‘You Are Tennyson’s Mouthpiece’ : a great poem by Dennis Haskell

It’s a short post today as I must get out early to catch the 7.47am London train to meet with some very interesting colleagues, supporters and potential new friends.

Yesterday I was remembering the way Tennyson’s poem, Crossing The Bar, had made me realise how powerful poetry could be once it had escaped the long-distance handling of University teaching and learning. Out of the educational context it was a different beast, dangerously alive!  Of course, it  always was dangerously alive for me as a private reader. And in some lectures and tutorials  something powerful did happen ( I mentioned Brian Nellist, my tutor yesterday. Meet him here, but be careful, it  starts with some strong swearing) but mainly, no… university tutorials were rarely the right place to share those personal experiences that made my private reading of  literature so rewarding. Why? Lots of the students were too young and shy, seemed mortified, dumbstruck, or scared of losing their best ideas to someone else. They made a lot of notes but not much noise. And lots of the tutors were strange-ish folk, and seemed equally socially uneasy, some of them dumbstruck, some terrible show-offs. So University tutorials were not, on the whole, occasions on which  to share one’s deepest thoughts. We kept ourselves to ourselves, or, if you were me, you talked too much and  felt an idiot in a different way.

When I started ‘Get Into Reading’ in 2002, I started with years of adult education teaching  behind me, and behind that, my having grown up in a pub, and having been a barmaid, a waitress. There’s a necessary human ease you have to find in those jobs, and it turns out, if you mix that barmaid and waitress, (not restricted to those professions: could be that kindly physiotherapist or creative midwife quality, or the quality of the man in B+Q who helps you find the spiggot without making you feel an idiot) with really great literature you get the most amazing firework mixture.

Over many years along with my colleagues at The Reader – both  staff and volunteers – I have been amazed by the power of poetry to ‘touch’, ‘strike’, ‘move’, ‘get’ and ‘hit’ people  – these interesting verbs come from readers trying to explain what is happening to them as they read.

A great poem about this effect sits alongside Tennyson’s poem in Phil’s out of print ( buy it on amazon for only 1p!) anthology, All The Days of My Life. That’s one of the great things about this  book – the setting together of different poems so that they form a kind of context for each other.

I didn’t have time to write to ask permission to use it here, so you will have to go Dennis Haskell’s own site. Read it aloud.  Take a tissue. I have  found myself moved to tears when reading this (with the Tennyson poem alongside) in Shared Reading groups. In fact I’ve just cried now, rereading it for the first time in several years.

You’ll find Dennis Haskell’s wonderful poem, ‘One Clear Call’  here. The poem sets out what happens when the human situation really makes the words come alive in all their wild animal power.

desk

A bit more time management, plus the Cherry, hung with snow

cherry 18.04.JPG
Cherry blossom in my garden 18.04.17
I don’t know who created the management theory that time is elastic, and that you can fit in whatever you want to fit in, but it’s not true. It is true that time changes as we experience it, but there are still only 24 hours in a day, 168 in a week. but there are two types of time: there is time-experience which speeds up or slows down depending on the amount of  flow-concentration-energy you are putting into whatever is happening, and there is clock time, which ticks on whatever is happening.

Three thoughts I’ve picked up on this topic which have been helpful have  been (i) how slowly time would go if you were sitting on a hot stove (thanks Gay Hendricks in The Big Leap) (ii) how you’d find time to deal to deal  with a flood in your house, whatever was happening at work (thanks Laura Vanderkam at TED). These thoughts are both about priorities and pain – it hurts if you don’t attend to either of them, and so they shoot to the top of the list of priorities. Time management isn’t about  time  so much as what matters most.  You can’t do everything. Unless perhaps your name is Tim Ferris but even then… from Tim Ferris I picked up the third thought: (iii) it matters how you start your day. I used to know this once, but somehow  over the last twenty years had forgotten. Writing this blog every day is helping me remember. I’m giving an hour a day to reading, and writing about a poem. That’s seven hours reading I wasn’t previously doing. This choice has made me happy (and only a little bit late on a  couple of occasions).

