Poems To Live By: ‘Love (III)’

There is nothing like a satisfactory meal. The only thing which can possibly improve on it is a meal with people you love and value. Or, even greater, people who love and value you. The food, the drink, the pleasure of good company can somehow make an ordinary moment transcendent.  The world is full of fast-food fixes; there is often too little time in the modern need to be productive to move away from the flickering screen to eat, let alone to make the most of company, of relationships, of love. I suppose the internet, social media and a society obsessed with data and results and productivity did not affect George Herbert a great deal. There is much we can still learn from the past, even from a seventeenth-century poet. His masterpiece is possibly the greatest poem on love in the English language. Simone Weil called it ‘the most beautiful poem in the world’. It is hard to disagree. Here it is:

Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lacked any thing.

A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.

Another thing that our world, or the western world at least, seems to have little time for is theology. That wasn’t the case for Herbert. His life, like many of his contemporaries, was wrapped up in the bible and in theology. When you consider the richness of the culture such people produced – just think of Herbert’s contemporary, John Donne – not only in poetry but in art and science and philosophy, we may have been a little presumptuous in throwing God out of our lives so quickly when the opportunity arose. For Herbert, theology was not simply an area of study. God was not a dictator who had given a set of rules which must be kept. Or else. The stress on the first word of the poem sums it up: ‘Love’. ‘Lord’ and ‘Love’ are synonymous in this dramatic poem as, for Herbert, God is love.

But there are two halves to that opening line. While ‘Love bade me welcome’, ‘my soul drew back’. The poem follows this conversation between God and the poet. The poet feels all those things we feel when we are faced with someone so good we feel unworthy, embarrassed, ill-at-ease in their presence. This is not a meeting of equals. Herbert is worthless, ‘Guilty of dust and sin’, ‘unkind, ungrateful’, ashamed and undeserving.

This is real love, however. The love we all crave for, the love we all need. Love which notices our needs before we even put them into words. A ‘quick-eyed Love’. A love which will draw nearer, despite our undeservedness. After all, ‘Love’ doesn’t say to the poet to be so foolish, that he’s got the wrong view of himself. It’s a love which will not judge. Indeed, it’s a ‘Love that took my hand’: personal, gentle, caring. A love that will bear ‘the blame’. A love which forgives. A love which forgets. A love which makes up our ‘lack’.

I wish I was loved like that. I wish I loved like that.

The greatest is still to come though. The poet accepts the welcome but cannot conceive of doing anything more than serving. I guess we might all have been forgiven but the coldness has lasted a while longer. Not here. The rhyme is conclusive. There is something better which real love offers. It offers to ‘taste my meat (feast)’. The poet must ‘sit and eat’. The rhyme and those verbs, ‘sit’, ‘eat’, are satisfying to the poem’s dialogue and satisfying to our ears, to our senses. There is resolution. And not just an answer. It is a resolution so rich in sensory pleasure. The sound of the poem, its finality and the thing it describes: the joy, the pleasure, the beauty of sitting and eating with those we love and those who love us. It is nourishing and life-giving.

For Hebert it is made transcendent because it is the very definition of Love for him who sets the food before him. It is God himself. Face-to-face with such love, Herbert feels that he is worse than he can comprehend. But he also feels that he is loved more than he can comprehend.

We all need love. It is, as many have noted, our constant concern. Rarely has the power that love can bring and what it does to the individual been described so beautifully as in this poem. So beautiful that is survives in our godless world as an echo of what resonates in all our hearts, whether we believe or disbelieve. To love and to be loved unconditionally is, ultimately, what we all need. Is all we need.

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Poems to Live by: ‘Broadcast’


Giant whispering and coughing from
Vast Sunday-full and organ-frowned-on spaces
Precede a sudden scuttle on the drum,
‘The Queen’, and huge resettling. Then begins
A snivelling of the violins:
I think of your face among all those faces,

Beautiful and devout before
Cascades of monumental slithering,
One of your gloves unnoticed on the floor
Beside those new, slightly-outmoded shoes.
Here it goes quickly dark. I lose
All but the outline of the still and withering

Leaves on half-emptied trees. Behind
The glowing wavebands, rabid storms of chording
By being distant overpower my mind
All the more shamelessly, their cut-off shout
Leaving me desperate to pick out
Your hands, tiny in all that air, applauding.

