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Close Reading By Heart W.S. Merwin’s Thanks (Line 1: Listen)

Listen. Which is also to say. Please. Listen. Please read. But also, and maybe with similar levels of peevish neediness: this is really important, so you better damn well listen and just, you know, pay attention to what I have to say or write. If not: your loss! More truthfully of course, the latter is always a shorthand for “my loss”.  

Or maybe it’s more like: “Listen…you know that guy you were just talking to over there, yeah yeah, don’t look, he’s looking at us, yeah the dude with the split-hem trousers? Yes him. Weeeeeell, word on the street: skank. Hundred percent. And the worst kind. Skank who thinks he’s dank. I know. I know you like him, but, listen… 

**

Listen, there’s a Hafez poem (number 56 in my Poetry Liturgy) that I think has the measure of us human animals.

“Admit something,” he summons, another Listen-To-Me rhetorical ploy: 

Everyone you see, you say to them, “Love me.”
Of course you do not say this out loud, otherwise someone would call the cops.

I think once we’ve truly digested the ramifications of this, there’s a chance for us to be much more at peace with our own neediness -our commanding and demanding need for attention, understanding, respect, affection- as well as the neediness of others. Equally, we might allow ourselves to be less harsh on ourselves when the darker flip-side of those social emotions (guilt, shame, envy, pride) show up.

**

Listen, of all the theories for the origins and evolution of language, I find anthropologist Robin Dunbar’s gossip and grooming hypothesis extremely persuasive. Even more so now in the age of social media, where text is cheap as talk but still serves a similar function: providing some cohesiveness for groups to which we belong or wish to belong. Even more so for human animal groups which far outstrip the size of other Great Ape configurations. Think for a moment about the face-to-face interactional scope of Pleistocene or hunter-gatherer societies compared to ours. Those were much, much smaller groups than the global span of ours, but the same social algorithm helped to glue them together: You scratch/like/ retweet my back and I’ll scratch/like/RT yours. 

**

Check out the flurry of communication (we now use the more “serious” term Trending to describe this phenomenon) when a particularly juicy bit of goss enters the social media ecosystem. As I write this, in the midst of climate and political meltdown, the majority of our Western human tribe are (Listen!) getting extremely  exercised about Kylie Jenner, a reality TV star, and her attempt to cash in on a video of her singing Rise and Shine to her daughter Stormi, by releasing a 65 dollar hoodie with Riiise and Shiiine trailing down each arm. 

It’s gossip like this that puts anything The Onion can do in terms of satire directly out of business. And even that thing we call Serious News (i.e. political gossip) doesn’t really differ that much, phenomenologically, in its shit-stirring, well-I-never focus. #OxfordCircus is also trending on Twitter today (Friday 18 October, 2019), but not as much as the Riiise and Shiiine hoodie. The moral maze talking-point for the former being:  “Is the Extinction Rebellion blockage of one of the busiest junctions in London a meaningless disruption or a necessary intervention?”.

Listen: it is!

Listen: don’t be daft!

Listen: maybe a bit of both?   

**

Gossip, which is to now say perhaps language in general, is also a kind of “guessing”. Our minds are always trying to work out why this thing happened rather than that thing (especially if we’re implicated), and why any of this matters, which we mostly feel it does. In his fable Make This Simple Test Merwin invites us to surmise away, whilst also gently mocking these surmisings: 

“Guess why you are eating or drinking it. Guess what it may do for you. Guess what it was meant to do. By whom. When. Why. Guess where in the course of evolution you took the first step toward it. Guess which of your organs recognizes it. Guess whether it is welcomed to their temples. Guess how it figures in their prayers. Guess how completely you become what you eat. Guess how soon. Guess at the taste of locusts and wild honey. Guess at the taste of water. Guess what the rivers see as they die. Guess why the babies are burning. Guess why there is silence in heaven. Guess why you were ever born.”

Once we follow guessing (language) wherever it wants to take us, it can sometimes deliver sensual poetic simulations (Guess at the taste of locusts and wild honey), pertinent political questions (Guess why the babies are burning) but also forms of potentially disruptive and even self-destructive thinking. 

**

Listen, says Adam Phillips in his book Attention Seeking which feels like a lodestar to me at the moment, alongside Richard Seymour’s The Twittering Machine for all the things I am struggling with in our culture and in myself, “Attention-seeking, whatever else it is, is always a love test, and should be treated as such.” Seymour is more prone to use the language of gambling and addiction to delineate our misplaced devotions (mid 16th century English: addict ‘bound or devoted (to someone’), from Latin addict- ‘assigned’):

“Addiction is a thwarted form of love. It is a passionate attachment to something that, slowly, occupies a larger and larger part of one’s mind. It exercises a veto over other loves, aspirations and dreams. It occupies attention, when attention is subject to economic scarcity. It usurps our ingenuity, when the goal in life becomes maintaining access to the object, staying close to it. For the Twittering Machine, this is good: it keeps us writing. In an attention economy, addiction is not so much a scourge as a mode of production.”

