Poetry Pals

Hello!

You’ve probably landed on this page by following a link from Twitter. If so, howdy.

When I joined Twitter a few years back, I did it with the express desire to make some new friends. Especially some literary buddies who enjoy reading and writing poetry, essays, and all-sorts as much as I do. Although I have had some nice mini-chats with people in their Mentions, I haven’t really made any poetry pals: people who might like to share newly-penned work with me and vice-versa, people looking for feedback and support, encouragement and accountability for submitting stuff to journals too.

Maybe I’m just not “working” Twitter as I should? Do other people DM folk they feel some kind of affinity with, what’s the deal? I’ve always shied away from that not wanting to seem too intrusive or needy, but maybe to my detriment. I’d still love some poetry pals though. I have tried a few writing groups over the years, but I live in the UK and for some reason every writing group I join seems to be made up of people wanting to be either Seamus Heaney or Simon Armitage. I have nothing against Seamus or Simon, but I like my poetry a little bit more…[insert adjective].

The tricky part of finding people to vibe with this in this way is that you need to broadly speaking enjoy whatever groove your poetry pal has got going even if it’s somewhat different to your groove. So with that in mind, I thought I might post here a couple of poems I’ve been working on in the last few days to give you a sense of the poems that currently seem to be arriving at my door. From the look of it, somewhat Rabelasian/Dorothy Laskyian (?!?). There are the poems you want to write, and then there are the poems you end up writing. The gap between the two can at times be irksome.

I usually write every day and so the two poems below are not necessarily my most publication-ready. If there’s something in these drafts that speak to you, please do send me some of your own work (heysteveklein AT gmail DOT com) and let’s see if we might be pals!

As you can probably tell from my @poetrykoan feed I love all sorts of poetry from Mary Oliver to Mary Ruefle to Jenny Xie and Emily Skaja, and lots of non-English speaking writers too. Your work/tastes in poetry don’t have to be the same as mine. But I do think it helps if we like something about the other person’s writing, and maybe have some writers in common that we enjoy.

As difficult as it is to share raw, new work as I have done below (I am literally squirming at the thought of anyone reading these recently-written poems), I think one makes friends by being a little bit messy and open-hearted rather than presenting a good or polished “front”, so I’ve held back on sharing published stuff or stuff that got commended in competitions as I’d like you to decide to be a friend based simply on your fleeting intuition and nothing more than that.

Look forward to reading your poems if you think we could be pals,

Steve

Oh, and my Twitter handle (Steve Klein) is the name I’m currently using for writing purposes as I feel squicky about my clients reading my stuff. But if we’re gonna be poetry pals, I do also exist in the real world as this guy too.

FANNY

“It is pleasant to own something, but inanimate objects are enough for me. I don’t insist on flesh and blood and minds and consciences.”

-Isabel Archer in Henry James’ Portrait of A Lady

I cannot look at a painting without hunting
for pain in the thing it shows. I cannot see the sky
blue silk inlay of a rabbit stole hanging over
a chair without thinking of some carcass hung
up to dry or a red velvet neckerchief spoils
of the kill a cloth used to wipe bloodied hands.

Not her hand we avow the one gripping an arm
rest like a rifle the other fidgety in movement
so as to appear on inspection as flayed fingers
caught by needles in a carding machine
swiftly degloved while its other sharp siblings
continue brushing raw cotton into alignment.

She crosses the channel with an unused bar
of soap from her Paris pension stamped
with it (her) name like a small pink haiku
FANNY FABRIQUE A MARSEILLE
tugging the edges of mouths into a smirk
but only on this side of The Sleeve
another flat surface reflecting status
in coloured oils minified by double entendre.

I have seen freshly slaughtered piglets
displayed on a butcher’s counter in paper ruffs.
Only the curve of the pillow sees her blotched
cheeks and mascara-smudged eyes a canvas
for unsolicited material leaking out of her face
whilst someone shrieks in agony far far away.

(23 November 2019, ekphrastic poem, image here)

THE SPANDRELS OF SAN MARCO AND THE PANGLOSSIAN PARADIGM

Today I thought about sex again
with an unspecified you
and wrote this poem.

I worry about damaging my ear canals
by digging tiny wax deposits out
with the edge of a fingernail.

And yet I cannot stop
every extraction a perfect haiku
published onto a new surface.

