Monday, 25 September 2017

Reference Back

The first book I borrowed from the new Halifax Central Library was the second collection by London born poet Katharine Towers, The Remedies (Picador 2017).  

For much of the book, the poet - whose debut collection The Floating Man (Picador 2010) deservedly won the Seamus Heaney Centre Poetry Prize, and who is also the Poet-in-Residence for The Cloud Appreciation Society - focuses on natural subjects, including a beguiling section where she re-works the stories of supposed remedies associated with various plants and herbs, and I was attracted to the folkloric quality of her writing, as in Field Oak, whose subtle lyricism turns what might, by a lesser poet come across as a series of blunt bullet points, into a thing of wistful beauty:

the riddled bark
the sap that heals the broken heart
the staggered reach
the secret passed from leaf to leaf 
the stalwart roots
the tiny chalices of frost 
the watercolours of the dusk
the tried and tested triplets of a thrush 

But it is the short poem Grass, with its irresistible paraphrasing of Larkin, which captured my attention most acutely.
If I were called in / to construct a religion, the poem begins, I should make use of grass.  


But the poem is not an attempt to put a new spin on Rastafarianism. Instead, just like the Larkin which inspired it, Grass seems thematically oblique, with the fervent swishing  of the grass perhaps as metaphoric as the idea of a faith its self.  The poet's liturgy, which would employ vegetal whistling / and blurted worshipful shrieks floats through the mind's eye with a windblown quality, but the repetition of "s" and "sh" sounds lend it a deceptively gentle essence, contrasting with the wild, musical nature of the actual words used. In 2017, the idea of worshipful shrieks carries chilling undertones.

In Katharine Towers' grassy ideology,  churchgoing would involve swishing through couch and wild oats, conjuring images of strolling through the ruins of old chapels, and when I stop to picture the these verdant services, I must admit I would be tempted to count myself among the congregation. No doubt even an Agnostic like myself would meet many a kindred spirit.

Enticingly, deliciously, oddly disturbingly, Grass leaves the reader pondering without resolution, feeling a sense of having been present at the birth of something we know quite now what of.  This feels to me an apt sense in contemporary Britain, but from a personal angle the poem actually worked for me on a retrospective level.  I think the reason for this is twofold: firstly there is something about the quiet idea of fields or hills of swaying grass that lulls me into nostalgia.  The second is the nod to Philip Larkin.  

Written in 1954, and published exactly fifty years ago in the now defunct literary magazine Listen, Philip Larkin's poem Water appears in his famous 1964 collection The Whitsun Weddings, which I studied for English A-Level, and which was my introduction to Larkin and his work. 


If I were called in
To construct a religion
I should make use of water.

Going to church
Would entail a fording
To dry; different clothes;

My liturgy would employ
Images of sousing,
A furious devout drench,

And I should raise in in the east
A glass of water
Where any-angled light
Would congregate endlessly.


I remember in the college class - the ramifying imagery of water with all its Earth-replenishing implications, its pervasive power and capacity to be both life-preserving, and destructive.  Perhaps rather more immediately apparent was the irreverent flippancy - Larkin's casual suggestion that he might be "called upon" to devise a new religion prompting considerable amusement.  "They wouldn't ask him," one of my fellow students wryly opined.  He did not specify who "they" would be, but then neither does Larkin: in his whimsical imaginings, he leaves it to the reader to wonder whether his unlikely theological appointment might be thrust upon him by the governmental or spiritual authorities, or some other, undefined source. 

The poem is at once seemingly sarcastic and profound, a micro-treatise wherein thousands of years of theology are compressed within four stanzas - the first trio structured like a Trinity with their three short lines, the final, Biblical fourth.  For the poet Christopher Reid, Larkin's poem suggests a sort of "cleansing ritual," whereby The gritty attrition of experience can be washed away, and a moment of transcendence offered as light and water meet.  

Having living in West Yorkshire's Calder Valley for five and a half years, I meet the imagery of water with a somewhat more jaundiced eye than I might have done twenty years ago.  Certainly I am well aware of its power for good, in this region which was run on water, and which today is laced by revitalized canals, boats bobbing beneath my window.  I am in awe of our heavy rains, refreshing the hillsides with rekindled verdure. But it is less than two years since the Boxing Day Floods of 2015, the latest to ravage our Valley, which ripped through its heart, deluging homes and businesses, knocking down walls and leaving streets literally waterlogged to knee level. 

