Times says Poetry’s Back! (& I reread Denise Riley & get tangled)

azalea buds
Azalea buds outside what will one day be the new Reader Cafe in Calderstones Park

Patricia Nicol writes a great story, in today’s Times, about the re-launch of Penguin’s Modern Poets series.

I loved the original Penguin Modern Poets when I was teenage reader, and still have, though can’t today find, my copy of  Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s Selected Poems (see it here).  So hurray for Penguin for this  collectible rethink, and thanks Patricia Nicol, because I had not noticed the new Modern Poets, I am ashamed to say. I haven’t been browsing in a poetry bookshop for a while. Must rectify.

Of the 12 poets Patricia Nicol offers as a sample of  current riches I only know the work of three or four, so lots of new stuff to try when I  get to the poetry shelves.

Of the known, two to mention. I was lucky enough to be present in the Royal Festival Hall when Sinead Morrissey won the 2017 Forward Prize for the Best Collection for On Balance (Carcanet). She read ‘Perfume’,  an outstanding reading  which had the audience hooting with stunned pleasure – Morrissey has a measured, knowing, intense reading voice and knew we’d enjoy the story of her aunt cleaning the Nottingham Odeon after The Beatles had performed to an audience of screaming teenage girls.

Another poet mentioned in Nicol’s list is Denise Riley. I’ve heard her read her work too, and found much of it moving and incomprehensible. I  don’t mind incomprehensible at all, if I’m moved.

So this morning I’m reading  ‘A Misremembered Lyric’ and trying to think about the problem of  facing those of us who might be leading a Shared Reading group for a long while, for years, when the tendency is often to go for easier things. Why? Because  we’re all a bit lazy and there’s a fear of hard poetry most people aren’t ever over, and easier seems, well, easier.  But as anyone who has ever done anything hard knows, hard is sometimes a bigger experience.

Denise Riley reads ‘A Misremembered Lyric’ here.

I’m reading the poem in All The Days of My Life  – my husband Philip Davis’s anthology ‘to console and inspire’,  found on Amazon at a bargain price!

Why I don’t bother with context

I can see the potential value of context: it’s like doing the dishes before you sit down to write: context puts off the awful moment of confrontation that is necessary for the act of creation that is reading. But the dishes are not writing. They are a precursor that may become part of a ritual of  off-putting that  is part of the ritual before writing.  But still  it is not writing. So context is not reading.

It’s a way in, someone will say.

No, it’s a way round, I’d reply.

It’s a sideways shuffle that  tries to pretend that some facts help. But facts don’t help with the fact that at some point you are going to have to get in there and make it your own.

Context says: Yes I do help! There is a day-to-day world and we can understand things in it.

Poetry says: Experience this.

As Denise Riley has said,  ‘Who anyone is or I am is nothing to the work.’ (Denise Riley, from ‘Dark Looks’)

Because the direct confrontation of the poetic experience is usually unsettling we might try to avoid it, even though we have decided to try to read a poem. That’s a clue to why we need poetry: we are not rational creatures. We both want to read a poem and don’t want to read it at the same time. So we reach for ‘context’, some outer thing that might tell us who the poet is, or who we are, or where we are, but all along,  being lost is the point. Forget everything and feel around in the dark. Trust the poem to find you.

Read the poem. I can’t reprint it here because I don’t have permission but find it here. Find someone to read it with. Read it aloud, read it a few times, take it line by line or take it sentence by sentence, or take it sometimes word by word. Give it an hour. It will repay.

I know the experience Denise Riley begins with, that soft catch you almost sing when a long forgotten lyric comes to mind. So far, not so scary.  And then the word ‘conscience’ appears, line 3,  and I wonder what she’s troubled about. Line 4 continues:

presence is clean gone and leaves unfurnished no
shadow.

Now comes the dark! What’s gone or who is gone?  As the reader here I am know nothing and  have not one fact. The poem swirls  dark around me, the lyric (by Dusty Springfield?)  beats its presence in an echo-chamber behind the words.  I take each little piece and meditate/read. I know it doesn’t matter if I am wrong because there is no wrong, there is only the poem and myself trying to reach each other in the dark of unknowing. ‘Rain lyrics’, she writes. I think  rain, lyrics, I think leaves, I think tears , I think falling. Am I beginning to get a feeling of immersion in an emotion of loss and yet ‘I don’t want absence to be this beautiful’.

Then a thought begins to emerge, Riley calls it ‘ the fear thought’.

you get no consolation anyway until your memory’s
dead: or something never had gotten hold of
your heart in the first place, and that’s the fear thought.

The sadness stays, of loss or breakage, it stays and only fades because we let other noises drown it out. If you let it back, there it is, as unconsoled as ever. Only not loving could prevent it and that would be a terrible thing, perhaps the worst thing.

I do not know the facts of where the next line comes from.  Maybe she was reading a newspaper. Maybe she was watching a documentary, maybe eating shrimp. But however it came, the thought  occurred:

Do shrimps make good mothers? Yes they do.

Any mother will make a connect here, any parent, anyone who has wanted to love well. Shrimps can do it!  Love pervades and disappears through the universe like spots of light, as does pain, loss, no consolation.

There is no beauty out of loss; can’t do it –

There are leaves, there is rain – I must have known it at the beginning from having read it here at the end. Is the ‘rhythm of unhappy pleasure’ the song? Is melancholy a pleasure? Sometimes it is, but behind Denise Riley’s experience here is ‘bossy death telling me which way to/go.’

The end of the poem seems to straighten up, pulls itself together as if leaving a graveyard and stepping back into the high street:

                                                                        Still let
me know. Looking for a brand-new start. Oh and never
notice yourself ever. As in life you don’t.

Talking to someone? Perhaps the dead. Talking to self? Perhaps some part of oneself that feels dead. But the last two sentences seem like after-thought advice. Keep going like this. Do this.