Perhaps some of our inability to manage time comes from the refusal to accept the necessity of choice, and the subsequent inability then to act on such (unmade, perhaps unacknowledged) choices. Time management might be more helpfully called choice management. No poem does the simple sums about time, life and choices better than this, from A. E. Housman:

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

Believe me, this is a scary poem to read when you are sixty-one! That middle stanza is remorseless.

I do hope to live beyond 70, but everything now frankly  feels a blessing: I know quite people of my age who have died. So I’ll stick bravely with Housman’s computation and recast it for myself: Now, of my threescore years and ten, / Sixty-one will not come again… only leaves me nine more! Ouch and aieee! Why the hell would I be  doing anything that wasn’t vitally important to me? Have I seen the cherry blossom?

I run out into the garden for another look.

Last time I read this poem was in an NHS addiction service centre, sometime in the last ten years. I thought then it was a bit of a risky poem to take, given quite a lot of us in the room were over 50, and I guessed that like me, quite a few people might feel (a little) frightened by the poem,  after all we’d all wasted quite a lot of time one way or another. But I thought you might only be a little frightened by the poem. And indeed, there’s something so tender and quiet in its tone, something so strong in its resolve, that no one was scared, and everyone agreed they would go for a walk and look for cherry blossom this week. Does making that choice affect one’s chances of recovery? I think every strong choice affects one’s chances.

I find the poem’s sums strengthening. You could ignore or not notice the first stanza, yeah, yeah, blossoms, again, so what. It’s a normal verse about normal blossom. you are in a normal state of mind as you read it. But the killer second stanza, quite unexpected  – yet not really unexpected, is it? Because the key thing about cherry blossom is its transience, it’s there and gone. Fifty chances to see it? That’s not enough!

‘Fifty springs are little room’ and I sure as hell don’t have  fifty ahead of me. Maybe twenty, maybe none for all I know. Therefore I finish writing a little early today, so I can get to Calderstones Park before I need to be in the office. I will go walk around and see the blossom. What could be more important?
See the late, great Denis Potter, two months before his death, discuss this blossom with Melvyn Bragg, here.

Time management: A Meditation Upon Flowers

tulips
Tulips pushing up through spring leafage

Bishop Henry King’s poem has a lot of offer the  contemporary blue-arsed fly.

I arrived home after nearly two weeks away in Sweden, where Spring is only just creeping into view. But here, in that short time,  much has changed. The magnolia flower on my new tree has been and gone.  The sweet-smelling viburnums are almost done.  Much lush green stuff has sprung and the (not ornamental but fruit providing) cherry is hung with its lacy, vulnerable blossom along the bough.

apple n cherry blossom .JPG
Cherry blossom behind the apple blossom

Against the kitchen wall there’s a red, red rose out in flower.

red rosebud
Red Rose in bud growing through mint

All this lovely energy makes me want to garden! And I did, a little, yesterday. And to read garden books, which I did last night. And to resolve anew, ‘This year I will garden every day. Oh, every week. Oh, OK, as often as possible.’

Yes and see my children and grandchildren, and my few beloved friends, and make time to be kind to my ancient mum and to read and  write every day and take exercise and eat ten portions of vegetables and makes sure I’ve done my prep for every meeting at work and I’m never going to get to a yoga class and the idea of ten minutes a day on the cello was crossed off years ago and even without those longed-for last two items my list of things is getting to the point where it begins to look undo-able.

