Archives for category: Poetry

On December 2, Philip Larkin was finally memorialised in Westminster Abbey’s Poets’ Corner. Exactly 31 years to the day since his death.

Larkin was, and remains, a controversial figure, ‘jammed somewhere between celebratory and condemnatory impulses.‘ I have often argued for appreciating the work of poets through their words without dragging their lives into the mix. For me, poetry can stand alone, can be complete in itself as words on a page. Perhaps that is a naive standpoint, but I remain content experiencing great work as a thing in itself.

And for me, Larkin is a great poet. One of the best presents I ever received was the entire collection from my daughter a couple of Christmases ago.

And it being Christmas again, I thought of that gift as I read about Larkin finally arriving in Poets’ Corner. As I put up our Christmas tree, aware of another ending year, Larkin’s wondrous poem The Trees presented itself.

The Trees

The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too,
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

Philip Larkin

 

My daughter is 17 and currently meandering around Europe, enjoying a new found sense of freedom and of adventure. Her excitement as she increasingly appreciates life’s possibilities is almost palpable.

And who knows what these possibilities will materialise as…

I came across this poem in a recent issue of The New Yorker. I love its ambiguity and its realism, although I never felt that my daughter was ‘mine’, or that I held any ownership over her.

 

Fourteen

Marie Howe

 

She is still mine–for another year or so–

but she’s already looking past me

through the funeral-home door

to where the boys have gathered in their dark suits.

My daughter, now 17, had her last school day on Friday.

A moment, for both of us, in very different ways.

As a mother, I have mostly delineated my life in accordance with her timelines, her growing upness and its attendant and essential growing awayness. Now, I wonder about her life ahead, about the separate worlds we increasingly inhabit, and I work on allowing the distance between us to flourish.

I like this poem by Natalie Shapero, which wonderfully encapsulates the essence of poetry – the saying of so much with so few words.

Survive Me

It wasn’t for love of having

 

children that I had a child.

Rather, I simply didn’t know how a person

 

could cross, fully shoeless, a bed of coals

and not burn, and I needed

 

someone to pass this to.

I needed my obtuseness to survive me.

 

But I never accounted for our thwarting era.

Every day, the paper

 

runs a remembrance

of a child, the notice struggling to sing the few

 

years lived: He never sketched the Earth without

its hatch of latitudes. She did

 

not like to try new foods.

 

–Natalie Shapero

The Irish poet Brendan Kennelly was born on April 17, 1936. Some of his poems remain in my top 100 favourites, including for example Poem from a Three Year Old, which I have often read to my daughter.

Poem from a Three Year Old

And will the flowers die?

And will the people die?

And every day do you grow old, do I

grow old, no I’m not old, do

flowers grow old?

 

Old things – do you throw them out?

 

Do you throw old people out?

 

And how do you know a flower that’s old?

 

The petals fall, the petals fall from flowers,

and do the petals fall from people too,

every day more petals fall until the

floor where I would like to play I

want to play is covered with old

flowers and people all the same

together lying there with petals fallen

on the dirty floor I want to play

the floor you come and sweep

with the big broom.

 

The dirt you sweep, what happens that,

what happens all the dirt you sweep

from flowers and people, what

happens all the dirt? Is all the

dirt what’s left of the flowers and

people, all the dirt there in a

heap under the huge broom that

sweeps everything away?

 

Why you work so hard, why brush

and sweep to make a heap of dirt?

And who will bring new flowers?

And who will bring new people? Who will

bring new flowers to put in water

where no petals fall on to the

floor, where I would like to

play? Who will bring new flowers

that will not hang their heads

like tired old people wanting sleep?

Who will bring new flowers that

do not split and shrivel every

day? And if we have new flowers,

will we have new people too to

keep the flowers alive and give

them water?

 

And will the new young flowers die?

 

And will the new young people die?

 

And why?

 

This poem is so nostalgic of my mothering. My daughter asked similar yet different questions, but more than the questions themselves I remember the earnestness of the young questioner, and her then desperate need for answers to the mostly unanswerable.

Tonight at dinner, our conversation reflected that of two adults at different ends of the spectrum of lived experiences. Now 17, she still questions the ‘why’ – as do I – but she has become more accepting of the unknowable.

Kennelly believed that ‘Poetry can come from anywhere – unlike the novel, unlike drama, which require perhaps human experience; poetry has in it a kind of child wonder.’

I would like to believe that my grown up daughter continues to carry that child wonder within, that her ‘whys’ of life will continue to be asked, and that her questions will not be beholden to answers.

Happy birthday, Brendan Kennelly.

 

CQ

 

 

 

 

 

The poet Dennis O’Driscoll died on Christmas Eve, 2012.

Today, the winter solstice when the North Pole is tilted furthest away from the sun, marks the shortest day and the longest night of 2015. For me, the significance of the astronomical alignment extends also to the existential, and makes me consider what being human might mean in this extraordinary and often inexplicable physical world that we inhabit.

I look to the words of Dennis O’Driscoll:

You

Be yourself: show your flyblown eyes

to the world, give no cause for concern,

wash the paunchy body whose means you

live within, suffer the illnesses

that are your prerogative alone –

 

the prognosis refers to nobody but you;

you it is who gets up in the morning

in your skin, you who chews your dinner

with your mercury-filled teeth, gaining

garlic breath or weight, you dreading,

 

you hoping, you regretting, you interloping.