Think there are two people in the poem – her and someone not there, either dead or lost. Love is gone, perhaps died. She is still there, still, watching the rain, the leaves. Is this ‘life’ or this consciousness, self-consciousness? Is she noticing herself and at the end remembering that when life goes on you don’t notice? Is the end sad?  Should be, but it feels kind of sensible. Keep going like this.

I reread the poem. The fear thought at its centre. What if something had never gotten hold of your heart in the first place?

Is she a good mother? Would you havethe thought in mind if not worried about it? I don’t know! I think of my own self reading. The thought that shrimps might be good mothers is both delightful – motherhood, a universal ! – and seems to set a bar I might , as an evolved mammal, still be missing. Do I make a good mother?

The fear thought and bossy death seem to provide two deep places in the poem to which I must return. Still not knowing.  Be there. Face it. No context.

Paradise Lost 15 : From Blundering About like Dogberry to the Barbarian Hordes in a Couple of Lines

hellebores.JPGI’ve been on the road this week travelling between Edinburgh, London and Liverpool and I’ve been reading and rereading 4  business books and a novel, A Bowl of Cherries, by Sheena McKay. Have not bothered to do any ‘Just Started’ on them but will do that this week, a little out of kilter, but that’s ok. ‘Just Started’ is really there as record of what I have read.  It’s hard to keep a routine on the road – well, hard for me, struggling with routines at the quietest of times, so my Daily Practice has been out of the window. As has daily exercise, off the menu since I was unwell in November. But now February approaches, and my thought turn to the necessity of daily exercise. the winter dark and down time is drawing to an end.

Is will power limited, as psychologists now tell us? Mine certainly seems depleted, so I’m sticking to minimalist achievements at this lightless  time of year: get your work done, spend time with husband, don’t neglect your expenses causing the fiance team grief.

You can see why I like Yeats’ line ‘forgive myself the lot’  (‘A Dialogue of Self and Soul’).

But to today’s reading from Paradise Lost.

A quick explanation for anyone who wouldn’t naturally find themselves reading such a poem:   I’m interested in acts of translation from one way of thinking to another, particularly from Christian  thinking in poetry – Dante, Milton, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan and many others – to  my own a-religious thoughts. Many years ago, when I wrote my Ph.D, on what I called ‘Visionary Realism’, I realised that I was interested in what happens to religious experience when people no longer believe in religion. Are there, for example, still experiences of ‘grace’? Do we ever  experience ‘miracles’? Are there trials and tribulations of the soul? Is there ‘soul’? …and so on.  I came into this area of thinking through Doris Lessing’s novel-series Canopus in Argos, and particularly the first novel in that series,  Shikasta. There’s a partial account of this in previous blog post, ‘Lifesavers’.

If you are joining me new today, I’d suggest a read  through from the beginning first. You’ll find a good online edition here.  But if there’s no time for that, well, just start here and now.

Last week I’d read as far as Satan’s call to his fallen troops, which ended with the exhortation, ‘Awake, arise, or be for ever fall’n. ‘ Lets now make a start on the next couple of  sentences:

They heard, and were abasht, and up they sprung
Upon the wing, as when men wont to watch
On duty, sleeping found by whom they dread,
Rouse and bestir themselves ere well awake.
Nor did they not perceave the evil plight [ 335 ]
In which they were, or the fierce pains not feel;
Yet to thir Generals Voyce they soon obeyd
Innumerable. As when the potent Rod
Of Amrams Son in Egypts evill day
Wav’d round the Coast, up call’d a pitchy cloud [ 340 ]
Of Locusts, warping on the Eastern Wind,
That ore the Realm of impious Pharaoh hung
Like Night, and darken’d all the Land of Nile:
So numberless were those bad Angels seen
Hovering on wing under the Cope of Hell [ 345 ]
‘Twixt upper, nether, and surrounding Fires;
Till, as a signal giv’nth’ uplifted Spear
Of thir great Sultan waving to direct
Thir course, in even ballance down they light
On the firm brimstone, and fill all the Plain; [ 350 ]
A multitude, like which the populous North
Pour’d never from her frozen loyns, to pass
Rhene or the Danaw, when her barbarous Sons
Came like a Deluge on the South, and spread
Beneath Gibralter to the Lybian sands. [ 355 ]

So ordinary and recognisable as well as so enormous and unimaginable, isn’t it ? To begin to give us the enormous perspective of the entirety of Satan’s army ( how many things there are which are out to get us!) Milton sets us off with something we might have seen or could imagine:

They heard, and were abasht, and up they sprung
Upon the wing, as when men wont to watch
On duty, sleeping found by whom they dread,
Rouse and bestir themselves ere well awake.

Almost Shakespearean comic, isn’t it, that  stumbling into not awake liveliness? Dogberry,  or the soldiers on watch when the ghost appears inHamlet? Being bestirred before being fully awake, they no doubt bump into each other and  stub their toes, getting their spears interlocked like hapless skiers. But Milton only wants us to see them, not to laugh at them:

Nor did they not perceave the evil plight [ 335 ]
In which they were, or the fierce pains not feel;
Yet to thir Generals Voyce they soon obeyd
Innumerable.

Even as they blunder into wakeful life, they know how bad things are and they feel the pain of burning in hell. I’m just wondering about the negatives  in that sentence , ‘nor’ , ‘not perceave’ ‘fierce pains not feel’: and asking myself, why are they negatives?

Perhaps they make a good transition from the semi-comic previous, which seems to be arise out of unconsciousness, to the full consciousness implied in ‘thir Generals Voyce they soon obeyd/Innumerable’.

Satan’s call seems to bring them to conscious life, and before obedience to him, as they wake into consciousness,  they must endure consciousness of pain.  Which they do.