Phillips meanwhile continues in a more expansive, Hafezian-vein: 

“[It should be treated] without contempt. In our attention-seeking it could be assumed that we know neither what we want nor what we expect; and so we are in our starkest dependence on others. And in that true state of absolute dependence lies the possibility, the groundswell, of new forms of sociability. Attention-seeking then, ideally, as a comedy of errors, rather than a tragedy of failures. Attention-seeking as something that might come without excuses.”

Listen. I am making no excuses for any of these freely-associative thoughts. I am writing them down half-hoping you will listen, read and share them with the same virality as the juiciest gossip gets shared around the Grownup Playground. I know that’s very unlikely. But to quote a song that it is all about the pleasure of following -i.e. listening, reading, communicating with what most keenly draws our attention (ideas, beauty, sex)- DON’T STOP ME NOW. Even in this sentence, and especially the last, I’m having such a good time.

Thank you. 

Close Reading By Heart of W.S. Merwin’s Thanks (Line 2: with the night falling we are saying thank you)

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

We live in night-falling times. Forget Brexit, forget Trump, forget all the ongoing geopolitical mayhem of business as usual, for we have now passed the point of no-return with our climate crisis. And even if 50  million Greta Thunbergs unite –Hands Across America style- a thousand times around the planet to protest and publicize the darkness descending, even with all the manifestly right-noises being made everyday in tweets, Instagram pics, newspaper articles, and Facebook posts, nothing’s going to change. 

Not because we don’t all have the best of intentions. It’s just that when it comes to making the kinds of day-to-day sacrifices that would be required in order to reverse and repair the damage already done, the kinds of renunciations required from every member of our human tribe (all 7.7 billion of us) is never going to happen on a scale necessary to make much of a difference.

What kind of renunciation, you might ask? Tell me the sort of sacrifice you need, and by God, if it means saving the planet, I’ll make it! 

Well, according to Project Drawdown – a collection of nearly 200 environmental scientists and thought leaders dedicated to identifying solutions to climate change – “the most important contribution every individual can make to reversing global warming” is [drumroll]… 

Take a guess. Allow yourself to imagine for a moment, as the the night falls, the inconvenient truth we all would rather not look at because it hits all of us in ways that we are fundamentally unwilling to take on board. Not for all the polar bears, penguins, and Orange-spotted filefish in the world would 99% of us be willing to make this sacrifice.  Not for all the “water stress” and “food insecurity” in continents like Africa (don’t you just love those refined, academic terms for starvation and genocidal drought) not even for them, for us, for anyone. None of this really matters because we are unwilling as individual human beings and as a species  to do the following:

drastically reduce or  eliminate our consumption of (non-human) animals and animal products. 

Are you putting  your hands to your ears now, making la la la la la noises? Yes, me too. For here’s the inconvenient data, summarised by Jonathan Safran Foer in an article in the Guardian recently:

“Animal agriculture produces more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire transportation sector (all planes, cars and trains), and is the primary source of methane and nitrous oxide emissions (which are 86 and 310 times more powerful than CO2, respectively). Our meat habit is the leading cause of deforestation, which releases carbon when trees are burned (forests contain more carbon than do all exploitable fossil-fuel reserves), and also diminishes the planet’s ability to absorb carbon. According to a recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, even if we were to do everything else that is necessary to save the planet, it will be impossible to meet the goals of the Paris Climate Accord if we do not dramatically reduce our consumption of animal products.”

And here is why us dramatically reducing our consumption of animal products is never going to happen. Never. Because we are pleasure seeking creatures first and foremost, and our pleasures turn all of us into hypocrites. All of us. 

Take me for example. I am, broadly speaking, for ethical reasons,  a vegetarian. A few years ago, alerted to just how much daily suffering even the most humanely cared for cow goes through in order to produce milk for our teas, cheese for our cheeseboard, and cream for our chocolate, I attempted to transition to veganism. The remnants of that transition continue in my diet today in that I only have soya milk in the fridge, and try not to drink cow’s. But that only happened because Alpro tastes almost-as- good as milk in my estimation, and so I haven’t really had to sacrifice that much to sustain this substitution. Similarly, I actually prefer the tasty and easy-to-digest soya yoghurts and other soya desserts which I churn into ice-cream for a treat. 

But what about cheese? What about butter? What about honey? 

