above the parapet

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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the nearest thing to life

In an essay written just before her first published venture into fiction, Eliot claimed that ‘The greatest benefit we owe the artist, whether painter, poet, or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies’. She continues: ‘art is the nearest thing to life, it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot’. It feels worth remembering this at the moment, when so many arts organisations and institutions seem to be staring down the twin barrels of Covid and being insufficiently valued/funded anyway (don’t get me started on what happened to the humanities when Literacy Hour and the National Curriculum came in…). And Eliot’s line rings round my head as I think about this week’s poem, ‘A Litany for Survival‘ by Audre Lorde. (You can find a tantalising trailer for a film about Lorde here.)

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triumph and honour

I was wondering why ‘To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing‘ swam to the surface this week. Then I sat down and thought about it and wondered no longer. A poem about shamelessness? about the difficulty of honour in a time when Might is Right? Hmm, not so difficult to fathom, perhaps, after all.

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peine forte et dure

Apparently that’s the name for the torture whereby a board was placed on top of you and weights gradually added until the life was crushed out of you (or you made a plea in relation to the crime of which you were accused). “Pressing”, as it was also known, comes to my mind every now and then these days when I turn on the news or check out The Grauniad website and hear what the latest Thing is. I have a distinctly physical sense of another weight being added, another piece of bad news and difficulty on top of what already felt like a crushing load. Thus half an hour ago I was to be seen sitting with my forehead on the desk trying to summon the energy and will to sit upright. I’m sure this is a common experience. What works, apart from coffee, chocolate or a walk in the wood, is acknowledging to myself what I’m actually feeling; and so I give you ‘Talking to Grief‘ by Denise Levertov.

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just say it

I’m very partial to a sonnet and was delighted, when teaching a course on Renaissance literature some years ago, to have the chance to indulge in some of my favourites. Marking the end-of-course essays, though, I was more dismayed than I can tell you when confronted with the datum that “Orsino puts Olivia on a pedal stool”. In at the ears and out at the pen without having passed through the brain… Think about pedal stools, then, as you read today’s poem, Astrophil and Stella I or ‘Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show‘ by Philip Sidney.

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bandaged moments

I’m sure I’d read more Emily Dickinson if my Complete wasn’t roughly the size and shape of a large housebrick; tricky to read in the bath, y’know… Anyway, someone brought some ED to an online poetry share the other day, and it inspired me to strap on the wrist supports and spend some time with the housebrick. So many poems I could have brought, but today I choose number 360, which you can read here. (There’s an interesting article about Dickinson here at the Poetry Foundation, too.)

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I do not approve

Someone confided in me, earlier this week, their feelings in re: all the pain, confusion and madness in the world at the moment: “I don’t like it”. It was offered as if I was being let into an important secret, and there was something very disarming about it—so honest and un-clever and childlike. Not to mention unarguable. It put me in mind of the wonderful ‘Dirge Without Music‘ by Edna St Vincent Millay. There’s what I think is a very good reading of it there at the Poetry Website (click the red arrow by the title), and a different one here; or you could enjoy this fragment which, I think, catches the same mood as the PF reading. Have a listen. See what you think.

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feeding the cats

For once I don’t need to send you off somewhere else on the interweb to read this week’s poem. It’s given in full here on the site, by kind permission of its author, R[osie] V Bailey (I’m trying to sound casual about that but really I’m rather proud and thrilled). I’ve been wanting to write about ‘Feeding the Cats’ for a while but it seems particularly right for right now. Here it is:

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postmen, like doctors

Larkin’s magnificent, monumental poem ‘Aubade‘ speaks with a terrible, alchemical beauty about death and the fear of death. It closes with the line ‘Postmen like doctors go from house to house’ which, in context, says something very Larkin-y and shiversome about death’s inevitability; we’ll all get those visits from doctors, sooner or later. Would Larkin be horrified, though, if he knew how that line popped into my head with a totally different feel to it, about half an hour ago, when the postman delivered two unexpected letters and, with them, great joy?

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