Monday, 21 November 2011

Gilded Gold: Poems to Make You Glow

Monday, Monday, why have you to be so miserable and mundane?? A dull start to the week after the flashing neon lights of the weekend. Well, have I the perfect anecdote: poetry of course. Poetry combats mundanity by making everything matter again. And what better poetry than Carol Ann Duffy's much-awaited new collection 'The Bees'?

Now before all you non-poetry people reading give up or doze off, or switch blogs - here, listen -  just for a moment. Carol Ann Duffy is the ideal poet to introduce to beginners. She's not at all boring or elitist  - two of the biggest criticisms poetry gets. Her poetry is so alive its cells are bursting from the pages and so exciting the words spark and glow and glide.  She is an all-inclusive poet, hence her UK Poet Laureate status. 

Carol Ann Duffy is one of my favourite poets. I love her muscular style of writing, full of metaphors and images, truth and a brutal kind of beautiful honesty, punctuated by musical lyricism and roll-off-the-tongue rhythm.  Her poems encompass all moods and themes; she can be wittily sarcastic, bawdy, funny and then lyrically romantic, straight-up honest, clever, mysterious and emotionally raw.

I stumbled upon this new collection in a bookshop surprisedly a while ago and finally got around to getting it last week. Oh and what a joy it is to encounter a poem in a quiet corner of a bookshop that makes you stop and muse and marvel upon its wonder and the wisdom it has to offer; it takes you away from the world for a moment and places you in a still quiet place of truth. While outside the city whirrs and spins and thrums in its incessant destination focus, inside all is calm. From being storm-tossed to being stilled. Poetry allows us meditation in the midst of the riot of routine and the chaos of busyness. It puts things into peaceful perspective. 

A good poem, I always maintain, has gold within it. A treasured nugget of wisdom, a warming richness of truth, a glinting sheen of worth. This is so true of this new collection by Carol Ann Duffy. Every poem gleams with treasure. Even the cover, designed like a honeycomb, glints gold enticingly. 

And every poem here is worth its mettle. Some of my highlights include: 'Gesture', 'The Bees', 'Snow', 'Virgil's Bees,' 'Atlas,' and so many more. The job of the poet laureate is to make poetry relevant and applicable to society again and Duffy does that brilliantly. From an ode to David Beckham's broken ankle 'Achilles,' to poems about the current political state of the world, Duffy's sharp and witty performance-like style is perfect for subtle criticism and her insights are accurately true - politics 'makes your face a stone/that aches to weep, your heart a fist/clenched or thumping, your tongue/an iron latch with no door.' In 'Miss Schofield's GCSE', a riposte to an English teacher who deemed her poetry unworthy to be on the syllabus, Duffy takes the high-ground praising poetry - 'explain how poetry/pursues the human like the smitten moon/above the weeping, laughing earth; how we/make prayers of it.' And of course, there's her signature humour. In 'Poetry' she makes fun of metaphor by stating: 'I couldn't see Guinness/and not envisage a nun' and a sarcastic ode titled 'Simon Powell' on the X-Factor's 'silver-smile' culture. 

And then there are the poems that give you shivers: 'Cold' written about her mother's death, a recurring subject throughout the book and 'Snow', which I've included below. It's a winter poem, a warning poem and a poem that hits you with  all the might of meaning and leaves a tingling tremor of truth, like so many of Carol Ann Duffy's. And then the glowing warmth of 'Gesture'. You can't help but smile and your heart swell at the last lines and infact the whole sentiment of the poem. That's what makes her a great poet. And that's what gives poetry its great power to change us, even for a fraction of a moment, into truth-seers and enlightened human beings at peace with the world and ourselves.

This is a book I'd urge all poetry and non-poetry lovers to indulge in.  Picking up a random poem can shed light on so many things, and better yet, can shed a golden gleam onto everything ordinary and break the muddy illusion of mundanity into shining golden particles. (Bye bye Monday misery!) 

In one of the best poems of this collection,  'Gesture', a poem written for the UK cancer survivors society, Duffy writes: 'Did you know at the edge of your ordinary, human days/ the gold of legend blazed?' and this is what this collection seems to echo over and over: the glinting gold of this human experience we call life.  As sweet and nutritious as honey, you won't be disappointed.

~ Siobhán

Here's three of my favourite from 'The Bees'. Enjoy.

The Bees

Here are my bees,
brazen, blurs on paper,
besotted; buzzwords, dancing
their flawless, airy maps.

Been deep, my poet bees,
in the parts of flowers,
in daffodil, thistle, rose, even
the golden lotus; so glide,
gilded, glad, golden, thus - 

wise - and know of us:
how your scent pervades
my shadowed busy heart,
and honey is art. 


