childhood

The World is Yours for the Reading!

The Poetry and Music of Books and Readingbooks-1

 

All of human life can be found in books. We’ve been carving clay, bone, stone, silk and wood for millennia and began printing books over five hundred years ago. We read to broaden our comprehension of the world and ourselves. We read to relax, gain wisdom and be entertained. And that’s not all, being able to connect with the world’s greatest minds and writers, is a marvel, a gift.

So today we’re going to look at the theme of BOOKS in poetry and music. Emily Dickinson will be transporting us to all sorts of imaginary places with Rae Armantrout and Tony Hoagland. We return to the world before the web in the company of James Arthur and his encyclopedia. We meet Charles Simic and Nikki Giovanni in the library, Ralph Besse in the bathroom (more about that later) and conclude with Czeslaw Milosz on the spirit and resilience of books; conversing all the while with the greats who have laid themselves out for us.

Books are the ultimate mode of transport. They can take us into ourselves and out of this world faster than a frigate, as Emily Dickinson wrote:

There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry –
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll –
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears a Human soul.

Really what she’s talking about is escape. Reading a book is travelling first class without putting your hand in your pocket. Faster than the swiftest steeds or the chariots of the Greek hippodromes, a book can transport your soul to extraordinary places. Dickinson rarely left her house and in her seclusion wrote the poetry that became a wormhole, through which future generations could access or try to interpret her unreachable presence. So I suppose you could construe the poem as her way of validating her reclusive nature. Living her life vicariously and using literature as a substitute for living; knowing life by reading life. Then you have the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda who knows life by living life and in his Ode to the Book it is the first thing he says:

When I close a book
I open life.

Through Neruda’s eyes, the world is a very different place. In his poetry, onions and tomatoes even socks are exalted to reverential heights and he praises the mundane and ordinary, with all the epicurean pleasure of a poet in love with the world:

I hear
faltering cries
among harbours.
Copper ingots
slide down sand-pits
to Tocopilla.
Night time.
Among the islands
our ocean
throbs with fish,
touches the feet, the thighs,
the chalk ribs
of my country.
The whole of night
clings to its shores, by dawn
it wakes up singing
as if it had excited a guitar.

This wonderful life lures him with excitement and experience, that he may discern for himself the smoked beef and burning metals of his reality. He praises the book as a source for continued self-improvement, but there has got to be time for both. Books have inspired him to live and if books are life distilled, then Neruda wants to be a part of the process.

Book, let me go.
I won’t go clothed
in volumes,
I don’t come out
of collected works,
my poems
have not eaten poems–
they devour
exciting happenings,
feed on rough weather,
and dig their food
out of earth and men.
I’m on my way
with dust in my shoes
free of mythology:
send books back to their shelves,
I’m going down into the streets.

Neruda’s poetry is not born of books but feeds on the rough weather and rich soil of the human race; he secretes poetry from life. Dickinson in effect, extracts life from poetry in order to create her own literature. We are all in a sense formed and informed by the books we read and the lives we lead and both Neruda and Dickinson portray a consciousness illuminated by their individual interpretations of art and life.

I learned about life
from life itself,
love I learned in a single kiss
and could teach no one anything
except that I have lived

When I was a teenager, I could find just about anything in a collection of reference books my mother bought one Christmas. Prior to the internet, World Books were our very own in-house library. They contained everything we needed to know about the world: from cattle ranching in Houston, to dog pedigrees and the teachings of the Dalai Lama – my school essays must have been astonishing! I have a very clear image of my brother sitting at the dining-room table, studying for his Leaving Certificate with volumes spread open in front of him.
The poet James Arthur in his poem Ode To An Encyclopedia not only celebrates the hefty hard-covers on the built-in shelf in my parents’ living room but commemorates all that they represent: the innocence and sureness of childhood, the confidence we had that our lives like the alphabet, would fall into place and that the world at our fingertips would be ours forever:

you were my companion
on beige afternoons that came slanting through the curtains
behind the rough upholstered chair. You knew how to trim a
sail
and how the hornet builds a hive. You had a topographical map

of the mountain ranges on the far side of the moon
and could name the man who shot down the man
who murdered Jesse James. At forty, I tell myself

that boyhood was all enchantment: hanging around the railway,
getting plastered on cartoons;

 

The curious phenomena between the covers of the encyclopedia can take us just as far into our imagination as any piece of fiction. Every word a writer pulls into existence conjures all sorts of images for a reader, so opening a book can be a risky business.   In her prose poem Imaginary Places, from her 2004 collection Up To Speed, American poet Rae Armantrout intrudes on the privacy within which a book is written, to investigate the complex relationships between the reader and the writer, the reader and the words, the book and the environment.   Each brings something to the process.  We follow language into a book and find ourselves persuaded by it.  As readers, we allow someone else to take the lead and between the lines discover how brave and curious we are to follow – we cast our nets into the sea of the writer’s imagination.

