By Hearting The Planet on the Table by Wallace Stevens

The Planet On the Table

Ariel was glad he had written his poems.
They were of a remembered time
Or of something seen that he liked.

Other makings of the sun
Were waste and welter
And the ripe shrub writhed.

His self and the sun were one
And his poems, although makings of his self,
Were no less makings of the sun.

It was not important that they survive.
What mattered was that they should bear
Some lineament or character,

Some affluence, if only half-perceived,
In the poverty of their words,
Of the planet of which they were part.

What is truly glorious about this late poem from Stevens, who is often landed with the mantle of  difficult or “philosophical” poet, is the intense simplicity and directness with which he interrogates that perennial question “Why Poetry?”.

Why do we continue to write or read poetry?

I ask myself this question on an almost daily basis. Stevens reply here might be: “Don’t bother with too much PoMo theorising, my friend.” Poems are word-snapshots, capturing “a remembered time”, perhaps with a nod to Wordsworth’s “emotion recollected in tranquillity”, or Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, or that wonderful Milosz memento-mori Encounter:  Equally we might write or read to capture, retain, be reminded of “something seen that [we] liked”.

Ariel was glad he had written his poems.
They were of a remembered time
Or of something seen that he liked.

I wonder if Stevens, writing now, would choose the pronoun “his” for Ariel? I am almost tempted while learning this poem by heart to change the first line “he had written” to the more gender neutral “they”. As a spirit of air, Ariel brings our attention to the shifting nature of gender — triggering anxiety about what counts as masculine/feminine, and what this might mean for our legal and social systems. Poetry is often Othered in this way too, sometimes “enslaved” to a-poem-about a theme, as Prospero does with everyone on the island, imprisoning them in normative discourse.

Yesterday, walking the dog, I saw a young boy, about 10 years old, exiting his Mum’s car, with knitting needles and the beginnings of a yellow scarf carried carefully in his hands. Almost as if he were holding a mobile phone, with the unselfconscious ease and tranquillity which we all have towards those objects now. He didn’t seem in any way ashamed of his knitting as he noticed me noticing it. I was so pleased to see this, while at the same time aching with the understanding that in a few years time or less, all evidence of an interest in knitting, sewing or any other other activity traditionally associated with the other gender, will most likely be hidden away in a bedroom closet.

Does not Ariel and maybe even poetry itself ask us to step outside of these hierarchical structures of race and sex in order to dwell, impossibly-bodiless, in the space of a poem? In the Tempest, there are a scattering of adjectives, but no sexed or gendered markers linked to the “brave”, “delicate”, “fine” spirit that is Ariel. Ariel is also an “actor”, as is Prospero, even though the latter plays Director, commanding others to carry out his desires.

Other makings of the sun
Were waste and welter
And the ripe shrub writhed.

It is here that Stevens, like a wily Prospero starts to play with us. If we file poems under the category Makings of the Sun (the word “other” suggests he does), then who wrote these poems? What is Ariel up to when they’re not serving Prospero? Do they exist, unconsciously, like some of the other makings of the sun – the plants and trees, animals and weather? Or are they more like us, conscious, often painfully self-conscious agents of our own makings?

If poems are also makings of the sun, following universal rules, then they too are “waste and welter”, not the timeless anthologised entities we sometimes refer to, especially in academic discourse. Less Grecian urns, more organic matter, like compost. The Anxiety of Waste and Welter is a state I often experience in my garden. All those hardy annuals I’d nurtured from seed, having had their flowering moment-in-the-sun, now starting to get leggy, blowsy, and soon frayed, desiccated as they turn to seed. As do we.

I also have this sensation when walking around my local park, seeing the scatter of detritus from last night’s picnics left in the grass, or piled up around bins: the half-eaten tubs of coleslaw, the wine bottles with their vinegary dregs, the grease-smeared pizza cartons.

Also when rummaging around old journals housed in those frustrating sliding stacks at the Poetry Library on the Southbank, or browsing shelves filled with the faded and now unread volumes of verse, poems that once held so much hope and ardour, so much pomp and circumstance in their Launch Parties and rah-rah Readings. Waste and welter offers a kind of disillusioned, and for me, comforting perspective on the shiny, just-published volumes appearing on bookshop tables. The hundreds of new poems that get a momentary tweet or two, a few seconds of attention (not even a Warhollian 15 minutes anymore) on a social media feed, and then never for the most part, are heard of again.

Helen Vendler, still the most perspicacious commentator on Stevens, and maybe on poetry in general, reminds us in her book Wallace Stevens: Words Chosen Out of Desire that Stevens is the poet of Desire, although not frequently thought of in this way. Especially when it comes to overmastering and mercilessly renewed desire: “Each moment of reflection, for him, is a rebirth of impulse toward fulfillment, as desire reaches for its object—sexual, religious, epistemological, or (encompassing them all) aesthetic. Hunger, for Stevens, is our eternal condition: famished for fulfillment, we achieve it uncertainly and not for long, but radiantly nonetheless.”


“No one since Shelley has felt so strongly as Stevens the perpetual vanishing before us of objects of desire and the reformulating energy of the ever-desiring self. To create the new we must first de-create the old; and the reality of decreation (as Stevens called it, borrowing the word from Simone Weil) is as strong as the reality of creation. It is for this reason that Penelope’s web becomes for Stevens the very image of human desire: woven afresh every day, it is unraveled again every evening; and each exhilaration of possession is followed by the despair of disbelief. “The powerful mirror of our wish and will” (Poem with Rhythms) is forever showing us a new illusion. In the end, desire is indistinguishable from despair, once we have understood the endlessness of its quest. Coleridge, who wrote the seminal poem of this theme, which he called Constancy to an Ideal Object, protects his ignorant protagonist, the woodman, from the knowledge that the phantom he pursues is one created in the fog by his own shadow.”

Other makings of the sun
Were waste and welter
And the ripe shrub writhed.

Why is the shrub writhing? Is it the Penelope’s web of this poem? Is it already, at some level, aware of the fact that it is at its peak, and can only descend into decay? My mother, who is 70 complains about having to go on statins for her cholesterol; dreads, having had bad experiences of their side-effects, the awfulness of having to pump one’s body full of drugs to keep going. I wonder somewhat  irritably to myself (though do not say it): “Did you think it would be any different for you? How might sickness, aging, death have manifested if not like this?”

We are here again at the crossroads of so-called Reality and Art, the Eternal Poem versus the Decaying Mortal Body. As if poems existed in this other “hallowed” place apart from everything else given over to decay and ultimate insignificance. In the next stanza, these two seemingly divergent paths meet:

His self and the sun were one
And his poems, although makings of his self,
Were no less makings of the sun.

I love this. It feels like a get-out-jail (if existence is a kind of jail) free card. Poetry, like us, like all organic matter, is that which grows and flowers and then dies in the heat of our own and others’ interest.

It was not important that they survive.
What mattered was that they should bear
Some lineament or character,
Some affluence, if only half-perceived,

Why the word lineament? Well, predominantly, we are talking about lines here. Lines of poetry, but also the outline that makes everything exist as it is, that seperates one living form from another. Rivers are lines, trees are lines, we are lines (stick figures!) the whole of existence a series of largely separate, but occasionally intersecting lines.

But it’s the word “affluence” that really gets to the heart of the question what value poetry might have in our lives, or what value anything has when we find ourselves eventually levelled to that all-encompassing category “makings of the sun”? Affluence makes us think here predominantly of physical capital and wealth: money, property, and other material goods. The roots of the word are almost the opposite of this, connected more to shape-shifting Ariel than power-wielding Prospero: from the Latin affluentia, af- + flu- flow + –entia -ence. Affluence is thus flow, as in water or air, not yachts or jets, or waterskis.

Affluence is doing something we love, like learning a poem by heart or writing a poem with heart, autotelic moments of learning, moving, gardening, creativity, conversation, lovemaking; moments that provide us with feelings of focus, inner clarity, serenity, timelessness, even ecstasy. We all understand that this is our true wealth, and often in our accumulation of “things” (in my case: books, films, poems, articles on my laptop to be consumed at a later date) we are really accumulating are future possibilities to experience flow, which then begs the questions, why not just focus on The Affluence of Now instead.

Some affluence, if only half-perceived,
In the poverty of their words,
Of the planet of which they were part.

There’s something almost heartbreaking about that line “in the poverty of their words”. We suddenly see just how insubstantial these things we call poems are: these ramshackle, pasted together bits of wordgauze made out of shape-shifting letters. No less vulnerable than anything else “of the planet”, and maybe even the planet itself, this chunk of rock covered with different kinds of lineament, confluence, affluence in the shape of its organic material.

Big lineaments like blue whales, or giant sequoias, The Great Barrier Reef, or the 80,000 year old Pando aspen grove, its interconnected confluence of root spread out over 106 acres. But also, small stuff: the miniscule lineament-confluence-affluence of microorganisms inhabiting our bodies – outnumbering human cells by 10 to 1. Or individual poems/koans like this The Planet on the Table. Even more so, essays like this one about The Planet on the Table, floating around out here, another speck of microbial matter in the deluge of cybercontent. Space! Cyber, but also all the other forms of emptinesses, such as the expanse existing between celestial bodies, between me who write this one Sunday morning and you reading it now. All of us in the same space, bound to each other, and the planet, but otherwise, completely untethered and disconnected.


Charle’s Simic’s MYSTICS: a prescription for the blahs?

What I’m calling the blahs may be the blues, or maybe a cousin of the blues. It presents itself as a general abatement of interest, gratification, and faith in the offerings of the world. It is a state in which the monotony of equivalence holds sway. Roethke in his poem Dolor talks of “duplicate grey standard faces”, as well as the “endless duplication of lives and objects”. Pessoa’s word for the blahs is “tédio” (tedium). Sometimes when I think I’ve got the blahs quite bad, I read a few entries from The Book of Disquiet, and accede to virtuosity of the Uber Blahmeister:

It’s not only the emptiness of things and living beings that troubles the soul afflicted by tedium, it’s also the emptiness of the very soul that feels this vacuum, that feels itself to be this vacuum, and that within this vacuum is nauseated and repelled by its own self.


Here’s how Simic takes a crack at the blahs:


Help me to find what I’ve lost,
If it was ever, however briefly, mine,
You who may have found it.
Old man praying in the privy,
Lonely child drawing a secret room
And in it a stopped clock.

Seek to convey its truth to me
By hints and omens.
The room in shadow, perhaps the wrong room?
The cockroach on the wall,
The naked lovers kissing
On the TV with the sound off.
I could hear the red faucet drip.

 Or else restore to plain view
What is eternally invisible
And speaks by being silent.
Blue distances to the north,
The fires of the evening to the west,
Christ himself in pain, panhandling
On the altar of the storefront church
With a long bloody nail in each palm.

 In this moment of amazement . . .
Since I do ask for it humbly,
Without greed, out of true need.
My teeth chattered so loudly,
My old dog got up to see what’s the matter.
Oh divine lassitude, long drawn-out sigh
As the vision came and went.

If the poem speaks to you in some way, you might decide to take it for a walk and start learning it by heart, this could take up to a week or more, but even if you memorise just a few lines of the poem, its medicine will begin to take.

If you want to do some making in response to the poem, consider using its DNA to fashion your own blah-beater. Notice how the opening lines of each verse offer footholds for this slippery, empty wall of blah we might also be wanting to scale.





Here’s how the self-cure works: take a sheet of paper, or your notebook and copy the first three lines of Simic’s supplication:

Help me to find what I’ve lost,
If it was ever, however briefly, mine,
You who may have found it.

Now, without looking at the poem again, connect with some of your past and future selves, noting the thoughts and images that come up. Remember, in a quantum universe, all the various iterations of us, past-present-future, exist in a kind of eternally present “superposition”, accessible at any moment. The poem is offering you a chance to step into this moment. Think about a future you, which is to say an older-person-you (what are they doing?); now you as child; also a younger-you, every iteration standing outside the blah-oppressed self. Write a line or two about each of them.

Now copy the next prompt:

Seek to convey its truth to me
By hints and omens.

Again, without looking at Simic’s response to this, think of hints and omens you may have had, or might need to be more aware of.

Now you’re going to meditate on “what is eternally invisible/And speaks by being silent”. Write down these lines and then let your imagination respond to them.

Or else restore to plain view
What is eternally invisible
And speaks by being silent.

Finally bring your own supplication to a close in a way that feels right for what you have written. Simic asserts the legitimacy of his request. Maybe we can do something like this too?

In this moment of amazement . . .
Since I do ask for it humbly,
Without greed, out of true need.

By Hearting The Patience of Ordinary Things by Pat Schneider


It is a kind of love, is it not?
How the cup holds the tea,
How the chair stands sturdy and foursquare,
How the floor receives the bottoms of shoes
Or toes. How soles of feet know
Where they’re supposed to be.
I’ve been thinking about the patience
Of ordinary things, how clothes
Wait respectfully in closets
And soap dries quietly in the dish,
And towels drink the wet
From the skin of the back.
And the lovely repetition of stairs.
And what is more generous than a window?

Pat Schneider

The Inner Critic is not at all happy with some of the poems I’ve chosen to learn for my 52 Poems in 52 Weeks Project. As I walk around, exploring and byhearting each poem, it creeps in now and again into my thoughts and tells me that one poem or another should be kept under wraps: “That’s a good one” it will say, “But don’t let anyone know you’re spending all this time with that poem!” I usually don’t answer back, but when I do it informs me that “It’s just that some people won’t think this poem is especially cool or clever or Zeitgeisty. And by association they will then assume that you’re not particularly cool or clever or Zeitgeisty.” I want to be thought of in this manner, so I take heed.

But who are these people the Inner Critic has in mind when it spins me this yarn? Not the average Joe or Josetta, who might read a perfectly good poem, like one on the Underground and have a perfectly good response to it. Maybe:  “That’s Nice” or “What’s that about?”. These people I suspect would not turn their noses up at a Pat Schneider poem!

For here is verse that is both pleasurable and digestible: well-made, satisfying to read and recite; as simple, sturdy and beautiful as one of the wooden chairs it contains. Like the domestic objects described in the poem, its accessibility is wholly egalitarian: you can sit on this poem, wear it, soap your hands with it, dry your skin. To slightly misquote a Stephanie Burt book title: The Poem is Yours.

Like all of these so-called “ordinary objects”, when given some careful attention, they invariably transcend their inconspicuous commonplaceness, the poem enacting this transformation in its closing lines which work like a brain-cracking koan might, rinsing the dust off habitual consciousness so that we may see the world anew. Just as these sausage-shaped tubes of meat typing the words you’re now reading transcend their purely material essence in the light of this poem, the slabs and chunks of meat we ordinarily call our bodies or our minds, become spirit and light through the lens of a poem.

Which is good enough reason to read or learn any poem, especially this poem. To love a poem so ardently you want to learn it by heart, to make it your own, is a good enough reason to do so, right? Then why is there a part of me that depreciates a poem like this? It does so with quite a few of the poems I’ve decided to learn by heart. One way of thinking about these inner critics is that they are our Literary Superegos constructed over a lifetime of listening to other people, tell us what is “good” or “right” for us to read or watch, or listen to. And especially what is not.

