By Heart Kindness My koans Poetry Koan

By Hearting Kindness by Naomi Shihab Nye

“So you’re going to learn ‘Kindness‘ are you? That old chestnut! That old piece of mystical lumber, so beloved of the spiritual gurus with their quiet, whispery voices and meaningful pauses? HA!”

“Yes, I am going to learn ‘Kindness’.”

These are the kinds of conversations I have with my mind. The mind, even when most mocking{{1}} speaks a kind of truth: this poem is a bit of a “chestnut”, often quoted by spiritual gurus with their quiet whispery voices, so much so, that it has become for this reader almost platitudinous.

But I feel I need its medicine. Which is to say I feel I need more Kindness (don’t we all?) – medicine most needed when the mind is tetchy, irritated, peeved, just generally vexed with the world.

I remember once being on a meditation retreat with John Teasedale, one of the creators of the Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy model, and him telling us that one of the most powerful practices he had ever done was sitting on a meditation cushion for a month directing Mettā (loving-kindness) to himself and the world. This had impressed me, as John is not in any way a whispery-voiced spiritual guru. It’s a bit like your postman telling you he hugs trees.

So sometimes we have to take the medicine we need even if the mind or something else has tainted that medicine with projections. When you’ve got pneumonia, you don’t say to your doctor “Actually, you know what, thanks but no thanks. I’m just not that cool with pharmaceutical companies and what they do. Would you by chance have that life-saving antibiotic as a homeopathic remedy? Perhaps produced by a small, fair-trade collective in Palestine?”

No. You say, this is the medicine I need. Thank you Doctor Patel.

In many ways the learning of ‘Kindness’ for me has become an enlightening tussle with articles. The word the is very important in this poem.

Particularly in this stanza:

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

As I began memorising this poem, I kept on wanting to say “an Indian” and “a simple breath”, but Shihab Nye gives us the Indian, as if he’s already been mentioned previously in the poem, or as if we had already been introduced to him: “You know the Indian – the one who you sat with you around the camp fire singing Victor Jara songs? That guy who showed you a picture of his wife and young daughter and laughed at your jokes. Yes, him.”

The indefinite article ‘a’ would vaporize the specificity of that man. The empathic leap we’re being encouraged to take would not be possible without ‘the’. An Indian lying dead by the side of the road, as upsetting as that image might read, would still render this man as an “extra” in his own drama, as if he’d been placed there as some kind of marker of mortality (which in some sense he has) rather than as a human being in his own right.

What gives these lines an added kick is that Shihab Nye is playing with the Native American proverb “Don’t judge a man until you’ve walked two moons in his moccasins”. Perhaps this is why she tells us to “travel where the Indian lies dead” rather than travel ” to where the Indian lies dead”. It’s not a matter of going and standing over his body like a disaster tourist gawk, or some lens-distancing journalist. The “where” is not necessarily a place but an experience, his experience, your experience of moving through your life with some sort of purpose, being nourished by the selfsame air and food and broadband connection that nourishes us all.

By Heart My koans One Art

By Hearting One Art by Elizabeth Bishop

Every assertion made in this poem is mendacious.
How do I know this? I know this because I have spent a week and a half easing the poem into my head and heart and it all adds up by not adding up.



I know this because when one has finally absorbed not just the words of the poem (“The art of losing isn’t hard to master”), but also its regular, though slightly “off” end-rhymes that both soothe and stall, balancing-unbalancing the ear (master…faster… last,or….vaster….gesture) you know.

And when you know, the poem becomes even more glorious. Glorious because the un-mastering Bishop, the I’m-not-really-OK that sits kvetching in every blithe logical-mastering-positivism, strikes to the very heart of the piece and to human nature itself.

One Art by Elizabeth Bishop

The final proof spills out in that last parenthetical outburst “(Write it!)”, as if language itself has finally refused to have the wool pulled over it’s eyes and lies. It’s also at this point in the poem that the ten/eleven syllable regularity unravels into twelve syllables and four lines. The poem can no longer contain its own platitudes.

Which is dynamite. More powerful than a thousand scarified you-broke-my-heart-and-left-me-for-nowt songs and poems about loss. Even very good ones, like this one.

