Monday, 31 July 2017

In Praise of Doubt

By chance, I recently came across Bertolt Brecht's In Praise of Doubt, and felt its message highly apt for our own times. Written in 1932, its opening stanza is clear and direct:

Praised be doubt! I advise you to greet
Cheerfully and with respect the man
Who tests your word like a bad penny.
I’d like you to be wise and not to give
Your word with too much assurance.

And the poem progresses through images of international conflict and moments of profound historical significance:

Read history and see
The headlong flight of invincible armies.
Wherever you look
Impregnable strongholds collapse and
Even if the Armada was innumerable as it left port
The returning ships
Could be numbered.

and brings home, in a Biblically proclamatory style, the twinning of

O Beautiful the shaking of heads
Over the indisputable truth!
O brave the doctor’s cure
Of the incurable patient!

This poem strikes a particularly resonant chord for me at present, because I feel we are living through a time of immense vituperation and massive ideological polarities.  All over the world, the forces shaping the social, political and religious dimensions within we all must live, are increasingly characterized by extremity, and here in Britain we have recently survived a bitterly hostile General Election, in which the leaders of the two "main" parties were surely the worst those parties have ever been known to offer the electorate.  As a perennially floating voter, my decision to vote Liberal Democrat owed more to extensive correspondence with my local candidate, in which I expressed my anxieties regarding the leader of his party (and found we were largely singing from the same hymn sheet, for want of a better pun), than anything that leader had to offer.  I remember sharing my decision on two occasions with two friends, one pro-Tory, the other pro-Labour - and being derided by each, both displaying an equal conviction that they were right and I was wrong, with absolutely no room for discussion.
Our national discourse has become a fraught arena of binary stances and competing certainties, with much of the country apparently bound up in a desperation to assert their own viewpoint, and unwilling to accept that they might be wrong - even though our own behaviours contradict this assumption.  For example, nearly everyone I know who voted to leave the European Union in last year's Referendum has changed their minds, while almost all Remain voters I know have now altered their stances to pro-Leave.  For reasons of expedience and opportunism, the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition have swapped sides also (in the case of the latter, a return to the anti-EU position he had occupied for over forty years) and whenever I hear them speaking on the issue it is as though they are telling me that they have the right to change their minds while I do not.  Yet our ability to make decisions and take stances on ideological issues is something that not even the most brilliant psychologists and neuroscientists have been able to fully decode and understand, is prompted by our upbringings, by parental and familial example, is contextual to our environments and experiences, and even our mental state at any given time.  All this proves is that human beings are not robots, and that our entire history is defined by changing attitudes and the empowering perspectives of experience, and ought to be informed by relentless, excessive attention to the ever-shifting minutiae of the complex questions that we face.  I cannot think of a single influential figure in history, politics or religion who did not, at least once, undergo profoundly transformative and often very public ideological shifts, in accordance with or in opposition to the prevailing moods of their times.  At the very least, matters affecting the future of nations surely ought to be decided on by means of continuous dissection of evolving situations (as with the system of holding national elections at regular intervals) rather than signed off at random via one-off votes.

Do not praise / The doubt which is a form of despair advises Brecht, before extolling the virtues of eventual decision making.  Thus, I don't believe Brecht is arguing that we should spend our lives in states of permanent prevarication, nor that attitudes and deeply-held truths - arrived at instinctively or via hours of objective scrutiny - should be automatically distrusted.  But I do gain from his wise words an affirmation of the values of empirical enquiry, dialogue and mutually respectful debate, as opposed to blind faith or a bigoted refusal to listen others' points of views, as exhibited more and more these days by aggressive political attitudes, the hysterical tantrums of television programmes such as Question Time, academic and cultural boycotts, and the sudden rush to violence we are seeing so regularly whenever someone, somewhere feels that they have a grievance to express.  Perhaps once in a while an ear to Brecht might serve to prevent some of these increasingly frequent elements of modern life!

There are the thoughtless who never doubt
Their digestion is splendid, their judgment is infallible.
They don’t believe in the facts, they believe only in themselves.

Thursday, 27 July 2017

Payam Feili, Poet.