Breakfast is the one meal of the day that makes me truly happy. And what I like eating for breakfast generally is toast, with butter, some honey, blueberry jam, and Philadelphia cheese. A slice of good sourdough or seeded rye slathered in various quantities of those four toppings delights me to no end. When I was attempting to be 100% vegan, I swapped out the butter for soya spread, the honey for maple syrup, and the Philly for something made of coconut oil and potato peelings. And yes, it all tasted exactly as you would imagine from this description: foul. But I soldiered on, hoping I would get used to it. 

While I was soldiering on,  I was also resenting the other human apes, the majority of our human ape brethren, who not only were shoving whatever their eyes took a fancy to willy-nilly into  tooth-lined gobs and damned be the consequences, but were/are constantly being celebrated and encouraged for doing so. Every cookbook, every 2nd product in the supermarket aisle, every plate of food snapped for an Instagram food-porn account, every time Jay Rayner opens his delightful fat gob to say or write something witty and clever about eating other animals, jarred with my minority concerns and sacrifices. 

So this morning this hypocrite had for breakfast a cup of tea with soya in it (yay! 2 vegan brownie points happily accepted), a slice of sourdough which traveled from Paris to get to me (-50 brownie points), French butter (-1000 brownie points), honey (-300 BPs), and Philadelphia cheese (-1,000,000 BPs). Philadelphia cheese is a Kraft-Heinz product, a company rated at the lowest possible tier for animal welfare. Why greater subtractions overall for the dairy products you ask? Maybe because I have heard the desperate sad wailing of cows in stalls when separated from their recently birthed children just so that we can drink the milk flowing freely from their breasts. 

Sorry Mama, I know that you would prefer this go to your offspring, but we need it you see, for our human teas, and the trillion different ways in which we now like to consume our roasted coffee beans. Sorry little 2-day old calf locked inside a tiny cage not much bigger than your own body where you will now spend the rest of your 4-month life, never being allowed to play with other calves or walk, just in case your muscles toughen up a little in doing so, robbing us human animals of some nice, soft, juicy steak. Sorry little one, we need Mama’s milk so that we can use it as whey protein to give that all-important umami depth of flavour to just about everything savoury item on the supermarket shelf, all our tasty, snacky-snack products, pretty much every flavour of crisp, other than Ready Salted which has whey power in it. And let’s not even start on cakes, biscuits, and ice-cream. All those things that make our lives just a little bit more pleasant and joyful on a daily basis. But hey little calf, you’ll get to walk, and stretch your muscles and briefly touch some other calves when we let you out of your cage to lead you off to the slaughterhouse. Please stop whining!

And this is why the night is falling and will continue to fall until it swallows us all, all of us, all our weird, word-wielding monkey-kind. 

Take the most ardent, planet-saving good human being you know and say to them: “You can save your precious human-dominated planet, but you must pay for this by cutting out 90% of all the nice stuff you like to put into your human-animal gob”, and watch as only a tiny, tiny minority do that, whilst the rest of us respond by saying: “I feel awful about the planet, and other species, but nothing that a nice cup of tea and a biscuit won’t set  to rights!”

**

If you’re bored with the science, let’s take a look at what the Bible says. When I say The Bible, I am of course referring here to the updated, secular Bible which tries, as the original Good Book did, to explain in the idiom of our day where we came from, and where we might be heading (the apocalypse!). My bible, or at least one of them, Noah Harari’s Sapiens has sold 1.2 million copies since its publication in 2014, so there’s a good chance you’ve read it?  Here is what “the little Jew who wrote [that] Bible” has to say about our eating habits: 

“Around the time that Homo sapiens was elevated to divine status by humanist religions, farm animals stopped being viewed as living creatures that could feel pain and distress, and instead came to be treated as machines. Today these animals are often mass-produced in factory-like facilities, their bodies shaped in accordance with industrial needs. They pass their entire lives as cogs in a giant production line, and the length and quality of their existence is determined by the profits and losses of business corporations. Even when the industry takes care to keep them alive, reasonably healthy and well fed, it has no intrinsic interest in the animals’ social and psychological needs (except when these have a direct impact on production).”

(Yuval Harari, Sapiens)

But do have compassion for us H. Sapiens Hypokrites! Harari does: 

“Just as the Atlantic slave trade did not stem from hatred towards Africans, so the modern animal industry is not motivated by animosity. Again, it is fuelled by indifference. Most people who produce and consume eggs, milk and meat rarely stop to think about the fate of the chickens, cows or pigs whose flesh and emissions they are eating. Those who do think often argue that such animals are really little different from machines, devoid of sensations and emotions, incapable of suffering. Ironically, the same scientific disciplines which shape our milk machines and egg machines have lately demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that mammals and birds have a complex sensory and emotional make-up. They not only feel physical pain, but can also suffer from emotional distress.”