I need to get some perspective  and where I go for that perspective is Bishop Henry King. Because the tulips in my garden, the orange pointy tulips which have appeared since I went to Sweden have reminded me of his poem, a long time favourite. Brave flowers, they look, gallant and doing what they can do, putting forth in the way they can put forth. But obeying a certain discipline, too. Here they are, shining out like hearts on fire in the morning garden, and reminding me of  the  planting of them, which I did very late, maybe late November. I’d bought them  full of good intentions and then forgotten to plant them and then found them beginning to moulder and thought, ‘What the heck, go and stick ’em in…’  And I had done so in a matter of minutes one Saturday morning in a frenzy of annoyance at myself for having forgotten to do them, but hoping they’d turn out ok, which, as I now see, they have. And the moral of this story is…

Bishop King is meditating on his own death. That makes my meditation on time management look a little trivial. But there is a relationship between the two. Part of my increasing desire for the thing I find hard to achieve – order – is to do with knowing death is coming, if not now, sometime. Like most people, for a very long time, I did not really believe that to be the case. When we are young we live – I lived – as if  life was for ever, which is a good thing when you are young. But now I am not young I know that life is short, and may end sooner than you think. As far as I know there’s nothing the matter with me – nothing that being thirty years of age wouldn’t cure. But I’m not thirty, I am sixty-one. I want to make some priorities because I don’t want to die thinking I did the wrong things with my time. I wouldn’t like to die thinking I wasted it. Therefore, given the limited resource of self, priorities must be made. I am going to ask myself to get into the garden for ten minutes a day.

 

BRAVE flowers—that I could gallant it like you,
And be as little vain!
You come abroad, and make a harmless show,
And to your beds of earth again.
You are not proud: you know your birth:
For your embroider’d garments are from earth.

You do obey your months and times, but I
Would have it ever Spring:
My fate would know no Winter, never die,
Nor think of such a thing.
O that I could my bed of earth but view
And smile, and look as cheerfully as you!

O teach me to see Death and not to fear,
But rather to take truce!
How often have I seen you at a bier,
And there look fresh and spruce!
You fragrant flowers! then teach me, that my breath
Like yours may sweeten and perfume my death.

I love the fact that the ‘show’ the flowers make is described as ‘harmless’. The flowers. ‘brave’ and ‘gallant’ as they are,  are like men in fancy royalist hats  with ostrich feathers, rich velvet robes, colour. ( Have a quick look at the etymology of the word gallant here) You might call all that vain, and in humans perhaps it is so, but in flowers, no, this is not vanity:  flowers are ‘harmless’. That’s quite a leap from ‘vain’ to ‘harmless’. Of course vanity can be hugely destructive, can  be harmful. Humans come abroad flaunt themselves about and make a harmful mess… And when I say humans, Henry King says ‘I’.

BRAVE flowers—that I could gallant it like you,
And be as little vain!
You come abroad, and make a harmless show,
And to your beds of earth again.
You are not proud: you know your birth:
For your embroider’d garments are from earth.

It’s as if fancy clothes, those ’embroider’d garments’ (that surely Henry must have worn himself as a Bishop) are a potentially harmful show that can damage humans by causing pride and vanity. The flowers know their birth, know the ’embroider’d garments’, know they come up, and gallant it,  and then go down to earth again. We tend to forget that our embroider’d garments (whatever they are, beauty, status, power, money, ego) are also as earthy and as  temporally fragile. Whatever you got, it don’t last!

You do obey your months and times, but I
Would have it ever Spring:
My fate would know no Winter, never die,
Nor think of such a thing.
O that I could my bed of earth but view
And smile, and look as cheerfully as you!

The reason Bishop King meditates upon flowers is to set aside time in which to think about death. His natural inclination would be never to ‘think of such a thing.’  Therefore he has to make the equivalent of a modern day ‘to-do’ list;

1. Think abut my own death.

He has to set aside specific time to do this because, left to himself,  naturally, he wouldn’t do it. Flowers are better at this than us. They are part of the natural rhythm of earth’s seasons, and they  ‘do obey … months and times.’  ‘Obey’ makes the flowers subservient to a law greater than themselves but Henry King, left to himself, doesn’t want to obey such laws;

… I
Would have it ever Spring:
My fate would know no Winter, never die,
Nor think of such a thing.

