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I see there are four? dimensions: all to be produced, in human life: and that leads to a far richer grouping and proportion. I mean: I; and the not I; and the outer and the inner – no I’m too tired to say: but I see it: and this will affect my book… (18.11.35)

(A Writer’s Diary: being extracts from the diary of Virginia Woolf – page 259):

A Blast from the Past

When I was writing the closing post of the last sequence on Virginia Woolf, a name rose up from the depths of my memory store, a name I had not consciously been aware of since I took my borrowed copy of A Glastonbury Romance back to the library more than 40 years ago. That in itself would not be particularly remarkable. I assumed he’d just popped into my head, as these things do, in response to my need at the time for the name of a reasonably well-regarded novelist who didn’t stick strictly to the materialistic script.

I checked with Wikipedia that my memory was basically accurate in that respect. But the name did not go away. I fuzzy fragment of half-remembered pleasure lingered on in connection with his work. Maybe more than that, as I discovered when I began to read the copy of Wolf Solent I had brought back from Cardiff.

Cardiff’s Castle Arcade hides a gem of a bookshop – Troutmark Books. Readers may remember this was where I found a replacement copy of Robert Browning’s The Ring & the Book, a treasure I had lost decades before. We were in Cardiff on other business on this occasion, but I had time to sneak off down one of my favourite rabbit holes into a bookaholic’s Wonderland.

It didn’t take me more than a minute to locate a couple of books by John Cowper Powys. One I didn’t recognise: the other I did – Wolf Solent. One of his handful of best works that I had never read. I’d wanted to find Weymouth Sands or A Glastonbury Romance in order to pick up the thread where I had left it off and to confirm my own vague memory of his mix of mysticism, humour, deft plot twists and weird characters.

But Wolf Solent it was meant to be and I bought it. I checked with the bookseller before I left, but she couldn’t find any other of his novels.

I’m glad I made the purchase.

Maybe my subconscious knew that it would be the perfect novel against which to test the ideas that brewed as I read Virginia Woolf. I needed a novel that captured consciousness but in a more balanced way than The Waves or To the Lighthouse. I wanted to pick up from her tentative formulation as expressed in my diagram at the time.

Somehow ‘Not I’ and ‘Outer’ were so much the same in my mind I couldn’t find a way of using them to test a narrative. I had to find an alternative set of co-ordinates for my quadrants, not completely different, but making the distinction she apparently does not.

Critical Quadrants

As a result I tweaked her wording and came up with the diagram a few paragraphs below.

As a way of explaining fairly simply what kind of narrative might fit into each quadrant, I’ve decided to pick some early passages from Wolf Solent. This will also flag up just how perfect a match this novel is to my needs of the moment.

I need to add here that I am aware that Powys’s narrative technique is far more conventional than Woolf’s, and does not rise to the levels of transliminal intensity that her novels achieve. Even so he makes a good enough fist of it for my purposes, especially given his tolerance for the eccentric, even mystical, in consciousness.

Right from the very first lines of the novel we are in Quadrant A (Penguin 1978 Edition -page 13):

From Waterloo Station to the small country town of Ramsgard in Dorset is a journey of not more than three or four hours, but having by good luck found a compartment to himself, Wolf Solent was able to indulge in such an orgy of concentrated thought, that these three or four hours lengthened themselves out into something beyond all human measurement.

Much of the text occupies this quadrant, but not at the expense of both what bubbles up in Quadrant D and impinges on his consciousness from Quadrant B.

Page 15 touches on Quadrant D:

One of the suppressed emotions they had burst forth on that January afternoon had had to do with the appalling misery of so many of his fellow Londoners. He recalled the figure of a man he had seen on the steps outside Waterloo Station. The inert despair upon the face that this figure had turned towards him came between him now and a hillside covered with budding beeches. The face was repeated many times among these great curving masses of emerald-clear foliage.

One more example of Quadrant A will hopefully convey something of the intensity Powys manages to achieve at times (pages 16-17):

As he stared through the open window and watched each span of telegraph-wires sink slowly down till the next telegraph-post pulled them  upward with a jerk, he indulged himself in a sensation which always gave him a peculiar pleasure, the sensation of imagining himself to be a prehistoric giant who, with an effortless ease, ran along by the side of the train, leaping over hedges, ditches, lanes, and ponds, and easily rivalled, in natural-born silent speed, the noisy mechanism of all those pistons and cog-wheeels!

He felt himself watching this other self, this leaping giant, with the positive satisfaction of a hooded snake, thrusting out a flickering forked tongue from coils that shimmered in the sun. And as the train rushed forward, it seemed to him is if his real self were neither giant nor snake; but rather that black-budded ash tree, still in the rearward of its leafy companions, whose hushed grey branches threw so contorted a shadow on the railway bank.

His only companion in the carriage is a bluebottle. Quadrant B pops up. He is not oblivious to its antics as it crawls across the adverts of seaside resorts (Page 21):

The bluebottle fly moved slowly and cautiously across Weymouth Bay, apparently seeking some invisible atom of sustenance, seeking it now off Redcliff, now off Ringstead, now off White Nore.

I’ll come back to Quadrant C in a moment.

Basically then, Quadrant A captures the unexpressed workings of a character’s mind. Quadrant B takes in the external world as it impinges consciously on the senses of a character.

Quadrant D most probably focuses most of the time as here upon leaks from the unconscious as they surface, and is therefore technically speaking no longer the unconscious from that point on.

However, it might theoretically be possible for the actions or emotions of a character to indicate that (s)he had been affected subliminally by some form of trigger although I am almost certainly going to treat such moments as belonging more appropriately in Quadrant C.

Jung gives a perfect example of this when he describes walking with friends and being overtaken by a sudden inexplicable feeling of sadness. It was so strong he felt compelled to leave the group to walk on ahead while he backtracked to see if he could find what had triggered this feeling. It did not take him long to walk past a hedge through which the scent of a particular flower was wafting in the breeze. Its associations brought back a painful memory. When he first walked past he had not consciously registered the scent but it had affected him subliminally and powerfully nonetheless.

Quadrant C could also contain neutral descriptions of the inanimate world, the material conditions surrounding the character at the time, by which the character is probably neither consciously nor unconsciously affected. It might even include the appearance of the character himself, as with Wolf Solent at the start of the book (page 13):

He was tall and lean; and as he stretched out his legs and clasped his hands in front of him and bowed his head over his bony wrists, it would have been difficult to tell whether the goblinish grimaces that occasionally wrinkled his physiognomy were fits of sardonic chuckling or spasms of reckless desperation.

It is hard to read this as Wolf Solent’s own view of himself. Occasionally then in this book we are going to find the ghost of the narrator stepping out of Wolf Solent’s mind.

There is a residual problem.

I am not yet sure where I should place mystical or transcendent experiences. Should they be in Quadrant A or Quadrant B? Perhaps this will depend upon what I conclude John Cowper Powys believes. If he clearly writes as though the transcendent world is real for him, descriptions of it could belong in Quadrant B: if not, they would belong in Quadrant A. The presumption then would be that they could not be shared with other characters, only experienced by one.

I am really looking forward to seeing whether this approach succeeds in teasing out how well John Cowper Powys captures consciousness in a broader context than Woolf was attempting to do in the novels I explored in the previous sequence, and whether that makes for a more satisfactory experience for me as a reader who is fascinated by the idea of learning more about this elusive yet all-pervading experience.

