‘Delicious drowsiness’ – John Keats on the importance of sleep…

Keats and sleep

The Moon & Sleep by Simeon Solomon

I have often written of the relevance of the poet John Keats to readers in the 21st century – in fact, I am publishing a collection of pieces on that theme (mainly drawn from this blog and those posts written for The Wordsworth Trust) shortly. So when I was sitting ruminating on my rather odd sleep patterns of late, who should I once again turn to? You’ve guessed it…

‘Delicious drowsiness’ is a comment made by Andrew Motion in his fabulous biography, Keats, where he discusses a sonnet – To Sleep –  written by the poet in April 1819 (a year in which his genius developed rapidly). It has always been a favourite of mine, as the language is, I think, delicious. Read it aloud, or under your breath and feel the words in your mouth, and on your lips…

O soft embalmer of the still midnight,
      Shutting, with careful fingers and benign,
Our gloom-pleas’d eyes, embower’d from the light,
      Enshaded in forgetfulness divine:
O soothest Sleep! if so it please thee, close
      In midst of this thine hymn my willing eyes,
Or wait the “Amen,” ere thy poppy throws
      Around my bed its lulling charities.
Then save me, or the passed day will shine
Upon my pillow, breeding many woes,—
      Save me from curious Conscience, that still lords
Its strength for darkness, burrowing like a mole;
      Turn the key deftly in the oiled wards,
And seal the hushed Casket of my Soul.

 

Technically Keats was working with, but not adhering strictly to, the Shakespearean sonnet form and the language used is gentle and the vowels long, creating that ‘delicious drowsiness’ Motion refers to. There is some debate about the meaning, and whether it refers to death, as well as or instead of, sleep. Certainly, the words ’embalmed’ and ‘casket’ can be suggestive of finality, as can the shutting of the eyes in the early lines;  the still recent death of his brother Tom was on Keats’s mind throughout that great year of poetry.  This sonnet can also be seen as reminiscent of some of the lines in Keats’s Ode to a Nightingaleparticularly  the sixth stanza:

 

Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
         I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
         To take into the air my quiet breath;
                Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
         To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
                While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
                        In such an ecstasy!
         Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—
                   To thy high requiem become a sod.

 

Melancholy, but accepting of death; longing for a painless end, drifting off to the sound of the nightingale. Such is the end he would have wanted for his brother.
However, since my early teenage years and discovery of Keats as ‘my’ poet, I have always thought of this poem as a hymn to sleep as relief from anxiety and worry.  My lifelong struggles with anxiety (well documented on this blog) continue, so I cling to lines such as ‘Then save me, or the passed day will shine/Upon my pillow, breeding many woes’  and ‘Save me from curious Conscience, that still lords its strength for darkness, burrowing like a mole’ as indicative of Keats’s ability to describe an eternal truth. How many of us have not experienced at least one night when sleep won’t come, and all the worries of our world come marching in, magnified and determined to disrupt our rest still further? We thump our pillow in frustration, toss and turn and long for something that will help us nod off – whether it be a book, hot drink or a sleeping tablet (that poppy with its ‘lulling charities’).

Sleep and Keats

Sleeping in Poppy Field, E. J. HARRINGTON

The beginning of the poem, rather than a reference to death, makes me think of that wonderful sleep of childhood, when a story is told, the light is turned out, and some magic makes our eyelids heavy and ensures any worries disappear.
Sleep is a time for healing. Physically it is vital to our health and well-being. It can also offer us a brief respite from the concerns of everyday life. It can be a joyful feeling, shared in the arms of someone we love. Observing it in our children can be, outside that natural sense of relief at the peace we craved after a long day, a deeply moving experience, highlighting the innocence of the young, and their (hopefully) carefree existence.

