t stand up and say I refuse to do my jury service – take me to prison! Fine me! I went along with false life because having ‘the true come on’ was simply not possible in that set-up, under those conditions. That’s what we call, in the political arena, the art of the possible.

I’m remembering Matthew Arnold’s poem, ‘The Buried Life’.

And we have been on many thousand lines,
And we have shown, on each, spirit and power;
But hardly have we, for one little hour,
Been on our own line, have we been ourselves—

Hard , living in the human world, to  know even where your own line is,sometimes, despite ‘spirit’, despite ‘power’. But back to the sense of time  in ‘Quickness’. False life seems to take forever, (‘when wilt thou be gone?’) but real life seems both permanent, ‘fixed’ and yet also  ‘without Eternity’

Life is a fixed, discerning light,
A knowing joy;
No chance or fit, but ever bright
And calm and full, yet doth not cloy.

‘Tis such a blissful thing that still
Doth vivify
And shine and smile and hath the skill
To please without Eternity.

It is ‘no chance or fit’ , that’s to say not a random accident, not a stop-start thing, but ‘ever bright’. Yet I don’t think Vaughan thinks we experience it all the time. It pleases ‘without Eternity’.

As if it was  there, like the  sun, shining all the time, but we only experience it occasionally – maybe when the foil of false life somehow gets out of the way. And yet behind the cloud, the ‘moving mist’, life continues to affect us, it

Doth vivify
And shine and smile and hath the skill
To please without Eternity

Quickness, life, affects us by  vivifying us – bringing us to life, enlivening us.

I’m thinking of the ‘quick and dead’ (the phrase comes from the Book of Common Prayer, a work Vaughan was familiar with and means ‘ the living and the dead’), and of  the ways in which spirit is quickened – fleetingly, sometimes with an out-of-time experience. That makes me think that ‘life’ in this poem is more a state of being – a mystical state and suddenly as I reread the last few lines ,the thing seems blown open:

But life is what none can express:
A quickness which my God hath kissed.

I’m aware that real life is fleeting, that within that real life there are moments of otherness which seem to put me in a  different state, that is amazing that there is life – in all its forms –  and that something mysterious (‘my God’)  kisses stuff, matter, beings, time itself, into liveliness. That’s a miracle.

Henry Vaughan. Think I will read some more.

Clouds have blown over but I’m still going for the walk.

A few more daffodils & the ‘d’ word

C6UBW9zWgAA6Mv8.jpgphoto from @liverpoolparks

Robert Herrick ‘To Daffodils’

I love Robert Herrick.  I love ‘To Anthea, who may command him anything’ and I love ‘So Good Luck Came’, ‘To The virgins to Make Much of Time’, ‘Corinna’s Gone a-Maying’ – we’ll come to that in May – and many, many others. What do I love? Herrick’s brilliantly balanced between loving this world and knowing how short a date it has.

But his poem ‘To Daffodils’ I have passed by many times, not really noticing it, not reading it, because I’d glance-read it and assumed I’d got it. After all, it is very short. But today, I’m stopping to read.

Fair Daffodils, we weep to see
You haste away so soon;
As yet the early-rising sun
Has not attain’d his noon.
Stay, stay,
Until the hasting day
Has run
But to the even-song;
And, having pray’d together, we
Will go with you along.
We have short time to stay, as you,
We have as short a spring;
As quick a growth to meet decay,
As you, or anything.
We die
As your hours do, and dry
Like to the summer’s rain;
Or as the pearls of morning’s dew,
Ne’er to be found again.


On Saturday my friend Angie (A Little Aloud Angie, yes) told me the daffodils planted along the roadside and in tubs in Hoylake (the next little town along from us) were spectacular and  that it was worth going to Hoylake just to see them. That evening we were going to the pictures (don’t ask) and I drove  a roundabout route, via Hoylake, to see them. They were magnificent, fluttering, dancing, yes like stars, and seemingly never-ending. Well done, Hoylake!

We were nearly late for the film but I wanted to take Angie’s advice because I knew I next time I tried to look they’d be gone. Like almost everything the nature, they do come and go very quickly. This is a thing you know more intensely as you get older because time speeds up as years pass. Does anyone remember that moving interview between Melvin Bragg and the dying Denis Potter, in which Mr Potter speaks of the joy of still being alive and being able to see this year’s blossom, ‘the blossomest blossom ever’?

