I want to live – Sharon Olds
The most intense reading group I ever belonged to wasn’t really a reading group. It was a listening group.
I was working at the time for a community arts co-operative in North London. Each person in the group had a specialism (drawing, dance, percussion, comedy, creative writing, acting, singing etc.) which they designed and led workshops in, training the non-specialists in-house. We worked with a wide range of clients in the area, ranging from primary schools to day centres for mental health patients to reminiscence groups.
It was not glamorous. Sometimes clients would not turn up for the workshops; sometimes the workshops would finish five minutes after they had started. We met in a church hall behind Euston Station.
Towards the end of my stint at the co-operative I elected to work with a group of clients at a hospice. The premise was simple. We would meet with the clients for an hour or so each week in one of the hospice sitting rooms, and we would read poems and stories to them. I think it changed my life.
We would start the sessions by reading one or two poems from anthologies, after which clients would make requests. Two of the most frequently chosen poems were ‘Birches‘ by Robert Frost and ‘To Autumn‘ by John Keats. The group was not an exercise in literary criticism. Once a poem had been read out loud clients were entitled to say as much or as little about the poem as they wanted.
Chiefly I remember the poems provoking two kinds of response in particular: complete silence and deep personal reminiscence. Mostly there was silence.
One of the clients, a man I shall call Andrew, loved to listen to the poems with his eyes closed. He rarely said anything about them, except to occasionally repeat a favourite line. I can’t read ‘Birches’ now without seeing him in his recliner, head tilted back, eyes closed tight, repeatedly murmuring ’One could do worse than be a swinger of birches’ and smiling to himself.
A woman whom I shall call Daphne practically told us her life story over the three sessions we had with her, entirely in response to ‘To Autumn‘. We learned about her semi-rural childhood in the post-war period, the long walks into the countryside that she would take with her siblings. Even now I can remember her description of the complete absence of traffic.
One subject remained not so much out of bounds but ignored, the imminent death of the group’s participants. As the group lost members and gained others it was a fact which did not need drawing attention to. It was, to use a phrase of Ted Hughes, ‘inscribed in the egg’ of their being there.
That the clients reacted to the poems we read them in the way they did argues for poetry’s ability to cut through the norms of social interaction and place the listener/reader simultaneously and intensely in the moment of hearing the poem and the experience of the poem itself. Had we been sharing memories of novels or films I wonder if I would still remember these responses in the same way, some twenty-seven years later? These are some of the people I thought of when I called this series Lifesaving Poems.
When I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma nearly seven years ago the aspect of telling people I dreaded most was their reaction to my sad news. I quickly became expert at managing their upset and disappointment.
This is not statistical, but here are the comments which were made to me most often, and my (usually unspoken) reaction to them, in no particular order:
1. ‘Well, if anyone can fight it, you can’. This is based on the unthinking assumption that having cancer is a battle. As I have said before , this is deeply unhelpful, because it makes a link between the character of the person who is ill and their chances of surviving the disease.
No doubt intended as a statement of belief in the ‘strength’ of the person concerned, it nevertheless puts the onus of surviving onto them, whether they like it or not.
I also think it is said more to reassure the speaker than the person who has been diagnosed.
2. ‘If there is anything I can do to help, do let me know.’ This is one of the most common responses I had when I was diagnosed. It is completely understandable (and I know I have used it myself, with friends who have been diagnosed with cancer since I entered remission). We feel so helpless in the face of cancer. We want to feel we can do something to alleviate the suffering we are certain is coming.
The problem with it is that it (again) puts the onus of coming up with an idea of what can be done to help onto the one who has cancer. My favourite responses to my diagnosis were from people who said ‘Let me take the kids for you’, or ‘I could give you a lift on your treatment days’ or ‘I’ll organise a meals on wheels rota’. Boundaried and specific, they lifted my spirits enormously: not only were they practical, it meant I did not have to come up with imaginative ideas myself.
3. ‘It’s not fair. You’ve never hurt anyone.’ Not only is this not true, it unintentionally makes a connection between the ‘goodness’ of the person who has been diagnosed and how far they ‘deserve’ to get better. Cancer is not fair on anyone.
4. ‘Do you have any unresolved anger?’ I found it hard not to react with anger to this one. It seems (again) to make an implicit connection between the life that has been led by the patient up to that point, and how far they ‘deserve’ (or not) to ‘overcome’ the disease. There are issues of blame lurking below the surface here. When people need a hip replacement, or get flu, do we ask them the same?
5. ‘I just know you’re going to get better.’ Perhaps my least favourite response of all, and like the comment about fighting above, this is said to reassure the speaker more than the person concerned. It also assumes a knowledge about the outcome, which no one can honestly give, even the doctors.
