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My trigger for this sequence of posts was finding I had copied one of Elizabeth Jennings’ poems into my notebook. I had no memory of having read her, though my copy of her 1985 Collected Poems was riddled with my highlights and glowing comments.

I began re-reading her poems and ordered her recent biography by Dana Greene – Elizabeth Jennings: ‘the inward war’. My excitement carried over into the Death Café even before I had done more than just begun the biography.

The 1964 poem I read to them there was VII: For a Woman with a Fatal Illness out of Sequence in Hospital  (Collected Poems – page 80):

The verdict has been given quietly
Beyond hope, hate, revenge, even self-pity.

You accept gratefully the gifts – flowers, fruit –
Clumsily offered now that your visitors too

Know you must certainly die in a matter of months,
They are dumb now, reduced only to gestures,

Helpless before your news, perhaps hating
You because you are the cause of their unease.

I, too, watching from my temporary corner,
Feel impotent and wish for something violent –

Whether as sympathy only, I am not sure –
But something at least to break the terrible tension.

Death has no right to come so quietly.

Another member of the Death Café group immediately recognized the book I was reading from.

‘I’ve got that one,’ she said.

‘Do you like it?’ I asked, as possessing a book is no guarantee that you like it. I speak from experience.

‘Oh, yes,’ she said.

Why it matters that two people, out of the six attending that evening, both had copies of her Collected Poems and liked the poems in it, will become apparent later. Incidentally, the others seemed to appreciate it too.

As I read further into Greene’s book and revisited more of Jennings’ poems, I came to realize how closely her thinking about poetry mapped onto mine and differed from the critical consensus which seems to favour obscurity over accessibility.

I collided with this issue at the end of my sequence of posts on Machado. I will recap briefly here.

I acknowledged that coherence should not be bought at the expense of new insights and that ‘solving for the unknown,’ as dealt with in an earlier post, is a crucial function of poetry, with which Elizabeth Jennings would not disagree. But there is a problem.

In their introduction to their edition of ‘The Poetry of Táhirih’ John Hatcher and Amrollah Hemmat explore this further, initially referring to Hayden (page 16):

The poet Robert Hayden was fond of saying that poetry is the art of saying the impossible. . . Another thing Hayden was fond of noting is that often the most popular poetry – if poetry has any sort of popularity of these days – is usually mediocre poetry because it can be easily understood. . . . great poetry, poetry with lasting merit, takes us from our present state of awareness to some place else . . .

I was happy to go with them up to a point, though I am not so convinced of the general mediocrity of popular poetry for reasons I now plan to explore at greater length. And I am not happy to blindly accept that popular poetry cannot, at least sometimes and perhaps more often than we think, take us beyond ‘our present state of awareness.’

The debate sparked by Elizabeth Jennings’ poetry frequently touches on this issue, albeit indirectly at times. Was it too simple and naïve to be of any real value, in spite of its popularity.

Dana Greene’s biography contains many instances of this position, for example, concerning her Extending the Territory in 1985 (page 149):

The detractors depressed her. John Lucas, writing in the New Statesman, criticized her ‘vapid’ poems, with their unvaried language and uninteresting subject matter.’

Nonetheless the book won the Southern Arts Society prize of £1,000.

Michael Schmidt, as her editor for 25 years and publisher of Poetry Nation Review described her as (page 186) ‘the most unconditionally loved writer of the generation of poets of the Movement,’ and attributed ‘her popularity to her feel for ordinary people and her honest, straightforward, non-ironic, and non-satiric verse, which was generally written in strict form.’

I can’t join Hatcher and Hemmat again, at least as far as Schoenberg and Beckett are concerned, when they write (ibid):

It takes a bit more energy and training to appreciate the atonality of Sternberg [sic – should be Schoenberg], Eliot’s The Wasteland, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot or Joyce’s Ulysses.… a good artist does not talk down to the audience, does not ‘dumb down’ the art.

I think there should be something more in the mix, in the case of both Schoenberg and Beckett. Dissonance, no matter how well it reflects the jarring reality stretching tightly across the surface of our times, is not enough. There needs to be at least a taste of some sort of transcendence.

This is also something this discussion of Elizabeth Jennings and her poetry will return to.

Poems too obscure or repellent to match a large enough readership are hardly going to change the world for the better, no matter how brilliant their abstruse and inaccessible message is. However, poems that do not challenge their readers to step out of their comfort zone will not do so either, no matter how many people read them.

