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Posts Tagged ‘T. S. Eliot’

Nature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Its manifestations are diversified by varying causes, and in this diversity there are signs for men of discernment. Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world.

Tablets of Bahá’u’lláhpage 142

Once on board, each night before I slept I read at least 50 pages of Bate’s biography of Clare. This was usually after spending an hour or two on one of the decks watching the sunset and looking out for dolphins. I hoped it would help me get a better grip on what Bate’s had meant by poetry being the song of the earth.

Eventually, I’d settle down with my book, faintly conscious of the slight swaying of the ship and the constant grumble of the engine.

Bate’s compassionate account of Clare’s troubled existence brings to life some of the more abstract aspects of man’s exploitation of nature. Clare was both deeply connected from childhood with the nature around him and forcibly cut off from it first by the Enclosure Movement, then by an enforced move from his birth home to one he experienced as every different and finally by his incarceration in an asylum. All these dislocations were further confounded by his success as a poet, where his experience of London changed him radically.

This time I picked up the book from where I had left off, already with a clear sense of how damaging the process of Enclosure had been for Clare, his family and his neighbours. As Bate’s explains (pages 49-50):

Enclosure was… symbolic of the destruction of an ancient birthright based on cooperation and common rights. The chance of Clare’s time and place of birth gave him an exceptional insight into this changed world.

This was because a high proportion of local villagers held common rights, an unusually large area of the parish was heathland, and the open fields survived until an unusually late date.

Bate continues:

For Clare himself, enclosure infringed the right to roam, which had been one of the joys of his youth… E.P. Thompson grasped the radical significance of this, discerning that ‘Clare maybe described, without hindsight, as a poet of ecological protest: he was not writing about man here and nature there, but lamenting a threatened equilibrium in which both were involved.’

In Clare’s own words:

Inclosure like a Bonaparte let nothing remain
It levelled every bush and tree and levelled every hill
and hung the moles as traitors –

Much later I came across this prose description in a similar spirit, which I’ll quote now to give another clear example of Clare’s unedited mode of writing (page 272): ‘what terryfying rascals these wood keepers and gamekeepers are – they make a prison of the forrests and are its joalers.’

His love of nature, I already knew, was quasi-religious (page 59):

. . . though he professed himself an Anglican, Clare’s attendance at church was mostly irregular. His deepest feelings of a religious kind were reserved for his experience of nature and his memories of childhood innocence and joy.

I was really looking forward to learning more, though I knew that Clare’s life had a tragic trajectory, ending as it did in an asylum over almost his last two decades.

Clare’s feeling for nature were not unique and he would have resonated to Wordsworth’s ‘sense sublime’ of ‘something far more deeply interfused’ within it (pages 100-101):

. . . if someone who had never read – perhaps never even heard of – such nature poets as Thomson, Cowper and Wordsworth nevertheless responded to nature in the same way as they, then there must be ‘universal feelings’ about nature which poetry was but an echo… Clare saw it as his task to write down the poetry that was already there in nature itself.

That his gift was recognized by a publisher was a blessing to his parents (page 120):

Drury’s faith in the potential of Clare’s poetry saved Parker and Ann from the poor-house.

But this came at a price (page 166):

[On his way to London in the wake of his success] full of anticipation at the prospect of seeing a place known only from fireside tales, he looked out from the coach at the labourers ploughing and ditching in the fields: ‘the novelty created such strange feelings that I could almost fancy that my identity as well as my occupations had changed – that I was not the same John Clare but that some stranger soul had jumped into my skin.’

He had become disconnected from his old sense of self (page 171):

After his exposure to fame and London, he could never fully return to his old life. In this sense, his consciousness of a new identity as he sat in the Stamford coach was prophetic.

I put the book down and switched off the light. My head hit the pillow to the continuing growl of the engine. As usual, my sleep was fitful. Just as I was falling asleep again for the umpteenth time, I heard the ship’s intercom through the cabin door: ‘For exercise only. For exercise only. For exercise only. All medical staff to the muster room on B deck. Repeat – all medical staff to the muster room on B deck.’

My wife and I were both awake. It was 7.30 am. We groaned and got up grumbling.

When we were dressed and had left the cabin to head for breakfast at the buffet on Deck 15, we bumped into our steward in the narrow corridor outside our room.

Standing by the trolley piled high with towels and bedding, he greeted us with his usual friendly smile.

‘How are you both?’

We asked him if he knew about the recent earthquake. He didn’t. We apologised for worrying him but explained that we were concerned to know whether his family were all OK.

He was clearly concerned. He explained that he would not be able to find out yet but hoped to get in touch with family later in the day.

We parted without our usual exchange of joking comments.

En route to the buffet we picked up our newsletter and puzzles. The puzzle sheet had a fairly demanding Sudoku on one side and ridiculously easy crossword on the other. The newssheet was based generally on yesterday’s news and was only worth picking up if we’d missed Sky news the night before.

Horizon was a more valuable read. It told us what would be happening the following day and was left in our cabin the evening before. On this occasion, over my usual breakfast of oats, raisins and milk plus a slice of toast and for once marmalade, we looked at the day’s events and spotted a talk on Lowry, a joint favourite, in the theatre. As we both knew a fair bit about the artist from reading his biography and going to see his paintings at Salford Quays, we decided to give the talk a miss but to go to the gallery where some prints were on show.

This was probably a wise decision given the delay caused by having to queue for clean teacups at the buffet. We would’ve missed the start of the talk anyway. As it was there was only one print that caught our attention: The Brothers. I don’t have a copy of that in my Shelley Rohde’s biography, nor have I ever seen the original anywhere.