The word hypocrite in its Greek etymology simply means “an actor”. More specifically, as a compound noun it translates as “an interpreter from underneath”. The ancient Greeks wore masks on stage, so actors were paid to give voice (much like our Priests) to the culturally formulated “masks” of  cardinal virtues: Temperance, Prudence, Courage, Justice. 

But temperance, prudence, courage and justice don’t taste of anything much. Underneath our virtuous masks, the human all too human actor is scrolling through his phone in search of “stuff” to distract him from alienation and distress, all the while shoving another brownie and a Pumpkin Spice Latte into his human-animal gob.

So thank you butter; thank you condensed milk; thank you curd, custard, and eggnog. Thank you frozen yoghurt; thank you ghee; thank you infant formula, lassi, and paneer. Thank you mozzarella, thank you cheddar, thank you gorgonzola, and brie. Thank you quark; thank you soft serve, thank you whey, thank you yakult and yoghurt, thank you, dark though it is. 

Close Reading By Heart of W.S. Merwin’s Thanks (Line 3: we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings)

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

On the day I begin learning this poem, I take a walk to visit my mother and father who live in South Harrow, about an hour and a half away on foot. The suburban landscape I walk through plays along with my by-hearting: the night is indeed falling, much earlier now, Autumn cannot be denied, and here’s the bridge crossing the railway lines, and look!  Just past the small South Harrow Christian fellowship church, a sunflower of all things, straggly and etiolated, propping itself up against a sign in the station car park. 

I stop to commune with it for a while, Max dragging at the leash. How did it come to be here? Voices of Romanian labourers congregating to one side of the car-park reach my ears, and I think of the sunflower seeds they are always eating, cracked by their teeth from the salt-encrusted shells to accompany an after-work can of beer (Tyskie, Perla, Żywiec: we share a similar taste in Eastern-European libations). I wonder if one of those stray sunflower seeds might have dropped in that somewhat barren patch of earth and by some kind of miracle, the daily miracle of  seeds “out in the wild”, requiring no horticultural husbandry from us, taken root? A seed fed on nothing more than rainwater, sun, and whatever nutrients might be found in the clay-like soil of these parts. A seed like this line from Merwin’s Thanks for my head and heart.  

**

We might stop on a bridge for all sorts of reasons. As an elevated vantage point, they allow us to better see what it is happening in the distance, or below us. Bridges serve the human great ape much as trees might our simian brethren. Bridges give us wings, but we also recognise alongside this how wingless, how rooted to the earth and our earthly concerns we still are. In another poem, Echoing Light, Merwin writes: When I was beginning to read I imagined /that bridges had something to do with birds /and with what seemed to be cages but I knew /that they were not cages”. Which of course plants in our minds the idea, that in some way, they are.

Bowing from the railings suggests a more precarious locating of the human form than bowing down next to the railings. Are we bowing, or preparing ourselves to jump? Too far out in our lives, not waving but drowning

I am also thinking of that wonderfully melancholic poem by Franz Wright The Only Animal (“only”, a word so close to lonely) which begins: “The only animal that commits suicide / went for a walk in the park…”. The curious human animal that we are sometimes stops on a bridge to bow with gratitude at the vistas around her, but at other times that bowing, seen from afar, may be a preliminary motion before driving our bodies over the edge in order to smash a suffering mind against the tarmac below. Again, how interesting that this corporeal gesture denoting a form of spiritual surrender in a bid for transcendence, might also indicate another kind of surrender to the Inner Dictator of the mind and whatever the messages relayed to us by this part of the psyche that weighs so heavily.

**

The same night I walk over to have tea with my parents, with these words now gonging around in my mind, I rent Harold and Maude, having remembered that Harold Chasen (played by Bud Cort) spends most of the  film metaphorically bowing down from the railings, staging elaborate fake suicide attempts in order to secure from his brittle and self-absorbed mother some authentic concern and attention. He eventually finds the unconditional positive regard he is looking for (that we are all looking for)  in Maude: a 79 year-old woman and concentration camp survivor who seems cut from the same purple-with-a-red-hat cloth of Jenny Joseph’s narrator in her poem Warning

When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals, and say we’ve no money for butter.

The Cat Stevens soundtrack is both delighful and grating after a while. The various suicidal set-pieces (especially when Harold continues to enact his elaborate attempts  in front of the three fiancées that his mother wishes him to marry) are hilarious. And the ending truly touching.

