Goodbye, Philip Roth and all that manly stuff…

unknown tree blossom.JPG
Unknown tree with blossom – what can it be? Calderstones Park, May 22

In The Times obituary for Philip Roth this morning, hundreds of words about sex, masturbation, bad marriages, the grump he was and thumbnails of various not so great Roth novels I’ve not read. And then a passing mention of , but no words about, American Pastoral, the novel that made me realise Philip Roth was a great writer. Mingled yarn thoughts arise about our lives and our judgements.

Roth was  of a generation which  perhaps in retrospect was rightly anxious about the changing place of women in the  human universe. Contraception in the form of a pill under women’s own control changed everything. Those guys were right to be worried: Mrs wasn’t going to stay home and cooks gefilte fish from now on. Philip Roth said his mother, who worked as a secretary ‘raised housekeeping to an art form’.  There were generations of women behind that art form (an art form I’ve not practised much, though increasingly begin to value. Need to think about this another time). But in the 1950s, 1960s, the patriarchy,  as we called it when I was a radical young feminist in 1976 though now I think we might have called it  human biology or history, was beginning to teeter towards extinction. Whatever it was that left women and children in the cave or picking berries when men went hunting, it really couldn’t, or simply didn’t, begin to change until women had control of their own reproduction. Now, there are Dads changing nappies everywhere, non-gendered pronouns (how I longed for them in my mid-twenties!) women running a few bits of  the army and banks, men in high heels and lipstick and yet – to my mind, unfortunately – more woman-violating pornography  than ever before. We’re in the thick of revolution and it’s not over yet.  But, back to Philip Roth.

It was the maleness that put me off: I could never face Portnoy’s Complaint, though I heard it was funny.  That obsessed-but-begrudging enslavement to women was an unhappy part of those great  New York Jewish writers – Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud – who came just before Roth. They had some good stuff, oh, lovely caring humane books, but you had to hurry past all that not so good weirdness about wanting but fearing  the wanting of women. Roth always seemed even more like that. Until I read American Pastoral.

I don’t make a political judgement about this anymore.  I  see the colours and think I think, that’s what they are/were. That was true about them. And I  look for the good stuff. As you might do with a person. Our bad stuff is there, and you have to take it on sometimes, but a lot of the time you have to work round it or take no notice. You look for the good, notice the good.

The good in American Pastoral?  Big. Sad. Painful. Sprawling, and  perhaps, as The Times obituarist says, ‘seemingly careless of the fundamentals of organisation’, though I didn’t notice that.  This novel kept me up at night when I first read it. I woke my husband saying, ‘listen to this sentence… he’s writing like George Eliot.’

‘No, he’s not’ said partner and went back to sleep.

But there was something magnificent, grand, going on. It was  a sort of modern american rewrite of Paradise Lost. Everything starts off fine and then goes horribly wrong. Then you get the thistles and  bringing forth children in labour and the tower of Babel.

page from AP

Angry, disappointed, moved, Philip Roth writes out the loss of paradise he lived through, the loss of the American Dream he grew up in, the loss, of commerce as a decent thing, the loss of cities as civilised places, the loss of heroes, the loss of family.  It’s a panoramic vision, a sorrowful book full of good stuff. See how he drops the tank but comes on his ‘own ten toes’? That’s a boxer’s stance. He may not be in an armoured vehicle but he’s still fighting.  Because can you forget ‘being right or wrong about people’?  Mingled yarn, mingled yarn. A great book, separating out some strands of colour and getting us to notice them.




Reading at Work: Great Literature (with Pooh)

Three Great Books for Reading at Work

Last week I spent a rare and lovely couple of hours reading with colleagues who are working on The Reader’s Shared Reading North West team.  This is a huge piece of work, funded in part by NESTA, to test and learn from that test practice, about scaling Shared Reading. The team have tough targets to meet and a lot of responsibility: their work is helping shape the future of The Reader. They  must find volunteers to lead Shared Reading groups,  recruit them, train them, help them set up and then move on to the next batch  of recruits. We don’t have the right tools yet – they are in development, too, so all  in all, it’s  a tough gig. A number of the team have  been with the organisation a good while: they’ve seen plenty of changes.  I’d brought a few things with me that I thought they might enjoy or find  helpful.

