September 2015 - July 2016

September 2015 - July 2016

In September we learnt that Philip Larkin was to be commemorated in Poets’ Corner, Westminster Abbey. His poetry, unfamiliar to most of us, seemed a good choice to begin the autumn season.  We admired his intelligence and craftsmanship but questions hovered over his attitude to the poor and disadvantaged. We were particularly interested in what he had to say about British life in the middle of the twentieth century, noting changes compared to now. We liked his ‘speaking truth to power’ but questioned his ambivalence with certain words. At other times we found his ‘straight talking’ fraught with difficulties. Personal stories about facing up to illness and what life throws at you made us question the sense of passivity with which his view of people’s lives is invested. A thought provoking evening which included readings of: The Trees, Ignorance, Love Songs in Age, Ambulances, Toads Revisited, ‘Dear Charles, My Muse, asleep or dead’, No Road and Coming.

 

          Our aim in October was to acquaint ourselves with the poetry of four acclaimed women poets who had been given literary honours. Our evening carried the grand title of Poets Laureate of England and Belfast, Makar of Scotland, National Poet of Wales. We read: Mrs Midas, Ariel and In Mrs Tilscher’s Class by Carol Ann Duffy, Photograph, Art Student, Female, Working Class, My Rival's House, Phoenix and Teachers by Liz Lochhead,

Genetics and Lighthouse by Sinead Morrissey and Miracle on St David’s Day by Gillian Clarke. These poets are earnest and witty, socially astute and empathetic, tracing social and political change in voices that are accessible, unpretentious and robust. Their poetry does not seem particularly regional, rather it is concerned with themes which have universal appeal: childhood, education, gender and the environment.

 

          The autumn storm Barney gusted and spluttered in the hallway with each arrival for our November meeting. Our theme was Thanksgiving and as usual everyone interpreted the word in whatever way appealed to them. We began with Hurrahing in the Harvest by Gerard Manley Hopkins. This and Imtiaz Darker’s Blessing, and e.e.cummings “I thank God for most this amazing” represented the aspect of Thanksgiving which is about God’s plenty, nature and the place of human beings in the scheme of things – a strong element of praise and ecstasy runs through these poems. Next, a couple of heart-warming late nineteenth century American poems: Signs of the Times by Paul Laurence Dunbar and Thanksgiving by Edgar Albert Guest. These looked at how ordinary folk of all races have found fun, friendship and love at Thanksgiving. Francis Scott Key’s The Star-Spangled Banner and Edgar De Witt Jones’ Heroes of Faith represented the patriotic and historic side of the festival. More diverse interpretations could be found in Tony Harrison’s A Kumquat for John Keats, chosen because it explores how we are all thankful for poets – and exotic fruit which has provided the gateway into many complex poetic ideas. Robert Herrick’s Upon a Pipkin of Jelly sent to a Lady and Rumi’s This World which is made of our love for Emptiness moved the discussion away from excess and celebrating abundance towards considering how little is not simply enough, but a lot. We then looked at the abundance and excess of language itself and asked how much it really helps us express ourselves. Barney, still angry sounding, whisked us into the dark and home.

 

          Our December meeting was all about poems that had the power to Light up the Darkness, or if they couldn’t perform that magic, could at least urge us on to do that for ourselves. We kept our choices shorter than usual to leave time for mulled wine and party food. There are many ways to light up the dark in one’s life or the world: finding solace in the beauty of nature, (Sea Sketch Simon Armitage). We read poems that celebrate the light as seen through eyes that could see again after not working too well (Post-op U A Fanthorpe). There’s lighting your way through the journey of life (Ithaka C P Cavafy), there’s a child’s comfort to be had from the simple service of a Leerie, (The Lamplighter R L Stevenson), there’s the light of the moon making everything unfamiliar and ethereal (Silver Walter de la Mare), there’s the light of faith and hope in a world deeply troubled by family strife and civil war (Christmas Bells Henry Wadsworth Longfellow), there’s the light from a tiger’s eyes and the wonder of its making (Tyger William Blake) and then Minnie Louise Haskins, penning lines that fathers and sovereigns have chosen to guide daughters and nations on their way. We felt times had been dark recently – but there is always poetry.