The Superego is particularly hot on what we might call black and white thinking, a concept that is as old as psychology itself, going back all the way Pierre Janet’s notions about dissociation which forms the bedrock to ideas hold about personality and “taste”. Freud first wrote of the Superego, which he called the Ego-Ideal in his essay On Narcissism, describing the processes by which we internalize the idealized objects of infantile love (our parents), providing us then with a libidinal bridge across which to make contact (cathect) with the world around us. Borrowing the strength of these parental gods, fortified by teachers and other authority figures (literary critics, as well as the hive-mind of various media) we begin to fall under the spell of these outer, then inner injunctions and prohibitions in the form of conscience or morality or taste. As far as literature is concerned: this poem kosher (meaning “proper”), this poem traif (improper, “torn”, from the last verse of Exodus: “you must not eat flesh torn by beasts in the field; to the dogs you shall cast it.”).

So when my Superego says that say a Pat Schneider poem is not worth learning by heart, but Danez Smith, or Wallace Stevens, or Elizabeth Bishop is, I think it’s keying into various Ego Ideal paradigms laid down by literary peers and mentors (teachers, University tutors, critics) of yore but also the present gods of social media who play such a fundamental role in the shaping of our tastes. Unlike the Freudian Superego I suspect the Literary Superego is not a singular entity but more a trifecta, a sneering Holy Trinity. Each of the poets I’ve mentioned above represent different aspects of this Literary Superego which I’d like to expand on below.


The Social Media Superego (henceforth SMS) would most likely ignore this poem because it is written by an 83-year old heterosexual white woman and falls into a genre that one might broadly label as “spiritual”, even religious. Had it come from the pen of of another straight, white septua-,octo-, or even nonogenarian writer, one of the more edgy darlings of SMS (Jean Valentine, Joan Didion, Bernadette Mayer, Alice Notley, Renata Adler, Diana Athill), it would no doubt be celebrated, which is to say retweeted avidly by the most active Twitter demographic, 18 – 29 year-olds.

Thankfully, unlike other Superegos, this young-adult SMS doesn’t lower itself, on the whole to overt belittling (the exception, such as the recent backlash against Rupi Kaur, proving this rule). Poets, critics, and other writers on social media are usually well-mannered, polite and supportive of the written word. But if they don’t care for something, silence is their weapon of choice. Liking, Retweeting and Sharing are now the three forces driving this natural selection process that shapes our tastes. The unLiked/unRetweeted/unShared poem, or story or painting simply fades into a vast ocean of data from which it had briefly surfaced, hungry for its 15 or 1.5 seconds of fame, before disappearing again.

The SocialMedia Supergo is supportive of me learning poetry by heart, especially if drawn from one of their youngish cohort (poets usually in their 20s or early-30s). Extra points for learning poems written by women, and/or people of colour, and/or LGBTQIA poets. But when I am learning this poem by Pat, my inner Social Media Superego is lukewarm to cold in response: “OK, that’s fine. At least you’re learning a poem, this is a plus. But otherwise, meh.”

And yet, like all of these Inner Critics, I wouldn’t for a moment want to get rid of my Social Media Superego as I think it champions and supports people, causes and literature that the mainstream, more canonically focused media often ignore. I love and respect my feisty SMS, but sometimes, at least for middle-aged bods like myself who grew up in an entirely analogue world, it can become a little bit too charged and uncomfortably overactive in head and heart.


The Canonical Superego is often at war with The Social Media Superego, and would probably give SMS favourites (Smith, Vuong, Akbar, say) as well as Pat Schneider a wide berth. Schneider because she is (so it tells me) “two-a-penny common in the kind of poetry she writes”. “Twee” is a word the Canonical Superego uses when talking about this poem. With regard to my SMS favourites, it might label them as a form of modish froth or spume tossed about on the transient waves of literary fashion. The Canonical Superego is to a greater or lesser extent misogynistic, racist, and elitist. Not a good combo.

I really wasn’t aware of this Superego until I got to Cambridge. My beloved secondary school teacher, Mr Baglow, was resolutley Catholic in his tastes, enthusing with the same kind of ardour about the metaphysical poets as the latest Brian Moore or Ishiguro novel he thought I should read. Or even a fantastically well-written TV drama he’d seen the night before. It was only at Cambridge that I discovered the Canonical Superego in the shape of John Casey (I was at a small college, Caius, had only a choice of three tutors, Casey being the most rigidly Canonical of the three).

Casey, but also my Canonical Superego, had very clear ideas of what Fine literature is inherently about, literature worth studying and reading, maybe even learning by heart. He had equally clear ideas on what was just trash. Casey himself had memorised vast swathes of Pope, Dryden, and Milton just to give you a flavour of what moved his viscera to transports of delights. The rest was negligible. He might have responded to my byhearting of this poem with the following words: “Why would you want to waste precious brain cells on committing this bagatelle to memory, Wasserman?!” Or as he once put it when I played a bit of Verdi in a tutorial to underline a point I was making in an essay about Othello: “I didn’t realise you were such a sentimental sap!”

The Canonical Superego asserted itself in the last century through the canonically-focused “schools” of F.R. Leavis and Harold Bloom asserting that the wheat, the anointed writing could always be stringently separated from the chaff. Casey’s withering elitism felt incredibly dank and claustrophobic at the time to my 18 year old self, as did most of the Cambridge tripos which stopped at T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland, as if there really wasn’t anything worth reading after that monumental poem.

What the Cambridge English Literature course involved, and still does as far as I can see, was the study of predominantly cis white men (as SMS would now have us call them), the odd woman, but not a single poem, novel, or play created by a person of colour. SMS’s concerns over Stevens’ racism for example would be answered by Canonical Superego with an eye-roll and shake of the head. “Stop getting your ruddy knickers in a twist,” it might say. During my years at the hallowed institution, Fred D’Aguiar and Ben Okri were writers in residence, but their work would never have made it onto the syllabus itself. This was literary tokenism at its finest.

Of course the Canonical Superego does well for itself in this world, as many of my peers at Cambridge have done well for themselves in the subsequent decades. Perhaps because they were truly brilliant, or maybe also because we are drawn to certainty and sense of rightness, which even at 18 years old, this lot had in spades. Residing as we do in a cloud of ambivalence and unknowing with regard to pretty much everything in our experience, their floodlit conviction and authority cuts through the fog of equivocation in a way that is charismatic and often compelling.

Frank Kermode put his finger on it when he described Leavis’s “gnarled manner” of speaking and writing, his urgency and seriousness as having an “exhilarating quality” to those who read or heard him. “At his best, Leavis seemed to move with the most exciting movements of language…He believed that such study [of canonical writers] was a principal means of access to a civilised society.”

Replace the words “civilised society” with whatever you’ve got your sights set on, and then try to see why its so hard, if not impossible, to give the heave-ho to the Canonical Superego.


The Indisputable Superego is perhaps not as vocal or as visible as the other two, perhaps because it doesn’t really have to convince you of much. For its taste in art or literature is…well…Indisputable. Which is to say that not even Social Media Superego or Canonical Superego would have a problem with me byhearting an Elizabeth Bishop poem. “Yes of course you love Bishop,” they say and smile at each other, half-surprised at being briefly in agreement. I’m trying to think of the select few writers who the Indisputable Superego might champion: perhaps you can help me out with this? Writers who are edgy enough to please SM Superego as well as firmly cemented into the canon. Samuel Beckett? Hopkins? Thoreau? Dostoevsky? DeLillo?

But the Indisputable Superego is just as toxic as the other two. It’s so fucking smug! In fact, this is a trait shared by all three Superegos. I love Bishop as much as the next IS-inspired reader, but a number of her poems (as a number of any writers’ poems) are kind of tedious, better as short stories perhaps. However, there is no space in the realm of the Indisputable (or any of the Superegos, which is why they exist as Superegos) to say this without sounding stupid or churlish. All of The Superegos can be incredibly patronising, and no less Indisputable Superegos: “There there, my friend. You. Just. Don’t. Get. It. One day, like the most delicious of cheese or wines you will Understand, and then we can Talk. Until then: peace be with you ignorant one!”

Indisputable Superego doesn’t care for Schneider’s poem either. It might not side with Social Media Superego, thinking SMS a little bit overwrought at times, but it would probably agree with its Canonical sibling. Indisputable Superego is perhaps a slightly more chilled version of Canonical Superego, a Superego in a hammock: “It’s a perfectly good poem, and you’re quite welcome to learn it, but it’s hardly Neruda now, is it?” it might say.


So how to deal with these three Literary Superegos. They do need to be dealt with. Persistent  Superego/Inner-Critic activity can satanically grind us down if left unchecked.

Let’s go back to average Joe/Josetta sitting in their tube carriage reading a copy of Metro and suddenly looking up to see a poem, maybe even one this one, pasted on the panels above their heads which usually display adverts for products.

And here’s an average response to this poem: NICE (maybe read again, Instragram-it, make a mental note of the poet/poem), or DON’T GET IT/LIKE IT (move on). My belief is that we’re all reliably “average” in this sense, whatever poem we’re reading. We’re all Joes and Josettas deep down. Which is to say that even the most rarefied conneisseur of poetry (whatever that means) when first reading a poem, at a very basic level either responds to it as NICE or I DON’T GET IT/LIKE it. And this response is as much an interplay of the different parts of their psyche, including the three Superegos mentioned above, as well as what they had for breakfast that day, whether they were breastfed as a child or not, and a whole host of other impossible to pin down factors.

What then happens in the so-called Literary World is that these very simple, ordinary responses, gets dressed up in lots of fancy words, for fancy words is what the educated members of our species spray about, and so we come up with all sorts of fancy reasons for why we like one poem or novel or painting as opposed to another. Much of it is Ego and Superego talk. The Id-iot that responds initially to the poem is often carefully hidden in this process.

Recognising this is it not necessary to say to our Literary Superegos, as often as we can GET OUT OF MY WAY! And then if more explanation is required, I say: “Listen, I realise you might have a problem with this Wallace Stevens poem, or Ocean Vuong poem, or Kaveh Akbar poem, or Pat Schneider poem, or Keats, or Rumi or whatever. But can you just leave me alone for a while so that I can read, and think, and love what I love? Please?”

By hearting Primary Wonder by Denise Levertov

Days pass where I forget the mystery.
Problems insoluble and problems offering
their own ignored solutions
jostle for my attention, they crowd its antechamber
along with a host of diversions, my courtiers, wearing
their colored clothes; caps and bells.
And then
once more the quiet mystery
is present to me, the throng’s clamor
recedes: the mystery
that there is anything, anything at all,
let alone cosmos, joy, memory, everything,
rather than void: and that
hour by hour it continues
to be sustained.


Days pass where I forget the mystery.

When I started learning this poem, I would play around around with the word days, sometimes substituting “hours”, “minutes”, even “seconds” for Levertov’s unit of time. For example, the span required (about a minute) for me to type this sentence is already a time of forgetting. Even whilst commenting on a poem that functions as a momento mysterium or sacramentum, my focus on getting these words out in the right order and with sufficient clarity and coherence, means I lose sight of the very thing that the poet implicitly cautions us through herself not to forget. 

Forgetting what? Well, this! Forgetting as a dimming or blurring of fully conscious living. “Among the worst and most crippling of human losses is the loss of the capacity to be alive to one’s own experience—in which case one has lost a part of one’s humanness,” writes the psychoanalyst Thomas Ogden. Ogden likens the alternative remembering, now everywhere dubbed, somewhat unpoetically as “mindfulness” to a particular kind of “knowing”, more akin to that of dreaming oneself  fully into being he suggests. Sometimes we are able to do this for ourselves, and sometimes we need to do it alongside another such as a friend, a lover, or a therapist. Or maybe in this case: a poem.

Mark Epstein sees this ontological forgetting as a kind of narcissism “exposing the gap within: the emptiness, inauthenticity, or alienation that results from estrangement from our true selves and our confusion or ignorance about our own true natures.”

Here we have two clues to forgetting, but what of the mystery? And what would remembering as opposed to forgetting even entail?

Here’s one possibility.

Close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, then bring your attention to your inner world, and as you breathe out ask yourself the question “What is this?” I’m now going to bring in Stephen and Martine Batchelor from whom I learnt this practice:

You are not repeating the question like a mantra; you are cultivating a sensation of perplexity [mystery!], asking unconditionally, What is this? This is not an intellectual inquiry. You are not trying to solve this question with speculation or logic. Do not keep the question in your head. Try to ask it from your belly. With the whole of your being, you are asking, What is this? What is this? You are asking What is this? because you do not know. If you become distracted, come back to the question again and again. The question What is this? is an antidote to distracted thoughts. It is as sharp as a sword. Nothing can remain on the tip of its sharp blade. By asking this question deeply you are opening yourself to the whole of your experience, with a deep sense of wonderment and awe.

Did that help you to “remember” the mystery if only for a moment? It helps me. As does learning and reciting poetry by heart, which I think is why I chose this poem alongside Pat Schneider’s “The Patience of Ordinary Things” and David Whyte’s “Everything Is Waiting For You” as daily “blades” to poke me into a keener remembrance of the “this” and “what” and especially “is”.


Problems insoluble and problems offering
their own ignored solutions
jostle for my attention, they crowd its antechamber
along with a host of diversions, my courtiers, wearing
their colored clothes; caps and bells.

I’ve been trying to classify my problems over the week while learning this poem into these two categories:

1. Problems Insoluble

2. Problems Offering Their Own Ignored Solutions

Problems Insoluble are presumably all the BIG existential conundrums such as Aging, Sickness, Separation & Isolation, Meaninglessness, and Death. The Four Sights that set Siddhartha on his path to understanding, and possibly even coming to some kind of reckoning with (?) two and a half thousand years ago. These are the anxiety-provoking insights of into our mortality and suffering that Sid encountered as soon as he stepped outside the cushy confines of his father’s compound.

Problems Offering Their Own Ignored Solutions on the other hand might include: The Cheesy Bacon Flatbread you just ordered from McDonalds not living up to display ad. Or the guy/girl you’ve just met for a drink through Tinder not living up their display ad. Or a new wireless router requiring you to change the setting for every device in the house. Or maybe the strain of trying to keep a hard-cover book propped open on the table whilst eating breakfast cereal.

But they’re also likely to include, and maybe even more than the somewhat tongue-in-cheek examples above (all sourced from #firstworldproblems on Twittter) elements of the Problems Insoluble list, even if packaged in more worry-friendly chunks or domains. These might include: Relationship worries, Self-Esteem issues, Aimless Future worries, Work, Finances, as well as the pervasive unsatisfactoriness of just about everything else.

What I love most about the way Levertov frames these problem is how she slips in that word “ignored”. In some respects all or our problems have some kind of solution which we more often than not don’t really want to consider, and probably hearing this will sound a bit like an admonishment, it does for me. Perhaps we don’t like the solution because it might be as much about learning to tolerate the unsatisfactoriness or insolubleness of the problem itself, or maybe it asks us to sacrifice something in the short term to benefit us in the long. As human beings we’re very good at ignoring and distracting ourselves away from these options. Often because the Ignored-Solutions seem somewhat humdrum and require a sort of quiet, persevering faith in a greater-than-ourselves mystery which doesn’t really have the repletion or glamour of those cultural courtiers (Netflix, Facebook, Instagram) or the charismatic power of a solution-proffering guru (Tony Robbins, Martha Beck, whoever).


