Salt & Grit: ‘Beyond the End’ with Denise Levertov

Acer in the Japanese Garden at Calderstones.JPG
Acer in the Japanese Garden at Calderstones

Today I’m continuing the reading I started two days ago, of Denise Levertov’s ‘Beyond The End’

Beyond The End

In ‘nature’ there’s no choice —
flowers
swing their heads in the wind, sun & moon
are as they are. But we seem
almost to have it (not just
available death)

It’s energy: a spider’s thread: not to
‘go on living’ but to quicken, to activate: extend:
Some have it, they force it —
with work or laughter or even
the act of buying, if that’s
all they can lay hands on–

the girls crowding the stores, where light,
color, solid dreams are – what gay
desire! It’s their festival,
ring game, wassail, mystery.

It has no grace like that of
the grass, the humble rhythms, the
falling & rising of leaf and star;
it’s barely
a constant. Like salt:
take it or leave it

The ‘hewers of wood’ & so on; every damn
craftsman has it while he’s working
but it’s not
a question of work: some
shine with it, in repose. Maybe it is
response, the will to respond–(‘reason
can give nothing at all/like
response to desire’) maybe
a gritting of teeth, to go
just that much further, beyond the end
beyond whatever ends: to begin, to be, to defy.

I’d got to the start of stanza four. Worth reading the whole poem, aloud,  again, to get ourselves back into it.

We need to look at the word ‘it’ now.  does this mysterious pronoun stand for ‘choice’? As in: ‘In nature there’s no choice…but we seem almost to have it’.

Or does the ‘it’ stand for something as yet unnamed? Just read the poem again and  notice all the times this word appears. is ‘it’ energy? Levertov  says so:  ‘It’s energy’.  The girls buying stuff in shops enjoy ‘it’ : ‘it’s their festival.’

By now I understand ‘it’ is not choice.  The pronoun stands for the thing you may choose to find, whatever it is, so it, as I am reading now = energy, festival, a kind of light, an experience as in laughter. Now Denise closes in a little, examining it more closely:

It has no grace like that of
the grass, the humble rhythms, the
falling & rising of leaf and star;
it’s barely
a constant. Like salt:
take it or leave it

We turn back to nature – where, as we know from the opening ‘there’s no choice’ but there is a kind of rhythmic grace, the ‘humble rhythms’ of seasons and planetary movements. Humans aren’t like that. So

it’s barely
a constant. Like salt:

The brilliant analogy of salt – hardly  there, but when there making all the difference. Yet I now notice the word ‘barely’, ‘it’s barely’  gets a whole line to itself, makes barely a big thing, and yet look, look, it is set alongside ‘a constant’. It is barely but it is ‘a constant. Like salt’. Is this the moment of choice: ‘Take it or leave it?’

We decide?  We go towards it or away from it?

This is  the essential  choice of human beings: yes or no. Towards or away. Do you want it or do you want to gt away from it? It is  perhaps the  ultimate primal movement, and may have begun for us way back before  we were monkeys, before we were fish, way back at the beginning when we were little one-celled specks going towards or away from other specks which would turn out to be food for us or eaters of us.

The moment of choice – towards or away, yes or no –  is a moment like a speck of salt. So insignificant you might not notice it all. But it is something powerful. Taste it.

The next stanza is the longest and develops a strong rhythm, as if of movement towards a certainty. She’s understanding more about ‘it’ as the poem  emerges.

The ‘hewers of wood’ & so on; every damn
craftsman has it while he’s working
but it’s not
a question of work: some
shine with it, in repose. Maybe it is
response, the will to respond–(‘reason
can give nothing at all/like
response to desire’) maybe
a gritting of teeth, to go
just that much further, beyond the end
beyond whatever ends: to begin, to be, to defy.

Levertov returns her attention to work (we’d seen earlier her thought ‘Some have it, they force it — with work or laughter ‘, which  had been passed by as she gave her attention to the girls  in the shops) and begins with the quotation, as if in very speedy thought, skimming along  ‘the ‘hewers of wood’ & so on’ . It’s biblical but I don’t remember it, so I look it up. They are slaves or prisoners, those hewers of wood, labourers who might have been killed. Hard-working labourers they are, which leads her thought as it were by a fast, vertical jumping, to another kind of worker, labourers may or may not have it while labouring but

every damn
craftsman has it while he’s working
but it’s not
a question of work

Yes, you can see it there in skilled complex making ( she must be thinking of poetry as a craft  as well as wheelwrighting, sewing) but the  ‘every damn’ dismisses them too – of course it’s there! –  but is  work itself that does it? Nope.

it’s not
a question of work: some
shine with it, in repose. Maybe it is
response, the will to respond–(‘reason
can give nothing at all/like
response to desire’)

A  lovely thing happens here, the felicity of language. Repose – the opposite of work – may also contain it, and as the word is written  or as we meet it, reading, a kind of rest comes, the word brings it along.  During that moment of rest, the word ‘repose’ morphs by sound pattern into ‘response, and then into respond.  Then, at this key moment, we get another quotation.

(‘reason
can give nothing at all/like
response to desire’)

I didn’t recognise this – it’s the poet Wallace Stevens – so I looked it up.  The quote is famous, and appears out of context in hundreds of places, but the link I’ve provided takes you to a page where there is a tiny bit of context.  I don’t know if it helps.

