Category: poetry

thing 10: ‘time was away and somewhere else’: blue petering

I can still see it now: the hand-made razor-cleaning-brush holder, approx. three inches by half an inch, knitted in uptightly-tense garter stitch in DK wool in variegated tones of blue by my 7-year-old self.

The HMRCBH lived in Dad’s razor box for a long time and I remember my delight in how delighted he was to receive it (or at least, how delighted I felt he was, which was what mattered). But though the giving and receiving of hand-made items remains a very special thing—which I still enjoy, and which Kirstie et al increasingly encourage us to do these days—that’s not actually (more…)

‘Meeting Point’, Louis MacNeice

You can read this poem here.

Like Betjeman’s ‘In a Bath Teashop’ (which you can also read here), MacNeice’s ‘Meeting point’ captures an  experience both ordinary (in the sense of common) and extra-ordinary: the exalted, exalting human experience of being “in love”. Though very different in tone, these poems both emphasise the time-out-of-time quality of the state of “in love-ness”. It is a privileged state in so many ways, of which ‘Meeting point’ reminds us; but, in the repeated refrain ‘time was away and somewhere else’, MacNeice emphasises how being in love frees us —for however long or short a time—from the usual human condition of being, and knowing ourselves to be, unavoidably subject to time. Indeed, by the end of the poem, the repeated refrain ‘time was away and somewhere else’ has become ‘time was away and she was here’. This underlines how the presence of the beloved obliterates and as it were replaces time.

I love so much about this poem. Aside from the refrain, however, what stays with me always is the line ‘God or whatever means the Good’. Particularly in a time when religion seems to be so divisive (though perhaps ’twas ever thus), this is, for me anyway, such a simple, beautiful and therefore useful way to refer to something/someone. It acknowledges the existence of different concepts and understandings—’whatever means the Good’—at the same time as it invites us to see what is common to them all.

And that penultimate stanza is so neatly circular. The word-for-word repetition in the first and fifth lines, and the way the stanza’s argument seamlessly moves us from statement to restatement, seems somehow to enact the process of “proving” something, which the stanza describes. ‘[T]he body’s peace’ manifests ‘what the heart has understood’, which itself verifies ‘God or whatever means the Good’; which whole process is a cause for praise to ‘God or whatever means the Good’. The process works forwards, backwards and probably sideways for all I can tell. Brilliant. Just brilliant.

Do have a look at the Betjeman, too. Some of the diction feels of its time, and may grate on 21st century sensibilities; but this poem, too, exalts the state of exaltation in a way which those of us lucky (?) enough to fall in love cannot but recognise.

‘Sometimes’, Sheenagh Pugh

You can read this treasure of a poem here.

Somebody brought this poem to December’s 42 group, which was on the subject of hope, and it seemed like a really good one to go with my end-of-year post. I love the modesty of this poem’s claims. It acknowledges all the many things than can go wrong, small- and large-scale, some of which seem particularly apposite in 2017… and yet, somehow, manages to keep in sight the fact that, ‘sometimes’, things go well. The closing wish, offered out to the reader, is simple, disarming and lovely.

 

‘When Death Comes’, Mary Oliver

You can read this poem here.

Whenever I’ve shared poetry in groups, and we’ve explored this poem, it has always had resonances for the participants. Whether the groups are about loss, mortality, love of nature, mindfulness, the search for meaning, ways to live more happily in this bewildering, bruising but also beautiful world… whatever the immediate focus, people find nourishment in this poem. It speaks to them.

The images of death are so simple, but so powerful. That death should ‘[snap] the purse shut’ calls to my mind those old-fashioned purses with the cross-over clasps with spheres on the end of little stalks, which slide across and past each other and shut with such satisfying conviction. I can feel them ‘snap’ home under my fingers as I read those words. Death as a ‘hungry bear in autumn’, feeding urgently, because it must, and willing to take whatever it comes across; death as the dreadful shock of the ‘iceberg between the shoulder blades’—something that dwarfs us and mows us down, without malice or intention, simply because of what it is, and where we happen to be… I find these images unforgettable.

