Recently I’ve been self-prescribing poems to learn by-heart for my own addictions and compulsions: to food, to drink, to my phone; to the constant stimulating stream of social media I now can’t possibly live without; to poetry; to YouTube videos; to television series and the week-long binges they necessitate; to certain kinds of interpersonal attachments, both “real” and virtual.

For days I’ve had that 80s schlockmeister Robert Palmer intoning his insidious little mantra into my limbic system: “Your lights are on, but you’re not home / Your will is not your own… / Might as well face it you’re addicted to love.”

Truth is, we are all now addicted to something or other. Maybe it’s always been that way, or maybe we’re facing a rampant new strain of a very old problem, outlined as far back as Plato and The Prophets. As Kaveh Akbar writes in another poem that expores this, one I’ve been by learning by heart recently:

I blame my culture       I blame everyone but myself     
intent arrives like a call to prayer and is as easy to dismiss   

Wherever we sit on the spectrum of compulsive behaviours, are these not the justifications we all use on a daily basis? I know I do.

Here are some poems you might want to self-prescribe (learning by heart?) for whatever compulsive behaviour has got its claws into you at the moment.


One day will be tomorrow. The day of truce
and socket and beaten. The day
you shrink into stopping, the day threadbare and pain-
shamed and limit. Until then,
you might be continuing
because that is what you do until the last moment
when you must stop.
Still everywhere the shiver
is slow on the tongue, insistent. You will stop
for some weeks,
your body taking body
from your blood
and the back of the throat,
and those weeks will be thank-you-God acres
of erasure and resurrection and the clabber of other small prayers
you stoop to collect. You will be diligent
because you have paid good money
to be taught how to stop, slanting off
from queasy transgressions, those
clutches and source. Even so,
we shouldn’t fool ourselves;
resolve cannot liquefy need.
You will probably start again soon after
you have completed the stopping,
the unwashed swell of rapture
taking your face through teeth to heartbeat,
every beaten moment on the couch.
Every relief: have hereafter and clamor.
Have nothing worse.
You’ll follow the mumble through
that ache that is tincture. Is rule
and bundle. Is famished inside you
and thrumming. You understand
there are two types, and you are
the type to release. If you had to choose
between settle and suture, you know what you’re after.
You’d pour yourself hitches
and battery. Pour yourself each subsequent time.
It will become impossible to believe
you will ever stop for good.
Stopping is not counter or suspect,
but easing back is all that is left,
the impulse has got you, it’s all that survives.

-Lauren Camp


You have decided to live. This is your fifth
day living. Hard to sleep. Harder to eat,
the food thick on your tongue, as I watch you,
my own mouth moving.
Is this how they felt after the flood? The floor
a mess, the garden ruined,
the animals insufferable, cooped up so long?
So much work to be done.
The sodden dresses. Houses to be built.
Wood to be dried and driven and stacked. Nails!
The muddy roses. So much muck about. Hard walking.
And still a steady drizzle,
the sun like a morning moon, and all of them grumpy
and looking at each other in that new way.
We walk together, slowly, on this your fifth day
and you, occasionally, glimmer with a light
I’ve never seen before. It frightens me,
this new muscle in you, flexing.
I had the crutches ready. The soup simmering.
But now it is as we thought.
Can we endure it, the rain finally stopped?

-Marie Howe


winding within my arteries
into distant hills
of memories,
where dreams float like dandelion fibers
on bright, chill, breezy
mornings under a canopy
of cottonwood branches.
Where leaves glimmer
roads turn.
I have roads in me
where drums pound a sacrifice
and beckon
to again believe in life’s wonder,
where I learn the intense passion,
seeing the sparkling, dewdripping
leaves upon moist, pine-needled ground.
My heart restored,
I am guided
by stars
and a raging desire to live.

-Jimmy Santiago Baca


Vodka, whiskey, gin. Scotch, Red wine, cognac,
brandy—are you getting thirsty yet?—ale,
rye. It all tastes good: on the rocks, with a splash,
side of soda, shaken
not stirred, triple,
olives, one of those nutritious little pearl
onions, a double, neat,
with a twist. Drink
it up. Let’s have a drink: dry beer, wet beer,
light, dark and needled beer. Oh parched,
we drank the river
nearly to its bed at times, and were so numb
a boulder on a toe
was pleasant pain, all pain
was pleasant since that’s all there was, pain,
and everything that was deeply felt, deeply,
was not. Bourbon, white and pink wine, aperitif,
cordial (hardly!), cocktail, martini,
highball, digestif, port, grain
punch—are you getting thirsty yet?—line them up!
We’ll have a drink
and talk, we’ll have
a drink
and die, grim-about-it-with-piquancy.
It was a long time on the waiting list
for zero
and I’m happy
for the call out of that line
to other, less predictable,
more joyful
slides to ride on home.