Lowry’s ‘The Brothers’ (For source of image see link.)

Its impact was quite intense.

The way the brothers overlap in the print conveys the strong sense of a symbiotic relationship. Their merged black hats make them seem almost like twins joined at the head. The colour of the arch overhead matches their coats and, along with the narrowness of the picture, seems to imply that they are both in some way imprisoned or at least overshadowed by their relationship. The townscape behind them is unusually constricted for Lowry and the church and flats, if that’s what the red buildings were, would not look out of place in a doll’s house, hinting that, in spite of the greying hair of the background brother, we are not quite in a fully adult world here.

Most of Lowry’s work contrasts quite strongly with Clare’s rural home, in which I was so vicariously immersed at the time. His less well-known seascapes, which I first encountered on visiting the Lowry gallery at Salford Quays, added a new dimension to my understanding of his work, and would’ve blended in better with my cruise perhaps if I’d found one of those in the ship’s gallery.

I didn’t realise at this point that I would soon be encountering a third very different environment in paint. Blended with the artificial world of the cruise ship, nature, art and town alone began to weave a pattern of insights I haven’t quite digested yet.

‘Head of Man with Red Eyes’ painted after spending an exhausting night ministering to his hypochondriacal autocratic mother’s imaginary needs. (Image scanned from L S Lowry: a life by Shelley Rohde)

Part of the pattern is clear. Clare was uprooted from the earth of his childhood with devastating effects on his mental health and an inspiring impact on his poetry. Lowry’s roots were in the Northern townscape, which fed his art but may have starved his emotional life, though his voraciously demanding mother and a possible poorly understood autistic tendency didn’t help.

The third world I entered, through prints again, opened up another world altogether, but that will have to wait till next time. Together they illustrate just how complex is the relationship between art, personal life and nature. This idea, that poetry might, at some level, simply be the song of the earth, was seeming slightly fragile.

Even Bate, in his biography of Ted Hughes, is clearly aware that poetry comes in many forms. For example (page 93), he describes Yeats as ‘the poet of the land and the spirit of place’ in contrast to Eliot as ‘the poet of deracinated modernity.’ This of course still leaves begging the question of whether a poet who simply ‘gives voice to a new terror: the meaningless’, is a poet in the full sense of the word, no matter how powerful and honest that voice may be.

This relates to my struggle, explored in earlier posts, with much modern art, if it seems to capitulate to the dissonance and disbelief of the modern world with no counterbalancing sense of meaning and purpose. Can true poetry be simply nihilistic? Not that I’m saying, as should be clear by now, that poetry is only authentic if it sings about nature. Nature is not the only higher value poetry can draw upon to give it depth.

Clare though made a strong case for nature as a front runner in this race (page 480):

‘Birds bees trees flowers all talked to me incessantly louder than the busy hum of men and who so wise as nature out of doors on the green grass by woods and streams under the beautiful sunny sky – daily communings with God and not a word spoken.’

To complete the picture, it might help here to fast-forward to where my reading of Bate’s whole biography of Clare left me.

After his brief moment in the spotlight and two less successful collections of what Bate feels were superior poems, Clare’s world was turning significantly darker. Not only was the impact of Enclosure still tightening but his success had brought with it the opportunity to move three miles away to a more spacious home, something which proved a mixed blessing.

Even before the move things were not going well (page 276):

The changes in the land wrought by enclosure were by now symbolic of his own narrowing prospects and the loss of the familiar landmarks of his childhood.

There was no going back (page 317):

Save in memory and poetry, there was no road back to childhood, to the unenclosed commons, to Eden. As his depression closed in upon him, the only future was alienation.

Now there was the impending challenge of a serious mental health problem, brought on by a combination of factors, not least his increasing sense of alienation. His move to Northborough did not help (page 388):

The accommodation was much more spacious than at Helpston… But the village never became home. It felt like a closed community, hostile to newcomers.

Clare describes his feelings of loss and displacement in The Flitting (Page 389):

I’ve left my own old home of homes,
Green fields, and pleasant place:
The summer, like a stranger comes,
I pause – and hardly know her face.’

His poetry, which Bate sees as rooted in Clare’s ‘art of noticing’ and ‘intuitive responsiveness to minute particulars’ (pages 300-01) had so far lost nothing of its power though in this unhinging process (page 390):

His remembrance is not just of his old home, but specifically of the pre-enclosure landscape. It was also at this time that he wrote another of his great enclosure elegies, a vigourous poem of political complaint spoken in the very voice of a piece of land, ‘Swordy Well’. . . . With the enclosure, it was taken by the parish overseers as a source of stone for road mending. In the poem, the land speaks out against its own enclosure in the same terms as a labourer would have used to complain about his loss  of ancient rights. ‘I ha’n’t a friend in all the place,’ sings the desecrated earth, ‘Save one and he’s away.’ That one is Clare himself, both physically away from Helpston and mentally distant from his own unenclosed youth.

And again (page 405):

Clare’s sense of his own status as a perpetual outsider, a man who did not fully belong in either the world of London property or that of literary propriety, is nowhere better caught that in a sonnet on his fear of trespassing: ‘I dreaded walking where there was no path.’

I can resonate to this to some degree, as I was transplanted from lower middle class roots at the age of seventeen to the lofty heights of privilege at Cambridge in the early 60s. Since then I have always felt déclassé, belonging neither to my culture of origin nor to the rarified atmosphere of dinner suits and cocktail parties. This may partly account for why I found the cruise concept of ‘black-tie dining’, something that happened on four nights of our journey, a somewhat bizarre experience: I tried it once, in my green suit not a dinner suit, and stuck to the casual dress of the buffet after that.

