The Figure of Eight (R6)

The dynamic concept of the Figure of Eight was introduced in my Blog ‘Somatic Markers’ dated 16th November.

The bottom half of the Figure of Eight represents the ground of our being—core self—that which we can become more aware of in meditative exercises of one kind or another: the rush of blood in the ears, the crackling of knee joints, the tingling in the right big toe (notice it now…), the sense of suspension in the limbs when you imagine that all motion has been stopped, the place we go to when listening to the slow movement of a Mozart Piano Concerto—α-wave intelligence.

The ascent into the top half of the Figure of Eight takes us into β-wave intelligence which is needed to sustain everyday living during which there’s a tendency to forget that everything depends on the natural functioning of the Core Self where the laws of one’s own being operate.

And the cross-over point? What happens there at the momentary point of fertile stasis, poised between organism and object—organism and anything in the outside world with special reference to those things which we choose to let distract us from the Core Self. What is like to be just there in total silence—at the Euclidean non-existent point of cross-over? How to describe it? Has anybody been there?

There was an artist in the city of Kouroo who was disposed to strive after perfection. One day it came into his mind to make a staff. Having considered that, in an imperfect work, time is an ingredient, but into a perfect work time does not enter, he said to himself, it shall be perfect in all respects, though I should do nothing else in my life. He proceeded instantly to the forest for wood, being resolved that it should not be made of unsuitable material; and as he searched for and rejected stick after stick, his friends gradually deserted him, for they grew old in their works and died, but he grew not older by a moment. High singleness of purpose and resolution, and his elevated piety, endowed him, without his knowledge, with perennial youth. As he made no compromise with Time, Time kept out of his way, and only sighed at a distance because he could not overcome him. Before he had found a stick in all respects suitable, the city of Kouroo was a hoary ruin, and he sat on one of its mounds to peel the stick. Before he had given it the proper shape the dynasty of the Candahars was at an end, and with the point of the stick he wrote the name of the last of that race in the sand, and then resumed his work. By the time he had smoothed and polished the staff Kalpa was no longer the pole-star; and ere he had put on the ferrule and the head adorned with precious stones, Brahma had awoke and slumbered many times. But why do I stay to mention these things? When the finishing stroke was put to his work, it suddenly expanded before the eyes of the astonished artist into the fairest of all the creations of Brahma. He had made a new system in making a staff, a world with full and fair proportions, in which, though the old cities and dynasties had passed away, fairer and more glorious ones had taken their places. And now he saw by the heap of shavings still fresh at his feet, that, for him and his work, the former lapse of time had been an illusion, and that no more time had elapsed than is required for a single scintillation from the brain of Brahma to fall on and inflame the tinder of a mortal brain. The material was pure, and his art was pure; how could the result be other than wonderful?

Thoreau’s little story (quoted by Herbert Read in The Redemption of the Robot) illustrates what the cross-over point might be like. What are the elements that might serve as pointers to us in the so-called ‘ordinary world’?

●     Focus on Things—what Gurdjieff calls getting the Food of Pure Impressions before left-brain thinking takes over in the top half of the Figure of Eight.

●     Timelessness—which includes but is far more than separation from clock-time; a total dedication to the task in hand that brings about a feeling that there is no such thing as time.

●     Singleness of Purpose—unsullied by temporal distractions of any kind.

●    Remembering Oneself—the 4th Way idea of the moment when ‘the tinder of a mortal brain’ is suddenly inflamed by ‘presence’… There are plenty of examples of the way self-remembering works in Gurdjieff & Ouspensky and their followers.

Above all, not to serve machinery but to go with one’s sense of flow in fidelity to the laws of one’s being to the extent that one’s artefacts constantly expand into meaning and renewal of purpose.

How does all this work out for an artist, a composer, poet, dreamer, thinker, craftsperson, What light can such as they shed on how focus on things, the experience of timelessness, singleness of purpose and Being in the present relate to their processes?

And how might such things apply even to a person who has with singleness of purpose dedicated their life to some daily avocation? What benefit would they get from such a change of focus?

Herbert Read’s ‘drift’ is to wonder how the ‘emotional satisfactions’ of the craftsperson’s work can be introduced into the ‘average life’ beset by ‘divided purposes’—the life of the robot. ‘We have never ventured to say that the machine shall go thus far and no further; the machine shall do this, but not that; the machine shall be put here, but not there…’

In our society, the two halves of the Figure of Eight have become radically separated off from each other: the top half has been hi-jacked by and for the efficient functioning of the machine; education drifts more and more towards the hidden wreck of vocational training, preparation for what they call ‘work’ (what might be construed as ‘slavery’—the life of the robot); the bottom half of the Figure of Eight has been forgotten except when it starts malfunctioning when it is simply offered drugs by the health machine.

I ask again: how does all this work out for an artist, a composer, poet, dreamer, thinker, craftsperson? What light can such as they shed on how focus on things, the experience of timelessness and singleness of purpose relate to their processes? What would an ordinary ‘worker’ gain?

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HAIKU – another fifty-one

walking now where
those who passed the café window
walked ten minutes ago


from the train window
glimpses of village streets
I shall never tread


brief conversation
at breakfast during which
a whole life is aired


for the fountains that play
in other people’s gardens

(Fernando Pessoa)


today a colony
of rooks has moved into
the tall sycamore


a raven
pecking at red apples
high above the valley

(at Woodchester 16th August 2010)


blackbirds sing
for rain and four dogs
all swap seats


—less clear across the valley
than they used to be


sitting by a peacock
slumped in a garden tub
—sunshine & mountains


they defend their beliefs
while I just
look at clouds


the judge makes neat points;
the audience thinks
of everything else


an argument about
the dates of bad behaviour
itself not addressed


a double whisky—
as though it could heal


all night the moon moves
round my library
book by book


wanting the strength
to believe that life
is after all so fragile


I teach my father
how to interpret
the death notes he left


—what’s this? she asks
my discordant musical choice
stops her in her tracks


long midnight
in my empty dream-garden


a few yards of sand
where my path used to stretch on
for mile after mile


focus dwindling
but still


on the brink—
watching ravens flap
across the abyss


the last time
in this house seems
not unlike the first


striving to outline
the shape of my feeling
I fall back on houses


so much yet to do—
the gathering up of notes
in the dawn


stripping away
the superfluous on rising—
blackbird’s warning


blue sky & clouds—
sunlight on silver birches
at the hospital gates


the morning after
the endoscopy I raise
my arms to the sun


if you listen
to the sound you may miss
the music

(George Ives to his son Charles)


fresh ploughed sods
facing a silver sky


if childhood is ended
I can no longer be


when the water
is still it can
know itself

(Claudio Naranjo)


what is there between
one thought
and another?



the mind becomes
peaceful when you
don’t mess with it



a soft breeze
swaying curtains
with regret


dust-motes in sunlight
now day is done—
the leftovers


In a Hospital January 2011

the old man’s chest
to make room for a milk-shake


polishing the floor
after a night
of bedlam


Razumovsky One
in my dreams


bare branches
through the hospital window
a flight of gulls


infinite care
for the legless man
fading away


in Italian
at the unresponsive night


rearranges his bedding
over and over again


the unbearable
lightness of nurses
at their tasks


at their interview
lady consultants—chosen
for their looks?


morning light
a release from
fitful sleep


a long rest cure—
opening the first page
of a five-volume novel


at night Antonio
comes alive
pacing the corridors


the surgeon
who will cut me open
becomes a friend



the tortoiseshell cat
moves from the heat of the fire
to stretch out elsewhere


there was a change—
something she had been
quick to notice

(The Furys: James Hanley)


a Haydn string quartet—
three cats stretched
before a log fire


To end of 7/5/10 – 8/2/11 Notebook

Three Poems (R6)

the soul

can either build of itself
a work of art
or sit and watch the Barbarian
inversion of old certitudes—
mask of Evil that entices
into the wilderness of the future;
or it rides out of the Wasteland
tramples the vineyards
demolishes the shrines
giving over soil to sand
and the mind to this awful simplicity
of box & buttons
of fad & fashion—
mere mechanisms of personality
invented by the age

the Barbarian cannot make;
it can only befog and destroy—
but even that it cannot sustain
(as soul would sustain)
lacking limit and boundary
which are essential to all making

and we are victims offered daily
to the cruelties of the moment
with no tradition
to incarnate the gestures of
daily living in song and stone

only wayward mythologies—
an ever-shifting empty hagiography
of temporary heroes
of slogans and the gleanings
of mass culture


the doctrine

of inevitable progress—
the present the highpoint
of cultural and personal development—
the ancestors treated with condescension
the thinkers ignored unread
(those who told it how it really is)—

the present (so they say—the powerful ones
in their powerful ignorance) is
the threshold to a Golden Age—
provided you accept our (mendacious)
version of events…  tissues of imagery
& abstraction

progress is the ghost
of a big black dog
cocking its leg against the lamp-posts
of infinite dark streets—
a convenient construct;
an unsubtle trick of the imagination;
a laying of eggs
in a basket that does not exist


I’m with Hilaire Belloc

who sprayed the English
complacents with corrosive words
to eat away the rust of centuries
of smug: parliamentary democracy
represents not the country of hills
and valleys    not the cottages
and the city streets
but capitalism & wealth;
its supposed incorruptibility is a lie—
bodies bought & sold to slavery
titles bartered for privilege—
we are not all in this together

liberal capitalism will never deliver
the Golden Age—it leads inexorably
towards the Servile State
in which the majority labour
for the good of a small minority
of wealthy owners in their gated domains
or for a government of technical experts
imposing technical solutions—
their expertise in spiritual bankruptcy

the future becomes a refuge for those
who cannot bear to face
the grandeur of the past
in the contingent tyranny of the present

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once upon a time

an angel visited the Earth:
for many years he thought
everybody on Earth was mad
because he could not understand

what it was they were enjoying;
then he caught the Earth disease
and began to enjoy Negative Emotions
just as they had always done

and he could no longer see the madness;
when the heavenly adjudicator came down
to tell him he had failed the test
he got madder and madder…

failed the test and forgotten something
and must remain on Earth until he remembered
what it was and had disentangled himself
from all the curious delights

of indulging in negative emotions:
sinking into the bottomless swamp
of being gloomy or bad-tempered
self-pitying   tart or caustic

Haiku Consciousness and Ceramic Ducks

Discovering Haiku

I arrived at haiku sometime in the 1960’s while I was reading Alan Watts’ The Way of Zen. I was very drawn to his argument that went something like this: in Western philosophy (and, as a result, pervasive throughout western thinking processes) there’s a habitual cognitive dichotomy between thinker and thing-thought, between mind and body, between observer and whatever is observed; in Zen, he asserted, there is no such dichotomy – there is simply an experiencing, just like that, as the great British comedian Tommy Cooper used to say. I have never wavered from the idea that haiku is the expression, not of a dichotomous thought-out experience, but of an experiencing – of a verb not a noun.

Test it! Look at the words you’re reading now and notice that the words on the page are separate from what you imagine is happening in your mind, your reconstruction of ‘meaning’ – you as an observer and the last paragraph, for instance… Now, get rid of that and just be a ‘reading’. This will require practice. It’s as though you and the words somehow have become one; writing a haiku, you become the tree or the landscape, sun or sea; they become you; the haiku writes you…

Sorry, My Mistake…

But now, anyway, though I find it cognitively unsettling, at least as far as haiku are concerned, it turns out that I have been misguided all along – the source of my initial guidance was challenged a few years ago by the influential Haruo Shirane (for instance in Modern Haiku, XXXI:1 2000) who refers to the way Western notions of haiku – a few words resulting from ‘being in the moment’ – have been skewed by Shiki’s emphasis on ‘the sketch (shasei) based on direct observation of the subject [without the intervention of ‘intellect’] as the key to the composition of the modern haiku’. Those who have nothing better to do than to allocate writers to artistic movements as though it were the answer to a maiden’s dream tell us that Shiki (d 1902) was a ‘realist’ in that he believed that poetry was an expression of the individual rather than being an incidental contribution to an intellectual literary game. Shiki’s realism just happened to coincide with the birth of Western ‘Imagism’ at the beginning of the 20th Century; so Shiki’s view of haiku, so they say, can be dismissed because it was taken on board as an aspect of imagism and haiku has been represented in the West as being part of the same movement. Realism, it seems, is to be regarded as dead & gone.

In a very thoughtful review of Gilbert’s Poems of Consciousness, Randy Brooks (Modern Haiku Volume 40.1 Winter 2009) refers to Hasegawa Kai’s condemnation of what he calls ‘junk haiku’ – these are ‘… verses that have become predictable and stagnant owing to the influence of Western realism, haiku compositions based only upon those things you have directly seen…’ What’s the alternative? Hasegawa Kai calls for haiku with the kind of ‘…cutting which cuts a haiku from this reality within which we live…’

deep winter
within the pillar
the rushing of waves

There’s certainly a degree of alienation here! How can we account for the construction of such a haiku? I imagine the writer’s conscious thought process: “Ah, brrrrrr… snow and bitter cold – I observe that it’s what might be called ‘deep winter’ – I write that down but because I’m of the new dispensation I must think of a way of resisting making reference to what would normally follow this (snow, mist, trees full of frost etc) – to take readers beyond the ordinary sense of ‘reality’ – to dumbfound them with something stunningly different so they have to really exercise their imagination: so,” says the poet, “I think of the new pillar outside my front door and I hear the wind which reminds me of the sound of waves…” This is a good example of pure ‘intellect’, a species of ‘consciousness’, at work…

My understanding is that this intrusion of thinking (loosely called ‘consciousness’) is justifiable by reference to contemporary accounts, quoted with apparent relish by Gilbert, of how Bashō’s frog/pond/plop haiku came into being: “Here I am sitting at my desk,” Bashō might have said, “…in my hut – I hear the plop of a frog in the distance – I know there’s a pond outside so I’ll construct a haiku out of my thinking process… And I will draw on past experience of ponds and typical frog behaviour…”

Haiku as Literary Construct?

Thus the essence of the ‘Modern Haiku’ movement seems to be that a haiku is a ‘literary construct’ rather than a direct expression of Being in the world. During the British Haiku Society 2013 AGM I presented a way of constructing what, in a Ludlow moment of bright & memorable humour, Martin Lucas and I decided to call ‘knotweed hycoo’ out of random words written on separate bits of card to be assembled like a disjunctive jigsaw. For a brief example, here is a very small fraction of the word-list I presented:-

highly strung, butterflies, immense, startling, thirty-two, Quaker, physique, concerns, tortures, mistaken, days, reason, pointed, bathroom, approach, starlings, hiding, market, marble, afternoon, happy, callousness, nothing, figure, fastness, expedition, escape, monotonous, ilex, incognito, purple

and so on…

The instruction was to let the list linger in the head and then consciously arrange the cards to make a hycoo, using any little joining words you liked, thus, maybe:-

the callous reason of
thirty-two purple starlings
in a marble bathroom

monotonous expedition:
figure with a happy physique
on a market day

These are ‘knotweed hycoo’ – spreading around the globe with the insidious quality of Japanese knotweed, undermining the edifice we apparent throwbacks call the house of ‘haiku’. At the AGM I posed the question of whether, through its journal, Blithe Spirit, the BHS, one of whose aims is to act as upholder of standards in haiku-writing, should make a principled stand against so-called ‘modern’ trends; to make energetic resistence to what I suppose is part of the general post-modernist trend to exterminate the past. I still think an answer is required.

Focusing on the Here & Now

As a contribution to the discussion we might begin by asking the question: What exactly does it mean ‘to focus on the here & now’? It’s clear from many of Bashō’s examples that ‘here & now’ can of necessity encapsulate past & future; it’s a researched fact that our neurons are by no means neutral.

What happens in the here-&-now-mind cannot possibly not contain reference to memories and prognostications; just as awareness in ‘the present moment’ constantly strays backwards & forwards into what we choose to call ‘past’ & ‘future’ so haiku-expression moves subtly into these areas while remaining conceptually ‘in the present’ – they can create new ways of mentally reconstructing the universe, as in this well-known example:-

summer grasses –
traces of dreams
of ancient warriors

As readers we are presented with what is for us a present moment – we are in some corner of a foreign field; there’s grass growing on ground where the glorious dead are buried; the simple observation with its not too extravagant corollary has the effect of extending our world, of modifying our feeling for grass. If poetry is not ‘the renovation of experience’ (William Carlos Williams) it’s a waste of space, in my humble opinion. (“That’s the very last thing you are, ‘humble’…” says my wife over my shoulder). A ‘so-what’ haiku is one that fails to renovate experience in some way.

Haiku as Intellectual Construction

It seems that we have come full circle: according to Haruo Shirane, before Bashō haiku was fictional, an intellectual construction. He provides this 17th Century example:-

making sea lions and whales
swim in the cherry blossom waves
at the hill top

This is a hycoo that would not be out of place in an anthology of so-called ‘gendai’ poems. Shirane writes that ‘…Bashō was one of the critics of this kind of ‘nonsense’ haiku. He believed that haiku should describe the world ‘as it is’ [not denying fiction which] can be very realistic and even more real than life itself…’ Thus haiku can be ‘something born of the imagination’ which Shirane says is ‘about the ability to move from one world to another…’ ‘…entering into the past, meeting the spirits of the dead, experiencing what poetic and spiritual predecessors had experienced’ while remaining ‘faithful to the original experience…’ in the moment, as in the ‘summer grasses’ example. We might then ask – What exactly is the abstraction ‘imagination’? How does it work? It could be argued that imagination is nothing other than awareness in ‘the present moment’ constantly straying backwards & forwards into what we choose to call ‘past’ & ‘future’, connecting things up together, and making a response to the essential spirit in things.

Models for Thinking

Shirane famously proposed two key axes: one horizontal, the present, the contemporary world; and the other vertical, leading back into the past, to history, to memory, to other poems. ‘…To work only in the present would result in poetry that was fleeting. To work just in the past, on the other hand, would be to fall out of touch with the fundamental nature of haiku, which is rooted in the everyday world…’

For me, these axes are the wrong way round. Shirane’s axes disturb my way of thinking. My own horizontal axis represents tick-tock time, time forwards & backwards forever; the vertical axis is oneself in the here & now, one’s I, being a haiku deriving in some way from tick-tock time, by allusion to or conversation about things that happened, places visited, accumulated experiencing, in past or future rediscovered in the present – the ‘haiku moment’ – the utterly timeless moment when a haiku comes into being.


The Death of Realism?

Richard Gilbert quotes Hoshinaga Fumio approvingly: ‘realism was a brief, temporary movement’… He asserts, for some undefined reason, that it’s necessary to incorporate modern movements that followed imagism – ‘cubism, surrealism, dada’ in some postmodernist hycooic mélange. ‘Right you are if you think so’ as Pirandello said. Gilbert is of the opinion that haiku is a naturally ‘modern’ phenomenon and I suppose that’s true because it has always been what’s called an ‘open’ text – it leaves space for reader participation which is typical of modern films that just end unexpectedly or, in music, Cage’s 4.33.

Hasagawa Kai talks about ma ‘empty space’ – a moment of psychological silence – a concept supposedly unique to Japanese culture. In haiku, he says, ma conveys feeling without expressing it: ‘…it is what is not put into words that is important… Haiku is literature created jointly by the poet and the reader. A Western poem is the product of the poet alone, and thus… the way of thinking about haiku is different…’ It’s true that we do not have a word representing the concept of ma but Hasagawa Kai has obviously not heard of the plays of Harold Pinter with their deliberate pregnant pauses; it’s no stretch of western sensibility to understand that it’s what’s left out of a haiku that’s important; the words are merely a hint of something more profound which the reader may or may not pick up.

And there’s no need or reason to bolt on to haiku every fad & fancy that comes along in the ‘modern’ or ‘post-modern’ zeitgeist to fill a ma with bizarre images.

It’s exactly as Gilbert says: ‘…gendai Japanese haiku exhibit many of the principles, theories and techniques found in modern poetry or modern arts generally…’ In other words they have simply taken over 20th Century western movements and become what, because of our inheritance, most of us would not call ‘haiku’ at all. The fundamental question is – why should haiku incorporate ‘principles, theories and techniques found in modern poetry or modern arts’? One person’s say-so is not sufficient. The only obvious thing they preserve from the past is brevity.

walrus with its mouth wide open war statistics

a drowning man
pulled into violet worlds
grasping hydrangea

to die
in a hippo’s jaws –
the lettuce’s bliss

Avoided the Meaning and Missed the Experience

I wonder if individual reference to a ‘haiku moment’ has fallen into a state of zealous approbrium because those who reject it have never had the experience and, what’s worse, have no strategy for arriving there – they are therefore obliged to invent some other way of producing what looks vaguely like the haiku-form; it might be all too easy for such unfortunates to bolt on ‘surrealism’ or ‘dadaism’ to it. But it’s so old hat – a harking back to the 1920’s, excitingly new then but now nearly a hundred years past its sell-by date. Gilbert says he finds ‘…modern haiku to be tremendously exciting, profound and fresh…’ On the contrary, I find their imagery simply old hat though still of course acceptable in general as a hilarious jolt to the system as in, for example, the films of Luis Bunuel.


Another question we might ask about ‘knotweed hycoo’ is – what is ‘consciousness’? Blithely to call haiku ‘poems of consciousness’ is to beg the question of what we understand as ‘consciousness’. Gilbert says that ‘…conscious experience itself has not yet been demonstrably elucidated – there is so much we experience and feel which remains immeasurable…’, but he seems to take the word ‘consciousness’ for granted. It might be ‘the human faculty which thinks’ or ‘the capacity for engaging in intellectual construction’, ‘neuronal activity’, ‘mental gymnastics’. If it’s anything, ordinary consciousness is probably something akin to any or all of these periphrastic notions: you imagine, for example, that you are ‘conscious’ and awake just by virtue of reading these words; I imagine, of course, that I am ‘conscious’ and fully awake as I write them.

But consider for a moment that there’s a different kind of Consciousness – one with an upper case ‘C’ to indicate that it transcends ordinary consciousness by a long chalk; it’s a certain something in us that’s vitally awake, full of life and energy if only we could grasp it. On the one hand, paradoxically, it’s a dry nothingness at the centre of our being; on the other hand it’s the name for an invented construct of the human imagination. We are so overwhelmed by the idea of listing its limitless possibilities in nothingness that we settle for using the word ‘consciousness’ and hope that everybody will know what we mean. ‘Consciousness’ is dodgy shorthand for a huge systemic process: here’s a snapshot of a little bit of it:-


How does this apply to writing (and reading) haiku? Here’s a ho-hum haiku I wrote recently:-

four ceramic ducks
lined up on a window-sill –
my life museum

In a system you can start where you like; everything is connected: in this case I started at the top – I saw the ducks, I heard an outline history of their past inside me and consequently I feel for these inanimate things – the cognitive taste of them, quite without the smell that would accompany the real feathered model – contrast of solid objects & squawking reality; I pause to note that all this merges in a moment of synaesthesia. Occupying my left brain I could go on analysing thus but I slip into the pattern produced by my right brain which seems to embrace wider issues: I reconstruct a duck-past and remember when I bought them one by one going back to the department store four times in acquisitive mode; there’s a growing feeling of something indescribably special about the words on the base – ‘Jaipur, made in Taiwan’; I recall a bit of research (Finesmith 1959) which, consequent upon the attachment of wires to fingers, shows up a psycho-galvanic skin response to anything you care to think of – all objects, words, ideas, thoughts, have emotional connections – then ma, space for thought, mirror of the infinite space within… I am reminded of all the things I’ve hoarded in this museum of a house where I live – they are a part of who I am – hence the last line that helps to construct a haiku which may (or may not) resonate with the reader’s own hoarding proclivities, or lack of them.

This last paragraph took 15 minutes to write out, longer to think about; it’s a left-brain drawn out re-construction of a moment of Consciousness; doing the circuit round the systemic process represented in the diagram took a split second when the haiku wrote me – I’m used to the system. It’s a strategy for arriving at a ‘haiku moment’. It can be learned; it becomes second nature; once learned it has to be forgotten. There’s no dichotomy – no divided system and working the system.

True Consciousness is a whizz round the cognitive system without getting stuck in any particular bit of it.

I’ll probably reject the ‘duck’ haiku – it seems to be too much the result of ‘thought’ and it lacks Martin Lucas’s ‘Poetic Spell’.

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Technological Change, Art, Music and the Human Mind

One-dimensional Thinking

In One-dimensional Man, Herbert Marcuse argues that technological change undermines the true substance of art: the easy availability of its products and their subsequent manipulation, universality of access, the general dumbing down of processes, the seeming ordinariness of ‘how to do it’, crowd mentality, psychological analysis…

And the concrete manifestations of technological effect might be: background music in the kitchen, a million Internet sites for the posting of indifferent ‘poetry’ and short stories, a swamp of things that sucks sensible choice under, Mahler in a advert for some motor oil, Nessun Dorma at a football match, ‘opera without the boring bits’ (advert for a concert in a newsagent’s window), juicy musical snippets on Classic FM, a regular half-witted celebration of the suggestion that the ‘classics’ have been made to leave some imaginary mausoleum and have been brought to real life re-vamped, an absurd belief that the presentation of ‘juicy snippets’ (or ‘bleeding chunks’ as Bernard Shaw called them) will inspire a ‘love of the classics, the commercial exploitation of something as essentially subtle as ‘Mindfulness’ for example, and, in my own particular area, the dumbing down of ‘haiku’. And so on…

Pre-technological images, whose truth depended on ‘an uncomprehended and unconquerable dimension of human-beings & nature… and on an insoluble core which resisted integration’ into ‘normal’ channels, give way to the rational urge of one-dimensionality (‘this is for sure how it is – there’s no other possibility…’), and the ‘conquest of transcendence’.

A one-dimensional thinker would no doubt dismiss this analysis as a defence of elitism, for instance, an arrogant dismissal which could be said to level the analysis downwards and entirely misses the point: one-dimensional thinkers make a fetish of missing the point.

The Alienated Artist and Ordinary Alienation

There was once a clear distinction between the world of the constitutionally alienated artist, and that of those for whom daily ordinary things took place, the world of mundane work, the majority so consumed by focus on survival tasks that they were alienated from the ‘things that matter’. But all the time the alienated artist was willingly so, aware that for them ordinary alienated existence was always capable of being transcended by the demonstration of another universe of ‘elevated’ being. Artistic ‘alienation’ is the conscious transcending of ordinary alienated existence; a double alienation which sets the proper artist well apart from commitment to stock exchange, polling booth and daily commuter run.

In modern times there exist those who call themselves ‘artists’– clever jerks who join up with the system having discovered a rather clever way to make lots of money. Real artists who refuse to be drawn into the ordinariness of things find themselves considerably out of step with the world of ‘progress’; but they persist, against all the odds, in the exploration of lost dimensions that can still haunt certain kinds of consciousness.

Lost Dimensions

What are the ‘lost dimensions’?

They come from areas of the spirit that seem to have no place in the one-dimensional world which brooks no opposition to the prevailing way of seeing things. Still proud artists engage in what Marcuse calls ‘the Great Refusal’ to fall in with ‘technological reality [which] undermines not only the traditional forms but the very basis of artistic alienation – it tends to invalidate… the very substance of art…’

What is it that can still haunt the established universe of discourse and change one’s notion of it so it becomes, by reverse, strange and distant and irrelevant – not irrelevant to anything, just existentially irrelevant? Marcuse quotes Paul Valéry: ‘Poetry performs the great task of thought; it is the effort that brings to life in us that which does not exist…’ He comments that ‘naming things that are absent is breaking the spell of the things that are… the ingression of a different order of things into the established one…’ One-dimensional society achieves the ‘conquest of transcendence’ and, even worse, suffering from such a conquest, the mental organs for grasping contradictions atrophy – ‘happy consciousness’ comes to be the norm. ‘One man can give the signal that liquidates hundreds & thousands of people and then declare himself free from all pangs of conscience to live happily ever after…’

Poetry can convey the way thought moves around namelessness with singular adroitness.

Technological Sanitation & Abridgement

Herbert Marcuse presents a devastating analysis of the way in which technological sanitation fails to allow for discrepancies and contradictions, eschews alternative points of view resulting in consequent abridgements of meaning in the recipient’s mind. The names of things become synonymous with function and the quest for meaning is closed down; the philosophy of medieval realism rules – words really are the things they are supposed to represent: ‘self-validating, analytical propositions appear which function like magic ritual formulae. Hammered & re-hammered into the recipient’s mind they produce the effect of enclosing it within the circle of the conditions prescribed by a formula…’

The very few concrete examples that Marcuse provides of how all this works out in practice come as something of a relief after page after page of close abstract analysis which seems to require so much of the reader in an effort to relate it to ‘real life’. He all but apologises when he provides three great personal examples of how a negative cast of mind turns into a positive one without any reconciling. The result in each case is the flattening out of honest experience, a loss of cognitive tension.

1. I ride in a new automobile. I experience its beauty, shininess, power, convenience—but then I become aware of the fact that in a relatively short time it will deteriorate and need repair; that its beauty and surface are cheap, its power unnecessary, its size idiotic; and that I will not find a parking place. I come to think of my car as a product of one of the Big Three automobile corporations. The latter determine the appearance of my car and make its beauty as well as its cheapness, its power as well as its shakiness, its working as well as its obsolescence. In a way, I feel cheated. I believe that the car is not what it could be, that better cars could be made for less money. But the other guy has to live, too. Wages and taxes are too high; turnover is necessary; we have it much better than before. The tension between appearance and reality melts away and both merge in one rather pleasant feeling.

2. I take a walk in the country. Everything is as it should be: Nature at its best. Birds, sun, soft grass, a view through the trees of the mountains, nobody around, no radio, no smell of gasoline. Then the path turns and ends on the highway. I am back among the billboards, service stations motels and roadhouses. I was in a National Park, and I now know that this was not reality. It was a ‘reservation’, something that is being preserved like a species dying out. If it were not for the government, the billboards, hot dog stands, and motels would long since have invaded that piece of Nature. I am grateful to the government; we have it much better than before…

3. The subway during evening rush hour. What I see of the people are tired faces and limbs, hatred and anger. I feel someone might at any moment draw a knife – just so. They read, or rather they are soaked in their newspaper or magazine or paperback. And yet, a couple of hours later, the same people, deodorized, washed, dressed-up or down, may be happy and tender, really smile, and forget (or remember). But most of them will probably have some awful togetherness or aloneness at home.

With a bit of effort, any reader can multiply examples of the way that, maybe just for a certain peace of mind, contradictions and discrepancies get flattened out into bland acceptance: it must be just the way things are and have always been. It could simply be the result of weariness at the attempt to first tolerate and then work towards temporary reconciliations of ambiguities. Perhaps this can only be done in poetry.

Via Paul Valéry, Marcuse alludes to the way poetry manages contradiction in metaphor & movement. I look for examples in my library of how it does this.

A Book of Magic

Hermann Hesse’s Journey to the East is a book I read quite often: it both presents a metaphor of exultant transcendence in itself and talks about how it works. The story-teller, who ultimately turns out to be HH himself, strives to recall the details of a remarkable journey he undertook but he seems to be under some kind of mental constraint as to what he can say because his duty to the ‘League’, which accepted him for the journey, forbids him to reveal its secrets.

It was shortly after the Great War, and the beliefs of the conquered nations were in an extraordinary state of unreality. There was a readiness to believe in things beyond reality even though only a few barriers were actually overcome and few advances made into the realm of a future psychiatry. Our journey at that time across the Moon Ocean to Famagusta under the leadership of Albert the Great, or say, the discovery of the Butterfly Island, twelve leagues beyond Zipangu, or the inspiring league ceremony at Rudiger’s grave – those were deeds and experiences which were allotted once only to people of our time and zone…

Belief in things beyond ordinary reality is what characterises multi-dimensional thinking; that there is only one way of seeing things is, as I understand Marcuse, a consequence of one-dimensional thinking. One-dimensional thinkers would regard the fantastic Journey to the East we’re presented with as a silly tale way beyond the realms of possibility. They’d probably find it totally out of step with shop and office life especially if they got as far as reading that, for the journey, ‘…the common place aids of modern travel such as railways, steamers, telegraph, automobiles, aeroplanes, etc., were renounced…’ but that even so ‘…we penetrated into the heroic and magical…’

Indeed one traveller who had taken the oath of allegiance to the League suddenly announced, well along the way, that

…he had had enough of this ridiculous expedition which would never bring us to the East; he had had enough of the journey being interrupted for days because of stupid astrological considerations; he was more than tired of idleness, of childish wanderings, of floral ceremonies, of attaching importance to magic, of the intermingling of life and poetry; he would … return by the trusty railway to his home and his useful work…

Multi-dimensional thinkers are happy to contemplate life in any way that seems appropriate so that ‘…the intermingling of life and poetry…’ is not a problem; in fact life can be seem as the construction of a grand poetic fiction which enhances its apprehension by offering multiple perspectives. I am briefly reminded of Gurdjieff’s observation that ‘every stick has two ends’. His whole teaching is in line with this. It’s never a question of either/or – it’s always both/and… Not either your idea or my idea but both your interpretation and mine which opens up opportunities for some creative reconciling in between. All events and phenomena have at least two possible interpretations. Sticks have two ends but there can also be an infinite number of notches along a stick. This is forgotten or not noticed at all.

