WHY I WROTE HOW BAD IS THE DEVIL

Rebecca's CW
…………………..

I was born the year Yeats died. He was 73 and I’m now 76.

That’s important for me as the reward for the effort I put in everyday is the strength to go on even with so little encouragement, a strength which is also a certain softness that inspires and protects me.

My wife Homprang often asks me how someone with so many degrees can be so stupid, and I always reply the same way, that unlike me she’s a genius. Which she really is — because reading and writing so little has given her a distinct advantage over me when it comes to sharpness and sanity. Because of course she can see ghosts and things like that which is a great advantage because they terrify her and make her refrain from doing or saying anything stupid or risky.

And I’m just the opposite, of course — I’m a bit soft in the head from reading and writing too much. It’s my rarefied education that has made me so fearless as well as foolish, a fact that makes Homprang even more impatient — because just imagine what she might have done had she had an education like mine instead of leaving school at eleven? I mean, she could have made up ghosts and spirits like I do instead of being careful never to look in their direction what is more to mention their names.

On the other hand, isn’t it also a certain softness in the head which makes us love and admire a great poet like William Butler Yeats so much, that he could have worshiped Maud Gunn like that for so long, for example, and then proposed to Iseult? Or sat up and read what his very young wife George wrote down restless beside him on their honeymoon, as if she were Ishtar or the Angel Gabriel descended on the Ashdown Forest Hotel? And never even to have suspected — as in a sense she didn’t either, both of them being in the softness way over their heads? And to have actually believed in “The Circus Animal’s Desertion” too even when he was always so nicely put up in Anglo-Irish country houses right to the end, an emperor with a mechanical bird for eternity in a gilded cage?

Or Eliot in his own foul rag and bone shop of the heart down-and-out in Harvard and Paris?

…………………………………Between the conception
…………………………………And the creation
…………………………………Between the emotion
…………………………………And the response
…………………………………Falls the Shadow.

And how we love the really great ones for being soft in the head like that, neurasthenic even, connecting nothing with nothing. How they expose us and redeem us, and make us whole.…………………………………<…………………………………In an Emergency.

~

I lived for 10 years in Coleman’s Hatch on the Ashdown Forest just down the road from the Pooh Bridge in one direction and the cottage where Pound wintered with Yeats in 1913 in the other, and I walked by the Ashdown Forest Hotel everyday on my way to teach school with my children, and drank at the Hatch in the evening. That was back in the ’70s.

~

What’s important is something way out there, that’s the point, and I mean having the courage to do whatever it is all by yourself regardless and always in a sense upstairs alone in your room late at night. Because there’s no other activity that counts one iota but being alone with a loaded gun and a delicate body.

…………………..Much Madness is divinest Sense —
…………………..To a discerning Eye —
…………………..Much sense — the starkest Madness —
…………………..’Tis the Majority
…………………..In this, as all, prevail –
…………………..Assent – and you are sane –
…………………..Demur – you’re straightway dangerous –
…………………..And handled with a Chain –

And that’s how bad the devil is, not knowing your place in the grown-up world, not just lying down and being quiet like the big dog Sam. Being soft in the head is like being Eve in God’s grown-up Garden, I’d say, like not only rejecting Heaven but being in cahoots with the Devil in a serious effort to rewrite Paradise. “Unless we become as Rogues we cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven,” Emily Dickinson wrote to a friend at age 50, and I’d say courage like that coupled with a delicate body and a diamond mind is heroic!

Speaking as a poet I say that, because in fact I know almost nothing about “diamond minds” or “heroic” but just what I write.

Which is why I write as well, as if my desk were underground in Lascaux — as if the hunt depended on my depiction of the beauty and grace of the animals as well as my reverence for them. And even the sun rising.

~

Emily Dickinson’s named her huge black and white Newfoundland ‘Carlo’ after St John River’s old pointer and not after Mr Rochester’s huge black and white Newfoundland called ‘Pilot.’

With that in mind, can you imagine Emily Dickinson out for a walk on the treacherous, ice-bound cart-road to Hay being rescued and steadied by Jane Eyre as if she were the one who was mounted? The clatter of the hooves and the crash? The neat little boots and the hot breath of the gytrash on your neck? And is that why you name your dog ‘Carlo’ instead, to reject the tall, perfect, god-like ‘Master’ on the straight and narrow path? For the Rogue himself do you name him, tumbling on the causeway at your feet?

And can you see then how the truth is more important than the facts? Can you imagine what ‘Pilot’ was like before the Wright brothers put that neat blue-serge suit on him and made him a captain at 35,000 feet? Can you rather hear the crash of the sea as the earlier ‘Pilot’ guides you over the bar to land-locked Florence and on up the hillside to La Gioiella? Can you go somewhere you can never be but you have to arrive at — where everything that has ever happened happens to you for the first time alone in your room upstairs?

Here’s how I say that upstairs alone in my own delicate body.

…………………..“Yet still it moves!” the old beard raves,
…………………..The moon girdling a softer quarter —
…………………..The impossible return,
…………………..Ocean fins quickening the landlocked water.

………………………………………..from YET STILL IT MOVES: Two Decades
………………………………………………..of Poems Under House Arrest

Christopher Woodman

THIS THREAD IS CONTINUED IN THE COMMENTS THAT FOLLOW.

57 Comments

  1. March 27, 2016 at 3:20 pm

    ……….
    …………………………“Faith” is a fine invention
    …………………………When Gentlemen can see —
    …………………………But Microscopes are prudent
    …………………………In an Emergency.
    ………
    ……………………………………….~
    ………
    …………………………The Lord in His wisdom
    …………………………Made the Fly —
    …………………………And then forgot
    …………………………To tell us — Why —
    ……….

    “Like prayer and doggerel verse, platitudes are often beatitudes we’ve outgrown or are ashamed that we haven’t. . .”

    I think there’s almost always an element of that in memorable poetry, at least in what strikes me as memorable poetry. For such poetry makes me stop in my tracks and read it again right away, as the first little poem certainly did when I stumbled on it the other day, and the other has been going round and round in my head for over 60 years.

    The enduring quality of such poetry is often that it’s so simple a reader doesn’t know where to look as grownups don’t know where to look if they’ve been made to feel they shouldn’t see certain things as a child — and I mean sacred as well as awkward things including sites that are off limits, whole facets and memories, and of course parts of the body. A poem is memorable for me if it can show me something I’m not supposed to, but know I need to, and really, really want to — see!

    It’s that sort of  poem which finds itself by my bedside first thing in the morning too, then in my common-place book after breakfast, then in whatever I’m writing that day and on to the next — and, if it’s really memorable, on and on and eventually into a forever-and-ever-amen poem like “Yet Still It Moves” after 20 years. And then I start reading that poem in turn, over and over again.

    If you’re also still interested you can read it again yourself here.

    Christopher

    P.S. And of course I’ve played around with the format of the second little poem above, which you probably all know. Does what I’ve done give it a certain dignity, or are you outraged?

    Indeed, you may even recall what I said about it here — and quite seriously, I do still find it interesting. . .

  2. March 28, 2016 at 12:22 pm

    THE FLY

    If we give credit to the fly where credit is due, does that mean we have no need of an explanation for the buzzing what is more for the personal irritations, sores, frustrations, and suffering the fly so often occasions? On the other hand, the buzzing of the fly is also akin to the continuo in the celestial music of Bach, for example, or the tambura in the magnificent classical music of India. And I’d go even farther and say it’s like the “hum” of the cosmic “bumble bee” in “One Sister Have I in Our House” — if I might be allowed at this late date. (And lest I be further pilloried, this buzzing is also just a plain bee in the June garden as Sue is also just the sister-in-law next door…)

    So why didn’t God create human beings with the appropriate equipment to appreciate the fly, that’s what Ogden Nash is asking — or the bumble bee, or the music of the spheres, or even just who we are and what we might do about it? Would that be asking too much? Because if we’d been equipped to see things better right from the start none of all this frustration and suffering would matter, not even the fly on our deathbed. Because most everything awful that happens to human beings is just a matter of misdeeming, and who should we hold responsible for that?

    Speaking as a poet I say that, of course. If I were speaking as a sensible man I certainly wouldn’t dare. Indeed, I might just send you a Hallmark card instead, or a much better poem than I usually do. One you could read.

    So here are the questions:

    ~ Do you think human beings understand a fly better when they look at it through a microscope or when they read about one buzzing in a poem of Emily Dickinson, or listen to a Bach concerto or Ali Akbar Khan’s sarod (my own most powerful experience of the tambura live)? By the same token, do they understand the sun better when they look at the moons of Jupiter through Galileo’s telescope or when they experience the sun, just as indirectly, mind you, in a love sonnet of Edna St Vincent Millay or Shakespeare?

    ~ Do the recent recordings of the two black-holes colliding a billion light years away help you to understand better where you are in time and space than listening to the tambura? And do you feel more sure about being here as a result of the input? In other words, are you more sure because the facts are the real facts recorded by scientists and not just the fantasies made up by prophets, preachers, and artists?

    ~ Do you feel more at home as a human being in your body defined in modern anatomical text books or in earlier depictions including Cave Paintings, Temple Sculptures, Aborigine Doodles, Benin Bronzes, Shunga Lovers, and the Body Art of humanity’s last great Pastoralists, the Nuba, Dinka, and Nuer peoples of East Africa?

    Or what about this one:


    Joseph Cornell, “Untitled” (c.1948), Construction, 17 5/8 x 11 1/8 x 4 3/8 inches.

    Christopher

  3. March 29, 2016 at 10:11 am

    EXHIBITS:

    #1 is Emily Dickinson’s poem that occasioned it all, and of course I mean “One Sister have I in Our House.” But you know where to go to for that.

    #2 is the poem which we need right now, for the hum in the room:

    …..
    ……….I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –
    ……….The Stillness in the Room
    ……….Was like the Stillness in the Air –
    ……….Between the Heaves of Storm –

    ……….The Eyes around – had wrung them dry –
    ……….And Breaths were gathering firm
    ……….For that last Onset – when the King
    ……….Be witnessed – in the Room –

    ……….I willed my Keepsakes – Signed away
    ……….What portion of me be
    ……….Assignable – and then it was
    ……….There interposed a Fly –

    ……….With Blue – uncertain – stumbling Buzz –
    ……….Between the light – and me –
    ……….And then the Windows failed – and then
    ……….I could not see to see –
    …..

    #3 is what Seamus Heaney said about the buzzing on the 50th anniversary of Yeats’ death. “Reading Yeats, I can feel at times a transmission of dangerous force such as I felt as a child, standing alone in fields close to the tremble of electric poles, under the sizzle of the power lines.”

    #4 is what Yeats said about himself in his Autobiography, that a poet “is never the bundle of accident and incoherence that sits down to breakfast; he has been reborn as an idea, something intended, complete.”

    #5 “You were silly like us; your gift survived it all.” That’s what Auden said.

    C.

  4. wfkammann said,

    April 1, 2016 at 5:39 am

    ………..I eat my peas with honey
    ………..I’ve done it all my life
    ………..It makes the peas taste funny
    ………..But it keeps them on the knife!

    ………………………………………………..Ogden Nash

  5. April 1, 2016 at 9:23 pm

    Yes indeed, “honey”/”funny” — “life”/”knife!” — a singular genius.

    Here’s another:

    Ogden Nash Poem for Eugene McCarthy

    Rare find published in the “Women for McCarthy” Newsletter, Vol.1, No.2, April 1968:

    [Senator McCarthy’s birthday was March 29th, 1968]

    ………………Happy Birthday, dear Eugene,
    ………………The first to give us a choice between.
    ………………Today in you we place our trust,
    ………………Not an alternative, but a must.
    ………………The kids are for you, glory be,
    ………………And so are wise old men like me.
    ………………How many statesmen of good intent
    ………………Would rather be right than president.
    ………………But I will gladly take my oath
    ………………That you’re the man who can be both.
    ………………As your 52nd candle burns,
    ………………Many happy election returns!

    ………………………………………………..Ogden Nash

    “Eugene” “between;”
    “trust”/must;”
    “be”/”me;”
    “intent”/”president;”
    “oath”/both;”
    “burns”/”returns.”

    Of course he’s working in a satirical tradition that included generations of 19th and early 20th Century English ‘Public School’ boys writing in Latin as well as English plus similarly over-educated infantile (=”childlike” in some cases, “boyish” in others) adults like Lord Byron, Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll, W.S.Gilbert and A.A.Milne, and how we still love them. In our times Robert Creeley and William Carlos Williams were equally inartistic even when they tried really hard to write poetry, and we continue to admire that clumsiness too, and now call it (with good reason and good faith) “poetry.” At the opposite extreme, Billy Collins writes some wonderfully elegant poetry even when it remains on the periphery of patter. And I respect and admire him greatly.

    In relation to the “Women for McCarthy” poem I’d like to add, “Many thanks, dear friends Eugene McCarthy and Ogden Nash — just when we need a whole lot of your demotic intelligence, generosity, and silly humanity, to winkle us through!”

    C.

  6. April 3, 2016 at 11:08 am

    So here’s where all that goes for me in relation to “Why I Wrote How Bad is the Devil:”

    ……………Why I make it all up as I go, which I do, and why
    ………….I consider such fabrication not only good but true.

    Because the experience for me is good even if the poetry isn’t, that’s the point. Whether my writing is good or not is much less important to me than the experience of making it the best that I can and then reading it back to myself over and over again, for years even — and of course rewriting it over the years as well, as Emily Dickinson used to do too. Indeed, it matters surprisingly little to me whether my poems are considered worth reading by anybody else in the world — because I read them with such intensity and pleasure myself. Almost everyday I read them, in fact — with the highest expectations and, not infrequently, with very unexpected new insights and substantial rewards for my new life just beginning that day.

    Which is a conundrum for sure, as of course I feel lonely and disappointed that nobody wants to read me. But it also puts me in a position to consider the conundrum objectively as I’m not distracted by the conflict between my public ‘reputation’ on the one hand and the experience of reading my own poetry in private on the other.

    I have no reputation to distract me, it’s as simple as that — and as ironical too.

    And it’s truly ironical because, in the context of the question, “Why I Write,” my lack of “success” has also been crucial to my success — as I believe it was also for Emily Dickinson who was, in fact, less “successful” as a poet in her own lifetime than even I have been in mine (As it was recorded in his obituary: “The poet Christopher Woodman published very little during his lifetime — Emily Dickinson, on the other hand, published nothing at all…“).

    What’s obvious is that Emily Dickinson thrived on invisibility, and even cultivated it. It was the experience of writing (and rewriting and rewriting ad inifintum) all by herself that was the reward, and her total lack of public exposure was what enabled her to become so uniquely powerful and great.  She wrote for what her poems gave her in her own intensely private space, not for any external, noisy (and nosey!) acclaim, and because the pressures were so unrelenting up there alone in that tightly-sealed bedroom hermitage, an athanor, one might even call it, she refined not only as much pure gold as any human being has ever managed, but produced diamond after diamond after diamond as well, and tied them up neatly in bundles for us to find later — indeed, even after 130 years we haven’t managed to lift the whole treasure, and I suspect we never will.

    The point is that a poem has two audiences, the writer first and foremost, who gets the gold that really matters, and only then the public who is served the dessert — diamonds in Emily Dickinson’s case, maybe an occasional doughnut in mine. Because a poem doesn’t necessarily say it all in public — as mine clearly don’t even when they speak so forcibly to me. That’s why for a poet there can be quite a lot of gold even when there appear to be no collateral diamonds to share.

    And wouldn’t it be interesting to know what an Emily Dickinson poem said to Emily Dickinson herself upstairs alone like a loaded gun in the corner, if we could just be inside her? Could we stretch ourselves that far? Could we bear it?

    ~

    As I mentioned in #3 just above, Yeats said about himself in his Autobiography that a poet “is never the bundle of accident and incoherence that sits down to breakfast; he has been reborn as an idea, something intended, complete.”

    Most people read a Yeats statement like that and just accept it as Yeats-talk, as everybody knows that the great man had a habit of believing silly and incomprehensible things — which fortunately don’t get in the way of his poetry. Indeed, his poetry remains to this day among the greatest and most accessible poetry ever written in English, almost everyone would agree with that statement, I think. And most readers would also agree that by and large his poetry was unsullied by his quaint and spooky ideas.

    In real life, i.e. “at breakfast,” Yeats was a very shy and very private, indeed neurasthenic person, and many of his most important concerns as a poet he kept for this reason scrupulously to himself. In his endless private notes, journals and letters to his wife and close friends, Yeats insisted that his poems contained far more than just what the words seemed to be saying, however beautiful, poetic and evocative those words might be — and goodness knows he was aware of (and pleased with) what he accomplished in public. But it was the other dimension that he wrote them for even if that dimension was inaccessible to anyone but himself. For it was in his private experience as a poet writing poetry for himself in which he was “reborn as an idea, something intended, complete,” as he says just above. Read it again and you’ll see that that’s what he says — and I think we must accept that too, that that was what he actually experienced in his work.

    So what do we do about that, based on our own individual experiences as persons who write? And if we think we get that, what do we do next?

    And I mean, what do I do next when I say the same thing? What then for me?
    ………….

    ………………………….WHAT THEN?

    ………………His chosen comrades thought at school
    ………………He must grow a famous man;
    ………………He thought the same and lived by rule,
    ………………All his twenties crammed with toil;
    ………………‘What then?’ sang Plato’s ghost. ‘What then?’

    ………………Everything he wrote was read,
    ………………After certain years he won
    ………………Sufficient money for his need,
    ………………Friends that have been friends indeed:
    ………………“What then?” sang Plato’s ghost, “what then?”

    ………………All his happier dreams came true—
    ………………A small old house, wife, daughter, son,
    ………………Grounds where plum and cabbage grew,
    ………………Poets and Wits about him drew;
    ………………“What then?” sang Plato’s ghost, “what then?”

    ………………“The work is done,” grown old he thought,
    ………………“According to my boyish plan;
    ………………Let the fools rage, I swerved in nought,
    ………………Something to perfection brought”;
    ………………But louder sang that ghost, “What then?”

    ………………………………………………William Butler Yeats (1938?)
    ………….

    End of Part 1.
    …and this is very hard, so please don’t rush me. And please do read it again when you get the chance as I shall undoubtedly be rewriting it as well, as I always do.

    Which is what I mean too, how it never stops unfolding and never stops revealing itself yet again rewritten, rewritten, rewritten.

    Christopher

  7. April 5, 2016 at 2:28 pm

    UNDER HOUSE ARREST

    Poetry can sometimes address things more clearly than science, but ordinary life can be clear as well, at least if we take the time to listen to it without getting in its way with too many answers.

    It’s my conviction that a human being can experience a God-like peace and clarity without understanding anything about how, why or where we come from or are going, if indeed we are coming or going at all. By the same token, people who experience such peace and clarity rarely try to explain it to anybody else as it’s wholly inexplicable. Science, on the other hand, is by definition explicable, and even though there are enormous contradictions, missing links, holes and kinks that cut even the steadiest ground from under our feet, most educated people assume that science has accounted for just about everything. And of course most educated people today assume that teachers are there to help children learn the facts so that eventually they can give the right answer to any question in a sensible, grownup way.

