Meeting Notes 2014

Social event with refreshments and poetry book/magazine swaps

The festivities included readings of favourite poems written by both Mole Valley Poets and more established writers. There were images of water knitted with light and of candles on Christmas trees. There were poems about the sense of being part of the world and of being part of the group. There were themes of war and peace, gift and loss, making sense of troubled times and celebrating the everyday. We were pleased to welcome two new people to the group.

6th January 2014

Maitreyabandhu: Poetry as Spiritual Practice, Rosemary Wagner

Maitreyabandhu: Poetry as Spiritual Practice

27th January 2014

Thoughts on judging a haiku competition, Diana Webb

Diana pointed out that a haiku competition can be likened to a lottery in that the spending of the £5 entry fee gives the opportunity of winning a prize of £125. However there are criteria by which to assess the quality of haiku.

Ian McMillan, who judges the Proms Poetry Competition, says the poem that wins has to surprise him, make him catch his breath.

This element of surprise is also important in haiku and is the first in a list of several words beginning with 's' that belong to haiku:

In Japanese the haiku is written as three lines of 2, 3 and 2 stresses. In English this roughly translates to three lines of 5, 7 and 5 syllables. Some people insist on this syllabic count while others have a more flexible approach. This breathful of words needs to surprise, to bring something new and unexpected to that which has been written about before many times.

Another set of attributes for a haiku can be summed up by the acronym 'cufem':

Some people keep on winning haiku competitions and some haiku are said to be only competition winners. The fingerprint of the haiku writer is very clear and so anonymity of entries to a competition cannot always be maintained.

Diana summed up her own criteria for assessing a haiku (these are not necessarily anyone else's):

Does it give thoughts that lie too deep for tears?

Would it sustain me on a desert island – i.e. by giving out increasing layers of meaning?

Could it do this for anyone – i.e. does it have universality?

Does it make me experience something celebrated many times in a new and surprising way?

Is there a sense of childlike wonder?

Does it involve more than one of the senses?

Does it look easy – i.e. has enough work been done on it?

Is it expressed in a musical way?

Is it memorable?

Diana then presented a collection of twelve haiku from recent issues of the Blithe Spirit magazine which is the journal of the British Haiku Society. Each of these haiku was accompanied by comments on why that particular haiku had been chosen as the favourite from the previous issue. The writer of each issue's favourite haiku then chose their own favourite from the next issue and wrote comments on this. So each one of these had been chosen from about 80 or 90 haiku.

The haiku were read aloud in turn by different people in the group and the accompanying comments were also read out. There was much discussion about the haiku. Some of these exhibited karumi which means 'lightness', some mononoawari which means 'beauty in transience' and some yugen which means 'awe and mystery'. There were themes of life and death, of the vastness of the universe and of the awareness of eternity within a single day. One of Diana's own haiku arose from a childhood memory:

behind the beach hut
my everlasting world
of pebbles

Diana then invited us to choose our own two favourite haiku from this selection – perhaps using the criteria discussed earlier or simply based on our own response to each one. This demonstrated the difficulty in choosing the "best" haiku – there was an inevitable element of subjectivity. Some haiku were chosen by more than one person in the group and some were not chosen at all but there were almost as many choices as people in the group. Indeed one person considered that on a different day her choice might well have differed from that evening's decision.

The discussion was most enlightening and enjoyable. The haiku were filled with startling images and resonated with musical sounds. All were in keeping with the criteria which Diana had explained to us for the judging of a haiku competition.

24th February 2014

Leonard Cohen & Bob Dylan: Lyrics & poetry, Tony Earnshaw

Leonard Cohen & Bob Dylan: Lyrics & poetry

31st March 2014

Edward Thomas, Sylvia Herbert

Sylvia began with brief biographical details. Philip Edward Thomas was born on 3rd March 1878 and died on 9th April 1917 aged 39. In 1915 he decided to enlist in the Army to fight in the First World War despite his age and married status. He survived a particularly bad shell attack but was killed by the blast wave of one of the last shells fired as he stood to light his pipe.

His family were mostly Welsh. He married in 1899 while still an undergraduate without the knowledge of his, or his wife Helen's, parents. He worked as a book reviewer, reviewing up to 15 books every week and as a journalist and literary critic. He began to write poetry in 1914 using the pen name Edward Eastaway. He was friends with Robert Frost, Walter de la Mare and the Welsh tramp poet W H Davies whom he supported in many ways. Robert Frost sent him a copy of "The Road Not Taken" as a gentle mocking of the indecision shown on their many walks together. It may be that this was taken far more seriously than Frost intended and could have been a catalyst for Thomas's decision to enlist.

Thomas and Helen had three children, a son Merfyn and two daughters, Bronwen and Myfanwy. Thomas also had an illegitimate daughter, Helen, with his housekeeper Anna Josphine Dineen. He had a close friendship with Eleanor Farjeon.

Thomas's poems are noted for their attention to the English countryside and he was intrigued by place names as in his poem "Adlestrop". His poetry displays a certain melancholy – indeed he was often depressed. However Ted Hughes revered his work and called him "the father of us all".