Today is the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, permitting homosexual acts between two consenting adults over the age of twenty-one, and, although only a first step in the full legalization of homosexuality, clearly a milestone in British history.

But homosexuality remains illegal in 72 countries, carrying the Death Penalty in several, and many years imprisonment and torture in others, most of them theocracies, where religion has tightened its yoke around the neck of a country's general populace, making such prejudicial thuggery easier to enforce, through brainwashing and fear.

I first became aware of the Iranian writer Payam Feili in 2013.  A keen reader of his poetry, I was appalled to read of his treatment at the hands of the Iranian authorities.  An openly gay poet in a country which punishes homosexual acts with execution, Feili was for years blacklisted by the state authorities, his works censored or banned, and his life in danger. Four years ago, Index on Censorship reported:

Iranian poet Payam Feili ... is the victim of a brutal system. He was fired from his job, his translator’s house was ransacked, and the censors have shunned him.
Isolated in Iran, Feili has dedicated himself to writing. He says he lives among his ideas, a citizen of his mind: “I’m writing on the edge of crisis but I think I am doing fine. I’ve gotten used to life being full of tension, horror, disruption and crisis”.

The poetry of Payam Feili covers multitudes of subjects, but his sexuality is present, un-hidden, and forms an important part of his poetic consciousness:

 This dark Yalda night, upon a high wall
I delve into your solitude, I delve into you

Beneath the moonlight
Through that distant forest
Deep in that listless lake
I catch a glimpse of you in the stars

Leaving brings sorrow
Staying brings sorrow
Loitering in these abandoned streets brings sorrow

I grieve for my morning paper, vilified
I grieve for my books, bowdlerised

I mourn my Uncle Ali’s beautiful son
I mourn those somber sparrows soaked to the skin

 I blossom, and I grow tall
O! Boy, tender is my torso
Out of spite for the beauty of my uncle’s only son, I will one day,
In the streets of the village, to the wits of my despair fall prey.

“Because I come from a country where the government is always talking about wars and hatred," said Feili to the online journal Slate,  "as an author I want my message to other countries and readers to be a message of peace."  And yet, purely for expressing his personal identity, this peaceful, dignified poet was arrested, detained, and held for 44 days without charge.

Payam Feili is now living in Israel, having successfully claimed asylum in that country, but the treatment of Iran's remaining gays is barbaric and obscene - men hanged in public or thrown to their deaths from crates.  It is far from alone in dishing out such murderous treatment.  It is easy to jump to anti-Islamist conclusions on this issue, given the high number of Muslim countries where homosexuality is illegal, but these terrible laws also apply in many constitutionally Christian countries, and here in the UK we have recently seen our government enter into collaboration with an openly homophobic party, while the leader of the Opposition has spoken highly of homophobic movements such as Hizbollah, and taken money from the Iranian state to present television programmes.  He claimed to have been doing so in order to raise "human rights issues," but the evidence for this is not forthcoming. All in all, I personally feel there is little to celebrate on this momentous anniversary.

At Hardcastle Crags

Despite having lived for five and a half years within a few miles of Hardcastle Crags, my first visit to the wooded Pennine valley immortalized in Sylvia Plath's poem of the same name and now owned and managed by the National Trust, for five and a half years, comes only this summer, when on a sultry July afternoon I find myself trekking north of Hebden Bridge, beyond the ruins of the 12th Century St Thomas' church, beside the graveyard where Plath was buried in 1962, and for once instead of looping back towards the familiarity of the town, descending into the ferny green lushness  

Sylvia Plath's Hardcastle Crags is a brooding, melancholy, haunting poem, in which the vulnerability of the human is cast against the might of a wild landscape, described by Brita Lindberg-Seyerstedt a harsh view of a human being alone and defenseless in an unresponsive, 'absolute' landscape. The poem derives its power from a very detailed, realistic picture of fields and animals, stones and hills.

In the woods beneath the looming absolute of Hardcastle Crags, a haven for red squirrels, it is easier to become lost in the intricacies of  an overhanging green canopy than to feel dwarfed by hills or rocks.  Only as you continue heading through its fern-bestrewn puzzles of pine and silver birch, do you start to find the terrain growing stonier and steeper.