But I regroup by re-reading. The key for me now is what feels that lucky strike of  ‘repose/response’, and in illustration of her own point, it does seem to me that this is what’s happened here. Denise had a choice at the word ‘repose’, to go in various directions. Her mind, or the poetic genius in her, or sound patterns, or whatever you want to call ‘it’, offered a link to ‘response’: she took it.  It’s a moment of salt on the tongue. She took  it, I see, with the word ‘ ‘maybe’  – lovely provisional word that allows a form of play, experiment. She continues:

maybe
a gritting of teeth, to go
just that much further, beyond the end
beyond whatever ends: to begin, to be, to defy.

How different is  ‘a gritting of teeth’ to the moment that  began the unfolding of this thought, ‘repose’. But they are ‘maybe’ both ways in which our salt might work on us.

Finally, at the end,  even the ‘it’ pronoun has disappeared, like the grain of salt, tasted and dissolved. So that the poem finishes with a sort of  ambition statement,  like a vision:

to go
just that much further, beyond the end
beyond whatever ends: to begin, to be, to defy.

There are a lot of echoes in my head as I let these last lines roll around in that little chamber, but I can’t quite identify them – Hamlet, the choice of ‘to be’ rather than ‘not to be’, Tennyson’s Ulysses looking at all experience and everything ‘ever more about to be’ – but the rhythm is reminding me of something else I can’t quite remember… or is it the end of ‘Ulysses’?

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

But that’s an aside, don’t let me be distracted. We have choice,  the poem makes me feel, and that choice is about extending beyond whatever ends. I do not know if  this includes death – for me, it would seem not to… for Levertov? I don’t yet know her well enough to know.

I do think – though it may just be my own mind –  that there is an echo of Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’  in the poem, and tomorrow I may start to read it.

But I want to honour Levertov’s poem by finishing with those last three  strikes of hers:

to begin, to be, to defy.

This is human work and our task. To begin, to make a start.  To be – which seems to me to be about continuing that start. But more than continuing, carrying on, it is, as the last word has it, to ‘defy’. To defy the end. To fight it.  We’ve got to be talking about death and kinds of small death here – the failure of a poem or any piece of creative work,  the moment when  fear or lethargy or laziness overcomes any desire, ‘whatever ends’. The human task is find a way of being in that dimension where things don’t end. Moving towards it. Not away from. That takes guts as well as desire, instinct, because the move towards runs out. Then you need  ‘the gritting of teeth.’

Wonderful. I’m gritting, thank you Denise.

”Beyond the End” By Denise Levertov, from COLLECTED EARLIER POEMS 1940-1960, copyright ©1957 by Denise Levertov. Use by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

Snakes ‘n’ Shopping in Denise Levertov

cherries.JPG
Cherries ripening to provide wassail-fest for the starlings as soon as I leave the garden

Today I’m continuing the reading I started yesterday, of Denise Levertov’s ‘Beyond The End’

Beyond The End

In ‘nature’ there’s no choice —
flowers
swing their heads in the wind, sun & moon
are as they are. But we seem
almost to have it (not just
available death)

It’s energy: a spider’s thread: not to
‘go on living’ but to quicken, to activate: extend:
Some have it, they force it —
with work or laughter or even
the act of buying, if that’s
all they can lay hands on–

the girls crowding the stores, where light,
color, solid dreams are – what gay
desire! It’s their festival,
ring game, wassail, mystery.

It has no grace like that of
the grass, the humble rhythms, the
falling & rising of leaf and star;
it’s barely
a constant. Like salt:
take it or leave it

The ‘hewers of wood’ & so on; every damn
craftsman has it while he’s working
but it’s not
a question of work: some
shine with it, in repose. Maybe it is
response, the will to respond–(‘reason
can give nothing at all/like
response to desire’) maybe
a gritting of teeth, to go
just that much further, beyond the end
beyond whatever ends: to begin, to be, to defy.

Yesterday I’d got up to the word ‘quicken’ and had to stop writing at the point where I was  wondering about human energy, what it is, where does it come from?

Do you ever feel you haven’t got it? The energy to shine brightly, to respond, to put something forth? Of course when you overcome the inertia that naturally slows us , sometimes the energy flows even more strongly. Why/how does it come and go? What is it? Is it physical? Or perhaps how is it physical when it is also about  spirit or something? Thinking now of  my recent reading in Silas Marner – if we read it as an energy map, marking on coloured markers how much energy Silas is putting forth…you’d see the glorious golden light in him as he plays with his coins at night. And you’d mark in the dimness, almost extinguished energy once he has been robbed. And Dolly Winthrop – up at 4.30am to use her energy up every day!

To a reader not used to the  rhythms of a Shared Reading group, this paragraph above will seem like an aside and a chatty drifting away from the text. And necessarily, because we do this, one of our Reader Leader phrases has to be ‘ back to the text!’ But these asides or diversions are not really off the point. They are just very, very slo-mo reading. They are giving people in the group an opportunity to think. that opportunity will often times be taken up by someone using up airspace, or by chat or a bit of biography… but the space and leeway such inconsequential chat creates will also sometimes become a place where we can begin to  become aware of powerful thoughts.