And then
once more the quiet mystery
is present to me

All we know of the mystery at this point is that it is “quiet”. Which comes from the Middle English word denoting peace rather than war. And the Latin word for repose.

But also, usefully: without much activity, disturbance, or excitement; without being disturbed or interrupted; carried out discreetly, secretly, or with moderation; mild and reserved by nature; expressed in a restrained or understated way; unobtrusive; not bright or showy.

All of these descriptions point to the essence of the quiet Levertov is leading us towards in this poem: those moments when we connect deeply with ourselves and the world around us. As I sit here on my second day of writing this post (Sunday morning) I am relatively quiet according to most of the definitions provided above, as are my surroundings. Doggie Max is snoozing on the bed, grey Sunday morning rain and sleet cocooning a quiet space around us.

My daily reciting of poetry learnt by heart, even though my mouth is filling the air with sound, also corresponds in some way to this type of quiet. The quiet (even for seconds on end) of a breathing meditation or What Is This too. A quiet which is also a kind of flowing aliveness as is walking in nature. The witnessing presence of a tree, or a mountain, or the sky. The settling and balance one feels viscerally at these times. The mystery of this quiet is that it is so hard to capture in words. Again and again Levertov, as do so many other poets, attempts this in her writing. As in another poem “In Whom We Live and Move and Have our Being” which ends on this quiet note: “we inhale, exhale, inhale / encompassed, encompassed.”

In some sense, it is almost easier to feel the quiet when it isn’t there, when we notice its cessation or a feeling of disquiet, either as a visceral or mental disturbance. Read any page from Fernando Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet and you’ll immediately feel this scratchy dread that haunts and relentlessly pursues him, offering him no respite other than temporarily through writing or alcohol.

Pessoa understands, as does Levertov, that mystery can also be disturbing and unsettling, as in “the metamorphic apparitions” of “The Centipede”, which as Denise Lynch notes is presented to us as “frightening, fascinating, unfathomable, but ultimately inviting the heart’s embrace”.

There are clues to the mystery in some of the other poems I’m dipping into this weekend from her Levertov’s Selected Poems: the “provisional happiness” she refers to in “Of Being”, as well as “this need to dance, this need to kneel”; the “awe so quiet I don’t know when it began” from “That Passeth All Understanding”; the “Transparency seen for itself— as if its quality were not, after all, to enable perception not of itself?” such as in “that sheer clarity” of water, air, and light (“Sands of the Well”). 

In another poem, “The Antiphon”, she prefaces her verse with these from an anonymous French author: “L’Esprit souffle dans le silence là où les mots ñ’ont plus de voix.”. (Mind/spirit breathes in silence, where words no longer suffice.”)

Commenting on this poem, Sue Yore notes: “Silence – the place of no words – is where moments of revelation and spiritual rejuvenation occur.”


the mystery
that there is anything, anything at all,
let alone cosmos, joy, memory, everything,
rather than void: and that
hour by hour it continues
to be sustained.

As with Quiet and Disquiet, Levertov frames some of the anythings and everythings she gives us with a void. Darkness. Rightly so: beyond the jostling problems of this planet and the creatures on it, we are surrounded by a whole lot of empty inky space. Writing an appreciation of the poet H.D, Levertov notes that the older poet “shows [us] a way to penetrate mystery” not by “flooding darkness with light so that darkness is destroyed but entering into darkness, mystery, so that it is experienced.” Here we perhaps begin to see the relationship of the void with that of “quiet mystery”.

This also factors into the relationship of the poet’s voice to the void, reminding Levertov, Rilke-aficionado that she is, of Rainer Maria’s conception of the artist described in “Concerning the Poet” where he envisions a sailing vessel travelling upstream, and a singer sitting at the front right-hand side of the boat.

Whilst those about him were always occupied with most immediate actuality and the overcoming of it, his voice maintained contact with the farthest distance, linking us with it until we felt its power of attraction.

I do not know how it happened, but suddenly, in this phenomenon, I understood the position of the poet, his place and effect within time, and that one might well dispute his right to every other position but this. This one, though, must be allowed to him.

Rilke implies that the creative power of human beings lies in their receptivity to the divine spirit and to matters enigmatic and equivocal. Matters of the void, of what is this, of the blank page or universe. In her poem “After Mindwalk” Levertov finds in the void set before us by the world of quantum physics “a new twist of Pascal’s dread”. It is always a delicate business when it comes to approaching the void: how to stay on the right side of awe and wonder rather than fear and dread.


I’ve taken liberties with the last few lines of this poem. Forgive me Denise. At the end of the poem Levertov addresses and admires a deity “0 Lord, / Creator, Hallowed One, / You still, / hour by hour sustain it.”

I’m not averse to there being a Lord, Creator, Hallowed One, but I’m not sure I want to address Them directly from my voice and heart every time I recite the poem.

If anything, this would actually draws me away from the mystery, part of which lies with the question of who/what/how this all came into being!? If we wrap it up, as Denise does, with a capitalised Lord, Creator, Hallowed One, then some of the fleeting, enigmatic and indeterminate aspects of this mystery are taken away for me at the end of the poem.

What I want from this poem, and what I achieve for myself by the change I’ve made to the last two lines is a suspended state of, well, mystery: mystification, wonder, mind-boggliness. In other words: this primary wonder reawakened and revivified in me over and over, every time I repeat the poem. 

To do this, I’ve tweaked the poem, putting the last line into a passive voice, which hopefully leaves space (mystery) for a deity to be present in the creation and prolongation of the “everything”, or not.

You could see it as a slightly Buddhist edit. Coming back to Siddhārtha Gautama, our 2,500 year old psychologist who was no less alive to the mystery of existence than all his wise predecessors, but differed in one profound respect regarding the religious thought into which he was born (Vedic Brahmanism/Ancient Hinduism). That is to say Sid rejected, or rather was indifferent to the idea of a Creator  per se, as well as the notion of an eternal soul.

Sid would probably not deny, and nor would I, that there is a profound mystery and wonder in our perception that “cosmos, joy, memory, everything” continues to exist, moment by moment, and (fingers crossed) will continue to do so after we’re gone. But ever the psychologically-informed pragmatist, as he demonstrates in his Parable of The Poison arrow, Sid would have it that getting too entangled in the whys and hows of our suffering, or any other mystery for that matter, doesn’t necessarily help us appreciate the mystery before us or live it to the full.

I’d like to think Levertov would allow me to shape her poem as much as I need to in order to make it work for me. Levertov herself was always an extremely porous and hybrid spiritual seeker, having as she called it “a do-it-yourself” theology. The roots of this are to be found perhaps in her father, Paul Levertoff, who had been a teacher at Leipzig University and a Russian Hassidic Jew. Her mother, Beatrice Adelaide, was a Christian from a small mining village in North Wales.

After her father emigrated to the UK after the first World War where he had been imprisoned in Germany as an enemy alien he not only converted to Christianity but became an Anglican priest. The family was housed by the church in Ilford, ironically a very Jewish neighbourhood in London, with Levertoff’s parish in Shoreditch. “My father’s Hasidic ancestry, his being steeped in Jewish and Christian scholarship and mysticism, his fervour and eloquence as a preacher, were factors built into my cells,“ writes Levertov in an essay.

For much of her life Levertov would have classified herself as something of an agnostic, and yet in her late-60s, she became a Roman Catholic. Along the way, she was as much influenced by the Buddhist-flavoured Transcendentalism of Emerson and Thoreau, as she was by 14th century Christian mysticism to be found in The Cloud of Unknowing. In her diary, Levertov also experimented with the kind of tweaks I’ve rendered to her text, imagining how she might substitute the words poetry and poem for “God” in The Cloud, overlaying this overtly religious text with her own concerns and understanding, as I have done to “Primary Wonder”. 

I am not surprised to find that this poem is the last poem in her final book, Sands in The Well, published in 1996 (Levertov died in 1997, aged 74). I would like to think that even after a life full of learning, teaching, and publishing (24 books of poetry as well as books of criticism and translations), alongside many prizes (Lannan, Guggenheim, National Institute of Arts and Letters), this quiet mystery continued to be the most important thing to her.

In an Afterword to Levertov’s Selected Poems, Paul A. Lacey describes the challenge of “religious” also “political” poetry like this:

“Here the writer speaks out of personal experience and deep feelings, [but] the reader who shares neither may perceive only abstractions and tendentious opinions. The writer tries to speak of the flesh-and-blood experience which informs beliefs and convictions; readers who have not shared the same or similar experience may see only poeticized doctrine—unfamiliar to some, too familiar to others, a source of resentment to still others. To carry the reluctant or resistant reader along on the double journey of art and faith, this poetic faith, everything depends on how well the poet can ground the sensation and feelings, the testing of faith and doubt, belief and disbelief in the poetry and invite the reader to participate with the poet in a process of exploration and discovery.”

Levertov does this again and again in poems like Primary Wonder, and this process of exploration and discovery for me becomes most alive when a poem we love is learnt by heart (even in this somewhat bastardized form) as a kind of “oblique prayer” (to use the title of Levertov’s 1984 collection) and celebration.

Robert Creeley in an introduction to this same volume describes how much he misses her, in that along with being “an abiding poet” she was first and foremost “a wonderfully explici human being…caring for life, our lives, as people, the world forever the one in which all must finally learn to live while we can.”

All photos in this post, other than those of Levertov and McDonald’s Cheesy Bacon Flatbread, were taken by Mary Randlett who was DL’s friend as well as collaborator.

By hearting MY OWN HEART by Gerard Manley Hopkins

My own heart let me more have pity on; let
Me live to my sad self hereafter kind,


It is one thing to believe in a well-being practice and to espouse it as effective to others, but quite another to feel it working deeply and directly on oneself. This week, learning Hopkins’ My Own Heart poem by heart, I have felt time and again, especially with these first few lines, the medicine of the poem kicking in as soon as I began to recite it, decisively and without delay, restorative, as much as any fast-acting drug might work: insulin, nitroglycerin, beta-blockers, morphine, heroin, poetry.

What am I saying here? That the act of intoning these words mantra-like, over and over again, learning them by heart, taking them into my psyche, allows me to feel almost instantly and proprioceptively the poem’s calming influence. Even at times when I was not aware of needing to be calmed or soothed, it seems to do the job. How can that be?

Hopkins, Jesuit trained, might have intimated divine intervention, the power of De Profundis (out of our depths) prayer, a petitionary genre of talking to God originating in Psalm 130:

Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord.
Lord, hear my voice:
Let thine ears be attentive
to the voice of my supplications.

This might be the case. But I am probably more wont to believe that this poem-prayer-spell is testimony to the therapeutic power of self-compassion, which in the last couple of decades psychologists and neuroscientists have shown to have impressive healing potential.

How does this work? Building on the research of Richard Davidson, and Jaak Panksepp, key to understanding the power of De Profundis prayers or poems lies in grasping the basic emotional circuitry shared by every mammal from humans to rats.

In this case, we’re particularly interested in the neural pathway that Panksepp calls The Care Circuit, extending from the hypothalamus to the ventral tegmental area (VTA) which is key to generating feel-good neurochemicals like oxytocin and endogenous opioids that have been shown to sooth negative emotions and reduce distress.

We get our first taste of these feel-good drugs as infants, either when self-soothing (with a soft toy, a dummy, or finger-sucking) or when being caressed, cradled, hugged and rocked by our parents or other caregivers. Interestingly, just as we can scare or make ourselves feel angry by dwelling on certain kinds of thoughts and situations, activating our own Fear Circuit or Rage Circuit, even when there is nothing in our environment that is tangibly threatening through autonomous self-compassion can recruit the Care Circuit to produce those feel-good oxytocins and opioids.

As Tim Desmond puts it: “from your brain’s perspective, comforting yourself, is almost identical to being nurtured by someone else”. Before this can become a spontaneous habit of well-being, a certain amount of effort and attention might be required though; as much effort and attention as it takes to learn and repeat a poem or a prayer over the course of a week, or a lifetime. And it is this effort of self-care, in opposition to our punitive super-egos telling us we don’t deserve this care, that makes it a challenge for most of us to “have more have pity on” ourselves, to give ourselves a break.

Hopkins alerts us to this in the first line of the poem, shifting the quantifying determiner “more” from its expected position in front of the noun (“let me have more pity”) to the verb (“more have”) so as to highlight the conscious effort required for self-compassion. Just as it takes a similar kind of application when learning the poem,  to keep Hopkin’s “unnatural” prosodic choices in place as we commit his words to memory. With repetition, these new, somewhat contorted forms of language begin to feel as legitimate, if not more legitimate than the habitual phrasing we usually employ. Which is perhaps what happens too if we practice kindness and self-compassion towards ourselves.

Onerous as it can initially feel, self-compassion is a very simple recipe with just 3 ingredients:

1. I KNOW I’M SUFFERING (“With this tormented mind tormenting yet”)

2. I ALSO KNOW THAT I WANT BE HAPPY (“let joy size”)

3. I KNOW I’M NOT ALONE IN THIS QUEST (“Soul, self; come, poor Jackself”)

SO…LET ME BE ESPECIALLY KIND AND CARING TOWARDS MYSELF (My own heart let me more have pity on / … call off thoughts awhile / Elsewhere; leave comfort root-room; let joy size…” etc.)

But like many simple recipes (brownies, tomato sauce, pesto, ice-cream) the difference between mediocre results and something truly excellent is often immediately discernible.

What comes out of this poem is the necessity for what our current healing practitioners, aka science-ratified psychologists, might call Dialogue Based Mindfulness, which is also a key aspect to many therapeutic practices like Schema Therapy or Internal Family Systems.

This essentially requires us to separate the part of us that is suffering, referred to in the poem as “poor Jackself” from the part of us that can offer care and comfort. In the second stanza, we see this dialogue in action with Hopkins compassionately “advising”, guiding, even genially wheedling to some extent his “jaded”, depressed self to call off toxic ruminations and cut himself a little slack.

The wisdom of this dialogue is that Hopkins also seems to be suggesting that we can create a certain kind of terrain for happiness to embed itself (“leave comfort room-room”) just as I’m about to do later in the garden today, weeding and enriching the depleted post-summer sod with nutrients so that I can grow next years bulbs and flowers. We can to some extent orchestrate the conditions for happiness, but there is also the understanding that its advent might be something of a gift: “whose smile / ’s not wrung, see you; unforeseen times rather”.

And yet, when comfort does come, “as skies / Betweenpie mountains – lights a lovely mile” the freshness of Hopkins prosody, that lovely punning portmanteau word “betweenpie” (mountains as pies? pie as in “Pied Beauty“, “glory be to God for dappled things”?) squeezes an extra slug of neuromodulating opioids from our skittish neurons, and we really do feel, physically as well as metaphysically more at ease.

Don’t believe me? Try it for yourself! Take a self-compassion poem that speaks to you, like this one, learn it off by heart and repeat it as often as you need to throughout the day when feeling a bit off. Feedback below in the Comments box if you like.