Compared to Clare though my experience was relatively mild. The stresses of it did not strain me beyond endurance so that I would end my life staring from the window of an institution which felt like a prison, as Clare did in his asylum according to one of his visitors (page 475):

‘There was a birdcage, with a skylark in it, near the window; and pointing to the iron bars in his apartment, he smiled gloomily, and said, in a strong provincial accent, “We are both of us bound birds, you see.”’

I couldn’t help but remember Hopkins’s poem as I read those words[1]:

As a dare-gale skylark scanted in a dull cage,
Man’s mounting spirit in his bone-house, mean house, dwells –

In a sense that Clare does not express as far as I know, this would make him double-caged, as of course was Hopkins in the Jesuit order, though he never admitted that explicitly in any of his poems as far as I’m aware. Hopkins shared another passion with Clare (Robert Bernard Martin’s biography – page 212):

When an ash tree was felled in the garden, he ‘heard the sound and looking out and seeing it maimed there came at that moment a great pang and I wished to die and not see the inscapes of the world destroyed any more.’

Clare would certainly have been familiar though with the words of Blake that came tumbling into my head a this point:

A Robin Redbreast in a Cage
Puts all Heaven in a Rage.
A dove house fill’d with doves and pigeons
Shudders Hell thro’ all its regions.

I was beginning to feel that the motif of the prison was becoming an uncomfortably frequent theme.

In the end, divorced from nature by the Enclosure process, by his well-meant but unavoidable move to a different locality and by the social elevation his obsessive versifying earned him, he broke down and entered the final alienation of the asylum. He registers the ultimate consequence in his poem An Invite to Eternity (page 491):

Clare had coined the term self identity. Now he coins its opposite: sad non-identity. The absence of home and family has stripped Clare of his sense of self. At the same time, the very act of writing is a defiant assertion of the self. ‘At once to be and not to be’ is a breath-taking riposte to Hamlet’s question.

Even so, he is able to capture this in powerful poetry that does not completely capitulate to his sense of annihilation.

In the end there was no viable escape from his distress, except through poetry. Concerning his poem I am Bate writes (page 505):

In imagination, even in the asylum, he could complete the circle of vision, undoing his troubles by laying himself to rest between grass and ‘vaulted sky.’ He longs at once for both childhood and the grave.

He does not, if Bate’s sense of him is to be trusted, invest as much meaning in the horizon, or perhaps even in nature, as Emily Dickinson did, according to Judith Farr in her book, The Passion of Emily Dickinson. Nature was crucial to her, as it had been to the Brontës and to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, because for her (page 294) ‘nature offers clues about infinity,’ and she makes this explicit. This was even to the extent that (page 302):

The horizon was a point of order for landscape painters like Church. For poets like Dickinson, it was the point of fusion of this world and the next.

Maybe though for Clare, even though poetry began as a song of the earth, in the end it was more than that. I’m not sure I can quite find words right now for what that means. All I can say at the moment is that poetry itself can be a kind of transcendence, that brings meaning, perhaps even consolation, into the darkest moments of our lives.

When we spoke to our steward later that day to check how things were back home, he looked quite worried and told us that his cousin was missing, but the rest of his family were thankfully OK. We commiserated with him and assured him that we would remember his family in our prayers and hope that all would be well.

Footnote:

[1]. It would be fascinating to explore this further here but the post is long enough already. For now it is enough to indicate that R B Martin’s biography of Hopkin’s suggests (page 268) that an enforced move from St Beuno’s in rural Wales, where he had been studying for the priesthood, may have accounted in part for this sense of (page 264) ‘limitation, entrapment, a kind of stifling imprisonment of the spirit.’ The intensity of his connection with nature (page 203) would be more than enough to suggest a close affinity with Clare at least in this respect, and a comparable reaction to being torn away from nature by his move.

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VirginiaWoolf

[In art] what is important is not only the subject matter but also the way it is treated; not only the cognitive and emotional content manifest in the work of art, but also, and especially, the effect such content is intended to have on the knowledge and the feelings of the participant.

(Ludwig Tuman in Mirror of the Divine – page 88)

In a previous sequence of posts I came to the tentative conclusion that Virginia Woolf was attempting, in her later fiction, to capture our consciousness as effectively as she could in words.

I didn’t follow this up immediately or systematically, as I had thought I might. Nothing new there then.

Instead, for reasons I’ll explain at the end of this post, I accidentally stumbled across another book that added weight to my conclusions.

Jonah Lehrer is very clearly in accord with my hesitant but hard-won conclusion (page 168):

In 1920,… Virginia Woolf announced in her diary: ‘I have finally arrived at some idea of a new form for a new novel.’ Her new form would follow the flow of our consciousness, tracing the ‘flight of the mind’ as it unfolded in time.

What he goes on to say resonates so closely with my own experience as expanded on in my parliament of selves sequence, that it felt a bit weird to read it (page 177):

. . .the head holds a raucous parliament of cells that endlessly debate what sensations and feelings should become conscious… What we call reality is merely the final draft.

He adds that, in To the Lighthouse, the character Lily notes that every brain is crowded Lehrerwith at least two different minds. We’ll catch up with that idea again in a minute when I come to discuss Pessoa.