John Cowper Powys (For source of image see link)

Possible Plot Spoiler

I am now more than 100 hundred pages into this 600 page narrative, and can already detect that, for the right balance to be struck between consciousness and context, not only has the rendering of consciousness to be credible and engaging, which it has been so far for the most part, but the context also has to feel the same. Both have to be credible enough at least not to undermine my willingness to suspend my disbelief. I’m not so sure on that last point yet.

An example might help to illustrate what I mean.

What follows contains a plot spoiler so if you plan to find the novel and read it you may prefer to stop reading this post right now.

Wolf Solent has gone back to his roots and to the place where his father planted more than a few wild oats. Unexpectedly one day he learns that his mother is arriving that evening and planning to stay. He has to find her a place to sleep that night, prior to her moving with him to a cottage on the estate whose owner he is working for. He drops in on an old family friend, Selena Gault, and finds she has a child with her, Olwen Smith. Olwen almost immediately remarks upon the fact that his nose is the same as her Aunt Mattie’s.

On the very first page of the book I had learned that Solent has a hooked nose.

When the child twigs his mother needs somewhere to stay, she insists that it be with her aunt and her granddad, the hatter his father knew.

When he takes his mother to the hatter’s house he meets Mattie for the first time. His Quadrant A reactions to Quadrant B data are significant (page 140):

Mattie turned out to be a girl with a fine figure, but an unappealing face. She looked about twenty-five. She was not pretty in any sense at all, in spite of what [his mother] had said. Her thick, prominent nose was out of all proportion to the rest of her face. Her chin, her forehead, her eyes, were all rendered insignificant by the size of this dominant and uncomely feature.

This must be what Solent notices about Mattie as it is described as the result of his study of her. This, as we will see, is a Quadrant D trigger for some Quadrant C subliminally leaked reactions (page 142): ‘What was this queer attraction which he felt for her, so different from the interest excited in him by her father and by the little girl?’

This example is a good one as it contains material from all four quadrants and therefore illustrates the way in which Wolf Solent as a novel balances internal and external more completely than Woolf’s The Waves.

So what is the credibility problem here?

Given that the novel up to this point has conveyed a picture of Solent as both observant, perceptive and very tuned in to his own mind and its reactions, I find it hard to believe, given his understanding of his father’s waywardness, that it did not occur to him almost straightaway that there might be a family resemblance here resulting from a closer than socially acceptable connection between his father and her mother. The need to tease me as reader, which is quite amusing I agree, has trumped the need for consistency in Solent’s character, or so it seems at this point.

Admittedly we might adduce a degree of resistance in Solent to an unpalatable truth, so I am probably rushing to judgement a bit here. It seemed worth including it, even so, as a possible early example of how the capturing of consciousness can be compromised by the demands of a plot – not a problem that Woolf allows to happen given her abandonment of plot in any meaningfully accepted sense in the two novels I have examined so far.

Subsequent twists and turns of plot in Wolf Solent may cause me to revise my current estimate.

More of this later maybe!

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. . . art is something which, though produced by human hands, is not wrought by hands alone, but wells up from a deeper source, from man’s soul, while much of the proficiency and technical expertise associated with art reminds me of what would be called self righteousness in religion.

The Penguin Letters of Vincent van Gogh – to Anthon van Rappard March 1884 – page 272

The next two posts are going to be more challenging to write than the previous ones. The issues are a bit of a stretch. Firstly, it’s going to be quite difficult to convey what Woolf manages to achieve, and secondly it’s going to be almost equally tricky to tease out all the variables that can impact on any objective assessment of the quality of her achievement.

For example, my subjective response is so strong it clouds other issues to some extent, such as the need to examine the probable nature of consciousness from more than just this somewhat poetic perspective. Even if I do that, we come to possibly important distinctions between normal consciousness, in the sense of consciousness as most of us experience it, and other kinds of consciousness, some of which have been labeled ‘abnormal’ in a critical sense, and others which are seen as enhanced, as a result, for instance, of prolonged meditation under expert instruction.

Should an artist’s achievement be judged only in terms of how well she captures normal consciousness? In which case what is normal? Or should we be setting our sights somewhat higher and expecting an artist to tackle other states of consciousness in any work attempting, as the novel does, to represent a reality beyond the average scope? Perhaps we can fairly expect ‘madness’ to be delineated in places, and mystical states.

This is not even beginning to tackle aspects such as literary skill and the zeitgeist, or pervading collective cultural consciousness of the period.

You can see my problem.

I’m going to blast on anyway! Please stick with me if you still wish to do so.

Was replicating consciousness her conscious intention?

A fair question to ask at this point is whether she intended consciously to replicate consciousness in the novels under consideration here, ie To the Lighthouse and The Waves.

As is becoming my habit here, I’m going to start with the picture Julia Briggs paints. She feels that (page 77): ‘Woolf was set on capturing in words “the complex and evasive nature of reality.” She feels that (page 93): ‘Woolf had put behind her the forms of nineteenth century realist fiction which falsified, she thought, by assuming the novelist’s omniscience. Instead, her novel admits to uncertainties at every turn. She set out to write a novel about not knowing…’

To be fair to earlier novelists I feel obliged to subject you all to another detour.

The Cultural Context

Before attempting to convey the impact upon me of Woolf’s mapping of consciousness, it’s perhaps worth saying a few words about the literary context out of which her work sprang.

Thought she mentioned him only rarely in her work, journals and letters, Briggs was in no doubt that Shakespeare was a key influence upon her. Amongst other things he was the master of the soliloquy. This is not the same exactly as Woolf was attempting, but it may have been the soil in which her plan had its roots.

The main difference is that Shakespeare’s words were to be performed on stage and, while soliloquies were designed to give the audience an insight into a character’s mind that could not otherwise be conveyed, they were not attempting to reproduce exactly the contents of the character’s consciousness – not even in Hamlet, where the protagonist is famous for his introspection. Most of his soliloquies serve to open for the audience an illuminating window on his vacillation and his feelings about that. We see the tugging to and fro within his mind. It’s definitely a step towards Woolf’s destination and would almost certainly have influenced her, whether consciously or not. But she planned to divorce her maps of introspection from the switchbacks of a plot.

To leap forward to the 19th Century, and before we consider Jane Austen’s innovation – free indirect speech – we can give a passing glance to Robert Browning’s dramatic monologues and his complex masterpiece, The Ring and the Book, written after the death of his wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Again, even though he is hoping to convey, in the latter work, the differing perspectives of the various characters on the key events of the plot, they are all addressing an audience of some kind as they speak. They are in persona, rather than introspecting alone.

What Jane Austen, followed by, amongst others Ford Madox Ford, attempted to do was to narrate her novel always through the eyes of one of her characters, rather than in her own voice.

A short quote from Austen’s Emma will illustrate her skill and give an example of her typical tone. Emma’s disastrous plan to link the low-born Harriet to the aspiring clergyman on the rise is being incubated precipitously and with no sense of its limitations in Emma’s mind:

Mr. Elton was the very person fixed on by Emma for driving the young farmer out of Harriet’s head. She thought it would be an excellent match; and only too palpably desirable, natural, and probable, for her to have much merit in planning it. She feared it was what every body else must think of and predict. It was not likely, however, that any body should have equalled her in the date of the plan, as it had entered her brain during the very first evening of Harriet’s coming to Hartfield. The longer she considered it, the greater was her sense of its expediency. Mr. Elton’s situation was most suitable, quite the gentleman himself, and without low connexions; at the same time, not of any family that could fairly object to the doubtful birth of Harriet. He had a comfortable home for her, and Emma imagined a very sufficient income; for though the vicarage of Highbury was not large, he was known to have some independent property; and she thought very highly of him as a good-humoured, well-meaning, respectable young man, without any deficiency of useful understanding or knowledge of the world.