Oddly, I’m thinking of murderers and other offenders here and wondering, when  people are encouraged into crime by another, would there be a similar pattern?  I can imagine such a thing, the one who is egged-on, who goes along, with the other more intelligent or more manipulative one. You know you are goingto do what he says, and what he is going tosay is terrible. Would there be a moment of pain, of full agonising, knowledge? , about to do /be a bad thing?

As when the potent Rod
Of Amrams Son in Egypts evill day
Wav’d round the Coast, up call’d a pitchy cloud [ 340 ]
Of Locusts, warping on the Eastern Wind,
That ore the Realm of impious Pharaoh hung
Like Night, and darken’d all the Land of Nile:
So numberless were those bad Angels seen
Hovering on wing under the Cope of Hell [ 345 ]
‘Twixt upper, nether, and surrounding Fires;

Now we return to the unimaginable picture of this mass uprising, and Milton draws on a biblical image to help us see.  This is hard for many contemporary readers as we don’t know, as Milton and his readers certainly would, many of these images.  So, if I was reading this in a group, I’d use the footnotes, possibly even go back to the original Biblical text to see the source of the analogy: the main thing we need to know is that those locusts were so many that they made Egypt a place of darkness by day. i’dwant to show my fellow readers that  there’s not a lot to these analogies once you’ve got the footnotes,  and sometimes it pays to look:

And Moses stretched forth his rod over the land of Egypt, and the Lord brought an east wind upon the land all that day, and all that night; and when it was morning, the east wind brought the locusts.

14 And the locust went up over all the land of Egypt, and rested in all the coasts of Egypt: very grievous were they; before them there were no such locusts as they, neither after them shall be such.

15 For they covered the face of the whole earth, so that the land was darkened; and they did eat every herb of the land, and all the fruit of the trees which the hail had left: and there remained not any green thing in the trees, or in the herbs of the field, through all the land of Egypt.

We’ve gone from something close to comedy to something terrifying, to fear, in a few lines. And if those locust images weren’t enough Milton also gives  us images of the terrible Northern barbarians, the  Vikings, the Norsemen, Celts, the northern hoardes coming out of the mist to end the Roman empire.

So numberless were those bad Angels seen
Hovering on wing under the Cope of Hell [ 345 ]
‘Twixt upper, nether, and surrounding Fires;
Till, as a signal giv’nth’ uplifted Spear
Of thir great Sultan waving to direct
Thir course, in even ballance down they light
On the firm brimstone, and fill all the Plain; [ 350 ]
A multitude, like which the populous North
Pour’d never from her frozen loyns, to pass
Rhene or the Danaw, when her barbarous Sons
Came like a Deluge on the South, and spread
Beneath Gibralter to the Lybian sands. [ 355]

Forthwith from every Squadron and each Band
The Heads and Leaders thither hast where stood
Thir great Commander; Godlike shapes and forms
Excelling human, Princely Dignities,
And Powers that earst in Heaven sat on Thrones; [ 360 ]
Though of thir Names in heav’nly Records now
Be no memorial blotted out and ras’d
By thir Rebellion, from the Books of Life.
Nor had they yet among the Sons of Eve
Got them new Names, till wandring ore the Earth, [ 365 ]
Through Gods high sufferance for the tryal of man,
By falsities and lyes the greatest part
Of Mankind they corrupted to forsake
God thir Creator, and th’ invisible
Glory of him that made them, to transform [ 370 ]
Oft to the Image of a Brute, adorn’d
With gay Religions full of Pomp and Gold,
And Devils to adore for Deities:
Then were they known to men by various Names,
And various Idols through the Heathen World. [ 375 ]

The speed with which this shift of perspective happens is breathtaking: it’s like applying a different lens to something that seemed blurry- they were nothing, they were like undistinguishable slime on the burning lake until Satan  addressed them: now , suddenly they are up and moving and they are forces to be reckoned with. They have form, social organisations: squadron, band, heads and leaders, they are Godlike. In heaven they sat on thrones.  No more blurry mess.

What is a leader that he can bring about such a transition? I’m thinking of Hitler and the German armies – could broken forces have been brought back to life by his presence? Could the same thing have worked for Churchill?  Is it only war-time leaders who raise broken people up in this way? Alas, no.

So what is it? the presence of the leader is like the presence of the pure idea. The idea might have gone, under pain of defeat, loss, suffering: each devil suffering his own pain, alone.  But then when Satan appears and rouses them, and they take, or find they are able to generate, energy. why?  Because they  believe in something again.

Milton puts an interesting stop to this growth at line 360, once he’s got us imagining the devils on thrones: remember! they are blotted out now! It as if he fears we might be swept along:

And Powers that earst in Heaven sat on Thrones; [ 360 ]
Though of thir Names in heav’nly Records now
Be no memorial blotted out and ras’d
By thir Rebellion, from the Books of Life.

That’s a good pun: ras’d and raised. They are rising up, raising themselves. That’s one perspective, one way to see it. But ras’d  also means knocked down, razed to the ground. Are they up or down? Which way is up? For these corrupted devils there is no way to know: hell is heaven, heaven’s hell.

Is that what human corruption is? Not being able to tell good from bad? Thinking bad is good? There was a great soundbite from Samuel Johnson on this about no man thinking that what he desires is bad, it’s all good to him. Can’t track that one down but will  continue to look.

More next week.