    The fact is that what knowledge we have is based on warped, bent and parochial faculties combined with false assumptions, pride, prejudice and denial. Indeed, in order to be certain about anything we have to iron out so many wrinkles, ignore so many contradictions, over-ride so many bittersweet joys as well as embarrassing doubts, foolish ecstasies, illogical triumphs and failures, births, deaths and fallings in love that we usually stop trying altogether. As a result we end up knowing no more about who we are or what we are doing than a modern child alone in a room of wall-to-wall toys — and what a nightmare image that is! And what do we give that poor little boy in ourselves, to make sense out of life? A joystick and a box full of out-dated code — irrelevant statistics, old equations, yesterday’s Google algorithms, and of course the cutting edge in virtual violence.

    Pause over that for a moment and listen to music that nobody can place.

    Galileo, a very fine musician in his own right, would have heard such other-worldly music, and as he was also powerfully engaged with the newest developments in natural philosophy, would have struggled with the dilemma that arises — how to grasp the ungraspable and not just throttle the world.

    As I listen to this extraordinary voice from the 17th Century, there is no doubt in my mind that Galileo would have tried to resolve the contradiction between his own faith in the broadest, non-sectarian sense* and the huge, mechanical, inhuman machine that was being let loose on the world — he was, after all, the greatest mind of his age and the most influential prophet of modern science. And he certainly didn’t need the Curia to help him to understand ‘Doctrine’ better either, and so called ‘Authority’ had no control over his mind, just over his body — fearsome yes, but not much else. Indeed, in all times and places the mysteries, disjuncts and paradoxes of life have been self-evident to intelligent men and women, and especially to ones who have been misunderstood, persecuted and even imprisoned for their ideas. There have been many too, like Emily Dickinson, for example, who could go to Church or not and it made no difference as it all makes sense to such people, both inside and outside the pale. Although Galileo didn’t talk about such things in public, I feel sure that similar musings would have been much on his mind, and in particular during his last years, as they are on mine.

    One of my favorite books is Dana Sobel’s GALILEO’S DAUGHTER, a most beautifully written and sensitive exploration of Galileo’s relationship with his much loved daughter, Marie Celeste, a nun who spent her entire life shut up in a cold, damp, poverty-obsessed cloister not far from La Gioiella, the villa where Galileo lived and where he was placed under house arrest for the last 8 years of his life — (“under house arrest,” and I mean, who could come up with a better image for what we are talking about than that?). And we have the letters too, an extraordinary blessing for anybody who would like a glimpse into a very great scientist’s life as a very ordinary, much beset, fragile and, yes, sometimes a bit simple-minded and befuddled old man.

    Living in those two worlds at once is as good an image for the paradox of being human as any I can think of, the observatory with the telescope trained on the heavens above right next door to the cloister with no view of anything but the walls. And that’s why I wrote so much about that one-word poem, “One Sister Have I in Our House” — by a self-cloistered woman whose mind was, I feel sure, as far ranging outwardly as Galileo’s and at the same time as inwardly turned as the strictest, most dilligently sequestered Poor Clare.

    That’s what I tried to show you before, because of course this is exactly the same essai rewritten — OUT THERE AS IN HERE is what it was called.

    So now let’s turn back to “WHAT THEN?” and see where it all goes now.

    Christopher

    *NOTE: “his own faith in the broadest, non-sectarian sense.” As I use it here, “faith” doesn’t have to have anything to do with Catholicism or even with Christianity.

    “His own version of the perennial philosophy” might do better, or just “his own sense of self” or, if you can manage it without getting all tied up in spiritual materialsim, “his own soul” — which doesn’t have to have anything to do with “salvation” or “lives to come” in any capacity.

    More anon I feel sure, when we get back to “WHAT THEN?”.

  8. April 8, 2016 at 10:21 am

    A NOTE TO A FRIEND IN REPLY TO A DESPERATE MISSIVE.

    Because we have so little experience of being ‘cloistered’ ourselves, or at least we think we haven’t, we assume that all hermits live in strict solitude without fun or companionship. The 4th Century Desert Fathers were actually very social, indeed they wouldn’t have managed to survive if they hadn’t been, visiting each other to discuss the weather, medicines, temptations, visions and gardens, and of course to hand around the very few manuscripts available and, when necessary, cheer each other up — and they were certainly a lively bunch! You can read Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert, for that.

    The later Cenobites who lived in actual monastic communities like Marie-Celeste’s Poor Clares were engaged in a very intense social life too with just as much gossip and baking and rivalry and grieving as anybody got to enjoy, if they were lucky, and if that is the word, ‘outside.’ You can read Galileo’s Daughter for that.

    Even the most anti-social and sometimes even psychotic hermits hidden in those shacks in our own woods have their daily communings, don’t forget, foraging for other people’s companionship in junk piles, reading their papers lying about, chattering with the squirrels, and of course encouraging the crocuses to come out.

    And of course Emily Dickinson moved about in her house, upstairs and downstairs, in the scullery and larder, in the garden and over the Amherst fields with Carlo — and she was famous for her baking as well as for lowering baskets to children outside her window, and was even seen on occasion snogging with men in the parlor (there’s no doubt in my mind she had lovers). On the other hand, her mentor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, got to see her only once in his life, and Mabel Loomis Todd never, not once (that’s truly astonishing, considering!). As to the Evergreens, yes, while it was possible she too was popping in and out for the revels when Samuel Bowles was around. But she also went through years with never a visit.

    And you ask about the Cistercians, like the ones in Kentucky do you mean? Well, they always led the way in perfecting the rigors of seclusion from the 11th Century onward, but their very laudable efforts almost always ended in failure, or should we say success? Their initial decision to build their monasteries in swamps and badlands so they wouldn’t be tempted by profit almost always ended up in disaster, because their devotion to work as well as prayer without distraction resulted in the creation of some of the richest farmland in Europe, once the swamps had been drained, etc. Even the introduction of silence was tempered by eating and listening together, as intense a form of companionship as I can imagine for over-wrought intellectuals, and, very appropriately, very new (1892!).

    And Thomas Merton still got to travel, talk and do Zen Masters an awful lot, indeed until he was totally exhausted. And all he was really interested in was seeing God for once, a blessing that was never granted — which was very important because had he met God on the road he would have had to cut his head off …

    And you yourself, my friend, despite all your recent success and non-stop travel, you manage the contemplative life at home as well as anyone. Indeed, nobody feels shut out, not even me, and I’d say you’ve got it just about right, a true blessing for anyone.

    To confirm that try this for a similar silence.

    Christopher

  9. April 9, 2016 at 10:07 pm

    [lines from a poem of mine still after 20 years in progress]

    ……………………For see—
    ……………………How easy it is to swing
    ……………………Those mossy lock-gates to
    ……………………And turn the handles down,
    ……………………The act that predicates
    ……………………A dryer route, faster,
    ……………………Less brave and spectacular,
    ……………………Its tow paths like third rails
    ……………………That sheltered spark
    ……………………Over-night delivery,
    ……………………Shinnying under ground.

    ……………………I want poems for those
    ……………………Who are like me
    ……………………Not chosen to dance
    ……………………By the girl in the red silk dress,
    ……………………That the words may be hard
    ……………………And penitential like the chairs
    ……………………We fast to inhabit while
    ……………………We wait by the wall,
    ……………………Plain and patient
    ……………………Until the music stops
    ……………………And we all go home.

    ……………………Write me a dozen poems
    ……………………That cover their heads in white
    ……………………Like girls who have taken vows.
    ……………………I will listen hunkered down
    ……………………With the quiet doves at dawn
    ……………………While they kneel humbly in starch
    ……………………And crocus dust for seven days,
    ……………………The ecclesiastical calendar
    ……………………Going from purple to green.
    ……………………The lines will tremble
    ……………………Around their eyes
    ……………………Like veins in silver leaves.

    ………………………………………from YET STILL IT MOVES: Two Decades
    ……………………………………………….of Poems Under House Arrest.

  10. April 10, 2016 at 9:42 pm

    [more canal imagery from the same poem still after 20 years in progress]

    …………………Oh, I’d lock into
    …………………Any old post-industrial canal
    …………………To hear such winsome
    …………………Angel rhymes and
    …………………Early morning cloister traffic—

    …………………The reverie of antique grease like myrrh
    …………………Or amber-wax on iron plates,
    …………………The stricken wicks,
    …………………The cranks like icon sheets
    …………………Turned down for one last night
    …………………Beside the basins full of spirit silt,
    …………………The huge rustling posts and pedestals
    …………………That mesmerize the undergrowth,
    …………………Murmuring in the bulrushes where no moth
    …………………Wrapped in its own juices has no robe
    …………………Or swaddled Moses goes unfloated.

    …………………And all the while the mist-wrapped
    …………………Walker’s sheltered track,
    …………………The busy dog,
    …………………The heron’s tact.

    ……………………………………from YET STILL IT MOVES: Two Decades
    …………………………………………….of Poems Under House Arrest.

    …………………

    NOTE:
    The early industrial canal provided the most important transport for heavy cargo in much of Europe and North America right up to the 1940s, yet few recall how the cranks and levers worked, the intricate water supply, the long ‘reaches’ through the countryside. The Canal de Bourgogne, a truly sacred relic with its almost 200 shaded locks, winds slowly through the Burgundy region of France, one of the most beautiful old-world landscapes left in the world, and the scene of my poem — though it’s also St Gervais at 7pm, of course, evensong done, the candles snuffed and icons carried away. Nothing left any night but old smoke and ruins.

    Like visiting the real Tintern Abbey, let’s say, or the small ruined chapels and stone huts on Inishbofin or Oronsay, like Tintagel in Cornwall, Delphi in Greece, or the island of Delos, the navel of the world. And there’s just as much there today. I’d say, as there ever has been if you’re willing to look without an iPhone or Baedecker. I’d also say that the reason is as profound as it is ironical — that like all consciousness, we make ourselves up as we go, one by one on the edge of the crowd. And if there’s going to be anything of true value to be found there we have to make that up too. We have to engage ourselves and not just be coerced by some external authority, the claims of an epoch, the beliefs of a church, the findings of a lab or the patter of a tour group leader.

    The fact is that our modern indignation, including all our assumptions about what’s true as well as our denials of what isn’t, can’t cope with the rotten cranks, broken shafts, crumbling pillars, silt, and silence of something so important yet meaningless that runs wild through the undergrowth in ancient landscapes like Cornwall, let’s say, or the jungles of Cambodia or Peru — or Burgundy in the case of my canal, a ruin that’s not yet even two centuries old.

    And it helps to have a dog with you, I might add, so you’re not distracted, and maybe some mist and a hat. Maybe a stick too, and maybe a flask. A few tears are quite good as well, a lost job, a broken heart.

    Try Philip Larkin’s combine harvester in “High Windows” to get a sense of what I mean, a wonderful example of the radiance that even a cynic can never diminish, that even the most dyspeptic and cynical poet with or without bicycle clips one can still enter a church and, in so doing, realize his own love and respect even for what’s completely lost and irreparable. Or like the symbols in Yeats, or even his magic.

    …………..But superstition, like belief, must die,
    …………..And what remains when disbelief has gone?
    ………………………………………………..Philip Larkin, “Church Going”

    And that, I feel sure, was Galileo’s situation too, shut up in his garden at La Gioiella for the last years of his life, not allowed to work or even to study. Nobody knows the specific insights his loneliness and frustration might have led to. We have only a few very practical letters between the great man and his daughter, the fragile, exhausted nun, Marie-Celeste — yet she knew so much more than he did about the essentials of life under house arrest, why, he wouldn’t have dared to tell her his own muddled feelings, indeed if he even knew what they were. I’m just sure that he did grapple — as my whole life has been a grappling too. And the answer is the grappling itself, I feel sure, and how to say it is going to be different every time and for every individual as well — though the symbols remain essentially the same, which is one of the proofs.

    We seldom think of loss as an advantage today. We are all so limited by our sense of disconnection from even ourselves, an ‘ex-communication’ one might even call it, and as a consequence lead such impoverished lives that we run for the doctor whenever the going gets rough, as if setbacks were always just some new allergy or diet imbalance. Yet like young children playing in the sand pile, hayloft or dollhouse, we still pretend, don’t we? If we’re lucky, if we get the chance? Even in our retro-cabins in the woods, embarrassed yet nostalgic in The East Village, Bar Harbor or Portland, don’t we still set our beautiful wooden tables as if with silver, light our candles, and serve delicious food from our walled kitchen-garden even if the well-hoed rows are mere boutiques? Don’t we do that as if we still lived in the manor? as if we were Seigneur and Serveur at once? as if we still occupied a place of usefulness and reverence in the world? as if the world still made sense of our personal lives? as if we were still blessed by the warmth and significance of the sun shining down on us forever?

    And the irony is that we can actually be that — because the “as if” is more creatively powerful than the facts and restraints we are taught by our present circumstances. In that “as if” we are nearer to being there than when we parrot the answers like grownups, sensible, well-informed, and responsible. If we can just draw aside the curtain, open our eyes and our hearts, and look out — “as if!”
    …………..

    Cabal de Bourgogne 400

    You can click on the photo to see how it was the last time I was there 20 years ago, and still is in my poem. The bridge is the Pont Près des Forges de Buffon just 30 or so locks ‘amont’ (upstream) from Dijon — you can see the next ‘écluse’ up ahead, and how the world comes to an end just as you pass through it.

    Christopher
    …………..

  11. April 11, 2016 at 3:52 pm

    …………………

    [The final lines again from the same poem after 20 years even now still in progress…]

    …………………And all the while the mist-wrapped
    …………………Walker’s sheltered track,
    …………………The busy dog,
    …………………The heron’s tact.

    ……………………………….from YET STILL IT MOVES: Two Decades
    ……………………………………….of Poems Under House Arrest.

    …………………

  12. April 12, 2016 at 10:27 am

    BREAKING NEWS

    ……….
    ……….SURVIVING DELIVERANCE
    ………………………….for a great man lost at my own age

    ………………..Even the greenest of such doors
    ………………..Open onto vistas of our own neglect,
    ………………..Bone-white, blunt and featureless,

    ………………..The final terms dry and unforgiving
    ………………..As all the valedictory tears we shed
    ………………..The night before we rise at dawn,

    ………………..The dunes of mourning done at last
    ………………..And vows like doves settling down
    ………………..To bow & pray after the great flood.

    ………………..Who could ever bear the loss
    ………………..Of so much raging water?

    ………………..To be storm-tossed is not to know
    ………………..War’s respite is just a high beehive cell
    ………………..And then afterwards a clammy book,

    ………………..The celebrated letters washed away
    ………………..Leaving us only those untoward things
    ………………..The winds had left unsung to start again.

    ………………..The litany of such silence is the sound
    ………………..Of early morning traffic and the footsteps
    ………………..Of a neighbor going off to work.

    ………………..Who could ever open eight flights up
    ………………..The morning mail, lift the telephone or
    ………………..Risk the ground-swell of such daily news?

    ………………..Who could ever learn to sit tight
    ………………..And wait for such permission?
    ………………..

    The “high beehive cell” is a reference to the monastic shelters constructed in the 8th century in northwestern Europe, and specifically to Skellig Michael, the tiny rocky islet that rises 700 ft out of the Atlantic off the west coast of Ireland. These unlikely settlements were key to the preservation of European civilization during the Dark Ages.

    …………………………………………….from YET STILL IT MOVES: Two Decades
    ……………………………………………………..of Poems Under House Arrest.

    ……….

    BREAKING NEWS: The Irish Film Board is being heavily criticized for having allowed Disney-Lucasfilm to shoot Star Wars VII – The Force Awakens on Skellig Michael, not only because the island is such an important, delicate and all but inaccessible Unesco World Heritage site but because the filming was done during the nesting season.

    Christopher

    NOTE: I think it’s important to mention that the “great man lost at my own age” in the invocation to “Surviving Deliverance” is not Galileo but Primo Levi. Although I think that’s clear in the details of the poem, it might be confusing in the context of this thread which concerns itself so much with two other old men, Yeats and Galileo.

    In fact I wrote the dedication when I was, like Primo Levi at the end, only 68.

  13. April 14, 2016 at 12:12 pm

    WONDERING WHAT TO LOOK FOR

    …………..But superstition, like belief, must die,
    …………..And what remains when disbelief has gone?
    ………………………………………………..Philip Larkin, “Church Going”

    What remains when disbelief has gone is so close to us today we hardly notice it, and few would stop to examine these two little lines any more than Philip Larkin noticed much of anything when he stepped inside the church that occasioned them. There was so little to see in there, after all,  and he’d even forgotten the words for the important things: parchment, plate and pyx, wasn’t it, or something like that? And locked away for what?

    …………..Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
    …………..And always end much at a loss like this,
    …………..Wondering what to look for…

    And everyday we blithely note in passing that the History of Belief lies behind us too. Indeed, we take it for granted that, just as Evolution moves forward, the long traditions of Belief, and particularly Belief in those parts of the world that believe most fervently, are retrograde, backward even, obstructing progress. Yet some of those places are very close to home too, like just a village away perhaps, or a state border at the most, or even next door.*

    *NOTE: Anybody got a Hmong family living near you? If so bow down, cross your fingers, and participate in the sacrifice in the car park — if they’ll let you. I say that based on my own personal experience with this most wonderfully vibrant, intelligent and resilient of animist peoples, indeed my feeling is that they understand the world as it really is better than we do. Perhaps they’ll even inherit the earth — the Han Chinese have always been afraid of them, which is one of the reasons the Hmong have never been granted a province in China, or indeed a safe place to settle anywhere…

    Today we feel that any sort of clinging on to old things is “Superstition,” and that makes it easier for us to shake off the last dust of that crazy, old, ignorant infection from ourselves. And don’t worry, we reassure ourselves, what with the United Nations and all that, it won’t be long before everybody’s as fit and reasonable as we are.

    That’s over-simplified, of course it is, but it’s still what anybody likely to be reading this probably feels. But I did need to say it right away as I suspect some of you may have noticed that what I’m saying here is very different from what I seemed to be saying in my last essai, that it was in fact “as-if” that makes human life worth living, which sounds a lot like superstition. And I promise to get back to that when I next address “What then.

    ~

    At this point, “Disbelief” then — which is the next step after Superstition in Philip Larkin’s numinous little aphorism.

    When we get to Disbelief we are so far away from Belief that we don’t even pretend that we ever took any of that sort of stuff seriously, which is why we make sure that our children don’t believe in Santa Claus for too long either, for example, and make jokes, ha ha, about the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny. Having no hope of Heaven, and no fear of Hell either, to keep it very simple, we make sure our children know the facts of life before they accidentally stumble onto the divinity of sex, ha ha ha. And is it any wonder that we have so little feeling for love when penetration is so easy these days, her parents even sending her out on her first date at 13 or 14 with a condom in the fashionable little hand-made-in-Asia amulet bag she wears round her neck?  Or even younger I’ve been told, that even much younger children have dates arranged for them by their parents, that even prepubescent Primary School children are “dating” just to play together as you can’t let children just walk out in the world by themselves, can you?