Philip Larkin

Philip Larkin might not be an obvious choice for St Valentine’s Day; after all, he did say “Deprivation is for me what daffodils were to Wordsworth”. But let’s get this straight: I love Larkin’s poetry. And it’s lazy to simply call his work too depressing and too bleak.

The persona, Larkin I presume, is somewhere listening to a radio broadcast of some concert. Although the title is ‘Broadcast’, he’s more interested in someone he feels deeply for who is present at the concert. The language at the start reflects his disdain for much of the proceedings, ‘frowned-on’, ‘scuttle’, ‘snivelling’, ‘slithering’ in contrast to the way he describes his love, ‘Beautiful’, ‘devout’. He uses all that space created in words such as ‘Giant whispering’, ‘Vast Sunday-full’ to create the beautiful tenderness he feels as he zooms in on the object of his affections, ‘I think of your face among all those faces’. Lovely, isn’t it? There’s nothing bleak or depressing here as Larkin reminds himself of the tiny details which only affection and companionship might notice, the ‘gloves’ and ‘slightly-outmoded shoes’.

I know, I know, it doesn’t stay there. Larkin can never quite commit himself to saying that ‘what will survive of us is love’. It was only ever ‘almost true’. Even in the midst of this tenderness, his longing for the woman, he can’t keep imagining her, ‘it goes quickly dark’. The language reflects his annoyance at the music, ‘rabid storms of chording’ because it has taken his attention away from her. What he sees instead is failure. The trees are ‘half-emptied’, the leaves ‘withering’. He is ‘desperate’ to imagine her again but fails.

So why isn’t this the bleak poem I suggested at first? Firstly, because Larkin realises the truth that love cannot answer everything. He knows that we fail. Even with those we love most deeply, we let them down, we disappoint them, we behave in unloving ways. Better to understand that, to know that love cannot possibly answer everything we hope it will. More than that, even as he thinks of failure, he’s still trying to find her ‘hands, tiny in all that air’. The tenderness, his love and desire for her undermines the idea of failure. And he’s written a poem about it! About her! A poem which I’m writing about now and you’ve just read! And in that way what Larkin felt for this woman, this tenderness, this love, does last, it does endure.

The poem speaks to that feeling we all know. That feeling of being apart from the one we love. That failure of memory to do the loved one justice. That tenderness which comes with love. That desire to be with someone which can bring both joy and sadness, both beauty and loss. It’s about the complexity of love in all its loveliness.

It’s true love. And you won’t find that in a Valentine’s card.

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Poems to Live By: ‘In my craft or sullen art’

In my craft or sullen art

In my craft or sullen art
Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms,
I labour by singing light
Not for ambition or bread
Or the strut and trade of charms
On the ivory stages
But for the common wages
Of their most secret heart.

Not for the proud man apart
From the raging moon I write
On these spindrift pages
Nor for the towering dead
With their nightingales and psalms
But for the lovers, their arms
Round the griefs of the ages,
Who pay no praise or wages
Nor heed my craft or art.

Dylan Thomas

What’s the point of poetry? What’s the point of art of any kind? Incredible as it may seem to other generations, this is a question we have to ask as libraries are being closed and arts organisations have their funding cut or lose it completely. We have become pragmatic. If it doesn’t serve a clear purpose and if it doesn’t make things better we don’t really need it. ‘Make things better’ usually means materially or economically and always for me. So what’s the point of poetry?

Thomas suggests that he writes poetry not for his own ‘ambition’ or for material objects or for fame and adulation and the praise of the crowd. Nor is it to compete with or follow in the line of those great poets from the past with their ‘nightingales and psalms’ or to be remembered, like them, long after he has died. Nor is it for sophisticated, deep thinkers who will debate and deconstruct poetry. Nor is it for money. It is for you. It is for me. It is for the ‘common wages’ of our secret hearts.

