What to read in a Shared Reading group: Eating fruit with Denise Levertov

garden at evening
Front garden, evening 23 May

Today I’m hoping to finish my reading of , O Taste and See’,  a short poem by Denise Levertov.  I say short – I’ve been here three days, so no promises – it takes what it takes. You’ll find the earlier posts on this poem by using the search box and typing ‘O Taste and See’. You’ll find the whole poem here.

Yesterday I’d got a point of thinking about the miracle of being a  living creature: our bodies taking in food and oxygen to fuel the processes of living: literally, transformation.  I’m going to pick up here:

transform

into our flesh our
deaths, crossing the street, plum, quince,
living in the orchard and being

hungry, and plucking
the fruit.

I wonder now  where I am in this poem – still exiting the subway?

Standing at a kerb-edge, waiting to cross, risking my life by crossing the street?

The food, the oxygen, becomes flesh, and flesh must die. Therefore as soon as she writes the word ‘flesh’,  without the grace of comma’s pause, Levertov must also write ‘our/deaths’. I say no comma, but I wonder here about the line ending – always a good thing to notice in modern poetry because it is one of the few structural devices the poet has  in their toolkit. See how she uses it! We see the thought, logical, compelling, emerge across the gap of the line ending. If we have flesh it therefore follows we have death.

And does our death happen in the midst of life as we are crossing the street? is that why she writes it like that?

Now suddenly the poem jumps from thinking about death to plums, to quince. I look back at the other piece of fruit, the tangerine. Now I feel I am standing outside a subway exit in New York near a street fruit stall. All this is happening in my head.

I wonder if the plums are a quick glance at William Carlos Williams’ poem, This Is Just To Say. I think Levertov knew him ( I don’t look that up because I am trying to stay concentrated on the poem). But those delicious plums are in my mind now! (‘so sweet and so cold!’). That Williams poem is about unashamedly enjoying the eating of fruit. Which…

…and now I’m thinking of the ‘orchard’ and the story of Eden, of  Milton’s Paradise Lost, enters my mind. The lines I remember of the moment of the fall – Book 9 – when Eve takes the fruit:

So saying, her rash hand in evil hour 
Forth reaching to the Fruit, she pluck’d, she ate:
Earth felt the wound, and Nature from her seat
Sighing through all her Works gave signs of woe,
That all was lost.

I look back to Levertov:

plum, quince,
living in the orchard and being

hungry, and plucking
the fruit.

I don’t think it is an  accident that Levertov uses the same verb as Milton. As with the Wordsworth at the beginning, I believe these fragments of  other poets’ language are in Levertov’s head and imagination, in her store cupboard of  lines. They bang around in there and become our own: we use them. I use them in my real life, I quote them to myself. If you are a poet you use them in your poetry. But I’ll come back to this in a moment. Let me just finish reading.

Connecting hunger to ‘being’  Levertov  seems to believe that we were built to pluck that fruit, we were made with bodies that get hungry, and must eat to survive.  And, like Williams, not just to eat but also to enjoy.  This is an argument with or a response to Milton.

I notice that ‘being’ gets a line-ending. That’s a kind of pause, a kind of emphasis. Read it out, get the rhythm of it.

You have the pause at the line end,  then you get ‘hungry’. This is a new thought, not part of Milton’s  mindset at all. It’s as if, as with the Wordsworth thought (‘the world is too much with us’), she is in conversation with those thoughts/poems. She feels able to speak up, respond, say something. It isn’t rashness, says Levertov to Milton, as if they were both here in the present tense, it is hunger.  All the same, that final verb, ‘plucking’, is loaded with meanings, with echoes. Yet Levertov asserts, eat the goddam plums! Be in the world, be here, be physical, be a body, be a transformation, be alive.

