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

*

longing
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

*

details
—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
anything

*

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
owl
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
Eroica

*

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
silver-sided
facing a silver sky

*

if childhood is ended
I can no longer be
loved

*

when the water
is still it can
know itself

(Claudio Naranjo)

*

what is there between
one thought
and another?

(ditto)

*

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

(ditto)

*

a soft breeze
swaying curtains
with regret

*

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

*

In a Hospital January 2011

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

*

polishing the floor
after a night
of bedlam

*

Razumovsky One
repeating
in my dreams

*

bare branches
through the hospital window
a flight of gulls

*

infinite care
for the legless man
fading away

*

shouting
in Italian
at the unresponsive night

*

Antonio
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

*

Interval

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

They were guillotined 72 years ago today. And they deserve remembering.


Originally posted on Well, This Is What I Think:

The White Rose Sophie Scholl and members of White Rose

One of the most disturbing, heart-rending and thought-provoking films we have ever seen was “Sophie Scholl – The Final Days”.

The movie covers the efforts of a resistance group fighting the Nazis called “White Rose” Although the White Rose is well known in Germany, it is not well known overseas.

Der Weissen Rose was a group of mostly students at the University of Munich in Bavaria. Some were studying philosophy. Most, but not all, were religious in some way. Some of the boys had done military service but were allowed to do stints at university between stints on the Eastern Front. This experience provided them with more knowledge of what was actually going on than the average person living in Germany at the time, and it appalled them, but in their courageous resistance they still come across as young and somewhat naïve. It is this…

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THE ENEMY WITHOUT


National Service

Nearly sixty years ago I was privileged (I suppose I was…) to undertake so-called ‘National Service’. One of its many personal beneficial outcomes, absolutely no doubt unintended, was to have me choose to be a convert to life-long pacifism.

For twenty-four months I lived in the Sergeants’ Mess of 9TRRE Camp, Farnborough, Hampshire (now a housing estate) and worked with salt-of-the-earth fellows who were in the army either because their fathers had been so engaged before them or because they could imagine doing nothing else with their lives. They had presumably been conned into thinking that at some stage in the rosiness of the future they would, in some unspecified way, be made heroes, saviours of those twin abstractions ‘freedom’ & ‘democracy’ by which we’re all conned. Without quite realising what was happening to me I found myself in what now seems the very strange position of ‘Teacher’ or ‘Sergeant Instructor’ both to the professional NCO’s and to raw National Service recruits from whose ranks I had but lately risen to such a giddy height myself.

I took my task very seriously. Entering into dedicated soldiers’ minds in order to be able to pace their learning effectively, I began to understand what made them tick and eventually I came to some provisional conclusions about how the rest of us have been dished by the pervasive narrative that persuades us that the ‘Armed Forces’ and ‘defence’ are necessary aspects of human life, that the gigantic ‘investment’ in organised destruction is worth it

The nightmare called ‘Suez’ occurred while I was notionally ‘being a soldier’ and the attitude of the regular soldiers was that we should immediately be up for bashing ‘the wogs’ as they charmingly called the Egyptians.

But long before all this happened to me various images had impinged themselves on my consciousness that prepared me to question the whole basis on which the two years of National Service (how the words grind themselves out!) was predicated. The sound of ‘buzz bombs’ (primitive cruise missiles that were directed randomly over Britain in the last days of WW2 – 1944/45) and the sight of smoking ruins of buildings in London that had been bombed by Hitler the night before I travelled through them on the way to Waterloo Station came to be a normal and more or less acceptable part of my early life. Amazing now that, after a night of explosions and flashing lights, in the light of day everything seemed so ordinary.

By the age of 16, I was conditioned into thinking that the only pattern of existence was SCHOOL ➔WORK➔NATIONAL SERVICE➔WORK. I could have challenged this but I didn’t; I did not then have Revolutionary Intelligence (one of many additions I’d make to Howard Gardner’s seven or eight ‘Intelligences’) lacking which at that time I did not question the pattern – it was simply ‘the way things are’.

At the end of National Service (May 1958) I discarded my absurd army uniform and sent all the things I was supposed to hold on to in case of an emergency back to what one of my first civilian work colleagues called the ‘Whore Office’, with a note to say that I was no longer willing to be considered suitable material for cannon fodder. There was no reply. By that time the discrepancies of the last few months slowly began to dawn on me: the beautiful Sergeant Hawkins with his rasping voice and polished boots was just an ordinary chap; the ramshackle organisation I was attached to was something other than a ‘fighting force’; at least weekly opportunities to cycle out into the Hampshire countryside presented me with a stark contrast – boots on a barrack square against peaceful country lanes. While I wheeled my way through the countryside, over the hills & down to the sea, I spent time contemplating the notion that somewhere, while I was looking at poppies and sniffing new-cut grass, professional men were blowing one another apart like a kind of reciprocal fox-hunt. And this was the new pattern that took hold of me: ‘Man in Nature’ v ‘Unnatural Bellicose Man’; it was the contrast between a human-being all senses alive, in a state of ecstatic simplicity, and a robot-figure carrying out the army formula ‘Your Weapon is Given You to Kill the Enemy’.

But Sergeant Hawkins was not a robot and I couldn’t imagine him ever being likely to kill anybody – he was a sensitive & thoughtful human-being with a keen sense of humour. Knowing nothing about the subjects in the syllabus till the night before a lesson, I taught him Military History which enabled him to pass an exam to get promotion. Amongst other things, I became an expert on the Peninsula War! Discrepancies! Discrepancies!

The World is Never Ever Just As It Is

We invent the world to suit ourselves and then go to sleep; each one of us constructs an image of it according to the way our experience dictates and then we squabble and fight over what we imagine might be the right way. Is it just a matter of different relative belief systems, every one just as valid as the others? Is there anything to discriminate between different systems? Might there be a way of defining a thoroughly objective belief system, some existential certainty about a particular way of seeing? Or is the playground argument based on ‘my belief’s better than your belief’ the only one there is?

What about scrutinising differences between one belief and another by reference to motives & hidden agendas? It’s surely the motivation behind a set of beliefs that gives them their subjectivity; an objective belief would be free from personal presentation, based on pure human well-being.

So, for instance, the sole motivation of a Seeker after Truth is contained in the seeking itself. There is no intention to take over the world, no drift towards world-domination, or even leadership of a small group, no taking up arms, a lack of concern for profit at anybody else’s expense. You may follow the seeker’s journey or not – just as you choose. The Seeker passes through empires & kingships, wars & divinations, observing all and then moving on with a notebook full of scraps & jottings. On the other hand the Empire Builder tarries overlong, insistently accumulating fortunes, regarding the Seeker’s efforts with amusement, regarding the simple person’s squabbles with absolute psychopathic disdain.

So What Have We Got?

On the one hand, Man of Nature and, on the other, Unnatural Bellicose Man; or Seeker versus Empire Builder, movement & seasonal rhythm contrasted with stasis. Those who are fixed in their metaphors & categories can well afford to regard philosophers of process & fluidity as laughable, as having consigned themselves to cohabiting with crackpots.

Empire Builders observe their rivals arming themselves against attack and therefore require us to go along with a trillion dollar tax donations to ensure a ready supply of ever more sophisticated weaponry. They have persistent Requirements. Beware anybody who has Requirements – like Keats said in a slightly different context ‘…we distrust poetry that has a palpable design upon us…’ Empire builders require you to go along with their one and only way of constructing the world, with their unexamined conventional wisdoms.

Empire Builders live in gated estates and castles where they can store their riches while the Seeker is content with a simple roof against the elements and wonders about how to spend surplus pennies on furthering the endless quest.

In order to strengthen their position, Empire Builders contrive to focus our minds on supposed external threats so as to suggest that the enemy is some outside force – a whole string of them in historical sequence, the Yellow Peril, the Red Menace, Bin Laden, Al Qaeda, ISIS – when in fact the Enemy is right here, daily on the telly, wearing a smarmy face of deception and using honeyed tones. The Enemy Without is a very convenient fiction. It suits the Empire Builder for us ordinary folk to takes sides and squabble amongst ourselves: divide & rule is the principle weapon of those with Requirements.

They claw at our being; they invade our brain, to convert it to their way of unthink; they proselytise, they send out missionaries to pervert the truth by omission & distortion and

when detonated
the public falls prey to the hate traps
politically set to divide it against itself
(Buckminster Fuller)

Behold a Proper President

Compare any empire builder you choose with President José ‘Pepe’ Mujica of Uruguay who says that ‘…as soon as politicians start climbing up the ladder, they suddenly become kings. I don’t know how it works, but what I do know is that republics came to the world to make sure that no one is more than anyone else… The pomp of office is like something left over from a feudal past: you need a palace, red carpet, a lot of yes-people behind you…’

He says, ‘Businesses just want to increase their profits; it’s up to the government to make sure they distribute enough of those profits so workers have the money to buy the goods they produce… If we lived within our means, by being prudent, the 7 billion people in the world could have everything they needed. Global politics should be moving in that direction. But we think as people and countries, not as a species…’

President Mujica gives 90% of his salary to charity and lives in a very ordinary domicile but denies that he’s ‘…the poorest president…’ On the contrary, ‘…the poorest is the one who needs a lot to live. My lifestyle is a consequence of my wounds. I’m the son of my history. There have been years when I would have been happy just to have a mattress…’

‘I have a way of life that I don’t change just because I am a president. I earn more than I need…’ The important thing is ‘…to live in accordance with how one thinks. Be yourself and don’t try to impose your criteria on the rest. I don’t expect others to live like me. I want to respect people’s freedom, but I defend my freedom. And that comes with the courage to say what you think, even if sometimes others don’t share those views…’

Conclusion

The important distinction which I have arrived at is between those who are constantly wondering what life is about, constantly seeking, and those who imagine that they know for sure what it’s all about, and must invent ways of bamboozling others into thinking their way without realising that they have themselves chosen to be bamboozled into what Beelzebub/Gurdjieff called sinkrpoosarams – ‘belief in any old twaddle’…

Of course, a Seeker after Truth is a human-being and cannot fail to be distressed at the unspeakable crimes committed against humanity by the Empire Builders and the Power Possessors. The Seeker after Truth is always in danger of appearing to be being diverted from the true quest from time to time by taking up sides.

It is of course a pendulum thing (qv) : on the one hand there’s disgust for the Blair and the Bush and the Thatcher and the Nettleyahoo, for instance – playing out the role of loathsome psychopaths, intolerable specimens to many observers of the human charade; on the other hand there’s the attitude of the seemingly saintly person, swooning for the beauty of the world, who says that such characters are but human-beings worthy of respect & trying to do the best they can for the world, mirrors of our own inadequate selves.

Put these two vantage points on a pendulum and discrepancies can be worked at:-

Scan0070While it’s essential to continue to entertain the existence of discrepancies and contra-dictions, always acknowledging that identifying exclusively with either side of the pendulum swing is a distortion of the way things are, at the bottom of the pendulum swing emerges the idea of determining to use one’s personal energy to persist with seeking in spite of…

I will both write haiku and complain vociferously about the Power Possessors, energy intact.

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SAVE THE NHS


A Few Choice Sentences Just Won’t Do… On the other hand, this collection of articles & posters, done over the last couple of months, with mounting fury, probably won’t get much of a reading. However, the effort and making a commentary to fit it all together has got it off my chest, as it were.

Critics of the NHS claim that we can’t afford to pay for it;
but the truth is that we can’t afford not to.
Jason Hickel (American anthropologist at the London School of Economics)

Scan0054

A double click will enlarge all posters

Professor Vernon Bogdanor: … [the Tory] approach to the NHS. Another ‘mess we inherited,’ they say, to justify changes for which nobody voted and for which they have no mandate. What they actually inherited was an NHS with the highest satisfaction ratings in its history, which are now sliding as waiting lists grow, health workers are deliberately demoralised, and Jeremy Hunt talks up failure wherever he can find it to open the doors to a new system geared to those who see healthcare purely as a source of profit. (Professor Vernon Bogdanor is Research Professor at the Institute for Contemporary British History at King’s College London and Professor of Politics at the New College of the Humanities, Emeritus Professor of Politics and Government at the University of Oxford and Emeritus Fellow of Brasenose College, Oxford)

Scan0055

Horror Stories as Mental Hooks

What sound like Tory-inspired BBC radio ‘news’ bulletins have bombarded us with horror stories and generalisations from specific reports of ‘failings’ in the NHS for many months, softening us up for the idea that unless it’s privatised and run by oh-so-efficient profit-making concerns run by Tory friends and donors it will collapse completely. The word ‘Hinchingbrooke’, referred to later, blows the lie out of the water. But the takeover continues willy-nilly.

Strange how the horror stories only began after the current government, without a clear mandate to do anything at all, took up its seat in parliament, at a time when public satisfaction with the NHS was high.