For other members of the League the young man who wished to return to ‘civilisation’ constituted

…an ugly and lamentable sight. We were filled with shame and yet at the same time pitied the misguided man. The Speaker listened to him kindly… and said in a quiet, cheerful voice which must have put the blustering man to shame: “You have said good-bye to us and want to return to the railway, to commonsense and useful work. You have said good-bye to the League, to the expedition to the East, good-bye to magic, to floral festivals, to poetry. You are absolved from your vow…”

There’s a clear distinction between the poetic interpretation of life and ‘commonsense and useful work’. To live successfully in both worlds requires what, in Fourth Way terms is called ‘divided attention’ – that which is fundamental to the process of self-remembering.

Divided Attention

Gurdjieff said, “Not one of you has noticed the most important thing that I have pointed out to you. That is to say, not one of you has noticed that you do not remember yourselves. You do not feel yourselves; you are not conscious of yourselves… [Without this] you yourselves do not exist in your observations. In which case what are all your observations worth? …

This is a very important realization. People who know this already know a great deal. The whole trouble is that nobody knows it. If you ask somebody whether they can remember themself, they will of course answer that they can. If you tell them that they cannot do so, they will either be angry with you, or think you an utter fool. The whole of life is based on this, the whole of human existence, the whole of human blindness. If you really know that you cannot remember yourself, you are already near to the understanding of your being.”

In In Search of the Miraculous Ouspensky writes that first of all

…attempts to remember myself or to be conscious of myself, to say to myself, I am walking, I am doing, and continually to feel this I, stopped thought. When I was feeling I, I could neither think nor speak; even sensations became dimmed. Also, one could only remember oneself in this way for a very short time.

I had previously made certain experiments in stopping thought which are mentioned in books on Yoga practices… And my first attempts to self-remember reminded me exactly of these, my first experiments. Actually it was almost the same thing with the one difference that in stopping thoughts attention is wholly directed towards the effort of not admitting thoughts, while in self-remembering attention becomes divided, one part of it is directed towards the same effort, and the other part to the feeling of self.

This last realization enabled me to come to a certain, possibly a very incomplete definition of “self-remembering,” which nevertheless proved to be very useful in practice. I am speaking of the division of attention which is the characteristic feature of self-remembering.

I represented it to myself in the following way:

When I observe something, my attention is directed towards what I observe – a line with one arrowhead:-

I —————–> the observed phenomenon, whatever it might be.

When at the same time, I try to remember myself, my attention is directed both towards the object observed and towards myself. A second arrowhead appears on the line:

I <—————-> the observed phenomenon, whatever it might be.

Having defined this I saw that the problem consisted in directing attention on oneself without weakening or obliterating the attention directed on something else. Moreover this ‘something else’ could as well be within me as outside me. The very first attempts at such a division showed me its possibility. At the same time I saw two things clearly.

In the first place I saw that self-remembering resulting from this method had nothing in common with ‘self-feeling’ or ‘self-analysis’. It was a new and very interesting state with a strangely familiar flavour.

And secondly I realized that moments of self-remembering do occur in life, although rarely. Only the deliberate production of these moments created the sensation of novelty. Actually I had been familiar with them from early childhood. They came either in new and unexpected surroundings, in a new place, among new people while traveling, for instance, when suddenly one looks about one and says: How strange! I and in this place; or in very emotional moments, in moments of danger, in moments when it is necessary to keep one’s head, when one hears one’s own voice and sees and observes from the outside.

I saw quite clearly that my first recollections of life, in my case very early ones, were moments of self-remembering. This last realization revealed much else to me. That is, I saw that I really only remember those moments of the past in which I remembered myself. Of the others, I know only that they took place…

All these were the realizations of the first days. Later, when I began to learn to divide attention, I saw that self-remembering gave wonderful sensations which, in a natural way, that is, by themselves come to us only very seldom and in exceptional conditions.

The task is to self-remember more and more often. To be able to engage with verve in multi-dimensional thinking and being, rigorous divided attention is required. The young man who wished to quit the Journey to the East and return to ‘civilisation’ lacked such verve; without the capacity to self-remember he himself did not exist in his observations; what he did observe was only the surface of things out there. It was later reported that he had been observed wandering about trying to relocate the members of The League – too late, one chance only…

Just for the moment, given the option of useful work or floral festivals, we might wonder which way we would choose now…

I know which course I’d follow when HH continues to describe his journey like this:

…My tale becomes even more difficult because we not only wandered through Space, but also through Time. We moved towards the East, but we also travelled into the Middle ages and the Golden Age; we roamed through Italy or Switzerland, but at times we also spent the night in the tenth century and dwelt with the patriarchs or the fairies. During the times I remained alone, I often found again places and people of my own past. I wandered with my former betrothed along the edges of the forest of the Upper Rhine, caroused with friends of my youth in Tubingen, in Basle or in Florence, or I was a boy and went with my school-friends to catch butterflies or to watch an otter, or my company consisted of the beloved characters of my books; Almansor and Parsifal, Witiko or Goldmund rode by my side, or Sancho Panza, or we were guests at the Barmekides.

The ‘journey’ starts off in the reader’s mind as a group of  people specially selected by a tour company, as it were, on a kind of lengthy hiking trip but it turns by degrees (so we are taken by surprise) into something far more special – a spectacular journey though all space & time arranged by a mystery organiser.

I realised that I had joined a pilgrimage to the East, seemingly a definite and single pilgrimage – but in reality, in its broadest sense, this expedition to the East was not only mine and now; this procession of believers and disciples had always and incessantly been moving towards the East, towards the Home of Light. Throughout the centuries it had been on the way, towards light and wonder, and each member, each group, indeed our whole host and its great pilgrimage, was only a wave in the eternal stream of human beings, of the eternal strivings of the human spirit towards the East, towards Home…

Things keep shifting here without our quite knowing what’s going on mirroring HH’s own feeling of wrestling with words to set down with studied precision something that was by now fading from memory. ‘The East’ ceases to be a place somewhere vaguely towards India; the physical journey ends somewhere in Switzerland at Morbio Inferiore, a deep gorge into which all aspiration plummets with the apparent defection of Leo, the baggage handler. But the East…

…the East was not only a country and something geographical, but it was the home and youth of the soul, it was everywhere and nowhere, it was the union of all times. Yet I was only aware of this for a moment, and therein lay the reason for my great happiness at that time. Later, when I had lost this happiness, I clearly understood these connections without deriving the slightest benefit or comfort from them. When something precious and irretrievable is lost, we feel we have awakened from a dream. In my case this feeling is strangely correct, for my happiness did indeed arise from the same secret as the happiness in dreams; it arose from the freedom to experience everything imaginable simultaneously, to exchange outward and inward easily, to move Time and Space about like scenes in a theatre. And as we League brothers travelled throughout the world without motor-cars or ships, as we conquered the war-shattered world by our faith and transformed it into Paradise, we creatively brought the past, the future and the fictitious into the present moment…

HH is terrified lest, forgetting himself, he come to accept the normal flattened out conventional view of reality so that his momentary vision

…should again be lost in the soundless deserts of mapped-out reality, just like officials and shop-assistants who, after a party or a Sunday outing, adapt themselves again to everyday business life! In those days none of us was capable of such thoughts. From the castle’s turrets of Bremgarten, the fragrance of lilac entered my bedroom. I heard the river flowing beyond the trees. I climbed out of the window in the depth of the night, intoxicated with happiness and yearning…

But ‘mapped-out reality’ requires putting pen to paper and reducing live & startling experience to a serial treatment that cannot possibly capture things as they really were with all the fragrance & intoxication of lilac and the gleaming turrets.

How does one convey the magical quality of over-whelming experiences? How depict the quality of their original nameless life-force when the energy they contain is a purely interior phenomenon? Words in sequence scarcely scratch the surface of things; they are poor things. You have only to summon up some cherished event in your life and contemplate putting it into words emanating from a dictionary to realise the impossibility of making anything much out of them. Words create a different universe from the one you try to convey – raise issues in themselves quite unconnected to what you now imagine to have been the original experience.

If it is so difficult to relate connectedly a number of events which have really taken place and have been attested, it is in my case much more difficult, for everything becomes questionable as soon as I consider it closely, everything slips away and dissolves just as our community, the strongest in the world, has been able to dissolve. There is no unit, no centre, no point around which the wheel revolves. Our Journey to the East and our League, the basis of our community, has been the most important thing, indeed the only important thing in my life, compared with which my own individual life has appeared completely unimportant. And now that I want to hold fast to and describe this most important thing, or at least something of it, everything is only a mass of separate fragmentary pictures which has been reflected in something, and this something is myself, and this self, this mirror, whenever I have gazed into it, has proved to be nothing but the upper most surface of a glass plane…

In order that something like cohesion, something like causality, that some kind of meaning might be revealed and that it can in some way be told, the historian must invent units, a hero, a nation, an idea, and he must allow to happen to this invented unit what has in reality happened to the nameless.

And so the writer must somehow transcend the happening to get to a meta-position where invention clusters around what cannot be depicted in connected-up prosaic sentences. Paragraphs mangle the essence of things.

In Xanadu – Pure Enchantment

Elsewhere in my library I locate Coleridge’s Kubla Khan – a good example of a text that requires much in the way of careful handling. You must climb into the text for yourself and stand on the banks of Alph, the sacred river.

So long ago Charles Lamb alerts us to the way in which the effort involved in sustaining a necessarily complex ecstatic-transcendent, response to Kubla Khan, might easily collapse historically into pedestrian one-dimensionality; he begins with a very personal response which I can easily identify with: the poem operates, he says, ‘…so enchantingly that it irradiates and brings heaven and elysian bowers into my parlour while [the poet] sings or says it; but there is an observation: ‘never tell thy dreams,’ and I am almost afraid that Kubla Khan is an owl that won’t bear daylight. I fear lest it should be discovered by the lantern of typography and clear reducing to letters, no better than nonsense or no sense…’ So the personal response is dashed by the thought of how linear mentality might seek to construe Coleridge’s words. The words on the page can work two ways: on the one hand to convey, in themselves, enchantingly, a sense of profound Otherness; on the other hand to appear to dull minds to be a disconnected string of words whose associated images just don’t add up – it depends on the commitment and sensibility of the reader.

In his brilliant book The Road to Xanadu, John Livingstone Lowes says: ‘Kubla Khan is as near enchantment, I suppose, as we are like to come in this dull world. And over it is cast the glamour, enhanced beyond all reckoning in the dream, of the remote in time and space – that visionary presence of a vague and gorgeous and mysterious Past which brooded, as Coleridge read, above the inscrutable Nile, and domed pavilions in Cashmere, and the vanished stateliness of Xanadu.’

I’m rather pleased that the ‘person from Porlock’, presupposing that such a one existed, came just in time to cause Coleridge to choose to put his pen down from recording his dream in full: though the quasi-narrative is interrupted the poem is complete in itself in the sense that the whole leaves a consummate vision in the mind; nowadays, for some, with consciousness transformed by having read books with alternative endings or having watched films that just peter out leaving you to experience a tension or having heard music that just stops as though as though the composer had come to the bottom of a page, apparent incompletion has become a kind of aesthetic norm; fragmentariness becomes artistic possibility and stands as a profound metaphor for multi-dimensionality – first one view of things then another and a third on and on without dwelling on any one for very long. A combination of a ‘vague and gorgeous and mysterious Past’ and the ‘vanished stateliness of Xanadu’. Which gives rise conceptually to something akin to the sentiment of Shelley’s


I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said – ‘Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.’

Current masters of the universe like Cameron & Clegg, Putin & Obama, Bush & Bliar, with their magisterial pronouncements, behave as though they are destined to live forever. Living their one-dimensionality, the Ozymandias Syndrome never occurs to them otherwise they might well shut up shop tomorrow. Never mind the so-called practical implications…

Looking strictly at the ‘words on the page’ of Kubla Khan, without delving into ‘Background Notes’ or Schoolboy Cribs, the poem awakens one mood then a contrasting one consistently throughout as the words themselves take us back & forth between visionary ecstasy and a parallel sense of doom. The pleasure-dome is also a doom. Together with the Ozymandias Syndrome, this is a perspective that one-dimensionality denies or refuses to contemplate. Or just cannot afford to consider lest the world crumble before its very eyes.

Holding what’s called Kubla Khan in mind for contemplation as a complete whole, or gestalt, having both ‘drunk the milk of paradise’ and been assailed by the ‘voices prophesying war’, you can decide to find yourself at the bottom of a pendulum swing in a quiet no-place, so that the twin characteristics are both merged and held apart – magical juxtaposition – and the felt way out at the nadir of the pendulum swing is a gripping tension in a self-remembering moment, transcendence decorated with ‘symphony & song’. Maybe this is no more than a kind of Webernish wisp of sound, fragment of musical allusion, enough to punctuate the tension. Music, by its very nature non-linear, multi-dimensional, is capable of building both ‘sunny domes’ and ‘caves of ice’ simultaneously. thereby sustaining the double aspect, the pendulum of the real world, horror and beauty, for good & all. But the artist/composer, capable of conveying such a double vision, who has once fed on honey-dew and ‘drunk the milk of paradise’, transfixes you with ‘flashing eyes’ & ‘floating hair’ – we are advised to beware such weirdly capable people, set them aside in a triple circle, so they can’t get out, like Gurdjieff’s Yezidi boy; this is the fate of all who presume to express a vision of a multi-dimensional world: they are to be kept in check, derided, not allowed to infect sensible people with their vision; any ‘normal’ person would refuse to have any truck with such as they are. But once the visionaries have chosen to lift the heavy curtain of normality to glimpse what’s beyond it, life is never the same again; there’s something about them that conveys Otherness so that to the feuilletons and the providers of the TV moment they are to be depicted as incomprehensible figures of fun.

Coincidentally, last night on the gramophone I listened to the piano music of Giorgio Federico Ghedini (1892-1965) The sleeve note tells us that ‘…it was not until his fifties that the fiercely independent Ghedini came to be acknowledged as one of the finest Italian composers of the 20th century… [The CD] begins with the fresh and spontaneous early works composed between 1908 and 1916. These world premiere recordings use manuscript sources donated to the Conservatory of Turin by the composer’s daughter Maria Grazia Ghedini. who writes, ‘As I listened to these pieces… I was reminded of something my father once said: This is my credo: music is not a passing fashion, it is everlasting… As society becomes ever more technical, there is a great need for genuine sentiment, which is why music too must be animated, at its core, by a dramatic, romantic impulse… only thus can all its magic be conveyed.’ My emphasis.

Anyway, the diligent inquisitive raker-over of possible interpretations, aiming to reduce Kubla Khan to normality and ordinariness, can discover all kinds of interesting things about the significance of its names & images. Such misplaced curiosity kills the sensation of the poem; to get that it is only necessary to enter the territory of its magic spells, unquestioningly, suspending disbelief, to let the words on the page hit the brain-pan where they can dance. An abstract curiosity which is not based on a personal response is not worth exercising, as Gurdjieff points out; first engage in subjective ponderings…

So, to the words on the page…

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round;
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail:
And mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean;
And ’mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!

The shadow of the dome of pleasure
Floated midway on the waves;
Where was heard the mingled measure
From the fountain and the caves.

It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!

A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw:
It was an Abyssinian maid
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight ’twould win me,

That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

The first sentence is poetically convoluted – if it wasn’t intended to gain a mysterious effect, it certainly does so: ‘In Xanadu’… (Where? asks the innocent reader… It sounds exotic wherever it is – some magical mental place, full of poetry and curiosity. We are immediately pitched into unspecified remote foreign territory. You can decide either to exercise ‘curiosity , craving precision, and rummage in some old atlas or, preferably, relishing lawful inexactitude, to just leave its outlandishness to reverberate inside your Being…) ‘…did Kubla Khan…’ (some regal oligarch, sufficiently loaded to be able to develop ten miles of pleasure grounds to order…). The colon represents an ellipsis: this is the place where ‘Alph, the sacred river…’ (no ordinary river, this – ‘sacred’, of ‘measureless’ extent, building the sense of mystery), ‘…ran…’ (= used to run, perhaps, and does so no more – that it once ran ‘…down to a sunless sea…’ suggests a possible cataclysmic local disturbance, maybe brought about by some planetary disaster – as nowadays we might relate it to the result of the imminent irruption of the Nevada Desert which will apparently install at least a hundred years of global darkness…)

This pleasure dome – its surroundings so sensually enticing that we imagine, or desire, it to be real now – its pleasures are all in the imperfect tense: ‘…here were gardens bright…’ where used to blossom ‘many an incense-bearing tree’ and there used to be ‘…forests ancient as the hills…’

But even in its heyday, when it flourished, when its ‘sinuous rills’ could be heard and when one might laze around in its ‘sunny spots of greenery’ it comes as rather a shock to be told that, while being ‘holy and enchanted’ it was a ‘savage place’. A chilling juxtaposition of enchantment and some kind of misery, under a waning moon, where there is a haunting ‘…by woman wailing for her demon- lover’. And then the cataclysm: it’s what sounds like an earthquake, fragments of rock thrown up by a huge fountain of water so that Alph’s sacred course was disrupted, severely flooding wood and dale before sinking ‘in tumult to a lifeless ocean’ – sunless and lifeless in contrast with the once fertile ground of the pleasure-dome.

Not only is the pleasure-dome no more but there are also from a long way off ‘ancestral voices prophesying war…’

The dome, image of perfect completion, ‘miracle of rare device’, is now a mere shadow: it floats on the flood and crashes down broken up into the measureless ice-bound caves before our very eyes.

As though to escape the awful consequences of all this, the poet is reminded of a ‘damsel with a dulcimer’ (mate, maybe, of Wallace Stevens’ ‘sort of shearsman with a blue guitar’). If her song could be revived the poet might look again on ‘that sunny dome’ balancing it with ‘the caves of ice’ so as to achieve a pendulum purchase on the world as it is. But he would be suspect and locked away as all visionaries are.

How Can We Make the Return to Xanadu – the Enchantment ?

In the Good Old Days (for that’s exactly what they were) there was a sedate programme on the radio called ‘Children’s Hour’. It nurtured a cosy notion of childhood I grew up with as something really special and worth preserving; it was not necessary to think then that childhood was nothing but an adult imposition that had to be got through so that you could get on with all the adult things that the advertisers kid you that you’d like to embrace as quickly as possible. As far as I remember, based on my own suburban middle-class upbringing there were no advertisers then who’d learned the trade of working their insidious way into the fabric of your being; I was nearly at the end of formal schooling when ‘independent’ television hit the world (1953 was it? Shortly after the first bout of Tory Capitalism began destroying the very nature of things?) I remember arguing against it in a school debate for reasons based on the kind of gut reaction that still keeps me immune to all attempts to make me part with my money.

Children’s Hour seeded beautiful things in my being. Nowadays its tone would be dismissed as being condescendingly protective and avuncular (‘Uncle Mac’) but when I think back over its regular offerings that provided a strong pattern to a week I remember only its neat quality and my absorption of it: it did not grab you by the scruff of the neck and scream at you; in some way it had a ‘take it or leave it’ kind of stance – I took it without question and I think it must have been from this early experience that I learned to teach in a ‘take it or leave it’ kind of way. One chance only…

One of the offerings on Children’s Hour was a haunting rendering of How Many Miles to Babylon?

How many miles to Babylon?
Three score and ten.
Can I get there by candle-light?
Yes, and back again.
If your heels are nimble and light,
You may get there by candle-light.

I was reminded of this recently when somebody on a course I attended said that he wanted to get this ‘rigmarole’, as he called it, out of his mind where it had festered for many years. My interior reaction was a huge explosion: why on earth would anybody in their right mind regard this as a festering ‘rigmarole’ and want to expunge it from consciousness? I kept my own counsel.

‘Babylon’ – just the word itself, as captivating as ‘Xanadu’: it seemed so far away in my mind and yet you could get there (and back) before the candle lighting your way sputtered and went out. It requires lightness of touch, nimble foot – that’s all. One must not suffer from the sin of seriousness.

An Educational Imperative

The educational imperative for nurturing multi-dimensional thinking would somehow have to encompass the teaching of a strategy for helping young people to make a regular journey to a universe alternative to that which we have now with its promulgation of the ‘stop-me-and-buy-one’ mentality, full of zingy e-blandishments. At least until one could understand their uses from within oneself, they would all have to be thrown on the scrap-heap in favour of a simple bit of candle-light; learn first, my children, to make your way by candle-light.

Babylon, Xanadu, Samarkand – magic words carrying a meaning located in the Beyondness of Time & Space.

I have been to Samarkand, the actual place with its blue domes & crowded markets. Admittedly I went by train & plane twenty years ago rather than by candle-light but I remember the thrill which came up to meet me as the plane landed down in the lights of a second night-time that twenty-four hours, having taken off just before dawn in England. To get to Samarkand proper you must take Proust and James Elroy Flecker, as I did – that compensates for going by train & plane to a city maybe past its best.

with Monsieur Proust to Samarkand

– a supernatural place like Balbec
for which he said his soul thirsted;
from knowing which he felt it would
derive an immense profit:

Samarkand! unknown different in essence
from all other places we had ever visited
because of the sound of its name —
a name that magnetised our desires;

construction of the arbitrary delights
of the imagination – aggravating
the disenchantment in store for us
when we set out one bright November day

with our accumulated stock of dreams;
names he says are whimsical draughtsmen;
the enforced simplicity of the images
conjured account for their beguiling hold;

we made Samarkand into calendar days
and overnight its streets emerged
from the abstraction of space-time
to become people queuing on icy kerbs

and small boys begging for pens and sweets
and when we returned as it were to Combray
jesting that we had not been in Samarkand
but that Samarkand was inside us     we put

the word back where it belonged – it promptly
worked its old magic again – we saw
long caravans & silver bells – and turned
to dismantling awe in other words

(Colin Blundell: Svetlana of Urgench 1994)

Proust had a thing about the magic of the names of places – the way they encapsulate the whole experience of place. It seems that we contain within ourselves every lost moment of our lives relating to place. But we must become aware that they are lost before we can regain them with a word or two. Music informs us of this loss but without specifying the nature of what it is we have relinquished.

Had my parents allowed me, when I read a book, to pay a visit to the region it described, I should have felt that I was making an enormous advance towards the ultimate conquest of truth. For even if we have the sensation of being always enveloped in, surrounded by our own soul, still it does not seem a fixed and immovable prison; rather do we seem to be borne away with it, and perpetually struggling to transcend it, to break out into the world, with a perpetual discouragement as we hear endlessly all around us that unvarying sound which is not an echo from without, but the resonance of a vibration from within. We try to discover in things, which become precious to us on that account, the reflection of what our soul has projected on to them; we are disillusioned when we find that they are in reality devoid of the charm which they owed, in our minds, to the association of certain ideas; sometimes we mobilise all our spiritual forces in a glittering array in order to bring our influence to bear on other human beings who, we very well know, are situated outside ourselves where we can never reach them.

To go to Samarkand was perhaps, for me, something to do with the ultimate conquest of a truth, the coming to terms with a mighty projection of the soul. It was a pilgrimage beguiled by Proust & Flecker. In his poem The Golden Journey to Samarkand, the latter acknowledges himself part of a company of poets capable of beguiling one’s pilgrimage through life towards the death of time while pointing to the essence of things which persist in spite of change and clinging ivy.

We who with songs beguile your pilgrimage
And swear that Beauty lives though lilies die,
We Poets of the proud old lineage
Who sing to find your hearts, we know not why, –

What shall we tell you? Tales, marvellous tales
Of ships and stars and isles where good men rest,
Where nevermore the rose of sunset pales,
And winds and shadows fall towards the West:

And there the world’s first huge white-bearded kings
In dim glades sleeping, murmur in their sleep,
And closer round their breasts the ivy clings,
Cutting its pathway slow and red and deep.


And how beguile you? Death has no repose
Warmer and deeper than the Orient sand
Which hides the beauty and bright faith of those
Who make the Golden Journey to Samarkand.

And now they wait and whiten peaceably,
Those conquerors, those poets, those so fair:
They know time comes, not only you and I,
But the whole world shall whiten, here or there;

When those long caravans that cross the plain
With dauntless feet and sound of silver bells
Put forth no more for glory or for gain,
Take no more solace from the palm-girt wells.

When the great markets by the sea shut fast
All that calm Sunday that goes on and on:
When even lovers find their peace at last,
And Earth is but a star, that once had shone.

How does a poet beguile us? I think it has to be in such a take-it-or-leave-it kind of way. Poets don’t know the Why? of it – they just spend their energy on telling ‘tales, marvellous tales/ Of ships and stars and isles where good men rest…’ always bathed in light.

True poets tell of hidden wonder; they conceal in their lines inscrutable secrets that you have to pause over, taking time out from the daily grind, whatever that might be for you, to imagine some kind of meaning. Those endowed with arcane wisdom, ‘the world’s first huge white-bearded kings’ are buried in the West in ‘dim glades’, ‘murmuring in their sleep’ about all the things that might have been had the world not been taken over by the sordid Power Possessors and money-grubbers.

Rising above the money-making scumbags of the sordid world remains the ‘bright faith of those/Who make the Golden Journey to Samarkand…’  of those who still make the journey and continue to ask the virtual question ‘how shall the beguiling be done?’ Flecker beguiles us with the notion that his kind are the ‘conquerors’, knowing both peace now and the absurdity of all human pre-occupations. Poets are able to rise above participation in the ‘long caravans’ putting forth for glory & gain – they ‘know time comes…’ Perhaps ‘they know their time will come’ lodges momentarily in the mind of the reader, a time when things will improve, when everybody will become convinced that making the Golden Journey is a worthwhile activity. No such luck! And no second chance! The markets have too much of a stranglehold; the Power Possessors are the heirs of the first white-bearded (philosopher-poet) kings and they don’t give two hoots either for people or poets – they don’t make money except as wage-slaves whose time will never come. The Power Possessors occupy a separate universe which unfortunately impinges on this one here & now.

Flecker’s poem is a strange complex of alternating exalted hope & expectation mingled with the very final end of space & time where neither hope nor expectation will play a part.

This I felt in Samarkand: blue domes up against a seedy decaying hotel where there was never any heat. It was so different in Urgench where the beautiful Svetlana was our always faintly amused guide.


Svetlana of Urgench

Just the Names…

Babylon, Xanadu, Samarkand and Lyonesse …

Flecker’s Samarkand works its way along with a lugubrious rhythm akin to that of the first part of Kubla Khan. Hardy’s When I set Out for Lyonesse, by contrast, is more lyrical in tone and picks up from the ‘deep delight’ inspired by Coleridge’s damsel with a dulcimer.

Hardy’s own ‘lonesomeness’ is lit by starlight; the poem lilts along on waves of what seems like hope but he’s no idea why he’s going or what to expect when he gets to Lyonesse, obscure in legend… Not even prophets or wizards (or white-bearded kings, come to that) could predict the outcome of such a pilgrimage. The last stanza keeps you in a marvellous state of guesswork: because Hardy comes back ‘with magic in my eyes’, it’s probably best not to ask the question “How come?” The poem itself asserts the necessity of Lyonesse working its magic and that’s all we need to know.

When I set out for Lyonnesse,
A hundred miles away,
The rime was on the spray,
And starlight lit my lonesomeness
When I set out for Lyonnesse
A hundred miles away.

What would bechance at Lyonnesse
While I should sojourn there
No prophet durst declare,
Nor did the wisest wizard guess
What would bechance at Lyonnesse
While I should sojourn there.

When I came back from Lyonnesse
With magic in my eyes,
All marked with mute surmise
My radiance rare and fathomless,
When I came back from Lyonnesse
With magic in my eyes!

Only a one-dimensional thinker would want to have curiosity satisfied; satisfaction destroys magic. To balance music and mortality is the job of the poet; ours it is to gaze in at the open doorway, ‘marked with mute surmise’, endowed with ‘radiance rare & fathomless’ if we can discover what that might feel like.

For me, James Elroy Flecker (1884-1919) fulfills the job of a poet, as I understand it, very well:-

To A Poet A Thousand Years Hence

I who am dead a thousand years,
And wrote this sweet archaic song,
Send you my words for messengers
The way I shall not pass along.

I care not if you bridge the seas,
Or ride secure the cruel sky,
Or build consummate palaces
Of metal or of masonry.

But have you wine and music still,
And statues and a bright-eyed love,
And foolish thoughts of good and ill,
And prayers to them who sit above?

How shall we conquer? Like a wind
That falls at eve our fancies blow,
And old Maeonides the blind
Said it three thousand years ago.

O friend unseen, unborn, unknown,
Student of our sweet English tongue,
Read out my words at night, alone:
I was a poet, I was young.

Since I can never see your face,
And never shake you by the hand,
I send my soul through time and space
To greet you. You will understand.

Flecker’s message to one only a tenth of 1000 years ahead is loud & clear. I understand him only too well. I don’t care about the technological advance that ‘undermines the true substance of art’ as Herbert Marcuse asserts. Of course, I know quite clearly that it’s somewhat bizarre that I should be using this bit of e-tackle to say so, but, harnessing ‘divided attention’, one has to make a very conscious choice about what’s useful to one’s life-story and what’s not so. Keep the technology in check. Awaken Consciousness, dividedly.

So I don’t care about massive ocean-going liners or rich men’s yachts, and I can see that the sky really deserves Flecker’s curious epithet ‘cruel’ when it becomes the venue out of which Obama organises drones that massacre wedding parties in Afghanistan.

I wonder what Flecker would have thought about these lines from Hassan being inscribed on the clock tower of the barracks of the British Army’s 22 Special Air Service regiment in Hereford as ‘an enduring testimony to his work’:-

We are the Pilgrims, master; we shall go
Always a little further; it may be
Beyond that last blue mountain barred with snow
Across that angry or that glimmering sea.

What sacrilege! Imagine vicious thugs as pilgrims…

I don’t care about vicious thugs or the new monsters of metal & masonry that have destroyed the London skyline, living quarters for the rich, rich offices of profit.

So long as there’s wine & music & love & philosophy, who cares? And the prayer is to the God within – nothing sits above…

How shall a poet make conquest?

Not with ‘weapons of mass destruction’ or entering poetry competitions or popularising chat shows or any other money-making ventures spurred on by technology but in the manner of ‘a wind / That falls at eve…’ By something that accompanies the soul ‘through time & space’… Take it or leave it…

Whatever the ‘something’ might be, one-dimensional thinking will never get it. One chance only.

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As a theme for presenting a keynote address to a local poetry group this summer I chose to look back over sixty years of my own making of poems. The result was something like what follows and the presentation of a small book of Selected Poems which is available free to anybody who might choose to ask for it.

Why do people write poems?

I don’t really know why other people write poems (I’d have to ask them – & sometimes do) but I’m fairly well aware why I often craft words down the middle of a page instead of sprawling right across it in undifferentiated chunks of prose. From the very look of them, ‘poems’ seem like discrete, isolated symbols or images of something, framed on a page. Conceptually, these things they call ‘poems’ serve as tags for certain elements of existence; they act as markers for the way you are; they map passageways towards and away from events that represent the essence of Being; they are little philosophical trials (or trails), assaults on the randomness of things, incomplete, just like their more ragged physical appearance suggests.

Poems are obviously visually different from linear sequences of prose which come in hard, justified but unforgiving, blocks where thinking appears to be cast into some sort of what you could call ‘logical development’; there is a scrupulous illogic about a poem: it’s a quick spontaneous sally into the inscrutable; it lasts as long as it lasts and no more; rounded, it admits of no development in itself.

There’s a radical disconnect between prose and poetry that, like so many other presuppositions and patterns of thinking, has been imposed on us; it began round about 1660, so we are led to believe, when Charles II asked the ‘Royal Society of London for the Promotion of Natural Knowledge’ to have a look at the way language might be used to describe the results of scientific explorations with more precision. Thomas Sprat called for a kind of writing that was supposedly exact, not decorated with the elaborate metaphors and odd allusions beloved of poets. The Royal Society wanted to shorten the endless sentences devised by earlier writers to express a complex of meaning. He and his like were perhaps the first advocates of sound-bites – notionally clear & complete statements about an issue designed for those who are unable or unwilling to spend time and energy reading more than a couple of lines, who don’t get the significance of colons & semi-colons and qualificatory clauses to mirror a true reality. The mental effect is systemic: by reverse, living in a sound-bite culture modifies the mind/brain, makes brains in general less willing or able to pick up & respond to complexity when they can indulge themselves in simple platitudes and seeming facts, mantras & slogans, and deal in eminently quotable quotes.