Perplexed by the human animal’s
unearthing of secretions and thoughts
its endless mining of material

from an earth seemingly oblivious to us
I watch two clods of clay go at it
with an accomplished 7 million views.

We have built a constantly buzzing
electric world around us from
digging things out of orifices.

Our hydraulic arms and hands
working in a compulsive iteration
of take take take.

The space between
our desires and our actions
held together by qualia

Spandrels featuring winged infants
who cheerily as well as cheerlessly
are also pissing into the wind.

(15 November 2019)

 

Close Reading By Heart of W.S. Merwin’s Thanks (Lines 4-9:)

Fourth post charting some thoughts as I learn W.S. Merwin’s Thanks by heart. All the posts for this poem can be found here.

When Imaginative Art & Science & all Intellectual Gifts, all the Gifts of the Holy Ghost, are lookd upon as of no use & only Contention remains to Man, then the Last Judgment begins, & its Vision is seen by the Imaginative Eye of Every one according to the situation he holds. (William Blake)

When and where is this poem set, if that’s not too specific a question to ask of a poem? All poems are of course “set” in the mind of the poet, which is everywhere, geographically located in the body of a writer,  and nowhere.

Like a number of other poems in Merwin’s 1988 collection The Rain In The Trees, there is an end-times feel to this poem, as if bequeathing us with modern-day revelations. But the poem also seems to hark back to earlier historical periods (“remembering wars and the police at the door”)? There is also, as is often the case with possibility-generating poetry a sense of future tragedies to come. Are not these unnamed individuals running out of their glass-panelled offices, grabbing some food from the lunch buffet or the canteen, all of us 13 years later as those two glass and metal filing cabinets (what Lewis Mumford called the Twin Towers), got knocked out of the sky by American Airlines 11 and 175 respectively? 

“Everything is happening at once,” Merwin tells an audience in 2012 at the Lensic Performing Arts Center in San Francisco:

“History usually has to be written in a pretty literal, linear way. And history is information, chronological information. But experience doesn’t happen in a linear way, as you I hope have noticed [polite laughter from the audience]. Everything happens today, and then everything happens tomorrow. And what the connection is, you think you know, but you only know a few of the little connections, you don’t know what they all are….Some of them, you wish you didn’t know what the connections were, some of them you just don’t, and some of them you never think about it.” 

The two braided notes of Chord are some biographical details from the life of the poet John Keats’s as he wrote Ode to a Nightingale, and concurrent events occurring in Hawaii in the early 1800s, notably the decimation of the islands’ unique sandalwood forests in order to feed an insatiable demand for the fragrant wood from China. 

Chord suggests a notion of globalism that it would take another 20 years to become fully realised. Imagine Keats in the era of global simultaneity the poem would suggest. Imagine those  light-winged Dryads perched on branches of “his” trees in the melodious gardens of the Spaniard’s Inn, or what is now known as Keats House in Wentworth place. Imagine him listening to them  singing “of summer in full-throated ease” whilst also aware, perhaps via an article in one of the 52 London newspapers he might have had access to at the time, of the ecological devastation occurring on the other side of the world? And does this not too cast a different light, or some extra light on the opening lines of that poem: My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains / My sense? Perhaps Keats himself has already made this connection, recognising as he does in his versifying the timeless, but also democratic quality of birdsong and poetry:

The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn;

Every day is an apocalypse. What I mean by this is that I think our notion of the apocalypse, the final event, the end time is a thanatophobic projection. Apocalyptic thought and literature is perhaps written by one of our contingent selves yoked together under a single name to present the illusion of an arguably monolithic self (me) that might accompany an inarguably distinct and indivisible body to its end. And considering the amount of care, attention, cultivation and worry we give to ourselves (self-discovery, self-determination, self-discipline, self-development) is it any wonder that the termination of this self might get propelled or transmitted onto everything, the whole world, in visions of apocalyptic doom?  

“Yikes, we’re all heading down the chute!” maybe just translates, as it often does in our seemingly altruistic group-think into: I’M heading down the chute, I’M going to die. Or in the case of the Holocene/Anthropocene extinction, “MY HALLOWED AND ALL-IMPORTANT SPECIES HAVE FUCKED THINGS UP AND OUR DAYS ARE NOW NUMBERED!” 