    And I suspect that anybody who is still reading me thus far, and there are some, indeed more than when I started, and I thank you so much for that, will share my disquietude about the above, indeed will probably know ten times more about ‘Disbelief in Modern Society’ than I do. But it’s enough — we all know this passage from Belief to Superstition to Disbelief, the latter being the place where most of us who read too much are today including myself, an unbeliever even when I’m down on my knees at Mass one day, prostrate before the Buddha the next, then awestruck in an Animist Shrine or shaman-crazy in a Chiang Dao cave — and don’t even think about what happens to me when I stumble on a pile of Witch Stuff in the jungle or behind a bush in my own garden, which I sometimes do as some of our staff are Lua from Mae Hong Son, and they feel an obligation to look after ignorant people like us, needless to say — or even in my own special case when I’m several 100 feet up in the air above my desk as I write something like this , and of course believe precisely none of it while still managing to float way up there, upside down but with my pen still touching the desk top like a Chagal love-letter writer — and at the same time I really am, honestly I am, truly wondering what to look for.

    As I am in the following poem.

    “Out of the Fire Sermon” introduces Part II of Yet Still It Moves! Entitled “Falling Out of the Sky,” the section includes a number of the book’s most frivolous yet at the same time seminal poems, “He Mistakes Her Kingdom for a Horse,” for example, a poem which some of you will know, or “Celestial Observations,” the poem that contains the defining phrase, “Galileo’s secret,” in a startling context. In addition, Part II has a short, enigmatic poem called “Legs in the Air” which refers both to Icarus in Breugel’s famous painting and to the painting’s latter day illuminist, W.H.Auden — he’s the one who described Yeats as “silly like us…” Indeed, “Legs in the Air” is precisely what I think Auden meant both about Yeats and himself, i.e. “silly” is not a dismissal but a back-handed defense of what most people would regard as indefensible behavior. In other words, despite all appearances to the contrary.

    …………………..Do not dare to breathe
    …………………..a word against the men etc…

    And finally, the very last poem in “Falling Out of the Sky” is a curious erotic narrative called “Like Every Angel Born,” and one of the first poems I ever got published. (I read it aloud to Jim Barnes in my boat one evening out on the Seine — Jim was then the francophile editor of The Chariton Review. He took the poem right out of my hands then and there, and it eventually appeared in the 1994 issue. And those were the days too, make no mistake about it — indeed, well over 50% of my published poems were sent out from my boat in Paris, including my long poem, “Connemara Trousers,” picked out of the air by Marilyn Hacker for The Kenyon Review. I learned only later that at the time she was living just upstream from me in the Marais (I think Paris is probably still a good address for a poet …).
    …..

    …………….OUT OF THE FIRE SERMON

    ………………..Whose are these hands with pliers?
    ………………..Why do their color-coded digits
    ………………..Flash and hum as they descend upon
    ………………..Yet another sibyl’s painted body
    ………………..Pressed in a shadowless door frame,
    ………………..The small tits blue like stones and head
    ………………..Full of new-age desert visions
    ………………..And ersatz erogenous fuses?

    ………………..I don’t want to unwire
    ………………..Any avatar’s virtual woman.

    …………………………………………………….I want to run
    ………………..Out in the streets and keep on
    ………………..Running until there are no more
    ………………..Cassandras in catwalk confessionals
    ………………..Full of arc-lights and crated beds.

    ……………………………………………………………..I want
    ………………..Water and plainsong and young
    ………………..Women with white linen napkins
    ………………..Sculpting their heads into frescoes.

    ……………………………………………………………………..I
    ………………..Want a large crystal tumbler—
    ………………..A sunlit virgin’s cool transparent thirst
    ………………..For sacred air
    ………………..And torrents of
    ………………..Fresh white wonder tumbling.

    ……………………………………….from YET STILL IT MOVES: Two Decades
    ………………………………………………..of Poems Under House Arrest.

    ….

    Christopher

  14. April 17, 2016 at 2:51 pm

    That last paragraph got a bit out of hand, I’m afraid — and if you tried to follow some of the links you’ll know a great deal more about my own silliness than you did before. But so it goes — tragi-comic disaster after tragi-comic disaster = life. And so goes this stage too in my attempt to come to terms with Yeats’/Plato’s question, “What Then?” And of course there’s also Yeats’ assertion that a poet “is never the bundle of accident and incoherence that sits down to breakfast; he has been reborn as an idea, something intended, complete.” I haven’t forgotten that.

    What follows is a little warm up to get back there, more specifically applicable than “Falling Out of the Sky,” perhaps, but part and parcel of the same nevertheless. That’s what I’d say anyway.

    I think everybody who loves William Butler Yeats finds Richard Ellmann’s Preface to the 1979 Edition of Yeats, The Man and the Masks as moving a drawing-back-of-the-curtain on the great man’s life as could ever be written. And of course the whole of Yeats’ scholarship has been inspired by The Man and His Masks too, lifted, galvanized, indeed revolutionized by the amount of very personal material George Yeats was willing to pass on to this young PhD student from Yale. And one shouldn’t forget that the interviews took place 32 years before the 1979 Preface was added — and 11 years after George Yeats’ own death at 76. That’s a lot of time to have held so many secrets so securely and so tactfully. Richard Ellmann truly loved and admired George Yeats, subsequently dedicating his great biography of James Joyce to her as well. “To George Yeats” — just like that he explains

    Of course the human interest in the very personal stuff must have made the ardors of the research relatively easy — the hard part for Ellmann must have been to come to terms with the mountains of occult, spiritual, and philosophical arcana that Yeats squirrled away all over the place during a very long life — he started the squirreling at just 16, after all, and continued feverishly until just 2 days before his death at 73! And when it all goes up in smoke at the very end, which it did, how does the scholar Richard Ellmann possibly manage to follow his fey quarry through all that too, and with so much composure and understanding, and with no loss of respect for or trust in this failing, solipsistic, indeed ridiculous old man? And that includes following Yeats through to his final, devastating confession, that all his ‘work’ was in the final analysis just a fantasy, a circus, a threadbare charade.

    That’s what really interests me at the end of my own, even longer life — 76 now, and growing!

    I think it’s also remarkable what an honest yet sensitive accounting Richard Ellmann was able to make of the really private material he was privileged to learn during that extraordinary year of exchange with George Yeats, for that’s certainly what it was, a privileged, mutual exchange between a relatively young widow and a very young biographer. And there was so much silliness to deal with too, so much spiritual and occult as well as sexual messing about — rendered by Ellmann not only as comprehensible but as humanly valuable, indeed he makes it seem almost normal to us normal people as well, that’s the amazing part. Of course, you can get more of the dirt if you want to, it’s certainly out there, but you won’t ever get closer to the treasured truth of the Promethean Divine Fool, the Spiritus Mundi in Flagrante Delicto complete with flowing tie and magic wand, all powdered and carefully made-up, so to speak — this big-hearted celestial clown that has left so many friends like us still bereft even 76 years after the passing.

    Christopher

  15. April 18, 2016 at 9:43 am

    THE CIRCUS ANIMALS DESERTION

    It took me 24 hours to get that last post to do what I wanted it to do, and that was not to fly but get down on its hands and knees, ready to land! So I really do encourage you to give it one more reading, and right to the end too. As a result I think you’ll find what I’m going to do next makes even more sense — even if you’re not quite old enough yet to feel it in your bones …

    ~

    We’re all such Art-for-Art’s-Sake prudes and fine Victorian gentlemen today. Indeed, despite all the Make-It-New knee-jerks of Modernism, we still feel that Art must somehow remain above it all, and pay zillions of dollars not only for the Objet d’Art itself held up with white gloves under the spot light at Christies, but to protect it in case it gets damaged. In this way we’re still like the ‘Old Boy’ Yeats, which is one of the masks he most certainly wore, and I mean the Anglo-Irish aristocrat in him who tried to find perfection in Alchemy and Magic in order to refine the Earth and give him instead the Pure Gold he felt was his due.

    Which he realized only at the very end was not what he meant at all, but more like this (in the words of the poem Jim Barnes heard on my boat on the Seine in 1992 — and I was still so young, just George Yeats’ age, 52, and just publishing my first poem):
    …………..

    ……….LIKE EVERY ANGEL BORN

    …………..Your old lover comes to you
    …………..When your face is to the wall.

    …………..That’s why he’s damp and mossy,
    …………..That’s why his eyes are sharp like mice
    …………..Venturing out just after all the noise
    …………..Has died down in the country kitchen.
    …………..His hips are narrow like the cellar stairs
    …………..He eases himself down slowly step by step—
    …………..His German shepherd’s crippled grace
    …………..Is eager to please with its dark slouch
    …………..Even as it frightens the children
    …………..Dreaming like lanterns on your lawn.

    …………..He scents your confusion in the doorway—
    …………..Even when you’re hiding your smile,
    …………..Even when you’re keeping your hands
    …………..Securely occupied with not having
    …………..Anything to do once you’re in bed.

    …………..He can smell your breasts cascading quietly
    …………..Under the fresh sheets like waterfalls—
    …………..Their odor is round like wading pools
    …………..That reflect last summer’s softest clouds,
    …………..And the picnics too, with the white doves
    …………..Tumbling at the back of the orchard.

    …………..You roll over and straighten out
    …………..Your legs—your hips are ramparts,
    …………..Your moat is filled with water.

    …………..He turns away, back to work as usual
    …………..With all his hands under the hapless car.
    …………..You see only his Reeboks in the grass
    …………..Sticking out irreverently beneath you.
    …………..You hear the clink of his tools,
    …………..His breathing, the wires and filters
    …………..Unraveling your secrets in his fingers.

    …………..The nuts and bolts are all that matters
    …………..When it’s coming apart in his hands.

    …………..You phone him up in the silence
    …………..To be sure he’s still there
    …………..Under the jacked-up wreck.
    …………..You ask him if he loves you.
    …………..He says he’s not too sure
    …………..But it’s coming apart
    …………..Like it should.

    …………..Such greasy reticence leaves footprints
    …………..All over your freshly washed resolve—
    …………..Down on your hands and knees again
    …………..You’re washing the stains in widening arcs.
    …………..Like wings greening in the battered snow
    …………..The strokes show how to wipe clean
    …………..A sweaty heart bent upon its own
    …………..Ungraciously divine descent,
    …………..How to release the grime at last,
    …………..To groom like every angel born.

    ……………………………….from YET STILL IT MOVES: Two Decades
    ………………………………………….of Poems Under House Arrest.

    ……………………………….The Chariton Review, Vol.20, No.2, Fall 1994
    …………..

    Christopher Woodman, Chiang Mai, April 18th, 2016.

  16. April 19, 2016 at 1:28 pm

    YES, “POLITICS!”

    Although it was one of the very last poems he wrote, “POLITICS” is by no means the last word on the subject of the meaning of life, neither the meaning of life for its author, William Butler Yeats, nor for me, nor for you either, I’m pretty sure about that. Indeed, “POLITICS” is in many ways pathetic, as were also the comings and goings of Yeats’ lovers during the last weeks of his life, his wife discreetly arranging things with the women who were, like her, well-off, well-educated, and well-married, or at least in other discreet relationships with friends of one sex or another. Indeed, the last woman who held William Butler Yeats in her arms, Edith Shackleton Heald, did so with his wife, George Yeats, at her side, the two of them together supporting the unconscious wreck of the dying old man through the last night of his life, and dealing together with the grief and the body all the next day.

    On the other hand, we’re lying if we don’t take “POLITICS” seriously, lying both to ourselves and to the meaning of life. Because what do we know? Has anyone ever been able to prove that life is not a dead-end any more than it isn’t a dream, or some sort of occult light-show, or that a god didn’t make it, or did for that matter, or that we have other lives, or indeed that there’s any meaning in any of it at all, or even that the future is not the past and/or vise-versa, or that bigger is bigger than small? And of course, even if somebody is sure they do know, and there are certainly many of those all over the world, nobody I’ve ever met personally has ever been able to convince me to believe something I didn’t believe already, or even agree for sure with anything they said, yay or nay. Because we’re in this thing as one-offs every time, single-handed sailors, going solo, and as we grow older we’re very lucky if we can say the details of our lives haven’t contradicted our deepest and most cherished beliefs anyway, indeed, over and over again. As does this wonderful, indeed masterful, Ogden Nash-like little demon of a poem called, of all things, “POLITICS!”

    So it’s complicated.

    But, to be truthful, it’s only poets that I trust — oh, and a few painters, of course, a few musicians, carpenters, peasant basket weavers and carters I’ve met along the road — but of all those put together, including the poets and carpenters, mind you, even if one of them could actually claim to be the son of God, or let’s say is recognized as an Incarnate Lama in Colorado or even in the Dordogne, or let’s say as a girl-goddess in Nepal — of all of those the few who get closest to convincing me of something important about anything for a moment or two probably account for less than 1% of the very, very best among them. And by and large the best are poets, 4, maybe 5 of them at the moment, and I would certainly include William Butler Yeats in that group — and “POLITICS” too as a very important, enduring and most honorable, most precious poem.

    And you know why I have the audacity to post one of my own poems right beside one of William Butler Yeats? Because a few of my poems have come to say so much to me, and to say it not because they’re brilliantly written, though they’re all the very best I can do after years and years of grooming their delicate heads, but because they’re my angel descents! They say so much that I simply can’t hide them, and when in particular they help me to find the key to some great poem by one of the masters, why should I hide that light under a bushel? Why should I not believe in it enough to share it also with you? And why shouldn’t you accept such a well-intentioned and inspired gift?

    And are you so sure a poem of mine can’t speak to you too, perhaps even to find its way into your life as a precious artifact as well, at least for a moment? Can you not give a poem of mine an equal chance for a moment, or are you so cynical that you have to know the name of the author and the page number before you’ll give it the time of day?

    ……….
    ……….POLITICS
    …………………..‘In our time the destiny of man presents
    …………………..its meanings in political terms.’
    
 Thomas Mann

    …………..How can I, that girl standing there,
    …………..My attention fix
    …………..On Roman or on Russian
    …………..Or on Spanish politics,
    …………..Yet here’s a travelled man that knows
    …………..What he talks about,
    …………..And there’s a politician
    …………..That has both read and thought,
    …………..And maybe what they say is true
    …………..Of war and war’s alarms,
    …………..But O that I were young again
    …………..And held her in my arms.

    …………………………..William Butler Yeats, from Last Poems (1938-1939).
    ……….

    Christopher

  17. April 20, 2016 at 9:57 am

    SONGKRAN 2016

    Songkran 400

    The traditional “Rot Nam Dam Hua” ceremony at our house in Chiang Mai yesterday. The Three Patriarchs in the center have been thoroughly washed and decorated by the whole assembled family, though only one of the three has any power, and that one is neither white, nor a man, nor the oldest (you can click on the photo to get a closer look at her).

    Thailand is an unreconstructed Matriarchy posing as a Patriarchy so the men won’t feel bad and can get on with it, whatever.

    “POLITICS” has a lot to do with that observation as well, the way it takes the mickey out of Thomas Mann’s patriarchal pretensions and then moves so dexterously from “war” (WWI) to “wars alarms” (1939!) — and on to that outrageous, preposterous rhyme at the very end!

    Because in spite of everything, of Irish Nationalism, The Abbey Theatre, The Golden Dawn, the Nobel Prize, serving as an Irish Free State Senator for two terms, and even summoning up the ghost of Plato everyday for the last 20 years of his life, the greatest poet of our times simply can’t get that girl standing there out of his head.

    ……….
    ……….POLITICS
    …………………..‘In our time the destiny of man presents
    …………………..its meanings in political terms.’
    
 Thomas Mann

    …………..How can I, that girl standing there,
    …………..My attention fix
    …………..On Roman or on Russian
    …………..Or on Spanish politics,
    …………..Yet here’s a travelled man that knows
    …………..What he talks about,
    …………..And there’s a politician
    …………..That has both read and thought,
    …………..And maybe what they say is true
    …………..Of war and war’s alarms,
    …………..But O that I were young again
    …………..And held her in my arms.

    …………………William Butler Yeats, from Last Poems (1938-1939).
    ……….

    Christopher

  18. April 21, 2016 at 8:44 pm

    “He did not want to play. He wanted to meet in the real world the unsubstantial image which his soul so constantly beheld. He did not know where to seek it or how, but a premonition which led him on told him that this image would, without any overt act of his, encounter him. They would meet quietly as if they had known each other and had made their tryst, perhaps at one of the gates or in some more secret place. They would be alone, surrounded by darkness and silence: and in that moment of supreme tenderness he would be transfigured.
    He would fade into something impalpable under her eyes and then in a moment he would be transfigured. Weakness and timidity and inexperience would fall from him in that magic moment.”

    *****

    “Her image had passed into his soul for ever and no word had broken the holy silence of his ecstasy. Her eyes had called him and his soul had leaped at the call. To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life! A wild angel had appeared to him, the angel of mortal youth and beauty, an envoy from the fair courts of life, to throw open before him in an instant of ecstasy the gates of all the ways of error and glory. On and on and on and on!”

    *****

    “Her room was warm and lightsome. A huge doll sat with her legs apart in the copious easy-chair beside the bed. He tried to bid his tongue speak that he might seem at ease, watching her as she undid her gown, noting the proud conscious movements of her perfumed head.

    As he stood silent in the middle of the room she came over to him and embraced him gaily and gravely. Her round arms held him firmly to her and he, seeing her face lifted to him in serious calm and feeling the warm calm rise and fall of her breast, all but burst into hysterical weeping. Tears of joy and relief shone in his delighted eyes and his lips parted though they would not speak.

    She passed her tinkling hand through his hair, calling him a little rascal.

    ‘Give me a kiss,’ she said.

    His lips would not bend to kiss her. He wanted to be held firmly in her arms, to be caressed slowly, slowly, slowly. In her arms he felt that he had suddenly become strong and fearless and sure of himself. But his lips would not bend to kiss her.

    With a sudden movement she bowed his head and joined her lips to his and he read the meaning of her movements in her frank uplifted eyes. It was too much for him. He closed his eyes, surrendering himself to her, body and mind, conscious of nothing in the world but the dark pressure of her softly parting lips. They pressed upon his brain as upon his lips as though they were the vehicle of a vague speech; and between them he felt an unknown and timid pressure, darker than the swoon of sin, softer than sound or odour.”

    *****

    “A girl stood before him in midstream, alone and still, gazing out to sea. She seemed like one whom magic had changed into the likeness of a strange and beautiful seabird. Her long slender bare legs were delicate as a crane’s and pure save where an emerald trail of seaweed had fashioned itself as a sign upon the flesh. Her thighs, fuller and soft-hued as ivory, were bared almost to the hips, where the white fringes of her drawers were like feathering of soft white down. Her slate-blue skirts were kilted boldly about her waist and dovetailed behind her. Her bosom was as a bird’s, soft and slight, slight and soft as the breast of some dark-plumaged dove. But her long fair hair was girlish: and girlish, and touched with the wonder of mortal beauty, her face.”

    …………….James Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916)

    …………..
    …………………………………………………..with trepidation and love,
    ……………………………………………………………………..Christopher

  19. April 23, 2016 at 5:43 pm

    SMALL WORDS TO LIVE WITH
    ………….