The pressing, unignorable reality of being a self-willed human creature is  – almost a law unto itself – and is held in place in this stanza by the double rhyme (I/die, Spring/thing are the line-ending rhymes but  look how they are  undercut by the internal rhyme of ‘ever’ and ‘never’). Bishop King, having set aside a little time in which to do it,  tries to imagine his death, his being dead and buried, but can’t seem to even see it, and if he could see it, knows he would not  be able to maintain a cheerful, gallant a brave composure;

O that I could my bed of earth but view
And smile, and look as cheerfully as you!

That’s why the mediation ends with a resolve to try to learn;

O teach me to see Death and not to fear,
But rather to take truce!
How often have I seen you at a bier,
And there look fresh and spruce!
You fragrant flowers! then teach me, that my breath
Like yours may sweeten and perfume my death.

The word ‘truce’ in the second line here is a clue to the seriousness of the problem. He’s at war with his own mortality! Does the opening line of this stanza mean that he is so afraid of Death that he cannot even see it, or that he does see it and it fills him with fear?  Certainly King has seen flowers at many a funeral (the fragrance helpful in keeping the smell of mortality away). The breath that Bishop King hopes may ‘sweeten and perfume’ his death would be the breath of prayer or whatever words he might say at the end. They need to be good, strong, gallant words, not frightened battle cries. He and the flowers would be in harmony then, both in their different ways sweetening and perfuming his end.

Yes, it is a meditation on death, but I feel it is also a call to life.  To ‘come abroad and make a harmless show’ in the face of mortality and time-ah running out: it asks us to go on with the show (but also know what kind of show it is.)

Thank you Bishop King, thank you, tulips.

It’s not what it looks like

gods grandeur.JPG
The Shook Foil of the World’s Grandeur,  Portugal 2014
Graham Ward’s book Unbelievable: why we believe and why we don’t has made me think,  for several days now, about the ways in which I can understand the word ‘belief’  and so I thought it might be worth looking the word up in my old favourite The Online Etymological Dictionary:

belief (n.) late 12c., bileave, replacing Old English geleafa “belief, faith,” from West Germanic *ga-laubon “to hold dear, esteem, trust” (source also of Old Saxon gilobo, Middle Dutch gelove, Old High German giloubo, German Glaube), from *galaub- “dear, esteemed,” from intensive prefix *ga- + *leubh- “to care, desire, like, love” (see love (v.)). The prefix was altered on analogy of the verb believe. The distinction of the final consonant from that of believe developed 15c.

The be-, which is not a natural prefix of nouns, was prefixed on the analogy of the vb. (where it is naturally an intensive) …. [OED]

Belief used to mean “trust in God,” while faith meant “loyalty to a person based on promise or duty” (a sense preserved in keep one’s faith, in good (or bad) faith and in common usage of faithful, faithless, which contain no notion of divinity). But faith, as cognate of Latin fides, took on the religious sense beginning in 14c. translations, and belief had by 16c. become limited to “mental acceptance of something as true,” from the religious use in the sense of “things held to be true as a matter of religious doctrine” (a sense attested from early 13c.).

I was particularly surprised by  the connection to love and trust. Can I accept this: that what I believe is what I trust to be true ? But also esteem seems a vital element – what I hold in high regard, what I believe to be of value. Perhaps what I believe is what I trust or value to be true, to be  valuable.

Feel as if there are two types of worlds – one material, the other mental. The material world is vast and huge but I believe limited ( I mean limited on this planet, not talking about the entire universe here). The mental world, the world we can think seems, though I’ve no proof, feels unlimited. The two worlds, modes, interlock  (or sometimes, jarringly, don’t). World of  roads, rocks, work, journey, food and water. World of belief, outlook, understanding. World of  the physical planet and my physical presence on it. World of my emotions, feelings, interpretations. The warp and weft of  being in both worlds locks the two together, the strands  of each becoming the fabric of  my experience, my existence. Literature is a transitional object.

