creative writing

In Sickness and in Health – Poets in Pain

 

Pain has an element of blank, wrote Emily Dickinson:

PainofLove William Adolphe Bouguereau 1899

Douleur D’amour – William Adolphe Bouguereau

It cannot recollect
When it began, or if there was
A time when it was not.
It has no future but itself,
Its infinite realms contain
Its past, enlightened to perceive
New periods of pain.

Pain is inevitable. It is a symptom and a disease. It is transitory for some, persistent for others. Whatever the cause, pain and sickness can stop you in your tracks, causing upset at a minimum but can lead to despair, depression and sometimes death.

Sickness and ill-health are like sailing vessels adrift in the clear water of your body. If you’re lucky, a sudden breeze will whip up and steer the bow seaward, if you’re not, the captain drops anchor and you find yourself confined to your cabin. Illness can strike at any time and you either recover swiftly or you don’t. That’s when I turn to poetry for succour because on the subject of pain and sickness writers are voluble. Poets with the use of sensitive, graceful and eloquent language can express so intimately what it feels like to be sick. They invariably inhabit the sickness, reach inside the jaws of pain and feel its teeth, reporting back lyrically what it is, was and will be like for the rest of us. After enjoying more than forty years of good health, the last three or four have been difficult for me.  I’ve been unwell on and off, with bouts lasting anywhere from a couple of weeks to months at a time and like anyone, sometimes my resolve is low and I’ve got to dig deep to find the strength to make it through the day. I’ve read books on ill-health, many inspiring and motivational in their own way, but personally, I have never found anything more uplifting than a poem. Poets distil sickness and their poems are remedies for healing. Can a poem cure a physical or mental complaint? Well it wont make it worse! I think poetry operates along the same lines as faith, belief and conviction. Ancient physicians used to talk about the poetics of illness and were concerned with the rhythms of the body and soul. In fact, fifteenth century medicine viewed the body as a manifestation of the soul and considered emotions, desires, thoughts and personal history when administering to patients. It seems we’re much less imaginative nowadays; the passionate heart is just a pump, the meditative mind merely a muscle, the body reduced to a soulless machine. Poetry, I believe, helps the body reclaim the soul and opens the door to healing which can come in all forms and at varying speeds. Maybe today I won’t be pain free but I might experience less pain than yesterday; maybe I just need to believe that tomorrow will be better but if it isn’t then it’s still going to be okay – poetry helps. Read these heartening words from Northern Irish poet, Derek Mahon:

Everything is Going to be All Right

How should I not be glad to contemplate
the clouds clearing beyond the dormer window
and a high tide reflected on the ceiling?
There will be dying, there will be dying,
but there is no need to go into that.
The poems flow from the hand unbidden
and the hidden source is the watchful heart.
The sun rises in spite of everything
and the far cities are beautiful and bright.
I lie here in a riot of sunlight
watching the day break and the clouds flying.
Everything is going to be all right.

donal hall & jane kenyon

Donald Hall & Jane Kenyon

American poets Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon were no strangers to illness. They met in in the 60’s at Michigan University where Kenyon was a student and Hall an assistant professor of English. ‘Poetry,’ he once said in an interview, ‘was the great commonness between us.’ For twenty years they lived and wrote in rustic peacefulness on Halls’ ancestral New Hampshire farm. He battled Colon cancer in the late 1980’s and shortly afterwards Kenyon was diagnosed with the Leukaemia that would kill her a mere fifteen months later. She was only 47. They both lost their mothers during this time also. Compassionately, generously they documented their suffering in their collections of poetry. Jane Kenyon, who also battled depression for much of her life, published four collections and a translated volume of the work of Russian poet Anna Ahkmatova. Rural domestic life, relationships, nature and the unremarkable yet wonderfully messy realities of life were her themes; her style plain and uncomplicated, overflowing with humanity. Her posthumous collection Otherwise – containing some new and selected poems arranged by herself and Hall before her death – annals her life’s work. Spirituality, illness, everyday life, faith, love and resilience pervade the poetry that is more honest and resonant with each new reading. The Sick Wife was added with an afterward by Hall who included it as her last word, written weeks before her death. It’s about the life-transforming impact of illness:

The Sick Wife
by Jane Kenyon

The sick wife stayed in the car
while he bought a few groceries.
Not yet fifty,
she had learned what it’s like
not to be able to button a button.

It was the middle of the day—
and so only mothers with small children
and retired couples
stepped through the muddy parking lot.

Dry cleaning swung and gleamed on hangers
in the cars of the prosperous.
How easily they moved—
with such freedom,
even the old and relatively infirm.

The windows began to steam up.
The cars on either side of her
pulled away so briskly
that it made her sick at heart.

One day you’re out walking the dog, planning the dinner, collecting the kids and the next you can’t get out of the car, can’t button a button. Last time I was laid up I couldn’t walk for three weeks and suddenly, in the normally wet, grey and gloomy west of Ireland each day burst forth with sunlight and long evenings, blossoms everywhere and everyone out walking! It was like a new addiction, a plague; all along the highways and byways of my locality people were walk-walkedy-walking and I found it infuriating. Imagine how Kenyon felt? Loosing her independence, too weak to get out of the car, enviously observing the young and the elderly who are almost complacent in their health and mobility.

During his wife’s illness, Hall wrote the poetry she couldn’t, about what she was going through. He also wrote plays, prose and children’s books and was of the 1950’s vintage, attending university alongside Frank O’Hara and Adrienne Rich. Like all writers and poets he has the gift of being able to transform torment into something else, something more, something other; a healing perhaps for himself and for us who see our own pain reflected. In the elegiac works following his wife’s death, it’s apparent that it is precisely this creative gift that sustains Hall through those dark times of illness, decline and loss. Without (1998) and The Painted Bed (2002) are intimate collections chronicling their lives, their love and dedication. In the poem The Ship Pounding, Hall keeps vigil at his wife’s side, comparing the hospital to a ship:

The Ship Pounding
By Donald Hall

Each morning I made my way
among gangways, elevators,
and nurses’ pods to Jane’s room
to interrogate the grave helpers
who tended her through the night
while the ship’s massive engines
kept its propellers turning.
Week after week, I sat by her bed
with black coffee and the Globe.
The passengers on this voyage
wore masks or cannulae
or dangled devices that dripped
chemicals into their wrists.
I believed that the ship
travelled to a harbour
of breakfast, work, and love.
I wrote: “When the infusions
are infused entirely, bone
marrow restored and lymphoblasts
remitted, I will take my wife,
bald as Michael Jordan,
back to our dog and day.” Today,
months later at home, these
words turned up on my desk
as I listened in case Jane called
for help, or spoke in delirium,
ready to make the agitated
drive to Emergency again
for readmission to the huge
vessel that heaves water month
after month, without leaving
port, without moving a knot,
without arrival or destination,
its great engines pounding.

There is no safe harbour however, only the pounding engines; the directionless journey of this floating infirmary. In Her Long Illness, Hall is once again sitting with his wife, reading to her aloud. Faced with the inevitable, they reaffirm their love for one another and her desire to catch even a scent of snowy air reflects her determination, her willingness to fight to the death.

Her Long Illness
By Donald Hall

Daybreak until nightfall,
he sat by his wife at the hospital
while chemotherapy dripped
through the catheter into her heart.
He drank coffee and read
the Globe. He paced; he worked
on poems; he rubbed her back
and read aloud. Overcome with dread,
they wept and affirmed
their love for each other, witlessly,
over and over again.
When it snowed one morning Jane gazed
at the darkness blurred
with flakes. They pushed the IV pump
which she called Igor
slowly past the nurses’ pods, as far
as the outside door
so that she could smell the snowy air.

The pain of loss is crippling. I’m reminded of Emily Dickinson again There is a pain so utter-/it swallows substance up. Writers and poets like Hall learn to live with pain by writing about it but they don’t have the monopoly on creativity. At any time, you can pick up a pen and start writing. Slowly at first if it’s new to you, you can write about what you’re doing right now, how you’re feeling, what’s going through your mind. There is huge therapeutic potential in writing, creatively or otherwise. Give sorrow words, wrote Shakespeare in his dark tragedy Macbeth, the grief that does not speak whispers the oer’fraught heart and bids it break – i.e. don’t bottle things up!

