Friday, June 29, 2007

A Fourth Poem

A Fourth and Final Poem

This poem is probably my last poem for a good while, because they come to me very slowly, painfully and erratically. It could be months before I get the inspiration for another one. This fourth one here is the best of the last clutch of poems. They say there is constant background noise out there in the universe – the Cosmic Microwave Background. It was 1965 when Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, radio astronomers working for Bell Laboratories, found a mysterious microwave signal causing background noise in their radio telescope. The strange part was that the signal seemed to come from everywhere. A group at Princeton was able to identify this radiation as the leftover remnants of the Big Bang, called the Cosmic Microwave Background, or CMB for short. Anyway, this has absolutely no relevance to my poem, or maybe it has. In any case it does not matter. What matters is that the CMB we have constantly around us these supposed days of summer here in Ireland is Rain, Rain and more Rain. Dylan’s words, “a hard rain’s gonna fall” echo in my ear!

Anyway, the rain is the backdrop to this poem. Rain is at once life-giving and life-denying. Lack of it leads to famine. Too much of it leads to flooding. Just enough of it is great. What’s going on for me in this poem? Layers of things from years back – the deaths of my father and friends over the past years, the most recent deaths alluded to in these pages, old love affairs, the other presences in the poem, and also my alter-ego or my deeper spiritual self in the sense of Eliot’s “Prufrock” or “Wasteland” poems all combine to form the foreground of “Downpour.” I hope you like it. I do.

Downpour

Even the downpour, unseasonable,
The cranks on the radio, unreasonable,
Cannot bring us down to those dark places
Where no light is and death reigns.
Like Lear we will rail against
The fury of the storms that hit,

And when our fury’s spent
We will rest a while
With the droplets of rain lulling us
To a sleep full of dreams
Where our lost friends live
Whom we embrace – so real -
Like the touch of your warm silken body -

And the rain keeps falling but who cares,
It waters the dry wastelands of the soul
And brings daisies dancing on the lawn
And a feast of worms for the starlings
That nest above us in the eaves.
They chirp on and on unmindful…

Of knives that cut and kill,
Of the deafening sounds of ambulances,
Of the confusion that reigns
On the dark streets where lost souls live
Behind the doors of death.

In the graveyard there’s a small cross
That marks the spot
Where our young friend lies
Smothered in the flowers of our grief’s love,

And still the rain pours down,
Lashing the windowpane above our bed,
On and on like a sacred mantra
Wishing life not death,
Washing us clean,
Cleansing us of our sins.

A Third Poem



Poem 3

Poem three hereunder marks a personal struggle, the struggle to accept the gradual decline into further dementia of my mother who is the great age of 90 years. In the last year, she has more or less ceased to know us at a conscious level, though my brothers and I fancy that she recognises us at some pre-conscious or sub-conscious level. There are times when she has sparks, literally momentary flashes of clarity, all too brief in a greater firmament of mumbo-jumbo and gobbledegook. I think the effort speaks for itself. Again, I’m not too happy with it as a poem. The third person voice in the poem is me obviously. Whether this attempt at objectifying my experience is successful is questionable indeed.

Say Goodbye to Daddy

He had reworked the words
More times than he cared to count
Yet they still failed to capture
What he wanted –
Still failed to come to much
Save for their sound,
Their grunting sound
Like the groans of the old woman
With half a tongue
Cut away to cancer,
Her smile radiant,
Her gestures open and innocent
Like a child’s.

That evening he had stood for some minutes
At the French windows watching
The last rays of sun
Disappear behind the trees
Choked with early summer leaves.
His mother was lost to him now,
Playing with a teddy like a child
Somewhere behind his back,
But she was happy
In her senseless world.

Still no wisdom came,
No guiding voice
To put some form
On the void –
Except a lunatic laugh
From another old dear
Lost also far away
In another senseless world –
The joke he knew was on him –

Some of these creatures were happy
At least, not tormented
Like those conscious of their plight
Or by grappling with the meaning
Of the struggle to keep going
Despite the odds –
All they knew was what their senses
Told them of their joys and pains
More relevant than any memories past
No matter how significant then.

