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On Making Room (via Rumi’s The Guest House)


This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
They may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.


This old chestnut, right?

I am often surprised when someone tells me they don’t know Rumi’s Guest House as it often appears to be as ubiquitous as all the other chestnuts from the mindfulness creed that has become so dominant in our culture over the last two decades.

If you’ve ever done an 8 week mindfulness course, your abiding memory of that course, other than the meditation exercises, will probably consist of these three things::

1/ Rumi’s Guest House
2/ Examining a raisin for a substantially long period of of time
3/ John Kabat Zinn’s definition of mindfulnessness: “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”

As with mindfulness which came out of a chiefly oral religious tradition (Buddhism), this poem was not “written” by Rumi. Coleman Barks wrote this poem in the 60s, animated and inspired by the poet, jurist, Islamic scholar, theologian, and Sufi mystic Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī.

Rumi never actually wrote a poem called The Guest House. What he wrote was a whole bunch of stuff, including the Masnavi, a 50,000 line “Quran in Persian” from which Coleman Barks cherry-picked a few lines and images to make his American Buddhist flavoured poems.

The section from the Masnavi that this poem comes from is probably this one:

“Every day, too, at every moment a thought comes, like an honoured guest, into your bosom. O soul, regard thought as a person, since a person derives his worth from both thought and spirit. If the thought of sorrow is waylaying joy, it could also be considered as making preparations for joy. It violently sweeps your house clear of everything else, in order that new joy from the source of good may enter in. It scatters the yellow leaves from the bough of the heart, in order that incessant green leaves may grow. It uproots the old joy, in order that new delight may march in from the Beyond.”

Not quite as snappy and quotable, is it?

That said, let us not look a gift poem in the mouth. I have learnt that this is especially true when it comes to poetry. Because a poem is often a portrait of a fleeting moment or mind-state, even a religious fundamentalist (Hopkins) or an imperialist (Kipling) are able to write the occasional humane, universally wise and true poem.

It is universal because it expresses a fundamental psychological truth: most of the thoughts, feelings, situations, and bodily sensations that irk and discomfort us, we have scant, or even no control over. And for this reason, would be better served by not doing what we normally, neurobiologically (i.e. by default) are inclined to do when upset or irked: avoid, control, problem solve. Avoidance and control can at times be really helpful, but when they don’t work as strategies, time to consider a few other options?

It’s hard to put aside our default strategies. I even ended up using one of them (controlling/changing) on this poem. Because there’s a line in this poem that doesn’t sit well with me.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Meet them at the door laughing?

Can this even be done through free-will and choice, or does it need to be bolstered by a religious doctrine, which in the original Rumi poem, it is? I think we’re all capable, with a bit of practice in meeting these difficult internal states/guests with kindness, curiosity, even acceptance, but laughter?

Rumi’s exhortation to meet the unwelcome guests in a more modulated fashion comes earlier on in the poem in the dual meaning of the word “entertain”, both in terms of providing entertainment as well as giving attention or consideration to (an idea or feeling). I prefer this version of the poem (my controlled/changed version!), which is the one I’ve also learnt by heart and recite on an almost daily basis:


This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
They may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door with kindness,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

Whichever version you decide to learn by heart, I would really encourage you to learn this poem if it speaks to you. This poem is powerful poetic medicine for when the shit hits the fan, but I also find it forcing its way out from my lips when dealing with those things in our experience that fall short of expectation. Which is to say, for some of us, almost everything, almost all the time. Sometimes the old chestnuts are genuinely the most useful reminders.

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On Living Intensely (via DH Lawrence’s Song of A Man Who Has Come Through)

A school age D.H. Lawrence (‘Bert’ at home, ‘Herbert’ at school, David for no-one) is sitting one day next to a neighbour’s child. Both of them are looking across the fields and the remnants of Sherwood Forest lying just north of Eastwood, the coal mining town where Bert lives and where his father works in the colliery. 

Turning to his playmate, Bert opens his mouth and these words fall out: “Everywhere is blue and gold.”

There is a pause while the comment blows her mind. “Now you say a line,” he goes.

“Of course I could not,” she admits in an interview many years later. 

Bert is considered something of a loner by the other children, a sickly child, preferring the company of girls to boys (‘Dicky Dicky Denches plays with the Wenches,’ the boys jeer at him). But he finds in language a protective ally: 

“Those years at home, talking to his mother and listening to her, paid off: a schoolmate remembered ruefully how Lawrence started ‘hittin’ back wi’ his tongue an’ he could get at us wheer it hurt’. His brother George remembered ‘that very sharp tongue’ too: ‘it was as our old dad used to say: “to take the skin off your back”.’ Vituperation was a skill Lawrence developed early, to cope with the world.” (Worthen, 2006)

In a very different city, and a different social class, young Sigmund Freud is beginning his work with Josef Breuer on those human animals who experiences life with an at times debilitating intensity. This will  be published a few years later as Studies in Hysteria.

Lawrence’s gimlet-eyed focus would also flower into something intense and hyper-elaborated: a preternatural sensitivity to other human beings and the natural environment, as well as the use of angry, and critical language as a defence mechanism.

Nowadays a psychiatrist might give him, and indeed many creatives, a Borderline Personality Diagnosis, sometimes also referred to as Emotional Intensity Disorder.  But at that fin-de-siecle moment in the history of our species, amplified and exalted emotional intensity would still be categorised as a personality trait, perhaps akin to being very “passionate” about a certain cause (poetry for example), or as a religious narrative, or an imbalance of bodily humours. 

What strikes me when reading John Worthen’s biography, but especially when reading Lawrence himself is Bert’s pedal-to-the-metal ferocity:  the nought-to-sixty acceleration of his writing, and by extension, his inner world.

Intensity: a word that has buried within its origins both a sense of an urgent focal point (Latin intentus an aim, a purpose), but also a desire to extend ourselves and that which we interact with, to become more than just ambulatory meat machines. Intensity as a kind of magnification or elongation of our animal selves, an overreaching of the mundane space that our bodies take up. 


Exhibit A: this poem, which I recite to myself on an almost daily basis, revelling in the hurricane-like force of its language and rhythms, but still not entirely sure from which direction to come at it, or where it might be coming at me.  


Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me!
A fine wind is blowing the new direction of Time.
If only I let it bear me, carry me, if only it carry me!
If only I am sensitive, subtle, oh, delicate, a winged gift!
If only, most lovely of all, I yield myself and am borrowed
By the fine, fine wind that takes its course through the chaos of the world
Like a fine, an exquisite chisel, a wedge-blade inserted;
If only I am keen and hard like the sheer tip of a wedge
Driven by invisible blows,
The rock will split, we shall come at the wonder, we shall find the Hesperides.

Oh, for the wonder that bubbles into my soul,
I would be a good fountain, a good well-head,
Would blur no whisper, spoil no expression.

What is the knocking?
What is the knocking at the door in the night?
It is somebody wants to do us harm.

No, no, it is the three strange angels.
Admit them, admit them

You might decide to stop reading here. Because Lawrence is a marmite writer. You either enjoy and even revel in the ferocious, earnest, salty gusto of David Herbert Lawrence. Or you don’t. If not, you might prefer the cucumber and cream cheese poets of his generation (Lewis, Spender, MacNiece, Frost?) as more palatable existential sandwiches. You might even decide to politely look away when Bert starts huffing and puffing. Most poetry critics in this century now do, responding to Lawrence’s verse like a parent to a child having a temper tantrum: “You’ll need more than hot air to move that, or me, Bert.” If instead you continue reading, it’s probably because the malty, yeasty, umami smear of this poem speaks to your own encounter with the world. It certainly does mine.


I am sometimes surprised by the poems I choose to learn by heart. I have come to realise that they often fall into the category of work that is not entirely arcane and unknowable, and yet they often hold within them some deep, tantalising enigma, some koan that pulls me into their world in the same way that one is mysteriously attracted to a certain individual, or painting, or song, but not another. There is a mystery to this attraction, and to the attraction we have to certain poems. But also not, for can the attraction often be explained as a form of identification, the poet speaking for us in ways we can’t?  

I think this is very much the case with Lawrence’s “Song of A Man Who Come Through”, which even though I have now recited it hundreds of times, even though it lives within me like the bacteria, archaea, protozoa and fungi that reside within my own body, making up as much as 3% of the entity I refer to as “me”, I still have no clear idea of what it’s really “about”. 

What attracted me to the poem though was I think some kind of personal identification with the blazing pulse of the verse, it’s frenetic excitability. 

“Not I, not I,” it begins, with that most elemental of iambs: da DUM da DUM. I love the fact that on the Wikipedia page explaining iambic pentameter, you can listen to a human heartbeat as an illustration of this deep, embodied affiliation we have to the most common meter in English poetry. 

I equally love the way the almost martial, combative negation of the first four beats disperses into a more open, aerated release following the conjuctive ‘but’: “Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me!” (da DUM da DUM, dada DUM dada DUM DUM!)

On first hearing those ‘nots’ we might think that Lawrence is setting himself up in opposition to something (being oppositional is very Lawrentian): “Not I for Brexit! Not I for Boris Piccaninny Watermelon Letterbox Cake Bumboys Vampires Haircut Inconclusive-Cocaine-Event Wall-Spaffer Spunk-Burster Fuck-Business Fuck-The-Families Get-Off-My-Fucking-Laptop Turds Johnson (as Stewart Lee memorably full-named Johnson after he connived his way, Richard III-like, into taking on the mantle of Prime Minister). That sort of thing.

Instead, this is an inner battle that Lawrence is exemplifying, perhaps the greatest inner battle we can “fight” as language-making and marking, linguistically-conscious animals. Let’s call this “the battle” that between my-ego/my-self (i.e. that part of me that desires and plots and attempts to manipulate other people and my environment into giving me what I want) versus a more contingent sense of self, here represented by the wind. Wind-carried-self is in the world of this poem everything else (other poems, songs, sunlight, my neighbour’s child wailing on the landing) that “blows through me”, shaping my lived experience and narrative about that experience as it does. But it’s a not-me, or rather not-unless-I-make-it-so (perhaps by learning the poem by heart?). We might call this part of us: the contingent self.  

In buddhist literature, this is sometimes referred to as no-self, or non-self, but my understanding of this is that although we see ourselves as separate, self-determined entities, our experience of the world is inextricably, at every moment of the day, shaped and circumscribed by our environment, as well as our life course up to this point. This is the context in which we live and are “made”: the weather, the words we read or listen to, the people who populate our existence, and a million other factors that are not even a conscious part of our awareness. It’s not necessarily more more complicated than that.

In Robert Hass’s poem, Measure, Hass catches a glimpse of himself, which seems to stand for an almost phenomenological signature of his life, not in the denizens of his environment (a plum tree, sunlight, a mountain, his writing desk), but in “the pulse / that forms these lines”. Similarly, we find Lawrence embodied in the pulse of this poem, and it’s a ferocious embodiment, an intense life-sucking or broadcasting phenomenon, a yearning, an insistent, ecstatic, turbulent, hopeful, alarmed, importunate Lawrentian pulse. 


I start reading a feted biography of Lawrence to experience some of that intensity, and there are glimpses of that therein, but of course to really “be inside” DH Lawrence, one needs to read him. You get that intensity in spades as soon as you enter this poem, or read a few pages of his prose. 

To give you a sense of the prose outside that of the novels, let’s turn to Exhibit B, an essay from the vast opus of Lawrentian excitability: “Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine”. 

This starts as a piquantly observed and participative portrait of a neighbourhood porcupine, words wedged as is often the case with Lawrence into the pungent, clammy cleft of love-and-hate (“He slithered podgily down again, and waddled away with the same bestial, stupid motion of that white-spiky repulsive spoon-tail….He was repugnant.”). It then transmutes into another deeply conflicted (compassion vs. frustration? care vs. rage?) report of his attempt to remove porcupine quills from the muzzle of a neighbour’s dog, which thereafter hardens into the resolve to chastisingly kill one of those local porcupines, with all the mixed feelings that follow the murder. 

In the hands of any other writer, here the essay might wind to a close. But not for Lawrence. This is only 1/5th of the way into a 6000 word essay. He still has in store for us a wonderful cat-chase-chipmunk tale summation of evolutionary pecking orders (“Life moves in circles of power and of vividness, and each circle of life only maintains its orbit upon the subjection of some lower circle. If the lower cycles of life are not mastered, there can be no higher cycle.”), as well as a kind of metaphysics of vivacity (“The ant is more vividly alive than the pine-tree. We know it, there is no trying to refute it.”) 

And before you know it, he’s taken us into “the fourth dimension, of being” (!) spelt out in five inexorable laws, followed by an ecstatic, extended grappling and grasping through language, much as I am perhaps doing here, often veering off into a kind of literary version of speaking in tongues, where he tries to pull us into the very nucleus of his intense vision. The short, representational or figurative paragraphs early on in the essay extend and amplify into long, flowing shudders and judders of mystical poesis, similar in energy to the above poem. 

We start reading his essay in a place we might recognise as prose, in which meaningful and somewhat measured (for Lawrence) points about the natural world and our response to it are made, but like a rocketship passing swiftly through the lower layers of the stratosphere only to emerge into the cosmos, we are soon blasted along by his fervour into imaginings which all at once slice the tops of our heads off and plunge us into the very yolk of our animate and animal existence, the very existential glue that binds us to every other life form. 

We are now in that Lawrentian realm of blood-consciousness, which is to say ““an organic, bodily intentionality that operates outside the realm of intellect, cognition, or mental consciousness and outside of the self-reflective, self-conscious object”. 

Ulrike Maud in her essay on Lawrence and Merleau Ponty, shows us how Lawrence’s notion of the unconscious was different to Freud’s in being a bodily modality rather than an attribute of the mind. And perhaps when one lives in a body that from a very young age functions only intermittently, the life of the mind will invariably take anchor in the flesh rather than in the purely abstract realm of language. Although for Lawrence I think it pendulates between the two, as it does for most of us.

“My great religion is a belief in the blood,” he writes in a letter to Ernest Collings, “the flesh, as being wiser than the intellect. We can go wrong in our minds. But what our blood feels and believes and says, is always true. The intellect is only a bit and a bridle.” 

Song of A Man Who Has Come Through is a clarion call for this kind of embodied thinking. All the sensations, all the content of the poem (the chisel-like winds of change, the rock-splitting and bubbling-up wonder, the knocking of anxiety), are experienced in the body, or rather the natural-world in which the body resonates as just one element, even though it is the mind chronicling the phenomena of consciousness. 