Thus began that ‘dissociation of sensibility’ TSEliot describes in his essay ‘The Metaphysical Poets’. It’s not, he says

‘…a simple difference of degree between poets. It is something which had happened to the mind of England… [it marks] the difference between the intellectual poet and the reflective poet. Tennyson and Browning are poets, and they think; but they do not feel their thought as immediately as the odour of a rose. A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility. When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary person’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes. …The poets of the seventeenth century… possessed a mechanism of sensibility which could devour any kind of experience… [But] a dissociation of sensibility set in, from which we have never recovered… Poets revolted against the ratiocinative, the descriptive; they thought & felt by fits, unbalanced; they reflected…’

Eliot says that poets are exhorted to look into their heart in order to write but he insists that ‘…Donne looked into a good deal more than the heart. One must look into the cerebral cortex, the nervous system and the digestive tract…’

I realise now that coming to terms with Eliot’s resounding words in the 1960’s, I felt them on my pulse and imbibed the intellectual notions, coming to a grasp and emotional-intellectual understanding of them when studying Donne’s poems themselves. Thereafter this approach generalised itself to the whole of life. Specifically, now I’d say that my reaction both to Eliot’s words and to poems in general is a combinative uprush using all Centres, the whole brain, neocortex, limbic and reptile rough & ready distinctions, thought, feeling & action.

The metaphysical poets were ‘constantly amalgamating disparate experience’, expressing their thoughts through the experience of feeling; later poets did not unite their thoughts with their emotive experiences and therefore expressed thought separately from feeling. This hindered the development of poetry, according to Eliot. Nowadays, pop poets like John Hegarty and Roger McGough live solely in their limbic/reptile areas and poetry has become a bit of a joke.

I was thinking about all this when I addressed the task of making a Selected Poems 1954-2014 – sixty years of poetic effort during which I’ve often thought of myself as one of Walt Whitman’s heirs – as are we all, of course! He holds forth thus:-


Poets to come! orators, singers, musicians to come
not to-day is to justify me and answer what I am for,
but you, a new brood, native, athletic, continental,
greater than before known,
arouse! For you must justify me.
I myself but write one or two indicative words for the future,
I but advance a moment only to wheel
and hurry back in the darkness.
I am a man who, sauntering along without fully stopping, turns
a casual look upon you and then averts his face,
leaving it to you to prove and define it,
expecting the main things from you.

Back in the arrogance of adolescence, the story I told myself was that I could be part of the ‘new brood’, quite ‘athletic’ then, responding to ‘a casual look’, ‘proving’ and ‘defining’ what Walt started off in me. I’ve kept this rusty conceit going for sixty years!

The important thing is that Whitman’s sensibility was fully associated: no radical distinction for him between thought & feeling & action; an act was a thought and entailed feeling – start anywhere in the system you care to; craft poems out of anything that hits the senses and do what you will with it.

Doing Something with Words

So, for example, as a matter of felt & thought experience, I have become aware over time that when I’m reading I’m not just taking in words but I feel their passage through me and experience an urgent need to do something with them. I like to think that I go some way towards ‘amalgamating disparate experience’ and making it into something else. So this poem occurred to me while reading a novel recently:-

the Elephant’s Journey

by José Saramago starts off
with the King of Portugal
suddenly becoming obsessed
with the idea that the present they gave
to Cousin Maximilian of Austria
on the occasion of his wedding four years ago
(in 1547) was a bit stingy; his queen suggests
that to make things up
they pass on one of their own unwanted
gifts – Solomon an elephant

the King deems this a good idea
but is suddenly struck by an attack of guilt
about his sad neglect of both elephant
and mahout whose clothes have by now
more or less fallen off him
which the King will discover
when he visits the elephant enclosure

his secretary (portrayed as a bit of a wag) opines
that this is a good idea: “it will be a poetic act…”

the King asks what that might be; the secretary
says “no one knows my lord –
we only recognise it when it happens…”


I think the secretary of the King of Portugal is completely right: you have to recognise a ‘poetic act’ for what it is; it needs a certain cast of mind and you just have to grab it when it stares you in the face. Never mind what others might say; never mind the standardised models, the published masterpieces; just do what you feel impelled to do.

And you need a ‘mechanism of sensibility which [can] devour any kind of experience’ – the whole of experience is subject matter for poetry; you don’t have to be at all precious about it; poems come ultimately from one’s interior being which can suddenly somehow recognise the ‘poetic act’.

Being a Poet

I never attach the label ‘poet’ to myself any more than I respond to the idea of being a ‘composer’ or ‘artist’ – I write ‘poems’, make ‘music’, paint and make constructions. The word ‘poet’ comes from the Greek ποιεω meaning ‘I make’ or ‘I do’: so I make poems – it’s something I do and have done for 60 years 1954 – 2014. I make musical objects, I divide up space with line & colour to make things to look at; it’s all simply pattern-making. Poems, visual patterns & harmonies (including considerable disharmonies when it seems appropriate) just happen to be things that I do pretty much off the cuff. In terms of Bateson’s Logical Levels, it’s less about identity, more about action and involvement, looking at what you could do differently rather than capitulating to what you can already do. Thus I effect to escape the conventional categories: a principle of life I adhere to is always to strive to evade both being labelled and imposing labels; they capture and confine what’s naturally fluid.

At Kingston Grammar School, Surrey, Thingland, in 1954 I came across this poem. It released something in me that was not there before: I discovered that poems could be a real hoot whilst having serious intent!

Mrs Reece Laughs

Laughter, with us, is no great undertaking,
A sudden wave that breaks and dies in breaking.
Laughter with Mrs. Reece is much less simple:
It germinates, it spreads, dimple by dimple,
From small beginnings, things of easy girth,
To formidable redundancies of mirth.
Clusters of subterranean chuckles rise
And presently the circles of her eyes
Close into slits and all the woman heaves
As a great elm with all its mounds of leaves
Wallows before the storm. From hidden sources
A mustering of blind volcanic forces
Takes her and shakes her till she sobs and gapes.
Then all that load of bottled mirth escapes
In one wild crow, a lifting of huge hands,
And creaking stays, a visage that expands
In scarlet ridge and furrow. Thence collapse,
A hanging head, a feeble hand that flaps
An apron-end to stir an air and waft
A steaming face. And Mrs. Reece has laughed.

Martin Armstrong (1882 – 1974)

Like most people I suppose I started writing poems on the assumption that you had to aim for rhyme but I had this nagging feeling that there was something else to poems – something I’d perhaps have to discover inside myself. I had no idea what it might be.

Then I picked up Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass in a Mentor paperback that gradually fell apart with reading & rereadings; it was a miraculous discovery which by chance finally released me from bothering with rhyme. Around the same time came Kenneth Allott’s fine Penguin Book of Contemporary Verse. Much much later, long after I’d shed my adolescent Tennysonian imitations, there were confirmations about what to do, and how to do it, by Frank O’Hara and James K Baxter.

One Autumn afternoon, ten years after I found Mrs Reece, David McAndrew, English Lecturer at James Graham College of Education, Yorkshire, (where I went to escape from office quill-driving and to enjoy at least ten weeks’ academic holiday a year for the rest of my life) provided us with a way of looking at poetry which has served me well; acronymic fervour will fix the process in mind:-


Surface Meaning
Deeper Meaning (through metaphor & imagery)
Technical things (rhyme/rhythm etc)
Gesture & Tone (authorial stance towards the reader etc)
The surface meaning of Mrs Reece Laughs is exactly that – a record of some extraordinary somebody laughing. You get the feeling that it’s a resumé of a number of bouts of laughter rather than just a single occasion; the thought & felt result of a succession of singular jocular events. The first line tells us what the authorial stance is: ‘laughter with us’ is probably pretty ordinary but we are invited to compare the quality of our laughing with Mrs Reece’s and maybe notice, through an engagement with the striking imagery, how it could be different: what if it consisted of ‘formidable redundancies of mirth’ so that we found ourselves heaving ‘As a great elm with all its mounds of leaves/Wallows before the storm’ or having to manage ‘blind volcanic forces’…? The deeper meaning of the piece is conveyed through such striking comparisons; they take us into a world which is, and ever remains, an alternative to the obvious one. Try them on for size; the world can become a different place.

We are so deeply engaged with the writing, the structure of which is one long spontaneous, seemingly uncontrived, sprawl (just like a good bout of great laughter) that reading or reciting it we scarcely notice the tight rhyme scheme which seems to help the pace along, now we think about it. We might describe its tone as chatty & off-hand were it not for the studied choice of imagery and the final striking visual image of a big crow flapping its wings. Mrs Reece, who has become other than human – tree, storm, volcano, crow – suddenly returns to being human. ‘And Mrs Reece has laughed…’

Thus I learned to apply a thinking-structure towards coming to grips with a poem that I had merely gasped at, unbelievingly, in 1954. Sudesteg also informs my thinking about what I write but not in any slavish kind of way – it just hovers about in the background. You forget its formality when writing and replace it with a sudden uprush of something-or-other; it becomes part of who you are.

Where to Start & What the State of Mind?

It seems that absolutely anything can be subject-matter for poetry. But a more interesting question might be – What state does one have to be in to ‘be poetic’?

I am iding along

minding what I take to be my own business
when suddenly out of some inconceivable blueness
simply in the rhythm of the knotty prose I’m reading
in the building of images
comes a feeling throughout my body head to diaphragm
nose to big toe in my tingling arms that what I’m reading
(the text itself) will make a poem

and so in Kierkegaard I find
a question about the binding of self to life:
what is it binds us thus?
for the wolf (he says)
it is a chain made of cats’ paws walking on the ground
of the roots of cliffs
of the breath of fish and the spittle of birds

for myself (he says) it is gloomy fancies alarming dreams
troubled thoughts fearful presentiments
inexplicable anxieties:
things flexible but soft as silk that cannot be torn apart


My twenty-five year-old habit of writing Found Poems provides some of my subject-matter – just as life-experience yields up poems so the reading-experience yields up the excitement of poems discovered in chunks of prose written by others, or, as in this case, a commentary based on striking images in a philosophical text.

Idleness helps: poems often come out of it; there’s a nice biography of Walt Whitman called The Magnificent Idler; idling with intent can help to capture a spontaneous gesture from the universe, of which text is a part; this is something which probably would not happen in ratiocination; unsuspecting, one can remark on an image which may be strikingly different from normal ways of thinking; it may suddenly be deemed worth recording, or at least being isolated out for inspection. There’s a prosaic life and an extraordinary life; there are long-winded utterances containing small gems which are worth separating out for pondering, for poetic treatment.

Then there’s the natural rhythm of experience.

the poem

– just ask: has it been an experience?
that is all that matters…

understanding it…
merely a matter of balancing

life-knowledge and your own being
world without end

initiated by Clifford Bax: Evenings in Albany

(RoW 2013)

Reading and consuming a poem is about getting the balance right between you & the poem, between what you get out of life and what the poem offers you – Understanding=Knowledge+Being. It’s emphatically not a question of ‘liking’ or ‘disliking’ which are great barriers to experience. Then you must topple the process over to get to grips with writing a poem – it requires entering fully into Being and the application of what Knowledge you’ve acquired from life-experiences in order to arrive at Understanding the nature of the ‘poetic act’ as opposed to the prosaic act.

By the time just after I started off in the professional disguise called ‘being a teacher’ in 1968, I had come to thinking about teaching poetry, about getting younger minds entranced by the prospect of making their lives into poetry: it seemed certain to me that poem-making was an interior construction made from the weft & warp of experience, contrived into form & image & a kind of fantasy:-

there’s something inside me

and it’s trying to get out:
it’s a star trapped in its universe;
a comet sick of going round and round
elliptically for a million years;
it’s a black box hard sharp corners;
it’s an express train
shooting fiery coals into the night;
it’s a snake wriggling
to a water trough to drink;
it’s a fox;
it’s a fountain of blood;
it’s an arctic winter

there’s something inside me
and it’s trying to tell me things;
words combine with words
and struggle to emerge
it’s beginning to scream

(c1970 – 1992)

(BiK 1994)

When the scream, the express train, the comet or the fox has had its way with you, then it’s like old Lawrence said in his spontaneous kind of way:-

Whatever man makes and makes it live
lives because of the life put into it.
A yard of India muslin is alive with Hindu life.
And a Navajo woman, weaving her rug in the pattern of her dream
must run the pattern out in a little break at the end
so that her soul can come out, back to her.

But in the odd pattern, like snake marks on the sand
it leaves its trail.

So it is with a poem: you have to leave a ‘little break at the end’ so your soul can come back out ready for the next poem. But where’s that going to come from? That’s a virtual question that always jumping about in the neo-cortex. Once upon a time I had a conventional belief that a poem came from a Muse or was the result of ‘inspiration’, a belief that made it a great struggle. I suppose that this might be the origin of the concept of ‘Writer’s block’; the alternative is to realise that a poem doesn’t come from some mythical exterior source but from the depths of your own soul – then the resource is always there; it simply rises up no matter how incomplete and imperfect the result.

there was a time

when I believed that poems came out
complete like a baby with pony-tail
train-set Visa card hockey stick
and jangling a big bunch of keys;
that you did not tinker for fear
of losing the original tomb-stone words

indeed that tinkering was a cheat
and a fraud – if the poem did not howl
down the grooves of time and the universe
forged to symmetry on an unspecified
somebody’s anvil then it should never
see the light of day but now

(as who pays 10K at Christies – bargain –
for my pile of notebooks will discover)
I bull-doze the landscape of my poems
crazy as any bloated developer or Canadian Army
ganging up on Mohawk Indians to convert
their Sacred Lands into a golf course

(gulf 1990)

The most utterly perfect expression of the genesis of a poem, how a poem arrives from far across a particular landscape of the mind is contained, I think, in Ted Hughes’ Thought Fox:-

I imagine this midnight moment’s forest:
Something else is alive
Beside the clock’s loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.

Through the window I see no star:
Something more near
though deeper within darkness
Is entering the loneliness:

Cold, delicately as the dark snow
A fox’s nose touches twig, leaf…

It comes across the snow, just two eyes threading between trees, just a shadow minding its own business

Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox,
It enters the dark hole of the head.
The window is starless still; the clock ticks,
The page is printed

What I find when I allow this way of working to course through me is that you can start somewhere and probably arrive somewhere completely different. It’s something in the bones that makes shift to get out. A poem can create itself as you toss words down on the page.


out in the garden
on a suave February evening

(Cassiopeia clearly dreaming
about centuries of smoke
going up straight
from a chimney and roots
beginning to stir deep down)

the mood (the far scope of things)
is just like in all my Augusts there

now somebody in a book says
‘poets peak in their twenties’
so assuming I ever was a poet
I’m well on the downward slope

but it’s the Augusts of my twenties
I was referring to particularly –
that I was reminded of
just now going out
to see whose cat was being torn up
by what nocturnal Grendel

look I am all those Augusts
reborn this February night;
they are in my bones

and I can still go to the back door
and let a poem in

(aoa 1989)

This is thinking out loud: it was first of all just something about a February night garden, then a cat yowled in combination with the August comparison and enter Grendel!

If I’ve learned anything down the years it’s that when you hear yourself saying “I don’t know where to start…” you’re actually in a great position because it means you can start absolutely anywhere you like. Which is what I now do: the first line that swims in (and usually becomes the title) leads on to all the rest; I rarely know how something’s going to turn out. Poems are little Adventures of Ideas. Constant surprises. The first few lines dictate what comes next; what comes next is the first surprise. How do I know what I’m going to write till I pay attention to what I’ve just written?

In the Mrs Reece era I thought of poetry as something outside you so that you set about writing poems by imitating proper poets, hoping, maybe, someday to turn out to be as ‘successful’ as they obviously were. So successful as to appear, for instance, in the Oxford Book of English Verse which was handed to me by RCSheriff, of Journey’s End fame, old boy of KGS, as his essay prize, Speech Day 1954. On its first page appears ‘Sumer is icumen in’ – the very first poem I ever wrote took off from that.

May [1954]

The cuckoo doth sing,
Appeareth the spring:
From his travels the swift
Doth himself uplift
And wing his flight above the sky
Whiles the woodland green below doth lie

While preparing the text of Selected Poems I was struck by the way the same images keep cropping up, deriving, I suppose, from some other-than-conscious reservoir, and the way the same pattern of expression occurs, demonstrating a steady consistency. Or perhaps I’m just stuck in a groove. Anyway, swifts seem to swim the air above my head and into poems on a regular basis.


the comings and goings
of swifts…

(black scythes
rather than coffee spoons
have measured out my life)

fifty times
screaming through the twilight
of a suburban garden
looping webs
on London tenements
slicing a minor Chiltern scarp

‘their scream is not displeasing
from an agreeable association of ideas
since that note never occurs
but in the most lovely summer weather

their early retreat
mysterious and wonderful
at the sweetest time of the year…’
(says Gilbert White)

and in winter
from miles away high in the night sky
into the pages of books

‘lords of the summer sky’
(says James Farrar)
they blunt themselves
on the tough stalks
of remembered things

(aoa 1989)

At Kingston Grammar School I dropped Physics, Chemistry, Biology & Geography to study Ancient Greek. I noted that the plays of Aristophanes & Euripides have a Chorus that stands apart from the action and makes a sort of Brechtian commentary on things. This device makes sure that you are constantly aware that you’re watching a play, puts you firmly in a meta-position. I fancied myself in that role but I also needed to use the image that haunted my deliberately nostalgic miserable adolescence – ‘woodsmoke of autumn’ – together with bonfires it’s another image that persists…


Scented woodsmoke from the pyre –
Death is a comely thing –
Woodsmoke of Autumn
Above the weeping trees

December 1954

By 1958, after so-called ‘National Service’, which at least had given me the long opportunity to reflect, I became far more aware of what I was doing but still very self-conscious. It still feels very familiar to me to

Ask how standing on a high hill
The soul might expand to encompass
The far horizon
And take in the fields
The ever-expanding sky
Revolving on the eyes
That overchases the very growing
Of the soul…

April 1958

Even in those far-off days I had a desire to reach for ‘something much bigger than myself’, union with the cosmos or something like that, while at a mundane level I had a permanent feeling of being out of odds with the way things were in the so-called normal world which was perhaps associated with a certain shyness or gaucherie:-

There he stands
Hands loosely hanging
Side by side
Like dead flies hanging
On a wounded spider’s web
Out of tune
Perplexed by a problem
Unknown to Venus de Milo
Incapable (as a tree of
Knowing where to put its branches
In the starlight)
Of finding a deep dark pocket

August 1958

The alienation persists but I have become well aware of not being out of step but just ‘marching to the sound of a different drum’ – Thoreau’s – so that awkwardness is of no longer of any consequence to me and I think nothing these days of standing on a stage and acting the goat.

And there’s something that sounds very much like a haiku (a form which I did not really get to till the 1990’s) but was actually designed to record a moment of total musical ecstasy in Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius:-

The sound of joy:
Wind in
The summer pines

September 1958

The other side of calculated adolescent misery and nostalgia… Then, as now, music transcended everything, Beethoven to Krenek and all points in between. And fortunately, during those two years of absolute National Irresponsibility that turned me into a pacifist, I’d gone to WEA lectures & been introduced to Prufrock by a brilliant tutor, Howard Jones, who in later years put me on the Iris Murdoch trail. Hence


Old men sit on long seats
In the hot summer evenings
And talk about the past
Until past and present become immaterial –
Then it’s time to go home.
They sit on long seats
In the hot summer evenings
Weeping from their blind eyes
Like Tiresias.

July 1959

The moment, the neuronic structure as it might be, is still mine in which, from the top of a London omnibus, I remember seeing them sitting on a long pub bench near Camberwell Green…

Then somehow I drifted into the idea of poem as philosophical workout. I suppose it was the Eliot influence: reading Four Quartets I discovered that you could use a combination of thought & feeling to arrive at provisional and paradoxical certainties, gnawing away at ideas.

What can I do that I have not done before?

Is there another moon to see on starry nights?
Or other valleys stretched in noonday hollowness?
I have a hollow fit of summer sadness
That is only sweet in the silence of the mind
And asks for country paths
For the whole length of a grey day.
I would philosophise the cat to stand on one leg,
Paint pictures of sunsets stained with Phaeton’s blood,
Dangle my toes in Heraclitus’ passing flood,
Or stand under trees in the rain…
But what can I do that I have not done
In the constant counting out of time?
What patterns have I not cut out of Experience,
What memories are there to come,
Woven out of the Present Flux of things,
That I have not had already?

Poetry is the Rhythm of experience:
Sit and think after the unquiet necessity of
Counting out God’s beetles –
Think of something sublime, as they say,
And soon a point evolves that one must gnaw at
And grasp, to fashion it into something intelligible –
Not what the thunder said or what somebody,
Unaware of shouting across the echoes of a valley,
Whispered in the crowded train –
It does not require much to fashion
From the wreck of many thoughts
The intellectual patterns of Existence –
And I am Pheidias with a type-writer –
After which, what can I do that I have not done before?

So, there is, of course, a point which has evolved from all
The, Prima facie, aimless meandering
Of this monumental Creation:
Halfway down the page, indeed,
I had thought there would be –
But now…
Now the wind blows in the empty chimney,
And in my summer sadness I feel the rain
Which falls across the valley
In the falling evening
At the end of many quiet days…
I am empty with Absence…

23rd February 1959

The quest for a new way of seeing things is no different from how I do things NOW: I take steps to form ever more complex intellectual patterns and then interrupt them, in the shape of a Bruckner symphony, for example. At least I try to understand my patterns of behaviour.

The period from 1958 to 1964 was very curious. During the day I was locked into paper shuffling and quill-driving (Conrad: The Rover) in the Civil Service & then the Westminster Bank, a task I performed like an automaton with total lack of commitment to what I was doing. How on earth to get out of it? O the barely contained misery. On the way to ‘work’ I used to wish that the earth would open up and swallow me down; in winter, for the long train journey from Basingstoke to London, I used to urge the weather to freeze the points so that I’d get into the office late and be allowed to leave early. Then (oh deliverance!) a teacher shortage! — Adverts for teachers on the telly and I chucked it all in – the role as unquiet office clerk; all that remained of that time were forty years of a recurrent dream in which I found myself at odds with the daily task in an unspecified office, likely to get the sack for not doing the job properly and then not knowing how I’d pay the mortgage and so on. September 1964 was such a pivotal moment. To justify my new intellectual freedom in Teacher Training College I set myself to write a poem a day in the first Christmas holiday. We’d been reading Hawthorne and I became aware of one of the essentials of what I write – the jumping off from a literary text or two – the subsequent mental synthesis that makes a ‘poetic act’ for me.

Warmth & Light

To the untrue man, the whole universe is false – it is impalpable
– it shrinks to nothing within his grasp… Hawthorne.

Our desire for knowledge is more apparent than real*:
We require warmth before light.
We are not called Socrates;
We will not drink hemlock just to prove a point.

In the words of Los:-
I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s.
Most of us are willing to be ordered
By the mythologies of others
If this avoids disruption of our favourite ideas:
Because of this we are incapable of adjusting ourselves
To what-is

If we, being part of the organic whole ‘What-is’,
Fail to recognise our identity within it
Then we cannot function efficiently.

* Language and the Pursuit of Truth – John Wilson

Xmas Diary 1964

Thirty years later and I was still on about the same thing! Same pattern of thinking but with perhaps more conviction.

invent the world

& do it quick!
get in first to head off
the always imminent danger
that the world will invent you…

invent the world
with all its incredible
molecular events:
the hills oceans cities

deserts and parliaments;
actors on stages mouthing
poems well-wrought or not
by scribblers in garrets;

pot-bellied kids
who’ve ceased preventing flies
from settling; noble stick men
striding into death away

from the TV probe; shoppers
ducking the latest mortar bomb;
harlequin trees in spring
& horses eating fields –

and in this invented world
above all take care to construct
a model of your self
that can contain it all

with ease ramparts fortified
against the tempestuous
invasions of dull events
pretending to be you

(itw 1993)

How exactly does one go from playing around at writing poetry to what you could call ‘seriousness’? What happens to the psyche that changes things? What choices occur? It could be that one suddenly realises that the stuff of ordinary life provides the concrete images that can anchor the philosophical substructure… This I think I half knew during that first Christmas holiday of my new intellectual life but would probably never have been able to make explicit.

One winter evening five years ago

My mother and her 80 year old aunt and uncle
(Both now dead, one by a motor-bike
And the other of a long empty feeling)
Talked about the past. My mother first.
“I remember my aunt’s place at Longney – 9 miles from Gloucester…
Eddie and I used to catch red admirals down by the Severn.
I used to think that it was miles from anywhere when I was a kid;
And you made us butterfly nets…
… the boat that used to go across the river…
… climbing up the steps to the house…

“We went back there, of course, when we were down there;
We looked for the cottage but couldn’t find it;
We were only there for a few hours, mind.
The farmhouse was still there and the old school:
I think the cottage must have been pulled down and ploughed over”.

They spoke as though had they stayed there longer,
Eyeing the scene,
They’d have found their own small foot-prints.

“Nell was chased by a goat along the Severn;
It’s butting me, it’s butting me, she screamed…”

“And picking cobnuts…”

“You just had to fall against the trees
And down came the plums…”

“It seemed to be miles from anywhere when I was a child…”

Xmas Diary 1964

The rhythm of life & experience – capture it! I once went back to Longney, nine miles from Gloucester just to breathe the same air.

In the next room three old women

clattered dominoes on a glass-topped table;
I stared into my glass in the empty room
and into the flickering fire beyond.
I watched tables and chairs deliberately
draining themselves of their objectivity;
their energy exhausted me
and I shuddered at the feel of my feebleness;
in shuddering I became aware
of the three old women still
clattering dominoes and talking about
going to Blackpool at the weekend
for the illuminations.


My Old Mum’s Unwitting Metaphysical Influence

And I started tapping in to the ‘real’ – the rhythm of experience… I collected bits & pieces of things embedded in the remembering system which can surface inexplicably after many years in darkness:-

It was Christmas [1946 or 7]

and my mum
in between
the Queen’s speech
and the serving of
cold chicken and pickled walnuts
was trying to say

But how do you know
that you see
the same colour
as I see
how can you tell?

my father wasn’t interested

I was painting a green elephant
(how could you tell it was green, I thought…)

There are many other things my mother
might have taught me.

Xmas 1966

I think I owe it to my mum that she sowed this small philosophical question in my mind; then it became for me a question of how do we know anything at all? I was nine or ten years old. What’s the point of it all? What is anything worth? Once I’d discovered La Nausée, this was the grounding,  for my generally existential take on the absolute Absurdity of existence. So fifty years on:-

each of our genes

has an evolutionary history covering
at least three and a half billion years;
in China near Beijing
there is a little village called
Zhoukoudian where heavings of the earth
have jumbled limestone and coal seams
together under alluvial deposits
eroded by rain and bitter winds
from central Asia that still send dust
from China halfway round the planet

700,000 years ago hominids came
to the cave system of Zhoukoudian:
for 500,000 years their quotidian detritus
began to fill the caves blocking
the lower entrances and they lived
worked and reproduced on the surface
of the gradually thickening layers
of waste material constantly finding it
necessary to discover new ways to approach
the caves down chimneys and fissures

200,000 years ago the human land-fill
choked the upper chambers and so one fine
Monday (perhaps) they just upped and left

the people of the caves of Zhoukoudian
had crouched over their smoky fires
eating half-cooked bats
for a hundred times as many years
as we have recorded our civilisation –
a hundred times as many years since
the invention of an alphabet

and what do any of us do
that makes us think that we achieve
anything higher than the status of the task
of eating a half-cooked bat in the gloom?

all projects & all commerce the music
and the mystery and the kerfuffles
of relationships go wiffling down
the fissures and the caverns of the brain
at a hundred yards a second blocking
the lower entrances to snug down
with all the quiet kangaroos assembled
there in ordered ranks each with
their own expressiveness frozen gestures
like the patient absurd warriors of Xian

(HIW 1999)


I started teaching in a Luton comprehensive in 1968 full of ambition to get into the lives of kids and determined to help them become poets. When I first saw Robin Williams in Dead Poets’ Society I identified strongly with John Keating and the ripping up of old ways of doings things; watching it again after his sad death I wept for his genius and felt unfathomable joy when he was carried aloft by his lucky class to the sound of Beethoven’s Ninth.

starting teaching – late 60’s

“…on Blow’s Down near Dunstable
there’s a place where flying saucers land –
you can see the three tall chalk knolls
(they’re beacons)
exactly the right distance apart
for the landing pads to settle…”

“how do you know that?”

“we went to this lecture in Luton
and the man who’s a real authority…”
(by which I was to understand that I wasn’t –
in any sense… ) “…drew pictures
of intergalactic vessels
all to scale… and he showed us
photographs of mysterious round shapes
in newly ploughed fields
their landing pads are always shaped like that..”

“anyway I was in the street
going home last night and a loud voice
from somewhere overhead
told me that they’d be landing
at 11 pm next Friday night
and I was to be there…”

desperate for something that would quell
the rioting chuckout 4th and 5th year lads
written off by old Parker
I gave them a rich and beady diet
of Bradbury Pohl Asimov and Poe
and this was their way of rewarding me:
“please come with us…”
and as an afterthought “sir!”

or perhaps they who posed as men of this world
coming into their inheritance
wanted somebody at least recognisably an adult
to defend them from any Little Green Men
from other worlds that happened by

so up on Blow’s Down we sat
five or six of us for comfort
talking till the morning’s small hours
and we saw Caesar’s Legions trudging past
and Tin Men up from Cornwall
and pilgrims asking for Stonehenge
and all those who will spoil the valley
for a thousand years to come
but no flying saucer

and no such teaching since

(aoa 1989)

Later on, in FE, teaching teachers to open a lesson with some degree of verve & enthusiasm, offering an attention-grabbing mental set in order to create a sense of direction, I started a lesson one evening saying, “Let’s imagine this is a biology lesson!” and proceeding to declaim:-


as a special treat
we are going to talk about

their habits their life-style
spiders as pets – the horrorscope and spiders
difficulties with spiders

I am going to get a tray
of all different kinds of spiders
for you to have a look at:

there will be some lovely large furry ones
and some very long-legged ones which are also


poisonous I don’t advise you to touch them

however you will be pleased to know
that you will be able to handle
the ones that are about four inches across with
red marks on their backs:

they are so common that they’re expendable
and the zoo doesn’t want them back

(aoa 1989)

My Father, an Expert Tease

My father was a great tease. One summer I asked him where we going on holiday that year – he said, “Stopaton…” I kept on saying with increasing exasperation, “Where’s Stopaton?” I suppose it dawned on me eventually that we weren’t going anywhere that year. Thus I learned to lark about in a serious manner. Rule: you are not allowed to be serious unless you can lark about; you are not allowed to lark about unless you can be serious. This way you avoid both just being a clown and committing ‘the sin of seriousness’.

people in dreams

are turn and turn about
disturbing familiar sinister
changed since last you met them
strange haunting and amusing –
extensions of your very self

and when you play
in the World Cup Final
it’s a curious sort of game
because you pause from time to time
to chat to people in the crowd

others laugh and boo
and talk in turn to their friends;
then it’s lemon slices
at half-time brought on
by somebody’s mum

the second half during which
you were to score the winning goal
never takes place as a result of
the bad habit dreams have
of losing interest in themselves

(itw 1993)

If you don’t lark about you might chuck yourself into a Pit of Despond with things being so monumentally awful in the world and getting a lot worse – or is it just old age?

the man on the radio

announces that the Government
has decided that children
should be taught DIY skills –
useful things like wiring and tiling

and now after the announcement
we have Beethoven’s First
Piano Concerto each note
done by himself eternally destined

for its precise place in the score –
I may be biassed but it is
my considered opinion that kids
should be taught solely to whistle

starting with Johann Sebastian
and progressing to degree standard
with Schoenberg and late Tippett –
whistling being a highly transferable skill

(BiK 1994)

Very Early Retirement

And after all the hum & buzz of Wage Slavery had fizzled out, it never really occurred to me that I’d had a ‘career’ – the word didn’t ever seem to attach itself to what I did which was, as far as I was able, simply to push things people’s way and hope they’d pick them up. And when I at last escaped it all I decided that

I might devote my time

to perfecting in myself
the caricature of
a cranky old retired teacher
exaggerating or inventing
the academic pyrotechnics
of my days in front of the class
concocting stories of the brains
I’ve turned inside out and the jokes
I’ve told my masterly command
of every situation
except that
never having been able
successfully to counterfeit myself
as ‘teacher’ how can I begin
to pretend to ‘retired teacher’?

there is no sound foundation
so I’ll just have to rely on
a studiedly cussed crankiness
and I’ll sniff the wallflowers
and watch the newts
in full view of the natives
just whenever I please

(HIW 1999)

My Idea of Teachinglearningteaching

Between 1968 and 1992 when I retired, oh so early, from a teaching that seems now to have barely really started and ‘hung my hat on a pension’, I came to a few conclusions about what I thought about teaching and learning. One thing I picked up from a Danish lady I met on a post-retirement course was that in her language there did not exist separate words for teaching and learning; the word ‘indlæring’, it seemed, connoted a mixture of both. It came to me that I can never learn something without immediately wondering how I might be able to teach it – how might I make it possible for others to make sense of it for themselves? – while teaching something helps me to learn something new every time I cover a subject. So the concept of ‘indlæring’ is so essential to me – it comes naturally. Likewise, the act of writing a poem is a way of learning something about the way you are; a poem is a way of teaching that.