Just in case you feel I’m cherry-picking, I have another source that points in basically the same direction This is the introduction by Elaine Showalter to Mrs Dallawoy (Penguin Classics Edition).

She explains the process in terms of a philosopher’s perspective (page xx):

Bergson had … given guidance to writers seeking to capture the effects of emotional relativity, for he had suggested that a thought or feeling could be measured in terms of the number of perceptions, memories, and associations attached to it. For Woolf the external event is significant primarily for the way it triggers and releases the inner life. … Like other modernist writers experimenting with the representation of consciousness, Woolf was interested in capturing the flux of random associations…

DallowayThis resonates with developments in modern art at the time (Page xxi):

… it can be said that in trying to show us her characters from a variety of embedded viewpoints rather than from the fixed perspective of the omniscient narrator, Woolf ‘breaks up the narrative plane… as the Cubists broke up the visual plane.

This approach has clear advantages, in her view, over more traditional methods (page xix):

[Her narrative technique] can deepen our understanding and compassion for Woolf’s characters in the way an Edwardian omniscient narration might not achieve.

I think this may act as an unintended discount of the power of free indirect speech, an approach originally pioneered by Jane Austen in English, but also used brilliantly by Ford Madox Ford in his novels The Good Soldier (1915), and the Parade’s End tetralogy (1924–28). Still her point is none the less a valid one as the Edwardian era technically ended in 1910.

I don’t follow Lehrer in his next step though (page 172):

Woolf’s writing exposes the fact that we are actually composed of ever-changing impressions that are held together by the thin veneer of identity.

Although I accept that it can sometimes feel that way, Lehrer treats it as a fact. He quotes a modernist in support (page 176):

[T.S.Eliot] believed that the modern poet had to give up the idea of expressing the ‘unified soul’ simply because we didn’t have one.

And concludes (page 182):

The self is simply a work of art, a fiction created by the brain in order to make sense of its own disunity.

I’ll come back to my doubts about that later in the sequence.

MachadoI felt after my posts on her later novels that I would be exploring Virginia Woolf more. However, I found myself drawn instead to the inscapes of three poets who have always intrigued me: Machado, Pessoa and Rilke. This was triggered by the book I acquired on my India trip: The Forty Rules of Love. My earlier blog post explained how reading that book impelled me to feel that I should revisit spiritual poetry.

I really thought I was onto a theme that I would stick with. Why wouldn’t I? For a start there is a lot about death.

For example, Machado’s young wife’s death cast a long shadow over his life and led to some of his most powerful poetry. One short example will have to suffice.

Una noche de verano
—estaba abierto el balcón
y la puerta de mi casa—
la muerte en mi casa entró.
Se fue acercando a su lecho
—ni siquiera me miró—,
con unos dedos muy finos,
algo muy tenue rompió.
Silenciosa y sin mirarme,
la muerte otra vez pasó
delante de mí. ¿Qué has hecho?
La muerte no respondió.
Mi niña quedó tranquila,
dolido mi corazón,
¡Ay, lo que la muerte ha roto
era un hilo entre los dos!

I have made a fairly literal translation of it here.

One summer evening –
the balcony and the doors open –
death came into my house.
Approaching her bed
– not even seeing me –
with slender fingers
it tore something most delicate.
Silent and blind to me
death passed by again.
‘What have you done?’
Death made no reply.
As precious as my sight,
my child stayed silent
as my heart splintered.
What death had cut was
the thread between those two.

It is simple but, in my view, profound. The same is true for much of his poetry. There are other examples of my attempts to render him in English elsewhere on my blog which seem to suggest that he was grappling constantly with the need to find meaning in his pain, another bonding influence for me.

Hence my attraction to Pessoa, in his various heteronyms or subpersonalities. In late 2016 I had been triggered to go back to Fernando Pessoa by reference to his multiple personalities in Immortal Remains by Stephen E Braude (page 170):

Apparently, Pessoa considers the heteronyms to be expressions of an inherent and deeply divided self. In fact, one of the principal themes of Pessoa’s poetry is the obscure and fragmentary nature of personal identity.

PessoaBut that was not the magnet this time. I was interested to have a closer look at his Book of Disquietude. This was partly because the strongest quality these three poets seemed to share was their isolation, hence the title I have given this sequence. Pessoa was notoriously asocial, although he could fake sociability. The Book of Disquietude records his almost unrelenting focus on his inscape (page 58):

My only real concern has been my inner life.

This was perhaps what spawned his crowded cast of sub-personalities (page 59):

I have a world of friends inside me, with their own real, individual, imperfect lives.

But it came at a price (page 54):

I bore the weariness of having had a past, the disquietude of living the present and the tedium of having to have a future.

And this price was sometimes unbearable (page 62):

. . . today I woke up very early… suffocating from an inexplicable tedium.… It was a complete and absolute tedium, but founded on something. In the obscure depths of my soul, unknown forces invisibly waged a battle in which my being was the battleground, and I shook all over from the hidden clashing.

The last of this trio, Rilke, was similarly a loner, as Richard Zenith writes in his Rilkeintroduction to the Carcanet edition of Neue Gedichte (New Poems – page 15):

All poets can do harm to their fellow men and women in their own way; although Berryman subscribed … conscientiously… to the doctrine of our needs and duties… he created social and mental havoc on a scale which makes Rilke’s withdrawal from the usual demands of love and marriage seem – as indeed it was – a scrupulous necessity for his survival as a poet, a way of exercising his own sort of moral humanity. Rilke remained deeply attached to his wife and daughter, in spite of the fact that he could not and did not live with them, and was always anxious for their welfare.

