Saturday, June 05, 2010

The Power of a Poem 13

I am enjoying this brief interlude which is basically a pleasant way to relax, that is just flicking through and perusing some few anthologies of poems that help populate my bookshelves.  There are those who argue that most critiques or commentaries on poems are essentially superfluous, because quite simply poems should speak for themselves and that reading them is essentially what it's all about.  I would go further and say that redaing poems aloud is what they are all about.  Poems were originally crafted or made to be read aloud for others.  Hence poetry readings are essential to bringing poems to life.  There is nothing better to my mind that attending a live concert ot being present at a poetry reading.  Oftentimes it's the performance that is the real experience.  Failing being able to be present at such events, either due to financial or other restrictions, reading poems or listening to music on our i-pods is a very good alternative.

However, poems do provoke thoughts, do set us thinking.  Real literature often comforts the disturbed and disturbs the comfortable.  We do not need ersatz verse which offers us nothing but an empty, though momentarily satisfying, jingle.  Like "supermarket or mall music" such poems or musical ditties can never but be superficial and momentarily satisfying.  We do need the heavier stuff, the real stuff that makes us think, real stuff that has an "edge" to it, that stops us in our tracks, that wakes us up, that deepens our awareness of life.  That's the type of poems that our spirit mostly needs.  Now, I'm not arguing that we should be reading the "uber" heavy stuff all the time.  We also have need for nonsense verse like that of Edward Lear which, coupled with his wonderful sketches or cartoons makes us laugh.  We need to be reflective and to contemplate as well as to laugh and poke fun at ourselves.  However, we never need the ersatz or superficial stuff.

Today I wish to reflect upon a poem by Robert Frost (1874-1963) which I really love.  This is the poet who read at JFK's inauguration at the age of 87 in 1961.  He is highly regarded for his realistic depictions of rural life and his command of American colloquial speech.  His work frequently employed settings from rural life in New England in the early twentieth century, using them to examine complex social and philosophical themes. A popular and often-quoted poet, Frost was honored frequently during his lifetime, receiving four Pulitzer Prizes for Poetry.  The poem I offer for reflection here is called Desert Places.  It is unsurprising that mental illness, especially depression ran in the Frost family and Robert suffered much from it.

Desert Places

Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.

The woods around it have it--it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.

And lonely as it is that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less--
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars--on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

The Power of a Poem 12

I have always loved William Blake (1757-1827) whom we studied long ago at college and of whom I have written at length on many occasions in these pages, especially here at this link: BlakeEssayTQ.  Of course, I had come across him at school because we had learnt by heart one of his wonderfully melodious poems or more precisely lyrics from Songs of Innocence.  We learnt the poetic Introducction by heart, i.e., "Piping down the valleys wild etc." 

Blake is known a pre-Romantic, and his style is completely sui generis and unconventional.  He uses the first person pronoun "I" and "me" quite a lot just as the Romantics were to do.  Also his verse was written in the language of the people which both Wordsworth and Coleridge were to popularise so much some years later.  However, Blake was not just a poet, but combined great artistic sensitivity and ability with wonderful craftsmanship as an illustrator supreme.  Indeed most of his early poems appeared as words emblazoned on artistic plates which contained amazingly original illustrations. 

He also was a mystic, much influenced by the great Swedenborg.  Emanuel Swedenborg (1688 - 1772) was a Swedish scientist, philosopher, Christian mystic and theologian who had a prolific career as an inventor and scientist. In 1741 at the age of fifty-three he entered into a spiritual phase in which he eventually began to experience dreams and visions beginning on Easter weekend April 6, 1744. He claimed that the Lord had opened his eyes, so that from then on he could freely visit heaven and hell, and talk with angels, demons, and other spirits. For the remaining 28 years of his life, he wrote and published 18 theological works, of which the best known was Heaven and Hell (1758) and several unpublished theological works.  It could be said that the young Blake found in this learned spiritualist a fellow or kindred spirit on whom he modelled himself.  He certainly imbibed much of Swedenborg's spiritualism, especially with the conviction that he like his mentor could talk to angels and demons.  Indeed, Blake was also to write a book of amazing originality called also Heaven and Hell again like his mentor.