First, the  wonderful, scary and uplifting ‘I am Henry Finch’ (by Alexis Deacon, illustrated by Viviane Schwarz), which I’d chosen because I’d just discovered it and was desperate to share, but also because it is a book about the power of thought.


Life was simple with finches – every day the same mind-numbing routine chatter, though with the odd (we try to ignore it and pretend it doesn’t happen) terrible bit:



Reading at work is a wonderful thing. Suddenly the book exists in another dimension. In home life you’d almost certainly be reading this with a child, whereas here I was, sitting round a boardroom table with  eight adults in the middle of a serious and difficult work project.

Good Morning Good Morning Good Morning say the Finches, trying to remain normal at all times.  But Henry’s experience of the Beast changes normal forever. All of this is a work story, and you can make the beast whatever beastly thing is troubling you. We particularly enjoyed  the Finches  traditional reaction to the Beast, so recognisable.


The next part of the programme was chosen for an even closer affinity to working life. This is the chapter in The House at Poo Corner  by A.A. Milne, when  Poo and Piglet go to visit Owl on a blusterous day, Owls tree falls down and they are all trapped, sidewise, inside what was once Owl’s house.

Sounds like one of those working days, doesn’t it? With  everything where it wasn’t, someone must act but before someone can act, someone must think. Thinking takes place. Scary. Poo asks Owl,

“Could you fly up to the letter-box with Piglet on your back?” he asked.

“No,” said Piglet quickly. “He couldn’t.”

Owl explained about the Necessary Dorsal Muscles…

“Because you see, Owl, if we could get Piglet into the letter-box, he might squeeze through the place where the letters come, and climb down the tree and run for help.”

Piglet said hurriedly that he had been getting bigger lately, and couldn’t possibly, much as he wold like to, and Owl said that he had had his letter-box made bigger lately in case  he got bigger letters, so perhaps Piglet might…

Change management! Poor old Piglet’s job description is changing before our eyes. We now need you to be hoisted up  by a bit of string and to…

I’d thought we’d all enjoy a laugh and small-scale recognition of  the way problems  often emerge (unexpectedly! Who knew the house would go sideways!) and how solving them rarely feels great – usually feels more seat-of-the-pants terrifying.  Which we did.  But the thing that was really striking was the distance between the actual experience of the task (escape from Owl’s blown down house) which is  worrying and  tentative and could go badly wrong, to the  account of it given later, by Poo, in a laudatory song, generously ascribing the original idea to Piglet himself:

Then Piglet (PIGLET) thought a thing:
“Courage!” he said. “There’s always hope.
I want a thinnish piece of rope.
Or, if there isn’t any bring
A thickish piece of string.

So to the letter-box he rose,
While Pooh and Owl said “Oh!”
and “Hum!”
And where the letters always come
(Called “LETTERS ONLY”) Piglet sqoze
His head and then his toes.

Great Myths of the workplace! Yet it was Piglet, who, trembling and blinching, did indeed go up on that piece of string.

By the time we’d read  these two works of Great Literature, our brains and hearts were primed for something serious.

I’d brought ‘Once Only’ by Denise Levertov, because I’d just read it, and because I thought we might want something serious as well and because it didn’t connect to work, to our tasks, only to being human. I’d thought, it will be good to have some time being simply human together.  I don’t have time to write about it today, but here it is and I’ll pick up here next time.

Once Only

All which, because it was
flame and song and granted us
joy, we thought we’d do, be, revisit,
turns out to have been what it was
that once, only; every initiation
did not begin
a series, a build-up: the marvelous
did happen in our lives, our stories
are not drab with its absense: but don’t
expect now to return for more.  Whatever more
there will be will be
unique as those were unique. Try
to acknowledge the next
song in its body-halo of flames as utterly
present, as now or never.

‘Once Only’ By Denise Levertov, from COLLECTED EARLIER POEMS 1940-1960, copyright ©1957 by Denise Levertov. Used by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

The Winter’s Tale Day 4: That’s The Spirit


Bamboo in the  Woods at Calderstones Park, March 2018

Last week or the week before  Loubyjo  reminded me that it was 10 years since the Shakespeare Reading group had started  in the old Lauries office which used to house Get Into Reading. Ten years!

I don’t know how long it is since Louise took  that Shakespeare group over, or when Bernie decided she had done her stint…but congratulations to Bernie, who ran it for years and to Louise, who has run it for years ,and to Marion who has run it with Louise for years… This is one of the best things to come out of  The Reader…and what I would have hoped for, if I’d had the imagination to hope in that way, when I started.