These rough thoughts have been linked to some others about poetry. While reading Intimations of Immortality this last week, and  trying to re-think what  such a poem is, I’ve been thinking there are different types of poem:  (don’t know why, or if, this matters) poem that is mainly  story   – The Lady of Shallot, The Canterbury Tales  – though of course many of these are also thoughts.  A poem that is mainly thought or feeling experience – I’d count  Intimations as  one of these, and Four Quartets. There are also lyrics, poems  that are more like songs: My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose and those may also have thought in them but will put a lot of energy, and meaning,  into rhythm and form. I’ve been thinking too about what makes a poem different to a story,   even when the poem is a story, and I think it is to do with thought or feeling or belief and the way the poem asks its reader to follow, mentally, and perhaps physiologically, its thought patterns.  A story feels a lot  further off. But when I am reading a poem – but that’s dead language.  That doesn’t describe the experience.  It’s not like that. The  experience is one of immersion, of flow (see Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi much-watched Ted talk here). Once you go in and immerse – it is no longer ‘reading literature’ but experiencing the movements,  the shape, the liveness  of someone else’s mind.

Because I’ve spent a lot of time out-of-doors this week, this poem has been in my mind. Don’t be put off by ‘God’ ! if you don’t like the word, or don’t understand it, just cross it out and replace with an ‘x’. The rest of the poem’s language will  fill in the blank.

God’s Grandeur

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Gerard Manley Hopkins

I have read Hopkins’ poetry since I first encountered it at ‘A’ level when I was a half-hearted student at Liverpool City College in the late 1970s.  I had little belief in myself as a student, and none in the world’s offer to me, so education, though it held a vague sort of theoretical promise, also felt unlikely to yield much for me. Aged  22, 23, 24 I dabbled in it.  Time and money on drink and drugs and weyhey! might be a better bet? But when, through the A level syllabus, I met The Wreck of The Deutschland, I knew I had  bumped into something powerful that  I wanted to  comprehend. I wanted to make what Hopkins had part of me. I would learn it! In fact I learned the whole poem off by heart. How very odd, to be  so much moved by something which apparently had no relation to me – I did not  share any of Hopkins’ ‘beliefs’. Or did I?

But back to the poem.  First, the verb ‘charged’ : it’s about energy, pulsing, ready to burn. But it is also ‘charged’ as in ‘charged with’ = has the task of, perhaps even more strongly than that, carries the burden of…yes, the world cannot do other than pulse with this fullness of energy.  That is its load. ‘The world is charged with the grandeur of God.’ I leave  the second half of that line for now, because  though I like the word ‘grandeur’, I don’t know about ‘God’.  I pass over it. The world is charged with something.

It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;

Ah yes, this is why I love Hopkins, always the surprise, the ‘think harder’, the ‘picture it’.  what does the pronoun ‘it’ refer to? The  grandeur? the charge? God? the world? all of the above? And then ‘ like shining from shook foil’ !!! Go on, see it!  a live active verb, ‘shining’, but it is  becoming a noun even as we see it happen, and a second verb, ‘shook’. the functional shift of ‘shining’ has  sent my brain activity soaring! Feel the world is crackling with live energy. I am excited! He keeps the pressure up, with his gathering ‘to a greatness’, and I’m rolling with it, until I get to the oil. What?  I have to go back and read all the first four lines together;

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?

I feel the oil – though charged with the same iridescence as the foil, and rhyming with it – slows things down, maybe it is the ‘ooze’ doing the slowing. But I find it hard to  make an image here. Maybe I see one drop of oil,  shimmering, in psychedelic close-up, but I can see beyond the line ending and know ‘crushed’ is coming. And the full stop. Something’s going wrong!

And surely for Hopkins, it is; ‘Why do men then now not reck his rod?’ (= Why don’t people these days take notice of  god’s power? there’s an edge, too, of fear, I think , in ‘rod’  it’s a weapon, a club, a beating stick, and it is also probably  ‘rood’ = old english ‘cross’ Why don’t people now take notice of God’s suffering for us?). Well,  I am one of them, but as I read, I don’t count myself so, because I have partly become Hopkins, but also partly because I stand off from the criticism and feel  I do ‘reck’ some of the ‘rod’ because I do believe in everything in this poem up to the word ‘oil’. There I stop.