-Thomas Lux


Can we stifle the old, the lingering Remorse,
That lives, quivers and writhes,
And feeds on us like the worm on the dead,
Like the grub on the oak?
Can we stifle implacable Remorse?

In what philtre, in what potion, what wine,
Shall we drown this old enemy,
Destructive and greedy as a harlot,
Patient as the ant?
In what philtre, in what potion, what wine?

Tell it, fair sorceress, O! tell it, if you know,
To this spirit filled with anguish,
So like a dying man crushed beneath the wounded,
Who is struck by the horses’ shoes;
Tell it, fair sorceress, O! tell it, if you know,

To this dying man whom the wolf already scents
And whom the crow watches,
To this broken soldier! if he must despair
Of having his cross and his grave,
This poor, dying man whom the wolf already scents!

Can one illuminate a black and miry sky?
Can one tear asunder darkness
Thicker than pitch, without morning, without evening,
Without stars, without ominous lightning?
Can one illuminate a black and miry sky?

Hope that shines in the windows of the Inn
Is snuffed out, dead forever!
Without the moon, without light, to find where they lodge
The martyrs of an evil road!
The Devil has put out all the lights at the Inn!

Adorable sorceress, do you love the damned?
Say, do you know the irremissible?
Do you know Remorse, with the poisoned darts,
For whom our hearts serve as targets?
Adorable sorceress, do you love the damned?

The Irreparable gnaws with his accurst teeth
Our soul, pitiful monument,
And often he attacks like the termite
The foundations of the building.
The Irreparable gnaws with his accurst teeth!

— Sometimes I have seen at the back of a trite stage
Enlivened by a deep-toned orchestra,
A fairy set ablaze a miraculous dawn
In an infernal sky;
Sometimes I have been at the back of a trite stage

A being who was only light, gold and gauze,
Throw down the enormous Satan;
But my heart, which rapture never visits,
Is a playhouse where one awaits
Always, always in vain, the Being with gauze wings!

-Charles Baudelaire, tr. Aggeler


From mind to mind
I am acquainted with the struggles
of these stars. The very same
chemistry wages itself minutely
in my person.
It is all one intolerable war.
I don’t care if we’re fugitives,
we are ceaselessly exalted, rising
like the drowned out of our shirts…

-Denis Johnson


What is pornography? What is dream?
American River Sky Alcohol Father,
forty years ago, four lifetimes ago,
brown as bourbon, warm, you said to me,
“Sorry sorry sorry sorry sorry.”
Then: “You’re killing your mother.”
And she: “You’re killing your father.”
What do men want? What do fathers want?
Why won’t they go to the mothers?
(What do the mothers want.)
American River Sky Alcohol Father,
your warm hand. Your glass. Your bedside table gun.
The dock, the water, the fragile, tough beach grass.
Your hand. I wouldn’t swim. I wouldn’t fly.

-Jean Valentine


i checked him every night
mixing the landing light
with the slow mucous of his snores

if he was quiet I would press
two fingers on his arm
until he breathed again

children need so little air
but i wake every hour
gasping for yesterday

choking on the things
i did not do
the times i did not listen

i check him still
opening his old room
like a tin beneath my bed–

Dom Conlon


I leave it there
For a while
Like some jagged thing
Until foolish hope
Overcomes hollow experience

And I am told
That the beating heart
I stuffed with the unbroken spiral
Of a small, round apple
And glazed all over
With dark, sticky blood
Was not quite right

I leave it again
Until I tire of the tiny nicks
Each time I pass it by
Then reconcile it
To the rejection heap
Along with the others
That also taught me nothing

And I take up my blade

-Anne Casey


Eat the shrooms and desire me. We tag
the car, our tailing Fs and Ss rising
off the rusted side. You say the paint cans
hiss like the king snake curled up under your porch.
I laugh and jake, vodka gunning. The highway
is a distant thrum. When you smash the caboose window
with a rock in your fist I know the drugs are working.
We nimble along the tracks back to stashed
bottles filled with gas and oil. When the train
rolls by we toss and laugh and streak as fire
consumes the side of the cars. It’s a dragon
you brag, and high we rise up over crappy
lives we knuckle drag. We drink and smoke and tag
and dodge the railroad cops bobbing for our necks.
It’s just after midnight and the laughs still come.
I’ve got a scheme to avoid being caught.
When you touch me I know you want me forever.

