Category: reflection

‘The Hills’, James Kirkup

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’.

 

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.