 

Paradise Lost 14: Princes, Potentates, Warriors…Satan’s oratory & those cursed footnotes

not dark when leaving work at 5.00pm.JPG
Trees outlined in the not quite dark,  Calderstones 5.00pm on Friday

Picking up my nearly regular sunday reading of Paradise Lost  where I left off last time in Book 1,

A quick explanation for anyone who wouldn’t naturally find themselves reading such a poem:   I’m interested in acts of translation from one way of thinking to another, particularly from Christian  thinking in poetry – Dante, Milton, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan and many others – to  my own a-religious thoughts. Many years ago, when I wrote my Ph.D, on what I called ‘Visionary Realism’, I realised that I was interested in what happens to religious experience when people no longer believe in religion. Are there, for example, still experiences of ‘grace’? Do we ever  experience ‘miracles’? Are there trials and tribulations of the soul? Is there ‘soul’? …and so on.  I came into this area of thinking through Doris Lessing’s novel-series Canopus in Argos, and particularly the first novel in that series,  Shikasta. There’s a partial account of this in previous blog post, ‘Lifesavers’.

If you are joining me new today, I’d suggest a read  through from the beginning first. You’ll find a good online edition here.  But if there’s no time for that, well, just start here and now. Satan, cast out from heaven and now knowing only hell, is regrouping and calls on his close confederate, Beelzebub, to rouse their battered  armies to try

once more
With rallied Arms to try what may be yet
Regaind in Heav’n, or what more lost in Hell? [ 270 ]

So Satan spake, and him Beelzebub
Thus answer’d. Leader of those Armies bright,
Which but th’ Onmipotent none could have foyld,
If once they hear that voycethir liveliest pledge
Of hope in fears and dangers, heard so oft   [ 275 ]
In worst extreams, and on the perilous edge
Of battel when it rag’d, in all assaults
Thir surest signal, they will soon resume
New courage and revive, though now they lye
Groveling and prostrate on yon Lake of Fire, [ 280 ]
As we erewhile, astounded and amaz’d,
No wonder, fall’n such a pernicious highth.

He scarce had ceas’t when the superiour Fiend
Was moving toward the shoar; his ponderous shield
Ethereal temper, massy, large and round, [ 285 ]
Behind him cast; the broad circumference
Hung on his shoulders like the Moon, whose Orb
Through Optic Glass the Tuscan Artist views
At Ev’ning from the top of Fesole,
Or in Valdarno, to descry new Lands, [ 290 ]
Rivers or Mountains in her spotty Globe.

I’m pausing there because line 283 opens a longish verse paragraph  of the sort I don’t enjoy, and I want to skip over it. There are too many references I don’t get and the main matter isn’t very interesting to me.

But before I get into or pass by that paragraph, I want to notice something about the way speaking (or is it the items of language we speak – the emotions carried by the words?)  builds up confidence or changes what you might do.

Last time I read this I had been thinking about the way Satan’s thought changes as he speaks – he doesn’t seem to start off knowing what he is going to say, but  instead starts and finds himself talking himself into something (see here). As he speaks now, he’s heard by Beelzebub, who is ready to go with him and knows that if Satan addresses the troops, they will also be easily persuaded, too.

If once they hear that voycethir liveliest pledge
Of hope in fears and dangers, heard so oft   [ 275 ]
In worst extreams, and on the perilous edge
Of battel when it rag’d, in all assaults
Thir surest signal, they will soon resume
New courage and revive, though now they lye
Groveling and prostrate on yon Lake of Fire, [ 280 ]

That voice, their livliest pledge… yes but what is it in the voice or language of an orator which moves us?

The satanic army last heard Satan talking as they lost the war in heaven: it is the cause of their fall and the reason ‘now they lye/Groveling and prostrate on yon Lake of Fire’. Yet Beelzebub puts it in glorious language which misses out the loss of the war, and concentrates on their  nobility in the fight.  Look at the words: livliest pledge, hope in fears and dangers, in all assaults thir surest signal, new courage, revive.  All the losses are forgotten as Beelzebub primes himself, Satan, us and anyone else listening to believe in him. Certainly it works for Satan:

He scarce had ceas’t when the superiour Fiend
Was moving toward the shoar; his ponderous shield
Ethereal temper, massy, large and round, [ 285 ]
Behind him cast; the broad circumference
Hung on his shoulders like the Moon, whose Orb
Through Optic Glass the Tuscan Artist views
At Ev’ning from the top of Fesole,
Or in Valdarno, to descry new Lands, [ 290 ]
Rivers or Mountains in her spotty Globe.

The trick of this overwhelm of reference is to look up then up quick and then read  again, not thinking about them. The references are often interesting (e.g. the Dartmouth edition reference here to Tuscan artist: Tuscan artistGalileo (1564-1642). Milton visited him and saw his telescope in Valdarno, the valley of the Arno. Galileo’s telescopeand the observations he made with it supported the Copernicanmodel of the cosmos over the Ptolemaic model, much to the Church’s chagrin. Galileo spent most of the last years of his life under house arrest, ordered by the Church.). the problem is they so interrupt the flow. You have to accept that interrupt the first  and many subsequent times round!  I like the Dartmouth online edition because it’s very easy to glance at the references. The  Longman edition, edited by Fowler, is also good for that – the references are on the page.

Sometimes I ignore them, sometimes I’d just skip these descriptive parts entirely, and sometimes fellow readers will make me read both the descriptive bits and the notes. But let us read on now through this description of Satan. Tough going? read it aloud, follow the punctuation, pause at every comma.