Stephen Scott Whitaker


In a state of chortle sin—once he reflected,
swilling tomato juice—live I, and did
more than my thirstier years.
To Hell then will it maul me? for good talk,
and gripe of retail loss? I dare say not.
I don’t thínk there’s that place

save sullen here, wherefrom she flies tonight
retrieving her whole body, which I need.
I recall a ‘coon treed,
flashlights, & barks, and I was in that tree,
and something can (has) been said for sobriety
but very little.

The guns. Ah, darling, it was late for me,
midnight, at seven. How in famished youth
could I forsee Henry’s sweet seed
unspent across so flying barren ground,
where would my loves dislimn whose dogs abound?
I fell out of the tree.

-John Berryman


If there’s a god of amphetamine, he’s also the god of
wrecked lives, and it’s only he who can explain how my doctor
father, with the gift of healing strangers and patients alike,
left so many intimate dead in his wake.
If there’s a god of amphetamine, he’s also the god of
recklessness, and I ask him to answer.
He’s the god of thrills, the god of boys riding bikes down
steep hills with their hands over their heads.
He’s the god of holy and unholy chance, the god of soldiers
crossing a field and to the right of you a man falls dead and to
the left also and you are still standing.
If there’s a god of amphetamine, he’s the god of diet pills,
who is the god of the Fifties housewife who vacuums all day and
whose bathroom is spotless and now it is evening as she sits
alone in the kitchen, polishing her chains.
He’s the god of the rampant mind and the god of my father’s
long monologues by moonlight in the dark car driving over the
dusty roads.
He’s the god of tiny, manic orderings in the midst of chaos,
the god of elaborate charts where Greg will do this chore on
Monday and a different one on Tuesday and all the brothers are
there on the chart and all the chores and all the days of the
week in a miniscule script no one can read.
If there’s a god of amphetamine, my father was his hopped-up
acolyte who leapt out of bed one afternoon to chase a mouse
through the house, shouting, firing his .38 repeatedly at the
tiny beast scurrying along the wall while Jon wailed for help
from the next room.
If there’s a god of amphetamine, he’s the god of subtle
carnage and dubious gifts who lives in each small pill that
tastes of electricity and dust.
If there’s a god of amphetamine, my father was its high
priest, praising it, preaching its gospel, lifting it like a host
and intoning: “Here in my hand is the mystery– a god alive
inside a tiny tablet. He is a high god, a god of highs– he eats
the heart to juice the brain and mocks the havoc he makes,
laughing at all who stumble. Put out your tongue and receive it.”

-Gregory Orr


No other word will do. For that’s what it was.
Gravy, these past ten years.
Alive, sober, working, loving, and
being loved by a good woman. Eleven years
ago he was told he had six months to live
at the rate he was going. And he was going
nowhere but down. So he changed his ways
somehow. He quit drinking! And the rest?
After that it was all gravy, every minute
of it, up to and including when he was told about,
well, some things that were breaking down and
building up inside his head. “Don’t weep for me,”
he said to his friends. “I’m a lucky man.
I’ve had ten years longer than I or anyone
expected. Pure Gravy. And don’t forget it.

-Raymond Carver


  1. William Brewer’s I Know Your Kind
  2. Kaveh Akbar’s Calling a Wolf a Wolf

If you have further suggestions for poems or collections on this theme, could you please leave a note in the Comments box below. Thank you!


Episode 13: Mary Jean Chan prescribes DEDICATIONS by Adrienne Rich+ WINTER by Chen Chen

Today in the Poetry Pharmacy, we had a visit from MARY JEAN CHAN.

Mary Jean’s work has appeared in The Poetry Review, Ambit, The Rialto, The London Magazine, Callaloo and elsewhere. She is also a Co-Editor at Oxford Poetry.