I’ve also gone back to thinking about the years between 1948 and 1954 when my relatively sound purchase on the universe began at Kingston Grammar School. There the classrooms were dark, the corridors dark & musty, the old library a shambles and mess of ancient books and ideas and it strikes me that learning is far more likely to be real in such surroundings than in the halls of computers and frigid formalities that seem to characterise the cut & dried notions of ‘learning’ nowadays.

walking in the streets of Cambridge

you imagine that there are rooms here
(wood-panelled book-lined)
where great thoughts are born –
of mental conjunctions too dark
too unfathomable to be allowed out
on the ordinary pavement
in the ordinary light of day

and pre-Raphaelite ladies zoom
purposefully on their bikes
red hair flowing long stockinged legs
achieving a high rate of mph
from one appointment with an unfathomable
dark conjunction and another

and on trains going out in all directions
from the source – Foxton and Shepreth
Ely & Waterbeach Newmarket & Bury
people talk about Keats & Marvell
as though they were toothpaste & baked beans
or they read La Escuela de Platon
by Fernando Savater as though it were
the Daily Express

and gradually the evening falls
(rain clouds gathering) on all the lawns
where learning sometimes disports itself
and I go into the University of the World
thinking that the chance of dark conjunctions
would be a fine thing and gulls fly

(BiK 1994)

Life’s Just a Long Narrative We Invent for Ourselves

These days I’m strongly inclined to believe that life is a story we tell ourselves; it’s unlikely that I had this angle on things pre-1990 when, ironically, my learning really began but a series of fantasy or story reconstructions of things cropped up – I have no idea where this came from!

the village is all agog

for it has been announced that the owner
Lord Humphrey Twistleton-Smythe
(pronounced ‘Tump’)
whom they have never met
is due to visit this morning

they go about their normal business
(as advised by the bailiff)
polishing steps
oiling gate hinges
painting whatever can be painted
and combing their hair
over and over again

suddenly there is cheering
down the street
and a short ugly fat nan
smoking a very large cigar
struts (as far as his legs
and your Imagination
will allow) down the centre
of the street lobbing fivers
(in bundles) into the crowd

there is a lot of bowing and scraping
but it is a false alarm –
the man is a stockbroker living locally
(whose left brain has undergone
hemispherectomy) studying
the poetry of flying money –
the villagers return to their normal business
polishing steps
oiling gate hinges (etcetera)

a young nurse
wheels a pram down the street
aware of the eyes of all the men
who pause in their hedge-trimming
to admire (etcetera)
her salient characteristics
out of their strip cartoon brains
past the butcher’s headless torsos

this Second Coming is Lord Tump –
in the pram
with his Innocent rattle

only the bailiff is cheering

(gulf 1990)

Just larking about maybe… but of course there’s something severely political about it.


Poetry can demonstrate commitment – something that seemed to die around 1979 with the advent of Thatcherism & Reaganism. This, I know for sure makes me an old relic of the past. It could be that I realised its presence in me when I heard Adrian Mitchell declaiming his poem Tell me lies about Vietnam in 1964 in Trafalgar Square. Or heard Bertrand Russell’s rasping voice in the same place a couple of years earlier.

Now it could be Tell me Lies about Iraq and Palestine. I stand up for George Galloway as I once stood up for Tony Benn in Hyde Park and I express myself in a far more radical, anarchistic way in more overtly political poems – howls or ‘barbaric yawps’ – and regrets for a past that’s being systematically done away with.

in Adolf Hitler’s day

when you went into Woolworth’s
clutching your threepenny and sixpenny pieces
you knew you were in Woolworth’s
and not some other poor clod of a place
where they didn’t sell little writing tablets
with rough paper sheets stapled together
and blue non-standard hard-back exercise books;
where there wasn’t the distinctive smell
of dark brown wooden floors that walked on
bounced between the shiny brown Titanic counters
leaning to tempt you across long dark aisles
with real people behind them testing
every electric bulb you bought with a quick flash

now in the name of Customer Satisfaction
and Improved Consumer Service with a bit of
New Image thrown in Woolworth’s has converged
with the same enormous homogenizing ice-berg
that has given the world Kentucky Fried Chicken
near Tiananmen Square and Beijing Fried Dragon
in every little village in Thingland

and now out of the Commodity Markets
the Vultur Gestapo rides again triumphantly
invisible behind the banner of Responsiveness
and Value for Money nailing the dried skin
of art and music to the mast of Profit
defined by the mindless tapping of feet
and the indolent fluttering of eyeballs

look! the nice grey men
are imposing the Ultimate Solution
again on the gypsy imagination – the New Age
intellectual wanderlust – refusing to kow-tow
to anything dictated by the profit-thugs

welcome to the Concentration Camp!

(SofU 1997)

And even Woolworth’s is no more.

once upon a time

there was a rich man
who was terrified of darkness
but more specifically of the idea
that unless he sustain
the work of his one hundred and seven furnaces
his nine hundred and twenty retail outlets
his warehouse operations too many to count
and links with five hundred and sixty countries
overseas and kept his workers’ noses
to the grindstone and kept his own nose
there as well he would collapse
into the dark void as he saw it
that forever looms below you
when your balloon is pricked

there are only two alternatives
he said: keep yourself afloat
or sink without trace
into the palpable blackness of the Void

anyway once a year he travelled round
(compulsive circuit) all his foreign contacts
to make sure they knew what they were doing –

this time round in Deepest Somewhere
in a sudden fit of needing to be somewhere else
he wandered off the commercial track
and lost himself down pathways
going down and down into a valley
where the only light came heavily dappled
from the tops of prehistoric trees
and all around him growled the voices
of furnaces and retail outlets
and warehouses and foreign links
and grindstones and hard-pressed folk

he came into a place
where there was only darkness
and the insistent voices
of his nightmares – the Void
at the still centre
of which is a bright clearing
with a capacious mansion –
thirty-two rooms he counted –
and the sound of laughter and smiling
and the rich man suddenly knew for sure
that oblivion is at work within you
and that penetrating the Void
which is nowhere but inside you
is the only way to arrive
at the very centre
of yourself – the smell
of bonfires in summer
and old men smoking pipes
by the bowling green
and the beloved chill of November
and the long vistas of Nutwood

(SofU 1997)

Time Out

If I’m not careful I spend a bit too much time lamenting the nature of things. And so I must take time out to remind myself that the still centre is completely immune to past present & future and all the dull vicissitudes of time and motion. Just before the time it suddenly occurred to me that I could get out of Wage Slavery for good and all, like that first Xmas holiday of being trained as a teacher, I spent a summer holiday writing a poem a day; the long holidays were what I’d gone into teaching for, like my son after me…

all these weeks of leisure

during which you forget yourself
(and remember what is uniquely Self)
extract you from the world of Total Work
release you from the Planned Diligence
of dolts and pitch you into the heart
and centre of creation – God’s unending
holiday the undivided universe of play –
and the worst mistake of all
(which they would have you make) is to regard
such time as a mere pause from work refreshment
to enable you to work better reculer
pour mieux sauter – it is not that at all!

who looks to leisure to restore working power
will never discover its fruit which is to see
life whole to come face to face with Being
once again to win back your soul (which is all)
from dread and anxiety (which is nothing)

the Total Work State Lie requires unquestioning
spiritual impoverishment the one-track mind
of the functionary who (to escape the reality
of despair and doubt) calls it service
and achieves the illusion of a life fulfilled;
the Total Work State Lie does graciously permit
Time Off – but creates a Leisure Industry
to control it satisfying the itch for sensation
with breathless excitement deadening
the sense of wonder resulting in an idleness
which is not leisure: sloth makes leisure
impossible – the holidays I went into teaching for

leisure is not the opposite of work;
it runs at right angles to work – leisure is
a Condition of the Soul – silence and receptivity;
the capacity to steep your Self
in the whole of creation; confidence in fragmentariness

what spiritual immunisation free to all
can be provided against the wasting disease
of inner Impoverishment and despair
unable to conceive of significant action
outside slave-work? it is a tough serum

learning to be at one with yourself;
learning to acquiesce in your own being;
learning celebration within a sacred plot of ground
at the protected centre of a sacred period of time
moving you to timeless Wonder
in this Garden here now
where leisure has to be worked at thus

(gulf 1990)

The Total Work State! In the twenty years since I wrote that the Global Capitalist Conspiracy has done so much more to keep people’s noses to the grindstone of fruitless labour. I retired at 55, a blessed ten years earlier than I expected to; now they suggest 68, 70 and who knows what else as though life was for working. Nobody on their death bed ever said, “I wish I’d spent more time at the office…”

Like Ivan Karamazov, I would rebel even if I found out I was wrong.

There is a violent hammering at the door

“Let me in! An army’s been pursuing me all day!”

The sun begins to set; the castle gate-keeper
Takes his time; he must see to the lighting of the lamps.

“Please hurry! There’s an army at my heels…”

The castle gate-keeper must feed the dogs
And attend to the stoking of the fires.

“Let me in! I can hear the panting of their horses;
The plain is quivering with death…”

The castle gate-keeper fills his pipe
And folds his newspaper to the football page.

“They’re nearly upon me! Have you no feelings?
I feel their spears already heavy with my blood.”

The diminutive gate-keeper must stand on a chair
To look over the castle wall and see what the fuss is about;
He calls out, “It’s all right – it’s our own army:
They’ve been out all day hunting an opponent of the System…”


Neuro-linguistic Programming

From 1990 onwards I began to learn ways to achieve a reconciliation with the past especially when things suddenly come upon you.

finding a message

in an adolescent diary
addressed to ‘the old and bearded you:
remember that you loved her
in spite of all this anguish…’

I revisit the scenes
still haunted by our absence
to try them on for size
and I hear him whistling
Shostakovich (as it might be)

the First Symphony
(oh blessed rapture!
to be able to do that at whim!)
as he goes bravely
into what he knows will be defeat –
assignation with girl and dog

I lean over to him –
the innocent lad on the seat
waiting on the Green –
and put my arm around him
(as it might be my son)
and send a message back
to say that all has been
(as it were) worked into
a timely resolution

and I go yelping with tears
across the Green we all knew well
as I might have done
(for quite different reasons)
all those years ago

(itw 1993)

I often indulge in a lament for the past something that writing in the form of a poem can do really well – it does not have to be explicit or heavily worked out – just a few bits of randomness, nothing to get worked up about.

the Surrey cricket team

is not what it was; I looked
at the names of the team in the paper
this morning and recognised not one:
no Laker Lock or Surridge

no Constable Squires or Whittaker
no Bedsers or Loader or Fishlock
the names I knew when the team
was legendary (and green in my soul

like a perfect tree) whom I’d go
on the Northern Line most Saturdays
in summer to watch with a pack
of sandwiches and Brian; then

you could hear the sound of pencil
on scorecard and notices warned
of ejection for creating disturbance
there was nothing berserk or frenetic:

the sedate clap for a maiden
louder for a four or a wicket;
it was a seamless cerebral scheme –
nothing to get worked up about

as they appear to want it now

(gulf 1990)

In 1992 I learned about serious time-lining – how you can plot a historical sequence for yourself across a carpet and walk it to rediscover the past and modify or enhance current attitudes towards your past. This works not only across a carpet but also with the spirit of place.

from this high trig point

attained by dint of scaling
45° of scarp and pale sunlight
for hundreds of feet

you can see across the dreaming valley
St James and that other church
at the top of the golden hill

and Abbey Walk where
the sixteen-year-old you sits still
at the centre of that amazing August

and looks all week on and off
at the shape of Melbury Down
where you are now forty years on

tracing the contours of in between
charting through tears the life
that’s led you at last

across the valley through tempests
of desire and villages
of contentment manifold twists

and turns; flying up hawk
on an impulse you can see
that there is nothing to choose

between the eyes & the mind of the lad
you love by the Abbey there and those
of the man on Melbury Down

except that he only shaped the hill
in his soul while the man has ridden
its back and tamed its height

(Shaftesbury August 1955/April 1993)

(itw 1993)


This takes us into nostalgia which I’ve always been pretty expert at. As the dates might suggest, the next poem was long in the making. The original experience 1955, revisions 1971, 1992 and 1994. What is it that makes an afternoon from the past so devastatingly significant?

Frensham Ponds and Haslemere (1955)

there they were! the ponds; the bus
lurched round the green summer corner;
the journey has been long and derelict
(derelict the day) – behind me
the bowl of the valley
in a threatening blue heat
and in the dead centre the steaming ponds;
there was a formal house in elegant woodland ways
and I new from formless London

blue the sky I came for the music:
such music it was! pipes and harpsichord
in a blue-cool hall respectable
formal deliberate
by the ponds
the soil was sandy with hard roots of heather;
my city suit was out of place and I had to write
to the girl who had refused to come

climbing the hill up from the ponds
I thought the line of its summit
might mark the edge of the world
and beyond – a bottomless nothing
into which I might jump

(1971- 1992)

(BiK 1994)

The next poem was equally long in the making and sits in my brain as a moment so densely laden with regret & sadness.

turning to go

down the dark stair into the street
he looked his last at two old ladies
from a past of winter afternoons
and meetings with unidentified relations
(they owned a coveted book of Longfellow)
and knew suddenly he’d never see them again

and that had been the reason for his visit
having brought photographs of his family to show
as though to make a final compact with the past;
they smiled at him going (goodbye forever)
from their ghost vantage point
at the top of the stairs
against ill-lit yellowing wall-paper

the District Line train whined
into Parson’s Green as it always used to do

(July 1964)

(1971/72 – 1992)

(BiK 1994)

All manner of people I’ve lost touch with come back to haunt me; my past is full of neglected or abandoned human beings. I felt as though Arthur and I, fellow-students at James Graham College of Education 1964-1967 – he was a year ahead of me – would be bosom chums forever. I neither saw nor heard from him again after 1967.

Arthur and I

walked over the hill
one dark evening
a quarter of a century ago
and came down to the satanic mill
in the adjacent valley
beyond the popping balsam

the boiler room engine
was hard at it for the night shift:
the light at the open door
deafened the moon;

the boiler-house keeper
read his paper oblivious
of unlikely night-walkers

we could have crept up to him
and belted him one with a shovel
in his silent scrutiny
of the football results –
our footsteps lost
in his dream of the world

where are you now Arthur?
in what well-lit room
hidden in the dark din of the universe
oblivious of this my visit?

(gulf 1990)

Found Poems

In the late eighties, having made two collections of poems out of the Notebooks of Richard Jefferies, the centenary of whose birth was in 1987, I went on to produce three collections of purely Found poems 1988/89/90. It became an obsession. I had been haunted by the idea that I was wasting time reading when I could be writing and wasting time writing when I could be reading. The very straightforward exit from such a conundrum was to write while reading (and vice-versa) and this I’ve done ever since to the point where I began to weld ‘findings’ into my own poems as ‘commentaries’ and no longer produce separate volumes devoted to Found Poems.

composers of lyrical poetry

create it in a state
of divine insanity like the Corybantes
who lose all control of reason
in the enthusiasm of the sacred dance
says Socrates to Ion – a rhapsodist

supernatural possession –
an excitement at rhythm & harmony
which they seek to communicate –
draw honey & milk from a river
where (in their right senses) they would find
just the ordinary water

whilst you retain any portion
of the thing called reason
you remain utterly incompetent
to produce poetry or to vaticinate

going beyond reason
into a bold excitement of neurons
I draw milk & honey to discover it
mere scrapings in a notebook
and as for ratiocination… well…

Commentary on Christopher Cauldwell: Illusion & Reality


You’ll be reading some text or other and suddenly a poem will leap off the page. The form of the words will suddenly chime with the way you think or feel; it’s as though the writer is writing about a bit of you so you go, “Yes, that exactly how it is for me!” So you take the words off the page where they may well have been mouldering unread for a hundred years and see what they look like in straggly poem-form.

the more I see of the world

and the more people I meet
and books I read
and questions I answer
the more I return
with increased conviction
to those places where I was born
or played in as a boy
narrowing my circles
like a bird going back to a nest

the end of all travel
especially the widest travel
is to get home –
radiating inwards

if I could only paint this valley
I might go on to paint that garden;
if only I could paint that garden
I might be worthy to paint
the creeper under the window

found in G.K.Chesterton: The Poet and the Lunatic

(BiK 1994)


the great philosopher

was big fat & ugly when born
in a house on the banks of the River Wye
in the same year as Ralph Vaughan Williams;

on his third day in the world he lifted his head
and looked about him in a very energetic way
just as he was doing when I saw him
rasping cogently against nuclear weapons
on the plinth of Nelson’s Column in 1961

his mother said she had lots of milk
but that if her famous son did not get it
at once or had wind or anything like that
he would get into such a rage and screamed
and kicked and trembled till he was soothed

they were persuaded not to call him Galahad
and so his aunt recorded that Bertrand
insisted on lifting all alone (before he was 2)
an enormous book out of a shelf and taking it
to a little stool where he sat down
with it open before him in a fit of laughter
at his own wisdom
when Queen Victoria
came on a visit Bertie made such a nice little bow
and he did not treat her majesty
with the utter disrespect his aunt expected

later at Pembroke Lodge it was noted
that Bertie was a solemn little boy
in a blue velvet suit with precocious courtesy
and precise diction; his puritan home education
gave him the habit of meditating
on his sins follies & general short-comings

accustomed to solitary rambles
in the big neglected garden of Pembroke Lodge
he grew up a young recluse silent & shy
for lack of company of his own age
with a diffidence & difficulty in expressing
any personal affection or feeling

at 5 informed that the earth was round
he began to dig a hole in the garden
to see if he could come out in Australia;
told that angels watched over him at night
that they went away as soon as he opened
his eyes he kept his eyes tight shut
and making a sudden grab caught nothing

told not to read most of the books
in his grandfather’s library he did so avidly
and he determined to ignore all the things
he began to know he merely wanted to believe
and to be guided by reason alone

he loved human-beings partly because
in the neglected garden they were rare;
intellectual prowess is likely to be achieved
by those who have been solitary
and somewhat neglected in their childhood

(ITD&A 2007)

A Style All of One’s Own

The more I produced Found Poems the more I found my own style in what I think is a Pinteresque spontaneity and off the cuffness. ‘Style’ is a odd thing: it creeps up on you all unawares; it’s not something I ever worked at but it came without my realising it; I expect that modelling will have had a lot to do with it – Whitman, Eliot, O’Hara, Hardy, Henley, Pound, Service, Drinkwater, Lawrence, MacNeice, Newbolt – unlikely bedfellows as it might seem, but I think I have unwittingly acquired a bit of each and welded them into a sensibility and way of saying things.

A poem plucked at random from WEHenley will maybe offer an instance of the modelled tone:-


On a ploughland hill against the sky,
Over the barley, over the rye,
Time, which is now a black pine tree,
Holds out his arms and mocks at me –

“In the year of your Lord nineteen-fifteen
The acres are ploughed and the acres are green,
And the calves and the lambs and the foals are born,
But man the angel is all forlorn.

“The cropping cattle, the swallow’s wing,
The wagon team and the pasture spring,
Move in their seasons and are most wise,
But man, whose image is in the skies,

Who is master of all, whose hand achieves
The church and the barn and the homestead eaves –
How are the works of his wisdom seen
In the year of your Lord nineteen-fifteen ?”

The next found poem is from a novel by George Gissing who was once considered to be on a par with Charles Dickens as a novelist:-

it’s a theory of mine

that every one of us
however poor
has some wealthy relative
if he could only be found

I mean a relative within reasonable limits
not a cousin fifty times removed –
that’s one of the charms of London
to me: a little old man
used to cobble my boots for me
a few years ago in Ball’s Pond Road;
he had an idea that one of his brothers
who went out to New Zealand
and was no more heard of
had made a great fortune;
said he’d dreamt about It again and again
and couldn’t get rid of the fancy

well now
the home in which he lived took fire
and the poor old chap
was burnt in his bed
and so his name got into the newspapers

a day or two after
I heard that his brother
(the one he spoke of)
had been living for some years
scarcely a mile away
at Stoke Newington –
a man rolling in money
a Director of the British and Colonial Bank

George Gissing: The Town Traveller pp47/48


While writing Found Poems obsessively I settled on a particular form of expression. From 1990 onwards I’ve used lower case except for proper nouns or for emphasis and the only punctuation that occurs are semi-colon & colon with hyphens – such deliberate and meaningful markers: they add significantly to meta-meaning if only people understood their use. And now the title is always the first line of a poem. Mere affectation!

Thinking about it now, the seed-ground for Found Poems had been prepared way back in 1967 – I remember the circumstances of the precise moment when this happened:-

Warning to Guests

“You’re alright
as long as you consider yourself (at the centre of your being)
to be an idiot” I thought

it was something like this
that Socrates said

and variants have penetrated
the barrier of the centuries
with a masculine sense of purpose
Sextus Empiricus to Sartre

e.g., Meister Eckhart
to do nothing
to own nothing (in affirmation of your non-being)
to know nothing
opens you to God
(Medieval Thought – Gordon Leff
p 301)

all this somewhat confused or clarified
by the much later statement that Not-being
and Nothing were real existents

le néant

pardon me while I reach for the wall
of books and find out just what Socrates said:
the first step to wisdom
is to admit that you know Nothing
(The Last Days of Socrates p 26)
according to Plato according to a modern translator

visitors to this house must expect
to be piled up with recommended books
it’s very rude I know
and to show I’m willing to atone
for this seeming sin of
intellectual busibodiness
I turn up Gilbert Murray
(Five Stages of Greek Religion p 33)

I retract I like a pinched-snail’s-horn

the old man in us must first be crucified

it relieves me to know that
tea is ready

real wisdom is the property of God     maybe

January – Easter 1967


The Influence of Haiku-writing

In 1991, having taught the form to kids in 1968 but not done it much myself, I took up the practice of writing haiku seriously. It has had a profound effect on the way I do poems: there’s been a sharpening, a deliberate focussing and mostly a getting rid of western poetic contrivances:-

something there is

that now perceives a full moon in darkness
slightly hazy behind the thinnest of cloud coverings
behind the stark grasp of wintered branches –

a something – but in reality an absolute nothing
dreaming inconsequentially that it’s a something
by reason of the idea that it guides the scudding pen

across the page in the way it learned long ago to do
to produce a modicum of words – just sufficient
to say that there’s a something that perceives…

and so on and on; there will come other occasions
when it will choose to allow itself to be beguiled
into imagining that grand & conspicuous heaps

and heaps of words make some kind of sense –
all the stout metaphors and the dancing images
circumlocutions qualifications periphrastics…

but in these bold moments before this winter dawn
it has a sudden understanding that between words
– whatever words you so carefully choose –

and the infinite scintillations of externality there are
gross mucky swamps and dire deserts monstrous
mountains & galaxies that can never ever be traversed

(PC 2011)

After sixty years here’s the last poem I’d written at the time of doing Selected Poems:-

in a deckchair

on Cawood Castle gatehouse roof
by ducking down low
you can obliterate all visual clues
to the life of other ordinary human-beings –
it facilitates the observation of trees
both near & far with new spring growth
and a grand covering of clouds
swimming in blue: grey-black
cream grey-blue riven
with the screams of swifts
– their thin black scythes

unless you also shut your ears
you cannot expunge the murmuring world:
dog bark; chaffinches’ wide-apart converse;
an election address of sorts; the emptying
of merchandise on a pavement; an angry shout;
the hammering of wooden frameworks;
the lawns that must be mowed;
jackdaws ca-ing down by the river-wood;
all the indolent machinery of events;
children gaily returning
from some long angelic day of learning
and occasionally there’s ragged rain

the church a mile off begins
to strike an hour – you count
to a stop at four –
rather pleased as it turns out
that your afternoon still has time to read
about ‘the lip-clicks of worms’
and Edith Sitwell’s view that
‘the busy dusty world
is too deafened by the sound
of the machines that it has made
for the trapping & murdering of time
to listen to those sounds
that are clear as the songs of angels’


But time moves on and there are already many poems in my notebooks ready to be squashed into the computer’s gigantic maw.

August 15, 2014 (7:51am)


Books of Poetry

aoa 1989 The Awareness of Autumn
gulf 1990 Gulf
itw 1993 Invent the World
BiK 1994 Born in Kingston
SofU 1997 Svetlana of Urgench
HIW 1999 House in Winter
ITD&A 2007 In This Day and Age
PC 2011 Pseudo-Clarities
RoW2013 The Recovery of Wonder
TNO The Next One (as yet unpublished)
All other poems appear in Selected Poems for the first time.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Why is it We Imagine We Can’t Do Things?

So often one hears, “I can’t draw…” “I can’t write…” “I can’t figure this out…”

Many adherents of the Gurdjieff canon have a general belief that human beings are simply unable to DO anything because there’s a belief that we are asleep, not in control of our lives. Certainly any attempt to DO is futile when we’re sleep-walking through life – just as in night dreams it’s normally impossible to influence the way things go – yet it’s patently obvious that many people are able to DO various things: awake, they are able to change our notion of the world, make us see things differently, by what they draw & paint, compose music, how they write novels & poems and philosophical tracts.

How is it that some people do all that with apparent consummate ease while others spend their time engaging in the self-fulfilling prophetic words ‘I can’t…’?

That’s worth thinking about. Without knowing exactly themselves how they do it it’s at least possible that, in their other-than-conscious mind, craftsmen & women, poets, artists & composers & writers of plays, and those who deal in philosophy go lightly through the following virtual internal dialogue following the steps depicted in Gregory Bateson’s concept of Logical Levels:-

A Shakespeare, a Chomsky, a Tolstoy or a Beethoven might say to themselves, following the rings of the diagram from the outside in, without being in the least consciously aware of it, “These are my favourite places & times for doing exactly what I do; in addition there are a lot of other things I could do, given time & space & intention & mind-sweep; and then, in summary, this is what everything that I do says about me – what I believe about things, about my identity, my self-image, my management of my I-system; and beyond that I know there’s an ‘I’ capable of making sense of it all, a Meta-I that can observe everything in an objective kind of way…”

That’s internal dialogue, giving oneself a virtual talking to.

Is it what they call positive thinking or deliberate self-talk? Or just the difference between ‘I can’t…’ (which takes us up a cul-de-sac) and ‘I don’t know how to…’ (which offers the possibility of taking steps to find out what it will be like when I do know)?

Getting somewhere else could be as simple as taking Paul Klee’s advice to, for instance, a budding artist: just ‘take your pencil for a walk…’  take your various ‘I’s walking with an idea and find out what each, in a dialogue, thinks of it; if you’d like to compose music take a tune for a walk, one note following another. Then something in you might say, ‘From right here in this moment now I can easily do this and find that I could do much else; this gives me a different view of what I believe about myself…’

And that’s Meta-I talking…

The Process

Then, pre-supposing that there’s something compelling you to drive the important things along, some kind of sense is pretty well certain to emerge eventually.  This is my experience anyway; it took me a very long time to realise that I was a sort of master of language flow. Even now I don’t really believe it! In 1971 in a hard-back exercise book – the first of many – I set myself to write 500 words a day on any old thing – along the lines of the Yeatsian idea of automatic writing. Eventually (pretty soon) this became a page a day and then by the mid-80’s large chunks of stuff. I always thought that the contents of these books would make notes for longer pieces but I’ve only just started mining the Notebooks to tip into ROOM books.

So, since it’s obvious that it’s not all plain sailing, what is it that stops us?

Probably some impoverished not having the time or energy ‘I’, or a complete I-system, left over from the past.

There was a prefect at school whom I admired greatly and aspired to be like. One afternoon, on the steps of a wooden pavilion after hockey, he said to me a propos of nothing as it seems, “Do you know, Blundell, you’re a fool!” There’s a part of me, a significant set of ‘I’s, that, when I let it all hang out, has never got over this: “I am a fool to imagine that I can do anything…” This was a great preparation for accepting the Gurdjieff idea that we cannot DO without asking the important question, ‘Sez who?’

But, on the other hand, it’s likely that everything I’ve done since that afternoon has been, as it were, a concentrated effort to prove him wrong. So, thank you, Austen, for your ignorant taunt. (Where are you now, Austen – and what have you accomplished?)

There’s a need for an ‘I’ that can shout out ‘Sod the Self-imposed Restrictions!’ and one that can look for positive outcomes in-spite-of…  And another that notices how the Self-imposed Restrictions actually help to avoid too rash decisions. I avoid actions that make me seem to be a fool!

There are misguided teachers who tell us we can’t draw, can’t write, can’t do this or that. They create the Being-feeling-&-taste-of-can’t-I’s in us. Fortunately I never came across any such teachers in relation to art & music & language – the important things of the soul. The very eccentric art teacher at Kingston Grammar School around 1950 whom we called ‘Techy’ – ‘the world’s most rejected artist’, as the Sunday papers called him – was in a world of his own and just left us to it; the eccentric young music teacher just played us strange music and left us to it; and there were eccentric English teachers who seemed to think a lot of my essay-writing, imitative of Charles Lamb & Thomas Carlyle whom I’d picked up for myself from the various books of Collected Essays that had been handed to us without comment and without ever being referred to explicitly.

Teachers who really know their job are so well-educated in themselves that they just push things your way, keeping a watching brief to make sure that you’re picking things up. This is what I have acquired by imitating the teachers that mattered to me. Nowadays I’d talk about ‘modelling excellence’ but Plato had the basic idea long ago! The result, anyway, somehow or the other, was that I developed a very energetic Do-it-yourself-I which persists to this day and might even team up with Being-reckless-I on occasions.

How Did Plato Do It?

I’ve been reading Plato and Platonism by Walter Pater (1893 – you can’t beat the old books even though they start to fall apart as you read them!). There’s a rather nice section on imitation and the ethical influence of aesthetics.

“You have perceived, have you not?” observes the Platonic Socrates, “that acts of imitation, if they begin in early life, and continue, establish themselves in one’s nature and habits, alike as to the body, the tones of one’s voice, the ways of one’s mind.”

Walter Pater sets the effect of imitation in the context of Plato’s aesthetic doctrine which combines intellectual astringency, power over oneself, patient crafty reserve and control.

Imitation then, imitation through the eye and ear, is irresistible in its influence over human nature. … We, [who might even now be] the founders, the people, of the Republic, of the city that shall be perfect, have for our peculiar purpose the simplification of human nature: a purpose somewhat costly, for it follows that the only kind of music, of art and poetry, we shall permit ourselves, our citizens, will be of a very austere character, under a sort of ‘self-denying ordinance’. We shall be a fervently aesthetic community, if you will; but therewith also very fervent …ascetics.

By comparison in every way our own ‘republic’ fails miserably: things have not been simplified – quite the opposite, and unnecessarily so; under the reign of post-modernism the aesthetic impulse has been abolished; the ‘austerity’ that’s been forced upon us has come to mean that the poor get poorer while the rich make hay – in Plato’s Republic it is made clear that the Power Possessors get no rake-off at all in order that their objectivity be not impaired.

…according to Plato’s view, souls are the creatures of what we see and hear. What would probably be found in a limited number only of sensitive people, a constant susceptibility to the aspects and other sensible qualities of things and persons, to the element of expression or form in them and their movements, to phenomena as such – this susceptibility Plato supposes in people generally. It is not so much the matter of a work of art, what is conveyed in and by colour and form and sound, that tells upon us educationally – the subject, for instance, developed by the words and scenery of a play – as the form, and its qualities, concision, simplicity, rhythm, or, contrariwise, abundance, variety, discord. Such ‘aesthetic’ qualities …transform themselves, in the temper of the patient, the hearer or spectator, into terms of ethics, into the sphere of the desires and the will…

Run your life on studied concision with observable degrees of abundance & variety, simplicity built on complexity, rhythm and its interruption, the quest for patterns, and pattern-breaking discord… then desires and behaviour, each ‘I’ with its own dynamism, will acquire those very characteristics.

