Friday, July 04, 2008

A Thousand Splendid Suns - Review

I have already reviewed in these posts Khaled Hosseini's wonderful first novel Kite Runner at this link Kite Runner.  I was enthralled then by the power of this new writer to evoke the whole gamut of human emotions from happiness to sadness and from loneliness to love.  There seemed to be no emotion this marvellous writer could not catch in the web of words.  I wondered at the time where would that writer go from there, and I eagerly awaited his next novel.  The next book from his pen is an equally moving tour de force called A Thousand Splendid Suns (Bloomsbury 2007).  This book has sat on my shelf unopened for six months or more because quite simply I was distracted by other reading and research.  It was as if this reader was postponing a wonderful delight for the calmer moments of the holiday period so that he might savour with greater pleasure the insights of a wonderful writer and equally wonderful human being.

To my mind Hosseini has done a lot to give voice to the voiceless people and victims of the horrific Afghan wars.  I also believe that this writer has done more in these two novels to present to the world a richer and more liberal face of Islam than any purposeful apologia.  We in the West know little or nothing about the marvellous cultural and religious riches of Islamic culture.  Our view of this Middle Eastern culture has been coloured by the inevitable reports of suicide bombers taking out many lives in the name of Allah.  One hopes that it is writers like Hosseini who will be widely read, and that the results of his wonderfully human portrayal of life in Afghanistan during the horrific wars of occupation and later wars of internecine struggle will allow people in the West to have some appreciation for the long suffering peoples of the Middle East.  Islam does have a human face.  Bin Laden is not the only image available.

From the moment I took up A Thousand Splendid Suns I could not leave it down, carrying it with me over a week or so in order that I could read it at any given opportunity.  I found myself reading it in the car before or after a walk and also before and after an interview I had.  As I say, this book is an emotional tour de force which engages the reader across the whole gamut of emotions.  One is captivated by sadness and pity at one instance, by disbelief and anger at another, by sheer horror and almost physical sickness at another and occasionally by the peace and tranquillity of a profound nature that allows of no superficial or saccharine acceptance.  Peace and tranquillity in the bitter soil of Afghanistan is a hard-fought for one and one that simply cannot be taken for granted.

This book reminds me of Roddy Doyle's The Woman Who Walked Into Doors.  In that book Doyle put himself into Paula's head and presented to us, the reading public, what it was like to be a victim of a husband who physically abused her.  Hosseini is doing the same here and he puts himself into the characters of two women protagonists - who outshine all the men we meet in this wonderful book - namely Mariam and Laila.  Hosseini, who is a widely read Afghani Doctor living in America, is scathing in his portrayal of the way women are treated under certain kinds of ultra-right-wing or conservative takes on Islam.  All through this book Mariam and Laila are punched and kicked like rag dolls by their husband - a husband not of their choosing but whom they have been forced to marry by traditional practices of match-making where literally the young girls are "sold" off to far older bachelors of questionable morals.  As a Western reader I found myself revolted by the level of wanton aggression towards women, and sometimes children, in this book.  That Hosseini is telling the truth we are never in any doubt.

However, this is a novel, not a documentary.  It is told like a story from the lips of a wonderfully astute and sensitive storyteller who knows the magic of words, and especially the effect created by the right word in the right place.  As a writer myself I envy him his style, the lightness of language that seems to trip off his tongue so inevitably.  Now I know what my erstwhile English teacher, Bartholomew Doyle, M.A. meant when he said all those years ago - "A true writer,  boys, is possessed of an inevitability of language."   Indeed, Hosseini has this gift in spades.

Writing is a craft which when practised flows with ease.  This novel starts with what I consider a wonderfully simple, direct and loaded sentence.  That sentence is:  "Mariam was five years old the first time she heard the word harami." (Op. cit., 3)  Immediately we are in the mind of a five year old girl and we are introduced to a word we Westerners are ignorant of, and we read on to get the meaning, and on the following page it is translated as "bastard."  Mariam is a bastard child of a rich landlord, Jalil, who has two or three other official wives. Because of Nana's standing or background she cannot be married and hence has to be exiled with her daughter to a wooden and clay shack, called a kolba, out in a lonely wooded area.  The occasion of Nana's calling her own daughter a harami was when the poor little five year old Mariam dropped and broke the last piece of her mother's china.  This is a wonderful and clever scene because it forebodes much breaking and much evil in Mariam's future life.  A clever and intuitive writer realises all too well what he's doing in this simple instance which will become symbolic of the evil that shoots like a sharp and ruthless scimitar through the novel.

The first chapter ends with these sad and bitter words on the mouth of Nana, Mariam's neglected and ostracized mother: 

Nana said, "Learn this now and learn it well, my daughter:  Like a compass needle that points north, a man's accusing finger always finds a woman.  Always.  You remember that, Mariam."  (Ibid., 7)

Mariam did go on to painfully learn this.  She suffers rejection after rejection, first at the hands of her own father Jalil who had always been kind to her but always on his own terms (for the sake of respectability only).  Then she has to live through her mother's suicide and her being matched at 15 years of age with a 45 year old bulldog of man called Rasheed who beats her often to within inches of her life.  One is left in no doubt but that our author excoriates the ultra-conservative traditions of Islam.  Behind it all shines through the wonderfully understated compassion of a more liberal take on Islam, the take of Laila's father and mother, namely Babi and Mammy.  Babi who had gone to Kabul University and had become a teacher.  He is widely read in all the great literature of Afghanistan and other Islamic classics outside the Koran.  