I started the group  – I think – because I wanted to tell people that you could read Shakespeare in Shared Reading – it doesn’t have to be a short story and poem.

It does have to be  great literature.

The  form that the literature comes in (let me list some forms: nineteenth century novel in tiny weekly installments for two years, Shakespeare play for six months, one-off poem, one-off short story, one-off short story followed by ‘matching’ or ‘non-matching’ poem, modern novel, essay, Homer’s Odyssey for  two years, one-off incomprehensible contemporary poem) the form it comes in REALLY DOESN’T MATTER.

I’m shouting because one of the things that has gone wrong with  the growth of Shared Reading is that many people tell me  Shared Reading is reading a short story with matching poem.  No,  no, no.  You don’t have to match a poem. You could read any poem.  You don’t have to read a poem at all. Just read a chapter of War and Peace or a short story on its own.  Or you can only read a poem. I mean if you were going to read Wordsworth’s ‘Intimations of Immortality’ you’d have to read it over two or three weeks. You couldn’t tag it on to a short story as a match. The short story and poem format means there is loads of stuff you can’t read! That can’t be right.

In the first group I read a short story, ‘Schwartz’, by Russell Hoban (find it in The Moment Under the Moment, a collection of  essays and other things). And I read ‘Crossing The Bar’. They do not ‘match’.  I just liked them both and was worried we might finish ‘Schwartz’ before the time was up (actually, I think it might have taken two weeks).

Because teaching, as we do on Read to Lead,  in three days is a sledgehammer activity,  and because we have the wonderful A Little Aloud series, for years some people have come away with the idea that Shared Reading = reading a short story with a matching poem. No. No. No.

That can be done. Yes. But as in all things it is not the form that counts, it’s the spirit. The form is important because it is a way of having, of being, the spirit. But you can have empty forms.  Don’t go for form. Go for spirit. I don’t think it is possible to have empty spirit.

Read great stuff. Moving,  powerful, human stuff that gets you feeling and thinking. And for me, if I was teaching,  sledgehammering, I’d say always be aiming to get to Shakespeare in the end.

Here’s the end of the opening scene of The Winter’s Tale:


Sicilia cannot show himself over-kind to Bohemia.
They were trained together in their childhoods; and
there rooted betwixt them then such an affection,
which cannot choose but branch now. Since their
more mature dignities and royal necessities made
separation of their society, their encounters,
though not personal, have been royally attorneyed
with interchange of gifts, letters, loving
embassies; that they have seemed to be together,
though absent, shook hands, as over a vast, and
embraced, as it were, from the ends of opposed
winds. The heavens continue their loves!
I think there is not in the world either malice or
matter to alter it. You have an unspeakable
comfort of your young prince Mamillius: it is a
gentleman of the greatest promise that ever came
into my note.
I very well agree with you in the hopes of him: it
is a gallant child; one that indeed physics the
subject, makes old hearts fresh: they that went on
crutches ere he was born desire yet their life to
see him a man.
Would they else be content to die?
Yes; if there were no other excuse why they should
desire to live.
If the king had no son, they would desire to live
on crutches till he had one.

Camillos speaks of the grown-up Kings’ boyhoods’ and  Archidamus  speaks of Mamillius, son of Sicillia, son of King Leontes. Funny little bit of  stagey business this –  two civil servants chatting before the big newsworthy public occasion, exchanging pleasantries but also giving clues to audience.  Last time I wrote about this play noticed some of the frightening language in Camillo’s speech about the Kings, now  I notice Archidamus’  underlying worry  about matter or malice. Can anything alter the  state of friendship between these two childhood friends? And for Mamillius, we have ‘promise’, ‘hopes’ and, says Camillo,

…a gallant child; one that indeed physics the
subject, makes old hearts fresh: they that went on
crutches ere he was born desire yet their life to
see him a man.

We live for the possibility held by the unfolding future, which we experience in a child. The child changes time, ‘makes old hearts fresh’ and gives the old a powerful desire to live. We want – me with my grandchildren, Camillo with his King’s son – to live ‘ to see him a man.’ That investment in the future is powerful. Otherwise,  Archidamus wonders, might we desire to die?

What else is there to live for? Camillo leaves open the possibility that there might be  other reasons, but he can’t think of any:

Yes; if there were no other excuse why they should
desire to live.

