Reach for a cigarette as soon as things don’t go your way? Eat too many chocolate covered cream cakes with strawberry jam when you get nervous? Stay awake half the night to kill zombies? Does the recyling bank constantly rings to the tune of shattered glass in your efforts to keep the world at bay?
Stop. Think. I can offer a new, healthy obsession – it doesn’t cost very much at all and doesn’t put on an ounce of weight or give you lung cancer. It’s called poetry.
Try this from Jaan Kaplinski (Trans. Jans Kaplinski and Fiona Sampson),Bloodaxe, 2004 and tell me you don’t feel better.
I could say: I got out of the bus,
stepping onto the dusty verge where
a young maple and a wild rose grow.
In reality I jumped into silence
and there was no ground to step on.
The silence closed over my head like water:
I barely noticed the bus leaving
and as I sank deeper and deeper
I heard only my own heartbeats,
seeing the way home glide past
in its own rhthym: lilies of the valley sprouting
wood sorrel already nearly in blossom,
the anthill covered as if by a brownish quivering veil –
the ants themselves. The Big Pine. The Big Spruce.
Drying hurdles. Sand pit. Traces of a fire
White birch trunks. The Big Boulder
And many memories. Silence, the inland sea,
nameless background of all these names,
of all our names.
‘The Company they Kept: Writers on Unforgettable Friendships (NewYorkReviewofBooks, 2006) Ed. Robert B Silvers and Barbara Epstein.
This is a series of pieces, originally published in the New York Review of Books when writers talk about their … er… unforgettable friendships. I love this sort of book – I have a writer’s unquenchable fascination with the detail of the writing process and the day to day lives of other writers, since none ever seem as day to day as mine.
Derek Walcott states in an article about the poet Robert Lowell, that biographies of poets are hard to believe. The moment they are published they become fiction, subject to the same symmetry of plot, incident, dialogue as the novel.
Of Lowell, Walcott writes:
The life itself is shattering. Lowell died at sixty. Most of that life had been spent recovering from, and dreading, mental attacks, of having to say early ‘my mind’s not right’ but more than drugs restored him. The force that is the making of poetry, while it took its toll of his mind, also saved him. His heroism is primal, his servitude to it savage. Bedlam, asylum, hospital, his bouts of mania never left him, but they also never left him mad.
I highly recommend this book. The pieces are not long and can be dipped into at odd moments. The Company they Kept is ideal for drowning out white noise.
Susan Sontag’s contribution in this volume is on Paul Goodman. She starts:
“I am writing this in Paris, in a room about 4′ by 10′, sitting on a wicker chair at a typing table in front of a window which looks onto a garden; at my back is a cot and a night table; on the floor and under the table are manuscripts, notebooks and two or three paperback books. … I have been living and working for more than a year in such small bare quarters … I have no books … I spend too many hours writing to have time to talk to anyone.”
So here is my brief survival guide for the next half-century.
First off – don’t retire until you’re 90. Don’t worry about the social cost in terms of youth unemployment, it will all be fine – somehow. Next just after your 90th birthday busy yourself digging the allotment (if you don’t have one, join the queue) or make constructive contributions to society in the form of voluntary work, jam-making or calligraphy classes. This way should you wish, you can live to 102. There will be no resources to care for you when you finally do lay down your trowel/pen of course.
The new busy is really a philosophy based on fear.
What we fear most is silent inactivity. The staring down the metaphorical black hole. But, here’s a thought, poets and writers do that for a living (at least any who do make a living) so enjoy the fruits of their labours.
I came across a paperback copy of William Wordsworth’s poetry with my mother’s name written on the flyleaf, dated September1966. She paid 7shillings and sixpence for it – about 35p.
Lines written above Tintern Abbey
Five years have passed; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! and again I hear
These waters rolling from their mountain spring
With a soft inland murmur. – Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs
Which on a wild, secluded scene impress
Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
The landscape with the quiet of the sky.