Babi knew most of Rumi's and Hafez's ghazals by heart.  He could speak at length about the struggle between Britain and czarist Russia over Afghanistan.  he knew the difference between a stalactite and a stalagmite, and could tell you that the distance between the earth and the sun was the same as going from Kabul to Ghazni one and a half million times. (Ibid., 99)

However, this gentle and learned Islam, this open and unforbidding Islam, does not get a look in.  In fact Babi and his wife, together with all their learned books are blown to bits by the rockets of the internecine struggle between different factions of the Mujahidin ( this word has many spellings in English - Mujahideen, mujahedeen, mujahedīn, mujahidīn, and mujaheddīn so take your pick). 

The way Hosseini manages to get into the heads of the two women Mariam and Laila is uncannily good.  We are one with them at all times.  We can feel their discomfort before the brutishness of Rasheed who happens to be the character who connects both.  Rasheed looks on a wife as his property who must be hidden behind her burqa (or burqua; also transliterated as burka).  This sleazy old devil gives Mariam her own room and only comes to her when he feels like sex.  He sees her merely as a servant in the house and as a baby-making machine.  Likewise, when he marries Laila, with more than a little dishonesty, he views her in the same manner.  One could argue that he is a little more considerate to Laila as she is far prettier than Mariam. However, they are both mere chattels which Rasheed  uses and abuses at whim.  The level of this abuse is revolting to say the least and had my stomach churning.  How one would like to kill such a monster as this.  I'm aware that this is a novel, but a traditional system which allows men such power is corrupt to the core to say the least.

In the novel there certainly are kindly people like the old Mullah Faizullah who teaches the young Mariam prayers and wisdom from the Koran. He is gentle, kind and considerate to Mariam.  Laila's father is a gentle considerate man also, but such characters are few and far between.

This novel is littered with the wreckage of war; blown up buildings and equally devastated human beings.  All through this novel one feels that the luxuries of culture are mere layers that can be torn away at whim to reveal nothing but hate and grief and more hate and grief.  The hate between rival factions and nations is palpable in this novel while innocent civilians are murdered and crippled in the crossfire - especially women and children.  It is no wonder Hosseini has dedicated this novel to the long-suffering women of Afghanistan.  Likewise, it is unsurprising that this wonderful writer was named a US goodwill envoy to the United Nations Refugee Agency.  Please hit the following links for Hosseini's website where you will get more information on both the author and his work:- KH 

One gets the provenance of the title of the novel eventually on page 172, viz., poor Babi and Mammy with their daughter Laila are preparing at long last to leave the war-torn capital Kabul and Babi is looking forlornly at all his books which he will have to leave behind.  He tells Laila that one verse of a poem has been going around and around in his mind:

All day this poem about Kabul has been bouncing around in my head.  Saib-e-Tabrizi wrote it back in the seventeenth century, I think.  I used to know the whole poem, but all I can remember now is two lines: "One could not count the moons that shimmer on her roofs,/ Or the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls."  (Ibid., 172)

The explosion that blows both her parents away and slightly injures Laila happens soon after this in the novel. We are in Laila's mind when this is happening and the description is mind-blowing.  Other wonderful descriptions are the heartless and perfunctory sex between Rasheed and his two wives; the thoughts of the women as they are being systematically brutalised by Rasheed and the overall feeling the reader gets of downright pity and sympathy and hopefully love for these poor neglected victims of horrific and unpitying war.  The description of the love scenes between Laila and her longtime friend and ultimate husband Tariq are beautifully natural and sublime in their presentation. 

I also loved the way Mariam and Laila eventually build up a good relationship between them - a silent and powerless unity against a brute until eventually...  I won't spoil the novel by saying what that eventuality is.  Also the childless Mariam builds a wonderful relationship with Laila's daughter Aziza (by Tariq, not Rasheed).  Here I agree thoroughly with Hosseini's description of love as connection

The list of forbidden things issued by the decree of the Taliban on page 248 is nothing short of misogyny.  I won't quote them here - I'll leave it to the reader to be disturbed by its sheer lack of all understanding and humanity.  One is left in no doubt that not alone are the Taliban absolute brutes but that they are also anarchists in many senses as they totally undermine culture - including their own.  We have a marvellously tender account of Babi bringing both Laila and Tariq, her eventual husband and longtime friend, to climb the famous Buddhas at Bamiyan (see pages 132 and following) and then later we are presented with the horrible destruction of such irreplaceable heritage at the hands of the same Taliban. (See pages 278 and following).

Mariam's death, which I will not go into here in case I spoil the novel, is told wonderfully.  Once again we are in her mind and can feel what it is like to be facing one's death.  All is beautifully and tenderly described.  How I wish I could write like that.

This is no mawkish novel as any reader will realise even after reading the very first sentence.  It is so full of realism  and indeed reality, far too real most of the time for anyone with a sensitive stomach.  I remember T.S. Eliot saying that "humankind cannot stand too much reality."  After reading this I realise that humankind has stood much reality and more than the closeted Mr Eliot, like any of us equally closeted Westerners, ever possible did or will.  I learned the same from the writings of Viktor Frankl, Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel.

It is a touching and healing moment for Laila, the writer and indeed the reader when she goes to visit the old house or kolba where her dead friend Mariam once lived as a child.  It is a very touching scene.  I must admit the tears began to roll down my cheeks.  I always know a good novel when this happens to me.  Something gives within me; some powerful energy released; a wonderful katharsis; a deep longing to be doing something to heal the brokenness of our sad world.