It is not surprising,” writes Maria Manuel Lisboa in her book The End of the World: Apocalypse and Its Aftermath in Western Culture “that the dread of finitude, whether of the self (through death) or of the commonweal (through social anarchy, the collapse of the rule of law), or of the physical environment (through global destruction), should be a meta-narrative since our earliest cultural manifestations.”

Lisboa goes on to suggest that there may even be a link here to the fundamental question of why and how we possess symbolic language, that there might be something intrinsically apocalyptic woven into the very nature of thought itself: “Language’s desirability in terms of survival resided in an enhanced ability to make sense of the world through sensory speculation (‘if I fall off that cliff I might hurt myself and die’) rather than through empirical verification (‘I will jump off that cliff and see what happens’)”. Apocalyptic notions, including the smaller-scale versions we’re all familiar with (“Oh shit, my life is not heading in a direction that feels generative!”) may lie at the very root of how we think, or at least how we think when the mind heads switches into neurotic/anxious mode. 

**

And the Lord said, I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, from man to animals to creeping
things and to birds of the sky; for I am sorry that I have made them. (Genesis 6: 5-7)

Perhaps with a nod to Nietzche’s idea of eternal recurrence, my mind has recently started thinking about these day-containers in which I reside as condensed or encapsuled versions of the whole shebang. The thought that I may have, unless an accident or an illness abbreviates that span, another 100,000 repititions of the daily round described below fills me on the day I write this with utter dread. A useful dread perhaps, as from these places of self-loathing and despair, we may make important changes in our lives. Or we may not.

This is my schedule (my life) at the moment. I wake, usually thinking Oh not this again. Do an hour of 8-minute snooze alerts, before getting out of bed to go to bathroom. Start reciting my hour-long poetry liturgy whilst washing the dishes, stretching, sweating on the spin bike for 15 minutes, showering, stretching, drinking tea, breakfast. This previous uninterrupted sentence is of course  usually punctuated with many moments, minutes, or sometimes-longer slips of distracted thinking/tweeting/getting lost in a screen, or a poem, or a thought before pulling myself back to the liturgy, as one does in meditation to the breath. After breakfast some writing, the laptop propped up on the half-moon shaped bean-bag-cum-food tray on which I key in these words. Then clients, walking Max and myself while learning whatever poem I’m by-hearting for the liturgy this week. Evenings involve more clients, perhaps some reading, a podcast, television/film, cannabis, bed (at this point thinking: “Oh thank God, that’s all said and done for another day? Perhaps this is what death will feel like too, in which case goodnight consciousness goodnight.”) 

On top of this basic template, you can of course add shopping for groceries, the occasional phone call with a family member, hiking in the countryside, masturbation and time spent on Twitter (which I have consciously grouped together). This is my life. Do you live some version of this too? Other than when I’m focused on writing, reading, or speaking to clients, I find it a somewhat wan existence. But I have chosen this wan existence and lived this way for a while not entirely sure how to alter its shape. Perhaps because to alter its shape, would require me to be more open, and hence more accepting of the discomfort of stepping outside the zone-of-control that I have shaped for myself to keep safe. Stepping into a more threatening space of uncertainty, boredom, and social effort with few immediate rewards. 

“Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and, taking some of all the clean animals and clean birds, he sacrificed burnt offerings on it. The Lord smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart: ‘Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood” (Genesis 8: 20-21)

Of course whichever of the two Frostian paths you choose, you can’t really “win”: the inner world is riven with apocalyptic forces even whilst the outer world is kept stultifyingly regular and settled. But you wouldn’t probably realise much was amiss, unless you were reading this, and even then. This is the kind of low-key, not-especially-significant suffering most of us experience on a daily basis. You’d never know from our carefully curated media streams, or what we say to each other when letting language spill from our mouths, describing the handful of moments we place in the world for others to join dot-to-dot together fashioning an image of ourselves as we’d like to be seen. But I suspect lots of people, maybe even the majority of us live these lives, sans the apocalyptics of definitive endings or beginnings, but vaguely, masochistically, yearning a little for them. Anything to break up the grinding humdrummery of existence. 