 

But in To Sleep, it is the last line that has always sent a shiver down my spine – of pleasure rather than fear. Turn the key deftly in the oiled wards/And seal the hushed Casket of my Soul rival those other great lines in the second stanza of Nightingale…

 

O for a beaker full of the warm South,

         Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
        And purple-stained mouth
and those in The Eve of St Agnes:

 

  And still she slept an azure-lidded sleep,
       In blanched linen, smooth, and lavender’d,
       While he forth from the closet brought a heap
       Of candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd;
       With jellies soother than the creamy curd,
       And lucent syrops, tinct with cinnamon;

 

… for their sheer sensuousness, and the pleasure they offer the reader willing to speak them aloud (in private if you must!). Don’t you agree? Have you others to rival these?
There are a number of memorable descriptions of sleep, or the longing for it, in Keats’s poetry and it is, I think, something we would all do well to turn to at times when our own conscience ‘burrows’, like that mole, under our mattresses and denies us that longed for unconsciousness.
      
Posted in Art, Books, Keats, Literature, Mental health, Poetry, Reading, Writing | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

My fundraising challenge – The Ullswater Way ‘Hike for Hospices’.

ullswater-way-map2On the 22nd and 23rd of May 2017, I am undertaking what is a significant challenge – for me anyway. I will be attempting to walk the 20 mile ‘Ullswater Way‘ in the Lake District, over two consecutive days,  to raise money for St Margaret’s Somerset Hospice and Hospice at Home Carlisle and North Lakeland. Both are charities dear to my heart, as they provide much-needed support and treatment to those with the chronic, and disabling, condition known as lymphoedema. You can access my fundraising page HERE, but I would really appreciate it if you could read on. So many still don’t know about lymphoedema and we need to change that. As a writer, I am lucky to have a platform to tell you more, so thank you for taking the time to read on.

Lymphoedema can be ‘primary’ (caused by faulty genes that affect the development of the lymphatic system, developing at any age, but most often during adolescence, or early adulthood) or ‘secondary’ (caused by damage to the lymphatic system or problems with the movement and drainage of fluid in the lymphatic system, most often caused by cancer treatment or as a result of injury). Symptoms include an aching, heavy limbs causing mobility problems, repeated, and potentially very dangerous, skin infections (cellulitis), hard, tight skin which can develop in folds and start to leak fluid, and wart-like growths. There is no cure, only management  (including compression garments and massage to encourage drainage) and many are still not able to access regular treatment, despite greater awareness of the problem following treatment for breast and other cancers.

downloadI am one of those who has needed that treatment desperately. Diagnosed, after horrible tests at the Royal Free Hospital in London, with the primary form of lymphoedema aged just 19, I was faced with a lifetime of treatment for something most doctors then had little knowledge of. I was always ashamed of my legs, which I was bullied about as ‘fat’, and found it really hard to get clothes, especially trousers, to fit (thank goodness for lycra). It was only when I moved to Somerset in 2001 that I got proper care – at St Margaret’s Hospice in Somerset –  and, for the first time in my life, could manage the pain, swelling and frequent infections that had plagued me for so many years. I saw a genetic counsellor, who confirmed that I had inherited the condition  from my father’s side of the family, and that my poor dad, and my aunties, (whose feet we always gazed at, as they oozed swollen and painful from their shoes) had gone through life undiagnosed and in significant discomfort. I discovered that my children had a 50/50 chance of inheriting it, but mercifully neither shows symptoms yet.

phpThumb_generated_thumbnailMany people who know me have no idea that I have lymphoedema now, but over the years I have had to get used to talking about it, and being ‘out there’ with it, to raise awareness. I have had the massage and the daily bandaging, as well as the ‘pump’ treatments and we all have to wear the most hideous compression hosiery every day (stockings and crotchless tights of the type we must endure have never been sold in Ann Summers…). They are horrible when it is hot, and I also have to be constantly vigilant for bites and scratches that easily lead to potentially life-threatening infections (I have antibiotics for emergencies instead of an epipen, for example). However, hiding my legs when others are wearing shorts seems a small price to pay when the alternative is days unable to put a foot to the floor.

