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.
A Song for Issy Bradley by Carys Bray
Another recommendation via Angie Macmillan. Recommended so heavily, in fact, that she posted it through my door the night before I was leaving for my sabbatical. I’m sorry to report my prejudices put me off before I had even opened the book. I thought the cover made it look, as a dragged-up David Walliams might say, like a ladies book; a lightweight, slightly romantic family saga… And yet Angie had said, worth reading, you might like it. Even so, it went to the bottom of the pile and I read other things. Until I ran out of them.
And of course, Angie was right; the cover was an irrelevant (to me) marketing tool and my prejudices were, as usual, quite unhelpful.
This was a terrific novel, powerfully real and deeply moving. Hurray and very, very well done, Carys Bray. Not many contemporary writers take on religious faith as a subject. But this story of a devout Mormon family living through an immense trauma offers a lot of human depth.
You’ll think of Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, if you’ve read it, because there’s a powerful portrait of a closely-knit religious community that looks very odd to most people who are not part of it. There’s initially a kind of spectator laughter about the weirdness of it all, which made me think the book was going to be cynical, but emphatically, it is not that. Winterson’s book is about a fight for survival but she’s an only child, and there’s only one real centre of consciousness, which – as the world it describes wants to destroy it – must, for survival’s sake, stand outside.
That makes a difference. A Song for Issy Bradley is a family story, and it is partly about the interconnections of love within a struggling family. As Tolstoy tells us, all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way. These people may be members of a sect we don’t know much about, which at first makes them look pretty different, but they are eventually just people like us, and the ways in which the tragedy they live through plays out across and through their individual and collective consciousness is what makes the novel compelling. It’s not about Mormons, so much as a book about emotional aftermath and ongoing life.
Phil and I took turns to read this aloud. There were times where one or both of us were moved to tears, and the reading became utterly compelling. There were some parts that felt painfully close to the bone – scenes in the hospital and the undertakers, an incident that might be a rape. This was not a light read. But, as in life, there are moments of glorious hilarity which will get you through, to say nothing of playground football, Mr Rimmer’s Pioneer Wagon and the exceptionally wonderful teenage party scene which worryingly begins ‘no one had touched Zippy since Issy died.’ There are also moments of deep, sensible realism, such as this, where Jacob, aged 7, realises that humans have to learn to bear pain,
He wanted to tell Dad a story in the car but he wasn’t brave enough. The story is true, at least that’s what Sister Anderson said. It’s about one of the apostles who kept rabbits when he was a little boy. One day, when the apostle was seven, his favourite rabbit escaped. He looked for the rabbit but he couldn’t find it. Then he said a prayer and immediately a picture came into his mind and he went to the exact spot he had imagined and found the rabbit. This showed that Heavenly Father responds to the small, simple prayers of everyone.
Jacob thinks about the rabbit story and what Dad said about answers to prayers in the car. There should be stories where the answer is no. There should be stories where children pray for lost rabbits that never turn up and then people might get used to it an know what to do next: he doesn’t know.
A Song for Issy Bradley is one such story – there is a great big ‘no’ at its centre, where ‘death closes all.’
And yet, that great gaping hole can be combatted by the powerful ‘yes’ of ordinary, real life, those ‘little, nameless acts of kindness and of love’ as Wordsworth called them: trying to love each other and living on through it, so that finally we are not merely surviving, but also, sometimes, singing. Thank you, Carys.
Four months is an unconscionably long time to let a blog languish.
I would like to offer a few excuses: been moving office, had a very long holiday, incredibly busy post-move and post-holiday. But the real problem is: I don’t have time in my week to write.
I hardly have time to read. Or at least that is what I tell myself. I’m interested in this because what’s true for me is likely to be true for others. So for one week only – a reading/time-use audit starts today. Each day I’ll publish what I’ve done/read with my time and we shall see if I do have time to read/write or if I am simply frittering hours on newspapers, bad TV and hanging-around-chat or Zumba.
