Minding My Business: Wendell Berry’s take on Literature, Ray Dalio’s Principles and William Stafford’s Ritual To Read To Each Other

The Reader R Black

It’s all business at the moment.

I’m gearing up for a new financial year, a new planning year, a new make-the-organisation-again year at The Reader and I am working on organisational thinking things, which also require writing  and reading but not of this readerly-blog-sort. Most of my early morning time is being spent on business books and organisational thinking. Some of that organisational thinking  needs poetry, and a poem  I often turn to at work is William Stafford’s ‘A Ritual To Read To Each Other‘.

There are many copies of the poem on the internet and I’m using the one at  The Poetry Foundation.

Trying to translate everything I learn from my life in literature  into my work as the Founder and Director of The Reader is a difficult task but surely, it is the task for me? If The Reader isn’t made out of reading I don’t know what is.

If The Reader’s mission is a reading revolution, what is the post-revolutionary world? A world informed by, shaped by, made new by what we can learn from reading great books. It’s easy to say ‘a world’, but so much harder to make one. In a small way, I want to make that world at The Reader.

Before the advent of The Reader (the organisation, the movement and Calderstones all started with The Reader magazine, which is twenty-one this Spring)  the main thing I had to make from my engagement with literature was myself. There were ripple effects  on my students, too, I believe, but those ripples were much  harder to judge than the effect of literature on me, which I know from inside. Making a self is a lifetime task, as reading and tussling with T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets has taught me:

And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious.

At some point long ago, when I still worked in a university, I read Wendell Berry’s essay, ‘The Loss of The University’  ( find it in the collection of essays Standing on Earth) and realised what was wrong with literary studies. I don’t have the book here at home (it’s in the office) so cannot check the quotation, but essentially  Wendell Berry argues that literary scholars teach students to learn about works of literature rather than from them.  I’d not been an ‘about’ student or teacher, but I’d never put my instinct on this into words until I saw the words Wendell Berry used. That was key moment of shocked recognition. Now I carry that formulation with me : don’t learn about it, learn from it. You get the literary, rather than the historical, experience that way.

I want to use what I have learned from forty years of reading literature to make a good organisation that does good work, and works well.

But the difficulties of organisation-making are immense. Since I’ve been working on The Reader I have developed a massive respect for anyone who gets any kind of business /organisation/ project off the ground. A garden centre, a new building,  a plane ticket, the Olympics. Because  everything is so complicated, compromises must always be made – plastic bottles or glass bottles? –  and short-cuts must be taken, but which short-cut is a readerly organisation willing to take? You’ve deadlines to meet: will you cut out the day’s reading or your one-to-one with a sadly troubled colleague or will you miss the  bid deadline and potential income? (Clue: cut the one that will still be do-able tomorrow).

Let’s take a straightforwardly contentious issue: what’s fair in  terms of pay? This is a massive unsolvable problem and for years I’ve been tempted towards a simple solution: pay everyone the same! But that’s not fair, because some people put in more than others, some shoulder more responsiblility, some are highly valued in the outside-world-markets of skills. And, yes,  the organisation must exist within the terms of the outside world, even as  things I have learned in my life in literature tell me to build a new and better world. So it’s always a case of  compromise and adjust, work out  what’s the nearest thing to fair that fits the situation and meets legislation. Or you can just copy what most people/other organisations do.

This is what William Stafford might mean when he talks about ‘a pattern  that others made’:

If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the
and following the wrong god home we may miss
           our star.

These patterns that others made – from payscales to  maternity leave entitlements to meeting agendas to dresscode – are everywhere and are the norm in the world. They may cause massive loss of  potential and misdirection. For William Stafford this all begins at a personal, individual level. Do we know each other? Do you know the kind of person I am?

I wonder about ‘kind’ here: does it mean ‘type’, or almost ‘species’ ?

If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
How well do you have to know someone to know the ‘kind of person’ they are? I try using the phrase  – Jane is the kind of person who thinks everyone getting the same amount of money is the answer to pay inequality/thinks eating together at work matters/would like to have a communal song every morning/always wants people to have another chance, right up to the wire/thinks you can use great literature to help build an organisation/will change her mind.
This is not very deep or very personal – most people  I work with  will know most of the above, though have to admit, have not had the courage to mention my longing for a song.  And there are other  things I haven’t added to this list, for reasons  of reputation. But do we even mostly know stuff at this level, openly ? Is it openly acknowledged?  Possibly not because look how quickly, in the next stanza, things fall apart.  (and the stuff I haven’t mentioned – how open might I or my colleagues be about that?)
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
storming out to play through the broken dike.
We start off at quite a superficial level, possibly (‘if’) not knowing the kind of person we’re talking to and then we hit the word ‘betrayal’. This isn’t merely superficial ‘kind of’ knowing, is it?  What we know or are willing to have known matters.
The betrayal is only ‘in the mind’  – you don’t say it or let it be seen –  but  still, a betrayal is a big thing.
Like the shrug –  you’d think it was not  much. You’re just letting something go, can’t fix everything, can’t get everything right.  Next thing you know, the ‘fragile sequence’ is broken.
What is that ‘fragile sequence’? It’s certainly connected to ‘god’ and ‘home’ : perhaps it’s something to do with how we behave or how we be our (whatever they are) selves? Pehaps it is the civil contract of being adult with each other? For when the fragile sequence breaks, it’s our more primitive selves that come to the fore:
sending with shouts the horrible errors of
storming out to play through the broken dike.
Small things lead to big. Bit of a shrug,  then someone is in a mess and suffering the patterns of behaviour laid down in childhood – the shouting, the storming, the trauma.
These thoughts  were already with me when I read Ray Dalio’s Principles over the Christmas break, have been, because of this and other works of literature, with me for years. When I started reading Principles there was the same kind of recognition  I had had with the Wendell Berry all those years ago. Dalio’s a money man, a markets analyst and he runs one of the most successful companies in the world. What could he have to offer The Reader, to old pay-everyone-the-same-Jane?
Principles begins with the kind of person Ray Dalio is – he wants us to know  that before we get into business together.  The book is in two halves – parts 1&2 about Ray and the kind of man he is and what he believes about life, and  then part 3, work principles.
His basic  message for me is life is evolution:  live, suffer, work out what went wrong, try to fix it.
I believe that everything that happens comes about because of cause-effect relationships that repeat and evolve over time. At the big bang, all the laws and forces of the universe were created and propelled forward, interacting with each other over time like a complex series of machines that work together: the strucuture of the galaxies, the make-up of Earth’s geography and ecosystems, our economies and markets, and each one of us. Individually we are machines made up of different machines – our circulatory systems, our nervous systems, and so on – that produce our thoughts, our dreams, our emotions, and every other aspect of our distinct personalities. All these machine are evolving together to produce the reality we encounter every day.
It’s a trouble for me that Ray Dalio uses the word ‘machine’ in exactly the same way that it is a trouble for me that George Herbert uses the word ‘God’.  I have to use my translating mechanism in both cases, and in  exactly the same way – don’t get hung up on it. Just accept he’s different (the kind of person he is) and that he still has a lot to offer me. What has the most to offer? His analytic skills  and willingness to arrive at truth are remarkable.
See Ray Dalio’s TED talk  here.



