Life, Life, Life!

We create the mood, intense and generalised, unaware of detail, but stressed by some regular, recurrent beat, whose natural expression is poetry, and that is the time to read poetry . . . when we are almost able to write it.

When I was at junior school in London, my English teacher lent me a illustrated volume of poems that he had brought back from a trip to the United States. I read the book cover to cover as though it was a single continuous piece of prose. I have no recollection of the title of the book, though its cover is still retained in memory. That it was American gave the book an exotic air that seems risible now, but was common at the time with the emergence of films and comics from that country.

I read that book under the covers by torchlight discovering Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll for the first time. Children read poetry effortlessly and, of course, six or so years after discovering that I loved to read poetry I began writing poems too. Most of those poems have mercifully disappeared with only a single, painfully self-conscious example from my teenage years still surviving.

Virginia Woolf was not a poet, but I can sympatthise with the sentiment quoted above. These last few years I’ve read poetry with the seriousness that attended my childhood reading of Lear and Carroll, though these days I’ll more likely be reading Geoffrey Hill, Friedrike Mayröcker or Anne Carson, rereading Gerard Manley Hopkins and Wordsworth, or scouring sixteenth and seventeenth century anthologies to chase down Geoffrey Hill references.

I resist the urge to write poems, but I almost feel able and I’m not certain that I’ll be able to hold out indefinitely. In 1945, Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicholson edited an anthology of their favourite poems, including the following piece in the July section:

Let us go, then, exploring
This summer morning
When all are adoring
The plum-blossom and the bee.
And humming and hawing
Let us ask of the starling
What he may think
On the brink
Of the dust-bin whence he picks
Among the sticks
Combings of scullion’s hair.
What’s life, we ask;
Life, Life, Life! cries the bird
As if he had heard

No mention is made in the book of the poem’s origin, but the editors offer a thank you to Mr. Leonard Woolf for permission to include a passage from the works of Virginia Woolf. Although the poem did not appear in print as a poem before 1945, a remarkably similar prose version opens Orlando, published in 1928.

Sphere of Harmony

“we are dealing with living objects of art, they have a shadow, but this must be proven in the practice of language, I say”. Reading Friederike Mayröcker’s brutt, or The Sighing Gardens, translated by Roslyn Theobald. Every written word announces: I have thought this, an affirmation of what appears and disappears in thought. What, I often wonder, would be my character, without the affective shadow of literature?

Mayröcker—”so much to write, suddenly everything is multiplying in front of my inner eye, everything seems to have CAUGHT FIRE again”—is one of a few writers that leave me with the sense that there are things to be sought in literature that have yet to be described. Beckett, at his best, of course; Lispector; Llansol. The old chestnuts. It takes just a simple shift of perspective to stop looking for a pattern in the carpet and see all one has read, all one has become and will be, as the resonance of one vast composition. Or is this a symptom of my immersion in McGilchrist earlier this year?

so we bear witness,
Despite ourselves, to what is beyond us,
Each distant sphere of harmony forever
Poised, unanswerable.

Geoffrey Hill, Funeral Music

Gasping for Air

Echoes of D. H. Lawrence’s Pansies, ‘Darkness submerges the stones’ in the twlight thick underdusk in apprehension of being submerged under one’s books. Peter Kien also appears, cocooned from others by his library. I’ve never been able to finish that novel, equally beguiled and repulsed. A shared thought that arrived during the first lockdown when I began packing up books, some to go to friends, others to my local secondhand bookshop, my library almost halved in volume over the last two and a half years. Not yet old but ageing, and wishing to carry less weight; my mind more likely to weave itself warmly into a cocoon of its own thoughts than require another’s associations.

Reading A Horse at Night, in which Amina Cain writes, “What is it that happens when a narrative allows us to look at an image longer than we are ‘supposed’ to?” Echoes from the evocation of how and why she reads. The network of lines that link two places on the map interest me less than the landscape around the plotline. Voice, images, sense of place, atmosphere. For me these are the echoes long after the memory of the chain is dissolved. The vigorously evoked image of the young lady pricking her finger with a needle is almost all that remains of Byron’s comic cantos. Mariana appears, possibly that shade of blue on the cover of A Horse at Night, or just because this book chimes so well with my sense of autumn, or Keats’, ‘They could not sit at meals but feel how well / It soothed each other to be the other by’. Amina Cain: ‘It means a different kind of peace when he is here with me. It is not pure solitude, but I am not, it turns out, a purist.’

When Paul Theroux visited Borges in his dark Maipú flat, he noted ‘prints by Piranesi and books, a collection of Everyman classics and shelves of poetry in no particular order, all battered and sprouting paper page markers, with “the look of having been read”‘. Borges’ library though was small, his memory carrying what seemed an infinite memory of books.

True Poems and Available Reality


During this torrid summer I’ve found refuge in the poetry of Geoffrey Hill, a writer who celebrates an elusive reality of mythical dimensions. The ‘marked / visible absences’ at the centre of Tenebrae share common ground with Samuel Beckett’s failed attempts to express the inexpressible and Maria Gabriela Llansol’s deliberate move away from narrativity into metaphor and figure.

Hill’s meticulous use of language renders stark the impoverishment of the vocabulary of much contemporary writing, contaminated by the sound-bites of social media and journalism. To strive against this impoverishment and in search of a particular clarity Hill is indebted to the OED, the ‘rock out of which my present discourse is hewn, the quarry of my distinctions and definitions’.

Language reveals itself though Hill’s voice. This restorative character, distinct from quotidian discourse, is what draws me to writers like Beckett, Llansol and Friederike Mayröcker. It is where, to paraphrase Wallace Stevens, I find an hour of inexpressible bliss.

I’m a mere dilettante reader of poetry with a desire to apprehend better, sceptical that a non-poet can write about a poem penetratingly. I would however like to feel less inadequate. The following request yielded some good suggestions and may provide new ways to engage with and appreciate poetry’s unique powers.

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Wordsworth’s ‘Old Man Travelling’

Quote

Old Man Travelling
Animal Tranquillity and Decay, A Sketch

The little hedge-row birds,
That peck along the road, regard him not.
He travels on, and in his face, his step,
His gait, is one expression; every limb,
His look and bending figure, all bespeak
A man who does not move with pain, but moves
With thought—He is insensibly subdued
To settled quiet: he is one by whom
All effort seems forgotten, one to whom
Long patience has such mild composure given,
That patience now doth seem a thing, of which
He hath no need. He is by nature led
To peace so perfect, that the young behold
With envy, what the old man hardly feels.
—I asked him whither he was bound, and what
The object of his journey; he replied
‘Sir! I am going many miles to take
A last leave of my son, a mariner,
Who from a sea-fight has been brought to Falmouth,
And there is dying in an hospital.’