“Bloody men are like bloody buses —
You wait for about a year
And as soon as one approaches your stop
Two or three others appear.”
― Wendy Cope, Serious Concerns
The world needs more poets like Wendy Cope. While I am all for the avant-garde experimentalists who write in obscure paragraphs of footnotes reflecting morosely on the ideas that weigh down their verse, many of my favourite poets tend to rhyme, at least most of the time. But I love reading Wendy Cope more for the humour that bubbles above her rhymes, that often masks sad and wise observations on life.
This link came up in my twitter feed in honour of her birthday:
One of the many joys of being single is the ability to empathise with and laugh at her poems on the single life like A Christmas Poem. The brisk, dismissive tone is both funny and poignant, far more than the sentimentality in Flowers or The Orange. And yet, the ‘head does its best but the heart is the boss’, says Cope (Waterloo Bridge).
“Someone to stay home with was all my desire
And, now that I’ve found a safe mooring,
I’ve just one ambition in life: I aspire
To go on and on being boring.”
― Wendy Cope, Being Boring
Her poems are anything but.
More than once I have tried to record the sounds of birds singing on a spring dawn. Most often I have tried this while sitting in a tiny college room behind my beloved Banbury road. But each time, the recording comes out as but a frail echo of the original sounds, reiterating yet again that something as pure as birdsong can only be experienced in the moment.
In the spring I had the pleasure of listening to Liz Berry reading her poems in the characteristic Black Country accent. It was as soothing as listening to birdsong on an early spring morning. Poetry that touches the audience’s heart and connects them with the pure and pristine part of their minds, which is the pinnacle of all great art.
My night shall be remembered for a star
That outshone all the suns of all men’s days
Last weekend I went to Cambridge again and remembered two writers associated with the place who are very close to my heart. Samuel Butler whose novel The Way of all Flesh soothed my soul like nothing else could when I first read it. And Rupert Brooke, my forever crush and the love of my life.
I dreaded turning twenty-eight because I never wanted to be older than Rupert who was lucky in a way to have died young and thus remained forever twenty-seven – his poetry was one of the things that kept me alive during the years of depression. I am not sure anymore if I want to visit his grave at Skyros as I had planned to, once – I would rather remember him as a young man full of life, sitting on the grass beside Byron’s pool, throwing his head back and laughing, reading and writing in the shade of the Old Vicarage. Why did I write ‘remember him’ when I ought to have, when I meant to have written ‘imagined him’? Because Rupert comes across as more alive, more full of life than most people I see around me.
In The Way of All Flesh, young Ernest Pontifex reflects gloomily about death – he hates his overbearing family and equally dreads encountering his unpleasant grandparents in the afterlife. But methinks even the afterlife would be a delightful place if one could see Rupert there with a song on his lips and a twinkle in his spring-blue eyes, tossing his ‘brown delightful head / Amusedly, among the ancient Dead.’
Thank God for immortal poets.
Oh! Death will find me, long before I tire
Of watching you; and swing me suddenly
Into the shade and loneliness and mire
Of the last land! There, waiting patiently,
One day, I think, I’ll feel a cool wind blowing,
See a slow light across the Stygian tide,
And hear the Dead about me stir, unknowing,
And tremble. And I shall know that you have died,
And watch you, a broad-browed and smiling dream,
Pass, light as ever, through the lightless host,
Quietly ponder, start, and sway, and gleam —
Most individual and bewildering ghost! —
And turn, and toss your brown delightful head
Amusedly, among the ancient Dead.
I was lucky to attend a poetry master class on TS Eliot by Professor Belinda Jack last year, in which we had to write a poem with a sentence from Eliot’s poetry.
I wrote this:
At the Old Bodleian
This is where I want to be – At the source of the longest river
Here, at this desk, in this library
Surrounded by doors to other worlds, where
Time takes on the colours of all seasons.
At my desk though, time has no colour – It ceases to be.
Soon afterwards, I stumbled upon a series of lectures given by the Professor for Gresham College. Listening to Professor Jack is a wonderful experience, it is almost like sitting in the blissful silence of the Bodleian.
‘I liked your first story better.’
His spring-blue eyes that froze into icicles
at the mention of philosophy and high art,
they thaw, bloom, widen and mirror the skies
at the mention of simpler tales.
‘That one sounded accessible to all’.
His laughter echoes the birdsong,
that I try in vain to record every morning.
Some things cannot be captured in pixels
or even words, some moments are better lived.
I don’t tell him that the stories write me.
It is not as though I have a choice.
But all the same, I listen to him laugh,
as I do to the birds, with placid joy.
(7 April 2017)
The grey snow was crisp beneath my shoes.
From within the penultimate pages of a book
I had strayed into a cold world beyond
this side of life.
I watched the characters whom I’d followed
fight off the ghosts who closed upon them
I watched them both return to the story,
vanish in a haze of fog
while the sound of words on the page
subsided into silence.
He had a point, Rupert did. Notwithstanding the sentimental drivel about lost love, heart pain, etc., autumn and winter are months that lend themselves naturally to reflection and meditation. I’ll pass spring, and summer too, for the stillness of the mellower months any day.
“ALL suddenly the wind comes soft,
And Spring is here again;
And the hawthorn quickens with buds of green,
And my heart with buds of pain.