If you haven’t seen it, I won’t spoil it for you. But let’s just say that even Maude has an achilles heel when it comes to her remarkable resilience, a fear of senescence that seems impervious to what for the most part appears to be an ironclad joie-de-vivre. I think she would recognise that fear in this poem by Dannie Abse called The Old Gods

Michael Wright, no relation I believe to Franz Wright, reminds us in musing on The Only Animal, that in The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James makes a  distinction between once-born souls and twice-born souls. “The first come to faith easily,” Wright summarises, “ and see a harmonious world sustained by a benevolent God. The second struggle their way through doubt and suffering and find a different kind of faith on the other side.” The first, biographically at least, is William Stanley Merwin. The second is Franz Wright, and I guess I’d include myself in there, as would Michael? If Merwin is on that bridge, he is bowing in a kind of prayer. His twice-born spiritual doppelganger however is hunched over in a different frame of mind, contemplating his own non-existence: “the space I took up here / scarlessly closing like water.”

**

In America and the UK, almost twice as many people  die by suicide as are murdered. Once the Inner Dictator of the mind gets a grip on us, we can very quickly become our own worst enemy. More than a hundred years ago, the French sociologist Emile Durkheim realised that suicide cannot be explained away simply as an excess of suffering. Durkheim realised that social integration is often an arbiter of how close we get to contemplating or carrying out self-slaughter. When we feel part of a social group, we are less likely to kill ourselves, no matter how burdensome the thoughts, emotions, or even physical pain that might grind us down. Working people are less likely to commit suicide, equally parents of children, people who are married, even unhappily married folk. 

And who might be bowing before leaping? Those of us who have moved often to pursue educational opportunities or employment, or a better way of life, are more likely to commit suicide, Durkheim would argue. I am now almost 50, and I suspect I won’t have another opportunity to build the ties I made and left behind in emigrating, and then living in a variety of countries until my late-20s.  Thomas Joiner calls this state of being “thwarted belongingness”. 

In 2001, the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention backed this century-old finding up by reporting that frequent movers are one of the more significant predictors of suicide. I have a dog-child who I would never abandon, and I wouldn’t want to give my mother the kind of grief that comes with losing a child, but my life and indeed a lot of our lives now, even more closely matches Durkheim “recipe” for suicidal behaviour, than it did in 1897 when he published his groundbreaking work on this topic. 

Belonging and affiliation as a vaccine against suicidal loneliness shows up in other ways too. When a city’s football, baseball, basketball, or hockey teams—professional or collegiate—win a national championship, there’s a temporary decline in the suicide rate. Conversely, after a loss, suicide rates goes up. Similarly in times of national crisis  social connectedness increases and so the rates fall. They did so during both world wars, after 9/11, but increased soon afterwards. Nobody killed themselves for a full calendar week after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. People don’t kill themselves in concentration camps. As hellish as that existence is, Maude knows this, at least they’re in it together. After a trip to the Penny Arcade, where Harold has noticed how effortlessly Maude attracts others to her, her special charisma, Harold comments: “You sure have a way with people.” “Well, they’re my species,” Maude replies, as if commenting on breathing, how natural her sociability feels to her, how unnatural to Harold and me.

**

Perhaps another important distinction between bowing in prayer versus in defeat and dejection is the attitude we have or cultivate to ourselves. The Merwins of this world, to quote again from the William James distinction, “are not distressed by their own imperfections: yet it would be absurd to call them self-righteous; for they hardly think of themselves AT ALL.” The emphasis of the capitalization suggests a kind of wonder towards the rarity of this state. Is it not the norm to be preoccupied at any given moment with our own thoughts and feelings?

One term for this is self-absorption, as opposed to self-reflection, self-awareness, and introspection. Absorption is a 16th century word, from the Latin absorbere ‘swallow up’. When we are self-absorbed, it is as if one part of the self (perhaps that part that is lonely, despairing, hopeless) ingests, and thereby imperils or even destroys, other parts of us that are able to hold hope for our lives, gratitude, and even wonder. What to call that self-absorbed part of us? Lots of labels have been tagged to it: egocentricity, narcissistic-functioning, pathological self-focus. I find the most useful way to think about this part of the self is as “the conceptualised self”, or self-as-content, as opposed to self-as-awareness, the observing self, the transcendent self. 

There’s a simple and I think quite illuminating exercise from Steven C. Haye’s new book A Liberated Mind that helps us to experience this distinction. It involves writing down three statements about ourselves (I am ____), two positive, two negative, and then doing some reflections around these. I’d be interested to hear how you feel your sense of self shifts (or doesn’t) if give this exercise a go. 