The play is not yet started ,yet we are already in the thick of its subject matter, even though we don’t yet know what that subject matter is… it is living, it is reasons to stay alive, it is death, it is loss of children.

While the two opening actors seem to speak lightly, merely socially, almost  meaninglessly, yet they  have set out the play for us in advance, and Archidamus now  puts the finishing touch to it:

If the king had no son, they would desire to live
on crutches till he had one.

A child gives you a reason to live, but no child also gives you a reason: you ‘ve got to let enough time pass to get one. This  is primogeniture: the King must have an heir! If he hasn’t got one, we’ve got to keep going until he does.  And so we will… Looking back at the opening of this piece, I see that I was bemoaning not having the imagination to hope for a future that has unfolded in real life.

This is what I love about Shakespeare. The form – two servants come into a room and start a preamble – turns out to be a  piece of life. A piece that might not yet have come into existence, but real nonetheless. The form holds the spirit. Spirit’s the thing. Forms change.

Don’t follow rules. Except sometimes when you need to.  Run a Shared Reading group by following D.H. Lawrence’s  rule:  ‘We must balance as we go’.



Splitting The World Open: Celebrating International Women’s Day With A Poem

women's press (2)Sometime in the late seventies I bought an anthology of women’s poetry,  The World Split Open, edited by Louise Bernikow, published by The Women’s Press. That’s an easy sentence  to write in 2018  but it might have been nearly impossibly fifty years ago in the year of  the world’s youth revolution, 1968.  Earlier this week I opened The Faber Book of C20 Verse, edited  by J.Heath-Stubbs and D. Wright (1953), to find that only 6 of the more than 90 poets included were  women.  At University in the 1980’s a teacher, a man, told me that women weren’t concentrated enough for poetry.  I think that was a pretty widespread view.

Ah, the dear old Women’s Press. How I loved that little  iron, its logo.

I’d go to a bookshop and look for Womens Press books then choose from amongst them, books I knew might be of interest to me.  Virago was a women’s publisher, too, but The Women’s Press list was odder, more homemade, less corporate, more extreme. And all that seemed summed in that little steam-iron logo.

I was trying to become myself as a young adult, and that self was a woman writer and reader. I wanted books  to help me build my self up.  I wanted role models. But I hardly remember any of those books now (Gaining Ground, a novel by Joan Barfoot, notable exception.) But this excellent anthology of poetry has been  with me through nearly forty years reading.  I’ve just had to buy another copy, as the first literally fell to pieces in my  hand.

I had two books of poetry by women. This, and the Penguin Book of Women Poets. That was  it.


Looking her up, I see Louise Bernikow is still going strong, writing and talking about women (also dogs).    Looking at the book’s cover now, I remember that it made me uncomfortable. That women in the photograph looks a bit  too masculine, I don’t know what the two metal balls are doing there and I can’t figure out the perspective. The cover may have unsettled me, but the contents inspired. Realising that Queen Elizabeth I, the centre of the Elizabethan age, an age of great poetry, was herself a poet delighted me.





The Doubt of Future Foes
The doubt of future foes exiles my present joy,
And wit me warns to shun such snares as threaten mine annoy;
For falsehood now doth flow, and subjects’ faith doth ebb,
Which should not be if reason ruled or wisdom weaved the web.
But clouds of joys untried do cloak aspiring minds,
Which turn to rain of late repent by changed course of winds.
The top of hope supposed the root upreared shall be,
And fruitless all their grafted guile, as shortly ye shall see.
The dazzled eyes with pride, which great ambition blinds,
Shall be unsealed by worthy wights whose foresight falsehood finds.
The daughter of debate that discord aye doth sow
Shall reap no gain where former rule still peace hath taught to know.
No foreign banished wight shall anchor in this port;
Our realm brooks not seditious sects, let them elsewhere resort.
My rusty sword through rest shall first his edge employ
To poll their tops that seek such change or gape for future joy.
Yes, the sonnet is long-distance interesting in the psychological cost of political trouble, but I didn’t connect with it: there’s was nothing here to latch onto my own experience at that time.  But this fragment, written with a diamond on her window at Woodstock, where she was being held prisoner,  seemed to zap through time, connecting her to me:

Much suspected by me,
Nothing proved can be,
Quoth Elizabeth prisoner.