Blake was also amazingly ahead of his time in his commitment to the rights of workers and to the exploitation of children workers in the mines and also as chimney sweeps.  He had an amazingly sharp social conscience, and wrote a lot about liberty and freedom.  In fact, at one statge, he was spied upon by the crown because of his republican and revolutionary sympathies.  This caused him much upset.  It's just that his spirituality/spiritualism was also one rooted in the rights of others - no small feat for a man who lived in such narrow-minded and closed times. My Blakean offering here is a lovely wee poem that is highly critical of organized, institutionalized or clericalized Christianity.  This poem could certainly be seen as a critique of the modern Roman Catholic Church.

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.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

The Power of a Poem 11

I like the poems of Raymond Carver for their sheer lucidity, their objective observation of life, and their inevitability.  In other terms, the words of the poem simply had to be written. It's almost as if Carver invites us into his mind to take a seat around the hearth of his thoughts and feelings. He is an author of great compassion.  His poems deal with situations we all encounter in daily life.  In the following poem he describes an early morning observation he made and entitles it "Happiness."  As a would-be philosopher I have read much about what happiness is.  Some people argue that it is an aim we all have in life.  Others dispute this.  One of my favourite psychiatrists, Professor Ivor Browne argues that it is a silly objective for any of us to have in life.  At most we can achieve a certain equanimity.  I'm inclined to agree with the wise professor.

In the following poem, I believe Carver comes as close as is possible to giving a good description of happiness.  Read it slowly and reflect upon the words of this little poem and you will enter the heart of compassion which lives in Carver's poems.


So early it's still almost dark out.
I'm near the window with coffee,
and the usual early morning stuff
that passes for thought.

When I see the boy and his friend
walking up the road
to deliver the newspaper.

They wear caps and sweaters,
and one boy has a bag over his shoulder.
They are so happy
they aren't saying anything, these boys.

I think if they could, they would take
each other's arm.
It's early in the morning,
and they are doing this thing together.

They come on, slowly.
The sky is taking on light,
though the moon still hangs pale over the water.

Such beauty that for a minute
death and ambition, even love,
doesn't enter into this.

Happiness. It comes on
unexpectedly. And goes beyond, really,
any early morning talk about it.

Raymond Carver in a typically strong pose

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

The Power of a Poem 10

Miroslav Holub, whose name always caught my ear because it was so exotic, has long been a favourite poet of mine. He was not only a poet and a writer but also a practising scientist in the field of immunology. Consequently, his poetry tends to be intellectual, hard-hitting and precise. M.H. was born in Plzen, in Western Bohemia(later called Czechoslovakia).

His dates are 1923 - 1998, so he lived a moderately long life. An aspect of literature that has always captivated me is the war-time experiences of the authors and how those experiences have shaped the works that they have written. So, having completed his secondary school studies, Miroslav Holub could not go on to university study (during the Nazi occupation, the Germans closed down Czech universities) and he worked as a labourer at a warehouse and at a railway station.

After the Second World War, Holub studied at Charles University in Prague, first at the Faculty of Natural Sciences, then from 1946 at the Faculty of Medicine. After this he became a notable immunologist and an international poet. In the Irish language revival we had a return to "caint na ndaoine"("the talk of the people")with the likes of An tAthair Peadar Ó Laoghaire, Pádraig Mac Piarais and Pádraig Ó Conaire.  Wordsworth sought to do the same with the language of English poetry - using the language of ordinary people. Together with S.T. Coleridge he wrote Lyrical Ballads (1798), in which they sought to use the language of ordinary people in poetry. 