 

I want to go back now to the problem of the fact that Denise Levertov is a highly educated poet, working in a tradition which she knows well – Wordsworth, Genesis, Milton, the Psalms, William Carlos Williams.  She knows all that well enough to have the language of those poems in her head as if they were natural to her. Indeed they have become natural to her – just as a simple chord progression CFG is natural to any  guitarist, just as an English  gardener would look for something to underplant roses, just as a cook might naturally think of  cooking chicken with rosemary and lemon and pine-nuts.

You don’t have to know  music theory, the history of English gardens or the molecular science of taste to appreciate lovely planting, musical flow or good chicken. For someone who has never experienced the chords C F and G the thing would be to have the experience, not to have the knowledge that those are the names of those chords. So that is why The Reader’s basic pedagogy is about shared experience: we share our reading, we experience it together. If you have facts, put them to one side, they get in the way of the poetic, the literary experience. (See my post against footnotes here.)

But part of the problem here, for a Shared Reading group leader is that some of the fibres of this particular poem are made from the other poems. those aren’t just ‘allusions’, they aren’t just footnotes. Part of the experience of the poem is the echo of Wordsworth, of William Carlos Williams, of Milton.

If you didn’t hear those echoes at all, you’d still have an experience of the poem, but some of the poem would be missing. It would be as if , for some reason, your ears just couldn’t hear the F chord, or your taste buds couldn’t pick up the rosemary.  It’s not a killer, but a workaround would be good.

For me,  if I  was taking this poem to a group (and I hope one day I will) the workaround would be to bring the Wordsworth sonnet, and the Williams, and a fragment of the Milton. I wouldn’t stay on them long, but they’d be there to take away, or maybe the group would want to read one or more of them another time. For today, we’d just have them there and look at them in passing. They are there to be a sort of additional flavour in the Levertov dish.

For reading this short poem I’d need a whole session – at least an hour maybe an hour and half, maybe two hours (I love a two-hour session, which always seems to me the time needed to really complete some small piece of reading).

So I’d perhaps have this as a poem-only session in the week after the completion of a novel or long story. That way  this poem could pick up some of the ideas in the novel – thinking of Bernard Malamud’s novel, The Assistant, which could be great with this.  But there would be many others. So many stories have come out of  the garden, the fruit, the fall, the need to be in the world, of it and not of it at once.

Tomorrow,   we’re turning back to Silas Marner

 

If You Want Escapism, Look Away Now

garden 5 may
Spring in the Front Garden, 5 May

Yesterday I mentioned Marilynne Robinson’s  Home and Joshua Ferris’ The Unnamed as examples of novels which are the  kind of book I want to read. Not entertainment, and definitely not escapism. In fact, these two are the opposite, coming as close to life as it gets. Are they great books? I’m very alive while reading them, and that feels great! If the hairs stand up on the back your neck, said Les Murray, that’s poetry. That’s a sort of definition.

People often ask me about what we mean by ‘great books’ at The Reader. ‘Great’ is a relative and malleable word. Great as they may be, no books can easily be pressed on people who don’t want to read them (hence the sad state of our  national literary education). So is it a canon? If so, it’s a  very elastic one, decided week by week by whoever has the leadership of each group.

Our work is about passing on our love of literature, and trying to demonstrate that pwerful literature about real life  is compelling  and opens new areas of  self (and good fun, too, a lot of the time – there’s plenty of laughing in Shared Reading). It’s not so easy to create such meaning with books that are mainly there for entertainment or escapism – no offence to them, but most murders, romances, spies, thrillers, shopping or porn stories have a different purpose. They might be ‘well written’ but it is not about ‘well written’ in the end. It’s not about technique, or ‘achingly beautiful prose’ (a phrase which makes me put down a book immediately),  it’s about opening up the actual experience of human beings. If that’s happening, it might be a good book for a Shared Reading group.

We use the word ‘great’ to raise a flag for trying hard stuff.  A walk in the local park is good,  and beyond that, hillwalking is terrific but a trip to Everest is a completely different thing. Yet a walk in the park will be a hard task for someone who hasn’t been out in years. And walking in the Dales might be a doddle to someone who does it every weekend. Is Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451 a great book?  Is War and Peace ? Is E.H. Young’s Miss Mole? What about Hamlet? Are they the same kind of ‘great’ ? No! They are all good in different ways.