I had had a couple of major NHS surgical interventions (one distinctly life-theatening) in the ten years to 2011 and had nothing but praise for the institution that worked its socks off for me. In 2013 when I needed another intervention the brilliant NHS consultant of my so-called ‘choice’ was so overworked that, reluctantly, so I felt, he suggested I go to the ‘NHS wing’ of a private provider – so the NHS would have had to pay them for an operation that was not so successful and service that was appalling in various ways. Invited to fill in a feedback form, I wrote a damning assessment of the overall ‘private’ treatment I received (which started with private payers sitting on plush furniture in the waiting area while the plebs had hard plastic chairs) but there was no response – not even a ‘take it or leave it, you’re only a pleb…’

My personal support would always go to Aneurin Bevan’s NHS which cared unstintingly for my grossly disabled sister from 1948 till 2005 and which is now being systematically dismantled by the ideologues of the Right, the butchers of the Welfare State.

A Commons Early Day Motion dated 28th October 2014 was signed by 91 MP’s which noted

‘…that public services have been privatised and outsourced without giving a voice to the public service users affected by those decisions…’ and sought to recognise ‘…that the public needs real powers to object to sell-offs, access information and hold private providers to account for their performance… calling for the introduction of a Public Service Users Bill which would make the in-house option the default, require public consultation before privatisation or outsourcing and promote transparency, accountability and social value in public service contracts…’

With no hope or expectation of a positive reaction, I urged the person who is supposed to represent me in the House of Commons to vote for this Motion and I protested about the way the National Health Service is being privatised in a thoroughly underhand kind of way. In response, I was told in no uncertain terms that the NHS was not being privatised and was presented with a letter (dated 9th December 2014) from MP Letwin who describes himself as ‘Minister responsible for open public services’.

I think it’s worth noting the word ‘open’ which has entered discourse by means of a sleight of mouth: when you cut the crap, it presumably means that ‘public services’ are up for grabs, open for anybody to stake a claim on ownership, open to the highest bidder; I don’t recall any ‘open’ discussion about this redefinition of ‘public services’. It has been sneaked into the political narrative in a far less than transparent way.

Letwin (who was a one time non-executive director of NMRothschild Corporate Finance Ltd, which invests heavily in healthcare) suggests that ‘…The UK Government is implementing a demanding commercial reform agenda which is aimed at leveraging the Crown’s buying power, deriving better value for money and providing savings for the taxpayer to support deficit reduction and growth…’ That strikes me as privatisation in all but name.

This high-falutin nonsense (‘…leveraging the Crown’s buying power…’) is supposed to support the pretension that the programme is said to have delivered billions of £££ savings in the last three years. The question arises: savings for whom and at whose expense?

A Case Study

A single case study, recording a pattern that’s probably being repeated over and over again in a way that it’s impossible for ordinary people to keep up with, including myself if I had not chosen to keep tabs on things for a couple of months, makes a nonsense of these claims.

On 27th January 2015 we learned that… ‘an £80 million contract to run cancer scans for the NHS has been given to a private health firm with a Tory MP on their board, despite a rival NHS consortium allegedly offering to carry out the work for £7 million less…’ It seems that ‘…the NHS Trust that runs Royal Stoke University Hospital in Staffordshire put together a consortium with other NHS hospitals to enter what they called a ‘competitive bid’ for a 10-year contract to run scans across Cheshire, Staffordshire, Shropshire, Liverpool, and Lancashire. The scans, known as PET-CT, are mostly used for diagnosing and measuring cancers, and are a vital tool for fighting the disease…’ As it turned out, NHS England, the health service’s ‘head office’ set up by the coalition government to oversee and probably dismantle the health service by sleight of hand, ‘…rejected the bid from state-run providers and instead awarded the contract to Alliance Medical, a private health firm whose board members include leading Conservative MP Malcolm Rifkind…’ He ‘…gets around £60,000 a year to sit on Alliance Medical’s board, according to public records. He is a backbencher in a government whose health policy is now enriching his own company. Alliance Medical has a turnover of around £120 million a year, so this scanning contract, worth an estimated £8million a year, is a significant part of its work. Alliance Medical said Rifkind was not involved in the bid…’ So, who is getting the so-called savings and who suffers from the ‘expense’ of such savings?

What’s even more scandalous is that the scanner was originally purchased by public subscription. ‘…Most of the cash for the £3 million machine came from a bequest plus a £1 million Keele University research grant – and £250,000 was donated by the public. Ron Alcock, aged 75, from Cheadle gave £1,000 after the death of wife Jeannette of leukaemia in 2009. He said: “Because of Mr Cameron’s policies private firms are coming more into the NHS. “That scares people that it will be privatised and could deter them from raising money for things in future.” The Royal Stoke had pooled its expertise with Wirral-based Clatterbridge Cancer Centre and the Royal Liverpool to put in the NHS bid for PET-CT scanning across a region of around five million people…’ And presumably sufferers will have to pay handsomely to have a scan.

NHS England’s special department, the ‘Strategic Projects Team’, was in charge of the procurement for the scanning contract – the very same team founded in 2009 to handle the management of Hinchingbrooke hospital in Cambridgeshire leading to the first full privatisation of an NHS hospital. ‘Circle’, the private healthcare firm that ‘rescued’ the hospital, hoping to make a big profit, was trumpeted for stepping in to triumph where the NHS had ‘failed’. Circle abandoned the hospital after a damning report from quality inspectors and because they found they couldn’t make a profit out of the hospital. So the hospital will be graciously given back to the NHS to pick up the pieces – at what cost to the taxpayer? – a clear case of what it is thought might make a profit being hived off into private hands and government friends while non-profit-making services to the community continue to be starved of funds.

This is the pattern of all privatisation ‘initiatives’. Hinchingbrooke has just been disappeared from the BBC ‘news’ bulletins. The BBC is fearful that its licence will not be renewed in 2016 if it does its job as it should be done – open and transparent reporting of the way things really are.

Back to Letwin’s Letter

‘The driving principle behind all public procurement policy is to award contracts on the basis of value for money through open and fair competitive tender in accordance with public procurement legislation…’

This is clearly not happening in the case of the Royal Stoke bid to run PET-CT scanning across their region nor did it happen in the case of Hinchingbrooke. In fact, the suspicion arises in the first case that a prominent member of the Tory government will ultimately benefit from the acceptance of a more expensive bid and in the second that Tory donors were theoretically being rewarded.

When a government minister chooses to engage in wool-pulling they get their minions to concoct linguistic gobbleygook. So, in Letwinese:-

‘Public sector procurers are required to assess value for money from the perspective of the contracting authority, using criteria linked to the subject matter of the contract, including compliance with the published specification. Wider socio-economic criteria can be taken into account at tender evaluation stage if they relate directly to the subject matter of a contract from the point of view of the contracting authority. However, the Public Services (Social Value) Act already places a requirement on commissioners to consider the economic, environmental and social benefits of their approaches to procurement at the pre-procurement stage.’

The one and only intelligent question that might come out of this shambles of an explanation is: what ‘economic, environmental and social benefits’ derive from accepting a private company’s bid rather than the less expensive one from groups already engaged in pooling their expertise over the scanning project?

Letwin then has the effrontery to offer reassurance to ‘the constituent’ [viz, myself] that, ‘whilst this government is the most transparent ever…’

At a time when the biggest lie & lack of transparency is that of the need for ‘Austerity’, pardon me, while I fall about laughing with profound and disgusted incredulity…

‘…we recognise that there is more to do and we are continuing efforts to ensure that as much information as possible is disclosed about performance so that public confidence in outsourced public services improves…’

Lack of transparency is the keynote of the Coalition Government. It flourishes across the whole of their dictatorship. So in another contexts:-

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Or, relation to fracking, which my MP supports, watch the following on Lord Brown and transparency…

This government is transparent? About as transparent as a ten inch block of concrete.

Anyway, back to health issues…

There sure is ‘more to do’, says Letwin. His Government of toffs has no intention of doing anything about transparency while opacity suits them very well… Ian Syme, coordinator of North Staffordshire Healthwatch said:

“There’s little or no openness or transparency in these tendering processes, no public debate, no meaningful public scrutiny. Ask for details and you get obstructed by the ‘commercial confidentiality’ excuse.” He added: “The evidence is stacking up that NHS England have a privatisation agenda and NHS England are at the moment privatising NHS by stealth.”

But Letwin persists:

‘…we have been working with the Confederation of British Industry to agree key principles for greater transparency, which will be published early in 2015. Moreover, the Government has taken steps to improve our management of supplier relationships and performance, and to ensure that past performance is taken into account when awarding future work…’

Working with the CBI to agree key principles of transparency? – they are a corporate think-tank in league with the government. The key principles of transparency are pretty straightforward and don’t take much stating or even thinking about:-

• tell the absolute truth;
• don’t operate with a hidden agenda;
• use prose that makes sense;
• don’t wrap lies up in abstractions and gobbledgook;
• be open and clear…

It’s as simple as that – but impossible for the ideologues of the Right who have an agenda that they must keep hidden for fear of a revolution.

Letwin: ‘Finally, increasing competition and consumer choice drives innovation and efficiency…’ What is the proof for this? It doesn’t work in the energy industry, why should it work in the much more subtle healthcare field? In any case, ‘Competition’, presupposing it ever drives anything worthwhile, is not relevant to healthcare; ‘choice’ is of no consequence if your health is threatened: if you’re unwell you just want sorting out, as I was in 2011. True innovation in healthcare is naturally dedicated to finding even better ways to improve people’s state of being which costs money: doctors and consultants are professionally dedicated to doing what’s best for patients; all they have to compete against is illness and various kinds of decrepitude.

More Letwin obfuscation follows:

‘…Consequently we are committed to opening up government procurement, to levelling the playing field for suppliers of all size and type, and to identifying opportunities for further private and voluntary sector involvement in service delivery where these can offer benefits to the tax payer and service users…’

‘…levelling the playing field…’ a nonsense expression which could mean anything you like.

Letwin concludes ‘…I hope that this information enables you to respond to your constituent and goes some way towards addressing their concerns…’ Laughable!

Of course, all this simply increases my concern especially when I set such tosh against the case studies of Stoke Hospital and Hinchingbrooke – and that just for starters.

At the same time I am assured that the NHS is definitely not being privatised. My parliamentary ‘representative’ seems not to know what his colleagues are planning… Francis Maude (Cabinet Office minister), for example.

In The Daily Telegraph, 14th December 2014, James Kirkup reported that hospitals and other acute services could leave the NHS, to save money and improve care… That’s a great soundbite but it’s a contradiction in terms: ‘Saving money’ and ‘improving care’ do not mesh together – in order to improve care money has to be spent unconditionally to the point where improvements may be made.

Maude, dropping the official lies for a moment, letting the cat out of the bag, told The Daily Torygraph that,

‘…in the continuing shrinking of the state and the cutting of costs, almost everything could be handed over to mutual companies owned by employers and other non-state bodies. He also warned that public sector jobs and wages would have to fall sharply to ensure the Government lives within its means…’

The government already has the means to care for public services: make sure the rich and the corporations pay what they owe to the system by taxing them properly. It’s been shown that the so-called ‘deficit’ could be eliminated overnight by collecting all the tax that’s owed by the rich who exploit all the loopholes they can find or engage in the immoral tactic of shifting their outfits to ‘tax havens’. What do they care for the country, the state, and its people? Nothing. Profit rules OK.

Incidentally, always beware the word ‘mutual’ which is craftily slipped into sentences that are really about slashing & burning. It signifies nothing – but in the mouths of government officials it can sound vaguely benevolent – done for the ‘mutual’ benefit of all.

The ill-educated Osborne has apparently set out plans to reduce public spending to its lowest level since the 1930’s. Maude,

‘…who is drawing up plans for £20 billion of Whitehall savings by 2020, said that with the exception of defence and policing, every function of the state could potentially be done outside the public sector. But instead of ‘red-blooded commercial for-profit outsourcing’ [sic] to big companies, services could be transferred to a range of ‘mutual, joint venture or hybrid’ companies run by their staff. He said it would ‘give flexibility to evolve services around the needs of the user, which makes for a better outcome and saves money’…

Sez who? And there’s that word ‘mutual’ again. And in any case, ‘staff’, in the shape of wage slaves, already run companies. The corporate moguls simply pocket the profits created by hard-working ‘staff’. Nothing ‘mutual’ about that.

One might easily be forgiven for thinking that Maude is advocating honest public involvement, ‘mutuality’, but there’s no doubt that corporate entities will move in to fill the vacuum whenever they can sniff a profit to be made. The fraudulent policy of ‘Localism’, advocated by the Coalition in 2010, turned out to have nothing whatsoever to do with individual involvement in political planning – it’s simply that local corporations take over at a local level. Beware the term ‘mutual’ – that doesn’t mean co-ownership or anything like it any more than Free Schools are ‘free’ of anything. The frequent use of the word is a Government linguistic ploy.

