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.





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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Denise Riley reads ‘A Misremembered Lyric’ here.

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

Why I don’t bother with context

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

It’s a way in, someone will say.

No, it’s a way round, I’d reply.

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

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

Poetry says: Experience this.

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

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

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

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

presence is clean gone and leaves unfurnished no

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

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

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

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

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

Do shrimps make good mothers? Yes they do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paradise Lost 16: Milton’s Time Travel and a Throwaway Line

first red camellia of the year 2 feb 2018.JPG
The first flower on the single red camellia, 2 Feb 2018

Another week with no time to read and write – or is it that I am not making the time? I certainly have spent time in other ways, and I have written other types of things, but mainly, I’ve been on the road, out of routine.

But that stops tomorrow when I have a full week at Calderstones, The Reader’s home and Head Office and time therefore  to establish the drill:  get up, exercise, shower, read, write. Let’s see how it goes. Meanwhile I can confirm, for those who noticed the pledge, that I  handed my Reader credit card receipts on time and in without causing – I hope – hold up time or trouble to my colleagues in Finance.

This morning I’ve been writing already, working on organisational thoughts to do with The Reader.  Pressing work-related thinking! But now I have half an hour to turn to Paradise Lost.

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

Last week we saw the rebel angels roused by Satan’s oratory. I want to pick up again at the section where I finished last time. Of the now upright, innumerable and massive  fallen angels, Milton writes:

Though of thir Names in heav’nly Records now
Be no memorial blotted out and ras’d
By thir Rebellion, from the Books of Life.
Nor had they yet among the Sons of Eve
Got them new Names, till wandring ore the Earth, [ 365 ]
Through Gods high sufferance for the tryal of man,
By falsities and lyes the greatest part
Of Mankind they corrupted to forsake
God thir Creator, and th’ invisible
Glory of him that made them, to transform [ 370 ]
Oft to the Image of a Brute, adorn’d
With gay Religions full of Pomp and Gold,
And Devils to adore for Deities:
Then were they known to men by various Names,
And various Idols through the Heathen World. [ 375 ]

The names of these angels when they were in heaven are lost, they are ‘blotted out and ras’d/By thir Rebellion, from the Books of Life’. And at this point, they had not yet got the names humans would give them later. In a sense they are now for Milton, and for us reading, unnameable.

This is interesting to me because in a minute we are going to see that  soon enough, by making themselves part of the human world, by corrupting that world, we will come to name, know them as individual  things, presences in person. But here they seem, more frighteningly,  an unspeakable force, a bad energy, a potential for badness. Is this always there, at the bottom of the universe?  is it part of the universe? Milton’s Christian patter means that  fall is fall and bad is bad… but another type of religious view would accept fall, bad, even corruption as natural. I’ve been reading  Joseph Campbell’s The Power Myth which gave me pause for thought about fall, falling, fallenness. I’ll have to come back to this another  time.

Back to the poem.

Quickly, in a move characteristic of his time travel in this poem, Milton shoots forward into the human future.  At the moment these unnamed creatures are on the lake in hell, but Milton suddenly sees them

till wandring ore the Earth, [ 365 ]
Through Gods high sufferance for the tryal of man,
By falsities and lyes the greatest part
Of Mankind they corrupted

This is huge potential span of future time – lasting right beyond Milton into pagan, pre-Christian times and through him into our own time and  the  future beyond us. And the terrifying  throwaway  line is dropped in as if quite understood and accepted by all –  ‘the greatest part/Of Mankind they corrupted’ – yep, that’s us.

But it is also specifically  the pre-Christian era. The devils become gods, as we see when we read on:

corrupted to forsake
God thir Creator, and th’ invisible
Glory of him that made them, to transform [ 370 ]
Oft to the Image of a Brute, adorn’d
With gay Religions full of Pomp and Gold,
And Devils to adore for Deities:
Then were they known to men by various Names,
And various Idols through the Heathen World. [ 375 ]

That’s a short half hour of reading. But much still to do today and not yet dressed.


temp cafe 2
Temporary Cafe being built at Calderstones
temp cafe 1.JPG
Temporary Cafe nearly there 

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.

Essex Girl meets Punk Reader: starting to read a new-to-me poem by Denise Levertov

old english garden.JPG
Old English Garden at Calderstones getting into Autumn, 18 September

This morning I’m starting to read a poem new to me, which I’ve found in the very lovely (New Directions) Collected Poems of Denise Levertov.

I begin with a nervous feeling, it looks a big poem, and as if it might be important. That nervous feeling makes me afraid and angry, old feelings left from early days at University. Does everything we’ve ever felt lie in us waiting to be re-ignited?