We are not in Emma’s mind in the same way Woolf will enter the minds of her characters, but Austen is definitely not being the omniscient narrator, and we are experiencing Emma’s thought processes with all their limitations. She handles the clash of perspectives between characters mostly through skillful dialogue.

Ford Madox Ford followed faithfully in Austen’s footsteps. One example from the opening of Chapter III of Some Do Not (1924) will illustrate this clearly:

At the slight creaking made by Macmaster in pushing open his door, Tietjens started violently. He was sitting in a smoking-jacket, playing patience engrossedly in a sort of garret room. It had a sloping roof outlined by black beams, which cut into squares the cream-coloured patent distemper of the walls. . . . .Tietjens, who hated these disinterred and waxed relics of the past, sat in the centre of the room at a flimsy card-table beneath a white-shaded electric light of a brilliance that, in the surroundings, appeared unreasonable. . . . To it Macmaster, who was in search of the inspiration of the past, had preferred to come. Tietjens, not desiring to interfere with his friend’s culture, had accepted the quarters, though he would have preferred to go to a comfortable modern hotel as being less affected and cheaper.

He then skillfully develops their contrasting perspectives without dialogue, which brings him even closer to the experiments Woolf then attempted.

By the time Woolf was writing her pioneering pieces another innovator writing in English had also appeared on the scene with his masterpiece (Ulysses in 1922), an author about whom she was somewhat ambivalent: James Joyce. She found him ‘sordid’ but ‘brilliant’ (Briggs – page 133). She felt he got ‘thinking into literature’ but recoiled from what she experienced as his ‘egotism’ and ‘desire to shock’ (Lee – page 403). I’m ignoring Proust, whom she acknowledges in an article of 1926, and had been reading since 1922. His use of memory though is often echoed in her work.

Was replicating consciousness her conscious intention continued?

Back to Briggs again.

In Mrs Dalloway (page 132) Woolf uses the technique of interior monologue. We see inside the minds of her two main characters. A previous work Jacob’s Room (page 133) ‘had alerted her to a problem created by interior monologue – that it risked producing a series of self-absorbed, non-interactive characters.’ Mrs Dalloway, on the other hand, (ibid.) ‘is centrally concerned with the relationship between the individual and the group.’ As she moved forward in To the Lighthouse (page 164) ‘she wanted to re-create the constant changes of feeling that pass through human beings as rapidly as clouds or notes of music, changes ironed out in most conventional fiction.’

Woolf was all too aware of how words can fail to catch the mind’s pearls (page 238): in a letter to Ethel Smyth, she wrote: ‘one’s sentences are only an approximation, a net one flings over some sea pearl which may vanish; and if one brings it up it won’t be anything like what it was when I saw it, under the sea.’

It is at this same point in her text that Briggs possibly overextends her argument in a way that I want to accept but don’t think I can. She writes, ‘despite an energetic and enjoyable social round, she always felt that the life of the mind was the only “real life”…’

In my copy of her widowed husband’s extracts from Woolf’s diaries I have the exact entry Briggs refers to here (Diaries – page 144).

The problem for me is that Woolf doesn’t use the word ‘mind’: she describes her work on the novel that became The Waves. The other diary entry Briggs refers to in her notes implicates a more appropriate word: Woolf writes (Diaries – page 126), ‘the only exciting life is the imaginary one.’ Imagination seems to be what Woolf is extolling. This distinction matters to me. Imagination is a power of the mind, but mind is not reducible to imagination, and therefore the life of the mind is beyond imagination alone. I may come back to that in more detail in a later post.

Do we have any other leads in her diary entries – the ones available to me at least?

A key quote for me comes on page 85:

I am now writing as fast and freely as I have written in the whole of my life; … I think this is the proof that I was on the right path; and that what fruit hangs in my soul is to be reached there.

At the end of this sequence I may try to tackle more deeply the possible implication in this context of such words as mind, imagination, soul etc. For now all I will say is that the word soul could be taken to be subsuming into one concept thought, feeling, reason, imagination, mind etc. She is not engaged in refined philosophical discriminations here: she is using words that she knows are mere approximations to what she is trying to say. In which case is I’d better stop my nit-picking for now.

She does describe her experience of the mind as (page 123) ‘the most capricious of insects, fluttering.’ She is well aware it is elusive (page 131): ‘But what a little I can get down into my pen of what is so vivid to my eyes.’ At times she feels she is getting the hang of it (page 81): ‘My summer’s wanderings with the pen have I think shown me one or two new dodges for catching my flies.’ But even such slight confidence clearly comes and goes. We have already heard her say (page 212), ‘I had so much of the most profound interest to write here – a dialogue of the soul with the soul – and I have let it all slip. . .’

Once she begins to really connect it gets easier but she has to proceed with due caution (Pages 218-20:

I make this note by way of warning. What is important now is to go very slowly; to stop in the middle of the flood; never to press on; to lie back and let the soft subconscious world become populous; not to be urging foam from my lips. There’s no hurry.

… the well is full, ideas are rising and if I can keep at it widely, freely, powerfully, I shall have two months of complete immersion. Odd how the creative power at once brings the whole universe to order. I can see the day whole, proportioned – even after a long flutter of the brain such as I’ve had this morning it must be a physical, moral, mental necessity, like setting the engine off.

She is also very conscious of the many different levels of experience that she needs to attend to. She describes them jokingly at one point (page 75):

But my present reflection is that people have any number of states of consciousness: and I should like to investigate the party consciousness, the frock consciousness etc.

On a more serious note, but well after To the Lighthouse and The Waves were written, she hesitantly acknowledges (page 259:

I see there are four? dimensions: all to be produced, in human life: and that leads to a far richer grouping and proportion. I mean: I; and the not I; and the outer and the inner – no I’m too tired to say: but I see it: and this will affect my book… (18.11.35)

I will close with what I find to be a very revealing thought (page 97):

Have no screens, the screens are made out of our own integument; and get at the thing itself, which has nothing whatsoever in common with the screen. The screen-making habit, though, is so universal that probably it preserves our sanity. If we had not this device for shutting people off from our sympathies we might probably dissolve utterly; separateness would be impossible. But the screens are in the excess; not the sympathy.

It is this permeability which so strongly characterises her writing. Here she speaks of a permeability to others, but she also displays the same porous quality to her own unconscious. What she then experiences is hard to capture. Perhaps this is why she is drawn to poetry so much (page 326), ‘is the best poetry that which is most suggestive – is it made of the fusion of many different ideas, so that it says more than is explicable?’

I think I may be ready now to tackle the texts themselves.

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Deaths of the Poets

Deaths of the Poets

England, what have you done to make the speech
My fathers used a stranger to my lips,
An offence to the ear, a shackle on the tongue
That would fit new thoughts to an abiding tune?

(From R S Thomas’s The Old Language in Collected Poems: 1945-1990 – page 25)

I am on the train coming back from Birmingham. No one seems particularly disturbed to find someone close by reading about death and poetry.

The girl sitting next to me is probably too preoccupied too notice as she switches between her phone, her book (I wish she’d hold it at a different angle – it’s frustrating: I can’t even read the chapter heading let alone see the cover – it looks thick and interesting) and her tablet. She soon gives up on the book and ends up spending the rest of the time till she gets off the train looking at pictures of buildings on her tablet – must’ve had a tranquilising effect.

My book on deaths of the poets has been an up-and-down experience. I have sometimes skipped through several pages at Woody Allen speed (You remember the quip? “I did a speed reading course. I’ve just read War and Peace. It’s about Russia.’), only to break hard to ruminate long over other passages.