If you have a friend who has recently been diagnosed with cancer: you can read my best advice here.
1. Acknowledge your sadness and shock by all means, but remember, it is not about you, it’s about them.
2. If you do offer help, be specific. Then follow through on what you offer.
3. Do use the word cancer around your friend. Euphemisms like ‘being poorly’ are no use.
4. Do not bombard your friend with knowledge you have gleaned from the internet about their cancer. The chances are they know more than you do. If they want to know, they will ask.
5. Take your lead from them. Sometimes they are going to want to talk about their cancer, its treatment, and nothing else. On other occasions they will not mention it, preferring to talk about their kids and what is on telly. There are no set rules of what is on and off limits. It will vary. This is normal.
Love for Now, my journal memoir of cancer, is available now.
Read my blog post : 8 Great books about dying
The chances are, more of us are mortal than have multiple orgasms -Violet Weingarten, Intimations of Mortality
When I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system, in 2006, one of my first reactions was to try and find some books which described the new experience I found myself living through. These were very hard to find. The only one I had heard of, based on reading his Times columns some years previously, was John Diamond’s C: Because cowards get cancer too.
I was a little bit daunted by it, to be honest. For one thing, I knew how the story ended. For another, its status as a ‘classic’ preceded it, trumpeted by no less a personage than Melvyn Bragg on the front cover.
I needn’t have worried.
If such a thing exists, C is a triumphant account of disease. Ever the journalist, Diamond’s forensic prose pares away the clichés of cancer (the so-called ‘battles’, the offers of help from well-meaning friends), holds them up to the light, and finds them mostly wanting.
He is especially strong on the pitfalls of using war metaphor to describe cancer (‘If anyone can fight this, John can’ etc.) which is often used, unthinkingly in my view, the corollary of which links the patient’s chances of survival to their moral fibre. As I have said here before, this is balls. (If you want to find more on this line of thought, Love for Now, my journal-memoir of cancer is available now.)
John Diamond’s Snake Oil continues in much the same ultra-rational vein as its predecessor.
The first half is an unfinished tract which rails against the science of complementary medicine; the second half is a collection of pieces from the Times detailing the final stages of Diamond’s throat cancer. This contains one of my very favourite passages of English prose anywhere. Published on New Year’s Eve, 2000, ‘Reasons to be Cheerful’ ends in a kind of extended prose-poem-list of gratitude hymning the pleasures of ordinary life:
‘It’s about the breakfast you’ve just had and the dinner you’re going to have. It’s about the random acts of kindness which still, magically, preponderate over acts of incivility or nastiness. It’s about rereading Great Expectations and about who’s going to win the 3.30 at Haydock Park. It’s about being able to watch old episodes of Frasier on satellite TV whenever we want, having the choice of three dozen breakfast cereals and seven brands of virgin olive oil at Sainsbury’s. It’s about loving and being loved, about doing the right thing, about one day being missed when we’re gone.’
John Diamond died on March 1, 2001.
In common with the rest of the books on this list, C and Snake Oil outstrip their grim subject matter. Their topic is cancer, but their subject is living.
Written in a different register entirely is Ulla-Carin Lindquist’s Rowing Without Oars. Beautifully translated into limpid English by Margaret Myers, the book tells the story of the final year of life, after diagnosis with ALS (motor neuron disease), of a Swedish TV reporter and ordinary mother-of-four.
It was given to me just as I reached the early stages of my own remission. If memory serves I read it a bit like a thriller, dreading the outcome, but unable to put it down. I read it cover to cover, twice, in back-to-back readings. It’s still the only book I have done this with.
Among the book’s many admirable qualities is its quietness. Although the effects of the disease it describes are never hidden from the reader, it is written with a spare and elegant authority, that at times borders on the aphoristic. ‘Your family is your Hawaii’, reads one memorable line. ‘You are not your disease’, says another.
Written with a passionate eye for detail, there are marvellous descriptions of all of life: children’s birthday parties, picnics, the changing seasons. Not least among these are the unflinching and unsentimental depictions of small differences in the way the author’s children begin to treat her, knowing she will soon die. I defy you not to be moved.
It is almost a commonplace to find in reviewers’ comments of books such as these that ‘they should change the way you live’.
Journalist Tom Lubbock worked as the art critic for the Independent. In the case of his extraordinary Until Further Notice, I am Alive the statement above is actually true. Like Rowing Without Oars it is written in real time, a journal account of living with an aggressive brain tumour. The tone throughout is wry, bemused, optimistic, reflective. This is a direct book, living in the circle of the final questions. It opens:
‘The news was death. And it wasn’t going to be maybe good luck and getting through it. It was definitely death, and quite soon, meaning a few years. And at first, it didn’t seem too bad.’