Just as this fascinating exploration was getting off the ground, decluttering led me to discover two long neglected books in what turned out to be a fatal derailing of my plan. Did I hear someone echo Lady Macbeth, whispering ‘infirm of purpose’?

Next time I’ll try and explain why the distraction of Samuel Beckett, in Cronin’s biography, and Marcel Proust, in a chapter of Lehrer’s book, turned out to be so hard to resist, after my attempt at decluttering brought them to light again. I was checking to see if my not having read them for years meant that I could take them to the charity shop. As soon as I opened them I was doomed to read them from cover to cover. But further exploration of that will have to wait a while.

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A Mumbai pavement

The drive up the section of the Western Ghats from Mumbai towards Panchgani was much less scary than the last time we came. Instead of the single track, with two way traffic winding alongside vertiginous drops into the valleys below, we wound our way serenely up and down three-lane dual carriageways higher and higher into the mountains, past the same river and in sight of the same lakes as before.

Even so it was a longer drive than expected, more than five hours, because of the dense volume of traffic leaving Mumbai.

The closer we got the more peaceful it became. Unlike Mumbai, Panchgani had not changed all that much – slightly busier perhaps, but still much quieter, much slower, than Mumbai.

I’m publishing a couple of poems relating to this place, one that I love the most in India. One is the reposting last Monday of the story of the burial of my wife’s grandma and the next one tries to capture the emotional impact of this most recent visit.

This post has a different purpose.

Bougainvillea in Panchagani

The value of this visit did not just reside in revisiting old haunts, like grandma’s grave, Table Land or my wife’s old school, important as those experiences were.

This post is going to try and record something much harder to define. It is something that belongs among those strange coincidences and sudden leaps of faith that led to my becoming a psychologist and choosing the Bahá’í path. It didn’t involve anything so dramatically life changing but it had something of the same strange unsettling power.

Panchgani is much colder than Mumbai, though I did not really notice this until after sunset. We hadn’t thought to bring any warmer clothes than those we had been wearing at sea level.

As the sun was setting and we sat on the patio of the Prospect Hotel where we were staying, the conversation became an ever more intense exploration of spiritual issues with like-minded souls (I’ll not share their names for fear of embarrassing them). Two of them were as deeply interested in spiritual psychology as I am. Rarely have I ever had the chance to meet with psychologists with a spiritual bent, probably because such people are as almost as rare as the Phoenix, for reasons I have explored elsewhere on this blog. The sense of rising energy became stronger every moment as the exploration continued and I did not notice at first how much I was shivering.

At last I apologised for breaking the flow of the conversation saying that I had to go to my room to get my dressing gown, the only warm garment I had with me. Immediately, I was offered a warm sweater, which I gratefully accepted, and sat down again to immerse myself once more in the refreshing flow of conversation.

As we spoke many books were mentioned. I threw into the mix at various points the recent books I’d read about Shoghi Effendi through the eyes of the pilgrims who visited Haifa in his lifetime, and at least one book from long ago – Schweder’s Thinking Through Cultures – which I blogged about a long time back.

One of my companions mentioned a book I’d never heard of: The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak. I wrote the title and the author down, but didn’t think much more of it at the time. I noticed that the sweater had not done much to diminish my underlying sense of shaking which clearly wasn’t to do with feeling cold anymore. It didn’t feel like shivering anymore: perhaps it had never been only that.

I had to entertain the possibility that some other seismic change was taking place at an altogether different level, something perhaps to do with the territory we were treading together or the connection that was active between us all or maybe both.

Anyway, once the intensity of the conversation died down, the rest of the visit, though memorable for the beauty of the place, the hospitality of our hosts and tranquility of the whole environment, lacked anything quite so dramatic.

We were very sad to leave the following day after so short a stay.

It was only later that a synchronicity occurred that suggested that the conversation in Panchgani might have had more to it than I thought.

I was lamenting to my wife that I should have brought more books. I had finished the two massive tomes I’d brought with me. I thought they’d last the whole trip and possibly beyond. Three weeks, with not much other work to do, can gobble up more pages than I realized.

A few hours later there was a knock on the door.

‘It’s a parcel for you,’ my sister shouted.

‘For me?’

‘Yes, for you.’

I went to the door and signed for the package the postman handed over.

I looked at the label. It was from the person who had recommended the book by Shafak. I could tell immediately the parcel contained a book.

You will have already guessed which book it contained. You’ve got it: The Forty Rules of Love.

As usual I checked out the reviews. One of them referred to it as a children’s book, not my usual diet. Other reviews and a quick glance inside the book itself quickly dispelled that delusion. I don’t know (m)any children who would read their way through this book.

Even more convincing was my web search of the topic and the discovery of the entire list of 40 rules in condensed form. Some of them were amazingly resonant. I’ll deal with the issue of whether they are expressed in this way by either Shams or Rumi later.

Take Rule 6 for example: ‘Loneliness and solitude are two different things. When you are lonely, it is easy to delude yourself into believing that you are on the right path. Solitude is better for us, as it means being alone without feeling lonely. But eventually it is the best to find a person who will be your mirror. Remember only in another person’s heart can you truly see yourself and the presence of God within you.’

One sentence in particular struck a chord with me: ‘Solitude is better for us, as it means being alone without feeling lonely.’