My attention is already hooked well and truly by the chapter on war poets and I’ll probably come back to that at some point in the future, but I am absolutely fixated when I get to House Calls, the one dealing with poets who have jobs.

Back at my desk, I’ve really chewed the cud of that one in an effort to extract every implication that resonates with me. I’m not sure why it pulled me in so strongly, except possibly my own past struggle to balance the prose of paid work with the unsalaried poetry of imaginative flight. I’ve blogged about this in detail in the Dancing Flames post where I wrote, ‘I had been coming to the end of my degree course while working at a day centre for the so-called mentally ill. I then had a strange dream to remind me that my love for poetry might be buried but it wasn’t dead.’

Riding Two Horses?

The chapter soon gets going with a key question. Farley and Roberts ask (page 205):

If poetry is a vocation in itself, and an all consuming, life threatening one at that, then what can life be like for poets who have vocational day jobs?

Following the prevailing pattern of the book, they visit key places in a poet’s life and they learn for instance (page 206):

How Williams himself contained both vocations within the same house: a study in the attic for the night work of poetry and a consulting room in the annex for the day work of medicine.

His life seemed an unremitting alternation between scribbling and prescribing. They wonder whether this tension fed his poetry (page 210):

In Rutherford everyone knew him. He was a pillar of respectability…. But in Manhattan he was the great modernist poet, a doctor among the Bohemians. Was it in the pull, the polarity of these two lives, these two selves, that he found the energy to write?

Why are they so concerned with the idea of vocation though? Perhaps because of the possible connection they are exploring in this book between poetry and self-destruction – a link whose inevitability is tested potentially to breaking point by the lives of the poets in this chapter. They are questioning the pain and poetry relationship (page 207):

Great poems don’t land in your lap, or so the legend says. Great poems are hewn from great suffering and risk and pain. It must be a vocation.

Finding the Right Words

This is in itself a theme that would be guaranteed to hold my interest. The chapter also raises a problem I’ve explored elsewhere at some length: the challenge of pared-back poetry (page 208):

Thomas’s uncompromising, pared-back poems show the clear influence of early American modernists, and Thomas admired the later, more ambitious Williams poems in particular. . . . . Thomas sought to break and reshape an English fitted to the landscape and spirit of Wales.

In Williams’s poetry it takes a shape that became associated with his work (page 217):

[Williams’s] lifelong struggle to define a new kind of authentic American poetic nature, an authentic American poetic, is still being weighed and calibrated in seminar rooms and lecture theatres. His notion of the ‘variable foot’[1], which marks out the music of a truly American poetic line, is – depending on your point of view – a canon-defining perception of genius or an impenetrable piece of sophistry.

I’m afraid that for me it still feels like the latter. And there were major problems for him at the time with maintaining the credibility of his pioneering approach, as the Poetry Archive describes:

What Williams did not foresee, however, was the “atom bomb” on modern poetry—T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Williams had no quarrel with Eliot’s genius—he said Eliot was writing poems as good as Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale”—but, simply, “we were breaking the rules, whereas he was conforming to the excellencies of classroom English.” As he explained in his Autobiography, “I felt at once that it had set me back twenty years and I’m sure it did. Critically, Eliot returned us to the classroom just at the moment when I felt we were on a point to escape to matters much closer to the essence of a new art form itself —rooted in the locality which should give it fruit.” Not only did Williams feel threatened by Eliot’s success, but also by the attention The Waste Land received. As Karl Shapiro pointed out, “he was left high and dry: Pound, who was virtually the co-author of Eliot’s poems, and Marianne Moore were now polarized to Eliot. Williams felt this and would feel it for another twenty years. His own poetry would have to progress against the growing orthodoxy of Eliot criticism.”

What’s Poetry For?

I was far more engaged with their discussion of Thomas, a poet I have admired in spite of his modernist style. Part of the reason may lie in what they reveal of his critique of the modern world, which suggests that I am responding to the passion that lies behind the style. They quote from an interview with Thomas (page 223):

Asked about the state of contemporary poetry as we approach the end of the twentieth century, he is a bleak in his evaluation: ‘What troubles me is the superficiality, shallowness. As you know, you’ve only got to sit in the Underground in London and see this panorama of humanity passing and to glimpse behind the masks of the faces before you the joy and the glory and suffering and disappointment and frustration. Here you’ve got major themes for poetry, and they’re not being . . . . . Not all the stops are being drawn out. Contemporary poets are guilty, I think, of playing around the fringes of the human psyche.

We are back in the London of Blake here:

I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear

How the Chimney-sweepers cry
Every blackning Church appalls,
And the hapless Soldiers sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls

But most thro’ midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlots curse
Blasts the new-born Infants tear
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse

He feels that this failure is costing poetry its place in the modern culture. The crucial question for Thomas is this (page 224):

‘. . . . is poetry in the twenty-first century going to maintain its position as one of the great arts, or is it going to drift further and further into what it’s already in danger of being, a minority art?

This passionate concern, Farley and Roberts feel, is rooted in his work, which confronted him with the harsh reality of humanity’s situation (page 225):

Like WCW and his patients, R. S. Thomas’s life of service to his poor and hard-working parishioners convinced him of the threats he found were gathering – in the mid-twentieth century – to our essential humanity

The trigger was similar for both poets (ibid):

The turmoil came in part from the particular encounter with humanity afforded by their secondary vocations, and in part from the language itself, which sent WCW back and back to the page in search of an authentic American poetry, and condemned Thomas to produce work of great beauty and acclaim in the language of his political enemies.

The words of Williams state his position simply but powerfully (page 226):

He wanted his readers to meet the people he met as a doctor, and challenged himself to see if he could do justice to them. ‘My words are inspired by my fellow human beings,’ he told his young trainee.

img_3397

The Poetry Archive vividly captures this dynamic:

Beginning with his internship in the decrepit “Hell’s Kitchen” area of New York City and throughout his forty years of private practice in Rutherford, Williams heard the “inarticulate poems” of his patients. As a doctor, his “medical badge,” as he called it, permitted him “to follow the poor defeated body into those gulfs and grottos…, to be present at deaths and births, at the tormented battles between daughter and diabolic mother.” From these moments, poetry developed: “it has fluttered before me for a moment, a phrase which I quickly write down on anything at hand, any piece of paper I can grab.” Some of his poems were born on prescription blanks, others typed in a few spare minutes between patient visits.

I respect and admire the values he expressed through his work: I feel that his poetry in the pared down passages all too often fails to do them justice. The Poetry Archive gave me reason to look again at some of his work[2] but I still cannot change my feeling that he ends up writing what I have called elsewhere ‘left-brain’ poetry, something that leaves me cold.

I think that Williams was himself very aware of the problem. Take this passage from his modernist epic Paterson as an example (Penguin Poets Edition: pages 113-114 – excuse the number of dots in the first line – it was the only way to get the words in the right place!):

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  So that

to write, nine tenths of the problem
is to live. They see

to it, not by intellection but
by sub-intellection (to want to be

blind as a pretext for
saying, We’re so proud of you!

A wonderful gift! How do
you find the time for it in

your busy life? It must be a great
thing to have such a pastime.

But you were always a strange
boy. How’s your mother?)

. . . . Your father was such a nice man.
I remember him well   .

Or, Geeze, Doc, I guess it’s all right
but what the hell does it mean?

