fear

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.

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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

Poetry and Politics

So where does dreamy poetry meet gritty politics? Well according to English poet Percy politicsShelley in his essay In Defence Of Poetry ’Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world’ , what does he mean? That poets have some sort of moral power or influence? I think what he means is that poets are not just writing poems, just like politicians are not just making laws, but they’re both engaged in imagining new ways of perceiving and being in this world of ours.
So in this way, passion and emotion run deep in both poetry and politics, appealing to the sense that things could be otherwise.  Both are concerned with values, rights and nationhood. Rhetoric is a big deal, the basic purpose of political rhetoric is to move men to action or alliance, poetry moves us in emotional, individualistic and immeasurable ways.
Poets are in the business of communication and expression, and have always invoked controversy for their social and political commentary. Politicians use poetry to their advantage too, in terms of speech-writing say. A little bit of flair can make any speech artistic and create lines that will be remembered for generations. Think of JFK’s inaugural speech “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”. Style is substance in political speech writing and poetry with it’s imagery and rhythm can strike the right chord. Poetry has always been read at Presidential inaugurations, JFK had Robert Frost; Bill Clinton had Maya Angelou and Obama had Elizabeth Alexander and here in Ireland we went a step further, and got a two-for-one offer in our poet-president Michael D Higgins!

Political poetry is a poetry of social concern and conscience, a way to exercise ones right to freedom of expression, which is what today’s poets have done.

In his poem Negro, Langston Hughes gives us a gripping account of the African-American experience through history. Hughes confronted racial stereotypes and his African-American themes made him a primary contributor to the Harlem renaissance of the 1920’s. He wrote the poem around the time of the birth of the civil rights movement, a time of racial pride. It is a direct and comprehensible lesson in black history, violent and oppressive yes, but this is a vital culture, central to the development of the world as we know it, the sense of pride is palpable, I am a negro, black like the depths of my Africa, powerful, there’s a huge freedom there and still a hope for that oft elusive future.

From his prison cell, the romantic communist poet Nazim Hikmet urges us to live life as if there’s nothing named death. Hikmet was a Turkish poet, playwright, novelist and memoirist.  He was repeatedly arrested for his political beliefs and spent much of his adult life either in prison or in exile in Russia. Why did I choose him? Well he was a rebel, a romantic and he stood up for his beliefs, whatever the consequence – which was usually incarceration. His poem On Living, informed in part by his communist leanings, and the length of time he spent behind bars, is concerned with the politics of living; working at ones life as one would an occupation; making it as passionate and fulfilling as possible – living is no laughing matter he says, whatever our circumstances we must live as if we will never die.
Jean-Paul Satre once said ‘Everything has been figured out, except how to live’, but here Hikmet urges us to be happy, achieve our potential, never let our fears or societal expectations hold us back. Our purpose, as is sees it, is to live life, not just look for the meaning in it. For one day this world will grow cold.

We also read The Mother, today, recollecting the emotions aroused by the Easter rising, from Irish revolutionary poet Patrick Pearse. The Rising was an insurrection in Dublin of about 1,200 men and women from the Irish Volunteers, Irish Citizen Army and the women’s group, Cuman na mBan. They were fighting for independence from the UK and although the rebellion failed, it did pave the way for the creation of a free state six years later. The rising was led by intellectuals and artists – sixteen of them were executed including the teacher & poet Patrick Pearse whose poem The Mother, written the night before he died, describes a mother’s thoughts on the death of her two sons (both Patrick and his younger brother Willie were executed). Why this poem above other rebel poems of the rising?  Well it’s intensely emotional, it’s the Irish the mother thing, we all know they live for their children.

Political poetry does more than just arouse feeling, it can take us right into the heart of society, it will always be there to remind us where we are, who we are, to move us, to offer solace, to carry news, sometimes that news inspires, sometimes it enrages – ‘Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry’ Auden wrote in his elegy for Yeats and as we’ve seen from Hikmet and communism to Chinese revolution and Irish rebellion, from Shelley after Peterloo in 1819 who said ‘ye are many and they are few’, Gil Scot Heron ‘the revolution will not be televised’ it seems that politics has hurt a lot of poets into poetical response.