Well that’s what Robert Herrick is talking about. ‘We weep to see/you haste away so soon’ because we see our own hastening mirrored in yours. ‘Time’s ah running out’, as Captain Beefheart says.  Interesting that Herrick repeats the verb ‘haste’ in the day’s ‘hasting’ – as if everything now were moving at a tremendous time speed.

Let’s get to the end, he’s saying, then we’ll go. ‘We’ll go with you along.’ There’s an implication of being made to go along? of being unwilling?  Let’s get to the end of the day, then we’ll go. But what is the end of the day for a human? ‘Stay, stay,’ the poet cries, trying to  slow time down. In the first stanza, I know Herrick is really talking about himself (and me) but he covers it with daffodils as if it might only be about the passing of a flower’s quick life.

But the second stanza takes away any pretence.

We have short time to stay, as you,
We have as short a spring;
As quick a growth to meet decay,
As you, or anything.
We, daffodils, all, any material thing has short time, short spring, has growth heading to decay.  ‘We die’, says Herrick  boldly, baldly, giving the thought the whole short line. what I was surprised by was not that, but ‘Ne’er to be found again.’ No  rising on the last day, no  after life. Or if there is, not relevant here.  Though, now I look back, he mentions ‘praying together’ in the first stanza. Still, it’s this life he’s mourning here.
This morning as I was reading, I thought, I want to get ready to die (no, I’m not dying, any more than I have been, as far as I know. All’s well.). I just have a sense that I want to get ready to do it. I want to make it part of my life. Don’t want to be taken by surprise, unable to do it well. Then I saw the poem.
A poem like this is a tiny practice for dying. And thus also for living.
And a timely reminder: go and see the daffodils. Go now. Do not waste any more time, love it all, enjoy it all: daffodils, Anthea, Herrick,  Hoylake, Dear Friends. Oh, happy day, we’re still here and so are the daffodils.

More Marvelling

So back to Marvell in The Garden. Where had I got to? Ah, yes…drunkenly falling down laughing. ‘Stumbling on melons as I pass, / Ensnar’d with flow’rs, I fall on grass.’

I thought while I was walking this morning that Marvell’s fall in the poem must be related to the fall in that other garden – the Garden of Eden, which  I know about through Paradise Lost, and behind that, through Genesis. When Adam and Eve  eat of the fruit in Book 9 of Paradise Lost they do get drunk, though there drunkenness seems less innocent than Marvell’s – maybe because there are two of them, and they start fighting.  But here, in Marvell’s garden, once he’s fallen,  he seems to go into a kind of trance, more like an opium-dream than a drunken passing out:

 Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness;
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find,
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds, and other seas;
Annihilating all that’s made
To a green thought in a green shade

This is as impenetrable as anything I’ve read so far! I don’t understand the first two lines:

Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness;

You fall over, and your mind withdraws from (external) pleasure into its own (internal) happiness? You forget, or lose consciousness of,  the melons and flowers and the grass and everything goes…as you become one with everything? Your mind even as this world dissolves, creates new ‘worlds and other seas’. As if there is a whole other dimension inside us. Wonderful that the word he arrives at is ‘annihilating’ (reduce to nothing). Nothing but ‘green’. Then one of the most memorable  lines in English poetry : ‘annihilating all that’s made/ to a green thought in a green shade.’ Drenched in  garden, in green, converted to it. It.

Here at the fountain’s sliding foot,
Or at some fruit tree’s mossy root,
Casting the body’s vest aside,
My soul into the boughs does glide;
There like a bird it sits and sings,
Then whets, and combs its silver wings;
And, till prepar’d for longer flight,
Waves in its plumes the various light.

Things are noticed in detail (the fountain’s sliding foot, the moss at the base of the tree) as the soul becomes part of the garden and sings. It’s a gorgeous, non-human, out-of-time experience. I think I have had that experience a little bit, sometimes in my garden or out walking. You go elsewhere.

But then Marvell comes back, man-like, remembering Eden before Eve!

Such was that happy garden-state,

While man there walk’d without a mate;
After a place so pure and sweet,
What other help could yet be meet!
But ’twas beyond a mortal’s share
To wander solitary there:
Two paradises ’twere in one
To live in paradise alone.

