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.

Primary feelings

jane at 10.png
The author aged ten, with inefficient hairband, plus pearls

Turned the Oxford Book of English Verse page from William Blake (see yesterday’s post) to find myself in Robbie Burns country.  I stopped for a moment to wonder if ‘Address to the Unco  Guid’ was the poem for me today – no, too long, but what a great last couple of lines – looking at others, judging them, from the outside, Burns tells the  rigidly righteous, is no good;

What’s done we partly may compute,
But know not what’s resisted.

It’s brilliantly realistic that  even ‘what’s done’ we can’t fully know – the outside, visible bit of someone else’s actions. And then the caution – we absolutely can’t know ‘what’s resisted.’ We don’t know and can’t imagine someone else’s inner battles.

Then I stopped to enjoy ‘John Anderson, my Jo’ and  though I think it is a love song (my Jo = my beloved, sweetheart) I thought of long friendship and some of the hills I have climbed (not literally, think we’ve only done that once, Beeston Hill, with some German students) with my old friend Angie, and how now,

Now we maun totter down, John,
And hand in hand we’ll go…

Hand in hand, dear old friend, tottering down. Lovely. I passed right over ‘The Silver Tassie’  with the  thought ‘drinking song, not interested’ – though as to that,  when I looked more closely it is also a  man going to war love  song, so maybe worth reading another day, but for now my eye been caught by ‘The Banks o’ Doon’ and I know already, without reading, that’s the poem for today. Why? I know it so well, almost off by heart.

Ye banks and braes o’ bonnie Doon
How ye can bloom so fresh and fair
How can ye chant ye little birds
And I sae weary fu’ o’ care
Thou’lt break my heart, thou warbling bird
That wantons thro’ the flowering thorn
Thou minds me o’ departed joys
Departed never to return

Aft hae I rov’d by bonnie Doon
To see the rose and woodbine twine
And ilka bird sang o’ its love
And fondly sae did I o’ mine
Wi’ lightsome heart I pu’d a rose
Fu’ sweet upon its thorny tree
But my false lover stole my rose
But ah! She left the thorn wi’ me

Like ‘Jerusalem’ this one has been with me a  very long time. I learned it as a song in Eastham Village Primary School, where singing was one of the weekly lessons. We had a  school songbook in which other favourites of mine were  Hearts of Oak, Greensleeves,  The Skye Boat Song…But this was my top favourite. Now I must ask myself, why? Most the language was incomprehensible.  I was nine or ten. I didn’t know anything about love or broken hearts.

I remember knowing it was partly about landscape – I think I knew , certainly know now as I try to remember what knowing the words of this lyric meant, that it was about place and heart, and that place was lovely and loveliness made the song/me sad.

Ye banks and braes o’ bonnie Doon
How ye can bloom so fresh and fair?
How can ye chant ye little birds
And I sae weary fu’ o’ care?

The side by side-ness of  the outside lovely world ‘so fresh and fair’ and the inside world of me ‘ I sae weary ful of care’,  is the main thing. Seeing light against darkness,  joy right up against sorrow casts  strong  emphasis on both states. What interests me remembering this is what was there in me then as a ten-year old that responded so powerfully to this split? I do not think  I was unhappy  – not more unhappy than anyone else suffering the humiliations and sorrows of childhood at that time. Did the song touch  parts of my experience that were not yet in my consciousness ?

My parents had recently divorced, we had moved many times, Eastham Village  was my fifth primary school in as many years. Was I ‘weary and ful o care?’ My mum was ill, and struggling as a single parent with four children, was beginning the drinking that would  lead to her alcoholism. How much did I realise of all that?  Not very much. It wouold be another two years – aeons in child-time – before it began to get to me enough to make me run away from home. But was the song  speaking to that growing  unhappiness ?

When we are very unhappy, things of joy seem to hurt us. I seem to remember (aware I could be making most of this up!) that I knew the sound of those birds, and that birdsong contains a sadness, or provokes it, late Spring birdsong  does sometime pierce that heart –

How can ye chant ye little birds
And I sae weary fu’ o’ care?

How? how? asks the poet , as if unable to hold together the co-existence of joy with his sorrow. How can there even be other-than-this?

How ye can bloom so fresh and fair?
How can ye chant ye little birds…?

I’m thinking of Wordsworth lines ‘a timely utterance gave that thought relief/and I again am strong’ – Tintern Abbey isn’t it?  I think finding ways of express otherwise unexpressed feelings is a key to some sort of equilibrium. Not that I became a balanced teenager. But I did survive my childhood and adolescence with something intact or strong enough to keep growing.

‘The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts’ George Eliot writes, at the end of Middlemarch.  Small things such  as giving children a way of enjoying songs and poems and stories that hold or express feelings  might  make a difference to  our growing child mental health problems. Certainly, things might have been much worse with me if I had not had this and other poems in my soul repertoire.