There are many powerful and reasonably accessible passages in this book-long poem, but there are also many pages that lose sufficient coherence to permit my understanding at least. To be fair, Browning’s The Ring & the Book, which I feel is his masterpiece, is often almost as obscure, so I may be operating some kind of double standard here. The short passage above gives perhaps a taste of this oscillation between the completely clear and the virtually opaque. I’ll probably continue to grapple with my reaction: perhaps it’s as Williams himself said (Paterson: page 100): ‘The poem moves them or/it does not move them.’

An important consideration here is that Williams seems to accept the inevitability of leaving most readers behind if he is to write as he feels he must. The blurb inside the cover of my edition of Paterson quotes him: ‘In 1920 he wrote, “I’ll right whatever I damn please, whenever I damn please and as I damn please…”’ I’m glad he clarified that.

img_3398Writing on Behalf of his People

Thomas is different, I think. There is an intriguing link to the Mass that Farley and Roberts flag up (page 226):

In the old rite of the Mass, the priest would stand at the head of his congregation with his back to them, leading his people in the incantations and prayers, representing them. Once the rules changed and the priest turned around to face the congregation, Thomas felt that something crucial had been lost. As did David Jones. Fortunately, his poetic vocation still permitted RST to take on that role, to turn and face the emptiness on behalf of his people, to cast words into the void of God for them.

I’ll use an example of the power with which Thomas is able to capture accessibly the bleak reality of his subject without lapsing into traditional modes of expression (Collected Poems 1945-1990 Phoenix Edition – page 464). I’ve picked a poem that illustrates how strong Thomas’s love for and commitment to the Welsh language was: he deeply regretted that his strength in it was not sufficient to carry his poetry.

Drowning

They were irreplaceable and unforgettable,
inhabitants of the parish and speakers
of the Welsh tongue. I looked on and
there was one less and one less and one less.

They were not of the soil, but contributed
to it in dying, a manure not
to be referred to as such, but from which
poetry is grown and legends and green tales.

Their immortality was what they hoped for
by being kind. Their smiles were such as,
exercised so often, became perennial
as flowers, blossoming where they had been cut down.

I ministered uneasily among them until
what had been gaps in the straggling hedgerow
of the nation widened to reveal the emptiness
that was inside, where echoes haunted and thin ghosts.

A rare place, but one identifiable
with other places where on as deep a sea
men have clung to the last spars of their language
and gone down with it, unremembered but uncomplaining.

As the Wikipedia article on Thomas puts it:

Fearing that poetry was becoming a dying art, inaccessible to those who most needed it, “he attempted to make spiritually minded poems relevant within, and relevant to, a science-minded, post-industrial world”, to represent that world both in form and in content even as he rejected its machinations.

(Their quote is from Daniel Westover’s R. S. Thomas: A Stylistic Biography – University of Wales Press, 2011.) 

My sense is that he succeeded.

Last Words

Whatever the rights and wrongs of my preconceptions about the value of their poetry, an important implication of both their lives is the possibility that their work protected them from the harmful myth so many post-Romantic poets have succumbed to (page 226-27):

Both poets struggling to hold their lives in balance – outward facing lives as pastor and doctor, and their inward-facing lives as poets. . . . . . Perhaps, in both cases, their sense of duty to the people they served help them to avoid the meltdown of poetic self destruction.

All in all, though the experience varied in quality, this book as a whole was a richly rewarding experience that deepened my understanding of the complex relationship between poetry, the poet and the life. I’m glad I read it.

Footnotes:

[1] From Wikipedia: ‘Williams referred to the prosody of triadic-line poetry as a “variable foot”, a metrical device to resolve the conflict between form and freedom in verse.[4] Each of the three staggered lines of the stanza should be thought of as one foot, the whole stanza becoming a trimeter line.[5] Williams’ collections Journey to Love (1955) and The Desert Music (1954) [6] contained examples of this form. This is an extract from “The Sparrow” by Williams:

Practical to the end,
……………….it is the poem
………………………………of his existence

(The dots are the only way to get the words in the right place! I’ve copied the arrangement from my Paladin Edition of his work Volume II – page 294: it differs slightly from that found on the Wikipedia page.)

[2] From Poetry Archive: “Elsewhere Williams’ social conscience is to the fore, in the act of imaginative empathy of ‘The Widow’s Lament in Springtime’ and the more overtly political vision of ‘The Yachts’ and ‘To Elsie’. The former is radical in a different way from the experimental minimalism of ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ as it presents an image of capitalist oppression: Williams captures the exhilaration of the yachts’ triumphant progress, but he also sees the ruthlessness of privilege which they represent. ‘To Elsie’, its twenty two stanzas poured out in a single sentence, constructs a powerful critique of a modern world in which the lower classes are degraded by lust and exploited by the better off. The final poem, ‘The Dance’, celebrates movement and Williams’ great love of art. Here he does use a traditional metre, the dactyl (one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed) which gives the poem a powerful forward momentum. The whirling energy of the peasants is also intensified through the enjambment of each line which doesn’t allow a pause for breath. It feels especially important to be able to listen to this great celebrant of American speech, his light clear voice relishing the different kinds of music created by each poem.”

 

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[In the testing conditions of the Nineteenth Century], it may well be that the individual lives of some artists were in large part a reflection of the general decline affecting the moral and social ties of the day. That some of them managed to produce enduring works in spite of such spiritual and institutional turmoil was a noteworthy achievement. That many of them felt obliged, in such a context, to adopt an individualistic stance (and sometimes a non-conformist and defiant attitude); that many were forced to struggle against the current in a spiritually demoralising environment – such conditions call for pity and sympathy.

(Ludwig Tuman in Mirror of the Divine – page 102)

As I am about to bring Shelley back into the frame with my next new post, it seemed worth picking up this sequence from a year ago part way through. I will be checking each post carefully before I republish as I want to try and flag up places where my new understanding of the role of trauma shaping personality might help me see where any trauma in Shelley’s history might have had an impact on his art. The first three re-published posts will be run consecutively. Others will follow after Monday’s new post.

As I explained in Monday’s post, at this point in human history parts of Africa and much of the Middle East are in turmoil. The fallout is affecting most of Europe, both in terms of the refugee crisis and the threat of terror. The recent murders in Beirut, Paris and Bamako are only the latest examples. Partly because of all this, one of my main preoccupations relates to understanding better what factors foster or suppress empathy and compassion. In terms of those factors I am aware that all the arts can have a part to play on both sides of the process, and not just in terms of the protest songs I discussed in the last post.

For reasons that may become slightly clearer as this sequence of posts unfolds, I have just now been unexpectedly drawn to the life of one poet in particular as a possible source of insight into many of these factors. Before we close in on the man himself, I felt I needed to say a bit more about my journey towards this particular choice. There were after all other poets I knew better and liked far more.

Tintern Abbey (for source of image see link)

“Tintern Abbey with Elegant Figures” by Samuel Colman (for source of image see link)

The Limitations of Protest Alone

Admittedly even my infatuation, in the poems I quoted last time, with Byron’s pointed cynicism or Shelley’s dark condemnation did not entirely replace the powerful tug of what I have always felt are Wordsworth’s greatest lyrics, Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey and Ode on the Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood. They touched on a sense of the transcendent, which is of course not incompatible with protest against injustice, but takes things to an altogether different level. Again my mind was ringing to the melody of many remembered lines (From the Ode:lines 59-67).

The soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!

Or (From Lines written a few Miles above Tintern Abbey: lines 96-103):

                                      And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean, and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man,
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.

Something of the same current can be detected at times in the poet I have chosen to explore, but it feels more strained and less convincing, which may account for the extreme darkness of some of his poetry.