    …………..
    ……LIFE CLASS WITH KANT

    ………….The merest daub you say
    ………….Will do it.

    ………….This undressed girl beside the vase
    ………….Will satisfy my lust
    ………….For meaning even if
    ………….Her unlaced body wilts
    ………….Upon the stand.

    ………….Afterwards she draws her belt
    ………….Tight about her waist
    ………….And leaning slightly forward on the stool
    ………….Gazes at my work.

    ………….I explain that relics
    ………….Start like this—
    ………….The silver mantle is for later,
    ………….The mirror last
    ………….Of all.

    ………….The still god-wrapped girl meanwhile
    ………….Like all the rest
    ………….Bows down in yet
    ………….Another’s arms.

    ……………………………….from “LA CROIX MA FILLE”
    …………………………………………..A Book of Poems & Relics

    …………..

    ….
    Christopher

    P.S. Putting up the James Joyce was a terrible set back for me. I mean, how could anybody write like that? How could anybody write like that and survive it?

    Or who would ever write again?

    I had forgotten how old I am, and how much like Yeats I still long for the silly things he longed for. On the other hand, would that girl standing there have glanced back at the old man looking at her so intensely, or even the boy on the beach? Would she have given either of them the time of day?

    And the point is, of course, that it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter at all because that’s not what they meant at all, either the young one or the old one.

    When Iseult Gunn was 15 she proposed to Yeats. When he proposed to her 3 years later she rejected him. And then of course George said yes two months later. He was 52, she was 25, and it was a truly great marriage — because she knew how to make it all up as well as he did!

    Lucky man — but then again, we are all so lucky to have been born as human beings at all, aren’t we?

    That’s what the Buddha says, and I do believe that (not in previous lives, just in being born as a human being at all and as a result getting to make it all up. I do believe that’s really something.).

    C.

  20. April 24, 2016 at 5:46 pm

    ………….
    WHY HE HEARKENED UNTO THE VOICE OF HIS WIFE

    ……………As she sat beneath that tree
    ……………The afternoon already

    ……………Riper than the fruit
    ……………That fell softly in her lap

    ……………She lisped unbidden runes
    ……………Whole phrases even

    ……………Passwords into paragraphs
    ……………Nestled one within the other

    ……………Like illuminated texts
    ……………Or a sarcophagus inscribed

    ……………With gold on onion skins
    ……………An unpeeled grave

    ……………Its tenant swaddled so
    ……………And lapped between

    ……………That when the whole tilted
    ……………As she turned

    ……………The sun slipped off the edge
    ……………And opened in the sea

    ……………A raw mercurial wound
    ……………Tipping ever further into fever

    ……………Until the bruised flank
    ……………Filled up with wasps

    ……………To spill inside out
    ……………And brightly etch

    ……………The dark plate
    ……………Of every

    ……………Adam’s
    ……………Least desire.

    …………………….from “LA CROIX MA FILLE”
    ………………………………..A Book of Poems & Relics

    …………..

    …………..

    An early version of this poem appeared in Exquisite Corpse (Baton Rouge, 1993). In fact, the poem was another one which was snapped up while I was living on my boat out on the Seine at Issy Les Moulineaux. I think I still have Andrei Codrescu’s little handwritten note somewhere. It was in response to one of my very first send-outs — and of course at the time I had no idea what I was getting in for.

    Tomorrow I will try to explain why I chose to put up these particular little poems just here — the two of them are adjacent in another unpublished book of mine called LA CROIX MA FILLE! which has the subtitle, “A Book of Poems & Relics.” That’s the concept I would like to look at — “small words to live with” like that.

    C.

  21. April 25, 2016 at 4:10 pm

    Not quite ready yet, I’m afraid, dear friends — the next step’s still too big for me.

    So one more poem, then — from the same part of La Croix Ma Fille.

    Part III of the book is called “When Ruins Become Relics,” and although you don’t have to know it and, I feel sure, would never have guessed, the images are intensely autobiographical, even the small words at the end, including the rain. Indeed, I could take you there with my eyes shut if only the restaurant on the barge hadn’t been floated away, and of course the table along with it.

    That’s when ruins become relics. Because in a sense the old event has a huge advantage over the new one, at least if the poet just keeps rubbing it and rubbing it regardless.

    “The mirror last / of all” — that’s what it says in “Life Class.”

    ……….
    CONFESSIONS OF A RELUCTANT SHAMAN

    ……….It must have begun
    ……….When I linked a finger
    ……….In her toe.

    ……….The sky must have opened about then.

    ……….It must have been the way in
    ……….Where the foot was poised and fluted
    ……….Like old family silver,
    ……….The arches beeswax and mahogany
    ……….And the possession so perfect

    ……….Even the syntax asked if the boxwood
    ……….Reliquary were worm-eaten
    ……….Before or after.

    ……….Surely it must have begun to rain
    ……….Arranged and coiled like that.

    ……….You see, to uncover the secret
    ……….Of life you must
    ……….Just copy
    …………………………………outside.

    ……….Always stay outside—

    ……….Where the simplest line can fade,
    ……….Where the simplest line can save
    …………………………………………………daylight,
    ……….Where the simplest line can melt
    …………………………………………………around the eyes.

    ……….“It certainly did begin to rain,”
    ……….She said that evening.

    ……….And I told her
    ……….As I tell you
    ……….Still it is.

    …………………….from “LA CROIX MA FILLE”
    ………………………………..A Book of Poems & Relics

    ……….

    ……….

    Christopher

  22. April 26, 2016 at 10:05 am

    MAKE THE OLD NEW AGAIN

    “This account of [Yeats’] rituals has necessarily called attention to the deliberate character of his art. Although he has powerful feelings to express, his poems are in no sense their ‘ spontaneous overflow’. The ‘ lyric cry’ of Shelley is not his way. He gathers his intensity and force, which have hardly been equalled in modern verse, by creating, with the aid of symbol, myth, and ritual, patterns where thoughts and feelings find unexampled voice. There is nothing unplanned in his art; its many surprises come from long preparation, like the discoveries of a great scientist.

    “Thus one of his most powerful ritualized moments is the rape of Leda by the swan, but the drafts of his poem about it are evidence that painstaking effort rather than a single flash of inspiration made it possible. If his mind had not constantly dwelled upon the rise and fall of civilizations, upon the ‘ divine influx’ which began each new age, upon Leda as a parallel to Mary because her daughter, like Mary’s son, changed the world, upon the terrible consequences of the begetting of Helen, he could never have written the poem. On the other hand, such preoccupations would have come to nothing if he had not decided to focus the poem upon the rape itself, in the description of which he could put all his passion, if he had not seen Michelangelo’s painting of Leda and the swan in Venice, and if he had not found contemporary human feeling in the question on which the poem ends, whether power and knowledge can ever be united in life. And even when these elements had been joined, he had to revise again and again before he had submerged them in a completed poem.”

    * * *

    “‘I always feel’, Yeats wrote to Sturge Moore, ‘that my work is not drama but the ritual of a lost faith.’ It is so in that it constantly returns to the past for support, but without slavishness, for it alters the past even as it re-creates it. The world of letters divides itself more and more readily in our time into those who regard the forms of life as ceaselessly changing and those who regard them as a series of repetitions or recurrences. Yeats sides vigorously with ritual rather than with helter-skelter change.”

    Richard Ellmann, The Identity of Yeats (London,1954), Chapter VII: “Symbols and Rituals in the Later Poetry” (pps. 176-179).

  23. April 26, 2016 at 11:01 pm

    Indentity x 3 450

    This 1954 edition of The Identity of Yeats is on my shelves here in Chiang Mai. I bought it in 1958 just as I was leaving my school in England to return to the States, and I signed my name on the flyleaf, “C.S.Woodman 1958” — you can see that it cost me just 12/6 as well. If you click on the pages you can also make out my 18 year old annotations — that was 58 years ago, and I’m still working on it.

    When I first encountered The Identity of Yeats I was an 18 year old freshman at Columbia. I wrote “Why He Hearkened Unto the Voice of His Wife” 33 years later living out on the Seine with a broken heart, and in 1993 it became one of the first poems I ever published. And here I am now, 58 years after 1958, still trying to figure out what it means to be a reader of poetry and, even more importantly, a person who writes it. Also why broken hearts, and why it seems so important for poets to have them. Also how ruins become relics, and why I still write about the phenomenon in the way I do.

    And of course, after all that, indeed, after everything, “What Then?”

    ……….
    ……….WHEN RUINS BECOME RELICS

    …………….In the crystal dome
    …………….Swept of seasons

    …………….The crouching knight
    …………….His pilgrimage undone

    …………….And silken culottes
    …………….Stained with
    …………….Various semen

    …………….Offers up his gift.

    …………….The nightingale you hear
    …………….Singing so hard below

    …………….Where the last terrace
    …………….Meets the common ground

    …………….Is the grace
    …………….He brought

    …………….Unhinged

    …………….In its golden cage.
    …………….

    …………………….from “LA CROIX MA FILLE”
    ………………………………..A Book of Poems & Relics

    ……….

    Christopher

  24. c said,

    April 28, 2016 at 10:48 am

    READING RELICS KNOWING THEY’RE FOREVER


    ……………….Mary Cassatt, Young Woman Sewing in the Garden (1880-1882)

    AND SEEING:

    1.) That her midriff is the center of the composition;

    2.) That her concentration is the center of her heart;

    3.) That the lace she’s crocheting is so delicate and fine you can hardly see it, yet it makes sense out of her whole being both as a person and as a woman;

    3.) That there’s a tiny gap in her fingers through which you may enter into the fineness of that concentration and, if you are generous enough with yourself, will allow you to know her as your daughter, sister, lover, or the mother of God;

    5.) That it’s a painting of and about her very person even though you can’t see her face anymore than she can;

    6.) That her lap is so large and her head so small — indeed, it’s a painting specifically about her lap;

    7.) That she is sitting in a very steep, indeed vertiginous garden suspended safely in a horizontal trapeze-like chair with the back framing her neatly like wings;

    8.) That the colors of the grass, foliage and flowers are rich, boisterous even in contrast to her dress which is the faintest mauve shading into vapor, a color modulation that rarely appears in nature;

    9.) That despite her modesty, patience and indeed self-abnegation, her brightness, youth and intelligence bloom irresistibly in her cheeks, mouth, and the generous proportions of her body;

    10.) That she is so young and inexperienced she thinks you won’t notice;

    11.) That she is concentrating so hard on her needlepoint she also doesn’t notice the wind in the trees blowing up a storm about her head like an impatient angel;

    12.) That she both does and doesn’t know that she’s already with child, and that both her mind and her body are so full none of us will ever be the same again.
    …………….

    With profoundest gratitude to Mary Cassatt for a miracle such as this one, as sacred and numinous as any,

    Christopher

  25. April 30, 2016 at 10:54 am

    Drunk Draft

    ………………….

    ……………..ORPHEUS & EURYDICE AT HOME

    ………………….1. Us and Him
    ………………………………(ou la folie des hommes)

    ……………………….In those other days,
    ……………………….Because beasts and gods
    ……………………….Lay down beside us,
    ……………………….A song could still strike
    ……………………….To the heart of things.

    ……………………….His fingers made fire sounds
    ……………………….Milking the firm young chords.
    ……………………….We opened every door in the house—
    ……………………….The white walls echoed thyme,
    ……………………….Even when we cried with rage.

    ……………………….Because he didn’t yet know
    ……………………….How to put his man’s
    ……………………….Hands upon us,
    ……………………….He didn’t understand that
    ……………………….Descent is far more delicate
    ……………………….Than the most inspired flight,
    ……………………….That his music could expose us
    ……………………….When our thighs were bloody.

    ……………………….He became our shadow then,
    ……………………….He backed us toward the sun—
    ……………………….His unraveling was our labyrinth,
    ……………………….His absence the golden thread,
    ……………………….His exit the amber of our own.

    ……………………….We never said goodbye then—
    ……………………….Unless you could call
    ……………………….The dark tunnel coiling
    ……………………….Behind him our blessing.

    ……
    ………………….2. Us and Her
    ………………………………(ou le monde à l’envers)

    ……………………….She breathes on our window—
    ……………………….She cannot see us clearly
    ……………………….So she writes our outline
    ……………………….On the misted pane.
    ……………………….She makes our eyes
    ……………………….Darker than they are,
    ……………………….She makes the candles
    ……………………….Shine brighter.
    ……………………….Then she makes us lie down
    ……………………….And tells us all the stories
    ……………………….That come true.

    ……………………….We stand up months later—
    ……………………….We are transparent as glass,
    ……………………….We are honey,
    ……………………….We are water.
    …………..

    C.

  26. May 1, 2016 at 9:39 pm

    ONLY TWO TRUTHS? FIVE, AT LEAST, SURELY!

    Winslow Homer -- The New Novel

    ………Click here for a much bigger, brighter, and truer version of the same.

    1.) The truth of the empty field which has nothing whatever to do with anyone who might happen to lie over there by the bushes;

    2.) The truth of the girl who finds herself lying in the field by the bushes at a specific moment in a dress with a book ;

    3.) The truth of the mind of the girl that enters the entirely different world in the book in which neither the girl nor the landscape exist;

    4.) The truth of the artist, Winslow Homer, who sees the girl lying in the field over there at the edge lost in the book, and tries to paint a picture of that truth that may also be a portrait of the truth that he loves her. And to be sure we know where to look for that truth, the artist tells us the picture is called “The New Novel.”

    5.) The truth of yet another, independent person, a viewer or simple-minded old-man poet like myself in Chiang Mai who looks at the painting of the girl lying on the grass with the book and loves it not because of the truth of the grass, the girl, what’s happening in the book, or in the life of the artist, but because of the orange — how the dress, the hair, the shoes, and even her skin are all gilded with orange like the gold plastered all over a relic in a side chapel at St Gervais, or even an icon on the High Altar at the close of the day before I ride home in the dark on my bicycle.

    Which is why I wrote “How Bad is the Devil.”

    Christopher

  27. May 3, 2016 at 3:12 pm

    Office Boom Twisted 1

    “Dear Sarah,
    “Sorry to be a little slow on a reply to those good words, and how hard you try to reassure me. But it’s hugely complicated, at least for me it is.

    “I write and talk (and hopefully listen too) with everything I’ve got all the time – and I’m very lucky to live in a world that includes so many people I really love to talk to and write to (and listen to). But I’m an artist as well – when I write poetry I’m working on an entirely different level from ordinary discourse. More than that, the poems I’ve been putting up here have been years and years in the making, and even the very small ones are massive, like big oil paintings in heavy gilt frames. And they need to be looked at — and looked at — and then looked at some more. Because even my easiest poems are ‘difficult’ in the sense that they’ve been refined in so many ovens for so many years, and polished and polished some more and then covered in gold-leaf to the heavens. So they’re artifacts really, icons, relics (those are the words I’m using at the moment) which is why I rarely talk about them around the table in the evening, for example, and even more rarely show them to people who come here. Indeed, I don’t think you’d ever seen a poem of mine before yourself, had you?

    “When I’m working in my office as I do for hours everyday, Homprang and the family still think I’m playing computer games. Nobody near me knows what I’m doing, not one person. 

    “So forgive me for saying it myself, but they’re good, my poems, they really are. I know they’re good for sure, and valuable, and my 3 books are even better. But in the past 7 years nothing I have sent out has been accepted for publication, not one single poem, and I’ve been sending out 5 or 6 packets of individual poems every month as well as those 3 books, of course. Now I don’t send out anything. I published quite a lot in the years following my first published poem in 1992, but now I don’t even try anymore, the door feels so shut.

    “And I have no theories about that either, I promise you.”

    ~

    “The reason I’m writing this blog now is to get myself out there in the only way I can – to wave and shout and jump up and down as a poet, hoping that the world of letters can find a place for me as a genuine, interesting and valuable poet too. Because I read a lot of contemporary poetry, and most of it, I mean 98% of it, I find self-conscious, disengaged and risk-free. Indeed, I think I read beyond the first 2 or 3 lines of maybe 5% of the poetry I encounter on-line and in magazines – yet the other 95% that I can’t read are getting published and not a line of mine makes the grade…

    “Of course I know that there have always been artists like myself that have passed their whole lives without getting noticed. As an example, the vast majority of the really good painters in America are unknown outside the Art Schools where they teach and don’t get hung anywhere but in Local Community Centers. And the fact is that I’m not ready to give up yet on finding an audience of my own either, however small and provincial, and my own Local Community Center is the Internet!!!

    “And here’s the real crunch – I live where all the roads in the world come to an end, Chiang Mai, and I’ve been out here for 22 years no less. In addition I’m not an academic, I don’t know any other poets, I’m not part of any writing network, or workshop, or summer program, I’m not an editor, not a critic, and not a teacher, and indeed have no contacts in the world of poetry whatsoever, and of course I’m 76. At this stage in my life my poetry is my sole messenger, my images, my enthusiasms, and the breadth of my interests are my only ambassadors. So I must blow the fanfare myself with what breath I’ve got left, as simple as that.

    “But that’s me, of course – and my story is an unusual one in that at one point in my life I was unusually successful in everything I did and indeed won every prize going in closely related fields. So this exile is good for me too, this being at zero. And it also gives me the extraordinary chance to try like very few have ever tried before, and of course it gives me as well the chance to make an extraordinary, monumental, sublime fool out of myself — and I’ve always been good at that!

    “There are a dozen or so people who visit this site every day, and I can tell from the clicks that a good deal of what I’m writing gets looked at and maybe even read. I suspect I know half of the people who come regularly as well, and I also suspect that a few of the regulars come because they enjoy the spectacle I make of myself, but I have to accept that too because that’s who I am. On the other hand, all I would need is one well-tuned and sensitive reviewer, one big-hearted blogger, one open-minded critic or established poet to mention me somewhere eloquently and I feel sure the tide would turn. So I’m hanging in there for that, so I’m not giving up.

    “And now I’ve shocked you, I feel sure – but let me tell you, dearest Sarah, that noticing at all and bothering to tell me about it makes a huge difference as most of the time I’m completely alone in this.

    “Love, Christopher”

  28. Dawn Potter said,

    May 4, 2016 at 5:26 pm

    A nice picture of you and your books

  29. May 4, 2016 at 6:40 pm

    And of my bare feet too.

    C.

    P.S. It means a lot to me that you are always there, Dawn, and that I can turn to your day anytime to help put my own day into perspective. Or should I say my own perpetual garden (the water’s brown because there’s no melt or flow in a world without winters, and shoes are necessary here just to keep your feet clean for coming home or entering the temple).

    A garden like yours with a spring keeps me sane.

    …….