My heart all Winter lay so numb,
The earth so dead and frore,
That I never thought the Spring would come,
Or my heart wake any more.
But Winter’s broken and earth has woken,
And the small birds cry again;
And the hawthorn hedge puts forth its buds,
And my heart puts forth its pain.”
I am reciting a poem to a blue-eyed Adonis
as we walk briskly through a busy London road
The snow on his brown hair flecked with gold
is stardust in the light of the street lamps.
‘That was beautiful,’ he says when I finish.
The stars above cannot be seen for the clouds
and yet they are there, each one
of them twinkling like the snowflakes
that surround us, so bright
the darkness of a winter evening seems daylight
They remain suspended in the air
around me for hours afterwards
I soak in their warmth, the crystals of light
The raw material of art and literature.
12 January 2017
“Guess now who holds thee?”—”Death,” I said. But there
The silver answer rang—”Not Death, but Love.”
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Sonnets from the Portuguese, No. I
I admire Elizabeth Barrett Browning in many ways. First, for her poetry that is strong, richly allusive and layered with spiritual and philosophical overtones in places, straightforward and full of candour at others, that reveals a poet’s heart that was concerned not only about love and beauty, but also sought to speak for the silent, suffering humanity around her. Next, for her strength of character which helped her to survive a suppressed childhood that rendered her an invalid, by seeking and finding strength in literature. Above all, as the heroine of one of the most beautiful love stories of all time. The forty sonnets from the Portuguese evoke between their lines, the story of her courtship and secret marriage with the poet Robert Browning, one of the most celebrated literary partnerships in history.
Next to the sonnets comes her verse novel Aurora Leigh which was a bold and powerful stand against Victorian hypocrisy, and raised questions on prevailing norms of the duties of women in society, the conflict between the roles of the artist and the woman, the unexpected impact that a well meaning philanthropist’s work may have on a disturbed society, and the concepts of virtue and chastity, among other things.
“Of writing many books there is no end;
And I who have written much in prose and verse
For others’ uses, will write now for mine,—
Will write my story for my better self,
As when you paint your portrait for a friend,
Who keeps it in a drawer and looks at it
Long after he has ceased to love you, just
To hold together what he was and is.”
Aurora Leigh, First Book 1- 8.
Browning called it ‘the most mature of my works, and the one into which my highest convictions upon Life and Art have entered’. I read Aurora Leigh in school and remained as though in a trance through the days I read it, my mind overflowing with the lines of free verse, enchanted by the beauty of the lines and struck by the many thought-provoking questions raised through the story.
I have re-read the book several times since then, for the pleasure of revisiting lines as these:
“And truly, I reiterate, . . nothing’s small!
No lily-muffled hum of a summer-bee,
But finds some coupling with the spinning stars;
No pebble at your foot, but proves a sphere;
No chaffinch, but implies the cherubim:
And, — glancing on my own thin, veined wrist, —
In such a little tremour of the blood
The whole strong clamour of a vehement soul
Doth utter itself distinct. Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God”
Aurora Leigh, Seventh Book.
As a poet and a woman who believed that her literary aspirations were as important as that of her suitor’s life mission, and expected her husband to support her chosen vocation, Aurora‘s voice was a pioneering one for her time, and remains relevant to the present day.
“At last, because the time was ripe,
I chanced upon the poets”
Aurora Leigh, First Book 844-845.
In February I made the pilgrimage to St.Marylebone Parish Church, that I had dreamed of visiting for several years. Passing Wimpole street on the way, I imagined I was tracing the footsteps of the two who must have hurried down that very road, so many decades ago. I was distracted for a few minutes by a sculptural plaque proclaiming that Charles Dickens wrotes six of his novels in that building, but I hastened on, for that day was all about the two poets.
The service was in progress when I entered the church. I spent some time in the pew, closing my eyes to the hymns and imagining myself in Victorian England, witnessing a secret marriage. Then I found my way to the little chapel that I had gone to visit. The Browning room was much smaller than I expected, littered with toys and baby strollers. Behind an elevated platform, a stained glass window flanked by angels proclaimed that the poets had been married here. Elizabeth and Robert Browning looked down curiously from the walls at the reader who took selfies with them and then proceeded to sit down and read sections from Aurora Leigh and some of the sonnets from the Portuguese. I like to think that they gave me their blessing. I bowed to them before I left, my heart singing with the joy of having fulfilled a beloved wish from my bucket list.
A poet once sang, that when
pain finally finds a voice,
at that moment, art is born
Benumbed beyond the reach of pain,
I flailed my arms against the vacuum
within the bell jar which held me, for a decade.
Words were the window through which I
Caught glimpses beyond the dark
Words that kept my heart thawed, if not warm.
On a day when the words shone
bright enough to see, I opened the window
and walked out into life. With a fifteen year old
Mind, in a decade older body. Free
At last, from the darkness that had fed upon
Many of those whose words freed me.
While my wings were tied, I had still dared
to dream of the skies. But once free, I could barely
walk and fell many times before I found my voice.
The detour from regular paths of life that I may
have walked otherwise turned the lost years into a voice
strengthened by a decade of singing in the dark.
A voice that now colours each moment gold.
Each breath a swig of light, each word a blessing.
I had assumed that words would bring
Catharsis – an uncomfortable word
But I sing, and find with unexpected joy
That it is alchemy that goes into making a voice.
(4 September, 2015)