I was walking with a friend the other day—how marvellous to be able to write that again—and she was telling me how she’d been co-opted without consultation into a cheesy social-media-platform birthday tribute to someone she hasn’t even seen for about many years, and with whom she had no significant relationship anyway. Something about this, or rather, our reaction to this, put me in mind of the glorious ‘No, Thanks’, by Dennis O’Driscoll. This is the only version of the whole text I can find online, and it’s been very slightly edited from the print version I have. You have to scroll almost to the bottom of the page and when you get there it’s not laid out well. But I reckon it’s better to have a “nearly” version of this poem than not. Do read it out loud to yourself. It’s one of those poems which tells you exactly how it wants to be read.Read More
Or rather, remember, that poems can be instruction manuals for us in times of crisis (see Libby Purves, above). As one who usually needs a walk in the morning if I’m to greet the world with anything other than a scowl, snarl or sob, I really relate to ‘How to Regain Your Soul‘ by William Stafford. It feels like a useful entry in the How to: Life guide at the moment. See what you think.
I love the specificity here. ‘[T]hat one place where the valley floor opens out’, as well as inviting us into the poem and, in its intimacy, suggesting that we’re fellow-travellers welcomed by the poet, this tells us how well-known this place is to the speaker. This first stanza is full of precise detail: the poet is steeped in the place, grounded in it, and can evoke it with a vividness possible only when you’ve really allowed yourself to be in a place—have a relationship with it (and it with you). It’s a place to ‘[p]ut down your pack’; a place, then, you might’ve made some effort to get to, but which is worth the trek. A place and time to be savoured.
And time expands in the second stanza, back into the distant and then the unimaginably distant past. There is freedom here—’Above, air sighs’; the dazzle of the ‘white butterflies danc[ing]/ by the thousands in the still sunshine’—and a sense of access into eternity and the “sudden” knowledge that ‘anything/ could happen to you’. A moment of grace, or ephipany: your soul taking its right place in the soul of the world, as part of the world, and then ‘shin[ing] back through the white wings to be you again’. This is a drink of cool well-water on a hot day. This is refreshment. We all need this at the moment.
I can’t say I get my third eye opened every time I shuffle, stride or sometimes scamper (a solo thing, that!) through the woods and up onto the scar behind my house. But there is always something about attention to the place and its small wonders which lifts and frees me, and partly because of my familiarity with it. Yesterday, walking in all that spring-shaggy greenness, I rejoiced in the multilayered birdsong echoing through the damp air. I spotted a jay, a woodpecker, a tree creeper, many squirrels and the rat which lives near that big limestone outcrop (you know, the one by the steps up onto the dancing green where the bench is?). The grass was made beautiful by rain and the orchids poked their magenta up through the silvered green. It was magic. And I regained enough of my soul to function as a reasonably civilised human being again.
Until the following morning, at least.
That extra time we’re supposed to be having at the moment, during which we relax, read, knit ourselves cunning new kitchens, all that lot… It hasn’t been like that for me. I seem to have spent a startling amount of time doing I know not what. But one of the things I have managed to achieve, which I’ve been meaning to do for a long time, is get hold of some WS Merwin.Read More
A few weeks back I mentioned that we’d get to Larkin’s trees in May. Well, it’s May, and here are ‘The Trees‘. You can hear Larkin reading the poem, and watch an accompanying animation (commissioned by the BBC on the 30th anniversary of Larkin’s death), here.Read More