 

            Crossings and Changes bring thoughts that chime well with January. Our choices were varied as usual. In Pam Ayres’ The Akaroa Cannon we reflected on the changes parents face when their children leave home. In Actaeon by Seamus Heaney and Woodland Burial by Frances Leviston we explored the myth of Actaeon and Diana, first recorded in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Actaeon crossed social taboos and paid a heavy price, he changed from man to beast and was wiped off the canvas of life by the goddess he’d offended. MS by Janice Mirikitani provoked some discussion about the rightness of sexual politics, comparing these perceived wrongs with other, perhaps more devastating injustices in the world. Changes by David Bowie and Migrations by Ben Okri reflected current events, no point in comparing them really, they both matter. John Donne’s The Good Morrow was a life affirming example of how love can change us for the better, Crossing the Line by Neil McLeod got us talking about a bizarre ceremony enacted on ships when passing across the equator. Landscapes with Natives by Peter E Clarke was all about the changes that Western Empires have inflicted on indigenous peoples.

 

          We wanted to escape Love around February 14th, having visited the subject on two previous occasions. So we agreed on the theme: Emotions: anything but LOVE. We arranged our readings to allow the emotions to fluctuate (as they do!). So, beginning with fear (Prospice Robert Browning), we experienced elation (On first looking into Chapman’s Homer John Keats, lust and disdain (I, being born a woman and Distressed Edna St. Vincent Millay, pride (Phenomenal Woman Maya Angelou), greed (I think I want some pies Jane Taylor), joy and sorrow (from The Prophet Kahlil Gibran), envy (Sharashkas Alexander Solzhenitsyn), paradoxical emotions: elation, anxiety, melancholy (Allegre Derek Walcott). We needed a lot of presence of mind, to cope with all the emotions around the table.

 

          In March we read Three Narrative Poems from the Victorian Period: Browning’s Porphyria’s Lover and My Last Duchess and Tennyson’s The Lady of Shallot. The legendary themes, gothic imagery and twists of fortune in these poems offer a rich tapestry to the reader, made all the better by sharing the story telling. We enjoyed exploring why they brought such pleasure – guilty or otherwise, to their original readers.

 

          In April our theme was The art of ageing or Sailing to Byzantium. We began with the pleasures to be had from laughing at ourselves and defying our destiny: Stately as a Galleon by Joyce Grenfell and Jenny Joseph’s When I am an old woman I shall wear purple were great openers. Legacy and Names, two exquisite short poems by Wendy Cope were commended for their truth to shared experience. With them the evening had become more reflective and sober. Jacques’ Seven Ages of Man speech from Shakespeare’s As You Like It always turns up on these occasions. Shakespeare’s economical cameos reveal us as seen from the outside, but the Alzheimer’s poem was experience seen from the inside, a beautiful, earnest and simple piece, needing no explanation. We then went on to compare two poems addressed to women by men who loved them: Sonnet 104: To me, fair friend, you never can be old by Shakespeare and When you are Old by W B Yeats. These produced some interesting ideas about the ego of the faithful lover and the effects of time and transience on the enduring nature of passionate love. Sailing to Byzantium by W. B. Yeats is an illustration of one man’s quest to defy the mortal body and escape its longings through art. A beautiful poem, how convincing his mythical beliefs are is another matter. We ended the evening with the gentle voices of Sappho – (translated fragment 58) and Hokusai Says by Roger Keyes. Sappho reflects upon the cruelty of ageing in the face of wanting to love for an eternity and Keyes points us in the direction of mindfulness as a means to live well, age well and become more who we really are as we age.

 

          Music was our theme for May. We read poems about musical instruments, about the value of music and its effects and poems that were musical in composition. If music be the food of love, play on by Shakespeare was almost bound to feature and did. There was also time for a scene from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, The Guitar by Guy Clark, two Wendy Cope poems: First Date and A Rehearsal. These were followed by the heart rending and solemn A Closing Music by Laurence Whistler, I lost you but I found country music by Ballboy, a sonnet by Richard Barnfield and finally Piano by D H Lawrence.

 

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there was a tricky choice for June and led to the unusual situation of my being only a few days off meeting time with no poems posted! However, people rallied and Street Performers Terence Tiller, The Night Mail W H Auden, Extract from The Lusiad Luis de Camoes, Beowulf Seamus Heaney and The Charge of the Light Brigade Tennyson all led the way into discussing how far good poetry survives the test of time because it is always relevant whatever its original context.

 

Travel: through mind, life, landscape or time was a great theme to explore in the garden on the evening of July’s great heatwave. Tom O’Bedlam (Anon), Going, Going Philip Larkin, Iola, Kansas Amy Clampitt, The Rolling English Road G K Chesterton, Carolina In My Mind James Taylor, The Journey of the Magi T S Eliot, On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer John Keats and Early Morning Rain Gordon Lightfoot could all be heard in the summer air of suburbia as the evening shadows lengthened and the temperature dropped, creating a comfortable, mellow ambience. Betjeman would have seen the point.

 

 

Diane Maybank

Group co-ordinator Poetry for Pleasure