Sharing an atom of truth with Bellow, Herzog and Levertov

Roses and mint, borage and clematis in the back garden 16 May

I don’t want to continue with Shakespeare’s horses today, however energetic they may be. I am not interested enough, life is short.

So I’m turning the pages of the Oxford Book of English Verse looking for something I can care about. Up to about page 200, and it’s all love and death, or fear of losing love, or having lost it,  or fear of death, or advice on how to live a good life plus  the odd aside to your cat or ‘on inviting a friend to dinner’. Where our lives are going, how to end well, that sort of thing. Yes, yes. Impatiently I turn the pages, that’s not what I want.

Instead I’m turning over in my mind the thought of what Shared Reading essentially is, what matters most. We say we are making a reading revolution and we’re changing the place of literature in the world, bringing it out of the academy and into life. When I think of some of the places we’ve made reading happen over the past decade…places where no reading was, no poetry, no novels, no help with thinking about experience, all those care homes, rehabilitation units, clinics, bail hostels, young offender institutions, mental health inpatient and community units, I think we’ve made a good start on that. I think also of the many libraries and schools and community centres where people are sharing their reading in a new way. Yes, it’s a start.

Now our new model of growth is going to spread Shared Reading even more widely.  But the wider it goes the harder it is to ensure quality: we now  have to balance between strict  rules  (to keep it right) and the spirit of the thing (to keep it lively). We have to balance as we go, and that balance is always going to be a series of movements, of many tiny, constant adjustments, with the occasional hard  pull back to the centre , just like a woman walking  tightrope.

What must be preserved?  If I came back in a hundred, two hundred years, would I hope to see still happening in Shared Reading groups? I want live-ness, some electrical moment of connection. I’d want to see some depth. Some people we’ve trained  have told me that Shared Reading consists of reading a short story, or an extract from a novel, and a poem. They have to go together.  The skill of shared reading is in the choosing. Well, no,  I tell them, I don’t agree. You can do that, but that is not a principle of Shared Reading.

You could read just a Shakespeare play, as our Shakespeare group in Birkenhead has done since 2008. Or only Daniel Deronda and no poems. Or you can read only a poem. You can read a big long poem over several weeks or months. The content matters, not the form. Which is not to say that the form of ‘some prose and some poetry’ isn’t a good one. It’s just not essential.  What is essential is the concentrated, deep nature of the reading experience. How we bring that about is up for grabs. Much depends on our confidence in the reading matter.

Like all things, literature is a continuum –  there’s poor stuff at one end, acceptably inoffensive stuff in the middle and great stuff at the other end.  People balk at the word ‘great’ because it implies  value judgement. I think we have to make value judgements. We make them about songs or beer or holidays: why not literature? Probably, making a judgement about the value content of what is to be read is a key principle of Shared Reading.

Great literature is writing which helps us integrate our own felt experience with the wisdom of others, helping us understand the world and ourselves. So, yes, great literature is certainly Crime and Punishment but also I Want My Hat Back (both stories of  loss, murder and aftermath) and probably not True Crime 3. (Though I reserve the right to change my mind in particular circumstances,where True Crime 3 might just be the volume that gets me into conversation with a particular person,  in conversation long enough to introduce them to Dostoevsky)

Depth of experience is what I want in my own reading (and why I’m not reading ‘Courser and Jennet’  today though I do think that someone could read it and get something out of it, just not me, not today) and that’s what I’d want to bring about in any Shared Reading experience. As my colleague Grace said to me yesterday, in  the first manifestation of The Reader (The Reader magazine, ‘a magazine about writing worth reading’ which we published in Spring 1997) Sarah Coley and I quoted what we felt was key passage from Saul Bellow’s novel, Herzog.

The people who come to evening classes are only ostensibly after culture. Their great need, their hunger, is for good sense, clarity, truth – even an atom of it. People are dying – it is no metaphor – for lack of something real to carry home when day is done.

Sarah and I had been teaching literature courses in the Continuing Education Programme for some time. I’d been doing it for perhaps ten years. I knew it wasn’t just the people who came to class who wanted ‘something real’ to take home. It was me too.

That urgent need to create a place where ‘the real’ could be found was what led to the creation of The Reader and of Shared Reading. That’s what I’m looking for when I look for something to read. So with all that in my mind (this morning’s subject matter, which, I’m sorry to say , it has my reading whole hour to realise) I now know what I’m looking for in a reading.

Therefore today it is ‘The Metier of Blossoming’ by Denise Levertov, which you’ll find here. I’m just reading the last few lines, as I’m already over time this morning.