Likewise Holub maintained that "only by capturing life around us we may be able to express its dynamicism, the immense developments, rolling on around us and within us."  This also meant that it was necessary to give up regular, rhymed and melodious poetry and to adopt irregular and free verse. This was the poetics of Holub's first collections, especially Denní sluzba (Day duty, 1958) and Achilees a zelva (Achilles and the tortoise, 1960), His later collections developed it further. The poem I would like to share with my readers is called The Door.  My father used always quote the old saying, "God never closes one door unless he opens another."  Opening a door is a very positive image or metaphor, letting the air of liberty and imagination in.

The Door

Go and open the door.
Maybe outside there's
a tree, or a wood,
a garden, or a magic city.

Go and open the door.
Maybe a dog's rummaging.
Maybe you'll see a face,
or an eye
or the picture
of a picture.

Go and open the door.
If there's fog
it will clear.

Go and open the door.
Even if there's only
the darkness singing,
even if there's only
the hollow wind,
even if nothing is there,
go and open the door.

At least
there'll be
a draught.

(translated by Ian Millner)

Above MH in a late photograph.

Monday, May 31, 2010

The Power of a Poem 9

I have often come across Boethius especially in the history of philosophy, but never with respect to the poetic craft.  It would seem from a little research via Google that he wrote much of his philosophical work in verse.  In hindsight, this fact does not surprise me at all.  As I type these few lines, I am reading a wonderful little book called The Green Book of Poetry, edited by Ivo Mosley, Frontier Publishing, 1993.  Here is a beautiful meditation in poetry on the nature of freedom:

The Caged Bird

The bird was happy once in the high trees.
You cage it in your cellar, bring it seed,
Honey to sip, all that it's heart can need
Or human love can think of: till it sees,
Leaping too high within its narrow room
The old familiar shadow of the leaves,
And spurns the seed with tiny desperate claws.
Naught but the woods despairing pleads.
The woods, the woods again, it grieves, it grieves.

(Boethius, Roman, 480-525; tr. from the atin by Helen Wadell.  Quoted in op.cit., p. 209)
Anicius Manlius Severinus Boëthius, commonly called Boethius (ca. 480–524 or 525) was a Christian philosopher of the early 6th century. He was born in Rome to an ancient and important family which included some emperors.  He entered public life at a young age and was already a senator by the age of 25 and  Boethius himself was consul in 510 in the kingdom of the Ostrogoths.  Then in 522 he saw his two sons become consuls.  However, rather tragically, Boethius was executed by King Theodoric the Great, who suspected him of conspiring with the Byzantine Empire.  The Catholic Church canonized Boethius early as a saint as they felt his execution was mainly due to his defence of orthodox christianity against the Arian heresy professed by King Theodoric.  His remains were entombed in the church of San Pietro in Ciel d'Oro in Pavia.  In Dante's Paradise of The Divine Comedy, the spirit of Boethius is pointed out by St. Thomas Aquinas.  In conclusion, let me point out a small detail: The proper name "Boethius" has four syllables as the o and e are pronounced separately. It is hence traditionally written with a diæresis, viz. "Boëthius", a spelling which has been disappearing due to the limitations of typewriters and word processors in these modern times.

Above a picture I took about two years ago of a sculpture of a cormorant in Skerries, Co. Dublin.

The Power of a Poem 8

Sometimes silence is the answer. Words are cheap.  It is enough to savour the power of now without the weight of words. Therefore, without further ado here is a very short poem on the very subject of silence by Li Po (701-762) a Chinese poet:

Talk in the Mountains

You ask me, 'Why dwell among green mountains?'

I laugh in silence; my soul is quiet.
Peach blossom follows the moving water;
here is a heaven and earth, beyond the world of men.
He also wrote a lovely little verse called Silent Night:

Silent Night

Moonlight floods the end of my bed.
I wonder, has frost fallen?
Sitting up, I look at the moon.
Lying back, I think of home
Then, there is Li Po's meditative reflections on the summer season in the mountains:

