Whenever I wanted to read a poem to my father he’d make a face. He claimed he didn’t like poetry. I suspect it was the ambiguity in a poem that frustrated him. In fact Dad loved poems, the poems he committed to memory in his schooldays. He recited some of these often enough for them to take seed and grow inside me.
Now Dad is gone and it is I who recites his lines, learned at school around 1925:
Blow, blow, thou winter wind
Thou art not so unkind
As man’s ingratitude…
Thy tooth is not so keen
Because thou art not seen
Although thy breath be rude
I see Dad’s wry smile as he continued with lines that border on the cynical.
Sing Hey Ho, Hey ho unto the holly
Most friendship is feigning
Most loving mere folly
Dad was not cynical. So what appealed to him about this snatch from ‘The Tempest’?
I think it was the music.
Lots of people think they don’t like poetry. They would never read a poem – not willingly, not wittingly.
But they listen to songs. And a song is just a poem hidden inside music.
Think of the Beatles. Think of ‘Till there was you’. Think of ‘Elinor Mackenzie’. We loved those songs, not least for their poetry.
Nobody doesn’t like a song.
Michael Ondaatje’s ‘The English Patient’ was enormously successful. In the heart of the novel a sand storm envelops a westerner. The protagonist and the reader spend page after page swallowed up in a howling, blinding, suffocating universe of sand. That long poetic passage alone is worth the price of the book.
Here is Ondaatje in his truer vocation:
From COUNTRY NIGHT
The sofa calls the dog, the cat
in perfect blackness walks over the stove.
In the room of permanent light
cockroaches march on enamel.
The spider with jewel coloured thighs the brown moth
with corporal stripes
and look into mirrors.
At night the truth happens.
While reading ‘The English Patient’ I felt the poetry operating on me. But I was unaware that he was a real, proper, self-outed poet. (Ondaatje infected me with an ambition to write a poetic novel. I wasted twelve months discovering I wasn’t Ondaatje.)
I only discovered Ondaatje’s verse when a black poet in Seattle gave a lecture on prose that read like poetry.
The lecturer, himself a poet from the wrongest side of the tracks, directed his audience to ‘Sweet like a Crow’ and ‘The Collected Works of Billy the Kid’. If you’ve ever nurtured a girl child you’ll love the former; if you’ve ever enjoyed a western you’ll love the latter. I commend them to you.
Money back guarantee.
One November night about fifteen years ago a wild storm hit New York City. I awoke the next morning, pulled on my running clothes, recited morning prayers and headed off to Staten Island for the start of the New York Marathon. It was a different passage that morning along roads still empty in Queens and Manhattan. Streets were blocked by fallen trees, avenues green with leafmeal, the sun sneaking out between clouds that scurried guiltily from the scene of last night’s debauch.
A line of verse came to me:
There was a roaring in the wind last night.
Little by little Wordsworth’s great poem, Resolution and Independence, came back to me. The poet had encountered an old man in a desolate place and wondered at his occupation. The old man, a leech gatherer, became shape and emblem for the poet of the two virtues in the title. And I, an aging and indifferent runner, bethought myself of the leech gatherer, and I girded myself with the poem for the moral challenge that faced me.
This morning, no younger than that morning in NYC, I awoke in a remote spot in the Flinders Ranges, and I searched for resolve to face those sunblasted hills. My volume of poetry fell open at Resolution and Independence. And the run was easier than I could have dreamed.
All this rumination about poems is really the fruit of an assault upon moral complacency by Richard Flanagan. Flanagan’s novel, ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’, tells
of Australian POW’s, slaves on the Burma Railway and of their captors. The central character, an Australian surgeon, lives a poem-haunted life. His Japanese opposite numbers bear an equivalent weight of verse, in their case, as haiku.
On page 396 Flanagan gives us a haiku by a poet named Issa.
Before Flanagan, I did not know that name.
The lines read:
In this world
we walk on the roof of hell
gazing at flowers.
How do you feel? Unshaken? Your world unaltered by the words, few, simple, unweighty?
Not me, not today. Because I spent the previous 205 pages with Flanagan on the Line. Two hundred pages and five pages of the necessary hell, the needful knowing for one who walks, gazing at flowers.