Her poem “//” is currently shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem. She also recently won the Poetry Society Members’ Competition, as well as the Poetry and Psychoanalysis Competition.

Mary Jean brought in Adrienne Rich’s poem DEDICATIONS to read and discuss. We also talked about our love for the poet Chen Chen and read his poem WINTER, followed by a reading of Mary Jean’s own SELF-PORTRAIT, a poem I’ve recently been by-heart dosing myself on.

If you’ve enjoyed the episode, please (pretty please) could you leave us a nice review on iTunes,  

Also, in the next year, I’m trying to raise funds for the S.H.E College Fund initiative in Kenya by learning 52 poems in 52 weeks. Here is my 52 Poems in 52 Weeks Donations Page: https://chuffed.org/project/52-poems-in-52-weeks 

If you’re feeling some poetry-love after listening, a donation, no matter how small (or large) would be greatly appreciated. 

Don’t forget, the Poetry Pharmacy is open every day on Twitter, dispensing poems for whatever ails body and soul. Feel free to @/DM us there, or email us here (thepoetrypharmacy AT gmail.com) with your requests for a poem prescription.

[Theme music for the podcast is from Vladimir Martynov’s The Beatitudes played by the wonderful coversart on YouTube]

By-Hearting Today by Billy Collins

The mind is a lemon squeezer. The poem is a lemon. When you cut a poem open and begin to learn it, pressing the poem into the grooves of the mind, rotating it back and forth in memory until it cleaves to the mind, releasing more and more of its meaning, you get the best of the poem and it gets the best of you.

This requires time and solitude. To commune best with the poem, you must try and find a place away from other poems, other words, ideas, away from the information superabundance and surfeit of phone, iPad, computer screen, and eReader. Think hermit in her cave, think Tenzin Palmo:

I grew potatoes and turnips in the little garden outside. The day was very structured: four times a day I would sit and meditate in a traditional meditation box for three hours, and that’s where I slept, sitting up. (http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2009/may/15/buddhist-retreat-religion-first-person)

When you are learning the poem, you are Tenzin Palmo sitting on her meditation box. Forty-five minutes at a time. It is just you and the poem, and whatever the poem elicits from you. That is all.

If ever there were a spring day so perfect,
 so uplifted by a warm intermittent breeze
 that it made you want to throw
open all the windows in the house
and unlatch the door to the canary’s cage,
indeed, rip the little door from its jamb…

I have been feeling unmoored for a week or so, partially because I haven’t got a new poem to soothingly sink myself into on a daily basis; a wisdom-built container of the mind, one that when I learn off by heart provides a sort of cognitive scaffolding for my harum-scarum head. I’ve been using old poems I’ve learnt as centering mantras, but once they become mantras, they also lose some of their shiny, just-gleaned divination, which I need on a daily basis in order not to feel like an earthbound inert. I need to be new on a day, which means finding some flow, some play. But something gets in the way.

I think it might be the canary in the cage. When I first read the poem, I thought that canary too cute. Oh come on Billy, this isn’t a Warner Brother’s cartoon, it’s a poem fer chrissake! But if you free associate around canaries (canary yellow, the islands, Norwich city football club), you eventually plummet 500 feet underground where you find a miner tending very carefully to his early warning system, a bird he no doubt grows quite fond of after a while, starts treating it a bit like a dog. And like all many mysteries of life this etymologically makes sense: for were these birdies not named after their birthplace, the Latin-derived Insula Canaria (the island of dogs) from whence 17th Century Spanish sailors travelled to these shores?

But I am also thinking about another canary, whistling, fluttering, sometimes shrieking in its cortical cage, that mineshaft much closer to home, at the base of the forebrain. The canary, AKA our limbic system, sit on its brainstem perch, from where it is able to communicate to the rest of the autonomic nervous system, the whole inner-electric landscape of the somatic self.

In my 3D brain app, the limbic system looks a bit like a sleeping turtle dove curled around a bright pink acorn than a canary, even though this part of the brain never ever sleeps.The pink acorn is its thalamus, that sensory switchboard through which everything heard, seen, touched, smelt gets processed. If I see an unfamiliar shape on the pavement, one of my thalamuses sends this information down two quite different paths towards the amygdala. On one path, the alarm goes off WHEEWAH-WHEEWAH-WHEEWAH-WHEEWAH even if nothing is really wrong. But just in case. Just. In. Case.

