Over-sleeping

prob boug
Bougainvillea outside a Venetian Empire dwelling in Perast, Bay of Kotor, 15 July

Last night, after a hard day at the beach, where I’d swum, eaten, drunk, read but, mostly, slept for about 7 hours,  stopping only to buy some eggs and some insect bite cream,  I made my way back home to Perast, watched one episode of Due South (of which perhaps there will never be another mention here) and then fell asleep, reading Granta Best New Young American Novelists 3, at about 10.00pm.

Some readers have  sussed my nocturnal (English, workaday)  habits – bed by 10.00pm up by 5.00am …but readers, things are very different here. I woke this morning at 8.10am.

O.k., this ancient Venetian waterside building (Perast was a major town in the Venetian republic) has two foot deep silencing walls, and thick wooden shutters keep almost all light out, and the noise of the air-con makes you think, if you do  rise up into consciousness, that it’s pouring with rain so you may as well go back to sleep… but even so,  ten hours sleep in one night? after a day where I probably slept for  another four in that waterside shade?

As I stumbled towards my coffee, the opening lines of this poem by Samuel Daniel came into my mind, so I decided to read it this morning.

Care-charmer Sleep, son of the sable Night,
Brother to Death, in silent darkness born:
Relieve my languish, and restore the light,
With dark forgetting of my cares, return;
And let the day be time enough to mourn
The shipwreck of my ill-adventur’d youth:
Let waking eyes suffice to wail their scorn,
Without the torment of the night’s untruth.
Cease dreams, th’ imagery of our day-desires,
To model forth the passions of the morrow;
Never let rising sun approve you liars,
To add more grief to aggravate my sorrow.
Still let me sleep, embracing clouds in vain;
And never wake to feel the day’s disdain.

Reading it now,  it feels as if I have never read it before. I know the opening line off by heart and then –  nothing. But that’s not true, I know I have read this before.  Even so, I’ve lost it – don’t understand it, by line 6 am all at sea, except for the feeling of mess, mess. And a sense of  ‘this isn’t me’ :  whatever I’ve been in – long complicated interconnected dreams  of the sort I rarely  have at home – complete rest, black out of consciousness, it doesn’t have the same flavour as Daniel’s poem.  But never mind that… let me just read it.

The sonnet is made up of just two sentences, and my  first instinct is to read the first whole sentence to  get the run of the thing – what ‘s it about. But that is hard:

Care-charmer Sleep, son of the sable Night,
Brother to Death, in silent darkness born:
Relieve my languish, and restore the light,
With dark forgetting of my cares, return;
And let the day be time enough to mourn
The shipwreck of my ill-adventur’d youth:
Let waking eyes suffice to wail their scorn,
Without the torment of the night’s untruth.

I read a couple of times, trying to follow the movements of thought. The first two lines are an address, they name and place ‘Sleep’ as a type of thing. Sleep is a ‘care-charmer’ –  I think of a snake charmer – of  the power to make something dangerous behave in ways it might not otherwise do. I’m thinking of cares as snakes, the dangerous things that might hurt. Sleep is ‘son of the sable night’, that is to say (unlike me) Daniel doesn’t sleep by day. Sable is  a word for black: only under cover of darkness does sleep appear. And when sleep does appear, then Daniel’s thought connects it with death, ‘Brother to Death, in silent darkness born’.  I stop here to think on this for a while. Think of my long night’s sleep, my almost passing out sleep in the shade at the waterside.  Sleep is like death in that you may lose consciousness, go as it were ‘out’. Not when full of dreams, as I was last night. But sleep like blackout, yes, perhaps it is brother to death.