I have a somewhat ambivalent relationship with doctors. So does Anne Sexton, a poet

anne sexton

Anne Sexton

who spent more than her fair share of time in psychiatric units. Here’s an extract from her poem Doctors:

They work with herbs
and penicillin
They work with gentleness
and the scalpel.
They dig out the cancer,
close an incision
and say a prayer
to the poverty of the skin.
They are not Gods
though they would like to be;
they are only a human
trying to fix up a human.
Many humans die.
They die like the tender,
palpitating berries
in November.
But all along the doctors remember:
First do no harm.
They would kiss if it would heal.
It would not heal.

As a woman, I’m not alone in this love/hate relationship. All of my female friends have had negative experiences with flippant GP’s (mostly male), who’s dismissive approach to women’s health concerns is dangerous and grievous. It’s rare you get the understanding and compassion you hope for when you’re sick and vulnerable. ‘Are painyou sure it’s not psychological?’, my GP asked. If he’d taken me seriously or maybe even opened his ears a little, I probably wouldn’t have needed that emergency Laperotomy a week later! Would that we all had a doctor like the American writer and poet Raymond Carver. Carver’s life was marred by alcohol, violence and broken relationships and he died from lung cancer at only fifty years old. In What the Doctor Said, from the collection All Of Us, Carver receives a terminal diagnosis and despite the physicians poor communication skills (although this does reveal a welcome humanity), both men are led to somewhat of an epiphany:

He said it doesn’t look good
he said it looks bad in fact real bad
he said I counted thirty-two of them on one lung before
I quit counting them
I said I’m glad I wouldn’t want to know
about any more being there than that
he said are you a religious man do you kneel down
in forest groves and let yourself ask for help
when you come to a waterfall
mist blowing against your face and arms
do you stop and ask for understanding at those moments
I said not yet but I intend to start today
he said I’m real sorry he said
I wish I had some other kind of news to give you
I said Amen and he said something else
I didn’t catch and not knowing what else to do
and not wanting him to have to repeat it
and me to have to fully digest it
I just looked at him
for a minute and he looked back it was then
I jumped up and shook hands with this man who’d just given me
Something no one else on earth had ever given me
I may have even thanked him habit being so strong

In the absence of recovery, the doctor prescribed resolve and grit, the kind of steadfastness required to meet the harrowing challenges ahead. Spiritual medicine.

Carver wasn’t the only poet to write from his sick-bed. Awaiting death, the comedic and good-natured Romanian poet Marin Sorescu wrote a collection of poetry entitled The Bridge. He was suffering from Cirrhosis and with almost Zen like objectivity

marin sorescu

Marin Sorescu

considers his fate, reflects on his life and illness, the nature of pain – he is played like a cursed organ in Balance Sheet and a diver who lost his oxygen tank in Pure Pain. The collection was his parting gift both dictated and dedicated to his wife Virginia:

 

Balance Sheet
By Marin Sorescu

I have two serious diseases,
A few others, extremely serious,
Plus three more, no less than dreadful
(Every one, I’ve been assured, is incurable).
Each hurts in its own particular way.
An acute, differentiated pain,
Requiring all my energy
And power of resistance.
In sum they add up to a kind of
Essence of torture and anguish,
Something unimaginable.
I am played like a cursed organ,
Assailed around the clock
By a thousand tempests.

Pure Pain
By Marin Sorescu

I don’t feel ill in order to feel better,
I feel ill in order to feel worse.
Like the sea with its green, treacherous waves,
You cannot sound the bottom of pain.

I dive into pure pain,
Essence of scream and despair,
And I return to the surface blue and pale,
Like a diver who lost
His oxygen tank.

To the emperor of fishes, I beg,
Kindly send me your most trustworthy shark
To cut short my passing.

What could be more distressing than your own illness? Your child’s. My younger sister had a tough time as a kid. She was sick a lot; always in and out of hospital or cuddled-up on the sofa in the sitting room with a Sindy doll or a book of fairytales. I know she suffered but I used to love coming home from school and finding her there, and snuggling up beside her and my mother on the couch. Although it was difficult for her, I sometimes contemplate how strenuous it was for my mum. The stress and worry with each medical emergency, the vigils by her bedside, the long convalescences. All of this in addition to looking after two other children, holding down two jobs and keeping a marriage together! The strain must have been immense but she never let it show. Calm, measured and graceful through what were undoubtedly tumultuous times. Her resolve, her strength of character and mind has always been remarkable to me and I thought about her while reading this next poem by American poet Philip Levine. It describes a night vigil over a child, the feelings of helplessness and despair, that there’s no-one there to hear our anxious prayers. Levine, confessed to over-dramatising his role in his sons illness, revealing that his wife did most of the work (surprise, surprise!). Like a true poet though, he turned his misfortunes into a poem:

Extract from:
Night Thoughts Over A Sick Child
By Philip Levine

Numb, stiff, broken by no sleep,
I keep night watch. Looking for
signs to quiet fear, I creep
closer to his bed and hear
his breath come and go, holding
my own as if my own were
all I paid. Nothing I bring,
say, or do has meaning here.

Outside, ice crusts on river
and pond; wild hare come to my
door pacified by torture.
No less ignorant than they
of what grips and why, I am
moved to prayer, the quaint gestures
which ennoble beyond shame
only the mute listener.

No one hears. A dry wind shifts
dry snow, indifferently;
the roof, rotting beneath drifts,
sighs and holds. Terrified by
sleep, the child strives toward
consciousness and the known pain.
If it were mine by one word
I would not save any man,

myself or the universe
at such cost: reality.
Heir to an ancestral curse
though fallen from Judah’s tree,
I take up into my arms my hopes,
my son, for what it’s worth give
bodily warmth.

Speaking of kids. Ever tried feigning an illness to avoid going to school? Award winning American songwriter, cartoonist and children’s writer Shel Silverstein did:

Sick
By Shel Silverstein

“I cannot go to school today,”
Said little Peggy Ann McKay.
“I have the measles and the mumps,
A gash, a rash and purple bumps.
My mouth is wet, my throat is dry,
I’m going blind in my right eye.
My tonsils are as big as rocks,
I’ve counted sixteen chicken pox
And there’s one more—that’s seventeen,
And don’t you think my face looks green?
My leg is cut—my eyes are blue—
It might be instamatic flu.
I cough and sneeze and gasp and choke,
I’m sure that my left leg is broke—
My hip hurts when I move my chin,
My belly button’s caving in,
My back is wrenched, my ankle’s sprained,
My ‘pendix pains each time it rains.
My nose is cold, my toes are numb.
I have a sliver in my thumb.
My neck is stiff, my voice is weak,
I hardly whisper when I speak.
My tongue is filling up my mouth,
I think my hair is falling out.
My elbow’s bent, my spine ain’t straight,
My temperature is one-o-eight.
My brain is shrunk, I cannot hear,
There is a hole inside my ear.
I have a hangnail, and my heart is—what?
What’s that? What’s that you say?
You say today is. . .Saturday?
G’bye, I’m going out to play!”