Of late he had taken to stopping
And staring from the kitchen or toilet window
At sights he once was blind to:
The young neighbours from the East
Playing cards around a table
Just like long ago when he too
Was a boy with a winning hand.
Or then the slow methodical actions of
A hooded crow swallowing its unknown prey
On a neighbour’s roof was a study
Altogether riveting his attention.

On his way out of the ward that night
When he had said a fond goodbye,
His mother looked the teddy in the eye, and said:
“Say goodbye to daddy…Say goodbye to daddy.”

Above is a recent picture of my mam in St Mary's Hospital, Phoenix Park, Dublin.

A Second Poem





Poem 2



Another recent poem shows my desperation at trying to come up with some sense for the kids I’m teaching, some sense to the seeming waste of young life we have been experiencing here in St Joseph’s, my homely place of work. Mind you, who can make sense of the untimely death due to natural causes of a 15 year old who drops dead out of the blue; or the horrific murder at knife-point of an 18 year old lovely human being; or the death by asphyxiation of a 17 year old in his own vomit during the night after a cocktail of drink and drugs? Legions of questions come to my mind over the years of my life, the question Ger Smyth asked me years ago when I was a young teacher starting out on my career. Ger had said to me one morning, “Tim, what’s it all about anyway?” I answered, “Jesus, Ger, that’s too heavy a question for this hour of the morning!” Little did we his friends know that Ger had long suffered from a congenital terminal heart-condition with only three years to live -hence the provenance of his question. Anyway, the effort below is my attempt at struggling to put some shape or meaning on our experiences. I probably at least succeeded in not succeeding!

When Words Fail

There’s nothing left to say,
Not that there was too much in the first place –
We had become almost too intoxicated
With our own poor opinions and ideas
And had started to believe our own shibboleths,
Had almost swallowed whole our own slogans.

We were all clutching at straws then,
Crawling about in the dark for a match
In the hope of casting a little light
While pretending to ourselves and others
That we had some sacred knowledge,
Some insight gathered and garnered
Over years at our mother’s knee.

I tried to comfort him – poor boy –
Distraught at his best friend’s death
But I failed dismally –
My weak words vanishing into air –
“Nothing will bring him back!”
How right he was and is –
Perhaps his first brush with death,
Dark unspeaking death,
Cold as a stone and no blood left –
Expressionless face, too still.
We are unmasked
For the cowards we are –
Our hearts break
And the floodgates open –

Our Christ lies across our mother’s knees –
Grows cold in our embrace.
No mother should have to lose a son so young,
Barely fifteen summers,
Not even half as old as the Galilean.

We are a strange breed,
We kick and strain in search of freedom,
Some little work to be remembered by,
Some sense of self,
Some comfort in another soul,
Some meaning in the journey.

Yet behind it all
We fear our dissolution,
The dust of bone
In the lonely wind.

Above is a picture of Balgriffin cemetery with Seán Nolan's grave in the foreground.

A Recent Poem

Self-Indulgence

I sit here in front of my computer screen hoping for words to shape themselves into meaningful patterns. Sometimes I get great satisfaction from my efforts. Other times very little. Mostly I’m listening either listening to Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen, both of whom often wring a tear from my eyes. Perhaps they are both a little on the deep side, if not morose and possibly depressing. Often, when I re-read what I have written I get a little despondent at the results of the exercise. When I write what sometimes shapes itself into a poem often I feel as if I have crafted what might be a gem, but when re-read a day or two later this poor effort has crumbled into a tawdry trinket made of some ersatz substance – fit only for the waste-paper basket. Maybe, it’s not such a good idea to be adding to the mass of irrelevant words poured out on this WWW?

