now, what was that thing…?

now, what was that thing…?

Do you remember those Magic Eye pictures? I thought they were a craze in the 80s but according to their website it was the 90s (I seem to have mislaid a decade somewhere or other). The pictures came to mind this morning when I was trying to remember a name I’d forgotten: something about the way I had to stop striving to see the 3D image in order to be able to do so made me think of what it can be like these days trying to retrieve something from long-term mental storage. And that made me think of ‘Forgetfulness‘ by Billy Collins. If you can bear not to read it straight away, do click the red arrow by the title to hear the author reading it. It’s a great way to meet the poem.

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strangeness making sense

The other poem in my head while I was on holiday was one I almost always hear in there when I’m away from home: Larkin’s ‘The Importance of Elsewhere‘. The experience of being where no-one knows your name (apologies for the echo of the Cheers theme tune which may have just drifted across your mind) can feel safe or frightening, liberating or paralysing, and I’ve always loved Larkin’s exploration of these facts in this poem.

Larkin is of course a supreme anatomist of being alone. In ‘Vers de Societe‘ he is darkly witty and wonderful on the distinctions between aloneness and loneliness, solitude and isolation, as well as on the messages both internal and cultural which exist in relation to these different states. in ‘The Importance of Elsewhere’ we find a characteristic Larkin spareness—he never wastes a word—as well as honesty. I find it deeply moving the way he manages to speak so clearly about the loneliness of his life at ‘home’ by speaking only about the acceptable sense of ‘difference’ elsewhere.

‘Lonely in Ireland, since it was not home,/ Strangeness made sense’: that stunning opening sentence has an epigrammatic quality. It’s ok not to belong where you’re not supposed to belong. This central thought, and its unsaid opposite, are fleshed out through the rest of the poem. There’s something so delightfully deft in the nearly playful, definitely paradoxical recognition that the ‘salt rebuff’ can ‘ma[k]e him welcome’, that ‘difference’ can connect you, put you ‘in touch’. There’s another important distinction made by the end of the second stanza—that he is ‘separate, not unworkable’, which serves to mark the surfacing of the fear and pain which exist at the heart of the poem. I find the word ‘unworkable’ so quietly powerful, so touching. It’s not a word that makes a fuss, and isn’t as immediately value-laden a word as unsociable, or terrible, or damaged, or flawed. Nonetheless there’s a sort of sad resignation in it—that this is the quietly, undramatically painful fact of him. He just doesn’t work as a person in relationship. In the final stanza he doesn’t admit to refusing ‘[his] customs and establishments’, but despite the conditional verb the closing imagery of insurance, with its connotations of death and disaster, speaks clearly of what is unsaid.

Particularly at the moment, when the world has become strange to us, I wonder how many people might find in this poem the curious comfort of reading and knowing they are not alone in their loneliness?

the winged life

Everything there is to be said about the toxic potential of social media has already have been said somewhere else (probably on social media) so I won’t rehearse it here. And it’s true that the splicing together of commercials for our lives (rather then inhabiting them) isn’t quite what Wendell Berry’s splendid ‘The Vacation‘ is about; but it feels related, somehow. Besides, this was the poem which came to mind while I was away on my holiday. Here it is.

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beside the seaside

I am lucky enough to be retreating from Real Life for a while: a week (ish) away near the Galloway coast in a house where there’s no internet and only a very feeble, intermittent phone signal. So this column will be on holiday along with me, though back as usual in a fortnight’s time. To give you a virtual visit to the sort of place I’ll be, and a vision of the sorts of creatures I hope to be gazing upon, here’s the vivid and wonderful ‘Rhu Mor‘ by Norma MacCaig. (Unfortunately I can’t find this anywhere on the internet with the poet’s own layout on the page, so we’ll have to make do with this. As consolation, you can hear MacCaig himself reading it here.)

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an unlikely trio

It’s very often time for Mary Oliver, I find, though I know those who do not agree. For those readers, best pass by. Today I wanted to read ‘Wild Geese‘, so I am. I know most people have already read it. I know that (like other Oliver texts) it’s been plundered for Pinterest posts and self-help-seminar titles and many, many Inspirational Items (posters, mugs, t-shirts, who knows what). Still, its beauty and wisdom persist—just as the Mona Lisa survives being a jigsaw. So: enjoy ‘Wild Geese’ all over again (with the plus of hearing Oliver read it).

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not just getting there, but there

shades of blue will be published on the 24th of August!

Unfortunately because of The Current Situation launch events and parties have had to cancelled. I was so looking forward to having a bash, and had booked my friends Peter and Tony for a reunion gig of the Po Lauries. This was the name under which the three of us performed some of my songs-with-new-words-to-the-tune-of-a-well-known-song (there must be a word for that but it escapes me for the moment) in the year I was South Cumbria Poet Laureate. Peter was on keyboards and Tony shared the vocals with me. What larks we had, what larks… Alas, The Comeback Tour will not now be happening until some unforeseeable time in the future when something nearer to Normal Service is resumed for us all. So, until then, please do feel free to share this post and help get the word out.

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One of the many weird, sad things about living during this time of pandemic is what it does to how we look on other people: suddenly everyone is threat, or potential threat, and connection is something to be avoided, not sought. I’d like to offer a little antidote to this—a reminder of connection as protection—in the shape of ‘Shoulders‘ by the deeply gifted Naomi Shihab Nye.

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above the parapet

Like most people, I imagine, I’ve found it hard to keep going with my usual activities these last few months—including writing, though it’s central to my life both as process and product. There’s just so much energy needed to keep so much stuff at bay; so much effort going into not shouting with rage or terror or sheer frustration (well not in public anyway)… Time, I thought to do some celebrating. Share some good news for a change.

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