Flowers of Paradise: Life and Loss in Christina Rossetti

Poetry means life, and life means purpose. A beating heart. But Christina Rossetti spent a lot of time contemplating what is dead and gone: death, and loss of the beloved.

“Life is gone, the love too is gone …”

says “The Poor Ghost.” And some of the spirits in Rossetti’s poems are abandoned, left to wander the earth in pursuit of the love they lost when the body died. Others find salvation in the end, in the love of God. God who

“… will still be God, when flames shall roar

“Round earth and heaven dissolving at His nod …”

These religious poems have a moral lesson, which Rossetti repeats again and again: fear not suffering in this life, because you will be rewarded in Paradise. But even where this lesson isn’t told explicitly, it comes through in the spirit of the work.

Rossetti deals with morbid themes: the suffering in romantic love, the shortness of life, human weakness and self-loathing. To dwell on such things can be dangerous. Where there is no life, where only a weak spirit dwells in a human heart, whatever is at hand will rush to fill the gap. Morbid obsessions with love and death weigh heavy on those without the spirit to oppose them. But the poet, with the life in her, is not filled by evil thoughts, but rushes to meet them, and herself possesses them, breathing her own life into them to transform them into objects of beauty.

“She bled and wept, yet did not shrink; her strength

“Was strung up until daybreak of delight:

“She measured measureless sorrow toward its length,

“And breadth and depth, and height …”

So that in reading these poems, your vision is altered, and you no longer see in things the things of earth, but the abstract and measureless qualities and vivid colours of Paradise. You view the world now with the eyes of a dreamer. A poet.

“Once in a dream I saw the flowers

“That bud and bloom in Paradise;

“More fair they are than waking eyes

“Have seen in all this world of ours …”

After reading a great poem, you no longer see with waking eyes. You live once again in the dream, close to God like a child. (Who was it who said that children are divine because they have most recently seen the face of God, and have not yet forgotten?) The great vision of Christina Rossetti produced some of the great poems that seem to bring us close to God.

(I’ve been reading Selected Poems of Christina Rossetti, published by Wordsworth in 1995)

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From the Reading Diary: Kenneth Patchen’s Selected Poems

Kenneth Patchen is interested in, among other things, the way the branches move on the trees to create visions and to scratch the surface of the stars in the night sky. He’s also interested in the cruelty that men – mostly rich men with political power – do to their fellow human beings. But his poems seem to come straight from the senses, unmediated by any ideology.

The poems in Selected Poems were originally published between 1936 and 1957. So they precede and slightly overlap the period in 20th century North American literature that I find most interesting: the time of the Beat Generation. And in Patchen’s pages it’s easy to detect some of the influence he had on the writers who came after him.

Many of these poems have a rhythm that to me sounds like Charles Bukowski. I can hear that voice very strongly here, strange because of the sense of Patchen’s lines, a sense of hope, something largely absent in Bukowski. Take Patchen’s What is the Beautiful? for example: beginning with harrowing images (“Needles through the eye. / Bodies cracked open like nuts.”) and ending with a statement of faith in the goodness of humanity (“I believe that every good thought I have, / All men shall have.”)

Patchen is more akin in spirit to Allen Ginsberg than to Bukowski, writing of the mysteries of nature and the happiness for humankind that can come from universal love. A major influence on Ginsberg was William Blake, who also was happy to philosophise in his poems and prophesy a new hope for humanity, and Blake seems to come through on the pages of Patchen too.

Patchen’s poetry is powerful, with something to say. I started reading Patchen because I read Henry Miller’s essay about him (“Patchen: A Man of Anger and Light”), where Miller portrays Patchen as a man who is restless and angry and dissatisfied, and must create fire in the world to protect his own sensitive skin. Reading Patchen finally, I’ve got a feeling for myself of that fire, and also a sense of the hope and beauty that the poet saw in the world.

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Notes on William Burroughs to Allen Ginsberg May 5th, 1951

In a letter to Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs seems to be saying that he’s incapable of envy. Envy arises from a particular kind of ignorance, of which Burroughs has cured himself:

Envy and resentment is only possible when you can not see your own space-time location. Most of the people in America do not know where they really are so they envy someone else’s deal. But this envy is not a universal law …”

Burroughs knows where he is, and to know where you are is to know you can’t be anywhere else in that moment. Envy makes as little sense as wishing you were a different person. Even if you can, over time, change things about yourself, you can’t change who you are, nor where you are now.

“To illustrate my statement which is a law I never saw an exception to: Can you imagine a man in a lifeboat getting envious because somebody somewhere is drinking champagne? No, because he knows where he is. All envy is based on the proposition ‘I could be getting that.’”