If humans could be
that intensely whole, undistracted, unhurried,
swift from sheer
unswerving impetus! If we could blossom
out of ourselves, giving
nothing imperfect, withholding nothing!

The key thing now for The Reader’s growth is, like Levertov’s amaryllis, ‘sheer/unswerving impetus’.

It’s a marvellous unfinished wish, the end of this poem, which has been so concentrated on observing the plant, as if a scientist watched and noted its growth. But then after all that definite notation, the last two sentences – for humans – must both begin with ‘if’, must remain incomplete. For us there is only the trying.

‘If’ is the depth charger. Notice its repetition, not the big ambitions, which are so easily mouthed every day by  any old InspiringQuoteDotCom. ‘If’ opens the conversation for us in Shared Reading, this tiny word, ‘an atom’ of something good. The conversation that will grow from it will be ‘something real to take home when day is done.’

Silas tomorrow.


The footnote killeth

The Japanese Garden at Calderstones

Yesterday I was  thinking about what a novice reader in Shared Reading needs to know, and made a list of 9 things to do, most of which were, read the poem aloud. Heather commented on the importance of No. 3, ‘Check how you are feeling’.

Heather writes, ‘This is the key that can begin to unlock a scary-looking poem. I have seen people being astonished by feelings that have emerged after initially having said things like ‘I don’t get this’.’

Yes. It is  important that we feel able to stay in that creative place of uncertainty. At that place, ‘I don’t get this…’ we are on the very cusp of new thought, new understanding. The reader and the text are trying to find each other. The reader stands face to face with the words, an equal. As when we meet a new person, we try to find  out who they are – not by references, but in their own terms. A man (new to his Shared Reading group)  said to me yesterday, ‘It’s just us, and the words, and something… happens…’

The model of brave uncertainty characterised by, ‘I don’t get this… but I’m beginning to feel…’ may be a one of the contributing factors to one of the key outcomes shared Reading Group members report – feeling more confident.

Often, in more experienced, or more educated, literary worlds (I’ve seen it  in literature courses, in talks at Lit Fests, in lectures, at Book Clubs ) there is a reaching after fact to put-off  or smooth over those feelings uncertainty, of not-knowing, as if fact could do it for us and save us those worries. But it doesn’t. It might sometimes add to something we are experiencing in the reading but, very often, it intrudes, and the experience becomes something else, almost corrupted.

If I said to you, I’ve looked up ‘The Eagle’, and Tennyson wrote it to celebrate the adoption of the american eagle at the end of the American Civil War (I’ve just made that up, but say it was historically true). Your relation to the poem is now a historical  one. It’s no longer just you and poem, the words on the page. It’s art, Jim, but with footnotes. And, particularly at the beginning of  an experience, of a relationship with a work of literature (perhaps any art?) , the footnote killeth.  It certainly affects the democracy of reading.

I spent years reading and teaching and sharing my readings of three  of the greatest poems ever written – The Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost and The Prelude. I like to have an edition with  good footnotes, and I like the footnotes to be at the bottom of the page, so you don’t have to flip backwards and forwards. Alastair Fowler’s edition of Paradise Lost is excellent for this. I read the footnotes quite often. But what I’ve found over thirty years is that they don’t help. Not when you are really struggling. That real struggle is the struggle to enter the mind of the author, to follow, through language, form, syntax, the experience of the author’s thoughts.

In this respect reading is like eating or dancing. No one can do it for you. There are things to learn about dance and food and what other people like or believe, and learning that extra stuff might well add to your experience. But you don’t start there. You start by doing it yourself. And no one, however expert, can do your eating or dancing.

Back the The Eagle. Yesterday I’d read some of the first stanza, now I’m going to read the second and try to understand why  it makes me afraid.

The Eagle

He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ring’d with the azure world, he stands.

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson

The first thing in the second stanza that frightens me is ‘the wrinkled sea.’ That sea is very far down: I feel vertigo as I read. Height changes time on cliff tops. Tennyson uses the verb ‘crawls’ to get at that feeling. If you were walking on the shore, the waves would be crashing, the tide moving at  a speed. From very high above,  (I’m remembering cliff tops on a Greek Island, the Aegean seeming miles below) the sea seems to move a very slow speed.  The eagle ‘watches’ and I’m seeing something alert, intelligent, deliberate and very very far above everything else –  as in the first stanza, when  he seemed god-like.  the giving way implied in ‘falls’ is what frightens me most. It is absolute abandonment. It is power too, because this is not an uncontrolled fall. This is the power, and self-control of the high diver. The diver, the faller, becomes an object –  cannonball- submitting to gravity in this way, terrifyingly making of their own body a weapon.

The ‘thunderbolt’ connects me back to the sense of him as out-of-this-world, godlike, ‘ring’d with the azure world.’

Do you see a film of this unfolding  moment in  your mind as you read?
I’m asking myself Do you see anything human? The long distance of a very far-off encompassing gaze, the seeing of things in a large pattern, the ability to move with great certainty and very fast…it’s the difference between the long far off gaze and fast,’ terrifying action, the ‘thunderbolt’ that unsettles me.

I’ve noticed the way each stanza has three rhymes. That makes the rhythm of the poem act strangely, I think. I read it aloud to myself a couple of times. You sort of expect a fourth line, that’s what it is. The lines themselves are very regular, four beat lines:

He clasps the crag with crooked hands;

And you’d expect each stanza to be a four line stanza, to match , as it were. But you don’t get the fourth line. When you don’t get it, it’s like the great down-swoop of the bird. Something is suddenly not there.

This poem is a sketch, a small one, in pencil. Its  full of a moment of life and it shows Tennyson’s skill. But I want something bigger. I move on the next picture. Tell me more about humans.

