For Cynthia, The delights of poetry – A Spike of Green and 6 Yellow Tulips

Dear all, I gather that the lines of poetry are showing incorrectly in some browsers. I can’t correct them as they are fine in mine – so sorry.

This is a transcript of a speech I made at Toastmasters (where I am learning about public speaking). I don’t know if it will work as a post, but I know many of you will miss Cynthia Jobin as much as I do. The speech was restricted to between 5 and 7 minutes and was about using language clearly, simply and directly. Several members of the audience did not have English as a first language and for some of them poetry was an unknown pleasure.

I was so determined to have 6 tulips in flower, that I slightly overdid it. 

 

Poetry delights me. And for the next few minutes I’d like to show you just a few of the ways in which it does so.

In a poem called The Storm, Walter de la Mare starts

First there were two of us, then there were three of us,                                                 Then there was one bird more,                                                                                     Four of us–wild white sea-birds,                                                                               Treading the ocean floor;                                                                                               And the wind rose, and the sea rose,                                                                           To the angry billows roar

The storm and the birds keeps on growing until there is:

A host of screeching, scolding, scrabbling                                                                   sea-birds on the shore.

And then he brings the birds and the storm gently to rest.

A snowy, silent, sun-washed drift                                                                                   of sea-birds on the shore.

Using words that sound like the story they’re telling, is perhaps the most familiar delight of poetry, but poems can work in a thousand different ways. They can, for instance, simply send a message. Here is one from William Carlos Williams.

This is Just to Say

I have eaten                                                                                                                   the plums                                                                                                                     that were in                                                                                                                   the icebox

and which                                                                                                                     you were probably                                                                                                         saving                                                                                                                           for breakfast

Forgive me                                                                                                                   they were delicious                                                                                                       so sweet                                                                                                                       and so cold

It reads like a post-it note, yet it’s also a tiny, unforgettable love-letter.

***

Lots of poems deal with universal subjects – the trials of love and the anguish of grief – and we can go to them for comfort. But what if you want to convey an experience that will be unknown to most of your readers? The C17th poet, Milton, was going blind, so he used the voice of the blinded biblical figure, Samson, to convey his terror:

Dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon,                                                         Irrecoverably dark, total eclipse, beyond all hope of light.

You may, I trust, never experience blindness, but I defy you to forget the passion and the beat of that cry – Dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon.

***

Poets love metaphors. So if I say: ‘it’s raining cats and dogs’ you know I don’t mean it literally but you understand me – your imagination stretches and your brain enjoys that! T S Eliot made London fog vivid for us by making it behave like a cat.

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,                                         Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening…                                                 Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,                                                               And seeing that it was a soft October night                                                             Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

***

A particular delight for me in poetry is the layers of ideas. So you get two, or even three or four, for one. Here are a couple of simple lines by Alun Lewis [from Raider’s Dawn] written in WWII.

Softly the civilised centuries fall,                                                                                     Paper on paper, Peter on Paul

Lewis shows how both individual people and the long-term efforts of humanity are lost through war. Choosing Biblical names, Peter and Paul, reminds us that war is against the principles of Christianity (and most other religions). He points a finger at bureaucracy – paper on paper – because bureaucrats run wars. He has skilfully made one verb – to fall – do the work for all three ideas and at the same time he has seduced our ears with the alliteration – the repeated opening sounds – softly, civilised, centuries; paper, Peter and Paul.

 ***

Another thing poetry can do is make us feel understood. Little story – my brother was out on a walk with fellow ramblers, when the person beside him (a stranger) looked at a green shoot appearing out of the ground and quoted:

When I went out                                                                                                           The sun was hot                                                                                                            It shone upon                                                                                                                My flower pot.

And there I saw                                                                                                             A spike of green                                                                                                           That no one else                                                                                                           Had ever seen! [at this point my brother joined in]

On other days                                                                                                               The things I see                                                                                                             Are mostly old                                                                                                         Except for me.

But this green spike                                                                                                       So new and small                                                                                                         Had never yet                                                                                                               Been seen at all!

This poem was written by my grandmother in the 1930s and still appeals to small children today.

***

I want to dedicate this talk to an American poet, Cynthia Jobin, who died just before Christmas. Her writing is moving, scholarly, often funny, and to me utterly delightful. So here are the last three lines of a poem titled, Six Yellow Tulips:

Only being is a tulip’s work. Being                                                                             beauty against gloom. After a long winter                                                                   being the yellowest, gladdest thing in the room.