More consistently I resonated also to Keats’s greatest poems as an earlier post on this blog testifies, as does another post register my current debt to Coleridge and his Ancient Mariner, something that also goes back many years – through May 1982 as a diary entry of mine testifies – to my years at secondary school.

The diary entry in part reads:

At 17 I stopped up the wellsprings of my deepest feelings when I turned my back on all religions. I am now parching with a spiritual thirst – my main priority is to find out what I need to slake it.

I then quoted the same passage of spiritual insight from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner as I have used in the blog post I linked to above.

O happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare:
A spring of love gushed from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware:
Sure my kind saint took pity on me,
And I blessed them unaware.

The self-same moment I could pray;
And from my neck so free
The Albatross fell off, and sank
Like lead into the sea.

I then continue:

Tonight after I have prepared my meal I shall return to this journal to reflect upon what I need to do now. I have wasted half my life on vanities. I do not want to throw away the rest. . . . . Buddhism and meditation, in this last year mainly, have done so much to free my mind from its old debilitating patterns. I would be very foolish not to continue with my meditation and at least a minimum of Buddhist reading. Do I need to do more?

Seven months later I declared as a Bahá’í, but that is another story.

Not surprising, then, that I find Coleridge far more appealing, in spite of his evident frailties. He seems more rounded as a person than all the other Romantics, more complexly spiritual than Wordsworth (though undoubtedly a touch too abstractly philosophical at times) and far less egocentric than Byron. Keats I loved but his tragically short life left him somehow incomplete.

Abbé Vogler (for source of image see link)

Abbé Vogler (for source of image see link)

A Charismatic Teacher

Two post-romantics, Tennyson & Browning, were also important to me, the one mainly for his brilliant collection of lyrical meditations on loss known as In Memoriam, and the latter mostly for his brilliant handling of the dramatic monologue – but more of them another time perhaps.

My strong connection with those two poets I owe to a charismatic English Teacher at my secondary school. He was an unlikely inspiration at first sight. He was short and round, steel-rimmed spectacles with round pebble-thick lenses perched on the end of his nose. But his enthusiasm for the poetry was infectious. He paced and bounced back and forth at the front of the classroom, the sunlight glinting back at us from his glasses, as he probed our hearts for responses to the challenges of verse.

He somehow managed to convey to us, at the age of 15 in our Fourth Year, the rich layers of meaning in even a poem as complex as Browning’s Abt Vogler, which captures the experience of the organist:

All through my keys that gave their sounds to a wish of my soul,
All through my soul that praised as its wish flowed visibly forth,
All through music and me! For think, had I painted the whole,
Why, there it had stood, to see, nor the process so wonder-worth:
Had I written the same, made verse—still, effect proceeds from cause,
Ye know why the forms are fair, ye hear how the tale is told;
It is all triumphant art, but art in obedience to laws,
Painter and poet are proud in the artist-list enrolled:—

It may be no coincidence, in the light of my present concerns, that this poem explores the relationship between music and spirituality. Most of that aspect passed right over my adolescent head, though it may have registered subconsciously. Mind you, now that music can be recorded Browning might have had to steer Abt Vogler along a slightly different track.

I can remember though the impact of his enthusiasm to this day. I doubt that such a poem would find its way into any classroom nowadays, such is the pressure to equip our children to be effective cogs in the competitive economic machine we have come to believe is the peak of civilisation.

In the sixth form he taught us how to approach Tennyson’s outpourings of grief before most of us had the faintest idea of the agony loss can cause.

Without exposure to such art our sensibility is incalculably impoverished and our ability to contribute to bettering our world will be seriously impaired. Maybe that was partly what Pink Floyd were protesting about in their bleak song Another Brick in the Wall, as the powerful video below brings to life.

Coming onto Shelley

Portrait of Shelley by Alfred Clint (1819) - for source see link

Portrait of Shelley by Alfred Clint (1819) – for source see link

So, why am I not starting with one or other of those poets?

I’d better start by admitting that my head doesn’t really understand my choice of Shelley at this point. I’m simply following my intuition here. Let’s hope my head catches up completely before the end of this sequence of posts, as I’ll need its help to make some sense of it all. What follows is my best attempt to understand the direction I have chosen to take.

Well, it was my interest in Coleridge that triggered me to read Richard Holmes’s excellent twovolume biography. That in turn meant that when I saw his biography of Shelley on the shelves of a bookshop in Hay-on-Wye last year I immediately snapped it up, even though Shelley has always been my least favourite poet of the Romantic period.

I’m still not quite sure why I decided to pull it off the shelf and begin to read it at last. After all, it was what I experienced as Shelley’s combination of ethereal intensity and chaotic sensibility that repelled me from his longer poems in the first instance, and nothing had happened since to change my mind. The decision to learn about his life possibly came from another level.

Initially, my recent reading of this biography did little to dispel my negative perception.

However, as my reading of this 700 page account of Shelley’s life moved forward, though I lost none of my reservations about the man, they became balanced by examples of his capacity for kindness, even generosity at times, by the increasing breadth of his understanding, and by the increasing depth and accessibility of even some of his longer poetry. I became intrigued and wanted to try and understand the dynamics of that better, while also wondering whether this might all shed some more light on the factors that influence our levels of altruism, as well as on our responses to and understanding of violence and terror.

Suddenly his life began to seem exactly what I needed to reflect on now. It looked like Shelley might be a fruitful biographical test case to get me started on my quest to understand what puzzles me so intensely.

I need to mention at this point that I am also reading a book by Ann Wroe called Being Shelley: the poet’s search for himself. As she describes it, the book (page ix) ‘is an attempt to write the life of the poet from the inside out: that is, from the perspective of the creative spirit struggling to discover its true nature. It is a book about Shelley the poet, rather than Shelley the man.’ She quotes Shelley as stating in a letter written in 1821 (ibid.): ‘The poet & the man . . . . are two different natures; though they exist together they may be unconscious of each other . . .’

Intriguingly Alan Bennet exploits this idea in his script for The Lady in the Van, though in his case the writer and the man communicate incessantly over what is happening. The film is worth watching, therefore, not only for Maggie Smith’s performance, but for the insights it gives into the creative process, though the trailer gives you no clue about that, sadly.

Wroe’s book clearly contains information relevant to my current task.

However, I have decided to focus most on Holmes’s more prosaic biography and other similar sources, only pulling in comments from Wroe’s book when I feel they add something of significance or illustrate a point more powerfully.

In this sequence of posts I will share a helicopter review of his life first. After that will come a discussion of some general ideas before I attempt to deal with his poetic development in detail, including some clues I have found in his biography about the source and nature of his creativity.

Only after that will I come to some tentative general conclusions intended to guide my subsequent investigations into the lives of other creative artists of various kinds, contrasted I hope with the Florence Nightingales and Indira Ghandis, to test whether there is a distinction to be made concerning the relationship between intense activity and personal life in the field of the arts as against in other domains, in the light of the conditions prevailing at the time.

I also eventually want to examine, further than I will be able to do here, the nature of poetry’s power. This of course requires making a distinction, that to some extent might be arbitrary, between poetry and verse.  Even my own limited experience of writing poetry suggests that there is such a distinction to be made. There are times when what I write is merely workmanlike. It is fundamentally pedestrian. It’s just verse. It has no spark. I have tried not to fall into the temptation of posting any of that on my blog.