Summer in the mountains

Too lazy to shift my white feather fan
I lie naked in the green woods.
Hanging my hat on a rock,
I bear my head to the breeze in the pines.
This last wee verse reminds me of William Blake, of whom I remember reading in Peter Ackroyd's wonderful biography as having a penchant for sitting naked in his garden with his good wife.  So Blake shared this naked freedom with Li Po.  Perhaps we could call them naturists.  However, the point here in these verses is simplicity and its very unadorned nature.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Power of a Poem 7

Another favourite poet of mine is none than the wonderful American maker of poems Emily Dickinson (1830-1886).   She was born in a small town called Amherst in Massachusetts, to a successful family with strong community ties.  However, she lived a mostly introverted and reclusive life, shunning all company. After she studied at the Amherst Academy for seven years in her youth, she spent a short time at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary before returning to her family's house in Amherst. Thought of as an eccentric by the locals, she became known for her penchant for white clothing and her reluctance to greet guests or, later in life, even leave her room.  Most of her friendships were therefore carried out by correspondence.

Emily was a prolific poet, who when she had finished shaping a poem left it with many others in the drawers of her writing table or desk.  On her death, some eighteen hundred poems were found in her room.  Fewer than a dozen of these poems were published during her lifetime.  Those of you used to reading the poems of Emily Dickinson will know that she had her own unique or eccentric punctuation, favouring dashes over commas and colons. To this reader at least her poems read like haikus insofar as they contain pithy, insighful and profound lines that work by hitting the ear almost with a thud, making us sit up, take stock of what's going on, wake up, or become aware of this or that truth, of this or that pain, of this or that beauty etc.  Because of her unusual or eccentric style, the work that was published during her lifetime was usually altered significantly by the publishers to fit the conventional poetic rules of the time. Her poems are always very short, and further they contain short lines. 

Also, practically all of her poems typically lack titles, and often use slant rhyme as well as unconventional capitalization and punctuation.  She often reminds me a little of Blake, given the energy and intensity with which they both wrote and their idiosyncratic and eccentric use of punctuation.  Many of Dickinson's poems deal with themes of death and immortality, two recurring topics in letters to her friends. The following little lyric deals with the topic of the truth - whatever that may be, indeed.

I have often said in these pages, as any frequenty readers will know, that I question the use of the singular with respect to truth, and prefer the use of the plural, namely "truths."  It would appear to me that we each see the world from our own spewcific viewpoint, that we see the world very much not as it is in itself, but very much from our own specific point of view as we are in ourselves.  I suppose objective reality exists where commonsense and a shared empiricism overlap.  I have also long respected the spiritual truths as distinct from the doctrinal truths of the great world religions and, indeed, the spiritual truths of perennial philosophy, the insights of depth psychology in its many incarnations and of all good and healthy holistic psychotherapies.  Such spirituality appreciates that no individual can face the brilliant light of their own truth all at once. 

It takes years to grow in self-acceptance and into the very truth of our own personal and unique identity which is each person's individual goal to get to know.  Here, I look upon the truths of the Old and New Testatments to be metaphorical truths, namely doctrinal metaphors for psychological truths.  "One cannot look upon the face of God and live."  Or, as St Paul puts it in the New Testament: "We see through a glass darkly in this life."  These are metaphors for the real nature of our very own soul or psyche or intimate identity.  At least that is what makes sense to me at any rate.

And hence, this leads me on to a lovely little lyric by Emily Dickinson on "the truth."  I have heard Christians say that we must always "tell the truth in love."  However, that is very hard.  We just cannot very easily, at least I cannot, go up to a fellow worker and say something like: "Listen, you are a real egotist," or "You are on a power trip!" or "You have a problem with your ego.  You must let it go, and allow your soul space to breathe," or "You are suffocating your soul," or "Do you not listen to your dreams?" etc. etc.  I find myself saying all these things in my mind about X or Y or Z.  Yet, I know it's not for me to go about prodding unwilling egotists into facing themselves.  I do so only when they are making life hard for me or for others in my place of work, but other than that I say very little.  To go about prodding people would be somewhat arrogant.  Anyway, I believe that we can achieve much by following the wisdom of Emily Dickinson in the following lines.  We need not tell the blunt hurtful truth, but we can always "tell it slant" and leave the other person time to mull over what we have said.  If they have any "cop on" or "common sense,"  they will soon realise the error of their ways, find their own unique truth, accept the unique truth of every other human being and cease trying to force their version of "the truth" down our throats.  Now here is that timeless and titleless lyrical triumph:
Tell all the Truth but tell it slant---
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise

As Lightening to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind---
There is a lot of wisdom above!