Imitation – it enters into the very fastnesses of character; and we, our souls, ourselves, are for ever imitating what we see and hear, the forms, the sounds which haunt our memories, our imagination. We imitate not only if we play a part on the stage but when we sit as spectators, while our thoughts follow the acting of another, when we read Homer and put ourselves, lightly, fluently, into the place of those he describes: we imitate unconsciously the line and colour of the walls around us, the trees by the wayside, the animals we pet or make use of, the very dress we wear.

On the one hand this is about identification; on the other hand it’s about modelling on excellence. Become so conscious as to prevent the loss of self in identifying; consciously take up those aspects of successful & effective behaviour, of a well-ordered environment, of relationship, that you can make work for yourself.

It’s about learning to manage the I-system – the dialectical give & take between ‘I’s. Walter Pater describes Plato’s dialectic in terms which can easily be related to multiple-I’s.

…In that long and complex dialogue of the mind with itself, many persons [inside it], so to speak, will necessarily take part; so many persons as there are possible contrasts or shades in the apprehension of some complex subject. The devil’s advocate will be heard from time to time. The dog also, or, as the Greeks said, the wolf, will out with his story against the man; and one of the interlocutors will always be a child, turning round upon us innocently, candidly, with our own admissions, or surprising us, perhaps at the last moment, by what seems his invincible ignorance, when we thought it rooted out of him. There will be a youth, inexperienced in the capacities of language, who will compel us to allow much time to the discussion of words and phrases, though not always unprofitably. And to the last, let us hope, refreshing with his enthusiasm the weary or disheartened inquirer (who is always also of the company), the rightly sanguine youth, ingenuous and docile, to whom, surely, those friendly living ideas will be willing, longing, to come, after that Platonic law of affinity, so effectual in these matters… the dialectic method [thus engaged], will also have its felicities, its singular good fortunes. A voyage of discovery, prosecuted almost as if at random…

This dialectic method, this continuous discourse with one’s self, being, for those who prosecute it with thoroughness, co-extensive with life itself – a part of the continuous company we keep with ourselves through life – will have its inequalities; its infelicities; above all, its final insecurity.

Taking Ownership of the Dialectic

The conversation between the different parts of oneself which starts at birth can so easily fritter itself away. The momentary insights, the sudden perspectives & illuminations, the individually unique patterning of things – lost and gone forever unless one takes hold and shouts STOP! repeating the simple mantra, “This is me, being me, here and now!” I take ownership of this thing that’s ME, hologram constructed just now out of manifold influences & impressions coming from all directions. I take ownership of this event now and make it into a poem, sketch, tune or a paragraph like this one just ending here.

The minutiae of existence get lost unless one takes ownership to preserve them whatever their quality – let that take care of itself… It’s probably a  feeling thing. I suppose I’ve prized the things I’ve thought, more so when others (no matter how small the number) have seemed to get something out of how I’ve recorded them… And then I forget…

So just how is it that some people seem committed to having the confidence to say what they believe to be the case without bothering what others may think, seeming to be so sure of themselves, able to make an oral statement with a string of sentences that somehow add up, or writing as though the next word appears to just flow – and the next and the next…?

Of course, a popular demagogue, stirred by passion & conviction, can make words flow to have a convincing effect on the listeners: Hitler was rather good at this though grossly flawed ecologically; currently, Owen Jones (who watched in awe as ‘the Right transformed a crisis of the market into a crisis of public spending…’) has flow with absolute humanity and integrity. Or study Noam Chomsky.

A Permanent Centre of Gravity

What’s needed to have integrity? In the Gurdjieff canon it requires a permanent and well-formed centre of gravity. The whole integrated I-system is pulled inside one’s Being and assimilated to what could be called Real-I.


I found this diagram somewhere – it’s a nice graphic version of the same thing: the fragmented self exists when the multiplicity of ‘I’s is not recognised and so they don’t relate together and only function on the periphery, fighting amongst themselves; and while they bicker continually we pretend to Unified-I which is senseless; as we begin to understand how multiple-I’s work and relate together we become more unified; when we choose to be able to move from ‘I’ to ‘I’ as appropriate for the task in hand and become a spectator of the constellations in Meta-I a whole integrated self begins to emerge.

Right work on oneself begins with the creation of a permanent centre of gravity. When a permanent centre of gravity has been created everything else begins to be disposed and distributed in subordination to it…  realisation of the mechanicalness and aimlessness of everything can create… a permanent centre of gravity…  Ouspensky: In Search of the Miraculous (p259)

I tend to think that it all began for me when I was about 21 and first read Huxley’s Perennial Philosophy : that made me choose to understand that at the base of all ‘religions’ was a common impulse. Once that idea is embedded it acts as a magnet to attract and repulse whatever swings into one’s orbit. A common impulse runs through everything.

chainWhen I feel I have something I want to express,  to start with I begin to go into a fairly smooth ‘chain reaction’ of ideas & thoughts, one thing leading to another over several hours. But first of all, before putting pen to paper, I think of an appropriate image or metaphor, usually visual/kinaesthetic: so ‘chain reaction’ is an image that seems entirely right to this Glob; everything is connected, as Ouspensky says, so the task is to uncover the links in the chain – which can be a pretty scrambled business.

I think that this has been an infinitely transferable metaphor for me: I chain-read & have done for 55 years; I chain-paint pictures – there are four in my workshop awaiting the finishing touches; I chain-link musical notes together.

I know for sure that the impetus comes from within, from some somatic hidden dynamism, an I-tag that says, “Right, go!” never mind anything or anybody else. There is an I that sometimes wonders whether anybody out there has the energy or enthusiasm to read what I write, look at what I paint, listen to what I compose but for the most part it gets drowned out by all the other ‘I’s that clamour for expression.

For the past four weeks I’ve been reading Walter Pater and I’ve been writing a chain of commentatory poems that suddenly seem relevant to the ownership of ideas and thinking – just doing it never mind the consequences…

Crystallisation and Magnetic Centre

According to Gurdjieff, the result of focus on what you happen to be interested in, or concerned with, results in some CRYSTALLISATION somewhere inside you – how can we describe it? Some I-tag or somatic marker… I like the idea of something crystallising inside you – an unspecifiable something or other that, once established there, drives you onwards.

Mr G describes how his father used to tell stories to him as a child.  Later on he happened to read an article in a magazine about Babylonian tablets with 4000 year old inscriptions some of which contained the legend of the Epic of Gilgamesh which was one of the legends his father had told him:

…particularly when I read in this text the twenty-first song of the legend in almost the same form of exposition as in the songs and tales of my father, I experienced such an inner excitement that it was as if my whole future destiny depended on all this. And I was struck by the fact… that this legend had been handed down by ‘ashokhs’ [=local bard, of whom his father was one] from generation to generation for thousands of years, and yet had reached our day almost unchanged. After this occurrence … the beneficent result of the impressions formed in my childhood from the narratives of my father finally became clear to me – a result that crystallised in me a spiritualising factor enabling me to comprehend that which usually appears incomprehensible…        (Meetings with Remarkable Men p36)

For me, this is exactly what happens when you read a text that somehow moves heaven & earth around you. You know for sure that life will never be the same again. Thus it was for me when I first read Richard Jefferies’ The Story of my Heart; something crystallised within me, became uncompromisingly hard and polished. Then came a whole series of texts that I’ve catalogued elsewhere which helped the polishing process.

Mr G: ‘In order to be able to speak of any kind of future life [for oneself] there must be a certain crystallisation, a certain fusion of people’s inner qualities, a certain independence of external influences…’

As things are, we are so at the mercy of external pushes & pulls, media brainwashing, political subversion, advertising gimickry, the News of the Day, being in e-touch, that independence is a struggle to achieve unless you have a confirmed sense of purpose.

Fusion, inner unity, is obtained by mean of friction, by the [inner] struggle between ‘yes’ and ‘no’…  If you live without inner struggle, if everything happens in you without opposition… you will remain such as you are.  But when a struggle begins in you, and particularly when there is a definite line [aim] in this struggle, then, gradually, permanent traits begin to form themselves, you begin to crystallise…   (Ouspensky: In Search of the Miraculous p32)

The something or other that draws things to you like iron filings Gurdjieff calls Magnetic Centre. That’s a powerful metaphor that seemed to work itself through his own life. In G

…one felt a [complete absence of pretension] absence of personal interest in anything he was doing, a complete indifference to ease and comfort and a capacity for not sparing himself in work whatever that work might be… Sacrifice is necessary, said G, if nothing is sacrificed nothing is obtained… Sacrifice is necessary only while the process of crystallisation is going on. When crystallisation is achieved, renunciations, privations and sacrifices are no longer necessary. Then you can have everything you want. There are no longer any laws for you, you become a law unto yourself…   (In Search of the Miraculous  p33)

How does Magnetic Centre develop? Early choices about the meaning of existence leading to a drive to make sense of the universe; choosing to encompass those things which seem to feed some internal space – valuing particular kinds of books and pictures and music. On the wall of my bedroom when I was very young my parents had hung a couple of paintings depicting a field of bluebells with a path leading down to the sea. I used to stare at these scenes and wander down the path towards sea and sand. This was how my psyche was first nurtured – how it was prepared to accept things of value to it in the future.
…Being prepared means that one must already know oneself to a certain extent; one must know one’s aim; one must know the value of one’s decisions; there must be a certain elimination of lying to oneself; one must be able to be sincere with oneself…  (Ouspensky: The Fourth Way p95)

A Collection of Poems

When Magnetic Centre is formed ‘correctly’ all sound influences begin to link up, connect, and become strongly centred… And so, reading Walter Pater, for example, I found myself making connections that seemed more and more to fall into the shape of poetry.

From elsewhere I had in mind the question – How does one start the writing & thinking task? How does one keep it going? How do we know when the task is accomplished? Well, for Plato it seems that

there are no absolute beginnings

for this or that doctrine or idea of Being;
fix it where you like – the moment when –
somebody will always be able
to discover some prior inkling
some previous expression of the same thing

the most elementary act
of mental analysis takes time to formulate;
the ins & outs of speculation
must grow with a studied unease

so the concept παντα ῥει
(everything flows) once startling in its novelty
takes easy root now because it’s already
something lodged in the mind –
part of the universal zeitgeist…
except for those stuck forever in fixity

so the  eloquent Plato is an eclectic critic
of older theories – the minute relics
of already ancient ideas
rather than the figure we have chosen
to be encouraged to call ‘the father of philosophy’ –
his teaching a palimpsest      a tapestry;
nothing there but the life-giving
principle of a personal cohesion is new –
a novel perspective
in which familiar thoughts attain expression
in hitherto unanticipated juxtaposition


Plato evolved his philosophy in an attempt to counter the likes of Heraclitus who famously asserted that ‘you can’t step into the same river twice’. Everything is in a state of flow, constantly changing. But Heraclitus had dug his heels in, as philosophers are wont to do, making a stand on a particular way of thinking. By contrast, Plato fancied immutability.

We do a pendulum between fixity and change; we would like to pin things down but are aware of things changing around us. At the bottom of the pendulum swing, perhaps, there’s purpose & aim. This can keep us on the path direct.

in Ephesus

Heraclitus walked amongst
irreflective actors
in a rapidly moving show
so entirely immersed in its superficiality
that they had no feeling of self
while Heraclitus became self-conscious…
he reflected – reflection
with the characteristic melancholy
of youth when it is forced to bethink itself
and for secret moments
feels already old – the temperature
of the world sensibly colder

all things pass – nothing remains

Heraclitus had mere rags & tatters of evidence
(and so do we…)    unbent to discipline
unmethodical      irresponsible   non-rational
fluid elements on the changing
surface of το ὀν     (what is)

as thoughts fly away
so do the leaves of autumn
and the currents of the constellations;
the Alps drift down rivers into the plains;
races   laws   arts   have their origins & endings
ripples on the Great River

nobody ever passes over
the same river twice: the flow
of the river is model and type
of the passenger’s own identity –

old Plato wasted his time
opting for immutability –
the only unchangeable element
is Change itself

There’s a real problem in staking a claim to absolute certainty and fixity: unwilling to shift for fear of the consequences, one becomes identified with it; other possibilities are ignored.


– real objects – grow
in reality towards us
in proportion as we define
their various qualities

but as we attribute
qualities to objects
(shape & size & movement)
we deny them
alternative qualities
and merely contain
our identification in them

a tune played on the piano
is all the keys you don’t touch

Xenophanes opted for belief
in Absolute Oneness –
pure Being prior to
all projection       closed in
indifferently on all sides
upon itself      suspended
in the midst of no-thing

hard transparent crystal ball
centre of all things –
to enforce a reasonable unity
and order        to impress
some larger likeness
of Reason – the kind
one knows in one’s own self –
upon the chaotic infinitude
of impressions reaching us
from every side:    κοσμος
order   reasonable
delightful order

It’s a terrified intellectual response to uncertainty to set up a fictional Oneness, to project one’s own way of thinking on to the universe; the resulting ‘reasonable unity’ is only the projection of how one would like things to be.

In order to forge a calm passage through all this, full of aim & intention, we have to work in an other-than-intellectual kind of way, understand ‘the curious processes at work in our own bodies’. make a combined body/mind/spirit/feelingful assault on ‘reality’ – the cosmos, το ὀν . Then, and only then, can we get the Nothingness, which is the paradoxical harbour & starting point for the New World.

when we have learned

as exactly as we can
all the curious processes
at work in our own bodies
amongst the stars    under
the earth       psyche  –
their very definiteness

their limitations
will but make them
the more antagonistic
towards that which alone
really is – το ὀν –
because it is always
and everywhere     itself
identical exclusively
with itself

make a clean sweep
of phenomena   to establish
in the resulting void
the One and only
with which      in spite of
common language
mere words   in spite of
common sense
it is impossible to associate
the Many (the hills & cities
of Greece      deckchairs
on the beach      trees
chimneys     you & me
and all we imagine
ourselves to be…)

Parmenides stumbled on
the idea that thought
and being are one and the same:
it’s all one to me
at what point I begin
for there I shall return
over & over again

infectious mania –
strange passion for non-entity
self-negation   ecstasy
variously down the ages

the quest for zero
algebraic symbol for
Nothingness brings out
fine intellectual qualities
– it is of service to those
who can profit
by the spectacle
of an enthusiasm not meant
for them
to be colourless
formless     impalpable
is the note
of a superior grade of knowledge
and existence     attained
finally by the suppression
of all the rule & outline
of actual experience & thought

Nothingness & non-being, the infinite space where everything is possible, the carefully crafted prose & poetry, the music, the works of art. A bit excitingly daunting…

and how will you seek

for what you do not know
or understand since
you do not know what it might be
– just where will you begin
on the unknown path?

you wouldn’t bother seeking
what you imagine you know already
but you might not even begin
to know how to seek that for which
you have no map or compass

but what if it had been there
forever – the knowledge of
shape & proportion & pattern
& rectitude revealing itself to you
in moments of absolute stillness

when things become as clear
as if they had been there
all the time and all you needed
was to lean back & recollect?
– truly to know is to grow

into your deepest Being
and relax into understanding
without the clutter of opinion
& dubious points of view
& argument about this and that

and anything based on the sin
of profit – there are boxes
fitting one in another on and on
and doors which open in heaven
standing outside of which

on the back of the sky you
can gaze into wide open spaces
beyond and observe the long levers
& spindles & revolving wheels
of the way things are   το ὀν

a white celestial thought
shoots of everlastingness –
by backward steps I go
into the unknown
twisting it again and again

to be at home with myself


you know

when something is worthwhile
when dimwits give it a bad name –
thus having an interest
in the workings of the self
is called ‘navel-gazing’

to know oneself is the first condition
of being able to relate to others;
learning to be at home with oneself
(not how to manage stocks & shares)
is the central business of education
– to fulfill the claim of consciousness
and reason to create a world
out of itself
interest in your self
– the ground of all reality –
and your daimon
whatever that might be
is a profounder study…

flashing a light into the house
(its many chambers   its memories
and pictured walls)
so that you become less interested
in the superficial – the mere outsides
of other people & their occupations

study well your leading apprehensions
– not mere empiric routine –
by an art not managed by the left hand
not by the sinister one

Writing or making anything is an attempt to rescue meaning from the inert bits & pieces the world presents us with, to make them into our own possession.

make it your own

not something outside you…
when I write poems they come from some corner
of my self that itches to describe
a pattern of being…
pattern that would otherwise
just swill around the neurons for a moment
and disappear into what’s called
the mists of time

have to get out of habitual inertia
to grasp – to make a bid for
something that’s alive: idea that dances
around your mind singing –
here I am     just look at me!
watch my shape & my accoutrements

take it into yourself as I take this moment now
inside me with the evening chorale
of woodpigeons that treat our garden
as a lively haven     evening primrose
tall against the shrubbery
just where it chooses to be
before moving on somewhere else
next year    spur valerian & montbretia
just as it might be right now
on the cliffs at Boscombe
just as it was seventy years ago

taking all this into my psyche
is an idea I’ve toyed with
for many years    making the landscape
an extension of me
making the horizon part of
who I imagine my self to be…
then I must get it all down
before it escapes me to become
as though it had never been

make all things into your own possession
is an adage buried deep inside me
which I took into my possession
from a page of Alfred North Whitehead
installed there for sixty years:
don’t ever let stuff remain inert
for only that which is suffused with your own light
can be of consequence and the thing is
to shine the light further and further into the dark

when I make a watercolour
I must first of all become the landscape –
possess it deeply before dispossessing it
in the artefact itself;
when I make a piece of music
it must flow through me and I through it
before I can dispossess it in sound

when I get into a flow of words
they must flow through me
into a swirling eddy
like I saw at the landing stage
of the King’s Lynn ferry yesterday
and come out making a dispossessed sense

I write all this in the offhand manner of Frank O’Hara
(The Lunch Poems) supposing that somebody
may pick it up and read it sometime as I read words
in ancient books like this one open on my desk right now –
Plato & Platonism by Walter Pater 1893
its brown-edged pages one hundred & twenty-one years old –

and they may well say what the hell
and I may lie in the dusty back corridor
of a second-hand bookshop – always assuming
that something such will survive in this benighted
digital age that seems so goddam
proud of itself quite without reason

I know I have made my mark
on this person and that – so it goes…
except for the person and their personal leap
into something other I do not count it
important – here’s my own being simply going on
I must pause to rescue a moth
banging itself against the conservatory roof
– it seems the most important thing in the whole world
right now: that I do not find it
dead on the floor in the morning

thus to define     to give a body to
the hollow spaces of the psyche –
to fill in the gap between the obvious
and the mysteriously obscure – mind
feeding itself on its own emptiness
in a sensuous love of the unseen…

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This Sorry Scheme of Things…


This scheme of things is familiar to all followers of the 4th Way – The Ray of Creation depicted on the Octave… What are we to make of this? Unless we attempt to go beyond intellectual acceptance – to feel it on the pulse and take deliberate steps towards understanding – it will remain a dead & mysterious diagram. One way of going beyond Intellect with it is to pace it out physcally and sing the Octave; it makes practical sense to sing something like this (from the bottom up):-

Do…Eternal meaning (All in One)
Si…..Finding the archetypes
La….All possible thoughts on a subject
Sol…A train of thinking
Fa….Many possible ways of expressing an idea

Mi….Speaking one’s own (subjective) sense
Re….Making sense of the words
Do….Hearing the words

It is said that the majority never get beyond Do-Re-Mi which leads to the buttressing of one’s own subjective sense of things; it’s floating voter territory; the place where arms are taken up against opponents of all sizes and degrees of imagined or actual viciousness. The question becomes how to slide on the major scale semi-tone between Mi & Fa… To which the simple answer is the ‘First Conscious Shock’ of Self-remembering… Not so simple to put into operation. But we try (oomphantly).

I suppose it might help if we were aware first of all of something in the way of clarity about the 48 ‘Laws’ that are supposed to be trapping us into certain patterns of being on Earth; if there could be more of an attempt at definition it would help us to avoid the traps – otherwise we run the risk of doubling them up to 96 by ‘feeding the moon’ – I take this metaphor to mean being really (really) slave to all the ‘Laws’ we choose to be trapped, or programmed, by – even more bound by them than we are at the moment.

The intellectual Formatory Apparatus simply requires to know what the 48 ‘Laws’ are – but that’s not good enough. Re-reading Bob Hunter’s Pupil’s Postscript, I was prompted at page 148 to start thinking seriously about the ‘Laws’ which, as most people on the 4th Way seem to do, I had previously regarded as something of a sacred mystery – only for the initiated.

There are different kinds of ‘laws’. I take it that some Laws are essential because, for instance, they constitute the nature of the game – cricket would not be cricket without the lbw or no-ball law and so on. In England it’s quite a good law that traffic is encouraged to make its way along the left hand side of the public thoroughfare. Other laws are invented – to perpetuate the convenience of a political system, for example, or they become self-imposed restrictions to making some deal with life – getting dressed up in your Sunday best when you go on holiday is a ‘law’ that’s long since been repealed; having a cup of tea first thing in the morning is a conventional ‘law’ that I’ve gone along with for many years!

But what on earth (as it were) does it mean to go through the Mi-Fa semitone as the start of a process of getting rid of half the laws that we choose to bind ourselves by? And unless we have at least some rough idea of what the 48 Laws might consist of there’s not much chance of shedding them.

On page 148 of Pupil’s Postscript Mrs Pogson, secretary & assistant to Maurice Nicoll, is recorded as pointing out that there are 3-brain being restrictions that it is quite unnecessary to lumber ourselves with; we carry a lot of superfluous baggage around with us which is the result of long-term habitual identification with people, scenes, activities, things, events, and so on; she called this the Law of Identification which causes us to forget our selves. Another person’s anger or negativity can be catching; we forget that we don’t have to be like they are when we find ourselves in an argument. Currently; towards the end of May 2014, the UKIP crypto-fascist bandwagon is gaining momentum because a %-age of the populace is identifying with what’s called ‘protest’ or with the idea that the European Union is responsible for all the current ills which are in fact brought about by the Global Capitalist Conspiracy to defraud humanity…

Somebody said to Mrs Pogson, “When we’re identified, nobody is at home…” She pointed out that when that happens we are under the Law of Accident which means that things just happen to us beyond conscious awareness; but when you choose to direct attention you can go against the Law of Accident. Disidentification, deliberately holding people, scenes, activities, things, events, and so on, at arm’s length gets you to a place of relative safety. Just opening a book to redirect attention is a very simple useful strategy… But it requires continual practice.

Decide to Name the 48 Laws

Having introduced the concept of ‘Laws’ in a nicely roundabout kind of way, Mrs Pogson delivers a concealed imperative (as we might say in NLP), “Decide to name some of the 48 Laws. This is not meant numerically… but all these laws that are lower on the scale drag us down; the higher laws help us to succeed…” So now we need to have some inkling of what the ‘higher laws’ might be – to know, if ever so roughly, what we’re aiming at.

In Bob Hunter’s book there follows nothing systematic, exactly as befits 4th Way teachings – a piece-meal flow, just as things crop up naturally. But I was intent on obeying Mrs Pogson’s implied imperative; I attended to her clue by starting to list all the things that follow from the process known as Identification – they did begin to seem hidden away craftily in Bob Hunter’s text. In doing this and thinking about making the result into a Glob I was aware that I might be contravening Gurdjieff’s injunction to have things made as difficult as possible – there’s always the danger of over-simplifying which can lead to self-calming (“Got that – so what’s the next thing?” – no need for further chin-wagging…).

A judicious bit of Eriksonian Artful Vagueness is needed.

However, the nagging question is – What are the 48 ‘Laws’ under which we choose to labour on Earth? By ‘Laws’ I understand processes & events which we choose to take to seem to be inevitable: when I look out of the window right now at the drift of clouds and the gentle movement of silver birch fronds the act of looking causes me to forget my self in identification, the act of putting it into words even more so; in ordinary life this seems to be inevitable – it’s a ‘law’ of being – but I can extract myself by going into self-remembering which puts a gap between window-gazing and Gazing-I.

Things are Only Inevitable When You Choose to Have Them Be So

When you know this you can easily step aside from what you take to be the inevitable. You can decide to do things otherwise.

Concentrating before sunrise, I got very slowly to 27 possibilities before I started attaching numbers to each item – then I knew I only had 21 to go! Over halfway! What seemed like an impossible task to start with began to be achievable. Things on the list have undergone change as I realised that there was a lot of overlap – the ‘laws’ are not watertight containers. Bullet points are more appropriate since everything leads to everything else without numerical precision.

Without feeling all this on the pulse, getting it in the muscle, it will remain an inert list of things: a modicum of Understanding only comes about when we combine Knowledge with Being.




48 Laws of Sorts

● Identification – whatever we identify with (tons of it – people, scenes, activities, things, events, and so on in a cumulative historical shower) causes us to forget the self (or all the selves). So we collect stacks of baggage and lay ourselves open to…
● The Law of Accident – we go off in all directions, directionless, attracted to every passing something or other that we choose to identify with, every passing fad or fancy that grabs our attention…
● The Law of Three – there’s one thing and then another opposed to it but we are Third Force blind; either/or thinking has us swinging on a pendulum
● The Law of Seven – we choose to be stuck in the first three stages, unable to build from the feeling of self as capable of initiating being
● This causes us constantly to ‘miss the mark’, lose any aim we might have developed had we stood firm
● We are never ‘at home’ – this leads to self-forgetfulness; the key is lost
● We are always content to do the easiest thing – imagining that self-calming is what’s important in life
● Law of Cause & Effect – the idea that there’s a set order to things & that it’s impossible to change the way things happen
● Law of Creation – as though it were a once & forever event
● We stick to what we imagine we know
● The Law of Denial, incorporating ‘liking/disliking’, making objections to what goes against our own beliefs
● Law of Habit which results in mechanical behaviour
● Law of Being Trapped in Time: choosing to be imprisoned by the ‘Past’ or mortgaged to the ‘Future’ – “I can’t help the way I am – it’s how I was raised…” – “It’s what I was told to do…”
● The Law of Internal Considering – only too absorbed in talking to ourselves & inventing the world we imagine we live in that we neglect to observe that things are never what they seem to be
● The Law of If-only: day-dreaming, falsely imagining a world that doesn’t exist
● Inventing pictures of oneself – acting as though they were the real thing
● The Law of Expressing Negative Emotion – bad talking
● Working out of False Personality
● Regarding life as a test – believing that we have to measure up to some hidden set of requirements
● Self-justifying: “What I really meant was…”
● Making accounts: “I’ll get even with you…”
● Storing up debts – bearing grudges
● Having requirements – impinging on other people’s freedom by requiring them to be & act in your own way
● The Law of Conformity – fitting into a mould created by others
● Evading the idea of mortality – imagining that you will live forever
● The Law of always Being in the Right
● Feeling of being hard done by – or being done to
● Feeling of being special
● The Law of the Mirror – what we see in others is a reflection of ourselves
● The addiction to fun/ambition/vocation (A Influences)
● Subscribing to a belief that nothing changes
● Being addicted to unnecessary suffering – “It’s not fair…” “They never listen…” “Things never work out the way I want them to…” “It’s all hopeless…”
● Living in separate parts of our selves while believing we are single unified-I
● The Law that Being attracts Life
● Relationships fail when people are not properly related to themselves
● Making the choice that no effort is needed to divorce oneself from the ‘laws’
● Dreaming of Perfection
● Being curious just for the sake of it – wanting to know precisely how things are (like craving to know what the 48 Laws are!)
● Making comparisons – “If only I could be as they are, do what they do…”
● ‘Truth’ becomes opinion: ‘…in the twilight world of change & decay there is only opinion…’ (Plato)
● Acquiring knowledge is enough – ticking boxes… Inability to notice the gap between Being & Knowledge
● Needing to possess
● Acting as though we were fully able to ‘do’… – to change ourselves, for example
● Acting out of vanity, for the sake of reward or acclamation of some kind (wanting praise)
● Identifying with single Unified-I
● Identifying with a single Centre – to the exclusion of the others
● Law of Inflexibility
● Imprisonment – we choose to be trapped in our patterns of behaviour

That’s 48 possible ‘laws’! This was a groping forward – and remains so; I’m left wondering how these things constitute ‘laws’. Is it that, when we choose to go along with them, they hedge us about, constrain action, make it impossible to envisage other ways of doing things? They seem to elaborate just how we are ‘asleep’ to other possible ways of being; we imagine that this is how life is. “That’s just the way it is…” A Law of Being. A mechanical acceptance of the idea that there’s no other way. In NLP terms, a hopeless subscribing to the way we’ve been programmed down the ages instead of taking deliberate steps to re-program ourselves with a bit of help from our friends perhaps.

I’ve become aware that this ramble through the ‘laws’ is, in short, another way of going round this circuit which I invented some years ago as a guide for myself of the unsystematic System called the 4th Way:-



Having grasped the idea of something about the ‘laws’ that put us to sleep and keep us there, the next question is: How can we live with fewer pre-suppositions about the way we imagine things are?

It’s perhaps necessary to get one’s mind and its emotional substructures round the idea that the pre-suppositions we entertain are only ‘laws’ because we choose to go along with their processes and the consequences; it’s easier to suppose that they are inevitable – that comes under the Law of Self-calming! We don’t have to disturb the brain-cells over it.

We could, daringly, make the decision to fly higher towards the whole planetary system (24 ‘laws’), towards the sun (12 ‘laws’) & the Milky Way (6 ‘laws’) and onward & upward in the expectation that we’ll get to the one law of the Absolute. What might that be?


How to shed ‘laws’? I’ll tackle this in a subsequent Glob.










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I wonder if anybody else in the world, except Michael Frayn and myself, remembers Gasbag’s [Mr Brady, Irish] English classes at Kingston Grammar School; he was one of the many great eccentrics there under whose spell I fell one way and another. One day, without telling us what the purpose was, he set us, for homework, to make a list of ten ‘likes’ and ten ‘dislikes’. I have forgotten everything except what was at the top of my list of ‘likes’ – LIVING. Bemused, I found I was alone in having to write an essay on that subject; everybody else had to choose a ‘dislike’. It was after this that he advised me to spend half-an-hour a day in what would now be called ‘meditation’; that helped me to define my regular cycle rides to Wimbledon Common as ‘meditation’, communing with trees & ferns & hidden dark ponds & pathways.


Holly Glade on the Common c1951

My visits to the Common were much longer than half-an-hour so I was already doing what he suggested to excess; how many things that I’ve done in my life have I only recognised as having a quasi-official ‘name’ after the event!

This was in the third year at grammar school – 1950/51.

Looking back I would identify all my solitary times – they were so frequent – as grabbing the opportunity for thinking, communing with something much larger than my self, self-remembering even – this is me being me here and now. I fixed many moments, hurled them ‘out of time’ by saying to myself, “I shall remember this moment forever…” Though I think this habit came from my own brainbox, Gasbag was undoubtedly a First Education unsung genius.

I did get much valuable learning during First Education, mostly by accident, I think; I swam against a tide I did not understand for the most part. (Second Education in the Fourth Way is the time when, eventually, having discovered that ‘there must be more to life than this’ you are able to stand back and view the scheme of things in Meta-I)

In spite of my own many deficiencies, First Education prepared me to make the most of four days in Yorkshire in May 2014 during which I wrote two poems:-

in a deckchair

on Cawood Castle gatehouse roof
by ducking down low
you can obliterate all visual clues
to the life of other ordinary human-beings –
it facilitates the observation of trees
both near & far with new spring growth
and a grand covering of clouds
swimming in blue: grey-black
cream grey-blue riven
with the screams of swifts
– their thin black scythes

unless you also shut your ears
you cannot expunge the murmuring world:
dog bark; chaffinches’ wide-apart converse;
an election address of sorts; the emptying
of merchandise on a pavement; an angry shout;
the hammering of wooden frameworks;
the lawns that must be mowed;
jackdaws ca-ing down by the river-wood;
all the indolent machinery of events;
children gaily returning
from some long angelic day of learning
and occasionally there’s ragged rain

the church a mile off begins
to strike an hour – you count
to a stop at four –
rather pleased as it turns out
that your afternoon still has time to read
about ‘the lip-clicks of worms’
and Edith Sitwell’s view that
‘the busy dusty world
is too deafened by the sound
of the machines that it has made
for the trapping & murdering of time
to listen to those sounds
that are clear as the songs of angels’



Cawood Castle Gatehouse – Landmark Trust

the gnat

at the end of the garden
gets forgiven
for the itchy lump on my hand;
I invite it in for dinner
one evening – however what it hears
is by no means my intention
but a terrific vibration of thunder:
it is terrified as if at the beginning
of some great cosmic upheaval
and kneels down to pray

thus we – at the sound of
the notional Voice of God

Thinking about it after the event, climbing up and down the arduous spiral staircase was the vertical plane of no-time, the listing of events was about receiving pure impressions, counting church clock chimes was being on the horizontal plane of tick-tock time and the whole was an act of self-remembering. Being up on the roof was to stand in Meta-I.