Ever since childhood, with its experiences of stays in hospital for surgery before the days when parents could remain close, I have felt that in the end I cannot be absolutely sure that, in times of need, I will have someone there to support me. I learned the importance of self-reliance early and have practiced it often. This, combined with my introversion, means that loneliness is not a feeling I’m familiar with. I don’t generally feel lonely when alone. I invent, or perhaps naturally possess, purposes to pursue by myself. I love the company of like-minded hearts as the Panchgani episode illustrates, but I can use books, writing, art and nature as satisfactory substitutes for quite long periods of time if necessary. So, I relate to that point, though admittedly in my fashion. I’m not so clear about the mirror idea.

I also found I related pretty strongly to Rule 9 as well: ‘East, west, south, or north makes little difference. No matter what your destination, just be sure to make every journey a journey within. If you travel within, you’ll travel the whole wide world and beyond.’

Not only have my tendencies in this direction been reinforced by the spiritual path I travel, in that Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, both quotes ‘Alí, Muhammad’s successor in the Seven Valleys (34):

. . . . reflect upon the perfection of man’s creation, and that all these planes and states are folded up and hidden away within him.

“Dost thou reckon thyself only a puny form
When within thee the universe is folded?”

and in the Hidden Words (from the Arabic 13) directly urges us to recognise that if we ‘turn our sight unto’ ourselves we may find God standing within us, ‘mighty powerful and self-subsisting.’ This same idea is echoed in the Quaker phrase used by George Fox who spoke of ‘that of God in every man.’

Poetry also has reinforced these tendencies within me. I’ll quote just two examples, the first from an Anglican priest.

The best journey to make
is inward. It is the interior
that calls. Eliot heard it.
Wordsworth turned from the great hills
of the north to the precipice
of his own mind, and let himself
down for the poetry stranded
on the bare ledges.

(R. S. Thomas: ‘Groping’ page 328, Collected Poems)

And the second from a Jesuit priest looking at the dark side of that immensity, something which puts many of us off such explorations:

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there.

(Gerard Manley Hopkins: No worst, there is none)

I don’t think it’s something only priests tend to do, by the way, but maybe not all poets – only poets who are also priests perhaps. I must check out George Herbert and John Donne: I don’t remember anything of quite that kind in their work, though I’m fairly  sure Thomas Traherne came pretty close. I may just need to revisit every other poet on my shelves in case a find a black swan poet of the interior who isn’t a priest: my first ports of call will probably be Henry Vaughan, a 17th Century medic and mystical poet, David Gascoyne, whose later poetry became distinctly mystical, followed by Wordsworth and Eliot as Thomas points firmly in their direction. One of my favourite Wordsworth poems, – Ode on the Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood – according to some, owes a debt to Vaughan, something else to tease out if possible.

That’s enough for now. Next time I’ll close in on the question of the Rules’ origin.

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The Water Seller of Seville: Velázquez

Meditation is the key for opening the doors of mysteries. In that state man abstracts himself: in that state man withdraws himself from all outside objects; in that subjective mood he is immersed in the ocean of spiritual life and can unfold the secrets of things-in-themselves. To illustrate this, think of man as endowed with two kinds of sight; when the power of insight is being used the outward power of vision does not see.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Paris Talks

I haven’t republished this sequence since 2015. Given my brief look yesterday at Koestenbaum’s levels of consciousness it seemed worthwhile repeating this sequence which contains a brief explanation of Rifkin’s model. 

Recently I have been falling over books that reveal sceptics turning a bit mystical, agnostics extolling empathy and scientific therapies rooted in developing kindness. What on earth is the world rising to?

Tim Parks is the sceptic I referred to. In his intriguing book Teach Us to Sit Still, the title of which is taken from T.SEliot, he unfolds his journey from debilitating pain to relative health via Shiatsu and meditation. He only needed a more explicit touch of McGilchrist to complete his account of his journey.

He describes his obsessive trawling of the internet in search of insight about his condition, which he at first thought might be to do with his prostate, and reflects upon his situation as he leans exhausted against a stone column near his home:

The Pilotòn is about two feet in diameter and ten feet high and dates back to Roman times. . . . . .

Since the operation, I get a kind of tickle and fullness, but I haven’t been able to achieve a proper . . .

This is silly.  Like when I started thinking of the waterseller’s fig as a prostate. Yet I notice that my mind is more at ease with these eccentric analogies than with the information onslaught of the net. I have the impression they bring me closer to some truth about my condition, but in the way dreams do. Something important is staring you in the face, only you can’t decode it. It won’t come out in words. That’s the fascination of dreams. And certain paintings. There is truth that can’t be said, knowledge you can’t access or use. My mind wanders off in these enigmas and after a while I find I’m feeling a little better. Is it a placebo effect? One day, I suppose, I will discover the meaning of Velázquez‘s painting. Or may be that would spoil it.

(Page 105-6)

I could produce many other quotes from Parks that reinforce McGilchrist’s depiction of how the world of the right hemisphere differs from that of the language-based left. One more will have to suffice for now:

Words can describe a mental experience, after the event, but had the same words been spoken to me a thousand times before the experience [of letting go/unquestioning acceptance], I would no more have understood them than a child born in the tropics would understand sleet and snow.

(Page 238)

McGilchrist makes precisely the same point.

One conclusion that Parks draws from his experience concerns our relationship with our bodies.

Finally, when [a moment of intense insight at a meditation retreat] was really over and I could go to the bathroom to wash my face, I was struck, glancing in the mirror, by this obvious thought: that the two selves that had shouted their separateness on waking that morning almost a year ago were my daily life on the one hand and the ambitions that had always taken precedence over that life on the other. I had always made a very sharp distinction between the business of being here in the flesh, and the project of achieving something, becoming someone, writing books, winning prizes, accruing respect. The second had always taken precedence over the first. How else can one ever get anywhere in life?

