Category Archives: poets

Grief.

September 1, 1939

W. H. Auden, 1907 – 1973

 

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism’s face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
“I will be true to the wife,
I’ll concentrate more on my work,”
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the deaf,
Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

Auden was ashamed of this poem — why is debatable by intellects cleverer than I. But it is a response to the feelings of utter helplessness as a world apparently falls into chaos and disaster at the outbreak of World War II.

Mankind is good at disaster – both creating it and rising above it – we are sinner and sinned against. It is the gift of our humanity that allows us to live in paradox and it is the difference between having soul or spirit and the new creature that is being created as the transhuman. What would Auden have said about A.I?

I return to his own words as some sort of response to discombobulating world,

“There must always be two kinds of art: escape-art, for man needs escape as he needs food and deep sleep, and parable-art, that art which shall teach man to unlearn hatred and learn love.”

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Simply Human

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On National Women’s day I want to say something. It’s not radical, it’s not clever, it’s not even controversial – at least from where I am. And that is the point. I am writing from a position of privilege , I have been educated to the same standard as my brothers, I have worked in a male dominated industry and been accepted as successful within my career, and I have a marriage which is traditional in values but recognises my strengths ( and my weaknesses).

I want to say thank you – to all the women and the men who went before me and worked quietly in the background to remove barriers in the system.  It’s not perfect, and I myself worked hard two decades ago to change attitudes within the company I worked. But the change has been remarkable in my lifetime.

The challenge for our society – U.K – is different now. It is to accept the equality between genders and to understand that equality retains the opportunity for difference. It is to accept responsibilities and duties that are incumbent on everyone to work hard, and to embrace challenge together, both in the workplace, in the community and in the domestic arena.

I would like to see less commodification of sexuality, which starts at birth now – the baby vests that promote the princess in the female , the five year old pageants, the sexting of teens.  Do grown ups that have sex really need to display this sense of rampant horniness in the everyday and in the inappropriate age groups of the tender young.

I don’t know what a day can do to promote the values of women – I don’t even know what they are. My values are different to my friends, let alone those who think I am ridiculous. I just want a world where we can be confident enough to have a dialogue with one another beyond gender, race, abilities. It’s a bit of dream but we have arrived at a place undreamt of by my female ancestors.

My illustration for a challenge at Redbubble provoked me to produce the illustration above – it has man and woman side by side, potent with possibility.( and available here  redbubble and  at  Society6

 

On a final note I defer to the poet laureate Wislawa  Szymborska, succinct and brilliant .
It’s a political age.

All day long, all through the night,
all affairs–yours, ours, theirs–
are political affairs.

Whether you like it or not,
your genes have a political past,
your skin, a political cast,
your eyes, a political slant.

Whatever you say reverberates,
whatever you don’t say speaks for itself.
So either way you’re talking politics.

Even when you take to the woods,
you’re taking political steps
on political grounds.

Apolitical poems are also political,
and above us shines a moon
no longer purely lunar.
To be or not to be, that is the question.
And though it troubles the digestion
it’s a question, as always, of politics.

To acquire a political meaning
you don’t even have to be human.
Raw material will do,
or protein feed, or crude oil,

or a conference table whose shape
was quarreled over for months;
Should we arbitrate life and death
at a round table or a square one?

Meanwhile, people perished,
animals died,
houses burned,
and the fields ran wild
just as in times immemorial
and less political.

‘let life take it’s course.’

“But your solitude will be a support and a home for you, even in the midst of very unfamiliar circumstances, and from it you will find all your paths.”

 

nightingale

I have sons and stepsons- five young adults – and I am vexed about the same concerns for all of them.  How can I help them to live well in the world?  And every time I ask myself this question I come to the conclusion that I can’t. I am still struggling with the question myself as we all do.  I know in the rational part of my mind that each individual must ask their own questions, find their own path to some sort of equilibrium.  That said, there is the other part of me, the spark of optimistic longing that wants to share that wealth of experience from authors and artists that have resonated with me, moved me, performed some magical alchemy that has allowed me to feel some sort of transcendent moment which makes life worthwhile, meaningful, exciting. It’s also why I write a blog, a catharsis of sharing what I have found valuable to my living. A howl into the wilderness to connect with other lives, belong to a tribe where I am accepted, nourished, nurtured.

Thus I come to the nub of today’s post – the illuminating writing from Rainer Maria Rilke in ‘Letters to a young poet’.  The words of that hopeful young man  preface the Penguin Little Black Classics version, as an older version of himself  speak for themselves.

‘And where a great and unique person speaks, the rest of us should be silent’

-Franz Xaver Kappus , Berlin , 1929.