Having thought these thoughts about what sleep is,  Daniel  then asks sleep to come to him in order to

Relieve my languish, and restore the light,
With dark forgetting of my cares, return;
And let the day be time enough to mourn
The shipwreck of my ill-adventur’d youth:

great moves between light and dark here, between consciousness and lack of consciousness, knowing and forgetting. I read all four lines but only to get the  pattern of it, the  rhythm. actually I only need to read the first two, where Daniel asks sleep to

Relieve my languish, and restore the light,
With dark forgetting of my cares, return;

The rich rhyme of  ‘languish‘ and the implied echo word ‘anguish‘ is terrific: you get both meanings in one word.  But it is the movement  between ‘dark’ and ‘light’ which is most powerful, because inverted:  going to sleep, being put out of consciousness feels to Samuel Daniel like ‘restore the light’ – it is absence of pain, ‘with dark forgetting of my cares’.

But then the word ‘return’ on the end of the line! The three words beginning with ‘r’ make a kind of wish-list:  relieve, restore, return.  If sleep would come and blot out consciousness, returning, it would both relieve and restore.

And let the day be time enough to mourn
The shipwreck of my ill-adventur’d youth:
Let waking eyes suffice to wail their scorn,
Without the torment of the night’s untruth.

Day, when we have  consciousness, is long enough to know, ‘to  mourn/The shipwreck of my ill-adventured youth’

(Struck in passing by ‘shipwreck’, a word i know from John Clare’s poem of human desperation, I Am. Clare speaks of ‘the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems’. I wonder here,  is this word consciously picked up from Samuel Daniel – did Clare read him?  or is shipwreck a  common metaphor – as  the word ‘car-crash’ might be for us? If  I had time I might out of interest look this up. I  like knowing  which poets read each other.)

going back to the poem and re-reading  those last four lines, I realise I do not understand the line ‘without  the torment of the night’s untruth’. I reread the whole poem, to  get another, longer run at it.

Care-charmer Sleep, son of the sable Night,
Brother to Death, in silent darkness born:
Relieve my languish, and restore the light,
With dark forgetting of my cares, return;
And let the day be time enough to mourn
The shipwreck of my ill-adventur’d youth:
Let waking eyes suffice to wail their scorn,
Without the torment of the night’s untruth.
Cease dreams, th’ imagery of our day-desires,
To model forth the passions of the morrow;
Never let rising sun approve you liars,
To add more grief to aggravate my sorrow.
Still let me sleep, embracing clouds in vain;
And never wake to feel the day’s disdain.

Is  the night’s untruth looking forward in what is going to come next?

But time is up for today. I’ll finish reading this tomorrow.

More Golden Numbers

palms
Palm Trees outside the Camellia Shopping Centre in Kotor, Montenegro

Yesterday I started reading ‘Sweet Content’ by Thomas Dekker.

Sweet Content

ART thou poor, yet hast thou golden slumbers?
O sweet content!
Art thou rich, yet is thy mind perplex’d?
O punishment!
Dost thou laugh to see how fools are vex’d
To add to golden numbers golden numbers?
O sweet content! O sweet, O sweet content!
Work apace, apace, apace, apace;
Honest labour bears a lovely face;
Then hey nonny nonny—hey nonny nonny!

Canst drink the waters of the crispèd spring?
O sweet content!
Swim’st thou in wealth, yet sink’st in thine own tears?
O punishment!
Then he that patiently want’s burden bears,
No burden bears, but is a king, a king!
O sweet content! O sweet, O sweet content!
Work apace, apace, apace, apace;
Honest labour bears a lovely face;
Then hey nonny nonny—hey nonny nonny!

I was beginning to think that the poem offered a flexible series of  possible thoughts  – are you poor yet content, are you rich yet punished … thirdly,  whether you are rich or poor;

Dost thou laugh to see how fools are vex’d
To add to golden numbers golden numbers?
O sweet content! O sweet, O sweet content!

Are you free of vexatious concerns about money?  ‘Golden’ here seems a false word, as if  ‘golden numbers’ are anything but – they seem meaningless partly through repetition, but there’s also that obsessive feeling of worry, ‘golden numbers golden numbers’, the same old thought going round and round. Free of that? Oh sweet content!