His Spear, to equal which the tallest Pine
Hewn on Norwegian hills, to be the Mast
Of some great Ammiral, were but a wand,
He walkt with to support uneasie steps [ 295 ]
Over the burning Marle, not like those steps
On Heavens Azure, and the torrid Clime
Smote on him sore besides, vaulted with Fire;
Nathless he so endur’d, till on the Beach
Of that inflamed Sea, he stood and call’d [ 300 ]
His Legions, Angel Forms, who lay intrans’t
Thick as Autumnal Leaves that strow the Brooks
In Vallombrosa, where th’ Etrurian shades
High overarch’t imbowr; or scatterd sedge
Afloat, when with fierce Winds Orion arm’d [ 305 ]
Hath vext the Red-Sea Coast, whose waves orethrew
Busiris and his Memphian Chivalry,
While with perfidious hatred they pursu’d
The Sojourners of Goshen, who beheld
From the safe shore thir floating Carkases [ 310 ]
And broken Chariot Wheels, so thick bestrown
Abject and lost lay these, covering the Flood,
Under amazement of thir hideous change.
He call’d so loud, that all the hollow Deep
Of Hell resounded. Princes, Potentates, [ 315 ]
Warriers, the Flowr of Heav’n, once yours, now lost,
If such astonishment as this can sieze
Eternal spirits; or have ye chos’n this place
After the toyl of Battel to repose
Your wearied vertue, for the ease you find [ 320 ]
To slumber here, as in the Vales of Heav’n?
Or in this abject posture have ye sworn
To adore the Conquerour? who now beholds
Cherube and Seraph rowling in the Flood
With scatter’d Arms and Ensigns, till anon [ 325 ]
His swift pursuers from Heav’n Gates discern
Th’ advantage, and descending tread us down
Thus drooping, or with linked Thunderbolts
Transfix us to the bottom of this Gulfe.
Awake, arise, or be for ever fall’n. [ 330 ]

In passages like this, I’d be reading a sentence or a clause at a time, and asking  group members to translate into modern English to ensure we have the drift. Then I’d be looking, or asking my group to look for things of interest. Sometimes there aren’t any! Sometimes  you think there’s nothing of interest and then, because you’re going so slowly, there is…

His Spear, to equal which the tallest Pine
Hewn on Norwegian hills, to be the Mast
Of some great Ammiral, were but a wand,
He walkt with to support uneasie steps [ 295 ]
Over the burning Marle, not like those steps
On Heavens Azure, and the torrid Clime
Smote on him sore besides, vaulted with Fire;
Nathless he so endur’d,

I’ve just been in Norway and seen some of those tall pines! Mildly interested in them.  Milton asks us to think of the tallest ship’s mast, then takes human perspective away by saying, ‘that would be just a wand’ (wand – thin flexible whip of wood) compared to Satan’s spear.  It’s all much more gigantic than we can imagine. Once we’ve got that picture in mind he asks us to picture Satan struggling, using the spear as a crutch ‘to support uneasie steps’ which have to be compared – by Satan, by Milton, by us, to the kind of steps he would have taken in heaven, on Heavens Azure. We don’t get to see them, simply to  picture them in a negative print of this. Not this. Not this. The torrid clime of Hell punishes Satan even as he tries to move.  It ‘smote on him sore besides’ – besides what? I ask myself. Besides remembering how easy it was move to in Heaven.

The mental pain of loss comes before the physical pain of  fire.  But see what we are dealing with: ‘nathless he so endured.’ The will of this creature!

till on the Beach
Of that inflamed Sea, he stood and call’d [ 300 ]
His Legions, Angel Forms, who lay intrans’t
Thick as Autumnal Leaves that strow the Brooks
In Vallombrosa, where th’Etrurian shades
High overarch’t imbowr; or scatterd sedge
Afloat, when with fierce Winds Orionarm’d [ 305 ]
Hath vext the Red-Sea Coast, whose waves orethrew
Busiris and his Memphian Chivalry,
While with perfidious hatred they pursu’d
The Sojourners of Goshen, who beheld
From the safe shore thir floating Carkases [ 310 ]
And broken Chariot Wheels, so thick bestrown
Abject and lost lay these, covering the Flood,
Under amazement of thir hideous change.

Milton is using whatever references he can get to put connection points in his reader’s mind: he’s telling us something unimaginable: how do you get your reader to imagine something unimaginable? Metaphor is the method, using things we might know or could learn about: picture the fallen devils, abject and lost, like fallen  leaves, psychologically stunned, amazed, by the change that as happened to them.

And then Satan rouses them:

He call’d so loud, that all the hollow Deep
Of Hell resounded. Princes, Potentates, [ 315 ]
Warriers, the Flowr of Heav’n, once yours, now lost,
If such astonishment as this can sieze
Eternal spirits; or have ye chos’n this place
After the toyl of Battel to repose
Your wearied vertue, for the ease you find [ 320 ]
To slumber here, as in the Vales of Heav’n?
Or in this abject posture have ye sworn
To adore the Conquerour? who now beholds
Cherube and Seraph rowling in the Flood
With scatter’d Arms and Ensigns, till anon [ 325 ]
His swift pursuers from Heav’n Gates discern
Th’ advantage, and descending tread us down
Thus drooping, or with linked Thunderbolts
Transfix us to the bottom of this Gulfe.
Awake, arise, or be for ever fall’n. [ 330 ]

Not leaves, he calls them, not a pile of lifeless stuff on fire,  but ‘Princes, Potentates, Warriors, the Flower of Heaven’ . I imagine myself as a fallen angel, addressed like this. How good  (but painful) to remember I was once the flower of heaven… and is heaven now lost? Look at the syntax here. It implies Heaven is only  lost

If such astonishment as this can sieze
Eternal spirits;

as a fallen angel I’d be deeeply attracted by that ‘if’.  Then we have a couple of alternatives;

or have ye chos’n this place
After the toyl of Battel to repose
Your wearied vertue,

Are they resting?  To even posit this as possibility is an amazingly cheeky, perhaps sarcastic,  recalibrating  of the situation! Satan then offers another – to his listeners, vile – suggestion:

Or in this abject posture have ye sworn
To adore the Conquerour?

And perhaps that is a real possibility. Perhaps some of them, so broken, without his  oratory, might change their minds?  Satan now piles terror, scorn and humiliation on his listeners. The conqueror, he says

now beholds
Cherube and Seraphrowling in the Flood
With scatter’d Arms and Ensigns, till anon [ 325 ]
His swift pursuers from Heav’n Gates discern
Th’ advantage, and descending tread us down
Thus drooping, or with linked Thunderbolts
Transfix us to the bottom of this Gulfe.