This route, relaying only a hazy outline, something rat-shaped perhaps, something out of the ordinary, takes 12 milliseconds or less. Depending on the initial perception, the body might be stirred into action here with a tip off to the hypothalamus, signalling threat via autonomic nerves to adrenal glands. Without the first fuzzy snapshot, we would be dead before the second route, travelling more conscientiously towards the amygdala via circuitous, but finely-tuned cortical paths, were able to assess the matter with due care.

If this thalamus-amygdala tripwire is being constantly triggered, you can forget enjoying the cool brick paths and garden bursting with peonies. For every rustle in the bush will be gleaned as a snake, a rat, a tiger (about 1,000 people were killed each year in India during the early 1900s) rather than a little orange-breasted robin foraging for worms. If we’re in a safe place, a good space, a spring day so perfect, we need to find a way to let the anxious canary out of its cage, out of our skulls. But how to do so when the fretful, feathered birdbrain is part of the fittings rather than a portable alarm system?

And the garden bursting with peonies…

How many people, apart from the horticulturally gnostic amongst us, know how to pronounce the word peony?

That this question, googled, brings forth pages of posts from Homesteadingtoday.com, to wiki.answers.com to YouTube, leads me to believe that I am not the only one stumbling over my pronunciation of this flower when it appears midway through Today.

It’s not a particularly likeable word, is it? It feels as if an orthographic virus had secreted itself into the dictionary and spitefully begun inserting random dipthongs into the vocabulary most cherished by four year old girls: words like pony, princess, playdate, and iPad.

It is not also somewhat self-referencing, a meta-virus, having a kind of clanging association to the word “poem”? Or as my four year-old, pony-Princess-playdate-iPad loving niece might call it: a pee-yom. Uncle Steve is learning a pee-yom again. Silly uncle Steve! Could not Maggie’s pee-yom at almost any moment become the pee-ye-nee (stress on the first syllable) in that very poem?

It is a word that has, to my ear, some of the abrupt tonal shifts of Mandarin Chinese or Somali which I physically equate with momentary nausea in a plummeting lift when your internal organs do a little juddering skitter in their visceral environment before settling again: the voice doing a little falsetto trill on the pee, only to fall between the cracks on yah, and the to suddenly dart up again on nee.

Discomforting for the lips, tongue and teeth to pack that all in. But such a beautiful flower.

FountainWhy does learning poems by heart feel so good? Maybe because in a mindscape of  superabundance (infinite words and ideas streaming out of our heads and our media devices) to carry on a small 3 x 5 card a single poem, a discourse rorschach, an evergreen outgrowth of the soul, contained on this tiny card, to carry and meditate on the words, to digest them slowly over time to the rhythm of ones feet as you walk along the road, taking in your neighbourhood, the world going on around you, the poem moving along beside you, and the thoughts and associations it generates in your head as you learn, is deeply, deeply satisfying.

This is a satisfaction no longer available to us in the unvariegated too-muchness of the internet, or even from a library, or a bookshop. This is the satisfaction of doing something wholly felicitous, personally meaningful and “complete”, the way you might savour a chilled slice of perfectly ripe mango with a drizzle of lime juice on a sunny day (or any day for that matter).

At that point, it matters not that the mango was picked from a box of a hundred other mangoes, or from one of the thousands of mango trees on the other side of the world. There is no craving for a different or better slice of mango, a fear of missing out, or inadequacy about not having kept up to date with the teeming mango world from which this one was plucked.

Eating (learning) a poem is a bit like this mango moment. It completes a need you maybe didn’t even realise you had in the first place. The pre-mango palate of a child who has only had woody chunks of underripe pear to contend with suddenly comes alive to this. Bliss.

Read Billy Collins’ Today.


“Burn with me!” (King of The River #2)

The “right” poem (right being right for you, your distinctive antidote, your self-cure) will often take you places you might not want to go.

I did not want to spend over a month committing Kunitz’s poem to memory. I wanted my by-heart “possession” of the poem to be swift, fluent, uncomplicated. I would apply effort, link-begetting intelligence, creative-visualisations, whatever it took to get the poem into the spawn pool of my heart where it might swim around with all the others I’ve caught so far in this way.

Hear that?