Oddly narky, this stanza seems – as if others, particularly one’s beloved  – can really interfere and mess things up and I suppose that this kind of mystical communing with universe is a solitary experience. If we were only soul we’d be like this all time, but we are not!  We are physical, sexual, beings and need, (see how he play’s on ‘helpmate’, ‘help-meet’), someone else.

But ’twas beyond a mortal’s share
To wander solitary there:

I feel the worldly disappointed tone is coming from the sense that it would have been better to be alone:

Two paradises ’twere in one

To live in paradise alone.

Why two? Because you had paradise and you had it alone! I just don’t know if I’ve got the tone right here. Everything seems to shift around quickly. Ok, so I come back to consciousness realising that I am not just a lone spirit/consciousness, I am never going to be completely alone while human (think that is implied in the last two lines above) but then Marvell seems to jump back into his real body in real time –  here again now in the real garden, made by a human:

How well the skillful gard’ner drew

Of flow’rs and herbs this dial new,
Where from above the milder sun
Does through a fragrant zodiac run;
And as it works, th’ industrious bee
Computes its time as well as we.
How could such sweet and wholesome hours
Be reckon’d but with herbs and flow’rs!

I feel sort of stuck so I go back to read the whole poem again, and that helps, gives a better rhythm to the thinking. It is about solitude, being alone, being gone out of oneself and then coming back. Last verse seems to be about a made-of-plants sundial  – you can’t measure the time you’ve been as it were out of your mind except in this way, by the flowers and plants  themselves.

Loved reading this, this last few days and it has made me long for the experience of being out in the green garden. To which ‘I must arise and  go now..’ as Yeats said.

Hearing the voices, raising the standard


Hard to know what to read and write about today. Still got Lincoln in the Bardo in my mind but want to finish reading the Marvell poem. Also, have a lot of work to do and want to spend some time in the garden and am going to the match later. Can LFC beat Burnley? You know, I can’t stake my reputation on predicting that, despite my respect for – belief in – Mr Klopp.

Ok, LITB first. It’s voices. I’ve started listening to it Audible – Nick Offerman (my hero from Parks and Rec ) reads one of the lead parts, very well. Looking forward to that on my commute.

Re-reading the text  this morning, I was reminded of these lines from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, ‘Burnt Norton’:

Shrieking voices
Scolding, mocking, or merely chattering,
Always assail them.

That’s how it feels to read the book, which builds and  gets faster and heavier as it goes. Voices of the past, in the form of quotations from real and (I imagine) fictional ‘histories’, come at you, and tell us what we’ve known for some time now – no one view or memory is the truth. It was a moonlit night, say several accounts,  there was no moon that night, others contradict.  It’s like reading the Nehls biography of D.H.Lawrence. You see the whole reality through the multifaceted bits that all sorts of people contribute. And then the ‘characters’, like characters in a T.S.Eliot play, or in Becket or in Under Milk Wood, are not characters as we know them in a novel. They are their voices. As the reader, you have to do a lot of the work. Not complaining, I like hard book-work.

Hard but this is George Saunders so there’s also comedy and slapstick and rude bits from farting and poop to  small-scale orgies. There’s wryness, quite a lot of it. But I do not know why people say GS is a satirist. There’s heart here, there’s always heart, and there’s a  sort of disappointment too. Humans! Ha! You silly, bad people. But there is always belief in us, too. As Sian Cain writes in The Guardian, George Saunders makes us love people again. I think of  satirists as making us mock them. I want books that care about humans and  raise the standard. This book does  both.

So, how do we get to love more and mock less? We feel each other’s feelings, we imagine or experience life in someone else’s  life. When two of the book’s  leading presences enter President Lincoln in order to help him change something (I’m not telling you the story here!) a side-effect of their collaboration is  a kind of exchange of self, sympathy, empathy: feeling how if feels to be someone else, to have their particular set of experiences:

Because we were as yet intermingled with one another, traces of Mr Vollman naturally began arising in my mind and traces of me naturally began arising in his.

roger bevans iii

Never having found ourselves in that configuration before –

hans vollman

This effect was an astonishment.

roger bevans iii

I saw, as if for the first time, the great beauty of the things of this world: waterdrops in the woods around us plopped from leaf to ground; the stars were low, blue-white, tentative; the wind-scent bore traces of fire, dryweed, rivermuck; the tssking drybush rattles swelled with a peaking breeze, as some distant cross-creek sleigh-nag tossed its neck-bells.