Sometimes beautiful Laila gets lost in her thoughts and is spirited away by the power of a wisdom that can only be bought in the wake of suffering that her little daughter gets worried and asks, "are you all right, mammy?"  I can hear the child's words in my own mind.  I'd ask the same question myself.  My eyes begin to cloud over with tears.  The ending is realistic, at once simple and profound. Tariq's and Laila's children are playing an alphabet game trying to come up with a name for the new baby which is on its way, and the end sentence is to die for.  I began by quoting the very first sentence.  I will finish here by quoting the last to round off this piece of writing:

But the game involves only male names.  Because, if it's a girl, Laila has already named her.

(Ibid., 367)

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Raiding My Anthologies - Poems That Make You Think 2

I have not read many of Czeslaw Milosz's poems save for two or three, in translation of course.  He was a Polish-Lithuanian poet who lived for more or less the whole span of the twentieth century, born 1911 in Lithuania which was then part of the Russian Empire and he died in 2004 in at his Kraków home, aged 93.  His honours have been many, among which we may list the Nobel Prize in Literature which he won in 1980.  He had long been a poet's poet.  Such luminaries among the world of poets like our own Séamus Heaney looked to this great man with admiration and in awe.  I have heard Heaney interviewed several times and he mentioned his poetic hero.  Be that as it may, I would like to share a beautiful poem which caught my eye because of its title.  It's title is a famous rectangular piazza in Rome called Campo dei Fiori.  For those of you familiar with the main tourist areas of Rome it is near Piazza Navona in on the border of rione Parione (Parione region) and rione Regola ( Regola region).  When you enter the square one's eyes cannot fail but focus on the statue of the great heretic Giordano Bruno. There in the square on 17 February 1600, the philosopher Giordano Bruno was burnt alive by the Roman Inquisition because his ideas were deemed dangerous.

Only a week or two back I heard our own wonderful science and astrophysics journalist talk about how cruelly Giordano Bruno was burnt at the stake because he dared talk about the possibility of other planets like the earth in our solar system.  The Roman inquisition listed as two of his faults, the plurality of worlds and his defence of the Copernican system (Sun at the centre and planets revolving) which had long toppled the Ptolemaic and Aristotelian views of the universe which decidedly had the earth at the centre.  Admittedly these were only two heresies among many other theological ones which the Roman Inquisition under Cardinale Bellarmine sentenced Bruno to an ignominious death.  The WIKI accounts for his final moments thus:

At his trial he listened to the verdict on his knees, then stood up and said: "Perhaps you, my judges, pronounce this sentence against me with greater fear than I receive it." A month or so later he was brought to the Campo de' Fiori, a central Roman market square, his jaw clamped in an iron gag and an iron spike driven through his tongue. He was tied to a pole naked and burned at the stake, on February 17, 1600.  (See this link GB )

It is also startling to realise that poor old Bruno spent some seven years in prison in the Tower of Nona before his final sentence of execution.

Anyway, Milosz mentions Bruno in this great poem as well as the awful suffering of the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto, while those who survived Warsaw were to perish in the Concentration Camps.  I have, in a previous post, discussed a similar connection with this Warsaw Ghetto by including a photograph from one round-up of Jews there which is extremely moving. (You will find this picture at this link here -Warsaw Ghetto Picture )

However, here is the poem for our edification.  It makes sombre but wonderfully moving reading.  As I've mentioned in the last post I feel the Czeslaw Milosz's use of language is wonderful because he has managed to achieve an excellent "objective correlative" in both the squares that come to his mind.  They become the object or hanger on which he can literally hang his emotions and ours.  Now savour the poem, and read it aloud if you can!



In Rome on the Campo dei Fiori
Baskets of olives and lemons,
Cobbles spattered with wine
And the wreckage of flowers.
Vendors cover the trestles
With rose-pink fish;
Armfuls of dark grapes
Heaped on peach-down.

On this same square
They burned Giordano Bruno.
Henchmen kindled the pyre
Close-pressed by the mob.
Before the flames had died
The taverns were full again,
Baskets of olives and lemons
Again on the vendors' shoulders.

I thought of the Campo dei Fiori
In Warsaw by the sky-carousel
One clear spring evening
To the strains of a carnival tune.
The bright melody drowned
The salvos from the ghetto wall,
And couples were flying
High in the cloudless sky.

At times wind from the burning
Would drift dark kites along
And riders on the carousel
Caught petals in midair.
That same hot wind
Blew open the skirts of the girls
And the crowds were laughing
On that beautiful Warsaw Sunday.

Someone will read as moral
That the people of Rome or Warsaw
Haggle, laugh, make love
As they pass by martyrs' pyres.
Someone else will read
Of the passing of things human,
Of the oblivion
Born before the flames have died.

But that day I thought only
Of the loneliness of the dying,
Of how, when Giordano
Climbed to his burning
There were no words
In any human tongue
To be left for mankind,
Mankind who live on.

Already they were back at their wine
Or peddled their white starfish,
Baskets of olives and lemons
They had shouldered to the fair,
And he already distanced
As if centuries had passed
While they paused just a moment
For his flying in the fire.

Those dying here, the lonely
Forgotten by the world,
Our tongue becomes for them
The language of an ancient planet.
Until, when all is legend
And many years have passed,
On a great Campo dei Fiori
Rage will kindle at a poet's word.

