Saturday, January 28, 2006

Randall Jarrell

Randall Jarrell (1914-1965)

I write this post while listening to the intense voice of the famous American poet and critic, Randall Jarrell.  Jarrell’s reading voice is intense, moving, passionate, staccato, ponderous, profound, both painful and paining, discomfiting and moving.  Listen to any recording of this poet and critic and you will be transfixed and moved – even if you don’t understand too much.  Indeed, understanding is not the point of good poetry.  Experiencing, feeling and living the poem is more important – and this you will certainly do with Jarrell.  I have been enamoured and haunted by Jarrell’s voice, and consequently his poems, since I was at college in the late 1970s.  A lecturer we had back then, John Devitt, played us a recording of Jarrell reading his war poems.  Boy, was I moved.  I even asked him for a loan of the tape to make a copy of it – a copy I still have to this day.  If you listen to Randall just let the words pour out over you like a sort of “disturbing” balm.  I was almost going to say “healing”, but this would be grossly inaccurate because Jarrell was a deeply existential figure, too aware and maybe too moved by the evil human beings do to each other to be in any sense a “comfortable” poet.  Don’t listen to Randall unless you like being somewhat disturbed and unsettled.  Jarrell explores the shadowy, muddy, bloody, smelly and brutal side of humanity oftentimes.  Nonetheless he has much to teach those who peddle war as an answer to humankind’s problems, and much to teach us about sensitivity to others.  I will quote here Jarrell’s most famous poem – a poem of his which has been anthologised more than any other.  It is, of course, the famous Death of the Ball Turret Gunner

The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner
From my mother's sleep I fell into the State, And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze. Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life, I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters. When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

I include above a picture of a young Randall Jarrell during his active service days in The American Army.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Working with Images 5

“With twice as many fighters as The Royal Air Force, and countless more bombers, in June 1940 there seemed little or no chance that the Luftwaffe could be stopped. But over the next three and a half months nearly three thousand pilots - drawn from fifteen nations (who I am proud to see are represented here today) - flew with the most remarkable courage and tenacity day after day, night after night, to counter the German onslaught. During the Battle almost 550 pilots were killed defending this island. And nearly half of all those who flew in the Battle of Britain were dead by the end of the War. But by late 1940 it had become clear that, incredibly, the Royal Air Force had overcome quite overwhelming odds, making the invasion of Britain impossible”

This is a quotation from a speech by HRH The Prince of Wales for the unveiling of the Battle of Britain monument at the Embankment, London, Sunday 18th September, 2005

I quote these words by way of introduction to another short brilliant poem I like.  This one was written by an actual pilot in The Battle of Britain who perished at the young age of 19, though not in that particular battle.   Once again the images are brilliant.

High Flight

Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings; Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth Of sun-split clouds - and done a hundred things You have not dreamed of - wheeled and soared and swung High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there, I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung My eager craft through footless halls of air. Up, up, the long, delirious, burning blue I've topped the windswept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew. And, while with silent, lifting mind I've trod The high untresspassed sanctity of space, Put out my hand and touched the face of God.

by John Gillespie Magee

[Magee was a fighter pilot with the Royal Canadian Air Force when he wrote the above poem. He was killed at age 19 when shot down in the World War II Battle of Britain. The poem has been a favorite of pilots, and was carried to the Moon by several of the Apollo astronauts.]

I have included a photo of John Gillespie Magee above, downloaded from the link to the quoted site, q.v. - it is excellent!

Monday, January 23, 2006

Working with Images 4

Working with Images (4)

