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.
I have written before that there are a wide range of reasons for including the poems I have in my Lifesaving Poems series.
Some of the poems I came across at school, and acted as a kind of gateway to the world of poetry and what it could do. Some I came across on recommendation of others, in reviews, or by word of mouth. Some of the poems remind me of friends to whom I owe a debt of gratitude for immeasurably improving my life, through their friendship and writing.
Some of the poems I came across entirely on my own.
My hunch is that the social contract we forge with each other when sharing poems, whether in person, or on email, or on blogs, is vastly underrated as a mechanism for cultural transformation, in this country at least (as a working academic I should really back up this kind of thinking with at least one reference to a recent research survey giving chapter and verse). There’s a lovely description of the kind of thing I am talking about in Seamus Heaney’s essay ‘The Impact of Translation’. In it he describes being shown a translation of a Czeslaw Milosz poem for the first time by Robert Pinsky.
There is a kind of religious, ‘conspiratorial’ hush about it, at once private and communal, and it seems to reach into spaces we all carry that are non-verbal, or pretty much that way for most of the time.
All of this came back to me last weekend as I prepared for my Poetry School course by typing out Galway Kinnell’s marvellous poem ‘St Francis and the Sow’. I was first shown it in much the way Heaney describes, by Jean Sprackland, at the Arvon Foundation’s writing centre at Totleigh Barton.
That week we had given our group a pre-course task, of bringing to the course one book of poems they felt passionate about, to share and discuss with others. Jean brought Kinnell’s Bloodaxe Selected. I had not seen it or the poem before.
My initial reaction to it was one of surprise and great fondness. I loved that it dared to hymn unlovely subject matter. I loved its complete self-absorption in the living moment of description. I loved that it did not seem to care a hoot what I thought about it.
Reading it again now, I think daring is not far from the mark. It seems to take two very distinct strains of American poetry, beginning in didacticism and ending with tender praise, and blends them without one overshadowing the other. That is both risky and skillful. Poems that do that usually fall flat on their backsides, while this one achieves liftoff and in plain sight.
But it is in more than admiration that I come to this poem. It is ‘about’ a sow, and the sowiness of sows, returning us the earthy facts of the matter with both precision and exultation. I happen to think it is just as much about teaching and suffering, and the counter-cultural energy that is released when we choose to utter praise. As one of my Poetry School group remarked last night when I shared it with them, the poem enacts its own meaning, flowering into ‘self-blessing’ like the ‘bud’ it describes, in spite of its ‘broken heart’ and ‘creased forehead’.
If that is not a miracle, I don’t know what is.
Saint Francis and the Sow
stands for all things,
even for those things that don’t flower,
for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;
though sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness,
to put a hand on its brow
of the flower
and retell it in words and in touch
it is lovely
until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing;
as Saint Francis
put his hand on the creased forehead
of the sow, and told her in words and in touch
blessings of earth on the sow, and the sow
began remembering all down her thick length,
from the earthen snout all the way
through the fodder and slops to the spiritual curl of the tail,
from the hard spininess spiked out from the spine
down through the great broken heart
to the sheer blue milken dreaminess spurting and shuddering
from the fourteen teats into the fourteen mouths sucking and
blowing beneath them:
the long, perfect loveliness of sow.
Galway Kinnell, from Selected Poems (Bloodaxe, 2001)
The Next Big Thing
I have been been tagged by poet and blogger Abegail Morley to answer set questions relating to my memoir of cancer, Love for Now. I have tagged two poets to continue the series, whose details are at the foot of this post.
Where did the idea of the book come from?
Love for Now did not begin with an idea but an illness. As I have written elsewhere, there wasn’t a plan. I was formally diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma on Valentine’s day, 2006. A week before that date, I began writing a diary which detailed the events –being hospitalised, scans, biopsies, diagnosis– which were evidence of my rapidly deteriorating health.
I would sit at the end of each day, propped up on pillows on my bed, and try and recount what had been said and done to me as faithfully as possible. If you are interested in knowing these things, I wrote longhand in A4 French exercise books, on tiny grid squares, with an old LAMY fountain pen given to me years before by one of my brothers. I filled three and a bit of these by the time I stopped writing.
The final, published version of Love for Now is much shorter than the diary in its entirety, beginning one week before my diagnosis and ending with an entry in late October of that year.
What genre does your book fall under?
Love for Now is a memoir, written in the form of a diary.
What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a film version?
It is odd to think of who might play ‘me’ in a film. For a start it needs to be an actor without much regard for their appearance or their image. For most of the film they are going to look bloated, waxy and bald.
When I was diagnosed most of my male friends joked that chemotherapy wouldn’t be too much of an issue in terms of hair loss, as my genes have done a fairly good job of that already. On these grounds I think Ade Edmondson would be perfect for the role.
Tamsin Greig would be perfect in the role of my wife: she has a fantastic range, from comedy to vulnerability to towering rage, all of which the part needs.
My ward doctor, Karl, is a central character in the film. I need a young, tall actor who can do a lot of posh swearing but who can also move suddenly to great tenderness. I’m going for Tom Hiddleston.
For my consultant, Felicity Carr, I need someone who can move from determined sparkliness to no-nonsense directness in a blink. I’d love Imelda Staunton to play her.
I could see Dawn French as one of the bloods nurses.
Having recently embarked on the screenplay for the book, this is a very timely question and one I have been returning to a lot in recent weeks.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
I began writing on February 7, 2006, and decided to stop in November of that year. The editing took longer than the actual writing.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
In the first instance I wanted to record what was happening to me. But as I went on writing it became more of a debt of honour, not so much to myself as to the process of writing about something so enormous and life-changing.
I found that stories about cancer, in the culture at large and which had probably always been there, began to follow me around. I felt surrounded by it. Writing about this was, to use Robert Pinsky’s phrase, somehow to ‘answer’ this new situation which I had not chosen. It became something of an act of resistance.
What one sentence would sum up your book?
The subject of Love for Now is cancer, but its imperative is to live life to the full: let’s make the most of each day, whilst realising each one is so short.
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
It contains everything you want to know (and do not want to know) about the physical ordeal of treatment for cancer.
It is also a sustained enquiry into the language of cancer, specifically war metaphor.
The book also questions what it means to be a writer -I had a book of poems out while I was ill- with no ‘profile’ to promote.
It is a hymn of love to my family, to Frasier re-runs, and to broccoli.
Will your book be self-published or published by an agency?
I am deeply grateful to Richard Willis of Impress Books for taking Love for Now on.
The poets I’m going to tag:
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.