How amazing, though, is where, in Oliver’s hands, these images lead us. Not to lamentation (or not explicitly); but rather, to an honouring of what unites us; to an openness to possibilities; to an acceptance that we all must ‘tend towards silence’; to an honouring of all life as something ‘precious’: and to the determination to live as vividly, intensely, fully as possible. That importance of the distinction between visiting and living isn’t spelled out, but has a quiet profundity which convinces me entirely. This poem gives me a way to think about how I want to live: I don’t want simply to be a visitor here: I want to live here, to belong here, to be a fully-involved citizen of this world, for as long as I am given. And Oliver even suggests how we may do this: by being both bride and bridegroom, ‘married to amazement’, and ‘taking the world in [our] arms’. That might not entirely prevent me being ‘sighing and frightened,/or full of argument’, but it it feels like the very most I can do to minimise that.

Thank you, Mary. I’m so grateful for this poem.

‘Love (III)’, George Herbert

You can read this poem here. I tried to type it out on the page, as it’s in the public domain, but I wasn’t able to triumph over the pre-formatting on this blog template and I kept losing the indentations in lines 2,4 and 6 of each stanza, so eventually I gave up. It was that or throw the laptop through the window. You know how it is.

Anyway. This poem is the last in Herbert’s long sequence called The Church and, as is evident, is originally a religious poem, which presents a dialogue between a speaker and ‘Love’—Christ—who invites the speaker to receive the gift of the unconditional love of God, made possible through the freely-chosen sacrifice He himself has made on our behalf. Exquisite as this is as a fleshing-out of Christian theology, I add it here, and in connection with this particular post, because I think it can also be read as an extremely psychologically-acute dramatisation of the difficulty we can all feel, sometimes, in accepting love and kindness.

At its least important this might manifest as an exchange along the lines of ‘Your hair looks great today!’. ‘Oh… it really needs washing but I didn’t have time last night’. You know the kind of thing: we probably all know someone who simply cannot receive a compliment (and that someone might just be us ourselves!). This habit of rejection reminds me of Wonderwoman’s magic deflector bracelets, which enabled her swiftly to repel and deflect anything coming her way. That’s great if it’s bad stuff coming towards us; but there’s something sad and serious about how many of us feel only conditionally acceptable/nice/good and therefore find it difficult or impossible to receive the good stuff—be it a not-so-important compliment, or something much more necessary, like care, kindness, love. We can feel we don’t deserve it.

Thus ‘Love (III)’ shows the speaker eager, at first, to receive the love, then losing confidence—’grow[ing slack]/From my first entrance in’—and coming up with all sorts of reasons why he doesn’t deserve it. Yet Love persists—’took my hand, and smiling did reply’—and challenges gently but firmly. The guest (and isn’t it wonderful that he has been invited?: love is something offered and extended to us) comes us with all sorts of excuses, deflections of and proposed diminutions to the “feast” offered: “Me?? I can’t be a guest at this magnificent banquet. I shouldn’t even be here; I’ve got no right to it, I don’t deserve it… Oh, okay then, if you’re really sure; but at least let me help, let me do the washing up….” But then, in the end, because Love persists, the speaker just caves in and accepts.

That eventual collapse into receiving something can be sudden, and lovely, and often painful, because it means letting go of the fears and the hurt. Acceptance—self-acceptance—is (as I see it) at the centre of the work clients do in therapy; it’s my job to try to provide a relationship within which they can come to see that they are lovable. Just as in this poem, it can be such a struggle to dare to believe that you are OK, or OK-enough. It’s hard, hard work. But though the ‘sit[ting] and ‘eat[ting] is the end of a struggle (as it’s the end of the poem and of The Church as a whole) it’s also the beginning of something else: of a new and potentially beautiful way of being, where self-compassion and self-acceptance make it more possible to feel the same things towards everyone else. Happy drivers let someone else merge in from the side-road ahead of them; angry ones don’t. Happy people pay it forward.

Learning to accept kindness, from ourselves and from others, seems to be a lifetime’s work. This poem reminds me that I’m not alone in finding it hard, but that it is a worthwhile and wonderful thing to do.