The man in the lifeboat knows that now is not the time and place for champagne. He knows he couldn’t get champagne now if he tried. Perhaps he dreams of drinking champagne when he gets to shore. But for now he feels lucky to be alive.

All this seems to rest on Burroughs’s very simple notion of what it means to be yourself, to be “I.” The “I” is defined by its space-time location and that is all. I cannot be anywhere else, nor can I be anyone else. My position in space and time means I have this body in this moment, these possessions, this mind …

But rather than make a philosophical judgement of Burroughs’s stance – based on an evaluation of a metaphysics he may or may not adhere to – I prefer to take it as a description of how Burroughs feels when he is centred and free from envy. He says: if you know your space-time location, then you cannot feel envy. Reverse this and say: when you’re not feeling envy, you’re aware of your space-time location. Burroughs believes he can see the world more sharply and clearly when his vision is not clouded by negative feelings of envy.

Probably Burroughs felt envy and resentment from time to time, same as the rest of us. And isn’t it right sometimes to wish for something other than the status quo? But in his letter, Burroughs is reminding his friend that the starting point for any change is always the here and now, the “I” and its own unique potentials and limitations.

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On Ursula K. Le Guin

The poet’s task is to find the right words, or the true names of things. And in A Wizard of Earthsea, that’s the task of wizards too. You find the thing’s true name by capturing its essence: by seeing what is true of it, at the deepest level, beneath its surface. A thing is named for the way it appears to the keenest eyes. So it takes the eye of a poet or wizard to find this truest name for a thing.

Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea is a book about a boy, whose true name is Ged, who is on the path to becoming a wizard. And he grows up and goes on his first quest, to rid the world of an evil shadow that has entered his world from another realm. Published in 1968, the book is a classic of the fantasy genre, and a great work of literature. Le Guin was a poet, and conjured up a deep rich world for us to enjoy, as real-seeming as any in fiction.

“Light is a power. A great power by which we exist, but which exists beyond our needs, in itself. Sunlight and starlight are time, and time is light. In the sunlight, in the days and years, life is.”

Three things human beings have in abundance are life, light, and time. It takes a long time to get poetry right, to find the right words and the right names for things. But there is always time enough, and life enough, and light enough to see by, should the poet choose to use them for this purpose. Though Ursula K. Le Guin is now gone, I’m cheered to think that she used the abundances in her long life to find the right words for us, time and again, to create realities that deepened our own world and show us again and again the essences of things.

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A Feeling of Connection: Anthony Burgess and His Characters

Anthony Burgess tells his story through his characters, in a way that makes him stand out among writers. Many writers of fiction tell their stories primarily through the narrator’s voice, and characters are presented to the reader through this medium. The narrative voice is usually so important because it will colour the whole story, influencing the readers’ perspectives on the characters. But Burgess seems to inhabit his characters fully, making them speak and act and think so that we seem to hear and see them for ourselves, and the story moves along, driven by their actions and dialogue and resolutions and changes of heart, as they introduce themselves, develop and make discoveries, and leave the stage again. Burgess’s novel is theatrical and visual.

Time for a Tiger is the first novel in Burgess’s “Malayan Trilogy”, written in the 1950s. He saw Malaya first hand, working as a “colonial education officer” in Malaya and Borneo during this time. He prided himself on his knowledge of the local language, and understanding of the culture, something which other colonial writers often lacked. William Somerset Maugham was something of a model for him, but Maugham would write about the East with a Westerner’s eye, without a great understanding of the local culture.

Though the novel is filled with curious characters, Victor Crabbe seems to be the main focus, and is perhaps based on Burgess himself. Victor is a history teacher in a Malayan village, and differs from most of his white associates by having, or at least priding himself on feeling that he has, a real sympathy with the locals. Part of him wants to return to England. “But,” he reflects, “I love this country. I feel protective towards it. Sometimes, just before dawn breaks, I feel that I somehow enclose it, contain it. I feel that it needs me.”

Perhaps the purpose of the novel is to explore this complicated feeling of connection with a foreign country, in this case the somewhat paternal feeling Victor has for a colony whose independence is just around the corner. The new characters that Burgess introduces at every turn stand, in one way or another, in contrast to Victor. We get the locals wondering at his eccentric ways, such as his refusal to travel by car, even though he is rich, highlighting the way Victor stands out in this country in many ways still strange to him, how alien he seems to the locals despite his professed love for them. We get Victor’s wife Fenella, who simply wants to leave this climate and this culture and return home. And Nabby Adams, on the other hand, seems rather close to Victor, with his friend Flaherty telling him “make up your mind about what bloody race you belong to.” Nabby and Victor are both picked up often for “letting the side down”, and losing sight of their own white identities. (“The fact was that Victor Crabbe, after a mere six months in the Federation, had reached that position common among veteran expatriates – he saw that a white skin was an abnormality, and that the white man’s ways were fundamentally eccentric.”)