It wasn’t so much the words, as the act of graffitti, of being moved in a strange way to write. I could almost feel that diamond in my fingers as I scratched.



I was glad to meet Aphra Behn in this anthology, the first English women to make her living from writing.  I never really liked her poetry but I liked her, her drinking in taverns and brawling with the lads. And I remember later  getting involved in her novel, Oorinoko, which perhaps I’ll read again.



Love in Fantastic Triumph sat,
Whilst Bleeding Hearts around him flowed,
For whom Fresh pains he did Create,
And strange Tyrannic power he showed;
From thy Bright Eyes he took his fire,
Which round about, in sport he hurled;
But ’twas from mine he took desire
Enough to undo the Amorous World.
From me he took his sighs and tears,
From thee his Pride and Cruelty;
From me his Languishments and Fears,
And every Killing Dart from thee;
Thus thou and I, the God have armed,
And set him up a Deity;
But my poor Heart alone is harmed,
Whilst thine the Victor is, and free.

Emily Bronte, Anne Bradstreet, Sylvvia Plath are names that come to mindwhen I try to remember the anthohlogy but I don’t remember reading the poem from which the book’s title is taken.

What would happen if one woman told the truth about
        her life?
     The world would split open

Muriel Ruksayer’s words are famous – you’ll find them embroidered on Pinterest and made into posters. You’ll find the poem they come from, honouring the German artist Kathe Kollwitz here. Worth reading on this International Women’s Day.

And for growing humans everywhere, my poem of the day, Denise Levertov’s The Metier Of Blossoming.

I’ll be celebrating International Women’s Day  by visiting Greater Manchester Mental Health Trust , to talk and read with women in the Forensic Unit there. I’ll be taking Levertov’s Metier with me.





You never understood/ that it ain’t no good/you shouldn’t let other people/ get your kicks for you


calderstones morning 18 oct 1.JPG
Early morning near the playground at Calderstones, 18 October

Yesterday, among other things, I started reading The Buried Life, by Matthew Arnold. I could have started by giving you some facts about  Matthew Arnold –  his dates, or bits of history that might set a context for the poem or the man or his situation – MA was a depressive, MA lived at a time when faith in God was disintegrating, MA was unhappy at Oxford (I’ve just made that last one up).


None of that, true or untrue,  would have made the reality of the poem stronger and  actually, it would have taken away from the poem. One of the rules of Shared Reading is – Do Not Do Background. That’s substituting facts for direct  experience:  letting other people get your kicks for you

Of course rules need breaking sometimes, and I leave that to your judgement, but  97 times out of 100: no background, please!

Why? I can see there’s an argument for saying  that biography, social context, facts about the type of mead people drank, or when glass windows were invented, Mums, Dads and siblings and the political system all feed in to whatever a writer can write… but most of it is irrelevant to the direct experience of the poem.

But the direct experience is what we sometimes want to avoid because direct is  hard, like writing or doing your fifty lengths in the pool or teaching your kids discipline. I speak from personal experience. But after more than forty years of hard reading I am willing to risk the difficulty.  I have a long backlog of practice that tells me the direct experience is worth having.

But I can clearly remember the feeling at school and as a university and post-grad student, of wanting to avoid true engagement with the poem.  Of wanting to get round it or find a short-cut. I remember a feeling of dread and avoidance which was to do with facing the unknown, facing the task of creation, with only my own resources to get me through. That feeling of dread was to do with the work of it, having to make the huge effort of imagination and summon the  will which is needed to bring the inert poem flat on the page back to life. Taking responsibility for that  for act of re-creation.

The temptation to let someone else do that creative work for me was  very strong because my confidence was under-developed. F.R. Leavis  understands T.S. Eliot, I’d think,  let him  do the work and I’ll just say what he says. But this was me standing at the edge of the swimming bath hopping from one foot to another, afraid to jump in.  The experience of reading a poem can’t be done for you, and no amount of knowing the water temperature or when the pool was constructed or why it was in fashion to  have  marbled tiles will make any difference: you’ve always got to get into the water if you want to swim. Talking about what ‘Victorians’ knew isn’t helpful. The poem is its own thing, existing in its own force-field, free of time, if it is still a working poem. More to say on this another day.

