Category: reflection

‘I Praise My Destroyer’, Diane Ackerman

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’…

*See ‘Aubade‘.

thing 15: ‘a magic made by melody’: a gig

Stripping off with a bunch of other people, variously familiar to me, in the chilly, cramped vestry of some hitherto-unknown church. Dressing for Saturday Night in modest, full-length black, then perching on a chair in an unheated church hall, eating squashed sandwiches. All the ingredients of a perfectly normal weekend for me.

I’ve been singing in choirs since I was about 7 (not continuously, obviously), and this has frequently involved doing gigs in (read more…)

thing 14: ‘the dearest freshness deep down things’: lamb-hunting

Call me Ishmael.

Don’t worry, though. I’m not talking harpoons or shotguns here. It’s just that I do get possessed, each spring, by a need to find and gaze upon lambs—the wobblier and boing-ier the better. The obsession comes on really strong in early February and lasts till Mayish, when wild-swimming fever takes over. So there was never any question that lamb-hunting would be a Thing.

And now it’s time! It is a bright cold day in February and the flocks are dotting the green. Well-swaddled, I (read more…)

thing 13: ‘sometimes counsel… sometimes tea’: the joy of cafes

I read an interview with Alain de Botton in which he revealed that the mirror features in his morning routine only as something he can glance into and ‘check that nothing too terrible [is] happening’. I like that a lot. This is a level of personal grooming I can relate to.

But even that isn’t necessary, of course, if you don’t go out of the house. If all you’re going to do is have a cup of tea, why put yourself through grooming, or indeed dressing, at all? Why take off your jamas/house clothes and brush your hair? (Or at least redeploy it; those among you (read more…)

‘Friendship’, Elizabeth Jennings

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.