    …………………..BROWN WATER

    ……………………..Pure water’s
    ……………………..Like perfection
    ……………………..Teased out

    ……………………..Of vacant skies
    ……………………..Like seeded rain,
    ……………………..The formula or prayer

    ……………………..That takes no charge
    ……………………..For what’s the matter,
    ……………………..Shorts nor rots

    ……………………..Not hermit cells
    ……………………..Or stains or leaves
    ……………………..Alive deposits—

    ……………………..But oh, brown water!
    ……………………..How you slough us off,
    ……………………..Your load of wandering earth

    ……………………..Melting our floors, how you butter
    ……………………..Up our floury lives like batter,
    ……………………..Sweeten all our beds

    ……………………..And leave like fossils in the rocks
    ……………………..Our most indecent
    ……………………..Moments’ truths

    ……………………..As wonders,
    ……………………..Blesséd faults harder
    ……………………..Than our higher thoughts

    ……………………..And all unclean
    ……………………..Enough to live beside
    ……………………..Like angel dirt

    ……………………..Forever
    ……………………..Free of
    ……………………..Failure.
    ……..

    ……..
    Christopher

  30. May 6, 2016 at 11:16 am

    A FEW TENTATIVE NOTES ON READING [MY] POETRY

    There is always a strong ‘metaphysical’ element in [my] poetry – which may be one of the reasons [my] poetry isn’t liked at all by any. But I’m not going to change that as being ‘metaphysical’ is so much a part of how I read as well as how I write — indeed it’s fundamental to how my head functions and my heart flips, flies and fiddles its way to heaven on the wings of Paganini. On the other hand, I’m very strict with myself as a poem is progressing, very disciplined, unsentimental — if I feel I’m pulling any punches, adding needless complexities, for example, or making difficulties for their own sake, and I’d say that being clever in poetry for its own sake is the worst sin of all, shudder – if I feel any of that I clarify, simplify, cut and cauterize to the best of my ability, and of course to the limits of my own understanding. Because in the process of writing a poem, or at least a poem that I come to love and respect enough to hang in there with for years like ”Brown Water,” that poem acquires a life of its own, indeed an understanding of its own way beyond my assumptions about what anything should be what is more should mean. So the poem becomes my guide and mentor, not the other way around. A wizard, a magician, a shape-changer and oracle.

    “Brown Water” takes for granted a surprising number of quotidian skills and activities, many having to do with food and household management . On the other hand, you don’t need to know all the activities to understand the poem — because it’s a good poem, a very good one, in fact, there are many ways to resolve the difficulties beside the ones that occur to me. I just facilitated the early stages in the poem’s development, after all, and for some years now “Brown Water” has been entirely on its own. And I trust that process – indeed, that’s why I know a poem like this one is good. Because it has never let me down or disappointed me, and even now, even right here today, it’s still showing me the way.

    That’s a good way of putting it.

    Here’s a list of some of the practical skills and activities in the poem (Mrs Beeton’s would be a good reference for a lot of them!):

    ……1.) Distilling water;
    ……2.) Seeding rain;
    ……3.) Battery technology;
    ……4.) Electrical circuitry;
    ……5.) Preserving in the kitchen;
    ……6.) Dealing with household stains and deposits;
    ……7.) Personal hygiene – decay and infection;
    ……8.) Silt deposits in seasonal flooding (and where I live that means
    ………..mud all over the kitchen floor);
    ……9.) Baking;
    ….10.) Love-making as pie-making;
    ….11.) Kitchen-sink paleontology;
    ….12.) Kitchen-sink eschatology.

    ~

    One of my good friends who does a lot of teaching as well as writing of poetry finds all this anathema – he feels a poet should just write poetry, and that when a teacher teaches it the exercise should be to empower the reader to read it, not to understand it. He feels that talking about the meaning of a poem will block the spontaneous pleasure of just reading it — that indeed “meaning” is a crutch to support handicapped poets as well as handicapped teachers, and that it’s the best way to handicap readers too, in particular very young ones.

    Fair enough there at the end, but even then I would say to my friend, “Choose carefully what you have your very young students read because nobody should be asked to ignore life’s uncomfortable riddles at any age, what is more be encouraged to pretend they understand them when they don’t. Poetry allows the hardest and most unnerving of those riddles to simmer on the back burner, and when we come back to the stove another day they may find a more nuanced palate ready to taste them at last.”

    To me poetry is one of the deepest wells of meaning available to human beings — which is why so many human beings today are dying for the lack of it, and why the news in our times is always just a few minutes out of date — which a great poem never is.

    And poetry doesn’t need education either, or even literacy. Indeed, show me the deep culture that isn’t sustained by poetry, however primitive, and I’ll show you our times.

    Christopher

  31. omino23 said,

    May 8, 2016 at 8:36 am

    and now for something completely different:
    ……

    ……………….clock thrown from beach hut
    ……………….time flung into timelessness
    ……………….splash, marine debris

    …….

  32. May 8, 2016 at 12:53 pm

    …………….
    and for something that’s always the same, the timeless sound of the “splash” and the “marine debris:”

    ……..A coda from “His Last Book of Blue Riddles:”

    ……………………stumped like this,
    ……………………we hear the Years
    ………………………………………….cascade
    ……………………and stoop to grace
    ……………………the Water
    ………………………………………….‘s Fall

    …………….

  33. May 10, 2016 at 11:09 am

    WHAT IT MEANS WHEN AN OLD MAN STILL YEARNS LIKE A CHILD…

    W.B.Yeats wrote such a lot because he never found the answer to that question.

    Of course you can read him just for the pleasure of his verse if you like, for the rhyme, the imagery, the roundedness of the diction, the pure dance even of his roughest late poetry, but I say you miss the best if you can’t (or won’t) let yourself consider the terrible facts of life as he lived and wrote about them in his own life. Because Yeats never gave up on the riddle of aging, which is short-hand for the riddle of life, of course, and some new version of “Among School Children” would come surging up again and again right to the end — demanding to be written down right to the day before he didn’t get up again the next morning at all.

    Like the last little poem called “Politics.”

    And equally that unresolved, mesmerizing refrain, “‘What then?’ sang Plato’s ghost, ‘what then?'” from the poem by the same name.

    Which is precisely what is at stake when an old man still obsesses about the beauties of youth, as one of my friends puts it, and I think rather unkindly considering what we’ve been looking at here, Yeats, Joyce and some of my own poems too, and of course the whole of “How Bad is the Devil”

    Just 6 years earlier Yeats had written “The Seven Sages,” a little poem that puts the position well, I think — “the Bishop of Cloyne” was the 18th Century Irish philosopher, George Berkeley, who opposed John Locke and, of course, greatly interested Yeats (and still interests me):

    …………….The Sixth:………………..Whether they knew or not
    …………….Goldsmith and Burke, Swift and the Bishop of Cloyne
    …………….All hated Whiggery, but what is Whiggery?
    …………….A leveling, rancorous, rational sort of mind
    …………….That never looked out of the eye of a saint
    …………….Or out of drunkard’s eye.

    …………….The Seventh:…………….All’s Whiggery now,
    …………….But we old men are massed against the world.

    And we get the chance to look out of the eye of a very particular old man, the crazy, self-indulgent, solipsistic poet/hierophant and occultist from Ireland called William Butler Yeats, and still massed to this day against the leveling, rancorous, rational world.

    ~

    I wish I could say I understood what Yeats meant at the end of his most famous poem on the subject, “Among School Children.” Indeed, I strongly suspect Yeats didn’t know what he meant either, indeed, that had he really understood what he was saying he would have been dead or would have stopped writing. But he didn’t die or stop writing at that point (1933), and we end up with just that tree to go by — and of course we keep on writing and reading both him and ourselves — like conductors.

    As if there were ever exact answers to the conundrums of poetry any more than there are to the conundrums of life, but orchestrating a dialogue about either, as great teachers do, can create some of the world’s most valuable, mysterious and earth-moving music. And needless to say, however articulate the conductor the music falls in every ear differently…

    …………………………………………..VII
    …………….Both nuns and mothers worship images,
    …………….But those the candles light are not as those
    …………….That animate a mother’s reveries,
    …………….But keep a marble or a bronze repose.
    …………….And yet they too break hearts—O Presences
    …………….That passion, piety or affection knows,
    …………….And that all heavenly glory symbolise—
    …………….O self-born mockers of man’s enterprise;

    …………………………………………..VIII
    …………….Labour is blossoming or dancing where
    …………….The body is not bruised to pleasure soul,
    …………….Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
    …………….Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.
    …………….O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,
    …………….Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
    …………….O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
    …………….How can we know the dancer from the dance?

    ……………………………..“Among School Children,” from The Winding Stair (1933)

    Christopher

  34. Dawn Potter said,

    May 10, 2016 at 5:55 pm

    Re “an old man obsesses about the beauties of youth”: Your “friend” is listing several plot-theme intersections in Vladimir Nabokov’s “Pale Fire.” Have you read the novel? An aging academic/deposed king can’t stop thinking about/interfering with the young men around him. There is nothing “unkind” about a plot summary.

  35. May 12, 2016 at 10:10 am

    Dear Dawn,
    Always an adventure when you turn up, and poetry-cowboys like me do love a good gyre. And oh my, how you do twist and buck as you exit the gates, and me with one silly hand in the air!

    I say that with a love and respect for you that never goes away, even as I pick myself up yet again covered in dust and all.

    You write:

    “Should a reader’s reaction equal an author’s intent? Does a stated didactic purpose damage or enhance art? Does offering a list of meanings manipulate or empower a reader?

    “What I love about Nabokov is that he doesn’t allow me to answer these questions with any kind of certainty. What I dislike about so many literary commentators is their smug assumption about either-or rather than both-and. ‘I am prescient about the value/lack of value of [work of art]. Therefore, you are an idiot.’ “

    I assume you feel what I say is based on “didactic intent” too, as if I were an old humanist or some sort of literary-historical curmudgeon still alive at Yale. Indeed, if you could tell me what my “didactic purpose” was I’d love to know myself. For example, could you indicate some statement I’ve made that would suggest I had an answer to any of the questions I’ve been raising in this thread, what is more a “list” of programs others could use for arriving at answers, or for coaching their students how to read better?

    For example, where is my answer to Yeats’ question, “What then, sang Plato’s ghost?” And did I explain away the image of the old chestnut tree at the end of “Among School Children,” or the riddle of the girl standing by the bed of the great dying poet, or the one on the beach setting everything straight for the young artist? Or did I go on to make generalizations about the young girls of Dante, Petrarch, Goethe, Alain Fournier, and John Fowles?

    ~

    I read Pale Fire first shortly after it came out — at the time I was a graduate-student at Kings and a part-time tutor at Churchill. My mentor at Churchill was the Head Tutor, George Steiner, that fascinating polymath with the total recall for every word he had ever read in every European language — yet curiously naive, almost too American, which I found at the time unsettling. Because, of course, Pale Fire is quite specifically a satire about American academics, as is also Lolita, Humbert Humbert being a hilarious American fantasy of what a cultivated European intellectual would be like — which is one of the reasons the book is so absurd yet so real and profound at the same time. And of course Cambridge found Steiner no easier to deal with than Leavis — and my close association with Steiner didn’t help my own reputation in the English Department at all, needless to say. And to be frank, Steiner was mainly interested in me because of my experiences with acid, he so badly needed to know but had never tried…

    While I was reading Pale Fire Geroge Steiner was Head Tutor at Churchill but not officially a University Lecturer.  That meant his enormously popular lectures series had to be in unofficial back street venues just as Leavis held forth in the quadrangles at Downiing — and of course they both loved it as did we all. Indeed, we had to cram in the aisles and hang on the window sills to get an ear in at all.

    Exciting — but Pale Fire by contrast didn’t grip me much at the time because real life was so much more than like it! And I’ve never recovered, though I came so close to disintegration all those years. And to set the record straight, I never took drugs again, and don’t even like the smell of dope in the distance.

    ~

    The difference between you and me, Dawn, is that I’ve never been afraid to try even when it makes me look ridiculous, and I’ve never been put off by my blunders either. And I don’t mean drugs — I mean trying to say what I mean on the deepest level I can even when I’m totally out of my depth and pretty near drowning…

    ~

    A teacher who has the courage to try to tell his or her students what a poem means to him personally has also got to admit his own ignorance and reach out to his students for help. Indeed, it’s that suction which creates the greatest teaching of all, at least in my experience — the need for us all to collaborate in the pursuit of impossible truths together at whatever age or position…

    And yes, if that’s a program I certainly do believe in it.

    ~

    I do hope you’ll be gentle if you find anything I say rude or ungentlemanly.

    Christopher

  36. Dawn Potter said,

    May 12, 2016 at 4:47 pm

    Christopher, my blog post was neither about you nor about Yeats. I was writing about “Pale Fire,” and I don’t understand why you assume otherwise. Honestly, I have too many stressors in my life right now to be communicating in code.

  37. May 12, 2016 at 8:26 pm

    Of course it wasn’t about me or about Yeats, but certainly the concerns in both our blogs have paralleled each other for a very long time. In addition, I have always assumed that though we hardly see anything eye to eye we’re usually on the same page, and that although we are more often than not spooked out by each other entirely we still don’t want to miss a word that the other says.

    Somebody will someday write a book about this dialogue between us that even you and I don’t seem to notice, and that when we do I usually get carried away and you usually deny everything. As you did today.

    Never mind — if it’s there it’s there, if it isn’t it’s still wonderful.

    C.

  38. May 14, 2016 at 9:08 am

    AS IF AMONG SCHOOL CHILDREN:
    BLOSSOMING & DANCING & AN OLD CHESTNUT TREE.

    Chestnut Tree Print c. 1890Victorian print of a Chestnut Tree, c.1890

    What I’d like to do now is to try to show you another way to talk about poetry which might be helpful to modern American readers,  and I mean  on any level from teenagers to professional adults. To the younger ones, a Yeatsian exploration of ideas-as-images will probably be a new experience, but I think it could be gotten over to them as well with a little cajoling and enthusiasm. To the older ones, the ones with special interests and perhaps even enrolled in advanced poetry programs, an “explication de texte” of this sort by an old man who was born the year Yeats died could be a new start, an initiation into a simpler, more intimate, more personal mode of reading than they have experienced before — as if the ideas and images mattered to them personally, as if the ideas and images might teach us how to live better in Montaigne’s sense, to notice more, to be more there in everything we do. And I have some special advantages in this too. For one thing I’m entirely untouched by writing workshop protocols as I’ve never been in one in my life — or even worked with an editor for that matter. For another, I’ve never in my life taken a course in ‘Modern Poetry,’ not once in my 11 years of degree work on both sides of the Atlantic — because they hardly existed in my day. Poetry that was being written in the present by one’s contemporaries or even by oneself, that’s what you read with your close friends, or in bed. Established poetry, Chaucer, Milton, Dryden, Pope, Tennyson is what you read in College (I specialized in Edmund Spenser at both Yale and Cambridge, and read only in that period, Italian and French as well as English. For the new stuff I followed F.R. Leavis and George Steiner around informally, and best of all T.R.Henn holding forth in his rooms at St Catherines…).

    And would I like to attend such a new-fangled tea-party today, even at my age, and with all that I know (and everybody assumes I know such a lot because I’m old, whereas I just know how to wing it as we all did in my day, sitting in armchairs talking about poetry while smoking and sipping sherry)?

    So would I like to attend?

    You bet I would, and even if the discussion produced not one single new angle or perspective, or cast any new light on anything, the sense of confirmation and companionship would be overwhelming for me, I think, and especially as I grow older and find I know less and less and am more and more alone in what I do know. Indeed, I love to hear people open up topics that are already open for me because those things are all so fresh and new and shocking even, like extra-planetary spas where you can still live and breathe without electricity or worry about gravity, and I mean about your mood, not just your weight.

    So let’s start with “Among School Children” — I’ll assume that we’re all just rereading it now as I am (you can click here to get there).

    And then we’ll go all the way when we’re ready, step by step.

    Christopher

  39. May 16, 2016 at 10:45 am

    NOT THE NEXT STEP BUT THE ESSENTIAL ONE FIRST

    Chestnut Tree BoleChestnut Tree bole

    ………………………………………………..VII
    ……………………..Both nuns and mothers worship images,
    ……………………..But those the candles light are not as those
    ……………………..That animate a mother’s reveries,
    ……………………..But keep a marble or a bronze repose.
    ……………………..And yet they too break hearts—O Presences
    ……………………..That passion, piety or affection knows,
    ……………………..And that all heavenly glory symbolise—
    ……………………..O self-born mockers of man’s enterprise;

    ………………………………………………..VIII
    ……………………..Labour is blossoming or dancing where
    ……………………..The body is not bruised to pleasure soul,
    ……………………..Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
    ……………………..Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.
    ……………………..O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,
    ……………………..Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
    ……………………..O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
    ……………………..How can we know the dancer from the dance?

    …………………………………………..from “Among School Children”(1933)

     

    There are three kinds of images human beings worship, says the poem at this point: lovers, religious icons, and children as they exist in the minds of mothers — “passion, piety or affection,” the poem calls them.  And all three “Presences” also “break hearts,” i.e. it’s not just sons and lovers that break hearts but the religious images on our altars do as well — because the latter can betray us too, sometimes leading us into the deepest loneliness and despair of all.  But even more importantly, all three of them “all heavenly glory symbolise,” i.e. all three, the revered Son, the sacred Lover and the gilded Icon on the altar, are spiritual entities, indeed, the poem insists, the two earthly ones are just as heavenly as the images on the altar.

    ~

    Expressed in words like the above, most readers today will just hear close-reading in the old New Critical mode. The difference is that in my reading the words are a serious attempt to provide a blue-print for truths that are inexpressible in any other terms, and to make those truths both visible and viable. Because they are truths that cannot be researched in any other way, and certainly not in the lab, indeed not even in the limitless mind of a great cosmologist like Stephen Hawking. For they have no empirical coordinates anywhere but in the unfettered, childlike imagination, and potentially all human beings are equally endowed with that. Even the school children in the poem, the young, dutiful convent girls — they gaze at the celebrated old poet standing there so awkwardly before them, the wreck of a man, and in so doing give him back all his hope even as he remains on the edge of despair.

    And that supreme rhymer’s riddle is there throughout the poem, indeed that’s why the poem is called “Among School Children.” (And I’d say that right from the start — I’d say it as hard as I could and stand up for it as well in my own person. For in reading this poem we are truly “among school children,” all of us, and if we want to understand it fully we have to be there like the poet and the girls at the same time.)

    Yeats went through decades of attempting to formalize these perceptions through very intense occult study, first in Theosophy, then in The Golden Dawn, and later in Anthroposophy (more anon on the latter, I promise — closely linked to the most important image in this poem, the chestnut tree). Indeed, there is some occult material left at some level in most of his poems, the great ones in particular, but my feeling is that an innocent reading is always better. Because it is the poetry, not the occultism, that makes Yeats such a uniquely great and rewarding poet. In fact, you don’t have to try that hard with Yeats, or know that much either — you just have to be there to start with and then hang in there for the rest of your life.

    The biggest problem for modern readers is not the assumption that religious symbols are imagined but that personal symbols, secular, passionate and autobiographical, are heavenly — i.e. all three are equally spiritual, not just the religious one (getting rid of the ‘inverted commas,’ as the English call them, is important — not “heavenly” but heavenly, not ‘spiritual’ but spiritual. Indeed such talk can create a whole new language all over again, if we’re willing.). In addition, all three can break hearts, the poem insists — all three can betray us equally by undermining our understanding, confidence and sense of well-being, and in so doing can affectively ruin our lives (and we can also use language as irresponsibly as we want).