**

Perhaps the difference between bowing in prayer, or bowing forward like a hungry ghost to gobble up one’s life is can be better understood by the distinction James makes when discussing Whitman’s ability to remove from his writing “all contractile elements”. Bowing in gratitude or humility, we contract our bodies to express to ourselves and to others that we are only a cog in the vast, mystical interplay of life. We bow as a mother might to protect a child, or a living shelled-mollusk to elaborate its pearl. We bow as a form of surrender, which does not, I’m thinking here especially of Emmanuel Ghent’s wonderful paper on this, necessarily imply defeat. Whereas in self-absorption, the contractile element is more like a trap snapping shut, a holing in, or a holding onto fear, worry, self-criticism, or whatever other ways our minds try to communicate with us their concern for how we might be living our lives, a concern that so often sounds like a kind of telling off. 

James elaborates on this more expansive bowing thus: “The only sentiments [Whitman] allowed himself to express were of the expansive order; and he expressed these in the first person, not as your mere monstrously conceited individual might so express them, but vicariously for all men, so that a passionate and mystic ontological emotion suffuses his words, and ends by persuading the reader that men and women, life and death, and all things are divinely good.” 

So the Whitmanian/Merwinian “I” is an expansive-I, bowing down as it were before the recognition that all our suffering is shared by and reflected in every member of our species. Whereas the Wrightian-I is crippled in some way by the exclusive burden of his suffering. “Your great mistake is to act the drama / as if you were alone” the poet David Whyte starts his poem Everything Is Waiting For You, another bit of  telling-off to my ears, but perhaps  a necessary one:

Your great mistake is to act the drama
as if you were alone. As if life
were a progressive and cunning crime
with no witness to the tiny hidden
transgressions. To feel abandoned is to deny
the intimacy of your surroundings.

These words sting because they are a challenge to self-absorption. A quality I have a good deal of (you may have noticed). 

Here’s William James doing something similar: 

“The attitude of unhappiness is not only painful, it is mean and ugly. What can be more base and unworthy than the pining, puling, mumping mood, no matter by what outward ills it may have been engendered? What is more injurious to others? What less helpful as a way out of the difficulty?”

True Bill. But if, as you recognise, we are perhaps talking about a characterological difference here (Whitman and Merwin probably scoring quite low on Neuroticism), then perhaps we can also have some compassion for all of us souls who are not waving, but drowning, not bowing but keeling over, or even willfully throwing themselves  over the bridges of their lives? Maybe I might even have a little bit more compassion for my own. 

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.

Close Reading By Heart of W.S. Merwin’s Thanks (Lines 10-13)

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

The joy of learning a poem by heart as opposed to reading it aloud is that very soon the words of the poem start telling you very specifically and very insistently how they would like you to recite them.

And for some reason, this stanza wants me to recite it, here now, and for the rest of my life (once those riddims assert themselves, baby, they STICK) as a Public Enemy song. 

This sort of thing: 

Especially when it comes to the line: “back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging”

Go and listen to Chuck D rapping at the beginning of “Fight The Power” to see what I mean. You can take any two lines from the song for this purpose, but why not these: 

GOT to give us what we WANT
GOTta give us what we NEED

Same strong four beats, same punchy stress on the first syllable: BACK from a series of HOSpitals, BACk from a mugging. Even that slighly drawly “uh” that D, Flav, Griff and Lord drop in (maybe jamesbrown in would better explain this, where jamesbrown is being used as a verb) between each line on the downbeat would work equally well for Merwin. 

BACK from a series of HOSpitals,

BACk from a MUgging (uh!)

Semantically, the bellicose, almost martial rhythms of rap work well with the implicit or explicit message of the poem: unconditional, turn-the-other-cheek acceptance, which need not equal weak and wobbly resignation. FIGHT THE POWER! By saying thank you illness, thank you death, thank you unpredictable violence. Because what are you going to say to illness, death, and unpredictable violence: no thanks? 

“In order to see firsthand what happens when you resist experience,” Tara Brach whispers in that warm and wise but also faintly irritating voice that people use when doing guided meditations  “begin by experimenting with saying no. As you connect with the pain you feel in the situation you have chosen, mentally direct a stream of no at the feelings. No to the unpleasantness of fear, anger, shame or grief. Let the word carry the energy of no—rejecting, pushing away what you are experiencing. As you say no, notice what this resistance feels like in your body. Do you feel tightness, pressure? [Yes!] What happens to the painful feelings as you say no? [Fish hook through the cheek, my body dangling from this feeling or thought, flapping back and forth in a resistant flurry] What happens to your heart? [Shut down]. Imagine what your life would be like if, for the next hours, weeks and months, you continued to move through the world with the thoughts and feelings of no. [OK, point taken]”

The Public Enemy vibe doesn’t seem to carry through to the next lines though. The rhythm shifts. To my ears, they are asking to be sung like a cheer-leading squad chant (Team Acceptance?), bouncy and with an almost whiny edge. 

after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you

There is unfortunately little gravity or decorum to cheerleading as far as I know (“Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah! Tiger! S-s-s-t! Boom! A-h-h-h!” anyone?) which leads to a weird cognitive dissonance when I recite these elegiac sentiments. The mind goes: “this is sad and serious, people dying, funerals, commemoration” while the ears absorb this recital as if being serenaded by a blithe and breezy version of the Schoop Schoop song

This niggles. I don’t know why the lines have requested this soundtrack as I learn them, but they have, and once the rhythms of a poem are coursing around the heart, to get them to to move to a different beat would require catheter ablation or an automated external defibrillator. 