All those lifetime-old  worries – poetry is something clever experts know about – come back like weird auto-response twitches, and I tell myself: you’ve been a good reader for years, decades, a life time, shut up you and your silly worried voices. My young punk self aggressive in her assertion brought to life by feeling of dustiness of ‘experts’: I can do it without your *%^&*”* notes!

If a poem needs a critical apparatus it’s no poem. A poem stands alone, is a product of a human soul and mind. A reader meets it. They  begin to read each other. Don’t be afraid, I soothe my young angry uneducated self,  believe in that lively interchange.

I read the poem through a couple of times:

A Map of the Western Part of the County of Essex in England

Something forgotten for twenty years: though my fathers
and mothers came from Cordova and Vitepsk and Caernarvon,
and though I am a citizen of the United States and less a
stranger here than anywhere else, perhaps,
I am Essex-born:
Cranbrook Wash called me into its dark tunnel,
the little streams of Valentines heard my resolves,
Roding held my head above water when I thought it was
drowning me; in Hainault only a haze of thin trees
stood between the red doubledecker buses and the boar-hunt,
the spirit of merciful Phillipa glimmered there.
Pergo Park knew me, and Clavering, and Havering-atte-Bower,
Stanford Rivers lost me in osier beds, Stapleford Abbots
sent me safe home on the dark road after Simeon-quiet evensong,
Wanstead drew me over and over into its basic poetry,
in its serpentine lake I saw bass-viols among the golden dead leaves,
through its trees the ghost of a great house. In
Ilford High Road I saw the multitudes passing pale under the
light of flaring sundown, seven kings
in somber starry robes gathered at Seven Kings
the place of law
where my birth and marriage are recorded
and the death of my father. Woodford Wells
where an old house was called The Naked Beauty (a white
statue forlorn in its garden)
saw the meeting and parting of two sisters,
(forgotten? and further away
the hill before Thaxted? where peace befell us? not once
but many times?).
All the Ivans dreaming of their villages
all the Marias dreaming of their walled cities,
picking up fragments of New World slowly,
not knowing how to put them together nor how to join
image with image, now I know how it was with you, an old map
made long before I was born shows ancient
rights of way where I walked when I was ten burning with desire
for the world’s great splendors, a child who traced voyages
indelibly all over the atlas, who now in a far country
remembers the first river, the first
field, bricks and lumber dumped in it ready for building,
that new smell, and remembers
the walls of the garden, the first light.

Hhhhmm. A long read, and a lovely read though largely still incomprehensible to me this morning. I see the map she is reading. I do not know Essex and need a map of my own to compare hers against, but this is also genetics, isn’t it,and the history of a family moving around the world?

These are the thoughts that are roughly in my  mind as I open the poem and begin to look.

When I start again, I am uncertain because I don’t know what the ‘something’ is:

Something forgotten for twenty years: though my fathers
and mothers came from Cordova and Vitepsk and Caernarvon,
and though I am a citizen of the United States and less a
stranger here than anywhere else, perhaps,
I am Essex-born:

Had she forgotten Essex, that she was Essex-born?  Had that memory  faded in the more cosmopolitan light of Cordova and Vitepsk and Caernarvon and the United States?  have those places  her ‘fathers and mothers’ came from become more significant in her life story than the actualities of her  real life story??

I’m over my nerves already!

Reading a new poem – and particularly perhaps a poem with some kind of reputation or aura (and for me, with this poem that was just to do with its density on the page plus my immediate inability to get into it) – you have to put your insecurity aside and face it as an equal. You have to say:  I don’t understand. O.k., you have to say to yourself,  ask a question then.  There may be many questions and few answers. But asking gets you talking.  And the next thing neither you nor the poem is standing there like a monolith.

I’ll be back tomorrow with a map of Essex and longer time for writing.

”A Map of the Western Part of the County of Essex in England” By Denise Levertov, from POEMS 1960-1967, copyright ©1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965,1966 by Denise Levertov. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp. 

After long night at Anfield, still slowly reading that Shakespeare Sonnet

lfc sevilla.JPG
Moments before the game started, when all seemed well

LFC V Sevilla  was a long night on Wednesday, in the seocond half time slowed almost to a stop. This meant I didn’t go to bed til nearly midnight, and not going to bed til nearly midnight meant I didn’t wake up early yesterday. My writing time was eaten up by care-charmer sleep and though I did still have a little time before work, I wanted to go swimming. So it seems a  long time since I started reading Sonnet 44 by William Shakespeare.  Thus time expands and contracts, though the minute hand moves at the same speed.