Striking the right balance is a matter of great skill, something only the greatest poets ever achieve: accessible enough to attract a wide readership and demanding enough to lift the consciousness of its readers to a higher level. I personally feel that Elizabeth Jennings, as well as Machado, rises to this challenge in many of her poems.

And what follows will try to explain why. Stick with me. It might be worth it.

Some Basic Information

I need to start with a few basic facts about her life and poetic career before plunging into the issues I want to address.

Greene’s introduction confronts us with some fairly startling facts about her obsessive productivity (page xiv): in addition to what she published there are ‘30,000 unpublished poems and autobiographical writings.’

She was clumsy as a child, and kept falling over (page 11): ‘By the time she was ten she had had six severe blows to her head.’ She convinced herself she was therefore unlovable. Her relationship with her parents was not close, especially in terms of her father, which caused her problems with both people and God (page 16): ‘Fear of her father and God the Father dominated her psyche.’

Poetry, religion and relationships had both positive and negative effects on her state of mind (page 17):

There were three major turning points in Jennings’ life: her discovery of poetry, her sojourn to Rome, and a mental breakdown.

While, as we will see, poetry helped her in many ways, the intensity of her pursuit of it, fuelled by her need for money at times, led to dangerous levels of exhaustion. Religion constituted the same kind of double-edged sword: in the positive experience of Catholicism in Rome she found solace to compensate for and to some degree counteract her fear of God, but in the end (page 146) ‘[s[he confessed that she could only love God through people . . .’

Before we look at the main issues we need to explore in a bit more detail two other important aspects of her life: the effect on her of her attitude to sex, marriage and relationships, and the impact of suffering.

Neither are straightforward.

Sex, Marriage and Relationships

Sex was a paradox for her (page 23):

She convinced herself that sex was filthy and something to be feared, but at the same time she was intensely interested in it.

This was something that contributed to her reluctance to marry (page 33):

. . . she saw marriage as tedious drudgery… This, plus her lingering fears about sex, limited her interest in marriage.

But that was not the only thing holding her back from tying the knot. In To a Friend with a Religious Vocation, as Greene describes it (page 71):

Jennings directly explores her quandary over the vocation of artist. She writes that she has no desire to have children or to be a nun.

Her conflicted position extended beyond the sexual though (page 131):

The principal psychic issue Jennings wrestled with . . . was how to love. She considered the need for love a part of the human condition which demanded that one be in a relationship with another. But love raised the problem of possession, both being possessed and possessing.

Love was further complicated for her by her religious beliefs (page 132):

For Jennings, the issue was not merely how to love someone purely, but how to love both God and another human.

Which brings us back to the quote I used earlier (page 146): ‘She confessed that she could only love God through people . . .’

When we look at her experience of and ideas about suffering in the next post we will begin to see that all these conflicts served as fuel for her poetry. Popular it may have been, but trivial and superficial it was certainly not, at least at its best.

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‘I wasted time, and now doth time waste me . . .’

(Richard II Act 5, Scene 5, line 49)

After what seemed an interminable silence, I just have to say something else.

‘I’m not trying to minimise the problem with global heating. It’s an international emergency, I know that. I think we all do. But it is not the only issue. Genuine consciousness changing is far wider and goes far deeper than the consciousness-raising involved in the climate situation.’

‘Where’s this going exactly?’ Indie interjects. ‘Are we just going to be finding excuses for doing nothing?’

Fred comes to my rescue.

‘We’re very good as a species at focusing on one thing at a time with a narrow band of attention. That got us through the stone-age fine, when our main concerns were not getting eaten or wiped out by a neighbouring tribe, but it’s not so great when you are dealing with a wide range of complex and toxic problems stretching over a globally connected society. Plastics, potentially genocidal prejudice, a competitive ideology based on a distorted Darwinism preaching a divisive and misguided doctrine of the survival of the fittest . . .’

Emma groans out loud. Chris is nodding. Fred is oblivious, sitting at the back of the classroom on the right hand side, staring out of the window at the rain spattering against the tall glass.

‘. . . rampant consumerism and greed for profit fuelling an unbridled and unsustainable exploitation of the earth’s resources, extreme inequality, treatment resistant bacteria, as well as the climate crisis, to name but a few of the most obvious. And I can’t list the ones we don’t know.’

‘Have you quite finished now?’ Indie and Emma moan in unison, ‘or do you need another hour?’

Though I resonate to Fred’s line of argument, what he has said seems only to exaggerate the divide.

I hesitantly wade in again, from the doorway I first entered 53 years ago. My struggle with the lower sixth, when I eventually found where they were, is nothing compared with this.

