Many people, perhaps some poets themselves, consider poetry, what it has to say, and the way it says it, to be irrelevant. Poets are sometimes chided, more often than not from within their own community, for not tackling say, big political issues of the day.
But I think that poetry has its sights on long term relevance. Whereas in the banking community the blind pursuit of short-term profit outweighed everything else, which eventually led to the 2008 financial collapse, huge PPI fines, the Libor rate fixing débâcle and its like, and the subsequent dire (collateral damage) consequences for the wider world, poets look to the long-term, and different values altogether.
When I woke the other morning the first things I heard about were the brutal eviction from a plane of a man who had a valid ticket, but had to be ejected because of the incompetence and greed of the airline, the same airline that spends a large amount of money in advertising trying to convince people that the said airline really cares about them.
Where do I start to express the various items of news about the American president who, for example, appears to be about to ensure American companies who have been hiding large amounts of money from the tax man by keeping it overseas, will be able to repatriate it at a lower than expected rate of tax. This from the man who was supposed to be a champion of the little man against elites.
Uber, the taxi company, were in the news again because yet another of it's executives has resigned, and although she wouldn't give a reason why, it is not hard to suspect that she may be another executive who finds Uber's behaviour so objectionable she can't stomach it any more.
The airline is getting its comeuppance, as is Uber who appear to be in all sorts of trouble, and President Trump has failed so far to do most of the things he said he would do, so he is not proving very successful. That is all well and good, and perhaps reason for some optimism.
But what is really needed is something more than prevention, and punishment of ills when they happen. Which is where poetry comes in. We need alternatives. Poetry has two great strengths to my mind:
1/ It is done for the love of language and the truth that can be expressed using language, without any expectation of personal gain. No greed is involved. Getting rich writing poetry is as near to impossibility as it is possible to get
2/ It can be beautiful, can benefit its readers with a moment of loveliness and worthwhile thought in a frequently ugly and thoughtless world (as described above).
I therefore offer poetry as a revolutionary beacon of beauty and truth in an ugly world, and that, among other things, is desperately needed. It won't change things on its own, of course, but if people stop making things for the reasons I have just given, expressing as far as is possible, higher thoughts and feelings, we will be in even more trouble than we are already.
One of the things that poetry does well is to join up dots in a way that is unexpected. Some poet somewhere might spot the relevance for example, of the apparent irrelevance of Easter Island to Donald Trump's environmental policies. Although there were various reasons for the demise of the civilization that created the huge stone images on the island, a significant factor was the deforestation (much of it due to the resources used to erect the stone images) that made it impossible to sustain previous population levels. If one squinted slightly, I wonder whether one of the overblown stone faces might bear a resemblance to President Trump. I couldn't say, but perhaps there is a poem in it.
Then there is the humble bee, with industrious habits you would have thought might appeal to the president. I can't say precisely what effect his environmental policies will have on bees, but the current problems these hard-working insects face is well known, and their decline may be a result of man's environmental mismanagement, so it would seem to be a good time to invest more in environmental matters, not less. Not to mention climate-change of course. However, I am sure the president may feel he has so many more pressing matters, that bees are irrelevant, what possible relevance can the efficient pollination of crops have anyway.
Then there is education, there are many people advocating strict relevance in that field, relevance that is to producing graduates who might say, be useful to the needs of the economy. Perhaps some of them might even be bankers. Goodness knows, we need them to continue the good work the last lot started. It would of course be relevant to produce graduates with a working knowledge of the Chinese language, to help promote our trade with the Chinese in the post-brexit world, but entirely irrelevant to produce people well-versed in ancient Chinese thought. What earthly use would it be to have people versed in Chuang Tzu's response to Hui Tzu's alleged comment that “Your teachings are of no practical use”, to which it is said Chuang Tzu responded “Only those who already know the value of the useless can be talked to about the useful. This earth we walk upon is of vast extent, yet in order to walk a man uses no more of it than the soles of his two feet will cover. But suppose one cut away the ground around his feet till one reached the Yellow Springs,1 would his patches of ground still be of any use to him for walking? Hui Tzu said, “They would be of no use.” Chuang Tzu said, “So then the usefulness of the useless is evident.”
