Rescued from teenage hopelessness by Eliot, Auden and Yeats, Polly Devlin fell instantly in love with verse. She still finds a good dose of daily poetry can buoy her spirits, offering solace and sanctuary but, most of all, celebration
This article first appeared in The Gloss Magazine in November 2013. We’re opening up the archive so you can read a Polly Column every week …
The raindrops were running down the window and I counted them as they fell. Outside lay black bleak Magherafelt. Inside, one of the worst teachers in the world in a school filled with bad ones was analysing a poem and making heavy weather of it. Boredom, because it is waste, becomes pain. I lived in such a state of boredom and unhappiness that I was well nigh in despair in that last year in school. So I did not go back to do my A-levels and forfeited my chance to go to University. No use in regretting but I still cherish a deep and springing hatred for the school and some of its teachers. The maths teacher who drank, the French teacher who couldn’t speak French, the English teacher, also the headmistress, a nun with a thwarted nature and a lack of comprehension of what she was teaching.
Now to those of you who don’t know the poem My Last Duchess. I commend you to read it, though Browning is much out of fashion. It tells a romantic deadly tale fit to chill the bones of any adolescent. The narrative hinges on the Duke’s insensate pride, the fact that his new duchess wasn’t haughty enough, smiled too much, was kind even to those below her rank and worst crime of all didn’t sufficiently appreciate the gift of his 900-year-old name. Soon after her marriage she died.
Sister Marie-Therese said, “We don’t know what the gift was, perhaps it was a valuable vase.” So frightened were we by this woman and her violent mood swings that we didn’t dare point out to her that the whole point of the poem was that the gift was his name and lineage. (The poem is said to have been based on a duke of Ferrara, who married 14-year-old Lucrezia Medici in 1558. Three days after the wedding, the Duke left her and she died soon after; there was much rumour as to the cause of her death. I recollect too a Duke of Somerset who was so haughty that when his second wife touched his shoulder he turned on her savagely; “My first wife was born in greater and more noble station than you, and she yet had not the presumption to touch me”).
That day as I counted the raindrops in a misery still so acute, so painful that sometimes when I look out quickly from a room into a rainy landscape, I shiver with sadness for the girl that I was and mourn those wasted years, I furtively turned the pages of the anthology and came on these lines: a woman drew her long black hair out tight/And fiddled whisper music on those strings. I read on enchanted. The poem was The Waste Land. TS Eliot’s landscape was a vast unknown plain to me, like that of Ozymandias but it was a place I could wander in to my heart and my brain’s delight trying to work out the references, and although I knew nothing it set me to finding out. Who was Tiresias and where was Thebes? What did Noli me tangere mean? (God knows I know what Noli timere means now) and a hundred more puzzles that made exquisite sense without me understanding them – or I understood them at a raiding level below the ordinary.
I left Sister M-T droning on about Browning, turned more pages and came on this: If I make the lashes dark/And the eyes more bright/And the lips more scarlet,/Or ask if all be right/From mirror after mirror,/No vanity’s displayed:/I’m looking for the face I had/Before the world was made. And so did Yeats seduce me; and gentle reader, I was a fallen woman from then on. Yeats wrote like a god, though could be very ungodly. He came down to breakfast one morning and told his long-suffering wife George that he had dreamt of her. She was agog to know his dreams being a bit of a hand at them herself. “You were a large cold cooked chicken,” he told her. Sometimes he terrified me with his implacable insights. Civilisation is hooped together, brought/Under a rule, under the semblance of peace/By manifold illusion; but man’s life is thought,/And he, despite his terror, cannot cease/Ravening through century after century,/ Ravening, raging and uprooting that he may come/Into the desolation of reality:
The love affair started that day continues as passionately as when the earth first moved and daily I am enchanted by and grateful for what Eavan Boland has called “that most fabulous of beasts, language”. It has helped sustain me throughout my life, brings my soul into tune, raises the level at which I think and feel.
Of course I had known the thing called poetry before that memorable class and I had fallen heavily for rhyme and romance when I was young and easy under the apple boughs and my mother had read out Song of the Mad Prince by Walter de La Mare from an anthology called Peacock Pie. Such exoticism in Ardboe! I had no notion that it was about Hamlet – I’d never heard of Hamlet but “Who said, ‘All Time’s delight/Hath she for narrow bed;/Life’s troubled bubble broken’? –/That’s what I said.” moved me beyond words, or maybe into words. Eliot and Yeats, Edward Thomas, John Hewitt and Patrick Kavanagh connected me, the lost abused person, with something other than a miserable life. It gave me hope and showed me “the very world, which is the world/Of all of us, – the place where, in the end,/We find our happiness, or not at all!” (Wordsworth, who else?). When I read Ted Hughes’ “Poetry is about trying to take fuller possession of the reality of your life”, it wasn’t an abstract for me, it was an instruction. I do not exaggerate when I say that a daily dose of poetry gives me a lift as, say, alcohol can. It sets me adrift, it never lets me down; these “little concoctions of words against death” don’t fail, even when the death of a great poet leaves the world wounded and speechless.
