Slowly Unfurling Structure

Magnificent Buckler Fern ( I think it is called ) unfurling its structure

Yesterday I said I’d be reading George Herbert, and so  here I am, a little later than usual because I slept way beyond my normal waking time, for which I am, as a five and sometimes four a.m. waker, always grateful.

This quiet country village pastor, a poet whose time falls somewhere between Shakespeare and Milton and whose poetry is like neither of them, has influenced my life as if he were a real person, known to me, knowing me for thirty years. If the dead live they live in poetry: here I’ve had a mentor  who has given good counsel, a shoulder to cry on cry, and recognition of my experience.  From him I have learned there are underlying structures in human inner experience, just there are in all nature.

It is hard (for me it was, in the beginning) to get past his religion. Here is a structure I cannot see. But I can see that George Herbert sees it, and that it orders chaos for him. I follow his human footsteps, all the time thinking (as it were in brackets) ‘don’t believe in God’. Translating his religious experience into some kind of analogue for my own inner life has become second nature after all these years, and I am hardly aware of the need to translate. But I can remember the need to do so at the beginning of our relationship.

During some of the very hardest times of my life Herbert was a, literally, inspiration. He breathed spirit into me. I was inspired through  the breath of his poetry. I learned to  believe that  the survival of the heart, scarred but ultimately undamaged, was possible because of his poems. The underlying message: trust in love.  I’m not very good at that, but he is a great teacher and I am a willing pupil.

There are many favourites. Today I’m going to start to read one I have not read for a good long time – maybe ten years.

Affliction III

MY heart did heave, and there came forth, “O God !”
By that I knew that Thou wast in the grief,
To guide and govern it to my relief,
Making a sceptre of the rod :
Hadst Thou not had Thy part,
Sure the unruly sigh had broke my heart.
But since Thy breath gave me both life and shape,
Thou know’st my tallies ; and when there’s assigned
So much breath to a sigh, what’s then behind?
Or if some years with it escape,
The sigh then only is
A gale to bring me sooner to my bliss.
Thy life on earth was grief, and Thou art still
Constant unto it, making it to be
A point of honour, now to grieve in me,
And in Thy members suffer ill.
They who lament one cross,
Thou dying daily, praise Thee to Thy loss.

I am going to look at the first six lines:

MY heart did heave, and there came forth, “O God !”
By that I knew that Thou wast in the grief,
To guide and govern it to my relief,
Making a sceptre of the rod :
Hadst Thou not had Thy part,
Sure the unruly sigh had broke my heart.

Have you ever had a blow, unexpected, frightening? and did you say, ‘Oh God’?

The starting point of this poem is a moment of utter sadness or depression, or brokenness: one of those times when ‘my heart did heave’. I’m interested in that phrase now – because thinking actually of retching, isn’t ‘heave’ another word for ‘retch’ and could Herbert have  meant that? (Online Etymological dictionary). So, to lift up… and yes. retch is in there; your stomach heaves, because it lifts itself up. So, to go back to the poem, ‘my heart did heave’: this physical response to some situation (we don’t know what caused any of it) of a retching sensation, a huge sigh, results in a cry ‘Oh God.’

As it does, under such a blow, or a huge sadness, even for a non-believer like me. But where for me that cry would be understood as meaningless (I say ‘oh god’ because it is a  habit lots of people have: doesn’t mean anything, I don’t take any notice of it) for Herbert, it is a real sign.

By that I knew that Thou wast in the grief,
To guide and govern it to my relief,

For a believer, a practising Christian like Herbert, those words could never be meaningless, even if they were uttered without deliberate consciousness as a wordless cry might be uttered. For Herbert this realisation (that the words are a cry to someone, to Thou, that the words put God in the mix, make God part of it, even though, interesting to note here Herbert doesn’t now call him ‘God’, he calls him ‘Thou’) ) is itself an immediate relief. (Remember Wordsworth’s ‘a timely utterance gave that thought relief’ in Intimations? )

What can this mean for me?