Think about it if you are listening Donald old chap, and anyone else that thinks they know what is relevant and what is not.
1. Yellow Springs = The world of the dead.
At the weekend our walk was not in our usual Chiltern Hills, but nearer to hand, in the countryside around Boars Hill, with its splendid views of Oxford, augmented at the moment by the tall cranes associated with the building of the new Westgate shopping centre. We hadn't done this walk for some while, and it has never been a regular route for us, but it is pleasant enough. I had completely forgotten its poetic associations.
Once the bulk of the walk had been completed we wandered around the privileged environs of Boars Hill itself, impressed by the large houses, extensive leafy gardens, and atmosphere that I can only describe as of absent-minded opulence. Eventually we came to the entrance of The Elizabeth Daryush memorial Garden, and went in. When we stopped at this garden on an earlier walk, the name Daryush had caused a distant echo in my mind, but was not instantly familiar to me. I tracked my slight recognition down to a sonnet in Don Paterson's book 101 Sonnets, published by Faber. There I found this lovely poem:
Through the open french window the warm sun
lights up the polished breakfast-table, laid
round a bowl of crimson roses, for one -
a service of Worcester porcelain, arrayed
near it a melon, peaches, figs, small hot
rolls in a napkin, fairy rack of toast,
butter in ice, high silver coffee pot,
and, heaped on a salver, the mornings post.
She comes over the lawn, the young heiress,
from her early walk in her garden-wood
feeling that life's a table set to bless
her delicate desires with all that's good,
that even the unopened future lies
like a love-letter, full of sweet surprise.
How perfectly this poem fits Boars Hill, even now. Paterson in his notes says “It's hard to know exactly where the poet stands on all this, but we can perhaps sense her disapproval in the pampered insularity of the scene. I hope.” The house Daryush lived in is next door to the memorial garden, hidden by trees, but from what you can see it looks as large and luxurious as all the other Boars Hill houses. I found myself wondering what her breakfast table looked like? Was she describing it in the poem?
We sat by the pond in the memorial garden soaking up what felt like the warmest sun of the year so far, and listening to expensive Boars Hill birdsong.
Moving on we passed through what is known as Matthew Arnold's field. It was his poem Thyrsis that contained the famous lines about Oxford "And that sweet city with her dreaming spires,/ She needs not June for beauty's heightening". I mischievously wondered whether the lines would have been different had the shopping centre cranes been there in his day.
I enjoyed our mooch around the sumptuous acres of Boars Hill, wondering what it would be like to live in such extravagent houses, but felt that my wife and I would be a little lost in such outsize accommodation, and although I'm not by nature a very gregarious person, I do like having other people close by. Boars Hill folk have such large gardens that the neighbours necessarily live at some distance from them, for the most part out of sight and hearing. I don't envy them their homes and surroundings. It would be too isolated for me, nice to wander around on a visit from a less exalted Oxfordshire village, but to adapt Don Paterson's thought on Elizabeth Daryush's poem I couldn't help feeling a little disapproval at the pampered insularity, and perhaps a bit sorry for them being so separate from everyone else.
I have wanted to write about the relationship between depression and creativity for a long while. Although I have a neatly assembled story about the sequence of circumstances that set me off on a lifetime of writing poetry, I'm aware of how the mind likes to make a narrative out of disparate material, and although it would make a good metaphor, it might not be literally true, who knows. I feel more certain of the link between depression and my writing.
I've always had ways of dealing with depression. It feels as if they were built into me. In the first instance I was unaware of them, or indeed that I was suffering from depression. I suppose I thought that everyone must have, and need, similar coping mechanisms in their lives, that it was a commonplace. I slowly came to realise that might not be so.