‘Maybe we have to dig deeper still, much deeper than any of us have dug so far.’

‘What do you mean exactly?’ Chris queries, probably feeling that none of us could ever possibly have dug deeper than he has.

‘Well, first of all, I don’t think any of us, including me, is wise enough to know what’s best.’

‘But most of us think we need to be more active,’ Indie feels.

‘Half of the six of you, to be fair,’ I correct her.

Emma scowls.

I try again.

‘Look, the whole point is that even when we put our heads together we can’t agree what to do. We’ve got another stand off. Carrying on arguing, with feelings running so high, will never get an agreement on what’s best to do.’

‘We’re stuck then, I guess,’ Bill shouts from the back corner, his expression darker than the cloud outside. ‘But at least I can carry on writing poems, while Chris meditates and Fred learns more about the brain.’

‘That’s all right for you three but it’s not all right for the rest of us,’ Peat says. ‘Mum’s really upset and so is Auntie Emmie.’

‘That’s the problem,’ I respond. ‘We’re each seeing only a part of what’s wrong and so can just suggest a remedy that works for that bit only. We need to work out how to get closer to the whole truth. And, the way I see it, there’s going to be only one way to do that, given consulting together at our current level of understanding is getting us nowhere. We all have to step back from our attachment to the person we think we are.’

‘Sorry,’ Bill, leaping to his feet, jumps in. The desk rattles as he does so. ‘I know who I am. I’m a poet who loves nature. Nothing’s going to change that.’

‘And I know who I am as well,’ agrees Emma. ‘I’m an activist – always have been, always will be.’

‘I agree,’ comes the chorus from Indie and Peat.

Not surprisingly Chris and Fred seem to be taking a different line, with Fred speaking first.

‘I know about sub-personalities and I know that’s what we are. But that doesn’t mean, Pete, that you are not who you think you are. This isn’t going to break the block.’

Chris raises a hand in the air, asking for a moment’s silence. There is quiet for a moment.

He wades in, ‘Most meditative traditions contain some sense that a self of any kind is an illusion. I’m inclined to agree. So, yes, we could all be illusions, including you, Pete. The problem is that this doesn’t mean there is a real self of some kind we can tap into, which is where I suspect you are heading. Whatever self we discover apart from us, is going to be another illusion, believe me. We’ve been down that road twice already since this process started, and, with all due respect neither Peat nor Indie can claim beyond a shadow of doubt that they are the true self you seem to be looking for.’

I can see I’ve got a tough job ahead of me. Just as we couldn’t agree on what to do when the argument started, we’re not going to agree any time soon on this issue either.

I accept we can all get a long way by using all sorts of creative techniques to enhance our understanding. Dreams for one thing. The sand dream I was having when they barged in was a case in point. It flagged up the issue of how we use our time.

Reading and writing, perhaps especially poetry, are important others. My recent encounter with Machado’s blessed illusion poem is a good example of the fruits of those activities. Quoting the last few lines of my attempted translation illustrates how tricky the next stage of our development is going to be:

Will tomorrow’s dreams, to heal my heart,
again be blessed, with radiant sunlight
this time, hotter than the warmest hearth?

If that should happen, there’ll be no doubt,
in my mind at least – my heart does hold
within it, at its deepest point, what
feels the closest we can reach to God.

How am I going to explain the next step to them, something I don’t fully understand and I’m not sure I completely believe is possible for us? I could build on our hearticulture plan, but that didn’t carry everyone with it anyway, which is why it hasn’t got very far as yet.

While I was lost in thought just now they were all just staring at me in frustration, or at least that what it looks like now I’ve surfaced again. If anyone did speak I didn’t hear them.

I need to find some common ground, not just between them and me but among them as well. This story may not have a happy ending.

‘Do we all agree,’ I ask, ‘that we would like to achieve two things at the very least – one is to understand ourselves better and the other is to do as much as we can to make this world a better place?’

There are murmurs and half-hearted nods suggesting general agreement, with an undercurrent of suspicion. Bill is inspecting the bike shed through the rain-splattered window again.

‘OK. So, don’t pounce on me straightaway but, to explain where I’m heading right now I’ll have to use two words not all of you like.’

The stirrings of discontent begin to rise.

‘Let me guess,’ says Emma. ‘Reflection is one of those words.’

I nod.

She grimaces, looking across Peat at Indie. ‘We bloody knew this’d come up again, didn’t we?’

Peat looks confused. Indie whispers an explanation to him.

‘Look,’ I pleaded. ‘Can we strike a bargain here? The three of you are passionate about combatting the climate crisis. Did I use the right word there, by the way?’