Reading, we are allowed to follow someone elses train of thought as it starts off for an imaginary place. This train has been produced for usor rather materialized and extended until it is almost nothing like the ephemeral realizations with which were familiar. To see words pulled one by one into existence is to intrude on a privacy of sorts.

booksAnd yet a book is an invitation to trespass, to absorb and be absorbed. Reading, as a spiritual activity (because there are few relationships more beatific than a reader and her book) is beautifully rendered by American poet, philosopher and art collector Wallace Stevens. In The House Was Quiet And The World Was Calm, Stevens’ 2-line stanzas focus on the ‘transaction between the reader, the book, the house, the night and the world’; the holy communion and the ultimate transcendence of each by the act of reading:

The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night

Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.

The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,

Wanted to lean, wanted much most to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom

The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.

There’s something so magical about reading in the stillness of the night. The world is hushed, distractions quieted, the book and reader become one. Reading itself is a form of meditation, where all divisions disappear and everything becomes interconnected.

For Stevens, The words were spoken as if there was no book and similarly, I think the house was quiet because it didn’t exist anymore either, the reader had transcended it. It’s a perfect example of the importance of creating that private reading space for ourselves; out of distraction and into solitude. We’re left with the ideal image of the reader naturally reflective, leaning late and reading there. It’s an image that appears passive but is it?

In Reading Moby Dick At 30,000 Feet, Tony Hoagland creates what Rilke called outer standstill and inner movement. He might look relaxed leaning back into his seat on an airplane over Kansas, but in his mind he’s fighting whales aboard the Pequod. It further demonstrates how a book can take you to anywhere, from anywhere. Faster than Emily Dickinson’s frigate and before Hoagland’s plane arrives in New York, he can fire a harpoon or round the Cape of Good Hope simply by turning a page:

but now my eyes flicker

from the in-flight movie
to the stewardess’s panty line,
then back into my book,
where men throw harpoons at something
much bigger and probably
better than themselves,

wanting to kill it,
wanting to see great clouds of blood erupt
to prove that they exist.

He further echoes Pablo Neruda’s assertion that in order for life to be known, it must be experienced wholly and fully.

Imagine a century like a room so large,
a corridor so long
you could travel for a lifetime
and never find the door,
until you had forgotten
that such a thing as doors exist.

Better to be on board the Pequod,
with a mad one-legged captain
living for revenge.

Better to feel the salt wind
spitting in your face,
to hold your sharpened weapon high,

to see the glisten
of the beast beneath the waves.

 

Again, books help us make connections; with different cultures and societies; points in history; our imaginations; with ourselves and the world in general. Just as Steven’s book connects the reader to the house and the night, reading Moby Dick at 30,000 feet closes the gap between Hoagland and his own feelings; connecting him to the past through Melville’s imagination; his present as a passenger aboard a flight learning something about himself that’s likely to influence his future. It’s a good example also of how books can help reduce stress. I’m not completely comfortable with air travel but I can often transcend the steel tube by losing myself in a novel or engaging article.

Ralph M Besse, a trustee of Ohio’s Ursuline College wrote an article for the Foundation of Economic Education in 1956 entitled The Philosophy of Reading. In it, he advocates for making more time in our lives for reading, by creating the desire and establishing the habit. Besse suggests having reading material always close to hand, reading everything and reading it everywhere – bed, the commute the work and interestingly, the bathroom – which is where he read Moby Dick! Award winning Serbian-American poet Charles Simic just goes to the library:

There’s a book called
“A Dictionary of Angels.”
No one has opened it in fifty years,
I know, because when I did,
The covers creaked, the pages
Crumbled. There I discovered

The angels were once as plentiful
As species of flies.
The sky at dusk
Used to be thick with them.
You had to wave both arms
Just to keep them away.

Now the sun is shining
Through the tall windows.
The library is a quiet place.
Angels and gods huddled
In dark unopened books.
The great secret lies
On some shelf Miss Jones
Passes every day on her rounds.

She’s very tall, so she keeps
Her head tipped as if listening.
The books are whispering.
I hear nothing, but she does.