Warsaw, 1943
translated by Louis Iribarne
and David Brooks

It is indeed so hard to take an interest in the pain of others.  If it is not my pain, then somehow I can be objective and removed.  What we human beings must begin to learn is to try not alone to sympathise with others but to empathise with them if at all possible.  Maybe that just means visiting the sick, that is your own family, your relatives or friends in hospital, prison or even in self-imposed isolation.  Maybe it means reaching out a helping hand to some poor soul in need.  Maybe it means just brightening another's day with a smile.  Maybe it means just being with someone in silence before the whole mystery of the pain felt by another.  There really are no words, though poets and writers do try, and its in trying that they come to a greater empathy, not sympathy, never pity for their wounded kindred souls.

Above a picture of the famous statue raised at the end of the nineteenth century to the memory of Giordano Bruno at Campo dei Fiori.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Raiding My Anthologies - Poems That Make You Think!

When studying English Literature, all those years ago in the late 1970s, certain terms and definitions stuck in my youthful mind - not that I claim that I readily understood them then; being young and very impressionable and reasonably intelligent is all I can claim for myself then - because they sounded good and I felt they carried a weight of authority which necessitated that I should keep plugging away at trying to understand those terms.  One of those terms that entered my youthful consciousness was that of "Objective correlative."  I'm sure that it was Michael Paul Gallagher, S.J., that introduced me to this fascinating term.  It was first coined by T.S. Eliot in his famous critical commentary on Shakespeare's Hamlet.  Any artistic mechanism by which emotion is evoked in the reader or viewer or listener is what Eliot referred to as an "objective correlative."  In other words, the poet must get an objective construction (my term) or objective means (again my term) to convey how he or she is feeling.  It's certainly not literature (or good literature even) if one expresses the bald emotion.  I remember being at a lecture by Professor Ní Chuilleanáin of TCD who condemned in no uncertain terms what she dismissed as "confessional poems as being practically valueless."  I felt then, and I still feel, that she was far too dismissive and, indeed, very wrong in this contention.  After all, there are many very good confessional poems. However, I do know what she meant, though she over-stated her case, that poems where the "objective correlative" is not strong or is even missing, have nothing other than mawkishness, sentimentality and schmaltz to offer the reader.  T.S. Eliot's own definition of the "objective correlative" is brilliant and very clear:  "The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an "objective correlative"; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked."   (This definition is given at this link here: Objective Correlative ).

Now, what is the reason for this rather longer than usual introduction?  The answer is simple.  I wish to present you here with Derek Mahon's wonderful poem : A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford  where this poet uses a particularly strong "objective correlative" for his own emotion and for the corresponding emotion of his readers or listeners.  That things break is one of the earliest lessons we all have to learn and it heralds the first inklings of growth in the young child.  As we grow older still we realise that people break too; that they age and grow ill; that they eventually die; that even whole villages, towns and cities of peoples have been wiped out by nature, and worse by their fellow men; that whole civilizations indeed have died out.  Mahon's "objective correlative" in this beautifully handled poem is simply as the title puts it, a "disused shed."  Upon opening the door and looking into the shed he sees amidst "bathtubs and the washbasins /A thousand mushrooms crowd to a keyhole." All the different, broken and rusted things of mankind are there with vegetation overtaking them and rusting them down to nothingness.  Through all these rusting and corrupting things, he hears the voices of peoples and civilisations that have been lost or destroyed.  This poem speaks also of the fall into dereliction of the old Big House of our father's and grandfather's era, after the foundation of the modern Irish State.  It was written during the late 1970s, or thereabouts, when the Northern Ireland Troubles were in full swing and hence there is a palpable fear that certain communities there might perish and be lost, too.



A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford

Let them not forget us, the weak souls among the asphodels
      Seferis — 'Mythistorema'

For J.G. Farrell

Even now there are places where a thought might grow
Peruvian mines, worked out and abandoned
To a slow clock of condensation,
An echo trapped forever, and a flutter
Of wildflowers in the lift-shaft,
Indian compounds where the wind dances
And a door bangs with diminished confidence,
Lime crevices behind rippling rainbarrels,
Dog corners for bone burials;
And a disused shed in Co. Wexford,

Deep in the grounds of a burnt-out hotel,
Among the bathtubs and the washbasins
A thousand mushrooms crowd to a keyhole.
This is the one star in their firmament
Or frames a star within a star.
What should they do there but desire?
So many days beyond the rhododendrons
With the world waltzing in its bowl of cloud,
They have learnt patience and silence
Listening to the rooks querulous in the high wood.

They have been waiting for us in a foetor
Of vegetable sweat since civil war days,
Since the gravel-crunching, interminable departure
of the expropriated mycologist.
He never came back, and light since then
Is a keyhole rusting gently after rain.
Spiders have spun, flies dusted to mildew
And once a day, perhaps, they have heard something —
A trickle of masonry, a shout from the blue
Or a lorry changing gear at the end of the lane.

There have been deaths, the pale flesh flaking
Into the earth that nourished it;
And nightmares, born of these and the grim
Dominion of stale air and rank moisture.
Those nearest the door growing strong —
'Elbow room! Elbow room!'
The rest, dim in a twilight of crumbling
Utensils and broken flower-pots, groaning
For their deliverance, have been so long
Expectant that there is left only the posture.

A half century, without visitors, in the dark —
Poor preparation for the cracking lock
And creak of hinges
. Magi, moonmen,
Powdery prisoners of the old regime,
Web-throated, stalked like triffids, racked by drought
And insomnia, only the ghost of a scream
At the flashbulb firing squad we wake them with

Shows there is life yet in their feverish forms.
Grown beyond nature now, soft food for worms,
They lift frail heads in gravity and good faith.