The pathway peters out into a thin jumble of stones and roots, until my view ahead is hazed over by a clustering bulge of trees.  Erect and cylindrical they stand, like impenetrable columns of soldiers, or seeming to tilt ever so slightly, a chess board of giants.


Or hunched and gnarled like inflated, psychotic leprechauns, jerking out of beechy overgrowth, morphing into the twisting poises of manic witch-doctors, their wrinkled tentacles like fat wands of wicked magic


Or else they stand stark and white, thin bodies pocked by bulbous galls, like totem poles carved out of bone

I am ensconced by Plath's sway of lymph and sap, a landscape looming absolute as the Antique world was once, and marooned in a world of trees, alone among them and entirely at their mercy.

Opening out to water, the sunshine over the valley illuminates Hebden Water in a cool early evening glow, its silver ripples tinted in the candy-pink glow of rosebay willowherb, dangling on the banks like flighty girls at teenage discos, glittering in ear-rings and bangles.


and before long, the valley is awash with  water, trickling over stones and tearing down through rocks

The sunlit communion of acidy soils and regular rainfall makes for a diverse range of flora


and a tantalizing gallery of insects!




Pressing on beneath banks of wildflowers, I am watched quietly by suspicious locals:

and intrigued to see what looks like a hidden gingerbread house:


until discovering again, a world transposed to water.

Gibson Mill was a water-powered,19th century cotton mill, which has since been renovated to demonstrate renewable energy, running on a combination of photo voltaic panels, turbines, a wood burning boiler, a wood burning ceramic stove and locally-sourced reclaimed material.  Its softly shaded brick, woodland surroundings and quaint mill pond give it rather a look of some friendly, over-sized Wendy House, than a former industrial powerhouse,and reaching the mill I have a sense of achievement, as if a milestone of sorts has been surpassed.

Winding my way along the stony inclines, I find my energy levels rising, and before I know it I am jogging over the bumpy terrain, jumping stones and running up through a tangled corridor of nettles and heather.  The rocks along my way see to be growing gradually, some like secret grottoes:

others like odd works of Stone Age art:

until finally I have ascended the summit of the Crags, a valley bursting with growth and vitality spread out below like the fantastical fan of some celestial peacock, the air humming with bees and birdsong:

In Sylvia Plath's poem, the altitudinous grandeur of the Crags is balanced against the steely street of the stone built town from which the protagonist has escaped, as her footsteps strike

A firework of echoes from wall
To wall of the dark, dwarfed cottages.
But the echoes died at her back as the walls
Gave way to fields and the incessant seethe of grasses
Riding in the full

Of the moon, manes to the wind,
Tireless, tied, as a moon-bound sea
Moves on its root

But Plath's setting delivers no rustic liberation, as

The long wind, paring her person down
To a pinch of flame, blew its burdened whistle
In the whorl of her ear, and like a scooped-out pumpkin crown
Her head cupped the babel.

All the night gave her, in return
For the paltry gift of her bulk and the beat
Of her heart was the humped indifferent iron
Of its hills, and its pastures bordered by black stone set
On black stone.

As the poem climbs towards a desolate, or reflectively positive, conclusion, we are provided, unstintingly, with Plath's characteristic juxtaposing of the human will tested by an oblivious, passive Universe.  Hardcastle Crags is a beautiful, but raw, harsh environment.  My summer saunter ought not to blind me to its bleak and brutal dangers, its rock-hewn roughness, and its sweeping declines which promise sheer, bone-breaking descents.  I imagine the split-second slip on on sleet-smeared stone, or tripping on a straggle of gorse along the ridges of these jagged crags, the tumble towards concussion or a mangled death, and before the weight of nightfall might enfold this primeval place and leave me adrift among its stones and hills of stones, I turn back.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Buccaneers of Buzz

I can't pretend to be a huge fan of these increasingly humid English summers, whose oppressive stuffiness tires me all day and keeps me from sleeping most of the night, but the regularity of heavy rain and sun have injected a vigorous colour into the flora of the valley, which has evidently been good news for bees, and it is certainly a joy to watch the abundances of bees bouncing from flower to flower, who, to quote Emily Dickinson, Ride abroad in ostentation / And subsist on Fuzz.