There’s no evidence of this – Satan is manipulating his audience to  make them remember their humiliating rout and feel new fear. Why? So he can move them! Now comes the call to arms:

Awake, arise, or be for ever fall’n. [ 330 ]

What would they have to rise up for?  Well, they’d move for Heaven, ‘once yours now lost’ if it seemed a possibilty.  If you read any of the reference links to leaves/shade/shades… you’ll have seen the fallen angels pictured as dead leaves piled up and also as ghosts.  Satan, moments ago needing to use his spear as a walking stick, is calling them back to a new stand, to rebellious life.

Emerson, my dear dog’s long-done death & some deep family utterances

Winter Jasmine climbing overthe courtyard wall at Calderstones during a hailstorm.JPG
Winter Jasmine climbing over the courtyard wall at Calderstones during a hailstorm            16 January 2018

Yesterday I started reading ‘Brahma’ by Ralph Waldo Emerson, though I only read the first two lines. Here it is;

Brahma

If the red slayer think he slays,
Or if the slain think he is slain,
They know not well the subtle ways
I keep, and pass, and turn again.

Far or forgot to me is near;
Shadow and sunlight are the same;
The vanished gods to me appear;
And one to me are shame and fame.

They reckon ill who leave me out;
When me they fly, I am the wings;
I am the doubter and the doubt,
I am the hymn the Brahmin sings.

The strong gods pine for my abode,
And pine in vain the sacred Seven;
But thou, meek lover of the good!
Find me, and turn thy back on heaven.

I was thinking about the  violence of the words ‘slayer’, ‘slays’ and ‘slain’.  The poem makes death seem a vile and brutal battering and this morning, as I reread what I’d written yesterday, I thought that however a death happens,  it usually feels a brutal psychological experience to those who witness it.  Is that why Emerson has gone for that violent word?

Thinking about when my dog, Davy, died, oh, it’s years ago now. He was at the natural end of  his life and had  lost his sight and then had a stroke. He was dying and I knew it, and surely he did too, one beautiful summer morning when the garden was warm and sunny at 6.30am, and he lay on the lawn along the edge of a flowerbed, just as he had always lain along the edge of things,  the edge of the sofa, the edge of the bottom stair, the edge of the  Esse cooker. His poor dying body, panting slightly,  made a lovely golden shape, because he was a dog with great shapes, and everything about his physicality was beautiful.  I lay beside him knowing that soon it would be over and the time was gentle and peaceable, and full of love. There couldn’t have been a better goodbye.

Yet, there’s a violence to it.  In the weeks following his death he haunted me. His head,  just at the height your hand is when you stand there wanting something golden to stroke, seemed to be close to my hand.  His poor sideways sightless walk came back to me and made me cry when driving or looking for tomatoes in the supermarket. I missed him and it hurt.  Slayer, slay, slain.

Those elements of violence seem in every death because they cut us off from our time-bound, our mortal, relationships. Then the cuts hurt, because we love and because we know we are mortal.

But the second big word in the opening two lines is ‘think’. Could it be  that the sense of violence, of slog, of battery, is to do with the way we think of it? After all, ‘the mind is its own place and can make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n’.  Could I have thought differently about my loss?

Many years before, our little son stood at the grave we had dug in the woods for our first family dog, Chia, and as we laid her, wrapped in a blanket, into the grave, he raised his arms in an embracing-the-universe-gesture and said, ‘Chia, you are gone, into earth, into heaven.’  That made us laugh and was a wonderful comfort in its unexpected and appropriate gravity. We buried/planted her beneath a tiny sapling.  Years before that my little daughter had written a poem about Chia, then a pup:

Little Chia,
Little loving Chia,
I’ll always remember you
When you’re gone.

The last line seemed to have  adult brutality – facing it! always facing it! – but now I concentrate on what turned out to be true; ‘I’ll always remember you when you’re gone.’ But where has Chia ‘gone’?  Into Earth? Into Heaven? Yet she’s in our brains, as memory, in our hearts. Is that a place? In our brains she has a physical being, in the energy of the  firing neurons. Is she with us? Odd the sensation of a Welsh great (or great-great) Grandmother, Niyne, whom I never met and only knew through my grandfather, Sid Smith, whose mother or grandmother she was, so powerful in his mind years after her death that she was part of  my childhood and is, even now, in my mind.

What is that passing on of memory, of being?

To remember the text:

If the red slayer think he slays,
Or if the slain think he is slain,
They know not well the subtle ways
I keep, and pass, and turn again.

There’s one way of thinking – slayer, slays, slain, slain. And there is another. ‘I keep, and pass, and turn again.’ Who is the ‘I’ here, then?

Going to reread the whole poem;

Brahma

If the red slayer think he slays,
Or if the slain think he is slain,
They know not well the subtle ways
I keep, and pass, and turn again.

Far or forgot to me is near;
Shadow and sunlight are the same;
The vanished gods to me appear;
And one to me are shame and fame.

They reckon ill who leave me out;
When me they fly, I am the wings;
I am the doubter and the doubt,
I am the hymn the Brahmin sings.

The strong gods pine for my abode,
And pine in vain the sacred Seven;
But thou, meek lover of the good!
Find me, and turn thy back on heaven.

Is there another, let’s call it a dimension, in which there is no such thing as slayer, no slay, no slain? In which whatever it (‘I’ in the poem) simply keeps moving?

Those of us living in the world of difference between life and death do not know, or forget

the subtle ways
I keep, and pass, and turn again.