The Babe Leaps Up

babe leaps up
Baby Grace leaping up in her mothers arms in an office at The Reader

Been reading – very slowly – Wordsworth’s Intimations of Immortality here all week and not got very far. You’ll find the whole poem here. But I’m only up to this bit;

Oh evil day! if I were sullen
While Earth herself is adorning,
This sweet May-morning,
And the Children are culling
On every side,
In a thousand valleys far and wide,
Fresh flowers; while the sun shines warm,
And the Babe leaps up on his Mother’s arm:—
I hear, I hear, with joy I hear!
—But there’s a Tree, of many, one,
A single field which I have looked upon,
Both of them speak of something that is gone;
The Pansy at my feet
Doth the same tale repeat:
Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is it now, the glory and the dream?

Today I’ve got a piece in the Comment section of The Observer about why we need a reading revolution. In it, I remember seeing a baby, one of those gorgeous chunky one-year-olds, leaping up in his mother’s arms on a doorstep in North Birkenhead and thinking ‘that baby will never read Wordsworth’. That thought (or was it a feeling?) helped propel me into creating The Reader.

But why, in a hard life, and that baby’s was almost certainly going to be a hard life, would Wordsworth matter at all? Why not concentrate on housing and vegetables? Of course, we need those things but as Rose Schneiderman famously said, we need bread and roses. And we need them at the same time. Humans have inner lives and those inner lives have profound effect on our ability to  renew roofs and grow vegetables, to create a sour-dough bakery in an area down-on-its-uppers, to develop a rose-growing business out of a wasteland.

Poetry matters because we might have forgotten, as Gillian Clarke writes in Miracle on St Davids Day, that we have anything to say. Of a mute labouring man in a mental health ward, moved to speech by poetry, she writes;

Since the dumbness of misery fell
he has remembered there was a music
of speech and that once he had something to say.

What we, in the our time, call ‘mental health’ or ’emotional experience’ is really about inner being, the most complicated, uncharted, rewarding and dangerous parts of human experience. I wish we had other names for this stuff. Our present vocabulary feels as unhelpful as grunts would be in working out the impact of black holes on the development of the universe. For one thing, calling it ‘mental health’ allows a good  half of the population to think it is nothing to do with them. But everyone has inner life, emotional experience. Our ability to understand and learn from it is a vital part of our human survival kit, as the psychotherapist Wilfred Bion writes;

If a person cannot ‘think’ with his thoughts, that is to say that he has thoughts but lacks the apparatus of ‘thinking’ which enables him to use his thoughts, to think them as it were, then the personality is incapable of learning from experience. This failure is serious. Failure to eat, drink or breathe properly has disastrous consequences for life itself. Failure to use emotional experience produces a comparable disaster in the development of the personality.

W.R.Bion, Learning From Experience

The World Health Organisation tells us that depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide. We are failing to learn from our own emotional experience partly because we do not have the language to think about it; at best we talk about this stuff in terms of ‘mental health’. But we should be speaking of  ‘human experience’.

That’s why we need great literature – Wordsworth, Kate Beaton, George Herbert, George Eliot, George Saunders, Frank O’Hara, Frank O’Connor, Frank Cottrell Boyce, Anton Chekov, Jeanette Winterson, Tolstoi, Dave McKee, Shirley Hughes, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Shakespeare, Jon Klassen, Marilynne Robinson and all the rest of them.

We need great literature and we need to relate to it in a different way. Our current way organising education so often turns it into dead stuff, despite the best efforts of good teachers. Great literature isn’t dead, it is just waiting for readers to make contact. Pupils who are being taught there are correct answers are not readers, they are exam-passers.

As a young mature student of twenty-five, the previously benefits-living single mother of a five-year old child, I first read Wordsworth  in the summer between first and second year when I was thinking of  dropping out of my university course due to class-dislocation. My goodness, but I felt unhappy and out-of-place.I can remember, across a lifetime now, the shock of recognition I felt when I first read these words;

—But there’s a Tree, of many, one,
A single field which I have looked upon,
Both of them speak of something that is gone;
The Pansy at my feet
Doth the same tale repeat:
Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is it now, the glory and the dream?

Though I felt massively excited by these lines, I did not ‘understand’ a word.

I did not know what  the ‘Tree’ was.
I did not know whether the ‘single field’ was real or not.
I did not know why it was a ‘pansy’.

Not knowing doesn’t matter.

Being moved, being touched, being excited in ways you don’t understand is what matters. It leaves you in a place where you can ask questions. And why is asking questions good? Because that’s how we learn!

I did not know what ‘the visionary gleam’ was but I knew I knew about its absence.
I did not know what ‘the glory’ was, nor ‘the dream’ neither, but I knew I missed them both.
The words spoke to some feeling I had and did not understand.
The feeling was about ‘something that is gone’.

There is no amount of on-curriculum study that would have made any of this clearer to me – I had to absorb the questions and realise, over years, that they were clues to hard-to-reach parts of my self. I’ve been reading this poem for thirty-six years. It still works, I still don’t understand it, it still gets me to ask questions!

What we’ve found  in sixteen years of Shared Reading is that  working out feelings and language with other people is easier than doing it on your own. I am grateful to the University curriculum for making me read Wordsworth and I’ve tried to translate that into Shared Reading (don’t just read what you already know and like). Without that looming second-year course on Romantics I’d never have read Wordsworth of my own volition, because it was too far, it seemed from my own experience. But that’s the thing about great writing, it is never far from your own experience. That’s what makes it great.

Wordsworth a glorious brain scanner

magnolia march calderstones
Tall Magnolia in huge blossom at Calderstones March 28 2017

Still reading Intimations of Immortality, and into the next section now. Read the whole poem here.

Now, while the birds thus sing a joyous song,
And while the young lambs bound
As to the tabor’s sound,
To me alone there came a thought of grief:
A timely utterance gave that thought relief,
And I again am strong:
The cataracts blow their trumpets from the steep;
No more shall grief of mine the season wrong;
I hear the Echoes through the mountains throng,
The Winds come to me from the fields of sleep,
And all the earth is gay;
Land and sea
Give themselves up to jollity,
And with the heart of May
Doth every Beast keep holiday;—
Thou Child of Joy,
Shout round me, let me hear thy shouts, thou happy Shepherd-boy.