I grew up with adults who were  looking away. Alcohol put up reality crash barriers and felt good. Pub not sorrow. Pub a laugh! Pub not bills, not money worries. Pub borrow a few bob! Pub not dull by yourselfness. Pub jokes and laughing. Sing songs! Pub paarrty ! Or drink at home!  Off licence, miniature whisky if broke. Cans of lager. Smoke dope, smoke, smoke, smoke.

This led to death, as all life does, but what I saw was that pub joy ran out while life itself ran on to the bitter end. I wanted to learn how to live differently. So the underlying flavour of my reading got serious. I’ve written about my book-turning-point, Doris Lessing’s Shikasta, elsewhere. After that came the novels of George Eliot, through my third-year university reading with Brian Nellist.

Daniel Deronda clarified things for me. I was in my mid-twenties and at a stage where decisions about the kind of person I wanted to be, the kind of  life I wanted to live were more or less consciously pressing on me.  I saw my self and my own existential problems in Gwendolen Harleth and in Daniel  Deronda. They are very different people, but there I was in both of them…it’s a book about choices and purpose in life.

When I first read the book my mother was in her late forties and it was clear her life was coming to an end. It was a long frightening time, that approach to death. Daniel Deronda shone light on lots of things I hadn’t known how to look at, think about. The predicament of Gwendolen Harleth, forced to learn by the uncontrollable consequences of  her own behaviour, terrified me into thinking seriously about the way in which I made choices.

I grew to love George Eliot and read everything she’d written, including, while I was writing my Ph.D. the nine volumes of her Complete Letters. This was (and still is)  like having a parent who teaches you stuff. George Eliot helped me  to grow up.

She can be hard to read – she has a rhythm that is long-sentenced and she uses complex syntax to work out complex things about human experience. Some people find the tone ponderous. I don’t. For me it is like spending time with a very clever person who knows a lot more than me. I have to keep saying, ‘Say that again!’ and I don’t understand it all, but I love being with her because I learn things.

Here’s Gwendolen (still a very young woman) at the end of the book, realising the man she loves has a bigger purpose in life than looking after her. You can’t read this stuff fast. Read it like a poem, slow and aloud.

That was the sort of crisis which was at this moment beginning in Gwendolen’s small life: she was for the first time feeling the pressure of a vast mysterious movement, for the first time being dislodged from her supremacy in her own world, and getting a sense that her horizon was but a dipping onward of an existence with which her own was revolving. All the troubles of her wifehood and widowhood had still left her with the implicit impression which had accompanied her from childhood, that whatever surrounded her was somehow specially for her, and it was because of this that no personal jealousy had been roused in her relation to Deronda: she could not spontaneously think of him as rightfully belonging to others more than to her. But here had come a shock which went deeper than personal jealousy—something spiritual and vaguely tremendous that thrust her away, and yet quelled all her anger into self-humiliation.

I wouldnt start (as I did) in the deep end with Daniel Deronda. I’d start with Silas Marner. If you read it at school and hated it (so many people did!) please give it another go. Perhaps I’ll have a look at it tomorrow.

Just finished: One of The Boys, by Daniel Magariel

img_0466

Yesterday a day full of  addiction and hope.

I visited the wise Karen Biggs, CEO of Phoenix Futures, one of  the UK’s leading addiction/housing charities. We’ve done some great work with Phoenix over the years, and it’s always a joy to spend time with the energetic heart and brain that is Karen.

Later in the day I spent time talking to playwright Sonya Hale, a truly remarkable woman. Sonya became an addict in her early twenties, and was street homeless for a decade. Much later she changed her life, partly through meeting the charity Clean Break.  She won the Synergy Theatre’s national prison writing competition with her play, Glory Whispers. She spoke to me of  the pain of losing her son, when her addiction became unmanageable, and he went to live with his Dad, and how that finally helped her confront her addiction and get into recovery. The interview will be published in The Reader magazine at a later date.