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!



[Read Kaveh Akbar’s poem HERE]

the prophets are alive but unrecognizable to us
as calligraphy to a mouse      

I sometimes think about the relationship between poems and stand-up comedy, especially those comedians who structure their acts around an artillery of one-liners. The one-liner is a very particular kind of comic vehicle, where the space between set-up and payoff might be as swift and devastating as a kidney punch. In both cases, we either yelp in sympathetic pain, recognition, or laughter.

There is something addictive about this style of aphoristic comedy and poetry, as there is something addictive about Kaveh Akbar’s work, which is fitting when considering the nature of a collection that explores how the poet reached a kind of truce with his addictions, as well as how he still withstands them, Jacob wrestling the angel on a daily basis.

I chose the poem Unburnable the Cold is Flooding Our Lives to learn because it seemed to have, line-by-line, the kind of payoff that classic comedy routines give us. I wanted to learn it by heart the way my 11 year old schoolfriend Dimitri Yiannakis would memorise large chunks of the then-still-kosher Cosby (we’re talking 1984) from his parents’ LP collection and then regale me with these at break time, as if they were his own. I wanted to have these one-liners on the tip of my tongue as Yiannakis, a stout kid, had had Fat Albert riffs to ward off too much reality. I wanted to feel like Oscar Wilde, or Kaveh Akbar, if only for a few minutes.

for a time they dragged

long oar strokes across the sky        now they sit
in graveyards drinking coffee forking soapy cottage cheese

into their mouths     

The poem begins with some great one-liners. There’s that zinger about prophets and calligraphy and mice, which has the ambivalence of rodents as well as our USB-connected critters. Calligraphy, the writing we envisage prophetic utterances being delivered in, is of course now banged out on laptops in Portcullion font for Rumi Instagram feeds. A prophet on Twitter is no longer Shams Tabrizi setting pages alight with just a thought, but secular dudes or dudesses with boilerplate profiles releasing pithy one-liners to their virtual followers (Rupi? Melissa?).

For all his Beyonce and Oprah validated recent renown, Rumi now functions predominantly in our culture a as series of gifs and mystical sidebars for self-help books and mindfulness sites: predominantly pink and decorative, detoothed, declawed, de-Islamified. And certainly in Coleman Barks’ adaptive hands, most likely “a mistranslation”. Akbar hits on the bathos of this spiritual downturn, both personal and cultural, in the specificity of the dethroned prophets’ food choices: the insipid but also slightly nauseating “soapiness” of their cottage cheese, the “forking” of it into their mouths suggestive of both monotony as well as mindless automaticity. It tastes of nothing, but it’s low in calories, so we continue to shovel it down. Is this not the sum and substance of our cultural moment?

There follows a series of deadpan, anhedonic epigrams:

I envy their discipline but not enough to do anything about it

intent arrives like a call to prayer and is as easy to dismiss

the addictions / that were killing me the fastest were the ones I loved best

Rumi said the two most important things in life were beauty
and bewilderment     this is likely a mistranslation    

Like the stand-up comedians who have become our emissaries of authenticity, the childlike ones who point out on Late Night TV shows that The Emperor isn’t wearing any clothes, these aphorisms are designed to re-present, whilst at the same time problematize the earnestness of our most noble aspirations: discipline, prayer, beauty, bewilderment. Akbar delivers them to us with the zing and sting of humour, as well as a kind of poker-faced earnestness, which from within the architecture of the poem helps to lodge the lines deep into our psyches like tiny foxtail grass arrowheads burrowing their way into animal fur.

Similar to the stand-up comedian’s unvarnished truths, these lines also speak to our inner-teenagers, our inner-sloths and addicts who know exactly what we should be doing in order to get our shit together, but can’t quite hang onto the golden thread of virtue and social responsibility to pull us out of our entropic states.

The fantasy of the enlightened being or prophet as alluded to at the end of the poem “light upon the earth / … steel bent around an endless black” is one we all have in whichever way it manifest for us, one which more often than not gets eroded with “and yet” iterations of despondency. Our across-the-board consumption of anxiolytics and antidepressants bear this truth out.

Think of how this functions for poetry. Poetry is fundamental to the human soul, and yet hardly anyone reads it. By and large it has little monetary worth. We will always have poets (and prophets) singing, writing, preaching for us and to us, and yet an algorithm now decides what we get to see on our social media feeds at any given moment. The stand-up comedian as well as a certain kind of poet is willing to give it to us straight. The effect when we read it or hear it is one of relief. We feel relieved of our almost fetishistic attachment to performance and continual improvement.

Compare the machinery of these initial lines to the professional one-line merchants we call comedians. Here a few from Jimmy Carr:

I know a couple who get on like a house on fire; they both feel trapped and are slowly suffocating to death.

Swimming is good for you… especially if you’re drowning.

If we’re all God’s children, what’s so special about Jesus?

In his book “Only Poetry” Carr writes: “We write poems because human existence is an unforgiving slog; we write them in the face of overwhelming odds and despite the ravages of time and fate…Wherever human beings are oppressed—by corrupt government, poverty or merely the specter of disease and death—poems thrive.”

Of course the book is not called Only Poetry, but Only Joking, and I have replaced the word “poem” for “joke” in the quotation.

Akbar’s one-liners have a similar resonance, but they also have an added weight beyond the pleasurably unsettling cognitive dissonance of jokes and poetry, language working to deliver both pleasure and pain, but also a kind of uncanny recognition, laughter in the dark. If this poem can be compared to any stand-up’s routine, it is probably to someone like Neal Brennan’s 3 Mics where Brennan moves between three microphones, each set seven feet apart from the other. He starts off on the first mic with 10 minutes of standard stand-up (guns, aging, race relations), then a blackout, followed by a spotlight onto the next mic for five devastating one-liners, ( “The irony of the word ‘Palestine’ is how much like a Jewish last name it sounds”); another blackout, and then 10 minutes of more “emotional stuff” like depression, addictions, failed relationships. This continues on rotation throughout the set. “It’s a fuller picture of myself,” is how he describes the paradigm. Brennan creates a kind of poem onstage, as the finest stand-ups do. Akbar creates a kind of searing stand-up routine on the page: poetry that is both pleasurable, moving, and thought-provoking.


About halfway through learning the poem though, I get stuck on these two lines.

how many times are you allowed to lose the same beloveds
before you stop believing they’re gone

The first time I read the couplet I gloss over it, yoking the notion, with a little associative leap from “my father now dreams in English” to losing “dead relatives”, to presumably the same “beloveds” referred to here. But when I start learning the poem by heart, the strange logic of these lines trips me up. I keep on saying: “How many times are you allowed to lose the same beloveds before you start believing they’re gone (for good). Or: before you stop believing they’re coming back. But “to stop believing they’re gone” bamboozles me. I finally get the words memorized but they still don’t make sense.

I think this poem hinges to some extent on who we take the beloveds to be. They might be the friends and family we lose through emigration, or some other form of loss. But maybe, as the second part of the poem suggests, the beloveds are also those substances who are there for us in our times of greatest need. When we are lonely, does not a cigarette, burning quietly away feel like a friend? When we are in despair, tired, desolate, bored, does not the drink, the spliff, the line of coke function as a lover or a some other caring being, gently taking us into their arms for consolation? Seen through this lens, we maybe stop believing the beloveds are gone, because these ersatz beloveds, the psychotropic substances are always on hand to rescue us, always just a phone-call away.

How to live without our “beloveds”, those people or things which numb or transfigure our pain? Deflective self-harm might be an option (“turning the chisel toward myself”) or taking the AA route, strongly allied to the ethics of self-mortification (“STEP FOUR: “make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves”, cf. also STEPS 5-10) but is this the answer?

one way to live a life is to spend each moment asking
forgiveness for the last         it seems to me the significance

of remorse would deflate with each performance  

At the end of the poem, an alternative solution is being posited, a kind of mindful stance, but also perhaps a poetic one:  “better / to sink a little into the earth and quietly watch life unfold / violent as a bullring”.

There is also, as there often is in Akbar’s work and life, the importance of gratitude, a theme that is picked up in other poems in the volume like “Portrait of The Alcoholic Three Weeks Sober” and “I Won’t Lie This Plague of Gratitude”:

 I was comfortable
in my native pessimism               not this spun-
                       sugar fantasy               last night I made actual

                                    cake               there were no worms in the flour no
                   bloody whirls in the eggs               afterwards the minor
                                   holiday below my waistband remained festive
                 as ever               when I touched two breasts               each one

                 was my favorite

In “Unburnable The Cold Is Flooding Our Lives” we find the gratitude of someone who perhaps realises they have survived self-annihilation through an over-reliance on their “beloveds”:

I am glad I still exist      glad for cats and moss
and Turkish indigo             

But even so, we don’t tarry too long in the realms of sentiment or sentimentality, as the poet brings us back into the more knotted and ambivalent territory of authentic unknowing, a stance shared with the stand-up comedian, spun out in a litany of and-yets:

and yet       to be light upon the earth     

to be steel bent around an endless black      to once again
be God’s own tuning fork        and yet      and yet

I don’t read these and-yets as hopeless, nor do they cancel out the gratitude and its accompanying vision of engaging with the world like a poet-prophet “quietly watching” from the margins of our culture, but neither are we pawned off with a resplendent flourish. As Akbar writes in the final line of the final poem in this volume: “The boat I am building will never be done”.

To have it any other way would feel like a kind of bad faith. As G.K. Chesterton noted many moons ago: “the reason angels can fly is that they take themselves lightly.” 



Poetry Pharmacy is currently looking to feature YOUR POEMS as well as recommendations of poems about addiction and compulsive behaviour. More information about where and how to submit your work can be found here:

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By Hearting THE DAY YOU STOP by Lauren Camp

[Read Lauren Camp’s “The Day You Stop” HERE]

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. 

Of course it is like this. Always. The Planning Self, the Conscientious Self, the Fantasy-Stopping Self: all too often separate from the one required to carry out the behavioral change. Let’s call her The Stopping Self: that walking-the-talk part of us intent on carrying all our good intentions to fruition, or in this case, termination.

This poem also alludes to the mind games that we play with those other parts of ourselves, our cognitive biases, which get in the way of the simple causal reasoning of “This is really not good for my well-being, so why don’t I just stop doing it?”

Take my/our ongoing struggle to regulate our consumption of food and drink. Writing this piece on a Saturday morning, somewhat foggy-headed from a bit too much of a Friday night treat-yourself tipple, I am sipping my second cup of Assam tea with soy milk, and I have no inclination at this moment whatsoever to drink wine or beer for the rest of the weekend. Maybe not for the rest of my life. Certainly not this evening. Nor to eat processed food or sugary snacks like biscuits or cake. Assam tea, Lauren’s poem, and my thoughts after learning it by heart this week, are all I require of the moment to make it good enough to exist in and for. And yet this is not a Friday Night or Saturday Evening Self thinking and writing.

This is the self that in Schema Therapy is known as The Healthy Adult, which some might say is a Core Self, but others might recognise it as just another entity from the Carousel of Selves: The Stopping Self, The Impulsive Self, The Woebegone Self, all the visitors to Rumi’s Being-Human Guest House.

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.

Welcome to the Hot-Cold Empathy Gap where we disremember the fact that pretty much everything we do, feel, or think is state dependent. My current slightly-hungover mode is good for “cold” conscientious note-taking and unprofaned, clean-living forecasts for the day. As soon as I have written about learning this poem, I will go and work in the garden, and maybe do some yoga, and tidy and declutter, and plough through the rest of that Sapolsky tome I’ve been trying to read for the last week, struggling to concentrate long enough to stay with it for more than a few chapters.

Our Carousel of Selves, can also, broadly speaking, be mapped onto neural networks. The hero of the piece, the Healthy Adult /Stopping Self is a probably a more metaphorical way of talking about the Frontal Cortex. Sapolsky gives us a handy job description for this member of our inner team:

“Its list of expertise includes working memory, executive function (organizing knowledge strategically, and then initiating an action based on an executive decision), gratification postponement, long-term planning, regulation of emotions, and reining in impulsivity.”

And here’s Camp on Impulsivity, that moment when we give way to our desires:

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.

The Stopping Part, the frontal cortex, to return to Sapolsky for a moment “makes you do the harder thing when it’s the right thing to do.” The Stopping Self finds resourceful ways to override, dodge, or ride out the wave of desire that seems to come out of nowhere, building at times, to tsunami-proportions: “the unwashed swell of rapture / taking your face through teeth to heartbeat”.

The Stopping Self is a right old party-pooper. But also perhaps it is this age-old tussle between those Platonic horses of desire and reason, with us feeling quite often like the poor old Charioteer trying to keep these conflicted nags on the same course.

The Frontal Cortex/Stopping Self turns out to be the most recently evolved brain region, “not approaching full splendor until the emergence of primates; a disproportionate percentage of genes unique to primates are active in the frontal cortex. Moreover, such gene expression patterns are highly individuated, with greater interindividual variability than average levels of whole-brain differences between humans and chimps.” (Sapolsky)

I remember some years ago, going to see Jonathan Safran Foer talk about his book Eating Animals and him saying in response to a question suggesting that it is in our nature as omnivores to eat meat that in fact we are most human when we’re struggling with our impulse to chew down on a nice juicy beefburger as opposed to going for the ethically more sound lentil alternative.  I think this poem makes these questions particularly alive for us, which is one of the reasons why I wanted to learn it by heart.

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.

I still have no idea what behaviour is being targeted in this poem for cessation. As I spend the week learning it by heart, taking it into my lungs and belly, I sometimes think we’re discussing an eating disorder, or maybe it’s smoking, perhaps even narcotics. Or is it alcohol?

In many ways, all our addictions are interchangeable. In the Brahmajāla Sutta, Siddhārtha Gautama (aka the Buddha) gives us a role call of his society’s addictions, big and small, which still reads today, for all its elephants, buffaloes, bulls, and rams, as thoroughly contemporary listicle:

“Some ascetics and Brahmins…remain addicted to attending such shows as dancing, singing, music, displays, recitations, hand-music, cymbals and drums, fairy shows;…combats of elephants, buffaloes, bulls, rams;…manoeuvres, military parades;…disputation and debate, rubbing the body with shampoos and cosmetics, bracelets, headbands, fancy sticks…unedifying conversation about kings, robbers, ministers, armies, dangers, wars, food, drink, clothes…heroes, speculation about land and sea, talk of being and non-being.”

I think of alcohol more often than not as I learn the poem, but perhaps that’s my projection of choice. But there are some indicators in the language of the poem, in its talk of “liquefying” resolve, and “pouring”, perhaps in the sense of both losing control as well as in the enactment of the compulsion. Or maybe it is some other addiction altogether. I like the fact that I don’t really know either way, and nor do I need to know because it is the process and function here of our compulsions that are being explored, and we readers will read ourselves and our own struggles with these unruly selves into the poem. This is why we read poetry, isn’t it? This is why I read poetry: to inhabit that perimeter where parts of “me” intermingle and amalgamate with parts of you.

