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Poetry and Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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A Poet Walks Into A Bar …

The double negative didn’t walk into no bar!humour

What’s a Grecian Urn? About twenty thousand drachmas a year after taxes!

Okay I’ll stop now, so today we’re talking about HUMOUR and like poetry, humour is everywhere and we all respond to it. Cracking jokes can take the awkwardness out of some social situations; at work it can help build relationships; it’s a coping strategy too that relieves tension taking the edge off daily stresses which is critical to promoting harmony in our lives and diffusing negative emotions. In the serious business of poetry, humour is often viewed with suspicion and yes there are a lot of nonsense verses out there, fun nursery rhymes and terrible gibberish but then you get the great stuff, the satire, the irony the comic timing from writers like Billy Collins who uses comedy to lighten the pain of loss in his poem Putting Down The Cat which we’ll read later, but also here about his dead parents in No Time, he writes:

In a rush this weekday morning,
I tap the horn as I speed past the cemetery
Where my parents are buried
Side by side beneath a slab of smooth granite
Then, all day, I think of him rising up
To give me that look
Of knowing disapproval
While my mother calmly tells him to lie back down.

So through humour he crafts a poem that is full of feeling without being over sentimental. This reminds me of something Russian playwright Anton Chekhov said about having a necessary coldness when you write ’when you want to make the reader feel pity, try to be somewhat colder … the more objective you are, the stronger will be the impression you make’. So using poetic devices such as humour, satire and hyperbole ensure that otherwise serious topics pack more of a punch.

When we laugh, we temporarily give ourselves over to those who make us laugh and that’s what we’ll do now. Today’s show features Putting Down The Cat by Billy Collins, The Cremation Of Sam McGee by Robert William Service (read by Johnny Cash), God Says Yes To Me by Kaylin Haught, Symposium by Paul Muldoon and also, in Ill-wishing Him British poet Dorothy Nimmo takes a stoical approach to her lovers departure. You know it hurts when somebody leaves us and I think that how we heal depends on how we deal. Our outlook is everything and sometimes humour can help to mend the wounds of loss. Humorists have one cardinal rule: Don’t be inhibited. It’s better to take a rebellious attitude toward sensitive subjects than to pussyfoot around them. Nimmo writes from a pared back place, of a strength gained through painful insight, and with clever sleight of hand, she wittily gets her own back on the man who walks out on her.

Now there’s a joker in every pack isn’t there. There’s always someone who will, I don’t know, lets say eat the food someone else was saving! We know who you are William Carlos Williams! Somebody has eaten all the plums – and New Jersey doctor and poet William Carlos Williams gives us a poem written in the form of a note or memo left on a kitchen table, probably a note to his wife that turned into a poem, or as the experts call it – a found poem – where you take an existing text and refashion and reorder it. Was it a fair trade for the plums she was saving for herself? Is he really sorry? Known as an innovator, his poem This Is Just To Say is written in the imagist style, a poetic form that focuses on precise imagery and sharp language.  It reminds me of younger days when I used to house-share with people and we’d all have our names left on random grocery items in the fridge or in the cupboard and woe betide anyone who put their hands on my plums!

Next, the American poet and playwright Kenneth Koch gives us a spoof on the plum poem in his Variations On A Theme. Labelled as just a comedic poet, Koch himself spoke of the comic element as something that enabled him to be lyrical. But he was a very funny poet and here in Variations On A Theme By William Carlos Williams, Koch extends the original poem from one to four topics in what seems like almost a retaliation for Williams having eaten the plums! The plums were being kept for breakfast but with Koch now having nothing to do he chops down Williams’ house and so on, asking for forgiveness as Williams does in the original.

Remember humour can have a significant positive effect on our lives. Laughter, as they say, is the best medicine and it’s one of the first things we learn to do as newborns. And funny people receive a lot of attention and admiration don’t they? Most studies find humour to be a highly desirable attribute, which probably explains why the acronym GSOH is so popular in dating ads. Humour is big business too, when you think that it influences many of our daily decisions about what books or magazines to read, TV shows to watch, marketers’ are constantly trying to grab our attention with funny ads and products, all with their own in-house humorists writing them. And for writers, its all about imagination, constantly asking what if?, looking at ordinary things in extraordinary ways, it’s imagination that drives comedy and practically everyone has an imagination – or else no one would ever get married BOOM BOOM!