I always thought that life would get easier as I got older. Less complicated, less messy. I was wrong. This fragile existence is saturated in grief. The personal grief of loss and disappointment and our own duplicitous hearts; the grief of humanity’s endless desire to destroy; the grief that all this beauty flickers for such a brief moment before the darkness comes. Where else can we turn but to love, to wrap one another in our arms in the dark of the night as ‘the moon rages’. And the poet speaks to this. To this common feeling deep within us, to comfort us, to help us understand, to see clearly even for just a moment.

But there is more. I can’t read this poem without feeling the beauty of it. The sound, the rhythm, the richness of the language. Even in this grief, ‘the griefs of the ages’, there is great beauty and, even if we only feel it briefly, it can scatter grief and loss and pity.

 Isn’t that enough of a purpose for poetry?

Where love and beauty and our hunger for them come from is a different question for another poem at another time.

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Books of the Year

Tender is the Night – F.Scott FitzgeraldTender is the Night

One of the pleasures of reading is re-reading. I must have read this novel as a student and I’ve read it at least once since then, enjoying it both times. This time was different though. It did that thing that only great books can do. Not only did it transport me into a world which I will never experience, it also opened up parts of my own thoughts and feelings which I barely knew existed. Not that my life is remotely like Dick Diver or any of the other characters but in their relationships and lives, our humanity is revealed as much as their characters. The staggering thing is that those details aren’t the best thing about this novel. It’s the writing. The beautiful, beautiful prose. From the wonderful opening chapter to scenes where Fitzgerald describes the Divers at dinner and to what is probably one of the greatest endings in literature, the narrative is spellbinding, breathtaking. I suppose the pleasure of re-reading is not that a novel has changed but that the reader has. Sometimes it takes a novel to tell you why and how and what to do with all the fragile beauty the world has to offer.


Anne Tyler-A Spool of Blue ThreadA Spool of Blue Thread – Anne Tyler

I’d always found Tyler too….too…twee. This is clearly a fault of mine rather than the novelist. Nothing spectacular happens in this novel, at least on the surface. It’s the story of a family, the Whitshanks, and how that family happened to be. The setting is, as in all of Tyler’s novels I think, Baltimore. But it could have been set anywhere. What she’s really interested in is the coincidences which bring people together, the ties that bind family members to each other, the fragile relationships which exist between people and the paths that these people choose. It’s such an easy read in so many ways but she has a gift of leaving things unsaid or, at the end of a chapter, writing something that makes you think of what you’d read previously in an entirely different way. From the very first sentence I could hear the voices with Tyler ironically making fun of her protagonists but never judging them. She encompasses the lives of all these family members over such a vast number of years, with tenderness and humour and grace.


Other People’s Countries – Patrick McGuinnessOther People's Countries

Like Tyler’s novel this is a book about identity. What makes me me and you you. For McGuinness it’s a journey that’s required more than most perhaps. He sort of grew up in Bouillon, a Belgian town near the French border but his father was a Geordie from Irish descent. Sent to England to be educated he now has two Welsh-speaking children and he writes the book for them. The book’s genre is also difficult to pin down. Part autobiography, part biography of a town, of a family, part travel writing, part prose, part poetry. Yet, it never falters and is a book of such richness using what on the surface seems such mundane material, this small provincial town. The mundane, McGuinness recognises also has much richness. He has a poet’s eye and a poet’s gift with language as he describes his family, the Lejeunes and the particularities of the Walloon town in which they lived. In a changing world McGuinness wants to capture this town, this family’s fading existence, like the photographs he uses to guide his reader through the town. It is powerfully moving, funny and poetic as he makes the ordinary extraordinary. Take this line about his grandmother who as a seamstress, made him suits in his younger days, “Lucie must have sewn a lining into time itself, because when I’m in her house I find myself feeling my way inside it for a whole life I hid there years before.” It’s full of treasure like this and the whole book is one to treasure. Read it.