The earth has squeezed you in, found you space;

any loss of face you feel is solely yours –

you with the same old daily moods, debts,

intuitions, food fads, pet hates, Achilles’ heels.

 

You carry on as best you can the task of being,

whole-time, you; you in wake and you in dream,

at all hours, weekly, monthly, yearly, life,

full of yourself as a tallow candle is of fat,

wallowing in self-denial, self-esteem.

 

Dennis O’Driscoll

Today is December 1. It feels auspicious somehow, and I wanted to mark it with a poem. Choosing Derek Walcott’s Love After Love was an easy decision – it is good to be reminded to love ourselves, something too easily ignored and forgotten.

Love After Love

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

Derek Walcott

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A friend just sent me this – a Seamus Heaney poem displayed in a New York subway station.

The poem is Scaffolding:

Masons, when they start upon a building,

Are careful to test out the scaffolding;

Make sure that planks won’t slip at busy points,

Secure all ladders, tighten bolted joints.

And yet all this comes down when the job’s done

Showing off walls of sure and solid stone.

So if, my dear, there sometimes seem to be

Old bridges breaking between you and me

Never fear. We may let the scaffolds fall

Confident that we have built our wall.

This was one of the very first poems that Heaney wrote, and as he explains in this short video where he also reads the poem, Scaffolding was written as an appeasement to his wife following a disagreement:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fNYBwF7lKLA

It is now two years since Heaney’s death in 2013. His last words, Noli timeri, texted to his wife and which mean ‘do not fear’, are reminiscent of his words to her in Scaffolding, at the beginning of their life together, ‘Never fear’. Heaney’s gravestone has recently been erected in his native Bellaghy:

2015-08-14_new_11964283_I2

‘Walk on air

against

your better

judgement’

He continues to inspire…

CQ

Once Later

 

It is not until later

that you have to be young

 

it is one of the things

you meant to do later

 

but by then there is

someone else living there

 

with the shades rolled down

how could you have been young there

 

at that time

with all that was expected

 

then what happened to

the expectations

 

there is no sign of them there

a shadow passes across the window shade

 

what do they know in there

whoever they are

 

W.S. Merwin

The Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano died this week. I love his writing, my favourite being The Book of Embraces. I have bought numerous copies of this title over the years, all but one of which I have given to family and friends. It is that kind of book: true to its title, it demands sharing.

The Book of Embraces defies classification, being partly prose, poetry, fiction, history and autobiography. At a very rough guess it contain more than 200 entries, the longest just two pages in length.

Some of my favourites:

Dreams at the end of the exile/1

Helena dreamed she was trying to close her suitcase and couldn’t, and she pushed down on it with both hands and knelt on it and sat on top of it and stood on top of it, and it wouldn’t budge. Mysteries and belongings gushed from the suitcase that wouldn’t close.

Grapes and wine

On his deathbed, a man of the vineyards spoke into Marcela’s ear. Before dying, he revealed his secret:

The grape,” he whispered, “is made of wine.

Marcela Perez-Silva told me this, and I thought: If the grape is made of wine, then perhaps we are the words that tell who we are.

Resurrections/1

Acute myocardial infarct, death clawing at the center of my chest. I spent two weeks sunk in a hospital bed in Barcelona. Then I sacrificed my tattered Porky 2 address book, which was falling apart, and although I could not help it, as I changed address books, I relived the years since the sacrifice of Porky 1. While I was transferring names, addresses and telephone numbers to the new book, I was also getting a clear perspective on the muddle of times and people I had been living with, a whirlwind of many deep joys and sorrows, and this was a prolonged mourning for the dead who had remained in the dead zone of my heart, and a long, much longer celebration of those still alive who fired my blood and swelled my surviving heart. And there was nothing bad and nothing odd about the fact that my heart had broken from so much use.

CQ

The Swedish Nobel Laureate poet and psychologist died on March 26. Despite suffering a stroke in 1990, he continued to write, and to play the piano with his left hand. I have always been drawn to his sparse yet intense style, and include here one of my favourites, ‘Alone’:

I

One evening in February I came near to dying here.
The car skidded sideways on the ice, out
onto the wrong side of the road. The approaching cars –
their lights – closed in.

My name, my girls, my job
broke free and were left silently behind
further and further away. I was anonymous
like a boy in a playground surrounded by enemies

The approaching traffic had huge lights.
They shone on me while I pulled at the wheel
in a transparent terror that floated like egg white.
The seconds grew – there was space in them –
they grew as big as hospital buildings.

You could almost pause
and breathe out for a while
before being crushed.

Then something caught: a helping grain of sand
or a wonderful gust of wind. The car broke free
and scuttled smartly right over the road.
A post shot up and cracked – a sharp clang – it
flew away in the darkness.

Then – stillness. I sat back still in my seat-belt
and saw someone coming through the swirling snow
to see what had become of me.

II

I have been walking for a long time
on the frozen Östergötland fields.
I have not seen a single person.

In other parts of the world
there are people who are born, live and die
in a perpetual crowd.

To be always visible – to live
in a swarm of eyes –
a special expression must develop.
Face coated with clay.

The murmuring rises and falls
while they divide up among themselves
the sky, the shadows, the sand grains.

I must be alone
ten minutes in the morning
and ten minutes in the evening.
– Without a programme.

Everyone is queuing at everyone’s door.

Many.

One.

translated from the Swedish by Robin Fulton