These are the fruits of “formal poetry”, I guess. Just being able to hold that level of emotional nitroglcerine steeped in multivalent word-play{{1}} [A] in one tiny package [B]. And then, needing only the blasting cap [C] of a reading or a by-hearting to detonate this universe of meaningful innerverse.

I think I first learnt about the notion of the “unreliable narrator” at the age of sixteen from my beloved O and A-Level English teacher Mr Baglow. I’m looking now to see if I might have used the term in my blog-post-sized essays I wrote on that neverending supply of A5 paper the comprehensive school system doled out to us – gratis (I didn’t)

One of things I loved about Mr Baglow is that he gave me so many ego-boosting A-grades. I needed those ego-boosting A-grades, don’t we all? My Andrew Marvell essay though got a B and this comment: “I’m glad you wrote this, Steven. It highlights elements of your writing that should be avoided in AN EXAMINATION answer (I’ll see you about this). If you’d written this as ‘just another piece of work’ I’d have given you an ‘A’ for humour and perception.” This, in a nutshell: the power and enduring influence of a caring teacher.

But I’ve grown bored with the idea since then. This poem reminds me of the psychological import of the unreliable narrator. Sometimes it’s just too painful to write, read, or listen to what the “reliable narrator” has to say. Often the reliable narrator sounds gauche or corny.

So let the unreliable narrator predicate and purport. Beneath the disingenuous bluster of “losing stuff is a doddle, my friends”, the wounded heart communicates what it needs us to hear.

I love the possible allusions to mothers and fathers in the poem, without saying anything declarative. “Practice losing farther”, she urges us. But said aloud, this could also be “practice losing father”. Bishop claims to have lost her mother’s “watch”, the timepiece, but also perhaps the care and vigilance, the selfless holding-in-mind that we expect from parents and which they are not always able to give us?

Adrienne Rich By Heart My koans

By-Hearting Today by Billy Collins

The mind is a lemon squeezer. The poem is a lemon. When you cut a poem open and begin to learn it, pressing the poem into the grooves of the mind, rotating it back and forth in memory until it cleaves to the mind, releasing more and more of its meaning, you get the best of the poem and it gets the best of you.

This requires time and solitude. To commune best with the poem, you must try and find a place away from other poems, other words, ideas, away from the information superabundance and surfeit of phone, iPad, computer screen, and eReader. Think hermit in her cave, think Tenzin Palmo:

I grew potatoes and turnips in the little garden outside. The day was very structured: four times a day I would sit and meditate in a traditional meditation box for three hours, and that’s where I slept, sitting up. (

When you are learning the poem, you are Tenzin Palmo sitting on her meditation box. Forty-five minutes at a time. It is just you and the poem, and whatever the poem elicits from you. That is all.


If ever there were a spring day so perfect,
 so uplifted by a warm intermittent breeze
 that it made you want to throw
open all the windows in the house
and unlatch the door to the canary’s cage,
indeed, rip the little door from its jamb…

I have been feeling unmoored for a week or so, partially because I haven’t got a new poem to soothingly sink myself into on a daily basis; a wisdom-built container of the mind, one that when I learn off by heart provides a sort of cognitive scaffolding for my harum-scarum head. I’ve been using old poems I’ve learnt as centering mantras, but once they become mantras, they also lose some of their shiny, just-gleaned divination, which I need on a daily basis in order not to feel like an earthbound inert. I need to be new on a day, which means finding some flow, some play. But something gets in the way.

I think it might be the canary in the cage. When I first read the poem, I thought that canary too cute. Oh come on Billy, this isn’t a Warner Brother’s cartoon, it’s a poem fer chrissake! But if you free associate around canaries (canary yellow, the islands, Norwich city football club), you eventually plummet 500 feet underground where you find a miner tending very carefully to his early warning system, a bird he no doubt grows quite fond of after a while, starts treating it a bit like a dog. And like all many mysteries of life this etymologically makes sense: for were these birdies not named after their birthplace, the Latin-derived Insula Canaria (the island of dogs) from whence 17th Century Spanish sailors travelled to these shores?

But I am also thinking about another canary, whistling, fluttering, sometimes shrieking in its cortical cage, that mineshaft much closer to home, at the base of the forebrain. The canary, AKA our limbic system, sit on its brainstem perch, from where it is able to communicate to the rest of the autonomic nervous system, the whole inner-electric landscape of the somatic self.