It was a long chat with Sonya. We’ve a lot of common and I’m always interested in learning how people live and why they sometimes learn to change.  I feel as if something new has entered my bloodstream and I’ll be processing the  conversation for weeks ahead.

On the  train on the way  down to London I finished (a two-sitting book) Daniel Magariel’s One of The Boys. I think I found this through a recommendation on twitter by the exceptionally emotionally intelligent writer, @carysbray. It also came with a blurb from my top-rated author, George Saunders. Those are two very remarkable writers, so I ordered my copy. I thought Karen or others at Phoenix might be interested in it so I when I arrived at her office in Elephant and Castle, I gave my copy to Karen Biggs.

green wall
The wonderful green wall at Elephant and Castle

It’s slight in terms of pages, a novella, but it is enormous in its content and concentrated experience, not unlike my two-hour conversation with Sonya. I felt I had been reading for a week, not two one-hour sessions. Reading with eyes glued to the page, full-pelt, non-stop. Told through the eyes of a child, the younger of two in a family where the father is a drug-user and is a manipulative, violent man, it’s a slice of real time, an immersion in an experience you might not want to know about. It’s not an easy read but its a real good one, with exceptionally careful writing about emotions.

The story is almost all about ‘the boys’, the father and his two sons; we don’t see the mother much and we don’t know her story,  but the scene where she dances ‘salt and pepper shaker’ had a grim and utterly real  graveyard humour. Apart from that, I did not laugh. I found the book frightening and true to life. Like Frank Alpine in Malamud’s The Assistant, when he is reading Crime and Punishment, I had the crazy feeling I was reading about myself.

When you have parents who do not parent you, you live a cycle of  caring for them when they need looking after, craving their attention when they don’t and then suffering when they don’t look after themselves, or when they turn on you. All that is carefully detailed here, in under 170 pages.

Every care worker, every social worker or children’s home assistant, every teacher, should read this book.

Scrub that, it’s a big problem with wide  ramifications. Everyone should read it.

Neither of  my parents were straightforwardly ‘like’ the parents in this book but there are certain underlying resemblances, the bone structure of addiction remaining the same whatever the flesh looks like. An addict is not a grown up, is not responsible, is broken, is ill. As the child you carry a lot of weight for them. You think their thoughts, feel their feelings. As a result you never really know where your own emotions begin and your parents’ end. That’s what most struck the chimes here.

After a particularly bad night, where the father and younger son (‘we’ in the quotation  below) have attacked and threatened to kill the older son, the younger struggles with guilt, anger and loneliness:

That night after we had cleaned up and dragged the coffee table to the Dumpster, my father called him into his room. I listened outside the door as he told my brother that he should never have contacted our mom. That we’d felt betrayed and did not know what else to do. “I would never hurt you,” my father said. “We only meant to scare you. Please forgive me. Do you forgive me?” Then he said, “Thank you, I forgive you, too. Can I have a hug?” The bed squeaked as my father scooted closer, I guessed, because a moment later he said, “Put your arms around me, son.”

I stepped outside to the park.

Overhead the moon was hidden. Clouds were backlit at their feathery edges. A strong wind from the east, from the Sandias, swept over the grass. I winced at the thought of today. My father turned us against each other – it was his method of control. And I’d fallen for it again. Any remorse I had for the Polaroids now felt false. I had let down my brother just as I had my mom. I was so disappointed in myself and I swore then that I would never again choose my father. I never again wanted to harm anyone I loved. I was on my brother’s side now. He was my brother for life. I’d been lucky today that he had not been not more seriously hurt.
A flock of birds came to rest on a nearby pinon tree, populating its limbs like leaves. and though I could hardly see them, hear them, I was happy for their quiet company and hoped they would not leave me soon.