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

This is certainly how my Monday-Friday often works. Sometimes only Monday to Wednesday. And even on a Friday night, because I cannot trust The Addict, I will stand in the liquor aisle of the supermarket and wrangle with compulsive Steve.

“Now you know the deal, you cannot be trusted with a bottle of wine, as you will drink the whole thing, so we allow you two small 187ml single-serves”
“But I don’t like the wine in the single-serves.”
“Too bad, it’s that or nothing.”
“Harumph. OK, two single-serves. And what about getting two more for tomorrow while they’re on special offer?”
“Are you sure you won’t drink all four tonight. Because that would defeat the whole thing.”
“Of course.”

Even so, 
we shouldn’t fool ourselves; 
resolve cannot liquefy need. 

Of course. We shouldn’t fool ourselves, even though The Addict manages to do just that. One. More. Time.

What is it to be addicted? I think we can all recognise those moments in our life that adhere to this channnel of desire:

You’ll follow the mumble through 
that ache that is tincture. Is rule 
and bundle. Is famished inside you 
and thrumming. 

Having read a good amount of the addiction literature for my dayjob, as well as having talked this through with hundreds of patients and myself, I think I’ve now got a better understanding what the need is. It’s not particularly arcane. It’s a need to shift from some state of discomfort or suffering into a less aversive one. We might be talking Big D&S (Discomfort & Suffering), or one of the small itchy varieties we may all experience at the end of a working week: a tiredness, an emptiness, some low-grade discontent which spurs the yearning to be soothed, satisfied, liberated from these feelings of not-feeling-ok, not-being-ok. Which is why, unless we officially class ourselves as Alcoholics, or Sex, or Food Addicts, Big and commit ourselves to a Twelve-Step program in line with our falling off, we will probably find ourselves living the hot-cold see-saw described in Camp’s poem over and over and over again.

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.

The wisdom of the poem seems to suggest that maybe one can find through an act of self-acceptance some peace with whatever addictive swing or see-saw we happen to be playing with.

Or is there a more explicit moral stance being played out here, suggesting that unless we find a way to get on top of our impulses, we lose some intrinsic part of our humanity: “the impulse has got you, it’s all that survives”. The Addict, as she’s quite happy to do, takes over and runs the whole show.

Threaded through my thoughts I’ve included some pictures from one of my favourite photographers, Claire Martin, taken from her Downtown East Side photo essay. Even if you have never seen these pictures of destitution and addiction before, I’m sure they are painfully familiar to us as a type. And here lies a certain comfort, but also another kind of nefarious “fooling ourselves”. Most likely our socioeconomic privileges keep us on the “right” side of social respectability, and yet the machinery of addiction is exactly the same, whether your compulsive behaviour is checking your Twitter and Facebook updates in ways that disrupt the flow of your day, or shopping for classical music in a compulsive manner, as Gabor Maté admits in another classic of addiction literature In The Realm of The Hungry Ghosts:

“Addictions are often interchangeable—a fact that further buttresses the unitary theory that there’s a common addiction process. Although my addictive tendencies are most obvious in my compact-disc-buying habit, I can shift seamlessly into other obsessive activities….I have thrown myself equally blindly and avidly into political work and other pursuits. I’ve even had several of my addictions up and running at the same time. That is, the addiction process was active and looking for more and more external trophies to capture. For all that, the anxiety, ennui and fear of the void driving the whole operation rarely abated.”

I love this book by Maté because at a certain point in the book, he takes off the distanced, expert MD jacket in which he starts the book, the doctor’s coat he wears each day as he carries out his work in harm reduction clinics in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, assisting many of the people Claire Martin photographs in her essay, and becomes one of us flawed mortals. Maté, the wounded healer, identifies very strongly with his patients who struggle with mental and physical health issues alongside their addictions. What separates them he realises is more a case of systematic racial and economic inequality as opposed to the willpower myth, that if you try hard enough, you can overcome anything — abuse, poverty, hardship, and the most destructive of our addictions. Camp’s poem doesn’t buy into this willpower idea either, and neither should we.

Even so, 
we shouldn’t fool ourselves…

Or if we do, at least let’s do it with some of the kindness and understanding midst the frustration and struggle that this poem embodies.

By-Hearting Song of Myself by Walt Whitman

Screen Shot 2017-07-07 at 22.39.29
I have said that the soul is not more than the body,
And I have said that the body is not more than the soul,

Even-stevens. Whitman’s credo works so well in smaller chunks. A whole book of him saying and assaying becomes a tad tedious. But one stanza of his Song to Himself, assimilated with the intimacy of self that he speaks from in this poem (“I breathe the fragrance myself and know it and like it,/The distillation would intoxicate me also, but I shall not let it.”) is sweet.

Learning the poem by heart, this initial rescinding of the distinctions between body and soul transpires in the process of transforming words on paper (the body of the written poem) into an entity of memory or psyche. Or is it the other way around: the soul of the poem becoming embodied?

This switcheroo is intrinsically mysterious, as the Catholic church asserts for that other transubstantiation: “The signs of bread and wine become, in a way surpassing understanding, the Body and Blood of Christ.”

This language of sacrament strikes me as the most apposite for trying to encapsulate what happens when we turn a poem into our lived experience, turn a poem into and towards ourselves, so let us dwell for a moment on those other terms for the eucharist: “trans-elementation” (μεταστοιχείωσις, metastoicheiosis), “re-ordination” (μεταρρύθμισις, metarrhythmisis), or simply just “change” (μεταβολή, metabole).


And nothing, not God, is greater to one than one’s self is,

I find this line excitingly problematic. There is a great deal of negation going on here, to the extent of methinks the lady doth protest too much. Nothing, not God? No-thing, no-tGod! I don’t think he’s saying a la Nietzche, Gott ist tott, or if so, only in the Pascalian sense that “nature is such that it marks everywhere, both in and outside of man, a lost God”.

I also get the feeling that the “one” here might refer not just to you or me, but to a “something” or “anything”, that nothing is greater than a single blade of grass, in that nought is 0 less than 1. But where does that leave God, the greatest Nothing we have?

Eddie wonders, as do I, if there is a sense of entitlement here, a kind of elemental narcissism (and maybe Whitman plays on that that where “self is” lies just a letter away from “selfish”? But also, as many of these lines, we come back to them again and again as koans. Even though they are delivered with the declarative assurance of a set and settled credo, these are not Whitman’s 10, or 10,000 commandments. And if they are, surely he doesn’t expect us to follow them as words chiseled into stone and carried down a mountain aloft above one’s head might hold weight in ruling the unruly tribe?

And whoever walks a furlong without sympathy walks to his own
funeral drest in his shroud,

I think here of Naomi Shihab Nye’s Kindness, and this book by Sharon Salzberg, and this one by Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor. I think of Annie, who said to me after I had recited the poem at Kim Rosen’s Medicine as Poetry retreat that this was her religion. And indeed, you can’t really find a better religious or political creed for that matter than this. When I stood and recited before the group “Then it is only kindness that matters anymore” I thought of Donald Trump, whose chief failing is his tragic unkindness, towards anyone he deems lesser or weaker than him (the disabled, immigrants, women, actually all of us I suspect).

Do you know how long a furlong is? A furlong is 201.168 metres, one-eighth of a mile, 660 feet, 220 yards, 40 rods, or 10 chains. I love the fact that Whitman allows us to walk a good 200 metres before expecting some sympathy to show up in our gaze or in our hearts. He doesn’t say “whoever walks a step without sympathy walks to his own funeral” – that would be confining. He knows we’re not saints. He knows we can be mean and self-obsessed too, so he allows for that in the furlong. Walk 1/8th of a mile he says, and somewhere in that passage, try and feel some sympathy, some kindness towards others and yourself. He also knows that lacking kindness, we lost out more than those who we show our neglect or unkindness to. “A gentle answer turns away wrath, But a harsh word stirs up anger.” (Proverbs 15, 1)

I’m sure Jesus had some good teachings on this too.

And I or you pocketless of a dime may purchase the pick of the

Does not this line enact its own message? The alliterative p-p-p-pleasure of all of those p’s. And what of the I.O.U of “I or you”?

Eddie had the brilliant idea, which Eleanor and I didn’t pick up on, that there may be some irony, maybe even bitter irony, in that “pick of the Earth”, especially following on from the funereal bleakness of unkindness. Kind bones or not, we all get our pick, our little patch of Earth in the end, in which to lie.

And to glance with an eye or show a bean in its pod confounds
the learning of all times,

The eye in its socket, the bean in its pod, it is not only the beauty and mystery of these orbs that challenges academic learning, but also a confounding of forms, where for a moment the eye becomes the bean, the pod an assemblage of orbital bones: Zygomatic, Maxillary, Lacrimal, and Nasal.

And there is no trade or employment but the young man following
it may become a hero,

When reciting this, I like to add “or woman” to young man. I think if Whitman would have been a feminist if he’d been around for the paradigm shift.

And there is no object so soft but it makes a hub for the wheel’d

I think here of my dogchild Max, who makes a hub for the wheel of of my Universe.

And I say to any man or woman, Let your soul stand cool and
composed before a million universes.

In the midst of such mystical fervency, it’s interesting that Whitman advises coolness and composure. I wonder if he recognises that joy and ecstasy, if not contained, can feel as uncomfortable at a neurological level as depression and anxiety.

Whitman gets top-ranking on alongside Plath, Poe, Mingus, Mahler, and Axl Rose (!) for having struggled with the following symptoms: feelings of over-elation or over-joyment; talking very quickly; feeling self-important; feeling full of great new ideas and having important plans; being easily distracted; being delusional; having hallucinations and disturbed or illogical thinking. The perfect aggregate of traits and states for writing rapturous poetry, right?

By-Hearting I thank you god for most this amazing by e.e. cummings

Bath AbbeyWhen learning a poem, there is sometimes a line, or maybe even a word which one is itching to rewrite. I am itching to get rid of that deity in the first stanza. Surely any of these edits would be preferable?

I thank you God nature…
I thank you God spring for most…
I thank you God awareness for most this amazing day.

And even if we keep God, why should He, whatever He stands for here, be given in this intensely merely-being) poem of small lettered modesty, Commanding Capitalization?

If e.e. is the Jack Jones of the alphabet, ditching with hierarchical Upper Case for institutions, races, nationalities, tribes, landmarks, organisations, planets, holidays, why can’t God adhere to this egalitarian convention? Cummings wasn’t Jewish or Catholic where God reigns orthographically supreme, where in the former faith one is not even supposed to render His Name as a full consonant-vowel entity, but rather replace it with these coy referents: G_d, L_rd, F_ther. A practice which has always irritated me in the way that star-obscuring ones obcenities – b*stard, f*ck, sh*t – does too. Is not Unitarianism supposed to be a less fussy, kowtowing, more directly engaged relationship with the transcendental (“the focus of the service may be simply the celebration of life itself”) than other theological movements? As one would expect from a spiritual framework that attracts Emerson, Darwin, Newton, Dickens, Nightingale (Florence), Ray Kurzweil, and Mr WWW himself, Tim Berners-Lee to its ranks.

So I start learning the poem without God. But later on that day, with half an hour to kill, I find myself in entirely empty St Vedast Church, all the tourists preferring St Pauls just down the road, and I’m only here because Pod cafe next door is closed where I’d hoped to get a cup of tea. I’m always pleased to find myself in a church, marvelling at the peculiar dovetailed historical synchronicity of standing in a building that was constructed to keep the hubbub of medieval London shut out so that one might listen within, now functions equally well in a century where the clacking of carts and horses, the cries of street vendors, has been replaced by mobile phone beeps, squawks, and the unceasing rumble of cars and trucks.

Here, as I walk up the aisle, silence closing in around me like a protective cloak, the clatter and clutter of the world outside soothingly isolated, I take the poem out of my pocket once more and recite the first few lines, capitalised God and all.

For let’s say this be his house, abode, his dwelling place. The dwelling place of silence and reflection. Open to all, visited by hardly anyone. Maybe it’s OK to show some respectful placing-outside-of-conventions in keeping the uppercase just for Him, and no-one else. For all of this, and the few moment of quiet it gives me I say to e.e. or E.E, to God, G_d, or god, I am grateful.

15414020492_00489fcc4e_zA sprig of dry lavender rolled between thumb and forefinger. A headboard for a bed thrown into the bushes that looks like a ladder. Taped to a pole, now fading: REWARD FOR SILVER GLASSES IN BLACK SOFT BAG ON SAT / 30 / CALL OR TEXT 07957321765 THANKS.

The non-believer is attempting to learn the holy-man poem. To make it his own, he imagines You (cummings’ capitalized deity) as an Experience, a Way of Being (WOB) rather than Daddy-In-The Sky harvesting gratitude off His beholden begats.

And what is this elusive WOB? Well, no less than a kind of transcendent quiddity: ears of ears wakened, eyes of eyes opened. A buried self, recently dead-asleep, but by the end of the poem more fully alive to the grace of each day.

To feel a sense of ghpm_0000_0005_0_img0051ratitude, our predisposition to ingratitude needs to be revisioned. Another way of thinking about this predisposition is through the notion of “habit”.

We don’t wake up each day with the express purpose of heedless fault-finding, dissatisfaction and grumbling ingratitude. But we do, on most days, look at the world through eyes configured at, or just below our baseline or set-point of happiness. This is also known as the hedonic treadmill. So fifty men and women, either leavened by good fortune, or sunk by bad (in this case lottery-winners and paraplegics),  don’t stray in the long run that far from where they started from.

How, if at all, do we jog ourselves off the hedonic treadmill? Cummings does it, I think, through simple but startling linguistic inversions. Instead of “this most”, he gives “most this”; “blue true” rather than “true blue”, “human merely being” instead of “merely human being”. The effect is that of rinsing our tastingtouchinghearingseeingbreathing faculties to a point where the desired transcendent receptiveness of the concluding lines can be induced. Perhaps.

Reciting the whole poem, mantra-like, at the beginning of the day, which I have been trying to do on my morning walk this week, is intended to have a similar effect: an attempt to hijack the hedonic treadmill with schema-disconfirming data.

My hedonic treadmill is to be found in a dingy gym just off Holloway Road, with tinny KISS FM piping out of the TV sets hanging above our heads as we assiduously walk and run in place. No greenly spirit of trees or blue true dream of sky, certainly nothing natural, infinite yes about the activities there. Hard to be grateful on a treadmill, other than for the habitual certainties it provides.

But in reciting the poem, some kind of antidotal activation occurs. Dogs do something similar. How can their tongue-lolling, tail-wagging, thrilled response to a ball, a walk, a wheaten treat not enjoin us to take part in their world? And in so doing, dwell for as long as the time it takes us to recite the poem, or if we’re lucky, a bit longer, in something approximating contentment.

Read the full poem online.

By Hearting Kindness by Naomi Shihab Nye

“So you’re going to learn ‘Kindness‘ are you? That old chestnut! That old piece of mystical lumber, so beloved of the spiritual gurus with their quiet, whispery voices and meaningful pauses? HA!”

“Yes, I am going to learn ‘Kindness’.”

These are the kinds of conversations I have with my mind. The mind, even when most mocking{{1}} speaks a kind of truth: this poem is a bit of a “chestnut”, often quoted by spiritual gurus with their quiet whispery voices, so much so, that it has become for this reader almost platitudinous.