The gnat is just one of life’s little annoyances of which you are to observe its positive intention, looking ‘otherwise’, observing it from a slightly different angle.

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HGWells – Real Human-being with Real Beliefs (R6)

After ‘Stories’…

And so I decided that, since I will have been reading The History of Mr Polly this time 60 years ago, when I ‘did O Levels’, it was time to read it again to find out how, as I suspected, it had had an influence on the whole of my life; indeed, as I said in the previous Glob, Mr Polly – c’est moi...

There are all kinds of things: attitudes, beliefs, enthusiasms, ways of thinking, disappointments, dreams, reading, feeling of not quite being part of this world; most of them, no doubt, deriving from at least something of Wells’ own characteristics, as here where he steps into the text to provide a gloss on Polly’s early peregrinations with Parsons & Platt, partners (allittrition’s artful aid...) in escaping from the bondage of Work:-

There is no countryside like the English countryside for those who have learned to love it; its firm yet gentle lines of hill and dale, its ordered confusion of features, its deer parks and downland, its castles and stately houses, its hamlets and old churches, its farms and ricks and great barns and ancient trees, its pools and ponds and shining threads of rivers, its flower-starred hedgerows, its orchards and woodland patches, its village greens and kindly inns. Other countrysides have their pleasant aspects, but none such variety, none that shine so steadfastly throughout the year…

It was good for the three P’s to walk through such a land and forget for a time and forget for a time that indeed that they had no footing in it at all, that they were doomed to toil behind counters in such places as Port Burdock for the better part of their lives. They would forget the customers & shopwalkers and department buyers and everything and become just happy wanderers in a world of pleasant breezes and song-birds and shady trees.


Robert Louis Stevenson’s Vagabond (as set to music by Ralph Vaughan Williams – ) applies both to Polly & me:-

Give to me the life I love,
Let the lave go by me,
Give the jolly heaven above
And the byway nigh me.

Bed in the bush with stars to see.
Bread I dip in the river—
There’s the life for a man like me.
There’s the life for ever.

Let the blow fall soon or late,
Let what will be o’er me;
Give the face of earth around
And the road before me.

Wealth I seek not, hope nor love,
Nor a friend to know me;
All I seek, the heaven above
And the road below me.

Or let autumn fall on me
Where afield I linger,
Silencing the bird on tree,
Biting the blue finger.

The infinite shining heavens
Rose and I saw in the night
Uncountable angel stars
Showering sorrow and light.

I saw them distant as heaven,
Dumb and shining and dead,
And the idle stars of the night
Were dearer to me than bread.

Night after night in my sorrow
The stars stood over the sea,
Till lo ! I looked in the dusk
And a star had come down to me.

I have travelled round the English countryside in exploratious menanderings on foot, on bicycle (and now motorbike) all these years and relished the ‘ordered confusion of features’. Just eating up the roads is enough for me, noting the pattern of towns & counties and I pass by them, occasionally stopping for a cathedral, a place full of memories from the past, or to do a watercolour that must not take more than about twenty minutes… And beginning in earlier years the Hills and the Sea [Hilaire Belloc] represented escape from the Wage Slavery that was the utterly unpremeditated collapse into pointless quill-driving & file-grubbing & figure-shunting that marked the first ten years or so of my ‘working’ life; from then on I laboured in the outrageous belief that life was for living not at all for working; like Polly I swam consistently against the tide; to do this was a belief reinforced by two years obeying the state-command to do something called National Service. This was an experience that paradoxically released me from all ties into a zany free-wheeling kind of existence in which I proved to be quite useful as a teacher of military subjects which I scorned but enjoyed because of the need for disciplined breakdown in order to dispose them into manageable teachable chunks. And it turned me into a life-long pacifist!


Later on, helping streams of students subject texts to close linguistic analysis, Teaching-I frequently kept itself in check by not referring to the linking of sense & meaning brought about by alliteration as allittrition’s artful aid, one of Polly’s magnificent manglings of the English language which Wells puts down to a poverty-stricken education but which, in live conversation, I have taken up as a way out of thinking of bothering to find the correct word to express meaning: Polly was highly manglacious in his use of English; I invent words for my own amusement, implodic joydom. “Is that a real word?” asks my younger daughter in her lovely innocence.

Employed uselessly in Canterbury, Polly

…liked to sit in the nave during the service, and look through the great gates at the candles and choristers, and listen to the organ-sustained voices, but the transepts he never penetrated because of the charge for admission. The music and the long vista of the fretted roof filled him with a vague and mystical happiness that he had no words, even mispronounceable words, to express. But some of the smug monuments in the aisles got a wreath of epithets; ‘metrorious urnfuls,’ ‘funererial claims,’ ‘dejected angelosity,’ for example. He wandered about the precincts, and speculated about the people who lived in the ripe and cosy houses of gray stone that cluster there so comfortably. Through green doors in high stone walls he caught glimpses of level lawns and blazing flower-beds; mullioned windows revealed shaded reading-lamps and disciplined shelves of brown bound books.

I had something like this experience during my first solo holiday in 1955. Sitting on the grass in Salisbury Cathedral Close in the August sunlight, I had the idea that behind the ancient clustering houses there were people with an attitude to learning, a way of storing ideas that then I could only dream about; ‘shaded reading lamps’ and shelves of books, dusty interiors – they still represent the appropriate conditions of learning for me; not for me the sterile banks of computers, more the gloominess of the original library upstairs in the old building at Kingston Grammar School. But, of course, the fact that I could dream about ‘an attitude to learning, a way of storing ideas’ that others might already possess meant that I already had the notion itself embedded in me: what you have in your mind determines how you will be.

Holidays & Books

After his father’s funeral, he found out that he’d been left £350 in the will. At today’s prices ( that would be very roughly £30,000. All the conventional forces around him suggested that he find a sound job of work, but Polly had far more sensible ideas.

‘A little holiday’; that was the form his sense of wealth took first – it made a little holiday possible. Holidays were his life, and the rest merely adulterated living. And now he might take a little holiday and have money for railway fares and money for meals, and money for inns. But He wanted some one to take the holiday with. For a time he cherished a design of hunting up Parsons, getting him to throw up his situation, and going with him to Stratford-on-Avon and Shrewsbury, and the Welsh mountains and the Wye, and a lot of places like that, for a really gorgeous, careless, illimitable old holiday of a month. But, alas! Parsons had gone from the St Paul’s Churchyard outfitter’s long ago and left no address.

Holidays were his life, and the rest merely adulterated living… Oh yes! In these grimy days of the ghastly conspiracy to lengthen the Work-life – all noses to the grim grindstone of capitalism, how infinitely sensible that seems! When I got the chance I quit quill-driving (as Conrad calls office work) and took to the relative uplands of teaching, and (though for many years I had nightmares about being reduced again to a slave in an office), I never looked back except to figure out what those years had taught me. And for twenty years now my life has been one long holiday; like Polly, I got there in the end!

The names of places and the loss of friends… I have always delighted in making the names of places come to life by visiting them: Salisbury, Bristol, Gloucester, Edinburgh, Oban, Canterbury – I tick them off in my almanac… Magic Cities. But there was always a disappointment at the urban sprawl through which one had to go to get to the centre and starting point of the city. And the awful disappointment at the loss of friends: where are you now, Arthur? Peter? Mike? People you imagined you’d spend the rest of your life with but never saw again after forty, fifty, sixty years of some regret…

And also [blowing something of his small fortune] Mr Polly bought a number of books; Rabelais for his own, and The Arabian Nights, the works of Sterne, a pile of Tales from Blackwood, cheap in a second-hand bookshop, the plays of William Shakespeare, a second-hand copy of Belloc’s Path to Rome…

“Better get yourself a good book on book keeping,” said [the voice of convention] Johnson, turning over perplexing pages…

This extract probably reinforced my recurrent sudden desire to make a journey to a second-hand bookshop. The contrast between what the voice of convention had to say on the subject and my proclivity for dusty shelves was a stark one but I knew which side I was on. When I was sixteen there were some shops around Charing Cross Road in London that I didn’t dare enter because they looked as though their owners were so learned and might ask me what I was after when I really had no idea then. I have found them all quite harmless now I’ve penetrated their sacred interiors and can converse with the most thick-lensed eyes about obscure books & authors.


And Mr Polly, well aware of his priorities, bought a bicycle.

A belated spring, to make up for lost time, was now advancing with great strides. Sunshine and a stirring wind were poured out over the land, fleets of towering clouds sailed upon urgent tremendous missions across the blue sea of heaven, and presently Mr Polly was riding a little unstably along unfamiliar Surrey roads, wondering always what was round the next corner, and marking the blackthorn and looking out for the first white flowerbuds of the may. He was perplexed and distressed, as indeed are all right-thinking souls, that there is no may in early May.

Every year in spring I think of writing a haiku that has as its first five syllable line ‘now the blackthorn’s out’… Sometimes I even write it!

He did not ride at the even pace sensible people use, who have marked out a journey from one place to another, and settled what time it will take them. He rode at variable speeds, and always as though he was looking for something [whose absence] left life attractive still, but a little wanting in significance.

Ambling, sometimes at speed, sometimes menandering down miscellaneous by-ways, ‘wondering always what was round the next corner’, has always been my wont, joining one place to another, even now on a motorbike. In my day, except for the Mickleham & Box Hill bypass on the A24 down to Worthing, done before the War, Surrey roads were still untouched by the oh-so-sad race of Improvers and the concrete masterpiece called ‘Gatwick’ did not exist; it was just a small village. Why on earth do we have to keep up with ‘the way of the world’? The way of the world is complete tosh.

On one of his expeditions, Polly fell into a series of assignations with the red-haired Christobel sitting on her school wall; modelling on happenings in the books he’d read, he played the romantic part of Knight dallying with fair maid but after ten days he realised that he was being made a fool of. On the rebound, as though he had stepped out of his real skin, he suggested marriage to cousin Miriam. All the signs are that she was likely to turn out to be the harridan (possibly from French haridelle, gaunt woman, old horse, nag – naggish bipedess, as I say for him) that all Wells’ subtle linguistic hints suggest she is underneath the oh-so-pleasant exterior which she put on to trap our Mr Polly.


After the nuptials Uncle Pentstemon has words of wisdom that come too late to save Polly. You rather sense that he gives us something of what’s on Polly’s mind after the relative romance of his assignations with the red-haired Christobel:-

“You got to get married,” said Uncle Pentstemon, resuming his discourse. “That’s the way of it. Some has. Some hain’t. I done it long before I was your age. It hain’t for me to blame you. You can’t ‘elp being the marrying sort any more than me. It’s nat’ral—like poaching, or drinking, or wind on the stummik. You can’t ‘elp it, and there you are! As for the good of it, there ain’t no particular good in it as I can see. It’s a toss up. The hotter come, the sooner cold; but they all gets tired of it sooner or later… I hain’t no grounds to complain. Two I’ve ‘ad and buried, and might ‘ave ‘ad a third, and never no worrit with kids – never… “You done well not to ‘ave the big gal. I will say that for ye. She’s a gad-about grinny, she is, if ever was. A gad-about grinny. Mucked up my mushroom bed to rights, she did, and I ‘aven’t forgot it. Got the feet of a centipede, she ‘as – all over everything, and neither with your leave nor by your leave. Like a stray ‘en in a pea patch. Cluck ! cluck ! Trying to laugh it off. I laughed ‘er off, I did. Dratted lumpin’ baggage!”…  For a while he mused malevolently upon Annie, and routed out a reluctant crumb from some coy sitting-out place in his tooth.

“Wimmin’s a toss up,” said Uncle Pentstemon. “Prize packets they are, and you can’t tell what’s in ‘em till you took ‘em ‘ome and undone ‘em. Never was a bachelor married yet that didn’t buy a pig in a poke. Never !…”

We know how things turn out for Polly fifteen years after this because when we first meet him at the beginning of the novel he is ‘…sitting on a stile between two threadbare looking fields…’ objective correlative for his state of being, chanting out, “Oh, Röööötten Bëëëëastly Silly Wheeze of a Hole!” This is the way Wells frames things for the reader – we anticipate the horror of things in spite of which…

…Fifteen years ago, and it might have seemed to you that the queer little flower of Mr Polly’s imagination might be altogether withered and dead, and with no living seed left in any part of him. But, indeed, it still lived as an insatiable hunger for bright and delightful experiences, for the gracious aspect of things, for beauty. He still read books when he had a chance – books that told of glorious places abroad and glorious times, that wrung a rich humour from life and contained the delight of words freshly and expressively grouped…

He reminds me of a person (like myself, when young) besotted by the kind of adolescent dream expressed by Robert Louis Stevenson’s idealism. Set to music by Vaughan Williams (op cit), the poem can still easily excite something which doesn’t bear examination deep inside me:-

Let beauty awake in the morn from beautiful dreams
Beauty awake from rest!
Let Beauty awake
For Beauty’s sake
In the hour when the birds awake in the brake
And the stars are bright in the west!

Let Beauty awake in the eve from the slumber of day,
Awake in the crimson eve!
In the day’s dusk end
When the shades ascend,
Let her wake to the kiss of a tender friend
To render again and receive!

An ‘…insatiable hunger for bright and delightful experiences…’ I can understand very well but – Beauty! Oh, the unutterable curse of abstractions!

The insatiable hunger for books, too… Polly contrived to conceal the books he bought from the decidedly unbeautiful Miriam.

The books he read during those fifteen years! He read everything he got except theology, and, as he read, his little unsuccessful circumstances vanished and the wonder of life returned to him; the routine of reluctant getting up, opening shop, pretending to dust it with zest, breakfasting with a shop egg underdone or overdone, or a herring raw or charred, and coffee made Miriam’s way, and full of little particles, the return to the shop, the morning paper, the standing, standing at the door saying “How do!” to passers-by, or getting a bit of gossip, or watching unusual visitors, all these things vanished as the auditorium of a theatre vanishes when the stage is lit. He acquired hundreds of books at last – old, dusty books, books with torn covers and broken covers, fat books whose backs were naked string and glue – an inimical litter to Miriam.

Since it does not necessarily chime with other writings that Mr Polly seems to appreciate, Wells perhaps expresses his own view here that ‘…Conrad’s prose had a pleasure for him that he was never able to define, a peculiar deep-coloured effect… Precisely! ‘Great land of sublimated things, thou World of Books, happy asylum, refreshment and refuge from the world of everyday!…’

Authorial Presence


As noted, Wells quite often steps outside his narrative to make us remember that there is an author at work producing what can be construed as a socio-economic-political text in delightful fictional form. A nice distancing! He quotes from a presumably imaginary ‘dome-headed monster of intellect’ (one of his own ‘I’s maybe) writing on ‘social problems’ who says that ‘… ‘Nothing can better demonstrate the collective dullness of our community, the crying need for a strenuous, intellectual renewal, than the consideration of that vast mass of useless, uncomfortable, under-educated, under-trained, and altogether pitiable people we contemplate when we use that inaccurate and misleading term, the Lower Middle Class…’ Says the objective Wells, going some way towards describing his authorial process :-

I feel this has to come in here as the broad aspect of this History. I come back to Mr Polly, sitting upon his gate and swearing in the east wind, and so returning I have a sense of floating across unbridged abysses between the general and the particular. There, on the one hand, is the man of understanding seeing clearly – I suppose he sees clearly – the big process that dooms millions of lives to thwarting and discomfort and unhappy circumstances, and giving us no help, no hint, by which we may get that better ‘collective will and intelligence’ which would dam the stream of human failure; and on the other hand, Mr Polly, sitting on his gate, untrained, unwarned, confused, distressed, angry, seeing nothing except that he is, as it were, netted in grayness and discomfort – with life dancing all about him; Mr Polly with a capacity for joy and beauty at least as keen and subtle as yours or mine.

How clearly here Wells demonstrates awareness of something which our current bunch of fascist dictators, thin end of the wedge of the Global Capitalist Conspiracy, will totally avoid in discussion: the destructive effect of their multi-millionaire policies on the lives of ordinary individuals; there is an unbridged conceptual abyss between the general and the particular, between abstraction and concrete reality. The politicians are always content to live in abstractions – individual ‘freedom’, ‘democracy’, ‘progress’ – and hide away from the actual scrap heap of humanity that they throw their crusts & rinds to.


Sitting on the stile, Mr Polly decided that the only way out of the Rotten Beastly Hole was to commit suicide. One Sunday evening while Miriam was at church he doused the shop in paraffin and determined to cut his throat at the height of the conflagration.

And this was the end of life for him! The end! And it seemed to him now that life had never begun for him, never! It was as if his soul had been cramped and his eyes bandaged from the hour of his birth. Why had he lived such a life? Why had he submitted to things, blundered into things? Why had he never insisted on the things he thought beautiful and the things he desired, never sought them, fought for them, taken any risk for them, died rather than abandon them? They were the things that mattered. Safety did not matter. A living did not matter unless there were things to live for…

He had been a fool, a coward and a fool; he had been fooled, too, for no one had ever warned him to take a firm hold upon life, no one had ever told him of the littleness of fear or pain or death. But what was the good of going through it now again. It was over and done with. The clock in the back parlour pinged the half-hour. “Time!” said Mr Polly, and stood up…

But everything went too fast: his trouser leg caught fire before he had a chance to slit his throat; it was the wrong order of events; he dashed into the street shouting, “Fire!” And suddenly realised that the neighbour’s old mum was upstairs in the well-alight adjacent building. Everybody in Fishbourne had for years dismissed him as a misfit, but now, when he rescued her by climbing on the roof, he was regarded as the hero of the piece. Miriam suggested a fresh start but, again, Mr Polly had quite other ideas:-

…when a man has once broken through the paper walls of everyday circumstance, those unsubstantial walls that hold so many of us securely prisoned from the cradle to the grave, he has made a discovery. If the world does not please you, you can change it. Determine to alter it at any price, and you can change it altogether… There is only one sort of man who is absolutely to blame for his own misery, and that is the man who finds life dull and dreary…


So he takes £20 (well over £1000 in today’s money), leaving the rest for Miriam, and sets off on a long tramp. What delight Wells sows in the mind of the reader in such simple terms after all the misery! A lesson for us all!

After a lapse of fifteen years he rediscovered this interesting world, about which so many people go incredibly blind and bored. He went along country roads while all the birds were piping and chirruping and cheeping and singing, and looked at fresh new things, and felt as happy and irresponsible as a boy with an unexpected half-holiday. And if ever the thought of Miriam returned to him, he controlled his mind. He came to country inns and sat for unmeasured hours talking of this and that to those sage carters who rest for ever in the taps of country inns, while the big, sleek, brass-jingling horses wait patiently outside with their wagons. He got a job with some van people who were wandering about the country with swings and a steam roundabout, and remained with them three days, until one of their dogs took a violent dislike to him, and made his duties unpleasant. He talked to tramps and wayside labourers. He snoozed under hedges by day, and in outhouses and hayricks at night…

This feels like the result of deliberate decision-making: just doing whatever comes up without romanticising or indulging in false imagination. Wells points this up beautifully by reminding us of how Polly used to make fantasy.

One day he found himself going along a road, with a wide space of sprouting bracken and occasional trees on either side, and suddenly this road became strangely and perplexingly familiar. “Lord!” he said, and turned about and stood. “It can’t be.”

He was incredulous, then left the road and walked along a scarcely perceptible track to the left, and came in half a minute to an old lichenous stone wall. It seemed exactly the bit of wall he had known so well. It might have been but yesterday he was in that place; there remained even a little pile of wood. It became absurdly the same wood. The bracken, perhaps, was not so high, and most of its fronds were still coiled up, that was all. Here he had stood, it seemed, and there she had sat and looked down upon him. Where was she now, and what had become of her? He counted the years back, and marvelled that beauty should have called to him with so imperious a voice – and signified nothing. He hoisted himself with some little difficulty to the top of the wall, and saw far off under the beech trees two schoolgirls – small, insignificant, pigtailed creatures, with heads of blond and black, with their arms twined about each other’s necks, no doubt telling each other the silliest secrets.

But that girl with the red hair – was she a countess? was she a queen? Children, perhaps? Had sorrow dared to touch her? Had she forgotten altogether?

What about all those people we’ve known? What’s happened to them? What have their lives been like?

enormous chunks

of my life I’ve left
littered about in
the relationships I’ve had –
some unfinished some abandoned

each dear friend lost
each love cut off
every relationship relinquished
hauls off a part of me

they all carry off some part
of my I-mystery some I-tag
to their own secret destination
to do with it as they choose

the parts of me that are left
are without the strength of will
to advertise for the return now
of all the various chunks of life

I’ve allowed to be dispersed
around the country threading gaps
in people’s thoughts as their own
abandoned chunks thread mine

(CB: Looking Closely 2000)

The Potwell Inn – Coming Home

And then Mr Polly came to the Potwell Inn; he came home to himself. The ‘plump woman’ who ran the place asked him if was looking for work. He felt that she was ‘My sort…’ When she asked him what kind of work he was after he sums up the whole of the novel so far: “I’ve never properly thought that out… I’ve been looking round – for ideas…”

If the naggish bipedess Miriam had listed what he would have to do he would have felt the complaint about a Rotten Beastly Hole appearing but something has changed. The person we have heard described as bone idle is miraculously transformed.

He spent the afternoon exploring the premises of the Potwell Inn and learning the duties that might be expected of him, such as Stockholm tarring fences, digging potatoes, swabbing out boats, helping people land, embarking, landing, and time-keeping for the hirers of two rowing boats and one Canadian canoe, bailing out the said vessels and concealing their leaks and defects from prospective hirers, persuading inexperienced hirers to start down-stream rather than up, repairing rowlocks and taking inventories of returning boats with a view to supplementary charges, cleaning boots, sweeping chimneys, house painting, cleaning windows, sweeping out and sanding the Tap and Bar, cleaning pewter, washing glasses, turpentining woodwork, whitewashing generally, plumbing and engineering, repairing locks and clocks, waiting and tapster’s work generally, beating carpets and mats, cleaning bottles and saving corks, taking into the cellar, moving, tapping, and connecting beercasks with their engines, blocking and destroying wasps’ nests, doing forestry with several trees, drowning superfluous kittens, dog-fancying as required, assisting in the rearing of ducklings and the care of various poultry, bee-keeping, stabling, baiting and grooming horses and asses, cleaning and ‘garing’ motor-cars and bicycles, inflating tyres and repairing punctures, recovering the bodies of drowned persons from the river as required, and assisting people in trouble in the water, first-aid and sympathy, improvising and superintending a bathing station for visitors, attending inquests and funerals in the interests of the establishment, scrubbing floors and all the ordinary duties of a scullion, the Ferry, chasing hens and goats from the adjacent cottages out of the garden, making up paths and superintending drainage, gardening generally, delivering bottled beer and soda-water siphons in the neighbourhood, running miscellaneous errands, removing drunken and offensive persons from the premises by tact or muscle, as occasion required, keeping in with the local policeman, defending the premises in general and the orchard in particular from nocturnal depredators. . . .

“Can but try it,” said Mr Polly towards tea-time. “When there’s nothing else on hand I suppose I might do a bit of fishing…”

The only snag in the new surroundings is Uncle Jim, a vicious hooligan who subjects the plump woman (we never know her name) to all kinds of indignities & violence, examples of which we discover in due course.. Meanwhile, the plump woman’s young niece who initially took great pleasure from anticipating Polly being ‘scooted like the others’ by Uncle Jim came to appreciate Mr Polly greatly because he ‘could nickname ducklings very amusingly, create boats out of wooden splinters and stalk and fly from imaginary tigers in the orchard with a convincing earnestness that was surely beyond the power of any other human being…’ So Polly’s manglacious use of language and his fantasy world serves him well at last.

But Uncle Jim is ‘a big sort of bloke’ and Mr Polly explains that he’s ‘not the Herculacious sort…’ After the first brush with Uncle Jim he quits the scene but not without finding ‘I’s squabbling inside him: fight or perish…

Life had never been so clear to him before. It had always been a confused, entertaining spectacle. He had responded to this impulse and that, seeking agreeable and entertaining things, evading difficult and painful things. Such is the way of those who grow up to a life that has neither danger nor honour in its texture. He had been muddled and wrapped about and entangled, like a creature born in the jungle who has never seen sea or sky. Now he had come out of it suddenly into a great exposed place. It was as if God and Heaven waited over him, and all the earth was expectation.

“ Not my business,” said Mr Polly, speaking aloud. “Where the devil do I come in?”

And again, with something between a whine and a snarl in his voice, ‘Not my blasted business !

His mind seemed to have divided itself into several compartments, each with its own particular discussion busily in progress, and quite regardless of the others. One was busy with the detailed interpretation of [Uncle Jim’s] phrase, ‘Kick you ugly’… When he thought of Uncle Jim the inside feeling of his body faded away rapidly to a blank discomfort…

The return to the Potwell Inn with a determination to ‘scoot’ Uncle Jim marks the climax of the novel – Mr Polly has come home to himself. After he has accomplished the ‘scooting’ in a hilarious fashion, he demonstrates his humanity by thinking of Miriam – whether she’s OK; deserting her had been mean – and once more Wells steps outside the fiction.

This is a history, and not a glorification of Mr Polly, and I tell of things as they were with him. Apart from the disagreeable twinge arising from the thought of what might happen if he was found out, he had not the slightest remorse about that fire. Arson, after all, is an artificial crime. Some crimes are crimes in themselves, would be crimes without any law, the cruelties, mockery, the breaches of faith that astonish and wound, but the burning of things is in itself neither good nor bad. A large number of houses deserve to be burnt, most modern furniture, an overwhelming majority of pictures and books – one might go on for some time with the list. If our community was collectively anything more than a feeble idiot, it would burn most of London and Chicago, for example, and build sane and beautiful cities in the place of these pestilential heaps of rotten private property. I have failed in presenting Mr Polly altogether if I have not made you see that he was in many respects an artless child of Nature, far more untrained, undisciplined, and spontaneous than an ordinary savage. And he was really glad, for all that little drawback of fear, that he had had the courage to set fire to his house, and fly, and come to the Potwell Inn. But he was not glad he had left Miriam.

Sowing Things Up

So he takes a bit of a holiday and returns to Fishbourne to satisfy his curiosity; he enters the rebuilt shop with a sign over the front ‘Polly & Larkins’, a teashop run by Miriam and her sister, Annie. In the novel Miriam is shocked by the return of her husband whom she had certified dead and collected the insurance on, Uncle Jim having been found drowned wearing a pair of trousers with Polly’s name sown in them! He reassures her by saying that he’s just a ghost whom she’ll never see again. In the film version (1949 – the only one worth watching – such a faithful rendering of the novel) it seems to me that her recognition of him is conveyed far more subtly: they simply pass on the stairs and Miriam recoils in horror as though she’s seen a ghost from the past – as she has!

On his return to the Potwell Inn, he reflects with the plump woman who does not know his background.

“I set fire to a house – once… I don’t feel sorry for it. I don’t believe it was a bad thing to do – any more than burning a toy, like I did once when I was a baby. I nearly – killed myself with a razor. Who hasn’t ? – anyhow gone as far as thinking of it? Most of my time almost. I’ve never really planned my life, or set out to live. I happened; things happened to me. It’s so with every one. Jim couldn’t help himself. I shot at him, and tried to kill him. I dropped the gun and he got it. He very nearly had me. I wasn’t a second too soon – ducking. . . . Awkward – that night was… Ma’am. . . . But I don’t blame him – come to that. Only I don’t see what it’s all up to… Like children playing about in a nursery. Hurt themselves at times…”

He lost himself in his revery.

“What have we done to… get an evening like this? Look at it…” He sent his arm round the great curve of the sky… I whistle sometimes, but, bless you, it’s singing I’ve got in my mind. Sometimes I think I live for sunsets…”


In his splendid biography HG – the History of Mr Wells, Michael Foot (another Real Human-being with Real Beliefs) quotes Wells’ intentions in writing a novel:-

…to write about business and finance and politics and precedence and pretentions and decorum and indecorum, until a thousand pretences and ten thousand impostures shrivel in the cold, clean air of our elucidations. We are going to write of wasted opportunities and latent beauties until a thousand new ways of living open to man and woman. We are going to appeal to the young and the hopeful and the curious against the established, the dignified and defensive. Before we have done, we will have all life within the novel…

Michael Foot continues

…At one glance, The History of Mr Polly may seem a lop-sided affair, quite inadequate for the purpose. For, most monstrously, and contrary to his normal method… the women are given no place at all or swiftly despatched to the back seats or the kitchen sinks. No real woman in his own life proved as pitifully incapable or hateful in the habits she developed as Miriam…; in no other of HG’s novels, before or after, are the women reduced to such a subordinate role. That might be a hopeless, incurable defect. And yet who does not love Mr Polly? If there are such specimens, they merely acknowledge their own inhumanity. All his tastes and idiosyncrasies, his waywardness, his dreaming, his true love of the language he mangles, the way he piles up his books and knowledge, his refusal to conceal his hatreds from himself, the whole character being not, by any reckoning, a replica of HG himself, but rather an original creation of his own comic genius…: the incarnation of the Wellsian assurance that, if you don’t like the way the world is ordered, you can change it. All you have to do is, having studied the matter properly, to show the same courage as Mr Polly, the same contempt for the way other people try to tell you how to behave when their methods have been exposed as being useless or dangerous… Once he has made up his mind, our Mr Polly never loses his poise; and we, too, should share his confidence. It is HG’s masterpiece. Here he said more simply than ever before what he wanted to say.

What the current bunch of millionaire fascist dictators called a ‘government’ would make of Mr Polly?

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(For Laurie & Pat & Patrick & Tom & Ed & All…)

Life’s a Story We Tell Ourselves

One of the stories I tell myself is that it’s always time to begin again, like Mr Polly.

Last night (3rd May 2014) for the umpteenth time I watched the old b&w, entirely gimmickless, film The History of Mr Polly (based on the novel by the incomparable HGWells) which I first saw exactly sixty years ago to the day (or at least month) in Kingston, Surrey, one afternoon from Kingston Grammar School when we were studying it for final exams.

Mr Polly, dedicated to exploratious chivalraic menanderings and entranced by sesquippledan verboojuice — the kind you find, for instance, in Rabeloose — Mr Polly, c’est moi!

I am forever so grateful to that schooling.

And another story I got more recently from Stephen Covey who, at around the age of 70, is reported to have said, ‘the best is still to come…’ That’s a great story.

All these 3-score years I’ve spent a fair amount of time concocting a story about the way I imagine I am now… Lots of sub-stories that have come out variously in poems and novels, music & painting. Each separate story is told by a different part of what I choose to call my self. One of the stories I tell myself is that it’s worth spending time consciously making up stories of one kind or another.

In another of my stories I am always wondering what I’m going to be when I grow up.

One of the very greatest stories is Gurdjieff’s Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, not to mention Meetings With Remarkable Men.

And I’ve told lots of stories to groups I’ve worked with — more and more as it became clear that the stories I told myself could be interpreted by others in their own way and help them to transform their lives too.

All life’s a story we tell ourselves. Another story I tell myself is that there’s no point in telling yourself a story if you’re not its hero/ine. Hero/ine in a humble/invisible/non-self-important kind of way — one that leads from the rear (Enneagram Top Form 8).

On courses, modelling on Wyatt Woodsmall, I tell a series of stories (or Guided Visualisations) about Old Sage-I and Apprentice-I. It’s entirely open to the listeners to figure out which of these shady characters is themselves. I change the story on the spot to include references to images members of the group will have come up with while we’ve been together.

Of course, one eventually discovers that all the people in the stories are aspects of self. The hero/ine is whoever you take it to be.


The Life House

Old-sage-I said to Apprentice-I, “You know there’s this ancient idea that the human-being is like a house. It’s interesting to think about your house as one with many rooms like that grand National Trust house we’ve just been to. It needs many servants to keep it going.”

“And lifts to take you to other levels,” said Apprentice-I.

“And lifts… and dumb waiters and many servants. Especially when the master and mistress are abroad and the servants are playing up.”