I’m struck by ‘keep’, ‘pass’ and ‘turn again’ as the actions of this force or being. Perhaps I’m reading it wrong, perhaps  ‘pass’ and ‘turn again’ are not the actions of the force but of those who think… so it would read,

They know not well the subtle ways
I keep,

and they pass (me, my ways, by) and they turn again.

I think that makes more sense.

Time to stop. Still in the first stanza, but it’s not a race, is it? It’s a reading meditation.

See Davy running on Caldy Hill at the bottom of the page,  here. And here’s a poem I wrote about him (see, the deep family likeness will come out) when he was a young dog:

Dog Geometry

On a lead he’ll bisect my line with an obtuse angle.
When he sets his haunches down in mudpond
he becomes the perfect long-backed isosceles.

Wheeling like the stars dog feels joy describing
gigantic circles bending low into the arcs
he draws gold across the sodden field.

Looking Westward, to the East: Brahma, by Ralph Waldo Emerson

swim
Remember there was summer? Montenegro 2017

Thinking back to the summer – writing here in the dark at 6.30am that seems a lifetime ago! – when I was reading Emerson (just had a look back at those posts and seem to have forgotten the content of them completely.  They might have been written by someone else. Oh dear. But I  felt excited reading the quotations from Emerson, just as I must have done the first time round.) I don’t know why I didn’t think to look at his poetry but I didn’t. This morning when looking for a short poem to read (short because I need to leave the house early today), I found ‘Brahma’ in  All The Days of My Life, an anthology I’d have said I knew inside out. Yet this is a poem (I believe, but see above, my memory is not good) I have never read before.

Brahma

If the red slayer think he slays,
Or if the slain think he is slain,
They know not well the subtle ways
I keep, and pass, and turn again.

Far or forgot to me is near;
Shadow and sunlight are the same;
The vanished gods to me appear;
And one to me are shame and fame.

They reckon ill who leave me out;
When me they fly, I am the wings;
I am the doubter and the doubt,
I am the hymn the Brahmin sings.

The strong gods pine for my abode,
And pine in vain the sacred Seven;
But thou, meek lover of the good!
Find me, and turn thy back on heaven.

Here’s a poem in the voice of Brahma, a  Hindu god about whom I know very little. I looked  him up and found he is a creator god…I wondered how Ralph Waldo Emerson knew about Brahma and thought, I’m going to read a biography of Emerson.  I wonder what Emerson knows of Brahma? I don’t know who or what the ‘red slayer’ is – something from Indian culture I don’t know about? Blood? American Indians? These thoughts are uncomfortable, (the not knowing), and jostle in my mind as I try to get into the poem. I have to do what I always have to do with not knowing and tell myself, it doesn’t matter. Whatever the red slayer is – just say, it is something that kills.

In the opening two lines the root ‘slay’ appears: slayer, slays, slain, slain. Violent death is on Emerson’s mind. ‘Slay’ means to kill with a weapon, and  is connected to slog – it’s a violent battering.

But in those opening lines full of violence and death we  have only two other elements – the connective tissues of syntax and pronouns (if, he, or) and the  twice repeated verb ‘think’.

The poem is setting up a massive opposition between what we think about death  (even when it is based on the bloody and battered evidence at our feet) and what actually is – which comes in the next two lines:

They know not well the subtle ways
I keep, and pass, and turn again.

But 7.00am – time to go. More tomorrow.

 

Jab! Jab! Punch! Shakespeare Boxing and Taking It On The Chin

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Shakespeare, almost overcome by ivy, 13 September

Yes, it is September, but this morning as I write  it might be November or February.  High winds and rain lashing the windows as if we were at sea, and it is cold.

But it is not winter yet: only the beginning of autumn. Yesterday evening I  was looking at the ivy in the back garden and realised that the summer’s growth had almost overwhelmed  Shakespeare, who resides in a corner by the shed, with a bird’s nest on his right shoulder.

Seeing him there made me think of reading a Shakespeare sonnet, which isn’t something I always want to do. Like mackerel, the sonnets  have a peculiar flavour,  and aren’t always what I fancy, though when I read them/am given mackerel I  enjoy them more than I think I will.  And  I’ve really enjoyed a couple of Saturday Dayschools, where we read  a bunch of the sonnets and maybe that is something to  think of again – a sort of mackerel baked whole with ginger,soy and spring onions.

Anyhow, this morning I thought, yes, I’ll read some of them, and so I have, though with an under-thought, which I’ve only just formulated, which was : perhaps I really want to read a Shakespeare play?  Aha. Don’t know if I could do that here? If the Sonnets are mackerel, what are the plays ? Feasts, banquets, weeks away in  other lands… The plays seem the right  vehicle for Shakespeare’s mind. Of course the Sonnets are his mind, too, but this sort of intimacy  doesn’t seem the place  he inhabits best.  At his fullest, he needs players, playing, inside and out. Which isn’t to say that the Sonnets aren’t works of genius in their own right.  Oh, leave that mackerel analogy! It’s as if Shakespeare was a great athlete and might  box or play rugby and win silver or gold at both.  Here he is boxing:

SONNET LXIV (44)

When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defaced
The rich proud cost of outworn buried age;
When sometime lofty towers I see down-razed
And brass eternal slave to mortal rage;
When I have seen the hungry ocean gain
Advantage on the kingdom of the shore,
And the firm soil win of the watery main,
Increasing store with loss and loss with store;
When I have seen such interchange of state,
Or state itself confounded to decay;
Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate,
That Time will come and take my love away.
This thought is as a death, which cannot choose
But weep to have that which it fears to lose

Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee!

Would you take it to your Shared Reading group? I would.

How does a novice sonnet-reader get into this? What’s the emotional punch here?  Ouch  – ‘time will come and take my love away’. Everything  else is bobbing and weaving, is jab, jab, jab.