What this shows, psychologically more than anything to do with poetics, is how the meaning of certain utterances or thoughts break down when a non-regular or inappropriate rhythm or melody is applied to them. 

Here’s a fun little experiment you can try. Take a negative self-judgement or painful thought that is assailing you at the moment, write it down, and then sing it to the tune of Happy Birthday, or Jingle Bells, or indeed The Schoop Schoop song. 

Does life feel meaningless,
Oh yes, it really does.
Completely meaningless?
Oh yes it really does,
When you when wake with dread
It’s mostly in your head, 
And you’re depressed,
Oh you’re depressed! 

It doesn’t have to rhyme or scan like the one above. This is called defusion. And when I remember to actually use it on my thoughts (I rarely do, because like most people I take them as gospel, the last word, Truth with a capital T) it often brings a little relief from the hectoring chunter of the Inner Dictator. 

Thank you for that, Edward B. Titchener.

EPISODE 26: Richard Scott prescribes Practising by Marie Howe

In this episode of Poetry Koan, Richard Scott prescribes Practising by Marie Howe which you can read here: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/54778/practicing. 

RICHARD SCOTT was born in London in 1981. His poems have appeared widely in magazines and anthologies including Poetry Review, Poetry London, PN Review, Swimmers, The Poetry of Sex (Penguin) and Butt Magazine. He has been a winner of the Wasafiri New Writing Prize, a Jerwood/Arvon Poetry Mentee and a member of the Aldeburgh 8. His pamphlet ‘Wound’ (Rialto) won the Michael Marks Poetry Award 2016 and his poem ‘crocodile’ won the 2017 Poetry London Competition. Soho (Faber & Faber) is his first book. Richard is on Twitter @iamrichardscott.

By Hearting The Planet on the Table by Wallace Stevens

The Planet On the Table

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why do we continue to write or read poetry?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Too:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yikes.

EPISODE 25: Sandra Simonds prescribes I Know a Man by Robert Creeley & Sonnet by Bernadette Mayer


This week in the pharmacy we have the poet SANDRA SIMONDS!

Sandra Simonds is the author of six books of poetry: Orlando, (Wave Books, 2018), Further Problems with Pleasure, winner of the 2015 Akron Poetry Prize from the University of Akron Press, Steal It Back (Saturnalia Books, 2015), The Sonnets (Bloof Books, 2014), Mother Was a Tragic Girl (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2012), and Warsaw Bikini (Bloof Books, 2009). Her poems have been published in the New York Times, the Best American Poetry 2015 and 2014 and have appeared in many literary journals, including Poetry, the American Poetry Review, the Chicago ReviewGrantaBoston Review,  PloughsharesFenceCourt Green, and Lana Turner. In 2013, she won a Readers’ Choice Award for her sonnet “Red Wand,” which was published on Poets.org, the Academy of American Poets website. She lives in Tallahassee, Florida and is an Associate professor of English and Humanities at Thomas University in Thomasville, Georgia.

Here are the poems we discuss in the episode:

I Know a Man by Robert Creeley
Sonnet by Bernadette Mayer

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

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

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

THE PRESCRIPTION: CHARLES SIMIC’S MYSTICS?

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

MYSTICS

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

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

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

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

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

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

STANZA 1 – SUPPLICATION

STANZA 2 – TUNING INTO HINTS & OMENS

STANZA 3 – MEDITATING ON THE ETERNALLY VISIBLE

STANZA 4 – EXPRESSION OF GENUINE NEED

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

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

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

Now copy the next prompt:

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

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

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

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

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

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

EPISODE 24: Ronna Bloom prescribes Hafiz, Coleridge, and Virgil


This week in the pharmacy we have the poet RONNA BLOOM prescribing poems for ONLINE DATING BLUES!

Ronna is a poet, speaker, psychotherapist, and author of six books. Her poems have been broadcast on the CBC, displayed in public spaces, recorded by the CNIB, and translated into Spanish and Bengali.

Ronna speaks and writes at corporate events, leads organizational retreats, runs workshops, and does poetry and writing coaching. She brings twenty years of psychotherapy practice to her work as a poet and facilitator.

She is currently Poet in Community at the University of Toronto and Poet in Residence at Mount Sinai Hospital.