Once I became aware that I suffered from depression, and that I had ways with which to deal with it, I started to think consciously about what I was doing, in order to define and refine them. Mostly I do without anti-depressants. Just occasionally it gets the better of me and I have to visit the doctor for chemical help. It was during one of these visits, when my own GP was unavailable, and I had to see a different doctor, that I told her of my usually reliable method of coping, and she explained that it was, in essence, a known technique called cognitive therapy. It seemed I had invented something that already existed.
My way of dealing with things starts with being aware that I am depressed. Depression is by its nature a very subjective state so I try to bypass feelings of worthlessness, and that life is pointless, by telling myself that it has happened before, that I know what it is, that its message was not true then, and won't be true now
Knowing this I try to stand outside of myself, and look at things from a broader perspective to get an objective view. For me at least it is no more complicated than that.
Then I try to think of depression as a separate person who has somehow managed to become entangled with me, but is not me. It can be a tussle sometimes, but it is surprising how effective this approach can be. Oddly I have never read the booklet the doctor gave me. This is typically stubborn. I just prefer finding things out for myself, and making my own individual way. I have been told I am an awkward person, which is probably true.
The thing that has taken me beyond merely dealing with depression as a problem, and has given life meaning that it did not have before, is poetry. My way of thinking about how poetry works for me is to consider it as a form of mental judo. Of taking my opponents weight and strength and using it against them. The opponent being that separate person I had identified depression as.
People who are struggling with a bout of depression will probably not find this a helpful observation, and I can understand that. Depression is a dead weight, and very hard to get a purchase on, but by describing it as separate from you it removes it from that close proximity where you thought it was you.
The following metaphor works for me, but I'm not sure it will mean much for someone who hasn't experienced depression (are there such people?) or who are currently in the grip of it, but there is in judo something called a sacrifice throw, which is a throw where someone allows themselves to fall in order to topple their opponent. What this means to me is that you have to be agile, think according to the circumstances, and be open to unusual approaches to the problem. Sometimes a certain amount of improvisation is required. Not easy, I agree, when you are suffering, but if you are able to stand clear of yourself, and see depression as separate from you, that makes it a lot easier.
This won't work for everyone, I'm sure, but it does for me. Most of the time.
The other thing that I find helps is doing things with your life, to too many people life is something that happens to them rather than something they take an active part in. Poetry to me has been an engine that drives me to use the negative feeling of depression to a positive end. It has also been something (especially when I am published) that provides a sense of achievement, something I can fall back on when depression starts to make life difficult.
For a while now I have been revisiting poems I had abandoned years ago because they weren't successful, and I hadn't been able to get them right. I have been surprised, by my standards at least, how good many of them are, and it hasn't been difficult to put them right where needed, to give them new life. To the extent that some of them have been accepted by good magazines. In fact, one of them is due out in next month's issue of Acumen.
This has made me wonder why I had abandoned them in the first place, and has reminded me what a subjective business writing and evaluating what you have written is. When you are in the heat of it it is not always easy to see what is of value. I suppose also, that the passing of time makes it easier to spot what was needed to put them right, and hopefully one's skills in identifying what works and what doesn't, improve as you continue to write.
The thing about this process of revisiting and revising is that I am now horrified by the thought that I might never have gone back to earlier poems to do it, and a lot of poems, and the effort that went into creating them in the first place, would have been wasted. Whatever else, I'm sure that at the end of this project, and there are hundreds of poems to look through, my poetic output will have increased, and I like to think that its overall quality will have gained significantly.
So, the point of this is, never destroy past failures until you are absolutely certain that they are beyond redemption. It may be that what you were struggling to say then is now much easier to accomplish. It may also be that some of the imagery that you had been unable to master was in fact powerful, and of a level of originality that you did not know what to do with straight off. It wasn't possible to understand precisely what you were saying, and how best to say it. That didn't mean it was a mistake, or not worth saying. I think that is true of some of the poems I have revised.
Perhaps there is no such thing as failure, and failures are only staging posts to a success that is not immediately obvious.