This is not an account of anger with cancer, or even with its metaphors. (In one passage Lubbock glides past the use of war metaphor as though it was the most obvious thing in the world to object it. Obviously I am against it, he says, ‘for Susan Sontag reasons’.)
You do not have to know Illness as Metaphor to appreciate the depth of Lubbock’s point. He is more interested in mounting a sustained metaphysical enquiry into what it means to live dependent upon language, not only in terms of making a living, but also for communicating the most basic of needs, including interacting with his young son.
While there are descriptions of hospitals and conversations with consultants and nurses this is an essentially interior book, spare, knowing, vulnerable and honest: ‘Remember: stay open to weakness. Be open to fear and humiliation and dependency. Be open to helplessness and help. Be prepared for the story to be long and indefinite’.
Mitch Albom’s bestselling Tuesdays With Morrie is the one book I have chosen not to have been written by the person who is doing the dying. It tells the story of the visits made by Albom to the house of his old college professor, Morrie Schwartz, in the final year of his life:
‘The last class of my old college professor’s life took place one a week in his house, by a window in the study where he could watch a small hibiscus place shed its pink leaves. The class met on Tuesdays. It began after breakfast. The subject was The Meaning of Life. It was taught from experience’.
Everything you need to know about the book’s procedures is contained in that short paragraph: the precise, conversational and apparently artless prose; the details from nature; the way these are used to show (not tell) the reader that time is short; the slightly serious tone undercut by knowing self-mockery.
As Morrie’s ALS progresses his conversations with the author become ever more focussed on the big questions: how do you live a good life? What can you do to gain happiness? What happens to us when we die?
In my view this is the book’s great contribution. Written with the lightest of touches it spirals around these essential themes with humour, wit and compassion. It’s message remains no less urgent for being told with such warmth: ‘The culture we have does not make people feel good about themselves. And you have to be strong enough to say if the culture doesn’t work, don’t buy into it’.
I will always be in the debt of my friend Babs Short for introducing me to the poetry of Julia Darling. Six months before I was diagnosed with cancer she recommended her classic Sudden Collapses in Public Places. I read it cover to cover, a rarity for me in any case, and with poetry completely unheard of.
Among the book’s many qualities is the no-nonsense directness of the metaphors Darling uses, so much more creative than those of war and battles, to describe the effects on her body of her breast cancer and the methods used to treat it.
Thus, the speaker’s body becomes a house with a temporary extension, sleep is described as a friend she has fallen out with, the hospital a puzzled goddess. These are startling, fresh and not a little humorous.
As she says in her Introduction to The Poetry Cure poetry, through metaphor, can help us ‘step out of the difficult present …[and] establish a sense of control over the body’.
Quietly but never less than powerfully she challenges the status quo. ‘We know cancer is terrible,’ she seems to be saying, ‘but not enough to stop us talking.’ Thus, in the poem ‘Chemotherapy‘, she is able to say ‘the smallest things are gifts’. This was a revelation to me, in that it opened up the possibility of positive thinking on the subject, of change, even.
When my treatment for cancer had finished and I was told by doctors I had reached remission, I made a beeline for this and Julia Darling’s other book of poems on the topic of cancer, Apology for Absence. It is slightly wider in scope than its predecessor, a tad more mournful, the smile more wry and disconcerting.
The territory is the same, but the ground is suffused with the sadness of needing to savour every last detail. As before there are poems of hospitals, treatment rooms and nurses; but also surreal flights of fancy (‘My Thumb in Leeds’, ‘When I Was Healthy Things Were Often Yellow’); and great tenderness (‘Listening to Jack Listening to Music’, ‘My Daughters Reading in May’).
Ruth Padel has said the book ‘crackles with joy in living and loving’. I would say this is true of both of Darling’s books. I cannot underestimate the influence they had on me. Without them I would not have begun to find and use a language to describe my own experience of cancer in Riddance. In gratitude, if I ever win the lottery, I intend to ensure there copies of each will be placed in waiting rooms across the land.
Not as well known as it ought to be, on this side of the Atlantic at least, this is the only other book, with John Diamond’s C that stood up to being read while I was having my chemotherapy infusions. (Similar to banning war metaphor, I am beginning to think about mounting a campaign to do away with the phrase ‘chemotherapy infusions’: it makes it sound like a cup of herbal tea, when it is anything but).