When we read a word like ‘energy’ there are a lot of possible thoughts which might cross your mind. Reading is not a one-dimensional stick-line  – it’s a bundle of  live snakes. We want to know what they all are. In an experienced reading brain, many of those thoughts (the live snakes)  will be firing with word-related random association. Energy =  gas bills, neurones, electricity, red giants, meditation, amphetamines, sport and Whitman’s spider….though we won’t always be conscious of these thoughts, they will be passing through us. Seems to feel good to slow things down and get as many of them out  and named as we can. This is what we call consciousness. The more there is of it, the better. But back to the text.

So, like Whitman’s spider,  Denise Levertov’s energy is about extending out of your self. And the language here asks whether, like poetry, life too isn’t a bundle of live snakes, rather than a fixed line from a-b. Energy, she says

not to
‘go on living’ but to quicken,

And that’s the point, isn’t it?

If energy were energy only  to ‘go on living’ we’d be in world of straight lines, of keeping going. Silas  keeps going, he goes on living, but he is sort-of dead after Lantern Yard – like a spider! – he mechanically weaves only his linen. The unpredictable disfunctionality of his linen then producing gold coins (with faces) which he begins to love (what capacity for love then!) which makes his mechanical producing of the cloth only a means to an end – he is no longer pure machine-insect-man. He is quickened by love!

But once  he has been robbed of his gold he falls back into energy-less despair. Like Thomas Hardy , in The Going, he might say

I seem but a dead man held on end
To sink down soon. . .

There are types of death in life.  Energy of a mechanical  sort is required. But  for live energy, for extension, for going beyond, we need something else. Levertov uses that marvellous livening verb, ‘quicken’ to make us think ‘new life’.

I’m looking back at the title, ‘Beyond The End’ which I had initially thought was about death (still do think that )but now I also think it is about ends – any ends. As in wherever things are currently ended. How things are. What you’ve ended up with or at. And it is more about ‘beyond’ than ‘end’.

You get that lovely little run of words: ‘to quicken, to activate: extend:’ which is about the way humans can go beyond themselves, touched, brought to life. Things get bigger. We become more. I’m really enjoying this. Now Denise looks for it – and what is interesting here is that she casts about, in the chatty, discursive way we might do in Shared Reading, as if she is asking herself – what is this thing I am talking about? How can I make it real? Who has got it, this extending, this going beyond?

Some have it, they force it —
with work or laughter or even
the act of buying, if that’s
all they can lay hands on–

the girls crowding the stores, where light,
color, solid dreams are – what gay
desire! It’s their festival,
ring game, wassail, mystery.

Work, yes, and we’ll come back to that. Laughter yes, how you can get beyond yourself and into a different place through laughter and finally ‘ the act of buying, if that’s/all they can lay their hands on -‘. It’s as if she is pulled up sharp by this thought and allows it to blossom for a generous moment (given that this thought started with ‘even’, as if we had reached the pits), loving seeing the girls loving the stuff in shops. Levertov’s generous looking for good (unlike my own grumpy anti-materialism) turns the girls’ feeling into something beyond the material, into something ancient and humanly long-standing : ‘It’s their festival,/ ring game, wassail, mystery.’

You can stay with each of those words and let them bloom across the table – old words for old ways of getting out of yourself.  But time is up…

Reading at this slow rate, each poem from ‘The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov’ is going to take me a week. Hurray.

 

”Beyond the End” By Denise Levertov, from COLLECTED EARLIER POEMS 1940-1960, copyright ©1957 by Denise Levertov. Use by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

Denise Levertov: ‘Beyond The End’ plus spiders and live snakes

ness1
Dreaming Spires: Echiums and Foxgloves at Ness Gardens

Today I’m starting a new series of readings from The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov (ed.  Paul Lacey and Anne Dewey,  pub. New Directions 2013). Many thanks to New Directions for permission to reprint the poems here, see below for formal acknowledgement.

I will  be aiming to read about ten poems over the coming year. Unless they are very short, I’m not likely to finish a whole poem in one morning’s reading, so they may extend over a  few days. They will all be searchable under ‘Denise Levertov’.

In each case, I’ll be reading as if preparing for a Shared Reading group – first law, know how to read the poem as yourself. A poem like today’s might well benefit from being the only thing on the menu – it’s a rich poem.

The first poem is from  the 1957 collection, Here and Now.

Beyond The End

In ‘nature’ there’s no choice —
flowers
swing their heads in the wind, sun & moon
are as they are. But we seem
almost to have it (not just
available death)

It’s energy: a spider’s thread: not to
‘go on living’ but to quicken, to activate: extend:
Some have it, they force it —
with work or laughter or even
the act of buying, if that’s
all they can lay hands on–

the girls crowding the stores, where light,
color, solid dreams are – what gay
desire! It’s their festival,
ring game, wassail, mystery.

It has no grace like that of
the grass, the humble rhythms, the
falling & rising of leaf and star;
it’s barely
a constant. Like salt:
take it or leave it

The ‘hewers of wood’ & so on; every damn
craftsman has it while he’s working
but it’s not
a question of work: some
shine with it, in repose. Maybe it is
response, the will to respond–(‘reason
can give nothing at all/like
response to desire’) maybe
a gritting of teeth, to go
just that much further, beyond the end
beyond whatever ends: to begin, to be, to defy.

I begin by reading the whole poem through, aloud.

But before that, how did I choose it? Well, I have this lovely anthology of The Collected Poems from New Directions, and one Saturday afternoon I  set myself down the hammock in the back garden and started reading. I read them quite quickly, looking to be in some way touched, arrested by something (I don’t define that to myself at all). If that happens, without going in it,  then I make a little note ‘come back to this…’

In such a first-glance-reading I’m looking for a feeling that matches something I’ve got in me. Or maybe in some way, the poem surprises me. Either way,  fair to say, I chose this poem because of my felt response to it and that’s how I’ll be choosing all these poems in the Levertov series.

