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.

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

Our beautiful brains

When I arrived on holiday in Chicago this summer my daughter handed over the three copies of the book I had ordered from the poet Cynthia Jobin. I find it difficult to describe the pleasure with which I sank, jet-lagged, into bed that night and opened A Certain Age. I am not an orderly poetry reader, I started with the last poem Acknowledgement*, which made me laugh out loud, it is so perfectly judged a final comment – but I can’t give away the joke.DSCN8527

This poetry is both accessible and yet also of the highest intellectual standard. Cynthia knows about, and plays with, poetic forms, metre, rhythm, rhyme etc. She handles language with delicacy and certainty, yet all the machinery is hidden, we can sit back, read and listen. I do mean listen. The cream of this publication is the enclosed CD of Cynthia reading her poetry. If you doubt for a moment that you would enjoy this, just try it here, for something short and funny, or this for an observation that hits the spot. One that moves me to tears does not have a recording, so you must read it here, Without You the CatI could go on. She writes with humour, insight and tenderness about the humans and animals in her life, and with heart-aching clarity about grief.

There is no way, in this brief overview that I can do justice to contents of  A Certain Age. Go see, read, listen for yourselves.

The book itself is a treat to look at and handle; the cover, utterly appropriate, is of a tulip past its prime and yet fascinatingly beautiful [little diversion: years ago I saw a photo of an 80-year-old woman throwing a javelin and it reminded me of an ancient Greek sculpture].

You might think that there would be no connection between this poetry and my other deeply satisfying read – Daniel Levitin’s The Organized Mind. Daniel is a neuro-psychologist and his book is about how to harness the beautiful complexity of the brain, by understanding a little better how it works. Of course some of it is testing reading, but once again, most of it is extremely accessible. What I read has already improved my life.

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Two examples, one: Daniel interviews a very senior CEO about the problem of intractable decisions that land on his desk when his managers are effectively stuck. His job, he explains, is not to make the decision, because they, not he (or she), are the experts. He helps them to look at the problem in a different light, ‘I tell them to back up and find out one truth that they know is indisputable’. This can take a lot of steps, and this truth, once arrived at can be very simple, for instance: “no matter what, we cannot serve food that is not 100% fresh”. The managers then creep forward step by step from that point and a solution will often emerge.

the other: ‘Eat the frog’ – an expression new to me, meaning, if it’s bugging you, do it. I carry around, for days (sometimes for months), tasks that I am reluctant to undertake e.g. ringing the tech help of our Broadband provider. Clear one or more of these first thing in the morning, and boy is the rest of the day beautiful. Intellectually, I already knew this, but now I have a little internal instructor that detects my reluctance and says Eat the frog!

I am forever fascinated by the complexity, scope and skill of the organ we use to run our lives. Both these publications stimulate the sweet spots of curiosity, emotion and beauty in my brain. I hope they do the same for some of you.

*You can find Cynthia’s joke here Acknowledgement 

Four-decker book sandwich

DSCN7753As usual I have (mis)managed my reading by finding myself in the middle of four books simultaneously. I don’t know how many of you have the same experience, but there is a strange crossfire between books as a result… I have just checked my list and realised that three more books have crept into this sandwich (this is embarrassing, but I have finished two of these and lent the third to a friend who had left her iPad behind).

DSCN7754 - Version 2So, I started David Willetts’, The Pinch, on holiday in the wonderful library in Borgo Pignano, and ordered a second-had copy on my return. As a Baby Boomer myself, I’d like to understand this discrepancy between what we have had and what our children will inherit. What I have read so far, about how the historical structure of the British family make  it different from the rest of the continent (and much of the rest of world) I find fascinating. I reserve judgement on some of the lines he is taking.

 

[I ended the holiday by re-reading an old friend, Mary Stewart’s Airs Above the Ground. Returning to my stacked bedside I picked up The Secret Rooms by Catherine Bailey, a serious and riveting piece of research taking in the upper echelons of British Society, and WWI. Don’t be put off by the way it is uncomfortably dolled up for marketing purposes as a ‘True Gothic Mystery’. The research and the story are good and very revealing. I finished this in time for the visit last week by the kind friend who had given it me.]

DSCN7756 - Version 2A WWII Spitfire pilot, Geoffrey Wellum, appeared on TV the other night and my husband dropped the book he published in 2002, First Light, onto my desk. Had I really not read it? With an Mosquito navigator uncle and Halifax pilot father-in-law, I should have read this enthralling classic  So I started and am totally involved. This is heart-beating stuff told without the least swagger, carrying you from the schoolboy who writes to the Air Ministry to the (very) young Spitfire pilot trying to keep his end up in the battle of Britain.