I first read about Intimations of Mortality in Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. Lamott rightly holds it up as an example of telling the truth under duress. I do not think this can be overestimated. Written in 1975, at a time when treatment for breast cancer was not as advanced as it is today, Weingarten presents a day-by-day account of her ‘two-year battle with cancer’ as the blurb puts it. She died in the summer of 1976, just after the publication of her fourth novel, Half a Marriage. Intimations of Mortality was published in 1978, two years later.
Chief among the book’s qualities is Weingarten’s sardonic self-awareness. This is what prevents the harrowing material from descending into mawkishness or sentimentality:
‘This is the jerkiest journal of all time. Meanwhile Vietnam falls.’
This awareness permeates the writing on another level. ‘It is time to stop proving things’ Weingarten says as her treatment starts. This hard-won wisdom mirrors to the reader what happens when the self and all its attendant ambitions, neuroses and obsessions is brutally stripped away of the comforts of the energy they bring. This unlooked-for paring back is common to all of these books, but I think Weingarten did it first. In her honour I have used the quote at the top of this page as an epigraph to Love for Now.
I have just come back from a holiday in the Scottish Borders, the ‘debatable lands’ around Hawick, Kelso and Galashiels. It is an area I have been returning to with my family for many years. It is a beautiful part of the world, rolling farmland giving way to wild moorland.
The first summer I spent there I did a lot of driving alone, ferrying friends and relatives from stations, none of which were reachable in under an hour and a half. This gave me time to listen to my own selection of tapes in the car, which under normal circumstances I would never risk in company. Most prized of these, and the one I most associate with that lonely stretch of the A7 between Teviothead and Langholm, is Ian McMillan’s Selected Poems, which is still available from The Poetry Business here.
As Peter Sansom has said about Ted Hughes, until you have heard his voice, you are getting only two-thirds of him. This is how I feel about Ian McMillan. I had been enjoying his Selected Poems for a month or two, but it was not until I listened to the tape of him reading and introducing his poems that I fully comprehended what he was up to. Several of his phrases have ended up in my own private poetry-language: ‘twist and reek’, ‘night’s a dozen eggs’, ‘laughing like they laugh on radio plays’, ‘they hate poetry!’. Some of the titles of his poems dare you not to read them: ‘The Red Indian Rugby Team “Strange Names XV” Land on a Lonely Irish Beach’; ‘Some Poetry Presses I Will Certainly Set Up in the next Three Weeks’; ‘Just the Facts, Just the’. Anyone who can describe Geoff Hattersley as ‘Ezra Pound to my T.S. Eliot’ is worth listening to and learning from.
Peter Sansom has written that McMillan’s ‘The Meaning of Life’ might actually be about what it says it is, and that he realised this some ten years after first reading the poem. He also suggests that ‘On the Impossibility of Staying Alive’ could be titled ‘Mortality’, only that it would be much less interesting if it were. I am inclined to agree with this. On the one hand the poem is about Obviously Poetic Themes: ‘God’, ‘the moon’, ‘imagination’, ‘self-knowledge’, aging and science. These are balanced with mentions of Not Obviously Poetic Material such as the hamlet ‘Czrcbrno’, sideboards and ‘incontinence pants’.
However, I do not think this is an exercise in irony or faux-surreal juxtapositioning. I think the terror of aging and death suffuse every syllable of this poem. I think McMillan has seen and felt enough of this world to know that death comes to most of us not as a romantic episode: it is literally is ‘terrible to pronounce’. This is why, just when the poem appears to relax into recognisably ‘poetic’ statements, it immediately undercuts itself: ‘This moon sometimes whispers/and you never heard such rubbish’. It takes both nerve and confidence to make such claims on the way to persuading us, in the poem’s musical and unprovable final line, of the resilience of the human spirit, hinted at in the ‘generations’ of scientists in their dogged quest for discovery and illumination.
On the Impossibility of Staying Alive
They have found a new moon;
it stands on my shoulder.
They call it moon because
they lack imagination.
I call it moon because
I lack all conviction.
It has another name,
but that name, like God’s
is terrible to pronounce.
It is terrible to pronounce
like Czrcbrno, a hamlet
in the Balkans. The moon
calls itself moon because
it lacks self-knowledge.
This moon sometimes whispers
and you never heard such rubbish.
I listen because I lack strength,
I smile because I have no muscles
with which to frown. At certain times
of the day, the moon hides.
When I am an old man
with flour in my beard, and
packs of incontinence pants
on the sideboard, the moon
will still be new, and will be
perpetually discovered as new
by generations of scientists.
The moon is not a nice man.
Ian McMillan, from Selected Poems