One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics, is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.
Plato

Also on the show: Adrienne Rich, Li Young Lee, Muriel Rukeyser along with music from The WaterBoys, Sam Cooke, Billie Holiday & John Grant.

 

The Other Side Of Fear

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate, our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. Nelson Mandela Fear Headlines

We live in a generalized culture of fear don’t we.   Advertising, politics and news coverage, communicate messages that produce fear and the perpetuation of it through these media has become so insidious, ’if it bleeds, it leads’ is a well known maxim for what determines newsworthiness these days. For example: media coverage of crime and violence seems to be on the increase while actual crime rates are falling. Terror groups appear to have a free media platform, with suicide missions receiving extensive coverage which probably explains their popularity among these groups. Fear is the most powerful force in society, we are preoccupied with it: ISIS, Ebola, Gun Violence, Climate Change and these fears only pave the way really, for a more authoritarian society giving governments more reasons to intrude on our lives and rights. What do our poets think though? Charles Simic put it like this:

Fear passes from man to man
Unknowing
As one leaf passes its shudder
To another.

All at once the whole tree is trembling
And there is no sign of the wind.

Meaning that fear is contagious, suddenly we’re all afraid and nobody remembers why. To further expand on the theme of Fear we’ll read about issues of xenophobia with Thomas Lux who lists the various acts of violence and retaliation carried out over time by different civilizations.  Since the dawn of time one culture has always been pitted against another. The Greeks v Persians, Romans v Phoenicians, the Mongols v Chinese. We fear the ’other’ and in The People of the other Village, Lux highlights this hatred that mankind often exhibits towards itself. He explores the brutal human condition.

The media have a huge role to play in the level of fear in any society. Most of us form our opinions about what’s going on in the world based on what we see or read in the media. Sensationalist media coverage of things like Zika, Cyber Attacks, Terrorism, even Gluten! only serves to keep us in a constant state of fear. Adrienne Rich explores the problems within cultures, the things that keep us afraid. An Atlas Of The Difficult World is basically a mural of the American landscape painted with images of ordinary people, especially women and their experiences. It could be any country’s failures really, its broken promises, poverty and oppression of women. She concludes however, that it’s how one views the world that is important.

We fear what we don’t understand and that fear can lead sometimes to brutality. Our failure to accept people because of their race, gender, religion or sexual orientation keeps us tied to what we fear, to bigotry and misunderstanding. Mark Doty’s poem deals with homophobia in particular and thinking about it, religion is the worst propagator of this. It’s preposterous, but the Catechism of the Catholic Church States that, homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered. All major Islamic sects too, forbid homosexuality, which is a crime under Sharia Law and treated as such in most Muslim countries. Charlie Howard’s Descent examines the damage that this kind of intolerance can do to people and communities. In Maine in 1985 a 21 year old gay man named Charlie Howard, was harassed and chased by three teenage boys and despite his pleas that he couldn’t swim, they threw him over the State Street Bridge. He drowned. I cried and cried after reading this poem, the imagery is unapologetic as Doty imagines what the boy must be thinking, it’s stark yet warm because despite the bullying, the hatred and discrimination, this innocent boy bears no grudge. Grace is the order of the day and I think simply that the only way for us to fear less is to try to understand more.

Educating ourselves about what’s going on around us politically, socially and economically is the only defence we have against being frightened to death by media coverage of the next new threat. We can no longer afford to lounge around content in our mediocrity, mindlessly accepting as truth, what we’re being fed by those who maintain control by keeping us stupid and very afraid.

We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.
Plato

Other poets on today’s show Sara Teasdale, Anne Michaels and Randall Jarrell along with music from Ben Howard, The National, Sarah McLachlann, Blue Oyster Cult and more.