You can read a brief excerpt from this poem here; and if you scroll down that page you can find a link to A***** (the badplace™) where you can read the whole thing by clicking on the “look inside” thing about the book (itself called I Praise My Destroyer). It’s on pp. 4-6 of the book.
This poem is such a rich feast of images that I’m not going to attempt any kind of sustained, line-by-line comment; besides, you can see for yourself how it celebrates life in its dazzling variousness and glory. But I do want to say how much I love the way Ackerman treats the bewilderment we can feel, the puzzled, incredulous incapacity we experience, when we try to imagine our own non-existence. I mean, we know it in theory; but actually to realise it, to try to feel it…? Larkin tells us how ‘the mind blanks at the glare’;* here, Ackerman dramatises it, with the repetitions of ‘How can it all end’. And at the same time, the variety of her imagery suggests the wonder of the world, and her profound gratitude for the gift of being alive on ‘the startling Earth/for what seemed]/an endless resurrection of days’
‘Seemed’. That’s the crucial word there. This is a poem written by someone who’s looking mortality in the face and who, despite her struggles to realise it, finds herself more inspired than paralysed (unlike poor Phil…). On the contrary: Ackerman is determined to spend ‘all the coins of sense’. Further: she is ready to praise all of ‘our real estate—a shadow and a grave’. That is to say, she celebrates the life’s opposite, death: how it is a foil to life; how it allows life to shine so brightly in contrast with the impending darkness.
This poems stills and also inspires me. It refuses to let sorrow over the human predicament (the awareness of our own mortality) curdle into bitterness or fear. It’s not a lament but a hymn of praise. By looking death in the face Ackerman only deepens her love of life; and this determination to be as alive as possible, while it’s possible, is what I want to take from contemplating my mortality. Not in a panicked, ticking-things-off-a-bucket-list kind of a way, but in a revelling in the moment—any moment—sort of a way. For, as I read it, anyway, when Ackerman chooses to ‘praise [her] destroyer’, she’s not only praising death for sharpening and giving value and meaning to being alive. She’s also praising life itself, because life is what kills us. We can only die because we have been alive. That’s the deal.
So. ‘Come let us sport us while we may’…
You can read this poem here.
Last year, while doing the prep. for a session I was running, I had most of the books off the poetry shelves, looking for texts about friendship that weren’t of the saccharine, emetic, vacuous or Inspirational Verse breeds. I wanted a poem that said something about what friendship is about, how it “works”, rather than merely saying what a Good Thing it is. The celebration of friendship in verse seems to be far rarer, though, than the celebration of romantic love. But I did eventually find a few poems I really liked, which I added to this quiet treasure by Jennings. It was a thought-provoking exercise to go through.
Friendship is, most of the time, both undramatic and glorious. It’s essential without (very often!) causing the pulse to race. I think this poem has the same quality of quiet wondrousness which it celebrates in its subject. It’s written in simple rhyming couplets which are neat without being clangingly predictable. Its rhythm is measured and regular without being stodgy, and is lifted by its judicious use of enjambement. Its vocabulary is unfussy but careful, naming clearly the simple but precious qualities it celebrates—’gentleness… understanding… trust… respect… awe’.
I find the use of the word ‘awe’ really interesting. It makes me think of how friendship—like any of the loves—can remind us, every so often, of the utter other-ness of the other party. This is a real person, distinct from us and with their own set of likes and dislikes, habits and experiences and quirks… and yet they choose to share time with us, to give us the precious gift of themselves. That is indeed awesome—in the Bill-and-Ted sense of great, but also in the proper sense of amazing, wonderful, breathtaking.
You can read the text of this poem here, and you can listen to John Ireland’s glorious setting of it here.
One of the poetry groups I facilitate recently had as its topic “mountains”, and (among other things) I took the text of this wonderful song. I was, for some reason, quietly pleased to discover that the person who included it on their blog (which is where you’ve just read it) had, like me, discovered it at choir practice. Perhaps what pleases me is that sense of community and connection, across time and miles.
Anyway, this poem doesn’t mention the joys of the high- or mid- altitude cheese sandwich, but I really prize its celebration of what we find in hills: a place of stillness, a sense of that which never changes. No matter what our intellectual understanding may be that these, too, shall pass, it’s hard to feel that when you are out in the hills. Kirkup’s poem has a very simple vocabulary and unfussy style. It’s not saying anything particularly complicated—but I reckon it will resonate with most if not all of us who go out into them there hills. ‘They are both god and temple’: places to be revered and treasured; places which offer nourishment and refreshment; and places where we can reconnect with our own ‘profounder rivers’.
It’s new-book-joy time again, so kettle on, phone off, biscuits out…
A couple of new poetry books have gone into the WTAK collection. The Art of Losing, edited by Kevin Young, and In Memoriam: Poems of Bereavement, introduced by Carol Ann Duffy, are both now nestled on the anthologies shelf. The second was a Christmas present (thanks, Naomi!); the first has been my companion for a while.
You can read more about them on the bookshelf pages (hover over the titles). Here, I’ll content myself with saying that, while the first is a long, comprehensive book and the second a mere slip of a slim volume, both are very approachable. And both are wonderful things to offer someone who might be going through loss—or to have on hand if you yourself are in need of comfort and companionship during a grief. Even if neither of those applies, though, these are simply great collections of poems, doing what all good poetry does: reminding us of what it is to be human, reminding us that, almost certainly, whatever we are experiencing, we are not alone in it.
In her introduction, Duffy reveals the intention behind this collection: ‘we hope that these poems… will hold your hand’. The image, taken from one of the poems included in the book, is simple, clear, effective: it’s about comfort and companionship, recognition and acknowledgement. And I’d say the book does what Duffy puts on the tin.
There’s a mixture of poems you’re likely to have encountered already and poems which are probably new; similarly, there are a lot of familiar voices—Tennyson, Rosetti, Thomas, St. Vincent Millay, Thomas, and Duffy herself—as well as new ones, and anonymous/traditional texts too. Some are suitable for reading at a funeral or memorial; some feel more intimate. I particularly like the fact that such a range of moods is represented in this volume: shocked, angry, bewildered, wry, consoled, consoling, defiant, felled by loss… even in such a small book, something to find you in most moods.
And if you’re new to the poetry of loss, this would be a great place to start.