Then we come to a bit which seems at odds with what has come before:

Work apace, apace, apace, apace;
Honest labour bears a lovely face;
Then hey nonny nonny—hey nonny nonny!

Like the mention of ‘poor’ and ‘rich’ at the opening, the word ‘work’ seems to set off chain reactions of opinions in readers.  This poet, someone will say is telling poor people they should work hard to be happy. Yes, another will agree, it is the protestant work ethic enforced by the elite.

Oh dear oh dear my friends,  I  think it is much odder than that. But please – let’s read what is there rather than knee jerk our own pre-judgement. The three lines seem to me all different.

First – ‘work apace, apace, apace, apace;’ feels frenetic – four repetitions? –  and I’m not sure  it is offered as a command. Perhaps  a feeling of what it is like to be working ‘apace’. I looked up apace- thinking it meant ‘fast’ but actually the dictionary offers  at a steady e.g walking, pace. Perhaps it means ‘be steady’.

Honest labour bears a lovely face;

This is the line that always gets someone’s back up. Perhaps it is that old class warfare scars run deep. Perhaps readers are scared of being judged as ‘masters’ who would enforce’ labour’ from workers. Whatever the underlying trauma, it is the wrong reaction because there’s no evidence here that  the poet is trying to inflict this – with or without irony – on anyone.  It is a statement. You might agree or disagree with  it.

Does honest labour bear a lovely face? I’d say it is does. Why honest? and I wonder now if there is a connection with the line that came before? If ‘work apace’  is about steadiness rather than a more modern frenetic activity…might ‘honest labour’ be the same as ‘work apace’ – work steadily.

A new thought now occurs to me: could this be a poem against gambling? or something like gambling – the creation of money out of money?

And ‘hey nonny nonny’?  It’s nonsense – like tra-la-la or oooh ah  in a modern lyric.

The second verse follows the same pattern, and the point at which I’d want to concentrate reading energy is the central line which seems to offer a balance point, where calm becomes gold, and gold ceases to be about money:

Then he that patiently want’s burden bears,
No burden bears, but is a king, a king!

There’s a difference between being told to bear your burden patiently by someone who has power over you (and is suffering no burden) and learning to bear your burden patiently yourself.

What would you do, I ask myself, if you were reading in a group and someone  continued to keep reading as if this poem were a piece of class warfare?

I’d  let them  have their say, but at the same  I’d be looking for other people in the group who  wanted to read differently, closer to the actual text, from a less pre-set place. I’d be asking people to test certain of the poems  lines against their own experience, lines where those pre-formed notions will break down a bit. honest labour bears a lovely face is one of those.

At the conference in Newcastle, one of our readers described the difference in trying to sleep when you’ve done nothing all day and  then how you feel when you’ve walked the dog, been to the gym, done things.  That may not be paid labour but it is  labour and perhaps bears a lovely face. Doing things feels good.  Why is it ‘honest’?   You put the work in… dishonest labour? You get the reward – free money!! – without the effort.

is there an underlying principle about honesty and  the lovely nature of  labour? I think  there is – that is a truth almost like the truth of physics – if you   put the effort in here, then this follows….

So can you patiently bears want’s burden? and if so, does the burden disappear?

Then he that patiently want’s burden bears,
No burden bears, but is a king, a king!

This poem is about mind-control, how we think about what we (must) do.  If you can control your own mind, or rather your mind’s response to external reality, then you do have absolute power: you are a king. You can’t change ‘want’, you may not be able to change how rich or poor you are, but you can change the way you feel and mentally respond to your situation.

Can only a rich, powerful person think this? I would be asking this to get my group thinking beyond the bounds of rich and poor. Part of the poem’s purpose is to ask us to ditch those easy distinctions.

The poem seems to argue  that the rich powerful person can’t do this – this person is a fool, vex’d by ‘golden numbers’.