In my 3D brain app, the limbic system looks a bit like a sleeping turtle dove curled around a bright pink acorn than a canary, even though this part of the brain never ever sleeps.The pink acorn is its thalamus, that sensory switchboard through which everything heard, seen, touched, smelt gets processed. If I see an unfamiliar shape on the pavement, one of my thalamuses sends this information down two quite different paths towards the amygdala. On one path, the alarm goes off WHEEWAH-WHEEWAH-WHEEWAH-WHEEWAH even if nothing is really wrong. But just in case. Just. In. Case.

This route, relaying only a hazy outline, something rat-shaped perhaps, something out of the ordinary, takes 12 milliseconds or less. Depending on the initial perception, the body might be stirred into action here with a tip off to the hypothalamus, signalling threat via autonomic nerves to adrenal glands. Without the first fuzzy snapshot, we would be dead before the second route, travelling more conscientiously towards the amygdala via circuitous, but finely-tuned cortical paths, were able to assess the matter with due care.

If this thalamus-amygdala tripwire is being constantly triggered, you can forget enjoying the cool brick paths and garden bursting with peonies. For every rustle in the bush will be gleaned as a snake, a rat, a tiger (about 1,000 people were killed each year in India during the early 1900s) rather than a little orange-breasted robin foraging for worms. If we’re in a safe place, a good space, a spring day so perfect, we need to find a way to let the anxious canary out of its cage, out of our skulls. But how to do so when the fretful, feathered birdbrain is part of the fittings rather than a portable alarm system?

And the garden bursting with peonies…

How many people, apart from the horticulturally gnostic amongst us, know how to pronounce the word peony?

That this question, googled, brings forth pages of posts from, to to YouTube, leads me to believe that I am not the only one stumbling over my pronunciation of this flower when it appears midway through Today.

It’s not a particularly likeable word, is it? It feels as if an orthographic virus had secreted itself into the dictionary and spitefully begun inserting random dipthongs into the vocabulary most cherished by four year old girls: words like pony, princess, playdate, and iPad.

It is not also somewhat self-referencing, a meta-virus, having a kind of clanging association to the word “poem”? Or as my four year-old, pony-Princess-playdate-iPad loving niece might call it: a pee-yom. Uncle Steve is learning a pee-yom again. Silly uncle Steve! Could not Maggie’s pee-yom at almost any moment become the pee-ye-nee (stress on the first syllable) in that very poem?

It is a word that has, to my ear, some of the abrupt tonal shifts of Mandarin Chinese or Somali which I physically equate with momentary nausea in a plummeting lift when your internal organs do a little juddering skitter in their visceral environment before settling again: the voice doing a little falsetto trill on the pee, only to fall between the cracks on yah, and the to suddenly dart up again on nee.

Discomforting for the lips, tongue and teeth to pack that all in. But such a beautiful flower.

Why does learning poems by heart feel so good? Maybe because in a mindscape of  superabundance (infinite words and ideas streaming out of our heads and our media devices) to carry on a small 3 x 5 card a single poem, a discourse rorschach, an evergreen outgrowth of the soul, contained on this tiny card, to carry and meditate on the words, to digest them slowly over time to the rhythm of ones feet as you walk along the road, taking in your neighbourhood, the world going on around you, the poem moving along beside you, and the thoughts and associations it generates in your head as you learn, is deeply, deeply satisfying.

This is a satisfaction no longer available to us in the unvariegated too-muchness of the internet, or even from a library, or a bookshop. This is the satisfaction of doing something wholly felicitous, personally meaningful and “complete”, the way you might savour a chilled slice of perfectly ripe mango with a drizzle of lime juice on a sunny day (or any day for that matter).

At that point, it matters not that the mango was picked from a box of a hundred other mangoes, or from one of the thousands of mango trees on the other side of the world. There is no craving for a different or better slice of mango, a fear of missing out, or inadequacy about not having kept up to date with the teeming mango world from which this one was plucked.

Eating (learning) a poem is a bit like this mango moment. It completes a need you maybe didn’t even realise you had in the first place. The pre-mango palate of a child who has only had woody chunks of underripe pear to contend with suddenly comes alive to this. Bliss.

Read Billy Collins’ Today.


