Of Poetry …

The world is full of poetry. The air is living with its spirit; and the waves dance to the music of its melodies, and sparkle in its brightness

James Gates Percival

Sarah, my wife, and I chatted briefly about a couple of poems last week. A pleasant interlude from discussion of property searches, conveyancing, estate agents, house surveys and the like. Our respective house moves progress at the speed of all house moves. Slowly, but I trust steadily.

Anyway, back to poetry, and the first poem we discussed was ‘Love after Love’ by the wonderful Derek Walcott. It’s a poem that helped me get over an earlier marriage that failed. Derek’s words encouraged me to rediscover who I am. Since that time, some twenty years ago, I’ve posted the poem a few times on social media with the thought that it might act as encouragement to others struggling to move on from the sadness of the heart.

“The time will come

when, with elation

you will greet yourself arriving

at your own door, in your own mirror

and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.

You will love again the stranger who was yourself.

Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart

to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored

for another, who knows you by heart.

Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,

peel your own image from the mirror.

Sit. Feast on your life.”

I don’t feel I need such encouragement right now. I’ve yet to move to my “own door”. However, things might be different, say mid-February of next year. When, under leaden northern skies, I’ve slipped and slid along snow-covered streets in Newcastle, or its environs, to my empty two-up, two down. Felt the easterly wind whipped off the North Sea to scythe people with its icy blast. Then I may well need these words. And wine and bread to help the mirrored smile.

The other poem that Sarah and I chatted about was Desiderata. Interestingly, I had a brief Twitter conversation about its origins only a couple of weeks ago.

Many believe it is some ancient wisdom passed down through the ages when it’s a prose poem written by Max Ehrman around 1921. And the poem’s Latin title means ‘Things Desired’ with its publication coming more than ten years after its first writing.

“Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story. Avoid loud and aggressive persons; they are vexatious to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself. Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time. Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism. Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment, it is as perennial as the grass. Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth. Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness. Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be. And whatever your labours and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.”

I first came across the poem in 1971 when it became a hit single.

It’s all homespun wisdom with something of a male bias, and thus it fitted well into the late 1960s / early 70s culture.

I think its appeal to people is similar to Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If’. A poem of the Victorian era that is still popular in the UK. Indeed, its first two lines greet tennis players at Wimbledon as they leave the locker rooms.

Desiderata may be schmaltzy, a bit of motherhood and apple pie, and of betraying its times. Yet if it helps a person feel better about themselves. Encourages them to move forward with optimism. Builds someone’s inner strength and self-belief. Then that’s fine with me.

I wrote in an earlier post that moving on from lost love is to me like grieving, and in William Congreve’s play ‘The Mourning Bride’ are the lines,

“Musick has Charms to soothe a savage Breast,

To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.”

Well, I think one could write the same of poetry.

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