And so perhaps, even though something cataclysmically awful is happening in this first stanza, there is also a kind of excitement and vitality, sharpened by bystander interest and curiosity that agglomerates around road accidents and pavement brawls. At least something is happening as the night falls, an Event, even if the Event itself might signal some terrible outcome. The line “standing by windows looking out in our directions” seems to suggest both looking in and looking out. It is as if Merwin first wrote the more prosaic, but syntactically appropriate phrase “standing by windows looking out in all directions” and then deliberately misheard or miswrote it as “looking out in our directions” in order to give the phrase a koan-like twist. 

Windows are reflective surfaces. The word “reflective” has its roots in the Latin reflectere, which means “to bend back”. In this stanza, we are all bending or turning back, like Lot’s wife, to compulsive catch a last glimpse of some devastation we are trying to avoid or escape from. But we can also bend back in a solipsistic manner to think about our own lives, of actions taken or not taken, of thoughts arising and then possibility haunting us as if they were blood and bone entities, bidding us to dwell on them, neurotically, for as long as they keep us en-tranced. 

This also brings us back to the roots of the word apocalypse which suggest transformation as much as devestation:

“The Greek term apokalupsus or apokalupsis implies an unveiling either of future events or of the unseen realms of heaven and hell. It signifies laying bare, making naked; a disclosure of truth, instruction concerning things before unknown; events by means of which things or states or persons hitherto withdrawn from view are made visible to all manifestation; revelation; appearance.” (Lisboa)

“Ours is indeed an age of extremity,” Susan Sontag wrote in her 1966 essay “The Imagination of Disaster“, an essay which very much resonates to this day, even if the threat of nuclear genocide has perhaps slightly abated for now, only to be replaced by that of climate extinction. 

“For we live under continual threat of two equally fearful, but seemingly opposed, destinies: unremitting banality and inconceivable terror. It is fantasy, served out in large rations by the popular arts, which allows most people to cope with these twin specters. For one job that fantasy can do is to lift us out of the unbearably humdrum and to distract us from terrors—real or anticipated—by an escape into exotic, dangerous situations which have last-minute happy endings. But another of the things that fantasy can do is to normalize what is psychologically unbearable, thereby inuring us to it.”

Merwin’s apocalyptic poem and the way in which it chimes in with my my own humdrum existence as well as the fears we all now have of disruption on a cataclysmic scale, brilliantly dovetails these two anxious modes.

By Hearting The Patience of Ordinary Things by Pat Schneider

THE PATIENCE OF ORDINARY THINGS

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 (SMS)

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 (CS)

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)

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.

GETTING THE SUPER-EGOS OFF YOUR BACK

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 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,

Charitable;

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.

Episode 19: Keegan Lester prescribes AFTER WATCHING A VIDEO OF FRIEDA & DIEGO IN THE CASA AZUL by Eva Maria Saavedra + REMEMBRANCE OF AN OPEN WOUND by Pascale Petit


This week in the pharmacy we have the poet KEEGAN LESTER!

All the poems we prescribe and talk about in this episode can be found here: http://bit.ly/2gJQDDX

Keegan splits his time between New York City and Morgantown, West Virginia. Mary Ruefle selected his first collection of poetry this shouldn’t be beautiful but it was & it’s all i had so i drew it for the 2016 Slope Editions Book Prize. His work is published in or forthcoming from the Boston Review, The Atlas Review, Powder Keg, Boaat Journal, The Journal, Phantom Books, Tinderbox, CutBank, Reality Beach and Sixth Finch among others and has been featured on NPR, The New School Writing Blog and ColdFront Mag. He is the co-founder and poetry editor for the journal Souvenir Lit. He also performs monthly with the New York City Poetry Brothel. He’s taught at the West Virginia Young Writers’ Holiday, Stonehill College, and multiple workshops in Morgantown, West Virginia, and was a mentor for the 2016 Adroit Journal Summer High School Mentorship Program. At West Virginia University he was a writing center tutor for three years and a tutor for the WVU Men’s Soccer & Woman’s Basketball teams. He was born in Huntington Beach, California. He earned his MFA from Columbia University.

[Theme music for the podcast is played by the wonderful coversart]

Poetry Prescriptions for ADDICTIONS & COMPULSIVE BEHAVIOUR

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.