Music from Clem Snide, The Divine Comedy, Morcambe & Wise, Cathy Davey & more.  Enjoy the show!

… p.s.

funny dog sign

 

 

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…

 

Hope Floats

 

There is surely a future hope for you, and your hope will not be cut off. – Proverbs 23:18

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Our show today is all about HOPE. A salv to last weeks poetry of FEAR we’ll take a slightly more optimistic attitude of mind to look at what role hope plays in our lives. The things we hope for in people, politics, health and in society.  Puritan American poet Emily Dickinson famously called HOPE

The thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all

Creating a beautiful metaphorical description of hope as a bird singing in the soul. And it’s interesting she does that because two symbols of hope that come to mind are the Dove and the Swallow, the swallow being the first bird to appear at the end of Winter, heralding the beginning of Spring. She goes on:

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

Meaning that nothing, not even the worst hardship or storm could weaken the strength and resolve of the human spirit of HOPE. So with the help of our featured poets we’ll be looking at the places we might expect to find hope, or where we may be surprised to find it with Lisel Mueller.  It is spiritual and physical we are surrounded by it. ‘It hovers in the dark corners’ she says, it’s hope that’s in the earthworm segment, the dogs tail, ‘it drops’ she says ‘from the mushroom gills.’ Sometimes it hides in these places making it difficult for us to maintain hope in tough times, but it is there, inventing our future, inspiring us, it is she says ‘the singular gift we cannot destroy in ourselves’. Meaning hope is intrinsic to life. It is our survival mechanism.

Khaled Mattawa reminds us that it was the hope of a better future that kick-started the Arab Spring five years ago. Young people in the Middle East and North Africa led a major uprising demanding political, economic and social change.  In the early days of the revolution, Mattawa wrote ‘Now that we have tasted hope, we would sooner die than seek any other taste to life’. Hope in the sense of it being a provocative day-dream as opposed to a passive one, people were not content to just accept the bad that exists. It’s true that many cities involved in the uprisings were left traumatised and beleaguered, and fatal mistakes were made, but there were victories, not just ends, but beginnings, evidence that sometimes we can win, hope and  encouragement to keep going.

Irish poet Derek Mahon reconciles the shadow and the light to reassure us that despite the worst that is certain to happen, everything is going to be alright.

You know hope can an have impact on everything from health to work to personal meaning. And as we’ve learned from our poets today, the hard times are going to come but as Emily Dickinson said, it would take some sore storm to abash the bird of hope.  But when I think of Ernest Dowson’s poem on how fleeting life and everything in it is, I just wonder how much it really matters whether we choose hope or despair, neither are wrong, they each reflect human feeling. Story-teller Maria Kallman says We hope. We despair. We hope. We despair. This is what governs us. We have a bipolar system. And I suppose, at the end of the day, we do whatever we can to get ourselves through situations. I know for me anyway I can’t be positive everyday, but on those days, when I can’t be hopeful that everything is getting better I try, at least, to hope that everything is not getting any worse.

Hope is important, because it can make the present moment, less difficult to bear. If we believe that tomorrow will be better, then we can bear a hardship today.
Thich Nhat Hanh

Music today from Glen Hansard, Foy Vance, India Arie and more ….

 

 

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.

 

Journeys: Travelling within

Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.  Emerson

The idea of life as a journey is a well worn theme in poetry and it’s the focus of our show this week.  And what’s the message?  What great wisdom can we expect from our featured poets? Well, I guess it’s that life is a trip we have to take, no matter how bad the roads or the accommodation! In his poem The Journey, journeys 2American poet James Wright finds the secret to living in this world, in a quiet moment of reflection while visiting the medieval village of Anghiari.  Accepting life for what it is, its experiences and burdens but not being weighed down by them is the message he imparts to us.  ‘Step lightly all the way through your ruins’ he says.  We have a tendency to over-criticize and pick holes in every little thing we do, hold on to negativity and not let go of the baggage of the past, but Wright urges us to walk free from all of that and just be.  Be here now.

Life is is a voyage of discovery, of ourselves and others and we have nothing to fear on this journey only what we’ve conceived in our minds before we set out.  We spend so much time worrying about what might happen in the future that we’re sometimes blind to the magic that is happening around us.  Greek poet C P Cavafy prepares us for a great adventure to Ithaka, metaphorical destination and home of the legendary Greek king Odysseus.  I think Ithaka is about enjoying the pleasure of being alive – the people we meet, places we visit and knowledge we gain along the way.  Dreams and goals are important but I think the real value is gained through the process of living.

