The next post will be on or before Wednesday May 17th
THE SECRETS OF LOVE
As you probably know, or certainly you do if you are older than 40, a life as seen from the outside often bears little relationship to the inner reality or shall we say the comprehensive picture of both the inner and the outer man/woman. So it is that you can read someone’s glowing or for that matter appalling and incredible CV and assume all sorts of things that turn out to be way off the mark. Thus, in my own case given that I won the coveted Dylan Thomas Award for short stories in 1988 (previous winners include Orange Prize winner Rose Tremain, born 1943) you would reasonably think that I might have been knocking out stories ever since. In fact, I have written no new ones since 1992, a full quarter of a century. Instead I have concentrated all my energies on writing my comic extravaganza novels ( the 1993 Radio Activity, the 2003 Jazz Etc etc) as I relish the exhilarating, nay supremely intoxicating, nay sybaritic, dissolute and disgracefully debauched freedom of 60,000 words to play around in and to fool around in (note the ungrammatical double postpositions and prepositions) to make my own particular jazzlike music of anarchic comic digression, alternating Cumbrian dialect and standard English narratives, multiple unreliable narrators and so forth. You cannot do that kind of thing easily in 3000 or even 5000 words and if you attempt an extravaganza novella of 15,000 words there is no one in the universe who will publish it in 2017. This is a great shame, as some of the finest stories ever written whether comic or deadly serious are in fact 15-20,000 word novellas, those by the wonderful Russian writer and chronic boozer Alexander Kuprin (1870-1938) author of The Garnet Bracelet (1911) subsequently made into a 1965 film, being a prime example. And for what it’s worth I give a very funny quote from his When I Was An Actor story at the start of Radio Activity (1993, reissued 2004).
In the case of poetry, I wrote my last poem in 1975 when I was 24 and that is 42 years ago. In those 4 packed decades, I have read very little contemporary British verse, since I find much of it stiflingly parochial not to say downright bloody tedious. I admire as everyone does TS Eliot (who gamely put Upanishadic Sanskrit in his poetry, datta, damyata, dayadhvam, ‘give, be self- restrained, be compassionate’) and WH Auden (who was to be seen haggard and bejowled and chatting kindly and wisely to students in a café in St Aldates at Oxford when I was there in 1970) and Rainer Maria Rilke and Christina Rossetti, but that breathy geezer usually called Tim or Beth who holds a Poet In Residency sinecure and tells us about what they can see out of their window while eating their breakfast of muesli yoghurt and gives 20 minutes of preliminary explanation when the poem in question takes 5 minutes to read, such a geezer gives me the pip. They also give some very well-read friends of mine the pip. My friend the zestful polymath Monica from London flatly declares she doesn’t get poetry, but she certainly gets quality cosmopolitan literary fiction more than most people I know, specialist academics included, and devours it like essential vitamin-enhanced food (she is the only person I have ever met who can read 100 pages of a demanding novel on a boiling hot Greek beach in mid-August with not a trace of frowning nor squinting much less my wine-induced snoring). She can also read the novels of that doyen of Spanish letters Benito Perez Galdos (1843-1920) in the original Spanish and on a Kindle, lawks, Mr Copperfield, what a woman, but like me she would sooner watch the sink emptying than endure that venture into elective catatonia known as ‘A Poetry Reading’.
But then something very recently happened to make me modify my uncharitable and just possibly a soupcon unreasonable, even a modicum irrational, disaffection. An anglophone school teacher from Athens who saw my creative writing website asked me to tutor her here on Kythnos in poetry, even though my Writing in Kythnos site stresses that I teach only fiction. That didn’t seem to bother her vis a vis my potential as critic and mentor, and especially when I told her that as Lancaster University UK where I was Royal Literary Fellow 2007-2010, I did sometimes look at a student’s stories or poems as well as their academic writing. We swiftly arranged a weekend course and I set about researching good poems for us to analyse apropos virtuoso writerly technique as opposed to standard academic lit crit, and with some specially designed assignments to inspire this Athens writer to attempt some new work. I decided they would all be women poets we would look at, and I spent a bloody long time trying to find something exceptional and original as opposed to passable and of the muesli yoghurt (even be it organic) denomination. In the end, I plumped for the Egyptian French writer Andree Chedid (1920-2011), the British Denise Levertov (1923-1997) and head and shoulders above both of those the giant of a Nebraskan novelist Willa Cather (1873-1947) author of the 1918 My Antonia …and I don’t know about you, but I didn’t even know she was also a poet, and I imagine you would only find that out if you read her most exhaustive ten ton biography. I am now, ahem, going to give in full the short but packed lyrical love poem the two of us looked at word by word and line by line, and Monica if you are reading this don’t bolt out in a panic for the Sunday paper, nor go into your kitchen and look intently, as do both of your little hydrophilic cats at the sink emptying, but take a deep and calming breath… and see what you think.
THE HAWTHORN TREE by Willa Cather
ACROSS the shimmering meadows–
Ah, when he came to me!
In the spring-time,
In the night-time,
In the starlight,
Beneath the hawthorn tree.
Up from the misty marsh-land–
Ah, when he climbed to me!
To my white bower,
To my sweet rest,
To my warm breast,
Beneath the hawthorn tree.
Ask of me what the birds sang,
High in the hawthorn tree;
What the breeze tells,
What the rose smells,
What the stars shine–
Not what he said to me!
This little poem which very touchingly could be easily understood and savoured by a bright 10-year-old born circa 2007, is about the ecstasy and anticipation of romantic love as recalled with unrestrained, uninhibited, wholly unashamed, yet very tender and reverential nostalgia. Look enviously at those fearless and proudly confessional exclamation marks, and those 2 reckless ahs! in the first 2 verses
Observe the chorus or melodic incantation structure starting with ‘In The’ x 3 and ‘To My’ x 3 and ‘What The’ x 3. In the first two choruses, there is a cumulative increase of vivid precision (it was spring, but it was also night time and there were also stars which offered the lovers their vital illumination) which mirrors an increase in the passionate romantic intensity. Ditto the narrator or Willa’s alter ego who offers him her bower/hideyhole and it is there she offers her lover specifically rest, and the precise locus or sanctuary of the rest is her warm and impassioned breast
The last verse is the most problematic and it only makes easy sense if you read the first line and then the last line immediately after. Look, she addresses us tauntingly, you can ask this doting and adoring woman what the birds in the hawthorn tree sing by all means, but don’t ask her in her ecstatic hideaway what magic her lover said to her and to no one else. The lovers’ secrets are truly incendiary and explosive, too powerful to reveal to anyone that is not in love and thus not in on the arboreal secret.
But what does the breeze tell, how does it speak to those who are in love and those who are not in love? How does the rose smell to the amorous initiate and the unamorous non-initiate? What precisely is it that the stars radiate to the elect and the ones not chosen for a supreme and adoring love? Is it quantum radiation or is it the arcane and insoluble ether, or is it an impregnable spiritual and aesthetic mystery?
The answers are only to be found in the mystery of what her lover said to her in her sanctuary. But Willa is not casting her pearls before unromantic swine like ourselves, and she is not bloody well telling us…