The premise of the book is that the old industrial model of working and living (you go to school, get qualifications, then do a job like millions of others) is over. In its place is the ‘connection economy’ where, thanks to advances in technology, individuals now have an unrivalled opportunity to connect with each other across the globe. The shorthand he uses for this is ‘being an artist’ and ‘making art’.
The book is called The Icarus Deception because the part of the Icarus myth we forget is that he was also warned by his father not to fly too low.
I have just got to the bit where he talks about the mindset necessary to make art that connects with people: resilience, detachment, passion, commitment and vulnerability. And somehow this got me thinking about one of my first poetic heroes, Gerard Manley Hopkins. I studied Hopkins at A level and then at university, in a kind of rapt but puzzled delight.
We learned on day one that his poems were radically different from what others were publishing at the time; most were not accepted for publication during his lifetime. We learned that he was a Jesuit priest and loved to find God in nature. We also learned that he had one friend, Robert Bridges, famous in his lifetime but whose chief claim to fame now rests on his promotion of Hopkins’s poetry after his death.
His religious faith seemed to cause him anxiety as much as it did delight. Were he alive now we would probably say he was bipolar.
It seems inconceivable to me that any poet starting out now in contemporary Britain would opt for the conditions Hopkins lived under, namely: solitude verging on loneliness; periods of intense depression; and, worst of all, complete lack of recognition for his art.
Think of all the things we take for granted in the connection economy, the prizes, the mentoring schemes, the festivals, the networking on Facebook and Twitter, the blogs (!), and now think of a life without any of that save one man you occasionally dare to send your poems to, your champion and curator of your reputation, which in any case you will not live to see. It is insane, isn’t it?
If anyone obeyed the instructions spoken at the end of Seamus Heaney’s ‘North’, it was Hopkins:
Compose in darkness.
Expect aurora borealis
in the long foray
but no cascade of light. (North, 1975)
I am a great believer in the ‘power of the group’ theory of creativity, which says that creative artefacts, including those in the fields of science, politics and sport, are usually made by individuals who are connected to others with similar passions and concerns. Yes, I know in order to get my work done as a poet I need to sit alone and walk and mutter and face down that proverbial empty notebook, but I also know that to get it out there and start connecting and evaluating what I have made, what Godin calls shipping, I need to have a group of like-minded people around me, even if they are far away.
The evidence seems to show that Hopkins lived most of his artistic life without that kind of connection. The amateur psychologist in me (you know you do this too) wants to say that ‘No worst there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief’ is the inevitable product of living in deep isolation. The realist in me wants to say Hopkins would have written it anyway, whatever anyone thought.
You can read ‘No worst there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief’ at the Poetry Foundation website
You can find links to other poems in the Lifesaving Poems series here.
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.
The funniest thing you will ever read about Elizabeth Bishop (or teaching, or anything else) is Mark Halliday‘s essay Moose Failure. In it Halliday presents the idea that sometimes even very great poems do not work in the classroom, however intelligent the students, however careful the planning and wonderful the ideas of the teacher concerned.
This had been my experience of Elizabeth Bishop, until I came across ‘Poem’ in Helen Vendler’s Faber Book of Contemporary American Poetry. I had read Bishop before, of course, but as I wrote the other week about Frank O’Hara, I felt I had not properly connected with her.
I felt she belonged to other people, not me. I knew other people had forged this connection as I kept meeting her in workshops (‘Sestina’, ‘One Art’), the poems of other poets (‘Skunk Hour’) and in essays (‘The Government of the Tongue’). But all I felt was failure. Moose Failure. I did not need to be persuaded of her greatness, I just wanted to find a connection.
More on a whim than a recommendation I picked up the Faber Book of Contemporary American Poetry and began reading Helen Vendler’s clear-sighted Introduction. The essay ends with a brief overview of ‘Poem’. Twice she quotes what seems to me the poem’s central line and turning point: ‘Heavens, I recognize the place, I know it!’, the second of these followed by this bombshell of plain-speaking:
It is the effect every poet hopes for; and, to be complete, it must be followed by that other, estranging effect which tells us, by style, that the elms in the poem are, by their placement in the virtual world of language, already dismantled and gone.
This seemed to be someone who I both wanted and now needed to do business with.
As Vendler points out the poem enacts its own meaning by presenting the ‘stages by which we enter a work of art’: indifference; recognition of generic features or of its making (‘fresh-squiggled from the tube’); sudden and emotional recognition (‘I know it!’); and finally the personal, which may also contain moral responses and those tinted with regret (‘the yet-to-be-dismantled elms, the geese’).
I turned to the poem and read it knowing I already loved it, having been set up to by Vendler’s exposition. Then I read her essay again, and then the poem, noting on a scrap of paper which I have now lost these lines:
The poem stands before us brilliantly photographic and brilliantly verbal at once. If it were not also (to paraphrase Lowell) a shape solid with yearning and written in light, a shape formed by both heart and mind, it would expend its mimetic and verbal energies in vain.
I love Moose Failure. But I love this more.
You can read the full text of ‘Poem’ here
You can read a great blog post on ‘Poem’ by Susan Wood at the Voltage Poetry blog here
You can read about the rest of the Lifesaving Poems series here.
Norman MacCaig’s ‘Aunt Julia’ was the first poem I remember reading which made me think ‘I need to do this’. I was about fourteen at the time.
I’d been excited by Ted Hughes’ early animal poems, Roger McGough’s ’40 Love’, and John Logan’s marvellous ‘The Picnic’ (in Michael and Peter Benton’s Touchstones 5 —now out of print). The difference with ‘Aunt Julia’ was that I came upon it in the first book of poetry I had bought with my own money, Geoffery Summerfield’s Worlds.
It spoke to me immediately. I also had relations I could not converse with, my mother’s family, French-speaking Swiss. We did French at school, of course, but it only made things worse. Here at last was a poem that validated my own speechless frustration.
When I read it now it is the simplicity of the language which continues to delight my nervous system, to borrow from Seamus Heaney. It pulls off the difficult trick of telling the reader as much about the speaker of the poem as it does its subject. Aunt Julia comes back to life through the poem’s benign metaphorical gaze which draws attention to its artifice both as a remembered thing and its cry of lament for a lost way of life :
She was buckets and water flouncing into them. She was winds pouring wetly round house-ends. She was brown eggs, black skirts and a keeper of threepennybits in a teapot.
I love his use of adverbs: ‘marvellously’ and ‘wetly’ are strange, but generous and exact. I love ‘the absolute darkness/of a box bed, listening to/crickets being friendly.’ They didn’t have crickets in the Jura but the darkest room I ever slept in was at my grandparents’ house in La Chaux da Fonds. I dreamt that my fear and incomprehension could be similarly soothed by such insistent primitive music. And I love her ‘threepenny bits/in a teapot’ which seemed to conjure my grandmother’s secret frugality precisely.
It is the poem that got me writing because it appeared when I needed it, (which wasn’t till after I had read it). It told a story -while leaving most of the ‘questions unanswered’; and because it taught me that plain language can be heartbreaking too.
I feel I owe it everything.
To read ‘Aunt Julia’, click on the image below, and it will take you to the Scottish Poetry Library website where the poem is hosted. To read my review of Worlds visit the Articles page on this website.