The Concept of ‘Mutuality’

Writing in The Guardian, Monday 19 January 2015, David Owen points out that ‘…those who advocate ‘the market as the organising principle of the NHS’, have abused the term ‘mutual’ as a less abrasive way of achieving their objectives…’

One of the principles of ‘transparency’ – say what you mean without euphemism or circumlocution.

David Owen continues

‘…Hinchingbrooke Hospital is now in ‘special measures’ with an uncertain future, and the real NHS will have to pick up the pieces [ie pay for the government cockup]… Circle’s spin was that it was a ‘mutual’, because it was supposedly half-owned by staff; and commentators glossed over the fact it was half-owned by hedge fund managers. We were told it would ‘liberate’ NHS staff from the tired, over-centralised state solution. The marketeers believed that only by leaving the NHS and being given shares in their own hospital could staff be motivated to work harder for patients…

‘…The notion that such “mutual” structures are more responsive to grassroots staff was demolished by the CQC. The management of Circle merely replicated old hierarchies, with nursing staff reporting that they felt unable to raise concerns, with managers brought in from industry totally out of their depth. Morale at Hinchingbrooke was at rock bottom, with the last staff survey placing it in the lowest 20% of hospital trusts on key indicators including job satisfaction, bullying, training and potentially harmful errors…’

‘…The mutual concept is enthusiastically promoted by ministers. Turning every aspect of our public services into ‘mutuals’ as they imagine them – or mutual ‘joint ventures’ with growing opportunities for private investors – seems more politically sellable than more blatant forms of privatisation.

‘Maude has written to every acute hospital in England, inviting them to explore leaving the NHS to become just such a ‘mutual’… Ali Parsa, Circle’s founder and ex-Goldman Sachs banker, told a receptive media that more ‘business culture’ could work miracles on our underfunded hospitals. But …the A&E waiting time management system based on Argos tills failed – patients in Hinchingbrooke’s understaffed A&E were twice as likely as the average NHS A&E patient to wait so long that they gave up and left without being seen.’

So Much for the Business Model

Considering that ‘Circle Partnership’ gave up running Hinchingbrooke hospital not a month after the The Daily Telegraph report of 14th December 2014 because they couldn’t make a profit out of it, the following statement in the report makes for rather hollow reading: ‘…the National Health Service is already experimenting with transferring some ‘acute’ services out of the public sector. Hinchingbrooke hospital in Cambridgeshire is run by a company jointly owned by its staff and private investors… Critics have claimed that this has led to lower standards, a claim ministers reject…’ Critics turned out to be quite right.

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What would the Prime Minister have to say now? Something no doubt to cover tracks in some smooth-talking way or, more likely, he’ll just pretend it never happened.

Now, it’s of no consequence to me that the privatisation process was set in motion by Iraq-Demolition-Blair’s government. The idea of making a profit out of health is criminal whoever started it. But, with a version of the habitual snide remark about ‘the previous government’ and its so-called failings, ‘Maude insisted that his reforms were inspired by Labour, the previous government, saying, “The Blair public sector reformers got rid of the shibboleth – public sector good, private sector bad,” he said. “It’s not binary.” He added that there would be more such changes to come in the health service, adding that he did not ‘see a line’ limiting the number of transfers out of the public sector…’ – a circumlocution for total privatisation.

The replacement mantra, ‘Private sector good, public sector bad’, simply means jobs being moved over to the corporations and organisations owned by the millionaire supporters of the Tory Party who offer zero hours contracts and nil support for the less well off.

‘…Independent forecasters have said Coalition spending plans will mean the loss of another million public sector jobs…’ In his mealy-mouthed fashion, ‘…Maude admitted: “We won’t make the savings that have been set out without further reductions in headcount and pay bill.” He said this would not necessarily spell blanket pay cuts, but suggested that it was a mistake to think the state should compete with private sector employers on pay…’

‘Reductions in headcount’ is a euphemism for creating unemployment, depriving people of real jobs. Essential to the successful instigation of ‘transparency’ is using the right words to describe what you’re really talking about. The use of circumlocutions and euphemisms like ‘headcount’ is a sure sign that something underhand is taking place.

It Goes On and On…

Charlie Cooper, Health Correspondent of The Independent, Wednesday 17th December 2014 reported that NHS Nottingham University Hospitals Trust, regarded as a national centre of excellence for dermatology, has been forced to scrap highly rated services, including emergency care for patients with severe skin conditions including skin cancer, after losing six of its eight consultants reluctant to work for private-sector subcontractor, Circle, which won a contract to provide most of the local dermatology services last year. ‘…The Trust lost out to Circle, despite warnings from senior doctors that they would leave rather than be transferred out of the NHS…’ They were afraid that ‘…a profit-driven provider would not offer opportunities for academic research or training…’

The British Association of Dermatologists (BAD) warned that the privatisation and ‘fragmentation’ of specialist services was ‘decimating’ some areas of the NHS. Dr David Eedy, president of BAD, said it was now offering reduced facilities and a ‘fractured’ service, increasingly dependent on more expensive locum doctors…’

‘… “Nobody has thought through the implications for teaching, training and research – the whole future of British dermatology,” Dr Eedy said. He said the ‘exodus of staff’ should have been predicted. “Nottingham is just one example of the many fires we are fighting across the UK to try to keep dermatology services open in the face of poorly thought-out commissioning decisions and the Government’s lack of understanding of the implications of pushing NHS services into unsustainable models provided by commercially driven private providers or enterprises,” he said…’

I suspect that the government is only too aware of the outcomes of their policies: starve of funds, privatise, profit… Never mind service to the public…

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‘…Dr Clive Peedell, a consultant oncologist and co-leader of the National Health Action Party, said the rate of outsourcing in the NHS required an urgent review. “We now have a shocking situation where an entire region is at risk of losing acute adult dermatology services,” he said. “Cancer services could also be affected because dermatologists play a key role in the management of skin cancers like melanoma.”…’

‘…Labour’s shadow Health Secretary, Andy Burnham, said: “The true ideological intent of the Government’s NHS plans is becoming clearer by the day. They ploughed on with this privatisation even though doctors said they would leave. It shows competition lawyers, not consultants, calling the shots in the Coalition NHS. Labour will scrap the competition culture and put the right values at the heart of the NHS”…’

One can only hope that this is unequivocal policy. We shall see, maybe…

But it goes on and on… Some positively evil things are happening. Hugh Pym, BBC Health Editor reported an NHS England plan ‘…to pay a reduced fee to hospitals for each extra patient they take on…’

The Daily Telegraph:

‘Hospital specialists [including some of Britain’s most eminent neuroscientists, cancer experts and cardiologists – people who should know what they’re talking about…] have hit out at plans to reduce funding for specialised operations and treatments NHS trusts provide, including some cancer care. Some 345 specialists have written to NHS England saying the changes could mean longer waiting lists and avoidable deaths. Under the plans, centres treating more patients than expected would receive just half the extra treatment costs. NHS England says these services have already seen a big increase in funding and now have some of the highest profit margins in the NHS…’

Profit margins that the private providers would no doubt love to get their hands on. This is sleight of mouth underhandedness… The general aim is to curb a growth in spending on specialist services – entailing cutting research – for conditions such as uncommon cancers, burns and medical genetics. One can only assume that there is now a deliberate policy to cull the whole population.

Moving Deckchairs on the Titanic…

‘…Just what should NHS priorities be at a time of rising demand for care and more sophisticated medical technology and treatment becoming available? ‘…NHS England have taken a decision to shift some resources from specialised provision, including some complex cancer surgery, to areas which they feel are in need of more funding, such as mental health. In effect it has a cake, agreed with the Department of Health, and it has decided to slice it differently from next year. There is no plan to cut specialised services, rather to pay hospitals less for each new patient they take on. Hospitals and their consultants are understandably upset that their income for new work will be lower than they expected. They warn that patients will suffer as waiting lists for treatment will get longer. Why, they argue, should people needing cancer treatment lose out at all?’

Quite right. I speak as a more than grateful recipient of such treatment.

Though it sounds good – ‘…no plan to cut specialised services…’ – paying hospitals ‘less for each new patient they take on’ is an underhand, far less than transparent way of making cuts. One can imagine Tory apologists sitting around a table brain-storming ways of cutting & slashing whilst giving the impression that they are being so benevolent & caring.

However, the letter [from the specialists concerned] quoted by the Daily Telegraph says

‘…the proposals will leave hospitals with a choice of treating patients and incurring a financial loss, or not treating them at all. The clinical consequences of these longer waiting times and a lower quality service to patients with conditions such as heart disease, liver disease, leukaemia, complex cancers etc will be severe… Each patient should get the treatment they need where and when they need it, instead of essentially robbing one part of the system to pay for another…’

In a separate letter to the Daily Torygraph, a leading cancer expert said the changes would devastate services for the most sick. Simon Oberst, director of clinical development at Cambridge Cancer Centre, based at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, said the plans flew in the face of promises by the health secretary to improve Britain’s poor rates of cancer survival. ‘Hunt’s fine words are belied by his specialist commissioners at NHS England,’ he writes. The senior manager of cancer services said ‘…the proposals were perverse, given recent statements from the health secretary acknowledging that hospitals currently see 51 per cent more patients with suspected cancer than in 2010…’ It seems that there will also be an average 6 per cent cut in provision for chemotherapy.

And it all started when the so-called ‘Coalition’ came to rule us.

The NHS is not Being Privatised?

On Sunday 9th September 2012, Daniel Boffey, policy editor of The Observer, reported that Hunt, the new health secretary, personally intervened to speed up the takeover of NHS hospitals in his constituency by a private company, Virgin Care. He wanted the £650m deal to be swiftly signed to end the delay caused by concern for outcomes. Virgin Care, part-owned by Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, subsequently agreed on a five-year contract in March to run seven hospitals along with dentistry services, sexual health clinics, breast cancer screening and other community services. The takeover took place, concerns not addressed.

The shadow health secretary, Andy Burnham, said that

‘…never before has a health secretary handed over his local NHS lock, stock and barrel to the private sector. If what has happened in his own patch is his blueprint, then now’s the time for him to be honest with patients and staff. It is time the health secretary broke his silence on his plans and told the public how far he wants to privatise the rest of the NHS in England…’

Suspicions about Hunt’s motives are confirmed when we learn that

‘…he co-authored a book that supported transforming the NHS into a system of universal insurance where patients buy health care from the provider of their choice. The book, Direct Democracy: An Agenda for a New Model Party, sets out an alternative vision for a dismantled NHS. It says: ‘The NHS was designed over half a century ago, at a time of rationing and deep poverty. It was, and remains, a child of its time, conceived on the principle that the beneficent state should be a monopoly provider. But we know today that monopolies rarely act in the best interests of consumers. Because government both funds and provides health care, medical professionals are beset with political targets and central direction, distorting clinical priorities and preventing innovation.’

This is Orwellian double-think. There do not have to be political targets in a properly funded NHS and it all depends on who is running a monopoly – profiteers or real professionals…

The book Hunt is involved in adds: ‘We should fund patients, either through the tax system or by way of universal insurance, to purchase health care from the provider of their choice. The poor and unemployed would have their contributions supplemented or paid for by the state.’ Given a policy of 100 years of cutting & slashing, of so-called Austerity and a consistent attack on the poor and unemployed, it’s highly unlikely that the latter would happen at all and a private insurance system is simply a way of helping insurance companies to make even more profit.

A source close to Hunt denied that the minister wrote the section in the book about the NHS and said that ‘it does not reflect his views’ – so exactly what are his views and why did he allow his name to be associated with the book? It is claimed that he attemped to remove a tribute to the NHS from the Olympics opening ceremony. Now why would he do that?

Hinchingbrooke Should be Made to Haunt the Coalition

On the 9th January, 2015, Benedict Cooper, freelance journalist on medical matters, pointed out that Circle’s dumping of Hinchingbrooke Hospital was no surprise especially to National Health Action Party founding member and Save Lewisham Hospital veteran Dr Louise Irvine who said: “This is exactly what we warned and predicted would happen and illustrates the folly of private sector involvement in our NHS. When the going gets tough, the private sector gets going – and dumps NHS patients. The privatisation experiment has lamentably failed”.

In the autumn of 2014 there was a damning report by the Care Quality Commission (CQC). Shocking failings were revealed: ‘…little internal or clear external oversight of how the trust managed risks to the quality of care… lack of clarity or coherence over who was responsible for the oversight and scrutiny of the trust’s quality agenda; poor hygiene standards; and a ‘blame approach, rather than that of a supportive and patient focused approach…’ And this after Circle had been held up as a shining example of a private company stepping in to triumph where the NHS had failed. Benedict Cooper points out that ‘…when private companies bin their contracts with the NHS in such a self-serving fashion, it is the trusts’ time and precious taxpayer funds that end up being wasted on picking up the pieces… What cost will Circle’s walking away be to Cambridgeshire and Peterborough…?’