‘It’ll do,’ Indie smiles, probably aware I’d learned the word from Fred.

‘Well, you claim I’m doing nothing, but that’s not quite true. I have been vegetarian since the late 70s and now I’m cutting down on dairy and trying to become vegan. Most of the science suggests that this is the single most important thing any individual can do, more effective than just flying less for those like me who don’t fly much, or giving up the car when you hardly drive at all. So, I’m asking the three of you in particular for whom this is so important, meet me halfway. At least think about working on our ability to reflect and learning to tune into our heart at the deepest level – that’s the second part.’

William James. (For source of Image see link.)

‘Nice move, Pete,’ grins Fred, ever the pragmatist. ‘You know you can drag the rest of us on board more easily. You know what? I’ve been thinking that we can treat it like an experiment. It’ll be hard to test properly for whether it’s working, because how will we know for sure that what we do has helped us get closer to the truth. Remember William James – you can discover the truth, but you can never know for sure that you have done so.’

Chris also looks reasonably pleased though Bill looks a bit glum still.

‘How is this going to help me break through my writer’s block?’

‘If what we finally plan to do works,’ offers Chris, trying to be helpful, ‘surely your poems will start flowing again because they come from the heart, don’t they, and we’re going to try and connect to that more strongly. I may distrust this true self stuff, but I have experienced how tuning in more deeply to what is going on beneath the surface of consciousness produces unexpected insights which our conscious mind cannot usually access. You’d go along with that as well, Fred, wouldn’t you?’

Fred nods in agreement. ‘You bet. It’s happened to me a lot as well. And there’s a lot of evidence to support this in the literature.’

Bill looks a bit happier.

‘So, where does this leave us?’ I ask, moving to stand near Fred at the front of the class. It makes me slightly nervous because of the memories it brings back of disruptive teenage lads muttering with each other, or fidgeting inside their desks instead of listening, and possibly planning their next unsettling move.

‘Are we all on board with at least an experiment to see where this gets us?’

While Chris and Fred have been working on Bill, Indie and Emma have been helping Peat keep up with the arguments put forward.

Indie nudges Peat. ‘Go on, love. Don’t be scared. Say what you want to say.’

‘I am glad you’re going vegan, sir.’ He’s obviously got a bit carried away with the classroom situation. ‘I think we all are. I hope we’ll be able to do more than that in the end though. For now, I’ll agree to try this experiment. But how long are we going to do this before we decide whether it’s going to work or not? We haven’t got forever.’

He looks nervous but speaks clearly.

‘I’m not sure, Peat. The experiment won’t mean we do nothing, remember that. I’ll be blogging and networking. I’m sure Bill’s poems will help people focus on important issues, and Fred’s reading and Chris’ meditation are both going to help as well. And what you three feel about climate change is going to still influence us all in that we do, write and say. The experiment will be a crucial focus for all of us, though. Because we will not be doing it full time, and because we’re not experts in what we are going to try and test out I think we’ll need to give it at least six months before we review. Would that be OK.’

Peat looks at Emma and Indie, checking out their expressions, before nodding his agreement.

‘That’s good,’ enthuses Chris, moving to sit in the front row. ‘So, what’s the exact plan then?’

‘I think we’ll have to work out the details after we’ve all given it some more thought. The key component will be using reflection, in the strong sense of the word, involving withdrawing our identifications not just from our thoughts and feelings, but even from our sense of who we are, so we can tune in more strongly to the depths of our being. I think we will also have to build in a pause button to press when we catch ourselves reacting automatically, particularly when we’re under pressure or in social situations. And in addition to learning how to remain more deeply grounded, we’ll need to find words to catch the insights that we find. This might mean we need to dig up the right images to do that with, rather than relying on ordinary prose. That should suit you, Bill!’

He doesn’t hear me. He has taken his notebook out at the back of the class and is scribbling something down as he mutters to himself – it’s about being as lonely as a clown, if I heard him right.

‘There’s always one,’ I find myself thinking.

I start to draw a diagram on the blackboard to try and explain how all these factors relate to one another. It doesn’t seem to work and I give up after a few boxes and arrows.

‘Shall we leave it a month to ponder on and then come back together again?’ I ask. ‘We’ve all got more thinking to do before we can make a clear plan.’

‘That makes sense,’ Fred agrees. ‘This is going to be really tricky.’

The walls of the classroom and the faces of my parliament of selves begin to fade as the need for a visit to the toilet takes control. Even in my dozy state I realise I’ve got some serious thinking to do about an issue that matters a lot to my waking self.