“Before thought takes place, before the brain is awake in the small infant, the body is awake and alive, and in the body the great nerve centres are active, active both in knowing and in asserting. This knowledge is not mental, it is what we may call first-consciousness. Now our first consciousness is seated, not in the brain, but in the great nerve centres of the breast and the bowels, the cardiac plexus and the solar plexus. Here life first seethes into active impulse and consciousness, the mental understanding comes later.” 

Although this was written in a 1919 essay on Hector Saint John de Crèvecoeur in The English Review, it might happily sit in a 2019 Neuroscience journal (presented in slightly different language) under the title The biological and psychological basis of neuroticism. For to read the latter, which I do, is to recognise the shared quest between Lawrence and the neuropsychologists or psychoananalysts to understand the embodied, inner chaos of our emotional lives that Lawrence writes about again and again


Another word for intensity is overexcitablity, with its associations of children getting carried away with an idea or an emotion, or my canine companion Max with a stick. To say that someone is “intense” is maybe the more mature/adult (?) version of saying that a child is “overexcitable”, or to put it in our current medicalised parenting parlance: ADHD. We see this in a child who can’t sleep the night before Christmas due to overexcitability, or gets carried away by a game to the extent of hurting or frightening other children away. An adult on a dating app responds to another person’s humdrum questions with long, encumbered screeds because s/he is “intense”, and equally scares them away. The “problem” of intensity is as much about behaviour that falls short of socially established norms, behaviour that works in a dramatic frame (films, songs, books) but is sometimes too ornamental for prosaic living. Those who are considered to be attractively intense-but also worryingly or wearily de trop at times- in their responses are often the outliers, falling short of standard narratives of what it means to be or perform “human”. In nature, we often call this supererogatory quality a weed. 

Some weeds, the bindweed that is taking over my garden at present, have incredibly beautiful flowers and foliage, but are just too damn intense. Bindweed wants to write itself into every flowerbed, but I don’t want it everywhere. I sometimes get this feeling when reading Lawrence, also Whitman. Their deftness with language makes them delicious in small quantities, but we soon tire of their intensity.  

When we bring in a century of psychological scrutiny to this state, we find many terms accompanied by capitalised acronyms, most of them denoting the diagnostic equivalent of “Houston, we have a problem” but with no indication of an etiology or prognosis. There’s classic neuroticism for example (N), which morphs mid-century into borderline personality disorder (BPD), and later in a bid to destigmatise the implicit censure of the label Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder (EUPD), or Emotional Intensity Disorder (EID). 

Even less harsh sounding versions of these terms now exist: Elaine Aron’s Highly Sensitive Person (HSP), and Dabrowski’s “Tragic Gift” of  Overexcitability. But all still boils down to pretty much the same thing: a human organism that feels things (emotions, thoughts, its own perceptions) very very intensely, which at times can almost feel too much for the container of that body-mind to hold. And when it spills out, it is usually too much for others to hold too. 


I remember at University sometimes being so excited by the potential of reading and writing that I might not even be able to sit down and focus on actually reading something (anything!) and writing something (anything!). We usually had a week to do all our reading for a particular topic and then submit an essay for the following week’s tutorial. We were very rarely given an essay title. More often than not, it was just: “Next week, Dickens. Go!” I would head off with intense excitement to the library and start checking out primary and secondary sources, my head spinning with possibilities and potential. So many possibilities, so much excitement. It was wearying. No wonder I burnt myself out pretty quickly. And this was in relation to by-and-large positive stimuli. Usually when we pathologise intensity, we focus on negative reactivity which is where most intense people come a cropper, but also become conscious of having a “problem”. But I think it’s important to highlight that intensity in any realm is something of a mixed blessing. 

Excitability and Intensity, like all personality traits, represent a continuum, which is often represented as a normally distributed bell curve. Most people lie somewhere in the middle of this. Lawrence, as do many other writers and artists, would probably fall on the downward slope where intensity can become unworkable at times in how it manifests in our lives. But Intensity (or Neuroticism) is only one of five key traits recognised by psychologists, and understandably, how we “score” on other traits will affect our overall engagement with our environment. Someone who is very intense, but also conscientious and agreeable, may have an easier time fitting into society than someone who is intense but scores low on pro-social traits like Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, and Extraversion. Worthen’s biography shows that Lawrence has enough of these other traits to balance his neuroticism.


In Song Of A Man Who Has Come Through, we see Lawrence, as with most people who recognise their intensity as signalling and singling themselves out at as personae non gratae, trying on different modes in an attempt to find a more comfortable or amenable way of existing in the world. These are the if-onlys of the poem, pointing to ways in which the speaker recognises his falling short of socially-established and rewarded norms, and techniques. The vision here is one that wouldn’t be out of place in a modern mindfulness class:

If only I let it bear me, carry me, if only it carry me!
If only I am sensitive, subtle, oh, delicate, a winged gift!
If only, most lovely of all, I yield myself and am borrowed
By the fine, fine wind that takes its course through the chaos of the world

Children who are deemed problematic due to their intensity and overexcitability are often encouraged or goaded into towing the line through sticks or “prizes” (the naughty step) and carrots (rewards for being “good”). 

There are three “prizes” envisaged in this poem: 

1/ something which is challenging to us gets resolved (the rock splits);
2/ we find transcendent meaning and purpose for our lives (we shall come at the wonder)
3/ we get to experience  immense peace and pleasure (finding the Hesperides).

The Hesperides is a stand-in here for the good life, eudaimonia, or happiness, the Greek version of The Garden of Eden, with similarly tempting apples. Golden apples, guarded by a dragon (Ladon) who doesn’t require any sleep to function. Hesperides is a place, like heaven, like any of our idealised versions of happiness, which lie beyond the reach of us human animals, a place where we dream about the lives we might have lived, or the people we might be, if we were not so frustratingly living as the people we are. These are also spaces where, as the chorus members of Euripides’ Hippolytus tell us, the Blessed live. In “happiness” of course, feeding upon ambrosia. Or as David Byrne memorably sang: “Everyone is trying to get into the bar. The name of the bar is called heaven.” And even though nothing ever happens in heaven, or the hesperides other than one’s favourite band playing one’s favourite song over and over again, this doesn’t seem to dissuade us. 

Heracles was set the task by Eurystheus of stealing some of these apples. We are all, in different ways, trying to steal the apples of happiness. In the Freudian worldview, the golden apples of peace and happiness are only stolen or temporarily savoured in our ordinary human unhappiness via a series of short cuts or “techniques”. But the apples don’t turn us into angels, or our lives into heaven. 

Interestingly, this apple-scrumping task was Heracles’ eleventh labour. It was given to him by Eurystheus in addition to the initial ten as it was deemed he cut corners of the others. Even here, the acquiring of the apples involved a ruse: tricking Atlas into doing the job for him while Heracles held up the heavens for a while.

Attic pottery often shows a happy Heracles sitting in the garden attended by the maidens. Perhaps, befitting myths written by men, the virginal Hesperides share some mythological resonance with Islamic houris, those almond-eyed, but “modest gazing” maidens who await the faithful male follower of Mohammed in heaven as a reward for carrying out their religious duties on earth. Heracles is not shown having sex with the maidens though. Perhaps because, returning to that David Byrne song (but also thinking about our own cultural moment where virtual sex is now available 24/7) the tropes of happiness are more about accessing pleasure than a narrative about transfiguration: 

Heaven is a place
A place where nothing
Nothing ever happens
When this kiss is over
It will start again
It will not be any different
It will be exactly the same
It’s hard to imagine
That nothing at all
Could be so exciting
Could be this much fun.


Post-Eysenck we now know that intensity/overexcitability reflects excessive physiological responsiveness (or arousability) of certain brain systems, especially the amygdala, and how it responds to negative or threatening stimuli (that knocking on the door). Again and again, we find in academic papers about emotional reactivity, glimpses of Lawrence, but also of all us neurotics: the exquisite, but at times damning sensitivity of physiological processes (blood consciousness) leading to negative emotion. But equally, and relevant to this poem: information-processing routines (aka mental perceptions) that assign “codes” for threat to certain kinds of triggers, as well as a greater likelihood to experience self-perceptions “characterized by themes of personal inadequacy and insecurity…and social fears such as being criticized or rejected”.

This is all very well and good, but having ever more refined psychosociobiological descriptors for our neurotic states, still leaves us, like Lawrence, exercised by the various “winds” (thoughts, emotions, bodily sensations) that blow through us. Other than drugs to mute our intense selves, or psychological strategies, also known as emotion regulation strategies, which add all sorts of knobs and buttons to our inner amplifiers (many of them impressive to look at, but hardly ever used), what to do if you too experience very intense feelings and reactions to those feelings? 

My suggestion would be to learn this poem, and then recite it when you’re feeling tossed about by life, because Lawrence’s injunction in the final verse is still one that underpins any and every helpful psychological therapy currently known to us. Which is that the mind is designed to avoid, fix, or control the winds of change, as well as our at-times overwhelming wonder and anxiety at being contingent human animals in a world that encompasses, but also challenges us. Avoiding, fixing and controlling, quite often do the job. But for certain times and states, they don’t work. Instead we might choose in an extremely counter-intuitive fashion, to at times open ourselves to and “admit” those things which every cell of our being wants to close the door on. 

Dabrowski has a wonderful term for this process: positive disintegration. 

Overexcitability is a temperamental quality (a tragic gift he would call it) possessed by individuals which enables them to experience life at a deeper level. There are five of these “gifts”: sensual overexcitability, psychomotor, imaginational, intellectual, and emotional. 

Endowed with these gifts, an individual reacts much more profoundly to a great number of stimuli, but with mixed results.  Experience affects these individuals significantly more and often to a much greater depth. Someone who doesn’t have this quality, might read a poem, smile and go about their day. Another might read it, and feel compelled to write or talk about it. This is great when it comes to essays on the internet, but sometimes can wrongfoot us or others.

The key it seems, as much as anything else, is finding personal meaning in meaningless suffering. As Marjorie M. Kaminski Battaglia explains: the concept of expiative suffering is essential to Dabrowski’s theory of positive disintegration. “Dabrowski appreciates and attaches value to human suffering and crisis. Instead of suffering viewed as a meaningless burden (Why me?), it becomes an opportunity for an individual to develop and grow. Suffering offers the chance to choose to become.”

Expiation. This is most certainy a poem about expiation: as in EX (out of, from within, think of the word “exhale”) + piare (propitiate, appease). 

The word in its current usage appears to date back to the Late 16th century where it was used to signify a kind of ending (of rage, sorrow, or some other unsettling emotions) by feeling into that emotion (suffering it mindfully in attempt to appease the emotional “gods” within). Or as Dan Savage often memorably puts it: allowing ourselves to “feel the fuck out of our feelings”, but without becoming enslaved to them. There is an art to this, as well as a skill. Is this not the art or skill all of us intense folk are working with at any given time? I think it is. 

But consider also another etymological link to expiation: ‘to appease by sacrifice’. The sacrafice here being perhaps our own rigid and inflexible notions and reactions to what’s going on inside us, or around us, which Lawrence challenges himself and us to make space for.


What is the knocking? What is the knocking at the door of our sensitive nervous systems in response to a trigger? If it is somebody/something wanting to do us harm, let us protect ourselves. But more often than not, the harm we perceive is a phantasm or projection of our intensely imaginative minds.

I used to think that the three strange angels referred to at the end of the poems was another reference to the nymphs in the garden, but I’ve discovered that it may also be a biblical allusion from Genesis 18-19 where God and two angels appear to Abraham announcing that they’re going to decimate Sodom. Two of them (Lawrence makes it three) go on to Sodom to lead Lot and his family out of the city before its destruction. 

Sometimes, when we get overexcited by a thought or an emotion, it might function like those three angels bearing some news we really do need to take on board and “do something” about. 

-We are destroying our planet!
-This relationship/friendship is no longer working for you!
-You are bored with your job and need to find something more meaningful to do with the rest of your life.

Those messages are always worth taking heed of. 

But more often than not, our overexcitable stories probably shouldn’t be acted on. Instead, hard as this may be at times (or even always), we might choose to sit or walk quietly for a few minutes, just breathing and feeling into our wounded selves, admitting (literally: giving entrance, allowing to enter; but also metaphorically admitting) our own uninvited guests. 

Which might take us to another poem about (literally) making room for uncomfortable feelings: Rumi’s Guest House

Adam Phillips Poetry Koan Poetry Koan (By Heart) Success

Poetry Koan #11: Writing by Philip Larkin


Quarterly, is it, writing reproaches me:
‘Why do you let me lie here wastefully?
I am all you never had of attention and good looks,
You could get them still by writing a few books.’

So I look at others, what they do with theirs:
They certainly don’t keep it upstairs.
By now they’ve a publisher, good friends, and a wife:
Clearly writing has something to do with life

—In fact, they’ve a lot in common, if you enquire:
You can’t get writing carefree with all you desire,
And however you bank your scrawl, the writing you save
Won’t in the end make you less of a slave to it.

I listen to my writing singing. It’s like looking down
From long french windows at a provincial town,
The slums, the canal, the churches ornate and mad
In the evening sun. It is intensely sad.


Writing and keeping count (of money, ideas, goods and services) emerged at the same time in our history: about 5,000 years ago. Both were a response to information overload, rather than as a means for sharing stories, ideas, hopes and dreams with other human beings.

While we still lived in small hunter-gatherer communities of no more than a hundred people, these needs could be met verbally. Just as this morning I might not necessarily sit down to write this if a tribe of human apes were amenable to chewing on and digesting the utterances I presented to them. Twitter is now our haphazard, etiolated shadow of this paleolithic social ideal. Once, my ideas, stories, and beliefs would be added to the collective mythos, just as foodstuffs I’d found or hunted would be shared by the tribe. But with complex communities and the need to communicate with others separate from us in time and space, writing as we know it came about.

“It is telling that the first recorded name in history [Kushim] belongs to an accountant, rather than a prophet, a poet or a great conqueror,” writes Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens, presenting to us one of the first pieces of writing we know of: a receipt acknowledging that 29,086 measures of barley were received over the course of 37 months.

This was 5,000 years ago. The information, as you can see in the photograph of this example of proto-writing, was imprinted onto a clay tablet in what is now known as partial script. Partial script would not allow you to write anything resembling poetry or an essay. To do this, we would have to wait for “full script” (cuneiform) to evolve, which today we might recognise as something akin to the writing you’re reading here.