But I feel I need its medicine. Which is to say I feel I need more Kindness (don’t we all?) – medicine most needed when the mind is tetchy, irritated, peeved, just generally vexed with the world.

I remember once being on a meditation retreat with John Teasedale, one of the creators of the Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy model, and him telling us that one of the most powerful practices he had ever done was sitting on a meditation cushion for a month directing Mettā (loving-kindness) to himself and the world. This had impressed me, as John is not in any way a whispery-voiced spiritual guru. It’s a bit like your postman telling you he hugs trees.

So sometimes we have to take the medicine we need even if the mind or something else has tainted that medicine with projections. When you’ve got pneumonia, you don’t say to your doctor “Actually, you know what, thanks but no thanks. I’m just not that cool with pharmaceutical companies and what they do. Would you by chance have that life-saving antibiotic as a homeopathic remedy? Perhaps produced by a small, fair-trade collective in Palestine?”

No. You say, this is the medicine I need. Thank you Doctor Patel.

In many ways the learning of ‘Kindness’ for me has become an enlightening tussle with articles. The word the is very important in this poem.

Particularly in this stanza:

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

As I began memorising this poem, I kept on wanting to say “an Indian” and “a simple breath”, but Shihab Nye gives us the Indian, as if he’s already been mentioned previously in the poem, or as if we had already been introduced to him: “You know the Indian – the one who you sat with you around the camp fire singing Victor Jara songs? That guy who showed you a picture of his wife and young daughter and laughed at your jokes. Yes, him.”

The indefinite article ‘a’ would vaporize the specificity of that man. The empathic leap we’re being encouraged to take would not be possible without ‘the’. An Indian lying dead by the side of the road, as upsetting as that image might read, would still render this man as an “extra” in his own drama, as if he’d been placed there as some kind of marker of mortality (which in some sense he has) rather than as a human being in his own right.

What gives these lines an added kick is that Shihab Nye is playing with the Native American proverb “Don’t judge a man until you’ve walked two moons in his moccasins”. Perhaps this is why she tells us to “travel where the Indian lies dead” rather than travel ” to where the Indian lies dead”. It’s not a matter of going and standing over his body like a disaster tourist gawk, or some lens-distancing journalist. The “where” is not necessarily a place but an experience, his experience, your experience of moving through your life with some sort of purpose, being nourished by the selfsame air and food and broadband connection that nourishes us all.

By Hearting First Footnote on Zoomorphism by John Burnside

Nicholson Baker’s The Fermata is a comic novel about a man who has the power to stop time. Or rather: to halt the moment-to-moment ongoingness of people and events, an entity-fixing Pause button, leaving him unaffected, able to wander around in the now suspended animation of his life.

Baker’s novel came to mind recently as a kind of esprit de l’escalier thought after hearing J. recite from memory “First Footnote on Zoomorphism“.

The prosaic facts are these: J. and I are drinking Guinness. J. recites Burnside’s poem which they have decided to learn by heart. I find the poem moving, exciting, a concoction of “raw” and exquisitely “cooked”, as perfect as only a poem can be. I do not say this at the time, but communicate (as in bird vocalization?) through approving exclamations such as “bloody hell” or “wow”.

What I would like to do though is this.

Stop time.

Open J’s turquoise-covered diary where they have been keeping the Burnside poem, torn out of their London Review of Books

Read it a couple of times.

Then, through a world turned stock-still, go for a walk. Past Daunt Books, onto Hampstead Heath, moving in the direction of Parliament Hill, ponds on either side of me, the poem nestling in my hand as I begin to commit it to memory.

A few hours later I would return to our table at The Magdala, replace the poem in her blue notebook,  maybe even pausing in my own memorising-momentum to jot down some questions bittern-booming in my head.

And then

…triggering time’s flow once more, vocalising these questions J-wards:

  1.  What curtails our speaking about the heart?
  2.  Why “grease”, why “echo”, in relation to our emotional life (we’re not talking biological cogs and wheels here, or are we)?
  3. Do you really think “any feathered thing will do”?
  4. If not, if one “feathered thing” is more interesting, more love-able, more exciting than another (which is obviously what I think), what are our criteria for this interest, love, excitment? How comfortable do we feel about these too-little spoken about impulses?
  5. Less-appealing to whom? To what extent do we feel our less-appealingness as a burden,  or something shameful?
  6. What are our own, self-produced coloured lithographs (I think I know mine, do I?); what role do they play in our lives?
  7. Does “on the point” suggest that the transcendence we seek is out of reach, perpetually about to happen to someone else, somewhere else? Why not us?
  8. Is the poet mocking, mourning, or luxuriating in the notion that the imagination gives us access to an emotional intensity we might not attain in the non-textual here and now?
  9. If each heart is a unique species in itself, where to find one’s intraspecifc cohorts, co-hearts?
  10. Whose is the descant in the dark: the reader, the poet’s? (It is not the bittern’s, the bittern booms brassy, burpy, bass-like, a David Byrne/St. Vincent track.)
  11. Does the descant-to-disappearance sadden you (it does me)? Why?
  12. Why does the human imagination allow for these shapeshifting fantasies of zoomorphism? What happens when we project interspecifically/interpersonally? To what purpose?

By Hearting One Art by Elizabeth Bishop

Every assertion made in this poem is mendacious.


How do I know this? I know this because I have spent a week and a half easing the poem into my head and heart and it all adds up by not adding up.

I know this because when one has finally absorbed not just the words of the poem (“The art of losing isn’t hard to master”), but also its regular, though slightly “off” end-rhymes that both soothe and stall, balancing-unbalancing the ear (master…faster… last,or….vaster….gesture) you know.

And when you know, the poem becomes even more glorious. Glorious because the un-mastering Bishop, the I’m-not-really-OK that sits kvetching in every blithe logical-mastering-positivism, strikes to the very heart of the piece and to human nature itself.

One Art by Elizabeth Bishop

The final proof spills out in that last parenthetical outburst “(Write it!)”, as if language itself has finally refused to have the wool pulled over it’s eyes and lies. It’s also at this point in the poem that the ten/eleven syllable regularity unravels into twelve syllables and four lines. The poem can no longer contain its own platitudes.

Which is dynamite. More powerful than a thousand scarified you-broke-my-heart-and-left-me-for-nowt songs and poems about loss. Even very good ones, like this one.

These are the fruits of “formal poetry”, I guess. Just being able to hold that level of emotional nitroglcerine steeped in multivalent word-play{{1}} [A] in one tiny package [B]. And then, needing only the blasting cap [C] of a reading or a by-hearting to detonate this universe of meaningful innerverse.

I think I first learnt about the notion of the “unreliable narrator” at the age of sixteen from my beloved O and A-Level English teacher Mr Baglow. I’m looking now to see if I might have used the term in my blog-post-sized essays I wrote on that neverending supply of A5 paper the comprehensive school system doled out to us – gratis (I didn’t)

One of things I loved about Mr Baglow is that he gave me so many ego-boosting A-grades. I needed those ego-boosting A-grades, don’t we all? My Andrew Marvell essay though got a B and this comment: “I’m glad you wrote this, Steven. It highlights elements of your writing that should be avoided in AN EXAMINATION answer (I’ll see you about this). If you’d written this as ‘just another piece of work’ I’d have given you an ‘A’ for humour and perception.” This, in a nutshell: the power and enduring influence of a caring teacher.

But I’ve grown bored with the idea since then. This poem reminds me of the psychological import of the unreliable narrator. Sometimes it’s just too painful to write, read, or listen to what the “reliable narrator” has to say. Often the reliable narrator sounds gauche or corny.

So let the unreliable narrator predicate and purport. Beneath the disingenuous bluster of “losing stuff is a doddle, my friends”, the wounded heart communicates what it needs us to hear.

I love the possible allusions to mothers and fathers in the poem, without saying anything declarative. “Practice losing farther”, she urges us. But said aloud, this could also be “practice losing father”. Bishop claims to have lost her mother’s “watch”, the timepiece, but also perhaps the care and vigilance, the selfless holding-in-mind that we expect from parents and which they are not always able to give us?

By Hearting What Is the Language Using Us For by W.S. Graham

What is the Language Using Us For?

Such an arresting title. And a question we probably never thought to ask in this way.

Oh we might have pondered the reverse: “What are we using language for?“, the assumption being that we’re the overseers, the pilots, the ones running the show here, and language better get with our programme. But what if it’s the other way round? What if language (and by extension “life”) is using us, and all the control is quite illusory?

I’m not going to attempt to learn the whole poem as it’s bloody long and I’m not sold on all of it. But the bits that I like, I really like, so I’m going to stick those together and make something of them.

I suspect this will be part of the skirmish between myself and the poem: me trying to use it for my purposes (an abridgement imposes that impetus), the poem using me for what it/you need.

What is the language using us for?

Hopkins is still with me, who got it into his self-castigating/denying head that he shouldn’t write poetry, because he was now going to dedicate his selfhood to Christ and being a Jesuit, and even though there was no explicit Thou Shalt Not in the Jesuit “rule book”, he denied himself the pleasure of living at that high-holistic pitch that only art, it seems, and maybe good relationships (sex?), can offer us, until language came knocking again at his door.

Or more like sloshing into his world. For on the 11th of December 1875, he opened up his copy of The Times to read about the death of 5 German nuns travelling with another 123 emigrants to New York on the good ship Deutschland, and their death-throe cries (“My God, My God, make haste, make haste”) moved him. He was moved by their agonised end, but it was language that called.

Perhaps because, as biographer Martin suggests, “he almost immediately identified himself with the tall nun [which doesn’t entirely make sense as Hopkins himself was tiny] and spent half a year in trying to imagine and give life to the meaning of her last reported words, called out in German that he might not even have understood had he been there.”

Hopkin’s took, according to Martin, what was perhaps just a “hint” of compliance from his rector at St Beuno’s{{2}} that maybe someone should write “something” (a poem?) to commemorate the nuns and allowed himself to write again. This one “vague suggestion” from “a kindly man” gave him a kind of psychic accession to a place he felt he hadn’t “allowed” himself to participate in or with until then.

[[2]]”Fr Jones, who had no particular interest in poetry, made a vague suggestion about its being a good occasion for a pious set of verses inculcating a moral lesson from a sad event, and…in his eagerness Hopkins heard a more inclusive invitation than the Rector actually extended”[[2]]

I’m also thinking, about another poem I heard only recently on a Poetry Foundation podcast by Gerald Stern called ‘The Name‘: the name being the literal hebrew translation of HaShem (יהוה– YHVH): God.

name still on my mind whatever the reason for
mystery, or avoidance

Particularly pious Jews are so beholden to The Name, the nominative, this noun, that they will get extremely irate if The Name is not rendered according to their laws. For example, one is not allowed to write The Name in full, but must render it so: G_d, which I’ve always thought is the equivalent of star-filled bowdlerisations (f*ck, sh**, c*** etc.), only drawing more attention to the word, making it something taboo-laden and shameful, as if screaming it out in one’s mind rather than a natural part of the sentence. But maybe that’s the whole point.

I once held a reading group in a Jewish drop-in centre and was roundly told off by one of it’s users for leaving the ‘o’ in my photocopy of a story which mentioned The Name a few times. It was explained to me, which made absolute sense, that this wouldn’t be a problem if The Name were in a book, as the book would be cared for. But the photocopy would more than likely end up in a bin somewhere underneath a leaking can of baked beans. And this was no way to treat the Name.

We got a really good discussion out of this (language, with its rules and regs using us, to connect?), and much of it was quite good-humoured with other members of the group as equally conflicted about The Name and its uses as I am. But there is a dark undertone to all of this. We read in Leviticus 24 of an unnamed son of an Israelite woman who forgot to treat The Name with the reverence it was felt owing to it, and “all who heard him” lay their hands on his head, and then summarily stoned him to death.

Part of me admired this reverence towards language. And yet, it was not entirely towards “language” (which I feel is my reverence), but specifically and blinkeredly towards one word (The Name). At the end of our session, they did not take away the photocopies on which the Name had been printed inappropriately so as to dispose of them correctly. In fact, they never took away any of the poems or stories I brought them . That was their way of trying to keep on top of (the) uncontrollable Language, do-gooding me with all the power-play inherent in that, and maybe even The Name itself.






What is the language using us for?
It uses us all and in its dark
Of dark actions selections differ.

The “dark of dark actions” really gets to the heart, for me, of how little I’m truly conscious of the language machine whirring, purring (more often stuttering, spluttering) away in my head.

As I begin writing this sentence you’re reading, I’m only faintly aware of how it will be shaped as I proceed from clause to clause, what words will adhere to the unfolding of thought. And will they be the right words? What are the right words?

Well, surely the words that at once encapsulate a thought a person like you or I might have, but also the words that take you beyond that inchoate, semi-formed smother of perceptions, assumptions, apprehensions, reflections; words that create something half-you-half-other. Which is perhaps to say: half-you-half-new.

For you are generally the same old words constellating in pretty much the same old patterns in your head, your daily thought combos wearing everyday apparel. But in the crafty dexterity of manipulating language for our own purposes (or at least the purposes we think are “ours”), we may, for just a punctuated beat or two, feel like we’ve netted something tasty and good, something somehow “better” (for new is always better, isn’t it?) than what we’ve always had.{{1}}.

That word “net” has suddenly reminded me that I need to re-read and maybe listen again to the wonderful BBC3 documentary about Graham’s ‘Nightfishing’ (which I’ll share with you here until someone tells me to take it down).

I am not making a fool of myself
For you.

This sentence in the poem could also be shaped as a question: “Am I making a fool of myself?” It’s question that governs a lot of our behaviour. Maybe necessarily so. If we were all making fools of ourselves, all the time, who would run the hospitals, give sermons, recycle our waste?

What does it mean to make a fool of oneself? If you trace back the etymology of the word, it leads us to three besmirched associations: 1) “You’re unhinged” [Old French fol: mad person] 2) “You’re stupid” [Latin follis empty-headed], or 3) “You’re digressively boring, or consternatingly loose-lipped [2nd meaning of follis: bellows – from flare: to blow].

So in order not to make fools of ourselves we “play by the rules” (or whatever we believe the rules to be). And in doing so potentially trammel something “alive” in ourselves that may sound foolish because it is new or uncomfortable.

This paradox emerges from the poem itself. I don’t want to make a fool of myself, but “I would like to speak in front/Of myself with all my ears alive/And find out what it is I want”, and once I’ve found this out, it would be great if I could share it with you, so that for a moment we might be:


Each other alive about each other

But most of the time we’re policing this desire to tell each other about what is most alive in us by worrying we might be making fools of ourselves. Especially “in front of the best”. It seems to worry us less if we think we’re doing it in front of “the worst”. So maybe this is more about vanity than anything else.

How does one make the right amount of a fool of oneself, if fool seems (as Graham suggests) to be linked in some way to “aliveness”?