It’s been a long time since I’ve put up a few poems. Therefore, I’m going to inflict a few of my latest efforts on whoever is so unlucky to be wasting a few minutes with me.

I see three or four poems I might put up here. Forgive me for this utter self-indulgence. I suppose everyone who writes can be forgiven just a little of this latter vice.

The first poetic effort is about the fact that I find myself constantly in need of renovation, of needing always to make a new start after all the fitful and fruitless efforts to make progress in writing or indeed in doing anything worthwhile in my life:

New Start

My desk lies littered
Like my life
With little bits and pieces,
Odds and ends –
A ball of Blu Tack
That I pinch and pull
And roll and shape,
Sundry bills and late night pills,
Old envelopes, notebooks,
All half-filled with
What were once
Wise pithy sayings,
Insights grasped
Like the slippery silver
Of a poisonous mercury;
An old map of walks
In the west of Ireland,
A picture of a boat,
Pens and pencils
Needing a sharpened point,
A phone, a mouse,
A monitor, a keyboard
And all the rest -
All being doors upon doors
Into other magic worlds,
The lure of white blank pages
Crying out for words;
An old message
From a former lover
Written on the back
Of an old bill -
Faded now.

It’s high time
I cleared the decks
And started anew.

Above I have uploaded a picture of my cluttered desk as of today 29/06/2007

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

A Novel on Adolescence



The Catcher in the Rye

This is a complex novel, but on the heels of the last post about the complexity of the human condition, one might not expect less for a novel about the angst of the adolescent years. I read this novel many years ago – in fact it was on the Leaving Certificate course in English as one of the modern novels. I read it in my mid-twenties because I was giving a grind in Honours English at the time to earn some much needed extra cash. The novel had me spell-bound to say the least. Again, I was captivated by the narrator’s voice which essentially means that the style is conversational and direct and that of a friendly confused adolescent.

The Catcher in the Rye is a novel by the reclusive and highly eccentric American novelist J.D. Salinger. This novel was published in the USA in 1951. It was voted by Time magazine in 2005 as one of the top 100 novels written in English since 1923. J.D. Salinger – he was born in Manhattan, New York in 1919 - is still alive and has given very few interviews in his life. The last interview he gave was in 1980 and he has not made a public appearance or written any new work since 1965.

If one reads anything about J.D. Salinger – what little there is to read about – one will find him to be a highly eccentric individual and probably as tormented and angst-ridden as his partially-autobiographical hero Holden Caulfield. Which of us is not so in his or her own way?

Always keep the reader guessing:

I love the technique of keeping the reader guessing. Immediately we open The Catcher we are listening to Holden’s captivating voice and to his story. This boy is 17 years old when he tells the story, but was 16 when the events narrated took place. This protagonist is named in full as Holden Morrissey Caulfield, a tall, lanky, highly critical and depressed sixteen-year-old who academically flunked out of Pencey Prep boarding school. It is not clear whether he was kicked out of school or left it at his own volition. Neither is it clear where Holden is now as a narrator. Is he is in another school, or what the Americans call Juvenile Hall or even in a mental institution? I remember annotating my original copy of the book with the words: “Where is Holden now?” This is a brilliant ploy on the part of Jerome David Salinger. We are left in suspense and in mystery. At the end of the book the reader is given more clues that Holden is narrating the book from a mental hospital. He explains that he will be going to another school in the fall again but doesn't know for sure if he will start applying himself. He finishes talking with these sad, untrusting, cynical and life-sapping words, "Don't ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody".

Is Redemption Possible?

This is another deep question asked by this gem of a book. Can all those “phonies” out there in society be redeemed? Everywhere Holden looks he sees these “phonies”, these two-faced adults in a phony two-faced world. From Holden’s cynical and depressive perspective it would seem that the world cannot be redeemed at all. All its adults are flawed and tainted and show worrying motivations. Sincerity and truth, or if you like to state it in modern psychotherapetic terminology, authenticity and congruence are severely lacking.