How did we get to the position where we would find our writing “reproaching us”? Perhaps for not publishing, and so failing to adequately meet that primal need that we share with all our hominid ancestors: to have our thoughts and feelings heard and acknowledged (i.e. read)?

Larkin would seem to be suggest that our writing has become a kind of stand-in or a place-holder for privation or our own deficiencies. In this we find ourselves forever falling short of the fantasy of abundance and sufficiency, and so we console ourselves with this proxy of prosperity. “Writing is pure potentiality,” Neil Roberts reminds us in his essay “Philip Larkin and The Importance of Elsewhere”, “as long as you hold on to it, your existence is underwritten by the elsewhere of where your work has yet to be published.”

We indulge in the fantasy that achievements in this field (writing, but any human activity might be substituted here) will result in being rewarded with those things we yearn for. As great apes what we crave most intensely are communal rewards: recognition, social validation, as well as stimulating and loving allies (friends, romantic partners). But also reliable channels through which we can be heard (read) and acknowledged, channels such as books, journals, or newspapers that help us to disseminate our own response to being alive.

Last weekend, walking near Ivinghoe Beacon, trying to memorise this poem, my mind a little super-silver-hazy, it attempted to speak back to Larkin’s poetic downers with a non-deprivatory rejoinder: “Yeah, but why sweat it? Isn’t writing just moving stuff (abstractions) around? We writers are no more than data-mongers really, no more special or important than literate dung beetles.”

It continued to lecture me:

“Wikipedia is the perfect paradigm for this. Nobody -neither prince, pauper, nor university professor- gets their own byline. As one of the top five websites on the internet, it is nothing more (but who would want more?) than a written repository of all that we know. Maybe “fine” writing, as in “fine dining”, is just somebody taking that repository and others like it, and serving it up to us in ways that are aesthetically appealing, thus gaining extra kudos by doing so.

But the ingredients don’t change, and so maybe we should learn to drop some of the consummate, ego-driven significance we attach to this activity? Just as with the relation of food to excrement, all the data we possess about ourselves and our world flows through our minds, spills out of our mouths/pens/keyboards, and is then swilled around in books, on screens, in songs, treatises, and poems. And just like food or excrement, this existential bounty is fed into other mouths, digested by other systems and released back into the world to fertilise and thus keep on feeding other entities? Which is all good and fine, but nothing to write home about.”

“Like Karl Marx,” writes the critic James Booth, “poets are alert to the distinction between life as an end in itself, and life abstracted to a medium of exchange: the paradoxically inhuman resource of writing. Writing may be necessary, but only those sad people who have no real life to speak of live in terms of writing. As Schopenhauer put it: ‘Writing is human happiness in abstracto, consequently he who is no longer capable of happiness in concreto sets his whole heart on writing. It is clear, surely, where Larkin, the poet of ‘living’, must stand on this issue.”

But is it clear? Learning the poem by heart, I am forced to pay particular attention to the three things out of many thousands of things that Larkin could have chosen to mindfully, expansively dwell on in the provincial town where he and we find ourselves situated at the end of the poem:

I listen to my writing singing. It’s like looking down
From long french windows at a provincial town,
The slums, the canal, the churches ornate and mad
In the evening sun. It is intensely sad.

Why slums, the canal, and churches? All three perhaps have some relation to writing. Slums are symbols of deprivation. Canals carry and disseminate those things we need to live and prosper such as water, food, and information. Churches contain some of our most ardently held belief systems: the foundational rules and regulations upon which our Western culture is based. They are ornate architecturally, as well as liturgically, but why mad? Perhaps because the crepuscular interior of churches is derived to some extent from the irrational penumbra that emanates from us when we kneel down to pray to our invisible sky gods.

But no less “mad” than literary festivals where we go to worship or pay homage to our information-disseminators. There are no festivals celebrating builders, or people who sell cooked and flavoured corn on street corners. But we celebrate writers. And for this reason, for those who feel compelled to write, we also open ourselves to frustration when we are engaged in an activity where the symbolic stakes have been set so high. Hence also the peculiar, almost intimate disappointment of finding ourselves the celebrant but never the celebrated, the bridgegroom never the bride.

Larkin uses the word “sad” to describe this state of affairs, but another word for this, even if opening ourselves to accusations of hyperbole, might be “tragic”. Adam Phillips in his essay “On Frustration” begins with the assertion that:

“Tragedies are stories about people not getting what they want, but not all stories about people not getting what they want seem tragic. In comedies people get something of what they want, but in tragedies people often discover that their wanting doesn’t work, and as the story unfolds they get less and less of what they thought they wanted. Indeed, both what they want and how they go about wanting it wreaks havoc and ultimately destroys the so-called tragic hero and, of course, his enemies and accomplices. Whether it is called ambition, the quest for love, or the search for truth, tragedies expose, to put it as simply as possible, what the unhappy ending of wanting something looks like…. Tragic heroes are failed pragmatists. Their ends are unrealistic and their means are impractical.”

Phillips is very good on how this state affairs might hold within it the plangent sadness that Larkin so exquisitely captures at the end of this poem:

“Lives are tragic not merely when people can’t have everything they want but when their wanting mutilates them; when what they want entails an unbearable loss.”

One gets the sense, which is often the case with Larkin, that his frustrations have “mutilated” him to some degree, that there is “an unbearable loss” which he, and perhaps we who identify with the poem, don’t entirely understand. Perhaps this is because “it is extremely difficult to feel one’s frustration, to locate, however approximately, what it might be that one is frustrated by or about”. To dwell on or in our frustrations as Larkin does in “Writing” is to often come across to others as carping or infantile. Which perhaps hints at the developmental challenge we all face with regard to writing, money, sex, or whatever else it is that frustrates us.

Phillips as ever, turns to literature (King Lear) and Freud (‘Formulations on the Two Principles of Psychic Functioning’) to make sense of this.

In Freud’s 1911 essay, he presents an image of the psyche in a state of equilibrium which then becomes “disrupted” by the urgent demands of inner needs which unsettle and disturb us. The infant, aware of its hunger, fantasises that which might satisfy its hunger. She discovers however, when the wished for meal is eaten -the book or article written and published- that it is often only an approximation of what she dreamt up in her fantasy. It is this disillusionment though which leads us to making a somewhat uneasy peace with reality, which some would say denotes psychological maturity. Freud called this state of affairs The Reality Principle.

Phillips singles out three consecutive frustrations that lead potentially to The Reality Principle: “the frustration of need, the frustration of fantasised satisfaction not working, and the frustration of satisfaction in the real world being at odds with the wished-for, fantasised satisfaction. Three frustrations, three disturbances, and two disillusionments. It is, what has been called in a different context, a cumulative trauma; the cumulative trauma of desire. And this is when it works.”

Intensely sad? Yes, and whether “intensely” so or not probably depends on all sorts of other factors. But it is also “intensely real”. ““And reality matters,” argues Phillips, “because it is the only thing that can satisfy us. We are tempted, initially, to be self-satisfying creatures, to live in a fantasy world, to live in our minds, but the only satisfactions available are the satisfactions of reality, which are themselves frustrating; but only in the sense that they are disparate from, not in accord with, our wished-for satisfactions (the most satisfying pleasures are the surprising ones, the ones that can’t be engineered).”

Phillips then says something which I think curmedgeonly Larkin would have loved him for writing. I certainly love him for writing this, for the validating balm of his response when applied to all our frustrated, not-getting-what-we-want petulance: “How could we ever be anything other than permanently enraged?”

This also points to why Larkin poetry will continue to be read, regardless of the “unwoke” reputation that has now been assigned to him. Larkin’s poetry will persist because he resists in this poem and others the standard narrative of the twentieth century, and of my profession too, which is that you can change yourself from the inside out and vice-versa if only you make the right kind of effort to do so.

Larkin was once asked if he might have been happier, to which he answered: “Yes, but not without being somebody else.” One senses that the intense sadness he experiences at the end of the poem is not however going to result in him establishing a fundamentally different relationship to his writing or himself, but that rather he has decided to throw in his lot with the Freudian reality principle, and so take his chances with “common unhappiness” rather than “hysterical misery”: pragmatically, regretfully, maybe even a little tragically, but with open eyes.


Oh, and by the way, just in case you’re not a Larkin aficionado, Phillip Larkin never wrote a poem called Writing. He did however write a poem called Money. But as I am not as frustrated by the symbolic fiction of money as I am by writing (Harari: “There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, or writing, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.”) I altered a couple of words to make it more applicable to my own frustrations. I don’t think if Larkin were he here today, he would have terribly minded, do you?

Poetry Koan Poetry Koan (By Heart)

Poetry Koan #10: Self Portrait by Mary Jean Chan


Tell me what I am, for I
cannot fathom at a glance
why this creature longs
for sunsets it has not yet seen,
or refuses the notion of home,
only to set out in search of it…

I wear skin the way the land bears
its own light. I cry rain, speak thunder,
burn at the core of this being human.
I am tellurian, tethered forever
to this sublunary sphere. Is that why
I am unable to forget you, you whose words
stain the skies at dusk, a flock of swallows
mapping their sorrows with each wing-beat?

Oh, canvas earth, we were never born
artist enough for you. You speak to us
in prophecies now. Your veins are molten
lava, torrential rain, hurricanes, glaciers
drowning in the currents of our undoing.
What do we land-locked souls know
about the ocean? We have a world of ice
frozen within us, and the waters are rising.

The process of finding a poem you want to commit to memory and recite every day for the rest of your life is often a circuitous one. I think I started learning this poem as a pro-social gesture towards a poet who I interviewed for a podcast I ran for a year or two called Poetry Pharmacy, which subsequently mutated into Poetry Koan so as not to step on William Sieghart’s toes who has ostensibly copyrighted the former title by using it for his so-so anthology.

The idea behind Poetry Pharmacy/Poetry Koan was to invite a poet I like to have a discussion with me about a poem that they felt was a kind of “medicine” for them, or a self-cure, and so offer this as a sort of “public good” (?) to others.

Here’s how I would “sell” the idea to a prospective interviewee:

“The plan is to share through a close-reading conversation a single poem that exists for you as an existential koan, a kind of “gateless barrier” to some understanding or insight which you sense/hope this poem might lead you towards (even if you perhaps haven’t quite got there yet). Maybe this is a poem you keep on returning to and thinking about, one that (for you) might fit the following description from the medieval Zen monk Wumen Huikai: “reading it is like swallowing a red-hot iron ball. You try to vomit it out, but you can’t.” It can be a poem you’ve always loved, or one you that you’ve read recently which knocked your socks off.”

I think I created the podcast because a part of me thought that by speaking to poets, I might also make some poet friends. Don’t we all want friends who are also poets? I know I do. But I soon discovered that having a one-off conversation with someone you admire, even if it’s a good one, probably won’t ever lead to the close bonds we use the word friendship to denote. If that were the case, lots of creative people would hang out with journalists who interview them, and for the most part, they don’t. People hang out with folk they’ve gone to school or University with, or people they’ve dated, or worked alongside.

This is an extremely well-established social set-up, stretching back millions of years. Most primate communities you may have noticed are closed groups. They are often tied to a particular locale and rarely migrate outside of their home range. Our aloofness from others prevents a high concentrations of individuals which could result in a depletion of resources. There are only a very limited number of concerns willing to publish poetry, and only a few more willing to buy, read and talk about it. Those learning poems by heart as a committed practice are even rarer.

This saddens me – but that’s OK, lots of stuff saddens me. Homonid communities usually avoid each other and are aggressive towards outsiders.  As a result, social interactions between members of different “troops” (poets and psychotherapists, say) are not especially common. Chimpanzees are a notable exception.  When a group of chimpanzee poets meets a troop of psychotherapists, this often results in an exciting, friendly encounter lasting several hours, following which, some of the adult females switch groups. One sometimes see this occurring in human animals too, but usually only if both poet and psychotherapist have a certain shared status. Adam Phillips’ conversations with poets at Lutyens and Rubinstein (join their mailing list if you’re in London and want to be alerted to these) is a good example of this.

When MJ agreed to do the podcast, I decided I’d learn one of her own poems, and this one spoke to me. Perhaps because both of us are emigrants, both of us coming to the UK to study and then deciding to stay here. This poem earnestly capsulizes that existential displacement, but it also amplifies or extends it to anxieties about climate change, the loss of romantic or companionable ties, as well as a profound meditation on our own fundamental unknowability.

I got the sense that MJ was not pleased with my choice of this poem as a favourite, and one to learn by heart. I felt in her the embarrassment of a writer towards their own juvenilia, or of work that is no longer on-brand. Chan has become known in the last few years for writing woke, sociopolitical poems focusing on homophobia as it manifests in the family, especially in East Asian families, and this poem lacks that autobiographical and zeitgeisty specificity. It is an orphan of sorts, displaced in the poet’s own oeuvre, and not included in her first collection Flèche.

At some level, disowned by its writer, not even available online anymore as it once was, this poem has become untethered to the self it was once a portrait of, which perhaps frees it up to become anyone’s (self) portrait in a way that Chan’s subsequent poems can’t, or won’t? I tell the poem each time I recite it that as derivative, unfledged, and sophomoric as its creator might deem it to be (whether this creator is Chan herself, or some belletristic deity) no reader has committed to memory any of its Faber & Faber-anointed brothers and sisters yet, and maybe never will. Who does this console? Me, the poem? Both or neither of us?

I have recited this poem so many times that it has become my poem now, in a way that a parent of an adopted child sees that child as her child first and foremost. I have not given birth to this poem, but I have loved and cared for it, and brought it to life thousands of times with my own ape breath. At some level, I think the poem knows this, as much as the plants and animals we love and care for know this, as much as any life form might respond favourably when it is seen and cherished, which is to say read or recited aloud.

Feel Better Maslow Poetry Koan Poetry Koan (By Heart)

Poetry Koan #9: The Bright Field by R.S. Thomas


I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the
pearl of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realise now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

Start by-hearting poems and soon you’ll find yourself in a conversation with someone on Twitter wanting to know what technique you’ve been using to commit your 12,000 words of verse to memory.

“Have you tried the method of loci?” enquires Ian (“Poet, Artist, and Writer. @UCBerkeley alum slummin’ in Dublin”) stopping one May morning to inspect a fresh rabbit dropping otherwise known as a tweet in which I’ve mentioned my project.