I visit the places where poets lived, for the pleasure of walking where they walked, seeing where they lived. I’ve wandered lonely as a cloud and channelled the blessed Wordsworth who had a dog trained to run ahead and bark a warning when people were approaching so that he could “compose his gait and give a greeting that saved his name from piteous rumours such as wait on men suspected to be crazed in brain.” My dog did the same for me around Ellesmere. His lines Not in Utopia, – subterranean fields,/– Or some secreted island, Heaven knows where!/But in the very world, which is the world/Of all of us, – the place where, in the end/We find our happiness, or not at all! call out over the centuries to Seamus’s: The way we are living, timorous or bold, will have been our life.
Not long ago I went to visit Keats’ house on the Spanish Steps in Rome and it’s one of the saddest places I’ve ever been to – except perhaps for where he is buried, not far away. Around his grave people were reading his poetry to each other, many with tears in their eyes. Those magical words Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam/Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn came murmuring over the swollen Roman air. He was so young. So young. Twenty-five when he died. Sometimes people say of great artists who died young that they had perhaps achieved their greatness but Keats hadn’t – if he had lived another 40 or 50 years, until Seamus’s age – not that that was old – we might have had the greatest body of poetry ever except for the incomparable Shakespeare. Here is the bard on a song overheard … Mark it Cesario, it is old and plain;/The spinsters and the knitters in the sun/And the free maids that weave their thread with bones/Do use to chant it: it is silly sooth,/And dallies with the innocence of love,/Like the old age.
Poets turn the world inside out for us, reach into the recesses of our collective imagination and haul out treasures. They are accurate; or try to be. Those lines of Robert Lowell pray for the grace of accuracy … we are poor passing facts,/warned by that to give/each figure in the photograph/his living name were what I tried to remember as I wrote All of Us There with its title, of course, taken from Seamus’s’ great poem The Seed Cutters. I fell from grace, often. Poets capture something we know and we feel but cannot articulate and they do it sometimes through what Brodsky called “a bewildered look at the familiar.”
When I mourn my occasional loss of memory I think of Seamus’s words: As the memory bottoms out/Into the irretrievable – and that’s it. Poetry is not made to make one comfortable – in fact Wallace Stevens thought that the nobility of poetry “is a violence from within that protects us from a violence without”.
Some people look at the sun and see a gold coin, some look and see a host of angels crying halleluiah and I look at it askance now that Ted Hughes has looked at it: the sun/Orange, red, red erupted/Silently, and splitting to its core tore and flung cloud,/Shook the gulf open, showed blue,/And the big planets hanging – or will you ever look at stars the same way after Auden? How should we like it were stars to burn/With a passion for us we could not return?/If equal affection cannot be,/Let the more loving one be me.
Some years ago I contrived my own anthology as a present for a daughter who has the same passion for poetry as myself; the other daughters fell out of sorts so I made them their own versions and then friends clamoured so I fetched up by making leather-bound ones with appropriate photographs belonging to the recipients factored in and I know they all love these books more than anything else I have ever given them.
Questions here. You, literate person that you are, I know you have read Carol Duffy because how could you not but have you read the poetry of Louise Gluck? Or Sharon Olds? Ciaran Carson? (read Rain) Anne Carson? Les Murray, one of the greatest. Read Performance and laugh and cry at its rueful truth. Oh the list is endless … the pale, bearable hand/of salvation/on my neck,/lifting me/from the boat’s plain plank seat/into the world’s/unspeakable kindness … that’s Mary Oliver watching dolphins. Or WS Merwin? It could be like that then the beloved/old dog finding it harder and harder/to breathe and understanding but coming/to ask whether there is something that can/be done about it coming again to/ask and then standing there without asking.
But poetry can make us laugh as well as cry. Christopher Smart’s My Cat Jeoffrey (written in 1752 ) is a present joy. “For he can jump over a stick which is patience upon proof positive./For he can spraggle upon waggle at the word of command./For he can jump from an eminence into his master’s bosom.” It can take serious things beyond a joke – Don Paterson – “he’d the look/of a fly between the pages/of a closing book” – or speak of the unspeakable – as in one of the greatest poems of the 20th century, A Disused Shed in Co Wexford, by Derek Mahon. If you haven’t read Auden’s The Shield of Achilles, witness this stanza: A ragged urchin, aimless and alone,/Loitered about that vacancy; a bird/Flew up to safety from his well-aimed stone:/That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third/Were axioms to him, who’d never heard/Of any world where promises were kept, Or one could weep because another wept. And finally Emily Dickinson I can wade pools of grief/but the least touch of joy breaks up my feet. There you go.
Poetry is human existence come to life. A lot of human existence drained away from all of us at the end of August this year and I’m no good at wading pools of grief. The best homage we can pay him is to read him in all his incomparable generosity. The door was open and the house was dark/Wherefore I called his name, although I knew/ The answer this time would be silence
Writing Home, a selection of writing by Polly Devlin, published by Pimpernel Press, is out now.
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