C6PHNjWWcAAnvnwIn 2008 I did my ‘Suzie walks North with Keats’ challenge and raised £4000 in funds for the hospice and for the wonderful charity that supports us, The Lymphoedema Support Network. I was also seeking to raise awareness of the condition by walking a total of 100 miles in the Lake District over the course of a year in the footsteps of my favourite poet. This was just after I had finished treatment for breast cancer, and was therefore at risk of developing secondary lymphoedema as well. Mercifully my brilliant specialist nurse team have made sure all eyes are out for any symptoms and after 10 years I am cancer free and have no signs of lymphoedema in my arm. However, many women still live with the consequences of having lymph nodes removed as part of their cancer diagnosis, and as happened to me, they can find the condition seriously affects their mental health.

Ullswater autumnNow in my 50s, I needed another challenge to keep the vital exercise programme going and ensure I give myself the best possible chance of staying healthy. I have been walking regularly (poor Barnaby dog is worn out) and have lost 3 stone in the past year and nothing inspires me more than the opportunity to take a good long walk in the Lake District. The Ullswater Way, at 20 miles, is just that. It is also in an area hard hit by the most recent flooding and has its own reasons to promote awareness of what is still very much a working community reliant on, but not wholly devoted to, tourism. I will be walking with two brothers in law and my lymphoedema nurse, Ali Batchelor, who has, quite literally, saved me from much greater disability over the years. The service she is part of, at St Margaret’s, is in dire need of additional funding, managed as it is by a charity, rather than by the NHS. The same applies to Hospice at Home Carlise and North Lakeland, who provide a similar service in the area where the walk takes place.

StmargI have set up a fundraising page at www.virginmoneygiving/suziegrogan and it would be fabulous if you could see your way to sponsoring me.  I am lucky to have access to such wonderful care. Others are not so lucky and I am hoping this walk will raise much-needed cash, and awareness of a condition still little understood and frequently poorly treated.

hospice-at-homeI know times are tough, financially and emotionally, and I do not underestimate the calls on our purses, and our hearts. But if you can help I would be SO grateful and even the smallest amount can make a real difference.

Thank you!!

Posted in Breast cancer, Charity Walk, Health, lymphoedema, Medicine, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

On struggling with the writing life – again

writing

My thoughts, indeed.

I still seem to get a fair few hits on this, my blog. Not that I deserve them. No wriggling out of writing has been sorely neglected of late as I struggled with the first edits of my forthcoming book, (Death, Disease & Dissection to be published by Pen and Sword Books in October). My mum has been poorly too, and my sister and I have been spending more time with her in the hope that she can find at least a little joy in her life.

I have to be honest though. I have been endlessly wriggling out of writing, procrastinating at every opportunity and finding any excuse not to write. I have watched social media carefully, comparing myself to others and finding solace in their dilemmas, or berating myself for my lack of productivity. Author after author seems to have celebrated the release of yet another book or highlighted an article they have written. My pitching arm – the one that writes down the ideas that should be winging their way to commissioning editors has been, of late, disabled by the mental equivalent of a frozen shoulder.

I am an author and a published one, but it is hard to call myself a ‘writer’ unless I am writing so I need to get the word count up again. My imagination feels stifled, the door into the part of my mind I use as the boiler room for my creative work is firmly locked. Writing is an expression of myself, and has been used as therapy more than once, when I have really needed to speak to the world about something that is important to me. The love of it must come back.

The world has been, and still is, an emotionally exhausting place to live in recent months, but with little hope of improvement in the near future I can no longer use the horror in Syria, the abject misery of Brexit or the hideous injustices perpetrated by Trump as a reason not to write.  But writing about those things seems too scary.  I sit with fingers on the keyboard ready to respond to the most recent news item and have literally to stop myself from exposing the raw edges of grief I feel to the whole world.