The Method of Loci (MoL for all you budding cognitive neuroscientists out there) is a mnemonic device that uses visual imagery to link together a series of tangentially related bits of data in a way that the human mind can contain more information than you would expect this lump of meat we call our brains might hold. Data such as a portion of the trillion digits following a decimal place which is used to represent π is an example of this. Milton’s Paradise Lost is another.

The ardent Memory Master or Mnemonist will allocate information such as numbers or words to the loci (locations) of a familiar route or maybe the layout of rooms in a building she knows well, or even to objects and furniture in those rooms. Thereafter, by mentally retracing the route, the Mnemonist will have a series of retrieval cues for this data, “so that the order of the places will preserve the order of the things, and the images of the things will denote the things themselves” as the Roman statesman and philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero explains in De Oratore, a text that first introduced us to this technique 2,000 years ago.

The reason Ian is asking about MoL is not because MoL is particularly useful for remembering a poem. A poem is not a series of random digits or facts, it already has a somewhat cohesive shape and music to it, and even a specifically poetic narrative which might assist us with our memorising.

But as with most exchanges on Twitter, Ian’s main purpose for enquiring about MoL is as a pretext for him to showboat his own use of MoL to memorise Merwin’s 12-line poem Rain Light, which seems to me a bit like using a jackhammer to crack a walnut. I don’t say this to Ian however because Poetry Twitter, unlike the rest of Twitter, is a predominantly supportive and benign environment, populated for the most part by time-wasting neurotics and blatherskites, myself and Ian being two lesser-known illustrations of this, all of us publicly tolerating each other whilst pro-socially backslapping our inconsequential and largely unread outputs in prose and especially in verse.

Of all the memorisation techniques out there, MoL doesn’t seem especially useful when it comes to learning poetry. Not even Akira Haraguchi, who has memorised over 100,000 digits of pi uses MoL. Instead he turns those 100,000 digits into a kind of poem! He does this by associating each number with a syllable and then creates poem-like narratives from the words produced by those syllables. 

“I have created about 800 stories, whose lead characters are mostly animals and plants,” he explains. “For the first 100 digits of pi, I have crafted a story about humans. Here is how the first 50 digits, starting with 3.14, reads: “Well, I, that fragile being who left my hometown to find a peace of mind, is going to die in the dark corners; it’s easy to die, but I stay positive.”

His quest to learn as many of the pi digits is not that dissimilar to my own more diminutive challenge of memorising 100 poems. For both of us it is a spiritual practice at best, but also a time-dissipator, a wordy or digity mantra, helping us to focus our wayward minds by calling into being, if only as an echoing abstraction, the whole known and unknown universe, including that of consciousness, through a rotating prayer of atoms and spinning electrons, circumvolving planets and galaxies. Which in one way is wonderful, and in another way completely nuts. Haraguchi’s family are not interested in pi, and my family are not interested in poetry. They see his quest rather, as no doubt do mine, as “an enormously harmless hobby”.

But I think R.S. Thomas would have appreciated Haraguchi’s quixotic focus of interest, which also chimes so well with this poem.

My experience of learning poetry by heart is that the relationship between the words to be learned and the arbitrary psychogeography one might choose for those words to be associated with, functions antithetically to traditional MoL. Often when I am reciting certain poems, the landscapes I had unspooling around me whilst I learnt the poem return as confederates to the words that once inhabited them.

In my mind, Wendell Berry’s The Peace of Wild Things will always be associated with the river Chess near Latimer Park farm. Similarly James Wright’s Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota reminds me of walking on a narrow path, hedges on both sides near Leyhill Common, unaware that the route ahead was going to be closed by roadworks, resulting in half an hour of scramble with a small dog in my arms over 3 metre high temporary mesh-fencing panels in a bid to break out. I don’t know why I am telling you this. Maybe just to reiterate that I’m not at the moment using any formal system for learning the 10 or 12,000 words that will eventually make up my 100 poem Poetry Liturgy.

How I learn a poem is like this. I read the first line or two. I repeat it, I repeat it, I repeat it. I think about it, savour it, play with different ways of saying it, often imagine what is being presented a visual image. I repeat the line again and again. I then add another line and do the same. I go back to the first line and notice I’ve forgotten that, so I begin again: repeating, savouring, thinking, visualising, trying out different combinations of emphasis and articulation. I do this for a while until I have a few lines going. I then add a bit more, until maybe I’ve got what feels like one semantic unit. In Bright Field, that first unit might be:

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it.

I start to notice the unique physicality of each clause, as you might recognise the ways in which another human being walking alongside you uses their limbs, and how those limbs are shaped.

Thomas’s language is pared down to the bone: it is taut, and wiry and matter-of-fact. You see this especially in “and gone my way / and forgotten it”. The discursive mind wants to add other words to these two clauses, perhaps repeating the auxiliary verb “have” in the first line alongside an adverb to make “and have gone on my way”. The mind is always doing this when learning poems: coming up with more fleshed-out, sociably padded additions (“and forgotten about it”?). The poem reminds its learner again and again, this one certainly does, that it is not a Barbie Doll or Action Man to be dressed up or prettified, but rather exists as a Hepworth or Moore, or Giacometti statue exists: with only the most necessary, elemental contours present to us. Which works especially well for this poem as so much of it is about working out what really matters in our life: those transitory but intrinsically meaningful illuminations which disturb, often serendipitously, the grinding mundanity of being alive.

So I work on that initial unit until each line comfortably cues the next in my memory. Whilst doing this, my mind might wander, so that when I come back I find only a few words have remained. I might get annoyed at myself at this point, at my blob-of-meat mind and start all over again. Because I have already introduced the words before, spent some time with them, the second time around they are more swiftly retainable. I then try and work on the next semantic unit, and see if I can solder it in some way to the first.

But that was the
pearl of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it.

“OK, so there’s a contrasting preposition here,” I show myself, “remember that the next time you come to the end of the first unit. Notice also,” I tell myself, “the alliterations “pearl of great price”, also hurrying/hankering and Moses/miracle.” Alliterations are a godsend to the poetry mnemonist, as are all conjunctions, often rendering two into one.

While I am caught up with the physicality of each line, its structure and articulation, the act of repetition begins to drive the import of the words deeper and deeper in my mind and heart. These underscore key lines like an exclamatory, concordant YES!!!, a euphoric primal punctuation of core understanding.

But that was the
pearl of great price, [YES!!!]

(I decide to really stress the “that” in this line)

the one field

(ditto with “one”)

that had
treasure in it [YES!!!]

I realise now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it.


This is what it feels like (from the inside) to learn by heart a poem that you love. Perhaps, not by mistake, all those ecstatic YESes start sounding like the soundtrack to a disincarnate porn film. And maybe this is not a glib analogy. For just as evolution has shaped us to feel most apropos (literally, to purpose) when we are feeding the animal body, fucking or being fucked with the animal body, moving it in pursuit or play, so the “treasure” of committing words to the heart, words that are closely in sync with our own experience, and maybe even numbers as in Haraguchi’s pi-quest, feels very much on par with the Peak Experiences of both transcendental religious worship and sex, as sketched out by Maslow about 50 years ago.

Peak experience, of which this poem not only seeks to give us a taste of, but also exemplifies in itself and as itself can be described through a number of different variables. Some of these include:

  • a disorientation in time and space, alongside a non-comparing acceptance of everything, as if everything were equally important
  • an ego-transcending, self-forgetful, unselfish vision of the natural world and our place in it
  • a self-validating, self-justifying perception which carries its own intrinsic value with it lending itself to the operational definition of the statement that “life is worthwhile” or “life is meaningful.”

Pretty cool, huh? Which is why I continue to spend at last an hour, 10% of each awake-and-conscious day, “giving all that I have” to possess the 100 words or that make up poems like this one.

Specifically, what I think I give to the process is patience, or an attempt at patience (not my strongest suit), which is perhaps more about tolerating the Sisyphean frustration of forgetting, accompanied by a kind of relentlessly romantic stick-to-itiveness. Stick-to-itiveness, resilience, grit, is a virtues that I possess for only a two or three things in my life. But maybe that is enough to reconcile me to the burden of being alive.

I’m not yet sure if it is enough to take me into a consciously transcendent state akin to the utopian promise of heaven alluded to at the end of the poem. Non-theist that I am, I would prefer to perceive that illuminated eternity as available to me intermittently when I am in the flow of reciting words that have become, through thousands of repetitions, as germane to my lived experience as a glass of water when thirsty, or food/sex when hungry for it. It doesn’t always feel that way, but when it does, this reinforces my desire to keep on doing this.

But like all peak experiences: as the moniker suggests, the only way to know it, is to experience it. Which is why, evangelical-like, I urge you when you’ve finished reading these words to find a poem you love and start learning it by heart.

Poetry Koan Poetry Koan (By Heart)

Poetry Koan #8: Anti-Ambition Ode by Dean Young


Is the idea to make a labyrinth
of the mind bigger? What’s the matter?
You still come out of the womb-dark
into the sneering court of the sun
and don’t know which turn to take.
So what? You’re made of twigs anyway.
You were on an errand but never came back,
spent too long poking something with a stick.
Was it dead or never alive?
Invisibility will slow down soon enough
for you to catch up and pull it over yourself.
No one knows what color the first hyena’s tongue
to reach you will be.
Or the vultures who are slow, careful unspellers.
So go ahead, become an expert in sleep or not,
either way you can live in a rose or smoke
only so long.
You will still be left off the list.
You will still be rain, blurry as a mouse.

The problem, if it is a problem, is that language requires we use it. Our minds, which run on language, won’t shut up, no matter what we do. Language is having thoughts; language is saying things about the world; language is writing poems, also writing essays about poems. At some point, surrounded by the latest “crop” of language -its literary confections, its scientific inventions, its interpersonal spinoffs- we become aware of a surplus of intelligence. And surely where there is a surplus of something, we should focus on vending or merchandising this excess in some way, so as to gain the things we want? And what is it we most want? Connection, belonging, mental and physical stimulation.

This is ambition, and there is a kind of ache there too: a need to build a bulwark, with whatever we have at our disposal (our so-called talents) against an as-yet-unspecified death (“the first hyena’s tongue”) or some other form of insignificance – the polar opposite of recognition and renown, to which ambition is directed.

So what a relief, but also a  sadness, to have a poem written from the perspective of sub specie aeternitatis, that incredibly powerful cognitive defusion, that asks us to consider whatever drive or initiative we’re hooked into “from the perspective of the eternal”.

Thomas Nagel in his clear-eyed essay The Absurd sees the usefulness of this perspective in “approaching our absurd lives with irony instead of heroism or despair”. Irony is the chief ingredient of this poem, which makes it such a liberating experience to read, learn by heart and recite.

Wittgenstein also signals a place for a poem in this curative perspective:

“The work of art is the object seen sub specie aeternitatis; and the good life is the world seen sub specie aeternitatis. This is the connection between art and ethics.”

Jung recognised this too, noting that “What we are to our inward vision, and what man appears to be sub specie aeternitatis, can only be expressed by way of myth.”

This the myth, but also the anti-myth of our own animal selfhood that is often ignored or covered up by our facility with language. Are we not mammals: non-hoofed, non-ruminant, but as-good-as cattle? Walk into a Weatherspoons pub on a summery midweek afternoon and watch the old geezers with their pints transform into a lumbering cow herd next to a stream. If you’re a woman, see them follow your every move with their dull, stolid eyes, every man a biform Minotaur, and don’t we know it.    

Even expertise, one of the Gods of our age, is ironised with reference to those who become authorities on socially validated activities, or non-socially-validated activities (like sleep), even though the latter may be more important to our well being and the tenor of our ongoing experience than the former. As with most satire and irony, this reference is also prescient: a number of high-profile books have come out in the last year about sleeping, or not sleeping. Darian Leader, Marina Benjamin, Matthew Walker – just three of many “experts” who have ambitiously put books into the world about this profoundly inactive activity.

William Casey King tracks how ambition has a far more extensive history as a vice than as a virtue. In the Genevan translation of the Bible, there are some seventy-seven admonitions against ambition. It is associated with “crueltie of the wicked,” “malice,” and “all kind of vice.” Indeed, Adam was not fallen by pride but “by ambition.” In Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, ambition is described as “a canker of the soul, an hidden plague … a secret poison, the father of livor [envy], and mother of hypocrisy, the moth of holiness, and cause of madness, crucifying and disquieting all that it takes hold of.”

So how did America, and every country that soon yearned for the confidence and swagger of America (to date: almost all of us) come to put Ambition in pride of place as a virtue? King suggests that the main driver for this were the financial and political benefits of  17th century exploration, colonization, and resource extraction in the New World. The “labyrinth” of national socioeconomic appetites would widen to take on larger domains. In order to vouchsafe this behaviour, the English and Spanish Crowns would need to change their line on ambition, and how it was talked about from the pulpit and in political propaganda, and perhaps even in poetry.

To me this sounds like a post-hoc rationalisation of a drive that is fundamental to our species. “The destruction of the natural world,” writes John Gray in Straw Dogs, is not the result of global capitalism, industrialisation, ‘Western civilisation’ or any flaw in human institutions. It is a consequence of the evolutionary success of an exceptionally rapacious primate.”

Which is not the image of human apes that we take away from this poem. In Dean Young’s imagination, we are far more brittle and expendable creatures: not only “made of twigs”, but most of what we do  twiggily negligible: “spent too long poking something with a stick / Was it dead or never alive?” You tell me. Essays like this one seem to fit particularly well into this wasteful category, as does poetry.

I think what I most love about this poem, as jaunty as it is tonally rendered, is its inherently bleak, almost cavalier pessimism:  “So go ahead,” Young dares us, “become an expert in sleep or not, / either way you can live in a rose or smoke / only so long.” He then follows this up with a remorseless instance of sub specie aeternitatis:

You will still be left off the list.
You will still be rain, blurry as a mouse

As Tony Hoagland explains, in an essay that line-for-line is as rich and alive with the poetics of ecstasy as any Young or Hoagland poem, Young has often been mislabelled as a surrealist. He is better understood as “a textbook (big R) Romantic” whose well-formulated worldview:

“…testifies to the supreme force of the individual imagination, the opposition of the individual to mass society, the divinity of nature compared to the malfeasance of humanity, and, especially, the tension between the transcendence of the ecstatic moment and the corrosive nature of horizontal time.”