hans vollman

I saw his Anna’s face, and understood his reluctance to leave her behind.

roger bevans iii

I desired the man-smell and the strong hold of a man.

hans vollman

The end (don’t want to spoil it) asks us to believe that it is possible for one spirit to enter another spirit’s being, thus  changing the course of human history. That’s not the final move of a satirist, that’s the move of a believer. But why wouldn’t a great writer believe this?  Isn’t putting the experiential knowledge of others lives, other centres of consciousness, into our own minds what great writing is for? Isn’t that what writing is for?










Good – and green – in the garden

The single red Camellia trying to get in through the window

I’m just going to concentrate on a few verses of ‘The Garden’ by Andrew Marvell. You’ll find the whole poem here. I found it in the Oxford Book of English Verse.  Like many famous English poems, I read it as an undergraduate at University. But those readings often went over my head – or perhaps heart?  I don’t think I’ve ever read it since.

The Garden

To win the palm, the oak, or bays,
And their uncessant labours see
Crown’d from some single herb or tree,
Whose short and narrow verged shade
Does prudently their toils upbraid;
While all flow’rs and all trees do close
To weave the garlands of repose.

I have no idea what’s happening in this opening stanza!

I can’t find the tone, and I’m not sure what’s being said. The word ‘vainly’ makes me think that Marvell is going to be talking about things humans get wrong and yet the two parts of the sentence here don’t seem to add up… palm, oak, bays – aren’t they all prizes, don’t you win them in wars and races? Yet later he’s saying ‘all flowers and all trees…’ Hate that feeling of not getting it. I rush on, then restrain myself and go back.

I’m going too fast here and in a kind of reading panic because it’s a famous poem and I don’t understand it. What do we do when we don’t get it? We read it again, more slowly, a little bit at a time. I  take a breath and start again, going for the first chunk of meaning;

To win the palm, the oak, or bays,
And their uncessant labours see
Crown’d from some single herb or tree,
Whose short and narrow verged shade
Does prudently their toils upbraid;

As I read it aloud I realise ‘single’ is a clue here. There’s one kind of thing (lines 1-6) which is to do with ‘single’ and then there’s another kind of thing (lines 7&8) which is to do with ‘all’.

When I’m trying to read I often have to do without knowing and so sketch out a murky  unclear area I don’t yet understand and just leave it there. I often think of that space as ‘x’, as if reading was a bit like math equations, and you have to accept there are lots of parts you don’t know. You mark them as unknowns and then try to work out other bits. Eventually  ‘y’ may reveal ‘x’.

But I do now know that these opening lines  are about the difference between ‘single’ and ‘all’. It’s about taking notice of a the entirety of a garden rather than some special plant, is it?

To win the palm, the oak, or bays,
And their uncessant labours see
Crown’d from some single herb or tree,
Whose short and narrow verged shade
Does prudently their toils upbraid;
While all flow’rs and all trees do close
To weave the garlands of repose.

But also the difference between ‘uncessant labours’ and ‘repose’. The ‘single/all’ split has made me notice another, which  is the difference between ‘uncessant labours crowned’ and ‘garlands of repose’. And now I notice the difference between ‘crowns’ and ‘garlands’.

Hmm.I’m taking it at face value, but now it strikes me that this poem  may not be about a garden. It’s the word ‘vainly’ that makes me think it’s bigger than that. Can’t do anything with that thought yet.  People strive to win ‘the palm, the oak, or bays.’ They are plants that are signify winning. Winners get a crown  of bays, and those bays are cut from trees. Bays in particular  are often clipped and manicured, as the trees here seem to be;

Whose short and narrow verged shade
Does prudently their toils upbraid;