References:

For the first and last post in the original Parliament of Selves sequence see links.

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‘I wasted time, and now doth time waste me . . .’

(Richard II Act 5, Scene 5, line 49)

I bring a huge plastic bucket full of sand into the kitchen. I try to get rid of it in the sink. I pour most of the contents of the bucket onto the draining board, the crockery rack and taps. It spreads all over the sink area. I try to scoop it up with spoons to flush it away in the sink. This doesn’t seem to work.

I begin to hear familiar voices in dispute as usual.

‘There you are, you see. Even his dreams are telling him he is wasting his time. He should be out there on the streets doing something that would make a real difference,’ complains the activist, Emma Pancake, never one to miss a chance to score a point. ‘He’s forever on his laptop or scribbling in his notebook, while the world goes to hell in a pool of plastic.’

A more measured if somewhat sad tone breaks in.

‘I agree he is wasting his time on admin and prose when he should be creating poetry. It would at least be making sculptures out of the sands of time if he just focused on carving out a few lyrics.’

Bill Wordless, still stuck in the quicksand of his writers’ block is as eager as always to see the possibility of a breakthrough in any chance event.

I try pushing the sand down some kind of protruding drainpipe with a plastic tube inside it. That doesn’t work. I try to shut out the voices and focus on the task in hand, but that doesn’t work too well either.

Chris Humfreeze, master meditator, gently intervenes with his usual obsession, in defence of which he was happy to lose the few friends he might still have. ‘You’re both wrong. If you don’t master your interior by disciplined meditation you’ll never achieve anything.’

The word ‘never’ grates on me – a typical baseless overstatement.

I see a cat and a dog in front of the window near the sink trying to eat lumps of damp sand but in the end spreading more of it around than goes down their throats. With every moment my job gets harder.

‘Rubbish!’ flashes another tactless intervention. My parliament of selves is really beginning to earn its name. ‘You don’t master the mind by meditation alone. You have to understand the science that underlies consciousness.’

Fred Mires really begins to get into his psychological stride. ‘He skims those books on meditation and dreams, but fails to master the neurological details. That’s how he is squandering his time.’

The elder statesmen of my inscape are at loggerheads as usual. I haven’t heard anything from the younger generation inside as yet. I decide to find a plastic bag to put all the sand back in so I can take it outside. I search a cupboard but there are no bags. I can’t even find the bucket I brought it inside with either.

Then that sweet voice breaks the silence. Indie Pindance has her say, the girl we all worked together to rescue from the trauma cupboard she had been locked in at the time of my hospitalizations as a child.

‘It’s not just that. He gives up on everything too soon. He jumps from one thing to another so fast, with his butterfly brain, he could never make a difference. He’s infirm of purpose.’

I wince at the contemptuous words of Lady Macbeth leveled in my direction. Not that I have any daggers to dispose of as far as I know.

It’s then, when another voice breaks through, that I realize where the roots of her passionate intervention lie.

‘ Yes, mum,’ Peat Humus has always called her that, ever since he could talk, long after we exhumed him from his burial chamber in my heart, where he had been placed even before I was born, in response to my mother’s grief and its impact on her womb.

‘Exactly,’ he continues, ‘If he really believed what he writes he’d be out there supporting Greta Thunberg and her youth movement by joining other adults in the Extinction Rebellion. What does he do instead? Write, write and write again.’

How can she not speak out for him, whom she loves so much, when his feelings are so strong on such an important issue? She steps up to the plate again.

‘Yes, he should be out there on the street, raising consciousness, surely. I’m with you, Emmie, on this at least.’

Emma grins from ear to ear. At last someone agrees with her.

‘Poetry is the best way to raise consciousness. That’s why Shelley called us the unacknowledged legislators of the world.’

Bill doesn’t give up easily in his defence of poetry.

Just then the owner of the house comes into the kitchen.

‘What the hell are you doing?’ she asks. The shock jerks me out of that dream and I have no choice now other than listen to the choir of my divergent selves expand on their dissonant chorus.

For some mysterious reason, I find myself standing with them in a classroom I haven’t been near in the last 50 years or more. It’s the grammar school where I had my first job after college, teaching English Language and Literature, and this is the very classroom I taught my first lesson to the lower sixth. I walked into the room to find it empty. For a moment I had been puzzled until I heard all the noise from the classroom next door and realized the whole class had moved in there to confuse me. I never quite got control of that class for the rest of the year. With the first years it was easier.