THE DAY YOU STOP

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

RECOVERY

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

I HAVE ROADS IN ME

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
sunlight
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

LOUDMOUTH SOUP

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

THE IRREPARABLE

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

THE HEAVENS

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

AMERICAN RIVER SKY ALCOHOL FATHER

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

BREATHINGS

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

CORRESPONDENCE

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

DELINQUENT HEARTS ON THE RAILROAD TRACKS 

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

DREAM SONG #57

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

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

GRAVY

No other word will do. For that’s what it was.
Gravy.
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

POETRY COLLECTIONS:

  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!

 

By Hearting UNBURNABLE THE COLD IS FLOODING OUR LIVES by Kaveh Akbar

[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.” 

**

CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS: POETRY PRESCRIPTIONS ON THE TOPIC OF ADDICTION & COMPULSIVE BEHAVIOUR

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: http://poetrypharmacy.org/2017/10/15/call-for-poetry-prescriptions-recommendations-your-own-poems-on-addiction-compulsive-behaviour/

Part of my reason for learning this poem is to raise funds for the S.H.E College Fund initiative in Kenya. Here is my 52 Poems in 52 Weeks Donations Page: https://chuffed.org/project/52-poems-in-52-weeks 

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

By-Hearting Song of Myself by Walt Whitman

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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).

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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.

35662589696_852c6dff1c_b
 
And I or you pocketless of a dime may purchase the pick of the
Earth,

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
Universe

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 bipolarartists.com 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.

Episode 16: Finn Menzies prescribes AFTERNOON by Max Ritvo + FACTS OF LIFE by Jim Ferris


So pleased to have Finn Menzies in the Poetry Pharmacy this week!

Finn prescribes Max Ritvo‘s AFTERNOON which can be found here, and I reciprocate with Jim Ferris‘s FACTS OF LIFE (read Jim’s poem here).

We also read and talk about the following poem from Finn’s debut collection Brilliant Odyssey Don’t Yearn:

Finn Menzies is an out transgender teacher in Seattle, WA. He received his MFA from Mills College. He is the creator of FIN Zine, a bi-annual zine dedicated to his journey through transition.

Finn’s debut collection, Brilliant Odyssey Don’t Yearn is out with Fog Machine. You can order it on Amazon. His poetry can also be seen in Gigantic Sequins, Quiet Lightning, SUSAN /the journal, Open House, SPORK, HOLD: a journal, The Shallow Ends, and various other journals.

Annually, Finn facilitates UNdoing Ego a workshop on meditation and generative writing.

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

Episode 6: Laura Barber prescribes I DWELL IN POSSIBILITY by Emily Dickinson


LAURA BARBER is the editor of four popular poetry anthologies – including the hugely successful Penguin’s Poems for Life – and former ‘Poetry Doctor’ at The School of Life. She is also Editorial Director at Granta Books where her interests range from literary fiction to memoir, reportage, travel, narrative history and nature writing,

 

By-Hearting Today by Billy Collins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the garden bursting with peonies…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Billy Collins’ Today.

 

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.

Terra Cognita: The Importance of Being Earnest

I don’t think I realised how nourishing a single poem might be until I started learning them by heart. Just a couple of lines of language, returned to, day in day out, engaged with earnestly, like prayer, or telling someone you love them.

We’re not very comfortable with earnestness anymore, are we? Maybe because blinkered zealotry often tags along with it, the kind of zealotry that brings big buildings with lots of people in them crashing down to the ground. Only the very uncool are allowed to be earnest: the religious and religiose, teenage outcasts, birdwatchers, vegans and the like. But one cannot pray or love ironically, even if you’re not exactly sure what either of these enterprises entail. A certain amount of conviction is required to do these kinds of activities.

There’s much solace in this recognition of how “little” one needs to be happy. How the right amount of little can seem a lot. I feel this solace every time I pick up my oft-folded, timeworn 3 x 5 card on which I’ve written this week’s poem, and set out for a walk around the block, or even a pacing session in the garden, committing a few more words to memory. And in doing so: hearing, seeing, feeling certain lines anew.

David Whyte affirms that everything is waiting for you, but if this “everything” happens to be the entire language lode of the human species, not just waiting but ever-available to us, through a split-second Google search at any moment of the day, on almost any device, are we not going to gorge ourselves silly on information?

And in that gorging, will we at times (if not almost always) forget to taste, to savour, to chew? To pause? To put down the fork? To honour, experience and enjoy? All the things we do when we’re learning a poem we love. It’s incredibly simple, we’re just putting down the fork between each mouthful and giving ourselves as fully as possible up to pleasures of language and what it can do for us, or we for it.