That is the sound of Stanley Kunitz chuckling. That is the sound of Stanley Kunitz saying: “The Sockeye salmon from central Idaho travels over 900 miles, climbing nearly 7,000 feet in order to return from the Pacific Ocean to the freshwater lakes of its birth, so that it may reproduce, and you want to consume this journey like you might consume a chunk of flesh hacked off the body of this creature? In what? An hour, a day, a week? Instantaneously?!”

I’m not sure if Kunitz was a cusser, but if he had been, I imagine him finishing his hard-nosed but good-humoured observation with “…for chrissakes, Steve, is that really the deal here? Jesus Christ!”

Each section of Kunitz’s poem is built around an uncomfortable truth, a truth we all struggle with: that things are not as they should be, that life bears no responsibility in providing us with the ideal. If A were clear enough, if B were still; if C was given to me; if D was granted; if E were pure enough.

But (alas): A is not clear, B is not still, C is not given, D fails us; E is not pure.

What do we do with all these (k)nots?

The poem was one giant (k)not: no matter how hard I tried, it just didn’t want to swim into my head. I would spend hours memorising – even just ten or twelve lines, a few hundred slippery word fish, which before I knew it, had slapped and thrashed and tumbled their way out of my memory again.  The process felt like snakes and ladders, but all snakes, no ladders. I worked hard at getting stuck into the poem, but all I did was get stuck in the poem. I couldn’t move forward at the pace I wanted, I needed, I’d hoped for.


I don’t know. Maybe just “because”.

Because this by-hearting process is not clear, not still, not given, often fails us; not pure. No, that’s not true, purity it has: the purity of utter bewilderment and incapacity.

So what did I do?

I continued.

In the words of Frank O’Hara:

the only thing to do is simply continue
is that simple
yes, it is simple because it is the only thing to do
can you do it
yes, you can because it is the only thing to do.

We know this, but then the next question is maybe why does one continue?

The answer to that question is I think deeply embedded in this poem. It has something to do with following one’s vital impulses, with passionate struggle, with  Csíkszentmihályian “flow“.

And a kind of faith too.

I knew I’d crack the poem if I just kept on returning to it again, and again, and again. Again (obdurately), again (tenderly), again (patiently).

The faith was also about knowing that the journey would be worth it.

It has been.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore (Kindness #3)

Learning poetry is a great pleasure, but there’s more. Something that goes beyond transient pleasure and moves into the inexplicably (or maybe explicably) salutary in a way that words fail to capture.

I almost want to use terms like “holy” or “sacred”, but I’m worried these might scare you away (they sometimes scare me away). In fact, whatever is happening, as profound as it is, is always happening within the body, not in some ethereal, extramundane godspace, but tangibly “here” in the mundanity of the moment.

I felt this last week in the hospital waiting to go under the knife. What a strange wait this was, the mind very quiet, stunned-quiet, not sure what to think or do. The books and magazines no use to me. So you wait with your peculiar, inward-flowering consternation for “your number to come up”.

I turned to my Waiting poems which I’d been memorising in the weeks before the operation and began to intone them to myself. Of course, as human beings we have been doing this for millions of years, calling it prayer or song. I’m not sure how many people have done this with a Falstaffian Lawrence Ferlinghetti poem (“and I am waiting for the Age of Anxiety/to drop dead/and I am waiting/for the war to be fought/which will make the world safe/for anarchy”) but the process was soothing nonetheless.

I also found Rogan’s ‘Across The Way‘ powerful in its reminder to take in the “others”, those sitting around me, literally across the way, my fellow impatient patients, also awaiting their surgical fate. All of us thrown suddenly into the embarrassment of our own physical imperfections, and ultimate mortality betokened by this place of sickness and death. Yes, health too. But mainly sickness and death.

What I found equally perplexing, but also incredibly moving, was just how much “kindness” I was able to find not only for others but for “me”. I’m sure this would not have happened if I hadn’t spent the week before committing to memory Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem.

I had the operation done under local anaesthetic so there was a fair amount of pain and discomfort involved, and also the very surreal, almost Kafkaesque{{1}} feeling of being wide awake in the middle of that impersonal operating theatre with “professional” bodies bustling around the drama of that open wound at the back of my head. I was very aware of how perturbed and frightened some creaturely-aspect within me was at this point. But I also became aware of another part  ministering to the frightened creature.

I’m not sure what this other part was exactly, but I do know that it felt relatively calm, relatively relatively wise, and quite kind. I have no doubt that it is this part of ourselves that we strengthen when we learn certain poems, or pray, or suffer in some useful way.