A passage from an essay by Alison MacLeod on ‘Writing and Risk-Taking’ comes to mind, where Alison literally embodies the topic by allowing the reader to remain with her whilst she takes a bath. After describing the private musings of the bather, she writes:

These are things I shouldn’t be telling you. We’re strangers. If ever we meet, I’d rather the image of me in the bath didn’t flash up before your eyes – and I’m sure you feel the same. But I’ll risk it because that’s what writers need to do. …On paper, they have to be real.

Graham also talks about wanting the place of language in his life to be a “real place” (“Seeing I have to put up with it anyhow,” he adds wryly). But where is the line between the real and the madness, the doltish, the dull?

This has not been a good week in terms of actually learning the lines of this poem.  I have learnt about ten lines, maybe twelve or thirteen if I allow myself to glance down occasionally at the text.

So I have learnt ten lines.

This is because I haven’t given good, solid blocks of time to memorising, which is needed if this is to matter.

It matters only in
So far as we want to be telling

Each other alive about each other

I’ve yanked it out (the poem) in supermarket shopping queues and run through the first three stanzas a couple of times, but before I can move into the more crepuscular regions of unknowing, my groceries are being scanned and my mind is elsewhere.

My mind is elsewhere is the main issue. Not that it’s elsewhere on anything particularly urgent or useful that needs thinking about. It’s just flitting around as minds do, here and there, this way and that. Mainly away from the words on the page.

So why won’t the mind stay with them? Why this ever-wayward pull to chaotically-creative thoughts, words becoming inconsequential squiggles on an inconsequential page or screen?

In the execution of a mindful task, unless that task is all consuming (arduously – the 100 metre sprint, childbirth; pleasurably – chocolate, masturbation) we come up against the nitty-gritty limits of our attention and focus.

So if anything we do is to matter to us beyond the things we’re paid or pressurised into doing, we need, Graham seems to be saying to pay attention to how we “make…a place” for these things in our lives.


Which is why the modern-day nirvana has become that of being financially rewarded for doing heart-satisfying work. I know of hardly anyone who is “living that dream”. Maybe it is just a dream.

The poem will only be learnt if this afternoon when I stroll out into the Chilterns, I spend a couple of hours learning it. This screen of words will only be written if I stay on the page and write rather than flit off to where the mind wants to go (which is to all those other open tabs and possibilities on my Chrome browser window/head).

A time-coralling method I find relatively useful is a version of Francesco Cirillo’s Pomodoro Technique. The hardest part, which is of course the most mindful part, is that of standing up to give onself a break when the Pomodoro (in my case, a Salter timer) rings. Mine beeped loudly and insistently twenty minutes ago, but I’m still tapping away, body-needing-to-move being ignored. A too ardent focus is  almost as bad as aimless drifting. The Middle Way is what we’re aiming for, but how much time do we ever spend walking its even, grassy stretches, Siddhartha, tell me that.[[2]]

It’s hard work, this [insert something that matters to you] stuff – bloody hard (but meaningful, satisfying) work.

Graham (1918 – 1986) probably never experienced flashing cursors, those pixelated staves pulsing at the start of every sentence to the rhythm of feed-me, feed-me, feed-me.

Yet this is what I see at the beginning of this poem: an animated cursor (curser?) called Malcolm Mooney, who is also the poet (“he is only going to be/Myself”) and us (“slightly you/Wanting to be another”) – trudging through “the white language” with its associations of snow,  fear of the blank page (or mind),  the paradoxical plenitude and emptiness of existence.

Everything is Waiting For You (interesting experiences, sentences, relationships) versus Nothing Is Waiting For You (loss, abandonment, despair).

I watch the cursor/curser on my screen at the beginning of this poem, moving before and after language as it spools out behind him like the spume of a speedboat. Mooney clomps across the page, but so did the pen before he ever existed to bring him into existence.

What is the language using us for?
Said Malcolm Mooney moving away
Slowly over the white language.
Where am I going said Malcolm Mooney.

I was curious why Mooney might be moving “away” rather than towards us. Perhaps this is the feeling as we wade through language that the very things we are trying to encapsulate in lettered permutations called ‘words’, slip out of our linguistic grasp the more we wrestle with them. So rather than staying here, just saying what we need to say with a vocabulary more or less attuned to our feelings and thoughts, we find ourselves over there, wrestling with something or someone, not quite sure what brought us to this place, and where to next.

Where am I going said Malcolm Mooney.

There’s no question mark. All questioning is ultimately rhetorical when the existential pickle jar gets opened and the full or half-sour dill gets yanked out once again for us to gnaw on.






Slowly over the white language
Comes Malcolm Mooney the saviour.
My left leg has no feeling.
What is the language using us for?

Even after saying these lines about a hundred times, I’m still thrown by the leg. You too would be thrown by a leg that had no feeling. You’d put your weight on it, get no feedback from the nerves and muscles, and topple.  As does Mooney (“He fell./He falls”).

I google ‘Leg Numbness’. Might be circulatory (deep vein thrombosis), orthopedic (a degenerative disk disease), or even neurological (alcoholism, MS, a stroke). I am tempted to see what Graham died of, but then I would spend the next hour swimming in porridge rather than thinking about the poem.

My initial hypothesis is that it is Graham’s way of saying that he feels unaffiliated within himself. Some parts of him profoundly alive (speaking, singing, soul-occuring) others not. We all have those numb, unincorporated, disconnected, dead parts in us, don’t we?

This disconnection is connected to feedback, or lack of, I realise only now having written so far. One sends out an intention, a communication to the body (and/or another) by “doing”, moving in this direction rather than that. Hopefully, if everything’s working well, the “folded message” (for your eyes only, even anonymised eyes behind computer screens) gets a response.

The nerve endings feel the brain’s bulletin and pass it onto the muscles which begin moving seemingly under your control. If your left leg, or any other part of you has no feeling then presumably communication has broken down.

Or maybe there’s just too much “porridge” in your life obscuring the sensations you need to feel, hiving off attention in ways that leave you no resources for focusing on the messages you need to read.

As I get up from the computer to make my morning porridge (of the cereal variety), I have playing, earworm-like in my head, John Cale’s Fear (is a man’s best friend).

I wonder what the language is trying to tell me with this?

After reading Ilya Kaminsky’s take on a Hans Christian Andersen story, I now think of the Internet as a little pot able to cook up endless supplies of porridge. Far too much to eat of course, so asphyxiation will invariably result at some point. I also think of that line attributed to Neil Diamond: “You can’t have two lunches.” As much as I love porridge, I can’t really stomach more than one good bowl of it a day. No surprise then that our consumption of the Internet becomes listless, wayward, disengaged after the first few clicks.

Towards the end of the poem, Graham realises that his query (“What is the language using us for”) is not going to be answered. Not today at any rate.

What is the language using us for?
I don’t know. Have the words ever
Made anything of you, near a kind
Of truth you thought you were? Me
Neither. The words like albatrosses
Are only a doubtful touch towards
My going and you lifting your hand
To speak to illustrate an observed

The not-knowing throughout the poem has at times felt exasperated, maybe even exasperating,  but this “I don’t know” is soothing in the saying of. Maybe some comfort is to be found in capitulation and surrender. But also a kind of sour grapes: well, sod them words, have they ever corresponded entirely adequately to the inchoate feelings and thoughts stirring in your heart and mind? No. Are we not casting about most of the time for words that will somehow do, and in their doing, the words have their own say in the matter?

This is me, trying to “speak in front/of myself with all my ears alive” to “find out what it is I want”. But because the words are deeply arbitrary{{1}} in how they denote, in what they denote, our thoughts and feelings are doing the words’ bidding rather than the other way around. Attempting to use the language, I am instead being used by language.

To put this another way: there is no there there. No absolute word/thought correlation (no word there in the dictionary to speak the “truth” of conscious experience here{{2}}), but also no absolute consolation. No one to pat your head and say “there-there” your deepest desires will be met, your feelings and thoughts clothed in words that fit – some sort of heaven if you like.

Which brings us to albatrosses.

The words like albatrosses
Are only a doubtful touch towards
My going and you lifting your hand
To speak to illustrate an observed

I’ve puzzled long and hard over these lines. My initial image of the bird swooping down, grazing over an object (a word) has stuck, but it feels like a surface reading. Maybe that’s the point. Emotion and thought (conscious, or unconscious) pulsates within our actions, but mostly words just skim the surface of these “observed catastrophes” that make up our lives. And not even that confidently.

But there’s more. And the answer to that more can perhaps only be found in another poem: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

It is a poem I have assiduously ignored for all of my reading life. Whenever I see it on the page, quatrain after quatrain after bloody iambic-tetrametered quatrain, my overriding thought is: “I’m not wading through that!” Which of course is exactly how the Wedding Guest feels at the beginning of the poem when cornered by the Ancient Mariner.

It’s that feeling you get when you’re stuck at an event talking to somebody who has no desire for conversation, but simply wants to tell you one long interminable anecdote about their life after the other. As interesting as these may be, the place for such tales is in blog posts like this one where people can hastily but solicitously click themselves away, NOT in one-to-one conversation or poetry.

But I felt I needed to read the bloody Coleridge poem for Willie. At the moment, his words so close to my heart, I’d do almost anything for William Sydney.

Maybe my mistake has been in trying to read it. Perhaps the poem (all poems?) is there to be spoken, sung, recited, and so listened to, not read. I hunted around for a recording and found a very fine one by Grover Gardner on the Listen to Genius! website which I put on my iPod and took it for a walk around Fryent Park.

What I was struck by on the second or third listen (my mind kept wandering away on the first to blackberry-ripenings and mallards) was the fatal, arbitrary connections made by the cast of this poem. The mariner’s shipmates superstitiously blaming their crossbow-happy pal for killing the bird “that made the breeze to blow”, then just as suddenly recapitulating and deciding it “right…such birds to slay/That bring the fog and mist”.

A century or so ago, the Daddy of Linguistics, Ferdinand de Saussure with his steel wool wedge of a moustache gave us his principe de l’arbitraire du signe (the arbitrariness of the sign).

What we call an albatross, he argued, we might equally assign a sign such as “Christ”, “poet”, “misfortune”, “blessing”. The fact we call it albatross is simply, as Stephen Pinker felicitously phrases it “a gunshot marriage” between sound and meaning:

…because every English speaker has undergone an identical act of rote learning in childhood that links the sound to the meaning. For the price of this standardised memorisation, the members of a language community receive an enormous benefit: the ability to convey a concept from mind to mind virtually instantaneously.

So the words really are (especially in poems, our most spacious of verbal arts) what we make of them{{5}}. They become the emotions and projections we pour into them, the illustrations of our own observed catastrophes. Which pretty much wipes academic literary criticism as we know it (poems as IQ tests) right off the map.

I’m quite happy to see that go.

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. (

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, to 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.


By Hearting Spring by Gerard Manley Hopkins

The morning mind is overfull, not sure where to place itself. The poem gives it a place to settle.

As I walk I dictate these notes into my phone, which insists on transcribing the word “poem” as “home”, unless I put a lot of emphasis on the double syllable: po-hem. But is that not what this is all about? A bid to turn the po-hem into a ho-em, a sanctuary? That church or sacred spot where a fugitive might be immune from arrest, where the mind might go to find some form of exoneration or release from the hyper-vigilant, threat-sensing faculties of its limbic system?

What I am doing as I flip through an anthology on the bookshelf looking for a poem I might learn about spring is not that different to someone walking around a given neighbourhood with an estate agent flat-hunting. Coming to a new poem to learn by heart is not that dissimilar to entering a potential abode, a brief tour of each property, trying to get a sense in those first few moments in the entrance hall whether this living space “speaks to you”?

And maybe, as one reads Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Spring, you might think  you’ve found “the place” the heartspace, as you wander around the living room with its large bay windows looking out onto the park:

Nothing is so beautiful as Spring –         
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;         
Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush         
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring         
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;

But then, you walk down the passageway to have a look at the bathroom only to discover a dank, dingy, windowless box: walls and ceiling peppered with mould, all clouded, and cloying, and yes, the estate agent admits “sour with sinning”.

Well, I wouldn’t go that far you say, it’s just a manky bathroom, nothing sinful in that. But the word has stuck, and you don’t want to live there anymore.

Read Hopkins’ Spring.

By Hearting “The Windhover” by Gerard Manley Hopkins (3)

There is an approach to reading (broadly speaking Structuralism, or Literary Semiotics) that goes something like this: the words on the page are all, and any biographical information/speculation (either about your own life, or about the writer’s) only stands in the way of getting to the arbitrary heart, the clever-whateverness of the text.

To some extent, this is true.

When I’m wrestling with a line like “No wonder of it, sheer plod makes plough down sillion shine”, it’s probably more useful for me to know what sillion is, and then to work out it’s relation to “sheer plod” rather than catapulting forth an idea of how and why Hopkins plodded through life, or where he first saw sillion ploughed. Did he ever plough himself, other than through lines of poetry on a page? Even without Google, the music of the word already carries much of the muffled gleam of that tongue-lolling word., usefully and refreshingly answers this question. They would know, I guess. More so even than 34 poesy-lovin’ commentators on a blog. Such is the power of technology: a “real” farmer poking through a screen-hedge, happy to tell you about sillion, which in fact, doesn’t appear to exist other than inside this poem, and its commentary. Robert MacFarlane uses the word in an essay about the Fens, but even he, you can tell from the syntax of the sentence, is referencing GMH.

The hardcore Semiotician would say: “It doesn’t really matter, either way. Everything means something/nothing to me.”

But of course it does (matter). Or rather: it matters, only inasmuch as it matters to what you can draw from the poem that is pertinent and meaningful to you and whatever you’re grappling with in your life at the moment. If the poem doesn’t reflect, even very tangentially, something you’re grappling with, none of that grapple will transfer to the poem itself, and you’re probably not going to have much interest in the words on the page. That’s what “liking” or “not liking” a poem really means.

To designate relations between one signifier and the next simply in order to impress upon your reader that you’ve read Saussure, Lacan, or Foucault makes for pretty arid reading and writing. So goodbye, I say, to 99% of “academic” criticism, and hello sensitive, personal  reader-responsiveness (which I think is what we’re trying to do here, and here, aren’t we?).


Learning a poem is a bit like falling in love with someone you’ve never met before (social media and Internet Dating now encourage us to do this all the time). Surely you’re going to be all Google-curious as to finding out what relation your love-object’s “real life” might bear to their “page/onscreen” persona? It’s only natural.

I wanted to know what it was like, and why, Hopkins trained and worked as a Jesuit priest. So I read the inquisitorial sounding Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Very Private Life rather than a book of literary criticism.

The following tidbits are what I jotted down whilst reading. They’ve helped me to live the poem more fully.


1) No wonder of it: Upon entering the novitiate at Manresa, each novice was issued with a “hat and ancient sleeveless, knee-length gown, so stained and worn with age, that many of their wearers remembered their distaste until the end of their days.” These were particularly “repugnant” to Hopkins, Martin suggests, as in his pre-Jesuit life he was something of a dandy. He probably also would have been dwarfed by his habit, being of a very small frame.