Nothing to do with poetry this. I try hard not to be fanciful, or self-deluded, or indulge in wishful thinking, but sometimes things just get the better of you don't they?
For some reason, ever since staying awake all last night to listen to the results of the referendum come in (I fell asleep in the bath this afternoon), I have been having a recurring thought that there is some lost and lonely individual out there who has woken to the light of day today, and found it relentless and unforgiving, and they have ever since been thinking over and over to themselves “Why did I believe that Boris and Michael could have a good idea between them? Why did I do it? I must have been mad, what came over me? What have I done?"
Most of my blog has had some connection with writing, and particularly poetry. What follows is from the sceptic side of my nature.
I cannot think of anything, other than religion, for which such astonishing claims are made without evidence of their veracity. The religious are often easily offended, what offends me about religion is its lack of sense.
In this piece I want to concentrate on two aspects of god that seem to me to get insufficient critical attention. Firstly the nature of a supposed god, in particular an aspect of god that, if he existed, he would share with us lower life-forms. It seems to me that the thing we ordinary mortals, and a god, have in common, is that neither of us are able to help being who we are. Just as we cannot help not having the kind of powers that a god would take for granted, a god must be unable to help being a god, replete with those powers.
At first sight this probably wouldn't seem all that important to believers, but in a real sense it does cut the idea of god down to size. There is something he has no more power over than we do, and, I would suggest, deserves no credit for.
God deserves no credit for being god, unless that is he worked his way up from being the powerless humble equivalent of a shelf-stacker in the great supermarket of heaven, to being the CEO of Heaven Corp. I find that a notion it's difficult to entertain, and I have never heard of anybody who has suggested such a thing. And yet, this god supposedly rules over us, ready to punish us for human frailties that are something he has never had to bother himself with. Doesn't seem quite right does it? Humans often admire people who have achieved something by sheer effort, but to have greater power merely by virtue of who you are by chance, seems less admirable.
The other thing that has been bothering me more and more, and never seems to be questioned sufficiently, is the idea that this all-powerful, all-loving, super-being, chose to sacrifice his own son to in order to save the human race. Why on earth would a divine entity use such a crude, and cruel means to communicate with people? Why would it be necessary, given supreme powers? Admittedly he had old-testament form in this matter, in the shape of Abraham and Isaac, but in that case he relented, and didn't see things through to their grisly conclusion, but aren't we supposed to see the new testament god as a kinder, gentler being? Why isn't this universally recognised for the unpleasant nonsense that it is?
When they get to the stage of sending work off to magazines, a substantial, but outwardly invisible part of a poet's life, is waiting for the moment of acceptance or rejection. It's a tension unseen by friends and family (but experienced perhaps via the mood of the poet), that follows them around all day every day for as long as it takes.
The afflicted poet can develop an obsessional interest in the arrival of the postman, or the checking of their email inbox.
It's worse for poets just starting off on this uncertain journey. The mix of hope and despair is a potent one, enhanced by the time it takes to get a reply, which, depending on the journal, can be considerable. It helps if they have a submission window, and publication dates, but it can still be a lengthy interval.
If you already have publications under your belt, you can to some extent rest on your laurels, knowing that you have, at least, achieved publication in the past. But it can be addictive, this desire to see yourself in print, proof that an editor has deemed your work of sufficient value to chose it for their magazine. You want more of it. Waiting gets easier, but never quite loses that sharp edge, the pang of an unfulfilled desire.
I am a great believer in computers. They have made the life of any kind of writer a great deal easier, especially perhaps the poet, who can more easily see their work laid out on the page in order to determine its optimal form. And when it comes to making a new print, your original conception is waiting there to reappear effortlessly, just as you originally intended it. Furthermore, it positively encourages you to make changes you might have hesitated to make if you had already spent time typing out a first final draft, and didn't fancy having to repeat the process all over again.