The same rows of wooden desks on iron legs were spread before me. There was one huge difference. The whole of the back wall was covered with Munch’s picture of the sun and the sidewall with his evening street scene of skeletal pedestrians in top hats.

‘The Sun’ by Edvard Munch (for the source of the picture see link)

It took some effort to focus on the conversation again.

Fred, somewhat predictably given his psychological hat, comes at it from a somewhat different angle, standing at the front of the classroom, near the tall windows overlooking the bicycle sheds.

‘You’re wrong there, Bill. Educating the young should be his focus.’

It’s about time I chipped in.

‘At the risk of repeating myself, don’t any of you remember what we so nearly agreed last time we clashed?’

I’m not sure what the expression is on all their faces as they come into focus now my sand dream has finished fading. It could be embarrassment or confusion. I can’t be sure.

Hearticulture. Does that ring any bells?’

There was a faint murmur of recognition.

‘Didn’t we come close to agreeing that working to grow hearts, our own and other people’s, would draw on all our skills and interests, and meet all our concerns? Do you remember how I said at the end “All my life, I suspect, I’ve been unconsciously striving to achieve a creative fusion of all our different strands of activity, and now it seems we have achieved it. I think it will work because, for me and hopefully for all of you as well, the heart is at the core of us all and is a bridge between matter and spirit, earth and heaven.” And I asked if we could all pull together with this.’

Finally, they all seem to click with it. It’s as if this had all happened in a dream for them, which they forgot on waking. Just as with a dream, when the memory is triggered, fragments of it come back.

Emma is the first to speak, sitting in the front row with Peat and Indie.

‘Well, I for one thought it was a load of twaddle. It sounded as though all you were going to do was read a lot and talk to people. How is just talking to people going to change anything?’

‘I think I’m on the same page as Emmie still on this,’ Indie confirms, with Peat, her adopted son, nodding as he sits in-between them.

‘The problem is,’ Chris begins thinking aloud from the desk at the back, just in front of the sun. ‘Pete is the one who has to do something. None of us inside his head can act directly on the world. And he’s only going to do what he feels he can best do in the circumstances. I just can’t see him getting up every day and dashing to the nearest city with a ton of leaflets and a megaphone. He’s got to play to his gifts, and we are going to have to compromise some of our desires and support him.’

‘But we don’t have time for anything less. We have to demonstrate, lobby and protest until things change,’ Indie insisted.

‘I think I can see where Chris is coming from,’ murmured Fred, thoughtfully, moving to sit in the teacher’s place, facing the class. ‘Pete’s in his 70s. Sustained direct action is beyond him. Even his days of teaching the young are behind him now in terms of a regular classroom approach, sustained day after day, week in week out. He can run a short series of workshops, give talks, that sort of thing. But in terms of action that he can sustain over long periods of time, writing and blogging stand the best chance.’

This is doing a little to ease a long-standing sense of guilt I’ve harboured, feeling I am just not doing enough direct action of the consciousness-raising kind. Maybe I should stop punishing myself. It was sapping energy I could devote to study and writing. My divided state of mind distracted me from focusing for long on what I was reading or writing. ‘You are wasting time,’ a voice in my head would say. ‘You should do something more useful.’

I looked around wondering whose voice that was. One of the younger ones surely. The white-haired men in my head seem more sympathetic to this sedentary silver scribbler.

‘It’s good to hear Fred say that,’ I said, sending him a smile of gratitude, ‘but, much as I would like to, can I believe it?’

‘Not really,’ Emma butts in. ‘There are loads of people your age who go out on the streets to protest as often as they can. You never do.’

That word ‘never’ again.

Memories come back of decades ago, when I was out on the streets, shouting for the troops to come out of Ireland. But that reminded me too of why I grew disillusioned with that kind of action. Not only was it divisive, but, as I learned more about the politics of it all, the more lies and/or violence I found lurking not far under the surface. I definitely would not have wanted to demonstrate if I’d known what I do now.

I feel I have to respond to Emma.

‘I know that demonstrating against global warming is . . .’

‘Heating. It’s heating,’ Emma spits out in fury.

‘Sorry,’ I try to make amends. She’s hardly mollified.

‘. . . global heating is a worthy cause, but what worries me is whether the demonstrations will get more violent as frustration increases, rather as happens in other campaigns for other causes, now as it did in the past. That will just make the situation worse. There’s quite enough bitterness and division in our society already without adding to it. Not every movement has a credible Ghandi or Martin Luther King at its head working effectively against using violence.’

