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.

Farmdirect.co.uk, 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.

THINGS I’VE LEARNT ABOUT HOPKINS’ JESUIT TRAINING

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.

The Windhover #7

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.

You Can't Make An Omelette4

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.

The Windhover #6

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.

THINGS I’VE LEARNT ABOUT HOPKINS’ JESUIT TRAINING

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. {{1}}

[[1]] 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. [[1]]

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”.

The Windhover #4

Do you find the image of a dead bird drinking from a half-crushed can of Stella amusing?

Not long dead, the flies still trying to work out why it isn’t flapping them off even as they scurry over the unclouded, gelatinous surface of its eye, this bird is challenging you to laugh: “Go on, I dare you.”

Someone{{1}} finds this funny, as this is how they’ve positioned the pigeon, proximal to the pavement, near Morrison’s supermarket on a freshly mown patch of grass.

[[1]] My sense is that this “someone” is probably the mower of Morrison’s lawn. And for some associative reason, a poem I’d only once half-read by Andrew Marvell about such a Mower pops into my head. In Marvell’s poem, the unrequited Damon (Heark how the Mower Damon Sung,/With love of Juliana stung!) tragi-comically puts himself out of action whilst absent-mindedly moping over Juliana’s lack of interest in him and his “harmless Snake I bring…disarmed of its teeth and sting” (!). This Morrison’s Damon, I surmise has been similarly jilted by a “bird”, and so produces this spectacle for us, which is almost entirely sublimated fury and revenge. No joke. Nasty.[[1]]

As I photograph the irreverent tableau, my neighbours walk by wondering whether I have set up the scene for a photo opportunity. The fact that I am stopping to shoot the profaned pigeon in its obviously compromised state, at some level confirms their suspicions.

One voice in my head says: “Well it doesn’t really matter what they do with your body when you’re dead. You’re no longer around to feel the mortification of the body to self{{2}}.” Another voice knows this not to be true.

[[2]] And no doubt the them-animals-us-humans brigade would argue at this point that an animal doesn’t feel the finer gradations of affective consciousness, so this argument, one way or the other is moot. But clearly these people have never watched a dog defecating. It feels the intimacy of its bodily assignment, winces if a child laughs at it during the act.[[2]]

This other voice might be that of a pigeon fancier like Steven von Breemen, who is also to some extent using the pigeon instrumentally for his breeding and racing. And yet, listen to the deep engagement and love (I have no other word for it) when he writes about these birds:

Personality has to radiate from the head. A pigeon has to radiate. Radiate, which is a mixture of intelligence, willpower, experience of life and more… A breeding pigeon has to have that for me. If she’s clearly not sprinkled with the mysterious elements of ‘something’ then I won’t use such a pigeon for breeding. The experience over the years has taught me that stupid pigeons breed stupid pigeons much easier than clever pigeons produce clever pigeons. Or in other words two donkeys have never produced a racehorse. And once you have introduced a stupid pigeon then it costs years and years to remove that stupidity from your pigeon stock. I am always looking for pigeons with descriptive faces. Faces which give me enough information over the oh so important characteristics for  breeding further. How can you learn this so that you can check if your personal taste regarding a pigeon eye is right? By gaining experience at every possible opportunity. It is a matter of wanting to see, to make yourself see!

I want the equivalent ‘Human Fancier’, a von Breemen or Hopkins (My heart in hiding/Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing) tending to my own remains and those of my loved ones. Not a Mower, thank you very much.

And yet, having visited the mortuary of an Independent Funeral Director in Kentish Town a few years back (no names, but google away) as part of training for bereavement counsellors, the cheeky-chappie gallows humour of the “lads” who shift the bodies about made me realise that we’re all prey, once dead, to Da(e)mons and cans of Stella Artois hanging from our beaks.

My advice is Do It Yourself (DIY) Do Death Yourself, and have a Woodlands Burial. Also, it’s probably good to have a think about where and in what state your body will be “hanging around” between demise and consignment to earth or crematorium.

Or maybe it doesn’t matter what they do with your body when you’re dead?

The Windhover #2 + No Worst, There Is None

“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.