Inefficiency and waste and profits for the boys when the Government’s plan was supposed to be to save money and cut the so-called deficit…

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Three years after the Coalition began its nasty reign it was already clear that private firms were already running frontline NHS services without publicising the fact – that is, with lack of transparency.

On May 29th 2013, RosWynne Jones, journalist, who stands up for ordinary people, reported that Branson’s Virgin empire (‘planes, trains and telly’) was already running more than 100 services across the NHS. Visiting the Urgent Care Centre at Croydon University Hospital in South London, she told Sharon Byfield, 51, who was taking a break from her mother’s bedside. “I can’t believe what you are telling me,” she says. Her mum had been in intensive care for three weeks following a massive heart attack, now being treated by the NHS, but had come in through the UCC, run by Virgin Care. RosWynne Jones asked Sharon and her husband Neil, 44, whether it mattered to them who was running the place. “Of course,” Sharon says. “It’s about being straight with people. You should know who you’re being treated by.” “They say they’re not privatising the NHS,” Neil says. “But then they clearly are. If Virgin’s running this place, it’s privatised, isn’t it?”

But RosWynne Jones found it impossible to tell other people. It’s all kept secret with a studied lack of transparency. Usually, she says, when Branson launches a new line of business there are PR stunts but inside Croydon UCC there is not a single trace of Virgin branding… The clinic says NHS clearly outside.

But the truth that is not publicised is that ‘…the Government’s health reforms have already handed £7billion in contracts to private firms such as Virgin, private equity-owned Care UK, Serco and Circle. In late 2012, a further £20billion ‘bonanza’ for private firms was predicted by corporate finance adviser Catalyst.

Virgin Care’s interests inside the NHS are astonishingly diverse – sexual health services, children’s services, radiology departments, diagnostic and urgent care centres and even entire GP practices. In 2012, it won a £100million-a-year deal to run a whole host of services in Surrey, including community hospitals. In April 2013 it began a £132million deal to run children’s services for Devon County Council – including mental health, school nursing, health visits and care for the disabled. In May 2013 it announced a contract worth £6.6million to run healthcare inside HMP Bullingdon in Oxfordshire.

How come we don’t know about this? It seems that ‘… NHS brand guidelines require Virgin to ensure that the NHS is the primary logo…’ RosWynne Jones goes on to say that

‘…Section 75 of the Health and Social Care Act, passed in April 2013, has now opened up the NHS like a car boot sale. Campaigners say newly privatised services are being run at a loss while corporates hoover up the rest of the contracts. In two years’ time, the odds are they will be making a profit. Do we really expect these companies to run the NHS for the good of their health? Section 75 now makes it compulsory for services to be put out to tender.’

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Now Here’s a Real Man

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My rage at what’s going on is monumental. The sense of alienation I feel is inexpressible so here’s a quotation from Harry’s Last Stand by Harry Leslie Smith (born 1923). I let it speak for me. Says Harry:-

To me, the introduction of free health care was the first brick laid on the road to the social welfare state. So it has always been difficult for me to listen to politicians, proud possessors of health insurance and shares in private health care companies, when they talk about how the health service that we fought so hard to build must change. The coalition government’s Health and Social Care Act will create a two-tier health care system. This act will see the NHS stripped down like a derelict house is by criminals for copper wiring.

UKIP has even proposed that A&E patients should have the right to buy their way to the front of the queue, while in Merseyside a private for-profit cancer clinic has set up shop under the NHS umbrella. Where will all of this end? What will be given the greatest priority in a new health care system that sends every service, from blood work to chemotherapy, out to the lowest bid tender?

It ends where I began my life – in a Britain that believed health care depended on your social status. So if you were rich and insured you received timely medical treatment, while the rest of the country got the drippings. One-fifth of the lords who voted in the controversial act – which provides a gateway to privatise our health care system – were found to have connections to private health care companies. If that doesn’t make you angry, nothing will.

Sometimes I try to think how I might explain how we built these beautiful structures in our society – which protected the poor, which kept them safe at work, healthy in their lives, supported them when they were down on their luck – only to watch them be destroyed within a few short generations. But I cannot find the words.

*

Other than expletives, I really cannot find the words to describe my rage at what’s being perpetrated and so I resort to quotations and posters collected from the Internet.

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Back to Hinchingbrooke

The Hinchingbrooke Hospital farce has completely disappeared from the airwaves of the BBC, an arm of the Tory Party. Their ‘News’ bulletins never ask the question – why did England’s privatised hospital deal REALLY collapse? Never mind asking why Circle Health was given the contract in the first place. Of course it wasn’t because Ruddock, Arbib, Odey & Platt with stakes in Circle Health had donated £million and a half to the Tory Party. This is corruption on a grand scale and the majority of the electorate either don’t care or are too busy getting on with their own lives to bother or to make the time to find out. And the Power Possessors know this – they know just what they can get away with.

On 14th January 2015, Caroline Molloy, freelance writer and Green Party Activist, said that

‘…shocking examples of poor care were part of the reason Circle withdrew from running Hinchingbrooke Hospital. When Circle announced it was pulling out of its contract to run the Hinchingbrooke Hospital it blamed a £5million loss and an NHS crisis including ‘unprecedented increases in accident and emergency attendances, insufficient care plans for patients awaiting discharge, and funding levels that have not kept pace with demand…’

It Lied

Because ‘…the real reason was a damning report by the Care Quality Commission (CQC) which awarded its worst ever rating for ‘caring’. Both safety and leadership were also bottom of the heap. Circle’s cleverly branded ‘mutual’ model, far from ‘liberating’ NHS professionals to make grassroots-led improvements, had in fact replicated some of the worst hierarchical, bullying practices to be found in the NHS. And it had lost the caring and expertise that are the NHS’s strengths, principally as a result of poor leadership and financially-driven staff cuts to satisfy investors. [To increase the profit…]

Circle’s medical services were found to be delivering ‘poor emotional and physical care which was not safe or caring…people were not treated with dignity and respect… some patients were afraid of certain nursing staff…’ During their two-day inspection the CQC witnessed patients being left dirty and distressed, and treated rudely or roughly: ‘…we heard a staff member say to the patient, “Don’t misbehave, you know what happens when you misbehave”. We later asked the patient what they thought the staff member meant by this; the patient became withdrawn and was unable to provide us with an answer…’

‘…A patient on Apple Tree Ward, who required support during the night to go to the toilet told us that staff were ‘often too busy’. “…They tell me to go in my bed and they will change me when they have time…”’.

When ‘failings’ in the NHS are revealed the BBC goes overboard to highlight them – these private defects went without notice.

Inspectors found a patient with ‘challenging’ behaviour had been sedated without any record of a proper assessment of their mental state or best interest.

Circle’s junior doctors were often labelling patients ‘do not resuscitate’ without discussing the decision with patients or relatives, and without any apparent oversight from senior doctors. Sometimes the failure to discuss was because the patient lacked mental capacity, notes often suggested – but the CQC ‘saw no evidence that a mental capacity assessment had been undertaken in any of the patient records we looked at’. The CQC notes ‘We found many instances of staff wishing to care for patients in the best way, but unable to … prevent service demands from severely impinging on the quality and kindness of care for patients’.

Circle had won the contract by promising what the Public Accounts Committee called an ‘unrealistic’ and ‘unprecedented’ level of savings – urged on by government officials. Circle’s Full Business Case said it would achieve this by altering ‘nurse-patient ratios’ but exactly how was blacked out of the plan when it was eventually published. Leaks suggested plans to cut 320 posts in total. Within 6 months of taking over, Circle had already scrapped 46 full time nursing posts, then Chief Executive Ali Parsa (an ex-Goldman Sachs banker) admitted.

Circle loudly proclaimed its rapid improvement in the key ‘4 hour A&E waiting time’ target as evidence that ‘privatisation had quickly turned Hinchingbrooke around’. But the CQC discovered the hospital kept patients waiting too long in ambulances before they were allowed into A&E. And after they were seen in A&E, they then waited far too long – up to 12 hours – to be admitted to hospital. On this measure (so-called ‘trolley waits’) Hinchingbrooke had one in 5 patients waiting between 4 and 12 hours, compared to a national average of only one in 20 patients.

So Much for Key Targets

And whilst waiting in A&E, an unusually high number of patients (double the national average) left before being seen, fed up of waiting – and presumably unimpressed by the waiting-management computer system Circle had boasted was modelled on the Argos tills. (Circle’s senior management team had been hired from Argos, Avon, Faberge, Tesco and fashion-website Asos, bragged Ali Parsa in an article entitled “Government should not be running hospitals”).

‘…the chaplain singled out for special praise…’

Otherwise, the inspectors found ‘…incomplete patient notes, missing care plans, infected catheters, unwashed hands, broken clinical guidelines, fluids were repeatedly out of reach of patients, call bells were placed out of reach, diabetic patients were left without food…’ on and on. ‘…Many patients were being moved between wards in the middle of the night. One patient on the acute surgical and trauma ward said that they had been on seven wards in the first three days of admission, and had been moved at 12.45am, 3am and 5am on different days…’

Staff morale was amongst the lowest in the country. ‘…Staff told the CQC that shortages also meant little time for training. For example, staff at ward level were not competent in caring for people at the end of their life, because they had not received the training required to enable them to undertake this role…’

Caroline Molloy concludes that

‘…just as opponents to the Health & Social Care Act pointed out, what the private sector really want to do is cherry pick, taking the government money to run all the predictable and easy stuff – starving the rest of the NHS of funds as a result…’

‘…In nearby Bedfordshire, Circle recently won a huge ‘integrated’ ‘prime contractor’ contract for all musculo-skeletal services in the area – and promptly tried to sub-contract the undesirable bits back to the NHS on Circle’s own terms. As the local NHS hospital told the BBC, “Our concern is that if we don’t have the planned work coming through, then with the way the NHS is financed, we don’t know whether we will have sufficient money to provide the emergency service.” Recent reports suggest Bedford Hospital is now in severe financial difficulties…

It Goes On and On…

On 17th January 2015, Dan Bloom posted an article in MailOnline indicating that NHS was more than doubling spending on private beds for mental health patients after slashing hundreds of its own beds in order to save money.

‘…Cash-strapped hospital chiefs are spending vast amounts on sending mental health patients into private care after they axed more than 1,000 NHS beds – in order to comply with the Government’s demand to ‘make saving’. Damning figures compiled by MailOnline show the soaring amount paid to private firms to provide ‘out-of-area’ beds (maybe hundreds of miles from patients’ homes & costing the taxpayer thousands of pounds) which are used as NHS mental health wards are cut back. Figures provided by 22 mental health trusts show they spent £38.2million on private sector out-of-area beds in 2013/14 – two and a half times the £14.7million they spent in 2011/12.

Mark Winstanley, chief executive of Rethink Mental Illness, said: ‘Sending people away from home for treatment, while cutting beds in local mental health wards, makes no sense financially and causes human misery. Not only is this a bad use of vital NHS resources, it is also very distressing for people because it delays them from getting treatment and cuts them off from their family and friends. Everyone who needs a hospital bed should be able to get one close to home, no matter where they live or what their circumstances are.’

The Royal College of Nursing warned care was at crisis point, with 1,500 mental health beds closed down since 2010.

General secretary Dr Peter Carter told MailOnline demand has risen by almost a third since 2010. ‘It’s a false economy to make these sorts of cuts,’ he said. ‘This increased NHS spending on private sector beds is a sign that the health service lacks capacity and urgently needs to increase its own provision. This short-sighted approach also undermines the quality of patient care. Inadequate provision means there’s a severe lack of mental health beds in many communities and too many patients have to go hundreds of miles away from home to access a service… Some patients with serious mental illnesses are having to wait until their health deteriorates to such an extent that they have to be detained before they start getting specialist care. Children with mental health problems have been placed in police cells because there aren’t beds available. One of the worst offenders was the South London and Maudsley NHS trust, which leaped from spending £1.8million in 2011/12 to £5.5million last year.

A spokesman in a mealy-mouthed coverup, said that the government has invested £450m since 2010 to improve access to talking therapies, helping almost a million people. The Government has made it clear that beds must always be available for those who need them,’ the spokesman added. ‘We are going further than ever before to put mental health on a par with physical health and we expect NHS Trusts, who have committed to making this a reality, to ensure mental health doesn’t lose out in local spending…’

On February 21, 2015, the day I posted this Glob, we learn that, as an election ploy, the Coalition is going to devote £300m to mental health… For god’s sake let’s not be constantly fooled by these criminals of the Right.

A Locum A&E Doctor Speaks Out About
the Silent Privatisation of the NHS Workforce

On 3rd February 2015, Paul Teed, a junior A&E doctor wondered why the government is privatising its own in-house locum agency when MP’s are highlighting soaring NHS spending on agency and locum staff. He said,

‘Last year, I worked as a locum A&E junior doctor. I saw the fragmentation caused by the internal market and Health & Social Care Act first hand and soon realised who benefits from the coalition’s privatised healthcare designs – the privileged, not patients.