Now I read again, trying to see my own reactions as well as simply having them. Looking back, I feel my response really began at the word ‘energy’. Later it was deepened by ‘activate’ and ‘response’. Such thoughts things matter very much to me and I am interested in thinking about them. Wordsworth describes the human mind as ‘creator and receiver both’ and it feels like that to me, and I like trying to think about my mind. This seems about how life works.

But, going back to the poem and rereading, and noting my responses: I feel adrift and am also thinking right away, and that adrift is not quite knowing where I am in the first stanza because of the bit in brackets (not just available death). I  decide to go back to the start – again – and start again.  So, just to note, that in this poem which is new to me, I’ve read it three, four times before I even start trying to understand what it is, what my responses are.  You go back to retest the ground, to re-feel your feelings, to stumble into a sense of the sense.

I am back at the beginning and wondering about the inverted commas around ‘nature’, as if that word too, is uncertain, is not definite.

I’m asking myself first, what is ‘nature’ and how does that connect to ‘human nature’ – because this poem is about being human (I know that because of reading to the end several times).

The poem begins (‘In ‘nature’ there’s no choice’) at the point where Denise  realises there is a difference between our human nature and the wider nature. The brackets mean nature-as-we-think-of-it-as-not-us…green stuff, mountains, sky, bears.  This gets me thinking  – isn’t everything about human nature natural? Still, I continue with her and her distinction: other forms of nature seem to be ‘as they are’, from one end of the universe to the other:

flowers
swing their heads in the wind, sun & moon
are as they are.

Flowers, touched by wind move but not of their own will, sun and moon seem static in the skies, with no decision in their placing. They are ‘as they are’. But not us, we ‘seem to have’ choice. Now to the difficult bracketed bit  ‘not just available death’ – does that mean: choice to be here or not, availability of suicide? That is the big choice, as Hamlet realised. Available death, too, in our ability to choose to kill each other? Flowers don’t have such choices.

Big as this is the choice is not only about death, as the next stanza tells us…

It’s energy: a spider’s thread: not to
‘go on living’ but to quicken, to activate: extend:
Some have it, they force it —
with work or laughter or even
the act of buying, if that’s
all they can lay hands on–

Why a spider’s thread? I remember Walt Whitman’s poem ‘A Noiseless Patient Spider’ and wonder if Denise Levertov has remembered it, too? I know from my complete skimming read-through of the entire book that she often  remembers and quotes or partially echoes other poets in her work. I look up the Whitman.

A noiseless patient spider,
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.
And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

The filament launched forth by Whitman’s spider is very like the ‘energy’ Levertov  is thinking of here. I’m wondering about human energy, what it is, where does it come from?

In a Shared Reading group, I’d be stopping here to initiate a conversation about energy.

But oh dear. Time’s up – that went fast. More  on energy tomorrow.

”Beyond the End” By Denise Levertov, from COLLECTED EARLIER POEMS 1940-1960, copyright ©1957 by Denise Levertov. Use by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

 

 

Is it love? Yes it is.

red clem.JPG
Red Clematis in a pot in the back garden

I wanted to write today about A.S. J. Tessimond’s quietly self-effacing poem, ‘Not Love, Perhaps’.

I couldn’t write yesterday, despite the day beginning very early  in a hotel room in a Norwich Premier Inn: I needed to do some other work things and sacrificed my reading and writing hour to expediency.

In the afternoon, not wanting to skip a day (got to keep practising) I started writing  this post on a cross-country Norwich-Liverpool train which made 24 stops (including  places I don’t usually get to travel through  like Ely, Grantham, Alfreton, Sheffield, Irlam and Widnes). The 5+ hour, journey, with  no wifi and no electric plug felt like the olden days of the 1980s and in the end, I stopped writing to enjoy the sight of England, and to have a long read of my book and a little sleep, and my salad box lunch and some Norwich raspberries and to think about Norwich and the  people I had met  all too briefly at the International Literature Showcase. This is what train journeys used to be like!

I was at the Showcase to give a talk about the work of The Reader and to listen to other people describe their work spreading the word. Terrific to start the day with a performance of her poetry by Sophia Walker, a woman of verbal felicity and punch, lit by rhythms of hip hop and Shakespeare.

I went on to read from Bleak House – the visit of Esther and co to the brickmaker’s cottage with grim Mrs Pardiggle, the evangelical missionary to the poor. It was good afterwards to be in conversation with a few people who said how relevant and fresh the Dickens was, how appalling to feel much is still the same.

Pop Up Projects were on next, and founder Dylan Calder gave a compelling account of the  change Pop Up is bringing about. I very much liked the idea that authors in the Schools Book Festival are not there to sell books nor simply read them but to talk to children about how they create books. If creativity is the answer to an over-developed western economy (and I say it is) then we have got to learn how to help children believe in and practice their own powers of creativity.