For beginners  with sonnets the rule is read it all, then  read it in chunks. The chunks here mostly fall into two lines or four lines, marked by the semicolons and colons, and by the repetition of the word ‘when’  as the first word. Let’s take it a bit at a time:

When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defaced
The rich proud cost of outworn buried age;

Those repeated ‘when’s’ become something but at the first one we don’t know that yet. Is it just me, or does ‘when’ imply a pattern of thought: when this, then that.  When I go the shop (then) I buy things.  but what we get here is a long list of  whens with no ‘then’ outcome until the end of the poem. So we have to read and wait. The waiting is  marked by the semicolon.

‘When I have seen’ is also – is it?  – plural?  Has it happened many times in the past? I have seen is certainly a completed action in the past. I’m not sure what it is  here in the grammar that makes me think it is plural. Seen over and over.

You might ask, why is it ‘Time’s fell hand ‘? I look up ‘fell’ in the Etymological dictionary. Fell is causes to fall, is cruel. I looked at ‘defaced’ and think of vandalism, wanton damage. It’s random and cruel, remorseless and careless – that’s Time.  And what does Time deface?

The rich proud cost of outworn buried age;

I am thinking of graveyards, of memorials, perhaps because of ‘buried age’. The rich proud cost – is that stuff – masonry, marble tombs, oak caskets. Rich is one thing, proud another. This line is stuffed full of meanings – this is Shakespeare’s brain, floating like a butterfly, jab, jab, jab. You pay your money – jab! You create some monument that  expresses your self-pride – jab! You know what? – It gets covered in cobwebs and ivy  – jab! Because you  are dead – jab!  Because you are ancient, in the past, over, done – jab!

He’s bouncing around on his toes.

More tomorrow.

 

Overnight Thoughts, Knitting Up Those Raveled Sleeves and Doing My Expenses, Late.

expenses.JPG

‘Sleep,’ says Macbeth, who hasn’t had any,  ‘knits up the raveled sleeve of care.’

I love overnight thoughts and the fact that my brain keeps trying even when I go to sleep. It’s as if everything does not depend on consciousness, a great relief when you haven’t got or can’t summon enough of that vital commodity to deal with all the things you’ve got to sort out.

This morning I woke up with some lines of George Herbert’s ‘The Elixir’ playing in my mind. I’ve written about that poem before  (search George Herbert and you’ll find it) but here it is again today.  Great poems come back and prove useful over and over.

It’s a religious poem and must come with my usual caveat: I’m not a Christian and have to translate what George Herbert is able to think as a Christian into something that makes sense to me. I borrow his language and try to understand my own situation through it.

Let’s read it quickly through:

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

Why did I wake with the following lines quietly but insistently  reciting themselves  in my mind?

Not rudely, as a beast,
         To run into an action;
But still to make Thee prepossest,
         And give it his perfection.

I had been dreaming, or perhaps better to say, unconsciously thinking, about some work problems and my brain was offering me ‘The Elixir’ as a solution.  It was saying  ‘You already know this! Think on!’

I say ‘problems’ but these weren’t the gut-wrenching problems of leadership common to every charity (and non-charity?) CEO. For me those problems,  real problems, the worst, the 2.47 a.m. and I’m wide awake problems, always involve people and their individual sensibilities.  Other kinds of worries sometimes wake me up but  it is the people problems that make me sweat. I think this  is connected to what William Stafford is talking about in his poem ‘A Ritual To Read To Each Other’ (which you’ll find here) when he speaks of  ‘the horrible errors of childhood’

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dike.

When I’m reading ‘A Ritual To Read To Each Other’ with other people , this stanza is always a tricky one. You need a lot of trust to be willing to go into ‘the horrible errors of childhood/storming out to play through the broken dyke.’

Stafford is talking about people trying to make a new pattern in the world, people following each other or  sticking together, trying to get somewhere together. Everything depends on trust.  And this stanza about the ‘horrible errors of childhood’ is a stanza about moments when our trusting fails.

‘Betrayal’, which is a big thing, starts small,  a private, even secret thought, ‘ in the mind’. No one would even know what you were thinking.  But that small betrayal results in a physical action in the world: ‘a shrug’, which doesn’t at first seem much.

You think something bad about someone (which is how I take the word ‘betrayal’ – but we might argue about that) and you stop bothering. You let it go. Some things can’t be fixed. That shrug doesn’t seem much, and might even be sensible.

But it is the shrug that  ‘lets the fragile sequence break’ and suddenly all hell is let loose.

We become as children, in dangerous adult bodies/lives. To have the emotional needs of unhappy children, but to have them in adult lives, with adult powers of language and memory and behaviour and power, is a terrible thing. We become a raging flood, breaking the dam, the dyke, out of control.

Working on problems like that, the work of the priest or psychotherapist, is hard in a workplace where we don’t have time to slowly unravel  reasons and face them in our own time. We have to decide to do something today, now.

Poetry can help at work. You don’t need hours, you need a couple of lines. You need a different feeling round a table. You may only need one thought.

None of that was my problem last night, however. I didn’t wake up sweating. I slept through and woke with ‘The Elixir’ in my mind.

The problems of  last night are creative problems about trying to make Calderstones a place where the horrible errors of childhood are not storming around too much and where all our tasks, from picking up litter to serving soup, from reading the poems to reading the people, from filing our accounts with the Charities Commission to submitting expenses forms on time are all done as if they all mattered.

 A servant with this clause
         Makes drudgery divine:
Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws,
         Makes that and th’ action fine.

The floor-sweeping, housekeeping, of filing my expenses on time saves the finance team trouble and that is as much a part of the vision of Calderstones as  good communication or fine literature or delicious soup.  Shrug  those small things off at your peril. Next thing, we’re all lost. ‘The Elixir’ came into my mind to tell me so.

Teach me, my God and King,
         In all things Thee to see,
And what I do in anything
         To do it as for Thee.