Burgess is a great example of a writer who knew how to “show don’t tell”. For every point of view through which Burgess wants us to explore the landscape, there will be a living breathing character who embodies that perspective. Like Dickens, Burgess writes stories that often seem theatrical, since the drama is always moved along with descriptions of people, what they do, and what they say. (I seem to remember that Burgess himself makes a similar observation about Dickens somewhere.) Though it is a sort of trick – of course, there is a narrator, guiding you and nudging your perspective – the illusion is complete and putting the book down I feel that I’ve been watching actors moving on a stage, rather than listening to a story-teller.

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A Sad Note: Henry Miller’s Aller Retour New York

640px-The_center_of_New_York_1932Henry Miller believed that a real writer can find inspiration in anything, be it “a smokestack or a button”. I always enjoy Miller, whatever he’s writing about, because whatever the subject matter he’ll make it interesting. But some of his books I like more than others.

Aller Retour New York is Miller’s account of a trip he made from Paris to New York and back again. It is written in the form of a long letter to Alfred Perlès – whom he addresses mostly as “Joey” throughout, as was his habit – and this gives the book a conversational tone, making it appear somewhat more down-to-earth than some of his other works (such as the Tropics or Black Spring). Perhaps it is the matter-of-fact and less frequently psychedelic quality that makes this one of my least favourite of his books. But there’s another thing too.

As in all his books, Miller is writing about life. He restates here his philosophy that only being on “the streets” and seeing real life with your own eyes can make you understand it, since by living you learn the logic of life. And he paints a wonderful picture of what it means to enjoy life: for example, when drinking in Paris “I feel the friendliness of the wine and of the carved cutlass which stands in a corner by the window. I say now what I have never said in America: I feel a profound contentment.”

He’s never happy in America, and this spoils the book for me. I never get a feeling for the country. He never takes us beneath the surface. Half the book is about the USA, but he just repeats again and again the same message: America is dead, and all of its inhabitants are dead too, and anyone with any life will be crushed by the American way. He has very little positive to say, and this makes me think he just doesn’t get it, doesn’t understand what America is. I’d feel far happier reading a writer who loved his subject matter, in the way that Miller loves even “just a windowful” of Paris, enough to make his heart sing. Miller is better when he’s singing a joyful song inspired by the fullness he sees in the human spirit, than when he’s being mean-spirited, and griping about the society that rejected him.

(Image: The center of New York. In: “Flug und Wolken” (Flight and Clouds), Manfred Curry, Verlag F. Bruckmann, München (Munich), 1932 via Wikimedia Commons)

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Henry Miller and Doing More Work

If you want to create – to paint, to write, to make music – you need to do so in the face of the pressures and demands of modern life. It’s about maintaining an inner equilibrium, carving out a space for yourself in which you can work in peace, free to follow your muse in these hours when you’ve put some distance between yourself and the world.

Stand Still Like the Hummingbird, as its title suggests, is a book about finding that place of stillness and quiet in which you can carry out the activity of creation. It’s a collection of essays, but the theme of the artist in the modern age runs throughout. The first essay, entitled “The Hour of Man,” sets the tone, being an essay about the importance of setting aside even just one hour a week in which you turn off all devices – in those days he’s talking about turning off the TV and radio and putting down the newspaper – and thinking about your place and purpose in the world. But other essays on diverse themes – the writers Henry Miller admires, the meaning of money – are also written to the same tune. So, for example, in an essay about Kenneth Patchen, we learn about the poet’s sensitivity, and how his art – “a mantle of fire” around him – served as a kind of protest against the world that also protected him against it. And in “Money and How It Gets That Way,” we learn about the symbolic value of money, and how we might use it without being deceived by it – without getting sucked into the pursuit of money for its own sake, and forgetting that money exists for us: to serve us, the individuals who handle it every day.

The pervading message is: whatever happens, create! Whether it is money, meditation, or art itself, its greatest purpose for the artist is that it helps to create a space in which more work can be done, where the artist can realise herself over and over, and become every day the creative individual she is. Stand Still Like the Hummingbird is one of my favourite books because, while covering many different topics, it sings over and over its refrain of hope for the artist.

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