(Page 241)

 

Emp CivilThis insight paves the way for what Rifkin has to say in his book The Empathic Civilisation. While determined to keep himself grounded in the body, he takes off into the ether of global empathy on evolutionary wings. The idea of embodiment is central to his thesis:

Both the Abrahamic faiths . . . . as well as the Eastern religions . . . either disparage bodily existence or deny its importance. So too does modern science and the rational philosophy of the Enlightenment. For the former . . . the body is fallen and a source of evil. . . . . For the latter, the body is mere scaffolding to maintain the mind, a necessary inconvenience to provide sensory perception, nutrients, and mobility. It is a machine the mind uses to impress its will on the world.

(Page 141)

Rifkin defends the body against these attacks.

The notion of embodied experience is a direct challenge to the older faith- and reason-based approaches to consciousness. . . . . The idea of embodied experience takes us past the Age of Faith and the Age of Reason and into the Age of Empathy, without, however, abandoning the very special qualities of the previous world-views that continue to make them so attractive to millions of human beings.

(Page 143)

His take on embodiment, which is centred on the notion that all embodied experience is inherently relational, comes to some surprising conclusions:

The embodied experience philosophers, by contrast, suggest that understanding reality comes not from detachment and exercise of power but from participation and empathic communion. The more deeply we empathise with each other and our fellow creatures, the more intensive and extensive is our level of participation and the richer and more universal are the realms of reality in which we dwell. Our level of intimate participation defines our level  of understanding of reality. Our experience becomes increasingly more global and universal in character. We become fully cosmopolitan and immersed in the affairs of the world. This is the beginning of biosphere consciousness.

(Page 154)

Much of what Rifkin writes is impressively thought-provoking but it needs to be approached with caution as he is also capable of producing strings of statements that are breath-takingly implausible such as:

Oral cultures are steeped in mythological consciousness. [So far, so good.] Script cultures give rise to theological consciousness. [Problems creep in. For example, why not the other way round, I find myself asking? Do I smell a touch of reductionism here?] Print cultures are accompanied by ideological consciousness. [Apart from anything else, is it that easy to distinguish between a theology and an ideology? We can make a god of almost anything or anyone and determining where the god of an ideology morphs into the God of a religion may be a matter more of degree than of kind.] First-generation centralised electronic cultures give rise to full-blown psychological consciousness. [As a retired psychologist I’m not sure I have the energy to start on this one except to say that it could only have been written by someone who had momentarily forgotten or never known the highly impressive sophistication of Buddhist psychologies. I am not aware that you can get more full-blown than that. If he had said wide-spread commonplace psychologising I might have bought it.]

(Page 182)

This example is fairly typical of the traps he falls into as an enthusiastic manufacturer of his particular theory of everything social. In spite of these caveats his book is a major achievement and raises issues of great importance in a clear and compelling fashion for the most part. I find I believe him when he writes:

The more deeply we empathise with each other and our fellow creatures, the more intensive and extensive is our level of participation and the richer and more universal are the realms of reality in which we dwell.

How exactly might we put such an insight into practice? There is a way, explained in a recent book, whose discourse appeals to me both as a psychologist and as a Bahá’í (as if those two things were essentially different in any case).

But this will, I’m afraid, have to wait for the next post.

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I am only at page 118 of this marvellous book but happily  has finished it already and written a fitting review which I couldn’t resist sharing right away, so I scheduled it to appear after this morning’s piece on David Jones. Below is a short extract: for the full article see link.

In 1966, Robert Speaight published a biography of Eric Gill, a book that the poet and artist David Jones, an old friend of Gill’s, was asked more than once to review. But every time he refused. Jones, who was by then living in a dilapidated boarding house in Harrow-on-the-Hill, and among whose tenants was a lobotomised salesman, had firm ideas about biography. “I don’t like a person [writing] more than one biography in a lifetime,” he told a friend. “He cannot have researched the man properly.” Speaight, having already produced several lives, was not to be trusted with “the complex quiddities & haecceities of the chap”.

Jones’s biographer, Thomas Dilworth, has devoted 30 years to writing his book. Whether he will ever produce another major life, I don’t know. But if we’re talking about quiddity, his labours have not been in vain. Those interested in Jones’s art (his dreamy watercolours, his masterly engravings), or in his singular poetry (the great work is In Parenthesis, a modernist epic inspired by his experiences in the trenches that TS Eliot regarded as a masterpiece), will not be disappointed with the careful, delicate way Dilworth connects them to his confounding story. But the real joy of his book is not analytical. It is that it makes Jones so vivid. Sweet, eccentric and unexpectedly comical, there are moments when it is almost as if you can smell him: the damp of his long overcoat; the must of hoarded newspapers as he reluctantly opens the door of his room. Glamorous people come and go: Jones’s circle included Ben NicholsonKenneth ClarkClarissa Eden, and (the mind boggles) the Queen Mother. He, however, never changes, in the sense that he is always vulnerable, unpredictable, stubborn and (determinedly so) impoverished. Half-man and half-boy, sometimes you feel his genius is the only straightforward thing about him.

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Besides which there was the heavy battery operating just beneath the ridge, at a kept interval of minutes, with unnerving inevitability, as a malign chronometer, ticking off with each discharge an exactly measured progress toward a certain and prearranged apocalypse.

(From In Parenthesis by David Jones – Part 6, page 135)

I was in Waterstones in Cardiff at the end of March, just browsing aimlessly.

