just part of the deal

difficult thoughts

When times are hard, is it helpful or appalling to read something and realise that times have been hard in the same way before (and therefore probably will be again)? Mostly, as you’ll know by now, I tend to think it’s helpful to read and know you are not alone; but when today’s poem presented itself for duty in my head, seeming apt for the times, resonant and gloomy, I did initially feel a bit droopier than I already had been. So, see what you think: do you feel droopier when you read ‘The Leaden Eyed‘ by Vachel Lindsay? (Note: in versions I’ve seen in print there is a stanza break between lines 4 and 5, which doesn’t appear in this online version.)

‘The Leaden Eyed’ evokes a world without dreams, meaning, hope. As the repetitions in the second stanza insist, it is not so much the matter but the manner of how things are which is so tragic. The poem is full of fear that the world as it is will lead to the ‘smother[ing] out’ of ‘young souls”—a fear much like that at the heart of MacNeice’s magnificent, passionate ‘Prayer Before Birth’ (which you can hear here or read here). ‘The Leaden Eyed’ seems to have been published in the 19-teens (can’t find an exact date, sorry), and ‘Prayer before birth’ was first published in 1944, so given that both were written in the shadow of war it’s perhaps not surprising that they share a mood of dread and ominousness.

And I suppose these poems feel resonant because it is impossible not to know that there are many ‘leaden-eyed’ in the world at the moment: those who have not had a fair crack at things, to say the least—the disenfranchised, the silenced, the unrepresented, the lost, the disillusioned, the powerless… those who have had enough of how things are but may not have energy enough left to protest. Reading the news it’s sometimes hard not to wonder whether there are any dreams left to dream at all.

But as I continued to sit with this poem it came to me that both the Lindsay and the MacNeice are written from outside the “dreamlessness”. They only exist because the authors have a desire for things to be different, and an awareness of what they do not want. Rueing the reality they see, they still retain a sense of how things might be other: the poems themselves carve out that small space in which to stand and from which to look around at what still might be, instead of the grimness of what currently is. And that space, small enough to be sure, is a place where “dreams” and ‘gods” and ‘reap[ings]’ and ‘deeds’ may still exist, blaze brightly… Perhaps this is yet another way that poetry can be a ‘lifeline’ or ’emergency’lantern’, as Libby Purves described in that article we looked at last year.

And, thinking that, I felt less leaden. That is part of the point of art, surely: to make a place for us to remember—to imagine—how things might yet be different.

the joy of autumn

I don’t know if it’s because one way and another I ended up spending a ridiculously long time in the academic system—schoolchild, student (several times!), lecturer, then student again—but to me autumn has always felt much more like the beginning of things than spring. The changes in light and landscape always wake in me a quiet excitement, a sense simultaneously of possibility and openings and yet also, with the longer evenings and nights, the opportunity for peace, retreat, renewal. That probably sounds paradoxical, I know. But it’s true. So that’s what this hymn to November is about.

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temporarily moving in the same direction

I love being on trains; or I did, BC. Like everyone else in the world I’ve crossed out many trips and treats from my diary over the last 8 months, and it seems such a long time since I enjoyed that licence-to-drift which train travel affords. So I was delighted to discover ‘Poem for Passengers‘ by Matthew Zapruder. It really captures the experience for me. See what you think.

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autumn beauty

This was one of the three poems that changed the course of my life. That sounds rather dramatic, but it’s true. We “Did” Yeats for A-level and I was blessed with one of those teachers whose capacity to inspire you feel at the time without really realising what’s going on. Without Stevie I don’t know if I would have “got” literature and followed it as student, teacher, writer, throughout my life. So this is a very important poem for me. Here it is: ‘The Wild Swans at Coole‘ by Yeats.*

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thank you

At the moment, the world is offering us lots of reminders that life is short and time’s winged chariot is always hurrying near. It’s easy to get sucked into fear, anger or sorrow about this. They’re all around us (as well as inside us). So I was particularly delighted to discover this poem which suggests a different and beautiful response to intimations of mortality. Here it is: ‘Thank you‘ by Ross Gay. Read it and be refreshed. (You can also hear him read a couple of bits from a recent book here.)

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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.

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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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