“How do we know this?” said Apprentice-I.

“By looking very carefully at what’s going on inside your house.

 the butler is looking after the garden and making a real mess of it
the gardener is doing the cooking
 the cook is polishing the shoes
 the chauffeur does the shopping and forgets his list
 the maid sweeps the dust under the carpet
 there are wild parties every night

“I see: my servants are not doing the jobs they are employed to do. It’s not good enough,” said Apprentice-I.

“You suddenly decide that until the master and mistress return you’ll take on the role of Deputy Steward. What will you do to sort out your unruly servants?”

“Call a meeting…”

“At the first opportunity…

get the butler to agree to serve the meals
 have the gardener do the gardening
 get the shoe-boy to do the shoes
 make sure the maid does a proper job
 ban unruly parties

Ensure that every part of your house is run on sound lines…”

“Have all my servants perform as they should do…”

Old-sage-I had gone home to his house.


In the Forest

Old Sage-I and the Apprentice have been travelling for many days when it occurs to the Apprentice to say, “Now we’re in the middle of this deep dark forest, I realise that it is not at all clear to me what the purpose of our journey is…”

“The purpose,” said Sage-I, “is just whatever you conceive it to be—stay in the Here and Now and you will know just what it is…”

“In that case,” said the Apprentice, “I need to know where we are going to…”

“That’s not in the Here and Now,” said Sage-I. “Stay in the Here and Now and where we are going will not matter in the slightest…”

“Well, tell me exactly where we are here and now,” said the Apprentice, “so that I may get my bearings…”

“Wanting to know where you are is the result of wanting to join past with future—to establish some kind of seamless continuity which makes you wonder what has been and what is to come. Such a concern takes you out of the Here and Now. Stay right here in the Here and Now where past and future have no existence.” Sage-I continued: “Look at the patterns of shadows on the path. See the blue sky between the tops of the trees high above you and know that that’s all there is. And Love. And awareness. And certainty. And joy…”

“But if we don’t know where we’ve come from and we don’t know where we’re going to and we don’t know where we are now how will we be able to make the return journey when the time is right?”

“Stay in the Here and Now. When you ask a question like that, you not in the Here and Now. Stay in the Here and Now… And let the return take care of itself.”

In the Here and Now which is the only reality, Sage-I and the Apprentice are back in their little castle and the Apprentice has spent a long time in the library reflecting on all the things Sage-I said and applying the lessons to his own life.

“And what have you learned? said Old Sage-I.

The Apprentice said, “I have learned that to begin to know something about who I am I must BE HERE NOW. I have found that when I focus on the past I neglect to be Here and Now. When that happens, past regrets, concerns, gut-rots and even successes prevent me from being in the Here and Now. On the other hand, when I focus on the future, I get into fearfulness, consumed by expectation and ambition and I lose touch with the Here and Now that way. So I am practising being in the Here and Now. But I am still worried: tell me what I have to do to stay like that?”

Sage-I, head to one side, just looked at the Apprentice in a slightly quizzical way and said nothing.

“Right,” said the Apprentice, “I know—that question comes out of the future. When I’m in the Here and Now I don’t ever have to ask such a question. I just look at the shadow reflections from the moat flickering on the ceiling. This is me being me Here and Now…”

When he turned for approval, the Old Sage-I had disappeared.


In the Castle

Old-sage-I and Apprentice-I have set themselves up in an old castle with hundreds of rooms and a central courtyard off which Old-sage-I has a Laboratory of the Mind.

“What are we going to do today?” said Apprentice-I.

“It’s up to you really,” said Old-sage-I. “What you could do to start with is to go up into the Watchtower, up all those steps so you get a good fill of air — second Body Food — to re-charge your batteries.

Half-an-hour later, Apprentice-I returned.

“And what did you see?”

“The landscape, the patchwork of fields, the gulls, an eagle, clouds, the horizon, villages far and wide…”

“The Food of Pure Impressions…” said Old-sage-I.

“Eh??” said Apprentice-I.

“The Food of Pure Impressions — it comes when you take yourself out of your self…”

“Into Meta-I?” said Apprentice-I.

“Into Meta-I, where you get things pure and simple. When you are in Being-here-now-I without past or future…”

“This is me being me here now,” said Apprentice-I.

“The Food of Pure Impressions is the very highest form of food without which you would be no more…”

“My experience is telling me that I have to believe this. An eagle, a gull, the horizon…”

“Without the names, just as they are up there: and so you get to the Centre of your Being, the very heart of it all…” said Old-sage-I.

After they had thoroughly explored this in Old-sage-I’s Laboratory of the Mind, they discovered that they had, as it happened, done all that they needed to do so they went home.


On Not Naming Things

Old-sage-I and Apprentice-I are in the garden…

“I’d like to know the names of all these flowers. The kinds of birds that come here, the insects…”

“And what would that do for you?” said Old-sage-I.

“I’d be able to catalogue reality, to get it straight in my mind.”

“There was a time when nothing had a name. Everything was nameless; it just existed in the here and now,” said Old-sage-I. “Then along came human-beings and invented names and categories.”

“I’m not sure what’s wrong with that,” said Apprentice-I.

“Well, it takes you out of the here and now and into the parallel invented world of books— dictionaries, reference books, encyclopedias—and now websites. These are all replacements for things as they are. Look at this tree—what do you see?”

“I see the kind of leaves that tell me it’s a horse chestnut…”

“But what do you see?” said Old-sage-I. “What do you see?”

“Trunk, branches…”

“What do you see?”

“Movement… Patterns of twigs & leaves…”

“What do you really see?”

Apprentice-I was suddenly speechless for what he suddenly saw was treeness, the essence of tree, the pattern, the flow of sap. Strange creatures without names.

“There are three kinds of food,” said Old-sage-I. “Fish & chips, oxygen and the highest form of food which is Pure Impressions. Tree as treeness is what can just hit the senses—just let it come in the here and now without striving after meaning. Stand just here for a moment by the fountain and project yourself beyond the garden so you see distance, knowing that time and space are just human inventions…”

“I can see pattern. The words have all gone. There’s a play of light and shade and then I can make even those words dissolve…”

“Pure Impressions,” said Old-sage-I. “Feel their energy. Take it into yourself here and now. Then do the same with human-beings though it’s best to start with cats & dogs — they are more sensitive… and then little babies. Grown-ups are more of a challenge.”

“I feel what you say,” said Apprentice-I…


Back in the Forest

The Apprentice is back in the deep cold dark forest, Being Here Now. Notice the dense patterns of leaves, hear the sound of birds, shout STOP every now and again, become aware of inner and outer self, notice the pattern of ‘I’s, become aware of the shadows on the path and the special gem-like stones there are in this area.

Moving attention outside the mind, the Apprentice is suddenly aware that the trees are beginning to thin out. There is a clearing in the middle of the forest and a congregation of people standing around looking a bit blank; the Apprentice seems to have met quite a lot of them before but is not quite sure where; they seem familiar. Where have they been all the time?

There is a huge statue in the clearing; it seems to be made of crystal; it shines in the light of the flames from the wood fire that has been lit in front of it. It is still. Unmoving. Its arms are raised towards the sky. It seems to be standing there as a silent Witness, collecting energy for many centuries but unable to move. The fire on its own does not give it life.

The people are unable on their own to give it life; they stand around at the base of the statue mumbling disconsolately to one another. “What else can we do to bring the statue to life?” “Listen to the wind — perhaps that will breath life into it…” The wind on its own does not give it life.

They look to the water in the passing stream. The Apprentice looks at it with them and understands that they are not in the Here & Now, and notices the clear ripples bubbling on the gems on its bed, hears the burbling, sees the kingfisher swooping and the yellow celandine dripping down from the banks. The water on its own does not give the statue life.

“What if we lift up our eyes to the mountains in the distance?” The landscape opens up before your very eyes as the camera pans out and the forest takes its place in a vast bowl of a valley.

You see the fire leaping up at your feet; you hear the sounds of the stream running past; you feel the wind on your face; you raise your hands from your heart to the tops of the mountains.

Earth, air, fire, water, all together bring your Witness-I to life. Witness-I crystallises out from the feeling of being at one with the universe. Earth, air, fire, water. Suns and stars, planets that have been and planets to come. You can see the people in the clearing going about their business, no longer mumbling to each other but seeming to know their purpose and their intent, focussed on what they are doing, getting things into order for themselves. Witness-I takes its place amongst them. Mingles. Helps to keep things going.

You look round for the Apprentice. The Apprentice is nowhere to be seen.


On Leaving Things Behind You

Old-Sage-I said to Apprentice-I, “Well, here we are back in father’s garden…”

“What are we doing here, now, then?” said Apprentice-I.

“We are finding out what it’s like to be here now.”

“But all that was so long ago and it makes me feel sad to think about it…”

“As I said — here we are back in father’s garden, as if we’d never ever been away. We don’t actually need to think about it. Thinking breeds all kinds of unnecessary things. We’re here, now and the garden is inside us; we are the garden. Look! Outside the French windows the path through the rockeries to the lawn. The only good thing that mother had to say about father was that he kept the best lawn edges in the street…”

“I feel sad…”

“There is a sadness — but it’s only one part of us; it’s just one single ‘I’ that feels sad. Thank it! It needs to help us to remember but it’s not in the here & now. When you determine to be here now, there is no sadness…”

“And beyond the lawn,” said Apprentice-I, “there’s an abundant cherry tree and a pond with newts in it…”

“By the side of the lawn is the path by the herbaceous border with roses & golden rod where we stood and looked up at Orion…”

“And then the pergola — father’s pride & joy which he left behind him to fight on the edge of some war in India — the rose stems an inch thick,” Apprentice-I warmed to the idea of being here now; it was just as if there was no gap between anything; you can…”

“Take it all with you… Connect everything up together. The smell of creosote… The bonfires and the apple trees & pear trees…”

“Just like in our garden now…” said Apprentice-I.

“Where we’ve contrived to make space in celebration for everything we associate with father — spur valerian, creeping ginny…”

“He told us never to let that into a garden…”

“That’s why it’s here… And all the sedums and sempervivums… the Always Living… How he loved them…”

“And the four foot cactus thriving out in the snow one year…” Saying this, Apprentice-I shivered.

“We always said that our next garden would contain what father loved: rockeries, a pond, a pergola, apple trees, crazy paving…”

“And here we are, here & now, five gardens later, everything transplanted: rockery, pond, pergola, apple trees, crazy paving, bonfires…” said Apprentice-I, convinced now that father’s garden was in soul & mind.

“Look at the creeping ginny, creeping all over the place like there was no tomorrow…”

“And the spur valerian ready to burst into bloom…”

“And the roses…”

Centuries later they were back in their father’s garden in the here & now of Now…

Apprentice-I looked round; Old-Sage-I had disappeared into the shrubbery.


Then I tell myself the story that these are just templates for endless stories into infinity…

Battling with Lyotard

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A Spectre is Haunting the World – Something Sinister…


From 1960 to 1990 I was absorbed in making a living, paying the mortgage and getting life into some kind of discipline & order, intent on becoming a Good Householder in 4th Way terms, though I certainly didn’t classify it thus at the time. Pre-occupied in this way and content with what I had learned till then, self-calmed even, I missed out on some subtle & not so subtle changes that were taking place around me: I was well settled into what they call ‘modernism’, happy with all its manifestations; it was the proper and only way in music, art & poetry and I knew that individual Kropotkin/Tolstoyan anarchism was the only & proper way to think about constructing a social reality; so I did not notice during all those years that something sinister was underway with the hidden potential to undermine both my beliefs and all the social progress I and many others had taken for granted since 1945.

On the other hand, I certainly knew without thinking about it much that the assumption about the inevitability of the relationship between language and what you could call reality was entirely false – there’s no precise matching; this was implicit in Sartre’s 1948 comment (in What is Literature?) that one novel with fifty readers = fifty different novels – one need say no more about it: post-structuralism, poorly associated with the spectre of post-modernism, is embodied in that formula.

The ‘something sinister’, then, was dangling on the abstract label ‘postmodernism’. Only lately I discover that I’d read its novels (by Brautigan & Barthelme, Calvino & Eco) – even written one myself with a colleague – The Gardener of the Universe) and seen its films (Werner Herzog & the Coen Brothers) and heard its music (Michael Nyman & John Adams & Philip Glass) and thought it all wonderful, but had taken it to be simply an extension of modernism in the line of, say, Conrad, Woolf, The Third Man, & Charles Ives – a long stream of artistic challenges to the simple world of ordinary, normal people. After all the fuss, I find that modernism has been dismissed as revolutionary, radical, and elitist (strange combination…), that the attack now is really on the Grand & sophisticated Narratives that are a threat to the powerbase of the political Right. Since I still believe that modernism persists in an unbroken succession of events into the 21st Century, I see ‘Postmodernism’ as a label for things happening which I associate unquestioningly with the Global Capitalist Real Conspiracy: the supremacy of market forces, fragmentation in the service of domination, the ‘profit before people’ dogma that’s never stated. ‘Postmodernism’ is the business apologist on the radio this morning (7th April 2014) arguing for Britain to remain in the EU while trying to reform it, saying, “What we need to push for is to move things away from support for social change and towards business growth…” What he doesn’t realise is that he’s just substituting the Bilderberg capitalist narrative for the Marxist one; you can’t escape a narrative – all life is a story we tell ourselves…

The fragmentation associated with Postmodernism becomes an excuse for global ‘deregulation’ – letting one’s supporters & donors do just whatever they like: for example, destroy the skyline of London with ridiculously laughable ‘postmodernist’ tower-blocks – investment & flats for foreigners.


Feeling deep in my bones that there was a conspiracy afoot but not being able to label it, something prompted me to pluck a book from my shelves, one that had been waiting to be read for fifteen years, called Postmodern Thought (edited by Stuart Sim). Why this book? At the end of my latest Glob I wrote about Husserl’s ‘bracketing’ (see also ( bracketing-a-way-of-thinking/); apparently this is claimed as a Postmodernist technique which levels all beliefs, equalises all concepts: values and ideas become, so it is said, interchangeable when you put them in brackets; there is nothing permanent. Now, since I do not believe this, how come one of my favourite thinking mechanisms (the framing of brainwork) has become part of a movement whose outcomes lead to the current drive to destroy left-wing commitment? To deregulation & self-help of the Samuel Smiles variety, to the consignment by the Power Possessors of a very large global contingent of human-beings to the dustbin.

The answer is that I put things in brackets not in some reductionist frenzy but only while I contemplate them there – for ease of contemplation which is how I understand Husserl’s intention – then you effect a synthesis – separation precedes integration… Whatever else it might be, Postmodernism is anti-Hegelian – it presupposes the end of history – no possible synthesis, future perfect. Things are as they are for ever and ever. Right is might.

And so, in this Glob, I use what also turns out to have been appropriated into the postmodernist canon – the technique of cut-up, quotation & autobiography – to construct this long meditative poem done in the style of Pound’s Cantos. It can be defined, if you like, as a bit of anti-postmodern postmodern rhetoric. An endless circle apparently beloved of ‘postmodern’ writers & film-makers.

Does this make me postmodern? I think not. I reject labels – that’s my Being-a-Sartrean-modernist-I at work. There are no periods: time’s all of a piece and things just happen – that comes from my Being-a-follower-of-Gurdjieff-I. Labelling is a random human invention – that, I suppose, is Being-a-post-structuralist-I. It’s axiomatic that words invent meaning, theories and false dichotomies. Bracketing keeps things in check; without bracketing things get all mixed up together – paradoxically that’s how they like it to be for us plebs, imagining that we won’t be able to keep track of their little games.


– it’s a polymorphous abstraction
starting perhaps with Nietszche in modern times
signifying different things
at different times in different minds
on variously different platforms
but most notably perhaps positing
the rejection of Grand Narratives (Marx & Plato etc)
rejection of the big schemata assumed
by one and another to stand for
‘the way things work’
for which it substitutes
disdain for authority
accidentally creating a vacuum for the entry of
the ghostly Authority of the Power Possessors
to take root in anti-foundationalism
(nothing a priori)

calling into question the structures
of cultural certainties
it embraces post-structuralism
seeking to demolish the idea
that the world is intrinsically knowable –
that silly old belief that since
we have a methodological key
to unlock world systems
based on the efficacy & stability of language signs
(signifier & signified – direct connection) –
a neat & tidy grammar of Being in one sphere after another –
take your pick from any cultural certainty:
no loose ends in politics marketing
religion social affairs
you can’t go wrong – there are no false steps
in a structure –
that’s what a structure is otherwise it would collapse –
nothing random –

but (says the post-structuralist)
the analytical techniques themselves
determine the outcomes of the quest:
the questions you ask contain their own answers
(eg those that fit the pattern ‘does God exist?’) –
post-structuralists celebrate
chance creativity & the unexpected –
rigidity of structure no longer rules OK

in post-structuralism
there’s a commitment to finding
and then dwelling on
& unpredictability

system-building is a phrase too far
in de-constructionism too
total control a no-no –
language is an unstable commodity
with slippages of meaning
signs unpredictable
the conjunction of signifier & signified
always a dodgy issue
an unstable phenomenon:
use of words
is tiddly-winks
you simply hope for the best –
creatively & playfully

meaning is fleeting –
it evaporates
as soon as it seems to happen;
meaning is but a seeming
constantly transforming itself
into different meanings

as in humdrum ordinary life even now
Western philosophy
used to be based on the premise
that the full ‘meaning’ of a word
is necessarily present in the speaker’s mind
communicable thus
to a reasonably attentive listener –
this is the metaphysics of being present
one to another – the allure of the idea of a quick swap
one receptive mind to the next
instantaneous meaning transfer:

no such luck – there’s always
some unaccountable slippage

the thing is that reliance on words
for meaning creates meaning
where it could well be that none exists –
for example language creates
categories of difference:
sane v insane
intellectual v the rest
homosexual v heterosexual
words themselves create
(the young child inculcated into
‘liking’ & ‘not-liking’)
political division – left & right

the mechanism of theory
imposes meaning
where there was no meaning before:
Freudian theory for example
id superego ego
an ideational structures
way beyond
the ‘natural standpoint’ of
the common ‘desiring machines’ that we are –
outside any possible theoretical structures

Structure v Actuality –
the Grand Narratives
fix knowledge into a structure
whereas little narratives
(the stories we tell ourselves)
are for the moment specific
individually creative

there was a time when iron & steel
were the commodities of power
but now there’s the mercantilisation
of knowledge – a pluralisation of knowledges
separate realms of a babel discourse

knowledge becomes the world’s
most significant commodity;
its control is political control:
knowledge is power –
who owns the data-banks
legitimises all those new narratives that bewitch us so

without an accepted hierarchy of learning
knowledge becomes merely performative
in a flat network
a heterogeneity of competing
local knowledges
islands of determinism –
after the demise of the Grand Narratives
it’s no longer a matter of discovering ‘the Truth’
but of finding out what works & what pays

how fragile they are –
the Narratives that always seemed so Grand…
you simply have to stop believing in them:
when this happens on a grand scale
they just collapse in on themselves
like a Soviet Union –
all that’s left are mere bare disconnected events
to be assessed & valued
as & when –
absence of absolute criteria;
no foundational matrix
just a thinking and a valuing

then there are ‘differends’ –
completely unresolvable differences
which result in each party to a dispute
inhabiting a different ‘phrase regime’
leaving the forces of techno-science
(usually in the shape of
multi-national conglomerates)
to exert their iron control –
to hi-jack the course of human history –
thought without thinker

what price difference then…
& unpredictability?

small-hearted narrative resistance
is an ethical choice
in the cause of difference

meanwhile all reality and meaning
has become symbols and signs:
‘simulacra’; human experience
a simulation of reality
subject to the make-up of
the ‘new news at the new court’…
exactly As You Like It
not merely mediating reality
nor even setting up deceptive mediations of reality;
not based in a reality at all –
nor do they hide a reality
they simply hide the idea that anything like ‘reality’
is relevant to our current understanding of our lives:

simulacra are the significations and symbolism
of culture and media
that construct perceived reality;
society is saturated with simulacra;
our lives so saturated with societal constructs –
meaninglessness in the infinitely mutable

on the radio a professor of something or other
talks blithely about robots simulating
soldier activities in the defence of the realm
while dressed in chemical resistant clobber;
the interviewer laughs (as interviewers
do when faced with something serious)
about whether the uniform will work
only 90% of the time
then the sports commentator
chunters on about England’s prospects
against South Africa
in some game or the other
and they laugh about women beating
the men at it and then we get horse-racing odds

you can talk about all this philosophically –
it’s the endless conversation of humankind
that floats above and beyond washing the dishes
and looking after the kids
– a consistently updated scepticism
which is in itself a very Grand Narrative!
perhaps the grandest of all…

heretofore there was an assumption
that science was the disinterested
search for facts
but scientific agendas
are set by squabbles & disagreements
empire-building & money –
science is no longer the disinterested study of Nature:
it’s a narrative; a key part
of the social construction of ‘reality’:
we must have missile-guidance systems
the most up-to-the-minute ways
of killing people we don’t much like
must subscribe
to all the latest e-gismos
which we are told
we cannot do without

headline in the New York Times
International Weekly:
‘Face of Science is Reshaped by Billionaires’ –
tycoons fund pet projects
and critics fear skewed priorities

after public spending cuts
laboratories shut down
scientists laid off
and projects shelved –
the practice of science in the 21st century
becomes shaped less by human priorities
or by peer-review groups
more by the particular preferences
of individuals with huge amounts of money –
science a private enterprise;
science philanthropy is hot;
the tycoons seek to reinvent themselves
as patrons of social progress:
private missions into deep space
private wars on disease –
a jumble of private feel-good projects
replace the basic but uninspiring research
into the things that really matter

so whose science is it?
whose knowledge?
in the age of artificial intelligence
cybernetic organisms & cyborgs
the goal is not Truth but Performance:
does it work?
can it do it?
will it make money?

loss of intellectual rigour;
anything goes;
one paradigm as good
as the next;
science a language game
like shopping or politics
philosophy or work

the economic survival of science
depends on new technologies
not simply a desire to know –
it has to perform as a business
minimum in (labour costs
machinery administration)
maximum out
(productivity self-regulation
automation profit)

must aim at economic success
techno-science = capitalism
all language games mean profit

through the 1970’s & 80’s ‘modernism’
was said to be
repressive clinical & self-possessed

the modernist painter
devoted much time to exploring
the nature of the medium itself –
to the flatness of the canvas
its physical reality
the luminosity or opacity
of colour
the shape of paint in & for itself
there was a deep concern
for the nature of the thing in itself
as against the nihilism
of Capitalism
(the social management of ordinary experience)

what if life were simply canvas & paint?
how might you arrange it
in a frame of your own making?
divide up the space so it makes sense –
heart & soul & mind in it?

the post-modernists fail to see it like this:
they harness allegory
parody & narrative quotation
thinking that such things might
revivify art as they understand it…
and so we arrive at pop-post-modernism
as against serious post-modernism
which remains in the modernism mode
now we have a soul-less geometry
a form of confinement –
the visual language of
a multi-national corporation
that knows no better
the square logic of late monopoly Capitalism
soul-less grids of social financial
& governmental networks;
the garish imprisoning spaces of consumerism
& surveillance
the grid itself

Halley 1

Peter Halley

monument to unending movement
the abstract flow of goods
capital & information
the imprisonment of experience
in the techniques of advertising

under late monopoly Capitalism
what was once called ‘going down to the shops’
for a specific purpose
becomes the abstraction ‘shopping’
redefined as urban tourism
commodities its souvenirs;
shopping as a leisure experience
transforms consumption
into something exciting
(art gallery as shopping mall)

are we dealing here with banal art
or an art about banality?
are we dealing with pop-post-modernism
or a serious extension of modernism?

what would Edgar Varèse
have done with a computer?

Halley 2

Peter Halley

periodicity in itself
creates false distinctions –
is it not all just an endless
conversation of humanunkind?
one thing becoming another
world without end?
do we not impose our notions of historicity
on what is all just a savage parade called Time
of which we have lost the key?
and all of us being made fools of –
fools of Time

consciousness becomes marked
by a sense of transcendental homelessness;
being becomes a kind of alienation;
life a form of exile
and loss
in simulated realities

Richard Serra

Richard Serra

the real is composed
of the pictures we make of it
guided by
an experience which is governed more & more
by pictures
in newspapers & magazines
on telly and in the cinema

our experience of reality
is organised & determined
by the images presented to us –
the visual construction of reality
replaces first-hand experience
which begins to retreat –
to seem more & more a trivial pursuit

in one hour of telly-viewing
each of us
will experience more images
than somebody in non-industrial society
would in a lifetime:
the flood of images
changes the brain
and gives you a craving for more

we become locked into the desirability
of commodities
with an emphasis on style novelty & innovation

rubbishing the process
by rubbishing the contrived image
can perhaps re-establish
the truth of live observation
and commitment to things in themselves

Jeff Koons

Jeff Koons

what if we could make a stand
and by-pass the cynical allurements
of post-modernist art
and come to see it as taking off
from where Dada left us
100 years ago – looking foolish
standing by a urinal?

the history of art
has become a vast cultural repertoire
to be raided by ignorant advertisers
looking for a new take
on a product
the promotion of a life-style
being more important than its function

not consuming the media
not watching TV
is a genuine act of transgression

observe the archetypal decentred human
shaped into an extension of small-screen technology
admirably suited to the new era –
product of technological innovation
& ideological uncertainties –
a mirrored reality
with a maximum attention span
of three minutes glued to
a world of fragmented instants
cruising a surfeit of channels
zapping the remote
no connection with time or space or genre
unconcerned with narrative connections
with coherence or rational understanding
constructing a bored & distracted
random bricolage
out of stray bits & pieces
of flickering dots

the post-modern is made to seem
to be a homogeneous movement –
something hooked on to
the last part of the twentieth century –
it turns out to be in itself
a collage of different strands
the combined effect of which
is an attack on intellect
& sensibility
on socialism & utopian idealism –
look through all the nonsense:
take away the labels
and you arrive at the fact
of people doing things

pop goes the post-modern

what others call ‘post-modern’
you could just call an attack on intellect:
for example
the excesses of TV –
recycling bricolage & self-referentiality
parody & pastiche
constant shift between fact & fiction
realism & fantasy
past present & future
with special fx
to warp or wipe out the world
one has known quite well –
TV culture bends the mind
shapes it to its own imaging

the post-modern novel
challenges the norms of narrative unity
and decorum:
dominant features are
temporal disorder; erosion of the sense of time;
pointless pastiche; words as fragments
of material signs; loss of distinction
between logically separate levels of discourse;
loose associations of discourse;
vicious circles

a metaphor of derangement
in the wider society
beyond measurement;
conventions of verisimilitude
and sanity nullified

says the postmodernist:
it’s all been done before…
it’s the end of history
there are no new styles or words;
only a limited number of combinations –
all that’s left to do is to pluck
existing styles higgledy-piggledy
from the reservoir of literary history
and stitch them up
with a little tact

plot is pounded into small slabs
of event & circumstance;
characters disintegrate
into bundles of twitching desires;
settings are little more than
transitory backdrops;
themes become so attenuated
that it’s impossible to say
what’s it’s all about

wholeness & completion
are distrusted
disruption becomes the norm;
uncertainty prevails

quotations pictures diagrams
charts & designs
totally unrelated to any story-line

‘fragments are the only forms I trust’
says Donald Barthelme; wariness
of wholeness…
well – I’ve read & relished
Barthelme & Brautigan
Calvino & Vonnegut & BSJohnson
and never ever thought
to pin a label on them –
it just seemed the way to write a modern novel

‘post-modernism’ is an abstraction
that conceals a multitude
of possibilities;
labelled thus
the methodology in the air we breathe
is appropriated
(no doubt unwittingly)
by the Right (by Capitalism)
as a way of subverting sense
& meaning in the political scene;
deliberate political chaos
& confusion of the electorate

Cantos for the inarticulate

virus words & phrases
leitmotifs & idées fixes
fixed ideas; conventional wisdoms:
‘reducing the deficit’
‘austerity measures’

you may dread that somebody else
is patterning life
feel total engulfment
by somebody else’s system –
invisible plots
conditioning ubiquitous

arises a distrust of fixity
of being circumscribed
being plotted against
so before anybody gets your plot
you change it
and then multiply the plots
so nobody knows what’s being played out

when the whole social scheme
is a plot against its citizen
all the major events of history
are constructed as side-shows
orchestrated by unseen ringmasters
to keep us quiet
in our helplessness

this missing airliner –
how do we know it ever took off?
probably an elaborate hoax
designed to make us feel small
in the face of the ‘search’
that is said to cover
thousands of square miles –
the technologies;
the human fictions

knowledge itself becomes
indeterminate –
a plethora of incommensurate discourses
all values dissolved

in music post-modernism ousted
the notion of art for art’s sake –
the notes themselves for the sake
of the notes themselves: their sounds
the counterpoint…
destroyed the linear paradigm
and substituted cultural relativism
made serious radio into a jolly charade
& chat show with bleeding chunks of music –
‘opera without the boring bits’ –
advertising gimmickry

loss of a clear distinction
between high & low culture
in favour of what’s hailed as
a new sensibility
a new historical moment
a new cultural style

Blake had the answer:
each of us must create our own system
or else become a slave to somebody else’s

has been said to be marked by suspicion
of all things popular
of anything commercial by origin –
so I am a modernist
heart & soul & head & in my bones;
member of the discarded
older generation –
a futile intellectual
stuck in a modernist meta-narrative
concerned with mastery of paint & design
& stave organisation
(though words will always have their way)
patriarchal & imperialist
so it seems –
thus speak the voices
from the sidelines of post-modernism

post-modern culture is a world
in which stylistic innovation
is no longer possible (so they say –
wildly & tastelessly innovating as they say it)
we just imitate dead styles
for the sake of it;
speak through masks
with the voices of styles
in imaginary museums –
the culture of quotations
of images & surfaces
dead ends
a perpetual present
flat & depthless

so now there’s a ghastly assumption
that pop songs are the true soundtrack
of daily life – inescapable
in lifts & airports pubs & restaurants
& shopping malls
that we all want to listen to them

flying ducks & garden gnomes
in inverted commas

Lyotard would no doubt call this
‘svelteness’ – operating freely
without being tied to a grand narrative

in the age of designer labels
all aspects of culture & identity
are subject to packaging
and ‘post-modernism’ – the label –
does the trick
but it provokes a fearsome fuss
paradox & provocation:
but how can ‘modernity’ – the NOW –
ever possibly be ‘post’ anything?