2) Sheer plod: Daily routine was as follows -5:30 Rise. 6:00 Chapel and meditation.  7:45 Breakfast. 8:30 Reading Rodriguez on Christian Perfection. 9:00 Learning by heart Instructions on the rules of the Society + bed-making and daily chores. 10:30 Free time for walking, praying, reading a (spiritual) book. 11:30 Manual work (weeding, sawing logs etc.) in the grounds. 12:30 Chapel for examination of conscience and prayer. 1:00 Dinner. 1:45 Quick visit to chapel. 2:00 ‘Recreation’. 3:00 Either more domestic or manual work, or a two hour walk with a companion assigned to you on a random basis. Occasionally cricket or football.  6:00 Chapel (meditation and prayer recitation), and free time. 7:30 Supper. 8:00 Recreation (some of which had to be conducted in Latin). 9:00 Chapel and preparation for the next day’s meditation. 10:00 Examination of conscience and lights out.

Imagine doing this everyday for the rest of your life. This really does read like sheer, sheer plod. Other times: the bliss of codification, regulation, and control.

3) Makes plough: Don’t even think about it. The novices were given “modesty powder” for their baths to make the water opaque.

4) Down sillion: Hopkins suffered from chronic diarrhoea. In 1872 he had to have a haemorroidectomy, and five years later, a circumcision due to ulceration following on from painful phimosis and balanitis. When his body wasn’t “naturally” tormenting him, he was encouraged to flog himself daily with a “discipline”, or wear a cilice: “a neat contraption of wire, horse-shoe links with points turning inwards, which you strapped around your thigh next to your skin. The pain, which was dulled at rest, became intense when the leg was flexed or accidentally brushed against the seat of  chair.”

3) Shine: The rutting stags in Richmond Park “kept the novices uneasily awake during the mating season”.


DSC05706We are all prey to gravity the egg shell on my patio reminds me.

Seen from above, it resembles more a bleached planet varicosed over with blood-red Martian canals.

It was  shucked off  (I hope) by a hatchling, now safely nested with siblings, awaiting worms. But as there are no trees above, it’s probably more likely that this one got eaten by something big and hungry.

If I needed a more graphic SPLAT to drive the point home, it’s awaiting me later on in the day, walking home from the supermarket, the chick-corpse a discarded red blob of leaf-like matter to one side of the humpty-dumpty mayhem.

So no wonder of it that we like activities in which we feel we’re escaping gravity, activities which push out out beyond ourselves (writing, flying, sex, eating, talking, singing). Only in those moments of physical and neurological “flow” does gravity seem to release its hold on us.

As I finish the week with these two poems in my heart, I feel them embodying this gravity-dilemma.

Hopkins tries to “catch” the falcon with words (and does, in a way, by “inscaping” it), the poem embodying the bird’s and his attempt to escape the pull of gravity. For a line or two, they do it,  riding-striding, ringing-swinging in their hurl and gliding. But gravity reasserts itself with the fallen-gallen-gashed “plod” at the end of the poem, a terrain also weighing down the “terrible” sonnets.

By Hearting “The Windhover” by Gerard Manley Hopkins (2)

Hopkins loved words.

Just look at the diaries written by his 19 year-old self, packed with logophiliac scribblings, alive to the onomatopoeic connections between words and visions. He’s  like a Victorian Gertrude Stein hoarding his tender buttons:

Crook, crank, kranke, crick, cranky. Original meaning crooked, not straight or right, wrong, awry. A crank….which turns a wheel or shaft at one end, at the other receiving a rectilinear force. Knife-grinders, velocipedes, steam-engines etc have them. Crick in the neck is when some muscle, tendon or something of that sort in the neck is twisted or goes wrong in some way….Cranky, provincial, out of sorts, wrong.

“He was clearly working on the notion,” writes Robert Bernard Martin, “that sound and meaning are yoked by a psychological association considerably deeper than mere onomatopoeia or alliteration”.

A few years later, writing about dreams in a way that deliciously prefigures Freud, Hopkins notes that the connection between dreams and waking life is not a direct one, but may be “capricious, almost punning”. As are the many connections he forges, or we impute in his poems.

Before attempting my first reading/recording of the poem there were certain words I worried that I might not pronounce “correctly”: dauphin, bow (as in “flow” or “how”?), chevalier, and even windhover. For some reason, I’ve always pronounced the “over” as in “over there”.

And what about off? As I started reading the poem aloud my ears remembered that of course the recidivist South African accent carried within my voice like a shaming albatross means that I still can’t say off (/ɒf/) as in doff  but produce it more like “orf” (/ɔːf/) as in awful.

“Jolly good thing too,” I hear my oldest friend The Therapist whisper in my ear (though he doesn’t talk in this mannered, fruity Wodehousian way at all). “It sounds better with the “orful” accent, old boy. You get the aw-aw-aw innards-rhyme-”

Don’t you mean “inner rhyme”?

“No I mean INNARDS! Orf, orf, forth on swing! Aw-aw-aw. Like the barking of a crow or a seal.”

As disaffected teenage flâneurs (though we weren’t alas flâning down Parisian rues, or even London streets, but rather the all-too civil parish of Verwood  et ses environs*, The Therapist and I would have many an argument about the pronunciation of words.

His default mode was to pronounce a new word he’d read that morning as he felt it ought to be sounded. If that ought extended to voicing the “far” in nefarious as “far” rather than “fair”, well so bloody well be it.

I would invariably correct his idiosyncratic phonemes, and he would invariably ignore my corrections. I found this bloody-mindedness towards the legitimacies of language frustrating.

*Yes, that’s right, we were actually walking, screen-grazers, to-and-fro, to-and-fro. I think my preference was for The Meadow Way route (no meadows, just unremarkable detached and semis, as were we), but The Therapist might have done Owl’s Road when he came to visit. These footnotes become important in the annals of memory. Memories themselves being footnotes to the present: sometimes usefully supplemental, other times tangentially deluded or compulsive.

By Hearting “The Windhover” by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1)

In the first couple of weeks of my By Heart project, I thought I might return to poems I’ve had a crack at learning before, but never giving the memorization process enough time to bed in.

Incompletion creates a certain if-only dolefulness which may trail after you like an incoherent golem pleading through muddy eyes that you finish what you started.

A poem is a particularly potent gestalt, which becomes clear when you swap a few words around in this quote from Margaret Korb:

A poem, and the learning of, is a completed unit of human experience.  It is a unique aesthetic formulation of a whole;   it will to some degree involve contact,awarenessattention, and figure formation out of the ground of my experience;   it arises out of emergent needs and is mobilized by aggressive energy.

One feels the push and pull of contact, awareness, attention, figure and ground, need, aggression ever-so strongly in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ The Windhover.

I was surprised to discover that some of my previous attempts to learn the poem had left faint paths in the neural circuitry, a kind of introceptive deja-vu.

The art of memory, we know from the ancients, is that of “inner writing”, employing places and images to plant and cultivate our memory gardens {{1}}. So even a day or two, ten years ago, attempting to learn this poem by heart must have cleared the beginning of the headspace one needs for a poem (or anything else) to take root.



“It’s a long story, but basically I fell in love with birds….”

I’ve had this line from Jonathan Franzen tickling the fringes of my consciousness for the last few days as I’ve been memorizing The Windhover, so I thought I’d track it down.

It comes from a commencement speech he delivered to the graduating Kenyon Class of 2011 in which he rails (crankily and unfashionably) against techno-consumerism and its effects on the psyche. But he also talks movingly about how he fell out of love with environmentalism, and then was drawn back into its concerns via birds.

His heart in hiding, literally, stirred for a bird:

 I did this not without significant resistance, because it’s very uncool to be a birdwatcher, because anything that betrays real passion is by definition uncool. But little by little, in spite of myself, I developed this passion, and although one-half of a passion is obsession, the other half is love.

And so, yes, I kept a meticulous list of the birds I’d seen, and, yes, I went to inordinate lengths to see new species. But, no less important, whenever I looked at a bird, any bird, even a pigeon or a robin, I could feel my heart overflow with love…..

My love of birds became a portal to an important, less self-centered part of myself that I’d never even known existed. Instead of continuing to drift forward through my life as a global citizen, liking and disliking and withholding my commitment for some later date, I was forced to confront a self that I had to either straight-up accept or flat-out reject.

Which is what love will do to a person. Because the fundamental fact about all of us is that we’re alive for a while but will die before long. This fact is the real root cause of all our anger and pain and despair. And you can either run from this fact or, by way of love, you can embrace it.

Five years previous to this speech, and only three years before tying his own wrists with duct tape and hanging himself from the patio roof rafter in the rear yard, David Foster Wallace had also stood on that Kenyon podium and brain-jammed, as only he could, about “the bullshit-y conventions” of US commencement speeches as a genre, why the liberal arts cliché (still) matters, and the importance of bracketing one’s skepticism against “the totally obvious”. You might rather fashionably call it a down and viscerally dirty talk about what would become that most hallowed of late-noughties notions: Mindfulness.

The two speeches are also the two sides of Hopkins, which only adds to his charm. For Hopkins is never only the ecstasy-imbibing Jesuit skipping over hill and dale in his cassock and sandals, head flung back to the Great Beyond, heart hinged canyon-wide open.

No. Even in this most delirious and rapture-filled of Hopkins’ poems, heavy despondency (“sheer plod”) and vortex-like, raging despair (“fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion) rip through the sweep and swoop of his elation.

And maybe, to engage for a moment, in another bullshit-y liberal arts cliché, maybe he could only get that high because he knew what it means to be really low. Which makes me feel that in order to keep faith with both Kenyon speeches, with both Franzen and Foster Wallace and their equally splendid world views, I need to learn in tandem with the Windhover, one of the so-called Terrible Sonnets too. Maybe this one.

But I’ll give the last word to Franzen, because his “way” has kept him alive, whereas David is now dead, dead, dead. If we want to stay alive, as in not-dead-alive, but also as in not-depressed-alive maybe there’s something to be “learnt” or at least valued from the passage below.

David wrote about weather as well as anyone who ever put words on paper, and he loved his dogs more purely than he loved anything or anyone else, but nature itself didn’t interest him, and he was utterly indifferent to birds. Once, when we were driving near Stinson Beach, in California, I’d stopped to give him a telescope view of a long-billed curlew, a species whose magnificence is to my mind self-evident and revelatory. He looked through the scope for two seconds before turning away with patent boredom. “Yeah,” he said with his particular tone of hollow politeness, “it’s pretty.” In the summer before he died, sitting with him on his patio while he smoked cigarettes, I couldn’t keep my eyes off the hummingbirds around his house and was saddened that he could, and while he was taking his heavily medicated afternoon naps I was studying the birds of Ecuador for an upcoming trip, and I understood the difference between his unmanageable misery and my manageable discontents to be that I could escape myself in the joy of birds and he could not.

By Hearting Everything Is Waiting For You by David Whyte

[Read “Everything Is Waiting For You” by David Whyte HERE]

Megg Hewlett suggested I might learn this poem by heart. So I have Megg to thank for being the progenitor of this project to some extent. She sent me this poem off the back of a conversation we’d had over pricey tea and some so-so Konditor & Cook cakes

(“But all the hype suggested something different,” Megg sighed, bemoaning that this was not an adequate birthday treat for me, though the conversation more than made up for it.)

The title immediately of the poem immediately set off an Elliot Smith song in my head: Everything Means Nothing To Me. A fructiferous juxtaposition considering that Smith sings of hopelessness (made even more plangent by the knowledge that he allegedly took his own life in 2003, by stabbing himself through the heart with a kitchen knife) whereas Whyte sings resolutely of hope.

Hopelessness, the song seems to suggest, often lies in the lack that reveals itself when casting one’s mind backwards and forwards through our own prefigured life-span as part of a comparative exercise. The deficiency reflected back at us, Narcissus-like.

If the self-reflection is shouting a reminder of “everything we’re supposed to be” based on past daydreams and future aspirations, the blue songbird on your shoulder will keep singing on your shoulder its dirge of depression: everythingmeansnothingtome, everythingmeansnothingtome, everythingmeansnothingtome.

Whyte keeps us focused in the present. There is no looking back, and although he suggests some sort of future “pay-off”, even a preliminary reading of the poem indicates that the everything waiting for us, and more to the point, everything we’re waiting for, can be found right here and now: in the “tiny, hidden” data of our world.

You must note
the way the soap dish enables you,
or the window latch grants you freedom.

So I begin carrying around the poem copied neatly onto a 5″ x 3″ Correspondence Card, the card starting to feel intimately used as well as useful, on its way to disintegration through repeated folding.

I mainly work on memorizing whilst walking. I’ve even try taking one step per word, envisaging the sentences cleaving to the rhythms of my body, the walk becoming the poem becoming the walk. I’m not sure if the poem might be drummed or marched into me like this, but I’m giving it a go.

Embodying the words is key. I need to get to the point where I can recite it as naturally and “automatically” as I might the days of the week, or the months of the year. The rhythms need to sink in, sync with  breathing, so that the poem becomes a way of focusing and potentially stilling the mind through language for a minute or two, rather than just an anxiety-producing sequence of memory-potholes.

On a train from Mill Hill Broadway, travelling north in search of a walk, I sit opposite a young family. The father has his child resting against the beat of his heart. I watch the tympanic petting of his fingers on the infant’s back. They are clearly both soothed by this interaction.

even you, at times, have felt the grand array;
the swelling presence, and the chorus, crowding
out your solo voice.

This is where the conversation with the poem begins, I think.

Twenty-two years ago, during one of those impossibly short  but paradoxically long 12-week terms at Cambridge, when one is expected to cram a couple of centuries worth of literature into your head and keep it there, it was suggested I might read Frances Yates’ The Art of Memory.

I started it, the book bored me silly, so I read something else. Even had I read it cover-to-cover, I wouldn’t remember a single line, as I don’t remember anything I read at University, either critical or primary texts.

Were I to do it all again, I would join an institution whose sole curriculum consists of having to learn a poem a week (from “the Canon”, if you must), and anything else you might want to dip into around that, with a tutorial based on the recitation of your poem, a cup of tea, and a chat. Your final “exam” would have you reciting as many of the poems you can remember, followed by an audit of your heart and mind in the fullest and least fact-checking sense possible.

Such a University and such a course doesn’t exist, but it should.

Frances and I are back together again. And this time, I’m ready for her, relishing the arcane lore she’s intent on telling me about (no more arcane, as we are both aspiring mnemonists). Or not. For although she whitters on about it, Frances has never utilized the mnemotechnics she writes about.

There is no doubt that this method will work for anyone who is prepared to labour seriously at these mnemonic gymnastics. I have never attempted to do so myself, but…

No walking the talk for Yates (she is an academic, what did you expect?) but still a great primer on art of memory, or memorization if you prefer.

The book was written in 1966, but certain lines ring even more true now than they did in the pre-Google age:

We moderns who have no memories at all may, like the professor, employ from time to time some private mnemotechnic not of vital importance to us in our lives and professions. But in the ancient world, devoid of printing, without paper for note-taking or on which to type lectures, the trained memory was of vital importance. And the ancient memories were trained by an art which reflected the art and architecture of the ancient world, which could depend on the faculties of intense visual memorisation which we have lost.

How skittish and pliable the mind, but perhaps another piece of evidence that everything is waiting for you, particularly the books, people, and experiences you now dread having to spend time with, but might love when you’re ready for them to come into your life.