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 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.
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
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)
One of the many pleasures of reading is to find the echoes of a beloved writer’s voice subtly reflected in another, such as how Hamlet’s soliloquy finds a response in Vikram Seth’s poem ‘Switching off’. I enjoyed writing a response to both the bards – Shakespeare and Seth through the voice of one of my characters in an early version of The Reengineers.
‘To be, or not to be: that is the question:’
Hamlet ponders whether to live or to die, thereby ending the suffering caused by ‘The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ and listing ‘the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to’ such as ‘the whips and scorns of time, the oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s ‘contumely, The pangs of despis’d love, the law’s delay, the insolence of office and the spurn’ he fervently wishes to end it all.
But uncertainty of the afterlife stops him.
‘For in that sleep of death what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause:’
‘But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;’
In the poem ‘Switching Off’ by Vikram Seth, the poet-narrator believes that ‘this life is all there is’ and chooses to be not so much for fear of the afterlife, than the hope that things may get better someday, concern for his family and idle curiosity about the happenings on earth, among other things.
‘There are no fears of undiscovered countries
Or bournes from which no traveller returns
To one who knows this life is all there is;
So when he feels it has become oppressive,
The effort of drawing breath exhausts and strains him
And dispriz’d love, and whips and scorns etcetera
Have mangled him, why does he not switch off?
Perhaps the thought that, having once been happy
(and stirred by the analogy of life
Being a wheel) he will be again be so;
Or some imagined, as yet unseen sight,
Like Halley’s Comet lighting up the sky
For which he’d have to wait till ’86;
Or else objective curiosity:
Who will be President in ten years’ time?
Who’ll win the hockey in the Olympic Games?
And then his family: although he knows
When dead there’s no remorse, he cannot bear
` That they, remaining, feel he did not love them –
It is such things that hold him to the earth
And not the dread of something after death.’
From Mappings by Vikram Seth
In an earlier version of The Reengineers, the character Siddharth responds to both the bards in his poem ‘Inertia’.
What prevents one from switching off –
Reluctance to leave the entities that’ one
Has grown to know and love?
Or fear of the unknown after death?
So the bards sang. But the flowing breath
Surely might continue to remain
Dynamic owing to inertia
Than any fear of physical, mental or spiritual pain?
For a depressed person neither cares about the world in which he lives in, nor is he worried about the afterlife. Most of the time, all he wants to do is to keep breathing to stop his body from going as numb as his mind.
Inertia kept Siddharth alive when he was depressed. That was until he found A. Chatterjee’s poems, which kept him alive for a while before he finally woke up from the darkness of depression to the light and warmth of life. The Reengineers narrates the story of how he did it, crossing over from the cold, dark country of depression to a fulfilling life.
In one of the poetry groups that I follow on Facebook, a fellow member made a comment that poetry is best read out aloud or listened to, especially when the poets read from their own work.
I have been writing poetry since I first started to write and I used to read a considerable amount of poetry until a few years ago. I stopped writing poetry a few years ago, when I realised that I needed a lot more study and knowledge of the art form if I were to do it properly. Reading poetry seemed more appropriate in a state of stillness, which seemed to be becoming scarce in the frenzy of the corporate world.
For the past few weekends, I have been reading poetry again. Have been addicted to the Poetry archive website for the past few weekends.
I was drenched in the quiet, elegant poems of Jane Draycott.
I wandered through the words and worlds of new poets and listened to old favourites, the images thrown up by the lines coming back home to the mind like dear old friends. Helen Dunmore, Carol Ann Duffy, Simon Armitage, Mimi Khalvati…
And for fun, replayed once again Dahl’s deliciously revolting rhyme
All of which brought the realisation that just as stillness is becoming to the pleasure of reading verse, so does reading poetry confer a deep sense of stillness in the mind.
One of the many pleasures of reading poetry is to recognise the echo of a poet’s voice in another poet’s work. A reflection of ideas, an influenced style or similar references to things, places or events. It is a joy to discover such connections between books and authors.
Two poems by Rupert Brooke and Elizabeth Jennings, written several decades apart reflect the same thought, in two unique voices.
‘Love that loves now may not reach me until
Its first desire is spent. The star’s impulse
Must wait for eyes to claim it beautiful
And love arrived may find us somewhere else.’
From Delay, Elizabeth Jennings
‘And yonder star that burns so white,
May have died to dust and night
Ten, or maybe, fifteen year,
Before it shines upon my dear.’
From Fafaia, by Rupert Brooke
Vikram Seth conveys a similar thought in his poem Time Zones when he says,
‘I dreamed of her but she could not alas humour my will;
it struck me suddenly that where she was was daylight still’
Though all three poems are unique and charming in their own way, I like Rupert’s version best –
“Heart from heart is all as far,
Fafaia, as star from star.”
Love may have eluded these beloved poets when they penned these lines, but their songs and thereby their thoughts continue to flow across time and space and find responding echoes in many a reader’s mind.
As Rabindranath Tagore wrote in ‘The Gardener’, evoking a spring morning perhaps a hundred years ago,
‘Who are you, reader, reading my poems an hundred years hence? I cannot send you one single flower from this wealth of the spring, one single streak of gold from yonder clouds. Open your doors and look abroad.From your blossoming garden gather fragrant memories of the vanished flowers of an hundred years before.In the joy of your heart may you feel the living joy that sang one spring morning, sending its glad voice across a hundred years.’
A poet reaches out to the reader with a greater level of intimacy than any other kind of writer.
Today I am grateful for poets, for the gift of their poetry. For Rupert and Jennings and Seth and Tagore, and also for Bharati and T.S.Eliot and W.H.Auden and Tennyson and Pushkin and Rumi and Kabir and Maya Angelou and Gillian Clarke and Sylvia Plath and Carol Ann Duffy and Wendy Cope and many, many other blessed songbirds of language.
Bards who belong to all the world like air, and sunlight, and springtime, and stars in the sky. They belong to all, and they are mine.
At the onset of spring, here is a suitable poem for the season by Rupert Brooke.
“Oh! Love,” they said, “is King of Kings,
And Triumph is his crown.
Earth fades in flame before his wings,
And Sun and Moon bow down.” —
But that, I knew, would never do;
And Heaven is all too high.
So whenever I meet a Queen, I said,
I will not catch her eye.
“Oh! Love,” they said, and “Love,” they said,
“The gift of Love is this;
A crown of thorns about thy head,
And vinegar to thy kiss!” —
But Tragedy is not for me;
And I’m content to be gay.
So whenever I spied a Tragic Lady,
I went another way.
And so I never feared to see
You wander down the street,
Or come across the fields to me
On ordinary feet.
For what they’d never told me of,
And what I never knew;
It was that all the time, my love,
Love would be merely you.
I like Rupert Brooke’s regular poems, a young man’s poems full of ardent emotions and ideals and dreams such as only a young man can have, poems that are as full of life as their author. (Brooke’s oeuvre of verse composed over his short lifetime of twenty eight years still make him sound more alive than many young men who walk the earth today).
But it is his satirical poems that I love – poems like A Channel passage, Wagner, Menelaus and Helen, all of which hold a mirror to the grim realities of the world. And Sonnet reversed, what a heartbreaking, cynical ode to life.
Poems that reveal how Rupert Brooke was aware of the truth behind the illusions of the world, even as he celebrated those very illusions in his verse.
Coming soon! The Reengineers (HarperCollins) A walk through the boundaries between fiction and reality