Physical pain is debilitating; mental anguish even more so. One feels as if one were lying bound hand and foot at the bottom of a deep dark well, utterly helpless -Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother from the grip of mental illness. The stigma surrounding mental illness can be almost as hard to bear as the symptoms. I mentioned the poet Anne Sexton earlier whose battle with depression is widely documented. She was good

sylvia plath

Sylvia Plath

friends with a fellow American poet Sylvia Plath, clinically depressed for much of her life too. Actually, many writers and artists struggle with psychological issues. Both states involve unconventional thought processes. Creative writing requires creative thinking and similarly mental illness concerns thoughts and behaviours that also differ from the norm. I was reading an article as well recently about how misery can improve creative performance! – So maybe there’s something to the correlation between creativity and mental illness but it’s worth noting that there are just as many mentally well writers out there too. Plath and Sexton shared with us and with each other their demons, despair and desire to escape it all. They were young women, mothers who felt imprisoned by domesticity; writers, trying to carve out successful careers but curtailed also within a predominantly male-dominated literary world; all of this under the shadow of depression. Both ultimately succumbed to suicide. Plath first in 1963, leaving behind a husband and two children; Sexton ten years later or so. In Sylvia’s Death, Sexton not only mourns her friends passing but envies it:

Sylvia’s Death
By Anne Sexton

for Sylvia Plath

O Sylvia, Sylvia,
with a dead box of stones and spoons,
with two children, two meteors
wandering loose in a tiny playroom,
with your mouth into the sheet,
into the roof-beam, into the dumb prayer,
(Sylvia, Sylvia
where did you go
after you wrote me
from Devonshire
about raising potatoes
and keeping bees?)
what did you stand by,
just how did you lie down into?
Thief —
how did you crawl into,
crawl down alone
into the death I wanted so badly and for so long,
the death we said we both outgrew,
the one we wore on our skinny breasts,
the one we talked of so often each time
we downed three extra dry martinis in Boston,
the death that talked of analysts and cures,
the death that talked like brides with plots,
the death we drank to,
the motives and the quiet deed?
(In Boston
the dying
ride in cabs,
yes death again,
that ride home
with our boy.)
O Sylvia, I remember the sleepy drummer
who beat on our eyes with an old story,
how we wanted to let him come
like a sadist or a New York fairy
to do his job,
a necessity, a window in a wall or a crib,
and since that time he waited
under our heart, our cupboard,
and I see now that we store him up
year after year, old suicides
and I know at the news of your death
a terrible taste for it, like salt,
(And me,
me too.)

 

American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson had a way with words – It is one of the blessings of old friends, he said, that you can afford to be stupid with them. I’d go further and suggest that you can be sick with them too! Friends are great healers. They cut your problems in half and double your chances of surviving even the darkest of times. When you’re sick and most of the people you know would rather be anywhere else, your friends are by your side. Renowned 7th century Chinese poet Po Chu-I knew only too well the value of good friends. Often unwell, the death of his mother and daughter severely affected his health and similar to censorship under communism, Po Chu-I’s poetry sometimes made him unpopular with officials and he spent a good deal of time in exile. His conviction that poetry should be simple, clear and accessible to everyone assured his place as one of the most loved and widely read of all the Chinese poets of the classical tradition. His poetry was unpretentious yet deeply philosophical.
Here, he’s been sick so long he doesn’t know what day it is; everything glum, even the sparrows. But then the cavalry arrive! They place his couch out in the sunshine and converse intimately as friends do, gradually restoring him to some level of well-being – a tonic more effective than any other medicine:

Being Visited by a Friend during Illness
by Po Chu-ï (772-846, tr. Arthur Waley)

I have been ill so long that I do not count the days;
At the southern window, evening – and again evening.
Sadly chirping in the grasses under my eaves
The winter sparrows morning and evening sing.
By an effort I rise and lean heavily on my bed;
Tottering I step towards the door of the courtyard.
By chance I meet a friend who is coming to see me;
Just as if I had gone specially to meet him.
They took my couch and placed it in the setting sun;
They spread my rug and I leaned on the balcony-pillar.
Tranquil talk was better than any medicine;
Gradually the feelings came back to my numbed heart.

 

If you’re sick for long enough or have recurring bouts of illness, it’s difficult to hang on to that joie de vivre. Being present, being with the pain seems theoretically sensible but when you’re suffering your objective is to escape it. Sometimes we run in the wrong direction. Why are we so clever at making things worse? Don’t struggle against the pain in life, said the Buddha. Struggling increases suffering. Buddhist wisdom says that anytime we suffer misfortune, two arrows fly our way. The first is the actual event the second is the suffering, which apparently is voluntary:

Life often shoots an arrow at you and wounds you. However, by not accepting what has happened, by worrying about it, by saying it is unfair and wondering how long the pain will last, we tend to shoot a second arrow into the open wound and increase and prolong the pain. Pain is often a given, but suffering is optional.

We can choose not to add to our woes simply by accepting what is. So I guess rather than questioning why me? It’s better to accept that it is (why not me?) and work on dealing with the consequences of that. And that’s more than enough to be getting on with. Struggling against the pain is like shooting the second arrow. Let’s take a leaf out of Robert Frost’s book, from the collection West Brook Running to be exact:

Acceptance
By Robert Frost

When the spent sun throws up its rays on cloud
And goes down burning into the gulf below,
No voice in nature is heard to cry aloud
At what has happened. Birds, at least must know
It is the change to darkness in the sky.
Murmuring something quiet in her breast,
One bird begins to close a faded eye;
Or overtaken too far from his nest,
Hurrying low above the grove, some waif
Swoops just in time to his remembered tree.
At most he thinks or twitters softly, ‘Safe!
Now let the night be dark for all of me.
Let the night be too dark for me to see
Into the future. Let what will be, be.

Nature and poetry are interchangeable for me. The rhythm of life and line, the absorption of the senses, immersion of spirit, the patterns and hidden meanings, the souls music! I reach out to nature for the same reason I reach out to poetry: for comfort, protection, rescue. In search of spiritual connection there’s a place I go not far from my home near the village of Cong. Along the banks of the river Corrib the

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hawks rise high in the Cedar Pines and salmon leap in the meandering waters of Ashford Castle. It’s an outstanding place of natural beauty and an hour there, for me, can replenish and reinvigorate my soul like nothing else. Last week, standing on a grassy verge I faced an impossibly beautiful vista that looked almost as if it had been prearranged. The fallen log in the sandy bank overhung by Willows and downy Birches; the grey heron I startled from his patient hiding place at the waters edge; the mute swan preening her white feathers, bobbing in the ebb and flow, the bees and ducks in the dappled sunlight, the gentle breeze – it was so uplifting! But out where the current was stronger, I watched the water rush and hustle its way around a dark, mossy rock. I thought to myself Tracy, you are that rock! Out there, up to your waist in a river of pain. And, I thought, just like that rock you’re going to stand your ground! Let the pain lap at your heels and rush about, but don’t let it in, it will make it’s own way around you. It’s easier to get beyond than through! Reminds me of a quote by novelist Toni Morrison – all water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was – with a bit of luck, maybe the same holds true for pain.

robert frost

Robert Frost

Nature too is the lifeblood of Frost’s verse, yet he is not just purely a nature poet. His motivation is human psychology and his poems are moral messages. Mary Oliver works in this way too, making comparisons between the natural world and the human condition. In the above sonnet, the approaching darkness draws attention to the significance of the light. He’s saying that acceptance is our greatest weapon against fear. He gives us such a violent description of a sunset and yet the birds don’t ruffle a feather, they simply find their safe place in a night that is mercifully too dark for them and us to see our anxieties, to face whatever it is to come tomorrow; all we can do is let what will be, be.

I’ll conclude on a hopeful note with a blessing from award winning African-American writer Lucille Clifton. As a black female writer Clifton’s staying power was

lucille clifton

Lucille Clifton

commendable. She wrote candid and profound poetry, suffered her own personal tragedies and illnesses including several battles with cancer, her last in 2010. Her poem blessing the boats (a commemoration in honour of the blessing of the English boats that carried the first settlers to Maryland in 1633) is about letting go, facing your fears; venturing out into the unknown and trusting the wind to love your back! From her award winning eponymous collection:

blessing the boats
By Lucille Clifton

(at St. Mary’s)

may the tide
that is entering even now
the lip of our understanding
carry you out
beyond the face of fear
may you kiss
the wind then turn from it
certain that it will
love your back may you
open your eyes to water
water waving forever
and may you in your innocence
sail through this to that

And that is my wish for everyone out there suffering – that you sail with some ease through this to that.

I’ll leave you with a quote that I’ve been trying to drill into my head. It comes from a guy called Ajahn Chah, a Buddhist teacher with a simple philosophy: Don’t hang on to anything. He said: If you let go a little you a will have a little peace; if you let go a lot you will have a lot of peace; if you let go completely you will have complete peace.