He does this not by writing ponderous, unread critical essays (though do read Hoagland on Young, it’s such a wonderful piece of writing) but by doing everything everything that is antithetical to the ruminative, self-important behaviour that stems from ambition, but by playing with thought and language in a way that is “fast, daffy, tragic, witty, vivid, fabricated by the collaboration of associative and dissociative powers, interrupted at times by epithets of wisdom and grace.”

Hoagland like Young, was also feted in his lifetime (he died recently from pancreatic cancer at the age of 64) with prestigious awards and well-reviewed publications, but is still not a household name for British poetry readers. He too got “left off the list”, even if, unlike most of us he has a Wikipedia page. And even in America for those who don’t read poetry, which is almost everyone, his poems too fall like rain in the culture arena, “blurry as a mouse”.

In which case: we really do need all the anti-ambition odes and reminders we can get. For what purpose ambition? As inherently social primates, keenly aware of our place in the pecking order, literary or otherwise, I don’t think we get to attenuate its drive just by interrogating its overall usefulness in our lives. I am no less painfully ambitious for having read Young’s poem. But maybe it nudges me as I recite it daily a little bit closer to the negative capability of of seeing my settled and by now in middle-age stable “invisibility” as an existential given, a universal given for all but a few, encouraging me and you to keep our eyes open to other ways of making our time here on the List of Still Living count.  

Sub specie aeternitatis, baby.

Feel Better Poetry Koan Poetry Koan (By Heart)

Poetry Koan #7: What is the Language Using Us For? by W.S. Graham


What is the language using us for?
Said Malcolm Mooney moving away
Slowly over the white language.
Where am I going said Malcolm Mooney.

Certain experiences seem to not
Want to go in to language maybe
Because of shame or the reader’s shame.
Let us observe Malcolm Mooney.

Let us get through the suburbs and drive
Out further just for fun to see
What he will do. Reader, it does
Not matter. He is only going to be

Myself and for you slightly you
Wanting to be another. He fell
He falls (Tenses are everywhere.)
Deep down into a glass jail.

I am in a telephoneless, blue
Green crevasse and I can’t get out.
I pay well for my messages
Being hoisted up when you are about.

I suppose you open them under the light
Of midnight of The Dancing Men.
The point is would you ever want
To be down here on the freezing line

Reading the words that steam out
Against the ice? Anyhow draw
This folded message up between
The leaning prisms from me below.

Slowly over the white language
Comes Malcolm Mooney the saviour.
My left leg has no feeling.
What is the language using us for?


What to do when you love part of a poem, love that part enough to want to learn it by heart, but not the whole thing? This happens to a certain extent with every poem I decide to learn. There is always a part of the poem that seals the deal, those few lines that you think: “YES!!! I want to be saying these words every day for the rest of my life!” And then there is the rest of the poem.

Maybe this is also a way to think about relationships. You might meet someone, go on a couple of dates, and find in that person something that you can’t get enough of: the way they interact with you, a certain kind of humour, their physicality. Whatever it is, you want access to that. And then there is the rest of the person.

It is for this reason that my guru, Kim Rosen, doesn’t parse poems. You will find if you peruse Kim’s poetry liturgy, that Kim has learnt some very, very, very long poems. Some of which really can’t have been line-for-line gratifying to either learn or repeat.

The most perplexing of these is a 1,500 word poem by Theodor Seuss Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss – Seuss rhymes with “voice” btw; also check out the oedipal tension in Theodor’s bogus Doctor title). Seuss’s poem, I surmise, may have a handful of lines, maybe as many as a dozen that filled Kim’s soul with joy when she first read it, but enough to spend a month or more learning “Happy Birthday To You” by heart?

Then again, if you think about the last thing you dedicated 50 – 100 hours of your life to, aren’t we all, whatever thread we’re following, some kind of demented Roy Neary (that Richard Dreyfuss’s character in Close Encounters of The Third Kind) building mashed potato sculptures of our own Holy Mountain, whose holiness is divined mainly by us alone?

“I’m going to learn 100 poems by heart!”, says I.

“Why?” says you.

“Because,” I reply.

I often think about Kim learning that Seuss poem, line by line, day after day, week after week. Did she learn it to recite at a special party for a friend perhaps? Was this her Happy Birthday Mr President moment, the recipients of her recital in awe of her memory skills in the way that those 15,000 people in attendance at the 1962 Democratic Party fundraiser cum birthday bash  were bowled over by Monroe’s saucy creative chutzpah?

I would worry about boring another person with a 12 minute poem recital. But then don’t the easily-bored at swanky parties all stop talking and sip quietly on their champagne flutes for fifteen minutes at a time whilst being serenaded by string quartets, or a rock star who’d been paid a boatload of cash to show up and sing three songs to them? Is it different if you’ve written the interminably long birthday poem yourself? Did anyone ever feel that way when Frank O’Hara stood up at a party to read one of his latest, like the ten page Ode he wrote for Michael Goldberg, a freely-associative noodle about all the things he, Frank, remembers at this juncture in his life about his childhood: porch doors, brown velvet suits,  hearing Mendelsshon in Carnegie Hall. No mention of Goldberg, or birthdays, apart from the title of the poem “Ode To Michael Goldberg (‘s Birth and Other Births)”. That poem just an excuse for Frank to be Frank. As this one feels quintessentially Grahamsian.

Maybe poem parsing in order to learn only the bits you like is a form of egomania too? There is a kind of humility, a surrender to learning a long poem warts and all. It is a kind of marriage, you might say, as opposed to a fling where you get to choose when and how to be in contact with another human being, sampling only their most enjoyable offerings.

Still, what do you do when you love a third or maybe even half of a very long poem, but find the rest of it almost execrable? This is the problem with Graham’s classic “What Is The Language Using Us For” (full poem quoted at the end of this post).

Am I the only reader of poetry who finds the sections beginning “I met a man in Cartsburn Street…” and “The King of Whales” section quasi-doggerel? I understand, in a faintly disinterested way, that the attempts made by this “double-breasted Sam” accosting the poet while he’s out doing his errands, “a far relation on my mother’s West-Irish side” are put there to enact some kind of sociolinguistic turn.  As if to say: see how language functions in creating speech communities and social networks, be they loose (distant cousins) or close (human friends, or the literature we love as friends, like this poem).

I understand all this, and yet, I still find myself crossing the road to avoid these sections, as Willie does himself when Sam hovers into view. Can’t we just stay in the weird, heady realms of abstract language, in metaphor, and analogy where the rest of the poem resides? That lonely,” telephoneless, blue / Green crevasse” of our own heads, where we too “can’t get out”, other than through language, which lets us down with its ready-made phrases and silence in the face of ineffable suffering or joy?

Of course one reader’s doggerel is another’s Poetic Ambrosia -a kind of God fodder, libation of quintessence- probably far too refined and subtle for this pleb to appreciate. I feel somehow behoven at this point to go and read some critical writing so that I can present a balanced argument for the memorisable worth of the lines that leave me cold, but I can’t be bothered to do so just for the sake of BBC-like balance [can’t be bothered, but I still do, see below].

I challenge anyone who loves Graham, who loves this poem, to commit a chunk of their lives to learning and reciting the passages that I have chosen not to learn. Instead I decide to learn three sections of the poem (the first quoted at the start of this piece), filleting the poem like a fish, keeping only the juiciest, most allusive, most poetic (?) parts for me to recite until the day I die.


What makes Malcolm Mooney’s plight so moving to me? Many things: his attempt to trail some language, slug-like, across a blank page, which still remains blank even after he has smeared his weary words over it – a literary version of Manzoni’s Achrome painting, or Robert Ryman’s Ledger. The way he shows us language’s constraints and impediments, its dreams of connection and reciprocity belied by a culture where we spend most of our time thoroughly alone, crawling around and through webs of language, rather than directly communicating with each other.

Damian Grant singles out Graham’s genius as being able to “put into words those sudden desolations and happiness that descend on us uninvited there where we each are within our lonely rooms never really entered by anybody else and from which we never emerge’. This is a poem that is “attentive to the chill conditions that isolate us from each other” writes Peter Robinson in his essay “Dependence in the Poetry of W. S. Graham”. Hear, hear. 

And even when we do emerge from our lonely rooms, most of us prefer texting to calling. Like a future-gazing sci-fi dream, the poem seems prescient, but also timeless  in terms of what it wants to share with us about our fundamental alienation from ourselves and each other as clothes-wearing, language-using hominids.

It is this tension between risky, vulnerable connection and a safer insularity that makes this poem so moving. Graham struggled, as we all do, with the former. In a letter he wrote from the orthopedic ward of the Royal Cornwall Infirmary to Moncrieff Williamson after a drunken fall (“I walked 5 miles into St Ives to attend a birthday party and coming home I managed (don’t ask me how) to fall off a roof 30 feet and land on concrete”), he relates: “All Art is the result of trying to say to an other one exactly what you mean. Because we are all each so different from each other inside (different even from good friends we think we are extremely sympathetic to), one of the things we try again and again is to establish communication.What a stuffy pompous lecture. FINIS.”  

It is this tug of war in him between the shame-induced inner-censor and the more modest human-ape wanting to “establish communication” that makes those moments when they occur in his poems so affecting. Perhaps the most memorable phrase from his 1946 “manifesto” (Notes On A Poetry of Release) is this one: 

It is a good direction to believe that this language which is so scored and impressed by the commotion of all of us since its birth can be arranged to in its turn impress significantly for the good of each individual. Let us endure the sudden affection of the language.

Let us endure the sudden affection of the language. I love that. We sense that Graham himself endures this sudden affection of intimate contact with another through a poem, in the way a teenager might “endure” a hug from a parent or relative: grimacing, but appreciative nonethless.

This inner-conflict can sometimes appear to be solipsistic. Metaphysically, in this poem at least, that seems to be very much the case. Solipsism, let us remind ourselves, is from the Latin solus ‘alone’ + ipse ‘self’.  

I am in a telephoneless, blue
Green crevasse and I can’t get out.

The point is would you ever want
To be down here on the freezing line

Reading the words that steam out
Against the ice?

If all we have are our own thoughts and self-experience (“the words that steam out / against the ice”), our own private, cut-off independent world with scant access to other ways of being, then the fallout from that is sure to be alienation and loneliness. This shared, validated alienation and loneliness are certainly two of the chief merits of this poem.

I like these (more hopeful?) words by Neil Corcoran in his essay on Graham in “English Poetry Since 1940” where he remarks that Graham’s “solipsism is mitigated by the sense that consciousness becomes most alive in these written exchanges between writer and reader, that the most alert self-consciousness may be created and shared within the poem’s language, so that the poem is always dialogue, community, intertext, ‘The longed-for, loved event, / To be by another aloneness loved”.”

When I am reciting parts of this poem to myself, I feel love for William Sidney Graham, and a shared camaraderie too. For does not any poem, even one now canonically packaged in a handsome Faber and Faber hardcover with its distinctive teal jacket, share the plight of most writing on the internet: to be unread, unseen, just another instance of white language, cultural white noise? What is the Language Using Us For is alive to this lack.

The irony of writing is that it comes from a place of wanting to communicate, to connect to others and belong through our words, when really its chief company and solace are to language itself. Let us then all endure, or even celebrate, the sudden affection of the language. Or as he says later on in the poem: let’s try and make language “a real place / [for ourselves], seeing [we] have to put up with it / Anyhow.”

Let us make some peace with language, and therein we might start making some peace with ourselves.




What is the language using us for?
Said Malcolm Mooney moving away
Slowly over the white language.
Where am I going said Malcolm Mooney.

Certain experiences seem to not
Want to go in to language maybe
Because of shame or the reader’s shame.
Let us observe Malcolm Mooney.

Let us get through the suburbs and drive
Out further just for fun to see
What he will do. Reader, it does
Not matter. He is only going to be

Myself and for you slightly you
Wanting to be another. He fell
He falls (Tenses are everywhere.)
Deep down into a glass jail.

I am in a telephoneless, blue
Green crevasse and I can’t get out.
I pay well for my messages
Being hoisted up when you are about.

I suppose you open them under the light
Of midnight of The Dancing Men.
The point is would you ever want
To be down here on the freezing line

Reading the words that steam out
Against the ice? Anyhow draw
This folded message up between
The leaning prisms from me below.

Slowly over the white language
Comes Malcolm Mooney the saviour.
My left leg has no feeling.
What is the language using us for?



What is the language using us for?
It uses us all and in its dark
Of dark actions selections differ.

I am not making a fool of myself
For you. What I am making is
A place for language in my life

Which I want to be a real place
Seeing I have to put up with it
Anyhow. What are Communication’s

Mistakes in the magic medium doing
To us? It matters only in
So far as we want to be telling

Each other alive about each other
Alive. I want to be able to speak
And sing and make my soul occur

In front of the best and be respected
For that and even be understood
By the ones I like who are dead.

I would like to speak in front
Of myself with all my ears alive
And find out what it is I want.


What is the language using us for?
What shape of words shall put its arms
Round us for more than pleasure?

I met a man in Cartsburn Street
Thrown out of the Cartsburn Vaults.
He shouted Willie and I crossed the street

And met him at the mouth of the Close.
And this was double-breasted Sam,
A far relation on my mother’s

West-Irish side. Hello Sam how
Was it you knew me and says he
I heard your voice on The Sweet Brown Knowe.

O was I now I said and Sam said
Maggie would have liked to see you.
I’ll see you again I said and said

Sam I’ll not keep you and turned
Away over the shortcut across
The midnight railway sidings.

What is the language using us for?
From the prevailing weather or words
Each object hides in a metaphor.

This is the morning. I am out
On a kind of Vlaminck blue-rutted
Road. Willie Wagtail is about.

In from the West a fine smirr
Of rain drifts across the hedge.
I am only out here to walk or

Make this poem up. The hill is
A shining blue macadam top.
I lean my back to the telegraph pole

And the messages hum through my spine.
The beaded wires with their birds
Above me are contacting London.

What is the language using us for?
It uses us all and in its dark
Of dark actions selections differ.



What is the language using us for?
The King of Whales dearly wanted
To have a word with me about how
I had behaved trying to crash
The Great Barrier. I could not speak
Or answer him easily in the white
Crystal of Art he set me in.

Who is the King of Whales? What is
He like? Well you may ask. He is
A kind of old uncle of mine
And yours mushing across the blind
Ice-cap between us in his furs
Shouting at his delinquent dogs.
What is his purpose? I try to find

Whatever it is is wanted by going
Out of my habits which is my name
To ask him how I can do better.