If we move the conversation from the arena of rich and poor and into a more personally worked example  – what do you do with a thing you can’t change, an illness for example, a chronic condition… I know in most Shared Reading groups there will be at least one person living with such a condition, and learning to become the person who ‘patiently want’s burden bears’.

 

Beyond The Utmost Bound

bee on hebe
A bee enjoying a Hebe, front garden, 2 July

Day Four of my  slow reading of Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’ – an idea for a Shared Reading group, which will take a full session, and won’t be suitable for every group. But for a bunch of people who may be in a give up/don’t give up situation, or for those of us facing the growing closeness of age… really worth reading. Search ‘Ulysses’ to find previous posts. Go here to find the whole poem and don’t forget to read it all aloud before you start trying to get into it!

Yesterday I was writing in the back garden to keep the birds away from the cherries, and I am back there today, late to my writing for a number of reasons, one of which is the  big online sleep experiment.  Scientists are trying to  see how much sleep or lack of sleep affects brain function. My goodness, some of those puzzles are scary!  I realised while I was doing them that even the word ‘test’, as in ‘Take the Test!’  makes me feel anxious. All those years of failure at school leave their mark.  But I enjoyed participating and am hoping that the study will encourage me to get my sleep  hours up to at least  seven a night.

However, to ‘Ulysses’. I was in this section:

How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!
As tho’ to breathe were life! Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

I think I was about up to ‘but every hour is saved/from that eternal silence’, which is sometimes how I feel on days when I wake up early and have the dawn hours to myself to read and write. Ulysses doesn’t just want the time, he wants time for a purpose, to him time gained is time as a ‘bringer of new things’. He makes his own argument for movement, for change, against  staying put, and  as he slightly thinks about his stay-at-home life we’re back to the frustrated vocabulary of the opening – ‘vile’, ‘store’, ‘hoard’.

What does he mean by ‘for some three suns’?  It’s a period of time and I guess years – though why that would be a sun I do not know.  But I don’t think it is months. This is the kind of thing someone in the group might want to look up on their phone but I’d ask them to hold off until we’ve tried to work it out a bit – we want the sense that we can either understand it or not be  bothered by not understanding it. It’s not the time period but the feeling of ‘hoard’ that is important here, the feeling of going ‘grey’ when you still have

                         spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

This ‘utmost bound of human thought’ seems connected to the arch we read about yesterday:

Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades
For ever and forever when I move.

This is that sense of what Wordsworth calls ‘something ever more about to be’, the uncatchable,  the ineffable, the  reaching after which is the engine of human endeavour. There is always more, and a person like Ulysses will always want to pursue it.  And so he does, turning now to his son, and handing on the duties of  rulership:

This is my son, mine own Telemachus,
To whom I leave the sceptre and the isle,—
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfil
This labour, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and thro’ soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.
Most blameless is he, centred in the sphere
Of common duties, decent not to fail
In offices of tenderness, and pay
Meet adoration to my household gods,
When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.

You can feel him reaching for his coat and heading for the door as he speaks. Telemachus is suited to one kind of job – and that job is not nothing, either –  building a civilisation:

by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and thro’ soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.

This is good work, but not  the kind  of work Ulysses  could fancy.  And Telemachus seems damned by his father’s faint praise: he is described as  discerning, prudent, blameless, decent and ‘centred in the sphere /of common duties’.

I would want to stop here, in my Shared Reading group, to talk about ways in which the good can seem mundane, or even boring. The wildness of a Ulysses, or any great hero who goes beyond the bounds of human experience, human thought, is enormously attractive, but as a species we need our Telemachuses as much as our great adventurers, don’t we? Is it simply because the great adventurers are rarer spirits that we  prize them more?  (If we were making a film of this poem, who would you cast to play Ulysses? Clint Eastwood, Russell Crowe?  and Telemachus? Some quiet, well-behaved bod I can’t even  remember the name of… This is a game  I often play in groups, because most people have ideas about actors, and know they stand for something when you are trying to cast them, it gives us a clue into the character we are reading about).

