poem

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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.