The overall spend on locum doctors is at an all-time high. It is particularly high in A&E departments and worsening. Spend on agency staff to fill medical rotas across hospitals has risen ‘exponentially’, Department of Health officials have told MPs on the influential Public Accounts Committee (PAC). The PAC’s new report released today reveals last year alone, agency spend jumped from £2.1billion to £2.6 billion. It costs the public purse an average of £400,000 to train an emergency consultant, according to Margaret Hodge, Chair of the PAC. Yet every year a hundred A&E consultants are now leaving the NHS to work abroad. Those that remain increasingly work for locum agencies – which profit by charging the NHS an extra 30% for the work.

When I work for a publicly funded agency the fee goes ultimately to the private equity firm, the Blackstone Group, whose chairman is so concerned with our nation’s health that he’s also on the board of British American Tobacco. The scale of the profit is highlighted in the offer of a referral bonus of 50p per hour of every hour another doctor works if I get them to work through them. Thus the NHS subsidises an ever increasing amount of stakeholders who profit from privatisation.

We’re told that NHS human resources administration is being outsourced to these agencies for the sake of efficiency, but in truth the same tasks are repeated, sometimes in triplicate, merely adding another layer of corporate bureaucracy for all involved.

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We Should be Speaking Out With More Determination

In The Guardian of 6th Feb 2015, Owen Jones sums it all up:-

… the NHS is our cherished national institution: research by British Future two years ago revealed it made us most proud to be British, coming ahead of both army and monarchy. We are quite literally born into it; it is our confidante for some of our most personal worries; it tends to us whether we have broken bones or are consumed with anxiety; and it is there, unconditionally, until we die. How could we have been so passive when it came under attack?

The King’s Fund has today given the definitive verdict on policies the electorate neither asked for nor were consulted about. The so-called reforms have proved ‘disastrous’, it says. Its chief executive speaks of three wasted years when the NHS desperately needed to focus on ‘growing financial and services pressures’ but is now left with a structure that is ‘complex, confusing and bureaucratic’ and ‘not fit for purpose’. For any organisation this would be a damning verdict. But this is our NHS which has been assaulted and traumatised.

Complexity Deliberately Designed to Fool Us

How have they got away with it? In part, the government’s policies were shrouded in so much complexity it often seemed hard to understand what was going on. Ex-health secretary Andrew Lansley’s Health and Social Care Act 2012 was notoriously much longer than the original legislation that introduced the NHS in the first place. Then there is the lack of media scrutiny. The public’s affection for the NHS is not shared by many of those who run the British press, many of whom shun public healthcare and go private. For the left, a battery of government assaults – from social security to education – meant overstretched resources. Bread and butter issues, like disabled people forced to pay the bedroom tax, often feel like more of a priority than a complex problem with longer term implications.

Government apologists will seize on the report’s finding that although damaging marketisation has taken place, the feared mass privatisation has not materialised. Opponents of the government’s policies always pointed out that the legislation laid the foundations for long-term rather than immediate privatisation. The ‘National’ was stripped from an increasingly fragmented National Health Service.

As Open Democracy points out, for example, the Tories have been promoting the sell-off of NHS property. And critics of the King’s Fund, such as National Health Action Party co-lead Clive Peedell, suggest it is undermined by previous support for pro-market NHS policies. Another pro-government defence is that Labour in power promoted privatisation, which is of course absolutely the case – and yet another reason why the leadership needs to draw a clear line with its past.

The NHS has been fragmented by this government’s policies: it is being squeezed of cash and resources; cuts to local authorities have heaped pressure on it; and it is being ever more stretched by an ageing population. This winter’s A&E crisis was a cry of pain from the NHS, and there will undoubtedly be many more to come. Labour has to be held to its pledge to promote integration rather than fragmentation. We need an NHS that focuses on prevention rather than managing disease.

But here’s the problem. There have been dedicated, dogged campaigners – but too few of them. We didn’t like what the government has done, we didn’t ask for it – but much of it has gone over our heads. We love the NHS – but we have been all too quiet as it has been fragmented and undermined. We have proved that it is even possible to attack our most treasured institution without causing too much fuss. It is a lesson that this and future governments will remember. Perhaps, then, it is time to speak out.

‘Liberating the NHS’ into the Hands of the Profiteers

In the Independent 7th February 2015, commenting on a highly critical report by the King’s Fund think-tank, Charlie Cooper wrote that Lansley’s ‘damaging reforms were at root of the current NHS crisis’ – they had probably contributed to the current crises in the NHS. Changes set out in the Health and Social Care Act 2012 amounted to the ‘biggest and most far-reaching legislation in the history of the NHS’. The Coalition’s health reforms were ‘damaging and distracting’ for the NHS, and government policy for the past two years has been ‘devoted to limiting the damage’.

Drawn up during Mr Lansley’s time in opposition from 2005 to 2010, they were outlined in a now-notorious White Paper in 2010, subheaded ‘Liberating the NHS’. They led to the complete overhaul of the management and bureaucratic structure of the NHS, while also placing a stronger emphasis on competition and markets in the provision of care. But they coincided with a time of rising pressure on hospitals and GPs from an ageing and growing population, as well as a dramatic slowdown in government funding.

Meanwhile, an Hunt apologist said the King’s Fund report highlighted ‘why both the public and the health sector should be wary of Labour’s plans for upheaval and reorganisation.’ What planet are they on? Labour’s plans for upheaval? One of my own principles is always to listen to what you say about other people because what you hear will tell you more about yourself than it will about them.

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Click to enlarge!

Take It from an American – Britain’s NHS is As Good As It Gets

‘…It’s no wonder that 30% of healthcare spending in the US is absorbed by bureaucracy – nearly twice the proportion that other industrialized countries spend. This is rather strange, given that the chief justification for private healthcare is that it suffers less bureaucracy. It turns out that exactly the opposite is true…’

Let Jason Hickel (anthropologist at the London School of Economics) conclude this horrific recital of mine. On 16th February 2015, he wrote this brilliant article in unmitigated high regard for Aneurin Bevan’s Health Service:-

As an American, I have followed the debate about the future of the National Health Service with curious fascination. I must say I don’t entirely understand why this has even become a question – why anyone seriously thinks that privatizing the NHS would be a good idea, or why we have to resort to citizen campaigns simply in order to keep it around. As far as I can tell, the NHS is one of the best things Britain has going for it, and it would be a monumental step backward to let it go.

I haven’t always held these views. Being on the left, I have long been committed to the principle of socialized healthcare, but, like most of my countrymen, I secretly suspected that such a system could never really work in practice. Before I moved to London in 2011, I had visions of the NHS as a quagmire of forms, queues, and long waiting times. These assumptions affect US progressives as much as they do devotees of Fox News: they’re in the water, part of the commonsense furniture of everyday life. Somehow we all end up believing that America’s private, for-profit healthcare system is our only hope, and without it we’re likely to end up dying while waiting in line for basic treatment. For most Americans, the specter of socialized healthcare – and of the NHS in particular – looms like the heavy shadow of Russian bureaucracy in a Gogol novel.

I was forced to confront these assumptions when I made my first visit to the doctor, which I put off for a long time out of sheer fear. I expected to have to take a train to some government complex where I would submit myself before a nameless bureaucrat behind a glass barrier in a brutalist concrete building. I literally thought this. So I was pleasantly surprised when it turned out that all I had to do was walk five minutes down the road to the nearest GP.

Upon arriving, I went straight up to the counter – no queuing required – and asked to register. Instead of the multiple page forms that I expected to fill out, which I had grown accustomed to completing every time I visited a doctor in the United States, I was presented with a single quarter sheet with the obvious fields: name, date of birth, and address. Nobody asked me for a health insurance card. Nobody asked if I would be able to pay. Nobody asked me for a British passport to prove that I was worthy of care. The edifices of my worldview began to crumble around me.

Fine, I thought: registration may be simple, but surely I’ll have to wait weeks for my appointment? Or even months? I was wrong again. I was given a slot that very afternoon.

I did have to sit in the waiting room, I’ll admit: for a sum total of 15 minutes. During that time, I marveled at the attractive display of public health information lining the walls – something I had never encountered in the US. It struck me, for the first time, that a publically funded healthcare system actually has an incentive to maintain good public health through mass education and preventative care. What a refreshing change from the perverse incentives built into the American model, which not only lacks this motive but operates according to the opposite logic: the more bad health there is in the population, the more money there is to be made from it.

My doctor was warm and professional, set up the referral and ordered my tests, and sent me on my way. As I passed by the receptionist at the front desk I felt almost guilty, and actually stopped to ask her if I needed to pay anything before leaving: surely there must be at least a small fee? She laughed at me. To this day, three years later, I still can’t get used to it, to the idea of health as a public good – it seems too humane to be true.

Some might rush to conclude that this surprisingly positive experience is probably due to the fact that I live in a posh white part of London. But I don’t. I live in Kilburn, and the clinic in question is adjacent to a number of council estates. The vast majority of the clinic’s patients are working class, and only about half of them are white. The first-rate care I receive is the care that every resident receives, regardless of their race or class – as a basic human right, as part of the social contract, as a feature of the collective solidarity that Clement Atlee’s Labour government forged in the 1940’s from the ashes of World War II.

And it’s not just that this clinic happens to be a good apple in a barrel of bad. I’ve been referred to specialists in other units – including large hospitals – on a number of occasions, and each time I’ve found myself amazed at the efficiency of the service. At one point I was referred for a possible case of melanoma. I was seen by a dermatologist at the first break in my schedule. So much for languishing in line for treatment. Why so efficient? Because there’s a powerful incentive at work: the NHS saves money by catching cancer early.

And it’s not just life-threatening illnesses that call forth the best of the NHS. The mundane phlebotomy lab I had to visit recently at the Royal Free Hospital was run like a well-oiled machine, caring for fifty patients an hour at peak time without a glitch. The system just works. We needn’t rely on anecdotes to prove this. The Commonwealth Fund recently released a report comparing the health systems of 11 highly industrialized countries. In the category of efficiency, the UK ranked number 1. The US, by contrast, ranked last. So much for the theory that profit stimulates efficiency. The UK also ranks well above the US in terms of timeliness of care, contrary to Fox News propaganda.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised; while living in the US I spent an astonishing amount of time waiting for appointments and sitting in receptions, even as a paying customer. I sometimes caught myself wondering if things might be different if I were able to pay more.

And it’s not just in the areas of efficiency and timeliness that the UK performs so well. It comes first in almost every other category – equity, access, quality, etc. – making it the best overall healthcare system in the world. As for the overall ranking of the US: dead last, again. The Commonwealth study didn’t measure bureaucracy, but I suspect that here too the UK would win handily. While living in the States I was regularly frustrated by the amount of time I had to spend not just filling out forms, but reviewing costs, interpreting bills, paying fees, comparing coverage plans, and badgering my insurance company over the phone to shell out for their fair share (an obligation they routinely shirked).

It’s no wonder that 30% of healthcare spending in the US is absorbed by bureaucracy – nearly twice the proportion that other industrialized countries spend. This is rather strange, given that the chief justification for private healthcare is that it suffers less bureaucracy. It turns out that exactly the opposite is true.

As for how likely a patient is to die for want of life-saving services: I wouldn’t choose to take my chances in the US, given that I’m not a millionaire. A close friend of mine recently discovered she had a fast-growing mass on her ovary that would lead to swift death if it wasn’t removed within the month. It sounds like a no-brainer, but before she scheduled the surgery she had to count the costs: her insurance company agreed to cover 80% (after much pressure from her doctors to get the company to cover it at all), but she would be responsible for the remainder – a sobering $40,000. She’s alive today, but she’ll spend many years working extra hours to pay off the loan she took out just to stay alive.

She is not alone. Millions of Americans are in debt due to healthcare costs, which is the number one cause of personal bankruptcy in the United States. In the UK we don’t have to face this terrible anxiety; it would be difficult for me to overstate how liberating this feels.

These are stories and statistics that I regularly wheel out during conversations with my American friends and family. And while they usually accept the evidence that I offer up (albeit somewhat grudgingly), they always insist that, sure, it sounds like a great service, but there’s no way it can be financially viable, right? But here again the evidence defies assumptions. The Commonwealth study confirms that the cost the UK pays for delivering the best healthcare in the world is less than any other industrialized nation: only $3,405 per capita. The most expensive healthcare system, by contrast, is the US, at $8,508 per capita – more than double the UK, while delivering much worse results.

Critics of the NHS claim that we can’t afford to pay for it; but the truth is that we can’t afford not to.