I have, as always, turned to poetry when feeling most frustrated. John Keats , in Endymion, wrote ”In spite of all/ Some shape of beauty moves away the pall/From our dark spirits.’ and I have to hang on to the thought that this fallow period will end. Only I can end it after all. I am, at least, reading a lot across different genres and still booking new writers onto my Talking Books radio show.  Other authors inspire as well make me feel, quite without intending to, like I need a good kick in the pants…

So, if there is still anybody out there reading this, rather self-indulgent post, here is my attempt at a plan. Some parts, driven by my publisher and the looming of deadlines, will be easier to bring to fruition. Others are all down to me, and I am hoping writing them down will help:

  1. Death, Disease & Dissection WILL be out in October of this year.
  2. My anthology of blog posts relating to John Keats(with a foreword by Lynn Shepherd who has published some of them on The Wordsworth Trust blog) will be completed by the autumn.
  3. I will post at least once a fortnight here on No wriggling out of writing, even if it is just to share a favourite poem or poet, or review a book.
  4. I will enter two competitions (short story or poetry) by the end of this year.
  5. I will update my website and get that newsletter OUT.

Does that sound a lot? Or not enough? How can I possibly know? I have to get proofreading work in, articles pitched and written and blogs for business done to earn at least something to pay the bills, but as someone who describes herself as a writer, I know the first step is to WRITE.

Brace yourself…

 

Posted in Books, Mental health, Reading, Writing | Tagged , , , , | 10 Comments

The ‘vital’ death of John Keats: ending the myth of weakness

John Keats on his death bed

John Keats on his death bed – a sketch by Joseph Severn

Today is the anniversary of the death of the poet John Keats, in Rome, on the 23rd February 1821. He was just 25, and suffered from tuberculosis (or consumption as it was then known). His friend, Joseph Severn, who nursed him during his months in Rome, where he had sought relief in the warmer climate, wrote in a letter ‘He is gone–he died with the most perfect ease–he seemed to go to sleep.’  However, he had actually endured weeks of agony whilst doctors misdiagnosed and mistreated his condition, and the end was a blessed relief to Keats, and to Severn.

Why is Keats’s death so particularly moving? Shelley and Byron and a myriad other well-known poets have died young, or relatively so. Descriptions of and reactions to the deaths of Shelley and Byron, for example,  seem almost theatrical in comparison. Perhaps the way in which Wilfred Owen, himself influenced by the work of Keats, died, just before the Armistice was signed at the end of the Great War, touches us in a similar way. But Keats’s death haunts me, has haunted me for years, and his loss remains, I believe, one of the greatest in British literary history.

I have written many times on this blog of my enduring love for the poetry and letters of Keats. I first read his work after watching a ‘Blue Peter Special Assignment’ about him in the mid-1970s. I was just 12 years old, already a deep-thinking and rather anxious child, and I took Keats, literally, to heart. I read and memorised the poetry, I bought a book of his letters, and struggled, then, with the language and philosophy that make him such a relevant poet today. At 14 I read Robert Gitting’s biography, still one of the best, and over the years since then I have widened and deepened my reading of his life and work. I am not an academic, but an enthusiastic, and I hope knowledgeable, devotee of the man.  His poetry has taken me through some dark times, and his letters,  full of profound wisdom and knowledge of the ways of human hearts, resonate with me in the 21st century as much as they ever did, more so perhaps in these deeply troubled times.

Over the decades, ‘my Keats’ has developed as my understanding has also grown and deepened. Reading about his life, particularly older biographies of him, I began to feel that something was failing to ‘fit’. His letters were full of a vitality at odds with some of the early descriptions, and the sensuality in his poems was suggestive of a strength of character in the face of possible criticism that belied the old belief that critics themselves were so important to his view of himself.

So if it is not his youth, I wonder why his death touches so many? Perhaps it is because of the tragedy of his love for Fanny Brawne, left back in England. He knew as he sailed to Italy that he would never see her again, and could not bear to look at her letters in his final months. Is it because he had spent months nursing his mother and then his younger brother through the final stages of what was a ‘family disease’, only to succumb to it himself?