This is not a book review

[I keep writing posts and then letting them rot as drafts as I know I haven’t time to respond properly – so here is a thought from a few weeks ago.]

I have a modern dilemma. As a writer/reader/blogger I review books I love, but by no means all the books I read. I try to support fellow writers by reading their books, but if they write in a genre I don’t enjoy (horror, thriller, fantasy), although I sometimes buy, I don’t read them. There are some other genres (sci-fi, romance, chick-lit, historical fiction) where I’ll buy and read a few pages and occasionally the whole book, because I like the writer and am interested to see their work. Mostly I read general fiction, and a lot of non-fiction.

Tom Gauld cartoon

Tom Gauld cartoon

I recently read two books by authors I had come across online and expected to enjoy and in many ways I did. Both were fiction, but full of interesting subject matter, well-researched; the writing was fluent and grammatical and the proof reading was exemplary.  The first few chapters were enjoyable and yet as I read I fell into a state of simmering irritation.

The first one needed more editing. Some very strange ‘darlings’ that spoiled the atmosphere should have been cut. Most of the characters, including a very crucial one, were well-drawn and the pace was good. BUT the two protagonists and their whole story arc were straight out of central casting and belonged in a different book. The writing (for these two) was what my husband refers to as the ‘he gazed into her sunburnt eyes’ style. It was repetitive and very soupy.

The second was a very good read in many ways with a fascinating background and story. BUT, once more, the two main characters and their interactions were not credible. In this case the characters were undercooked, their behaviour towards each other age-inappropriate and the whiff of teenage romance in a serious setting was odd.

I really want to review these books and I cannot without hurting the authors.

Now, here’s the embarrassment, is this how my writing comes across to others? I still remember one very irritated reader/relative saying, why do you write like this when you could write like A S Byatt if you wanted to (I couldn’t, but I wouldn’t want to either). Were these books perfect for a different reader? Am I just reading out of my genre comfort-zone? Is this just the curse of the writer as reader?

I see that this post has become an (unintentional) demonstration of how dull writing becomes when you generalise instead of being specific – ah well!

Meanwhile winter has turned to spring – Hooray!

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Being Mortal, a message for writers, remembering Paris

Is mortality a subject you avoid?

Atul Gawande, the influential and clear-thinking American surgeon, wrote Being Mortal to think through those difficult decisions we all face if we are lucky to live a long life or unlucky and face an early but prolonged death. So yes, this might be a book some of us would instinctively avoid, yet I want to shout at everyone, young and old, READ THIS, because he shows you how to retake control.

If, as most of us do, we fear pain or prolonged weakness at time of our death, this book is a revelation. Gawande, with a curious and open mind, investigates current and historical end-of-life care and discusses what matters most and how it can be achieved. He learns from those quiet experts at the coal face, the dying, the relatives, the nurses and the carers, what questions to ask yourself and what questions to ask those you love. He emphasises the deep importance of asking those questions while in good health as well as when they need answering in extreme circumstances.

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This book is not difficult to read because it is so well written and full of real examples. It does, however, need courage if these are questions you always avoid or if you find clearly-discussed medical matters uncomfortable to read. The magic is that facing fear makes you feel better. This book gives you tools to cope with that fear and a sense of control over your mortality.

So, what does it do for writers along the way? Gawande looks at research into the differences between our experience during events and our memory of that experience. Being human, these are often contradictory – at the time we experience ‘the peaks of joys and the valleys of misery’, but when we remember it is ‘how the stories works out as a whole’. So a really entertaining football match in which your team performs blissfully for hours can be ruined by some bad football at the end. Why? ‘Because a football game is a story. And in stories, endings matter.’ [my italics] The Peak-End moment is what matters to memory.

Last Tuesday night I read two poems from Paul Stephenson’s recent pamphlet, The Days That Followed Paris, at the Cambridge Speaker’s Club – our Toastmaster’s venue. Listener’s found these as moving as I did; they convey the mood – strangeness, fear, pain and warmth – of those days. I read Safety Feature and Blindfold [about that brave muslim in the Place de la République].   dscn0101-version-2

Amy’s drawings and interview with Suzy Henderson

More random, but happy, events – an email from daughter Amy with a lovely mini-show of her drawings

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at a curious event – the House and Garden pop-up-shop – Amy met some celebrities at the launch seen here at the Tatler website.