DSCN7755 - Version 2However, I have a reading group meeting tomorrow night, so, slightly out of breath, I started Longbourn by Jo Baker. This is unpromisingly billed as: Pride and Prejudice – the servants’ story. It turns out to be an excellent read, full of interesting life and detail and a totally absorbing story in its own right. The P & P narrative is there, above stairs, and acts as a brilliant backstory, because we already know it. I am impressed and read happily and quickly.

DSCN7757 - Version 2In the meantime the winner of the Poetry Business Competition, is a young poet, Paul Stephenson, whose work I really enjoy. The result of the win is his first published poetry pamphlet, Those People. I can’t resist browsing. Some I recognise from individual magazine publications, others are new. There is a delightful mixture of his impish (Passwords) and tragic (Birthday Cards) take on life and delight in words (Wake Up And…) and sharp and hilarious observations (Angle End) and all these elements crossfire within the poems.

***

I’ve finished Longbourn, and returned to First Light; The Pinch next (though I need to fit in Golding’s The Spire for Other Reading group) and I’m dropping in on Those People at intervals. Now I must get down to the serious business of the Researching FEPOW (Far East POW) History conference this Friday in Liverpool.

My irregular heart and a random spider

This morning I was searching for a file and came across an old poem of sorts. I read it and felt again when I had felt then. I am happy to publish prose, but I find myself very reluctant to put up a poem. So, in the interests of overcoming this anxiety, here it is. (For non-lovers of half-baked poetry there is a photo below of a charming spider I saw the other day. Name?)

My Irregular Heart

You’re eighteen now,
old enough to give blood, my father said.
So I did.
In some years lovers delayed me,
or babies distracted me,
or illness prevented me.
Still, pint by pint I shared a little of myself
and always felt better as I left.

Today the nurse spoke kindly,
we can’t take your blood anymore,
I’m so sorry, but
‘Heart, irregular’ is on our list.
You’ve done well –
forty-seven donations,
I’m sorry you did not reach your fifty.

So I walked my irregular heart
out of the building,
and took it home to contemplate
no longer contributing,
no longer belonging to the giving population.
I have walked to the other side of the equation
And found there,
an unexpected sense of loss.

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Hercules Editions – small and mighty

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On Thursday night I attended the launch of a small book, The Heart Archives, by Sue Rose (a poet with a published collection to her name and another due later this year). Sue has photographed things meaningful to her and accompanied them with a series of sonnets, many relating to her own family. The poems have a sweet rhythm and a deep undertow, with mortality lurking in the background. Each is titled with a number in reference to the heartbeats recorded by Christian Boltanski and played continuously for his installation, Les Archives du Coeur. Sue’s book is one of two published by Hercules Editions (http://herculeseditions.wordpress.com), a press that came about to fill a need – the combination of photos and poetry.

DSCN4805The other book, Formerly, records disappearing London in photos by Vici MacDonald and poetry by Tamar Yoseloff. If you have ever wandered those streets of the city that have lost favour or are due for ‘redevelopment’, you will recognise in the photos the traces of the people who once lived and thrived here. The poems are sharp, bright, funny and heartbreaking. I love the verbal high jinks within them and the way they capture the flavour of what has now  disappeared (http://formerlysonnets.wordpress.com).

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One poem and photo, The Rose, took me back to my time as a struggling sculptor when my flatmate and I rented two bedrooms and a studio in The Rose and Crown in Deptford (long since demolished). The Studio was in the old strip bar (complete with appropriate murals). One of our bedrooms had to be given up to the Great Dane (who lived there too) to occupy with her puppies. I remember one day being told to stay away from the bar for a few days as Mick would be out (of prison) tonight. The barman then hid the rifle that used to hang above the bar. Exciting times!

Hungary to Japan in a weekend

Wonderful couple of days. Small but international poetry meeting with the theme ‘dwelling’ very freely interpreted. Poems ranged from the romantic to the starkly tragic, with English, Hungarian, Czech, Polish and Bengali contributions, most read in both English and the original. For bonus we had two singers – one operatically trained (who indulged me and delighted us all with the Handel aria Did You Not Hear My Lady unaccompanied), the other a charming cabaret/folk story-teller singing in (?) Turkish. We all regretted that these meetings are so very rare.

Yesterday we went to the Holland Park Opera for Madame Butterfly. The best interpretation and staging of this that I have ever seen. A story of its period, but no longer silly. Anne Sophie Duprels made us believe in Butterfly’s moral outlook, her dilemma and her ultimate choice. She brought out a strangely modern problem – that of the cultural immigrant who accepts a country’s hype at face value, and is fatally damaged as a consequence. Strong stuff, cleanly and simply staged.