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Poems to Live By: ‘Tomatoes’

There’s a certain irony to 24 hour news. It feels as if the more news we get, the less important it all seems. It certainly feels less real somehow. Whereas thirty years ago, a Michael Burke report seemed to move the whole population to respond to a crisis in a distant land, images of war and death are forgotten as soon as the next newsworthy item is read. Another bomb in Baghdad is hardly even mentioned. We’ve become so saturated with images of horror that we hardly manage to notice the difference between fiction and reality. Or at least, that seems to be true of me.

One of the things about the written word is that when it’s done well, apathy is not an option. ‘Tomatoes’ by Gillian Clarke does what no newsreel can manage. It takes us beyond the sudden image into people’s lives. People like you and I. People going about their mundane, everyday work but, as is typical of Clarke, she imbues these everyday actions with great value. Look, she says, these are human beings, these are people. Just like you. Just like me.

The language, the tone, is colloquial, reflecting the mundane journey the brothers take. This isn’t an extraordinary occurrence she seems to suggest, this happens all the time. What she does is write a simple narrative of this moment in the brothers’ journey but she fills it with their whole lives. The details are all tender, of actions completed with great care. Again and again she draws attention to the sense of touch: fixing ‘the flatbed/passing each nut and bolt’ and then the beautiful repetition of ‘hands’. Hands that ‘sowed’, ‘nurtured’, ‘slaked’, ‘cupped’, ‘stroked’. These are hands that have grown things, created and cared. You get it in the tender alliteration of ‘hands that cupped the cranium  of babies/and stroked scared children to sleep.’

The repetition of those ‘hands’ is then even more powerfully evoked in the next line, ‘hands that will fist the heavens with weeping’. Suddenly, we see and feel the senselessnes of it all. Of beautiful lives lost. Of gardens left untended, of mouths left unfed, of children left without a father. All we are left with is that image of the tomatoes, red-ripe, being turned, as if by magic, into a pile of human skulls. It’s poetry as politics. But not the preaching-from-the-soapbox-politics. It allows us space to see and to think and to respond.

Forget the news. Read poetry.

But be prepared to weep.

Two brothers and a truck
crossing the Tigris
on the road to Baghdad,
stopped at a checkpoint.

Their cargo is fruit for the city market,
not crated, not cradled against a rough ride.
Just a freight of fruit piled like stones
on the road to war.

Hours earlier, by starlight,
under the drums of the dark,
they’d fixed the sides on the flatbed,
passing each hut and bolt till it’s done.

Before dawn, hands that sowed seed
on the plains of the Tigris, or Euphrates,
that nurtured seedlings with dung
and slaked them with waters of biblical streams,

hands that cupped the craniums of babies
and stroked scared children to sleep,
hands that will fist the heavens with weeping
before it’s done, tenderly took in their palms

the cupola of each ripe fruit,
and picked, and filled
every basket, bucket and barrow,
tipping them into the truck,

a pyramid of fruit
bumping north
on the Baghdad road,
piled like skulls.

Gillian Clarke

‘Tomatoes’ is a poem from the collection ‘Making Beds for the Dead’, published by Carcanet.

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Poems to Live By: To My Daughter in a Red Coat

To My Daughter in a Red Coat

Late October. It is afternoon.
My daughter and I walk through the leaf-strewn
Corridors of the park
In the light and the dark
Of the elms’ thin arches.

Around us brown leaves fall and spread.
Small winds stir the minor dead.
Dust powders the air.
Those shrivelled women stare.
At us from their cold benches.

Child, your mittens tug your sleeves.
They lick your drumming feet, the leaves.
You come so fast, so fast.
You violate the past,
My daughter, as your coat dances.

Anne Stevenson

Poetry is partly about what is said and partly about how it is said. The form is also a way of saying something. Stevenson is a master of form.