 

I love that poem. It’s a beautiful idea. That in the magical quiet of a library, forgotten books-antiquevolumes of antiquarian books replete with enchanting wisdom, whisper to one another of the magnificent secrets locked within their creaking covers. Books share their riches and the conversations are overheard by the librarian, who’s also seen as a magical figure and an inspiration to many young people frequenting their local libraries. African-American poet Nikki Giovanni wrote very movingly about Mrs. Long in A Poem for My Librarian, saying:

She would go to the big library uptown and I now know
Hat in hand to ask to borrow so that I might borrow

Probably they said something humiliating since southern
Whites like to humiliate southern blacks
But she nonetheless brought the books
Back and I held them to my chest
Close to my heart

Simic also credits his librarian with spawning his eclectic interests and owes much of his knowledge to the thousands of books he withdrew, on his regular visits to the library. Another American, Maya Angelou, credits the library as having saved her life as a youngster. She was abused and didn’t utter a word for six years, but God put a rainbow in the sky and she was taken to a library. For Angelou, a library is a rainbow in the clouds.

If a library is a rainbow, then a book is a crock of gold. We are surrounded by them and can converse with the greats at any time. Sometimes those conversations are life-saving. Reading as an anti-dote to isolation was espoused by former professor of English at Yale University, William Lyon Phelps, in a speech he gave in 1933 about the pleasure of books. He said that “in a roomful of books you are surrounded by intimate friends.” Friends that are always accessible.

Books are our mentors and role models and whether we’re seeking an escape, self-knowledge or emotional support: they ward off loneliness, connecting us to other people, worlds and discoveries. Phelps advocates collecting a private library “One should have one’s own bookshelves, which should not have doors, glass windows, or keys”. He also says that owning your own books is preferable to the “guest in the house” that a borrowed one is: “Books are for use, not for show; you should own no book that you are afraid to battered-bookmark up, or afraid to place on the table, wide open and face down”. I love this speech. This is exactly how I feel about books. I break their spines, bend pages and mark poetic lines and phrases, because, I agree with Phelps: books are for use. My friends don’t appreciate it but I think books are like comfortable shoes, you need to break them in, walk around for a while until you’re no longer aware you’re even wearing shoes. An unused book is like an untold story. My books are lined with insoles and my friends no longer loan me theirs.

No matter how over-used my books are, I’ve never managed to destroy one completely. This brings me onto my final point about books. They will outlive us all. There’s a story# about the Polish poet Csezlaw Milosz, that on a return visit to his birthplace he walked up to an oak tree and embraced it. Affirming his connection to the earth, but also to the book. Because the English for book derives from the German Beech and the French inner bark of trees. In his poem And Yet The Books, Milosz describes them as separate beings …. still wet as shining chestnuts under a tree in autumn.

“We are,” they said, even as their pages
were being torn out, or a buzzing flame
licked away their letters. So much more durable
than we are, whose frail warmth
cools down, with memory, disperses, perishes.

I imagine the earth when I am no more:
Nothing happens, no loss, it’s still a strange pageant,
Women’s dresses, dewy lilacs, a song in the valley,
Yet the books will be there on the shelves, well born,
Derived from people, but also from radiance, heights.

 

Books are so much more durable than we are; Milosz’s own books were banned in Poland until the 1980’s and one month after Phelps gave his speech on the pleasure of books, the Nazi’s oversaw the burning of books with “un-German ideas”. Yet books persist and whatever happens in life, they will be there to gather the evidence. They are guardians of memory, the Dictionaries Of Angels, whispering their secrets, derived from people and overheard by all who tilt their heads to listen.

As for me, well before I really knew books, I loved them. The musty yellowed paper of old volumes of poetry, the magical cover designs, the crisp-feel and fresh-smell of newly printed novels. I wanted books on the bookshelf. I wanted them near. Then one afternoon, I chose one and sat down on the armchair to read. I’ll let Dylan Thomas tell you what happened next:

I could never have dreamt that there were such goings-on
In the world between the covers of books,
Such sandstorms and ice blasts of words,
Such staggering peace, such enormous laughter,
Such and so many blinding bright lights,
Splashing all over the pages
In a million bits and pieces
All of which were words, words, words,
And each of which were alive forever
In its own delights and glory and oddity and light.

books-2

Music today from Fionn Regan; Mark Knopfler & James Taylor; Loreena McKennitt; Sting & Anoushka Shankar; Gregory Alan Isakov; Susanne Vega; Sean Harkness and John Williams.