Tipped from a cake of ice I slid
Into the walrus-barking water
To find. I did not find another
At the end of my cold cry.


What is the language using us for?
The sailing men had sailing terms
Which rigged their inner-sailing thoughts
In forecastle and at home among
The kitchen of their kind. Tarry
Old Jack is taken aback at a blow
On the lubber of his domestic sea.

Sam, I had thought of going again
But it’s no life. I signed on years
Ago and it wasn’t the ship for me.
O leave ’er Johnny leave ’er.
Sam, what readers do we have aboard?
Only the one, Sir. Who is that?
Only myself, Sir, from Cartsburn Street.


What is the language using us for?
I don’t know. Have the words ever
Made anything of you, near a kind
Of truth you thought you were? Me
Neither. The words like albatrosses
Are only a doubtful touch towards
My going and you lifting your hand

To speak to illustrate an observed
Catastrophe. What is the weather
Using us for where we are ready
With all our language lines aboard?
The beginning wind slaps the canvas.
Are you ready? Are you ready?

Poetry Koan Poetry Koan (By Heart)

Poetry Koan #6: from The Dhammapada by Siddhārtha Gautama


We are what we think.
All that we are arises with our thoughts.
With our thoughts we make the world.
Speak or act with a troubled mind
And trouble will follow you
As the wheel follows the ox that draws the cart.

For we are what we think.
All that we are arises with our thoughts.
With our thoughts we make the world.
Speak or act with an untroubled mind
And serenity will follow you
As your shadow, unshakable.

However many holy words you read,
However many you speak,
What good will they do you
If you do not act upon them?
Are you a shepherd
Counting another man’s sheep,
Never knowing the way?
Read as many words as you need,
write and speak even fewer.
Act upon them as best you can.
Forsaking the old haunts
of desire, displeasure,
despair and delusion.
Know the truth, find your peace.
Share the way.

-Siddhārtha Gautama


Perhaps the most liberating, therapeutic tool one can use when assailed by misery and miserable thoughts is to notice them, name them, and if they are getting in the way of you living your life to the full, neutralise them.

Neutralise is not to be confused with elimination though. The option of ridding ourselves of thoughts and feelings doesn’t seem to be one we have been granted for our species. The problem is that language neurologically tattoos the mind: “Ba, ba black [ ______ ]”, “Shake, rattle and [____]”, “Today I’m feeling kinda [_____].”

I suspect your mind didn’t fill those three gaps with anything particularly novel, and for the last gap, it was probably, if you were being honest with yourself, a very well-scripted,  oft-sung ditty. Once the thought has been encoded by language, it will be trotted out at any given moment, any kind of “trigger” or association will do.

And who knew this better than our first neuroscientist and psychologist Siddhārtha Gautama, whose sayings and sermons were collected in the Dhammapada two and a half thousand years before Freud, Pavlov, Watson, and Skinner came onto the scene and created what we now call counselling and psychotherapy.

So let’s test Siddhārtha’s hypothesis. Here are a few thoughts circling around my head at the moment.

-life is inherently meaningless and worthless
-my life is inherently meaningless and worthless
-what’s the point of doing anything (anyway)?

The more I think about and repeat these thoughts, mantra-like (poem-like?) to myself, the more the world seems to take on the shape of these thoughts. Confirmation bias ensures that my mind starts filtering my experience so that I am only delivered evidence of my current beliefs, and soon behaviour (speaking and acting, but also anything that requires a body to move and engage with my surroundings) follows the mind’s memo.

Suffice to say: my mind has no idea why I might be writing a series of tiny essays about the poems I know off by heart, or writing about anything for that matter. There is enough fine writing in this world, my mind informs me, nobody needs another 1000 words from you. Which is 100% true and reasonable. In which case, the mind says, stop writing, stop doing anything you find meaningful even on abstract level, what’s the point?

In fact, the only reason I am writing this is because my fingers are currently disobeying the tutelage of my mind, whether out of habit, wisdom, or just because my fingers don’t have anything more helpful to offer me in my current woebegone state than this.

Before we can disobey our own minds, it seems we have to do some version of these three Ns: noticing thoughts, naming thoughts, neutralizing them. Maybe by virtually placing the following sentence stem: “I’m having the thought that…” before each of my (or your) three most prominent thoughts. That’s a start. Why not give it a go. (No really, give it a go.)

I’m having the thought that…
I’m having the thought that…
I’m having the thought that…

Now read or say those three thoughts aloud again to yourself and see if that provides a little bit of relief. A tad? Not much? Yep, no magic bullets here, sorry. I notice that there is a partial shift in the balance of the sentence, but no, I’m not suddenly doing a little merry jig either. Now add before the previous stem a noticing sentence:

“I’m noticing that…I’m having the thought that…life is inherently meaningless and worth naught.”

Yes, I know it’s kind of naff. I didn’t promise that it would be sophisticated and elegant, but why not give it a go. Where’s the elegance of shoving a suppository up your arse, but we do it if it brings some relief, do we not?

The one thing you should definitely not do is challenge the negative thought (CBT-style), which is why I left all three of the above thoughts hanging around, saying what they need to say. This is because a challenged thought might snap back churlishly with some kind of rant:

“Are you genuinely going to argue for all-shall-be-wellness? Two days ago, the Guardian newspaper changed the guidelines that it uses to report to climate change, updating its style guide to replace “climate change” with catastrophe-looming collocations such as: “climate emergency”, “climate crisis” and “climate breakdown”. So let’s call a completely fucked (eco)system what it is, shall we? Goodbye “global warming”, hello “global heating”. And soon global boiling, burning, and all those other scorching-hot, end-is-nigh, flames of hell, the evangelical preacher probably having the last laugh after all terms.”

Of course the above rant doesn’t really care about the climate crisis. It’s an ecological red herring, which most of the hot air that comes from our mouths tends to be. What the ranting mind really cares about is whether the ego that resides at the heart of its thoughts is being pandered to at the moment, and in what way. Hence my current Morrisey-turn. Well, heaven knows I’m miserable now. Nothing new here, move on. Kindly notice the thought, kindly name the thought, and in the process begin, with as much kindness as possible, neutralizing it.

Morrisey, for a while, seemed like he might be our gladioli-waving miserabilist buddha, turned out to be a poster boy for What Goes Wrong when we take our thoughts as unarguable, gold-standard pronouncements on the state of the world and ourselves, and then act (speak) upon them.

He wasn’t helped by the fact that whenever he had a thought (“Nigel Farage might be the Answer”, “London’s mayor Sadiq Khan “cannot talk properly””, or  “Chinese people are “a subspecies”), rather than writing it down for a lost-in-space blogpost, which is where thoughts are generally best stowed, he shared it with a journalist. And then once the thought was out and carried along the retweet-grapevine, he had no excuse but to keep on backing it so as to not lose face. Even though those three incendiary thoughts were probably replaced by their antitheses almost as soon as they fell from his mouth.

Morrissey has always acted and spoken with a troubled mind, often with the desire to provoke, and so it is probably to be expected that Trouble currently following Stephen Patrick Morrissey may look something like the modern muddy groove of wheel following an ox-drawn cart, which is to say: 50,000 social media hanging judges.

However many holy words you read,
However many you speak,
What good will they do you
If you do not act upon them?

I often chastise myself for failing to act upon what I preach. As a sort of self-appointed lay priest (psychotherapists, whether they like it or not, have taken on the moral mantle we used to garb our religious leaders with) how often do I follow my own counsel? Infrequently. Which is why I gratefully share these words from one of my heroes, the biologist Robert Sapolsky, being interviewed for a podcast about the possibility of change (changing our minds, and therefore the world we live in):

“I’m one of those scientist-professor types who’s capable of lecturing on a subject and paying no attention to what I’m saying. Like I’ve spent my whole life studying about the adverse effects of stress on your health and your psyche. And I’m the most frazzled, stressed person around. I’ve gleaned absolutely nothing useful from any of my life work.”


Feel Better Poetry Koan Poetry Koan (By Heart)

Poetry Koan #5: The Many Wines by Rumi


Today we have been given a wine so
dark and so deep that to drink it
would take us beyond these two worlds.

Today we have been given a substance
so sweet that to eat it
would deliver us from self-consciousness.

Today will end once more with sleep
ending thought ending feeling
ending each and every craving.

Today Majnun’s love for Layla
is born and with it a mere
name becomes his salvation.

Every minute of the day we’ve been given
at least fifty ways to cut loose
to just slip out the back Jack.

Don’t think all ecstasies are the same
Jesus was lost in love for his God
his donkey drunk on barley.

Drink from the presence of Self
not from jars or scars or quick fixes
Every vessel is a moment of delight.

Be a connoisseur taste with caution
any wine will get you plastered
judge wisely choose the purest

The one unadulterated with fear
or the four urgent needs of the heart
drink the wine that moves you

As a camel moves when its finally
been untied from its post and
gets to just amble about freely.


I don’t know what you imagine this wine to be when you read this poem by Rumi, but here are seven iterations of the wine for me.


Red please: maybe a Rioja, a Primitivo or something equally gutsy. Strip away the almost 10,000 year of vinoculture and we see the substance, like many that follow, as predominantly a time-dissolver and a pain-killer. It is also a self-cure that takes us beyond “the two worlds” of oppositional valence, such as caring too deeply about something (stress), versus not caring at all (depression). Wine is good for either condition, and neither.

Ethanol, phenolics, tartaric and residual sugars work as a salve and an emollient for the jolts and jars of everyday trauma. What Siddhartha was perhaps referring to when he positioned dukkha as the central spoke of his first Noble Truth? This pali word is often translated abstractly as “suffering” or “discomfort”, but I’ve always liked the notion that its etymology can be traced back to the physicality of a painful, bumpy ride due to a poorly-fitting axle hole in the centre of a wagon wheel. Now imagine yourself sitting on that painfully bumpy wagon with a flagon of wine in your hand. And maybe some pistachio nuts. Better already, right?

One of my clients refers to this ride as her “rollercoaster”: those times when she feels overwhelmed by her suffering, not in the driver’s seat of her life any more. She often hits the bottle at these times – which usually makes matters worse for her, or anyone. Dukkha (discomfort, unease, emptiness) becomes sukkha (happiness, comfort, ease) whilst drinking. But we pay for it the following day.


The part of London where I live became very Polish in the aughts and then Romanian in the last 5 – 10 years, so we are all now connoisseurs of the East-European beers that have rapidly taken over in price and quality the usual Stella-Carlsberg-Budweiser triumvirate to be found in all cornershops. The East-European snacks that are also sold alongside the beers are not particularly good though, tasting often of sawdust and poverty, but the beer from these ex-communist countries is fantastic: Timisoreana, Tyskie, Zywiec, Lech, and others.

Two cans (a litre) leaves me feeling woozy and hungry, but one can is never enough. Although when it comes to the “quick fixes”, does any small quantity of our drug of choice feel enough? Maybe this is the defining factor of a quick fix: when you get “enough” of it, you feel ill? Whereas a slow, or humdrum fix (learning a poem, going for a walk, gardening, meditation) can never be overdone.


For the tonic water, can I have mine with the Schweppes Low Calorie Elderflower tonic water, please, and a hearty squirt of lime? Morrisons do a good, low-price gin, and another that has won awards. Both are nice neat, but as a mixer, the Morrisons cheapo gin is really quite delicious.

The market leader, Gordon’s, is quasi-undrinkable: metallic and medicinal-tasting, though no one seems to have clocked that yet. I find this surprising as the market-leader tonic water (Schweppes) is still head and shoulders above anything else. I presume that most people don’t actually taste their gin as it is predominantly used to alcholise the tonic. Sometimes I won’t stop at a few glasses of G&T as a pre-meal libation, but will switch at some point to gin on the rocks, drinking until I feel wobbly and sleepy.

The neuroscientist Judith Grisel in her book Never Enough explains how alcohol works on the mesolimbic pathways of the brain, producing not only a feeling of pleasure, but also possibility. Yes! That is what I’m hungering for when I pour myself a glass of wine, beer, or gin. Possibility! “The spreading wide my narrow Hands  / To gather Paradise – ” as Emily Dickinson puts it in her poem of that title.

Possibility is deliciously“promiscuous”: you could do this, or that, or the other. Cannabis provides this too, perhaps even more so. Other drugs however, writes Grisel, “typically interact in a very specific way with only a single neural substrate”.

With alcohol, “it’s hard to pin down how each of its chemical kisses contributes to the intoxicating effects we experience.” For this we need the poet’s analogy, of how a camel might feel “when its finally / been untied from its post and / gets to just amble about freely.”

We forget that feeling of pleasurable possibility the following day though when we’re once again tied to our posts, now with even more leaden stomachs and bleary eyes. But this will eventually dissipate, and once again, we will start scanning the horizon waiting for evening to fall.


I eat fewer of these than I used to. I once had a half-a-packet-a-day chocolate digestives habit. Occasionally I’ll allow myself some fig rolls, or a small pack of shortbread which I’ll devour over the course of two days, but for the most part, I dreamily walk down the biscuit aisle in a state of self-denial. It is an enchanted kingdom that I rarely visit. If I want a biscuity snack, I’ll slather sugar-flavoured-fruit (jam) onto some crackers, or honey: that magical substance transmogrified through the digestive systems of bees. Floral vomit. Honey is bee vomit. You know that, right?   


Even though I am a vegetarian and shudder at the idea (ethically, but also on a physical, disgust level) of eating a substance made from the mashed up bones of cattle then mixed with sugar and flavourings, I avoid that part of my brain when stealing from the pick-and-mix at the supermarket. To buy it would be to make official the fact that I am eating something that I morally and digestively abhor. It’s like the kosher-following Jew who only eats bacon when it’s hidden in some kind of bun and served to him by an anonymous, untraceable third party.

Sometimes I allow myself some chocolate. These are either portion-controlled, and apportioned out treatlets, like smarties or Cadbury’s buttons, or the smallest Toblerone I can find, the one that only has 150 calories. If I buy a large bar of something I really like (Lindt dark chocolate with sea salt) I will eat the whole thing in the course of 24 hours.


The love affair is more or less over. It works now as a memory-repository, an extension for my brain, and something to fidget with. Fairly often I will sit flicking between apps, just opening and closing them down, in the hope that something, or someone will say something interesting or engaging aimed directly at me. This happens fairly rarely, but then I don’t really say anything interesting and engaging directed at a specific individual myself either. So it’s not like I’m actively inviting this sort of social engagement. Sometimes though I broadcast a thought or an essay like this one into the river of social media, so as to hear myself speak, but also for fear of not having a voice. This is a sufficient salve for the former need, and insufficient for the latter. I don’t have enough followers to have a voice – about 10,000 seems to be the point where one starts being noticed and talked about, which nowadays means retweeted.