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Russia and the Poets of the Revolution

In the aftermath of the first world war the world was in chaos. Politically, culturally,

Boris Kustodiev 1920 painting Bolshevik

Bolshevik, Boris Kustodiev 1920

 

economically, nothing was secure anymore. Empires crumbled, maps were redrawn, millions of people stateless, sick or dead. But with the formation of new organisations, countries and ideologies, chaos was missing something: more chaos! Revolts and uprisings spread across the globe like wildfire between 1916 and 1923, as countries, stirred up and restless, pushed for changes. To name a few, we had the Irish uprising and subsequent civil war, the Maltese riots and the Egyptian and Sudanese revolutions which all sought to secure independence from Britain; the German November revolution which replaced the monarchy with the democratic Weimar republic; the Red Years of social conflict in Italy; the Turkish war of independence and Russia, where twin revolutions deposed the tsar and imposed a political philosophy that would have catastrophic consequences: Communism.

When the Russian writer Boris Pastenak, was advocating for the life of his friend and fellow poet Osip Mandelstam, he persuaded Stalin that history would side with the poets and not with politicians who murdered them. So who were the poets of the Russian Revolution? There were many, but I’ll introduce you to my top six, beginning with one of the most acclaimed, Anna Akmatova. Like many of her contemporaries she lived throughakmatova the Bolshevik revolution that succeeded the Tsar, both world wars and the devastating purges that saw millions of her countrymen and women perish. Though her career as a writer began with universal emotional topics and feminine lamentations, her focus soon turned to politics, patriotism and the transcendental power of art. She led a bohemian kind of lifestyle married to various poets, had numerous affairs – one with the Italian painter Modigliani – hung out at the Stray Dog cabaret club reciting poetry, generally living a free life before enduring major hardship under the communist new world order. One of her husbands was arrested for treason and executed, another died in prison, her son Lev was imprisoned many times and it was whilst waiting in line to see him outside Kretsy prison that she conceived the idea for one of her most famous works: Requiem. Written in 1940’s, it’s a poem about grief and resolve, a testimony of the suffering endured during the purges and a tribute to all who lost loved ones to political oppression:

Requiem
By Anna Akhmatova
(trans. By Tony Kline)

Prologue

Those days, when only the dead
Smiled, glad to be at peace,
And Leningrad, unneeded, swayed,
Throwing wide its penitentiary.

When legions of the condemned,
Maddened by torment, passed,
Brief the songs of parting then,
The locomotives’ farewell blast,
Dead stars hung above us,
And blameless Russia writhed
Under boots stained with blood,
And the Black Marias’ tyres.

1.

They took you away at dawn,
As though at a wake, I followed,
In the dark room weeping children,
Among icons, the candle guttered.
On your lips, the chill of a cross,
On your brow a deathly pall.
I’ll be, like a woman to be shot,
Dragged to the Kremlin wall.

5.

Seventeen months I’ve pleaded
For you to come home.
Flung myself at the hangman’s feet,
My terror, oh my son.
And I can’t understand,
Now all’s eternal confusion,
Who’s beast, and who’s man,
How long till execution.
And only flowers of dust,
Ringing of censers, tracks just
Running somewhere, nowhere, far.
And deep in my eyes gazing,
Swift, fatal, threatening,
One enormous star.

6.

Lightly the weeks fly, too,
What’s happened I can’t understand.
Just as, my darling child, in prison,
White nights gazed at you,

So now again they gaze,
Hawk-eyed, passionate-eyed,
And of your cross on high,
Of death, they speak today.

 

Epilogue

I.

I learned to know how faces fall apart,
How fear, beneath the eye-lids, seeks,
How strict the cutting blade, the art
That suffering etches in the cheeks.
How the black, the ash-blond hair,
In an instant turned to silver,
Learned how submissive lips fared,
Learned terror’s dry racking laughter.
Not only for myself I pray,
But for all who stood there, all,
In bitter cold, or burning July day,
Beneath that red, blind prison wall.

II.

Once more, the remembered hour draws near.
I see you, I feel you, and I hear:
You, they could barely carry into line,
And you, whom earth claimed before your time,
And you, who shook your lovely head of hair,
Saying: ‘As if this were home, I’m here’.
I’d like to summon you all by name,
But the lists are lost, un-found again.
I’ve woven a great shroud for them here,
Out of poor words I chanced to overhear.
Remembering them always, everywhere,
Unforgotten in every new terror’s care,
And if they shut my tormented lips, shut my
Mouth, where a hundred million people cry,
Let them still remember me, today,
On the eve of my remembrance day.

And if ever in this my native country
They choose to erect a statue for me,
I agree to that ceremonial honour,
But on one condition – don’t set it there
Beside the sea-shore, where I was born:
My last ties with it so long outworn,
Nor in the Imperial Garden, by that dead tree
Where an inconsolable shade looks for me,
But here, where I stood three hundred hours,
Where no one ever opened the doors,
Lest I forget in death’s blessed oblivion
The Black Maria’s screaming hum,
Forget the terrible clang, the gates that hail
Like a wounded beast, the old woman’s wail.
And from my eyelids, bronze, unmoving,
May snowflakes fall, like tears melting,
And the prison pigeons coo far from me,
And, on the Neva, ships sail, silently.

Impossible to comprehend the suffering. And at the end there although the poem is her tribute, her woven mantle, and despite a visual reminder in the form of a monument, the world/nature/memory will forget the tragedy that happened here and sail calmly on. You know, once the Bolsheviks or the Red Army established themselves in power, all opposition was suppressed. What became known as the Communist Party sought to nationalize ownership of all the means of production, believing that a centralized economy would be more efficient than a capitalist one. Money was destroyed, labour became compulsory, Lenin ordered mass executions of his opponents and political prisoners; religion was regarded as superstitious and eliminated, priests were jailed; many writers and artists had their works banned or censored if contrary to the parties ideology, some emigrated, some remained, many capitulated, others died for their art. Akhmatova wrote a moving tribute to her friend and fellow writer, Mikhail Bulgakov in the poem In Memory Of M.B. He suffered in silence throughout those terrible years and although protected by Stalin during some of the worst purges of artists, his most famous novel the Master and Margarita (portraying his real feelings about the savagery of the party) lay unpublished until 25 years after his death.

In Memory of M. B.
By Anna Akhmatova
(trans. By Stanley Kunitz)

Here is my gift, not roses on your grave,
not sticks of burning incense.
You lived aloof, maintaining to the end
your magnificent disdain.

You drank wine, and told the wittiest jokes,
and suffocated inside stifling walls.
Alone you let the terrible stranger in,
and stayed with her alone.

Now you’re gone, and nobody says a word
about your troubled and exalted life.
Only my voice, like a flute, will mourn
at your dumb funeral feast.

Oh, who would have dared believe that half-crazed I,
I, sick with grief for the buried past,
I, smoldering on a slow fire,
having lost everything and forgotten all,

would be fated to commemorate a man
so full of strength and will and bright inventions,
who only yesterday it seems, chatted with me,
hiding the tremor of his mortal pain.

mandelstamOsip Mandelstam was born in Poland but lived in St. Petersburg and moved in the same circles as Akhmatova and her first husband Nikolai Gumilyov. They headed up a literary movement known as Acmeism which put the focus back on clarity of language and craftsmanship, more of a direct treatment of thoughts and feelings as opposed to the spirituality of Symbolism. And that’s what Mandelstam’s poetry was all about, the individual, directly at odds with the collectivist ideology of ‘the party’. He was a personal poet and not a political one so little wonder he found it difficult to get work published. The state persecuted non-conformist poets and like Akhmatova he led a threadbare existence. He was tortured, imprisoned and exiled to the Urals. He may have been asserting his rights as a poet in The Stalin Epigram, in which he attacks the dictator, comparing him to worms and cockroaches but it’s a poem that certainly didn’t do him any favours and probably sealed the fate of Akhmatova’s husband and son as well:

THE STALIN EPIGRAM
By Osip Mandelstam
(trans by W S Merwin)

Our lives no longer feel ground under them.
At ten paces you can’t hear our words.