The timing is interesting in this poem. We began in the present, looking back to a golden past (‘there was a time…it is not now as it hath been of yore’). It’s hard to know, now, as we begin this third stanza, where the opening word, ‘Now’ places us. Has any time passed between the opening of the poem and this moment? Or is Wordsworth grounding himself (and us) in one specific  – present – ‘now’ moment? He is  out-of-doors, in the fields, which may be where he was when he started…or that may have been  ages ago. Then I wonder – has all this (thought) happened in an instant, is there no time here? The poem seems to be mapping out, putting into slow words, a feeling that anyone might have, and which – if you are not a poet might well pass, nameless, unexpressed, hardly known. How do such feelings, thoughts, fit with time? They often seem instanteous.

But to go back to the poem…’Now’ puts us in a definite place in time, when something extraordinary has happened /is happening right now:

To me alone there came a thought of grief:
A timely utterance gave that thought relief,
And I again am strong:

So: he had the feeling (though I’m wrong in calling it  that, because Wordsworth calls it ‘a thought’) then said something (‘a timely utterance’) then felt better (‘and I again am strong.’). This is a pattern many of us will recognise.

But what was it, ‘the ‘utterance’? Have we had it already in the poem? I don’t think so, but let’s go back and see;

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;—
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day.
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.
The Rainbow comes and goes,
And lovely is the Rose,
The Moon doth with delight
Look round her when the heavens are bare,
Waters on a starry night
Are beautiful and fair;
The sunshine is a glorious birth;
But yet I know, where’er I go,
That there hath past away a glory from the earth.

Perhaps the ‘utterance’ is simply that last line, ‘That there hath past away a glory from the earth’. I suddenly notice the structure Wordsworth is giving this  poem – this account of the working of his feelings, mind, thought, self;

Stanza One – sense of some glory lost
Stanza Two – remember certain other, more specific glories (moon, rose, heavens, sunshine) and calibrate one’s feelings – yes, they are good but still something lost.
Stanza Three – note how saying something, getting it into words, ‘an utterance’, has changed the way I feel.

Having found strength in saying something,  in getting his thought into words, Wordsworth is strong enough again to look up and  see that world, which suddenly feels ‘glorious’ again;

And I again am strong:
The cataracts blow their trumpets from the steep;
No more shall grief of mine the season wrong;
I hear the Echoes through the mountains throng,
The Winds come to me from the fields of sleep,
And all the earth is gay;
Land and sea
Give themselves up to jollity,
And with the heart of May
Doth every Beast keep holiday;—
Thou Child of Joy,
Shout round me, let me hear thy shouts, thou happy Shepherd-boy.

Something has shifted, those cataracts blowing their trumpets are quite glorious, annoucing something, and they are loud, they are ‘trumpets’! Wordsworth now seems in a different relation to his own feelings. Whatever the glory was at the beginning is still gone, but at least now he seems able to be glad of what he can see and hear and feel. The shouts of  the Shepherd boy bring ‘joy’, not the opening sense of dislocation.

For me this is about a  kind of readjustment  you have to make – repeatedly – in life. Something is lost, you feel the loss, and the pain of loss is sometimes overwhelming. You lose more than the original loss with the loss of your capacity to feel joy. Over time the loss doesn’t go away, but you recalibrate and somehow that allows ‘joy’ to re-enter  your universe.

What I love about Wordsworth is that he is like a brain scanner, tracking feeling, thought and language, showing how it moves and changes in us. You have to read him very slowly for this to happen. Most of us are not neuroscientists and don’t have access to that big tech. This is the next best thing.

Composing order

police tape

Home now, and grateful for home, the birds singing this morning as if nothing had had happened. Yesterday at another day of meetings in London, I walked up Buckingham Palace Road, around the Mall. Tourists were there, as usual , but quiet, sombre.  A large group of Japanese tourists stood for a photograph beneath a flowering cherry in Green Park, hands on each others shoulders, sedate, respectful.  Londoners going about their business as usual, but quieter. Two people spoke to me about the IRA bombings and how Londoners had lived through that time.

As I came out of Charing Cross Road tube I remembered that the night before, walking up Whitehall once we were let out of the no 1 Parliament Street building on Wednesday, seeing a police barrier that was no more than a strip  of blue and white tape tied, at one end, to a railing, and at the other, to a police bicycle, which stood leaning on its kick-stand, against nothing. Never seen a more figurative barrier. With one finger, anyone could have pushed that bike, with its wisp of blue and white tape, to the ground, walked around it. But no one had.

I was grateful to it, in a way I had not expected. I was grateful to the rule of law.
This morning I wanted to read a poem about law, but struggled to find the right thing.  Help needed.

But I found this. The American poet, and lawyer, Archibald Macleish, writes,

The business of the law is to make sense of the confusion of what we call human life – to reduce it to order but at the same time to give it possibility, scope, even dignity. But what, then, is the business of poetry? Precisely to make sense of the chaos of our lives. To create the understanding of our lives. To compose an order which the bewildered, angry heart can recognize. To imagine man.

“Apologia” speech (Harvard Law Review, Cambridge, June 1972)

Instead of poems about the rule of law, I found myself reading at poems that  were about the absence of it, poems of chaos, or war, of terrible times. The simplest and most lovely is this tiny anonymous poem, perhaps written by a soldier, a conscript  – I imagine him lying under a hedge, in a  ditch, waiting for daylight. But it could be any of us, feeling afraid, cold, in the dark. Yesterday morning someone speaking from the  Metropolitan Police asked people  in London to be kind to police officers, ‘smile at them, say hello’.  It could be an officer on duty, beside his bike, on Whitehall.

Western wind, when will thou blow,
The small rain down can rain?
Christ! If my love were in my arms,
And I in my bed again!