Something George Herbert understands by the word ‘God’ (I don’t know what that is, but I know he believes in it and that it helps him) is present. When it’s just me, no Herbert and no God, and I am struck a blow and my heart heaves and I cry out ‘Oh God’, I might now have an extra moment of consciousness, which is hard to see while it is happening but which might be broken down into the following movements:

  1. Though I do not believe in God, and the cry I’ve just uttered is an animal noise, yet it was not an animal noise (though, oh, I’ve made them, too in my time, with griefs). It was the word ‘God’. I  instinctively made a sort of unconscious, undeliberate prayer.
  2. For George Herbert and millions of other humans of all religious persuasions and over thousands of years, such cries have been uttered at times of troubles: people believe help will come. I may not believe as they believe, but their reality is part of my consciousness.
  3. Help is now in my mind as possibility
  4. Instead of only thinking fear, pain and other bad thoughts the thought ‘help’ is now in my mind

Oh dear, time’s up. This is the slowest close reading in the history of reading. Feels sub-atomic in its slowness. I’ll carry on tomorrow.

If you are willing to try him, you’ll find a great resource for reading George Herbert here. But I would recommend buying a book. Slim volume it may be, but going this slowly, it will last, usefully, the rest of your life.

The Babe Leaps Up

babe leaps up
Baby Grace leaping up in her mothers arms in an office at The Reader

Been reading – very slowly – Wordsworth’s Intimations of Immortality here all week and not got very far. You’ll find the whole poem here. But I’m only up to this bit;

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!
—But there’s a Tree, of many, one,
A single field which I have looked upon,
Both of them speak of something that is gone;
The Pansy at my feet
Doth the same tale repeat:
Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is it now, the glory and the dream?

Today I’ve got a piece in the Comment section of The Observer about why we need a reading revolution. In it, I remember seeing a baby, one of those gorgeous chunky one-year-olds, leaping up in his mother’s arms on a doorstep in North Birkenhead and thinking ‘that baby will never read Wordsworth’. That thought (or was it a feeling?) helped propel me into creating The Reader.

But why, in a hard life, and that baby’s was almost certainly going to be a hard life, would Wordsworth matter at all? Why not concentrate on housing and vegetables? Of course, we need those things but as Rose Schneiderman famously said, we need bread and roses. And we need them at the same time. Humans have inner lives and those inner lives have profound effect on our ability to  renew roofs and grow vegetables, to create a sour-dough bakery in an area down-on-its-uppers, to develop a rose-growing business out of a wasteland.

Poetry matters because we might have forgotten, as Gillian Clarke writes in Miracle on St Davids Day, that we have anything to say. Of a mute labouring man in a mental health ward, moved to speech by poetry, she writes;

Since the dumbness of misery fell
he has remembered there was a music
of speech and that once he had something to say.

What we, in the our time, call ‘mental health’ or ’emotional experience’ is really about inner being, the most complicated, uncharted, rewarding and dangerous parts of human experience. I wish we had other names for this stuff. Our present vocabulary feels as unhelpful as grunts would be in working out the impact of black holes on the development of the universe. For one thing, calling it ‘mental health’ allows a good  half of the population to think it is nothing to do with them. But everyone has inner life, emotional experience. Our ability to understand and learn from it is a vital part of our human survival kit, as the psychotherapist Wilfred Bion writes;

If a person cannot ‘think’ with his thoughts, that is to say that he has thoughts but lacks the apparatus of ‘thinking’ which enables him to use his thoughts, to think them as it were, then the personality is incapable of learning from experience. This failure is serious. Failure to eat, drink or breathe properly has disastrous consequences for life itself. Failure to use emotional experience produces a comparable disaster in the development of the personality.

W.R.Bion, Learning From Experience

The World Health Organisation tells us that depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide. We are failing to learn from our own emotional experience partly because we do not have the language to think about it; at best we talk about this stuff in terms of ‘mental health’. But we should be speaking of  ‘human experience’.

That’s why we need great literature – Wordsworth, Kate Beaton, George Herbert, George Eliot, George Saunders, Frank O’Hara, Frank O’Connor, Frank Cottrell Boyce, Anton Chekov, Jeanette Winterson, Tolstoi, Dave McKee, Shirley Hughes, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Shakespeare, Jon Klassen, Marilynne Robinson and all the rest of them.

We need great literature and we need to relate to it in a different way. Our current way organising education so often turns it into dead stuff, despite the best efforts of good teachers. Great literature isn’t dead, it is just waiting for readers to make contact. Pupils who are being taught there are correct answers are not readers, they are exam-passers.

As a young mature student of twenty-five, the previously benefits-living single mother of a five-year old child, I first read Wordsworth  in the summer between first and second year when I was thinking of  dropping out of my university course due to class-dislocation. My goodness, but I felt unhappy and out-of-place.I can remember, across a lifetime now, the shock of recognition I felt when I first read these words;

—But there’s a Tree, of many, one,
A single field which I have looked upon,
Both of them speak of something that is gone;
The Pansy at my feet
Doth the same tale repeat:
Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is it now, the glory and the dream?

