‘… passions that are not my own’

‘… passions that are not my own’

Someone read excerpts from Wordsworth’s ‘Michael’ at a group I was facilitating earlier this month, and one phrase really jumped out at me—the bit where the speaker is talking about how ‘the gentle agency / of natural objects led me on to feel/ for passions that were not my own’. It is, of course, All Very Wordsworth to emphasise how being in relationship with nature can help you access empathy, compassion and understanding of what is otherwise unknown to you; but I was struck, once again, by the fact that that’s what exactly poetry can do, too. And since then I’ve found myself thinking about Don Paterson’s ‘Waking with Russell‘, which speaks of a relationship I will never get to understand from lived experience. In so doing, so vividly, this poem allows me a bittersweet insight into ‘passions that [are] not my own’.

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what did I know, what did I know…?

It’s a time of year when, in the West at least, we’re surrounded by images of families: usually shiny-haired and smiling ones, deployed in warm-jumpered rows on bouncy new sofas (“delivered in time for Christmas”) and sharing some ecstatic experience of shopping, gaming or no ordinary food. But it’s a poem about the ordinary extraordinariness of love which has been very much in my mind, in the last week or so, and not just because it’s cold. Here it is: Robert Hayden’s ‘Those Winter Sundays‘. (You can hear the poet himself read it here.)

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‘the centre cannot hold…’

For me, it’s got to be ‘The Second Coming‘ as poem of the day today (hear Dominic West read it here). Election day in the UK, and a sense of no good news ahead, whether nationally or globally… The poem’s cascade of nightmarish images strikes fear into me; or rather, makes visible the fear that is already there. Bits of the poem have echoed round my mind often over these last few years, offering a sort of grimly reassuring sense that dread is, if nothing else, a shared experience. Doom has impended before; feels impending now; and seems likely to continue to impend until it breaks, or cracks, or whatever it is that doom does when it’s no longer future but present tense.

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‘we read to know we are not alone’

As anyone knows who’s been to a workshop or event I’ve facilitated (or follows what the afternoon knows), this is something I bang on about a lot. I’m unapologetic about it, though, because it’s such an important dimension of reading (and indeed experiencing any kind of art). Surely anything that pierces our loneliness—whether from each other or from (parts of) ourselves—is worth celebrating? So today I want to think about how reading helps us know we are not alone, and do so in relation to the understated but marvellous poem ‘Things’ by Fleur Adcock.

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reading poems, reading us

Last week we were talking about how Gilbert’s ‘Failing and Flying’ makes visible all sorts of assumptions embedded in our (Western) culture. This week, I want to think about how reading makes visible things inside ourselves, which we may or may not have been aware of. And I want to start with what I think is a remarkable poem, written by my 13 year old goddaughter. It formed the front page of a card she sent me a few weeks ago. Here it is:

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‘poetry is what makes the invisible appear’

Well, yes. It does. That’s one of the things that’s brilliant about it.
Think, for instance, of Jack Gilbert’s ‘Failing and Flying’, with its casual, almost conversational, opening line: ‘Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew’. In just those six words an entire culture is conjured, one where only winners matter and product always trumps process.

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reading together…

I am excited about this column. It’s going to be a place for sharing and rejoicing in poetry—for celebrating the joy, power and wonder of words.

Every week there’ll be a new post about whatever poem, or idea about poetry, has currently got hold of my imagination. Get in touch: let me know what’s got hold of you—what you’re reading; what has delighted, engaged, enraged or puzzled you. Let me know, too, if there’s anything in particular you’d like me to read, or write about.

I’ll be starting our poetry conversation tomorrow, when I’ll be reflecting on how ‘poetry makes the invisible appear’. Until then…

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