    The hard part comes in the last line of Stanza VII in which all the previous “Presences” that “heavenly glory symbolise” are called “self-born mockers of man’s enterprise.”

    The “Presences”  are obviously  “self-born” as they all arise in the inner-life of the individual, i.e. in the mind. In addition, they all function as if our physical well-being, including all our physical efforts to be happy and constructive, were of less value than the heavenly Sons (“affection”), Lovers (“passion”) and Icons (“piety”), all of which exist in the mind as well. For that’s what the heavenly “Presences” do to us — they screw us up totally, says the poem. (And what I see in my own head at this point is the crazy, indefatigable old poet, William Butler Yeats, taking refuge in the arms of one of his sacred consorts even on the last night of his life. And I might even say that in my talk, I really might — at least, if I thought it would be helpful…)

    ~

    “Labour” at the beginning of Stanza VIII refers back to all “man’s enterprise” in the last line in Stanza VII, but at this point a difficult and tenuous assertion is made in a very beautiful but unusually compact, indeed almost ‘gnomic’  way (but hey, how else could you say it? And indeed, once you get it you realize that is the privilege of genius, that indeed the didactic element in great poetry can do what expository language can’t. And “didactic” is the right word here too, I think, unfashionable as it may be today — we’re so afraid of attempting to say anything that matters at all. Here it’s as if a prophet were making a statement, and I’m not quite sure why but it feels to me like the boy Jesus telling everybody he has to be about his father’s business (remember that one?).)

    …………….Labour is blossoming or dancing where
    …………….The body is not bruised to pleasure soul.

    All physical activity, these two lines state baldly, i.e. all our daily work, our enterprise, our getting and spending even, is a “blossoming or dancing.” And that’s the heart of the poem, really, it’s most profound and at the same time most foolish statement as well as its ecstatic conclusion. But in the context there’s also a terrible caveat: that all our “blossoming or dancing” is positive and of great value only so long as the body is not “bruised to pleasure soul.” “Blossoming” and “dancing,” in other words, can only take place when the body is not demeaned, disciplined or supressed by an authoritarian soul that is assumed to be higher, more refined and more privileged than the body, and that belittles our physical beatitudes (that’s the first intrusion of my own personal word up to this point — and I’d explain it too right away — oh would I ever!).

    Big problem — in a nutshell indeed. Has been, always will be (I’d do a real riff on that one, don’t worry.)

    A related problem emerges in the phrase “blossoming or dancing,” the two activities which had become so essential to Yeats over the years both in his poetry and his occult practices. On the other hand, my own feeling is that even at this level a reader doesn’t need to know anything about those occult practices, at least if he or she is an evolving and imaginative human being as well as a patient, well-informed, and inventive reader. There’s nothing new in secret occult practices anyway, indeed they’re just one of many ancient, perennial, self-interested appropriations of plain language… (riff 2 — and boy, would I get off on that one, and maybe I will!)

    “Blossoming” is obviously about sexuality, growth, and flowering, and is the most specifically physical of the body’s spiritual activities, embracing as it does all our creativity as well as all our works and days.  “Dancing” is harder to grasp by the modern, uninitiated mind, but I still feel it should be comprehensible without recourse to mystical teachings about trance, magic and ritual. It’s what we do with the body when we feel inspired by music, love or grief, or the sound of the waves breaking on the shore in real life or in a poem like “Dover Beach” — and most of all when we’re in the grip of strong feelings or passion. It’s what links the physical body most intimately to the spiritual, for want of better words (and that’s a real problem in all this, the words we have at our disposal are so prejudiced and/or deficient). Indeed, it can involve any activity from making a cup of tea to making love (or writing a poem about making love), and needless to say includes the rituals of growing old, canes, glasses, weak shanks, all of that. (The last sort of dancing by the old man on the stick is the truly original and unforgettable image of “Among School Children,” and if you don’t get the urgency of that  you’re blind, or still much too young, or just don’t want to.)

    So that deals with Yeats’ second assertion, I think, that the life lived in the body is spiritual too — at least if that’s what the poem says (which I really think it does). Indeed, the working out of the dilemma that arises out of the riddle of the body as equally spiritual is the essential mission of all poetry as it is of life, and why we really do die for the lack of it.

    (At least that’s what both Yeats and myself at much the same age would like to say to you. You don’t have to agree but you should try to, and if you still can’t you almost certainly will one day, if you’re lucky, get old enough, and have the courage to hang in there right to the end.)

    Finally, the poem is the dance, and if you can embrace the poem like this you can become the dancer. Which is why the poem was written and why I am talking about it.

    The talk is the dance and vise versa, which is what we both want to convey if you give us the chance.

    And I’m not the composer or the musician speaking, just the conductor who waves his arms about in the air in total silence so you can hear the music to its best and deepest advantage.

    Christopher

  40. May 17, 2016 at 3:02 am

    NEW YET AGAIN
    The winds suddenly come up out of nowhere at 2 am — heavy but dry and hot. Hoping it’s a dry-run for the water we so desperately need in this part of the world. I feel frightened. Am at my desk posting this to keep my feet on the ground in the tumult. Hope it will be helpful. Will probably take whatever it is down in the morning when I wake up and find it too was a tropical phantom.
    ……..

    “This account of [Yeats’] rituals has necessarily called attention to the deliberate character of his art. Although he has powerful feelings to express, his poems are in no sense their ‘ spontaneous overflow’. The ‘ lyric cry’ of Shelley is not his way. He gathers his intensity and force, which have hardly been equalled in modern verse, by creating, with the aid of symbol, myth, and ritual, patterns where thoughts and feelings find unexampled voice. There is nothing unplanned in his art; its many surprises come from long preparation, like the discoveries of a great scientist.
    ……..

    …”‘I always feel’, Yeats wrote to Sturge Moore, ‘that my work is not drama but the ritual of a lost faith.’ It is so in that it constantly returns to the past for support, but without slavishness, for it alters the past even as it re-creates it. The world of letters divides itself more and more readily in our time into those who regard the forms of life as ceaselessly changing and those who regard them as a series of repetitions or recurrences. Yeats sides vigorously with ritual rather than with helter-skelter change.”

    ..Richard Ellmann, The Identity of Yeats (London,1954), Chapter VII:
    ..“Symbols and Rituals in the Later Poetry” (pps. 176-179).

    ………..

    “In real life, i.e. “at breakfast,” Yeats was a very shy and very private, indeed neurasthenic person, and many of his most important concerns as a poet he kept for this reason scrupulously to himself. In his endless private notes, journals and letters to his wife and close friends, Yeats insisted that his poems contained far more than just what the words seemed to be saying, however beautiful, poetic and evocative those words might be — and goodness knows he was aware of (and pleased with) what he accomplished in public. But it was the other dimension that he wrote them for even if that dimension was inaccessible to anyone but himself. For it was in his private experience as a poet writing poetry for himself in which he was “reborn as an idea, something intended, complete,” as he says just above. Read it again and you’ll see that that’s what he says — and I think we must accept that too, that that was what he actually experienced in his work.
    ………………………….Cowpattyhammer [April 3, 2016 at 11.08am]

    C.

  41. May 18, 2016 at 11:54 am

    1939


    ……..Dame Laura Knight, ‘A Gypsy’ (1939)

  42. May 21, 2016 at 11:19 am

    WHAT THEN INDEED?

    Forgive me, dear friends.

    I’ve been taking such a long time over this last one, making so many false starts, closing so many down, forgetting they’d ever said anything and then going back to Jude the Obscure which I’ve been reading yet again having just finished for the second time this year Claire Tomalin’s biography of Hardy and suffering yet more over that poor man’s wonderful/terrible life as well as the lives of, among others, Emma Gifford, Tess Durbeyfield, Horace Moule, Angel Clare, Florence Dugdale, and T.E.Lawrence cycling over to Max Gate every other Sunday without me or any of the others who like me still keep knocking their hearts against the same old musty Wessex door. And all the while the endless heat here in Chiang Mai, debilitating in the extreme, wiping me out.

    And then at last, oh my, the cool air that comes after a whole night of rain for the first time in over six months, and feeling some hope at breakfast — (“yen dee,” everybody in the family says to me with a smile, literally “cool good” as there are no articles or parts of speech in the Thai language).

    ~

    And all the while still trying to deal with Laura Knight’s powerfully local yet dynastic portrait of somebody none of us have ever heard of yet looks so specifically forward toward me from my very own birth date and at the same time back toward W.B.Yeats who died the same year. And then a few days ago the face started contracting frame by frame by frame like the rings of an old chestnut tree — the “great rooted blossomer” at the very end of “Among School Children” perhaps, or our lives (you can click on what remains of the painting to see what the face looked like when Yeats died and I was born).

    Which is where I’ve been trying to get to in pursuit of “What then, sang Plato’s ghost, what then?” and the effort has brought me back to this:

    ………………..Labour is blossoming or dancing where
    ………………..The body is not bruised to pleasure soul,
    ………………..Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
    ………………..Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.
    ………………..O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,
    ………………..Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
    ………………..O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
    ………………..How can we know the dancer from the dance?
    …….

    Just so you’ll know I’m still here and keep on believing I might possibly deliver.

    Christopher

  43. May 22, 2016 at 10:24 pm

    The Blossoming Chestnut & The Bole

    ………………….Flowering Chestnut New
     

    The hard part in life is to keep one’s feet on the ground and at the same time to fly. For that’s the ultimate stretch for any human being, to be mindful of the limitations yet still to be able and willing to look foolish, to respect other people’s opinions yet to ignore their ridicule, to be humble, patient and responsible yet in important things still to flirt with almost certain disaster. Because the fact is that the wings of wax and feathers we human beings fly with come apart very easily the nearer we get to the sun. In less fanciful terms this says: however strong, beautiful, and gifted we are in our youth we will all grow old, walk with a stick, look at ourselves in the mirror with horror, and eventually die in total disarray.

    Which is a major issue, for sure — but also a major incentive to transcend our years, get a shoulder to the problem of space and time, and transcend ourselves altogether before it’s too late. And Yeats certainly worked hard at that, indeed all his life (and how he enriched ours in the process!).

    “Among School Children” (1933) was one of the most far-reaching poems Yeats ever wrote as well as one of the most specific. And the essential point in the poem is that “beauty” is not “born of its own despair,” another terse and ‘gnomic’ statement but a bit easier than the preceding one. What he means is that such “beauty” is not a product of superior self-control, nor of restraint, nor of prudery, spiritual refinement or moral abstinence, but rather something else much closer to ordinary life. And “wisdom” isn’t ethereal either, he says in the next line — because it’s not a product of long, academic study or intellectual discipline (“midnight oil,” he calls it, and we all know what that means!).

    To illustrate what he is trying to say about “beauty” and “wisdom,” Yeats conjures up a huge chestnut tree. “Great rooted blossomer,” he calls it, and in so doing yokes the lowest, darkest dimensions of the tree to the highest, lightest, most refined parts, and then asks, “Who are you, the leaf, the blossom or the bole?” And this is a powerful enquiry, because the “bole” refers not just to the trunk but to the gnarled, aging, nightmare protrusions that erupt out of the lower parts — like desperate tumors (cf. the graphic in Comment 38 above). In fact, the malformations are a result of endemic viruses that emerge as the chestnut tree ages, and become such an important element in the unique gravity and grace of this noblest, most life-affirming of species …

    And of course the aristocratic Old National Poet, the distinguished Free State Senator and Nobel Prize winner, the honorable Visiting Irish Free State Official, Mr. William Butler Yeats, is very aware of the gnarled, graceless, shriveled state of his own aging person as he stands there in front of those fresh young Convent girls. “Though never of Ledaean kind,” he reflects about his own person, [I] nevertheless had “pretty plumage once,” he thinks to himself  — and then, shuddering at the thought of his own present condition, the wrinkled skin, the stoop, the flacid shanks and liver spots, tries to shrug it all off (but not at all convincingly, which is undoubtedly how and why the poem came to be written in the first place, brave man!)

    ………………………………………—enough of that,
    …………….Better to smile on all that smile, and show
    …………….There is a comfortable kind of old scarecrow.

    Which is the end of the public poem as a nicely rounded performance piece for the well-schooled and healthy children assembled before him.

    Existentially, on the other hand, the reader is left with that old irreducible ‘chestnut:’ “Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?” And my feeling here is that knowing something of Yeats’ occult practices might be helpful, and I’d like to try to discuss that a bit based on my own experiences of those practices 60 years ago. Like all occultists at the time, Yeats had certainly read Rudolf Steiner’s writings on “Spiritual Science” in general including his Knowledge of Higher Worlds, and almost certainly practiced the tree and plant meditations that are such an important part of the Anthroposophical method. But don’t worry, I won’t be assuming that esoteric practices have anything especially revealing, deep or exalted to say, which they rarely do. All metaphors are just poetry, after all, and I will work with these Anthroposophical ones on my own humble level as a man and a poet. And if I can get my mind around some of this stuff coming from where I am, hey, it’ll be a piece of cake for you advanced practitioners and critics!

    More anon, because I’m feeling much more confident what with this good riff and the rain,

    Christopher

  44. c said,

    May 25, 2016 at 12:39 pm

    MY OWN CHESTNUT: THE NORTHWEST 200.

    img002

    The one in leathers is my red-headed brother, Tony Woodman. He wasn’t very good at reading and writing but was a genius on wheels — indeed, he was the first American to have a big success in Gran Prix motorcycle racing in Europe, and had he survived I feel sure he would have realized his dream to race in Formula I.

    In the upper photo Tony is seen in 1964 on his 350cc AJS7R at Brands Hatch in the South of England. That extraordinarily beautiful bike, along with his even more beautiful 500cc Matchless G50, was the last generation of English single-cylinder racing machines like the famous Manx Norton  — all just about to be superseded by the Japanese revolution in extreme engineering. Indeed, at Brands Hatch I first saw the multi-cylinder, multi-valve, water-cooled 500cc Honda, each cylinder just an inch in diameter but with 4 valves! I also heard for the first time the other-worldly banshee wail of a multi-cylinder, two-stroke Suzuki turning over at 20,000 rpms.

    Had Tony survived he would have become a Japanese factory rider the following year, I feel sure, and as soon as those revolutionary Asian machines became reliable enough to finish races he would have become World Champion. On the other hand, at 25 he felt he was growing old, and always said when he won that it wasn’t because he was a better rider but because he took greater risks. He also wore glasses behind his aviation goggles, and said that although he couldn’t see very well he could judge distances better than normal people, so he was able to brake later coming into the corners — a huge advantage in motor-racing but it’s terrifying to think about. A blind racer braking late!

    The person standing behind Tony is his younger brother, me. By contrast I could read and write well, and although I’d had my first child as a sophomore at Columbia, I still managed to graduate summa cum laude/phi beta kappa, win the Dino Bigongiari Prize for Italian Studies, and move on to the Yale Graduate School as a Woodrow Wilson Fellow. After that I won a three year Kellett Fellowship to Cambridge University where C.S.Lewis approved my thesis topic, “Polyphonic Narrative in Elizabethan Literature,” and a few months later I was formally enrolled at King’s College.

    In the photo I’m wearing coveralls because I’m in Tony’s pit crew at Brands Hatch, a service I preformed as often as I could — not easy because the Gran Prix circus moved from Monza to Montlhéry to the Nürburgring, then back to Silverstone, then across the channel again to Spa-Francorchamps and on to Catalunya etc. etc. every week or two, and I was pretty well stretched considering all the other things I was doing. Not only was I working on my thesis at Kings but I was also tutoring at Churchhill and  had  just had a second daughter as well. And of course there were all those other things I can’t tell you about — on the other hand, if you’ve been reading me carefully as I know you have, you can probably figure out just about anything you want.

    And then 1964 and the Northwest 200. Because despite all that reading and thinking and the huge inundation of great ideas plus art, music, philosophy, companionship, love, travel and everything else, I simply wasn’t ready for change. And that wasn’t all — I wasn’t ready for suffering either, not for suffering in my own personal time at least, not in my own personal space, not in my own person. And the ground came apart from under my feet.

    Christopher.

  45. May 26, 2016 at 3:10 pm

    THE BOLE OUT OF WHICH WE START & END

    Tony Xmas 400Tony, Christmas 1964.

    I don’t like to talk about what happened, and rarely do.

    It was late May and I couldn’t go because it was toward the end of the academic year and I was at a critical stage in my research. We had also just had another baby, and on top of that Tony felt he needed at least a week to learn the circuit, and that would mean being away for almost two. And I just couldn’t do that — which wasn’t an easy moment, and we knew it.

    To this day the Northwest 200 takes place in the beautiful countryside of County Antrim, Northern Ireland, indeed not too far from the Londonderry of Seamus Heaney. But getting there in 1964 with the van, the bikes, and all the equipment was even more difficult than it is today, including the ferries of course, and few motorways.

    The race itself was on 11 miles of public roads that passed through several country villages with stone walls, narrow bridges, lamp posts, hairpin corners, and numerous pubs with crowds of spectators cheering from the sidewalks and verges — it’s still one of the world’s greatest motorcycle races to this day, a sort of Gaelic Palio. In between the villages there are very long straights where the bikes hit over 180mph — indeed the average speed in 1964 was 106mph for the whole race. Today the average has reached well over 120mph, I’ve been told, but of course the machinery is far more sophisticated — in 1964 Tony didn’t even have disc brakes.

    We discussed the circuit a lot before he went. Everybody said that he shouldn’t even think about winning the race as he couldn’t possibly learn the course well enough to risk taking the lead. He must follow this time — any place would be an honor for a first-timer what is more an American, that’s what everybody said. But Tony felt he was getting old, as you know, and he did take the lead, passing the very well-known English rider, John Cooper, at over 90mph just before one of the villages with a hairpin corner coming up fast. A spectator, whose leg was broken in the accident, told me years later that he thought Tony had deliberately dropped the bike, for survival, something he knew well how to do — “coming off,” he called it, and his leathers were always in shreds to prove it. The bike skittered ahead and wiped the hay bales off the lamp post that he then hit first with his head and then with his shoulder. At 90.

    He was immediately flown unconscious to Belfast with serious head injuries and a broken back. He was fortunate in that the Royal Victoria Hospital had one of the best spinal institutes in the world at the time, and he had the most advanced specialist care including surgery almost immediately.

    I got there a day later and stayed by his bedside for a week until our mother and father arrived all the way from America — our father was a surgeon himself, and he knew and loved Ireland. On the other hand, he felt so involved in the accident, indeed so traumatized by it, having supported Tony so enthusiastically in his racing for so many years against all the nay-sayers, that he never managed to work as a doctor again. As to Tony, he lay there in a coma for months, and the prognosis was that if he survived he was unlikely to wake up ever again.

    Tony told me years later that he couldn’t put two thoughts together until the following Christmas, which was 8 months after the crash. And you can certainly tell that from the photo above — when he did start thinking he thought a lot.

    As did I, and am still.

    Christopher

  46. June 1, 2016 at 9:40 pm

    BACK TO THE SMALL WORDS WE STAY ALIVE WITH

    As you’ve probably suspected I’ve run into problems with all this.