Though I felt massively excited by these lines, I did not ‘understand’ a word.

I did not know what  the ‘Tree’ was.
I did not know whether the ‘single field’ was real or not.
I did not know why it was a ‘pansy’.

Not knowing doesn’t matter.

Being moved, being touched, being excited in ways you don’t understand is what matters. It leaves you in a place where you can ask questions. And why is asking questions good? Because that’s how we learn!

I did not know what ‘the visionary gleam’ was but I knew I knew about its absence.
I did not know what ‘the glory’ was, nor ‘the dream’ neither, but I knew I missed them both.
The words spoke to some feeling I had and did not understand.
The feeling was about ‘something that is gone’.

There is no amount of on-curriculum study that would have made any of this clearer to me – I had to absorb the questions and realise, over years, that they were clues to hard-to-reach parts of my self. I’ve been reading this poem for thirty-six years. It still works, I still don’t understand it, it still gets me to ask questions!

What we’ve found  in sixteen years of Shared Reading is that  working out feelings and language with other people is easier than doing it on your own. I am grateful to the University curriculum for making me read Wordsworth and I’ve tried to translate that into Shared Reading (don’t just read what you already know and like). Without that looming second-year course on Romantics I’d never have read Wordsworth of my own volition, because it was too far, it seemed from my own experience. But that’s the thing about great writing, it is never far from your own experience. That’s what makes it great.

Terror and loveliness

I was in London yesterday when the attack occurred on Westminster Bridge. I was there to meet Bristol MP Thangam Debbonaire, and was waiting in the reception of no. 1, Parliament Street, next door to Westminster Tube and Portcullis House when it happened.

I didn’t hear the shots or even notice noise outside – only, suddenly, as I sat there next to the security section, realised that the external doors had shut and  the security guys were saying very firmly to someone,  ‘No, you can’t go out. Something’s happened.’

‘I’ve got to go and vote,’ said an MP. ‘Can I go the back way?’

‘No, Sir, there’s been an incident.’

People began to fill up the reception area. ‘There’s been a shooting,’ someone said. Everyone remained very calm.

Thangam’s constituency  assistant, Jonathan Downing, there for his first day in Westminster, came to find me and took me up to Thangam’s office on the third floor.

We stayed there for the next four hours as the Westminster Estate went into lock-down. For half an hour or more we had no idea what had happened, though the words ‘terrorist attack’ were used and ‘shooting’. Some announcements were made over a tannoy system within the building, ‘Stay in your offices’.

Out of the window, which was sideways on to Parliament Green I could see a crashed car, police, people in white crime scene suits, and what I now realise were injured people or bodies on the pavement.

Jonathan brought me a glass of water.

Bev Archibald, Thangam’s office manager, made me some tea. We watched the news. Rang our relatives. Waited. The corridors of the building were silent and empty when an hour or so later I went to the loo.

Gradually because of the news on the office TV we began to understand what had happened. Thangam texted from where she was locked in the House of Commons Chamber. A party of Bristol schoolchildren were here today, could Jonathan find out if there were all right?

Hours later, there was an announcement that the catering staff  had made food and everyone was invited to come downstairs to the cafeteria to eat. We walked past the nursery where children who had not been picked up were being settled to sleep by nursery staff.  In the cafeteria it was oddly moving to see hundreds of fried eggs set out…It is a time of terror. We are all afraid.  What can you do? You can fry eggs. You xan settle the babies to sleep. You can bring water. You can feed the hundreds of people in this building. You can remain calm and hospitable to me, an out of town visitor.

Thank you to the police, always polite, helpful, good- humoured whenever I have been to Westminster, yet living with the daily threat. Thanks to the security teams, the cooks and cafe workers, thank you, Jonathan and Bev, thank you, Thangham, thanks the man coming out of an office as I was heading to the loo who said ‘Are you ok?’ rather than ‘Where are you going?’

Two poems for today, but no time to read them. 

First George Herbert, really here in celebration of those fried eggs, an act of care, civility, decency. Second, Wendell Berry, because of the scars.