And the faint praise continues: Telemachus can keep everything ticking over, even ‘pay/Meet adoration to my household gods’.

I would want to ask what might be lost by not paying  ‘meet adoration’ to your own household gods –  loss of domestic security, the quiet comforts of home, or of being well-ordered at home.  How much does that matter?

But the poem presses on and Ulysses manages a  generous wave as he leaves the palace:  ‘He works his work, I mine.’ And he is about to get to his work now… but we’ll leave the last movement til tomorrow, as I must stop now for today.

Slowing Down for Deep Waters

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My guard-station under the Cherry tree

Day three of my appallingly slow reading of Tennyson ‘Ulysses’ – an idea for a shared Reading group, which will take a full session, and won’t be suitable for every group. But for a bunch of people who may be in a give up/don’t give up situation, or for those of us facing the growing closeness of age… really worth reading. Search ‘Ulysses’ to find previous posts. Go here to find the whole poem and don’t forget to read it all aloud before you start trying to get into it!

I’m writing this in the back garden where I am keeping guard on the cherry tree – today is the day of the major battle between me and the starlings, crows and blackbirds. The cherries are nearly ripe and if the sun stays out, they will mainly ripen today. Birds are loitering on nearby rooftops and telephone wires.  I don’t mind the blackbirds and crows, it’s the starlings, descending in a ravening locust-like horde… I have to keep jumping up and running shouting and clapping under the tree… was it Jude the Obscure who began life as a bird-scarer? Not an easy job! And I’ve got to go out this afternoon and lleave them to do their worst….

But back to the poem! I’d got to this point:

I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades
For ever and forever when I move.

This part of the poem always affords me a stopping place. ‘I am a part of all that I have met’ is wonderful account of the permeable nature of human experience: everything from (in Ulysses case) stormy seas to battlefields to abandoning your wife, become part of what or who you are. That seems straightforward and just true, doesn’t it? Until you look forward and see where you haven’t been yet or what you haven’t done. And the pull of that, for a rover (like Ulysses, and like, a little, myself) all those prior experiences form ‘an arch’. That’s an interesting  metaphor, and he means, I guess, a kind of gateway, through which one must pass to get to a bigger set of experiences, ‘that untravell’d world whose margin fades/ For ever and forever when I move…’  He is, and always will be, as he has said earlier, ‘roaming with a hungry heart’.

An aside: Was thinking last night about Springsteen’s ‘Hungry Heart’  and the connections between the guy from who walked out on his wife and kids in Baltimore and Ulysses, who also ‘went out for a ride and never came back…’ (well not for ten years, anyhow.) Springsteen influenced by Homer? I expect so.

Let’s get back in:

I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades
For ever and forever when I move.

Don’t be afraid to stay in a part of a poem or story or novel for as long as it takes – there’s no rule that says you have to finish the story, finish the poem. the experience of live reading – picking up on the feeling of the group, the depth of involvement, is as important as anything else we might do in Shared Reading. More important than finishing, or getting through to a certain point, is depth : how deep can you make your hour or two of reading?  When you find a place where there are deep waters, stay there for as long as you can!

The arch of what you’ve already experienced, what you know and have become, is merely way into the future ‘that untravell’d world’. That’s exciting to Ulysses and he does not seem to care that the ‘margin fades/for ever and forever when I move.’ It’s possible to imagine a person for whom is a nightmare – people want security and to know what is coming. But not this man – look back to the beginning of the poem and his sense of revolt at quiet stability. Ulysses loves that  movement of ‘forever and forever’.

How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!
As tho’ to breathe were life! Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

He’s like a suit of armour thrown down in a corner! I look at the language here: ‘dull’, ‘unburnished’, ‘not to shine in use’, and feel the sense of massive frustration building up. ‘Use’ that is the key – to be used, and he can’t do that in any way other than adventure. The quiet life of an adventurer retired to merely being King seems to him like doing nothing ‘as though to breathe were life’ – that’s to say just continuing to breathe, to stay alive is not ‘life’.

