nostalgia

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.

Advertisements

All Good Wishes To You!

In Memoriam, [Ring out, wild bells]img_0370
Lord Alfred Tennyson

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light:
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind
For those that here we see no more;
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

 

WestWords Perfect Christmas Pair

There’s something about horses at Christmas.  It’s in the dark eyes I think, the stillness,Digital image the mix of warm breath and magic on a crisp winter morning.   I’m fortunate that wherever I’ve lived, there have always been horses nearby in fields or stables.  Being able to stand with them for a moment, rub their necks and manes or feed them carrots and apples, stirs something in my soul that I can’t explain.  It’s like entering a church or sacred place, there’s a spiritual hush that comes and takes you out of your own reality and puts you into the wild and earthy presence of something otherworldly.    Gorgeous creatures.

Digital imageI remember being snowed in one Christmas.  I lived in a cottage in the forest, about two hours drive away from family and friends and unable to travel, I spent a couple of days alone with my dog. Digital image On Christmas morning, we walked out through the Scots pine (ouch!) and fir, heavy with snow and reached a clearing at the top of the hill where my neighbours three horses were waiting. A mare, her yearling and a cheeky friend.  The animals touched noses and we all stood reading one another’s thoughts, lashes frosty in the wakening light.  The horses’ steaming breath on my hands, their snorting nostrils calming to slow inhalations, hooves prodding the frozen ground beneath, everything was sonorous with snow.  Later, thumbing through an anthology, I came across this poem by English poet Henry Shukman.  It was his attempt to write about his new born son.  His poems have appeared in The Guardian, The Times and The London Review Of Books and his first poetry collection, In Dr. No’s Garden, was published by Cape in 2003.  As a fiction writer he has published two novels, Sandstorm in 2006 and The Lost City which was a Guardian Book Of The Year.  I’ve paired it with the traditional folk carol Let Us The Infant Greet by Loreena McKennit, hope you enjoy it 🙂  Happy Christmas!  – Feliz Navidad! – Frohe Weihnacten! – Buon Natale! – Sona Nollag! – Kala Hristouyienna! – Joyeax Noel!

HORSES AT CHRISTMAS
By Henry Shukman

In our little house Creedence were singing
About the old cotton fields, the baby
Was flat on his back in front of the fire,
Eyes swimming with flame.
Christmas morning, and you were at church.
I thought of going to join you late,
But instead took the baby up to the horses.
Out in the field he started crying.
Maybe I should have taken him to the bath
Of stone, the discipline of a saviour, the sanctuary
Of hymns –

But the horses saved us.
To be close to them, so tough and nothing
To do with us, and their breathing all over him,
And the flaking mud on their necks
Where they had rolled, and the sucking of hooves
As they walked the sodden field.
The horses with their long heads,
Underwater eyes, watched us watch them.

Then they turned, drumming the field,
Leaving us alone – the damp morning
All about, the soaked grass under foot,
The baby’s diaphanous ears going pink in the cold
As silence bowed back to earth.

Don’t Regret Your Regrets

To regret deeply, is to live afresh. Henry Thoreauundo

Regret is a way of thinking, in which we blame ourselves for things that happened, or when we feel responsible for a decision that came out badly.  But lamenting things that occurred in the past is part of life, it’s a universal pastime, and this show is more about seeing regret as a reminder of things we can do better as opposed to things we believe we’ve done badly. It’s all about how you look at life really isn’t it.  Regret is an emotion, and we experience it when we think we could be happier now, had we done something differently in the past. Our writers to day are going to help us understand regret, like WS Merwin as he considers that some regrets haunt us more than others. Of the many studies and theories on the subject, it’s been found that regrets over things we didn’t do, persist longer than regrets over things we did. Mainly because, psychologically, when it comes to inaction, our mind’s are then free to imagine in limitless ways, what might have been, what we could have done and how it would all be playing out now in the present. Whereas if we had done something, then there is only one alternative to play with and that’s not having done it, so there’s less opportunity for regret.

We’ll consider where some regrets come from on a familial and marital level, with thoughts from Ann Truitt, who realised too late the necessity for complete honesty in marriage and in love.  Regret can feel so awful because it kind of implies we’re at fault in some way. With thoughts from Parker Palmer and Rumi we’ll consider the benefits of being reckless when it comes to affairs of the heart.

 

 

Life is full of choices. Some go well, others go badly wrong, and those that go wrong lead to regret. And as we’ve discussed, some regrets are worse than others. Doing things or not doing things that affect our own lives is bad enough but doing something that has a negative impact on somebody else’s life, is a difficult regret to live with. But we have to live with it, making peace with regret is essential to healthy living.
There’s some comfort in numbers though I think, knowing that there are millions more of us feeling the same level of regret, maybe worse, over education, career, marriage, kids, that hair-cut or dreadful tattoo, consoles me a little. Don’t get me wrong, I mean I torture myself with regrets about not staying in college longer, coming back to Ireland when I was doing well in Europe, I regret the things I say when the red mist comes down, (I have a terrible temper :)), the list is endless but in order for me to move forward, for us to move forward, we have to find ways of forgiving ourselves, having more compassion for ourselves and learning to welcome regret as we would joy or any other emotion, preferably without judgement. Accepting it as part of the human experience, which is easier said than done. American poet and novelist Charlie Smith, I believe, exemplifies this idea of embracing the negative, in his poem In Praise Of Regret.

 

The Pulitzer Prize winning poet, Galway Kinnell, reminds us of all we have to be thankful for. Reminds us of the importance of engaging with  the ordinary things in life. Despite the horrors of the world, the atrocities committed by us and to us, we are a blessed and fortunate people, living in and with the miracle of creation. In his poem, Why Regret? from his collection Strong Is Your Hold, he pretty much turns regret into gratitude.