But whenever there’s a snatch of talk
it turns to the Kremlin mountaineer,

the ten thick worms of his fingers,
his words like measures of weight,

the huge laughing cockroaches on his top lip,
the glitter of his boot-rims.

Ringed with a scum of chicken-necked bosses
he toys with the tributes of half-men.

One whistles, another meows, a third snivels.
He pokes out his finger and he alone goes boom.

He forges decrees in a line like horseshoes,
one for the groin, one the forehead, temple, eye.

He rolls the executions on his tongue like berries.
He wishes he could hug them like big friends from home.

Nostalgic for old Russia, Mandelstam’s poetry is concerned with the preservation of cultural heritage. His expulsion from St. Petersburg destroyed him and the pain and uncertainty of his reality is reflected in his poem Tristia which closely follows Ovid’s elegy. Ovid was an exile too, banished from Rome for an unproven misdemeanour:
Tristia
By Osip Mandelstam
(trans by AS Kline)

I have studied the Science of departures,
in night’s sorrows, when a woman’s hair falls down.
The oxen chew, there’s the waiting, pure,
in the last hours of vigil in the town,
and I reverence night’s ritual cock-crowing,
when reddened eyes lift sorrow’s load and choose
to stare at distance, and a woman’s crying
is mingled with the singing of the Muse.
Who knows, when the word ‘departure’ is spoken
what kind of separation is at hand,
or of what that cock-crow is a token,
when a fire on the Acropolis lights the ground,
and why at the dawning of a new life,
when the ox chews lazily in its stall,
the cock, the herald of the new life,
flaps his wings on the city wall?
I like the monotony of spinning,
the shuttle moves to and fro,
the spindle hums. Look, barefoot Delia’s running
to meet you, like swansdown on the road!
How threadbare the language of joy’s game,
how meagre the foundation of our life!
Everything was, and is repeated again:
it’s the flash of recognition brings delight.
So be it: on a dish of clean earthenware,
like a flattened squirrel’s pelt, a shape,
forms a small, transparent figure, where
a girl’s face bends to gaze at the wax’s fate.
Not for us to prophesy, Erebus, Brother of Night:
Wax is for women: Bronze is for men.
Our fate is only given in fight,
to die by divination is given to them.

Marina Tsvetaeva was the daughter of a concert pianist. Her amorous intrigue with Osip Mandelstam inspired the following poem in which she appears overcome with passion and welcome tenderness :

Where does such tenderness come from?
By Marina Tsvetaeva
(trans. Ilya Kaminsky & Jean Valentine)

Where does such tenderness come from?
These aren’t the first curls
I’ve wound around my finger—
I’ve kissed lips darker than yours.

The sky is washed and dark
(Where does such tenderness come from?)
Other eyes have known
and shifted away from my eyes.

But I’ve never heard words like this
in the night
(Where does such tenderness come from?)
with my head on your chest, rest.

Where does this tenderness come from?
And what will I do with it? Young
stranger, poet, wandering through town,
you and your eyelashes—longer than anyone’s.

Marina married Sergei Efron who joined the White Army during the Civil war. The tsvetaevafamily suffered greatly during the 1921 famine when over 30 million people were affected by malnutrition, over 5 million died I think, due mostly to poor economic management and the policy of grain requisition.  There were rebellions everywhere, indiscriminate terror and the only relief came in aid from America. Tsvetaeva couldn’t afford to feed her family and sent one of her daughters to an asylum where she quickly died of hunger. The tables had really turned for Tsvetaeva who had a somewhat aristocratic upbringing. Now, the family lived in dire poverty in exile in France; her husband worked for the secret police but they were shunned by Russian expats. She continued to write and corresponded with her contemporaries before returning to the Soviet Union in 1939, whereupon Sergei was executed and her daughter sent to a labour camp. She herself was sent to Yelabuga with her son. It was there alone, impoverished and ostracised that she hung herself in 1941. Tsvetaeva’s poems portray the tragedy of her existence. None more so than Homesickness, written in exile and despite the small ration of hope in the last line, she is disillusioned with life, indifferent to her country of origin, Tsvetaeva is a poet on the cusp of surrender, a soul born somewhere or other:

Homesickness
By Marina Tsvetaeva
(trans. by Paul Schmidt)

Homesickness! Long ago revealed
as fraudulent delusion.
I don’t care where
I am alone. It doesn’t matter

across what streets, into what house
I drag myself, and my shopping basket–
a house that doesn’t know I’m there,
like a hospital or barracks.

I don’t care who sees me lie
like a caged lion, snarling slowly,
nor from what society they
thrust me, force me out into

my own internal solitude,
a polar bear in tropic water.
I don’t care where I am hurt,
nor where I am insulted.

I do not love my native tongue,
its weak, breast-fed attraction.
I am indifferent to the words
in which someone misunderstands me

(someone who reads magazines
and thrives on gossip columns).
He is Twentieth-Century Man–
my own age was never numbered.

Struck dumb, a rotting log
that marked a path now forgotten.
And I don’t care. All things are strange.
All facts. And perhaps what once

was closest is strangest of all.
All signs upon me, all traces
and dates seem wiped away.
A soul. Born. Somewhere. Or other.

My homeland cared so little for me
any clever sleuth
may search my soul–
he will find no birthmark.

Each house is strange, each altar bare.
And I don’t care. It doesn’t matter.
But if, beside the autumn road, I see
a rowan-tree . . .

 

Suicide then, as now, among artistic minds was nothing new. However, after the revolution poets had two choices: emigrate or live with the Bolshevik order. Living in communist Russia meant towing the party line and when you consider that nothing at variance with the official point of view was published then it’s hardly surprising that many poets sacrificed their literary reputations and wrote patriotic poetry putting Russian prowess ahead of fact. This makes it difficult to correctly establish who said what and meant it. Vladimir Mayakovsky was a brooding six-foot rabble-rouser perhaps mayakovsky_lgbest known for his radical verse A Cloud In Trousers – which prophesized the 1917 revolution and looked at topics such as religion, love and politics from the perspective of a scorned lover. He was a futurist who sought to bring art into the machine-age. He despised tradition and toured with a troupe of poets bellowing out riotous verse and generally making a nuisance of himself. He was a propagandist for the Bolshevik party, enamoured by the romance of revolution and the promise of a new freedom and the liberation of the working classes:

Our March
Vladimir Mayakovsky
(trans. The Penguin Book of Russian Verse)

Beat the tramp of revolt in the square!
Up, row of proud heads!
We will wash every city in the world
With the surging waters
of a second Flood.

The bull of the days is skewbald.
The cart of the years is slow.
Our god is speed.
The heart is our drum.

Is there a gold more heavenly than ours?
Can the wasp of a bullet sting us?
Our songs are our weapons;
Ringing voices — our gold.

Meadows, be covered with grass,
Spread out a ground for the days.
Rainbow, harness
the fast-flying horses of the years.

See, the starry heaven is bored!
We weave our songs without its help.
Hey, you, Great Bear, demand
that they take us up to heaven alive!

Drink joys! Sing!
Spring flows in our veins.
Beat to battle, heart!
Our breast is a copper kettledrum.

Mayakovsky created verse for the Russian State Telegraph Agency. His poetry promoted the party and as a symbol of socialist realism, expressed his pride in being a citizen of the first Socialist country in the world. Before his untimely death by suicide (or was it?) his work had become increasingly individualistic and like others in his circle was becoming more and more disillusioned with the bureaucracy of collectivism. This poem was found amongst his papers after his death. Had he been living a lie? And if so, had he grown tired of it?

Past one o’clock. You must have gone to bed.
The Milky Way streams silver through the night.
I’m in no hurry; with lightning telegrams
I have no cause to wake or trouble you.
And, as they say, the incident is closed.
Love’s boat has smashed against the daily grind.
Now you and I are quits. Why bother then
To balance mutual sorrows, pains, and hurts.
Behold what quiet settles on the world.
Night wraps the sky in tribute from the stars.
In hours like these, one rises to address
The ages, history, and all creation.