Then all the dead opened their cold palms
and released the snow; slow, slant, silent,
a huge unsaying, it fell, torn language, settled;
the world to be locked, local; unseen,
fervent earthbound bees around a queen.
The river grimaced and was ice.

                                                           Go nowhere -
thought the dead, using the snow -
but where you are, offering the flower of your breath
to the white garden, or seeds to birds
from your living hand. You cannot leave.
Tighter and tighter, the beautiful snow
holds the land in its fierce embrace.
It is like death, but it is not death; lovelier.
Cold, inconvenienced, late, what will you do now
with the gift of your left life?


Did you know that your hands could catch that dark hour 
like a ball, throw it away into long grass
and when you looked again at your palm, there
was your life-line, shining?
                                              Or when death came,
with its vicious, biting bark, at a babe,
your whole body was brave;
or came with its boiling burns,
your arms reached out, love's gesture.
                                                                    Did you know
when cancer draped its shroud on your back,
you'd make it a flag;
or ignorance smashed its stones through glass,
light, you'd see, in shards;
paralysed, walk; traumatised, talk?
                                                              Did you know
at the edge of your ordinary, human days
the gold of legend blazed,
where you kneeled by a wounded man,
or healed a woman?
                                   Know -
your hand is a star.
Your blood is famous in your heart.

*Read more on Carol Ann Duffy's The Bees in the Guardian Review here

Thursday, 10 November 2011

November Moon & Poems

November is usually such  a dark month, the real 'bleak mid-winter' if you ask me. But as I write this I am contradicted by the gorgeous maple-golden sunshine outside and the cool blue sky nights this past week, owing to the bright frosty moon in the sky. 

Tonight will see the first full moon of November, the 'frosty moon' as it's known.  Apparently it gets its name from northern autumnal ground frost (- thanks Áine!) And you can literally see why its name is so fitting: the white frost-like brightness of it. I think it's the whitest brightest moon I've ever seen. And it's so high in the sky. All other full moons I can recall are usually lower. This moon is at a faraway slant, a contracted pupil staring down at us, a beady ball in the sky so circular and small it reminds me of the exact small circle of a contact lens everytime I look up at it. 

I really wanted to take a picture of it to post here, but unfortunately couldn't for several reasons: a/have a crappy camera b/don't have a lead to connect crappy camera with computer and c/I'm not a great picture-taker. So I had to do with a googled image instead (hmpf!) But, if any of you out there caught it, oh, I'd be so over-the-moon (ha) to see your attempts! But if you want to see some great photographs of it, check out Flickr. For now, I'll have to let words paint the picture.

What's great about this moon is the colours it lavishes upon the winter sky. Come 5 o' clock, the sky turns a clear ice blue with some pink blushes on the horizon. Later it's pure Arctic blue with the pink slipping into hazy lilac tones of twilight. It reminds me of those white snowy days and spider-web frost tendrils and the Northern Lights and all those great magical things about winter. 

Did you know that all the full moons have different names? There's the Pink Moon in April, the Honey Moon in June, Harvest Moon in September, Hunter Moon in October,  and the randomly occuring Blue Moon (when two full moons occur in one month - very seldom, hence the saying!) I have a soft spot for the golden harvest moon, but now here in the Frosty Moon I think I've found its silver companion, all sparkly and white and frosted as a diamond. 

While travelling by bus last week on a long journey, it was there; the whole way, a luminous companion as bright as any north star lighting up the dark outside (and inside). Not yet full, like some prelude waiting in the blue wings of sky. It stayed there the entire journey, at times to my left, to my right, and then right above me in the skylight, sometimes visible, sometimes not, but always there, throwing its light. Just as inspiration does.

I said I'd write about the moon in more detail before, so here I am. This November full moon has inspired me to.  And I'm thinking of a collection of poetry dedicated solely to the moon ' - 'To the Moon', edited and introduced by Carol Ann Duffy. A book that finally shows how much writers have been inspired by this white deity from as far back as Shelley to Carol Ann Duffy herself. There are poems here ranging fom many different poets and styles, but one thing they all have in common is their devoted and undying awe and inspiration of the moon. So if you're a lunar lover, you must check out this book!

And of course not to forget that it's a full moon, and all the connotations that go with that. Feeling emotionally overwhelmed or that certain emotions are magnified right now? You've got the moon to thank for that. I always seem to see things clearer when there's a full moon. Like its luminance offers perspective. And tomorrow being 11/11/11, it all seems very fortuitous indeed...