The first two lines make me feel the cold, the wet, the persistence of ‘small rain’ – that soaking thin stuff, like cloud.  The prayer or expletive, ‘Christ!’ – sometimes hard to tell  them apart, the impulse that forces the word out perhaps the same whether it is uttered as prayer or as expletive. It seems to take several beats of the poem to say it. ‘Christ.’

The whole poem rests on the ‘if’ – everything would be different. I imagine a place  of safety, of love. And for a moment, perhaps, I feel that safety, that love.  This tiny poem makes ‘sense of the chaos of our lives’, as MacLeish says. I imagine the experience – the wind, the rain, the being out away from home – without the language of the poem and only feel pain, pain with the additional pain of being unable to speak. The poem does indeed compose ‘an order which the bewildered, angry heart can recognize’.

I  had not imagined ‘order’ would be an important word for me, but now I think I need to give it more thought.

Not today, though, out of time.

More Marvelling

So back to Marvell in The Garden. Where had I got to? Ah, yes…drunkenly falling down laughing. ‘Stumbling on melons as I pass, / Ensnar’d with flow’rs, I fall on grass.’

I thought while I was walking this morning that Marvell’s fall in the poem must be related to the fall in that other garden – the Garden of Eden, which  I know about through Paradise Lost, and behind that, through Genesis. When Adam and Eve  eat of the fruit in Book 9 of Paradise Lost they do get drunk, though there drunkenness seems less innocent than Marvell’s – maybe because there are two of them, and they start fighting.  But here, in Marvell’s garden, once he’s fallen,  he seems to go into a kind of trance, more like an opium-dream than a drunken passing out:

 Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness;
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find,
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds, and other seas;
Annihilating all that’s made
To a green thought in a green shade

This is as impenetrable as anything I’ve read so far! I don’t understand the first two lines:

Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness;

You fall over, and your mind withdraws from (external) pleasure into its own (internal) happiness? You forget, or lose consciousness of,  the melons and flowers and the grass and everything goes…as you become one with everything? Your mind even as this world dissolves, creates new ‘worlds and other seas’. As if there is a whole other dimension inside us. Wonderful that the word he arrives at is ‘annihilating’ (reduce to nothing). Nothing but ‘green’. Then one of the most memorable  lines in English poetry : ‘annihilating all that’s made/ to a green thought in a green shade.’ Drenched in  garden, in green, converted to it. It.

Here at the fountain’s sliding foot,
Or at some fruit tree’s mossy root,
Casting the body’s vest aside,
My soul into the boughs does glide;
There like a bird it sits and sings,
Then whets, and combs its silver wings;
And, till prepar’d for longer flight,
Waves in its plumes the various light.

Things are noticed in detail (the fountain’s sliding foot, the moss at the base of the tree) as the soul becomes part of the garden and sings. It’s a gorgeous, non-human, out-of-time experience. I think I have had that experience a little bit, sometimes in my garden or out walking. You go elsewhere.

But then Marvell comes back, man-like, remembering Eden before Eve!

Such was that happy garden-state,

While man there walk’d without a mate;
After a place so pure and sweet,
What other help could yet be meet!
But ’twas beyond a mortal’s share
To wander solitary there:
Two paradises ’twere in one
To live in paradise alone.

Oddly narky, this stanza seems – as if others, particularly one’s beloved  – can really interfere and mess things up and I suppose that this kind of mystical communing with universe is a solitary experience. If we were only soul we’d be like this all time, but we are not!  We are physical, sexual, beings and need, (see how he play’s on ‘helpmate’, ‘help-meet’), someone else.

But ’twas beyond a mortal’s share
To wander solitary there:

I feel the worldly disappointed tone is coming from the sense that it would have been better to be alone:

Two paradises ’twere in one

To live in paradise alone.

Why two? Because you had paradise and you had it alone! I just don’t know if I’ve got the tone right here. Everything seems to shift around quickly. Ok, so I come back to consciousness realising that I am not just a lone spirit/consciousness, I am never going to be completely alone while human (think that is implied in the last two lines above) but then Marvell seems to jump back into his real body in real time –  here again now in the real garden, made by a human:

How well the skillful gard’ner drew

Of flow’rs and herbs this dial new,
Where from above the milder sun
Does through a fragrant zodiac run;
And as it works, th’ industrious bee
Computes its time as well as we.
How could such sweet and wholesome hours
Be reckon’d but with herbs and flow’rs!

I feel sort of stuck so I go back to read the whole poem again, and that helps, gives a better rhythm to the thinking. It is about solitude, being alone, being gone out of oneself and then coming back. Last verse seems to be about a made-of-plants sundial  – you can’t measure the time you’ve been as it were out of your mind except in this way, by the flowers and plants  themselves.

Loved reading this, this last few days and it has made me long for the experience of being out in the green garden. To which ‘I must arise and  go now..’ as Yeats said.

Hearing the voices, raising the standard


Hard to know what to read and write about today. Still got Lincoln in the Bardo in my mind but want to finish reading the Marvell poem. Also, have a lot of work to do and want to spend some time in the garden and am going to the match later. Can LFC beat Burnley? You know, I can’t stake my reputation on predicting that, despite my respect for – belief in – Mr Klopp.

Ok, LITB first. It’s voices. I’ve started listening to it Audible – Nick Offerman (my hero from Parks and Rec ) reads one of the lead parts, very well. Looking forward to that on my commute.

Re-reading the text  this morning, I was reminded of these lines from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, ‘Burnt Norton’:

Shrieking voices
Scolding, mocking, or merely chattering,
Always assail them.

That’s how it feels to read the book, which builds and  gets faster and heavier as it goes. Voices of the past, in the form of quotations from real and (I imagine) fictional ‘histories’, come at you, and tell us what we’ve known for some time now – no one view or memory is the truth. It was a moonlit night, say several accounts,  there was no moon that night, others contradict.  It’s like reading the Nehls biography of D.H.Lawrence. You see the whole reality through the multifaceted bits that all sorts of people contribute. And then the ‘characters’, like characters in a T.S.Eliot play, or in Becket or in Under Milk Wood, are not characters as we know them in a novel. They are their voices. As the reader, you have to do a lot of the work. Not complaining, I like hard book-work.