Before heading to the Cathedral Hostry – amazing HLF funded building – where the Showcase was taking place, I walked round Norwich between 8.00 and 9.00, a beautiful hot, quiet morning. This was my first visit this ancient Cathedral City, with some lovely things.

norwich

Plus, less lovely, and more standard,  before 9.00 am, plenty of people sleeping in shop doorways. About as many as I’d see in Liverpool, I think. One was a young clear-faced young man, pink-cheeked, blond-curled like a cherub, leaning against a wall sleeping upright, with his feet swathed in a bin bag. He looked under twenty. What are we going to do about that? Dickens, thou should’st be living at this hour, as Wordsworth said of Milton.

But  to the poem, which I read earlier in the week with a small group of people who work in the Social Enterprise and Storybarn teams at The Reader; ‘Not Love Perhaps’ by A.S.J. Tessimond. You’ll find the poem here.

Is it love? we asked, or is it a kind of friendship? Or is friendship a kind of love? We spoke of the tricky Hollywood version of love, ‘love that lays down it’s life…’  I’m not sure love would, said one of the group members, lay down his life for me. Oh yes, one of the group’s men asserted, especially if  there was a baby. Ok, so maybe that self-sacrificing love does exist, some of us conceded, but this is not  that:

Love that lays down its life,
that many waters cannot quench,
nor the floods drown,
But something written in lighter ink,

Yesterday at ILS,  when I read Bleak House, I asked the audience to use their imaginations to make themselves become members of  Shared Reading groups – made-up personas, but made-up from real elements of many real people I have met.

The man who has had a  severe breakdown, the woman whose children have abandoned her, the person who lost their job, someone living with a severe and chronic illness, the recovering addict, the woman who has been a victim of violent abuse since childhood… imagine you are that person, I asked, sketching personas. Choose a character, be Bill, be Susan and imagine them,  think their thoughts, feel their feelings as I read.

I didn’t ask my audience to speak aloud so I don’t know if they did adopt any of those fictionalised personas.  But reading the scene in the brickmaker’s cottage, I stopped at the moment where Jenny  covers her bruised black eye so her baby might not see it:

…as soon as the space was left clear, we approached the woman sitting by the fire, to ask if the baby were ill.

She only looked at it as it lay on her lap. We had observed before, that when she looked at it she covered her discoloured eye with her hand, as though she wished to separate any association with noise and violence and ill-treatment, from the poor little child.

Imagine you are Susan, I asked my colleagues in the audience, badly abused since early childhood. Read this as Susan, whose children were taken into Care to protect them from  the same abuse. Imagine reading those words as Susan and remembering the number of times your children have seen you bruised and how you didn’t want them to see you…

That moment in a shared reading group where Susan may or not choose to share her experience aloud is one of the key contributors to the connective power of the experience. People are feeling,  sometimes talking, sharing, sometimes in silence, the same deep experiences. This is not love, perhaps…

But something written in a lighter ink, said in a lower tone:
Something perhaps especially our own.
A need at times to be together and talk
And then the finding we can walk
More firmly through dark narrow places
And meet more easily nightmare faces.

In this week’s staff reading group we talked about the fact that having a good social network helps people survive illness, trauma. And yesterday morning  at my early breakfast in a Norwich café, I read that by 2030, 3m. people will be suffering  chronic loneliness in the UK. We need real time face to face networks in which people can relearn their close human connections.

There’s nothing forced here. I spoke about the fact that people do not have to speak in Shared Reading. In one of my early groups one woman did not speak, making no  verbal contribution to the group, for over a year.  We offer an opportunity and then we wait. And if we wait without pressure, the possibility of becoming an active speaker will, more often than not, come: this poem gives words to the necessity behind that common occurance.

A need at times of each for each
Direct as the need of throat and tongue for speech.

In our staff group we stayed on the thought of ‘each for each’ for a while, noticing how it was both personal and yet bigger than personal. Is the word ‘person’ elided? Does ‘each for each’  imply  ‘a need at times of each (person ) for each (other person)’ Or is ‘each of us’ implied? We didn’t stop to notice of those little bits of gristly connective ‘of each for each’  the of and the for doing something extraordinary in a kind of giving and taking – (and is there an echo of  Marx’s famous slogan there? It seems to echo so in my mind.)

The need, poet concludes is ‘direct as the need of throat and tongue for speech’. We considered the physicality of throat and tongue – the way they must move muscularly to get language up and out. Do they need speech, rather than create it?

Is our need for each other in that sense primal, unignorable? And if so, what are we going to do about the boy on the street outside the bank in Norwich, and what about the 3 million lonely people?

Tessimond’s poem or Bleak House, shared with another reader, can help.

The Reader seeks volunteers to run Shared Reading groups. Our Read to Lead programme will help you get started.

For some Reader Leaders, Read to Lead courses and support are paid for by their place of  work, others pay out of their own money, and some, who might be very good at it,  don’t have an employer and can’t afford to pay for themselves.

We want to develop 20,000 groups over the next five years.If you can’t run a Shared Reading group yourself, you might consider making a donation which would help someone else to do so.

It costs £900 to train and support a volunteer for two years. Contact me if you can help.

On The Darkling Plain with Matthew Arnold

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The Old Bath and  Clematis ‘Warszawska Nike’

This morning, continuing my journey through The Oxford Book of English Verse, I stopped at Matthew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’, which I’ve not read for five, ten, maybe more, years. When I saw it, I thought, another angry poem. Clearly, I am  looking for them.

But most angry poems won’t do for me – they are trite, warmongering, simple. I want to experience complexity of thought, not simple anger: I’ve got enough of that. Tomorrow I’ll probably go back to Silas Marner for that reason: I love the way George Eliot unpicks complex human situations and lays all the parts out for us to see and feel and understand.