It’s as Mary Oliver says in that other old chestnut ‘Wild Geese‘ which I’ve almost committed to memory having heard it so many times in the “Mindfulness Circles” I inhabit:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

Damn those old chestnuts. So true, so true.

[[1]]I had recently been musing over Kafka’s ‘A Country Doctor’ and Will Self’s incredible digital essay on the story. Perhaps not the best of pre-surgical reading, as these images would unavoidably became part of the lived experience of surgery:

On his right side, in the region of the hip, a wound the size of the palm of one’s hand has opened up. Rose coloured, in many different shadings, dark in the depths, brighter on the edges, delicately grained, with uneven patches of blood, open to the light like a mine. That’s what it looks like from a distance. Close up a complication is apparent. Who can look at that without whistling softly? Worms, as thick and long as my little finger, themselves rose coloured and also spattered with blood, are wriggling their white bodies with many limbs from their stronghold in the inner of the wound towards the light. Poor young man, there’s no helping you. I have found out your great wound. You are dying from this flower on your side. [[1]]

Brief Reflection on Maps by Miroslav Holub #2

I’m not sure why it has taken me a number of months to learn this poem, but it has. Perhaps it has something to do with my none-too-stalwart diligence of late towards daily, even weekly by-hearting. The challenges of life take over, those very challenges which the learning of poetry attempts to address as well as offer respite. Before we know it we’ve stopped using that very thing which helps us weather the storm. It’s like that moment in the poem where it suddenly begins to snow:

At once
It began to snow, it snowed for two days and the party
Did not return. The lieutenant was in distress: he had sent
His men to their deaths.

Of course, this is what this poem is also very much about. What to do when we feel ourselves trapped in the directionless sprawl of  inner or outer “icy wastes”? We want the assurance that we’re moving in the right direction. We want some external or internal monitor giving us pointers and feedback. Like the experience of a treasure hunt at a children’s birthday party: “Cold, warm, warm, warmer, hot, YES!”  But what to do when the feedback feels  like this: “Cold, icy, gelid, Siberian”? It is at these moments, the moments of futility (“awaiting our end”) that we need maps.

Learning a poem is a map. First you remember one line, then the next. If you forget the line you’ve just learnt, go back and learn it again. Now stanza two. Turn left, go through the kissing gate across a paddock with sheep, over the hill until you reach a graveyard. Rest.

I am re-learning the poem on a walk. A very muddy walk. Mud too is an objective correlative for a type of “lostness”: a scuzzy, murky, sloppy kind of lost. The icy wastes have their painful, abstract immaculacy, whereas mud  is simply (also complicatedly, reconditely, muddied-ly) primordial distress. I want to be following the “right direction”, but sometimes I get lost, up to my ankles in mud.

At this point it is good to have the poem, and its ironizing commitment to “the right direction”.

We made a bivouac, waited for the snow to stop, and then with the map
Found the right direction.
And here we are.

What is right? Right usually means something definitively conjectured, as in befittingly right, out and out right, unerringly right, right as rain. But right is also a feeling, and feelings regarding our status in life are capricious forces, all too dependent on mutable, unpredictable externalities.

So perhaps more important than the “right direction” is just a direction assiduously followed? For me that means coming back to my daily by-hearting of poems. I’m not necessarily setting this activity up as the “right direction” but it is a direction which has a feeling of rightness (also ripeness) to it.  For in the learning of the poem, we open up different, often new directions in the mind which can help to give us a feeling of space. Not icy wasted space, or gloopy, muddy turmoil. More like small blocks of stepping-stone text on a page. We call this use of space poetry.


Everything Is Waiting For You #6

One poem learnt, 51 to go.

My first week of by-hearting has been very satisfying.

I’ve confirmed what I’d already suspected: that using an enervated memory that isn’t even required to hold other people’s phone numbers anymore is very hard work.

But then when you do finally get that poem learnt and recitable, you immediately forget that it took you 8 – 10 hours to get 24 lines committed to memory, and start strutting around like a mnemonic John Travolta at a Poetry Slam.

Then you sit down to record what you’ve just learnt and the strut withers.

[Music: Musicians from Marlboro – Wind Quintet in A Major, Op. 43]

Next week…Gerard Manley Hopkins.