 

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.

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:

Quickness

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.

True or False? (with a good picture of my heroine, Marilynne Robinson, devotee of the truer life)

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Marilynne Robinson touching a beech tree in Sefton Park the day I cooked Scouse for her.

Another poem I’ve not read before, today by Henry Vaughan, a wonderfully visionary poet who is not afraid to  tell his own experience in the boldest of strokes (‘I saw eternity the other night/Like a great ring of pure and endless night’).

How I choose: I’m looking for something that matches something in me. I don’t necessarily know what that thing is…sometimes it is a feeling that has not yet come into words. Sometimes I don’t want to put it into words, sometimes simply cannot. I read through the book and start poems, and it is lovely to recognise and sometimes reread old favourites (in the case of Vaughan, ‘The Retreat’, ‘Peace’, ‘They are all gone into the world of light’ ‘The World’, ‘The Waterfall’.) But I am looking, if possible, for poems I don’t yet know, and for something that touches, matches a thought or  feeling I have. Today I found it in this poem.

Quickness

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.

I read it through quickly and feel a connection – true or false, yes, recognise that – then reread, again quickly,  trying to get the whole thing, the overview. Two kinds of being – the true and the false, both experienced by a human, both going by the same name, ‘life’. Yes, I know this.

‘False life’ Vaughan begins, as if he had just woken up and stopped mid-track to realise, ‘this is  wrong!’. I have to look up ‘foil’ because although I think I know what it means, suddenly in this context, I am not sure that I do.

False life, a foil and no more, when
Wilt thou be gone?

Foil = defeat, prevent, comes from Old French ‘fouler’ trample down , Middle English, ‘foil’ trample. So the false life is the thing that prevents or stops the true life, and is active in defeating it. I’d read ‘foil’ as a kind deflecting shield, but it’s more than that,  it is an active agent against the true. And feels like something reared up in your path, something that you can’t get round. ‘When/wilt thou be gone?’ And it is both inside and out:

Thou foul deception of all men
That would not have the true come on.

The ‘foul deception’ seems both to deceive ‘all men/that would not have the true come on’ and to be the thing ‘all men’ do. This is really interesting! All such men create this foul deception to prevent truth coming on, but it also deceives them.

Do we allow ourselves to be deceived when we don’t want to know something – of course! (speaking for myself alone here, obviously) Do we create that deception in ourselves? You bet we do. I love this little knot of deception, self-deception, Vaughan has created, cleverly, to match our real experience.

Ok, here is what ‘false life’ feels like:

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

Moon because moonlight is a mirror of the real light of the sun, so the moon is pale reflection of something else. But ‘toil’? Oh, I’m really enjoying this – it is  so  knotty, such surprising syntactical formulation. ‘Toil’?  I’m thinking of the physical heft of getting yourself up to roll around the sky reflecting the sun, but also , the hard business of the bits of life I don’t want to do (toiling at the admin, the greasy washing up left from night before, the intractable HR issues, the distresses, the inflating of car tyres on the very sleety day, the necessity of telling small children off, working on a weekend when you want to be in the garden, having to have to do with people you don’t like: ‘toil’). Is being false, living falsely, not being one’s most true self, also such toil and am I even aware of it?

I’m not sure what he means by ‘a blind/self posing state’ – maybe ‘posing’ is short for ‘imposing’? Maybe it means striking a pose? (But also blindly,  as if stupidly self unknown). And then it is even less – just mess and noise:

A dark contest of waves and wind,
A mere tempestuous debate.

So that’s what it is like when it is false – not right, unquick. When I am just going through some kind of false motion. Like a very noisy lot of unreal shouting, ‘a mere tempestuous debate’. I love the  putting together of ‘tempestuous’ (which grows out of the line before, ‘waves and wind’), with ‘debate’  – just talk, showy-off talk, bluster. Parts of life feel like this. But look at Marilynne Robinson in the picture above – feel the quiet?

Real life, as opposed to this  false banging-about stuff is both calm and permanent:

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

The tone is suddenly steadied, as if we have been translated into a different key, the key of G, full and happy and  complete. But soon I am mollified again:

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

Agh! Time’s up  – have to leave this here until tomorrow.

Look Up!

Big Dipper.jpgToday a poem that is new to me, by William Habington, a poet I’ve never read.

I chose it from the OBEV (Gardner) because I am trying to find poems in the anthology which are new to me and which offer me something I’ve ignored or passed over quickly in the past. I’m not finding many of them, perhaps not surprisingly, as I have been using the book for, gosh,  nearly forty years. Most of the poems that have something  for me have called out to me by now.

This one – possibly the Latin title has put me off,  possibly the fact that I’ve never heard of Sir William. Not proud of that, but think it is a factor.