Here’s it is, let’s read it all through then I’ll go back to where we had got up to yesterday
The Buried Life
Light flows our war of mocking words, and yet,
Behold, with tears mine eyes are wet!
I feel a nameless sadness o’er me roll.
Yes, yes, we know that we can jest,
We know, we know that we can smile!                                                     5
But there’s a something in this breast,
To which thy light words bring no rest,
And thy gay smiles no anodyne.
Give me thy hand, and hush awhile,
And turn those limpid eyes on mine,                                                        10
And let me read there, love! thy inmost soul.
Alas! is even love too weak
To unlock the heart, and let it speak?
Are even lovers powerless to reveal
To one another what indeed they feel?                                                      15
I knew the mass of men conceal’d
Their thoughts, for fear that if reveal’d
They would by other men be met
With blank indifference, or with blame reproved;
I knew they lived and moved                                                                        20
Trick’d in disguises, alien to the rest
Of men, and alien to themselves—and yet
The same heart beats in every human breast!
But we, my love!—doth a like spell benumb
Our hearts, our voices?—must we too be dumb?                                   25
Ah! well for us, if even we,
Even for a moment, can get free
Our heart, and have our lips unchain’d;
For that which seals them hath been deep-ordain’d!
Fate, which foresaw                                                                                        30
How frivolous a baby man would be—
By what distractions he would be possess’d,
How he would pour himself in every strife,
And well-nigh change his own identity—
That it might keep from his capricious play                                              35
His genuine self, and force him to obey
Even in his own despite his being’s law,
Bade through the deep recesses of our breast
The unregarded river of our life
Pursue with indiscernible flow its way;                                                    40
And that we should not see
The buried stream, and seem to be
Eddying at large in blind uncertainty,
Though driving on with it eternally.
But often, in the world’s most crowded streets,                                       45
But often, in the din of strife,
There rises an unspeakable desire
After the knowledge of our buried life;
A thirst to spend our fire and restless force
In tracking out our true, original course;                                                  50
A longing to inquire
Into the mystery of this heart which beats
So wild, so deep in us—to know
Whence our lives come and where they go.
And many a man in his own breast then delves,                                     55
But deep enough, alas! none ever mines.
And we have been on many thousand lines,
And we have shown, on each, spirit and power;
But hardly have we, for one little hour,
Been on our own line, have we been ourselves—                                    60
Hardly had skill to utter one of all
The nameless feelings that course through our breast,
But they course on for ever unexpress’d.
And long we try in vain to speak and act
Our hidden self, and what we say and do                                                  65
Is eloquent, is well—but ‘t is not true!
And then we will no more be rack’d
With inward striving, and demand
Of all the thousand nothings of the hour
Their stupefying power;                                                                                 70
Ah yes, and they benumb us at our call!
Yet still, from time to time, vague and forlorn,
From the soul’s subterranean depth upborne
As from an infinitely distant land,
Come airs, and floating echoes, and convey                                              75
A melancholy into all our day.
Only—but this is rare—
When a belovèd hand is laid in ours,
When, jaded with the rush and glare
Of the interminable hours,                                                                            80
Our eyes can in another’s eyes read clear,
When our world-deafen’d ear
Is by the tones of a loved voice caress’d—
A bolt is shot back somewhere in our breast,
And a lost pulse of feeling stirs again.                                                        85
The eye sinks inward, and the heart lies plain,
And what we mean, we say, and what we would, we know.
A man becomes aware of his life’s flow,
And hears its winding murmur; and he sees
The meadows where it glides, the sun, the breeze.                                 90
And there arrives a lull in the hot race
Wherein he doth for ever chase
That flying and elusive shadow, rest.
An air of coolness plays upon his face,
And an unwonted calm pervades his breast.                                            95
And then he thinks he knows
The hills where his life rose,
And the sea where it goes.

Yesterday we’d got  to stanza two and had read  up to line 15. We’d seen Matthew Arnold  looking to his beloved;

Alas! is even love too weak
To unlock the heart, and let it speak?
Are even lovers powerless to reveal
To one another what indeed they feel?                                                      15
I knew the mass of men conceal’d
Their thoughts, for fear that if reveal’d
They would by other men be met
With blank indifference, or with blame reproved;
I knew they lived and moved                                                                        20
Trick’d in disguises, alien to the rest
Of men, and alien to themselves—and yet
The same heart beats in every human breast!

Yesterday, I’d got caught up with the words ‘even’ and ‘indeed’, and that had led me on to  think about the poem’s rhythm. Now I’m looking also at the rhymes, which are plentiful but not always patterned. In this second stanza we start with rhyming couplets (two lines which rhyme, one coming straight after the other: weak/speak, reveal/feel, conceal’d/reveal’d).