Frightening, touching and educative – highly recommended.

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.

What to read in a Shared Reading group

The Return Home and Rosa's Blanket
Cherry blossom, West Kirby 31 March 2012

Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood by William Wordsworth

Blossoming! I saw this same tree yesterday but didn’t have my camera, so it was good to find it in my back collection, and realise I’ve loved it before. The picture does not  do the reality justice – the centres of the white  blossoms are dark pink.

Thinking of the surprise of finding lovely stuff growing – last night I was looking at  The Reader’s videos on You Tube, trying to decide what I should show when I go to Uppsala  next week, and  I was surprised and delighted when I stumbled across a film from Shared Reading New South Wales. I didn’t know there was Shared Reading in NSW!  My colleague Megg tells me that Christopher started out in  one of her groups in Kensington and Chelsea and then  did Read to Lead…great to see Shared Reading seeds settling around the world.

This morning I continued reading All The Days of My Life and found there are many poems I’d like to read  – I’d forgotten that I used to really love Dennis Haskell’s ‘One Clear Call’, a moving poem about Tennyson’s ‘Crossing The Bar’ and the reality of poetry. I used often to read the two poems together.

But I came to ‘Intimations of Immortality’ and thought, it is always worth rereading and I wondered if many people running Shared Reading groups ever  simply do a whole long poem like this?  This is perfect for an hour and a half, maybe two hours reading, though you have to watch the time – because really it’s a four-hour poem. Sometimes I meet people  who tell me that Shared Reading means reading a short story and poem. And I say, no, Shared Reading is about sharing the reading, not the format of the reading matter. You  might read a scene from Hamlet and no poem. Or you might be a starting out on a novel and want only the novel because you’ve got to concentrate and it is hard to find the time. Or you might decide to read a longish poem.

If you were reading this poem, you’d start by knowing that some people in your group would find the length and the language off-putting, so the first job is to make sure you really love it before you take it along, or if love is not yet possible, at least you need to think you might really love it if you got into it. You’ve got to trust it to work out.

Thought I might read a little each day this week. There’s a link to the whole poem here.

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.
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.
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.
Now, I’ve pasted all those lines in, but I might spend a long time at the beginning of a group thinking about the title of this poem, otherwise it might seem like a meaningless collection of long words.
‘Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of  Early Childhood.’
Does anyone remember the feelings of early childhood?  Some people say they can remember being in their pram, looking up into the trees, seeing the blossoms, as in the picture above.
I remember my sister being born, I was five. I remember being picked up to see her through  a ground floor hospital window. It would have been March and I remember it as sunny. There  were wallflowers and I could smell their scent, powerful, peppery, sweet. Only when I get to the scent do I feel I am getting into ‘immortality’. The scent moves me, almost literally transports me. Is this the kind of early childhood memory Wordsworth is talking about?
What is an ‘intimation’  – have you ever experienced one?  The Online Etymological Dictionary tells me it means “action of expressing by suggestion or hint, indirect imparting of information” .
And what would an ‘intimation of  immortality’ feel like ? Perhaps none of us in the group can imagine that. Perhaps someone will surprise us with a profoundly poetic explanation of their take on it.
I’m already thinking I’ve made a mistake in imagining I can read this poem in a session, even a two-hour one!
Time’s up!  Why does writing take so long? More tomorrow.

Practising Imagination

Agnes on Caldy beach march 2017
Agnes on Caldy Beach, Tina and Chester in the background, Chester playing in mud

Thinking about imagination and direct experience this morning. I was slightly aware,  as I looked through All The Days of My Life yesterday, that my attitude to poems, to literature in general, has changed in a significant way over the last…shall I say ten years? This is something to do with my instinct about a key element of Shared Reading.