Is it with knowledge of the moving way he had written of death in his poetry? For example, the sixth stanza of Ode to a Nightingale:

Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
  I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call’d him soft names in many a musèd rhyme,
  To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die, 
  To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
    While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
          In such an ecstasy!
   Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—
     To thy high requiem become a sod.

Or in the sonnet  ‘When I have fears..’ which begins, prophetically, with the words:

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,

Then in his letter to Fanny Brawne, written in July 1819, less than two years before his death:

I have two luxuries to brood over in my walks, your Loveliness and the hour of my death. O that I could have possession of them both in the same minute.

Or is it, perhaps, the epitaph he wrote for himself – ‘Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water’? Those enigmatic words – are they hinting at either a bitterness at the lack of time to make a permanent mark on the literary world, or at a belief that all life lacks permanence, that we are all but brief impressions, impermanent in the face of the overwhelming beauty of life? Or something else?

Keats death mask

Keats – death mask, showing the ravages of his final days

For me, the real poignancy of his death is in the legacy his friends sought for his ‘posthumous life’, adding to and turning that brief and unexplained epitaph into something expressing real bitterness at his lot; the idea that he died in a fury, a sensitive young man railing at his critics, unforgiving in the face of a fate he didn’t think he deserved. It feels SO WRONG, I think, when the wonderful poetry and letters he left behind suggest something quite different. As Michelle Stacey wrote in her terrific tribute to Keats written for The Paris Review on this date last year:

Aside from requesting the “writ in water” epitaph, Keats did not lament his coming end or curse his enemies on his deathbed. If anything, he lamented his continued life. He wrote to a friend of “leading a posthumous existence,” and complained in the same terms to Severn, who wrote that Keats would sometimes weep when he awoke and found himself still living.

There were, of course, moments of deep despair, of disappointment and of loss. Joseph Severn had nursed him, terrified that Keats would attempt suicide when in his darkest moods. But there was calm too. As Stacey points out, Severn reports quieter moment, when Keats looked forward to the ‘quiet grave’ and like Stacey I was struck by the daisies, still there on the ceiling of the room in which he died in Rome. Severn reported that the poet could almost feel them growing over him as he lay there. It was an image to comfort friends, but also one that suggests acceptance and reflection.

The grave of John KeatsIn adding to the tombstone words suggesting that it was, to all intents and purposes, the ‘Malicious Power of his Enemies’ (the critics) that hastened Keats’s death, and then promulgating the myth of the over-sensitive, weakling poet in work such as Adonais by Shelley, the friends who loved the man and admired what we know now to be some of the greatest poetry ever written did him a gross disservice. Before his final months he was physically strong, short and stocky and people were forcibly struck by the energy and yes, the vitality of the man. By changing the epitaph I think that vital spark was diminished, and it took decades for a truer picture to become established. Even now, many think of him as the archetypal ‘Romantic’ poet, laying in a faint over the back of a chaise longue…

The myth endured, and only in the last fifty years have we properly understood the strength of Keats, from his work on the wards of Guy’s Hospital during his medical training, to his political beliefs, the support he gave friends and family, and in the courage he showed in the face of death. Now we can acknowledge the fiery temper, the jealousy exhibited in his love for Fanny, the possible over-reliance on laudanum, alongside the generosity of spirit, loyalty and wisdom beyond his years. The latest biography of Keats, by Nicholas Roe, offers a particularly comprehensive and complex analysis of the man and his influences. He was so much more than the innocent young poet abroad, and I think only now does his biography sit comfortably with his poetry and letters.

I have written for a long time of the relevance of Keats’s poetry to life in the 21st century – his philosophy is timeless; always energetic and fresh with passages that still make one cry out ‘Yes! That’s it!’. And the manner of his death, so young, allows him to remain timeless as a physical figure in our minds. His death deserves to be a moment treasured, not simply as that of a talented man dying tragically young, but as one which brings us to his life, and the stunning vitality of it.