The arrival of the internet has made it easier to research which magazines you might want to send your work to, and provides editors with a means of telling poets what is expected of them, and how to contact them to best advantage.
However, as far as waiting is concerned, technology has done little to improve things. True, email has provided a means of getting the eventual response to you, be it favourable or otherwise, as quickly as possible, but in reality it is only a small difference.
The latest technological advance is the internet portal known as Submittable. This provides a website that enables poets to send their work to magazines and competitions that subscribe to it. It has advantages, and once you get used to it, can make the process easier. It does nothing whatsoever to mitigate the pain of waiting. In fact, if anything, it makes it worse, adding a new twist to the exquisite pain. To your close examination of the postman, and the checking of your email inbox, you can now add the ability to check your Submittable account, and in my experience the temptation is as irresistible as it is futile.
Once you become a poet who submits their work for publication the need to endure a testing wait for the verdict on your work, becomes unavoidable. If you haven't experienced it yet, but are about to, welcome to the ranks. And remember, as Milton didn't quite put it – they also serve who only sit and wait.
There has been a lot of fuss recently about the national anthem. About certain people's patriotism, or supposed lack of it. Those who espouse the flying of flags, the singing of anthems, and patriotism, invest these things with such importance you would think that there is only one way of belonging in the country.
Quite apart from an indisputable lack of a singing voice, and sufficient responsibility towards my fellow citizens not to want to inflict my singing upon them, I don't, and will never, sing the national anthem. It represents too many things I dislike.
Is it only me who finds the frequent reference by some Americans to America being the greatest country on earth, irksome. It recalls the kind of arrogance that had G. W. Bush saying that we were either for America or against it over Iraq, and that other less than successful war, in Afghanistan. As if there were only one view to be had of the need for those armed interventions, America's, or more precisely, that of G. W Bush and his cronies. Thus it is with the flag wavers and the Anthem singers.
My first personal objection to the national anthem is that people from all over the world feel a special bond with the place they live. I feel I belong in the country I live in, and perhaps even more so in the town I live near. But I don't want to eulogise country or town. That to me would be making an unnecessary claim for them being exceptional. I can't help feeling that those Americans who make such a din over the alleged wonders of their country sound as if they are trying too hard.
The second objection I have is to the royal family. While I have no personal animosity towards them, I think of them as the rather lack-lustre descendants of a bunch of warlords. We seem, as a country, to admire people who get ahead on their merits, but want the nation to have as a figurehead someone who has the job by accident of birth. What kind of qualification is it in the twenty first century to have tenure of a high profile job because of an accident of birth. This seems at odds to what we might be expected to admire, and they really are dull and unexceptional. Through no fault of their own, I'm sure, that is what the job they have had the misfortune to be born into, demands of them.
Finally, there is the matter of religion. Not only do I feel no no urgent desire to “save the queen” I feel no need to ask a being whose existence seems to me, on the available evidence, to be mythical, to save her either. The thought of Charles acceding to the throne with, by then, a whole hive of crazed bees in his bonnet, is not appealing either.
It has been suggested to me that the royal family represent the grand sweep of English history. But despite the parlous state of our democracy, I think we are better off voting for our leaders, than having them foisted upon us. History is not only something we look back at, but something we must make. So let us deserve the British reputation for being understated, and not irritate other nations with claims of being exceptional. Perhaps, one day, the world will be sufficiently united we can appreciate the places our fellow human beings live in, without having to make overblown claims for our own, as anthems by their nature do.
My wife has got me watching a comedy series on the BBC iplayer about metal detectorists. I regard this as a splendid find, despite its unlikely subject matter. It's a gentle comedy, and on a first glance you might feel inclined to switch it off, and forget it.
I would encourage you to stay with it, because despite this unprepossessing subject it is a gem worthy of Samuel Beckett. In fact, he is the writer who comes immediately to my mind. The situation our metal detectorist heroes are in was ably summed up by one of the characters, who, musing on a glitch in the smooth running of their pointless existences, said (and I may be paraphrasing slightly here) “We were quite happy finding rubbish, and talking bollocks.”