In the picture above we have a strong setting Winter sun, Christmas 2009.

The Power of a Poem 6

Last evening I attended a evening mass in memory of a former pupil of mine, Seán Nolan (1988-2007) who was tragically murdered at the young age of 18 years on the night of his graduation.  His memorial Facebook page is here: SNFacebook and a tribute I previously wrote for him here: SNTribute.  Yesterday evening was a poignant one - everyone meeting once again and sharing old memories.  Ironically his sad passing has brought about a great comraderie among his family and friends which continues to grow.  It was also  personally a journey back to my own past, to all those funerals I have attended and all those friends and family members I have said goodbye to.  Then the celebrant was also an old friend, totally by chance - he had been my novice master when I was once a member of the Augustinian Order for a brief period of three years in the early eighties - Rev. John Hughes, O.S.A., a fine psychologist  and now Vicar for Priests in the Dublin Diocese.  He gave an excellent homily, though for some it was a wee bit dark.  However, it was essentially Pauline (that is, in line with the words of St Paul) insofar as John was explaining how we "see through a glass darkly" on this side of the grave.  I did not think his homily was so much dark as perhaps a bit Augustinian or Pauline.  It certainly was balanced and John wove the memory of Sean into an excellent homily on the mystery of the Trinity.  Anyway enough about John.  Now to a poem I would like to offer here in his memory.  It is a fine little lyric by the American poet Wendel Berry (b. Kentucky, 1934).  This little poem is called A Meeting.

A Meeting

In a dream I meet
my dead friend. He has,
I know, gone long and far,
and yet he is the same
for the dead are changeless.
They grow no older.
It is I who have changed,
grown strange to what I was.
Yet I, the changed one,
ask: "How you been?"
He grins and looks at me.
"I been eating peaches
off some mighty fine trees."

Above a picture of the Pope's Cross, Phoenix Park, January 2010.

The Power of a Poem 5

Life is almost certainly about transitions.  Just last evening I was Master of Ceremonies for the Graduation Mass and Ceremony of our Sixth Year students at our school.  Such ceremonies are occasions of great joy, though they are always tinged with a sorrow to a greater or lesser extent.  Life is about onward movement, about new beginnings, new departures, and as such always means leaving something or someone behind.  Our ceremony was tinged with the sadness of leaving school and most especially of having lost one of the class to death at the young age of fifteen years some three years previously.  And yet, the message of all the sages from all the great religions and even from agnostic and atheistic psychotherapists is that we should learn to live in the "now" of life, to forget the guilt and regret associated with our past life and to cease worrying about the future.  Such regrets and fears are useless and unprofitable feelings.  If anything, they are dispiriting, depressing and fundamentally energy-draining.

One of my favourite poems about transitions is by the wonderful Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins.  It is fittingly called Spring and Fall.  Life is cyclic, and spirituality is always and essentially finely attuned to the cycles of the seasons - the new life of Spring and the dying back of life in Autumn before the deathly dark and lifeless Winter.  This poem is quite sad, but yet there is ba great serenity about it, a certain quiet acceptance of the inevitable.  There is also that sense of our very own fear of our own mortality.  How often have I heard it said and how often have I read the fact that when we grieve for those lost to death we are often grieving for ourselves, because we, too, must relinquish our hold on life.  The inevitability of extinction is written in our genes.  Now, gentle reader, reflect on Hopkins' wonderfully deep and musically moving lines in this beautiful little lyric:

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)

Spring and Fall:
to a Young Child

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow's springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What héart héard of, ghóst guéssed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.