Tag: fear

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.

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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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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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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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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there’s this mood, too

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.

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the school in which we learn

I’ve no idea how well known this poem is, but it’s relatively new to me, and its refrains have been pulsing their steady rhythm through me for the last week or so. So here it is: ‘Calmly We Walk through This April’s Day‘ by Delmore Schwartz.

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handrails and lifelines and emergency lanterns

In an article in The Times in 2016 Libby Purves wrote of how ‘[p]eople have been through everything before us and some, by great grace, have recorded it with undying power. English-speakers are particularly lucky,’ she continued, ‘since some of the very best have done this in our fabulously hybrid, magpie language… [Poets] have crafted handrails and lifelines and emergency lanterns. They reassure us that others walked this hard trail and lived to express it’.

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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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