Print of the Peterloo Massacre published by Richard Carlile (for source of image see link)

The words of ‘Hope, the maiden most serene,’ in Shelley’s poem about the Peterloo Massacre, float at the back of my mind, but not clearly enough for me to quote them out loud.

“Let the fixed bayonet
Gleam with sharp desire to wet
Its bright point in English blood,
Looking keen as one for food.

“Let the horsemen’s scimitars
Wheel and flash, like sphereless stars,
Thirsting to eclipse their burning
In a sea of death and mourning.

“Stand ye calm and resolute,
Like a forest close and mute,
With folded arms, and looks which are
Weapons of an unvanquished war.”

I plead with them again.

‘I have to find another way of operating and I really need to have you all working wholeheartedly with me. Our hearts must all be as one on this, or we will be paralysed.’

There was a long silence.

‘Just how exactly are we ever going to reconcile our differences of view?’ Indie challenges me. ‘Three of us in here passionately believe that direct and unremitting action, protesting on the street and campaigning outside centres of power, are the only effective ways forward. And have you noticed two of us are women and one is a child? It’s because we care more about children than any of you men can ever possibly do, that we are so determined to protect their future from the damage you men have done. You men just want to sit back and pontificate.’

I could see we were a very long way from a consensus.

I make the same plea again. ‘I don’t know how we are going to achieve that, but we must, or the rest of our days will pass in fruitless wrangling.’

There is an even longer more unbearable silence.

References:

For the first and last post in the original Parliament of Selves sequence see links.

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The original Spanish will be in this Thursday’s post. For the source of the edited image, see link.

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From Don Paterson’s The Eyes page 9 (The pink highlight, my regular defacement of books, couldn’t be removed.)

Following on from the previous overview of his life and of issues such as politics and accessibility impacting on Machado’s poetry, there are others at work as well, aspects of Modernism for instance.

There are four main texts referred to in what follows: Alan S Trueblood Antonio Machado: selected Poems, Don Paterson The Eyes, Xon de Ros The Poetry of Antonio Machado: changing the landscape, and Gerald Brenan The Literature of the Spanish People. I have tried to make sure the source of any quotations is clear.

Aphorisms & Obscurity

Xon de Ros points towards the Poem that Paterson has translated. She concludes that (page 214) ‘Overall, the image suggests an interest in form and shape rather than content, a modernist privileging of aesthetic experience over didactic import.’ His use of aphorisms, a long tradition in Spain, that cancel each other out takes potential confusion further, as Xon de Ros quotes Stern to explain (page 222):

. . . the modern aphorism which has been defined as ‘a genre which more than any other aims at preserving in literary expression the discrete and contradictory nature of lived experience.’ (Stern: 1959)

Aphorisms (page 209) ‘also move in ways which problematize any notion of a single truth.’

And last of all we can’t avoid the impact of Cubism (page 223):

Whiston explains cubicación as the systematic scrutiny of received ideas from multiple perspectives in order to extricate ‘the living reality behind the expression.’ (‘The Cubing of Language in Antonio Machado’s Juan de Mareina:  1989 – page 151)

I am still struggling with how far it is legitimate for poetry, or art in general, to capitulate to the chaos of our current complexities so completely that a poem is completely obscure. I have elsewhere referred to this as brick-wall poetry and the conduct of a ‘quisling.’

My own sense so far, from my reading of Machado, is that he does not usually go that far. There is almost always a trace of music or a haunting image for me to hold onto amidst the fog. Perhaps that’s why Xon de Ros’s comment is more praise than criticism for me. She writes (page 246): ‘it is undeniable though that Machado’s poetry has a certain anachronistic feel to it. . .  [He’s] a modern poet, as it were, by default.’

Faith, Transience & Memory

Also Machado’s reaction to the world he paints is one to which I strongly resonate, as Trueblood indicates (page 35) when he writes  ‘. . . in Machado the poem is less a profession of faith than a doubting with faith.’ He’s following in John Donne’s footsteps here whose injunction to ‘doubt wisely’ I’ve referred to elsewhere. There’ll be more on that later I suspect.

An additional factor, that Xon de Ros picks up on, is the shifting nature of poetic language, something of which Machado was all too aware (page 3): ‘beneath the existential reflection on human transience, there is a preoccupation with the mutability of the poetic word.’

A particularly intriguing issue is the impact of memory on the making of a poem. Trueblood expands on the point (page 20):

Memory for him is less a well than a reservoir, constantly renewed by inflowing and outflowing waters. . . . . [H]owever deliberate the process of recall, time will have been at work on what is recalled. We are thus brought back to the characteristic Machadian emphasis on the transforming action of memory.