BUMBLE (or whatever dating app you are currently using)

Today Majnun’s love for the right-swiped Daniella (45), Rosamund (38), Georgette (42), Narriman (46), Catalina (43), Lisa (47), Nordic (41), Jenni (43), Radha (38), Alex (45), Gina (42), Marion (43), Michelle (44), Sarah (41), Amy (35), Prue (42), Athena (40), Kate (40), Emily (40), Beth (35), and and Zara (48) is born, and with it a mere name becomes a kind of salvation.

Saving me, you, from what? From the deprivation of a certain kind of intimacy -especially, but not only a certain kind of physical intimacy- as well as the narcissistic pleasure of having another human being take an interest in our lives either as a gesture of reciprocity or desire?

The reader of the poem can decide for themselves what those four urgent needs of the heart are. When it comes to intimate relations, I guess we are referring here to things like: sex, engaging conversation, care, and support. As human beings we’ve invented a single word that encompasses the promised fulfillment of all of these needs: love. More often than not the word love is used as a cover-all, when only one of the four urgent desires is sought (not only consciously). Or it is paid to another as a token indicating the satisfaction of all four desires, when only one or two have been satisfied. Or else it is used as a placeholder in the present for emotions that were felt in the past. Or it is not used at all.

Here’s the poet Sarah Wetzel on that dilemma:

A man I married told me one morning,
I don’t think I love you. We’d been married twelve years
though it took him another two years
to walk out the door. To be honest, I never loved him,
not even as I said yes. Yet I know, I’d still be with him
if he hadn’t left.

I google Wetzel after reading her poem on Borges which contains the above stanza. She seems very lovable. We will never meet.

Feel Better Poetry Koan Poetry Koan (By Heart)

Poetry Koan #3: Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour by Wallace Stevens

I am telling an African-American poet about my love of Wallace Stevens when she gently wonders what my thoughts are on Stevens’ racism. At the 1952 National Book Awards banquet, Stevens seeing Gwendolyn Brooks arriving at the ceremony allegedly said, “Who let the coon in?”. He also referred to his own poetry as “like decorations at a nigger’s funeral.” And that’s just for starters.

I wasn’t aware of Stevens’ racism. It doesn’t really come as a great surprise though if you consider his social background and the era in which he lived, but that doesn’t get him or me off the hook. What do you do if you’ve memorised a whole number of poems by someone who was probably, occasionally, unacceptably odious in speech and behaviour?

I suspect that all our heroes have a good deal of clay in their feet, that even the people we would least expect to hear callous and cruel words exiting from their lips would have, at certain times in their lives, said some pretty mean and petty things. I also suspect that most of the 20th century male poets I have spent weeks memorising were by and large racist and misogynistic, looking back as we now do through slightly more woke spectacles. But that doesn’t let them or me off the hook.

I wonder if I would have learnt by heart the following Stevens poem, as monumentally wonderful as it is, had it been written by Adolf Hitler, or Osama Bin Laden? Probably not. Or what if Hitler or Osama had produced the wonderful paintings we attribute to Van Gogh? Would any of those be hanging in National Collections in the 21st century. Probably not.

Which is to say that it is probably best not to know too much about the people who create our solace-filling poem-prayers for us. I often think about some Leonard Cohen lines from his song The Future when I see fundamentalist Christians waving around the good book as backing to their misguided beliefs about homosexuality or feminism:

You don’t know me from the wind
You never will, you never did
I’m the little Jew
Who wrote the Bible

Because that is who wrote the Bible, red-faced homophobic fundamentalist preacher man: a flawed, pint-sized human being who probably wouldn’t, orcouldn’t say boo to a ghost. A little man belonging to a small tribe of monotheistic wanderers who thought: “Because I feel so small and insignificant, what can I do to exalt myself and my tribe above all others tribes?”

Today that guy would be working Instagram like nobody’s business and hopefully spare us his biblical musings, but back then (and still now) if you wanted to be seen as a somebody you had to get a book out, right? That little Jew wrote a book called The Bible in which an all-knowing, all-seeing, all-creating Deity creates a whole race of human beings just like this shmuck (exhibit no. 1: Adam) and then tells them: “I’m going to make things really really hard here for you on earth. But in recompense, you can wander around forever more telling yourself this story: that you’re very, very, very special. For you are The Chosen People. Rejoice!”

And I think that’s what this poem is about in a way too. Not about being Chosen People, but about how important the stories we tell ourselves (about ourselves and others) are. Just for fun take any story, any story you care deeply about (political stories like Brexit, your religious faith, the story of your life) and step outside it just for the time it takes you to read this sentence: could not the same core elements that make up your version of this story be rearranged in a dozen different ways to create a completely different, maybe even 100% contradictory story to the one you tell yourself?

I often tell the story of my exile at the age of 15 from my homeland (my childhood Garden of Eden?) as a tragic one which impacts me to this day in areas where I struggle the most, especially those to do with social confidence. But I’m also aware, and not devaluing in any way, the difficulty of that migration. Indeed my tragic story could be reconfigured as a comic one or as a hopeful, life-affirming bildungsroman. I’m working on those versions, thought my mind still gravitates towards the Tragic Version of events – minds seem to have a habit of doing that.

All I’m saying here is that it is often “for small reason” (but notice how tenaciously we cling to the small reason) that one story gets more airplay than another. One story, one tribe, one idea becomes “the ultimate good” when in fact, as Gwendolyn Brooks reminds us in “truth“, closing ourselves off to the truth of another perspective, a different version of our story, remaining instead in “the dear thick / shelter / Of the familiar /Propitious haze” rewards us with a good deal of negative reinforcement. That is to say if we take “the other story” to be something we don’t want to hear (an aversive stimulus, in behavioural terms), then telling the story I do want to hear as the only one worth hearing, “the ultimate good”, then we avoid discomfort.

I tell myself and cling to one story when it comes to relating how I arrived in England partly in order to avoid the uncertainty of a contradictory story (the aversive stimulus) meddling with the stability of my “truth”. And by truth, I mean here what Stevens in this poem calls “the ultimate good”.

Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour

Light the first light of evening, as in a room
In which we rest and, for small reason, think
The world imagined is the ultimate good.

This is, therefore, the intensest rendezvous.
It is in that thought that we collect ourselves,
Out of all the indifferences, into one thing:

Within a single thing, a single shawl
Wrapped tightly round us, since we are poor, a warmth,
A light, a power, the miraculous influence.

Here, now, we forget each other and ourselves.
We feel the obscurity of an order, a whole,
A knowledge, that which arranged the rendezvous.

Within its vital boundary, in the mind.
We say God and the imagination are one…
How high that highest candle lights the dark.

He is right though, WASPy racist that he probably was, this (the poem, the reciting of it on a daily basis) is the intensest rendezvous. Maybe because it speaks to our deep collective yearning for existential orientation, coherence and understanding. Which is why learning it by heart “works” (consoles, soothes, excites, stimulates). Even if just for a minute or two, when we wrap the poem around us like that wonderfully soft meditation shawl I wrap around my shoulders in winter.

At least we are in agreement on that, myself and WS, when we say that God and the imagination are one.. I suspect we’d disagree on Gwendolyn Brook’s stature as a poet, but I can live with that.

Imagine what a different world we’d live in if that little jew who wrote the Bible had used an aramaic word connoting “the human imagination” to signify his deity, rather than those three dictatorial letters? Imagine.

Poetry Koan Poetry Koan (By Heart)

Poetry Koan #4: truth by Gwendolyn Brooks


And if sun comes
How shall we greet him?
Shall we not dread him,
Shall we not fear him
After so lengthy a
Session with shade?

Though we have wept for him,
Though we have prayed
All through the night-years—
What if we wake one shimmering morning to
Hear the fierce hammering
Of his firm knuckles
Hard on the door?

Shall we not shudder?—
Shall we not flee
Into the shelter, the dear thick shelter
Of the familiar
Propitious haze?

Sweet is it, sweet is it
To sleep in the coolness
Of snug unawareness.

The dark hangs heavily
Over the eyes.

Gwendolyn Brook’s “truth” is an early poem. It appears in her second book of poetry Annie Allen, published in 1949 when Brooks was 32 years old. This was the book that won her the Pulitzer in 1950 where Wallace Stevens allegedly whispered that infamous racist comment, a comment that has followed the two of them down through the years in various forms. I have yet to find a definitive account of that quote or how it was delivered, but such is the nature of hearsay. It has served its purpose though. Whatever the nature of Stevens’ racism, I have no doubt it was present to some degree. How could it not be? Racism is a psychological defence mechanism, and there is not a human mind on this planet that is not defending itself. 

I am grateful though for this uncomfortable yoking of Brooks and Stevens as I probably would not have read Brooks’ poetry had Stevens not inadvertently turned me onto it. Brooks mainly writes portrait poems and social poems which are not usually my bag.

It is perhaps not surprising then that the poems I respond to are her most Stevensonian, although I think she (Gwen) had a better ear than Wallace. There is a deliciousness to the music and rhythm of “truth” (the title of the poem is usually not presented in caps) that makes it a delight to learn by heart whereas Stevens’ poetry is a more sober undertaking: the mind is stimulated, but the body hardly ever feels included in the enterprise.

To talk of Brooks’ poetry in this way though is to invite approbation, least of not from her:

“There is indeed a new black today,” she writes in her 1972 biography Report from Part One, though the words that follow might have come from a Black Lives Matter writers of the last five years.  “He is different from any the world has known. He’s a tall-walker. Almost firm. By many of his brothers he’s not understood. And he is understood by no white. Not the wise white; not the Schooled white; not the Kind white. Your least pre-requisite toward an understanding of the new black is an exceptional Doctorate which can be conferred only upon those with the proper properties of bitter birth and intrinsic sorrow. I know this is infuriating, especially to those professional Negro-understanders, some of them so very kind, with special portfolio, special savvy. But I cannot say anything other, because nothing other is the truth. (p85-86, Report from Part One)”

There doesn’t really seem to be a category of whiteness that gets off the hook here. “Don’t talk or write about my poetry as a means to understanding it,” she seems to be saying to everyone bearing my skin colour. As much as it hurts to be excluded, I understand that she is only passing on the exclusion she herself felt in being barred from participating in those Communities of Understanding: academia and literature. Schools and Universities were still for the most part segregated in 1950s America.

I also recognise that to give “truth” a purely psychological or spiritual reading here, for want of a better word, is probably to fall even deeper into this kind of  unavoidable and wholly necessary backlash (dialectical backlashing, always a good thing). Here the backlash is to me being that (hopefully) schooled, (hopefully) kind, at least attempting to be humanistically wise, self-contained, self-referential reader, which is the only reader I’m really interested in being. It is also the only reading I’m interested in doing. I get the sense from the above passage that Brooks would have little time for this kind of reading of her work from me or for me. So be it.

In literary criticism circles this self-contained, self-referential reading held sway all through the first half of the 20th century, but was forcefully interrogated by the poststructuralist, feminist, anti-racist, Marxist, postcolonial, new historicist, and queer critics of the 1960s and 70s onwards.

If anything, this backlash burst on the scene exactly as sun does in the poem, with a “fierce hammering / …hard on the door”. Was it the “truth” we were all needing? Richard North in his book Literary Criticism: A Political History suggests not, as it paradoxically took engagement with literary texts even further away from the common reader: you and me picking up a book in a bookshop or a library which interested us.

We were the people it was supposedly championing but ironically it did so in a language that even my brain, steeped in academia for years on end, still struggles to understand. I’d rather read a page of a novel in a language I barely understand, dictionary to hand, than try and make my way through some of the jargon-filled nonsense that sits on most literary criticism library shelves. But that is not a truth or non-truth I’m going to interrogate here.

The truth that most interests me in this poem is the more paradoxical, slippery truth of how much truth we can actually bear (“Though we have wept for him, / Though we have prayed”), especially if that truth it is at odds with our own. The academic term for this is of course Confirmation Bias.

If I am a white business owner in the 50s who benefits financially and in some ego-shoring, identity-confirming way of my own whiteness by being able to see myself as superior to and thus discriminate amongst my employees on the basis of sex and race and religion, it’s somewhat unlikely that I’m going to be in favour of the tenets underlying the Civil Rights Act of 1964 with its focus on desegregation and the prevention of my own discrimination. It need not just be political or economic gains I’m protecting however. A recent Radio 4 programme got two millenials from opposite ends of the political spectrum to step out of their social media echo chamber and read each other’s Twitter feeds for one week. The experiment showed just how recalcitrant each was in accepting even to the smallest degree any other point of view but their own.

But why do we shudder, why do flee “into the shelter, the dear thick shelter / Of the familiar / Propitious haze?” 

We need not blame ourselves for doing this: we’re not being pig-headed or deliberately, obtuse or narrow-minded (although narrow-minded is also what we are being). As with so many things in life, the issue boils down to a simple psychological “law” which the poem presents in those three lovely lilting, rockabye-baby lines: “Sweet is it, sweet is it / To sleep in the coolness / Of snug unawareness.”

The sweetness, linked also to sweet, comes from energy conservation. Changing our minds about something is an incredibly costly activity. Perhaps dollars and pounds costly, as when a company has to withdraw a product that is not up to scratch from the market and refund, re-produce and re-instigate the faulty good. But this works equally with ideas about ourselves and the world. If I have built, often painstakingly my whole identity, and many of my social ties around a particular “truth”, whatever that is, just watch how fiercely I will defend that truth if someone else calls it into question. Racial identity itself is one of these truths.

Here’s a little thought experiment. Take anything you don’t like about yourself or your life at the moment. Now trace back the reason for why you think you are in this situation. Now imagine someone coming along and telling you that the reason you’ve given yourself is mistaken, perhaps even deluded, and the main reason why things are as they are is This New Perfectly Reasonable Truth. Now notice your own shuddering and urge to flee back into the familiar propitious haze of what you already know and have agreed upon.

One of the few places where we can let go of that struggle to protect my truth versus your truth is of course in a poem.

A great poem imparts a greater psychic balance to readers,” writes Timothy Aubry in homage to I.A. Richards “practical criticism”, “training their minds to accommodate and harmonize a multitude of competing urges [also competing truths?], making them at once more sensitive and more self-possessed.”