By Heart My koans

By Hearting Spring by Gerard Manley Hopkins

The morning mind is overfull, not sure where to place itself. The poem gives it a place to settle.

As I walk I dictate these notes into my phone, which insists on transcribing the word “poem” as “home”, unless I put a lot of emphasis on the double syllable: po-hem. But is that not what this is all about? A bid to turn the po-hem into a ho-em, a sanctuary? That church or sacred spot where a fugitive might be immune from arrest, where the mind might go to find some form of exoneration or release from the hyper-vigilant, threat-sensing faculties of its limbic system?

What I am doing as I flip through an anthology on the bookshelf looking for a poem I might learn about spring is not that different to someone walking around a given neighbourhood with an estate agent flat-hunting. Coming to a new poem to learn by heart is not that dissimilar to entering a potential abode, a brief tour of each property, trying to get a sense in those first few moments in the entrance hall whether this living space “speaks to you”?

And maybe, as one reads Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Spring, you might think  you’ve found “the place” the heartspace, as you wander around the living room with its large bay windows looking out onto the park:

Nothing is so beautiful as Spring –         
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;         
Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush         
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring         
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;

But then, you walk down the passageway to have a look at the bathroom only to discover a dank, dingy, windowless box: walls and ceiling peppered with mould, all clouded, and cloying, and yes, the estate agent admits “sour with sinning”.

Well, I wouldn’t go that far you say, it’s just a manky bathroom, nothing sinful in that. But the word has stuck, and you don’t want to live there anymore.

Read Hopkins’ Spring.

By Heart My koans No Worst, There Is None Semiotics The Windhover

By Hearting “The Windhover” by Gerard Manley Hopkins (3)

There is an approach to reading (broadly speaking Structuralism, or Literary Semiotics) that goes something like this: the words on the page are all, and any biographical information/speculation (either about your own life, or about the writer’s) only stands in the way of getting to the arbitrary heart, the clever-whateverness of the text.

To some extent, this is true.

When I’m wrestling with a line like “No wonder of it, sheer plod makes plough down sillion shine”, it’s probably more useful for me to know what sillion is, and then to work out it’s relation to “sheer plod” rather than catapulting forth an idea of how and why Hopkins plodded through life, or where he first saw sillion ploughed. Did he ever plough himself, other than through lines of poetry on a page? Even without Google, the music of the word already carries much of the muffled gleam of that tongue-lolling word., usefully and refreshingly answers this question. They would know, I guess. More so even than 34 poesy-lovin’ commentators on a blog. Such is the power of technology: a “real” farmer poking through a screen-hedge, happy to tell you about sillion, which in fact, doesn’t appear to exist other than inside this poem, and its commentary. Robert MacFarlane uses the word in an essay about the Fens, but even he, you can tell from the syntax of the sentence, is referencing GMH.

The hardcore Semiotician would say: “It doesn’t really matter, either way. Everything means something/nothing to me.”

But of course it does (matter). Or rather: it matters, only inasmuch as it matters to what you can draw from the poem that is pertinent and meaningful to you and whatever you’re grappling with in your life at the moment. If the poem doesn’t reflect, even very tangentially, something you’re grappling with, none of that grapple will transfer to the poem itself, and you’re probably not going to have much interest in the words on the page. That’s what “liking” or “not liking” a poem really means.

To designate relations between one signifier and the next simply in order to impress upon your reader that you’ve read Saussure, Lacan, or Foucault makes for pretty arid reading and writing. So goodbye, I say, to 99% of “academic” criticism, and hello sensitive, personal  reader-responsiveness (which I think is what we’re trying to do here, and here, aren’t we?).


Learning a poem is a bit like falling in love with someone you’ve never met before (social media and Internet Dating now encourage us to do this all the time). Surely you’re going to be all Google-curious as to finding out what relation your love-object’s “real life” might bear to their “page/onscreen” persona? It’s only natural.

I wanted to know what it was like, and why, Hopkins trained and worked as a Jesuit priest. So I read the inquisitorial sounding Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Very Private Life rather than a book of literary criticism.

The following tidbits are what I jotted down whilst reading. They’ve helped me to live the poem more fully.