These data tell a clear story. But ultimately it’s not the extrinsic values of efficiency, timeliness, and low cost that make the NHS great. The NHS is great because it’s built on the principles of solidarity, universality, and equality – and because it is staffed by people who believe deeply in its basic moral mission. It is for these reasons that, when the NHS was founded in 1948, the Minister for Health Aneurin Bevan famously proclaimed that it was ‘the most civilized step that any country has ever taken…’

Yet, tragically, the present government is doing its best to dismantle the NHS, with the ultimate goal, it would seem, of replacing it with the US model. The Health and Social Care Act of 2012 put an end to the mandate for the state to provide comprehensive healthcare to every resident of England free at the point of use, and has allowed for-profit companies to buy up huge chunks of the NHS (£10 billion worth of contracts have already been handed out since the Act was passed). The Tories know the US system performs worse on every conceivable count, but they are willing to go there anyhow: the healthcare market-in-waiting is just too juicy to leave untapped.

Bevan knew that the NHS would face opposition from powerful private interests, but he was hopeful that it would prevail: “The NHS will stand,” he said, “as long as there are those who will fight for it.” Many Britons are doing just that. But, thanks to skillful government subterfuge, the vast majority do not even know that their cherished healthcare system is under threat, and many others don’t understand what it’s like to live with the dysfunctions of a private alternative. It’s sometimes hard to realize how good something is until it’s taken away from you. To England, I say, take it from an American: what you have is as good as it gets, and it’s worth defending. Your civilization depends on it.

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Thanks to all the people I’ve quoted. I hope they won’t mind what I’ve done…

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VIRTUAL QUESTIONS


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Every second we are asking ourselves ‘virtual questions’.

We don’t know we’re doing it till we know we are.

‘What shall I write next?’ is a question (VQ) that occurs to me right here. There’s a part of me that’s aware it’s asked that now of course – ‘Why have I just said that?’ (VQ) To prove a point, I suppose. ‘Who to?’(VQ) ‘Do I need a new paragraph?’ (VQ)

Whether we like it or not, VQ’s keep on punctuating our internal dialogue but we don’t know we’re asking them till it becomes an obsession to unpick things in this way. (‘So why do we do it? VQ) And it would prolong and intensify internal dialogue if we were to take account of every god-damned VQ we asked ourselves. It would become infernal dialogue…

However, it occurred to me that when I’m working with somebody, coaching, mentoring, or just awareness-raising, usually investigating Multiple-I’s, represented by bits of paper on the floor, I do have at the back of my mind, in a habitual kind of way, a range of possible questions I could ask to keep a flow going. Unless I make a formal list like the following they remain virtual questions but sometimes they turn into questions I ask a person out loud.

So, in the middle of one night last week, I got to asking myself, ‘What VQ’s do I ask myself while I’m mentoring, coaching, etc? (VQ)

The following questions are not necessarily in order of asking, nor are they necessarily connected together. Any of them might help everyday relationships!

■ Which ‘I’ shall we start with?
■ What part of an issue might we start with?
■ Where shall we start?
■ Was that a good place to start?
■ Where else?
■ Did it turn out to be an appropriate place to start?
■ Standing on a particular ‘I’ what do you see/hear/feel?
■ What does that say about you/anything?
■ What else is there?
■ What suggestions can I make to code what they say? To make it simpler…

■ What’s that got to do with it?
■ What’s that got to do with anything?
■ How does that fit?
■ Where does that get us?
■ Does that suggest a different direction?

■ Is it about time for them to take charge of this?
■ If I move a couple of pieces of paper will they follow suit?
■ Do the bits of paper form a system, a time-line or a set of clusters?
■ Could the bits of paper be made into a system or a time-line?
■ Would it help if…?
■ What question can I ask next?

■ Should we back-track now?
■ What would backtracking get us?
■ Might it help to go into Meta-I now?
■ What bodily configurations suggested internal movement?

■ Is there another way of seeing this?
■ Is it worth pursuing an alternative?
■ Is there another ‘I’ that might help out?
■ What other ‘I’ do you have that might be useful here?
■ What pattern is emerging?
■ What Emergent-I’s come up?
■ What if we explored this a bit more?
■ What would happen if they stood well away from the system?
■ What if they stood in the middle of the bits of paper?
■ Are they taking ownership of the bits of paper?
■ What if we moved the bits of paper further apart?
■ What if we moved the bits of paper closer together?
■ What is the distance between ‘I’s represented by the bits of paper?
■ What other ‘I’s might appear in the spaces?
■ Am I stepping into their ‘I’s to find out how they might be feeling etc?
■ Am I keeping my own autobiography out of it?
■ Would redefinitions help?
■ What will happen if they do x ?
■ How does this connect with that?
■ Does this go with that?

■ Are we getting anywhere?
■ How do they seem?
■ Are we getting to at least a temporary conclusion?
■ What would count as a conclusion?
■ Have we got as far as we can?
■ Are we done for the moment?
■ How much further might there be?
■ Should they pick up the bits of paper and write up their story?
■ Am I relating/empathising OK?
■ Have I always used their language?
■ Will they come back for more?
■ How much further might we go?
■ What have we created?
■ What is the pattern?
■ Does another approach suggest itself?
■ How was the experience?
■ What were the learnings?
■ Where to from here?
■ What’s the next step?
■ What will I need to do to follow this up?

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One Hundred Haiku (August 2014 – February 2015)


sometimes wishing
that God was real –
this temple to the spirit

(St Peter’s Colchester)

*
the light
through the arched window
green as the tree outside

*
digging deep
to find the roots
of summer bonfires

*
thrice starting to tell
his life story – three times
they return to theirs

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

*
final words
under a canopy
of sunlit clematis

*
curtain in a breeze –
the long tide
flowing into night

*
speaking slowly
their daughter puts it
in words of one syllable

*
red leaves clattering
on the wall – seagull
crossing a silver sun

*
chair
in a sunlit hallway
just sitting there

*
old bus ticket
from a slim wooden holder –
eloquent book-mark

Scan0016

*
birthday sunset
ten years old –
then as now

*
a gardenful
of moonlight – trees
bent into shadow

*
at the mention
of a favourite film
she reaches out her hand

*
grey morning
spent putting
new words on paper

*
moon moving across
house fronts –
obscure secrets

*
across the flatlands
stretching the eye
to cloud-fields

*
carved wooden angels
nave-ceiling-high a butterfly
swoops in sunlight

(There are 118 wooden angels on the nave ceiling
in St Wendreda’s church in March, Cambridgeshire, England)

*
my reflection
in the midnight window
looks at me reflecting

*
hotel babble
in the next room
blue sky & small clouds

*
on the cliff-top
just long enough
to count the seventh wave

*
leafy sunlight shadow
on shelves of books
many years old

*
hawthorn
notated in sprightly fashion –
chaffinch

(for Heather)

*
canada geese
cloud-cackling all the way
to the ex-beet field

*
through waiting-room
windows the sound of
autumn trees

*
meeting on a pathway
laughing bird
& night owl

(for Janet Davey)

*
hotel breakfast
facing a person
happy to talk about Plato

*
the words
in my book
fade into midnight

*
about to share that
my friend’s son quit the world today
I find I can’t

*
into the dark this night –
each one of us
our own candle

*
beautiful woman –
maggot starting off
inside her

*
half-blind man
wearing my cap
doesn’t notice

*

Three Haiku based on words
found in Camus’ A Happy Death

she buys
an orange canoe
to skim over the blue sea

matching the heart
against the slow pulse
of the sky

sky pinned
without a wrinkle
one horizon to the other

*

Eleven Haiku based on words
found in Lawrence Durrell’s Justine 

idling arm in arm
by the afternoon sea –
the debris of our lives

by the lily-pond
shading a candle
in the palm of one hand

face famished
by the inward light
of her terror

under the railway bridge
the lover awaits her man
mess of maggots

rain hisses down
the long windows –
dark eyes cool & amused

painter sitting
under the withered pear tree
in a shabby garden

her portrait
about to say what so far
has only reached the eyes

separated from
a forgotten evening
by centuries

yellow curtains
breathing tenderly against
the afternoon light

both dressed
in robes carved heavily
of moonlight

winter rain
crackling straw
amongst rocks

*
two heron
floating & floating
above the misty dyke

*
moon pheasant
disturbs deep midnight’s
field-run

*
seagulls by the thousand
flying upriver at dawn
past the red cows

*
his portrait
speaks words
jumbled with colour

*
sudden gale –
blasting round Orion & back
through broken clouds

*
even the lady
walking about
upstairs

(For Allan Clews)

*
moon
gathering
round every room

*

Five Haiku based on words
found in Lawrence Durrell’s Balthazar 

clicking of palms;
hooting of invisible
sea-going liners

the sensation
of walking about all night
on your eyeballs

portrait
interrupted
by a kiss

deserted beach
searching for
fragments of regret

moon climbs houses
& minarets – the city
digs itself up from earth

*

Four Haiku based on words
found in Lawrence Durrell’s Mountolive

gnats
silver rain in the eye of
the dying sun

train rasps out
across desert to coast
– lightness of heart

feeling every word
of a book I suppose
I’ll never read again

surrendering
to every word – to the grain
of thought

*
the unaccustomed smile
contains her mother’s
lilting voice

*
opening the window
to late night moonwind
& lately vagrant souls

*

across the river
western autumn trees
in sunrise

*
midnight planet
sliding through space –
a just perceptible hiss

*
realisation!
dear dead friend – I no longer
send you my poems

(For James)

*
all those months
come and gone –
no bats in the evening now

*
yellow slip of a moon
just where the sun comes up –
owl in the copse

*
ancient couple
window-shopping
their dog looks too

*
calm river edge
seagull paddling with
a wobbly reflection

*
sounds of the great lake
ebbing in
from outer darkness

(Found in Lawrence Durrell’s Clea)

*
a street I knew well
in former times
quite empty now

*
lone punt
on a silver canal
lone fisherman

*
black fenland sod
newly turned –
the absence of summer

*
one sycamore leaf
falls in the public square
as if no one was there

*
behind the railings
a litter of leaves
& a tramp lighting up

*
midnight darkness
under the Plough
nothing much happening

*
twenty rooks move
to a taller tree
to get the sunrise

*
a babble
of bus-kids eager
for learning maybe

*
the orange & green
of sunset – mist rising
between dark trees

*
Five minutes & Three Haiku from
dipping randomly into 4 Quartets

from the deck
of the drumming liner
a widening furrow

repeating
a prayer at the shrine
on the promontory

another dawn
prepares for heat
and silence

*

in the other room
her wild gestures stop
when she notices my gaze

*
all that remains
of a warrior’s dreams –
the voice on a telephone

*
exactly midnight
opening the window
to let the moon’s owl in

*
on the bank a heron
stretching its neck – the day
dips towards evening

*
horizontal triptych:
blue evening sky fading
twiggy hedge blackness

*
mat cat rises to stretch
& becomes a tight ball again
– a log shifts

*

Six Haiku found in Arnold Bennett’s
Things that Have Interested Me

solitary fisherman
with a long rod on a dark rock
– seething waters

lighthouse keeper
tinkering at his house
like a suburban dweller

fisherman forlorn
in the rain with strange toes
sticking out of straw shoes

at the dance
fair simple creatures
in their best hotel frocks

ununiformed railway
officials unlock barriers
with magic keys

distant violin –
same tune over & over
secret city life

*
midnight again
slip of a moon
& loud purring

*
dream stairway
steeply up into cloud
nursing a live grenade

(On waking from a bit of a nightmare
19th December 2014)

*
a deskful
of unfinished business –
loud clocktick

*
the yellow armchair:
Respighi dancing anciently
in the next room

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A Fictional Insight into the Capitalist Plot


Last week I was midway through reading a big fat book that would not fit into my shoulder bag for a train journey. So I went to a dark corner of my library with its relatively small heap of unclassified books where I sometimes find a unread gem. Three Dollars by Australian Elliot Perlman is a small size paperback ideal for fitting into a handbag and it turned out to be a gem of a book. According to the Sydney Morning Herald blurb the book ‘…is caustically angry and unashamedly polemical. Perlman argues lucidly and with great passion that the misery and social division created by contemporary economics threaten the basic principles our society is (purportedly) founded upon. Nor is there doubting Perlman’s talent and control of his form. Its anger and its passion mark the arrival of a writer of genuine ability!’

I think this is a very accurate assessment. Working at a number of different levels, the book proved to be compulsive reading. But the main thing I was left with when I got to the last page was the truly felt realisation of the fact that the neo-con global capitalist conspiracy to defraud human beings of a decent living has been going on for a long time. This ‘cutting the deficit’ charade seems to most people to have originated in 2008 but it’s been festering at least since this book was published in 1999 and, Owen Jones’ The Establishment brilliantly provides the long background to what’s going on while we are continuing to choose to be conned into believing we live under what’s called ‘democracy’, being graciously permitted to go to a polling booth every five years to plant a cross (for the demise of humanity). The right-wing attack on humanity didn’t just start with Thatcher & Friedman as one might have thought – it goes back a very long way. The Spirit of 1945 (www.thespiritof45.com) will turn out to have been a brief moment when the capitalist vandals were taken unawares; they’ve been trying to consider how to re-establish themselves ever since.