 

Posted in Keats, Literature, Poetry, Reading, Romanticism, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

In trying times: Heberto Padilla on continuing to speak out…

Heberto Padilla

Heberto Padilla

I read this poem today, for the first time. As you may guess from the title, I was looking for poetry to support me through a period when world events seem to be spiralling out of control, when real news is more shocking than any ‘fake news’ the government is trying to counter.

It is a poem about revolution, specifically the revolution in Cuba. I think it is about the suppression of poetry, literature and the curtailment of freedoms. It resonated with me today when a terribly dangerous, but apparently charismatic world leader is ‘revolutionising’ US politics, when our own government are once again appeasing a fascist, even at a time when we commemorate the Holocaust, and when those that would challenge or speak out against the President are derided and persecuted, silenced and expelled. They are called liars – and eventually who will be left knowing the truth?

Sign petitions, march in protest, write and read poetry, show random acts of kindness in a world that has, hopefully temporarily, become much less kind.

In Trying Times

by Heberto Padilla

They asked that man for his time
so that he could link it to History.
They asked him for his hands,
because for trying times
nothing is better than a good pair of hands.
They asked him for his eyes
that once had tears
so that he should see the bright side
(the bright side of life, especially)
because to see horror one startled eye is enough.
They asked him for his lips,
parched and split, to affirm,
to belch up, with each affirmation, a dream
(the great dream)
they asked him for his legs
hard and knotted
(his wandering legs)
because in trying times
is there anything better than a pair of legs
for building or digging ditches?
They asked him for the grove that fed him as a child,
with it’s obedient tree.
They asked him for his breast, heart, his shoulders.
They told him
that that was absolutely necessary.
they explained to him later
that all this gift would be useless
unless he turned his tongue over to them,
because in trying times
nothing is so useful in checking hatred or lies.
and finally they begged him,
please, to go take a walk.
Because in trying times
that is, without a doubt, the decisive test.

What do you think? Does it feel relevant to you too? I would love to know what you think, and in the meantime I am going to read this a few more times and explore the world of Heberto Padillo in more detail.

Posted in Current affairs, History, Poetry, Reading | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Christmas Greetings 2016 – making the best of a bad year…

christmas

Rushing headlong into what, this Christmas?

Well what a year it has been. This Christmas card seems quite apt, as the world seems to be rushing headlong into disaster, for everyone, not just the turkeys. Politically, I have considered 2016 heartbreaking – but then, it seems, I am one of those ‘bad losers’ who voted to stay in the EU and can’t accept a result that has promoted hate and division and encouraged, in the US, the election of a man who has done little but espouse policies that are against many of the principles I hold dear. But then I am part of some kind of soppy liberal gang who haven’t listened to the ‘voice of the people’. I am part of the problem. And there was me thinking I just wanted to be part of a world that looked at humanity first and nationalism, hatred and greed second. Silly me.

This is, however, supposed to be a Christmas message of love and hope, and it is certainly not a time to give up on one’s wishes for a peaceful world, where we are all, genuinely, born equal. Whatever faith you follow (and even if you have no religious belief, you probably have some overarching view, or sense of your place in the world) this is a time of year when we should extend a warm hand to everyone we meet. Hypocrite you shout!! (well perhaps a few people I know will shout) ‘what about Nigel Farage? Donald Trump?’ My answers to that would be 1) I am unlikely ever to meet them , mercifully 2) you are right, I’m a hypocrite, I would no more shake their hand than rub my own in horse poo and then eat a mince pie with it. It is a prejudice I can live with.

So I am spending the next few days with family I love, watching The Muppet Christmas Carol, opening pressies and eating too much. The time will fly by and I will desperately try to hold on to the warm glow for as long as I can. We have too few reasons to celebrate  – let this be a time when we really appreciate all we have got, whilst thinking, in quiet moments, of those with so much less than us.