I will choose some of the text of the letters and share it here, but recommend the book to be read in its entirety,

On being asked to give criticism to the poets verses, Rilke writes to him ;

‘You ask whether your verses are good.  You ask me that. You have asked others, before, You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you worry…let me ask you to give up all that.  You are looking to  the outside, and that above all you should not be doing now.  Nobody can advise you and help you, nobody. There is only one way. Go into yourself.’

‘…read as little as possible in the way of aesthetics and criticism (of works of art) – it will either be partisan views, fossilized..or neat wordplay, where one opinion will triumph one day and the opposite the next. Works of art are infinitely solitary…. Only love can grasp them and hold them and do them justice. – With regard to any such disquisition, review or introduction, trust yourself and your instincts; even if you go wrong in your judgement, the natural growth of your inner life will gradually, over time, lead you to other insights.  Allow your verdicts their own quiet untroubled development which like all progress must come from deep within and cannot be forced or accelerated. Everything must  be carried to term before it is born. To let every impression and the germ of every feeling come to completion inside, in the dark, in the unsayable, the unconscious, in what is unattainable to one’s own intellect, and to wait with deep humility and patience for the hour when a new clarity is delivered. ‘

Rilke doesn’t just advise the young man about art – it is fuller than that – but expresses his views on sexuality too – ideas about how to take deep pleasure in mature love, acknowledging that man often gets it wrong when  ‘he loves only as  a man, not as a human being’. If I could just take that line and impress it on my progeny, that would be enough.

More to follow!!

 

 

 

For the sake of a life.

                              The Layers   by Stanley Kunitz

 

layers

I am repeating myself because I sent this poem out into the ether earlier in my blogging life.  It bears repeating. I remind myself from time to time about what I want from this one and precious life.  Nowadays the buzz word is mindfulness, but the concept behind mindfulness is as ancient as time. At least as ancient as man’s consciousness began to reflect upon its self-awareness.  Our lives are different to those that were lived by the peoples of ancient civilizations, but in the perspective of the brain evolution, that span of time is just a nano second, so it is worth reflecting upon how humans in the past have reconciled themselves to the parodoxes that appear in all our lives.  You can choose from the philosophers who all have a different take , or the religious men who all have their differing stories they want to share, or you can listen to the poets.  The poets assume nothing of the reader, do not desire any allegiances, demand no tithes.  They write about the human experience because they are stuck in it. And in that attempt to soothe themselves a line of energy transmits from them to the reader. Sometimes it simply vaporises and never arrives anywhere, it just disappears as a coil of smoke will disappear into the air. Other times it sends an electric current through the reader and the reader is changed forever. As all the food that we eat, the sights that we see, the people we meet all impact on the messages our brains control our minds with, so with words.

savour

Meet Ceridwen

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I have named my medieval lady – meet Ceridwen – isn’t she absolutely heavenly?  She was helped into the world by the marvellous ceramacist Midori Takaki , whose work I have adored since first finding it.  I had told Midori how much I loved her work, and she was the most kindhearted seller -offering to save me the particular item I wanted until I was ready.  I didn’t do that at the time as we were pennypinching and I couldn’t justify an art purchase.

Quite a long time later I mentioned to my husband how much these works meant to me – how I longed to own one.  He knows it is not often that I see something I want to own, mainly I am happy to just be in the world alongside what I have.  So being the romantic he is, he immediately asked me to choose the one I liked for Valentine. I did.

Midori is a busy lady, so I waited a while before the mask arrived. And I wasn’t disappointed.  Now I never anticipate. It is something of a strange attribution and connected to memory or lack of it. I cannot see things that are in the past of the future, only the present. So in the same way I hadn’t named my sons prior to their birth, neither had I given Medieval Lady a name.  I had to come up with something that meant something to me, and that suited her.

After some reflection, and some of Keat’s ‘negative capability’ I remembered a poem that goes back to the myths of Celtic Britain which I had fallen in love with moons ago.

I am Taliesin. I sing perfect metre

I am Taliesin. I sing perfect metre,
Which will last to the end of the world.
My patron is Elphin…

I know why there is an echo in a hollow;
Why silver gleams; why breath is black; why liver is bloody;
Why a cow has horns; why a woman is affectionate;
Why milk is white; why holly is green;
Why a kid is bearded; why the cow-parsnip is hollow;
Why brine is salt; why ale is bitter;
Why the linnet is green and berries red;
Why a cuckoo complains; why it sings;
I know where the cuckoos of summer are in winter.
I know what beasts there are at the bottom of the sea;
How many spears in battle; how may drops in a shower;
Why a river drowned Pharaoh’s people;
Why fishes have scales.
Why a white swan has black feet…

I have been a blue salmon,
I have been a dog, a stag, a roebuck on the mountain,
A stock, a spade, an axe in the hand,
A stallion, a bull, a buck,
I was reaped and placed in an oven;
I fell to the ground when I was being roasted
And a hen swallowed me.
For nine nights was I in her crop.
I have been dead, I have been alive.
I am Taliesin.