But today those pushaways were outweighed by the fact that last night was a surprisingly clear night, and when I came home it was extremely dark and I could see many stars. I was moved by the sight of them, and exhilarated. I don’t know if it was because I haven’t noticed the stars for a while but I suddenly found myself thinking, (excuse my inner voice) ‘dear stars! I’ve always loved you, the heavens, the universe…’ That thought – a kind of prayer of thanks? – took a fraction of a second then I put the key in the door and got on with getting home.

Yet it was a strong experience despite its short time-frame and, now I see, still in me when I opened the book this morning. I got past the title, and read  the opening line,  was  attracted, and read on.

(Getting past the title: I had to look it up.  ‘Nox nocti indicat Scientiam’ (‘Night after night they display knowledge’) The title is taken from Psalm 19 – the Vulgate, Catholic version which the King James version translates as ‘The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork.’ If you know Haydn’s Creation, it’s that.)

When I survey the bright
Celestial sphere;
So rich with jewels hung, that Night
Doth like an Ethiop bride appear:

My soul her wings doth spread
And heavenward flies,
Th’ Almighty’s mysteries to read
In the large volumes of the skies.

For the bright firmament
Shoots forth no flame
So silent, but is eloquent
In speaking the Creator’s name.

No unregarded star
Contracts its light
Into so small a character,
Removed far from our human sight,

But if we steadfast look
We shall discern
In it, as in some holy book,
How man may heavenly knowledge learn.

It tells the conqueror
That far-stretch’d power,
Which his proud dangers traffic for,
Is but the triumph of an hour:

That from the farthest North,
Some nation may,
Yet undiscover’d, issue forth,
And o’er his new-got conquest sway:

Some nation yet shut in
With hills of ice
May be let out to scourge his sin,
Till they shall equal him in vice.

And then they likewise shall
Their ruin have;
For as yourselves your empires fall,
And every kingdom hath a grave.

Thus those celestial fires,
Though seeming mute,
The fallacy of our desires
And all the pride of life confute:–

For they have watch’d since first
The World had birth:
And found sin in itself accurst,
And nothing permanent on Earth

Looking at it again as I write, I see it wasn’t the first line but the second stanza that drew me in;

My soul her wings doth spread
And heavenward flies,
Th’ Almighty’s mysteries to read
In the large volumes of the skies.

That’s exactly what happened to me on the path last night when I looked up. Somewhere in the back of my mind is something George Saunders said when I saw him reading and talking at Liverpool University the night before last. He spoke about being brought up as a working class Catholic on the south side of Chicago, and how Catholicism – though he had turned away from it in later life – had created a space inside him – a place for mystery. Childhood religion didn’t do that for me much – the Catholicism I experienced was more to do with unkind discipline than mystery and wonder. But later in my life, in my twenties and thirties and onwards from there, religious poetry  did create such a space in me.

When I read ‘the Almighty ‘ and ‘Creator’ the words go into that space for mystery.

I accept that for Habington they mean something about purposiveness and control or consciousness (God as the deliberate maker). It doesn’t matter  that I don’t feel this, don’t believe it. I don’t seem at odds with the words or the concept. Actually, I nearly feel it to be true. Just not quite. So when I read ‘the Almighty’ I translate it as ‘mystery’ and when I read ‘Creator’ I translate it into ‘force or energy or power’. the differences feel superficial. I know what he is talking about, I saw it with my own eyes when I looked up last night.

No unregarded star
Contracts its light
Into so small a character,
Removed far from our human sight,

But if we steadfast look
We shall discern
In it, as in some holy book,
How man may heavenly knowledge learn.

I do not really have language for what I learn at such a moment, but I do have the actual experience. At the point of staring at the stars  I am ‘heavenly knowledge’ learning.

Language helps, does it? I think of myself doing some other thing which is instinctive and experiential – cooking let’s say. I can do it without language. But with language I can share the experience with another person. That makes me think that the fact that I don’t have religious language myself doesn’t matter, so long as I can, for the purpose of communication, learn Habington’s, or Milton’s, or Dante’s or T.S.Eliot’s. Or George Saunders.

What was mildly surprising in the poem was its deliberate turning away from worldliness, from power and politics. Habington lived through the English civil war, was a Catholic at a time of Catholic persecution, family members were executed.  Politics and power were real and terrible forces. Yet he looks up at the stars and sees it all as not much, as the stuff of a ‘moment’;

It tells the conqueror
That far-stretch’d power,
Which his proud dangers traffic for,
Is but the triumph of an hour:

Habington’s stars tell him, in a way that feels helpful to him; ‘And nothing permanent on Earth’

At a time of turmoil and uncertainty, the glance up, the feelings of the size and mystery of it all, our smallness here below. I recognise my experience in his poem, and thank him for  it.

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
Away,
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.