The Innocence-Experience Tension

Also I am struck by the age-old tension in literature between Innocence and Experience. William Blake, about whom I have written extensively in a previous post, deals with this topic in a more all-rounded, deeper and less emotionally-fraught way. For him Innocence was a huge value in his life and in the living out in fullness of that life. However, Willaim Blake realised that children have to grow up; they have to come of age and slough off the clothes of childhood for more adult ones. Hence Blake wrote his Songs of Experience to counterbalance, and essentially to magnify the deep truth of his of his Songs of Innocence. It’s not either/or for Blake – it’s both/and. Jerome David Salinger in his protagonist (who is after all only 17 years old) only has time for the Songs of Innocence as it were. However, given his young age, and given that Salinger is writing in a 17 year old’s voice anything more would not have been possible. Consequently, we are in Salinger’s debt for captivating this one-sided experience of a much-troubled and tormented adolescent. That’s why this novel makes good reading for secondary school angst-ridden boys.

A Note About the Title

The title is strange indeed, and it is not explained to us until at least half-way through the novel. During a short conversation with Phoebe, his much-beloved younger sister, Holden reveals the meaning of the novel's title. The idea is based on a misreading of a line in the song "Comin' Thro' the Rye", by the Scottish poet, Robert Burns, which Holden heard a young boy singing once. Holden mistakenly substituted "When a body catch a body, comin' thro' the rye" for "When a body meet a body, comin' thro' the rye." Holden interpreted the line literally, imagining a field of rye at the edge of a cliff, in which children constantly wandered about – as children do - and that someone had the job of catching any who might fall. Thus, he says that he wants to be the catcher, because it serves a real purpose in a world that is otherwise so often phony or trivial or superficial. Here are his own words to his little sister Phoebe, 10 years old: "I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody's around—nobody big, I mean—except me. And I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff—I mean if they’re running and they don't look where they're going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That's all I'd do all day. I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it's crazy . . ."

The standard English version of Robby Burns poem/song is:

Coming Through The Rye.
Chorus. O Jenny is all wet, poor body,
Jenny is seldom dry:
She draggled all her petticoats,
Coming through the rye!

Coming through the rye, poor body,
Coming through the rye,
She draggled all her petticoats,
Coming through the rye!

Should a body meet a body
Coming through the rye,
Should a body kiss a body,
Need a body cry?

Should a body meet a body
Coming through the glen,
Should a body kiss a body,
Need the world know?

Should a body meet a body
Coming through the grain,
Should a body kiss a body,
The thing is a body's own.

Holden is a young romantic and this very much appeals to me, and indeed to most readers. For him, the world of experience and of adulthood is disappointing, in fact more than disappointing, it’s phoney, inauthentic and superficial. It’s a two-faced, hypocritical, besmirched, impure and evil one. Children, childhood and innocence need to be protected. They are pure, or “pure out” (= really pure) as they say in my part of Ireland. I’m not so sure that psychologists would agree on the depth of the purity thereof. However, that’s work for another day. Hence, Holden imagines himself being the “saviour” or as he calls it the “catcher” for all the innocent children. As a child, I often remember my father, my bigger brother, or even another adult saying to me: “Jump, it’s easy, I’ll catch you!” Yes, indeed, we all need to be caught. From Time magazine, 1951, we read the following from J.D. Salinger: “‘Some of my best friends are children,’ says Jerome David Salinger, 32.'In fact, all of my best friends are children.’” Is this a sad comment on life or not, from a 32 year old man?