How hungry his heart is! he wants tons of lives, and if he can’t have them, he wants to use every minute of the life he has got:

Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains:

In my Shared Reading group I’d be stopping here to talk about  the passing of time, how long life felt when I was ten and a day at the Riveacre Road open air baths  seemed to last for months. And how  much shorter all days now seem, all weeks, all months, all years. I remember talking to  Miss Stella Pope, a lady who taught at the Queen’s School, Chester, when my mother was pupil there. Miss Pope (you couldn’t call her anything else) must have been Very Old Indeed when she  attended my Victorian Literature course at the Lady Lever Art Gallery in Birkenhead – years before the birth of The Reader. Miss Pope always wore a hat and she kept it on in the class. Sometimes she fell asleep but when she woke up she’d be wide-awake and spot on the mark of whatever we were  reading. She told me, the years go by like days in the end.  It all speeds up just as you come to value it.

Little remains, he says and I wonder … how old is this man ? Would you put him at a modern sixty?  and then the question the poems poses for us: what are you going to do with your remaining time? This is a  difficult area of conversation and almost certainly will get very serious. I’ve had a man talking about living with bowel cancer, a man talking about drinking himself to death. You have to be ready for anything. But what are you ready with?  Why, what we’ve actually got: human companionship, another cup of tea, being there, at the table together with the hard question in front of us. As a reader said to me yesterday, you’re not on your own, you’re going through with the others.

Let’s read on. Oh, no, time is up!

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View from under the  tree

 

From agh to ah: reading old poems with old footballers

poppy
Oriental Poppy, front garden, 30 June

Yesterday I started a reading of Tennyson’s great poem for those who won’t give up, ‘Ulysses’. I’ll continue that reading today. Find the  whole poem here.

I have been meeting with some of our volunteer Reader Leaders to learn how our new volunteer-led model is working, to hear what needs fixing, to understand what’s working. A really good morning yesterday  meeting Reader Leaders from across the North West – including  Crewe, Middlewich, Bootle, Knowsley Liverpool and Wirral. The  key problem is reading material – how to choose, and  how to get hold of it.  We have a  selection online on our membership site but people need more.  The Reader is planning a series of anthologies over the coming years, and think it would be great to get them into every pubic library… but that is a huge project, so  for now,  please hold on! There are loads of poems that are out of copyright. If you are looking online,  the wonderful Poetry Foundation is a great place to start.

I’ve written a number of posts here with ‘What to read in a Shared Reading group’ in the title – maybe something worth you reading there. But they are not all poems!

In The Reader magazine, you’ll find a brilliant section called ‘The Old Poem’  where my old University tutor, Mr Brian Nellist, chooses and old poem and writes a little about it.  That might be a good place to start. As a Reader Leader, or anyone who has done our Read to Lead training course,  you should receive the mag free for the first year after your training – if you haven’t had it, please let our membership man know!

People can be nervous about introducing old poems to groups of people who have not been readers. I can understand that because I’ve run hundreds of such groups myself. I know that nervous feeling when your three or four first punters trickle into the room and you think… agh… this is not  going to work.  And then, to quote James Baldwin, you read.  And once you start to read the thing one of our Reader Leader’s called ‘the alchemy’ begins to happen. Agh to ah in an hour and a half.

The key to getting from ‘agh’ to ‘ah’ is the trust and confidence of the Reader Leader.  How do you develop trust and confidence?  Controlled experiments in trying have always worked for me, and I’d recommend that method.

 

But let’s assume you’ve chosen an old poem – let’s say it’s Tennyson’s  ‘Ulysses’ –  and you want to try the controlled experiment of taking it to an open community group… you need to do some work on it yourself before you go, because the main ingredient in encouraging your group enjoy it is you and your enthusiasm. So get into it!