And, looking again, a second ‘but’: it is not an angry poem. It is sad, and withdrawing from the world. Read it aloud, dear readers, and read it slowly.

Dover Beach
The sea is calm tonight.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.
Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Ægean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Here we have two people in a room overlooking the Channel on what seems a lovely summer night.  One says to the other, ‘Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!’ but as they speak they note something else:

Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Have you heard that slow, turning cadence ?  There’s a rhythm of sadness to it for me when I walk on the beach at a full tide, but I don’t know how much that is connected to this poem – did I learn to think that about beach-noise froim Matthew Arnold? Or maybe that ‘note of sadness’ existed quite aside from the poem?

As I remember Matthew Arnold,  Matthew Arnold, hearing the same sound, remembers Sophocles:

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Ægean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

I don’t know what in Sophocles Matthew Arnold is referring to. I could look it up and might do so, in case someone in my reading group wanted to know.  But more likely, someone in my reading group might well have never have heard of Sophocles.  Never perhaps heard of the Aegean.  So I might want to be ready to ask if anyone in the group  could explain those words to the everyone else. And if I had looked up the reference, I’d keep it in reserve, until asked. And then I’d want to say ‘I looked it up.’ Why?

Because facts are nothing in literature, in Shared Reading. This is not chemistry, this is not engineering. Facts often get in the way, and give inexperienced readers the feeling that there is stuff to learn and that  they are ignorant. That feeling stops people engaging with their whole hearts with the poem itself.  Be kind but bold, we say at The Reader. Bold enough to bring a poem like ‘Dover Beach’ to your reading group, kind enough to improvise ways to share its content with other people. You don’t need the facts to understand the poem, because Matthew Arnold here gives us everything we need to know:

Someone, somewhere else, long ago heard this and thought he heard  the ebb and flow of human misery. Now we have the same experience, with a different thought,  in a different time and place.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

This stanza is particular to Matthew Arnold’s own time and place, and a group would have to stop here and think about what ‘the sea of faith’ might have meant to the writer. As a Reader Leader, I might also want to know something, some fact, about that – though I might not need to  talk about it.

Some facts: The poem was written in 1851. The literal truth of Christianity was under attack from liberal intellectual thinkers and from science – Lyell’s Principles of Geology had been around since the 1830s, and the argument for the world not having been created in six days was beginning to be widely accepted. Origin of Species was published in 1859. The French naturalist Lamarck  had introduced the idea that there might be a connection between humans and orangutans… and George Eliot writing under her own original name,  Marian Evans, had published her translation of Strauss’ Life of Jesus, which made Jesus a historical rather than a  Biblical figurein 1846.  Even as he wrote, the status of  Christianity, which might have seemed so permanent, was under attack, was changing, was perhaps, to use Matthew Arnold’s word, ‘withdrawing’.

But it is not the fact I am interested in here. It’s the feeling of the poetry:

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

What do I feel? Loss, loss, loss. If things in the world are being lost, stripped away, if old beliefs and comforts are removed… what’s left? Well, says Matthew Arnold, there is still personal love. There is still us, in this room.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

But that sense of  a private relationship being able to carry you through… I don’t know, it seems a genuine plea, for a genuine love, yet  it feels overwhelmed by what is outside the window. But it remains true that when the world explodes for me, close family and close friends hold it/me together. So, yes, a personal love can and does make a difference. But the world, oh, the world…

Of course, the worse it is out there, the more need we have of something, someone, in here. We might talk about love, but we’d also want to talk about friendship – and a poem I might want to go on to with my group would be  Tessimond’s ‘Not Love, Perhaps’. I’ll read it tomorrow.

But to go back to the poem: what’s happening between these two at the window is undermined by what is out there, and so we come to some of the most painful lines in poetry:

for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

When I am in the line ‘like a land of dreams,/So various, so beautiful, so new’  I believe it.

And even as I rise to the surface and come out of the line, I do believe in such moments of possibility.  I have to. But when I stop to give a couple of quid to the homeless girl outside the British Library, her face a mass of sores, she’s a glue-sniffer, she looks sixty and is probably twenty-three, her eyes are pleading and lost, she’s come from Care and needs to come and live in my house and be cared for by me but  when I stop there and try to imagine the cost I  personally cannot pay to fix this girl’s life, then I feel  that neither I nor world really does have the possibility of  ‘joy, nor love, nor light,/Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain’. I give her fiver and hurry away, knowing she’ll spend it on drugs. As I head to Euston for the 19.07, I’m asking myself and not for the first time, should I leave The Reader and go to work in a homeless charity?

I move, as the lines do, between those two sets of feelings.

I think of the people, families, children, dying in  Grenfell Tower. The people who died or were injured on Westminster Bridge, at Borough Market, at Finsbury Park Mosque. I think of the power of personal feelings of failure or disconnect, and the  effect of those broken feelings on the world. People do bad things. On a different level, I think of  the disjunct between personal love and public responsibility. People do bad things.

I imagine myself making  bad decisions and ask myself, what would make a difference to the way I made those decisions?

And I end, in 2017,  where Matthew Arnold ended, in 1851:

And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
Hard reading today. Thank you for sticking with me.
For a different take on Dover Beach, the poet Carol Rumens offers her reading of this great poem here.