Now it's getting dark. But not dark; the sky  is a curious mix of green and blue, a turquoise on the horizon, Aurora-hued with  pink and lilac lavender tones beneath. There's my picture.

So I'll leave you with some moon poems I particularly like in honour of this full moon.  If you have some more suggestions please let me know!

moon musing still, 

~ Siobhán

'Moon Hymn' ~ Alice Oswald

I will give you one glimpse
a glimpse of the moon's grievance
whose appearance is all pocks and points
that look like frost-glints

I will wave my hand to her
in her first quarter
when the whole world is against her
shadowy exposure of her centre

o the moon loves to wander
I will go clockwise and stare
when she is huge when she is half elsewhere
half naked, in struggle with the air

and growing rounder and rounder
a pert peering creature
I love her sidling and awkward
when she's not quite circular

o criminal and ingrown
skinned animal o moon
carrying inside yourself your own
death's head, your dark one

why do you chop yourself away
piece by piece, to that final trace
of an outline of ice
on a cupful of space?

'The Woman in the Moon' ~ Carol Ann Duffy

Darlings, I write to you from the moon
where I hide behind famous light.
How could you think it ever a man up here?
A cow jumped over. The dish ran away with

the spoon. What reached me were your joys, griefs,
here’s-the-craic, losses, longings, your lives
brief, mine long, a talented loneliness. I must have
a thousand names for the earth, my blue vocation.

Round I go, the moon a diet of light, sliver of pear,
wedge of lemon, slice of melon, half an orange,
silver onion; your human sound falling through space,
childbirth's song, the lover’s song, the song of death.

Devoted as words to things, I gaze, gawp, glare; deserts
where forests were, sick seas. When night comes,
I see you gaping back as though you can hear my Darlings,
what have you done, what have you done to the world?

'Back Yard' ~ Carl Sandburg

Shine on, O moon of summer.
Shine to the leaves of grass, catalpa and oak,
All silver under your rain to-night.

An Italian boy is sending songs to you to-night from an accordion.
A Polish boy is out with his best girl; they marry next month; to-night they are throwing you kisses.

An old man next door is dreaming over a sheen that sits in a cherry tree in his back yard.

The clocks say I must go—I stay here sitting on the back porch drinking white thoughts you rain down.

Shine on, O moon,
Shake out more and more silver changes.

~And a song - 'Pink Moon' by Nick Drake.  'Oh, it's a pink moon, pink, pink, pink....' Enjoy!~

Friday, 4 November 2011

Imagination Vs Reality: Feathers & Bricks

'They say that most of what happens to a writer happens only in their head.'

There's one occupational hazard about writing that affects me majorly in real life and that's imagination. 

Specifically, over-use of imagination, over-reliance on imagination. Which translates to unintentional illusions and alternative realities made of the fine fragility of feathers that collaspe under the weight of reality's bricks eventually, leaving me in a heap of broken-dream rubble.

See to create fiction requires a lot of imagining. Lots of wondering and pondering, fantasising and make-believing, using and over-using of this power. To live in the real world requires....a blocking out of that power? My real world, and probably that of many other creatives, is more than scaffolded with imagination. I imagine things better than they are at times. I add and embellish and decorate the bones of day-to-day life with ideas, visions,  reinvention of what-ifs and what could bes. I refuse the black and white platter we're offered and choose instead to paint scenes with the coloured palette of possibilities. I see things as I'd like to see them; I see things as they settle into mutable shapes in my mind, not as the sharp lines they actually are in reality.

I first became aware of this at a creative writing group once when a participant remarked to me after I'd read out some work 'how she'd love to live where I lived, with all the magical surroundings and people' - she was referring to all the moonlight vistas, emerald-green wonder and blue-eyed muses I'd charted in my writing. It occured to me then that this must be how I see the world; not how others see it, not how it actually is. I was telling stories to myself I realised. That's how I lived, through stories. Through stories I'd read, watched, and created myself. The fabric of my life was a narrative I was continually creating and re-creating.

So I've come to realise that I have the power to create my reality somewhat. Mythologize things  into magic. Like an alchemist, turn the cold metal of mundanity to shimmering warm gold, ordinary to extraordinary. It's like I'm pre-programmed; if I didn't do this, then the world would seem a very plain place to me. That's why I believe stories are so important to us. They have been since the beginning of time, since narrative first began with a few scratches on cave walls.  