It’s out of print now – be great if The Reader could get it back into print, please – but worth tracking down a secondhand copy of ATDOML  as this anthology is a very particular one, with a personal  take on both poetry and life experience. It was  put together by my husband Phil Davis, for me, when I was a teacher in Continuing Education, reading a lot of poetry with my students and  wanting a book with all the good ones in. So he made it. It came out in 1999, just after we had started The Reader magazine and just before I began ‘Get Into Reading’, which would become Shared Reading and The Reader  as it is now.

What I realised as I looked through the  book yesterday was that I know almost every poem in this collection, have read all of them at least once and some of  them many, many times. They are part an inner geography/library that connect to the growth (as Wordsworth might put it) of this reader’s mind. And yet some of these poems I am unlikely to read anymore because they do not allow me to  think directly about my own experience. I suddenly feel as if concentrating on a key problem in Shared Reading (got to make it personal) has sent me  off at an angle, small at first, that is only now realised as too big. I’ve gone off course!

Take, for example, ‘The Voice’ by Thomas Hardy;

Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me,
Saying that now you are not as you were
When you had changed from the one who was all to me,

But as at first, when our day was fair.

Can it be you that I hear? Let me view you, then,
Standing as when I drew near to the town
Where you would wait for me: yes, as I knew you then,
Even to the original air-blue gown!

Or is it only the breeze, in its listlessness
Travelling across the wet mead to me here,
You being ever dissolved to wan wistlessness,
Heard no more again far or near?

Thus I; faltering forward,
Leaves around me falling,
Wind oozing thin through the thorn from norward,
And the woman calling.

This wonderful poem, which I think I first read in  let us 1982, in Brian Nellist’s University of Liverpool English Department third year Victorians and Moderns tutorial, has almost fallen out of my reading repertoire. Why? I tend to read poems that allow  me meditate on my own life and problems. This poem is more like a story, requiring me to practice imagination. I think  I do practice imagination in reading but nearly always in prose or Shakespeare. But when I choose a poem I’m often looking for and choosing poems that reveal something directly about me, to me.

Let’s read this poem about Thomas Hardy, then.

Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me,
Saying that now you are not as you were
When you had changed from the one who was all to me,
But as at first, when our day was fair.

Hardy begins with ‘woman much missed’  which is, in any context, an odd formulation. We might have expected  ‘woman’ as an address but ‘much missed’ is direct, personal, confessional, really. Is he speaking to her – Woman –  or to himself?

We hear a man  haunted by a voice, ‘how you call to me, call to me,’ an echo. He has been longing to see (‘much missed’), to hear her, and now she is here, calling, but there is no comfort for him. What the voice is saying seems complicated and nostalgic and also, perhaps, guilt-inducing. Is this why he started with ‘much missed’? In what sense does he  miss her ? Because he didn’t seem to miss her when she ‘had changed from the one who was all to me’;

Saying that now you are not as you were
When you had changed from the one who was all to me,
But as at first, when our day was fair.

Those three lines are awful to imagine. The ‘woman much missed’ may not be the same woman who has died, but an earlier version of that woman, with whom Hardy fell in love  ‘at first, when our day was fair.’ By the time the real physical woman died, he  no longer loved, she had changed ‘from the one who was all to me.’

As I read in this way, I am tussling with words and syntax, trying to understand as many layers of meaning as I can reveal by reading,  by noticing. This is our basic  equipment in Shared Reading ( if this was parkrun, it would be putting one foot in front of the other to achieve locomotion).  You can call it ‘close reading’ but I call it reading. It means noticing and becoming conscious of as much as you can.

But I am doing something more than reading  (‘close reading’,  ‘analysing’, ‘taking apart’, ‘deconstructing’) the words, spaces, line-endings, punctuation and rhythm. These elements add together to come more than the sum of the parts: I am getting inside Thomas Hardy’s experience. as I unpack the layers  of thought and feeling, my brain experiences the language and the language-experience as if it were my own. Mirror neurones! Imagination!

Can it be you that I hear? Let me view you, then,
Standing as when I drew near to the town
Where you would wait for me: yes, as I knew you then,
Even to the original air-blue gown!