I suppose, in my own life as a teacher and an adult I have often seen myself as a “catcher.” Indeed, I hear many teachers at school saying, “We saved (caught) Joe X” etc

Phoniness

A major theme undoubtedly is that of what Holden terms “phoniness.” Many adolescents, and indeed adults, feel affronted by the dishonesty and the false pretenses, and the superficiality of the real world. However, every attentive reader will notice that there is much evidence in this novel that Holden himself exhibits much of the same "phoniness" he denounces in others. Holden also lies and pretends to be other than he actually is. I am reminded here of the conntradictions in several young adolescent lads I know who eye up girls, speak about them in the most lewd ways to their mates and try to “have it off” with any good looking girl they meet, while at the same time being protective of younger or older sisters or mothers who are, as it were, “out in the world.” However, our Holden believes that he is honest with himself, and the reader, throughout the book. In this sense, we could say that Holden is an unreliable narrator, criticizing others for faults which he himself later exhibits abundantly. So the question remains in our mind: “How far can we trust Holden?” Maybe that is the question, indeed, that J.D. Salinger puts to us the reader: “how far can we trust anybody?” Salinger’s life would seem to show that he trusted few and certainly suspected as sham and forbidding the real world out there. Hence, the insecurity, eccentricity and reclusivity of our author.

This is a brilliant book and a brilliant read. Ten out of ten on any scale for a modern novel. However, as a reader I am left a little disturbed and not a little disappointed that life cannot be better for this troubled and tormented young man.

The above picture is of some buttercups I took some years back in Newbridge House. I wonder if the Grass is Rye?

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Towards a Personal Philosophy




The Human Condition
(In pursuit of a Personal Meaning)
It would seem logical to state that as we get older we should get a little wiser, that we should have learnt from our grosser mistakes, that we should grow more tolerant, that hard-held opinions become somewhat softened, that we might begin to slough off some of our prejudices, that we might end up being more open to the world with all its myriad traditions, cultures and colours. However, logic is just one small constituent of the overall complexity that forms the human condition. I have already alluded to the fact of Multiply Intelligences spearheaded by the wonderful psychologist, Howard Gardner. Then we have the equally wonderful work of Daniel Goleman on Emotional Intelligence – indeed, we are getting accustomed to using EQ (Emotional Quotient) as well as IQ (Intelligence Quotient) these days.

We are also well aware of the theory or hypothesis of the Two Sides of the Brain that the Left Side deals with the Mathematical/Logical part of our personality while the Right Side deals with the more creative aspects thereof. The concept of Right brain and Left brain thinking developed from the research in the late 1960s of an American psycho-biologist Roger W. Sperry. He discovered that the human brain has two very different ways of thinking. One (the Right Brain) is visual and processes information in an intuitive and simultaneous way, looking first at the whole picture, then the details. The other (the Left Brain) is verbal and processes information in an analytical and sequential way, looking first at the pieces then putting them together to get the whole. Sperry was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1981, although subsequent research has show things aren't quite as polarized as he once thought (nor as simple).

What I am getting at is how complex the human condition really is. No one is quite obviously 100% psychologically sound. No family is either. In fact we all belong to families which are to various and differing extents dysfunctional. Obviously some are more dysfunctional than others, and hence we have a wide variety of psychological and indeed psychiatric pathologies. Recently a good friend gave me a present of a book of Richard P. Feynman’s (the famous Nobel physicist) collected letters which I shall review in these pages before long, and I found this interesting but profound quote therein: “In physics the truth is rarely perfectly clear, and that is certainly universally the case in human affairs. Hence, what is not surrounded by uncertainty cannot be the truth.” (Don’t You Have Time To Think? Penguin Books, 2005, p. xiv.)

However, Feynman was not the first to come with this idea. This “uncertainty” principle, if I may call it that, has a long philosophical tradition dating back to Socrates, maybe even before, who refused to accept anything as obvious and who set about questioning everything, and especially the opinions and prejudices of all his listeners. For Socrates truth, whatever it might be, was always more complex that at first sight.

Life is terribly complex. The truth is neither plain nor simple. Human beings are terribly complex. Their truth is neither plain nor simple. The most fascinating thing in life is meeting others, getting to know them and trying to communicate in meaningful ways with them. Over 27 years of teaching I have never yet met two similar pupils. They are all uniquely different and show a host of varying and differing reactions and feelings. Likewise, in my own personal relationships, I have always found interacting with others the most meaningful of human pursuits.

