Trippers and askers surround me,
People I meet, the effect upon me of my early life or the ward
and city I live in, or the nation,
The latest dates, discoveries, inventions, societies, authors
old and new,
My dinner, dress, associates, looks, compliments, dues,
The real or fancied indifference of some man or woman I
The sickness of one of my folks or of myself, or ill-doing or
loss or lack of money, or depressions or exaltations,
Battles, the horrors of fratricidal war, the fever of doubtful
news, the fitful events;
These come to me days and nights and go from me again,
But they are not the Me myself.
Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am,
Stands amused, complacent, compassionating, idle,
Looks down, is erect, or bends an arm on an impalpable
Looking with side-curved head curious what will come next,
Both in and out of the game and watching and wondering
I’ve been struggling whether or not to comment on this, and why it’s so absolutely apt for me today because, as Whitman says earlier in the poem “to elaborate is to no avail”. But, paradoxically, the entirety of “Song of Myself” is an elaboration (not to mention full of paradox). It is an attempt to touch the invisible, and sing.
So I’ll just say that what I needed to today was praise – to “celebrate myself, and sing myself”. Nothing extraordinary has happened to me lately – just life, really – but today I felt so strongly that the efforts and struggles of a simple life needed praise – just “the song of me rising from bed and meeting the sun”. Sometimes, that’s the simplest yet most profound thing anyone does in a day.
This is the best article I’ve read in 2016 – maybe ever.
It somehow manages to summarize, better than I ever could, the long, slow, painful journey of maturation. It deals with so many of the elements of my psyche that I’ve long been attempting to integrate and extols the virtues of that often debilitating work: vulnerability, intimacy, self-love, acting with purpose, the value of anger and developing the capability to have fulfilling relationships with others and the world in general: in short, transformation.
For me, transformation is the hope and goal of all art – the presentation of a point of view that offers a different perspective, a renewal – ultimately, growth. We outsource the actual pain of that growth to the artist – it’s Dante who finds himself alone and lost in the wood, Luke who sees his family murdered, Frodo who is burdened with the ring – not us. But we recognize that pain and are grateful that it is recognized externally without our having to undergo that pain directly.
But the process described in that article is art internalized, art enacted directly on the self with the goal of maturation, growth, transformation – and the pain is as real as Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon”, or Plath’s “Ariel” or Picasso’s “Guernica”.
And since we’re talking about Transformation, and it is St. David’s Day, here’s Miracle on St. David’s Day by Gillian Clarke:
“They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude
-The Daffodils, William Wordsworth”
An afternoon yellow and open-mouthed
with daffodils. The sun treads the path
among cedars and enormous oaks.
It might be a country house, guests strolling,
the rumps of gardeners between nursery shrubs.
I am reading poetry to the insane.
An old woman, interrupting, offers
as many buckets of coals as I need.
A beautiful chestnut-haired boy listens
entirely absorbed. A schizophrenic
on a good day, they tell me later.
In a cage of first March sun a woman
sits not listening, not seeing, not feeling.
In her neat clothes the woman is absent.
A big mild man is tenderly led
to his chair. He has never spoken.
His labourer’s hands on his knees, he rocks
gently to the rhythms of the poems.
I read to their presences, absences,
to the big, dumb labouring man as he rocks.
He is suddenly standing, silently,
huge and mild, but I feel afraid. Like slow
movement of spring water or the first bird
of the year in the breaking darkness,
the labourer’s voice recites ‘The Daffodils’.
The nurses are frozen, alert; the patients
seem to listen. He is hoarse but word-perfect.
Outside the daffodils are still as wax,
a thousand, ten thousand, their syllables
unspoken, their creams and yellows still.
Forty years ago, in a Valleys school,
the class recited poetry by rote.
Since the dumbness of misery fell
he has remembered there was a music
of speech and that once he had something to say.
When he’s done, before the applause, we observe
the flowers’ silence. A thrush sings
and the daffodils are aflame.
The corridor has green light smeared on the walls,
across the tiled floor,
from the one window letting in November.
No one can open this door like me,
I can eliminate the shrieks.
Silent as a wave-lulled seashell, I lift the latch
and breathe the stale cigarette smell that, when you lived,
I lived to swallow whole.
I hear your fettered, malignant turnings.
Lead sinkers tied to your ankles,
eyes thumbed shut, you’ve followed someone else’s blood-red comet, out into coldness.
I wish I could come back in broad day
and see the rippled sheets warm in the sun, the pillowcases filled with sweetness.
Instead of hollow, you were supposed to be the solid
the space in me could lean on.
Instead my “mum?” melts in the walls and
I’ll say it again to your unmoving kurgan,
And wait here, my whole life, unmoved.