They are begging us, you see, in their wordless way,
To do something, to speak on their behalf
Or at least not to close the door again.
Lost people of Treblinka and Pompeii!
'Save us, save us,' they seem to say,
'Let the god not abandon us
Who have come so far in darkness and in pain.
We too had our lives to live.
You with your light meter and relaxed itinerary,
Let not our naive labours have been in vain!'

From Collected Poems (Gallery Press, 1999)

Above, a picture I took some years ago of the detritus of modern life in the aftertide at Clontarf.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Raiding My Anthologies - How Poems Work

Summer is a monastic experience for this writer.  He takes to his attic study, reads and writes interminably alone.  He tastes a blessed solitude there among his books with his two skylight windows opening to a vast sky.  He is assailed by wonderful and wondrous thoughts; by the magic and mystery of words and sometimes by a veritable gamut of emotions - powerful energies that pour forth so naturally in laughs and sighs and tears.  There are times for reading prose - novels, short stories, articles, philosophy, science, biography whatever whim grasps the reader.  Then, there are those small moments of deep solitude which only poems can assuage and comfort, or maybe more correctly contain.  "Contain" is a far better word for comfort is not always delivered up to his beating lonely heart.  Sometimes he is disturbed, deeply disturbed that life can be so cruel, that another heart or soul can be so crushed, can feel such despair among the great beauties of his little world.

Poems are like dew drops on the grass - they fall into consciousness so naturally and so unbidden.  They are stars in a night sky, making fixed for a moment or two the vast canopy of the infinite.  They are tears in the writer's eyes as his words behave in an effort to comprehend the incomprehensible.  They are little moments of passion in an unfeeling world.  They are hands that reach out for other hands to grasp over deep chasms.  They are footprints in the sands on wintry beaches.  They are the shocking loneliness of driftwood left like a forlorn decrepit statue in the sands.  Sometimes they are uplifting like a bracing mountain walk.  Sometimes they are a vista from a secluded viewing point.  Sometimes they are the sight of two lovers walking together into the future or the past.  Sometimes they are the sight of little children at play, oblivious of any meaning at all.  Their greatest attribute is that they are and can only be.  They proclaim no messages other than themselves.  A real poem is so honest that it can often be shockingly true.

Hereunder, I want to illustrate what I have said in the above paragraph by giving examples of what I mean by a poem being so honest than it can only be shockingly true.  This to my mind, then, is how a poem works, that is, by being shockingly true.  These are random poems but they express a range of shocking emotions and feelings.

Psalm (Psalm)

by Paul Celan (1920-1970)

No one kneads us again out of earth and clay,

no one incants our dust. No one.
Blessèd art thou, No One.
In thy sight would
we bloom.
In thy

A Nothing
we were, are now, and ever
shall be, blooming:
the Nothing-, the

our pistil soul-bright,
our stamen heaven-waste,
our corona red
from the purpleword we sang
over, O over
the thorn.

Translation © 2001 by John Felstiner.

This is such a tough poem on the emotions.  It is so taut, so tightly written that there are no excess words.  That he calls this poem "Psalm" is in itself a subversive act undermining the very history of the meaning of that word.  Then again we have the marvellous Biblical tradition of the cursing psalms where literally the poet curses life, though never God.  However, here God is No One whom the poet blesses.  As I say, I love this poem for its bleakness, for its utter despair, but I can only read it sometimes when I am not too sad.  I love reading it when I am a little high on life and it earths me again, makes me real.  It is a poem to be savoured, rather like bitter herbs.  It will be no surprise, then, if it matters, that Paul Celan was a Jew, both of whose parents were murdered by the Nazis, either in concentration or work camps.  From reading his poems, I reckon he was an atheist.  Nor will it be surprising that Celan committed suicide by drowning in the Seine river in late April 1970.

Now for a less despairing poem, but somewhat bleak nonetheless from our own Samuel Beckett whose poems are wonderful if sobering gems.

Samuel Beckett
(1906 - 1989) way is in the sand flowing
between the shingle and the dune
the summer rain rains on my life
on me my life harrying fleeing
to its beginning to its end
my peace is there in the receding mist
when I may cease from treading these long shifting thresholds
and live the space of a door
that opens and shuts...

Remember what I have been saying hereto, read these poems aloud and let the meaning fall on the ears in an auditory way.  As a beach walker I quite like this poem because it is bleak and bracing like a wintry wind.  You get sand in your eyes with Beckett!


And now for a much lighter poem, which has little sombre moments. It's from the hand of A.E. Housman (1859-1936). He was professor of Classics at University College London and later at Cambridge and always said that his true vocation was in classical studies and treated poetry as a secondary activity. He never spoke about his poetry in public until 1933 when he gave a lecture, "The Name and Nature of Poetry", in which he argued that poetry should appeal to emotions rather than intellect.

Tell me not here, it needs not saying

Tell me not here, it needs not saying,

What tune the enchantress plays

In aftermaths of soft September

Or under blanching mays,

For she and I were long acquainted

And I knew all her ways.


On russet floors, by waters idle,

The pine lets fall its cone;

The cuckoo shouts all day at nothing

In leafy dells alone;

And traveller's joy beguiles in autumn

Hearts that have lost their own.


On acres of the seeded grasses

The changing burnish heaves;

Or marshalled under moons of harvest

Stand still all night the sheaves;

Or beeches strip in storms for winter

And stain the wind with leaves.