    For a start, what are we going to do about the burning question that hangs over the end of even the most successful career, and I mean of a career even as heroic yet catastrophic as my brother’s —“What then?”

    ………………“The work is done,” grown old he thought,
    ………………“According to my boyish plan;
    ………………Let the fools rage, I swerved in nought,
    ………………Something to perfection brought”;
    ………………But louder sang that ghost, “What then?”

    The question is, and I’m serious about this, what is one going to do about that ghost singing louder and louder even after years and years of the most intense effort to prove that something ‘higher’ actually exists? Yeats dedicated his whole life, 50 + years of indefatigable hard work, to challenging the rational beliefs of John Locke as expressed so forcefully at home by his own father — that there is nothing out there but what we know right here and touch and see everyday. Indeed, while still in his teens, Yeats set about the pursuit of occult knowledge as a serious, rigorous, and dedicated scientist, and accepted the fact that, as a technician in the field of “Spiritual Science,” he would be dismissed by the establishment as an Alchemist, an Occultist, a Necromancer, a Hierophant, a Magician, a Medium, and even by some as a common Prestidigitator — which was one of the reasons he kept silent about the seriousness of that side of his work until “A Vision” so many years later, and even then he is still hidden behind his make-believe wizard’s curtain. In addition, Yeats was very aware that he was seen as a sort of Spiritual Playboy of the Western World who cast spells in the big aristocratic houses of Ireland to impress rich lady friends, and of course he posed as an ancient Bard on the stairs winding up to the top of his very own, custom-built Tower. And then there are the last days when we see him strapped into some sort of corset after the failed Steinach Procedure, breathing with difficulty, supported by his wife on one arm and a bed-mate on the other, still hoping for some sort of Epiphany in the flesh. And he’s very specific about that too — in one of his last poems he makes the triumphant assertion that, should such a flesh and blood visitation appear, she would be of greater value to him even than the “destiny of man!” And oh how hard he had worked all his life for that cause in the dangerous world of Irish politics!

    So this is really something to deal with.

    ……….
    …………..POLITICS
    ………………………‘In our time the destiny of man presents
    ………………………its meanings in political terms.’
    
 Thomas Mann

    ………………How can I, that girl standing there,
    ………………My attention fix
    ………………On Roman or on Russian
    ………………Or on Spanish politics,
    ………………Yet here’s a travelled man that knows
    ………………What he talks about,
    ………………And there’s a politician
    ………………That has both read and thought,
    ………………And maybe what they say is true
    ………………Of war and war’s alarms,
    ………………But O that I were young again
    ………………And held her in my arms.

    ………………………………William Butler Yeats, from Last Poems (1938-1939).
    ……….

    We have to take that seriously simply because the poetry that supports it so irresistibly powerful and moving, indeed almost like scripture. Inspite of all our reservations, superior education, and so-called ‘maturity,’ we have to believe in it with all our heart and soul. We have to believe in it because we know it’s true, or at least I certainly do. And we know it’s completely true even as we know it isn’t!

    And my brother too, I believe in his inarticulate speed, his irresponsibility and bright red hair. And the chestnut tree bole, I believe in that too — so beautiful, so ugly and twisted yet true — and somehow still the heart of the matter. So alive and so ruined at once.

    And this is what I have been trying to say from the start, and I hope and pray that I will eventually be able to say it even better soon.

    Christopher

  47. June 2, 2016 at 5:05 pm

    SPEAKING OF GIRLS & SPADES

    I deliberately avoided the word “girl” in my rhapsody on “Politics,” fearing I might cheapen the poem or perhaps even compromise the poet! At the same time I was careful not to take refuge in big, clean words like “Beauty” and “Truth” either, words which Yeats himself hardly uses after the breakthrough poem, “The Circus Animals Desertion.” And the irony is that it was the word “girl” he liked best as he got closer and closer to resolving the issues raised by Plato’s Ghost at the end of his life. Because “girl” is not an elevated idea-word but a familiar, tactile, well-handled spade-word, and it’s a spade you can dig with in your late-winter cold-frame right up to the end of your life, a seedling you can lean on to get the ever fading world ready for spring.

    As a visual artist it’s easier to get away with “girl” than it is for a writer in words, needless to say, though it still can be risky as it was almost always for Balthus, for example. On the other hand, it’s completely safe in this wonderful self-portrait by the famous Swedish painter, Carl Larsson, though the female figure still says just what she means, I think. And of course the painter takes risks too — the sword in the book, the fancy shoes, the plaster “girl” that he’s not looking at or she at him, and of course the look he’s giving us. (Don’t forget to click on my graphics.)

    Carl Larson %22Self Portrait in the New Studio%22%22………………………………Carl Larsson, Self-portrait in the New Studio (1912)

    That sort of young woman is safe, and we get what she means, but there’s danger here too, I think — voyeuristic almost. And is that a smirk? (Carl Larsson always had a wonderful sense of humor!).

    But this next “girl?” (I discovered the artist, Arthur Kern, just today in The New York Review of Books (NYR DAILY). The review by Nathaniel Rich has a good title too — “The Creatures Within” (NYRB June 1st, 2016), which is just what we’re getting to here as well.

    Arthur Kern- Dance on Trigger (1984)*400 .Arthur Kern, “Dance on Trigger” (1984) The Ogden Museum of Southern Art

    I think this small sculpture (just 11″ high) is so powerful partly because we want to read it so badly yet it’s not in a language we’ve ever encountered before. Indeed, it’s so powerful it forces us to acknowledge that it’s beyond us, and in a sense I think that’s what Yeats’ “Politics” does too. At the same time “Politics” speaks in our own, everyday language, so if we don’t understand it we almost certainly don’t want to understand it, or simply won’t understand it as we don’t/won’t understand the violent rape in “Leda and the Swan” either. This is a level of everyday coarseness that’s very hard to come to terms with in a famous, aesthetic and supersensitive, indeed super-sensible poet like W.B.Yeats, and reaches its apotheosis in late poems like “Among School Children” and “Politics.” They’re so otherworldly and at the same time so down to earth, sacred and scurrilous at once.

    Make no mistake about it, the “girl” in “Dance on Trigger” is sexually on offer too, this demure little vaudeville girl out of some Parisian or, more likely, Far West fantasy, but we can let her offer go by with a smile, and we won’t hold her promiscuity against her or against the artist — because this sort of depiction is distanced by being so Other, it’s just Myth, we say, just Art. And of course there’s the mutilated horse that’s so swollen it’s about to explode, and who’s going to catch her when her gentleman-cowboy’s mount goes off? Or is she flying already?

    (I feel like flying to New Orleans to see her!)

    And then this one –oh my!

    Arthur Kern, Silent Myth, 2006 ….Arthur Kern, “Silent Myth” (2006), The Ogden Museum of Southern Art

    Christopher

  48. June 3, 2016 at 1:39 pm


    NO PICTURES FOR THIS ONE — JUST THE SONGS THEY SING

    There are many modern artists who manage to paint the girl in “Politics,” but none more memorably, fetchingly I almost said, than Pablo Picasso, Balthus, and Egon Schiele.

    PICASSO:
    Nobody has ever drawn young women more provocatively naked, indeed invasively so, even savagely at time, but we accept that because the Minotaur is present and the girl is part of the Myth. We read the myth in the drawings, and though we’re still a bit shocked, which we ought to be, we’re also transported.

    Twenty-five years ago I saw an exhibition at the Musée Picasso of the Minotauromachia (1936) with rooms and rooms of related prints and drawings. I was mesmerized, and I’m still haunted by the image of the simple young girl with the candle and flowers who is standing there in front of the naked, disemboweled woman sprawled on the back of the horse, and of course the bull. Indeed, we’re all still dealing with that power struggle, everyone who has seen it, Arthur Kern too, needless to say. And needless to say as well, we continue to look at and accept the girl exactly as she is depicted because she’s a.) a Myth and b.) a Picasso. Nobody thinks not to look at her what is more to doubt the propriety of what they see. She’s intellectually important and as such totally acceptable.

    I have read everything I can find on the phenomenon of Picasso, but I still find John Berger’s ideas in The Success and Failure of Picasso (1993) the most helpful. I’m particularly interested in Berger’s detailed discussion of the drawings of the girl, the monkey, the artist, and the clown from the period at the very end of his life — there are goodness knows how many versions of the drama which he explored in his late 70s, bitter and impotent. And the difference between the Yeats’ poem and Picasso’s drawings isn’t the girl, who is equally radiant in her self-confidence, intelligence and beauty in both, but rather in the attitude of the two artists towards her. Picasso is overwhelmed by a feeling of rage, regret and self-mockery in his drawings while Yeats is just standing there face to face with the girl in the poem. And that’s a huge difference, indeed a watershed difference (if I succeed in anything in this discussion I would love it to be that I managed to show that Yeats’ life-time search for an answer to “What then?” was a “success,” and that the girl standing there in his “Politics” is proof of that most important of all accomplishments, getting through life whole — like the chestnut in “Among School Children.”)

    BALTHUS:
    Balthus pushed right to the edge of propriety as his girls are just adolescents at home in their rooms and are not provided with any special cover by the artist — no myth, no privilege, no higher calling. On the other hand, as Balthus’ reputation grows, which I think it certainly is, his reputation for integrity and special insight is growing too, and those qualities give an artist permission to say anything, like Picasso. But I’d like to add another ingredient: there is a sort of mythic ambiance in Balthus work, a stasis of sacred space, a haunted light of reverie, the irrepressible mood of the enfant terrible in all of us just on the edge of consciousness, the very moment we look back at the world and know we are beautiful too. That’s created by the blatant sexuality both in the position of the girl’s body and in the eye of the voyeur-like spectator who beholds her. Indeed, the girl that Balthus sees secretly in her room is the very essence of seeing as a relationship with that which is seeing back too, as if subject and object were both seeing and seen through the same eye. That’s mythic too, of course, and being taboo makes any myth even more powerful, indeed something only gods are permitted to see…

    EGON SCHIELE:
    Egon Schiele is in some ways the hardest of the three, and of course some of his work is borderline pornographic. On the other hand, we understand the historical context very well and allow his raw sexuality to take cover under the shroud of war, anger, disease, poverty, and social disintegration. And he’s a genius too, of course — he died at only 28, and it was 1918 after all. So his naked woman becomes mythic just as she is, twisted and broken, and we look at her as if she were a sacred shard of some torn Osiris. And seen like that she is beautiful as well as profoundly erotic in spite of the sad, wrecked state of her body. Indeed, in my mind Egon Schiele is a tremendously inspiring, even life-affirming artist, and I’d love to have met Wally Neuzil. Indeed, I’m sure I would have fallen in love with her too, as in a sense the mythic painter has painted the living myth in her very personal body.

    ~

    When we look at the “girl” in Yeats’ “Politics,” we modern spectators are bound to the mast like Odysseus. We know she is High Art and that we mustn’t be tempted by her “song,” as we call it, what is more respond to her body to body — ours is the state of mind Eliot memorializes in J. Alfred Prufrock, being in intellectual stasis, the mermaids singing each to each and not specifically to us what is more for us. And that’s what makes “Politics” so disturbing — because here the poet does respond to her body, personally and with all his heart and soul, as we say, and in so doing breaks the contract. We superior spectators are not like that — we are poetasters bound to the mast with strong, well-trained, socially-mandated cords. So we’re ready for temptation, and we can allow ourselves to be exposed to the allure of the wildest Siren song, to feast our eyes with impunity on the most outrageous lineaments of desire — because it’s Art! That’s why we wouldn’t do anything foolish like quit everything for the girl standing there before us. That’s why we would almost certainly (and appropriately) frown upon such foolishness as even thinking about holding the girl in our arms at 73 on the last night of our lives with our wives in the room next door. The sailors, on the other hand, have their ears plugged with wax so they can’t hear the song at all. Furthermore, bent as they are to the oars, they’re far too busy to look out what is more get involved, and aren’t into Art anyway. And both those social bindings are normal, of course, the rope in the case of Odysseus, the lack of education, opportunity, and wherewithal in the case of the sailors. That’s why Art is dignified and safe.

    But what if it isn’t safe, and it obviously isn’t safe at all in “Politics?” What if the bonds are deliberately severed and the poet dives in head first?

    What then?

    Christopher

  49. Dawn Potter said,

    June 6, 2016 at 7:37 pm

    From Richard Wilbur, letter to John Malcolm Brinnin, April 9, 1953:

    “I’ve been reading the letters of J. B. Yeats, Willie’s father: he was a fine if incomplete painter, and a personality far more engaging than his son. Whereas in WB’s grandest verses I often feel a bloated hollowness, there is none of that in the old boy. He lived planlessly, & died in New York out of a constitutional inability to arrange passage back to Ireland; he outlived most of his friends & the whole world he had grown up in; he sat reading Charles Lamb in New York of 1920—and yet at 75 he was saying that he had just got going, & that he hoped to live indefinitely. No death in him as in WBY; he never felt homeless. He subscribes to the notion that the nightingale sings with a thorn against his breast, but the thorns which made him an artist were not those of Willie and most everyone else since: the pain of social alienation, spiritual confusion, emotional insulation.”

  50. June 7, 2016 at 12:01 pm

    Thanks for that, Dawn — a most fertile contribution.

    John B. was undoubtedly the most important influence in William B.’s life, a relationship between father and son that mirrored the relationship between Edmund Gosse and his father, Philip Henry — we know all about that from the one autobiography we’ve almost certainly all read, which says something too. Because it’s the story of our own heritage, a struggle which repeated itself everywhere in our making, variations of which even troubled the novels of Edmund Gosse’s great working-class friend, Thomas Hardy. Indeed, Gosse wrote the first positive review of Jude the Obscure, while the rest of the fine literary gentlemen of the day were saying the novel should be banned from lending libraries if not actually burnt!

    I’m writing like this even to you — because this is where I am at the moment in myself . I’ve just finished reading Jude the Obscure yet again and haven’t yet recovered anywhere near. Almost paralyzed, dazed, feeling useless in everything I do, thick — which is also why I’m so slow moving on in what I’m trying to do in this thread.

    And to help me out even more, dear Dawn, and if I might be so bold, I’d like to quote something else you wrote just a week ago, I think, words which have been haunting me equally ever since:

    “But the sadness of men . . . why does it move me so? And how is it different from the sadness of women? For it is different — a mysterious slow sea, a rocket into the dark, an energy of the hands, a grenade.”

    When I first read those words I assumed you were applying all four images to the “sadness of men,” and now I think perhaps you meant the sea and hands were part of the sadness of women, and by contrast the rockets and grenades the sadness of men. Whichever, the images are all spot on for me personally, and I’m very pleased to have the chance to include them here.

    I agree completely with Richard Wilbur, W.B.Yeats was a poseur in many ways, covering up for an almost pathological distrust of himself and rarely telling the truth even in his best poetry. Yes, it’s still very great poetry, but when the balloon loses its air in the last years of his life and lies wrinkled and flightless in that place where all ladders start, as we all say today (thanks to him!), Yeats somehow lifted himself up by the magical trick of just staying down. Up to that point he had been as much loved as a poet but only just a little better than Walter de la Mare, let’s say, or Longfellow. In the late poems, on the other hand, Yeats becomes among the greatest of modern poets, and as a man at the same age today I feel a responsibility to come to terms with what I find in him – just as I feel a responsibility to come to terms with my brother’s terrible crippling at genius speed combined with my own lack of success as a poet in an otherwise very successful life. And of course, even as an old man I carry a heart a little too full and too easily moved, which is almost certainly the root of my problem both as a friend and a writer.

    I write too to change that, to change myself first and foremost and then to change the sense other people have of both who I am and what I write. There is nothing personal in my poetry, for one thing, which is perhaps why it doesn’t interest people who feel poets write to express themselves. Indeed, I think I’m best when I’m least there in my poetry, and I write even here to take my own awkward self out of the equation. Which is what I think Yeats did too at the end.

    The Richard Wilbur letter was a great help to me, Dawn, if only that it has given me a chance to say that.

    Christopher

  51. Dawn Potter said,

    June 7, 2016 at 4:49 pm

    Glad to know that the letter resonated. I’m presently editing a bio of Wilbur, and it includes a great deal of previously unpublished material such as this. I feel lucky to be seeing it.

  52. June 8, 2016 at 9:41 am

    That’s wonderful, Dawn — lucky you! And I look forward to reading the book when it comes out (my shelf of yours is getting quite long).

    ~

    It’s important to remember that Richard Wilbur was already 7 when Thomas Hardy died, and that W.H.Auden was 18 and already getting ready to be a poet. As young men they both steeped themselves in Hardy, of course, but also in A.E.Housman who lived on until 1936. Indeed, we forget that about some of the great ‘moderns’ — and also forget how modern both Housman and Hardy actually are (Claire Tomalin is wonderful on Hardy’s poetry, luminous — my heart is still beating faster). We also forget how conservative a poet like Richard Wilbur is too — I think you can see that in the way he bonds with and admires J.B.Yeats in that letter.

    Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

    W.B.Yeats only became modern after he gave up and lay down on the floor — so to speak. That was in the last so-so hotel on the Riviera. And of course Willie also had George who was way ahead of him in these matters. I mean, she married him, tricked him with the truth when she knew it wasn’t, and then stayed on with him forever.

    ~

    There’s a huge amount of published Richard Wilbur as well — any on-line list of quotes will include the following (which I include here for obvious reasons):

    “One does not use poetry for its major purposes, as a means to organize oneself and the world, until one’s world somehow gets out of hand.”

    “Writing poetry is talking to oneself; yet it is a mode of talking to oneself in which the self disappears; and the product’s something that, though it may not be for everybody, is about everybody.”

    “Teach me, like you, to drink creation whole/ And casting out myself, become a soul.”

    “All that we do is touched with ocean, and yet we remain on the shore of what we know.”

    C.

  53. June 9, 2016 at 10:21 am

    HOW RELICS WRITE

    I have very few friends who read poetry and even fewer who read the poetry I write. This is partly because at two very important junctures in my life I quit poetry altogether, and as a poet I have no past.

    The first time I quit was in my teens when I stopped writing because I knew my poetry was fake. Even at sixteen I was very aware that I wrote poetry because I wanted to be seen as a poet, and indeed I would cobble together anything and call it a poem, anything at all however scrambled or derivative. I too put on a mask in order to hide my own struggle with myself, not to express it. That’s one of the reasons I’m so interested in Yeats who, of course, did much the same. On the other hand, Yeats built on a mythology that had everything to say in itself however much he fudged it, and of course he was also a genius. I did the same as Yeats did but with much less skill and with no schtick at all as I was just as naive and unguarded as I am today. Yet I too won prizes, and even became editor of the literary magazine at my boarding school. I also pretended to be Shelley and even nourished the fantasy that my school was as anti-life as the girls-school that imprisoned 19 year old Percy Bysshe’s 16 year old Harriet. But I got a superb education all the same.

    To make matters even more complicated, I had a beautiful soprano voice and from the age of 11 sang solos in the boy’s choir, Handel to Mendelssohn. I did it for that long because, although it was as clear as a bell, my voice didn’t change until I was 16. And of course I was just getting ready to quit poetry at the same time too, and little did I realize what all that would mean for the latter part of my life, i.e. from the age of 50 when I took up poetry again to where I am now 25+ years later.