I am incredibly greedy for information: “new” ideas, mental-kicks and tricks. This doesn’t sound like a problem until you rephrase it as my brain, through the use of technology, is becoming more and more quick-click stimulant- searching, and less and less able to go deep, to get truly to the heart of a poem, or a story, which only a very close, time-invested reading of a text will provide.

Larry Rosen gets to the nub of it, for me, when he diagnoses chronic screen-grazers (that would be all of us then) as having a variant of ADHD.  The “deficit” comes from the misconception that we are able to multitask:

Research tells us there is no such thing as multitasking – that all we can really do is task switch. In other words people lack the ability to pay full attention to two tasks at a time.

Recently, “just for fun”, I’ve been trying to track the amount of task-switching I do during an hour online. The hyperlinked internet is of course designed almost entirely for task-switching and thus mind-addling. It is an ADHD-generating media. Are the costs of multi-tasking ever equal to their benefits? Here are the costs, you tell me:

  1. Attention difficulties
  2. Poor decision making
  3. Lack of depth of material
  4. Information overload
  5. Internet addiction
  6. Poor sleep habits
  7. Overuse of caffeine

It don’t look good. But thankfully, there is always language for us to use and be used by. Poetry seems to have become my Ritalin, what’s yours?

 

By Hearting Brief Reflections on Maps by Miroslav Holub

I’m all for New Year’s resolutions.

Equally: new month’s resolutions, new week, new day, new hour.

It is eleven am on a Saturday morning. I have faffed around since nine. At eleven, I made a new-hour’s resolution to write this. I am now writing this.

There is satisfaction in allowing some of the energy of the resolution to unbuckle me from the loop-de-loop of faff, to solve that most fundamental of existential questions: “What to do, what to do, what to do? Or even better: what to do now?” [C14: from Latin resolvere to unfasten, reveal, from RE- + solver to loosen; see SOLVE]

What would Jesus do? I haven’t a clue. What would a better-version of myself do? That, I tormentingly know. It is this better, more organised, intelligent, seasoned version of myself who makes all the resolutions, leaving the me-as-I-am to have to carry out his “Fix Yourself” diktat.

I think Miroslav Holub’s Brief Reflection on Maps is a good rejoinder and explicator to those who go “why bother” (I am one of those why-botherers, by the way).

It is for those who go:

“It’s futile. What you promise yourself, what you resolve to do will necessarily unravel through the inertia of willpower.”

“Why do you need a ritualistic date on which to draw a line? A line which says: from hereon in, I’m doing it like this, not like that?”

“I’ve tried in the past. It didn’t work. I’m giving up on the trying’thing.”

What does the poem say to all this? For me, it says: we absolutely need maps. We need our plans, statements of intent, objectives, Holy Grails, and (New Year’s) resolutions.

And, here’s the rub, it really doesn’t matter if these maps for future action completely make sense, either as comparative benchmarks to what other people are doing (“Stop making sense, Steve!” – thank you Dave), or as definitive goals. What does matter is that these resolutions, these plans, and intentions we draw up for ourselves on a yearly, monthly, weekly, hourly, minute-by-minute basis plug into something deep and essential within us.

In Holub’s poem, the off beam map “works” because it is a Something-To-Do, a Hope Project. We need these when faced with the icy-waste(ful) anxiety of a Nothing-To-Do,  our Hopeless Projects. Being lost, awaiting our end.

Of course you don’t need to be lost and close to death in the Alps circa 1943 to have had that feeling, or to feel “reassured” when whatever  resolution it is gets made and off you go in what you hope, at least for now, to be the “right” direction.

Are you doing that? Are you looking for maps on which your deepest human needs and values are imprinted? Maybe you’re not entirely sure what those needs are. If so, here are some worksheets I sometimes use with my clients (and myself). You can treat these like psychological maps, if you like.

Goodbye.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hello.

I thank you God for most this amazing by e.e. cummings #3

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.

Today by Billy Collins #4

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.

Today by Billy Collins #3

4649385619_e27522d15c_bAnd the garden bursting with peonies…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Billy Collins’ Today.

Today by Billy Collins #2

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?

Read Billy Collins’ Today.