Possess, as I possessed a season,

The countries I resign,

Where over elmy plains the highway

Would mount the hills and shine,

And full of shade the pillared forest

Would murmur and be mine.


For nature, heartless, witless nature,

Will neither care nor know

What stranger's feet may find the meadow

And trespass there and go,

Nor ask amid the dews of morning

If they are mine or no.

What strikes me here is how indifferent nature is to human emotions.  Those of us who were taught English long ago in the old school as it were, are very accustomed to the idea created and popularised by the Victorian art and social critic, John Ruskin (1819-1900) namely "pathetic fallacy," that nature was in sympathy with the poet's or writer's emotions.  Here in this poem we have the idea of how indifferent nature is, how deaf and unfeeling, given that, obviously, it is totally unconscious even if animate in varying degrees.  Nietzsche has a similar view of nature, but I have forgotten his exact quote and am too lazy to find it.  I will look for it again, as that pursuit will lead me way off track.

Dover Beach

The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand;
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery;
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,

Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Matthew Arnold (1822-1888)

Matthew Arnold was a poet, writer, cultural critic and inspector of schools.  He is well known for his writings on education among other endeavours. This poem was written ns 1867 poem, when Matthew was 43, a father and an inspector of schools, depicts a nightmarish world from which the old religious truths and certainties have receded and it expresses his view that human love is mankind’s only defence against the dark and foreboding spiritual emptiness of modern life. Consequently, even, to this day it is often held up as an early, if not the first, example of the modern sensibility.  Again as an erstwhile student of theology I loved this poem, as I loved the poems of the eccentric and heterodox William Blake before him because they brought in new ways of looking at the world, new feelings, a new breadth of vision that only poems can give.

This post could go on too long, so I had better try to bring in a lighter, but no less serious tone.  There is laughter coupled with sadness in the following marvellous ditty from one of my favourite contemporary poets, Roger McGough (1937-    ).

Sad Aunt Madge

As the cold winter evenings drew near
Aunt Madge used to put extra blankets
over the furniture, to keep it warm and cosy.
Mussolini was her lover, and life
was an outoffocus rosy-tinted spectacle.

but neurological experts
with kind blueeyes

and gentle voices
small white hands
and large Rolls Royces
said that electric shock treatment should
do the trick
it did...

today after 15 years of therapeutic tears
and an awful lot of ratepayers' shillings
down the hospital meter
sad Aunt Madge
no longer tucks up the furniture
before kissing it goodnight
and admits
that her affair with Mussolini
clearly was not right
particularly in the light
of her recently announced engagement
to the late pope

What a brilliant poem and so typical of Roger McGough.  I can almost hear his scouse or Liverpudlian accent.  Notice the brilliant compounding of "outoffocus" and "blueeyes" which capture in words the actual blurring of the words.

Up and Down the Strip

by Pat Ingoldsby

It's the tingle between your legs

that takes you down to Leeson Street,

down to the The Strip

down to meet

tight jeans tight thighs

denim bottoms hopes high

standing and sitting

sipping the wine

buy you a bottle

make you mine

and the Stones

can't get no satisfaction.

Business men working late

grey haired overweight

white shirts club ties

credit cards white lies

cigar smoke bald spots

big stomachs big shots

wrinkles over rugby scars

randy thoughts company cars

and the Stones

can't get no satisfaction.


Eyes meet look away

how do you start?

what do you say?

look unmarried

like you couldn't care less

look unfrustrated

they'll never guess

pray to God that

your daughter's not here

hold in your stomach

swallow your fear

grab two glasses

bottle of wine

take a sip

make you mine

and the Stones

can't get no satisfaction.


Jump suits open zipped

legs crossed leather hipped

tight jeans young blood

long skirts looking good

some do some don't

how can you tell

which one won't

more important

which one will

onto the dance floor

get in for the kill

dance fast dance slow

move in closer

now you know

dance fast dance slow

nuzzle the neck here we go

will you take off

your clothes?


No! Not down here!

and not in my place

no bloody fear

you'll waken the wife

disturb the kids

we'll do it in your place

keep it all hid

and the Stones

can't get no satisfaction.

Up the steps

tired and slow

she drank your wine

she's still below

up the steps

tired and slow

the taxis are waiting

all in a row

and the Stones

can't get no satisfaction.

(Pat Ingoldby, 1942-          )

Pat Ingoldsby is a wonderful, though sadly unacknowledged, contemporary poet.  You will meet him at various locations around Dublin city and environs hawking his own poems, lovingly self-published.  I have often stopped for a chat and bought a book.  Do the same if you get the time.  He is a wonderful soul!  Well done Pat.  We need more like you!


And so the point of today's rather long, if somewhat rambling entry has been to make poems come alive and be; not to mean or to say anything preachy or didactic, not to give gems of advice or even of wisdom but just to sing "life electric" if I may steal a phrase from Walt Whitman.  Poems are blessings and curses all rolled into one.  They are little bites we take out of life.  Sometimes we relish them and suck them around in our mouth for dear life.  Other times we swallow them with gusto and say "Ah!  That's life!"  Other times we cry and weep a tear or two and gulp, "Ah that's life and death! So be it!"  Or as my father used to put it:  "That's the way, boy, that's the way!"  "Such is life!"  Poems are natural like the dew or the rain or the clouds or the flowers that peek between stones.  Often they are weeds, but sure weeds are only flowers in the wrong place.  Whatever.  Poems are always surprises, beautiful creatures like the creatures that make them.  Blessed be those poems and blessed be all the creature that make them. Amen.