It’s really important to make the poem alive to yourself and your group members – it can’t be, must not be,  an old dead thing that’s too fancy and hard to understand.  Look for good things, look for things that will spark conversation, or that people will recognise as human experience.  Whatever our clothes, class, or classroom experience, in human, emotional terms our lives are very similar.  No one wants to feel redundant. That’s what ‘Ulysses’ feels and fights against. I started here, and am picking up at ‘I am become a name’ ;

I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: All times I have enjoy’d
Greatly, have suffer’d greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone, on shore, and when
Thro’ scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea: I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honour’d of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.

When he says ‘I am a become a name’ he means ‘I’m famous’. This is a point where, say, working in an addiction unit with three older men in recovery from serious, life threatening addictions, I would try to  relate the poem to recognisable contemporary characters. Mentioning David Beckham anywhere in Liverpool will raise hoots of derision, so that might be a good ice-breaker –  David Beckham is a ‘name’ and  if he doesn’t have football to be seen to be good at, what is he? Sells undies, doesnt he? one of the men will say. Scent, innit?

Ok – let’s be serious, I’ll say. what about Stevie G?  He’s not a brand man like Beckham – his life, his name has been totally about football.  How is he going to  be himself without it? What’s he going to do?

We’ll talk about Beckham or Steven Gerrard for awhile, and one of the men might speak about what happened when he was made redundant but at some point, I, or one of the men, will say, let’s get back on with the poem. Back to the text. And  at the point, we’ll  go back to thinking about Ulysses.

We’ll go back with our minds primed with models we know. We’ll be more ready to think about Ulysses predicament. We’ll read ‘for always roaming with a hungry heart’ and I hope someone in the group will know the Bruce Springsteen song, because that too will give us a connection. We might even sing it! But then we will go back – again –  to the poem.

What’s the mantra: back to the text!

Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honour’d of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.

Here’s Ulysses remembering  his life as a professional ( we think of Steven Gerrard and his shirts and trophies…) Ulysses ‘job’ was explorer, statesman, soldier…and in all these roles, he was the best, ‘honour’d of them all’.  Everyone will know someone who was ‘honour’d of them all’,  really good at whatever it was they did,  the master craftsman who teased you in your apprenticeship  but could paint a Georgian window frame steady-handed, the calm and fearless boss of the fire-fighters crew, Tommy the union man at Lime Street.  To make the old poem real we have to be able to connect it to real lives, to real experience.  Only later, when people do this automatically, can we try to do more abstract literary reading (but I never want to do that myself, I like staying in the every day reality).

What’s hard  is constantly  making the connection to ordinary reality and to complex language. Here, in these lines, I’d be concentrating on the music, the rhythm of Ulysses’ voice. I’d be getting my three men to pretend to be  great Greek warriors heavy in bronze armour and  saying these lines. Read them aloud!

Myself not least, but honour’d of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.

I am a part of all that I have met;

Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades
For ever and forever when I move.

Next bit is brilliant, but out of time for today… what a pity!

 

 

What to read in a Shared Reading group: ‘Ulysses’ by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

scabius.jpg
Immensely tall yellow scabious in the Old English Garden at Calderstones

Earlier this week while reading ‘Beyond The End’ by Denise Levertov, I was reminded of ‘Ulysses’ by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. I thought I might read it over the next few days. You’ll find the poem here.

This is a poem for a whole session, or possibly, depending on the amount of time you and your group spend talking, for two sessions. It’s a story-poem with thinking in it. Not sure how much I can get through  this morning but I’m going to start by reading the first two sentences. In a longish poem like this , it might not be a good idea to read the whole thing all the way through, because, if you have inexperienced readers in your group, they may well get lost very early on and then be adrift and  worried for lines and lines. Better to take it in small chunks and make sure you are keeping everyone with you.