Like Mayakovsky, Sergei Yesenin was a peasant poet whose initial support for the Bolshevik revolution set the scene for a disaffected life, fraught with reckless behaviour and an early suicide shrouded in mystery. His poetry is imbued with imagery of village lore and folk traditions and similar to Akhmatova and Mandelstam he longed for a return to the simple life:

The golden grove has ceased to speak in the gay language of birches,sergei-yesenin
and the cranes, sadly flying past, no longer regret anyone.
Who is there to regret? Is not every man in this world a wanderer? He passes by, he pays a visit, and again he leaves the house. The hemp-field, together with the broad moon over the pale blue pond, dreams of all those who have gone away. I am standing alone in the bare plain, while the cranes are carried far away by the wind; I am full of thoughts about my gay youth, but I regret nothing in the past. I do not regret the years I squandered in vain, I do not regret the lilac blossom of my soul. A fire of rowan-tree branches is burning in the garden, but it cannot warm anyone. The clusters of rowan-berries will not be scorched, the grass will not grow yellow and perish. as a tree gently lets fall its leaves, so I let fall sad words. And if time, after scattering them in the wind, should rake them all into one useless heap … just say that the golden grove has ceased to speak in the language I love.

No shame there eh? For a philanderer, a wife beater and a violent drunk, Yesenin was a hit with the peasant classes, I guess because his poetry reflected the lives they were living. Women adored him, he married poets and actresses and some believed his marriage to American dancer Isadora Duncan (who had’t a word of Russian) was a way of getting him out of the country for a while – the authorities were beginning to notice his drunken behaviour. The last two years of his life were the most volatile and his works were banned during Stalin’s reign. Republished in the 1960’s this almost mythical poet’s work is more popular now than ever!

Finally, Boris Pasternak is probably one of the best known names in the Russian ipaster001p1canon. He studied music, law and philosophy before committing himself to literature. His father Leonid was an impressionist painter (illustrator for Tolstoy) his mother Rosa, a concert pianist. His poetry was tolerated but not his prose and choosing to remain in communist Russian when many of his contemporaries emigrated was a sacrifice few understood the consequences of. When his novel Dr. Zhivago was smuggled out of Russia and published in Italy in 1957, its anti-soviet themes caused huge embarrassment to the party which endeavoured to make Pasternak’s life as difficult as possible, not least depriving him of his livelihood and imprisoning his lover and prototype for Lara, Olga Ivinskaya. They also forced him to refuse the Nobel Prize for Literature – the medal was collected by his son in 1989. Although the book criticises the regime, it’s protagonist Yuri – poet, doctor, lover – defends the autonomy of the individual, refusing to compromise in the face of great terror. The final section is filled with the poetry he wrote over his lifetime:

Autumn
(trans. max hayward and manya harari)

I have allowed my family to scatter,
all my dear ones are dispersed.
a life-long loneliness
fills nature and my heart.

and here I am with you, in a small house
outside, the forest is un-peopled like a desert.
as in the song, the drives and footpaths
are almost overgrown.

the log walls are sad,
having only us two to gaze at.
but we never undertook to leap the barriers.
we will perish honestly.

at one o’clock we shall sit down to table,
at three we shall rise,
I with my book, you with your embroidery.
at dawn we shan’t remember
what time we stopped kissing.

leaves, rustle and spill yourselves
ever more splendidly, ever more recklessly,
fill yesterday’s cup of bitterness
still more full with the pain of today.

let devotion, desire, delight,
be scattered in the uproar of September;
and you, go and hide in the crackling autumn,
either be quiet or be crazy.

you fling your dress from you
as the coppice flings away its leaves.
in a dressing-gownn with a silk tassel
you fall into my arms.

you are the good gift of the road to destruction
when life is more sickening than disease
and boldness the root of beauty.
this is what draws us together.

Despite the ethnic cleansing, the purges and famines, mass executions and mock trials, Pasternak was never arrested by the secret police, however the suicides of his friends and fellow artists broke his heart. He was revered by the Russian people for his spiritual, musical, rhythmic and imagistic poetry. Nature was his forte. ‘We have written about nature’, said Marina Tsvetaeva, ‘but Pasternak has written nature’. From his most notable collection My Sister, Life , have a read of one of my favourites:

Oars at Rest

The rowboat rock in drowsy creek
Dangling willows kiss our wrists
Our elbows, collarbones, oarlocks – but wait
This could happen to anyone!
The is the drift of song
This is the lilacs ashes and the splendor
Of crushed camomile on dew.
This is to barter lips an lips for stars.
This is to embrace the horizon
Encircle Hercules with your arms.
This is to swirl through time,
Squander sleep for nightingales songs.

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.

 

The Poetry & Music Of Alternatives To January Gym Membership!

Today, I invite you to join my fitness protection program, and look at the poetry and music of take-care-2things we can do instead of joining the gym in January!  It’s a peculiar month isn’t it. Dark, cold and penniless and after spending too much money on the wrong things, we’ve only just sat down to enjoy the luxurious Belgian-chocolate-fudge-cake-with-chocolate-butter-ganache-and-rum-and-raisin-(double)icecream we so richly deserve, when we find ourselves being vilified (by ourselves!) for over-indulging and hasten off to the nearest gym before said chocolate cake has had time to reach our salivating lips!  That is of course if we read the newspapers, magazines, blogs, social media posts that perpetuate this kind of unhelpful, ill-timed, stress-inducing madness. My advice? Don’t buy into it. Take a bath instead.  All it is is somebody else’s idea of a reality that just mightn‘t suit us. We can be the authors of our own ambitions and stick to what we feel is right for us. It’s hard not to get sucked in though, especially when around every corner lurks a gym or a night-class or a tai-chi-for-beginners-instructor telling you YOU’RE DOING LIFE WRONG!  So today we’re putting the brakes on, and using the first month of the new year not to beat ourselves up but rather build ourselves up.

take-care-6Think about it, many of us have just spent some more time than usual with our families and despite the obvious joy and good fortune in having people to share the holiday with, we can easily lose ourselves in the chaos, we fall back into old familial roles and patterns, tension is high, old wounds and hurts get reopened that can leave us feeling a little vulnerable and maybe questioning our life choices. I’m not sure that the answers we’re looking for are on the treadmill or under the weight machine though.  We might just need to ask ourselves a few basic questions, then sit quietly and wait for the answer to come from within. Why let a magazine article or sign at the local supermarket decide our fate? If the response we hear back is in fact a date with a rowing machine then yay! join in February, but if we decide that what we really need is an evening or two with our feet up then we’ve just saved a large amount of money and extra pressure and guilt for all the sessions we know we were going to miss.

So with the help of today’s poets I’ve come up with a few alternatives to dumbbells and Divorce/girl powerdipping bars.  After weeks of socialising , one of the first things we need to do before making any resolutions or life changing decisions is to get back in touch with ourselves to re-centre. The Argentinian poet Susana Thenon in her poem Nuptial Song believes that the only way for us to truly know ourselves, to rediscover our inner voice and appreciate the wonderful person that we are, is by being happily married … to ourselves. You heard m! Because we live in such an externalised culture it’s essential that we create moments of solitude for ourselves to get to know ourselves, to seek out our souls and nourish them. But we’re so afraid to take this journey inwards. Why? Well maybe we don’t go there often enough and fear what we might find: that we’re dreadful people who’ll never be good enough? But what if we find that we’re actually alright and just as good as anyone else? And remember solitude is different from isolation. If we sit quietly with ourselves for long enough we find that we have all answers to all the questions that have been evading us for years. Nuptial Song, is a poem about paying attention to emotional pain.

