Today is Good Friday. As I wrote last year, this is my favourite day in the Christian calendar. Not for me the Victorian inspired Christmas traditions of mock mirth and grinding but pointless work for Mummy. Give me some proper pain and suffering. Whether you have a faith or not, the acknowledgment, the celebration of a horrific act of torture is an opportunity for reflection. Self-reflection, global reflection and that most first world of all first world problems, asking yourself, “what I am doing with my life?” If you live in London, there is the chance to do all of this in a stunning 1,000 year old cathedral on the river Thames. Attending the Passion of Good Friday at Southwark Cathedral has become a tradition for me. (see post #18, Good Friday and Yoga.) What has also become a tradition is that the method through which the passion story is explained is, if not an all out zeitgeist, at least something that seems to be directed at me personally. Yes, you may consider this to be the ranting of someone utterly self-absorbed. But I have often said that I believe my relationship with London to be a living entity and so I don’t believe in coincidences, only reactions. So when London speaks I listen. And obey. And she is saying “poetry, my passionate one, more poetry.”
Poetry is something that has been on my mind a lot, for several years. Because I desperately want to be someone who knows, reads, understands, quotes and, dare I dream?, writes poetry. But I am not. I didn’t study it at school, didn’t go to that kind of school. Instead, like Shakespeare, it is something I have been drawn to and absorbed on my own. An imperfect collection of knowledge from a bizarre variety of sources. But an exciting exploration. And today was all about poetry, led by the Chancellor of my own St. Paul’s Cathedral across the river, Mark Oakley. In the service, through a series of readings and addresses, Canon Oakley explained how poetry has been used, from as far back as Anglo-Saxon times, to describe not just Christ’s crucifixion but the loss and pain and sorrow that is part of being human. Because if any platform can encapsulate suffering, it is poetry. Read aloud. Definitely read aloud.
Like all girls of my time, I received my copy of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar from my mother with solemn joy. And devoured it. Over and over again. And then her poetry. I have all the books. Some poems I love, but many I find baffling. Over a Bank Holiday weekend in May, in 2013, at Royal Festival Hall, 40 of the UKs leading female poets and performers, including Anna Chancellor, Samantha Bond and Miranda Richardson, read one poem each from her posthumous collection, Ariel. And the packed concert hall was stunned into 80 minutes of beautiful, painful silence. Her poetry is so strong and raw and powerful on the subjects of disappointment, betrayal, and despair. Words made flesh.
At a fantastic party, last November, our host, after much wine, rose and insisted we all recite our favourite poem. He turned to me first. And I had to confess I had no memorized poetry to offer. He was shocked. Horrified. And then treated us all to the best of the British Romantics before sharing his own recently written ode to the genius of Oscar Wilde. I was amazed and transfixed and very very envious. The Tube has been running Poetry on the Underground for 30 years. I read them all. Some make me smile, others don’t interest me…and some resonate. Grace Nichols, Like a Beacon is my favourite because I know the shock that can be homesickness. And how it can catch you off guard, at unexpected moments.
every now and then
I get this craving
for my mother’s food
I leave art galleries
in search of plaintains
I need this link
I need this touch
swinging in my bag
like a beacon
against the cold
In one of my many NYC apartments one of my many roommates taped the William Carlos Williams poem about the plums to the front of the fridge. I think she did it less as a warning than a bit of pretension. Last spring I saw it, in enormous lettering on the side of a house in The Hague, near were I had once lived. No longer just a poem but a conduit to memories of former lives.
And so back to today. From the 8th century, a poem, from the point of view of the tree on which Christ was killed.
“They mocked us both, we two together. All wet with blood I was,
poured out from that Man’s side, after ghost he gave up.”
And then a medieval poem. Read in Middle English (with a translation along side) all about love.
“Love brought me
And love wrought me,
To be, man, your friend.
Love fed me
and love led me
And love kept me here.”
And then Emily Dickinson. The famously reclusive 19th century American poet, who asks: is your grief greater than mine, and will it ever go away? The answer, sadly, is no.
“To note the fashions-of the Cross-
And how they’re mostly worn-
Still fascinated to presume
That some-are like My Own-”
It isn’t an uplifting poem, but then Good Friday isn’t an uplifting day. It is a day for sorrow. In a world with endless sorrow. With poets to describe this sorrow.
Last week I was invited for a drink at one of London’s exclusive clubs. Gorgeous building, incredible art and a sign that suggested had I turned up 2 hours earlier I could have attended the Poetry Society meeting. How did I miss this, I asked my host? He frowned, but was diplomatically silent. I think the telepathic message was, you need to have something to offer. Which I don’t.
I have been told that there is a man who will write a poem on the spot, for a fee, on the Southbank. I have yet to meet him. But anxious to do so. If anyone knows how to find him, please let me know. London has clearly given me a mandate. By this time next year I should be able to rattle off something on demand, maybe something thoughtful and contemporary, maybe even something funny and happy, because after Good Friday comes Easter: hope, chocolate, bunnies and Easter shoes (yes, that is a thing. I have two pairs.)
How do I begin? I have found a small volume entitled: Auden, A Collection on a shelf in my bedroom. I shall start there. So if any of you see a little dark haired woman on the Tube reading poetry, it may be me. But hey, this is London. It could be someone else. It could be a poet.