The shade of trees  wouldn’t naturally be ‘short and narrow’, it should be long and widely expansive. But these trees seem to be only there for the  comment they can make on human endeavour, which I’m beginning to think  might be a very formal kind of gardening. But is this about any kind of clipped and manicured effort? Say you set yourself  to do something – a winning garden at the Chelsea Flower Show, or writing a  world-class Haiku or magnificent bodybuilding –  something that would result in you being a winner. Would all that unnatural clipping and pruning,  de-naturing the tree (person, thing, activity) under cultivation but also wasting your own time because all other flowers and trees are going, growing, in another direction?) is it about the energy of nature, and the energy of humans trying to do something?
Well, I’m no longer feeling scared and starting  to feel excited. I’m reading!
It’s the ‘prudent’  upbraiding that is bothering me. Why is it prudent?
If I did devote all my garden time and energy to clipping and pruning some prize-winning specimen, wouldn’t the plant itself, by its very nature ‘ upbraid’ me? Perhaps because of its natural tendency to grow wildly? But why would that upbraiding be ‘prudent’? Does prudent mean careful? Is it about money? I go to the dictionary – ‘prudent, acting with or showing care for the future’. From the Latin, provident. I think it is to do with the nature of trees – be they palm oak or bay – or plants (or people? or human endeavours? ). These things have their own energies and growth patterns.

I think this is a poem against a life of clipping bays. Don’t clip and contain natural energy – go with the flow.

Time’s up, more tomorrow.

Good in the garden. Again.


Ah, the poor blog. Whenever things get busy then down, down, down the to-do list it falls.

Like the dear old garden, couch-grassed-over, cursorily glanced-at in the half-light as I leave the house, ignored as I arrive home at night: I half-forget it  yet feel it on my mind. But, in another sense, my (lack of) commitment to writing is not like  my love-it-when-I’m-out-there relation to the garden, because writing is a struggle and hard to feel pleasure in, whereas gardening, once started, is easy and makes me feel great. But oh, in both cases, the starting is hard.

I did try. Over Christmas I wrote about my book of the year but, at the risk of sounding like a second-year undergraduate, I lost my work. Yes, closed down without saving, or perhaps actively,  in a fit of exasperated distraction, chose not to save. And so hours of thinking and trying to make sentences about Joshua Ferris’ painful and deeply moving novel, The Unnamed,  went into the pale and placeless ether, and much as I love the book, I haven’t had the grit – or is it the time? or is it the energy? –  to go back and rewrite the post. Why? 4 major funding bids and The Reader budget to sort out in January and February. Oh yes, Jane, and why else? Why? I am spending at least an hour a day watching Seinfeld,  to which I became addicted over Christmas. It’s Kramer. And I’ve been making, and eating, marmalade. The making takes several hours per batch, the eating about the same.

Could I use that ‘at least an hour’ of Kramer, those several hours of marmalade, to write, to re-write,  about The Unnamed, which is without doubt, one of the best novels I’ve ever read and certainly the best contemporary novel I’ve read since Marilynne Robinson’s Home? I’ve been reading Grit by Angela Duckworth and have to confess in the light of the thoughts it’s made me have, that I might have rewritten my piece about The Unnamed. But I didn’t, because I let myself be distracted by Kramer and marmalade. I  am an obsessive, but not all the time, not about everything: I’m a monomaniac and a magpie. For  true grit, the kind of grit that makes you the best in your field, you need the single mind. Tim, the hero of the The Unnamed has that kind of habitual dedication to his obsession, walking, and it costs him everything.

I cannot garden in the dark so that lets me off the hook, Kramer-wise. As for weekends, I cannot garden in January – it’s just too monochrome out  there and the many things I have left undone – the broken shed door, the weed-rank pots – stand out like painful truths I don’t want to hear. But yesterday was Spring-like. I stopped off between car and door for the briefest of glances at the red single Camellia… one of the first plants I ever bought, which I planted by digging up a paving slab in the backyard of our first house. When we  moved I dug it out and brought it with me in a pot. It’s maybe twenty-five years old now, perhaps thirty. Lovely  thing, and unusual in that it’s stamens are not golden but red, same colour as the rest of the flower. It is always flowering by Valentines Day, but this year started on the  2nd February.

So having stopped to look, I looked elsewhere and saw lots of good in the garden – primrose, crocus, lovely red leaf buds on a rose, the unfurling Euphorbia.

Taking my Mum to the Garden Centre yesterday afternoon I bought some pale pink primulas to go in the big pot – they look brave. Not counting the Garden Centre time, I did an hours work but felt as good as if I’d had an invigorating afternoon at Enniscrone Seaweed Baths. 

As for writing, I need more grit.