Even so, because I knew a book on David Jones was soon to come out, I thought I’d check that one out just in case. Nothing in Biography. In the Arts Section though I found something. A large powder-blue cover with an intriguing tree-scape on it: The Art of David Jones. Even a quick flip through revealed page after page of superb reproductions of engravings and paintings displaying a captivating beauty which hinted at something beyond the scene, person or situation depicted.

There was no price that I could see. I picked it up anyway and headed for the psychology section. Nothing much there.

Smart Thinking had one book of interest: The Distracted Mind. It seemed to be delving into the same ground as Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows but a bit more deeply into the psychology of distraction and smart technology. I picked that up as well.

A brief scour of the rest of the shelf revealed nothing. I headed for the till.

After a short wait a member of staff appeared.

‘How much is this?’ I asked, handing over the David Jones book. ‘If it’s £100 I’m putting it back.’

She scanned its barcode.

‘£35,’ she informed me.

This was less than I had paid for the equally beautiful book I had bought about Stanley Spencer after first spotting it in Liverpool’s remarkable Central Library. I instantly agreed to buy it. As it turned out it was by the same publisher: Lund Humphries.

At this point I spread across the desk at least three book tokens, my points card and a Waterstones Stamp Card. It took several minutes to work out that, after all of these had been emptied, I owed £15 but had gained six stamps on my card and heaven knows how many points. It seemed a good deal.

Since then I have acquired another book token which should cover most of the cost of Dilworth’s David Jones biography which I still intend to buy.

Why am I prepared to invest so much money, even if most of it is a gift, in books about David Jones?

‘In Parenthesis’

Near the Serpentine

My fondness for and interest in David Jones as a poet goes back a long way. More than 20 years in fact. The story of my first reading of In Parenthesis illustrates how much he matters.

It had been a long weekend meeting. I was shattered. I walked across Hyde Park by the Serpentine to Paddington Station. When I reached the station, for some reason I convinced myself my train was in and boarded it, dumping my stuff on the seat and placing my copy of In Parenthesis on the table. I felt really hot and thirsty.

In blind reaction, I did something I had never done before and have never repeated since. I got off the train and went to the Upper Crust stall to buy a coffee.

It was as I was standing in the queue that I realised that the train I had put my stuff on was not going to Hereford. It was not even going anywhere near there. I had chosen completely the wrong train.

Blind panic.

I dashed back to the train, scrambled up my stuff from the seat and stumbled back to the concourse with it awkwardly in my arms. As I did so I heard the train pulling out behind me.

As I tidied up my possessions again on a nearby bench, I realised I had donated my copy of In Parenthesis to the rail company – can’t remember which one. I was furious with myself. On the way to London I had been deeply absorbed in reading this compelling description of the front line in the First World War, the intensity of my interest probably fuelled by a desire to know more of what my taciturn father never spoke, his experience of the trenches in the Machine Gun Corps. T S Eliot, its publisher in 1937, regarded it ‘as a work of genius.’ I was so looking forward to finishing reading it on the way home, even though I was tired.

I had squandered this delight in the hope of a cup of coffee!

Needless to say, after I had stopped beating myself up for my stupidity, and had calmed down at home, I took the first opportunity to buy a replacement copy of the 1978 Faber & Faber edition. And at least I hadn’t continued in the queue long enough to see all my luggage receding out of the station, powerless to retrieve it. And as for the strange looks the other passengers cast on me, I couldn’t care less. It was not the loss of face I cared about, but the loss of the book.

The Art

I am 150 pages into the book on his art and do not regret for one moment having bought it. There is nothing better I could have spent the book tokens on.

The authors, Ariane Bankes and Paul Hills, manage to combine clear explanations of his developing technical skill with a strong sense of what the particular piece of art represented for Jones. At the peak of his career he was producing something like 50 paintings a year, except when what might have been recurrences of some form of post-traumatic stress reaction derailed him, as they did from time to time. The war had made an indelible impact upon him, as upon so many others. That it led in the end in his case, nearly twenty years later, to one of his masterpieces, In Parenthesis, is a blessing that goes some way to compensate for the curse.

It will take me some time to absorb the richness and depth of his art, with which I was not previously familiar, and to revisit his poetry, which I haven’t read for at least a decade and a half, before I can say more. Both his poetry and his art are challenging in their intricacy and in the honesty with which they confront the challenges of both war and peace. The complexity of some of his paintings doesn’t translate well into the smaller format of the page. Even so, the skill, delicacy and power come across sufficiently strongly often enough to give me a foothold at least on the cliff of their significance, and make the effort of further attempts to climb higher seem well worthwhile.

The best I can say for now, at least about his poetry, is this. Though he is acclaimed by Dilworth, his recent biographer,  as a ‘lost modernist,’ I do not feel his kind of modernism is the usual capitulation to materialistic incoherence and obscurity. Rather he stands with T S Eliot, the later W H Auden and R S Thomas (though he insisted on using only two of his names) as someone with his gaze fixed beyond the material even as he replicates the complex chaos of our age on the surface of much of his work. He repays rather than repels the effort of engaging with his struggle to articulate his perspective on the ineffable. I am convinced this will also be true of his art. I’ll let you all know if I change my mind.

Even at this early point in my encounter, I just thought it was worth flagging up how much I valued the work of a poet-painter who has somehow stayed under the radar of widespread popularity for so long.

It’s time he was more widely appreciated. Maybe this will help a little to achieve that.

Liverpool Library

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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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