Living in the question

'. . . the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.' RAINER MARIA RILKE Letters to a Young Poet

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Does Poetry Matter?

Artistic Afternoons: "Poetry is the language of the spirit and the soul, not of the discursive mind. It compresses the lived truth of the poet's experience into a beauty and wisdom that can slip under the skin of the reader and enter the bloodstream." - For Lovers of God Everywhere
Roald Dahl's "I've Eaten so Many Strange and Scrumptious Dishes. . ." from James and the Giant Peach.

 Address - Sunday 14th October.
Most of you know that I love poetry.  Unfortunately this is something that is not shared by everyone.  Many people have developed as much a fear of poetry as they have of my other love, mathematics, and in a way I guess that it is for much the same reason.  That somewhere in the past a combination of bad teaching and a sense of failure have struck a fear in the heart when we hear the word mathematicss and similarly when we are asked to read a poem.  Despite this though I am sure that for everyone here there is a sense of the poetic somewhere within you.  It might be that a snippet of verse or even a complete poem may have crept into your mind and whenever you hear that familiar line or verse you mentally join in with it.  It may be the poems of your childhood, poems that can contain such wonderful words and pictures that you might never find anywhere else except in a poem.  The poem by Roald Dahl is an example of some of those wonderful words – such as dandyprats, mudburgers and stinkbugs – the pictures they conjure up must surely fire the imagination of today’s children.   

For me it was the poetry of Lewis Carroll – such as Jaberwocky  and ‘ ‘twas brillig and the slithy toves  did gyre and gimble in the wabe;/all mimsy were the borogroves, /and the mome raths outgrabe . . .  

That to me is the wonder of all poetry – the words. . .
Arthur Mampel said: “The poet and man of letters, Archibald MacLeish tells in one of his poems how difficult it is for the poet to communicate reality with words. It is like awakening from a marvellous dream where everything is clear and crystal like—and then, when our eyes are opened, the memory of the dream becomes fuzzy and out of focus and confused.”
I would like you to hear that poem by MacLeish:

Words In Time

Bewildered with the broken tongue
of wakened angels in our sleep
then lost the music that was sung
and lost the light time cannot keep!

There is a moment when we lie
Bewildered, wakened out of sleep,
when light and sound and all reply:
that moment time must tame and keep.

That moment like a flight of birds
flung from the branches where they sleep,
the poet with a beat of words
flings into time for time to keep.
—(Poet’s Choice page 20-21, eds. Engle & Langland)

“The Preacher of words,” says Mampel, “the Teller of tales, the Weaver of words, the Journalist, the Poet—they all face and share the same dilemma. How do you convey reality to people by the use of mere words?
I think that poetry may be the one medium in print today that still communicates life through words.”

The words of poetry can go on to speak to us of all the subjects that affect us during our lives and in a way that helps us to express all our emotions. 

In 2009 the BBC produced a series of four programmes entitled ‘My Life in Verse’ where four celebrities were asked to share the poems they found moved them or were important in their lives.

 I remember the episode when Sheila Hancock shared her favourite poems which expressed her life and love for her husband the actor John Thaw of Sweeney and 
Morse fame.  


She chose love poems including the famous sonnet by Elizabeth Barrett Browning  which begins -

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways,
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach. . . .

  And George Herbert’s poem – Love

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.

And then moving on to the time of grief after his death with the Auden poem –

 Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come

 And the sonnet by Edna St Vincent Millay

TIME does not bring relief; you all have lied
    Who told me time would ease me of my pain!
    I miss him in the weeping of the rain;
I want him at the shrinking of the tide;
The old snows melt from every mountain-side,
    And last year’s leaves are smoke in every lane;
    But last year’s bitter loving must remain
Heaped on my heart, and my old thoughts abide!

There are a hundred places where I fear
    To go,—so with his memory they brim!
And entering with relief some quiet place
Where never fell his foot or shone his face
I say, “There is no memory of him here!”
    And so stand stricken, so remembering him!

The emotions expressed in these poems cannot be denied and I cannot read them without feeling like shedding a tear.
Poetry helps us to express our emotions, whether of joy or sadness, in a unique way.  Sometimes poems can be used to express our feelings when normal conversation just doesn’t work.
Kathleen O’Dwyer says:
“Even with those whom we love it is not always possible to be completely honest. From Homer to Shakespeare, from Bob Dylan to Seamus Heaney, and from the poetic word reverberating in each person’s life, we receive glimpses of reality and of experience that cannot be articulated in other forms.
We need the truth, the courage and the honesty of poetry to keep us real, to keep us connected with what really matters and to continually lift the veil of familiarity and camouflage which disguises and distorts our understanding of the human condition.
Poetry matters because it combines beauty and truth, pain and joy, hope and despair. It accepts the poignancy of the human condition while it celebrates its resilience and potentialities; it rejoices in the fact that we are “human, all too human” and that, in the words of Leonard Cohen, “there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” Poetry answers to a universal human need to go beyond conventional modes of thought and expression, and it continually opens us to new possibilities and new ways of being.”
A poem is a tightly woven and highly compressed pattern of images, emotions, perceptions, and experiences.

For me though the poetry that speaks to me most powerfully now, is the poetry that speaks about God, or the Divine; that which is often called spiritual poetry.  My most well read book of these poems are contained in this book 

– Rilke’s Book of Hours – Love poems to God and I could probably just open it to any page and read but I have chosen an excerpt from one poem – it is one that speaks of poetry.

And you inherit the green
of vanished gardens
and the motionless blue of fallen skies,
dew of a thousand dawns, countless summers
the suns sang, and springtimes to break your heart
like a young woman’s letters.

You inherit the autumns, folded like festive clothing
in the memories of poets, and all the winters,
like abandoned fields, bequeath you their quietness.
You inherit Venice, Kazan, and Rome;

Florence will be yours, and Pisa’s cathedral,
Moscow with bells like memories,
and the Troiska convent, and that monastery
whose maze of tunnels lies swallowed under Kiev’s gardens.

Sound will be yours, of sting and brass and reed,
and sometimes the song will seem
to come from inside you.

For your sake poets sequester themselves,
gather images to churn the mind,
journey forth ripening with metaphor,
and all their lives they are so alone…
And painters paint their pictures only
that the world, so transient as you made it,
can be given back to you,
to last forever.

All becomes eternal. . . .
Rainer Maria Rilke

And the other poet whose works I am reading at the moment T.S Elliot ends his work – The Four Quartets with these words; words that describe words:

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from. And every phrase
And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together)
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

The most important thing about poetry is that it is read and read often.  It is no good having poetry books on our shelves if they are not picked up and read. If we love poetry, we will read it and re-read it, think about - often, and browse in books of poetry: our attention will will then 'fill out and make radiant this life of ours.'
Yes: our attention will will then 'fill out and make radiant this life of ours.'
So May it Be.     Amen          

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