Hard but this is George Saunders so there’s also comedy and slapstick and rude bits from farting and poop to  small-scale orgies. There’s wryness, quite a lot of it. But I do not know why people say GS is a satirist. There’s heart here, there’s always heart, and there’s a  sort of disappointment too. Humans! Ha! You silly, bad people. But there is always belief in us, too. As Sian Cain writes in The Guardian, George Saunders makes us love people again. I think of  satirists as making us mock them. I want books that care about humans and  raise the standard. This book does  both.

So, how do we get to love more and mock less? We feel each other’s feelings, we imagine or experience life in someone else’s  life. When two of the book’s  leading presences enter President Lincoln in order to help him change something (I’m not telling you the story here!) a side-effect of their collaboration is  a kind of exchange of self, sympathy, empathy: feeling how if feels to be someone else, to have their particular set of experiences:

Because we were as yet intermingled with one another, traces of Mr Vollman naturally began arising in my mind and traces of me naturally began arising in his.

roger bevans iii

Never having found ourselves in that configuration before –

hans vollman

This effect was an astonishment.

roger bevans iii

I saw, as if for the first time, the great beauty of the things of this world: waterdrops in the woods around us plopped from leaf to ground; the stars were low, blue-white, tentative; the wind-scent bore traces of fire, dryweed, rivermuck; the tssking drybush rattles swelled with a peaking breeze, as some distant cross-creek sleigh-nag tossed its neck-bells.

hans vollman

I saw his Anna’s face, and understood his reluctance to leave her behind.

roger bevans iii

I desired the man-smell and the strong hold of a man.

hans vollman

The end (don’t want to spoil it) asks us to believe that it is possible for one spirit to enter another spirit’s being, thus  changing the course of human history. That’s not the final move of a satirist, that’s the move of a believer. But why wouldn’t a great writer believe this?  Isn’t putting the experiential knowledge of others lives, other centres of consciousness, into our own minds what great writing is for? Isn’t that what writing is for?










Good – and green – in the garden

The single red Camellia trying to get in through the window

I’m just going to concentrate on a few verses of ‘The Garden’ by Andrew Marvell. You’ll find the whole poem here. I found it in the Oxford Book of English Verse.  Like many famous English poems, I read it as an undergraduate at University. But those readings often went over my head – or perhaps heart?  I don’t think I’ve ever read it since.

The Garden

To win the palm, the oak, or bays,
And their uncessant labours see
Crown’d from some single herb or tree,
Whose short and narrow verged shade
Does prudently their toils upbraid;
While all flow’rs and all trees do close
To weave the garlands of repose.

I have no idea what’s happening in this opening stanza!

I can’t find the tone, and I’m not sure what’s being said. The word ‘vainly’ makes me think that Marvell is going to be talking about things humans get wrong and yet the two parts of the sentence here don’t seem to add up… palm, oak, bays – aren’t they all prizes, don’t you win them in wars and races? Yet later he’s saying ‘all flowers and all trees…’ Hate that feeling of not getting it. I rush on, then restrain myself and go back.

I’m going too fast here and in a kind of reading panic because it’s a famous poem and I don’t understand it. What do we do when we don’t get it? We read it again, more slowly, a little bit at a time. I  take a breath and start again, going for the first chunk of meaning;

To win the palm, the oak, or bays,
And their uncessant labours see
Crown’d from some single herb or tree,
Whose short and narrow verged shade
Does prudently their toils upbraid;

As I read it aloud I realise ‘single’ is a clue here. There’s one kind of thing (lines 1-6) which is to do with ‘single’ and then there’s another kind of thing (lines 7&8) which is to do with ‘all’.

When I’m trying to read I often have to do without knowing and so sketch out a murky  unclear area I don’t yet understand and just leave it there. I often think of that space as ‘x’, as if reading was a bit like math equations, and you have to accept there are lots of parts you don’t know. You mark them as unknowns and then try to work out other bits. Eventually  ‘y’ may reveal ‘x’.

But I do now know that these opening lines  are about the difference between ‘single’ and ‘all’. It’s about taking notice of a the entirety of a garden rather than some special plant, is it?

To win the palm, the oak, or bays,
And their uncessant labours see
Crown’d from some single herb or tree,
Whose short and narrow verged shade
Does prudently their toils upbraid;
While all flow’rs and all trees do close
To weave the garlands of repose.

But also the difference between ‘uncessant labours’ and ‘repose’. The ‘single/all’ split has made me notice another, which  is the difference between ‘uncessant labours crowned’ and ‘garlands of repose’. And now I notice the difference between ‘crowns’ and ‘garlands’.

Hmm.I’m taking it at face value, but now it strikes me that this poem  may not be about a garden. It’s the word ‘vainly’ that makes me think it’s bigger than that. Can’t do anything with that thought yet.  People strive to win ‘the palm, the oak, or bays.’ They are plants that are signify winning. Winners get a crown  of bays, and those bays are cut from trees. Bays in particular  are often clipped and manicured, as the trees here seem to be;

Whose short and narrow verged shade
Does prudently their toils upbraid;

The shade of trees  wouldn’t naturally be ‘short and narrow’, it should be long and widely expansive. But these trees seem to be only there for the  comment they can make on human endeavour, which I’m beginning to think  might be a very formal kind of gardening. But is this about any kind of clipped and manicured effort? Say you set yourself  to do something – a winning garden at the Chelsea Flower Show, or writing a  world-class Haiku or magnificent bodybuilding –  something that would result in you being a winner. Would all that unnatural clipping and pruning,  de-naturing the tree (person, thing, activity) under cultivation but also wasting your own time because all other flowers and trees are going, growing, in another direction?) is it about the energy of nature, and the energy of humans trying to do something?
Well, I’m no longer feeling scared and starting  to feel excited. I’m reading!
It’s the ‘prudent’  upbraiding that is bothering me. Why is it prudent?
If I did devote all my garden time and energy to clipping and pruning some prize-winning specimen, wouldn’t the plant itself, by its very nature ‘ upbraid’ me? Perhaps because of its natural tendency to grow wildly? But why would that upbraiding be ‘prudent’? Does prudent mean careful? Is it about money? I go to the dictionary – ‘prudent, acting with or showing care for the future’. From the Latin, provident. I think it is to do with the nature of trees – be they palm oak or bay – or plants (or people? or human endeavours? ). These things have their own energies and growth patterns.

