Lots of us find this time of year difficult at the best of times and, as we have noted before, these are not the best of times. So for the next while I want to share some poems which I find helpful. I would also be delighted to hear from you about poems which support you to carry on. (Drop me an email or comment below and we can have your poem in the column sometime soon.) But for today I want to share Ellen Bass’s ‘The Thing Is‘ which I find breathtakingly honest and stark and beautiful, and which definitely inspires me.Read More
Another term for cocaine, apparently; but I’m not suggesting we take things that far. It may or may not have been a white winter where you are, but in case it hasn’t, here’s Louis MacNeice’s magnificent poem on the subject to remind you of what ‘Snow‘ can do to us.Read More
I’m half Scottish but I’m also half Sassenach, and I’ve never really “got” the whole Hogmanay frenzy. New Year’s Eve has often felt tainted with melancholy for me, in a sub-Larkin ‘Death [is] a whole year nearer now‘ sort of a way. This year, though, when surely most of us are hoping for better things to come, I feel really drawn to this poem, the beautiful ‘New Year’s‘ by Dana Gioia. See what you make of it.Read More
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.)Read More
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.)Read More
Or rather, remember, that poems can be instruction manuals for us in times of crisis (see Libby Purves, above). As one who usually needs a walk in the morning if I’m to greet the world with anything other than a scowl, snarl or sob, I really relate to ‘How to Regain Your Soul‘ by William Stafford. It feels like a useful entry in the How to: Life guide at the moment. See what you think.
I love the specificity here. ‘[T]hat one place where the valley floor opens out’, as well as inviting us into the poem and, in its intimacy, suggesting that we’re fellow-travellers welcomed by the poet, this tells us how well-known this place is to the speaker. This first stanza is full of precise detail: the poet is steeped in the place, grounded in it, and can evoke it with a vividness possible only when you’ve really allowed yourself to be in a place—have a relationship with it (and it with you). It’s a place to ‘[p]ut down your pack’; a place, then, you might’ve made some effort to get to, but which is worth the trek. A place and time to be savoured.
And time expands in the second stanza, back into the distant and then the unimaginably distant past. There is freedom here—’Above, air sighs’; the dazzle of the ‘white butterflies danc[ing]/ by the thousands in the still sunshine’—and a sense of access into eternity and the “sudden” knowledge that ‘anything/ could happen to you’. A moment of grace, or ephipany: your soul taking its right place in the soul of the world, as part of the world, and then ‘shin[ing] back through the white wings to be you again’. This is a drink of cool well-water on a hot day. This is refreshment. We all need this at the moment.
I can’t say I get my third eye opened every time I shuffle, stride or sometimes scamper (a solo thing, that!) through the woods and up onto the scar behind my house. But there is always something about attention to the place and its small wonders which lifts and frees me, and partly because of my familiarity with it. Yesterday, walking in all that spring-shaggy greenness, I rejoiced in the multilayered birdsong echoing through the damp air. I spotted a jay, a woodpecker, a tree creeper, many squirrels and the rat which lives near that big limestone outcrop (you know, the one by the steps up onto the dancing green where the bench is?). The grass was made beautiful by rain and the orchids poked their magenta up through the silvered green. It was magic. And I regained enough of my soul to function as a reasonably civilised human being again.
Until the following morning, at least.
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.Read More
Phew. Someone else writing a poem involving sheep (which I seem to do a surprising amount of the time). Good to know I’m not alone! That’s one reason I picked ‘Sheep Fair Day’ by Kerry Hardie. The other is simply that I loved it: I find it very alive and very moving. Seeking to take God on a journey round her life, Hardie takes us along too. Read this vivid and lovely poem here. (I had a look on Youtube but found only a lot of vlogs about marts, so you’ll have to read it to yourself!)Read More