 

I wanted my lady to be Taliesin , the bard in the Tales of Taliesin but I couldn’t cross the gender gap. Taliesin is a man. So it made sense to me that if she couldn’t be the bard, then she would mother the bard. She would be responsible for bringing into the world this legendary bard whose tales would ring through history. She would give birth to Awen  – the Welsh, Cornish and Breton word for  the inspirational muse of creative artists in general.

It is not all pretty though – Ceridwen in the stories of Celtic myth had given birth to a son, Morfan  who was deformed, hideous to look at. In order to somehow compensate for this misfortune Ceridwen went to work to make a potion which would give her son wisdom and poetic inspiration. This was no simple task – it was to take a year  and a day to brew in her magical cauldron, and she had helpers – a blind man and a young boy Gwion. Gwion’s task was to stir the concoction, and as luck would have it three drops of the mixture spilt onto his thumb, which he instinctively sucked.  Now only the first three drops of the mixture would have the transformative powers, the rest would be fatally poisonous. So Gwion did waht any young man would do faced with a powerful woman fatally disappointed. He ran. As Ceridwen gave chase , he used the powers of  the brew to turn himself into a hare, and was then pursued by Ceridwen transformed into a greyhound. He became a fish and jumped into a river. She transformed into an otter. He turned into a bird; she became a hawk. Finally, once he became a single greain of corn Cerdwen ate him as a hen. Even this did not destroy him because of the power  ofthe potion – Ceridwen became pregnant, and knew the child was Gwion, deciding to kill him when she gave birth.  Of course she could not do it – he was so beautiful, but she did set him into the sea in a leather-skin bag.  Fortunately for the child a passing prince rescued him on a Welsh shore, and this infant became Taliesin.

Some tale – the celtic tales are full of magic and imagination- powerfully romantic and date as far back as the 6th century. It is from the 12th century that the stories of the Mabinogion appear , and these were translated into English in 1849  when Lady Charlotte Guest’s version was produced. The tale draw upon the myths and history of Celtic Britain, with four branches of a storyline mainly set within Wales and the otherworld. They have a dreamlike atmosphere, preserving the primitive, imaginative world of Celtic myth.  A link to The Harvard Classics Volume 32 will fill you in further on the importance of this body of work on European literature that followed. Link to Harvard Classics page 146 Volume 32

For those interested in researching the work of Midori Takaki , her website is wonderful.-website of artist Midori Takaki

Let it out

161_6106crop Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Smite flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!
Crack nature’s moulds, and germens spill at once,
That make ingrateful man!

[ FOOL:  O nuncle, court holy-water in a dry house is better than this
rain-water out o’ door. Good nuncle, in, and ask thy daughters’ blessing: here’s
a night pities neither wise man nor fool. ]

Rumble thy bellyful! Spit, fire! Spout, rain!
Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire, are my daughters:
I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness;
I never gave you kingdom, call’d you children,
You owe me no subscription: then let fall
Your horrible pleasure: here I stand, your slave,
A poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man:
But yet I call you servile ministers,
That have with two pernicious daughters join’d
Your high engender’d battles ‘gainst a head
So old and white as this. O! O! ’tis foul!

A speech from Mr William Shakespeare to vent the spleen.  King Lear was raging at a storm that was reflecting his inner turmoil.  I hate turmoil. And yet is is so much part of being human that who avoids it?

A swinger of birches

Cris's trees displate

Fire and Ice

 Some say the world will end in fire,
 Some say in ice.
 From what I've tasted of desire
 I hold with those who favor fire.
 But if it had to perish twice,
 I think I know enough of hate
 To say that for destruction ice
 Is also great
 And would suffice.

Robert Frost

'just as fire and ice may one day destroy the external, physical world,
 desire and hate destroy the internal, spiritual one' -Thomas from 'The Wondering Minstrels.' 

The poet Robert Frost was extraordinary in managing to write poems of deep meaning that resonate with readers using a mastery of language that somehow makes it     appear quite simple. His was a life beleaguered with grief - a father that died   young - Robert was only 11, a mother who shared a propensity for depression, alongside his wife, and only two of his six children outliving him - his son Carol,    sadly committing suicide. His mastery of his art was for him 'a momentary stay    against confusion'
There is a wonderful interview in the Paris Review in which he states 
' All thought is a feat of association: having what’s in front of you bring up something in your mind that you almost didn’t know you knew. Putting this and that together. That click.'

That click is exactly the sense I love to feel when I feel the poetry I read. Some of Frost's poetry gets me there. 

http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/4678/the-art-of-poetry-no-2-robert-frost

Photograph by my husband - please do not use without permission.
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