There are around 20,000 species of bees worldwide, though in Britain the name primarily conjures images of just two varieties: bumble bees and honey bees, and in particular the garden bumble bee (Bombus hortorum) and the Western honey bee (Apis mellifera).  I feel it is clear from her descriptions that Emily Dickinson's fantastic short poem Bees Are Black... was inspired by bees of the Bombus, bumble bee, genus:

Bees are Black, with Gilt Surcingles -
Buccaneers of Buzz.
Ride abroad in ostentation
And subsist on Fuzz.

Fuzz ordained - not Fuzz contingent -
Marrows of the Hill.
Jugs - a Universe's fractures
Could not jar or spill.

In Virgil's Georgics, bees are described in accordance with the various roles and tasks in which they are observed by the author:

These drudge in fields abroad, and those at home
Lay deep foundations for the labour'd comb,
With dew, narcissus leaves, and clammy gum.
To pitch the waxen flooring some contrive;
Some nurse the future nation of the hive;


                                                                                       while almost two centuries later, the great American transcendentalist poet Ralph Waldo Emerson would ascribe to bees a rather more celestial nature, while nonetheless reverting to a language of Classical metaphor which Virgil would have well understood:

Insect lover of the sun,
Joy of thy dominion!
Sailor of the atmosphere;
Swimmer through the waves of air;
Voyager of light and noon;
Epicurean of June


 Emerson credits the insects with a certain godly detachment from worldly rubbish, and in citing their situation among beautiful flowers, paints a mirror image of bees almost as flying flowers themselves:

Aught unsavoury or unclean
Hath my insect never seen;
But violets and bilberry bells,
Maple sap and daffodels,
Grass with green flag half-mast high,
Succory to match the sky,
Columbine with horn of honey,
Scented fern, and agrimony,
Clover, catch fly, adders-tongue,
And brier-roses dwelt among;


 Another great American poet, Sylvia Plath, was to paint slightly different pictures of bees, having taken up bee-keeping in Devon in June 1962, in her series of poems written in later that same year.  Plath's father, a professor of Entomology, was an authority on bees, and his 1934 book Bumblebees and Their Ways remains highly regarded to this day, and, having moved to the Devon village of North Tawton, with her husband, Ted Hughes, and their daughter in September 1961, Sylvia herself was to capture the behaviour of bees with characteristic eye for detail:

The white hive is snug as a virgin
Sealing off her brood cells, her honey, and quietly humming.

For her descriptions of the practicalities of beekeeping, Plath is commended by Mary Montaut of The Dublin Beekeepers' Association, who writes on the group's website:

As a good beginner, Plath has obviously read the right books and knows about queens killing off rivals:

“While in their fingerjoint cells the new virgins
Dream of a duel they will win inevitably,
A curtain of wax dividing them from the bride flight…”

and for her perfect linguistic responses to the bees' behaviour:

She calls the angry sound of the bee box, “furious Latin”, which somehow catches the feeling I always have when the bees are cross, of their high-pitched communication of outrage.
Or how about this for a description of stings?

“The bees found him out,
Molding onto his lips like lies,
Complicating his features.”

Elsewhere, Mary observes:

And the final poem of the sequence, Wintering, brings into sharp focus the anxiety I suppose all beekeepers feel as they close the hives for the winter:

“Will the hive survive?”
a poignancy made all the more troubling when we know of Plath’s own failure to survive that winter.  But the end of the poem is not pessimistic –

“The bees are flying.  They taste the spring.”

In our own times, growing attention has been paid to the plight of  bees and to maintaining their vital but endangered presence in the eco-system.  In her debut collection Bee Purple (Oversteps, 2002), Mandy Pannett evokes a sense of bees and their instincts as desegregated from a world continually threatened, in the context of their own peculiar powers and environmental perception, and the metaphorical implications this may hold for the wider Universe:

... there is purple, bee 
purple, a vegetable shade for the bees' eyes only,
an insect world of the ultra violet that we
can't see.

