charles simic

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.

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

The Other Side Of Fear

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Serbian Encounter

I came across this amazing Serbian poet, feminist and activist Radmila Lazic while researching for an upcoming show about women and was really struck by her poetry.  A Wake for the Living, published in 2003 was the first translation of her poetry into English by fellow Serbian poet Charles Simic.  She has published numerous essays on literature and is the editor of an anthology of women’s poetry and another of anti-war letters. Lazic is also the founder and editor of the Serbian journal of women’s studies: Profemina International for Women, Writing & Culture.  This is something of hers:

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A Woman’s Letter
By Radmila Lazic

I don’t want to be obedient and tame.
Coddled like a cat. Faithful like a dog.
With a belly to my teeth, hands in the dough,
Face covered with flour, my heart a cinder
And his hand on my ass.

I don’t want to be a welcome flag at his door,
Nor the guardian snake under his threshold,
Neither the snake nor Eve from Genesis.

I don’t want to pace between the door and the window,
To listen hard and be able to distinguish
Footsteps from night-sounds.
I don’t want to follow the leaden movement of the watch-hands,
Nor see falling stars
For him to gore me drunkenly like an elephant.

I don’t want to be sewn with needlepoint
To the family portrait
Next to the fireplace with balled up children,
In the garden with puppy children,
And I the shade tree,
And I the winter landscape,
A statue under the snow.
In a pleated wedding dress
I’ll fly to heaven.

Alleluia! Alleluia!
I don’t want a bridegroom.

I want gray hair, a hump and a basket
To go roaming in the woods,
Picking strawberries and dry twigs.

With my whole life behind me,
The smile of that boy,
So dear and irreplaceable.

 

(trans. from the Serbian by Charles Simic)