1) No wonder of it: Upon entering the novitiate at Manresa, each novice was issued with a “hat and ancient sleeveless, knee-length gown, so stained and worn with age, that many of their wearers remembered their distaste until the end of their days.” These were particularly “repugnant” to Hopkins, Martin suggests, as in his pre-Jesuit life he was something of a dandy. He probably also would have been dwarfed by his habit, being of a very small frame.

2) Sheer plod: Daily routine was as follows -5:30 Rise. 6:00 Chapel and meditation.  7:45 Breakfast. 8:30 Reading Rodriguez on Christian Perfection. 9:00 Learning by heart Instructions on the rules of the Society + bed-making and daily chores. 10:30 Free time for walking, praying, reading a (spiritual) book. 11:30 Manual work (weeding, sawing logs etc.) in the grounds. 12:30 Chapel for examination of conscience and prayer. 1:00 Dinner. 1:45 Quick visit to chapel. 2:00 ‘Recreation’. 3:00 Either more domestic or manual work, or a two hour walk with a companion assigned to you on a random basis. Occasionally cricket or football.  6:00 Chapel (meditation and prayer recitation), and free time. 7:30 Supper. 8:00 Recreation (some of which had to be conducted in Latin). 9:00 Chapel and preparation for the next day’s meditation. 10:00 Examination of conscience and lights out.

Imagine doing this everyday for the rest of your life. This really does read like sheer, sheer plod. Other times: the bliss of codification, regulation, and control.

3) Makes plough: Don’t even think about it. The novices were given “modesty powder” for their baths to make the water opaque.

4) Down sillion: Hopkins suffered from chronic diarrhoea. In 1872 he had to have a haemorroidectomy, and five years later, a circumcision due to ulceration following on from painful phimosis and balanitis. When his body wasn’t “naturally” tormenting him, he was encouraged to flog himself daily with a “discipline”, or wear a cilice: “a neat contraption of wire, horse-shoe links with points turning inwards, which you strapped around your thigh next to your skin. The pain, which was dulled at rest, became intense when the leg was flexed or accidentally brushed against the seat of  chair.”

3) Shine: The rutting stags in Richmond Park “kept the novices uneasily awake during the mating season”.


DSC05706We are all prey to gravity the egg shell on my patio reminds me.

Seen from above, it resembles more a bleached planet varicosed over with blood-red Martian canals.

It was  shucked off  (I hope) by a hatchling, now safely nested with siblings, awaiting worms. But as there are no trees above, it’s probably more likely that this one got eaten by something big and hungry.

If I needed a more graphic SPLAT to drive the point home, it’s awaiting me later on in the day, walking home from the supermarket, the chick-corpse a discarded red blob of leaf-like matter to one side of the humpty-dumpty mayhem.

So no wonder of it that we like activities in which we feel we’re escaping gravity, activities which push out out beyond ourselves (writing, flying, sex, eating, talking, singing). Only in those moments of physical and neurological “flow” does gravity seem to release its hold on us.

As I finish the week with these two poems in my heart, I feel them embodying this gravity-dilemma.

Hopkins tries to “catch” the falcon with words (and does, in a way, by “inscaping” it), the poem embodying the bird’s and his attempt to escape the pull of gravity. For a line or two, they do it,  riding-striding, ringing-swinging in their hurl and gliding. But gravity reasserts itself with the fallen-gallen-gashed “plod” at the end of the poem, a terrain also weighing down the “terrible” sonnets.

By Heart My koans No Worst, There Is None The Windhover

By Hearting “The Windhover” by Gerard Manley Hopkins (2)

Hopkins loved words.

Just look at the diaries written by his 19 year-old self, packed with logophiliac scribblings, alive to the onomatopoeic connections between words and visions. He’s  like a Victorian Gertrude Stein hoarding his tender buttons:

Crook, crank, kranke, crick, cranky. Original meaning crooked, not straight or right, wrong, awry. A crank….which turns a wheel or shaft at one end, at the other receiving a rectilinear force. Knife-grinders, velocipedes, steam-engines etc have them. Crick in the neck is when some muscle, tendon or something of that sort in the neck is twisted or goes wrong in some way….Cranky, provincial, out of sorts, wrong.

“He was clearly working on the notion,” writes Robert Bernard Martin, “that sound and meaning are yoked by a psychological association considerably deeper than mere onomatopoeia or alliteration”.