A self-awareness one can applaud, because what else are we doing caught in the inscrutable stare of the great puzzle of existence? As I might have said before, given that there is nothing on the planet that has a meaning other than the one we have given it, and that the evidence for a super-being who might have meaning tucked up his all-powerful sleeve is, to say the least, non-existent, a meaning of life is the last thing we are ever likely to find.
The detectorists have a sort open day in one episode. They have a variety of artefacts on display, one being a table full of ring-pulls. Needless to say this is a stunningly unsuccessful event about which even the emptiness of the hall looks a bit embarrassed.
But heroically they refuse to give in. There they are the next day, waving their detectors over ground that is unlikely to oblige with a coin-hoard of staggering proportions or beautiful object lost sometime in antiquity. There will, of course, be ring-pulls. Even better ones perhaps, for their next open day. There is the allure that one day they will find something that brings them fame and fortune, and in between there are the usual complications of love and betrayal, and life going about it's daily business in a sometimes interestingly absurd way.
I don't expect detectorists spend all that much time thinking about fame and fortune, certainly poets don't, it's hard enough just keeping things rolling forward in a more or less convincing way. The odd publication here or there, an occasional reading, and a sense that you are doing something that rises, albeit in meagre fashion, above the dead weight of existence.
These days I think of life as a process, something you can ignore, but to be really alive you must participate in, and in some way direct. I think of poetry as a way of expressing the process, taking the world apart and reassembling it so that it says something you hope means something, and hopefully leaves people with the feeling they have shared the experience with you. It certainly demands effort and awareness, and it might even entail a certain amount of progress, and, of course, the occasional ring pull. I expect this is the delusion of hope, but it's enough isn't it.
I understand the old people that went before me who, when they bought a new jacket, or a pair of shoes, would often say “This should see me out”. The same thought occurs to me now, although I manage not to say it out loud.
I don't wish this to sound mournful, I don't think of it that way, it's just that a poet should not dodge unpleasant facts of life. Everything must be included, nothing left out. It gets harder to dodge these things as you get older anyway. Friends you have known most of your life start to disappear.
I think of three relatively recently, who all knew they were about to die, but in their own different ways faced it resolutely, with grace and courage, and without any last minute belief in a life ever after . They did not expect to be caught as Rilke put it, by “One whose gently-holding hands this universal falling can't fall through.”
I only hope I can face it as well as they did. It's a moment in our lives we can't avoid, and as Larkin said “Death is no different whined at than withstood” but he was carefully not recommending one course over the other, perhaps hedging his bets, unsure as to which camp he might end up in.
It is a severe test of whatever it is in our private minds represents civilization to us. But civilization, whatever depth it might aspire to, only sits on top of a world beyond its ministrations, and can never eradicate the arbitrary force beneath it.
We invent gods and call them merciful, but there is little mercy in reality, unless, like the religious, you chose to accept good things as emanating from god, but call bad things something else, as Rowan Williams did when asked about Stephen Fry's recent remarks about the deaths of children. Williams called it “mysterious”. It is sad to hear an intelligent, decent man and poet, reduced to uttering such tosh.
So, from my point of view at least, the vast world that exists just beyond our minimal civilization, has no concern for rules or morals, and when push comes to shove as it often does in our affairs, we are at the mercy of circumstances that don't care.
On the face of it this is not ideal. We will die and be no more, and our living is potentially at risk from circumstances we have no control over. What's good about that? The answer of course is not much. Although, if we had a more certain existence would life feel as precious as it does? If we had all the time we could ever need, would we feel as pressed to do something with it? If there was endless something, and no nothing, would the something we have be quite as extraordinary, or would we get too used to it? Perhaps there would be no light and shade without the nihilism of life beyond civilization.
All we can do is the best we possibly can, and be engaged as we can with being alive, and expressing it. As Mary Oliver put it in the last line of her poem When Death Comes “I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.”