We need stories. They are our way of making sense and meaning of this sometimes blank of existence. No one likes to be faced with a blank page after all, our instinct is to fill it. So we tell stories - to each other, to ourselves, to understand our world, but more so, to know that we matter, that things we hold dear matter, that everything has meaning beyond this sometimes bottomless insignificance that confronts us from time-to-time in the form of ennui and emptiness. 
One of my favourite books is Life of Pi by Yann Martel. In it the author chronicles a young boy's experience lost at sea, alone on a lifeboat, with only a tiger for company. (Yes, a tiger. Read it to believe...) Without giving the story away, the book highlights the importance of fiction in our lives, the vital necessity of it for our sanity, our survival, our sense of self.

So being able to tell stories is good, right?  In certain situations yes. In others,...  I don't know. I've gotten myself into tricky situations due to an over-active imaginative impulse... When it comes to matters of the heart for instance, how to know what's real and what's imaginary? How in the heck do you decipher reality when you spend all of your time creating an alternative one while in writer-mode??! You see my dilemma. Most people have 'common sense', a gut reaction, which is their foolproof guide. I do too, but it's just that imagination interferes, and I don't know which to trust, as it's usually imagination  most of my waking life.

And now I'm wondering if I'm destined to make the same mistakes over and over again when it comes to figuring out what's real and what's imaginary in that airy-fairy vague realm of love. Is the proof in the actions, the words, or how I interpret them? Is the truth in my head the pure unaltered version or has imagination enveloped it in a misty aura, tinting  it opaque? I can't decipher reality from imagination at times; and without that gift I wouldn't be able to sit down and write and create worlds out of my head and see life as great big coloured Wonderland full of possibilities and surprises.  But with it, my vision is obscured when it comes to calling it as it is. (Added to this I'm also a diehard Romantic; which results in a highly potent mix of misguided idealism, unyielding optimism and mighty misunderstanding!)

Like right now. Right now I feel stupid for having read signs wrong; putting two and two together and getting five; believing in a rainbow instead of a black and white reality. A Sylvia Plath poem is going round and round in my head which explains my state exactly, because yeah, it is enough to drive you mad! And the repetive haunting echo of the villainelle structure just goes straight for that silly soft part that actually was stupid enough to drop all defences and believe. Here:

Mad Girl's Love Song - Sylvia Plath        
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead; 
I lift my lids and all is born again. 
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

The stars go waltzing out in blue and red, 
And arbitrary blackness gallops in: 
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I dreamed that you bewitched me into bed 
And sung me moon-struck, kissed me quite insane. 
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

God topples from the sky, hell's fires fade: 
Exit seraphim and Satan's men: 
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I fancied you'd return the way you said, 
But I grow old and I forget your name. 
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

I should have loved a thunderbird instead; 
At least when spring comes they roar back again. 
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead. 
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

They say that most of what happens to a writer, happens mostly in their heads.... Yes, I think I made you up inside my head. And that makes me wonder now -  what else did I make up? 

George Bernard Shaw once said: 'Only in books has mankind known perfect truth, love and beauty.' And I'm starting to really believe that. That only in the hold of the imagination does perfection exist, in love, truth and beauty, the great grail trinity. Seems reality comes up second-best every time.

So I turn to the page, where it's perfectly acceptable to imagine, and be rewarded with the contentment of creation. The permanence and importance of it. Instead of self-doubt and recrimination.

The sobering thought of facing reality is a thorny one. But facing reality without the cushion of imagination, definitely worse.  In the coming barren days, it'll be imagination that tends to these raw wounds reality has inflicted. I need this trait to create. Without it, I wouldn't have  a hope in hell of ever filling a page. 

There you have it, another writer's dilemma. Has anyone experienced this occupational hazard? How do you deal with it? Is there a chance of reconciling the two? I'd love to know....!
But for now I suppose, if it came down to it, I'd rather be buried by feathers than a tonne of bricks. 

~ Siobhán. 

(And another poem, the medium where reality is tilted until truth glints off it. And apologies to Sylvia Plath for showing her gloomy side once again here, there is more to her than deadpan despair, will include more of her neutral poems in future..) But for now, here's an achingly accurate picture of regret:

Jilted - Sylvia Plath 

My thoughts are crabbed and sallow,
My tears like vinegar, 
Or the bitter blinking yellow 
Of an acetic star.

Tonight the caustic wind, love, 
Gossips late and soon, 
And I wear the wry-faced pucker of 
The sour lemon moon.

While like an early summer plum, 
Puny, green, and tart, 
Droops upon its wizened stem 
My lean, unripened heart.

This blog was soundtracked by the magnificently morose, The National. A perfect pitch to match the notes of disappointment and disillusionment, for when the castles come crashing down: Fake Empire -The National

*images taken from weheartit