billy collins

Into The Darkness They Go, The Wise And The Lovely – St. Vincent Millay

darkness-2“Everyone is a moon, and has a dark side which he never shows to anybody.” – Mark Twain

Now, apart from the absence of light, what’s the fuss about darkness? Well it’s when everything otherworldly happens. Ghosts and vampires and werewolves come out, the early Saxons called it the death-mist, and although the darkness is not without its dangers, it’s the mystical time for dreams and magic. The time for imagination and contemplation. Shakespeare brought us the Prince of Darkness from King Lear, composers like Satie and Debussy wrote tranquil Nocturnes for solo piano, Chopin wrote 21 of them, the first was written by the Irish composer John Field, known as the Father of the romantic nocturne. Creation began with darkness, into which light is then created, because you can’t have one without the other. Incidentally, as far as lighting architects are concerned, much beautiful light can only appear because of darkness. In fact, they’re always looking at new ways of lighting our cities in order to preserve the darkness, because we’re producing too much light. If you ever see those night shots of the earth from space, it’s supposed to be dark, but all you see are lights, spoiling the darkness, not reaching the people they’re supposedly meant for. I guess if we appreciated the darkness more, we’d be able to enhance it with light rather than trying to eliminate it altogether.

So today we’ll come at DARKNESS from a few angles beginning with the blindness of Jorges Luis Borges.  The Argentinean short-story writer and poet in his 1974 book In Praise Of Darkness takes us on a journey of self-realization in the company of darkness. Like his father before him, Borges became blind in his fifties and many of his later works focus on the effect this had on him as a writer. The darkness of the title poem though, also means old age, something his blindness has been preparing him for. A time for reflection and inward focus, or the time of our greatest bliss as he calls it, freedom from the distraction of all the eye sees I suppose, the things that steal us away from ourselves. And rather than reject the coming darkness, he welcomes it All this should frighten me, he says, but it is a sweetness, a return. He speaks of blindness as an involuntary meditation, a time to get to know himself, remember and enjoy in peace the great books he read, the people he knew, the things he did, without being bombarded with new information all the time. It struck me how preoccupied we are nowadays, news reports, facts, figures, social media updates, stuff coming at us every minute diverting our attention from ourselves, leaving little time for inner focus and centeredness. For Borges, sitting quietly in the darkness of himself, he will come to find his algebra, his key his mirror.

Just press play and listen to the show!

Night-time is an occasion for contemplation and imagination and a lot of writers and poets find they’re at their most creative in the dark. Particularly before sleep or waking, because you’re closest to your dreams and seem to be able to access more easily the abstract corridors of the brain. My Darling Turns To Poetry At Night is a love poem by Australian poet Anthony Lawrence from his new collection Headwaters. And it appealed to me because when I first started to write poetry, I wrote at night or around the dreaded 4 in the morning. Actually I was watching a Tedtalks the other evening about the 4am mystery, the idea that you’re awake at worst possible hour, along with the morticians. Faron Young and Leonard Cohens song 4 in the morning, Judi Dench’s movie and Wiswava Szymborska’s poem where she calls it The hollow hour. The very pit of all other hours, well the mystery of all these, can all be traced back to the 1932 surrealist sculpture by Alberto Giacomo ‘The Palace At Four in The Morning’, that’s the start point apparently for every artistic depiction of 4am, but a very productive hour it seems. Anyway, Lawrence uses the obsessive quality of the Italian Villanelle form to compare his lover to poetry, in all it’s beauty and complexity. In the stillness of the dark this love becomes apparent and glorious as the stars, the commas on her face, her heartbeat is a metaphor, a late bloom of red flowers that refuse to fade, ah the romance of it all  the dreamy nocturnal quality and this is a love that will last for eternity as he concludes that their bodies will leave ghost prints on the bed.

The epigraph of the poem First Night, by American poet and professor Billy Collins, comes from a quote by Spanish poet Juan Ramon Jimenez The worst thing about death must be the first night, and that gives us an idea of where his thoughts are going. Jimenez lost his father when he was only eighteen, experiencing quite young the darkness of his first night. Collins raises more questions about what happens after death, to both the dead and the living, will the dead gather to watch the sun and moon rise for example. When you lose someone it’s hard to see past the next minute let alone day, so doubts about whether there will be a sunrise, a language, a bed for any of us abound. How feeble our vocabulary in the face of death, he says, again being unable to find the words to express our grief. Collins concludes, as do all our writers today, by reminding us to pay more attention to our lives, our world, enjoy what we have while we have it. Being present and finding alternative ways of dealing with grief, is one of those little tricks to better living that all the great philosophers talk about. I’m reading a book by Sarah Bakewell at the moment about the life of the 16th century French philosopher Montaigne, he was heavily influenced by Greek & Roman philosophers like Seneca and Plutarch and they were always conducting their own little thought experiments on ways of living without anxiety.  Plutarch suggested that if you lose someone precious you can try valuing them differently by imagining that you never knew them, thus producing a different emotion! He famously put this in a letter to his wife after the loss of their daughter, I’m not sure if she found any consolation in that but the intent of course was to ease her suffering. Anyway, for those of us who have lost someone, there’s no denying the truth in Jimenez’s words, that for the living at least, the first night is the worst after a death.