‘Crushed’  – a bit like ‘god’ at the beginning, I ignore. Don’t want to feel I am crushing, spoiling, breaking up that shook out grandeur of the opening lines.

Ah, time’s up. More tomorrow. That was  like a very refreshing swim. I climb dripping out of the water and back into air.  Breakfast!

 

 

Not in entire forgetfulness

apple blossom
Apple blossom, Calderstones Park, 3 April 2017

24 hour grandparenting duties performed with no injuries and a jolly good time had by all… Yesterday I got two small children up and sort of washed and dressed (allow myself some leeway there, or as W.B.Yeats puts it ‘forgive myself the lot’) and breakfasted (delicious made-by-the-boy-himself smoothie with banana, milk, greek yoghurt blueberries and  …. chocolate cake) ready for school and childminder and got myself to work for ten to nine, triumphant but knackered. Bowled over with admiration for parents who do this every day – it is hard. Then you go to work! Well done!

Thinking about the little one year old and The Immortality Ode. She seemed so perplexed by our presence  when she woke up – as if really asking herself, what on earth’s going here? These people aren’t usually here. She looked from one to the other of us as if checking we were really ourselves and not her parents. She took it in her stride but you could see she was trying to work out, and with no background information e.g. weddings take place, your parents travel to Harrogate for a longed for bit if time alone together, what could be going on.

And so to the Immortality Ode, which I’ve been reading here in tiny chunks as my daily reading practice. I’m up to the fifth stanza.  When I first read this, as  a not-very-mature-student of twenty-four years old, the single mother of a five-year-old child, a person without religious belief and not  at all  into Wordsworth or  much poetry, I was profoundly moved by, excited by  this stanza. I suddenly felt I knew what he was talking about. I’ll put the whole stanza here, although will only think about the first few lines;

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature’s Priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,

And fade into the light of common day.

I had read, perhaps a year before this, what for me became a life-changing, life-shaping book, Doris Lessing’s Sci Fi novel, Shikasta. The novel introduced me to some powerful new ideas – the key one being vocation: life has purpose though you may not know what it is, may simply suffer an uncomfortable sense of things not being right, may feel out-of-kilter. Shikasta  sets out a universe in which  more highly evolved beings, which the story calls Canopeans (we might call them ‘gods’) get involved in the development of less evolved  planets…such as ours, which we call Earth, but they call Shikasta, the broken one.

I’ve stopped recommending this book. Lots of people don’t like it. But for me, it came from a trusted source (I’d been reading Doris Lessing for years, as she was, in the seventies and up to the publication of this book, a great favourite of the  women’s movement, which had  been my source-of-meaning-home) and reconnected me to my early love of SF. It came to me when I was in a receptive state, and it came with a way of thinking that literally, overnight, changed my mind.  Like The Immortality Ode, it posits the idea that souls, that come from elsewhere,  are incarnated into bodies and must live on earth. I’d been obsessed with the novel  for a year when I read this poem.  My mind was set up to receive it. I read the lines and felt they were already in some way my own thoughts;

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:

It, we, I – my ‘soul’ – still struggle with that word, hate religious language, don’t like religions – but it is a word that stands for something and I don’t have a better word, so must use it, ‘cometh from afar’. True or false? It felt true to me. First Shikasta and now this poem were giving me a language for previous unknowable feelings. I had thoughts, as Bion says, in the quote I posted the other day, but I didn’t have the equipment for thinking them. I could not process my own emotional experience. The language of this poem gave me that. What did I recognise as true?

Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!

I knew that when my daughter had been born I had felt I knew her. That she existed, fully, in her self, was something, someone already before any experience had affected her. She seemed to be here. It was one probably the most powerful emotional experience of my life (repeated when my son was born twelve years later). There were no words for what I felt I knew. She came partly knowing something – ‘not in entire forgetfulness’ and clothed in something – ‘not in utter nakedness’, and certainly she came ‘trailing clouds of glory’.