Ronna has performed with Juno award-winning musician Jayme Stone. A one minute film based on the poem “Grief Without Fantasy” was made by filmmaker Midi Onodera and screened in the Official Selection at the Toronto Urban Film Festival.

Ronna has written 5 books of poetry, which some people really liked. Several of these have been shortlisted for Canadian literary prizes. Her sixth book, The Morewas released October 12, 2017.

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?”

EPISODE 23: Edward Doegar prescribes Nice by Karen Solie

This week in the pharmacy we have the poet ED DOEGAR!

Ed’s poem “Anon” as well as the Karen Solie poem he prescribes can be found here.

Edward Doegar’s poems, reviews and translations have appeared in various magazines, including Poetry LondonPrac Crit, clinic and Poetry Wales. He’s a fellow of the Complete Works programme, a scheme promoting diversity in British poetry. His poems are featured in the anthology Ten: The New Wave (Bloodaxe, 2014), and his pamphlet For Now was published by clinic in 2017. Ed also works as a Commissioning Editor at The Poetry Translation Centre.

EPISODE 22: CAConrad prescribes “biggest loser” by Sophie Robinson and “Remorse – is Memory – awake” by Emily Dickinson

This week in the pharmacy we have the poet CAConrad!

The poems we prescribe and talk about in this episode can be found here:  

Sophie Robinson’s “biggest loser”: https://www.lambdaliterary.org/features/poetry-spotlight/10/16/a-poem-by-sophie-robinson/

Emily Dickinson’s “Remorse – is Memory – Awake”: https://www.poemhunter.com/best-poems/emily-dickinson/remorse-is-memory-awake/

CAConrad grew up in Pennsylvania, where they helped to support their single mother during Conrad’s difficult youth. Influenced by Eileen MylesAudre LordeAlice Notley, and Emily Dickinson, Conrad writes poems in which stark images of sex, violence, and defiance build a bridge between fable and confession. In a 2010 interview with Luke Degnan for BOMBMagazine’s BOMBlog, Conrad discussed their approach to poetry, which focuses on process and on engaging the permeability of the border between self and other. “Ultimately, I want my (Soma)tic poetry and poetics to help us realize at least two things. That everything around us has a creative viability with the potential to spur new thinking and imaginative output and that the most necessary ingredient to bringing the sustainable, humane changes we need and want for our world requires creativity in all lives, every single day.”

Conrad is the author of seven books, the latest is titled While Standing in Line for Death (Wave Books, 2017). They are a 2015 Headlands Art Fellow, and has also received fellowships from Lannan Foundation, MacDowell Colony, Banff, Ucross, RADAR, and the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage. They conduct workshops on (Soma)tic Poetry and Ecopoetics.

Intro music: Of Montreal’s Knight Rider; outro music is also by Of Montreal (The Party’s Crashing Us)

EPISODE 21: Natalie Eilbert prescribes Elm by Sylvia Plath and The Glass Essay by Anne Carson


This week in the pharmacy we have the poet NATALIE EILBERT!

All the poems we prescribe and talk about in this episode can be found here:  http://bit.ly/2n9lxHZ

NATALIE EILBERT is the author of Indictus, winner of Noemi Press’s 2016 Poetry Prize, slated for publication in early 2018, as well as the poetry collection, Swan Feast (Bloof Books, 2015). Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Granta, The New YorkerTin HouseThe Kenyon Reviewjubilat, and elsewhere. She was the recipient of the 2016 Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellowship at University of Wisconsin–Madison and is the founding editor of The Atlas Review.

Intro music: Prince. Outro music: Will & Ali

By hearting Primary Wonder by Denise Levertov

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

THE MYSTERY

Days pass where I forget the mystery.

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

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

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

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

Here’s one possibility.

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

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

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

PROBLEMS INSOLUBLE

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

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

1. Problems Insoluble

2. Problems Offering Their Own Ignored Solutions

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

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

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

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

QUIET

And then
once more the quiet mystery
is present to me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VOID

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

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

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

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

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

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

YOU

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EPISODE 20: Donika Kelly prescribes Praise House by Gabrielle Calvocoressi

This week in the pharmacy we have the poet DONIKA KELLY!

All the poems we prescribe and talk about in this episode can be found here: http://bit.ly/2zO7zUm

Donika is the author of BESTIARY (Graywolf 2016), winner of the 2015 Cave Canem Poetry Prize, long listed for the National Book Award (2016), and a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award (2017), and the chapbook AVIARIUM (500 Places 2017). A Cave Canem Graduate Fellow, she received her MFA in Writing from the Michener Center for Writers and a Ph.D. in English from Vanderbilt University.  She is an Assistant Professor at St. Bonaventure University, where she teaches creative writing.

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

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

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

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

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.