– an interview with writer Suzy Henderson, who has a passion for WWII history. Her questions about becoming a writer and the new Railway book made me think about my parents’ role in my writing. The interview appears on her WWII blogspot Lofell Writers Place and on her WordPress writer’s site. Something I found interesting on this last site is a persuasive videoed book review by Mike Reynolds.

Sorry, lots of links. Have a tree peony in it’s autumn glory to finish. dscn9971dscn9970

 

 

Sunday Living History Interview – Far East Prisoners of War – Hilary Custance Green

Sally Cronin has once more given my recent work on Far East POWs and my other work the kind of polish I dream about, but never quite achieve. My thanks to her and all her visitors.

Smorgasbord - Variety is the spice of life

Living HistoryMy guest today is author Hilary Custance Green and she will be sharing the story her father’s imprisonment by the Japanese during World War II and the letters that were written to her mother Phyllis by the wives and families of other Far East Prisoners of War.

About Hilary Custance Green.

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Hilary had a nomadic childhood moving between England, Gibraltar, Germany and attending school in Belgium and therefore studying languages might have been the obvious choice. But it was art that was to become the priority. Hilary took degrees in Art History and Art Sculpture and then spent many years producing some stunning pieces. You will find examples of her work on her website: http://www.hilarycustancegreen.com/Hilary_Author_Website/Sculpture.html

This was not Hilary’s only creative endeavour as she also immersed herself in poetry and music both of which would feature side by side with her experience with the more scientific approach to brain health…

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The best laid plans…

… of mice, men and women are bound to run agley.

Just as I was getting back into a blogging routine, life has bowled me a googly and I shall have to prioritise ruthlessly for the next month or more. So once more, although I will be around, dropping in, and occasionally waving from the sidelines, I will not be visiting regularly and not posting much at all. When I don’t see or comment on your posts it is me, not you. I will be back.

Here is the book I am reading and which is engaging me completely. If you want to keep a perspective on our life on earth, this is the prescribed medicine. dscn9867-version-2 It starts with the simple premise that explorers have reached earth 100,000,000 years hence and then looks at what they might find. Actually it’s an accessible lesson in paleontology and stratigraphy (! my vocabulary is expanding).

And here are my delicious peppers (at least I hope they are, I haven’t eaten one yet), grown from seed. dscn9862 dscn9861

And finally the hips are colouring in the garden as autumn creeps up on us.dscn9869

À bientôt!

An Honest House and an Albrizia

I loved Cynthia Reyes’s first Memoir  A Good Home, so I picked up the continuing story An Honest House in happy anticipation. This is a book with a perfect title and has been                             Screen Shot 2016-08-05 at 20.22.10

my companion during a more than hectic summer. The night before my own book launch I read the words ‘And then it was May 17, only one day before the book launch’. Coin-cidences aside, this book faced up to some very difficult themes with total honesty. A supremely difficult life-changing event – a car accident, and its consequences – physical impairment, chronic pain and PTSD are things that can and do happen to anyone. They are explored with a rare mixture of humour and intensity.

This book is a bumpy ride, where the highs and lows follow each other in quick succession – I laughed over the Valentine, I wept over Keats, I laughed over ‘a job that pays’. There are few easy-walking meadows in this story, because it is about the mountains and valleys. Among the things that struck me was Cynthia’s insistence on facing up to something we all know – it is never a good time for a difficult or dangerous conversation – and dealing with it so courageously.

When the story introduces the ultimate twist, it is even more powerful, because it is true. The whole book is about honesty, love, family life, happiness and faith. And if, like me, you do not have the kind of faith Cynthia has, this is also fine. She makes it easy to empathise with her faith instead.

By chance, I was given another very slim memoir titled Ann during this period. This was a private summary of a life of drama, pain, good homes, faith and also much happiness. I am so grateful Cynthia and Ann for telling us their stories of family life, so that none of us feel alone when we, too, meet the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

And talking of families, the most wonderful gift arrived from my American son-in-law’s parents, Sharon and Rick. Here is a poor photo of my beautiful new little tree, an Albizia julibrissin. There will be more in the future. DSCN9651