Other poems seem to be alive in a way that I find it hard to describe. They often appear with whole lines or even passages more or less complete. They also have unexpected ideas, sometimes I even do not fully understand what I am writing (see link for one example). Whenever I have read a poet’s complete works I have found the same unevenness: one poem is sublime, the next one dull. Bob Dylan, in response to his being awarded the Nobel prize for literature, has admitted that he has to write 100 worthless songs for every good one. Also:

Gottfried Benn said: ‘No one, not even the greatest poets of our time, has left more than eight or ten perfect poems . . For six poems, thirty or fifty years’ asceticism, suffering, battle!’

(A Centenary Pessoa edited by Eugénio Lisboa & L. C. Taylor – page 18)

Dullness can even predominate in the published work. In the dedication to Don Juan, Byron made his famous comment on a poem of Wordsworth’s, that suggests that even the greatest can produce copious quantities of sub-standard work:

And Wordsworth, in a rather long “Excursion”
       (I think the quarto holds five hundred pages),
Has given a sample from the vasty version
       Of his new system to perplex the sages;
‘Tis poetry—at least by his assertion,
       And may appear so when the dog-star rages—
And he who understands it would be able
To add a story to the Tower of Babel.

I also have to admit that this, in the end, comes down to a matter of taste when we discuss any particular poem, and taste is something learnt rather than innate. I found this out very early. Almost at the same time as one teacher was helping us gain access to Abt Vogler, another teacher was testing us in a different way. He came into the classroom with two poems and handed them round. He asked us to read them both and then decide which was the better of the two. Almost the whole class picked the same one. Only then did he explain that we had preferred a poem he’d written in his teens over one of Shakespeare’s sonnets!

That complicates it all even more.

Anyhow, this whole enterprise may be hopelessly ambitious. It is very much a pilot study. It may be that the anarchic chaos of Shelley’s life will spread to my treatment of his art. This may not be a bad thing if I manage to rescue some reliable data from the maelstrom. They may be worth a great deal when I come to look at more orderly examples later, if I ever do. We’ll see how far I get before I run out of steam or ideas.

An irony I can’t resist mentioning at this point is that his personal life displayed the anarchy in a less violent form that he so detested in the political arena.

There will be more on Shelley tomorrow.

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Uncertain Death v3

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Dream GameNow that I appear to have made some progress in developing a closer relationship with my Parliament of Selves, it seems a good time to try and talk to them in more detail about learning to reflect more effectively. The trouble is I can’t find them in dreamland anymore. Since they faded away after our encounter with Indira Pindance, they have been conspicuous by their absence, both in meditation and sleep. Part of the reason for this may be that my dreams in general are more elusive. On waking I seldom remember more than a rapidly evaporating fragment.

That’s why I have pulled my battered copy of The Dream EaswaranGame by Ann Faraday off my dream book shelf. If Eknath Easwaran’s book is my Tao Te Ching on meditation, then The Dream Game is the Analects of my dream world. I decide to follow her advice (page 43):

People frequently complain that dreams are not coming to them as much as they would like, and when I ask are they writing them down, they plead that other obligations have been too pressing – to which I answer that your dreaming mind knows very well how seriously you are taking it and reacts accordingly.

She’s nailed it. I’ve been far too busy to pay attention to my dreams, let alone go to all the trouble of writing them down. Part of the problem is unavoidable. I have commitments to keep. But part of it is self-inflicted. I have so many interests. I am constantly beset by the fear that if I don’t keep reading new stuff on a favourite topic I’ll not KUTD – sorry, keep up to date – so not only do I fail to go deeply enough into what I’m reading about, but I also distract myself constantly from things that are probably more important.

Ring and BookSo, straightaway, after reading Faraday’s words, I promise my dreaming mind I will really listen tonight, and write down what I see and hear. To help, as I settle in bed, I pick up my copy of The Ring & the Book, Robert Browning’s novel in verse, a breath-taking and brilliant exploration of a series of dramatic historical events in 17th century Rome.

The last time I was reading it some days ago, I had just finished Book VI of the twelve, which is Giuseppe Caponsacchi’s movingly sympathetic account of the events that led to the mortal wounding of Pompilia, and the stabbing to death of her adoptive parents. I have put off reading Book VII till now. It is the dying Pompilia’s version of events. I thought a bit of previously avoided heart-rending reading might stir me to pay more attention to my unconscious mind’s creativity.

I am just seventeen years and five months old,
And, if I live one day more, three full weeks.

As usual, right from the first words, Browning’s empathic magic has captured me in his narrative grip. Even so I eventually become too tired to read more. I switch off the light and remind my dreaming mind of my sincere intentions.

It doesn’t take long. Soon, I find I am walking with Frederick Mires, my psychology-mad alter ego, and William Wordless, my poet manqué persona. The others are nowhere in sight right now.

Redwood Grove

We’re on a path in Queen’s Wood, I think, near the stand of California Redwoods, except that their trunks are purple and the needles of their leaves orange. We’re heading for the cafe at the car park.

‘You’re looking a bit upset,’ I say to Mires who’s been walking silently with his face twisted into a two-year-old’s sulk.

‘You’re throwing books away again,’ he spits, facing me fiercely as he says it.

‘Why would that worry you,’ I ask. ‘You’re always rushing from one book to the next, never going back once you’ve squeezed all the juice you can find at the time into the blog.’

‘You never know when you might need to go back to a book again to check a point or fill out the argument.’

‘What are you going to do with your poetry books?’ Wordless asks with a worried expression on his face. ‘They’re the only ones worth keeping. You can read them over and over again and still find new meanings in them. Novels and text books – once read and completely digested, chuck ’em away.’

‘It’s hard going, but I am slowly working out which books are worth keeping because I really will need them again, and which books were a one-time only read. It’s often a question of whether there are any highlights or scribbled notes in the book at all. If not, and I’ve obviously read it, I’m not likely to read it again. I just don’t have the space to hold all my books accessibly. Some of them are double-stacked.’

I don’t mention my feelings of guilt at being a bookaholic hoarder.

‘You’ll live to regret it,’ Mires warns. ‘You’ve done this before remember, and wished you hadn’t when you needed a book you’d discarded.’

‘The point is,’ I insist, ‘that even if I live another 15 years or more, with over a thousand books, I’d have to read at the rate of over a book a week, just to savour all my old ones all over again. And many of them would take more than a week to read. And what about the new books I’ll find that I want to read?’

‘You’re not understanding my point.’ Mires has the bit between his teeth. ‘You won’t need to re-read the whole book if all you require is to check out a reference in it. But if you haven’t got it you’ll waste a lot of time chasing it up again.’

‘Why don’t you simplify things and just do what I suggest. Keep all your poetry books and throw away the rest.’ A massive grin spread over Wordless’s face. ‘My gift for rhyme is returning!’

Broad and Deep01‘Now you’re the one who is missing the point. Look, both of you. The issue is this. I have a broad range of interests – mind, nature, science, literature, art, history, religion, mysticism, near death experiences, politics, biography, music, to name only the most obvious. It’s almost too broad, as I want to explore most of these topics in depth. To really go deep I have to narrow my focus and specialise. To cover a broad area of interest, which is what I really want to do, I have to be relatively shallow. So, I keep rushing from book to book most of the time, never really taking the time to savour any of them properly. But I don’t like narrow or shallow. I want broad and deep. I want to have the best of both worlds. I want to have my cake and eat it too, I guess.’

‘The days when that was possible are long gone,’ Mires retorts. ‘Goethe was probably the last great poet who could also be a real scientist. Knowledge has expanded too much. There’ll be no more Renaissance minds from now on, I think. If you try, you just end up a Jack of all trades and master of none. And let’s face it Goethe was a genius, and you’re not. That’s one of the many reasons I keep focused on psychology and try to forget the rest.’