Tess Gallagher then gives us a credible alternative to kick-boxing …. Hug someone!  In a take-care-4recent show about happiness, you might recall I talked about little things we can do everyday to improve our well-being and one of them was to give, especially of ourselves. Reaching out to someone in need can have enormous benefits for both the giver and the receiver.   Psychological research tells us that loneliness is as detrimental to health as smoking is and with that in mind it’s important that we make more time for people; the elderly, the marginalized, those who live alone, we don’t know who out there is struggling or how much.  And it goes both ways: reaching out to is equally as important as reaching out for, asking for help when we need it. And you know, something as simple as a hug can go along way. A hug releases hormones that lower blood pressure, slows the heart rate, what’s known as the cuddle hormone oxytosin can reduce stress and above all reduce feelings of loneliness. It’s a common thing to be asked by a homeless person for spare change but what if he/she asked for a hug? How would we deal with a request like that? Well in  The Hug, American poet Tess Gallagher responds in a way I think we would all like to think we would respond.  She’s standing on the street hugging her partner when a homeless man walks up ’can I have one of those’ he asks. The overriding theme of the poem is love and I think what Gallagher proves is that it is not limited.

take-care-7Something else we might do as we look ahead is to remember that even though the hopes we have for ourselves don’t always match up to our reality, we are far from failures. Jack Gilbert, in his poem Failing and Flying, reminds us to focus on the positive.  The first line reads Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.  Icarus was the Greek character whose father warned him that his wings would melt if he flew too close to the sun, but he was a young man who got carried away, did what he wasn’t supposed to and ended up drowning in the sea, we remember him as the boy who failed not as the boy who flew. Failure is a tricky one, our reaction to it is to stop trying, our minds trick us into believing we can’t do things but Gilbert, no stranger to emotional pain, wants us to stop convincing ourselves we can’t succeed. To stop seeing things as all bad. He so beautifully cites the end of his own marriage as an example, even though the relationship is over, it did exist once, full with passion and promise and wonderful memories the gentleness in her
like antelope standing in the dawn mist. Gilbert, I think has a lot in common with Rilke, who we also read today, he travelled a lot, lectured to support himself, he mostly avoided fame and wrote for the love of it not to be lauded. And he uses a quote from English poet GK Chesterton which I love That anything worth doing is worth doing badly, meaning that how we do things is the way they should be done, that we are good enough, that individuality trumps excellence every-time. Finally then Gilbert goes further and trumps himself with a concluding line that we could all benefit from remembering, that we are not failing just coming to the end of a triumph. Reminds me of Samuel Beckett’s famous lines ever tried, ever failed, no matter, try again, fail again, fail better.

So look at all we can achieve instead of going to the gym in January! We can spend more time getting to know ourselves; live life more fully; question everything so we can form better opinions about ourselves and others; be more compassionate by reaching out to others; changing how we view things like failure, if we can do that maybe we can change how we look at other negatives in our lives and most of all we can come to realise that maybe things aren’t as bad as we thought they were; maybe we’re alright as we are.  We can stop being so hard on ourselves and making January gloomier than it has to be. I think when we’re forced into doing things they don’t work out as well as when we choose to do something for ourselves. So let’s take the time to think about we really want, because change, if we want it to work, takes time not added pressure.

Follow your inner moonlight; don’t hide the madness.
Ginsberg

Also on todays’ show:  Go To The Limits Of Your Longing by Rainer Maria Rilke, Some Questions You Might Ask by Mary Oliver, In Spite Of Everything, The Stars by Edward Hirsh.  Music from Atli Ovarsson, Jacob Collier, Al Martino, The Frames, Bell X1, Nina Simone, London Metropolitan Orchestra, Josh Ritter.

 

 

 

 

 

‘Ever Since Happiness Heard Your Name, It Has Been Running Through The Streets Trying To Find You’ – Hafez

From positive psychology, to human flourishing, freedom, success, happiness – natural orhappy-2 synthetic – there’s no room for negative nellies on today’s show, oh no! (Well maybe a few but only for reference). Thomas Jefferson gave us the universal right to pursue it; 40% of it is determined by what we do all day; scientists have an index for it; and the UN have dedicated a whole day to it – yes, 20th March is now International Happiness Day, where we recognise the relevance of HAPPINESS as a universal goal. Actually that index I was talking about is the Happiness index and it measures how successful we are at creating happy and healthy lives for our citizens based on the resources we put in. The happiest nation on the planet is not Denmark, despite what they tell you, it’s actually Costa Rica! Amazing place – in 1949 they abolished the army and invested in health and education; they have the highest literacy rate in Latin America; 99% of their electricity comes from renewable resources and they were the first government to commit to being carbon neutral by 2021! I like the way the Greeks view happiness, they see is as living your life in a full and deeply satisfying way. They have word for it – Eudaimonia, which means human flourishing – making happiness an activity rather than a state. So I put it to the poets and they came back with a few pointers. Rumi gives us the secret to happiness, Jane Hirshfield accepts that it comes and goes, Naomi Shihab Nye floats away with it when it does come and AE Stallings doesn’t do herself any favours by being afraid of it. Musically, Jimmy Durante, Hoagy Carmichael and Saint Motel will be keeping us in high spirits, so turn that frown upside down now as we take a balanced look at the highs and lows of happiness.

 
The psychologist Martin Seligman, asserts that humans seem happiest when they have each of these five things. Pleasure, I’m guessing hot-baths, nice food; engagement, like a task or hobby we can lose ourselves in; meaning in our lives; accomplishments or achievements and relationships, so strong social connections or someone to confide in. Now there are pro’s and con’s to married life, it can affect your personal freedom, having to make compromises, dealing with somebody else’s family as well as your own, but there’s no denying the paired life makes some things so much easier.  Sharing good-times, bearing half the weight of a problem, forming deep bonds and having someone to bear witness to your life, someone that can confirm that you have passed through here, also the word on the street is that couples who stay together live longer, healthier, happier lives in general. But it’s hard work. So what is the secret to a happy marriage. Well, we only have to skip back about 800 years through history for this gem of a poem from the popular Sufi mystic and poet Jalal Ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, he was a Persian scholar and we in the West have been enthralled by his wisdom since his works were first translated in the early part of the nineteenth century. On the show he tells us what the secret to a happy marriage is, and it only takes an hour a day.

Also on the show, American poet William Stanley Merwin.  He wrote a collection of poetry happy-1in 2016 called Garden Time. The title itself suggests patience and he looks back over his life reflecting on loss and love, memory and time. And in this poem the Laughing Child, Merwin recalls something his mother told him, that when he was a baby lying in his pram beneath the kitchen window, she noticed that the pram was shaking and when she looked inside she saw that he was laughing, giggling to himself and laughing. And this simple occurrence sustained his mother then and throughout her life, as she tried to come to terms with the stillbirth of Merwin’s brother Hanson. Even the shape of this lyric poem on the page, the lack of punctuation kind of makes it almost float like a memory and it’s so unrestrained in its expression. And Merwin is a happy guy, heading into his nineties now, with two Pulitzer prizes and numerous awards to his name. He was a happy child too, in an interview I read, he said that his sister remembered that as a child, he just delighted in everything. So maybe the scientists are right when they reason that 50% of our happiness is determined by our genes. The rest, 10% on life circumstances and 40% on our daily activities, if true, then what we spend our days doing really determines how happy we’re going to be.  We have an amount of control over it and this is good because we know then that by putting time into building relationships, practising kindness, giving thanks and paying attention to each moment can all contribute to us feeling better about ourselves and laying the ground-work for future happiness.

 
be-positiveContrary to what you might think Cheraphobia is not a fear of the American singer and actress, but a fear of being happy. Aversion to happiness is more prevalent in non-western cultures, where the pursuit of happiness is seen almost as immoral, they believe that being happy will trigger a disaster or calamity. In the west we’re mostly interested in maximising our happiness but some people do have this irrational fear of being happy, often born out of a distorted perception of past experiences where they remember being really jubilant about something when almost immediately something negative or disappointing happened to spoil it. So with the threat of misfortune hanging over their heads they’d rather avoid happiness altogether. Now I don’t take to kindly to small spaces and we are all of us, afraid of something, heights, water, spiders, flying, flying spiders! In Fear Of Happiness, for American poet and translator AE Stallings it’s a glass-floored elevator, high-dive at the pool, ferris-wheels, the merest thought of airplanes. She takes the fear of heights as a starting point from which to analyse the risks involved in full immersion in life, that maybe what we really fear is fear itself, like she says it’s not the falling, but that the ledge invents the leap.  It’s a poem about failure avoidance, instability, in ourselves and our beliefs and that you don’t get the rewards without first taking the risks. It’s like the Sufi philosophy of being taught lessons through opposites – no pleasure without pain, no joy without sorrow and vice versa – or like Jane Hirshfield says, you were happy you were sad then happy again, so that we are turned from one feeling to another so that we have two wings to fly, not one!