My diaries help me grasp this point only too well, as on innumerable occasions I have checked my memory of an incident against my diaries and found my memory significantly at fault. There is no reason why poets should be an exception. Maybe Wordsworth’s dictum, that the core of poetry is ‘emotion recollected in tranquility,’ is no guarantee of accuracy.

It may not even be the memory of the poet alone that works on a poem, as Xon de Ros indicates in Machado’s concept of palimpsest (page 178):

. . . stating that every poem is in a way a palimpsest raises the question of the ontological status of poems, and suggests the view of poetry as a collaborative art…, which involves a ‘comunión cordial’ with the reader.

Landscape & Inscape

Landscape is of immense importance to Machado, and, in a way that matches my own desire to find hints in the outside world to help me decode my inscape. Many of his poems, according to Trueblood (page 42), show ‘with particular clarity that the shifts from outer scene to inner landscape and back again are never absolute breaks in Machado.’ This is reminiscent of what I learned about Munch as well. Ulrich Bischoff in the Taschen book on Munch explains (page 38) that in his painting The Storm, ‘Munch has transfigured the seen world into a landscape of the soul,’ and (page 80) ‘for Munch, landscape always had to convey a message of human import: his visual idiom transformed the reproduction of landscape scenes into landscape of the soul.’ And finally, (page 82) ‘The details of Munch’s landscapes – trees, snow-covered hills, beaches or waves – were also symbols expressing a personal language of the soul.’

Egotism

Many people raise the question of whether art and life are so much at odds that only a self-absorbed narcissist can be an effective artist. For me the jury is still out on that one, even though I have concluded that some great artists are certainly not narcissists. Opinion seems divided about Machado, at least among the critics I have read so far. While Paterson expresses the clear opinion that Machado is not an egotist in his verse at least, when he asserts that (page 55) ‘I can think of no writer so obsessed with the suppression of his own ego . . .’  Xon de Ros seems not so sure (page 202): ‘While Machado’s early poetry shows a degree of ambivalence towards self assertion… the poet’s self-consciousness becomes more apparent in his second collection…’ This caveat has to be balanced against her depiction of the purpose of his poetry (page 207), ‘[The] notion of a depersonalized lyric becomes increasingly linked to an ideal of poetry as the expression of a communal experience beyond the poet’s subjectivism,’ and furthermore the relevance of T.S.Eliot’s tenet that ‘the progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continuous extinction of personality’ and his doctrine of poetry as ‘an escape from personality’ and not just ‘the expression of personality.’

His Value as a Poet

In the end, perhaps the clearest summary of Machado’s value as a poet comes towards the end of Xon de Ros’s book (page 245):

. . . while Machado has been a constant presence in Spanish poetry since 1940s, his aesthetics came to the fore in the so-called ‘poetry of experience’ which since the 1980s has become the dominant trend in Spain’s poetic panorama. For the poets of experience the rapport with the reader is a central concern. Rejecting avant-garde poetics and intellectualism, this poetry seeks a rehumanization, focusing on the lived experience and everyday language, while also exploring alternative subject positions and adopting techniques of defamiliarization such as parataxis, dramatic monologue, poetic masks, irony, and metaphysical meditation, to establish a relation with the reader which is close to the ‘comunión cordial’ advocated by Machado.

She earlier attributes part of his recent acclaim to Bloom’s flagging up Trueblood’s translations (page 182):

[Trueblood’s] is the translation recommended by Harold Bloom in ‘The Western Canon,’ where Machado, at least according to Bloom, finally joins the ranks of the modern Immortals.

Interestingly, in my 1994 copy of The Western Canon there is not a single reference to Machado anywhere. Xon de Ros is referring to the 1995 edition, suggesting a rapid change of mind. I felt I had to check this out on the web and did in the end track down a list of Western authors generated by Bloom and published in the Appendix of his Adelaide edition, which includes Machado on the basis of the Selected Poems (see link).

I also do like Gerald Brenan’s verdict (page 435):

He wrote a strong, bare, sonorous verse which has some of the qualities of the best sixteenth-century prose and which is always alive because it is saturated in every part by its rhythm. It has less artifice than that of Yeats and not a trace of mannerism, and when it leaves the ground it takes off with a great spread of wings like, for example, Yeats’ two poems on Byzantium.

Next time more quotes from Machado as we look more closely at the themes that resonate for me. For now there is another poem below that resonates with me. As before the Spanish comes first and Trueblood’s English translation next, both from Alan S Trueblood’s book: my personal rendering comes last as is only appropriate.  Loss is the theme again.

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