Me: Rhyming couplets – what are they like?

(I don’t want to make a definitive statement here, I want you to feel  the reality – get in the water and splash about the tell me what it feels like!).

You:  They are strong.

Me:  Yes I agree – Alas! is even love too weak/ To unlock the heart, and let it speak? – Can you say more? Why do they seem strong?

You: They kind of finish – they are rounded off. It’s as if  the thought is completed.

Alas! is even love too weak
To unlock the heart, and let it speak?

Someone Else:  Yes, completed  in one way, but  it’s a question and there isn’t an answer! So in another way, it’s not complete.

Me:  Ok, so we’ve got a rhyming couplet where the rhymes are powerful and seem to  bring a conclusion, yet we’ve also got a question…

Someone Else: Well two questions, actually

You: Both with rhyming couplets! Conclusion  not concluded!

Someone else: Left hanging – and that’s the completeness of his thought  though isn’t it – he thinks ‘even  love can’t do it’, but they it’s like he adds, ‘can it?’

You: so the finish of the rhyme is undercut by the question mark?

Me:  You’re doing that yourself now!

You: But no rhyme! this time!

Me: Shall we go on? Look at this…

I knew the mass of men conceal’d
Their thoughts, for fear that if reveal’d
They would by other men be met
With blank indifference, or with blame reproved;
I knew they lived and moved                                                                        20
Trick’d in disguises, alien to the rest
Of men, and alien to themselves—and yet
The same heart beats in every human breast!

You:  Hey up, Jane we’re out of time

Me: Oh blast! More tomorrow. Going for a swim now.

Not a Victorian Dad Thing: ‘The Toys’ by Coventry Patmore

Greengage (and fairy lights) enjoying a stiff August breeze, August 2 

Yesterday I finished reading Coventry Patmore’s ‘Magna est Veritas’, and realised that I’d been unconsciously thinking of ‘The Toys’ while reading. So here is that poem:

The Toys

My little Son, who look’d from thoughtful eyes
And moved and spoke in quiet grown-up wise,
Having my law the seventh time disobey’d,
I struck him, and dismiss’d
With hard words and unkiss’d,
His Mother, who was patient, being dead.
Then, fearing lest his grief should hinder sleep,
I visited his bed,
But found him slumbering deep,
With darken’d eyelids, and their lashes yet
From his late sobbing wet.
And I, with moan,
Kissing away his tears, left others of my own;
For, on a table drawn beside his head,
He had put, within his reach,
A box of counters and a red-vein’d stone,
A piece of glass abraded by the beach
And six or seven shells,
A bottle with bluebells
And two French copper coins, ranged there with careful art,
To comfort his sad heart.
So when that night I pray’d
To God, I wept, and said:
Ah, when at last we lie with tranced breath,
Not vexing Thee in death,
And Thou rememberest of what toys
We made our joys,
How weakly understood
Thy great commanded good,
Then, fatherly not less
Than I whom Thou hast moulded from the clay,
Thou’lt leave Thy wrath, and say,
“I will be sorry for their childishness.”

Here’s a poem that confounds conventional stereotypes about Victorian fathers.

The first sentence  tells us what’s happened:

My little Son, who look’d from thoughtful eyes
And moved and spoke in quiet grown-up wise,
Having my law the seventh time disobey’d,
I struck him, and dismiss’d
With hard words and unkiss’d,
His Mother, who was patient, being dead.

I’d want to go  very slowly through these opening lines  and get my group to think about the order of  the various bits of information here. First, we are set down right in front of the child, ‘my little Son’, where the adjective ‘little’ seems almost an endearment as well as a descriptor.

Then we see him in a wider, more extended context:

…who look’d from thoughtful eyes
And moved and spoke in quiet grown-up wise,

This child, is normally well-behaved, ‘thoughtful’ and easy to parent,  he ‘moved and spoke in quiet grown-up wise.’ Does the father treat him as an adult? and could that be part of the problem – was he expecting too much? No childishness?