The Elixir
Teach me, my God and King,
         In all things Thee to see,
And what I do in anything
         To do it as for Thee.
         Not rudely, as a beast,
         To run into an action;
But still to make Thee prepossest,
         And give it his perfection.
         A man that looks on glass,
         On it may stay his eye;
Or if he pleaseth, through it pass,
         And then the heav’n espy.
         All may of Thee partake:
         Nothing can be so mean,
Which with his tincture—”for Thy sake”—
         Will not grow bright and clean.
         A servant with this clause
         Makes drudgery divine:
Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws,
         Makes that and th’ action fine.
         This is the famous stone
         That turneth all to gold;
For that which God doth touch and own
         Cannot for less be told.


George Herbert


The Slip

The river takes the land, and leaves nothing.
Where the great slip gave way in the bank
and an acre disappeared, all human plans
dissolve. An awful clarification occurs
where a place was. Its memory breaks
from what is known now, begins to drift.
Where cattle grazed and trees stood, emptiness
widens the air for birdflight, wind, and rain.
As before the beginning, nothing is there.
Human wrong is in the cause, human
ruin in the effect–but no matter;
all will be lost, no matter the reason.
Nothing, having arrived, will stay.
The earth, even, is like a flower, so soon
passeth it away. And yet this nothing
is the seed of all–the clear eye
of Heaven, where all the worlds appear.
Where the imperfect has departed, the perfect
begins its struggle to return. The good gift
begins again its descent. The maker moves
in the unmade, stirring the water until
it clouds, dark beneath the surface,
stirring and darkening the soul until pain
perceives new possibility. There is nothing
to do but learn and wait, return to work
on what remains. Seed will sprout in the scar.
Though death is in the healing, it will heal.

A Poem to Hold You Up

alder may 2016
A fine structure for life

Herman Hesse writes of solitary trees:

They are like lonely persons. Not like hermits who have stolen away out of some weakness, but like great, solitary men, like Beethoven and Nietzsche. In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfil themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves. Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree. When a tree is cut down and reveals its naked death-wound to the sun, one can read its whole history in the luminous, inscribed disk of its trunk: in the rings of its years, its scars, all the struggle, all the suffering, all the sickness, all the happiness and prosperity stand truly written, the narrow years and the luxurious years, the attacks withstood, the storms endured. And every young farmboy knows that the hardest and noblest wood has the narrowest rings, that high on the mountains and in continuing danger the most indestructible, the strongest, the ideal trees grow.

How hard it is, sometimes, to have the gift of life. Most of the Universe,  astronomers tell us is nothing. Nature doesn’t abhor a vacuum, it mostly is one. Only  in the rarest  flecks of the universe  is something, is matter. We are tiny bits of that matter and we have what seems even rarer, consciousness and self-awareness. It is the greatest, shortest, most spectacular and powerful, rare thing:  the chance to be alive and become yourself, your life. And yet how hard it is to endure the struggle that  Herman Hesse describes here, in the struggle of  solitary, individual trees to be themselves;

they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfil themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves.

This is a task all humans take on, more or less consciously. Unlike trees (I speak in  trepidation, not certain of my ground here,  for who knows what mystery there is in trees…)  we have conscious minds and that brings us a mighty  burden as well as  great power. Sometimes it feels as if having a  mind, by which I mean a self-conscious centre of consciousness, is like have a  super-powered roaring engine strapped onto our body, an engine that makes us buzz around like a balloon flying round with air coming out of it at speed,  high-powered, but with no controller, no purpose.

Trees, I am sure, do not ever feel like that.

I myself hardly ever feel like that these days, but when I think back to the hard years of my teens, my twenties, my thirties and, sorry to say, my forties, my blurry memories of that long period of becoming my self (no, not finished yet but going now at a different pace, and going in a particular way, which wasn’t the case then) I cannot imagine weathering some of those  storms, winters which went on for what seemed a decade, without George Herbert. For some of us becoming what we are often feels impossibly difficult. George Herbert seemed to stand beside me offering an arm while I tried to stand upright.

During a period of years when I had no idea how to  make anything of my life –  that possibility wasn’t even on the map, so  I didn’t  think about it –  I walked the dog every morning,  wrote poems, and read poems. The poems I read in the hardest of those winters were religious because they opened a space in which it was possible to recognise my shape, and they offered a structured language for the experience I was living through. All the ‘Affliction’ poems were leaning posts for me. They helped shape me for the future, they held me up. Now they are part of me, in my bones.

Affliction 1

When first thou didst entice to thee my heart,
I thought the service brave;
So many joys I writ down for my part,
Besides what I might have
Out of my stock of natural delights,
Augmented with thy gracious benefits.