Despite the seismic political shocks that have hit the world in 2016, the loss of cultural icons and people we considered immortal, and our rather unrealistic expectations that as soon as we enter the first minute of 2017 things will improve, I want to take a moment to thank you all for being here through the tough times. One thing 2016 did illustrate to me is how lucky I am to know so many people with the same hopes and ambitions for the world we live in, and our own small corners of it. Thank you all for sharing it with me. For a moment, I genuinely wish everybody a ‘Happy Christmas’ and a healthy new year.

But Farage and Trump et al? A plague (of gastroenteritis perhaps?) on all your houses. In the new year the gloves  are off…

 

 

Posted in Christmas, love the universe and everything, New Year, Random musings on family life, love the universe and everything, Writing | 2 Comments

Poetry for Christmas #4 – Christmas Sparrow by Billy Collins

Christmas sparrowI don’t mind if you have not read my Christmas poetry posts. I would rather you had, of course, as it keeps the stats looking healthy, and I honestly think you might have missed the opportunity to escape for a moment. Poetry offers an alternative vision to a consumer society seemingly possessed by some December demon requiring the emptying of bank accounts and the bringing on of breakdowns. So many seem to be going down with one ‘lurgy’ or another, forced as we are into crowds of the germ-ridden desperate to get the last of one toy or the first of some new gadget…

Billy Collins

Billy Collins

So I persist in forcing these moments of respite into your inbox, or onto your social media streams and just hope that perhaps this is THE moment you get a quiet time to sit and reflect on the shortness of the days, the sentiment of the season and the world outside the scramble of the queues and the swiping of the bank cards. Today’s poem (#4) is by one of my favourite contemporary poets – American, Billy Collins –  who has featured on this blog before. His writing seems so natural and effortless, and although he himself apparently dislikes the word ‘accessible’ he is for me one of the poets I would recommend to those who call themselves confirmed poetry-haters, in an effort to convince them that they simply haven’t found the right poet for them.

This poem is called Christmas Sparrow and I think I love it most because it reminds me of a Ladybird book I read to my children when they were small, called The Christmas Robin. It is that interaction of the animal and the human that affects us as little else can – a genuinely natural response to counteract all the unnatural goings-on of the festive season. The line ‘I could feel its wild thrumming/against my palms…’ as a contrast to the stark artificiality of the  ‘decorated tree’ where the  sparrow is ‘breathing there/ among metallic angels, ceramic apples, stars of yarn…’ creates a vivid image of a terrified little bird, caught among the branches of something that should be its natural habitat. Anyway, I love it, and hope you enjoy it too..

Christmas Sparrow

The first thing I heard this morning
was a soft, insistent rustle,
the rapid flapping of wings
against glass as it turned out,

a small bird rioting
in the frame of a high window,
trying to hurl itself through
the enigma of transparency into the spacious light.

A noise in the throat of the cat
hunkered on the rug
told me how the bird had gotten inside,
carried in the cold night
through the flap in a basement door,
and later released from the soft clench of teeth.

Up on a chair, I trapped its pulsations
in a small towel and carried it to the door,
so weightless it seemed
to have vanished into the nest of cloth.

But outside, it burst
from my uncupped hands into its element,
dipping over the dormant garden
in a spasm of wingbeats
and disappearing over a tall row of hemlocks.

Still, for the rest of the day,
I could feel its wild thrumming
against my palms whenever I thought
about the hours the bird must have spent
pent in the shadows of that room,
hidden in the spiky branches
of our decorated tree, breathing there
among metallic angels, ceramic apples, stars of yarn,

its eyes open, like mine as I lie here tonight
picturing this rare, lucky sparrow
tucked into a holly bush now,
a light snow tumbling through the windless dark.

Billy Collins

Do let me know what you think, and share here any of your own festive favourites.

 

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