One sure fire way to catapult yourself into instant happiness is to make someone else happy-3happy. Conversely one sure fire way to sadness is waiting for someone else to make you happy. That’ll be for another day. But like Naomi just told us, happiness can come floating in from anywhere, you’ve just got to open your eyes to it. It might be watching a robin pick crumbs from a wooden bench in your garden, or horses breathing in the cold dawn of a winter morning or your husbands eyebrows twitching across the table from you as you sip your coffee! Alberto Rios is a Mexican/American surrealist writer who grew up in the border town of Nogales, Arizona, in fact he became the states first poet laureate in 2013. The character in his poem Teodora Luna’s Two Kisses, uses his eyebrows in the most endearing way as he tries to cheer his wife. As I read I had an image of comedian Groucho Marx in my head. He would lift his eyebrows …. Across tables, through doorways, sometimes in photographs …. This was his passion, he says. The tone is so magical and engaging and it’s about selflessness, generosity and love, actually someone said that, I don’t remember who, that love is when the happiness of another is essential to your own. It’s about nurturing our relationships and putting others before ourselves. It’s an adorable poem and reminds me of something that wise old sage Winnie The Pooh once said Nobody can be uncheered with a balloon.  Listen here.

So that’s HAPPINESS for you. At the top of the show I was talking about happiness being an activity rather than a condition and in those terms it means that it’s possible to cultivate happiness by learning some happiness skills. With a bit of research I found of list of activities we can do everyday to help increase our happiness levels 🙂 The top five:

Savour – to linger longer in the pleasurable experiences of our lives

Thank – you know, what we take for granted, somebody else is praying for so be grateful for what we have

Aspire – be optimistic and create meaning or a sense of purpose in our lives

Give – when we give, especially of ourselves, we increase our own wellbeing

Empathise – care for others, be compassionate – like the Roman philosopher Seneca said Where-ever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for kindness.

Also on the show: It’s like this:You were happy by Jane Hirshfield, So Much Happiness by Naomi Shihab Nye along with music from Jimmy Durante, Nouvelle Vague, Joni Mitchell, Saint Motel and more.

A table, a chair, a bowl of fruit and a violin; what else does a person need to be happy?
Einstein

 

 

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

He who sleeps in the raw, is in for a nude awakening! The Poetry Of Clothes.

 

“Clothes make the man”, Mark Twain said, “Naked people have little or no influence on clothesbuilding05society.”

So does what we wear define who we are? Well the fashion industry want us to believe so, for this 1.7 Trillion Dollar industry, it’s well within their interest to keep us up all night worrying about what we’re going to wear tomorrow. Intense consumerism and disposable fashion have changed how we dress, but it’s also created a monster polluter: the clothing industry leaves a huge carbon footprint. Now, most of us would consider ourselves fairly environmentally aware, we recycle, turn out the lights, leave the car at home, but get this: 3 kilos of chemicals, 3,625 litres of water and 400mj of energy, the equivalent of leaving a light bulb on for 116 days, that‘s what went into producing the this pair of jeans I have on today! One pair of jeans. Shocking isn’t it? I should remove them immediately!  But it is what it is, it’s the nature of the beast and every industry has it’s pro’s and con’s, whether we like it or not, we are tied to this industry by the fabric that we wear.

 
And what are we wearing? What, apart from the seasons, are our poets wearing? Well Robert Pinsky is wearing a Shirt, whose history is longer than it’s sleeves.  Pablo Neruda praises the virtues of his woollen socks.  Actually, you can always rely on Pablo to cut through the snobbery of poetry and gift it’s beauty back to where it belongs – with us. Pablo Neruda was the greatest Latin American writer of the 20th Century. Politically he was a socialist, so his focus was on ordinary people, community and equality and through his poems, he dispelled that myth that poetry is out of reach, confined only to academics or to the elite in our society. In his poem, Ode To My Socks, from his three books of Elemental Odes, in which he praises the things of ordinary life – lemons, dictionaries, sea-gulls – he shows us that we can find poetry everywhere, in everything, even in a pair of socks! He receives a pair as a gift, compares them to fish, birds, fire, bestows almost mystical qualities on them, and like any beautiful gift you feel unworthy of, you’re tempted to put it away in a drawer, keep it safe, and out of reach, like the way many of us treat poetry, with great deference, as something set apart, but he resisted he says, ‘the mad impulse to put his socks in a golden cage and each day give them birdseed and pieces of pink melon.’ He tells us that goodness, or poetry, is not out of reach, that the very definition of beauty is a pair of woollen socks in winter. So you heard it here first, Pablo Neruda said it’s okay to give socks as Christmas gifts again this year!

 

Now for the cost-conscious and ethically minded, shopping for second-hand clothes is a clothing-quotes-8fashionable alternative to larger retail chains. By thrift-shopping, you get to look unique for half cost, to your purse and the environment, and your money usually goes to a good cause too!  But have you ever wondered about who the person was who wore the coat, the blouse, the black leather pants before you? Well, after American poet Ruth Stone, brought her second-hand coat home, she began to embody it’s previous owners life. Finding in it’s pockets, all the random things we retain and forget about on a daily basis, like ticket stubs and tissues. Stone wrote poetry her whole life, referring to it as a stream that ran along beside her, talking to her and she just wrote down what it said. Much of it, however, was marked by her husbands suicide, so she broaches themes such as death, grief and loss with a double-edged dose of tragedy and humour.   That pre-loved clothes though, can inspire such philosophical thinking, is surely what makes purchasing them twice as nice

 

Kim Addonizio is looking fabulous, in a tight and flimsy, backless red dress.  Her poetry is clothing-2known for its grit and wit and here she asks   What Do Women Want? from her collection Tell Me. I don’t know Kim, is it thicker materials? Real pockets?  How about full length sleeves or actual breast room? (yes, I’m looking at you high-street retailers!) ‘I want a red dress’ she says, ‘flimsy, cheap and too tight.’ It’s a poem about the negative stereotypes we must endure as women, how we are viewed as bodies first and women later. There’s a feminist v’s femininity interplay going on here, women want to look and feel attractive for themselves, not necessarily for the opposite sex. The speaker is a confident, independent and sassy woman, body, mind and spirit, and as she ‘walks down the street past Thrifty’s and the hardware store with all those keys glittering in the window’, she wants to do it freely, looking how and wearing what she chooses, without fear of being labelled or stereotyped. I don’t have a red dress but I want one now!

 

You know, I think what all our poets have shown us today is that clothes are more than just clothes. They have a huge emotional value, and an association with experiences, people and important times in our lives. Brides keep their wedding dresses, we hold on to a child’s first pair of shoes, there’s your first-loves cardigan (oops) Clothes tell stories, like the Shoes that are the face of Charles Simic’s inner life, Ruth Stones Second-hand Coat and Robert Pinsky’s Shirt with decades of manufacturing history. I wonder if the cloth we wear preserve the dreams of the hands who cut it?  And I wonder what the future holds for the world of clothing? Fashion is always changing and science and design firms are constantly developing new fabrics, some that can even generate electricity, change colour, adjust temperature and charge phones! Apparently, fibre-scientists over at Lacoste are researching self-lengthening pants and dresses, so who knows maybe our hemming days are behind us 🙂

Also featured today: Maxine Kumin How It Is and Charles Simic My Shoes, along with music from Gregory Porter, Suede, George Ezra and The Irrepressibles.

“If most of us are ashamed of shabby clothes and shoddy furniture let us be more ashamed of shabby ideas and shoddy philosophies…. It would be a sad situation if the wrapper were better than the meat wrapped inside it.” – Albert Einstein