 

Letters Mingle Souls

letters

The world is full of paper.
Write to me.
Agha Shahid Ali 

 

I found a box of old letters in my attic. It was full to the brim of all sorts of messages from school friends, work colleagues, letters from family letting me know they’re still alive!  Notes of thanks, beautiful love-letters from Berlin, postcards from Amsterdam, Basil, Hawaii, even a telegram from New York wishing me well in my college exams, this was the Golden Age, long before the dawn of emails or mobile phones and I’ll tell you some of them had me in tears. My goodness what a treasure trove and you know when it comes to memorabilia I am quite the hoarder so finding the bundles of memories wasn’t too surprising but what did catch me off-guard though was the over-whelming sense of nostalgia, how emotional I found re-reading about myself, my past, the people I knew, places I’d been and how in letters everything is so much more intense, more profound than talking face to face or on the telephone. You can really get to the heart of somebody through their letters, in fact I think it was the columnist Phyllis Theroux who said writing letters is a way of going somewhere without moving anything but your heart. And it just got me wondering about how the great poets, writers and thinkers of our time tackle the art of letter writing, what letters mean to them, how in their written world, relationships can evolve and deepen through correspondence. So I’ve chosen a couple of poems on the theme, poems that moved me or spoke to me in some way and I’d like to juxtapose these with actual love letters, maybe not mine but the most heartfelt words written by some very famous people including Beethoven, Albert Einstein and Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. We’ll have music too from Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, Nick Cave and more….

So it’s not nosey to steal a look what the Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had to say, we’re just curious okay!

 

 

 

When he was a little known musician he fell in love with a girl named Aloysia Weber, a successful singer from a musical family. She didn’t feel the same however but in 1782 when Aloysia’s father died the Weber’s rented rooms in their house to cover the bills, Mozart, now a promising musician moved in, and soon fell in love with Constanze — the third Weber daughter. In August of that year the two were married and remained together, very much in love, until Mozart’s death nine years later.
Shortly before his sudden death, Mozart wrote to Constanze from Frankfurt, where he had gone to find work to ease the family‘s debt burden. He starts off explaining a few things then he’s unable to mask the depth of his feeling and his playful nature spills onto the page. He writes:

Dearest little Wife of my heart!

I get all excited like a child when I think about being with you again — If people could see into my heart I should almost feel ashamed. Everything is cold to me — ice-cold. — If you were here with me, maybe I would find the courtesies people are showing me more enjoyable, — but as it is, it’s all so empty — adieu — my dear — I am Forever

your Mozart who loves you
with his entire soul.

Sometimes it’s difficult to hold yourself back when you’re in love and I suppose when you’re writing a love letter you imagine it will only ever be read by it’s recipient, but happily for us some of the greatest minds were prudent with their correspondence. I wonder if people would be interested in my love letters a hundred years from now? I wonder if the people I sent them to kept them like me or tore them up and threw them away? Who knows J Someone who held onto his was German born Physicist Albert Einstein. His correspondence with his fellow student and future wife Mileva Maric began in 1897. His family totally disapproved, not least because Einstein was only 21 and they felt that settling down so young would compromise his career prospects. She was his intellectual equal however and based on these letters, he felt that in Mileva he had found his soul mate. When I think of Einstein I think of the philosophy of science, physics, that most famous equation but thinking about him in terms of relationships and love makes him so much more normal.
He and Mileva spent many summer’s apart holidaying with their respective families and during one such absence, he writes:

When I’m not with you I feel as if I’m not whole. When I sit, I want to walk; when I walk, I’m looking forward to going home; when I’m amusing myself, I want to study; when I study, I can’t sit still and concentrate; and when I go to sleep, I’m not satisfied with how I spent the day. No matter what happens, we’ll have the most wonderful life in the world. Pleasant work and being together.

Kissing you from the bottom of my heart,
Your Albert

Leafing through a book called the 50 Greatest Love Letters Of All Time by David Lowenherz I was struck by the missives of Ludwig Von Beethoven, the worlds most beloved composer, who never married but in his forties fell in love with a mystery woman referred to only as his immortal beloved. Again when I think of Beethoven I think of the symphonies or the great mass Missa Solemnis but reading his love letters is something completely new. They are breath-taking and what makes this story even more tragic is that they were found among his personal possessions, they were never mailed. One reads:
Even when I am in bed my thoughts rush to you, my immortal beloved, now and then joyfully, then again sadly, waiting to know whether Fate will hear our prayer — To face life I must live altogether with you or never see you… Oh God, why must one be separated from her who is so dear. Be calm; for only by calmly considering our lives can we achieve our purpose to live together — be calm — love me — Today — yesterday — what tearful longing for you — for you — you — my life — my all — all good wishes to you — Oh, do continue to love me — never misjudge your lover’s most faithful heart.
ever yours
Ever mine
ever ours
Imagine receiving a letter like that? Words can be irresistible can’t they?