“Philologists often dislike, and reject, the idea that the early Iliad was good, and so beloved that great poetic effort were devoted to conserving it with all its archaisms and outmoded armor. They often prefer a late genius Homer who unified the design and gave subtlety to the characters. This is because we still like to believe in progress, and that each generation somehow improves over the one before it; so, Homer should be as close to the civilized and lovable Us as we can make him, not some primitive singer of the remotest past … But poetically and archaeologically, early is not always the same as primitive“.
– Emily Vermeule, archaeologist.
Ever have that feeling that despite taking more photos, “having” more music, being more “connected” to people than ever before, that it’s all just a smoke screen? That the things you “have” and are “connected” to, the “communities” of which you are apart online, could all up and disappear in a heart-beat? And do you ever feel the gnawing anxiety that comes along with that realisation?
I think that feeling comes down to one thing – the internet has no mechanism. There’s nothing that rubs up against another thing. There’s nothing physical that sits in your room and just is. Look at the language of today’s internet – “the cloud” “seamless integration” – and it conjures up smooth as silk, unencumbered access to everything that’s important to you. So why do many people feel more lonely and isolated than ever?
Mechanisms are important: on a simple level, it’s a reason why vinyl has seen a massive resurgance in popularity in recent years. But on a deeper level, every method by which we, as humans, truly connect with each other has been mechanical up to now – language itself is a mechanical shaping of air from our lungs – our tongue, teeth and lips are the machine. The language of linguistics – “bi-labial fricatives” “dental plosives” – describe mechanical processes. Writing, the performance of music, sculpture – they all involve the scraping of one material on another.
There’s a very good reason why we’d feel compelled to move away from mechanisms – why the internet’s myriad offers of “seamlessness” and “connection” are so attractive. Mechanisms wear down. Mechanism break. Mechanisms are inherently imperfect. And mechanisms eventually have to be replaced. The internet offers something that will exist almost permanently, that need never be lost, precisely because it has no mechanical parts that will break and insofar as it does, those parts can be easily replaced without any interruption to service.
But some part of us knows that anything of real value comes from friction – from rubbing up against life, from scraping and trying and losing and not being selfie-perfect. Yeah, we’ll always try and secure the future – life insurance, mortgages, savings funds for our kids. We’re easily seduced by the idea that we can go through life far enough under the radar in some sort of stealth-mode, if we just keep telling the world that everything’s fine, that life will pass us by and we’ll be spared any suffering. This is something the no-mechanism internet offers.
Maybe the key to getting rid of that gnawing anxiety is this: the relationships and things that live and exist in your life are better off because they are part of mechanisms. They will wear down, they will scrape and tear at each other, there will be long periods where the friction caused by being alive will have no resolution, where pain and uncertainty are simply part of life. But in the end, those worn, scraped and damaged things will have existed. They will have occupied that spot on your wall, on your shelf, in your life, even after they’re gone. There’s a real comfort in that transcience – and here’s a part of us that just knows that’s a better outcome than a seamless eternity.
I’ve been meaning to write about podcasts for a while now, stirred on by two of my favourite podcasts of the last 12 months, Serial and Startup. Serial was the first podcast I’ve listened to that’s truly as compelling as anything TV or movies have to offer. Startup is the most beautifully honest, raw and interesting narrative I’ve ever heard about starting a business – part entrepreneur-guide, part catharsis for anyone who’s ever run their own gig.
And don’t get me wrong – Serial, Startup, Radiolab and This American Life are demonstrations of some of the finest audio broadcasting I’ve ever heard – but I’ve been trying to dig a little deeper for shows that can make a loyal listener out of me. I’ve listed some of the “Next Generation” podcasts I’ve fallen in love with below, in no particular order. But I’m dying for more – I’d love to hear what you’re listening to that’s not so NPR-centric. Any suggestions? Here’re mine:
BBC Radio 3’s The Verb – One of the most consistently interesting podcasts on literature, poetry, theatre and the written word. I’ve never listened to an episode that I didn’t follow up on afterward and I’ve discovered amazing work by Helen Mort, Zaffar Kunial and surprisingly Suzanne Vega from listening to this show.
Meet the Composer – OK, possibly a bit of cheat as I heard about this show via Radiolab. But Nadia Sirota’s discussions with modern composers is not just for classical music officiandos – I don’t know the first thing about music history or much about music theory. But like the best podcasts, these are human stories about musicians exploring sound and the world around them in amazing ways. And that’s always compelling.
The Tobolowsky Files – I don’t have words to describe the monologues of actor Stephen Tobolowsky. Suffice to say it only took one show to be hooked on his irreverent stories about life, acting, history and generally being alive in a crazy world. And at it’s best, it makes me feel less alone in the world.
Sound Opinions – I love the sideways slant of this podcast. Sure, Jim and Greg review the “newest” releases for the Pitchfork crowd, but it’s the meat of their podcasts that are fascinating and informative. I mean, an entire podcast devoted to Run The Jewels? Yes please. Titles like “20 Years of Bloodshot Records”, deep dives into albums like “James Brown Live at the Apollo” and “80s New Wave” are fascinating retrospectives or blood-pumping introductions to “new music”, depending on your perspective. And none of it is taken too seriously.