 

You know, I’ve always believed that people who say they have no regrets are simply lying. If we’re living we’re regretting. And that’s okay, it’s possible that our regrets aren’t as bad as we think they are and they can be important teachers. Obviously we can’t change the past but we can change how it affects our present. Forgiveness is crucial. I guess instead of beating ourselves up about things beyond our control, we could recognize more the productive side of regret, improving ourselves and putting things right. And remember every moment is an opportunity for change, we can change our attitude, our thinking, we are free to begin again, in the words of Rumi “Be melting snow. Wash yourself of yourself.”

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.
Mark Twain.

Music today from Midge Ure, Morrissey, Ben Lee, Yann Tiersan & more…

 

Letters Mingle Souls

letters

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

 

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

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

 

 

 

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

Dearest little Wife of my heart!

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

your Mozart who loves you
with his entire soul.

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

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

Kissing you from the bottom of my heart,
Your Albert

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

 

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

 

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

Share on Facebook

 

 

Saudade: The Love That Remains

It seems to me we can never give up longing and wishing while we are still alive. There are certain things we feel to be beautiful and good, and we must hunger for them.
― George Eliot

Recently a friend and I were discussing this idea of human longing and nostalgia. Missing SAUDADEsomeone or something that we once loved and that is no longer in our lives. It’s a concept which heavily informs his work as an artist and which has inspired some of the most powerful love poetry & music ever written. It can be condensed into one beautiful Portuguese word Saudade (pronounced Saudadji in Brazilian). It’s a feeling of incompleteness and melancholy characteristic of the Portuguese and Brazilian temperament. And today we’re going to look at a general overview of the topic and some poetry and music I feel best illustrate it.

So basically, Saudade is a longing. For love, for acceptance for a connection of some kind. We all have this desire for presence, missing something which is gone and wanting it back, especially love, losing love gives rise to enormous longing and suffering. I’m sure you’ve experienced that feeling that gnawing at the heart, the pain of remembering. Actually in Portuguese culture Saudade often carries the knowledge that the what is lost might never return – it’s much darker and melodramatic than the upbeat Saudade of Brazil which through hundreds of years of assimilation of cultures has become a much more amorphous term in that you can have Saudade for people, things, food, even for places you’ve never been. Saudade is the crossroads if you like, between loss and desire, something’s gone you want it returned. The great Portuguese writer Manuel de Melo describes it as ’a pleasure you suffer and an ailment you enjoy’. For me it’s the heartbreaking language of the soul, I suppose the best way is to describe saudade as the hearts desire and I can hear in these lines from Russian poet Anna Akhmatova:

‘This remorseless black separation’

I bear equally with you.

Why cry? Rather, give me your hand,

Promise to visit me in dream.
You and I – are like two mountains.

You and I – not meeting in this world.

If only sometimes, at midnight,

You’d send me a greeting through the stars.

 

 

 

Love is a huge matter when talking about Saudade. It’s what most poets and musicians write about and are inspired by. In terms of lost love you are missing part of yourself that you can no longer access. Even though reminiscing and vain hope are incredibly painful, you don’t want to let go of the heartache because you let go of the person, so you carry it with you. And this is the interesting point about Saudade, it is a missing and an absence but because you carry it with you it is also a presence.  On love, firstly I went for this one by Chilean poet Pablo Neruda for it’s tender pleading ‘don’t go far off, don’t leave me’ It’s one of his 100 love sonnets dedicated to his beloved wife Matilde Urrutia. Neruda is well aware of what the sorrow of separation is like, he does not want to risk the agony of it and cannot bear even the thought of it. In Sonnet 45 he writes:

Don’t go far off, not even for a day, because –
Because – I don’t know how to say it: a day is long
And I will be waiting for you, as in an empty station
When the trains are parked off somewhere else, asleep.

Don’t leave me, even for an hour, because
Then the little drops of anguish will all run together,
The smoke that roams looking for a home will drift
Into me, choking my lost heart.
Oh, may your silhouette never dissolve on the beach;
May your eyelids never flutter into the empty distance.
Don’t leave me for a second, my dearest,

Because in that moment you’ll have gone so far
I’ll wander maziliy over all the earth, asking,
Will you come back? Will you leave me here, dying?

 

 

Secondly, from her collection Radio Crackling, Radio Gone, American poet Lisa Olstein writes a sad poem of longing and disappointment. Dear One Absent This Long While stirs up those old feelings again of loss, rejection, sadness that something is unfinished or imperfect without ones other half. I know myself, losing love, it’s the bitter-sweetness of the longing that somehow lulls you back to it.  Hear the yearning in the words ‘I expect you’ as she goes on to search for little happiness’s while coping with the reality that her lover might never come back. She says:

It has been so wet stones glaze in moss;
everything blooms coldly.

I expect you. I thought one night it was you
at the base of the drive, you at the foot of the stairs,

you in a shiver of light, but each time
leaves in wind revealed themselves,

the retreating shadow of a fox, daybreak.
We expect you, cat and I, bluebirds and I, the stove.

In May we dreamed of wreaths burning on bonfires
over which young men and women leapt.
June efforts quietly.
I’ve planted vegetables along each garden wall

so even if spring continues to disappoint
we can say at least the lettuce loved the rain.

I have new gloves and a new hoe.
I practice eulogies. He was a hawk

with white feathered legs. She had the quiet ribs
of a salamander crossing the old pony post road.

Yours is the name the leaves chatter
at the edge of the un-rabbited woods.

 

Poets Norman MacCaig WS Merwin, Sheenagh Pugh & Kahlil Gibran also feature today along with music from Estrella Morente, Gilberto Gil, Dulce Pontes and Nick Cave.