    To finish up the First Parting, then, I fell in love with the girl in the red silk dress at 17, married her at 20, and had my first child as a sophomore at Columbia just 5 days after I turned 21.

    And it was thus that girls trumped poetry in my life, and in a sense still do. I’m not in any way a sexual threat to anybody, not even to myself, nor have I ever been any of the above what is more promiscuous — indeed on the contrary, I’ve been much too fond and attached. Yet it’s girls that have always been it in my imagery — although I prefer to think of them as ‘relics,’ of course. The sacred girl, the sacred relic — Dante and Petrarch through Goethe and all the way to John Fowles and especially, à cause de et grâce à Alain-Fournier. That’s it — and a lot more anon, don’t worry.

    The Second Parting was not with writing poetry but with studying it as an Elizabethan scholar at Cambridge. It happened four years after my brother Tony’s accident — I had become in the interval not only a Research Fellow at Christ’s College but at the same time Chairman of the Cambridge University Buddhist Society, a delicate balancing act if there ever was one. Well, guess what, I resigned my Fellowship at Christ’s, sold my beautiful cottage and orchard in the village of Histon (with a windmill, truly!), packed up my whole family, and went off to Scotland with the man I had helped to make President of the Cambridge University Buddhist Society two years before, Trungpa Rimpoche. But the most devastating part of that Second Parting was that the girl in the red silk dress departed with another disciple and I found myself alone with 3 small children and a whole lot of relics — memories, images, artifacts, whatever you want to call them — all of which are still covered in the gold leaf that has always sanctified my turbulent, topsy-turvy past (La Croix Ma Fille used to be called Gold Leaf on the Waters, but has now moved on to a title that’s more like my life as it is).

    At this point I need to pick up another essential thread in my life, and look again at the end of the First Parting. When I was 18, not yet married, not yet at Yale or Cambridge, I studied English as an undergraduate at Columbia College on Morningside Heights, which I loved. What’s a bit hard to believe, even for me who did it, is that at the same time I enrolled at the Arts Students’ League on 57th Street, traveling downtown on the Broadway train to study sculpture in a life class every evening, which I did with all my heart and soul for almost two years. I was very successful at this as well, and one of my portraits in clay was selected to represent the Sculpture Department in the Art Students League catalog. Yes, and the models were naked, and all my finished pieces were Life Class Relics like the following.

    ~

    The little poem that follows, “Life Class with Kant,” is very important to me, yet it’s obvious that nobody else likes it as it has been rejected at least a dozen times over the years. This always hurts as the poem is so clear and bold to me, and even though I go back to it from time to time to see if there’s any way I can help, it always stays just the same. Indeed, it feels to me as adamant as Emily Dickinson’s stone at the end of “The Soul Selects” (you might like to have a look back at that discussion — click on the title and scroll down to find it). “Life Class with Kant” continues to say to me what it says each time, and I know that I simply can’t improve it without losing the special quality it already has — that the narrator knows the message yet knows nothing. And I, the sculptor’s grandfather, so to speak, don’t know anymore about it than what the poet says either, “Life Class with Kant” now having a life entirely of its own — more like the girl’s, in fact, who knows nothing either but is covered in gold, or in silver and crystal in the relic imagery of the poem. And I think that’s really interesting.

    A few days ago I was preparing the new book this poem now appears in as a submission for the publisher I like best, indeed the only submission of my work I have made for over two years. And I looked and looked at this tiny little poem, so bare and small yet at the heart of the book, trying to figure out what I might do to empower it to speak what it has wanted to say all its life. And I ended up with this new version — you can see the previous version just above. Have a look and see if what I have done is helpful, or if you even notice, or if you are shocked.
    …………..

    …………….LIFE CLASS WITH KANT

    ……………………………….“das Vissen aufzuheben, um für den
    …………………………………Glauben Platz zu Bekommen

    ………………………………………………………………….

    …………………..The merest daub you say
    …………………..Will do it.

    …………………..This undressed girl beside the vase
    …………………..Will satisfy my lust
    …………………..For meaning even if
    …………………..Her unlaced body wilts
    …………………..Upon the stand.

    …………………..Afterwards she draws her belt
    …………………..Tight about her waist
    …………………..And leaning slightly forward on the stool
    …………………..Gazes at my work.

    …………………..I explain that relics
    …………………..Start like this—
    …………………..The silver mantle is for later,
    …………………..The mirror last
    …………………..Of all.

    …………………..The still god-wrapped girl meanwhile
    …………………..Like all the rest
    …………………..Bows down in yet
    …………………..Another’s arms.

    ……………………………….from “LA CROIX MA FILLE”
    …………………………………………..A Book of Poems & Relics

    …………..

    Christopher

  54. June 10, 2016 at 10:25 pm

    A POEM TO THINK BY

    “Kant” is how many of us access the myth of Philosophy, isn’t it?

    Because we can access the myth of Philosophy with that one name just as we can access the myth of Relativity with “Einstein,” Astronomy with “Galileo,” Theology with “St.Thomas Aquinas,” Epistemology with “Plato,” or the Self with “The Buddha” or “Jung.” And because we knew the great names when we were young and hopeful and still felt it was possible to know things, the names are charged with an almost magical sense of possibility, nudging us both backward and forward in time as well as inside and outside our own persons. We may not recall anything about Immanuel Kant yet still have the feeling that we once walked hand in hand with him on the path of How We Know Things, and perhaps still feel we were once fellow-travellers. Though we may not be on the path any more, we still know it’s out there somewhere, hidden in the undergrowth and fastnesses of Higher Knowledge. So the feet of even the vaguest “Kant” moment in us are important feet, just as the experience of the half-naked “Girl” in the poem bending over the young artist in her robe is a deep, tactile experience of what it is to be whole and at the same time holy. And that’s pure “Kant.”

    If we’re reading the poem and don’t know German it matters no more than if the narrator in “Life Class with Kant” ever actually knew the life-model, which he didn’t — he just had a sandwich with her once at the Automat down 57th Street, turning right if I remember (and right again, and maybe it’s even still there). In addition, though he had already fallen in love with the girl in the red silk dress, the sculptor was still a virgin at the time, I confess — which made the intimacy of the life class all the more exquisite. Indeed it was earth-shaking as he had had only brothers at home, went to a boy’s boarding school, was a very late developer physically, and had never seen a naked woman before in his life. In other words, as great as a great idea uncovered or covered as the case may be, before or after.

    The important point is that thinking “Kant” (or naming related thoughts like “Plato” or Hegel,” equally important) requires not only verve combined with patience but wings, and of course wings take a lot of courage to mount on at all particularly when you’ve been taught to stay away from the sun. That’s where the girl was in “Life Class,” or very near anyway, and of course it was the poet who fell in the poem, not she.

    I still don’t know if I will keep the German citation or not, but if I do it will be for reasons something like these.

    [NOTE. The German was removed some months after this discussion — the quote is not only unpoetic in the context but assumes that the “Kant” in the title is not enough, and I’m embarrassed to have to add this apology.]

    ~

    The following is one of the very first poems I wrote when I started again at 50, indeed while my boat was still safe in the Port de l’Arsenal, Place de Bastille (you can easily see the harbor from the big window in the Metro to this day). What that means is I wasn’t yet out on the Seine as I was later, single again and broken-hearted once more, nor had I tied myself up alongside the squatters’ barge at the Pont d’Issy where I sent out all those other, more distinguished poems I showed you. But “Daedalus Brief” was the first poem I ever had accepted for publication, appearing as it did in the Benefit Collection that was put together to raise money for George Whitman, his Shakespeare & Co. having suffered a bad fire the year before. And Fire Readings certainly did put my entirely unknown name in some very good company, in fact the only success of that sort I’ve had in my life.

    But that’s not the reason the poem is here — which is rather to help you with “Kant” + “Life Class.” The German speakers can “explain” to you right away that “das wissen aufzuheben” doesn’t mean “deny knowledge” as it’s often translated, but rather “suspend” it — “suspend knowledge in order to make room for belief” — which is certainly what both Kant and the poem are about. And I’d say that just “Kant” is more than enough if you feel comfortable with poetry what is more if you trust yourself enough to fly as explained in some detail in the poem. Indeed, if you follow the instructions you can “das wissen aufzuheben” quite easily like any other wizard, young artist, old lover, or shaman.

    The fact is that if it’s gobbledy-gook it’s still “Kant,” and that that’s the little extra boost I thought the poem might get with the German citation. Just “Kant,” not what the philosopher actually said what is more “Hegel,” who flew even higher. Just “Kant” + “Life Class.”
    ………………

    ………………DAEDALUS BRIEF

    …………………..If you jump high enough to know
    …………………..Exactly how to stay afloat

    …………………..If you suspend your breath
    …………………..Just at the point the next begins

    …………………..And spread your shoulders
    …………………..Gently out like this and this

    …………………..Feeling each porous blade
    …………………..Expand with gently harnessed air

    …………………..Your altitude a little lower than
    …………………..The height which makes you think

    …………………..But higher than the space below
    …………………..While having nowhere else to go

    …………………..Then you, my son, will never have
    …………………..To stretch for some new stunt to please

    …………………..Or words to pray
    …………………..Or be.

    ……………………………….from “LA CROIX MA FILLE”
    …………………………………………..A Book of Poems & Relics

    [A very early poem first published in Fire Readings, A Collection of Contemporary Writing from the Shakespeare & Co. Fire Benefit. (Paris, 1991) with a Foreword by Lawrence Ferlinghetti.]

    Christopher

  55. June 19, 2016 at 12:15 pm

    AND WHAT THEN?

    I’m sure you’ve all noticed the delay and feel sorely pressed too. Indeed, how does he keep it going, you must worry, and why?

    It’s all so preposterous, so unlikely, so humiliating even, and just where can it possibly end? The tall ship perilously trapped on the rocks out there and the wind still rising, and the swell, and the light failing off the worst possible coast of Maine in mid-winter, where I’m from too, by the way, not just the artist. And who would dare to bring such fragile cargo ashore — indeed, is she even still breathing?

    Breeches 400……..(Click on the engraving to see better, and then click yet again to be there.)

    Fanciful, but that’s very much how it feels. Will the rope hold, will the breeches clear the next wave, and is she even still breathing? She’s certainly beautiful enough in his arms, and his face is conveniently hidden behind her shawl so you don’t know how he feels or even if he’s handsome. And where do they go, these two, and why are they both out there with their designer boots dangling over the wild green water? (In fact Winslow Homer painted many pictures of the girl. She’s the same one as in “The New Novel,” for example, and some say he even married her.)

    ~

    The truth is that I love what I’m doing, yet for over 10 years now I’ve not come across a single editor or critic who liked my work enough to comment on it. There has been plenty of mockery from casual readers, plenty of satire and sabotage, indeed even outrage at my bad grammar and distasteful, illogical, misplaced imagery, but very few words of encouragement or sympathy from those who ought to be able to rise to it.

    So I decided two years ago just to write about what I write myself. And here I am now at “What then?” – which also means “what then” for me as well as for my work.

    And then I arrive at this:

    Trout 2 400…………………………(Click on the water to see into the pool.)

    Both of the last two poems I’ve posted are as bare, simple and unpoetic as this yet are at the same time, like the above, enormously complex — like looking through a glass darkly, one might say, or into a haunting (remember this from “Make It New?”). The more ‘difficult’ of the two poems has the simplest title, “Life Class,” yet is asked to carry the weight of “Kant” as a credential. And how pretentious is that? Would anybody read a poem as chopped up and hung out to dry in scraps and tatters as this while thinking about Immanuel Kant? “The merest daub you say will do it,” the poem begins, and what’s that got to do with anything? Who says it, and do what, and to whom? Are we supposed to understand that that’s what happens to the undressed girl on the stand who wilts yet provides somebody’s lust for meaning while at the same time ends up in somebody else’s arms as if she were out there sailing to Byzantium with the poet — or looking on in any case like the girls in “Among School Children?”

    To me that’s as clear as a bell, or more aptly I’d say that’s as clear as what I can see in the photo above — in the cold, private, peat-stained water which haunts me still from the fraught years I spent beside it in Scotland. That’s not because of what the Tibetans taught me either, but because I know how the salmon comes back to such tiny inaccessible places, huge but ragged with so much travel, and I can sense in myself the possibility of that arrival again and again and always in such water, as you can too if you look carefully. Not the same water as in the Winslow Homer Life-line drama, but just as fertile, just as wild and romantic. Winslow Homer’s water is too full and in-your-face, perhaps, and may even make you cringe with embarrassment – my water is so plain and empty you turn away distracted by the conviction that things have to be well-written as well as have a name and a provenance if they’re to be taken as serious writing…

    Through a glass darkly like the above, that sort of haunting, is precisely what interests me most in everything, including what I had for breakfast this morning. I’m interested in the image and how it gets on my plate and at the same time on the altar as an icon or a relic. In everything I explore that, all the time I do, and I’d say that that’s the only answer you can give to Plato’s ghost at the end of “What Then,” singing as he does like a Siren (that’s what Plato actually calls the angel of each sphere in The Republic, a Siren, and no wonder you shouldn’t hear her or even take a look without tying yourself to the mast!). Certainly not the Idea but not the Thing either, not the light or the shadow but that which squeezes in around the edges of both or slips between the cracks of the floor, so to speak — not the big significant joists that support everything we know and believe in. And that statement has nothing to do with Theology either any more than it has to do with Science, both of which are out of their depth entirely when it comes to not being anywhere.

    I can’t force anybody to find that interesting. I have to leave that up to life which has a habit of bringing us all to the edge in the end and then letting us slip through the cracks in our floors. I also can’t persuade anybody that “Life Class” is worthwhile either until you have gotten to the point where you can take poems like “What Then?” and “Politics” seriously too, as well as the last night of William Butler Yeats’ life side by side with his ridiculous, gilded bird — “Made in Byzantium”, the label says. And I mean seriously yet with a boundless sense of humor and excitement, as I am sure he did as well, both in the light of the last girl and the emperor’s wind-up bird.

    “Daedalus Brief,” on the other hand, is idiot simple right from the start. We know the myth so well, and few of us have not crashed out because we didn’t heed Daedalus’ caution at some point in our lives. But the poem says something quite different from that warning – it tells us how to take off, not how far or where to, just off.

    It doesn’t tell us how to achieve anything what is more how to escape or do good or see better, just how to get here and stay nowhere — which is what the poem says. And the reason it’s a good poem is that you can so easily try it out and then answer the question “What then?” to your own satisfaction.

    And has anybody ever done that — or more likely, not done it?

    Christopher

  56. June 20, 2016 at 11:22 am

    ………………
    ………………..BY THE WATERS OF BABYLON

    ……………………….Like tears you still blink by,
    ……………………….brilliant absence—
    ……………………….your tattered salmon dress an easy touch
    ……………………….down on the grated knees of boys
    ……………………….guddling* for a female grace —
    ……………………….but grown up spiff,
    ……………………….soaped, coifed and saddled,
    ……………………….always move too far, too fast
    ……………………….just in time to spook, or muss,
    ……………………….we cannot catch you
    ……………………….so irreproachably displayed.

    ……………………….O sliver of Lady Loss —
    ……………………….these still unbroken hands cup
    ……………………….unlearnt words like take and eat
    ……………………….and this is my body
    ……………………….over your head—
    ……………………….that your gills fan us,
    ……………………….that the bright web of your fins
    ……………………….petals us like a woman’s,
    ……………………….that even holding our breaths
    ……………………….dives us down to yours.

    ……………………….The long wait out of your element,
    ……………………….our prostrations hardly rippling the present —

    ……………………….That you believe in us again!
    ……………………….O blind pool’s eye,
    ………………………………………..O eel-sheathed Lady Bless —
    ……………………….our ragged prayers sidle up against the grain
    ……………………….to grope your hips,
    ……………………….tether your slippery heels again.

    ……..

    *Guddling (Scottish dialect). Shepherd children still ‘guddle’ for salmon with their bare
    ..hands as the great fish return to spawn in remote hill-farm ‘burns’ and streams.

    ……..

  57. June 22, 2016 at 1:02 pm

    ALSO BY LOCH EWE IN THE NORTHWEST HIGHLANDS

    CONCLUSION:
    Rudyard Kipling was a troubled child but at the same time a fully grown man right from the very start. He became a professional journalist at the age of 16 and by 19 was a household name throughout Anglo-India. When he returned to London at 22 he had an immediate success there as well, and by the age of 24 was the institution he has remained to this day. He wrote Kim at the age of 34, largely in Vermont, by the way – and to this day Kim remains one of the most widely read as well as highly regarded novels in the English language. But after that, deaths — of his beloved daughter, Josephine, then almost of himself, and then of his frail, almost blind son, John, doing his duty in 1914 in the trenches at Loos. And then the slow tragic withdrawal — though not tragic in my eyes, no, not at all.

    I love and admire Rudyard Kipling, as you may even remember, but for me the secret hero of the story is the ‘unknown’ father behind it, Lockwood Kipling, immortalized in Kim’s beloved, bumbling, outward-bound but homesick Tibetan Lama who in the end rejects even Nirvana to stay close to his best little renegade friend. I’m 76 and not wise at all, but I’m on the same pilgrimage of closeness without believing in anything or having any definable goal – and certainly not any interest whatever in lives past what is more in lives to come.

    At 23 Kipling was approached by his cousin who had just completed “A FIVE ACT TRAGEDY IN BLANK VERSE” (sic) and wanted advice from his great and distinguished family-connection, Cousin Ruddy (just 18 months his senior!). Kipling wrote in a letter to a close female friend about the experience like this:

    “…the poor boy had evidently been struggling with religious difficulties thro it all —complicated with budding flirtations which, most naturally, plunged him further into the maze of doubt and uncertainty… Very naturally he estimates all his poems not by the thing actually put down in black and white but by all the glorious inchoate fancies that flashed through his brain when his pen was in his hand. He wants my verdict not so much on his poems as his psychological condition. If I put it down in writing I shall offend him. I will e’en ask him to dinner — or a pipe — and talk things over — verily the soul of a young man is awful cur’ous.”

    I’m 50+ years older than both Kipling and his neophyte cousin at the time of this letter, and the poems I’ve been showing you have been in constant revision for decades. Some of you feel sorry for me for that, and some of you feel angry that I should still presume — and my tiny readership is hardly expanding. So this may indeed be it.

    On Friday I leave Chiang Mai for Jackson Hole, Wyoming. I won’t find any of the peat-stained water what is more the worldly-wise salmon, exhausted yet still so ambitious, so irrepressibly fertile that I write about. But there will be cold water and mountains like in the following photo just sent to me by my friend Sarah Urqhart-Taylor from where she lives way up in the Scottish Highlands. And what a wonderful gesture of support and understanding that is.

    To those of you who are reading me like she is, and there are some others, I know, I’m truly grateful, and if I can some day I’ll continue. But “How Bad is the Devil” and “Why I Wrote How Bad is the Devil” are done.

    Christopher

    Sarah Loch Ewe 400…………………………………….by Loch Ewe in the Northwest Highlands


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