One of my all time favourite poems is possibly the only one written by its author – or at least the only known one.  He has an unusual name Chidiock Tichborne, one which I particularly like for its uniqueness.  Who was this Chidiock Tichborne, you may ask?   Well, he lived in Elizabethan times.  This is what the Wikipedia says (see ): “In 1583, Tichborne and his father were arrested and questioned concerning the use of "popish relics". Though released without charge, records suggest that this was not the last time they were to be questioned by the authorities over their religion (Roman Catholic obviously). In June 1586, Tichborne agreed to take part in the Babington Plot to murder Queen Elizabeth and replace her with the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots who was next in line to the throne. The plot was foiled by Sir Francis Walsingham using a double agent and though most of the conspirators fled, Tichborne had an injured leg and was forced to remain in London. On August 14, he was arrested and sentenced to death.”
So much for the background.  What really moves me is the imagery which the young Chidiock uses in this famous poem written shortly before he was executed for treason at the early age of 28 years:
On the Eve of His Execution
My prime of youth is but a frost of cares,
My feast of joy is but a dish of pain,
My crop of corn is but a field of tares,
And all my good is but vain hope of gain;
The day is past, and yet I saw no sun,
And now I live, and now my life is done.
My tale was heard and yet it was not told,
My fruit is fallen, and yet my leaves are green,
My youth is spent and yet I am not old,
I saw the world and yet I was not seen;
My thread is cut and yet it is not spun,
And now I live, and now my life is done.
I sought my death and found it in my womb,
I looked for life and saw it was a shade,
I trod the earth and knew it was my tomb,
And now I die, and now I was but made;
My glass is full, and now my glass is run,
And now I live, and now my life is done.
   Chidiock Tichborne (1558September 20, 1586)
The picture I have placed at the top centre of this post is one I took of the Pope's Cross, Phoenix Park, Dublin in 2003.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Working with Images 3

Working with Images (3)

To Hell and Back:

I have already mentioned how powerful images are in my last two posts.  The title I have given this piece is “To Hell and Back”.  The polar images of “hell” and “heaven” have been used to describe the whole gambit of reality as we experience it – from the absolute lows (hell, obviously) to the absolute highs (heaven, obviously).  There are, of course, myriad states of being/non-being in between these poles.

I wish to allude to images that describe depression in this post.  Firstly, I suffer from endogenous depression, diagnosed when I was 40 years old (8 years ago).  In retrospect I had suffered from it since I was at least 25, and it went undiagnosed for some 15 years in-between.  However, as life goes, things came to a head (another image) in 1998 when I was hospitalised for a period of 7 weeks, diagnosed correctly and offered the proper treatment.  In short, I have not looked back since.

Now to those images of depression.  Needless to say I have read much on the nature of depression these last 8 years and have discussed it will fellow “depressives”.  Images that come up for us “sufferers” are legion.  For me I literally had the experience of being “befogged” before I went into hospital.  It was as if a rather dense fog had descended on me, cutting me off from the world out there, preventing me from seeing things in any way objectively.  Everything and everyone were at a distance.  Conversely it is true to say that I had receded further into myself also.  So “fog” and its associated image of “cloud” are very common pictures used to describe depression.  Other sufferers use terms such as “prison” and “prisoner.”  “Night” and its associates “dark” and “darkness” are also prevalent.  I have often wondered about St John of the Cross’s “Dark night of the soul” and what association it may have with the depressed state!  I am sure it has some little connection.  Weather also provides us with images like “rain” – singers sing of “rainy days” – days when one feels “down” (another images).  Speaking of “down” the images of “drowning” and “suffocating” also come to mind to describe my topic.

“Tunnel” is another image of depression that I have heard used.  Again “dark” and “darkness” are bedfellows here.  Obviously images of hope here would be “light” – we’ve all heard so often of “the light at the end of the tunnel”.  Being “lost” is another powerful image which we can all associate with.  If you get a bout of depression you are literally “lost” to the world.  

I have heard others, still, talk about living as it were in “a glasshouse”, with world able to look in at you and you not being able to leave it and go out and join them outside.  Gerard Manley Hopkins S.J., spoke of the mind having “mountains – frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed”.  I quote from memory so these words may not be 100% correct.  The images then of frightful heights like mountains and cliffs are also potent images of depression.  

Working with these images can be good because as you explore them meditatively and slowly you can also conjure up their opposites, namely the “light” at the end of the “tunnel”, the “light” after the “dark”, “the rising fog”, “The dawn of the new day”, “being found”, “coming down the mountain”, “being saved”, “surfacing from the bottom of the swimming pool”, “being released from prison” and opening the door of the “glasshouse” and walking free!  This is a good note to finish on!

Beannacht leat a scríbhinn.

The image above at the top of this post is a photo I took of a tapestry depicting the Great Blasket at Ionad an Bhlascaoid October 2005.