 

Finally, James Joyce was one of Ireland’s most celebrated writers. Famous of course for his work Ulysses which brought us Leopold and Molly Bloom and also for his unconventional,  yet loving relationship with Galway woman, Nora Barnacle. Well she loved him enough to leave Ireland for him in 1904, living in Europe for most of the rest of their lives. Around 1909 however when Nora was in Trieste raising their two children and Joyce working in Dublin there began a period of quite explicit correspondence, actually one of these letters set a Sotheby’s world record in London in 2004 when it was sold to an anonymous buyer for an astonishing £240,000!  So whatever you do don’t destroy any of those old love letters you never know who’ll be interested in them in a few years. So I’ve some extracts here from the Selected Letters of James Joyce by Richard Ellman. Sometimes Joyce wrote to Nora in the third person as a way of further conveying his depth of feeling for her, then he tackles the thorny issue of a false infidelity before completely breaking out the poetry. He writes:
Twice while I was writing these sentences tonight the sobs gathered quickly in my throat and broke from my lips.
I have loved in her the image of the beauty of the world, the mystery and beauty of life itself, the beauty and doom of the race of whom I am a child, the images of spiritual purity and pity which I believed in as a boy.
Her soul! Her name! Her eyes! They seem to me like strange beautiful blue wild-flowers growing in some tangled, rain-drenched hedge. And I have felt her soul tremble beside mine, and have spoken her name softly to the night, and have wept to see the beauty of the world passing like a dream behind her eyes.
I love you deeply and truly, Nora. I feel worthy of you now. There is not a particle of my love that is not yours. In spite of these things which blacken my mind against you I think of you always at your best… Nora, I love you. I cannot live without you. I would like to give you everything that is mine, any knowledge I have (little as it is), any emotions I myself feel or have felt, any likes or dislikes I have, any hopes I have or remorse. I would like to go through life side by side with you, telling you more and more until we grew to be one being together until the hour should come for us to die. Even now the tears rush to my eyes and sobs choke my throat as I write this. Nora, we have only one short life in which to love. O my darling be only a little kinder to me, bear with me a little even if I am inconsiderate and unmanageable and believe me we will be happy together. Let me love you in my own way. Let me have your heart always close to mine to hear every throb of my life, every sorrow, every joy.
So there you have it, Letters – of love, of tragedy, of truth, they may change our lives, some may take us our whole lives to write but there’s a magic and intensity to the written word, an enchantment from one warm hand across an ocean to another that cannot be replicated by texts or emails or phone-calls. So go write …. write for your life!

 

Also on the show today, Frida Kahlo, Diane Wakoski, Yusef Komunyaaka, Diane Thiel.

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WestWords Perfect Christmas Pair

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Contemporary Irish Poet, Paul Durcan was born in 1944 in Dublin, he grew up both there, and in Turlough, Co. Mayo. He studied Law at UCD and Archaeology at UCC and has been publishing his poetry since the late 1960s. Durcan won the Whitbred Poetry Prize in 1990 and has collaborated with musicians Michael O’Suilleabhain and Van Morrison. He is also a member of Aosdana, an honorary membership of living artists established by the Arts Council in 1981. A winter favourite, its:

GOING HOME TO MAYO, WINTER 1949
By Paul Durcan

Leaving behind us the alien, foreign city of Dublin
My father drove through the night in an old Ford Anglia,
His five-year-old son in the seat beside him,
The rexine seat of red leatherette,
And a yellow moon peered in through the windscreen.
‘Daddy, Daddy,’ I cried, ‘Pass out the moon,’
But no matter how hard he drove he could not pass out the moon.
Each town we passed through was another milestone
And their names were magic passwords into eternity:
Kilcock, Kinnegad, Strokestown, Elphin,
Tarmonbarry, Tulsk, Ballaghaderreen, Ballavarry;
Now we were in Mayo and the next stop was Turlough,
The village of Turlough in the heartland of Mayo,
And my father’s mother’s house, all oil-lamps and women,
And my bedroom over the public bar below,
And in the morning cattle-cries and cock-crows:
Life’s seemingly seamless garment and gorgeously rent
By their screeches and bellowings. And in the evenings
I walked with my father in the high grass down by the river
Talking with him – an unheard of thing in the city.

But home was not home and the moon could be no more outflanked
than the daylight nightmare of Dublin city:
Back down along the canal we chugged into the city
And each lock-gate tolled our mutual doom;
And railings and palings and asphalt and traffic-lights,
And blocks after blocks of so-called ‘new’ tenements –
Thousands of crosses of loneliness’s planted
In the narrowing grave of the life of the father;
In the wide, wide cemetery of the boy’s childhood.

HAPPY CHRISTMAS EVERYBODY!