Reading back over Wednesday’s post I see I’ve only really written about two lines, which is odd because in my memory I’d done quite a lot.  All this makes me think about time and depth.

The Gutenburg Elegies (1994) is  an early piece of thinking  about  the damage digital technology would wreak on the act of book reading, which Birketts posits as one of  the cornerstones of humanism. I think I’ve got my copy in work, so can’t quote from it directly but  one of the things Sven Birketts thinks about in the collection of essays is deep reading – the reading that took place when people only had one book – typically, The Bible. Birketts imagines a woman in a rural village reading that  book every week  for her entire life.  Not a wide reader, but a deep one. I remember Jeanette Winterson writing in Why Be Happy that her mother would read the Bible to  her every night and  when she got to the end they’d start again at the beginning. I’m not saying that was a good thing, but it was a deep thing and that  immersion, saturation,  in a rich and complex language helped create a language-rich inner life and make Jeanette a writer.

I wonder if less might be more? Does it matter if a whole Shared Reading session is taken up by the depth of a few lines?  I don’t think so. The important thing is find the places of depth and to learn to feel at ease there. Well, so I excuse my own slowness. So back to the poem:


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

I was saying that  it’s helpful to read the whole thing, get a sense of it, see where the punch is (‘That Time will come and take my love away.’) and then to look at the poem in terms of units of meaning – here  in clusters of two or four lines.

Other things to look at as you read and just note – line endings – what are they doing? punctuation – what is it telling us about  the geometry of the poem? Rhymes – see them? and if you had a red marker pen to pick out the key words,  killer words/thoughts – where would you mark?

All that kind of  noticing  goes on semi-unconsciously as I read the poem through and the depth of  my reading experience  partly depends on noticing as many of those  pieces. A good reading would mean that as much of the poem is brought into consciousness as possible.

Here I  pick up  at lines 3&4:

When sometime lofty towers I see down-razed
And brass eternal slave to mortal rage;

As in the opening couplet, Shakespeare is  thinking of  ferocious destruction. Why ferocious? ‘Down-razed’, ‘mortal rage’. Brass is a  strong metal  and it is subject to  mortal rage.. mortal meaning human or mortal meaning deathly –  it isn’t that we can smash brass up, but rather that brass is subject, like everything else, to destruction by time.

The next four lines hang together in terms of meaning though they retain the same structural pattern set out in lines 1-4: two pairs of couplets. But before I look at  that structure, I want to just get the rough meaning:

When I have seen the hungry ocean gain
Advantage on the kingdom of the shore,
And the firm soil win of the watery main,
Increasing store with loss and loss with store;

This is the third ‘when’ of the sonnet –  I feel Shakespeare is finding examples of this destruction or change everywhere – he’s giving three examples but he might give three hundred. Much of the language is about fighting, this isn’t the universe melting into itself and becoming one.  Defaced, cost, outworn, down-razed, slave, rage, and now ‘hungry’, ‘advantage’ and ‘win’. We’re in a fight. Ocean and land cost each other – one can’t win unless the other loses. Whenever the is ‘store’  there is also ‘loss’,  wherever ‘loss’ , there is also ‘store’.  The semi-colon at the end of the line hints that another thought is growing out of the thought we have just experienced.

And here it is, marked by a full stop – we’ve reached the end of the bout.

When I have seen such interchange of state,
Or state itself confounded to decay;
Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate,
That Time will come and take my love away.

A fourth ‘when’  – so that I am feeling, this seems a universal truth. It is everywhere, this ‘interchange of state’, one thing won only at the cost of another. But thinking back to the instances of destruction in the opening four lines,  it may not always be interchange. State itself may be  ‘confounded to decay’. ‘State’ is a brilliant word here, almost as if it  means ‘matter’,  but bigger than that, perhaps. Would ‘what is’  be an adequatetranslation? Not just stuff, but also being? Everything subject to Time’s undoing.

And ‘ruin’ – my god, that’s strong. Looking upon the universal tendency to ‘ruin’ (which physicists might later call entropy?) Shakespeare is taught to ‘ruminate’. There is a  stunning sound relation between ‘ruin’ and ‘ruminate’, to do with the long  sound ‘ru’- as if ruminate contains or holds ruin. You see it over and over. You can’t help but think. Oddly, after all that destruction, a calm descends.

Suddenly everything goes simple. There’s no violent language now. Just clear knowledge:

That Time will come and take my love away.

I’m going to read the last two lines tomorrow – so as not to rush them.



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


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

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

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

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

Let’s read it quickly through:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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