It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match’d with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.
I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: All times I have enjoy’d
Greatly, have suffer’d greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone, on shore, and when
Thro’ scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea: I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honour’d of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.

First – do you need to know the ancient Greek story behind the poem? No, you don’t –  the poem contains everything yo need to know to experience it. would Tennyson have expected his readers to know? Yes, he’d probably have assumed this  background was  in most readers’ minds. So might you want to glance at wikipedia. You might want that background info, and fair enough. But as I read it, I find myself thinking – there is tone of authority – about the poem, its setting , its meaning, its author, that I find at odds with the Reader spirit of Shared Reading. What is at odds?  Oh, received wisdom, the ways in which experts agree in knowing voices, how literary people talk in this dead and deadening way about a living thing… Read up,  by all means but then – throw it up. Get that info out of you.  Don’t let these men and women inside your head!

Now you have to read again, as if you yourself, with the poem, were entirely able to read, to understand. It doesn’t matter if sometimes we don’t understand. what matters more than anything is that we should have a live experience as we read, not regurgitating something  someone says or thinks or writes, but living our response – whatever it is. So let’s read:

It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match’d with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.

The poem is in the first person, and ‘I’: it’s in the voice of someone talking to us (or to himself or another and we’re overhearing).And it is a voice of complaint, this is someone who is fed up: there’s little profit in what he’s doing – look at all the words of  grumpy dissatisfaction: little, idle,still hearth, barren, aged wife, mete and dole, unequal, savage, hoard, sleep, know not me.

Most of these opening five lines are words of complaint or fed-upness or disgust. Ulysses  is wasting his own time  – you can imagine in pacing up and down, looking out of the window, trapped and longing to be away and in the next  – much longer sentence – he casts about for a different feeling:

I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: All times I have enjoy’d
Greatly, have suffer’d greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone, on shore, and when
Thro’ scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea: I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honour’d of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.

It feels really different now – hunger, appetite, movement, fame – this is the old life of Ulysses. He led the siege of Troy, he built the trojan horse, he travelled the world…and now, he had became the man who has led the life he led: ‘I cannot rest from travel.’

This would be a good a point to stop to think about ways in which, as Nietzsche said, we become what we are. How much does what we habitually do make us what we  are? Does being a nurse make you careful of people’s hurt? Tough or loving or both?  If you run a bar for thirty years will that affect your understanding of human nature?

Certainly Ulysses has had an amazingly active life: did that make him the man who says, now, in older age, ‘I will drink life to the lees’ ? (Does anyone know what that phrase means? As Reader Leader, you might well have looked it up. But don’t say so until everyone else has  had a a chance to share what they think!)

What does your group think of the word ‘cannot’? is Ulysses making a choice or is he in some way trapped in his own personality? And  ‘will’, as in ‘I will’ seems related to that cannot, doesn’t it? As if  this  speech is somewhat willed, as if  he is deliberately making himself this man?

Do you have to look up stuff you don’t already know?  In this next part, for example –  Hyades? Easy enough with wikipedia to do so.  But wear your wiki knowledge lightly, because it really doesn’t matter – the meaning is already in the poem:

All times I have enjoy’d
Greatly, have suffer’d greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone, on shore, and when
Thro’ scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea:

I’d read it first and get the group to work at it – then I’d ask someone to look it up on their phone. But only after we’ve shown ourselves that we can understand it without the reference, wiki-confirmation.

Ulysses loves feeling a big feeling, loving greatly, suffering greatly – the connector is ‘greatly’. And he has felt these huge feelings in company – ‘both with those/that loved me’

and he has felt them alone when …

Thro’ scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea

Translate that, then… leaving an X to  stand for Hyades if no one knows what they are…Ulysses is saying he  had big feelings when the seas were stormy?  As when in shipwreck or storm, physical danger?  ‘…the rainy Hyades vext the dim sea’ means something like – they cooked up a storm.

Times up, more tomorrow

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.