The title suggests that this might be one of those personal poems of praise, a mother writing a poem for her daughter. Yet the language from the start is bleak, ‘October’, ‘afternoon’, ‘brown leaves’, ‘dead’, ‘dust’, ‘shrivelled’, ‘cold’. Everything here is dying – the year, the day, nature, people. Stevenson plays with our expectations. But hey, mother/daughter relationships are never simple, right?

This relationship isn’t simple. There’s none of the warmth you expect. The tone is observational, coldly detached. Look at those clipped lines in the second stanza. This mother is keeping her daughter at arm’s length. Even the way she refers to her is distant. She’s not named and ‘My daughter and I’ moves on to ‘Child’.

The poem seems to be more about death, about time and the passing of time, than about the daughter. Stevenson realises that even in her daughter’s youth, she is a victim of time. She’s not ‘kicking the leaves’, the leaves, brown and dead, ‘lick her drumming feet’, the adjective a reminder of the constant ‘drumming’ of time perhaps. No wonder Stevenson repeats, ‘so fast’. Time is already in control and as she sees this in her daughter, there’s a change as another phrase is repeated. That cold, detached, ‘My daughter’, with the stress on the first syllable of the second word, changes. The stress is now on ‘My’. And that makes all the difference.

And here you might notice the rhyme that runs strictly through the whole poem. And you might notice the rhyme in the final line of each stanza. And you might notice how this last line is slightly different. It’s not -ches but -ces, it’s not a noun but a verb, ‘arches’/’benches’/’dances’. Even more, it’s the coat that dances and so we might remember the title. The colour isn’t brown and drab, it’s a bright, invigorating, confident ‘red’. She is ‘My daughter’, no longer hemmed in by ‘Corridors’ and ‘thin arches’ but dancing. It is no wonder that she ‘violate(s) the past’.

It’s in the language but also in the form of the poem itself, in the subtle changes, the way that every word counts. There’s celebration and beauty and innocence despite the power of time. And, do you know what? That red coat, however many times you read it, still ‘dances.’


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Poems to Live By: ‘Wedding Day’


Oh my love I am afraid.
The sound has stopped in the day
And these images reel over
And over. Why all those tears,

The wild grief on his face
Outside the taxi! The sap
Of mourning has gorged
Our friends on the steps?

You sing behind the tall cake
Like a deserted bride
Who persists, demented,
And goes through the ritual.

When I went to the gents
There was a skewered heart
And a legend of love.
Let me sleep on your breast to the airport.

Seamus Heaney

It’s St. Valentine’s Day. While I’m not one for bending to the slick manipulation of moneymakers, this is as good an opportunity as any to consider a love poem. There’ll be more in this series, no doubt, but this one seems to work for 14th February.

It doesn’t feel much like a love poem. ‘I am afraid’ is not what we usually associate with love. Heaney is looking back over what is considered the greatest celebration of love, the day where we spend thousands and thousands of pounds in order to tell everyone how much we love someone. Yet his feelings are ones of fear, of uncertainty. There is something strange, absurd in this ceremony. There is ‘grief’, the ‘sap/Of mourning’. Even his bride seems alien and isolated, ‘a deserted bride’. There’s no comfort either in the graffiti, a clichéd ‘skewered heart’ with its hint of violence and pain. It’s not real love, just a ‘legend’. There doesn’t seem much love here.

Heaney seems to understand something about this ceremony of love. It’s filled with absurd traditions and feelings that are more complex than we first imagine. He also realises that this wedding day isn’t the end of something but the beginning. And that’s why I love this love poem. It’s realistic about love, it understands that real love brings with it things that can’t be controlled, that love doesn’t ‘solve’ everything. Indeed, it makes him afraid.

But there is a place where that fear can be comforted. It doesn’t answer everything but there’s that dependency on another. There’s that movement from his own isolated thoughts and his wife’s own isolation to moving into each other in the final tender line, ‘Let me sleep on your breast to the airport’. Earthly love won’t conjure away our fears and worries and our grief. But there is a place where, for a moment, they can be silenced, where we can be ourselves, where there is intimacy and tenderness and security.

A romantic rose on St. Valentine’s Day won’t cut it but a life of love might make all the difference.

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