Sunday, 1 May 2011

The deep consolation, the laughter and tearfulness of reading poetry

For the past few days I've been reading the wonderful poems in Neil Astley and Pamela Robinson-Pearce's great anthology of hope Soul Food: Nourishing Poems for Starved Minds.
It is a read that is a voyage of discovery: moving, funny, profound there is real food and hope for starved souls in the 150 pages. We are so saturated and stuffed with images and music, yet here simple well-honed lines keep bringing us back to essentials. Few of the poems are long, many are very short.
I'm grateful for the many poems in translation that are included, opening up not only other languages (truth called "he" rather than "she" or "it") and cultures, but also completely different ways of structuring thoughts, poetry and hope itself.
Dr B even found one to read aloud to me last night, this by the fabulous Carol Ann Duffy, only a Radio 4 listener or a sailor would understand the final line!

Some days, although we cannot pray, a prayer
utters itself. So, a woman will lift
her head from the sieve of her hands and stare
at the minims1 sung by a tree, a sudden gift.

Some nights, although we are faithless, the truth
enters our hearts, that small familiar pain;
then a man will stand stock-still, hearing his youth
in the distant Latin chanting of a train.

Pray for us now. Grade I piano scales
console the lodger looking out across
a Midlands town. Then dusk, and someone calls
a child's name as though they named their loss.

Darkness outside. Inside, the radio's prayer -
Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.

copyright Carol Ann Duffy

Meanwhile I have this evening been entranced by some poems by Jane Kenyon, in particular the one called Happiness below. It seems quite right that a poet who struggled all her life against depression should write on such a theme. Now I shall have to track down some of the works she translated. I'm always interested in poets who also translate.


There's just no accounting for happiness,
or the way it turns up like a prodigal
who comes back to the dust at your feet
having squandered a fortune far away.

And how can you not forgive?
You make a feast in honor of what
was lost, and take from its place the finest
garment, which you saved for an occasion
you could not imagine, and you weep night and day
to know that you were not abandoned,
that happiness saved its most extreme form
for you alone.

No, happiness is the uncle you never
knew about
, who flies a single-engine plane
onto the grassy landing strip, hitchhikes
into town, and inquires at every door
until he finds you asleep midafternoon
as you so often are during the unmerciful
hours of your despair

It comes to the monk in his cell.
It comes to the woman sweeping the street
with a birch broom, to the child
whose mother has passed out from drink.
It comes to the lover, to the dog chewing
a sock, to the pusher, to the basket maker,
and to the clerk stacking cans of carrots
in the night.
It even comes to the boulder
in the perpetual shade of pine barrens,
to rain falling on the open sea,
to the wineglass, weary of holding wine.

copyright Jane Kenyon

Anyway, although reading poetry might seem to resolve nothing, it does offer a structure that might be called joy or understanding, consolation or perhaps even hope. Gradually words are beginning to put me back together again, perhaps that is resolution of a kind ...