A noticing reader will be aware of the commas on  either side of ‘then’ on the first line of this stanza. The first reading of ‘then’ is straightforward, a conversational pattern we hardly notice in daily use; ‘let me view you, then,’ where ‘then’ probably means ‘in that case.’ I used it in exactly that way at the start of this post.

So the whole line  means – on one level – is it you? yes? in that case, show me.

But ‘then’ is also  a time word.  And the next line takes us back to the past, ‘then’ is picked up, an echo, like the voice itself, and we understand a terrible jarring feeling happening over and over again in side this man grieving for someone who left him (or whom he left)  long  before she died.

As I read, I am inside the experience of the poem, inside the mind of the writer of the poem following through the written marks on the page, like tracks, his thought patterns. And the harder I read,  the further inside his thought-processes I get. Thus reading the poem, in this way, teaches me to practice imagination.

Now I am in his shoes as he stands there, no longer quite hearing the voice, almost no longer haunted. Yet how bleak that feels;

Or is it only the breeze, in its listlessness
Travelling across the wet mead to me here,
You being ever dissolved to wan wistlessness,
Heard no more again far or near?

In fact by the time we get the word ‘dissolved’ the voice seems completely gone. And ‘wistlessness’ – is this a word Hardy has made up?  Wist=know, so wistless seems to mean ‘heedless’ or ‘not knowing’? Does the line mean ‘you, being dissolved, cannot know (me) (anything), are not there? Have ceased to haunt me. She is now ‘Heard no more again far or near?’

The tremendous last stanza, with its astonishing self-knowledge,  visible in that formulation,  ‘Thus I;’
Thus I; faltering forward,
Leaves around me falling,
Wind oozing thin through the thorn from norward,
And the woman calling.
Look at me, Hardy seems to be saying, a man barely able to stay upright, in wind and leaf-fall, in cold of north wind, among thorns…’and the woman calling.’ And so we return, cold and weary, worn-out, to the beginning. The poem is circular and  Hardy cannot escape its round and round again-ness. Always, finally, the voice, coming back to him.
To practice reading, is to practice entering the experience of another, the experience of the poet. I go back to Archibald MacLeish:
But what, then, is the business of poetry? Precisely to make sense of the chaos of our lives. To create the understanding of our lives. To compose an order which the bewildered, angry heart can recognize. To imagine man.
If I understand what it is to live Hardy’s terrible life in these Poems of 1912-13 then I understand more of human experience than  if I simply live my own life.
Why then my concentration on reading poems which help me understand my own life? For me self-understanding is the starting point, and I am still at that starting-point, sometimes seem to be more at it than ever before.

But  something has happened this morning which makes me think I need to add in poems of not-my-experience to my daily readings.  I don’t want to  narrow down my imagination, got to keep practising.

 

What to read in a Shared Reading group: two poems by Derek Walcott

UK - Liverpool - The Reader Organisation
Me, doing Shared Reading with a colleague on the phone. It’s not  form that matters, it’s content. Be close to the text but be moved, be personal: ‘Feast on your life’.

 

I wanted to write about Derek Walcott today, as he has just died, ‘called home’, to take a phrase from one of his great poems.

When I heard the news, two poems came immediately to mind. ‘A Letter from Brooklyn’ (which you can read in today’s Sunday Times)  and ‘Love After Love’,  a poem that has been read in many Shared Reading groups over the years.

‘A Letter from Brooklyn’ was the first of Derek Walcott’s poems I read, when I was still teaching at the University. I found it – in an anthology of some sort, name now lost to me – and  took it to my Friday Afternoon Poetry class.  That class was one of the strands of DNA that went into the mix to bring The Reader and Shared Reading into being.