I realise as I am reading that this feels like overhearing a confession or a counselling session. The father is remembering and thinking about this painful incident, but he’s not just telling the story of the incident. He is telling us his feelings about what happened. There’s much love, tenderness, in the first two lines as he  recounts how much he loves the child and how good the child is normally. Which makes the next part so much the more painful:

Having my law the seventh time disobey’d,
I struck him, and dismiss’d
With hard words and unkiss’d,
His Mother, who was patient, being dead.

The father has a law – rules, we might call them, or, these days,  boundaries. But there is huge authority in that word law, and it does make me think (I know we are not there yet but I know it is coming, having read the poem through a couple of times) God The Father.

The child has tried his father’s patience and seven times. That’s quite a lot of times that your child has stepped over the boundary.  I imagine some small child-crime – pushing the sibling off the slide – once, three times – I’m getting pretty angry. Seven times?  Getting very cross indeed…But  is that ‘seven’ an echo of something? It must be a reference to the Bible:

(Romans 12:14-21)

21Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? 22Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.

We no longer think it right to strike children, but in Patmore’s day that would have been not simply socially acceptable  but considered the right way to enforce disciple – it was in my childhood and  in my own children’s childhoods. But as bad as the  blow, possibly worse, is the emotional pain of rejection –  it’s the father who did the rejecting –  in the name of parental authority – but he suffers it now :

I struck him, and dismiss’d
With hard words and unkiss’d,
His Mother, who was patient, being dead.

We get to a key pain here for the father – the word ‘unkiss’d ‘ seems to raise the memory, ghostly presence, of the mother. That mother, ‘who was patient’, would  not have done this or let it happen, and is dead. ‘Being dead’  – that’s an odd way to put it. It feels raw.

Thre’s a kind of paraphrase I want to make:  ‘his motherbeing dead, I  hit the child and sent him away unkindly, unkissed. She’d never have let that happen.’

We are likely  to think of the poem at first as showing us a classic stern Victorian father stereotype but what we’re getting here is actually a different kind of classic: difficulty of the single parent, having to be both father and mother, having to set a boundary, stick to it and pull back when a line is crossed.  It’s hard that the little clause, ‘who was patient’, is  set in  the middle of that line about death, that patience is unavailable. The father has not been patient; certainly not to seventy times seven.

It’s so recognisable – every parent must have had this experience or something like it at some point.

But I want to think for a moment about that ‘recognisable’. ‘Relevance’ is another of those troubling matters which are not easy to resolve with a rule of thumb or principle. Does what you take to a  group of people who are  – or are about to become – a Shared Reading group have to be ‘relevant’ ?  Do you only take ‘The Toys’ to a group of parents?  For a group of men who like fishing, do you only take a fishing magazine? And for those who follow the Kardashians or Love Island what should you be taking?

But most groups aren’t made up of  single issue members: fathers or fishing fans or Kardashian followers, people with a fear of horses, single parents or  those who only live in odd-numbered houses. All those people might well attend the same group. So catering for a specific interest group, or what one assumes is a specific interest  or single issue group (people who live round here, people with no qualifications, people engaged with mental health services)  is rarely the best way to go.  ‘People who live round here’ are all different individuals  and  yet also share some underlying human experience which is not necessarily ‘living round here’. The ‘underlying human’ is more powerful, in my experience, than the ‘connected by our living round here’. Good poems will work well with most people.

There are exceptions. I wouldn’t in the first instance think of reading ‘The Toys’ with a parent in prison for  abusing a child. As a man at Reader event once said to me, poems are like poems, they can go off, they can  hurt people. But that is not to say that I wouldn’t think of reading the poem later, when we had been reading together long enough, when we trusted one another, if it seemed as if it might help. Read in The Reader magazine about my colleague Megg, reading Charles Bukowski’s poem, ‘Bluebird’ in Send prison -sorry can’t remember which issue.

And of course, you do not know, you never know, the individual private experience of members of your group, who might have been abused by parents  or others, or have been perpetrators or sufferers of domestic violence.

Most people know quite a lot about most human experiences, wherever they live, whatever their educational experience, whether or not they work, live with a chronic illness or are in recovery from addiction. Poems will touch a spot in someone in your group. That  isn’t a  thing to be too afraid of –  though be a bit afraid, because it helps keep your mind on the likely responses – that is what poems do. That is what they are for, to find, activate  and connect the underlying human experience.

Almost everyone can relate to ‘The Toys’ because it is about feeling guilty after a bad mistake. That’s a human thing, not just  a Victorian dad thing.

Finish reading ‘The Toys’ tomorrow