Infinite capacity, bounded in a nutshell

My garden Sunday 19 May 2013
My garden Sunday 19 May 2013

I’ve just stopped gardening after two and half hours because though there is still masses to do and I’m really enjoying myself, I want to learn from my mentor, The Nellibobs, who has been gardening all week and given himself an excrutiating backache.

‘Genius,’ Thomas Carlyle wrote, ‘is an infinite capacity for taking pains.’ Nellibobs is undoubtedly a genius in many aspects of life  but there’s no genius in the area called  ‘being sensible’, nor ‘opening his mail’. Not house repairs, either. No, nor social life except for Friday Nights. He’s limited himself severely, in order to go deep into the areas which really (X) him. But what does (X) stand for?

Shall we say Excite? Obsess? Move?

Genius areas for the Nellibobs are: his dog, Argy, his reading life, his habits and routines, smoking, his Su Doku (at one point, they reached 150+ per week. He limits it now to about 80), his teaching, a little gardening, and his Friday Nights. That may seem constrained until you know how much he reads, how much goes into his teaching. You can follow Nellibobs or someone very like him on Twitter @nellibobsfriday (he only Tweets on Fridays).

I was thinking of all this while reading Walter Isaacson’s fine biography of Steve Jobs. I know there are lots of things to be said against both Steve Jobs and Apple, but there was genius there and it did manifest itself in that infinite capacity way. For anyone trying to get something done in the world, there’s a lot to learn from that book.

And I have also been thinking of Richard Feynman as I watched two programmes about him on TV this week. Wacky, playful and fuelled by (X) Feynman said, as many of the  greats do, that the most important thing in life is love. I wonder how that connects to the infinite capacity for taking pains, which is a sort of love, isn’t it?

Yet we are creatures of the finite and to reach the infinite there are often terrible costs, as the Jobs story shows. Obsession, single-mindedness, demanded a sort of inhumanity, which in Jobs’ case  was not often mitigated by love, though  Isaacson makes a case for the occasional glimmer. At the end of the book, Isaacson wonders if Steve had to be so  unkind, so rough, so mean with people.

“This is who I am, and you can’t expect me to be someone I’m not,” he replied when I asked him the question. But I think he actually could have controlled himself, if he had wanted. When he hurt people, it was not because he was lacking in emotional awareness. quite the contrary: He could size people up, understand their inner thoughts, and know how to relate to them, cajole them, or hurt them at will. The nasty edge to his personality was not necessary. It hindered him more than it helped him. But it did,at times, serve a purpose. Polite and velvety leaders, who take care to avoid bruising others, are generally not as effective at forcing change. Dozens of the colleagues whom Jobs most abused ended their litany of horror stories by saying he got them to do things they never dreamed possible. And he created a corporation crammed with A players.

As a leader of an ambitious Social Enterprise, which currently employs 70+ staff, I had to keep considering the cost of Steve Jobs’ genius. Most large human organisations, from the teams that built the pyramids onwards, have been  Army-model organisations. Many of them have a  ‘nasty edge’  when necessary and that is how they keep control and make sure that what they want to happen gets to happen.  Command and control structures  may be a good way to do battle, or build pyramids, or  spread the Church, or  create iphones. But we need new organisational shapes now, to do other things, such as liberate human potential, grow creativity, develop empathy.

As  an organisational model, I like ‘orchestra’, each person doing their genius thing, but sharing a score and conducted into one voice. And I like ‘garden’ where each plant gets the right space it needs to fully become itself and yet they all work together to create a whole experience. But there is a big ask here. In both these models so much more is asked of the individual than in ‘command and control’ and that ask is about becoming your genius.  It’s as if I want an organisational shape that’s like a book, where each poem or story has brought itself to be, but the whole thing fits together as one.

The problem then becomes recruitment, doesn’t it? How do you recruit people who come with their own discipline? How do I even have my own?

Feynman’s story  is very different one to Jobs’. In the BBC documentary Feynman’s physicist sister was such a loving presence and you could feel the good genius of the man, living beyond his death, when she said he was a ‘good brother and a good human being.’

Could you have a world of Feynmen? I’d like to try. And one of the keys there seemed to be play. Or pleasure. Which is why I’m going back out the garden now while there is still time. Ah, Nellibobs, your backache beckons.

Infinity on West Kirby Beach
Infinity on West Kirby Beach