Also on today’s show: Wait by Galway Kinnell,  Lay Back The Darkness by Edward Hirsh and  They Sit Together On The Porch by Wendell Berry.  Music from Matthew & The Atlas, Alice Boman, Will Oldham & Johnny Cash and more …..

darkness

“Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.” Mary Oliver

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A Poet Walks Into A Bar …

The double negative didn’t walk into no bar!humour

What’s a Grecian Urn? About twenty thousand drachmas a year after taxes!

Okay I’ll stop now, so today we’re talking about HUMOUR and like poetry, humour is everywhere and we all respond to it. Cracking jokes can take the awkwardness out of some social situations; at work it can help build relationships; it’s a coping strategy too that relieves tension taking the edge off daily stresses which is critical to promoting harmony in our lives and diffusing negative emotions. In the serious business of poetry, humour is often viewed with suspicion and yes there are a lot of nonsense verses out there, fun nursery rhymes and terrible gibberish but then you get the great stuff, the satire, the irony the comic timing from writers like Billy Collins who uses comedy to lighten the pain of loss in his poem Putting Down The Cat which we’ll read later, but also here about his dead parents in No Time, he writes:

In a rush this weekday morning,
I tap the horn as I speed past the cemetery
Where my parents are buried
Side by side beneath a slab of smooth granite
Then, all day, I think of him rising up
To give me that look
Of knowing disapproval
While my mother calmly tells him to lie back down.

So through humour he crafts a poem that is full of feeling without being over sentimental. This reminds me of something Russian playwright Anton Chekhov said about having a necessary coldness when you write ’when you want to make the reader feel pity, try to be somewhat colder … the more objective you are, the stronger will be the impression you make’. So using poetic devices such as humour, satire and hyperbole ensure that otherwise serious topics pack more of a punch.

When we laugh, we temporarily give ourselves over to those who make us laugh and that’s what we’ll do now. Today’s show features Putting Down The Cat by Billy Collins, The Cremation Of Sam McGee by Robert William Service (read by Johnny Cash), God Says Yes To Me by Kaylin Haught, Symposium by Paul Muldoon and also, in Ill-wishing Him British poet Dorothy Nimmo takes a stoical approach to her lovers departure. You know it hurts when somebody leaves us and I think that how we heal depends on how we deal. Our outlook is everything and sometimes humour can help to mend the wounds of loss. Humorists have one cardinal rule: Don’t be inhibited. It’s better to take a rebellious attitude toward sensitive subjects than to pussyfoot around them. Nimmo writes from a pared back place, of a strength gained through painful insight, and with clever sleight of hand, she wittily gets her own back on the man who walks out on her.

Now there’s a joker in every pack isn’t there. There’s always someone who will, I don’t know, lets say eat the food someone else was saving! We know who you are William Carlos Williams! Somebody has eaten all the plums – and New Jersey doctor and poet William Carlos Williams gives us a poem written in the form of a note or memo left on a kitchen table, probably a note to his wife that turned into a poem, or as the experts call it – a found poem – where you take an existing text and refashion and reorder it. Was it a fair trade for the plums she was saving for herself? Is he really sorry? Known as an innovator, his poem This Is Just To Say is written in the imagist style, a poetic form that focuses on precise imagery and sharp language.  It reminds me of younger days when I used to house-share with people and we’d all have our names left on random grocery items in the fridge or in the cupboard and woe betide anyone who put their hands on my plums!

Next, the American poet and playwright Kenneth Koch gives us a spoof on the plum poem in his Variations On A Theme. Labelled as just a comedic poet, Koch himself spoke of the comic element as something that enabled him to be lyrical. But he was a very funny poet and here in Variations On A Theme By William Carlos Williams, Koch extends the original poem from one to four topics in what seems like almost a retaliation for Williams having eaten the plums! The plums were being kept for breakfast but with Koch now having nothing to do he chops down Williams’ house and so on, asking for forgiveness as Williams does in the original.

Remember humour can have a significant positive effect on our lives. Laughter, as they say, is the best medicine and it’s one of the first things we learn to do as newborns. And funny people receive a lot of attention and admiration don’t they? Most studies find humour to be a highly desirable attribute, which probably explains why the acronym GSOH is so popular in dating ads. Humour is big business too, when you think that it influences many of our daily decisions about what books or magazines to read, TV shows to watch, marketers’ are constantly trying to grab our attention with funny ads and products, all with their own in-house humorists writing them. And for writers, its all about imagination, constantly asking what if?, looking at ordinary things in extraordinary ways, it’s imagination that drives comedy and practically everyone has an imagination – or else no one would ever get married BOOM BOOM!

Music from Clem Snide, The Divine Comedy, Morcambe & Wise, Cathy Davey & more.  Enjoy the show!

… p.s.

funny dog sign