NOW is a long epoch
of historical change
fueled by
scientific & technological imperatives
penetrating every nook & cranny of the errant soul
& of the capitalist market economy

but NOW when every aspect of the past
can be made accessible electronically
mediated packaged presented
& re-presented
it seems that
we are at the end of time
– nowhere else to go
except reproduce;
condemn the consecutive narratives
of the past to the dustbin
and assert the start
of a thousand years of capitalism
& market forces

(‘bad faith’ said Sartre)
is used when we feel constrained
to grasp complexity whole;
but the labels themselves
(like all abstractions)
conceal complexity
lend it a spurious shorthand reductionist

it’s not perhaps that the label
means any single thing (or anything at all)
but just that
in this age (lengthy NOW)
cultural activity
is dominated by the media industry
capable of appealing to the public
over the heads of a cultural elite
a tidal wave
here today & gone tomorrow

we are taken in
packaged labelled
and spat upon –
consumers & customers
whether we like it or not

it’s so difficult to dissent
from a windy amorphous abstraction
escaping into the cracks of language
purporting to investigate
slippages of meaning
while itself slipping through the gaps –
it’s difficult to dissent
from something that seems
to be about dissent –
modernism under new management…
not a programme
still less an intellectual framework
more a mood a feeling in the air
a Zeitgeist
playful & joyous
awkward & petulant
a Dada modernity un-de-re-labled

post-modernism merely an extension
of the critical sceptical
dissenting nihilistic
impulses in modernity –
subjectivist amoral
fragmentary arbitrary
defeatist wilful –
and is there some hidden affirmation?
apart from allowing the forces of Capitalism
to slip in
uninvited unwelcome
unnoticed shadows at the party?
the chaos – bitter logic
that the end of Grand Narratives
is in deregulation
repudiation of story-line…
anything goes

modernism – its narratives –
at least had a dream of a better world
which could be legislated for;
to stand up for that
makes one seem guilty
of wanting to resuscitate
worn-out illusions
the old theoretical frameworks
social movements
condemned by postmodernists

but the nature of exploitation
is unchanged
postmodernism is the obscene logic of late capitalism
symptomatic of it
at this late phase:
capitalism as techno-capital

modernity is an unfinished project;
post-modernism is neo-conservatism
with its systematically distorted
& devious brain-washing
its fragmentation & contingent performance
its ruptures that defy discussion

no apparent chance of synthesis…

Then I found myself starting over again with reflections on Fredric Jameson, Marxist interpreter of Postmodernism…

in postmodernism

premonitions of the future
whether catastrophic or redemptive
are replaced by a sense of the end of this or that –
of ideology
of art
of social class
of socialism
social democracy
and the welfare state

there is supposed to have been
some radical break
generally traced back to the end of the 1950’s
most often related to notions of the waning or extinction
(the ideological or aesthetic repudiation)
of the hundred-year-old modern movement:
abstract expressionism in painting
existentialism in philosophy
representation in the novel
the films of the great auteurs
the modernist school of poetry
seen as the final
extraordinary flowering of a high-modernist impulse
now spent and exhausted –
what follows becomes empirical
chaotic and heterogeneous:
Andy Warhol and pop art
photorealism; four minutes thirty-three seconds if Cage;
the synthesis of classical and ‘popular’ styles
of composers like Philip Glass and Terry Riley
punk and new wave rock
in film Godard-post-Godard
experimental cinema and video

but the question has to be asked –
does all this imply
a change or break any more fundamental
than the periodic style and fashion changes
determined by an older high-modernist
imperative of stylistic innovation?

architecture is easier to observe
than words & fleeting images –
it makes dramatically visible
modifications in aesthetic production:
high modernism is credited
with the destruction of the fabric of the traditional city
and its older neighbourhood culture
by way of the radical disjunction
of the new Utopian high-modernist building
from its surrounding context;
the prophetic elitism and authoritarianism
of the modern movement
are remorselessly identified
with the imperious gesture
of the charismatic Master –

against which postmodernism in architecture
stages itself as a kind of aesthetic populism
(disneyland gherkin & shard) – it’s a monument
to the overall fascination
with a degraded landscape of schlock and kitsch;
of the TV series and Reader’s Digest culture;
of advertising and motels;
of the late show and the grade-B Hollywood film;
of airport paperback categories of the gothic and the romance;
of the popular biography;
murder mystery
science fiction or fantasy novel –
materials no longer simply ‘quoted’
but incorporated into the very substance of creation

it’s not just a cultural affair:
theories of the postmodern
bring us news of the arrival and inauguration
of a whole new type of society:
consumer society
media society
information society
electronic or high tech society

every position on postmodernism in culture –
apologia or stigmatisation –
is also at one and the same time
a political stance (implicit or explicit)
on the nature of multinational capitalism as it is now

the periodising hypothesis
tends to obliterate difference
and to project an idea of the historical period
as massive homogeneity
in a setting of inexplicable chronological metamorphoses
but ‘postmodernism’ is not a style –
it’s a pervasive cultural dominant with a range
of very different subordinate features
impossible to assimilate
unless you stick at it

the powerful alternative position is that postmodernism
is itself little more than one more stage
of modernism proper (even of older romanticism) –
that all the features of postmodernism
can be detected full-blown
in this or that preceding modernism:
Gertrude Stein Marcel Duchamp
postmodernists avant la lettre
passionately repudiated
as variously ugly dissonant obscure scandalous
immoral subversive
and generally ‘antisocial’
all attitudes now archaic…

the younger generation of the 1960’s
confronted the formerly oppositional modern movement
as a set of dead classics –
hence the emergence of postmodernism itself
weighing like a nightmare on the brains of the living

the postmodern revolt has its very own offensive features –
obscurity sexually explicit material
psychological squalor
and overt expressions of social and political defiance
transcending anything that might have been imagined
at the most extreme moments of high modernism
no longer scandalising
received with the greatest complacency
at one with the official/public culture of Western society

aesthetic production
is integrated into commodity production generally:
the frantic economic urgency
of producing fresh waves of ever more novel-seeming goods;
aesthetic innovation and experimentation
from clothing to aeroplanes
at ever greater rates of turnover…

there follow varied kinds of
institutional support
for the newer art – foundations & grants to museums:
the extraordinary flowering
of postmodern architecture
is grounded
in the patronage of multinational business

and the whole global postmodern culture
is the internal and superstructural expression
of a whole new wave
of American military and economic world domination –
the underside of culture is blood torture death and terror;
whereas this has always been the case
‘postmodernism’ thrives on it –
is structurally build on it
opposition impossible
a fall back into a view of present history
as sheer heterogeneity random difference
a coexistence of a host of distinct forces
that cannot be gainsaid

a new depthlessness
a whole new culture of the image or the simulacrum
a consequent weakening of historicity
– puts the brakes on the idea that there’s a historical purpose
that things are leading somewhere
conspiring to make us think
that we are at the apex of success and correctness
which gives us the right to re-interpret
the inconsequential flux of things

public History and private temporality
both determine new types of syntax
a whole new type of ‘intensities’

a whole new technology –
figure for a whole new economic world system;
mutations in the lived experience of built space itself
requiring reflections on the mission of political art
in the bewildering new world space
of late or multinational capital

it is a bewildering new world space –
we are deliberately kept in the dark
by the postmodernist ruse
of making everything politically chaotic –
and so the question becomes
how to de-bewilder ourselves…

surely unacceptable is
the complacent (yet delirious) camp-following celebration
of this aesthetic new world
including its social and economic dimension
greeted with equal enthusiasm
under the slogan of ‘postindustrial society’:
current fantasies about the salvational nature of high technology
from chips to robots
is of a piece with more vulgar apologetics for postmodernism

likewise unacceptable are moral condemnations
of the postmodern and of its essential triviality
when juxtaposed against the Utopian ‘high seriousness’
of the great modernisms:
no doubt the logic of the simulacrum
with its transformation of older realities into television images
does more than merely replicate the logic of late capitalism;
it reinforces and intensifies it;
meanwhile for political groups which seek
actively to intervene in history and to modify
its otherwise passive momentum
whether with a view towards channelling it
into a socialist transformation of society
or diverting it into the regressive re-establishment
of some simpler fantasy past
there cannot but be much that is deplorable
and reprehensible in a cultural form
of an image addiction
that transforms the past into visual mirages
stereotypes & texts
effectively abolishing any practical sense of the future
and of a collective project
abandoning any thought of future change
except in fantasies of sheer catastrophe
and inexplicable cataclysm;

yet if postmodernism is a historical phenomenon,
then the attempt to conceptualise it
in terms of moralising judgments
must finally be identified as a category mistake

the cultural critic and moralist
along with all the rest of us,
is now so deeply immersed in postmodernist space –
so deeply suffused and infected by its new cultural categories,
that the luxury of the old-fashioned ideological & moral critique
becomes unavailable –
required is some other way of desuffusing & disinfecting

we could choose to recognise
two different universes of practice:
there’s individual moralising
and there are collective social values and practices;
there’s the historical development of capitalism itself
and the deployment of a specific bourgeois culture…

Marx powerfully urged us to do the impossible –
to think of this development positively and negatively all at once:
to grasp the demonstrably baleful features of capitalism
along with its extraordinary and liberating dynamism
simultaneously within a single thought
without attenuating any of the force of either judgment –
henceforth we are somehow to lift our minds to a point
at which it is possible to understand
that capitalism is at one and the same time
the best thing
that has ever happened to the human race
and the worst

it’s all too easy to lapse from this austere dialectical imperative
into the more comfortable stance of the taking up of moral positions
but there’s an urgent demand that we make
at least some effort to think about the cultural evolution
of late capitalism dialectically –
as catastrophe and progress both together…

is it possible that there is some ‘moment of truth’
within the more evident ‘moments of falsehood’
of postmodern culture?
and what are the possibilities of action under the impenetrable fog
of historical inevitability?
and what about the construction of
a genuine political culture of dissent & reconstruction?

and what about the function of culture specifically
since ‘postmodernism’ seems to be inseparable from
and unthinkable without the hypothesis of
some fundamental mutation of the sphere of culture
in the world of late capitalism
which includes a momentous modification of its social function;
there always did seem to be a ‘semi-autonomy’
in the cultural realm ghostly yet Utopian
above the practical world
whose mirror image it throws back in diverse forms

is it not precisely this semi-autonomy of the cultural sphere
which has been destroyed by the logic of late capitalism?

it might very well seem thus
but we must affirm that the dissolution
of an autonomous sphere of culture
could rather be imagined in terms of an explosion:
a prodigious expansion of culture throughout the social realm
to the point at which everything in our social life –
from economic value and state power
to the very structure of the psyche itself –
can be said to have become ‘cultural’
in some original and yet untheorised sense
which could be quite consistent with the diagnosis
of a society of the image or the simulacrum
and a transformation of the ‘real’
into so many pseudo-events

in the past there’s always been the possibility
of the positioning of the cultural act
outside the massive Being of capital,
from which to assault this last
but now distance in general
including ‘critical distance’ in particular
has very precisely been abolished
in the new space of postmodernism

postmodern minds & bodies are bereft of spatial coordinates
practically incapable of distantiation;
the prodigious new expansion of multinational capital
ends up penetrating and colonising
even Nature and the Unconscious
which did at least offer footholds for a critical response

a situation in which we all somehow dimly feel
that not only punctual and local counter-culture forms
of cultural resistance and guerrilla warfare
but also even overtly political interventions
are all somehow secretly disarmed and reabsorbed
by a system of which they themselves
might well be considered a part,
since they can achieve no distance from it

we can achieve no distance from it
because we are absorbed in it…

it is precisely this whole extraordinarily demoralising
and depressing original new global space
which is the ‘moment of truth’ of postmodernism

it moves closest to the surface of consciousness
as a coherent new type of space in its own right –
in a disguise especially in the high-tech thematics
in which it is now dramatised and articulated

it’s the third great original expansion of capitalism around the globe
after the earlier expansions of the national market
and the even older imperialist system
which each had their own cultural specificity
and generated new types of space appropriate to their dynamics

a new form of realism
or at least of the mimesis of reality
while at the same time they can equally well be analysed
as so many attempts to distract and divert us
from any reality
to disguise the contradictions
and resolve them in the guise of various formal mystifications

the way things are –
the as yet untheorised original space
of some new ‘world system’ of multinational late capitalism
a space whose negative or baleful aspects are only too obvious –
the dialectic requires us to hold equally
to a positive or ‘progressive’ evaluation of its emergence:
socialism is not a matter of returning to smaller
less repressive systems of social organisation;
the dimension attained by capital
can be grasped as the promise & framework
& precondition for the achievement
of some new and more comprehensive socialism

the pedagogical and the didactic age-old functions of art
can be reinterpeted to suit our age –
perhaps the development
of a new aesthetic of cognitive mapping.

the alienated city is above all a space
in which people are unable to make mental maps
of self or of urban social totality
in which they find themselves:
the traditional markers
(monuments & nodes & natural boundaries – built perspectives)
gone –
there’s no longer a felt direction

the practical reconquest of a sense of place
and the reconstruction of an articulated ensemble
which can be retained in memory
and which the individual subject can map
and remap
project a new cartography
on to larger national and global spaces

the cognitive map is not exactly mimetic –
it works on a higher and much more complex level
as the representation of the subject’s imaginary relationship
to a real condition of existence
enabling an individual situational representation
to fit the vaster totality
which is the ensemble of society’s structures as a whole

right now we are involved in pre-cartographic operations –
itineraries rather than map-making:
diagrams organised around the subject-centred
existential journey of the traveller
along which various significant key features are marked –
pathways & oases & mountain ranges
rivers & monuments
and a nautical itinerary –
sea chart with coastal features noted
for the use of those navigators
who rarely venture out into the open sea

what’s required is a compass
for a new dimension in our sea charts
one which will utterly transform
a problematic itinerary allowing us
to pose the problem of
a genuine cognitive mapping
in a far more complex way;
the new instruments will have to
introduce a whole new coordinate:
a relationship to a totality,
particularly as it is mediated by the stars
and by new operations that track the changes
induced by measurement;
cognitive mapping comes to require
the delicate coordination of existential data
(the empirical position of the subject)
with abstract conceptions of the geographic totality

the map precedes the territory –
the question is who are the map-makers?
and how broad is the territory that will fill the map?

there can be no true maps
of social class and national or international context;
no certainty about the way we cognitively map
our individual social relationship to local,
national, and international class realities
but it’s worth reformulating the problem in this way
in order to come starkly up against those very difficulties
in mapping which are posed in heightened and original ways
by the very global space of the postmodernist
global moment

there are urgent practical political consequences
in depicting the way traditional production has disappeared
where social classes of the classical type no longer exist –
there is an immediate effect on political praxis

the existential positioning of the individual subject
with experience of daily life –
the monadic ‘point of view’ on the world
to which we biological subjects are necessarily restricted
is implicitly opposed to the realm of abstract knowledge
a realm never positioned in
or actualised by any concrete subject
but rather in a structural void

it’s not that we cannot know the world
and its totality in some abstract or ‘scientific’ way;
it’s not that the global world system
is unknowable
but merely that it’s unrepresentable
which is a very different matter;
we thinkers must somehow
invent a way of articulating the gap
between existential experience and scientific knowledge

a historicist view would propose
that the production of functioning and living ideologies
is strictly relative to different historical situations;
that there may be some
in which it is not possible at all –
like the current crisis perhaps

enter the notion of cartography –
an aesthetic of cognitive mapping –
a pedagogical political culture
which seeks to endow the individual subject
with some new heightened sense of its place in the global system –
it will necessarily have to invent radically new forms
not by returning to some older kind of machinery
some older and more transparent national space
or something more traditional and reassuring;
the new political art (if it is possible at all)
will have to hold to the truth of postmodernism,
that is to say, to its fundamental object –
the world space of multinational capital –
at the same time as achieving a breakthrough
to some as yet unimaginable
new way of representing the dichotomy
in which we may again begin to grasp our positioning
as individual and collective subjects
and regain a capacity to act and struggle
which is at present neutralised by our spatial
as well as our social confusion;
the political form of postmodernism,
will have as its vocation
the invention and projection
of a global cognitive mapping,
on a social as well as a spatial scale

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A Large Rock

Here I am sitting on a seat in the sun in a warm conservatory on a large rock hurtling through space at a good few thousand miles per hour and spinning round the heat of the sun at an equally unimaginable speed and there are chaffinches conversing across the gardens ─ you hear one stop and another over the road make some kind of answer. It seems pretty clear that there really is all that going on out there ─ no room for any kind of philosophical doubt ─ but it’s not at all clear how or why. You could call it ‘reality’ and imagine your very own self to be at the dead centre of it all; whatever it is that you are the pivot of stretches out into regions beyond distant galaxies and back ─ right down to the earth you dug ready for sowing & planting yesterday ─ Spring Equinox 2014.

I know that when I move, everything else changes location; the very act of talking about it changes whatever it might have been before I started talking; when I speak with another person I find, as if surprised, that their perspective is different from mine, tangential to it or by-passing it completely. Embark upon a paragraph and pressurised by words it all changes from what I first thought of writing. Heisenberg behind the arras. Things emerge.

But there certainly are real things out there ─ galaxies, sun, moon, clouds, chaffinches, hedge-shadows, daffodils, sleeping cat, green sward… There is a lazy habit of bundling all this up together with relationships and socio-economic systems to call it ‘reality’, mine, yours, somebody else’s. All that’s, without doubt, out there in its complex kind of way ─ interrelated systemic cycles of Being ─ it impinges ─ my cycle overlaps yours somehow is overlapped by the latest news of an airliner that’s mysteriously disappeared to gum up the ‘news’ bulletins, interfused with a report on the most up-to-date bit of brain-washing from some politico indifferent to the systemic nature of… huh, ‘reality’, relying on virus words to spread contagion ─ something about ‘having to make difficult choices/difficult decisions…’ when anybody with a square inch of intelligence knows very well that a millionaire chancellor has no qualms whatsoever about putting people out of work and dismantling the Welfare State ─ the easiest thing in the world when the quality of your own living space is not affected in the least. Well, until the riots arrive at your gates – then they might start hopping around…

There are realities out there: multiple thinginesses in structural relationships. In a single moment of time it may be that one can bundle it all up and call it ‘reality’ and make a pretence of ‘meaning’. But then, attitudes to language being what they are, it’s so easy in the process of thinking for the abstraction ‘reality’ and the abstraction ‘meaning’ to come to assume some significance quite apart from the complexity one might have been fishing around for in the first place.

‘In the first place…’ For the neonate it’s all one huge Undifferentiated Unity; it doesn’t think at all in terms of ‘reality’ or ‘meaning’: there are just sights and sounds & feelings in contemporaneity ─ not even a bundling up which is a reductionist activity for later on, after First Education differentiation.

Education is fragmentation ─ choose your own favourite bundling mode.

Language, attaching words to what happens, is fragmentation & categorisation. In fact, things just happen, as Gurdjieff says.

The Infinite Unclassifiable

There is no central organising principle to fundamental ‘reality’. Even the idea that it might conceivably have had such a principle is part of the categorising process. You can call it Thereness, maybe, but it has no core. Human-beings, faced with the infinite flexibility of just-thereness, have sought to tie things down by inventing words, producing models, schemes of thinking, in order to contrive a core or at least a way of categorising the just-thereness that seems to suit them.

All manner of linguistic conjuring tricks have been contrived. As with all such tricks the effect, if not the aim, is to prevent us from recognising reality when it’s staring us in the face; words get in the way of what’s actually there: the word ‘tree’ gets in the way of the actual perception of the object in itself ─ it enforces the conventional perception of ‘treeness’, the Form of Tree, rather than, say, ‘bug-home’ or ‘bird-hideaway’; in metaphysical systems, the notion of the permanence of substance with God at the top of the hierarchy was offered as the ground of ‘reality’ from the pre-Socratics onward. Now, substance has fragmented into atoms, particles, energy, force-fields, quanta, laws of nature…

Descartes offered us subjectivism: mind is the primary substance of which things are merely extension or projection; the ultimate was Berkeley’s idealism which had it that mind was what kept things in their place, ultimately the Mind of God; without human mind or the Mind of God nothing would exist. This led to the dichotomy of science v philosophy, science claiming to deal in sticks & stones, their independent and certain existence, while philosophy was about fairyland.

Another linguistic conjuring trick, one designed to bridge the conceptual dichotomy brought into being by those who made the substantialism/ subjectivism distinction, was that which suggested that everything is part of an absolute and mysterious One ─ Parmenides’ metaphysical invention to be compared with the neonate’s pre-conceptual Undifferentiated Unity but one deriving from intellectual rummaging rather than a natural state.

A fourth great conjuring trick is the suggestion that all we can do is think in terms of models of reality: it’s not that any of them depict things as they really are ─ that idea in itself might well be the result of the application of a model or indeed form the basis of one ─ but that each acts as an instrument for ordering and explaining observations and predictions in spite of themselves. Everything is a mental construct: both philosophy and science (and religion & all other systems) are models of how the mind invents ‘reality’. What’s called ‘Instrumentalism’ is not about things as they are (or might be) but about collections of statements about the nature of reality; it is a meta-position neither subjective nor objective but ratcheted up a level. The very notion of ‘reality’ is denied: the question ‘What is the nature of reality?’ ought never to have been asked since in itself it posits the existence of that which it seems to ask about – viz ‘reality’. All we can do is to think in models ─ engage with an information process that does not concern itself with metaphysical questions about ‘reality’.

So there are four fundamental bits of intellectual prestidigitation: assertions about the substantiality of things out there; surrender to a subjectivity which takes things to be merely an extension of mind; the invention of holism which takes everything to be part of a great Oneness; and instrumentalism which has it that all that’s possible is to fiddle around with a variety of models of what might constitute ‘reality’ ─ something designated thus.

With a shower of verbalising, each fortified position becomes more and more tied in to the way things are and, to confuse matters even further, the historical development of arguments between their proponents produces a variety of what are regarded as subtle alternatives. All this gets in the way of what one might call the Interface between pure mentation, the reception of Pure Impressions, and what’s out there just as it is & always has been.

Is there a way out of all this? Is it possible to produce a way of thinking that is not just a conjuring trick? Or is it all rabbits out of hats & sawing the boxed up lady in half? If anything, it would maybe have to partake of the quality of provisionality, a constant approximation to the way things really are or might be…

There are things out there, including our own body-mind system; one can shift attention so that it certainly does feel as though everything is an integral part of a whole; and we do create models of reality for ourselves. And, except for those who cannot tolerate such ambiguity, it’s all provisional in the sense that constant seeking & exploration has to take in what’s gone before and work with it into an uncertain future; ideas & concepts that once seemed stable & certain get modified and are always subject to transformation; new ways of looking at things emerge from the old ones. Stuff arises like now ─ in immediacy. Things happen as a result of other things happening. Everything is systemic.

The poem-writer looks at the world from which patterns constantly emerge: they act as metaphors for a state of being ─ objective correlatives, in TSEliot’s familiar phrase; they can be ambushed and fashioned into sequences of words; a poem is born that way.

Ted Hughes wrote a poem called The Thought Fox which is, for me, the best expression of this process that I know of:-

I imagine this moment’s midnight forest:
Something else is alive
Beside the clock’s loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.

Through the window I see no star:
Something more near
Though deeper within darkness
is entering the loneliness:

Cold, delicately as the dark snow,
A fox’s nose touches twig, leaf;
Two eyes serve a movement, that now
And again now, and now, and now

Sets neat prints into the snow
Between trees, and warily a lame
Shadow lags by stump and in hollow
Of a body that is bold to come

Across clearings, an eye,
A widening deepening greenness,
Brilliantly, concentratedly,
Coming about its own business

Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox
It enters the dark hole of the head.
The window is starless still; the clock ticks,
The page is printed.

The context is real and centred on self ─ this moment now, an awareness of something else alive, a forest of thinking perhaps ─ the poet’s loneliness & blankness, current emptiness. Something (which may even at this stage be the beginnings of a poem) begins to emerge from the context of real & conceptualised events ─ the fox, perceived or not, a gathering together of visual & olfactory impressions enter the dark hole of the head to be worked at. The emergent property of the whole experience is the poem itself. Once it’s done the ordinary focus returns to window and clock.

One foot in front of another along a lane results in the emergence of what’s called ‘walking’ which can be extended into stroll, hike, tour, trek… The observer and the things observed brings about the emergence of visual and feeling-reaction. There’s a Being with its reaction to the quality of being. The emergent property is artefact, gesture or simply an awareness, a thing in itself except that it runs the risk of being generalised into the abstraction ‘consciousness’.

Arisings and the conditions of arising. Events and their interactions and emergings. Everything that arises does so because of other things; there is no independence: what you see depends on where you look; what you hear depends on what you direct your attention to or stop to listen for; what you feel depends on the liveliness of your senses; what you think depends on the grasping of input; what you imagine you know depends on the athleticism of your faculties. Then there all these emergings out of each system which in turn become parts of systems. Particles or waves; waves or particles? ‘Cause’ has no meaning apart from ‘effect’.

The upshot of all this is that there is no firm core of ‘reality’, simply vast numbers of systems of systems with emergent properties. Things appear separated but all is connected – thus Ouspensky.
So one escapes from the mind/body/knowledge problem by producing a model which is meta to the problem; it depicts the way things interact in an objective kind of way; it’s a spacious mind-field.

Get Real!

What does it mean – to get real? What is a reality check? What could you possibly check ‘reality’ against? Some other ‘reality? Yours against somebody’s else’s?

One can certainly have a picture of ‘reality’: it can be rich or impoverished; a rich picture is complex; impoverished pictures lack detail and systemic interrelatedness – they are disentangled, often produced in a hurry.

To get a rich picture chunk down for detail and up for entanglement & interrelationships; particles & waves, waves & particles. This is called ‘complementarity’ in the Quantum World. What with that movement up and down and the fact that the very isolation & measurement of what you’re considering changes it, the fundamental ‘reality’ becomes one of constant interaction. The forces of interaction are what glue things together – there are forces of attraction & repulsion.

It’s all Greek to me really, but I can grasp the idea that quantum physics is a new physical concept of reality that overturned dichotomous notions and replaced them with a systemic approach, substance & force and interchange. Heisenberg called elementary particles just the idea of matter – fields of force are the ultimate reality.

The mind requires something a bit more solid than this: it is content to opt for an escape into the relative simplicity of holism or instrumentalism, subjectivity or substantialism; each of these is a relaxation of intellectual focus. It’s a bit of a blow to mechanical intellect but it’s just not possible to get away from the double-sided nature of quantum objects; the fundamental physical reality consists of clouds of interacting quantum objects – it requires a leap of intellect to keep the clouds floating in air. I think this is the constant dance of ideas; it’s how I understand the Quantum world as a metaphor for thinking.

Reality is a Vast System of Systems

No system can possibly consist of one single independent entity.
Out of all the things I could have been doing in the last couple of days I have chosen to keep at this essay, a trial of provisional sense-making, a little attack on the infinite, an attempt to reduce a bit of it, my corner, to a trail of things for scrutiny. I have a determination to get some temporary order out of just this small portion of the universe, centred as it is on I-myself.

It’s an entanglement for the time being. I have chosen to be entangled in a cluster of thinking concerned with entanglements, meshes that last for a concentrated period of time & space, anything from half a minute to an hour or so, requiring getting up to consult a book, engaging in sub-entanglements like turning the LP record over and adjusting my ear-phones or stopping to look at gulls flying up or down river.

Any entanglement exists only for so long as I want it to: commitment to writing an essay just a few hours; commitment to concocting a book a few months or so; commitment to composing a piece of music anything from half-an-hour to a couple of weeks; a poem might fox its way on to the page in next to no time.

Entanglements, quantum packets, categories, bracketing…



I am not now sitting in a seat in the sun. That was a couple of days ago, the day after the Spring Equinox. Space-time has changed. I am in a different pair of brackets: I am in my ‘office’ entanglement, currently with Alan Rawsthorne’s Cello & Piano Sonata entering the hole in my head, looking out on a bright morning in spring and considering the things that are beyond my immediate apprehension of reality but which I know to be constitutive of it, an extension of this here & now (of budding apple tree and silver birch), holding me in place.

It reaches… in [some] fixed order of being into the limitless beyond. What is actually perceived and what is more or less clearly co-present and determinate… is partly pervaded, partly girt about with a dimly apprehended depth or fringe of indeterminate reality…

This is Edmund Husserl (in Morton White’s Age of Analysis – ancient Mentor paperback I absorbed 55 years ago – I wonder whether all the foregoing is a result) who rather beautifully describes the Undifferentiated Unity of the neonate which can also be the uncluttered moment of ordinary being. He calls it the Natural Standpoint.

Our first outlook on life is that of natural human-beings, imaging, judging, feeling, willing, from the natural standpoint. Let us make clear to ourselves what this means in the form of simple meditations which we can best carry on in the first person.

I am aware of a world, spread out in space endlessly and in time becoming and become without end. I am aware of it which means first of all that I discover it immediately, intuitively. I experience it. Through sight, touch, hearing… sensory perception, corporeal things somehow spatially distributed are for me simply there, in verbal or figurative sense ‘present’, whether or not I pay them special attention by busying myself with them, considering, thinking, feeling, willing. Animal beings also… are immediately there for me; I look up, I see them, I hear them coming towards me, I grasp them by the hand; speaking with them, I [seem to] understand… what they are sensing and thinking, the feelings that stir them, what they wish or will. They too are present as realities in my field of intuition even when I pay them no attention. But it is not necessary that they and other objects likewise should be present precisely in my field of perception… I can let my attention wander from the writing-table. I have just seen and observed, through the unseen portions of the room behind my back to the verandah, into the garden, to the children in the summer-house, and so forth, to all the objects concerning which I precisely ‘know’ that they are there and yonder in my immediate co-perceived surroundings – a knowledge which has nothing of conceptual thinking in it; it first changes into clear intuiting with the bestowing of attention and even then only partially and for the most part very imperfectly.

One moves freely in a moment of being through a more or less specifically chosen bundling up of ‘reality’, a little entanglement. I can shift my standpoint in space and time, look this way and that, turn temporarily forwards and backwards; I can provide for myself constantly new and more or less clear and meaningful perceptions and representations, and images also more or less clear in which I make intuitable to myself whatever can possibly exist really or supposedly in the steadfast order of space & time. Choice of bundling depends on values, desires, interests, simple focus, concern, intention, accident, enthusiasm and practical considerations. There are so many shifting spontaneities of consciousness making up…

…the bringing of meaning into conceptual form through description, comparing and distinguishing, collecting & counting, presupposing and inferring, the theorising activity of consciousness… in its different forms & stages. Related to it likewise are the diverse acts and states of sentiment and will: approval & disapproval, joy & sorrow, desire & aversion, hope & fear, decision & action…

‘Thinginess’ is always there to be acted upon; other categories come into play – the structures of thinking, feeling, doing impinge constantly on the Natural Standpoint. This is the same for all of us and we all project what we take to be the only reality – our own – on to other people. Thus strife & difference, nuclear war & terrorism.

The Natural Standpoint is prior to all theories, ‘anticipatory ideas of any kind’, ‘agencies for uniting facts [in some way] together’, and it’s always worth shedding all those theories in order to return to the start.

Certain it is that there are things out there and then ideas about things: such a position ‘…endures persistently during the whole course of our life of natural endeavour…’ Descartes might have proposed systematic doubt (exempting God) but any such endeavour would not have affected what it was he might have chosen to doubt. I can contrive to doubt my current apprehension of cloudless blue but the expression of dubiety includes a reference to what I am supposed to be doubting. Blue sky just happens to be there.

Descartes chose to put God in brackets and work his system around them. At this late stage in history, we can bracket ‘systematic doubt’ as a stance – go ahead and doubt everything, especially ‘God’ but exempt my current apprehension of blue sky and the sound of Peter Racine Fricker’s Cello Sonata that not a lot of people have ever heard of…

More & More Brackets

…In relation to every thesis and wholly uncoerced we can use this peculiar ε͗ποχη, a certain refraining from judgement which is compatible with the unshaken and unshakable… The thesis is ‘put out of action’, bracketed, it passes off into the modified status of a ‘bracketed thesis’ and [any] judgement… is bracketed.

In brackets, Plato’s concept of Forms works – it’s a very neat idea. Outside the brackets it runs wild and causes philosophical, political & religious chaos. ‘God’ and his hierarchy in brackets is a pleasant model of reality but outside them it doesn’t compute. Doubting in brackets is OK but outside it’s a riot. You can put anything in brackets and delight in its stance: (any grand narrative), (any political or economic arrangement), (everything is illusion), (everything is absurd – has no meaning), (I make my own meaning – you make yours), (any theory under the sun) and so on.

…We put out of action the general thesis which belongs to the essence of the Natural Standpoint; we place in brackets whatever it includes respecting the nature of Being: the entire natural world therefore which is continually ‘there for us’, ‘present to our hand’, and will ever remain there is a ‘fact world’ of which we continue to be conscious, even though it pleases us to put it in brackets…

In brackets (the Natural Standpoint itself)…

If I do this, as I am fully free to do, I do not then deny ‘this world’, as though I were a sophist, I do not doubt that it is there, as though I were a sceptic, but I use the ‘phenomenological’ ε͗ποχη, which completely bars me from using any judgement that concerns spatio-temporal existence. (Dasein)Thus all sciences which relate to this natural world, though they stand never so firm to me, thought they fill me with wondering admiration, though I am far from a thought of objecting to them in the least degree, I disconnect them all, I make absolutely no use of their standards… I may accept [them] only after I have placed them in the bracket. That means, only the modified consciousness… in disconnection…

Husserl’s intention was not at all to discover a science free from theory. Every theory was acceptable when bracketed off; theories about anything are acceptable in brackets as possible ways of seeing things: (assertions about the substantiality of things out there), (subjectivity which takes things to be merely an extension of mind), (holism which takes everything to be part of a great Oneness), (instrumentalism – only a model)… One must be very careful when taking things out of their brackets to multiply them together – it could result in chaos & dissension.

For 55 years I have found ‘bracketing’ to be a useful thinking process: outlandish things work when you contemplate them in brackets; behaviour is always justifiable when it’s in brackets; the positive intentions one can attribute to even negative actions take off in brackets; put any methodology in brackets and it probably makes sense, but only while it’s contained there; a relationship, no matter how lovey-dovey, is a bracket set against all that flows around it; fantasies of one kind or another always make consecutive sense inside their brackets; put some damn fool resolution of a novel plot in brackets and it’s OK; bracketed off a particular writer’s quirks are fine; put a theory in brackets, making sure it doesn’t escape, and it will remain water-tight. Then you can find out what happens when you do multiply brackets: what systems emerge, what interesting juxtapositions occur, what connections can be made, and so on?

I put this essay in whatever brackets it might deserve.

Reality is in brackets.




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