Lilies

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Madonna lilies have made it into flower, despite the winds and weather, 16 June

Thinking about poems as puzzles/unexploded bombs and the pleasure I used to have, in the early days of my reading life, of simply cracking what seemed to me the code, which yesterday I called ‘getting it’. The process starts from ‘don’t get it!’ which – at school, college and university – always used to feel angry, as if I was being deliberately excluded from the meaning. Then is goes on to working through the poem line by line, bit by bit, until some kind of understanding is arrived it. Then ‘I get it!’ One of the first poems I remember having this experience with was Shakespeare’s Sonnet 94, ‘They that have power to hurt and will do none’.

It was in an ‘A’ level literature class at Liverpool Community College, with Ken Moss, Head of English, a great teacher. I don’t recall if this was the first poem he brought us for Practical Criticism but it may have been the first one that really got me.

What is that feeling of being outside the text? I remember it not only from poems and  other works of literature I found hard as a student, but also from childhood when trying to read something  beyond me – Our Mutual Friend, say, at the age of  eight or nine, which I just couldn’t understand, though I could read. It was too hard. Perhaps,  although I could read the words, I couldn’t think the thoughts?

Sometimes when we look at poem we aren’t reading it, we’re scanning. The scan happens and your brain computes: I can’t take all this in. A resistance is set up, you stop trying. The poem moves away. There’s a distance. For me there is then a period of re-gathering, I have to read the poem aloud, and I have to go very slowly, not ‘deconstructing’, but reconstructing! I build a little unit of meaning  and then build the next. When I look back now to Sonnet 94, it feels far-off and meaningless at first. I have to reignite my sense of it by slow reading, andI’m looking for tonal clues as I read the first time – what’s it about?

Sonnet 94

They that have power to hurt and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow:
They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces
And husband nature’s riches from expense;
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others but stewards of their excellence.
The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet
Though to itself it only live and die,
But if that flower with base infection meet,
The basest weed outbraves his dignity:
For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

There’s an odd mix of  tone –  whoever is referred to as ‘they’ – do I trust them? At first it seems as though I should because they will do no harm, but later I see they are ‘as stone,/
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow’ – that doesn’t sound like someone you’d want to do with. So why do they ‘inherit heaven’s graces?’ and – actually- what does that mean? These people are ‘the lords and owners of their faces’. Are we talking about control here?

I’m aware all the time I’m tussling with the opening lines that there is the strong couplet at the end and I am heading towards it –

For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

Lilies, as you can see from today’s photograph, are really very lovely looking things. And they smell gorgeous, until they ‘fester’ when the odour becomes rank. Are we talking about people who look good but may not be? I read again:

They that have power to hurt and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow:
They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces
And husband nature’s riches from expense;

Some kinds of people (‘they’) have power and don’t use it. I’m thinking that’s a good thing but I wonder if it makes any difference what I think about it – Shakespeare’s describing something, a kind of person. Perhaps one person? (Various things are known about the Sonnets, and all that can easily be discovered, but for me principally, a key fact is that this one of a longer run of poems and they have  connections between them – it doesn’t quite stand alone. You might want to bring the Sonnets that go before and after along too…)

You have to ask, what state is the writer in?

Say I said, in modern English it means something like – some people have power but wont use it, look good but are covered over, hiding their real feelings, people who make me feel powerful feelings but feel nothing themselves, those people, yep! they are the lucky ones, they  having blessings showered on them… Shakespeare seems in a bad way, liking or loving or attracted to someone who doesn’t reciprocate, and yet for Shakespeare  that’s not just felt as rejection, but as a kind of weird – slightly bitter? – honouring. Cyncical, bitter?

The second part seems angry or even in someway threatening. Perhaps stomping about ranting, perhaps worrying in a corner. Is something wrong with this person who uses his/her face as a mask?  The summer’s flower doesn’t seem to know what it is doing – to itself it ‘only live and die’ – whereas to everything round it – the summer – it is ‘sweet’. Do people like this know what they are doing to other people? The gorgeous who don’t acknoledge the effect their gorgousness has on others…And if they don’t know what they are, and what they might do, might they do something bad?

We get to ‘deeds’ in the end.  Looks, outward appearances, and in the end, what is done.

The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet
Though to itself it only live and die,
But if that flower with base infection meet,
The basest weed outbraves his dignity:
For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

Now I notice that the verb ‘do’ is in the first line: ‘They that have power to hurt and will do none,’… in fact the word ‘do’ appears four times in the first two lines!

But I am out of time, must dash… what a weird poem. Makes me want to read the Sonnets again.

White Hair and Weights: Reading George Herbert’s The Forerunners

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My weights, and the odds and ends department of the Davis library plus a picture of Stuart Pearce

Today I woke up with the day’s work (leading a Sparks series day of reading at the Cunard Building, Liverpool) and last weeks reading of ‘An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow’…in my mind, I decided to read a poem by George Herbert, just to get myself warmed up for the day.

‘I haven’t thought like this since I was at school,’ said a man in the Shared Reading  group I ran last week, in Blackfriars Centre, Southwark, a demonstration group for people undertaking the Ashoka Changemaker journey, where some members of our London groups and some London Reader Leaders had come together to help me demonstrate the model to a group of people who would have no idea what Shared Reading could be. The speaker was a businessperson, and probably (I’m making an assumption) very well-educated.