Sundown, Howth May 2008

Raiding My Anthologies - Some Favourite Poems 6

William Blake (1757-1827) has long been for me a favourite  maker of poems. Blake was essentially a craftsmen in all senses of that word. He was a poet, a painter, a fine engraver and an excellent printer.  I have referred to him many times in my posts over the years.  See the following link for my previous posts on this weaver of words: Blake.

Blake appeals to me because he was rebellious in spirit and just did not like to conform.  He was original to a fault.  Having spent seven years as an apprentice engraver, he progressed to study art at the Royal Academy but quit after a year because he rebelled against the aesthetic doctrines of its president, Sir Joshua Reynolds.  In writing his poetry he also broke with convention by rejecting the high neoclassical style and modes of thought then current, preferring a simple and direct style as exemplified in his lyrics.  He was a nonconformist in religion, being born into a Dissenting tradition that encouraged extemporary hymn-singing.  Hence much of his religious thoughts were unorthodox and even heretical by the standards of the more orthodox Christian churches. 

I would characterise his work as being pre-Romantic, though some would say he marked the beginning of Romanticism.  However, Blake was so unorthodox and sui generis that he defies categorization.  While he had time for the Bible Reverent, he was singularly hostile to the established Church.  I shall quote a favourite poem below which shows his sharp antipathy to the contemporary institutional Church.  He was influenced by the ideals and ambitions of both the French and the American revolutions, and even at one stage in his life had a spy outside his house because they suspected that poor Blake was a revolutionary traitor.  Added to that he loved the unique philosophies and spiritualism of thinkers like Jakob Boehme and Emanuel Swedenborg.  I have written an extended essay on Blake's philosophy and spirituality and uploaded it in a previous entry.  See the link above and scroll down to the post headed "William Blake" for this critical summary.  As well as that Blake was unconventional in the way he wrote, paying little heed to standard punctuation or spelling - using capitals wherever he thought right and fitting.  Now for him the silliness of convention.  Our man Blake was convinced about his own truth.  Mind you, he was not a zealot, because, belonging to no set religion, he did not seek to thrust his beliefs down another's throat.  Blake believed in his own mystical vision - in angels, both good and bad.  He felt very close to spiritual reality all through his life.

He also loved his wife (Catherine Boucher) dearly, taught her to read and write (an uncommon thing to do in those years as women of her class were practically chattels for their men folk) and then he also nursed his brother Robert who died from consumption. The story about his death is charming - after working on a poem, he told his wife Kate that he'd sketch her which he did.  Then he sang several hymns and died. Peter Ackroyd's biography (1996), which I read about ten years ago is excellent.  Therein, I read most of what I write here from memory.  Perhaps one of the most unusual things I read in that book was that Will and Kate were so liberated that some visitors found them naked in their garden one summer's day.  One can only marvel at their freedom of spirit and pure simplicity.  Also Blake was very concerned with how the poor in London were treated, especially the chimney sweeps.  Below I'll give a taste of a few poems by good old Will:

Holy Thursday (Experience)

Is this a holy thing to see.
In a rich and fruitful land.
Babes reduced to misery.
Fed with cold and usurous hand?

Is that trembling cry a song?
Can it be a song of joy?
And so many children poor?
It is a land of poverty!

And their sun does never shine.
And their fields are bleak & bare.
And their ways are fill'd with thorns
It is eternal winter there.

For where-e'er the sun does shine.
And where-e'er the rain does fall:
Babe can never hunger there,
Nor poverty the mind appall.


I love this poem for its righteous indignation and concern for others.  Once again the highlighting is mine - the lines that jump out at me.

The Clod and the Pebble

'Love seeketh not itself to please,
Nor for itself hath any care,
But for another gives its ease,
And builds a heaven in hell's despair.'

So sung a little clod of clay,
Trodden with the cattle's feet;
But a pebble of the brook
Warbled out these meters meet:

'Love seeketh only Self to please,
To bind another to its delight,
Joys in another's loss of ease,
And builds a hell in heaven's despite.'

This poem I love because Blake gives both sides of the coin - Good and Evil.  In fact, theologically, it can be argued for sure that our man was Manichaean really, that is, believing that Good and Evil exist side by side - a sort of dual-Godhead.

The Garden of Love

I laid me down upon a bank,
Where Love lay sleeping;
I heard among the rushes dank
Weeping, weeping.

Then I went to the heath and the wild,
To the thistles and thorns of the waste;
And they told me how they were beguiled,
Driven out, and compelled to the chaste.

I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen;
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green

And the gates of this Chapel were shut
And 'Thou shalt not,' writ over the door;
So I turned to the Garden of Love
That so many sweet flowers bore.

And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tombstones where flowers should be;
And priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars my joys and desires.

This has long been one of my favourite poems by Blake, because as a student of theology as well as of English literature and Philosophy, I relished critical voices, those with positions and opinions different to the mainstream church.  You can see how such reading improved and sharpened one's theology.  I loved Blake's heterodoxy and his ability to go against the flow or the tide of traditional opinion.  He was a free spirit and like Coleridge, there is only one thing a reader can do and that is to love such a beautiful human being!

The Tyger

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright,
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare sieze the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears,
And water'd heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

This is a poem I love reading aloud to children.  My friend's children love to hear me reading it.  Indeed it appeals to the child in me and the words and the rhythm and the rhyme all make for such a magical experience.  Again it's the sound of the words when read aloud that convey a meaning beyond the words.  How could anyone fail to be moved by this wonderful, wonderful poem.  Excuse the excess of praise in my doubling up on adjectives.  I'm getting carried away.