The two-day long furious, devout drench met a concerted local effort at rebuilding, emptying premises and delivering emergency supplies, and later, once the initial deluge had subsided, musical and poetry events for fundraising.   
It was a terrible time, it was a heartening time, as we came together as a community and beyond - groups came to the Valley from as far afield as Israel to help with the relief.  It was a reminder of the incredible strength of water, and of why societies of old may well have ascribed to it a spiritual essence.  Indeed, the profusion of water deities, stretching across the Millennia and straddling the world from the river gods of Ancient Greece to the sea dragons of China, the Hebrew Leviathan to the Vedic goddesses of the Ganges, is a testament to how many of those previously "called in" to create the faiths, myths and legends of yesteryear beat Larkin to it.

Larkin's Water offers a kind of Pantheistic alternative to Anthropomorphized, Anthropocentric religious norms  -which shouldn't especially surprise us given that he is the same Larkin who infamously pronounced the Bible to be "beautiful, but balls" - but I suspect it is essentially a personal vision, or at most one which would ideally stretch to only a small group of adherents.  He envisages himself raising a glass of water in the east, suggesting only a solitary place of worship, and rather modest ambitions for the growth of his creed.  Not for Philip Larkin the globe-robing reach of traditional religions and their aims of mass conversion.  Maybe that's a good thing.

I can see the grass-woven rituals of Katharine Towers spreading more widely and harmoniously, especially if its services include the couch grass and wild oats she lists as key among its offerings.  The latter is clearly another wink to Larkin, his Wild Oats, also from The Whitsun Weddings,  in which the poet reflects on a bygone relationship. About twenty years ago, the poem begins, Two girls came into where I worked - and he then describes the comparative qualities of  A bosomy English rose / And her friend in specs I could talk to.  The story ends unhappily.

Parting, after about five
Rehearsals, was an agreement
That I was too selfish, withdrawn
And easily bored to love.
Well, useful to get that learnt,

Wild Oats gives a glimpse into Larkin as a younger man - a sort of back-story to the character in Mr Bleaney, maybe, or a notion of how he might have framed those earlier years within his own typically self-deprecating nostalgia.  

But it is the twenty years ago that hits me now.  At sixteen, reflecting after two decades of intervening space was an impossibility.  Now, its second nature, and as I find myself remembering that first autumn out of school, encountering not only Larkin but Hamlet,  Swift, Swinburne, Keats, Blake, all for the first time in that large, high-ceilinged room at the northern edge of Leeds city centre, I cannot help but see the irony.  Larkin was recalling the early 1940's, a Blitzed Britain in an era of wartime ration books and bomb shelters. 
In contrast, my "twenty years ago" is the glistening tip of the 1990's, a period which seemed to herald a new age of progressive promise.  To have commenced my days at the Leeds College of Art in 1997, high on the sugar rush of Tony Blair's New Labour, was desirable and apt.  Twenty years on, I no longer feel I am living in a progressive age. I feel no faith in our present government, nor the tainted Labour, and the idea of religion seems more trouble than it is worth.  It is a different country now, one I barely feel a part of.  Many have lamented, rightly in my view, the rising extremisms which apparently characterize contemporary life. But rather than any clearly drawn lines, I get the sense that Britain is in something of a jumble - a discordant din of conflicting, contradictory crusades, in which no-one seems to know quite what they stand for but is nonetheless determined to stand for it as loudly as possible, and where all who disagree are wrong.


Truly, though our element is time, writes Larkin in the same book,
We're not suited to the long perspectives
Open at each instant of our lives.
They link us to our losses: worse,
They show us what we have as it once was,
Blindingly undiminished, just as though
By acting differently we could have kept it so.
Our society's current cycles of unease will surely resolve themselves in various ways.   Or they won't.  Who can say. But either way, twenty years is twenty years, and between the brackets of those two eventful decades, the whole of life has altered - new technologies, new vocabularies, new threats, new fears, new miseries, deepening like coastal shelves and leaving us facing new realities which could not have been imagined in the closing years of the Twentieth Century - or "The End of History."  I add to this the memory of being sixteen years old, and the gulf becomes impassable. 

Never such innocence again.

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