Two things flitted through my mind as he spoke (i) he thinks this is like studying English Lit. at school and (ii) how could you go through an education and working life without ever thinking like this again?

For me the two questions are related. Of course, for most people English Lit. is a pointless academic discipline that you forget about once you drop it at GCSE.  Something like .5% of the population study English at University. Why would anyone think in  this kind of way? So far, so fair enough.

I woke up  this morning remembering how at school and university I used to have the idea that ‘the poet’ was a bit of  a trickster. (We never seemed to think of them as a person with a name, and if we used a name it was  always the surname, Herbert, not George Herbert. Does this matter? It needn’t, necessarily, but in context, I think it  did.) ‘The poet’ had somehow constructed the poem like a crossword puzzle or a mechanical magic box that could be opened only once you had the knack – as if ‘ the poet’ had essentially put together, for no reason anyone would discern, at arm’s length, some sort of  bomb-puzzle he didn’t want to you to ‘get’.  It was hard,  ‘not getting it’, but, on the other hand, once you did ‘get’ it, you were in the powerful  position of judging whether or  ‘the poet’ was ‘effective’.

What a weird set-up!

Poems are – mostly – real. People write them out of some sort of necessity, and they want you to read them because you have a matching necessity.  Poems – mostly-  have great information in then and about 98.8% of the population are missing out on this food for thought. This isn’t, as some people believe a matter of lifestyle choice.  People don’t reject the reading of great literature because they’ve made a decision. They mostly reject it because they were badly scorched at school and don’t want to go back there – just like me, shivering miserably on the edge of the hockey pitch feeling humiliated – I’ve not made a decision to avoid playing sports, I’m traumatised! And I can be helped.  We need to teach them very differently. See my post about getting into exercise aged 60, My Leaning.

But to today’s poem – I’ll spend most of the day reading George Herbert and Jeanette Winterson. When I ran this session in London a couple of weeks ago, we didn’t get round ‘The Forerunners’. Everyone who, like me, is gathering white hairs, will know the reality that caused George to put pen to paper.

The harbingers are come. See, see their mark:
White is their color, and behold my head.
But must they have my brain? Must they dispark
Those sparkling notions, which therein were bred?
    Must dullness turn me to a clod?
Yet have they left me, Thou art still my God.
Good men ye be, to leave me my best room,
Ev’n all my heart, and what is lodgèd there:
I pass not, I, what of the rest become,
So Thou art still my God be out of fear.
    He will be pleasèd with that ditty:
And if I please him, I write fine and witty.
Farewell sweet phrases, lovely metaphors.
But will ye leave me thus? When ye before
Of stews and brothels only knew the doors,
Then did I wash you with my tears, and more,
    Brought you to church well dressed and clad:
My God must have my best, ev’n all I had.
Lovely enchanting language, sugar-cane,
Honey of roses, wither wilt thou fly?
Hath some fond lover ’ticed thee to thy bane?
And wilt thou leave the church and love a sty?
         Fie, thou wilt soil thy broidered coat,
And hurt thyself, and him that sings the note.
Let foolish lovers, if they will love dung,
With canvas, not with arras, clothe their shame:
Let folly speak in her own native tongue.
True beauty dwells on high: ours is a flame
    But borrowed thence to light us thither.
Beauty and beauteous words should go together.
Yet if you go, I pass not; take your way:
For Thou art still my God is all that ye
Perhaps with more embellishment can say.
Go, birds of spring: let winter have his fee;
    Let a bleak paleness chalk the door,
So all within be livelier than before.

This is hard to ‘get’ (as I used to complain in college days). This is like a dead-lift with too much weight.  Don’t look possible. Might be dangerous. Ow my poor ligaments! How do you get to  the place where you can do a hundred weighted squats? Practice!  Little gains.  Let’s just read the first verse.

The harbingers are come. See, see their mark:
White is their color, and behold my head.
But must they have my brain? Must they dispark
Those sparkling notions, which therein were bred?
    Must dullness turn me to a clod?
Yet have they left me, Thou art still my God.

You look in the mirror and there, for the first time, you really believe they are,  ‘the harbingers’, the forerunners. What are harbingers?  The ones who go on ahead to get stuff ready. But George Herbert – like me – quickly looks from the white hairs to the future: argh, all the great and terrible ‘d’s’…decrepitude, dementia, type 2 diabetes, death. Yes, all that flits through your mind as you look in the morning mirror. Great the word he perhaps coins here, ‘dispark’ is about the fear of losing your essential self. I look the word up – it means to throw open a private park and make it public, but I’m reading this as ‘take away the spark’, because the of  ‘sparkling’ in the next line. Will he turn into mere physical matter, just body, clay: ‘ must dullness turn me to a clod?’ Even then, trustingly, George believes, he will still have God and God will not change.

I recognise the white hairs, the worry about decrepitude, but I don’t have ‘God’. What can I understand – for myself –  by ‘Thou art still my God’ ? Is there anything that will remain, anything I can trust?

I’m short on time today and can’t think about this any more.  But want to make a plea that  we should all make time for thinking about our lives and that poetry and other great writing is a good way to do it. It is not an elitist occupation.

Weights are a great form of exercise for the over 60s – muscle mass, my dears. You wouldn’t say that was elitist, you’d call it public health. Do I want to be Hulk Hogan? Nope. But I want to be able to walk, to bend down, to sit on the grass with my grandchildren. And we all want to keep our spark.