A few years later, writing about dreams in a way that deliciously prefigures Freud, Hopkins notes that the connection between dreams and waking life is not a direct one, but may be “capricious, almost punning”. As are the many connections he forges, or we impute in his poems.

Before attempting my first reading/recording of the poem there were certain words I worried that I might not pronounce “correctly”: dauphin, bow (as in “flow” or “how”?), chevalier, and even windhover. For some reason, I’ve always pronounced the “over” as in “over there”.

And what about off? As I started reading the poem aloud my ears remembered that of course the recidivist South African accent carried within my voice like a shaming albatross means that I still can’t say off (/ɒf/) as in doff  but produce it more like “orf” (/ɔːf/) as in awful.

“Jolly good thing too,” I hear my oldest friend The Therapist whisper in my ear (though he doesn’t talk in this mannered, fruity Wodehousian way at all). “It sounds better with the “orful” accent, old boy. You get the aw-aw-aw innards-rhyme-”

Don’t you mean “inner rhyme”?

“No I mean INNARDS! Orf, orf, forth on swing! Aw-aw-aw. Like the barking of a crow or a seal.”

As disaffected teenage flâneurs (though we weren’t alas flâning down Parisian rues, or even London streets, but rather the all-too civil parish of Verwood  et ses environs*, The Therapist and I would have many an argument about the pronunciation of words.

His default mode was to pronounce a new word he’d read that morning as he felt it ought to be sounded. If that ought extended to voicing the “far” in nefarious as “far” rather than “fair”, well so bloody well be it.

I would invariably correct his idiosyncratic phonemes, and he would invariably ignore my corrections. I found this bloody-mindedness towards the legitimacies of language frustrating.

*Yes, that’s right, we were actually walking, screen-grazers, to-and-fro, to-and-fro. I think my preference was for The Meadow Way route (no meadows, just unremarkable detached and semis, as were we), but The Therapist might have done Owl’s Road when he came to visit. These footnotes become important in the annals of memory. Memories themselves being footnotes to the present: sometimes usefully supplemental, other times tangentially deluded or compulsive.

By Heart Everything Is Waiting For You Hope My koans

By Hearting Everything Is Waiting For You by David Whyte

[Read “Everything Is Waiting For You” by David Whyte HERE]

Megg Hewlett suggested I might learn this poem by heart. So I have Megg to thank for being the progenitor of this project to some extent. She sent me this poem off the back of a conversation we’d had over pricey tea and some so-so Konditor & Cook cakes

(“But all the hype suggested something different,” Megg sighed, bemoaning that this was not an adequate birthday treat for me, though the conversation more than made up for it.)

The title immediately of the poem immediately set off an Elliot Smith song in my head: Everything Means Nothing To Me. A fructiferous juxtaposition considering that Smith sings of hopelessness (made even more plangent by the knowledge that he allegedly took his own life in 2003, by stabbing himself through the heart with a kitchen knife) whereas Whyte sings resolutely of hope.

Hopelessness, the song seems to suggest, often lies in the lack that reveals itself when casting one’s mind backwards and forwards through our own prefigured life-span as part of a comparative exercise. The deficiency reflected back at us, Narcissus-like.

If the self-reflection is shouting a reminder of “everything we’re supposed to be” based on past daydreams and future aspirations, the blue songbird on your shoulder will keep singing on your shoulder its dirge of depression: everythingmeansnothingtome, everythingmeansnothingtome, everythingmeansnothingtome.

Whyte keeps us focused in the present. There is no looking back, and although he suggests some sort of future “pay-off”, even a preliminary reading of the poem indicates that the everything waiting for us, and more to the point, everything we’re waiting for, can be found right here and now: in the “tiny, hidden” data of our world.

You must note
the way the soap dish enables you,
or the window latch grants you freedom.

So I begin carrying around the poem copied neatly onto a 5″ x 3″ Correspondence Card, the card starting to feel intimately used as well as useful, on its way to disintegration through repeated folding.

I mainly work on memorizing whilst walking. I’ve even try taking one step per word, envisaging the sentences cleaving to the rhythms of my body, the walk becoming the poem becoming the walk. I’m not sure if the poem might be drummed or marched into me like this, but I’m giving it a go.