So the ancient gods have shot up to the stars
and there's no space in the macrocosm
for man at the centre controlling the threads;

just an apian myth, maybe 

Never a day goes by that I am not immensely grateful to the part played by bees in sustaining our eco-system and supporting my own life in the process.  Like most people, I have been unavoidably aware of these flashy, striped symbols of summer for as long as I can remember, and it is perhaps their ubiquity that has delayed my impulse to write of them - though their visibility is largely confined to the warmer months, bees are so familiar as to be somewhat part of the furniture, and, despite having authored a collection of poems entirely inspired by "Little Creatures", it was only recently that I found myself committing to paper any concrete observations of the wonderful world of bees.  This is what I came up with - short and simple, and focusing on just one group of bees, but, I hope, going some way to conveying the impressive presence of the brilliant bee.


Slotting in and out of borders,
jazzy flashes,
neon-banded black-jacks,
jet-jewelled amber sparks
dive and jive 
among Astrantia, garden mint and chives,

paint wobbly dots in beds of borage,
setting feverfew alight,
freckle waves of rain
in beads of fire-opal,
zircon wisps,
stripey stars
igniting galaxies of nectar.


Monday, 24 July 2017

Circling in the Mist - Poetry of Swallows

 We are lucky in the Valley to see swallows fairly often, gliding through the skies above the River Calder, swooshing over the moors, or dotting the telegraph wires like lucky charms, their navy-blue faces and blade-like wings shining in the sunshine.  Sometimes they even swoop right past my window, disappearing over the roof or arcing back like circus knives to vanish among the treetops.  They are exciting birds, enticingly low flying and apparently unafraid of people,  yet their quicksilver flight gives them a transient, elusive edge, and and air of mystery.

Hirundo rustica, the so-called "Barn Swallow", is the most frequent member of the Hirundinidae (swallow) family, and has featured frequently in poetry, often in the context of its northward migration, as a motif of summer.  Perhaps the earliest literary reference to the swallow comes from Aristotle - his famous advisory dictum "For as one swallow or one day does not make a spring, so one day or a short time does not make a fortunate or happy man" - and yet, despite this statement's air of caution, the appearance of these Blue-dark knots of glittering voltage, to coin Ted Hughes's phrase, has long symbolized the coming of warmer times, and Shakespeare refers to this in The Winter's Tale, when introducing Daffodils, That come before the swallow dares. Elsewhere, the bird is remarked on for its speed of flight, as in Richard the Third, when Richmond reflects that True hope is swift, and flies with swallow's wings, and in Titus Andronicus: I have horse will follow where the game Makes way, and run like swallows o'er the plain.
While Keats was to illustrate the coming of autumn with gathering swallows twitter(ing) in the skies, thus inverting the typical poetic metaphor, John Clare maintained a traditional perspective in his meditation on the birds.  An otherwise rather twee account turns heart-warmingly pictorial and domestic in this concluding segment of his poem The Swallow:

 Whewing by the ladslove tree
For something only seen by thee;
Pearls that on the red rose hing
Fall off shaken by thy wing.

On that low thatched cottage stop,
In the sooty chimney pop,
Where thy wife and family
Every evening wait for thee. 

Unsurprisingly, swallows appear regularly in haiku, far too numerously to do credit to here, but in the recent Wingbeats - British Birds in Haiku (Snapshot Press, 2008) I noticed several beautiful haiku which seemed to crystallize the swallow's unique beauty and simultaneously evocative and calming presence:

solitary swallow
warmth lingers in the wind
that blusters the moor
(Keith Coleman)

tin mine
a pair of swallows dart
between the chimneys
(Alison Williams) 

Above a ton of firewood
the last of our swallows
circling in the mist
(Ken Jones)

My own first sighting of  swallow was not here amid the moors of post-industrial chimneys of the North, but in the sunlit glow of a Cornish dawn, as I waded the margin of the sea at Kynance Cove in early September, 2006.  Warming my bare feet in the almost-tropical waters, which seemed to gently bubble above the pebbly sands, I looked out at a pristine sweep of turquoise sea, rolling slowly in marbly waves, the horizon glittering in the soft mists of sunrise. About thirty metres ahead I could see a slab of rocks, as if piled upon each other like some disjointed totem pole erected for the worship of aquatic gods.  Swallows swooped round it, tiny planets in orbit, two, four, six, maybe half a dozen of them, gliding in circles, tilting towards the beckoning spire of stone, before swerving back towards the bay,  meandering the crannies of the cliffs.  My poem came drifting into flight that morning on the sands, and was almost fully formed by the time I scribbled it that evening, in my room overlooking the vast embrace of the English Channel, to the intermittent hoot of the Lizard Lighthouse, echoing against the sound of swelling waves.