In Journey To The Interior, Margaret Atwood compares the rough Canadian landscape to the inner journey of self-discovery. Something not to be undertaken lightly as ‘only few have returned safely’ she warns.  I can completely relate.  Sometimes these inner journeys can be tough to navigate, there’s a fear of going too deep, of making discoveries you wish you hadn’t, but the reverse is also true and can lead to some self-illuminating moments.  Sometimes I find I just need the distraction away from myself though and take a journey out of my own psyche and into someone else’s … that can be illuminating too!

Mary Olivers’ recognition of the inner voice, the true authentic self is the subject of one of her best known poems The Journey, where she tells us to go out into the ‘wild night’ and find the voice that will ‘keep us company’ as we go deeper and deeper into the world. For most of us, the decisions we make are based on externals like what other people think.  We think it’s better to fit in, but you know what fitting in is?  Fitting in is resisting yourself … and resisting yourself can only lead to a life full of uncertainty, self-doubt and self-reproach.  Being honest with ourselves is risky business but big risks yield big rewards.  So take a friendly attitude towards your thoughts.  Be bold enough to live your truth, turn up the volume on your inner wisdom and in the words of (I think) Allen Ginsberg “Follow your inner moonlight; don’t hide the madness”.

Audre Lorde and Philip Levine also feature on todays show, along with music from Mick Flannery, Tom Petty and Bjork.

photo credit: http://www.trans-siberian-travel.com

Thought by WestWords

As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.
– Henry David ThoreauThought

Hello again today we’re looking at poetry and music on the theme of THOUGHT. Understanding the processes and effects of thought has kept academics busy for centuries and we won’t distract them from their duties by  trying to solve the bigger philosophies of thought on this show, we’re just interested in what everyday people are thinking about. Today’s poets have a lot on their minds from the sublime to the ridiculous, Jane Hirshfield, is a poet I really admire because her work looks deeply into the inner world of the self and the emotions and her poems are almost like little prayers or meditations on the very nature of being. I had the happy pleasure of meeting her and poet laureate Kay Ryan on Eglinton Street in Galway at last years Cuirt Festival, two very friendly and open people more than happy to stop and chat for a moment. Her poem, My Doubt, as the title suggests is about those times in life when everything is thrown into question, when we’re uncertain of the world and our place in it, unsure of our path and our decisions and I suppose it’s something we all must learn to accept: that doubt will always be a part of the process of life.  Billy Collins makes some interesting designs out of some spilt salt on the table, and in doing so muses over the greater questions of life such as Time and how the moments that make it up shape our lives: people past and present, objects there and not there. It’s hard to resist isn’t it? Creating patterns in salt or sugar or even flour on the table and even more interesting to see where such a simple yet mindful endeavour can take you.  We go to another world entirely with Mark Bibbins (I loved the title of his last book –   They Don’t Kill You Because They’re Hungry, They Kill You Because They’re Full)  His poem, And You Thought You Were The Only One struck a cord because when I was younger I was afraid of the dark and would often imagine figures, both real and unearthly standing outside my door, actually I remember a scene from the 2007 Coen Brothers movie ‘No Country For Old Men’ where, in the dim light of the landing, one of the characters can see his killers’ silhouette pausing outside his hotel room door, gosh it‘s just so spooky, but anyway this poem brought up those nervous feelings, I guess there’s something more going on here that Bibbin’s is somehow reluctant to face head on but knows that in order to conquer the fear he needs to feel it.  Tim Dlugos was an American poet immersed in the Mass Transit poetry scene in Washington before he moved to New York in 1976.  He’s probably best remembered for the poems he wrote while hospitalized in G-9, the AIDS ward at Roosevelt Hospital in Manhattan, where he passed away in 1990 at only 40yrs old. We all have to-do lists of some kind or another, but Dlugos writes us a might-do list, which he dedicates to his friend Terry Winch. It’s kind of a snooping insight into his wonderful train of thought flitting from one thing to the next; life’s minutia sometimes taking all the concentration we can muster.  William Carlos Williams and Stephen Crane also feature plus music from Maurice Chevalier, Charlie Winston, Morrissey & Dustin O’Halloran.

 

 

 

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