I started it – hhhm, don’t remember, so far back it goes, but it may have been in the 1980s. It was still quite near to the time when I had  finished my Ph.D and was finding my feet as a teacher of literature. I knew I was afraid of poetry, and thought that if I was so afraid, other people would be suffering the same anxiety. So I advertised the class as ‘Afraid of poetry? come along to share your fears and read together in a relaxed group.’  Ten, fifteen, maybe eighteen of us would meet from 1.00-5.00 on the last Friday of the month for four hours of (what I’d now call) Shared Reading.  I think that class is where I first met my long-time colleague, Kate McDonnell.

The morning of the class, I would choose a poem –  or possibly two – in the same way I do for this blog –  am I interested in this? Does it touch something? Is there  a match for something live in me? Can I enter it?

And then for  a whole afternoon, the group would  sit and read together, teasing out meanings, a concentrated, collaborative experience.

‘A Letter from Brooklyn’ seems to come at a time when the poet is uncertain about his work, and the letter is an unlikely blessing, a benediction, call to arms.Like the religious poetry of the seventeenth century, this poem helps create a space in me, where something religious might happen.  I have read the poem many times since that first time, and remain moved by the word ‘home’, as Walcott himself is:

The strength of one frail hand in a dim room
Somewhere in Brooklyn, patient and assured,
Restores my sacred duty to the Word.
‘Home, home,’ she can write, with such short time to live,
Alone as she spins the blessings of her years;

It’s a poem about what survives death and what survives life, too. How thin and frail the threads that sometimes hold us in place, yet how, despite their frailty,  they sometimes are ‘steel.’

The other poem, ‘Love after Love’,  I think I first had from Kate McDonnell, once we had got  The Reader going  ( in the days when we still called it ‘Get Into Reading’).

No, no – now I remember also reading this in those Continuing Education classes at the University. Perhaps having found ‘A Letter from Brooklyn’ I went and sought more of  Derek Walcott’s work.  I recall the room I read it in. Perhaps Kate was present.  It’s a well-known, much-anthologised poem, but that doesn’t take away from its strength or reality at all. Many times I have seen new readers profoundly moved  to recognition by the poem.

Recently someone told me  they had had an occasion in their Share Reading group when the conversation had become very personal, group members sharing profoundly personal information. This  didn’t usually happen, they told me. We’re very good about sticking closely to the text, not going off.  I was surprised by this.  Yes, of course, – we need to stick closely to the text, but what does the text stick to,  if not to us?

It may be that in a group where little personal thought is shared it is still happening – inside the individual readers – but I’d hope all group members would speak from the personal: because, really, what else is there?

When I read a poem , I’m trying to match it against what I know, so as I start this one, I see my own front door – both literally and metaphorically – I see my life’s time and my sense of self:

Love After Love

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

I  can hardly imagine what  anyone could do with such a poem if not read it personally, connecting it to your own experience. ‘You will love again the stranger who was yourself.’ Surely , readers are required by the very language – ‘you’, ‘yourself’ –  in this line to think of themselves? To remember times when we didn’t love ourselves,  when we were self-estranged?

This leads me to ask myself, are only some  pieces of literature suitable for Shared Reading? A colleagues recently told me how much better a book was  working out in his group than a previous novel. Why?  Because it allows more of the personal?

So though anyone might enjoy a thriller, a thriller wont yield much to a Shared Reading group because it is not about real things. This isn’t about form – look again, Lincoln in The Bardo, not at all ‘realism’ – it’s about content, meaning, belief and thought. Lincoln in the Bardo  is made in fancy  dress, but it is absolutely about types of deepest reality. This is what we  look for in good reading for Shared Reading groups. You’ve got to want to look in the mirror.

It may not be necessary to confess everything you see there: some or all of that recognition might remain private. But the most powerful groups I’ve been in have shared not only the literature through slow reading aloud, but also direct, real personal response and recognition, the most serious of which have always, like the poem ‘Love After Love’, involved some pain;

Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit.Feast on your life.

The peeling of that image from the mirror always hurts. But those moments of true intimacy, of revelation, are always the best moments of the best groups: they create the steel threads which help hold us in place.

Shared Reading is about sharing not only the reading, but also ourselves.