‘And why I concentrate only on poetry,’ Wordless can’t resist chipping in.

‘But you’re both a part of me and that’s the problem, don’t you see?’

They glumly have to agree and they don’t like it. To please them both, I have to spread myself too thin and do broad and shallow. Very frustrating!

‘And when we finally meet up with Emma and Chris it’ll only get worse. She’s into social action and politics, and Chris is fixated on mystical states. I’m not sure about Indira. I don’t know her too well as yet.’

I pause for breath, trying to let my mouth catch up with my mind. ‘This is why we need to find another way of experiencing things. That’s one of the reasons I’m trying to learn how to reflect better, so I can extract every possible drop of meaning from every moment, whether it’s from a book, a conversation, a new place or whatever.’

‘Here we go again. Back on the reflection bandwagon,’ Mires mocks.

Just at that point we join the main path back to the cafe, with the games and picnic area on our left and the redwood grove in the middle distance on our right. It’s a cold day for the picnic area, which must be populated only by those with Scandinavian ancestry. As we look ahead we see Indira Pindance, our vulnerable new friend, and Emma Pancake, activist and pamphleteer, huddled at a table near the cafe wall, out of the wind, using steaming cups to warm their hands. They appear to be waiting for us.

(To be continued next Monday)

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Ring and Book

Leaning back against the pillows, highlighter pen in hand, I pick up my newly acquired copy of Browning’s The Ring & the Book. I’ve been so lucky to find an affordable replacement for the copy I gave away all those years ago, thinking I’d never want to read it again. Since savouring the rich switching of perspectives in Bahiyyih Nakhjavani’s The Woman Who Read Too Much, which reminded me so much of Browning’s masterpiece, I’d been itching to get my hands on another copy, and there it was – a Penguin Classic, with its colourful Millais cover, tucked away in a small second-hand bookshop at the unlikely end of the Castle Arcade in Cardiff – only £6, instead of the £25 for the previous copy I’d seen.

When I’d betrayed how keen I was, the vendor said, ‘In that case I’m doubling the price.’

As I made totroutmark-books-cardiff head for the exit he added, ‘Only kidding!’

I’d known that of course, and he knew also that I’d be back again at Troutmark Books as soon as I could.

On the way back from Cardiff on the train I’d finished the first book of the twelve. I was captivated again. Browning manages to capture the ambiguous chaos of experience without losing hold of the imperfect variations of coherence we each manage to impose on it. And he does so, as I remembered, from so many different points of view.

Now just as I am settling down to savour the second book, they start up again, my Parliament of Selves.

‘Where’s Chris?’ Emma Pancake hisses anxiously of their mystical mystery colleague, Humfreeze. Instead of sitting feet up on the table as usual she’s finding it very hard to stand still, shifting from one foot to the other when she isn’t pacing back and forth.

‘He’s deep in his last meditation of the day,’ Frederick Mires whispers. ‘He won’t hear a thing. Why does it matter, Emma?’

‘Well, he – you know who I mean, Fred?’ Mires nods.

They’re talking about me behind my back. No amount of whispering will completely shield them now I know they’re there: I can always hear enough to get their drift.

Pancake fills in the details. ‘He’s got some crackpot plan to meditate more so he can – what’s the word he uses? – reflect is it? He thinks that’ll make him a better poet. Mad, he is.’

Mires looks worried. ‘Is that what he means by reflection? I thought he just meant thinking hard. He doesn’t give me enough time to read all the books I need to anyway. If he’s going to squander more hours on this nonsense I’ll never get all the information and ideas I need to get to the bottom of consciousness. I can see why you don’t want Chris to hear this. What are we going to do? D’you think Bill will help us?’

Mires realises they will need the help of the poet manqué, Wordless, if they’re going to block my plan.

‘I’m not sure. He’s been dithering on this one. He really likes quiet moments staring at trees and lakes and stuff like that. He says it helps his poetry. I know he hates the way Chris rubbishes words but that may not be enough to get him on our side and stop this whole daft plan before it gets off the ground. I bet he thinks a bit more meditation will solve his writer’s block. Hang on, here he comes.’

The garden gate squeaks on its hinges, and a disconsolate figure in a long black coat closes it carefully behind him.

‘Hi, Bill,’ Pancake calls out.

William Wordless turns round in surprise, completely unused to such warm and friendly tones coming from that quarter.

‘What do you want?’ he mutters, trying to walk on past to the garden table.

‘Just a few quiet words, Bill,’ Mires charms in, ‘before Chris comes back to reality to join the rest of us.’

“What about?’ Wordless seems less than enthralled at the idea.

‘Have you cottoned on to what you-know-who is planning to do?’ Pancake tries to keep her voice soft and calm.

‘I think so. This reflection idea. It seems a good one to me as long as Chris doesn’t stretch it too far.’

There’s a short silence as Pancake and Mires exchange a brief glance and try to work out what best to say next.

‘I think I’ve had a brilliant idea,’ Pancake’s voice vibrates with excitement. She pauses as though not sure whether to say anymore.

‘Come on, then,’ Mires bursts out. ‘Tell us what it is. Don’t keep us on tenterhooks.’

‘Well,’ she said slightly more calmly, ‘I know we were talking about stopping him altogether, but maybe that’s not going to work. We’ll just have a wrestling match and none of us will win. Maybe we don’t need to work together to stop him doing this completely. We need instead to work together to find a way of getting him to implement it so that it benefits us all.’

‘Even Chris,’ she adds reluctantly.

Browning

This book deals with the period of Browning’s life, after the death of his wife, during which he wrote ‘The Ring & the Book.’

‘That could make sense,’ Wordless nods. ‘He’s already started reading poetry again – or pretending to. You can see him at it now. Not that I like Browning much. He’s more interested in people than he is in nature. He’d be right up your street, Fred.’

“I’m not sure I can see how I could ever benefit out of a plan like this,’ Mires grumbles.

‘You don’t really get it, do you, for all your reading and for all your degrees?’ Pancake mocks, before twigging that she needs to soften her tone if she’s going to get him on their side.

‘I know it’s hard for someone who is so much into books, and is always looking out for the next one to read so you don’t miss out on anything. It’s a bit like me with my meetings and my contacts. I’m scared that, if I don’t keep up with the crowd, I’ll get left behind and achieve nothing. But maybe, just maybe, there’s a better way to do it than that, but we won’t find out if we’re not prepared to stop and think quietly about it first. D’you follow? You must do. You believe in the scientific approach, doing experiments, that kind of thing.’

‘I understand what you mean but I’m not sure I agree,’ Mires mutters doubtfully.

‘If you go down this road, Fred, you’ll have me on your side. But if you just try and stop him and block it completely, I’ll do all I can to make sure you lose,’ Wordless asserts firmly. Then you’ll probably be worse off even than you are now.’ He clearly means every word of it.

‘OK, Bill,’ Mires says sourly after a slight pause. ‘Let’s see if we can work out something that makes sense to all of us.’

They share a long silence.

‘We’d better talk to Chris then, when he’s finished his meditation,’ Mires suggests. ‘I’m not sure how we’ll get him to work a plan that suits us, but if we can – and I think it’s a big if – I’m prepared to give it a try.’

After that things went quiet, and all I could hear was the entrancing colloquial swing of Browning’s pentameters until I fell asleep (page 65 – lines 1-4):

What, you, Sir, come too? (Just the man I’d meet.)
Be ruled by me and have a care o’ the crowd:
This way, while fresh folk go and get their gaze:
I’ll tell you like a book and save your shins.

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