In my own defense I wish to state that in the last six months I have been making time for books during the week by getting up earlier and using the 6.30 -7.00 am slot to read each day. I read interesting, hard things in that half hour – things requiring my best concentration. Harder novels, or nonfiction, sometimes Wordsworth (The Prelude, which feels as if I have got to keep reading it on some sort of continuous loop through the second half of life). Half an hour, I have to say, is not enough to even open up my best concentration, which seems a rhythm I need to build over a day or days. Time and depth (and habit) are connected.
I read in the hour or less before going to sleep (mostly novels – recently Jeanette Winterson’s Tanglewreck, and Russell Hoban’s new book Soonchild – out next year with Walker Books)
or things which bring the energy of compulsive reading with them – things which I really can’t bear not to be reading (lately that has been Jeanette Winterson’s memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky, Images of Organisation by Gareth Morgan, and Emotion and Spirit by Neville Symington)
And I am aware that an average of an hour a day, for someone heading up an organisation dedicated to a reading revolution is just not enough. But what to do about it ?
Since I last wrote on this blog I’ve been reading…
The Heir of Redclyffe – Charlotte M Yonge – wonderful strange Victorian novel about a man who tries to be good, to really live by Christian principles. It was a massive bestseller in its day, but for modern readers will be problematic in lots of ways – mainly, it’s not ironic or cynical! So you have to do one of those time-translations as you read, and keep thinking, ok, how would this translate into modern experience/ways of thinking… but really worth the effort of trying to do that
As in many novels about ‘good’ the centre of goodness is hard to portray ( I’m thinking of Daniel Deronda, or Lawrence’s Birkin in Women in Love , or God in Paradise Lost). But what is brilliant, and awful, is what very real portrayal of what stubborn, understandable, stupid, ordinary egocentric badness looks like (the kind you and I practice every day). Could anyone write a novel that could go into this astonishing, real place today? Probably not. Only The Wire gets there – and not even that consistently. Why?
Here’s a bit from near the end of the book when Philip returns to visit Amy, (a young widow, new mother) the cousin he has badly wronged:
All was as usual. Charles’s sofa, little table, books, and inkstand, thework-boxes on the table, the newspaper in Mr. Edmonstone’s old folds.Only the piano was closed, and an accumulation of books on the hingetold how long it had been so; and the plants in the bay window werebrown and dry, not as when they were Amabel’s cherished nurslings. Heremembered Amabel’s laughing face and abundant curls, when she carriedin the camellia, and thought how little he guessed then that he shouldbe the destroyer of the happiness of her young life. How should he meether—a widow in her father’s house—or look at her fatherless child?He wondered how he had borne to come thither at all, and shrank at thethought that this very evening, in a few hours, he must see her.
The outer door opened, there was a soft step, and Amabel stood beforehim, pale, quiet, and with a smile of welcome. Her bands of hair lookedglossy under her widow’s cap, and the deep black of her dress wasrelieved by the white robes of the babe that lay on her arm. She heldout her hand, and he pressed it in silence.
‘I thought you would like just to see baby,’ said she, in a voicesomething like apology.
He held out his arms to take it, for which Amy was by no means prepared.She was not quite happy even in trusting it in her sister’s arms, andshe supposed he had never before touched an infant. But that was allnonsense, and she would not vex him with showing any reluctance; so shelaid the little one on his arm, and saw his great hand holding it mostcarefully, but the next moment he turned abruptly from her. Poor sillylittle Amy, her heart beat not a little till he turned back, restoredthe babe, and while he walked hastily to the window, she saw that twolarge tear-drops had fallen on the white folds of its mantle. She didnot speak; she guessed how much he must feel in thus holding Guy’schild, and, besides, her own tears would now flow so easily that shemust be on her guard. She sat down, settled the little one on her knee,and gave him time to recover himself.
Presently he came and stood by her saying, in a most decided tone,’Amabel, you must let me do this child justice.’
You have to accept it for what it is – mid Victorian, High Anglican and necessarily full of values we don’t care for these days – but also full of brilliant observations – as above in Amy’s instinct to let Charles hold the baby, and her fear while he does – and powerful vision of how good can operate in a naughty world.
I read it in the Oxford World’s Classics paperback – highly recommended – and you can download the full text from Project Gutenberg