New Year Resolution

My resolution for 2016…

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“To guard what is your own. Not to claim what is another’s. To use what is given you. Not to long for anything if it be not given. If anything be taken away to give it up at once and without a struggle, with gratitude for the time you have enjoyed it”

~Epictetus

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Poem of the Month – A Brief for the Defense by Jack Gilbert

I first encountered Jack Gilbert’s poetry in The Sun (American literary magazine, not British tabloid). A sentence from ‘A Brief for the Defense’ stuck with me, nagged me through summer: “We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world”.

As one blessed with much comfort and satisfaction, I wonder at my privileges, wonder at the randomness of life, wonder why millions suffer through no fault of their own, and others live in shocking luxury through no virtue of their own. Gilbert’s taut, evocative, defiant poem comes the closest of anything I’ve read to elucidating the tension between grief and high delight. Gilbert doesn’t moralise or draw conclusions. Though he refers to both God and the Devil, for me the poem is Zen. Ultimately, none of us is in control. The secret, if there is one, is to laugh anyway, to listen for sound of oars in the silence and watch the island sleep. And to refuse to allow our lives to be defined by the worst of times.

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A Brief for the Defense by Jack Gilbert

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction, we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit that there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafes and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.

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Poem of the Month – If by Rudyard Kipling

If is the poetic equivalent of “…Baby One More Time”: it’s naff, simplistic, brash and its politics don’t bear examination but Christ it’s catchy. I can’t remember when I first read or heard the poem, but fragments of it are buried in my brain like shrapnel.

Kipling was a jingoistic racist. If is patronising hooey. Still, the line “if you can fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds worth of distance run…” has gotten me up more hills than I can count. So there’s that.

Why memorise If? In part because I think it’ll come in handy over the next couple of months in Ibiza (“If you can keep your head when all about you/ are losing theirs…”) and partly to acknowledge the fact that bad poetry can be as useful, or meaningful, in the right context, as the most exquisite sonnet.

What’s your favourite bad poem? Share in the comments.
run

If

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

Treed

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A poem in progress

TREED

Suspended in your limbs the
sky shatters to dancing fractals.
Height makes me dizzy.
Pressed by gravity to your
contours
corpuscles shriek.
My heart screeches
out of control.
Refusing to
fall
I
will
climb
(down).

Wood against flesh.
Taut, anxious;
mute and clumsy; bones
rattle against every
branch on the way. Till I

f
a
l
l

and tangle in your roots.

Bruises rise like
sap. Sunshine
sears the skin your fingers warmed.
Wind dips to kindly whisper:
Let go.

Wordsworth ‘Composed Upon Westminster Bridge’

William Wordsworth’s sublime ode to London. Thanks Alice!

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Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802

Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!

Share your favourite ‘place’ poem in the comments!

Moving Words (Rock’n’Roll Shoes)

I moved house this week. For the third time in four months.

“Do you always move that much?”

“Actually,” I confessed. “Three months is a pretty long stint in one place for me.”

This is true. There was the year I moved every eight weeks. The long-haul year spent shuttling between America, Ibiza, London and Myanmar.

There were non-moving years: Glasgow 2010; London 2012. Periods of compression. On release, I tumbled from place to place in a blur of kinetic energy.

Always a spur: Don’t get stuck. Don’t miss out. Don’t settle (for less).

On at least three occasions I left a city with only a suitcase, giving or throwing away everything in excess of 20kg. “It is desirable that a man… live in all respects so compactly and preparedly that, if an enemy take the town he can, like the old philosopher, walk out the gate empty-handed without anxiety,” writes Henry David Thoreau. I came close.

This week, boxes and suitcases went into my car and were joined by my cat. Unprecedented adult privilege and responsibility. Undreamt gratitude. The sun was hot and bright as I ferried boxes. White blossoms lingered amidst the almond trees’ fresh green leaves. When I took a break at the cafe, the owner sat and chatted then wouldn’t let me pay for my tea. The neighbouring farmer lent me fruit-crates to pack my books.

Vague anxiety shrouded me like fog. It always does when I move. This time literal and figurative sunshine burnt it off. The irresistible smile of someone who’s a reason to stay. Unpacking clothes instead of piling them in the donation bin of a charity shop. Restoring my books to their shelves. Running the familiar road to San Carlos.

I wouldn’t miss a single move. Every bounce taught me something (the hard falls in particular). To stay is a new education. I am choosing something now, to paraphrase Adrienne Rich, choosing to live with all my intelligence.

Poetry Challenge – East Coker by TS Eliot

Kat & I

Kat & I

Nobel Peace laureate and Burmese democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi spent over 20 years under house arrest. She says that one of the things that kept her together was memorising poetry. Once it’s in your head, she added, nobody can take it away from you. Thinking about that inspired me to set myself a poetry challenge: memorise one poem a month during 2015.

That will give me a stock of a dozen poems to carry with me everywhere, always.

For January I’ve chosen a portion of ‘East Coker’ from TS Eliot’s Four Quartets. My dear friend Kat introduced me to this poem a few years ago and it has become deeply rooted in my psychic landscape, both for itself and because it reminds me of how blessed I am by her friendship. This is for you my love!


East Coker

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years—
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres
Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.
There is a time for the evening under starlight,
A time for the evening under lamplight
(The evening with the photograph album).
Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter.

Old men ought to be explorers
Here and there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.