Gwendolyn Brooks’ “truth” is an early poem in her oeuvre, but I think it’s a great poem because it does just that.

But only, I would assert, if you learn it by heart. If not, you might as well lick the sucrose off the pill, but never take the medicine. That’s my truth, but if you decide to learn the poem and then find it doesn’t give you the psychic balance, sensitivity and self-possession that I think we all yearn for, I will happily refund you all the time it took to memorise and practice it until you could speak it from the heart.

Poetry Koan Poetry Koan (By Heart)

What is a poetry koan?

Poetry, as much as religion and politics, calls up strong emotions of love and hate. “I, too, dislike it,” poet Marianne Moore candidly wrote some 50 years ago, adding an equally candid qualification: “Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in it, after all, a place for the genuine.”

I too dislike poetry, and yet I spend a good amount of any given day completely immersed in it: reading poems, tweeting poems, learning poems by heart, having conversations with people about poetry, thinking about poets and what they’re up to.

So what’s going on here?!?

My way of getting my head around this conundrum has been to frame the role poetry plays in my life as something akin (I whisper these next words very quietly out of the corner of my mouth as they have a way of triggering certain people, even me at times, into even greater paroxysms of contempt than the contempt for poetry itself) as a kind of “spiritual practice”, as well as a way of co-existing with my own confounding, mysterious and largely unconscious mind.

Did not Caedmon, the first English poet, learn the art of poetry/song in a dream? Is not the “lesson” of poetry always a lesson in frustration, a frustrating paradox, riddle or koan, a kind of Emptiness (Mu):

Poetry arises from the desire to get beyond the finite and the historical—the human world of violence and difference—and to reach the transcendent or divine,” surmises Ben Lerner, channeling Allen Grossman, in The Hatred of Poetry. “You’re moved to write a poem, you feel called upon to sing, because of that transcendent impulse. But as soon as you move from that impulse to the actual poem, the song of the infinite is compromised by the finitude of its terms. In a dream your verses can defeat time, your words can shake off the history of their usage, you can represent what can’t be represented (e.g., the creation of representation itself), but when you wake, when you rejoin your friends around the fire, you’re back in the human world with its inflexible laws and logic.” (Ben Lerner, The Hatred of Poetry)

The Japanese word koan translates as “public case”, or legal precedent. But this is not an ex post facto “collective body of judicially announced principles”delivering the outcome of a contemplative process or dialogue. Instead, a koan is more of a dynamic, DIY phenomenon, just like a poem, giving us the tools to work through an existential case ourselves (big or small), with materials supplied from our own lives.

Another etymological reading of koan is that of place rather than case, a place where the “truth” might reside. A poet or teacher or journal editor presents the poem/koan as a potential site for this truth or at least for something of personal worth. The reader is then encouraged to excavate. She digs, and digs, and digs. At some point perhaps she plants seeds or thoughts in the body-shaped space she’s dug for herself into the poem. Maybe she begins writing poetry herself, or making drawings, or a podcast where she talks with other people about their koans in the form of poems. She does whatever she needs to do in order to understand more about this place where she digs this place she also calls her life.

I initially wrote in the last sentence “to get to the bottom of the truth”, but of course, unless we dig all the way through to China we already know there is no bottom there. There is never really any there there in poetry, as Getrude Stein once memorably said of her childhood city, Oakland.  Plenty of consolatory “there, theres” as in “There, there don’t cry”, but that’s a different kind of thing. For truths there are only provisional, fleeting glimpses of understanding, the kind which shift as our lives around the poems shift and change. But fleeting glimpses will do.

The poem/koan cannot be treated as a mathematical problem. What does this poem mean, is a meaningless question. What does it mean to you however is perhaps the most meaningful question we can ask. The koan or the poem is thus a bottomless site where we can dig for months, or years, or a lifetime; for as long as it takes until we alight on something that smells, or looks, or even more importantly feels necessary to us (Moore’s “something genuine”).

The koan/poem, writes James Ishmael Ford often feels like “a nagging something in the back of your head…a small pebble in your shoe…the longing inhabiting your dreams”, but it can also be encountered “like a blueberry found on a bush. You can just reach out, pick it, and throw it into your mouth.”

John Tarrant agrees with this, stating that koans/poems are often “confusing, irritating, mysterious, beautiful, and freeing, a gateway into the isness of life, where things are exactly what they are and have not yet become problems”. 

“You can think of koans/poems as vials full of the light that the ancestors walked through,” Tarrant proposes, “and if you can get these vials open you share that light.”

“By getting them open I mean you get at the light any way you can—you find the key and open the vials with a click, break them, drop them from a height, sing to them, step inside them, shake them so that some of the light spills out. Then that light is available to you, which might be handy if you’re ever in a dark and twisty passage.”

I don’t know about you, but I often find myself in dark and twisty passages, so I’m happy to have all the light I can get, no matter what form it it 

given to me. As someone who also works in the field of mental health, I am very much aware that almost everything transcendent, wondrous, contradictory and sublime gets stripped away in our so-called double-blind, peer-reviewed, scientific therapies, in many of our self-cures and so-called self-help books. There is very little poetry in a CBT worksheet, and I find that kind of sad. By “prescribing poems” to myself and other people, perhaps this is my way of putting that stuff back in.

@poetrykoan is a place for me to explore the poems I love-more-than-hate, which I often need to learn by heart in order to find out why I love-more-than-hate them so much, as well as a repository for the conversations I’ve had with other people about poems that function for them in this way.

Thanks for stopping by.

Poetry Koan Poetry Koan (By Heart)

Poetry Koan #2: i thank you god

I sometimes wonder why the second poem I recite by heart each day to myself is a praise poem. To God, no less!

I don’t believe in God. I wouldn’t say I’m an atheist necessarily – who knows what’s out there. But if you were asking me to bet my “soul” (!) on a Patriarchal God or his woolly-bearded and blazing-eyed son, Jesus, plus all the other fine theological malarkey that makes up our religious creeds, I’d probably stick to my experiential and pragmatic understanding of theology. Which states that this life, the one right here and now, is probably all we get. One living, breathing, word-filled period of consciousness, and then naught.

And yet, I think it’s good to have praise poems in one’s personal poetry liturgy. Because praise is linked to gratitude, and once we forget how to be grateful for the simple act of being, thinking, and experiencing the world, we’re dead. Not dead-dead, more like living-dead,  zombified with all that entails. I often have zombie moments, especially at the beginning of the day. Sometimes not just as part of the day, but the whole day itself seems to come with this living-dead quality to it.

Our go-to label for these states is “depression”, which doesn’t fully delineate the different forms of living-dead-dom as far I’m concerned. A less clinical, but perhaps more apt word might be something like “the blahs” or why-botherness. Today I’m experiencing some of that bleary, blahey why-botherness. And yet, here I am once again, sitting down to write some praise for a poem that is all about praising the world and being alive for one day more in it, regardless. Fancy that!

And here is Cumming’s poem in full with all its weird punctuation and wonky syntax – the most galling being, in my eyes, no spaces after semi-colons. Like, WTF Edward Estlin Cummings! Or if you prefer: wtf, ee!

Cummings supposedly suggested to his publisher that certain editions have his name written in lowercase as a sign of humility, or to showcase his avant-garde stylings, even though he always signed his name using Caps. Like many impromptu quirks, it seems to have stuck.

God, as you will see in the poem below is the only thing to gets some Caps. Fair enough.  Even this atheist-agnostic feels a bit weird about writing god in lowercase, so imagine the pressure cummings, son of a Unitarian minister would have felt in lowercasing God to god.

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday;this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings:and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any—lifted from the no
of all nothing—human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)


So here’s the thing about gratitude. We all know what an essential ingredient it is in our lives, and hundreds of pieces of research in the last few decades categorically confirm that a life-orientation towards gratitude leads to greater well-being. But we don’t like to be told to be grateful. We don’t like it when we’re kids and our parents might haul out some guilt-inducing version of “but children in Africa/Syria/Cambodia are starving to death you ungrateful little shit”, in order to get us to eat our peas. Nor as adults when someone posts those twinkly, primary-coloured gratitude memes on our social media platforms. Yes, I know full-well that “gratitude changes everything” Smiley Watercolour Quote, but I want to get to that realisation experientially, and on my own, rather than through your gentle, but still preachy admonishments.

The only problem with this aspiration (I’ll do gratitude when I see fit to do it) is that our minds don’t do gratitude when they probably need it most. Yes, we might feel the occasional warm glow of blessings being counted when in a settled, and contemplative state. But during the full-throttle surge and scramble of our lives, what our minds seem to do best (because they do this 24/7) is of course judge, analyse, problem-solve and plan. None of these mindstates have any place for gratitude.

So the only way I know to get my judging, analysing, problem-solving brain to take a few moments each day to be grateful is to stick a gratitude poem into my poetry liturgy and recite the damn thing whether I feel like doing it, or not.

And here’s the funny thing. It works. Which is to say: I might be walking down the road in some kind of disgrunted zombie state, feeling the very opposite of grateful: dissatisfied, self-focused, inattentive and just generally out to lunch (yer basic Autopilot Human Being), and BOOM, as soon as my lips start making those praise-sounds, some phrase or other will touch my heart. And when this happen, for a moment, but maybe a significant moment, I will be jettisoned out of my trance of unworthiness or blahness, of zombietude back into the perfectly OK (and quite grateful) state of being consciously alive here and now.

A certain cognitive dissonance can help with this too. Reciting these words on an island that is often grey and cold, the “blue true dream of sky” is frequently, and even hilariously a dream. But this doesn’t seem to matter. Perhaps because it reminds me that there always is a blue true sky behind the clouds? And in being reminded of this, I perhaps get another reminder that my emotional weather is also transitory if I’ll only allow myself to let it pass across the screen of my consciousness and not get hooked by whatever moodstate I’ve woken up to?

All I know, is that this poem delivers all the benefits of a grateful mind, as long as I don’t give my default ungrateful mind the option as to whether it wants to recite it or not. Paradoxically simple, you might say, as all good self-administered or other-assisted therapy often is.

Feel Better Poetry Koan Poetry Koan (By Heart)

Poetry Koan #1: Death Whispers In My Ear

Vladimir Nabokov’s drawing of Kafka’s beetle, drawn in the teaching copy of his Metamorphosis

Every morning I get out of bed, lie down on my yoga mat in a kind of upended beetle pose – the Gregor Samsa pose is how I like to think of it, although I believe the formal term for this pose is Pavanamuktāsana.

When I did Bikram Yoga, now known predominantly as Hot Yoga since founder Bikram was outed as a rapist, we were told whilst doing the pose, not that we needed reminding as our bodies were complying regardless, that Pavanamuktāsana translated as Wind Removing Pose. The farty-pose in other words. Not arty-farty, just farty.

So whilst putting my body into a farty Kafka-homage yoga pose, I bring to mind the following words attributed to Virgil: “Death whispers in my ear, / Live now, for I am coming.”

Why these two lines, rather than any other? I have since discovered that these two lines of verse were probably not written by Virgil, but someone else whose name hasn’t travelled the two thousand years of reading and writing that separates us.

I guess these words are a kind of prayer for me. If prayer means “a reminder to ourselves and to others to live wisely”, which I believe it does. Another word for these lines, even though they are shorter than the shortest haiku, is “poem”. What is a poem? Kaveh Akbar, quoting Mary Leader, gives this very inclusive, but somewhat dry definition: “A poem is a thing.”

I would like to suggest my own definition for a poem, which also perhaps explains why this poem is the first poem I recite by heart every morning, the first in my Poetry Liturgy (62 poems, and counting, learnt by heart and recited on a daily, or at the very least weekly basis). My definition for a poem goes more like this: “A poem is a series of words which move me, excite me, and challenge me in some way. A life koan: words I want to meditate on, interrogate myself through, and have close to me at all times.”

And the only way I know for doing this, is to have these 62, and counting, poetry koans living and breathing through my living breathing brain and heart. It takes time to do this. It takes me about a week or two to learn even a very short poem by heart (I don’t have a good memory), and then the rest of my life to keep them alive in my consciousness. This kind of poetry you could say is the ultimate existential-literary Tamagotchi!

Described in this way, the process sounds a tad insane. Just as insane as some of the religious practices carried out by the tribe I was born into. Practices I no longer follow. My uncle, to this day, binds two leather boxes, one to his forehead and another to his arm, containing some kind of Biblical verse (poetry?) and then recites other prayers to his God, in a language neither he nor I speak, prayers to a God who comes across in the Old Testament like an omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent Donald Trump. That’s why I don’t pray to that God.

My Uncle also only eats food that has been blessed by an elder of the tribe: food that costs him twice as much as anything else on the supermarket shelves, and is, in my opinion, not as tasty as the unblessed foods. But he does all this because these social and spiritual practices enrich his life and give it meaning. Learning poems by heart and keeping them alive through self-recital works in a similar way for me.

What I’d like to explore in the following posts, one for each poem I have learnt by heart (I’m aiming to get to 100 before I turn 50) is how and why this enriching process works. Poetry is not about hows and whys, which is partly what makes it so wonderful. Why is one poem better than another poem? Forget everything you’ve ever learnt at school. The simple answer: because that one speaks to you more than another does. That’s what’s so cool about poems. But as human beings, we yearn for coherence and orientation, we like to know how and why a certain kind of practice works. So let me tell you how and why, in the hope that this might convince you to give learning poems by heart a space in your own life. Especially if you’re in the position of lacking some path or purpose. These are times in our lives when we are ready for something new, which can also be something very old, like prayer. Or poetry.

If poems-by-heart is my “religion”, I’m sort of  bound to start behaving like any other believer, which is to say evangelically. So let me put that out on the table right from the start. Apart from sharing with you the 100 poems that have made a profound difference to the way I live my life, I’m also going to set about trying to convince you to start creating your own Poetry Liturgy: which is to say, learning some poems that speak to you in a profound way. Even if you start, as I did with just two lines, eleven words, thirteen syllables.

A personal poetry liturgy is not an anthology of poems that sits on your bookshelf and is consulted every now and then. We all have those, and those are great, but when life gets really really hard, as invariably it does at times, those poetry anthologies are not much use to us. Whereas the living, breathing poem often comes to my rescue. And sometimes on a daily basis. Eleven words that set the compass for my that day, and perhaps for my life.

Do you have eleven words that do something as profound as that for you?