Teaching is above all about communication. The process of communicating knowledge is always as important, if not more so, than the facts of knowledge communicated as it were. Facts do not really exist “on their own out there in their own world” without the human context and their meaningful communication. Hence today we stress the priority of “Process” over “Content.”

Living is all about communication. Hence, life is exceptionally burdensome, stressful and angst-ridden for any person who has problems with social interaction. In this regard, teaching today has come of age, in so far as other ancillary supports like Special Needs acknowledge, albeit a little too late, this undeniable fact. We have had enacted here in Ireland the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs (EPSEN) Act 2004 and Disability Act 2005. The Department of Education and Science allocates both Resource Teachers and Special Needs Teachers to schools where there is such need. We deal with a host of complex problems like Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome, to name but a few, in our modern schools.

What brought all the above to mind was an interesting juxtaposition of two eccentric characters – one dead, the other still living. As I was meditating on what I might write as regards the wonderful little novel called Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger my mind wandered to another equally eccentric recluse called Howard Hughes, both complex but interesting human beings. Admittedly they were both recluses and highly eccentric, odd and very unusual. They are at the extremes of human behaviour I suppose. However, their eccentricities and strangeness did not, thankfully, go to the extremes of unacceptable public behaviour, or of crimes against other human beings indeed. Nevertheless they serve to illustrate how complex the human being is.

So far in my life (48 years) I have known a college friend who ended her own life, a past-pupil who did so, several acquaintances who have self-harmed, many depressed people (including myself – I was diagnosed with Endogenous or Unipolar Depression when I was 40 and was hospitalized to find the right medication), several Manic or Bipolar Depressives, quite a few alcoholics, several schizophrenics, some former drug addicts, others with various personality disorders (schizoid loner in one case), several with OCD, others who have attempted suicide and so on and so forth, as they say. An interesting book to read on human beings in their multiple complexities would be Painful People by the Australian psychiatrist Joseph Dunn (Gill and Macmillan, 1997). Obviously, I know many other people who do not seem to have any of these more obvious problems, but I’m equally sure that as human beings they have other problems that are unrecognized. I am sure that they are all subject to “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” as Hamlet put it, that, they too, suffer from doubts, from mood swings, from frustrations and from the sheer angst of living etc. Life is never easy, but as we go through it we learn to cope. As we get older, we generally acquire more coping skills.

I think it was St Augustine who said that the world should be a hospital which sought to heal all the wounded souls that lived in it. I like the metaphor. We should each be a doctor or a nurse or a healer to each other. That makes sense to my mind after 48 years of living on this earth. That’s what makes life rich and enriching. We should each seek to communicate with others in ways which are essentially healing. Why should we hurt other human beings or even other sentient living creatures? That’s why Christ and the Buddha have always appealed to me. We should have compassion on others. We should love others. Why should we add any evil acts to a world already over-flowing with such? We should each bring a little healing to our fellow travellers along the pilgrim way, if I may use religious imagery. For those of you of a more agnostic bent, please remember it is just a metaphor.

Indeed, this is very miracle of life – that it is so complex, that human beings are equally non-rational (as distinct from irrational which is a totally different concept) as rational creatures, can be irrational at times, that they have hopes and dreams, weaknesses as well as strengths, passions and pleasures and well as pains and sufferings. The only way to live life is to be open to the complexity-in-mystery that it is, to greet it with acceptance when understanding fails, to fight for justice when necessary, to seek peace where disharmony reigns and to have compassion on all, especially on oneself. To finish this long meandering post with a little wisdom I learnt from Montaigne long ago – “learn to be a friend to others, but above all learn to be a friend to yourself!”

Above is a picture I took of a small statue cum fountain in St Stephen's Green four years ago. It's not a brilliant photograph, but it says something about the human condition, I feel.