I looked on thy furniture so fine,
And made it fine to me;
Thy glorious household-stuff did me entwine,
And ‘tice me unto thee.
Such stars I counted mine: both heav’n and earth;

Paid me my wages in a world of mirth.

What pleasures could I want, whose King I serv’d,
Where joys my fellows were?
Thus argu’d into hopes, my thoughts reserv’d
No place for grief or fear.
Therefore my sudden soul caught at the place,

And made her youth and fierceness seek thy face.

At first thou gav’st me milk and sweetnesses;
I had my wish and way;
My days were straw’d with flow’rs and happiness;
There was no month but May.
But with my years sorrow did twist and grow,
And made a party unawares for woe

My flesh began unto my soul in pain,

Sicknesses cleave my bones;
Consuming agues dwell in ev’ry vein,
And tune my breath to groans.
Sorrow was all my soul; I scarce believ’d,

Till grief did tell me roundly, that I liv’d.

When I got health, thou took’st away my life,
And more, for my friends die;
My mirth and edge was lost, a blunted knife
Was of more use than I.
Thus thin and lean without a fence or friend,

I was blown through with ev’ry storm and wind.

Whereas my birth and spirit rather took
The way that takes the town;
Thou didst betray me to a ling’ring book,
And wrap me in a gown.
I was entangled in the world of strife,

Before I had the power to change my life.

Yet, for I threaten’d oft the siege to raise,
Not simp’ring all mine age,
Thou often didst with academic praise
Melt and dissolve my rage.
I took thy sweet’ned pill, till I came where

I could not go away, nor persevere.

Yet lest perchance I should too happy be
In my unhappiness,
Turning my purge to food, thou throwest me
Into more sicknesses.
Thus doth thy power cross-bias me, not making

Thine own gift good, yet me from my ways taking.

Now I am here, what thou wilt do with me
None of my books will show;
I read, and sigh, and wish I were a tree,
For sure then I should grow
To fruit or shade: at least some bird would trust

Her household to me, and I should be just.

Yet, though thou troublest me, I must be meek;
In weakness must be stout;
Well, I will change the service, and go seek
Some other master out.
Ah my dear God! though I am clean forgot,

Let me not love thee, if I love thee not.

No time, this morning to read through the whole poem, but only to point to a few lines that still touch my with their truth:

…a blunted knife
Was of more use than I.
Thus thin and lean without a fence or friend,

I was blown through with ev’ry storm and wind.

Why did it help me to read these lines?  When you are  not in good shape (see good shape in picture above and compare to  when your life is out of joint) not being ‘of use’ is one of the burdens. And a knife is dangerous – sometimes a blunt knife more dangerous than a sharp one. Then he turns sideways and you see – oddly, brilliantly – ‘without a fence’  is he cast out? Yes. Is he unprotected? Yes. Is he stick thin? Yes. Does the slightest thing set him off? Yes. Is he easily blown about  by  any wind? Yes.

Recognise it all ? Yes.  I love the  time  he arrives at the tree-thought, right now, as if the poem is living through terrible real-time:

None of my books will show;
I read, and sigh, and wish I were a tree,
For sure then I should grow
To fruit or shade: at least some bird would trust

Her household to me, and I should be just.

Now. Now Now. Can’t get out of it. He treads water. ‘I read, and sigh, and wish I were a tree.’ But the imagination of being a tree  is a tiny, tiny moment of change. A tree is not a bit of thin lath in a fence. A tree is not a blunted knife. The lovely hope that a bird might  nest in him, some living creature might ‘trust’ him, is a possible future.  But George Herbert doesn’t get there in this poem, which is written  in medias res, in the absolute thick of it. The last stanza is frustrated, stuck, going round in circles;

Yet, though thou troublest me, I must be meek;

In weakness must be stout;

He knows intellectually what he is supposed to do – be stout – but, angrily, childishly, frustratedly, can’t do that;

Well, I will change the service, and go seek

Some other master out.

Bah! Give up!And then, a bigger, more difficult problem and a restating of it as GH’s own responsibility:

Ah my dear God! though I am clean forgot,
Let me not love thee, if I love thee not.

Does it matter what God (read ‘life’) is doing to him? No. The responsibility rests with he who is living that life. Got to go with the flow, got to act with it.

Let me not love thee, if I love thee not.

How do I love thee? Ah life, let me count the ways. Wake up, count blessings, look at a tree, a bird, a baby. There is an infinite universe of nothing. Then there is this, this spark of life, this us. Painful, worth having.  Keep going.