As a poet who also writes biographies of poets, I have a kind of double vision. What does it mean, I wonder, to have poetry as the goal of one’s life? And how do you understand people so eccentric, or so enchanted, that they can see playing with words as the purpose of their existence, above all in an age when the prestige of poetry is as low as it has been for most of my lifetime?
In fact, oddly enough, poetry is currently enjoying a boom and bringing big money to publishers. And if much of the current ‘Instagram poetry’ is fairly thin stuff, ephemeral emotional food for adolescence, well – so was most of the poetry published in the age of Byron. Inevitably, from time to time a major talent will arise above the mundane tide. Meanwhile, the rest of us, whether we’re seventy years old or seventeen, carry on with our addiction, trying to put the best words in the best order and find the patterns that will enchant our readers, however many or few.
My particular interest is in poets who have followed what you might call ‘alternative spiritualities’. Having had my own fascination with poetry inspired first of all, when I was sixteen, by Robert Graves’s The White Goddess, I have always sensed that a spiritual power – a Muse, a Spirit, a God or a Goddess, spoke through language when it truly performed as poetry. You can’t just invent a poem. It has to begin, at least, from a nucleus of inspiration – a line, phrase or stanza that comes to the poet from somewhere else (call it the Gods or the Unconscious or what you please). My last prose book was about Charles Williams (1886-1945), a poet who had a lifelong commitment to writing about the Arthurian legends and who eventually produced the greatest twentieth-century poems on Arthur and the Grail. Charles Williams was both a Christian theologian and also an occultist belonging to secretive magical organisations; during the Second World War he was a close friend of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, both of whom sensed the enchantment he cast about him but neither of whom knew of his actual magical activities.
Currently I am beginning work on a full-scale study of the spiritual, religious and occult activities of W.B. Yeats and their relation to his poetry. Yeats’s activities encompassed ritual magic with the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn; the collection and investigation of Irish folk beliefs about fairies and the old gods; Indian spiritual philosophy (he worked with Indian teachers and helped to translate the Upanishads); and spiritualism: he was a keen attender at seances, investigated and debunked supposed miracles with the Society for Psychic Research, and his ambitious book A Vision, offering a vision of human personality and its interaction with the changing aeons of history, was based on thousands of pages of ‘automatic writing’ dictated by spirits and received through his wife, who was herself a medium.
Weird? Certainly. But if we remember that in ancient times poets were shamans, it all begins to make a kind of sense. A poet has to take the powers and patterns of the cosmos, the resonances of breath and sound and meaning, the echoes of ideas and the sensation of words in the mouth (and remember that speech is produced by the same organs we use for eating, biting, kissing and breathing) and harmonise all of these to make something beautiful, meaningful and memorable. Clearly a task beyond human capability. And yet sometimes it happens.
My short time at Girton has given me one poem at least: inspired in part by the black squirrel I saw outside my window just as I put my bags down on the day I arrived. A good omen, somebody said to me. Was it just a squirrel? And after all, why say ‘just’? Is anything just one thing? The world is full of meaning, and it seemed a special moment; added to by the ladybirds that insisted on coming into my room all that afternoon. Something, it seemed, was being revealed; and if the poem is tinged with the melancholy of autumn, well, that was how it felt. Autumn has its own music, as Keats taught us; and as I write this there’s a full moon outside, and under it the snowdrops and aconites of spring are in flower.
October sun tilts the leaded glass golden,
lost ladybird traversing the windowsill
as I prise the casement free of its stone mullion –
feel the archaic heft of each word –
for cool air, watch autumn crocus and cyclamen,
pink pools under flaming chestnut, spill
where a black squirrel dances at the edge of the wood.
But the round vowels of October narrow
to the decrescent moon of November,
darker skies, the wood coming nearer.
Time drags the increasing length of its shadow
though days shorten. I stare at a teatime nowhere,
while last light fuses sodden leaves into amber.
The black squirrel no longer visits the meadow.
Black squirrel, what did you come to tell me?
That this was all a mistake, or had you a blessing to bestow,
coded into the anagram of your freakish DNA
and the labyrinth of these redbrick corridors
with their silent gardens? Things pattern randomly
as December rain pattering tonight on my window,
which is black, but not with so black a black, black squirrel, as yours.
Mary Amelia Cummins Harvey Visiting Fellow
For more poems, as well as pictures, essays, books and information, please go to www.grevel.co.uk