In pairs they shoot
cliff bound
skating mists
which sheathe the seas
in silk

like gems upon a pebbled shore,
smooth sandy shapes
   emerging from
       the early morning clouds

see them thread the mangled crags,
glide above an island's edge,

split, converge

and tuck themselves inside
the nooks of cliffs,
tiny atoms camouflaged
in eternities of stone. 

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Poppies in July

Sylvia Plath's poem Poppies in July, written in July 1962, and published posthumously in her famous 1965 collection Ariel.  I have been thinking of the poem a lot this month, as my walks and wanders through the Calder Valley have revealed them, Plath's Little hell flames, burning by the canal-side towpaths, or flickering in the wind among the foxgloves and foliage of parks.  Like the scarlet lamps of clandestine woodland tribes, they glow almost fluorescently, redolent of summers past and of bygone wars, of beating hearts and blood.  For Sylvia Plath, they seem emblematic of something simultaneously breathing with the fires of violence, and the gentle lulling of oblivion.



Do you do no harm?  She asks, curious of fumes that I cannot touch, and asking Where are your opiates, your nauseous capsules?  while conscious of the barrier between the flowers' enticing, drugging power, and her predicament in the corporeal world.

And it exhausts me to watch you
Flickering like that,
wrinkly and clear red, like the skin of a 

A mouth just bloodied.


When most poets write of summer flowers, we write of their beauty, we celebrate their life-affirming colours and cycles, we speak of love and vitality or of meditative peace.  Plath writes of hell and fire, of opiates and of "Little bloody skirts!" with all the shadowy implications such an image conjures.  She employs two exclamation marks - If I could bleed, or sleep! - and yet the poem assumes a sad, slow, almost soporific rhythm, and frames two questions within the poem, and repeats her complaint that I cannot touch the flowers - for all the poem's Trans-Atlantic confessionalism,she is curiously, rather Englishly, detached, from the flames of liberation offered by the burning petals of the lulling poppies, and unable to transcend her sense of isolation.

I put my hands among the fames.
Nothing burns.


Sylvia Plath's poem was composed during the breakup of her marriage, and is a clear break from the immersive, organic perception of earlier works concerned with growth and nature, such as Mushrooms, or the secretive but life-affirming Blue Moles, whose evidence of subterranean argy-bargy nonetheless a striving for survival, or the melancholic Frog Autumn, in which even the imminence of death is set out amid poetry as precise and deftly observed as the best nature writing.  Yet in Poppies in July, this kinship with the wild world is stricken by depletion, newly distanced negative capability, and a longing for escape rather than communion:

If my mouth could marry a hurt like that!

Poets have always been drawn to the poppy.  Like Coleridge or Wordsworth, De Quincey, Shelley, Branwell Bronte, Byron, Sylvia Plath is drawn to the bloody flames of Papaver rhoeas. Unlike those decadent, flawed or tragic figures, she remained at odds with its intoxicating, demonic charms and powers, but left us with an utterly unique meditation on the poppy's presence on our summer landscape, bringing to the fore her own desires and fears. It is one of Sylvia Plath's finest poems, and a memorable, chilling reflection of a mysterious, enticing plant rich in myth and meaning, both Universal and acutely personal.

POPPIES IN JULY, by Sylvia Plath

Little poppies, little hell flames,
Do you do no harm?

You flicker. I cannot touch you.
I put my hands among the flames. Nothing burns.

And it exhausts me to watch you
Flickering like that, wrinkly and clear red, like the skin of a mouth.

A mouth just bloodied.
Little bloody skirts!

There are fumes I cannot touch.
Where are your opiates, your nauseous capsules?

If I could bleed, or sleep!
If my mouth could marry a hurt like that!

Or your liquors seep to me, in this glass capsule,
Dulling and stilling.

But colorless. Colorless.