Embodying the words is key. I need to get to the point where I can recite it as naturally and “automatically” as I might the days of the week, or the months of the year. The rhythms need to sink in, sync with  breathing, so that the poem becomes a way of focusing and potentially stilling the mind through language for a minute or two, rather than just an anxiety-producing sequence of memory-potholes.

On a train from Mill Hill Broadway, travelling north in search of a walk, I sit opposite a young family. The father has his child resting against the beat of his heart. I watch the tympanic petting of his fingers on the infant’s back. They are clearly both soothed by this interaction.


even you, at times, have felt the grand array;
the swelling presence, and the chorus, crowding
out your solo voice.

This is where the conversation with the poem begins, I think.

Twenty-two years ago, during one of those impossibly short  but paradoxically long 12-week terms at Cambridge, when one is expected to cram a couple of centuries worth of literature into your head and keep it there, it was suggested I might read Frances Yates’ The Art of Memory.

I started it, the book bored me silly, so I read something else. Even had I read it cover-to-cover, I wouldn’t remember a single line, as I don’t remember anything I read at University, either critical or primary texts.

Were I to do it all again, I would join an institution whose sole curriculum consists of having to learn a poem a week (from “the Canon”, if you must), and anything else you might want to dip into around that, with a tutorial based on the recitation of your poem, a cup of tea, and a chat. Your final “exam” would have you reciting as many of the poems you can remember, followed by an audit of your heart and mind in the fullest and least fact-checking sense possible.


Such a University and such a course doesn’t exist, but it should.

Frances and I are back together again. And this time, I’m ready for her, relishing the arcane lore she’s intent on telling me about (no more arcane, as we are both aspiring mnemonists). Or not. For although she whitters on about it, Frances has never utilized the mnemotechnics she writes about.

There is no doubt that this method will work for anyone who is prepared to labour seriously at these mnemonic gymnastics. I have never attempted to do so myself, but…

No walking the talk for Yates (she is an academic, what did you expect?) but still a great primer on art of memory, or memorization if you prefer.

The book was written in 1966, but certain lines ring even more true now than they did in the pre-Google age:

We moderns who have no memories at all may, like the professor, employ from time to time some private mnemotechnic not of vital importance to us in our lives and professions. But in the ancient world, devoid of printing, without paper for note-taking or on which to type lectures, the trained memory was of vital importance. And the ancient memories were trained by an art which reflected the art and architecture of the ancient world, which could depend on the faculties of intense visual memorisation which we have lost.

How skittish and pliable the mind, but perhaps another piece of evidence that everything is waiting for you, particularly the books, people, and experiences you now dread having to spend time with, but might love when you’re ready for them to come into your life.

By Heart Existential knots My koans Stanley Kunitz

By Hearting King of The River by Stanley Kunitz

Sometimes the words just won’t go in.

I am stuck on the third stanza of ‘King of The River‘.

If the power were granted you
to break out of your cells,
but the imagination fails
and the doors of the senses close
on the child within,
you would dare to be changed,
as you are changing now,
into the shape you dread
beyond the merely human.
A dry fire eats you.
Fat drips from your bones.
The flutes of your gills discolor.
You have become a ship for parasites.

I read a couple of lines. Repeat them again and again. Think I have them. But as soon as I go back to the first two stanzas which are almost “there” (in my head), the third slips away again like that “yard of muscle” we call “fish”, thrashing its way out of my memory’s grasp.

Perhaps the third stanza won’t stick because I’m not sure what Kunitz is trying to say in it. I get the biological-driven quest of the first two, the force of the libido driving through the niceties of thought.

The mind would like things to be just-so before it acts, but things are never just-so. Well, hardly ever.

If the water were clear enough,
if the water were still,
but the water is not clear,
the water is not still…

But what’s happening in the 3rd stanza, Stanley?

It starts with another biological-denying fantasy: “If the power were granted you/to break out of your cells…”. These being the cells as in the structural and functional units of our organismic life. But equally, other enclosures: the alcoves, sanctuaries and garrets where we think, read, pray and write poems.  The mausoleums, vaults, catacombs where we bury ourselves away to live or die.  The dungeons, ghettos, stockades, where others put us out of the way.

Looking for an image of some cells to use with this post, the ones I find reminds me of that incredibly bleak illustration by Robert Crumb ‘No Way Out’. How lonely, in some way, the human cell! Each one hived off from the other. How lonely the salmon in its bruised and battered quest. Yes, there is union “in the orgiastic pool”, but for the most part, the life journey of this creature is a solo one.