In a previous Glob I indicated the hidden Tory programme to create chaos so that people would not know where they were, what Tory policy to attack first and how to manage it (colinblundell.wordpress.com/2013/06/10/rule-by-chaos). In the context of Three Dollars this is how it works out in Australia (and all over the world we begin to realise – it’s a truly global phenomenon):-

One of the main characters,Tanya, says (in 1999, remember):-

People’s fear of change and their despair at the lack of certainty in any area of their lives, particularly where the social and the personal meet, that is with respect to their jobs and their income, if it lasts long enough, will lead them to abandon reason, to be suspicious of it and to look for scapegoats and simplistic solutions. The wisdom or correctness of a government’s decision will scarcely be discussed but instead attention will be focused on the strength with which the decision was made, the apparent certainty, the conviction with which it was implemented.

Current political ‘debate’ (January 2014), if you can dignify it with such a word, abandons all reason; there is no intellectual integrity to any of it and anybody who seeks to make well-considered analyses of what’s happening is not only regarded with suspicion but written off as a nut-case – Noam Chomsky, for example. Rather than resort to thinking (which hurts the brain) it’s far easier for ‘ordinary people’ to seek scapegoats (Muslims, the disabled, the unemployed) for their woes; simplistic solutions abound – ‘send them all home’, ‘make them work’… and so on. The Power Possessors simply have to repeat the latest slogans often and loudly (plum in the mouth shouting passes for ‘conviction’) enough to carry the day. ‘Because it’s right for our people…’ – just the one right-wing way of looking at things. The frenzy for a new fascist party takes us back to the thirties – millions are taken in. It will of course solve everything.

People will long to have someone remove the uncertainty. They will admire the way the government summarily dismisses any opposition to the decision. A climate will develop wherein critical and analytical thinking, unpractised arts already, will be seen at best as irrelevant and, at worst, as treasonous, threatening the certainty for which they have traded everything else. It will be the fall of the Weimar Republic revisited.

Tanya works on and off for a university relying on it for a a small income while she is trying to complete a thesis.

It was not that she loved the university. On the contrary, as time went by, she had become increasingly critical of universities, their acceptance, as she put in her more mordant moments, of Departments of Hospitality and Tarantino studies, or Hairdressing, whatever brought in fee-paying students. She railed against the intellectual weakness of the students and the moral weakness of the staff. The universities seemed to her at the vanguard of society’s unravelling… They were not the first to retreat from what they had once stood for, they were not the first to turn their backs on any notion of the common good and to prostitute themselves, they were not the first to promote a meaningless language designed to preserve their own pseudo-cultural and economic fiefdoms, they were not the first to willingly, enthusiastically and blindly, destroy themselves. But if the universities were not the first neither were they the last…

The universities, forced to charge for entry because their funding has been cut, reduce learning to the status of money-making; learning becomes a commodity directed towards making more money. It betokens the death of intellect.

Eddie Harnovey, the story-teller, is a chemical engineer deliberately hired by the once boyfriend of two of Eddie’s loves, the second being Tanya, to fail at a task of investigating a huge proposed environmentally suspect super-smelting installation on a site (Spensers Gulf) owned by the rich father (Claremont) of Eddie’s first boyhood love.

Eddie completes his report with its adverse recommendations.

A second letter enclosing a copy of my report, its recommendations and an outline of the confidential agreement between the government and Claremont that I had heard about. He, it appeared, wrote back directly to Gerard.

Once again, Gerard called me into his office, but not before making me wait outside.
“You’ve been writing to the Minister.”
“Yes, I know.”
“You’ve gone over my head.”
“I know that too.”
“Why did you do that?”
“To be honest, I didn’t feel comfortable taking up something as big as this, running with it and stopping at your head. Out of concern for you, I felt I had no choice but to take it over your head. I felt better with it over your head.”

He told me that he appreciated my honesty and asked me why I was so concerned. I explained what would happen to the whole area around Spensers Gulf if the proposed mega-smelter were permitted to operate, to all intents and purposes, unregulated.
“Not unregulated, deregulated,” he said. “There’s a difference.”
I asked him how he saw the difference.
“Unregulated suggests we haven’t looked into it. Deregulated means that, after detailed analysis, we’ve decided to free everything up.”
“Free it up from what?”
“Regulation. Over-regulation.”
I asked him whether he saw a difference between regulation and over-regulation and he asked me what I meant.
“Isn’t it possible for something to be under-regulated or regulated to the right extent?”
“Harnovey, these are semantic games and deregulation is the name of the only game in town. We don’t play semantic games here.”
“Where do you play them?”
“It was a figure of speech, Harnovey. I was using words in a colourful way to illustrate my point. You’ve got to understand that writing directly to the Minister is not part of your job and that your work at Spensers Gulf is over. I see here from your file that your recommendations concerning the shifting of that chemical storage facility were ignored. You seemed to be able to handle that. The report you co-authored with Chamberlain found that a chemical accident there was highly probable and that such an accident, seven kilometres from the centre of the city, posed a toxic threat to a large part of the metropolitan area. According to your report, the facility housed styrene, propylene oxide, acrytonitrite and … acrylates … what are they?”
“They’re used in paint.”
“Are they? Good. Your views were bypassed and you offered barely any resistance … a few telephone enquiries and a one-paragraph memo to … oh, it was to me … and yet you go directly to the Minister just because your Spensers Gulf report was ignored. Frankly, Harnovey, no one wants to hear any more about it from you. Do you understand that?”

I explained that there were many levels of understanding. I left his office and wrote a third letter to the Minister. After another two weeks of silence I lost patience and anonymously sent copies of my report and the letters to the newspapers.

There are indeed many levels of understanding and we are in the grip of mass hysteria that has only ever arrived at the very basic level of understanding – the imagining of what’s-in-it-for-me?

So Eddie lost his job, Tanya’s attachment to the university ends, they have a young child and Eddie only has three dollars to his name.

That ‘deregulation’ = a state of total unregulation is pretty clear: it enables the capitalist classes, the establishment, the moneyed, to do just whatever they like to the ultimate detriment of the ‘working classes’ (all who spend their lives working for others’ gain & therefore wage-slaves) who are in turn fool enough to think that to replace one fascist dictatorship (the Tories) with another even worse (something with no intellectual credentials whatsoever called UKIP in England) will serve their interests.

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TRANSLATING LITERATURE INTO LIFE


I go into my library at 3 o’clock of a winter’s afternoon and pluck from the shelves a book I acquired a few years ago, obviously intended to be read just at this moment right now. It’s a beautiful old hardback book called Things that have Interested Me (1921) by Arnold Bennett, the ‘Five Towns’ novelist. It has pages guillotined only at the top and a previous reader has carefully cut many pages by hand – it’s a delight to handle. (By contrast, my mind shifts by association, just for a moment, to a vision of people on trains with these unkind e-things they pretend to be reading…)

This real book is full of more or less absorbing little anecdotes & observations, political, artistic, musical, sardonic, human, humorous, and so on, including some that offer valuable insights after the style of the author’s own Literary Taste, Mental Efficiency and so on…

Two small gems (a double left click will enlarge!):-
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The piece that really held my attention, and on which I’m focusing in this Glob, is called TRANSLATING LITERATURE INTO LIFE. The argument in short is that there’s no point in reading unless the contents of a book affects your life in some way. I agree. A book can set a being-pattern going, sew long unbreakable threads into your days: just as elsewhere Bennett writes: ‘…When one looks back one sees that certain threads run through one’s life, making a sort of pattern in it. These threads and the nature of the pattern are not perceived until long after the actual events constituting them…’

Since 1951, when I bought the first few books that have resulted in the accumulation that I now like to call ‘my library’, I think that, without putting it quite like that, I’ve always sought to integrate my reading with my thinking with the way I do life. It’s not just a matter of learning but, for example, I learned about the true function of colons & semi-colons and the typographically handy Deviant Use of Initial Upper Case from reading Thomas Carlyle – Sartor Resartus – very early on…

Of [Teufelsdröckh’s] Boundless Learning, and how all reading and literature in most known tongues, from Sanchoniathon to Dr. Lingard, from your Oriental Shasters, and Talmuds, and Korans, with Cassini’s Siamese Tables, and Laplace’s Mecanique Celeste, down to Robinson Crusoe and the Belfast Town and Country Almanack, are familiar to him – we shall say nothing: for, unexampled as it is with us, to the Germans such Universality of Study passes without wonder, as a thing commendable, indeed, but natural, indispensable… A man that devotes his life to learning, shall he not be learned?

Substitute any names of any books you like for those in Carlyle’s list and you can make a similar comment on your own experience.

Charles Lamb’s Essays of Elia were fundamental in providing me with a way of looking at scenes & situations as neatly crafted entities. On a much larger scale, Richard Jefferies’ The Story of My Heart both summed up what I’d felt about life in my first fifteen years on earth and also inaugurated a very firm broadly ‘philosophical’ pattern that’s served me well for the next 62 years.

In the Old Days, when I performed the role of teacher, I fell into the habit of starting a session in a roundabout kind of way to keep the listeners guessing, so they’d be not quite sure of what was going on until multiple pennies began to drop; this approach was reinforced when I read about Gurdjieff’s advice to do things ‘otherwise’. For some reason, obeying rules and toeing somebody else’s line has never been my way… And so it appealed to me that Arnold Bennett begins his short article TRANSLATING LITERATURE INTO LIFE with a story which he uses as a metaphor to link his argument together and to draw conclusions:-

Lo, a parable! A certain man, having bought a large, elaborate, and complete manual of carpentry, studied it daily with much diligence and regularity. Now there were no cupboards in his house ; his dining-table consisted of an arrangement of orange-boxes, and he had scarcely a chair that was not a menace to the existence of the person who sat down upon it. When asked why he did not set to work, and, by applying the principles of the manual, endeavour to improve the conditions of his life and of the lives of his wife and children, he replied that he was a student, and he plunged more deeply than ever into the manual of carpentry. His friends at length definitely came to the conclusion that, though he was an industrious student, he was also a hopeless fool.

It’s perhaps inevitable (because I have already, in other ways, translated this way of Opening a Piece by Mystification & Story into my life as a teacher) that I warm to Bennett’s beginning ploy.

I suppose that when you’ve read enough and already done quite a lot of assimilating you’re bound to find things going round in circles; here it’s the reverse of Bennett’s argument: what happens in books you read can often serve as a confirmation of what you already feel to be the case; like the Autodidact in Sartre’s Nausea, I find it exciting to discover something I’ve thought about (and imagined to be original!) in a proper author’s writing! Unlike the Autodidact, I do not wait to find my ideas in somebody else’s writing before I take committed ownership of them. For me, reading is a confirmation rather than a justification.

What is Bennett getting at with his parable?

By [it] I wish to indicate that there is no virtue in study by itself. Study is not an end, but a means. I should blush to write down such a platitude, did I not know by experience that the majority of readers constantly ignore it. The [intending carpenter] who pores over a manual of carpentry and does naught else is a fool. But every book is a manual of carpentry, and everybody who pores over any book whatever and does naught else with it is deserving of an abusive epithet. What is the object of reading unless something definite comes of it? You would be better advised to play billiards. Where is the sense of reading history if you do not obtain from it a clearer insight into actual politics and render yourself less liable to be duped by the rhetoric of party propaganda? Where is the sense of reading philosophy if your own attitude towards the phenomena of the universe does not become more philosophical? Where is the sense of reading morals unless your own are improved? Where is the sense of reading biography unless it is going to affect what people will say about you after your funeral? Where is the sense of reading poetry or fiction unless you see more beauty, more passion, more scope for your sympathy, than you saw before?

I got to wondering how I have by accident fallen into the habit of ‘translating literature into life’… Well, for a start, since the 1950’s, I’ve more or less systematically maintained a collection of quotations from the books I’ve read; I have a feeling this began when I had a sudden self-defined need to model my essay-writing at school on the work of ‘professional’ essay-writers – those who might be assumed to know what they were doing (Elia, George Bourne, Carlyle, Belloc and so on) in order to get a good mark from English teachers – and I did get good marks! When I look back over my notebooks from the last forty years I constantly find handy little apophthegms that have indeed become synthesised into organic guidances for living; often I have become so used to following the guide that I’ve forgotten the source.

I can test this out! I open a notebook (March 1990 – June 1991) plucked at random from a shelf in my workroom, confident that the page I open it at will reveal something that’s become part of who I am. Lo and behold:-

Living a life that to its real shape
Evolves, increases, swells its girth, ascends
As an unconscious and a splendid tree,
A fact of Nature, not a random plan…

(Four lines from The Land by Vita Sackville-West)

One of my fundamental beliefs: just keep going at it and everything will eventually ‘gravitate to order’, as John Aitkenhead, once headmaster of Kilquanity House School, said to me (1967) about his pedagogical process.