The Bugle – John Oliver & Andy Saltzman deliver penis-shaped piles of bullshit while skewering Vladimir Putin and ridiculous ideas that claim to be political policy from around the globe. If you’re looking to be kept informed about current affairs, look elsewhere. Have an interest in Crimea’s fleet of computer controlled dolphins? Look no further.
“Poems, even when narrative, do not resemble stories. All stories are about battles, of one kind or another, which end in victory and defeat. Everything moves towards the end, when the outcome will be known.
Poems, regardless of any outcome, cross battlefields, tending the wounded, listening to the wild monologues of the triumphant or the fearful. They bring a kind of peace. Not by anaesthesia or easy reassurance, but by recognition and the promise that what has been experienced cannot disappear as if it had never been. Yet the promise is not of a monument. (Who, still on a battlefield, wants monuments?) The promise is that language has acknowledged, has given shelter, to the experience which demanded, which cried out.”
– John Berger
I met up with a friend who’d I’d not seen in a while recently. He’d bought me a book for my birthday (Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century) and asked if I’d gotten round to reading it. I admitted that I hadn’t – that the subject matter was too academic for my current mood.
“So what’re you into right now?” he asked. “Homer” I replied – at which he proceeded to laugh his head off.
It was only when he started laughing that I realized that in a lot of people’s minds, Homer is THE CLASSICS in all their symbolic weightiness and impenetrability. But I came to Homer, specifically the Odyssey, very recently and out of curiosity, not because I was ever compelled. And what drew me in at first wasn’t even the story, but the rhythmic, sea-thrumming verse of Robert Fitzgerald’s translation. When I was first reading it on the bus or train, I found myself book-marking pages so when I could get home, or got a chance to hide in a bathroom compartment, I could read the words out loud, letting the syllables roll around my mouth and off my tongue like stones thrown down a well.
The best way I can describe what I find so compelling in the Odyssey and the Iliad is the reality of it.
Odysseus, long after all of his friends have made it home from the war at Troy, finds himself stranded and imprisoned on Kalypso’s island, 20 years separated from his home, lost at sea. And when he finally is granted his release, on his penultimate sea-voyage, he’s battered by storms, thrown from his wrecked raft and although he reaches shore, it’s almost too late:
“Then forth he came, his both knees faltr’ing, both
his strong hands hanging down, and all with froth
his cheeks and nostrils flowing, voice and breath
spent to all use, and down he sank to death.
The sea had soaked his heart through”
That moment where you feel you just can’t take it anymore, where it’s all just too much, how do you go on? There it is. Beautiful, brutal, real and life-affirming.
Odysseus is a war-hero, the man who engineered the Trojan horse, but he’s also a broken man, wrecked by years of toil and misfortune at sea, driven by bitter and resentful gods. He’s a “master-mariner and tactician” but he’s also deceitful and manipulative – he draws comparison’s to the countless Trickster gods that litter the history of mythology. And he’s a father longing to rejoin his family, but he’s also a completely ruthless and bloody murderer: on his return home, he not only slaughters the men who were trying to woo his wife, but the ladies of his household who slept with those men or were even rumored to have done so.
Homer makes no apology for the countless paradoxes and complexities that exist in the characters of his stories – he doesn’t simplify or beautify how messed up and how amazing people and the world can be – he simply presents reality in all it’s pain and glory. And there’s nothing “academic” about that.
Postscript: Nice synchronicity – I read the article below minutes after writing this:
“Curating a perfected self might win followers or Facebook friends, but it will not necessarily cure loneliness, since the cure for loneliness is not being looked at, but being seen and accepted as a whole person – ugly, unhappy and awkward, as well as radiant and selfie-ready.”
“Always I turn away from anger as petty and mean, destructive of life, and so often it is, but not always. There is another kind of anger, different in quality, in implication, in consequence; when one beholds it one sees nothing ugly but something grand. Sviatoslav Richter strides on to the stage. His face is grim; there is anger in the set of his jaw, but not at the audience. This is a passion altogether his own, a force with which he protects what he is about to do. If it had words it would say “What I attempt is important and I go about it with the utmost seriousness. I intend to create beauty and meaning, and everything everywhere threatens this endeavour: the coughs, the late-comers, the chatting women in the third row, and always those dangers within, distraction, confustion, loss of memory, weakness of hand. All are enemies of my endeavour. I call up this passion to oppose them, to protect my purpose”. Now he begins to play and the anger I see in his bearing I hear in the voice of Beethoven. It knows nothing of meanness or spite; it is the passion of the doer who will not let his work be swept aside. It hurts no one, it asserts life, it is the force that generates form. Its opposite is not love, but weakness….If I have something to say and mean it I must stand behind it, must mobilize a dark and deep-running anger to protect it” – Allen Wheelis from How People Change