And what do cells at their most basic level do? Metabolic processes, division, biosynthesis.

To put it simply: stuff is consumed, stuff is processed, stuff is produced. A bit like a blog, or a poem, or a novel. It seems we just can’t help ourselves.

But we also can’t break out of our cells, ourselves, can’t escape the biological hoopla that drives us down rivers studded with hope-dashing rocks, painted “with our belly’s blood”.

And yet. And yet. The suggestion stands that imagination might offer some respite. Unless, and isn’t this the most crushing of recognitions, imagination itself “fails”. What does that failure of the imagination entail? Or rather what does the success of that cell-escaping imagination need? Kunitz seems to be suggesting that imagination requires a sensitivity and wonder to the world around us akin to that of the child, albeit perhaps a mythical child, the inner-infant that plays and screams when it’s excited or sad.

But then he throws in this line about “daring to be changed”, implying that some fork-in-the-river choice need to be made at a certain point. And yet no choice need be made either because we are already “changing now/into the shape you dread/beyond the merely human”.

I take the “merely human” to mean that deluded, immortal sense of ourselves we have, that sense that the cup of tea I’m just about to make will be one of a neverending series of cups, for how could this mere, day-to-day human ritual change?

Until we age, perhaps, sickening, wear out, die. Or experience the death and entropy around us.

A dry fire eats you.
Fat drips from your bones.
The flutes of your gills discolor.
You have become a ship for parasites.

The “right” poem (right being right for you, your distinctive antidote, your self-cure) will often take you places you might not want to go.

I did not want to spend over a month committing Kunitz’s poem to memory. I wanted my by-heart “possession” of the poem to be swift, fluent, uncomplicated. I would apply effort, link-begetting intelligence, creative-visualisations, whatever it took to get the poem into the spawn pool of my heart where it might swim around with all the others I’ve caught so far in this way.

Hear that?

That is the sound of Stanley Kunitz chuckling. That is the sound of Stanley Kunitz saying: “The Sockeye salmon from central Idaho travels over 900 miles, climbing nearly 7,000 feet in order to return from the Pacific Ocean to the freshwater lakes of its birth, so that it may reproduce, and you want to consume this journey like you might consume a chunk of flesh hacked off the body of this creature? In what? An hour, a day, a week? Instantaneously?!”

I’m not sure if Kunitz was a cusser, but if he had been, I imagine him finishing his hard-nosed but good-humoured observation with “…for chrissakes, Steve, is that really the deal here? Jesus Christ!”

Each section of Kunitz’s poem is built around an uncomfortable truth, a truth we all struggle with: that things are not as they should be, that life bears no responsibility in providing us with the ideal. If A were clear enough, if B were still; if C was given to me; if D was granted; if E were pure enough.

But (alas): A is not clear, B is not still, C is not given, D fails us; E is not pure.

What do we do with all these (k)nots?

The poem was one giant (k)not: no matter how hard I tried, it just didn’t want to swim into my head. I would spend hours memorising – even just ten or twelve lines, a few hundred slippery word fish, which before I knew it, had slapped and thrashed and tumbled their way out of my memory again.  The process felt like snakes and ladders, but all snakes, no ladders. I worked hard at getting stuck into the poem, but all I did was get stuck in the poem. I couldn’t move forward at the pace I wanted, I needed, I’d hoped for.


I don’t know. Maybe just “because”.

Because this by-hearting process is not clear, not still, not given, often fails us; not pure. No, that’s not true, purity it has: the purity of utter bewilderment and incapacity.

So what did I do?

I continued.

In the words of Frank O’Hara:

the only thing to do is simply continue
is that simple
yes, it is simple because it is the only thing to do
can you do it
yes, you can because it is the only thing to do.

We know this, but then the next question is maybe why does one continue?

The answer to that question is I think deeply embedded in this poem. It has something to do with following one’s vital impulses, with passionate struggle, with  Csíkszentmihályian “flow“.

And a kind of faith too.

I knew I’d crack the poem if I just kept on returning to it again, and again, and again. Again (obdurately), again (tenderly), again (patiently).

The faith was also about knowing that the journey would be worth it.

It has been.