I did not like the word ‘God’ but I ignored that. These days I can use it, but then, it was too loaded with other people s meanings to be real to me. Yet the second part of that line, ‘who is our home.’ also seemed to strike a chord of truth. That I could believe. Something in us is connected to, comes from, is at home ‘elsewhere’ – that word is a lovely pointer to somewhere specific we don’t yet know, isn’t it?

Yikes, gone over time. Late for work!

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.

Euphorbias & Viburnums v Sullenness & Rage

euphorbia close.JPG
Euphorbia asserting its noble beauty in an unkind world

March has been a difficult  month on almost every front, but I don’t want to describe or even list any of those difficulties.

Instead,  after a particularly difficult day yesterday, in which I felt a lot of feelings I did not wish to feel, including – rare one for me – rage, and in which the good that happened (Teamwork, time with Megg, euphorbias, Carys Bray, my dear and loving husband) all seemed overshadowed by bad stuff,  I woke up with these words in my mind;

Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.

These words come from the Bible, Letter to Phillipians 4:8, but I first got them from Iris Murdoch, in her strange, wonderful and difficult book, Metaphysics As A Guide To Morals. She’s talking about what you can do if you don’t have religion to assist with difficulties of living, and writes about filling your mind up, deliberately, with good things.

The book came out in 1992 and I think I first read it then or the following year. Soon after that I was in the thick of the hardest time of my life and in my desperation I found her advice helpful. I particularly found the quotation from Philippians helpful and what’s more, it seemed to stick. I used it like a mantra but it also gave me something active to do. When bad stuff came into my head I would recite, ‘whatever is good…whatever is honest…whatever is just…’ and the very presence of  such words, and the thoughts associated with them, seemed to help me. As one of our readers in a special project where volunteers read with children in extremely difficult situations said, ‘when Jess reads with me it makes all the bad memories go away and good memories come in…’ I know that feeling well.

So, whatever is good, think on these things.The habit is a useful one. It also works with poetry.

Well, grandchildren  – all babies! –  are good and make me feel great joy. I think  on them, and see them whenever I can. Birdsong is heartening at this time of year. Dogs rarely fail to delight me (you know who you are, you dogs who don’t delight). Euphorbias display such energy that I find they restore my faith in life, and the small pink viburnum (don’t know what variety it is and need to know because I want one in my garden) on the right of the gate into the  walled gardens at Calderstones Park is currently providing daily inner restoration through its gentle colour therapy. I do think on these things.

viburnum close.JPG

An unequivocal good has been changing my morning routine so that I read and write about my reading every day before I go to work. There is never enough time but even the smallest amount of it seems to do me some good. After years of ‘no time to write’ and reading while falling asleep, it feels a breakthrough. This change is the result of a chance meeting with a kind stranger on a train the day Bearhunt blew away. That’s how it happens isn’t it?

I’ve been reading Wordsworth’s Intimations of Immortality for the past three mornings. The whole poem is here. But I’ve been reading a few lines each day. Yesterday we got  to the point where Wordsworth, feeling some ‘glory’ is lost from life, finds something ‘glorious’ in the world and tells himself

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!

The word ‘sullen’ seems to do for bad feeling what ‘whatever is good’ does for good. It puts it in my mind.  It’s foul. And then I see it, hiding behind ‘sullen’,  ‘Oh evil day’  as if Wordsworth first feels the evil before he has identified where/what it is. Evil emanating from my sullenness. Ouch. Thinking bad things is not good.  Is that how ‘evil’ starts?

Instead of continuing with his feeling (‘sullen’) he lets it go, looks around, looks for good and sees it;

…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 love that line, ‘the Babe leaps up on his Mother’s arm’ and it is an important one for me, but I am out of time and need to carry on tomorrow.

viburnum form.JPG