I think this is a poem against a life of clipping bays. Don’t clip and contain natural energy – go with the flow.

Time’s up, more tomorrow.

from Satire III by John Donne

On a huge hill….


Todays poem from the OBEV (ed Gardner, though I also have the other two editions, by  Quiller Couch and Ricks, and I usually use Ricks, but I’ve left it at work) is a portion of John Donne’s  Satire III, titled by Helen Gardner ‘Seek True Religion!’  – just the kind of title to put off half the world, but not me. I have no religion, but I  am, in a way, religious. I like translating religious ideas into things I can understand. On the other hand it looks about 40 lines, so too long for poem of the day – I have only an hour to find it,  read it  and write about it. A passing thought is: I wonder if I might have Poem of the Day as a few lines? But I’m still reading. This is a poem I don’t remember reading before, so I start to read;

Though truth and falsehood be
Near twins, yet truth a little elder is;
Be busy to seek her; believe me this,
He’s not of none, nor worst, that seeks the best.

This is already enough poem for a week’s reading. I’m stuck  on the first two lines, wondering how ‘truth’ and ‘falsehood’ can be ‘near twins’.  Is it about the fineness of distinctions?  Is it because they deal with the same stuff?  Still the advice is clear: go for truth, ‘He’s not of none, nor worst, that seeks the best.’

To adore, or scorn an image, or protest,
May all be bad; doubt wisely; in strange way
To stand inquiring right, is not to stray;

I know there is an historical context – the reformation – for this and I don’t know much about it, but I know enough to see Donne is talking about images in religious life – and about both sides in an argument (to make and use images of God or not). Lots of solidity in the uncertainty – ‘may all be bad’, where ‘may’ leaves leeway, while ‘bad’ makes a definite decision. ‘Doubt wisely’.

I’m in now. My own stance – I have no religion – is the ultimate in ‘no images’. I can’t even use the words ‘believe in God’ and yet I am not an atheist. I am religious. I (can’t use the word believe) something in (can’t use the word God)  something. My belief is like an equation with only x for terms. X marks the spot. I’m interesting the stance Donne offers, which is about mind, I think – ‘doubt wisely; in strange way/To stand inquiring right, is not to stray;’

In other words: ask the right questions!

My eye glances ahead and I suddenly  see I have read this before. Not since undergraduate days, and barely remember it but I do remember the lines that are coming, I remember them as if I had never forgotten them

…On a huge hill,
Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must and about must go,
And what the hill’s suddenness resists, win so.

What I remember is the feeling of  recognition, of knowing: here it is. Here what  is? Truth! So, across a lifetime of reading these words echo back  – you were interested in these lines then – remember? Ye there is  a resistance in me to the lines as I read them this morning – I’m not sure that all truths do need digging out, climbing for – some kinds of truth, even as this, writing a few words about a poem each day, yes, that feels a bit like  toiling up a mountain. But other truths are very clear, as in the flash of the signature on Doris Lessing’s Shikasta. When you see it, you know it.  What is the difference between those kinds of truth, I wonder? In the lines above the bit I want to stop and work at (about must and about must I go) is this;

And what the hill’s suddenness resists, win so.

Thinking of walking up a huge hill,  Moel Famau, say, remembering how necessary it is to follow the contours of the land, shouldering the hill to reach the peak. ‘The hill’s suddenness’ is a great piece of writing, isn’t it?  You turn a bend into some uprisen crag or hump which stops you in your tracks. Fighting it, getting over it, getting round it, coming at it from another angle is what gets you, finally, above it. The hard bits are the bits you might win.

I’m out of time now. If you are going to keep going, just read a sentence, or a clause at a time.

Though truth and falsehood be
Near twins, yet truth a little elder is;
Be busy to seek her; believe me this,
He’s not of none, nor worst, that seeks the best.
To adore, or scorn an image, or protest,
May all be bad; doubt wisely; in strange way
To stand inquiring right, is not to stray;
To sleep, or run wrong, is. On a huge hill,
Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must and about must go,
And what the hill’s suddenness resists, win so.
Yet strive so that before age, death’s twilight,
Thy soul rest, for none can work in that night.
To will implies delay, therefore now do;
Hard deeds, the body’s pains; hard knowledge too
The mind’s endeavours reach, and mysteries
Are like the sun, dazzling, yet plain to all eyes.
Keep the truth which thou hast found; men do not stand
In so ill case, that God hath with his hand
Sign’d kings’ blank charters to kill whom they hate;
Nor are they vicars, but hangmen to fate.
Fool and wretch, wilt thou let thy soul be tied
To man’s laws, by which she shall not be tried
At the last day? Oh, will it then boot thee
To say a Philip, or a Gregory,
A Harry, or a Martin, taught thee this?
Is not this excuse for mere contraries
Equally strong? Cannot both sides say so?
That thou mayest rightly obey power, her bounds know;
Those past, her nature and name is chang’d; to be
Then humble to her is idolatry.
As streams are, power is; those blest flowers that dwell
At the rough stream’s calm head, thrive and do well,
But having left their roots, and themselves given
To the stream’s tyrannous rage, alas, are driven
Through mills, and rocks, and woods, and at last, almost
Consum’d in going, in the sea are lost.
So perish souls, which more choose men’s unjust
Power from God claim’d, than God himself to trust.