A Poison Tree

I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.

And I watered it in fears
Night and morning with my tears,
And I sunned it with smiles
And with soft deceitful wiles.

And it grew both day and night,
Till it bore an apple bright,
And my foe beheld it shine,
And he knew that it was mine -

And into my garden stole
When the night had veiled the pole;
In the morning, glad, I see
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.

This is a beautiful poem which shows an intuitive understanding of how anger grows.  Blake was a good psychologist.  There is a lot of truth in the above lines about unexpressed anger.  I remember using this poem once when making up with a friend with whom I was angry.  We both love poems.  Needless to say we shook hands and continued in our friendship.  As you can see Blake is far from being didactic or preachy.  Rather he speaks in tremendously strong and powerfully evocative images.  One would expect no less from a man who was so creative in so many ways and whose own world of imagination became for him the real one.  Yet he never got so lost in his visions as to forget about his loved ones like his brother Robert or his dear wife Kate or the suffering little children of London.

I could go one, but there is no need.  All of Blake's poems are widely available - and cheaply too - in bookshops or on the web.  Read him out loud.  Sing his songs.  By the way he wrote the famous hymn "Jerusalem" which I'm not publishing here.  Get a sung version of it and your hair will stand on edge at the beauty of it!  Then, get his wonderful engravings which accompanied most of his earliest poems.  You'll only be entranced.  Finally, I love Blake so much that I have four prints of his framed for my study.

Above I have uploaded William Blake's self-portrait!

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Raiding My Anthologies - Some Favourite Poems 5

The best piece of advice I ever got when reading a poem was put simply:  "Never ask what a poem means, just read it, and preferably read it aloud."  I have always adhered to this advice.  The American poet Archibald MacLeish (1892-1982) said, "Just let the poem be!"  In fact this advice appears as a couplet in a poem: "A poem should not mean / But be", and this became a classic statement of the modern aesthetic.  This I also thought was brilliant.  As I progressed as a reader of poems I begin to just let them be, let them speak for themselves, listen to their haunting music, the rhythm, the rhyme, the assonance or whatever magic those words sought to weave.  Somewhere in the midst of those many readings some little "meaning" used to dawn on my consciousness.  Admittedly, there are some poems which can be more didactic.  Often I find that the didactic ones lose their appeal all too quickly as they have yielded us their "meaning" or treasure all too quickly.  I have often found it good to struggle with a poem and it has only been the magic of the words that has drawn me back again and again to continue wrestling with them. 

The following poem is also a favourite.  It's called "Snow" and it was written by Louis McNeice (1907-1963)  He is a brilliant poet.  Once again it was John Devitt who introduced me to the poems of this great writer, even though I had done one or two poems by him for the Intermediate Certificate.  I remember as a youngster being enthralled by that wonderful combination of words "incorrigibly plural," and have used these words from time to time.  These words occur in his wonderful poem called "Snow" which I append hereunder for your slow perusal - if my adjective is redundant just read more slowly than usual!  Before I quote the poem, here's a splendid piece of insight into his approach to poetry: "Poetry in my opinion must be honest before anything else and I refuse to be 'objective' or clear-cut at the cost of honesty." (Introduction to Autumn Journal).  Here is the poem.  Read and re-read, and all the better, if you read it aloud:


The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
World is suddener than we fancy it.

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural
. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.

And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world
Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes -
On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one's hands -
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.

I have highlighted certain lines that jump out at me rather than lines that are called "meaningful" as it were. Whatever these lines mean is only secondary in importance, the primary importance lies in the combination and choice of words - the essential magic and mystery of the whole enterprise of making poems!  

Now, I am going to break my own rules and offer you another poem, a firm favourite, by Louis McNeice.  He is a poet whose poems are really well worth reading and re-reading.  If you can lay your hands on a volume of his poems - buy it.  You won't be disappointed.

My second poem by McNeice is one called "Entirely" and this title I believe is so well chosen.  Say this word in your mind a few times and play with all the contexts and occasions in which you use this adverb.  You may be surprised.  I remember, years ago, in a former life, when I was very interested in theology reading a piece by St Augustine of Hippo which I paraphrase here.  It went something like this:  "If you think you have understood something about God, then you haven't!  If you think you have grasped the mystery, well then that's not the mystery at all!"  McNeice seems to be saying something similar.  Now the emphasis for me is on the "seems" in the previous sentence.  I'm trying to keep to my essential poetic credo voiced by MacLeish above.  I'll just try and highlight the words that jump out at me.  Here's the poem:


If we could get the hang of it entirely
     It would take too long;
All we know is the splash of words in passing
     and falling twigs of song,
And when we try to eavesdrop on the great
     Presences it is rarely
That by a stroke of luck we can appropriate
     Even a phrase entirely.

If we could find our happiness entirely
     In somebody else's arms
We should not fear the spears of the spring nor the city's
     Yammering fire alarms
But, as it is, the spears each year go through
     Our flesh and almost hourly
Bell or siren banishes the blue
     Eyes of Love entirely.

And if the world were black or white entirely
     And all the charts were plain
Instead of a mad weir of tigerish waters,
     A prism of delight and pain,
We might be surer where we wished to go
     Or again we might be merely
Bored but in the brute reality there is no
     Road that is right entirely.

Louis MacNeice (1907-1963)

I'll leave you to select your own favourite lines.  The choice is yours entirely!