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On the opposite page to Vita Sackville-West’s four lines about ‘organicity’ is a photo of pen & notebook and Volume IV of Dorothy Richardson’s brilliant Pilgrimage, set down on a long gone lawn in Norfolk where one afternoon in summer I was slumped in a deckchair reading & writing as is my wont, concocted from which, on an earlier page, there’s a found poem (dated 26th August 1990):-

live always remote

drawn away into the depths
of your spirit see
all time freshly –
a perpetual Sunday

kept in shape by bells
and traffic without commerce;
a dance or game whose rhythm
lets you into an eternal

way of being; spend
all your days sabbatically
in a way that keeps people
upright and apart

Exactly two years after this, upon escaping from Wage Slavery, I converted all the days of my life into a ‘sabbatical’ flow.

Relating to writing in this way is without doubt a two-way process, systemic: all the fruits of prior learning alert you to sequences of words you already recognise as part of your growing soul; after which the isolation of a valued quotation enters your other-than-conscious being and transforms it in some inscrutable way.

So far this has been some indication of how I translate literature into life, not at all that my application of principles always measures up to my high expectations.

It’s many years since I read a book solely ‘for pleasure’ in the usual sense; I make the assumption that there’s always some learning, hard or easy, to be acquired from reading; mighty pleasurable I find it to tackle books that others might find very hard-going: all the pleasure then is in unpicking locks.

Bennett continues that if anybody boldly answers…

…“I only read for pleasure,” then I retort that the person who drinks whisky might with force say: “I only drink whisky for pleasure.” [and presumably not to arrive at some quasi-visionary state!] And I respectfully request you not to plume yourself on your reading, nor expect to acquire merit thereby. But should you answer: “I do try to translate literature into life,” then I will ask you to take down any book at random from your shelves and conduct in your own mind an honest inquiry as to what has been the effect of that particular book on your actual living. If you can put your hand on any subsequent period, or fractional moment, of your life, and say : “I acted more wisely then, I wasn’t such a dupe then, I perceived more clearly then, I felt more deeply then, I saw more beauty then, I was kinder then, I was more joyous then, I was happier then – than I should have been if I had not read that book” – if you can honestly say this, then your reading of that book has not been utterly futile. But if you cannot say this, then the chances are that your reading of that book has been utterly futile. The chances are that you have been studying a manual of carpentry while continuing to sit on a three-legged chair and to dine off an orange-box.

I stand on my library steps to do a bit of book shifting – there are lately read books in a horizontal position which offends my eye. I determine that the last book on the right hand side of this particular shelf will be the one I will open at random in order to accept Arnold Bennett’s challenge. The last book on the right turns out to be Dostoevsky’s House of the Dead. It’s some years since I read it. I open it up at Chapter 2 where Dostoevsky begins to ‘copy out’ Alexander Petrovitch Goriantchikoff’s account of his ten years of hard labour to which he was treated for murdering his wife.

Our prison was at the end of the citadel behind the ramparts. Looking through the crevices between the palisade in the hope of seeing something, one sees nothing but a little corner of the sky, and a high earthwork, covered with the long grass of the steppe. Night and day sentries walk to and fro upon it. Then one perceives from the first, that whole years will pass during which one will see by the same crevices between the palisades, upon the same earthwork, always the same sentinels and the same little corner of the sky, not just above the prison, but far and far away. Represent to yourself a court-yard, two hundred feet long, and one hundred and fifty feet broad, enclosed by an irregular hexagonal palisade, formed of stakes thrust deep into the earth. So much for the external surroundings of the prison. On one side of the palisade is a great gate, solid, and always shut; watched perpetually by the sentinels, and never opened, except when the convicts go out to work. Beyond this, there are light and liberty the life of free people! Beyond the palisade, one thought of the marvellous world, fantastic as a fairy tale. It was not the same on our side. Here, there was no resemblance to anything. Habits, customs, laws, were all precisely fixed. It was the house of living death. It is this corner that I undertake to describe.

Whenever I read a fictional account of prison-life I am immediately reminded of Gurdjieff’s idea that we are all of us in the prison of Personality; the literary extract leaps out at me as a metaphor and I relate any development of prison conditions to the ways in which we choose to remain in prison. Here’s Maurice Nicoll on the subject:-

There is a phrase that is often used in this Work, and also in other ancient esoteric writings, to the effect that we are in prison. Mr G used to say that no one realises their own situation. “All of you,” he said, “are in prison, and all you can wish for, if you are sensible people, is to escape. No one, however, can escape from prison without the help of those who have escaped before. Only they can teach you in what way escape is possible.” At one time his favourite statement was that if a person in prison is to have at any time the chance of escape they must realise first of all that they are in prison. So long as you fail to realise this, so long as you think you are free, you have no chance whatever. If we do not realise our mechanicalness we imagine we are free. We imagine that we do everything from ourselves, by our free will.

When we choose ‘habits, customs, laws, [to be] all precisely fixed’ so that we behave mechanically it’s a sure sign that we are bound to a wheel of slave-like repetition. We choose to remain in that state because it’s relatively comfortable not to have to think about the next step; it is a state of self-calming which we choose for ourselves. It is sticking to the old habits run by the Personality – those which go on precisely in ‘the way we’ve always done it’.

This prison that Mr G so often spoke about is first of all your Personality. In the case of Mr Smith, say, the prison is Mr Smith whom he does not observe at all and whom he takes to be himself. What does he have to do to begin to make it possible to emerge? One way is to divide himself into ‘I’ and Mr Smith. He is with Mr Smith all day and so he has plenty of opportunity for observing him and no excuse for saying that he can never get Mr Smith on the telephone, but because he is with Mr Smith so much he does not see him and he does not know that Mr Smith makes him do everything. You will see that really one should say, on meeting Mr Smith, not merely: “How are you?” but one should add: “But how is Mr. Smith?” And Mr. Smith should reply: “Oh, Mr. Smith is very fit, but ‘I’ am in rather poor health.” for it is only he who can liberate himself.

Before we can get out of prison ‘…beyond the palisade, [into] the marvellous world, fantastic as a fairy tale…’, where we can re-fashion our beings in a Second Education, we have to see for ourselves how mechanical we are now; appreciate the need to get out of prison. We have to learn to notice the prison bars – existing beliefs, attitudes, habits, private agendas of various kinds, out of date ways of thinking & doing – all the restrictions on possible alternative action that we choose to impose on ourselves. Once we have accepted that we are in prison an important way out is to come to terms with the idea that there are many different ways of behaving; the next snag is that we must accept that each way will be managed by a different ‘I’. That’s a problem in itself because we all have within us an ‘I’ that leaps up and down screaming, “Rubbish!” Making-a-snap-response-I, perhaps – a well-rehearsed expert at not listening to an argument. But first of all there’s the fundamental difficulty of adjusting to the idea that we are in prison. The ‘I’ that imagines it’s already free as a bird will almost certainly never get there. And so on.

We have to find out who the sentries are who parade night and day to keep us in the prison of single unified ‘I’; we need to work to develop genuine friendships with them, seeing that they do have a positive intention for us – they keep guard over our constant waywardness. They are part of us.

I find that going into a notional prison with a fictional character alerts me to practise coming to terms with my own real life prison conditions; then sorting them out in the light of all the metaphorical pre-suppositions contained in the concrete exigencies of fictional prison-life. All life’s a fiction anyway.

Arnold Bennett goes on:-

You [may] say: “I know all that. But it is not so easy to translate literature into life.” And I admit freely that when I think of the time I have wasted in reading masterpieces, I stand aghast. The explanation is simple. Idleness, intellectual sloth, is the explanation. If you were invited to meet a great writer, you would brace yourself to the occasion. You would say to yourself: “I must keep my ears open, and my brain wide awake, so as to miss nothing.” You would tingle with your own bracing of yourself. But you – I mean we – will sit down to a great book as though we were sitting down to a [nut roast & mustard pickle] sandwich. No sense of personal inferiority in us! No mood of resolve! No tuning up of the intellectual apparatus! But just a casual, easy air, as if saying to the book : “Well, come along, let’s have a look at you!” What is the matter with our reading is casualness, languor, preoccupation. We don’t give the book a chance. We don’t put ourselves at the disposal of the book. It is impossible to read properly without using all one’s engine-power. If we are not tired after reading, common sense is not in us. How should one grapple with a superior and not be out of breath?

To put it in Gurdjieff’s brilliant roundabout way, if you’re going to get more than a cosy kind of thrill from the experience, a ‘certain something else’ is required when you’re reading a book – ‘all one’s engine-power’, perhaps, something that makes us ‘out of breath’, has us hurtling towards a state of being intellectually knackered.

In another little anecdote, Arnold Bennett addresses the business of FATIGUE:-

I scarcely felt tired in the morning. The day before might have been just an ordinary day. Only I had a queer ‘full’ feeling in the head. And I was irritable and gloomy. I searched for the cause of my gloom, and there was no cause. Moreover I had no real desire to conquer my gloom. Its cause must have been physical. After lunch I was profoundly aware of my fatigue. I slept an hour. I could have slept longer, but I got up. With satisfaction I felt that I had had a sleep. Then tea and a cigar. I meant to work, but I perceived that I was too tired to work; my head was too ‘full’. I lay down again and read, and slept three-quarters of an hour. It was at this point, when the fatigue was nearly but not quite dissipated…, that I began to have fine sensations. A perception that my gloom was passing; what a wonderful thing life was; an intensified consciousness of myself as an existing organism. Still, there remained a slight ‘fullness’ of the head; a pressure at two points right and left of the crown. Withal a kind of enjoyment of these remains of fatigue, knowing that they would soon be gone. And a physical pleasure in the half-fatigued realisation of my being ; a looking-forward to the next activity; a calm resting. All this passed off when I arose, but not the memory of it.

I have often found that the simple act of opening a book to read a page at random – a book of philosophy, poetry, a well-loved familiar tract or even some notebook of one’s own – will serve to re-assemble the neurons in some unexpected and rejuvenating way. But one has to have had the experience to understand the process. Once you imagine you’ve understood the process you already change the nature of the experience – it’s systemic:-

We had the experience but missed the meaning
And approach to the meaning restores the experience
In a different form beyond any meaning
We can assign to happiness… (Eliot: Four Quartets)

From my experience, not a lot of people are willing to put themselves out in this convoluted way as Arnold Bennett points out at the end of TRANSLATING LITERATURE INTO LIFE:-

…even if we read with the whole force of our brain, and do nothing else, common sense is still not in us, while sublime conceit is. For we are assuming that, without further trouble, we can possess, co-ordinate, and assimilate all the ideas and sensations rapidly offered to us by a mind greater than our own. The assumption has only to be stated in order to appear in its monstrous absurdity. Hence it follows that something remains to be done. This something is the act of reflection. Reading without subsequent reflection is ridiculous; it is a proof equally of folly and of vanity. Further, it is a sign of undue self-esteem to suppose that we can grasp the full import of an author’s message at a single reading. I would not say that every book worth reading once is worth reading twice over. But I would say that no book of great and established reputation is read till it is read at least twice. You can easily test the truth of this by reading again any classic.

Gurdjieff advises reading his monumental Beelzebub at least three times; the next time I read it will be the fourth time; I’ve still not plumbed its depths. How many times has Will Mesa read it?

I’ve read Moby Dick & Germinal & Journey to the East & Glass Bead Game & Trout Fishing in America each several times.

There are some books that throw poems & haiku at me – found poems & found haiku. There’s always something special about such books that causes me to reflect in this way. It’s a very rewarding way of TRANSLATING LITERATURE INTO LIFE.

Here are haiku found in Arnold Bennett’s Things that Have Interested Me:-

solitary fisherman
with a long rod on a dark rock
– seething waters

lighthouse keeper
tinkering at his house
like a suburban dweller

fisherman forlorn
in the rain with strange toes
sticking out of straw shoes

at the dance
fair simple creatures
in their best hotel frocks

ununiformed railway
officials unlock barriers
with magic keys

distant violin –
same tune over & over
secret city life

And finally another nicely rounded gem:-

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Another thing that can translate literature into life is to model on somebody else’s sense of humour.

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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.

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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.

Consciousness

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:-

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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

Ozymandias

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.

II

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.

Scan0011

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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WHY WRITE POEMS?


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

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…”

(TNO)

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:-

SUDESTEG

Surface Meaning
Deeper Meaning (through metaphor & imagery)
Structure
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

(TNO)

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.

February

sometimes
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.

swifts

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
skimming
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…

ΧΟΡΟΣ

Scented woodsmoke from the pyre –
Death is a comely thing –
Woodsmoke of Autumn
Hanging
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

Camberwell

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.

1966

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)

Teaching

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:-

today

as a special treat
we are going to talk about
spiders

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

unfortunately

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
perambulating
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.

Politics

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…”

1974

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)

Nostagia

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

(TNO)

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:-

NINETEEN-FIFTEEN

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

(TNO)

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’

(TNO)

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.

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