Sylvia brought a selection of Thomas's poetry and we took turns to read these aloud. The first poem to be read was "Old Man" - a reference to a plant also known as Lad's-love (an artemesia called Southernwood) and Sylvia brought several sprigs of this plant along and remembers as a child enjoying this plant as does the child in the poem. This poem is reminiscent of Robert Frost's work. The next poem, "Roads", in which Helen of the roads is a reference to Saint Elen of Caernarfon who is the patron saint of British road builders, has the famous line "Now all roads lead to France" and talks of the heavy tread of the living and "how the dead returning lightly dance". The poem "Bright Clouds" contains imagery very like that of Ted Hughes and tells of mortality. "The Manor Farm" was praised by Walter de La Mare. Thomas's prose was said to have poetry hidden in it. Tony Marcoff thought that the haibun form which contains both prose and haiku would have suited Thomas well. The joy in the local landscape brings John Clare to mind. The language is straightforward and descriptive as in "The Lane" where blackberry picking and bluebells are evoked and a chaffinch sings. Indeed birds featured in many of these poems. "The Mill-Pond" has a dreamy quality and seems to be a foreboding of death. "Snow", in just eight lines, appears to tell of a legend of snow as down fluttering from a white bird's breast. "In Memoriam" and "The Cherry Trees" are both four line poems and, by means of gathered flowers and strewn petals, tell of the futility of war. In "Rain", the sound of rain on the battlefield seems to be an emotionally numbed experience.

Much discussion arose after the reading of each of these poems and Sylvia recommended the recent biography "Now all roads lead to France" by Matthew Hollis. This was a most interesting and enjoyable presentation.

28th April 2014

Seamus Heaney his friends and students, Sharon Williams

Seamus Heaney his friends and students

2nd June 2014

The poetry of the living present, Elizabeth Barton

The Poetry of the Living Present, a selection of nature poems, included quotations from DH Lawrence's preface to his 'New Poems' (1920) in which he describes the poetry of the immediate present where there is nothing finished and the strands are all flying, quivering, intermingling into the web, the waters are shaking the moon...

Liz began with a recording of DH Lawrence's poem The Snake and this was followed by discussion on his interest in the work of Walt Whitman and the use of free verse and of the clear and striking imagery used here.

We then looked at Water Lilies by Kathleen Jamie from her collection The Tree House, 2004. This begins with Late summer: the white / flowers are blown and continues with the persistence of leaves which rise in furled leaf-cones through the peat stained / lochan's shallows. The leaves meet the space where water / becomes air and in the last stanza unfold into almost heart shapes, / almost upturned hands. The short lines of these four tercets hold the memory of flowers and the continuing growth of leaves. In the words of DH Lawrence A water-lily heaves herself from the flood, looks round, gleams and is gone... We have seen the invisible.

The next poem to be considered was Roe-Deer by Ted Hughes, 1973, in which two deer appear suddenly in the dawn-dirty light, in the biggest snow of the year in the moment of Hughes' arrival at that place. They were suddenly in his dimension and stared at him. And so for some lasting seconds // I could think the deer were waiting for me / To remember the password and sign. And that the trees were no longer trees, nor the road a road // The deer had come for me. Then the deer were off and upright they rode their legs // Away downhill over a snow-lonely field and seemed to glide and fly away up // Into the boil of big flakes. They and their footprints were taken by the snow Revising its dawn inspiration / Back to the ordinary. This moment is held within six couplets followed by a single line and concluding with four couplets. The lines vary in length. The sense of such a fleeting encounter can be described in DH Lawrence's words The whole tide of all life and all time suddenly heaves, and appears before us as an apparition, a revelation.

In River by Alice Oswald, 2005, by putting your ear to the tiny inkling of a river the trees can be heard and if you put your ear to the trees you hear the widening / numerical workings of the river and this travels the length of Devon under a milky square of light that keeps quite still. The river moves on with storm trash clustered in its branches and with pairs of ducks swimming over bright grass among flooded willows and is the eye of the earth looking through earth's bones and the river carries the moon carries the sun but keeps nothing and all this conveyed within couplets, tercets and single lines while being 14 lines in total. To catch a moment, the unwanted stuff cannot be filtered out - the mud needs to be written about as well as the stars. DH Lawrence said Let me feel the heavy, silting, sucking mud... Give me nothing fixed, set, static.

The Skylark by John Clare from The Rural Muse, 1835 is in one stanza of 30 lines with an ease of rhyming at the end each pair of lines. The language flows and the imagery is clear and detailed. The battered road runs alongside fields of corn springing from russet clods where the hare squats like some brown clod the harrows failed to break well aware of danger. Boys run to pick the buttercups that open their golden caskets to the sun and the skylark flies up from her nest away from their hurry and with happy wings / Winnows the air, till in the cloud she sings, / Then hangs a dust-spot in the sunny skies, / And drops, and drops, till her nest she lies. The boys pass this by - never realising that the bird that flew at such a height would nest in such a vulnerable place as on the ground. Had they wings, they would build their nest on a passing cloud, As free from danger as the heavens are free / From pain and toil and they would sail about the world to scenes unheard / Of and unseen. And this is what they think as they listen to the skylark's song and walk right past the place where the low nest Lies safely with the leveret in the corn. In this poem, we feel, in the words of DH Lawrence, the spinning of sky winds. John Clare left school at the age of 12 and would write on the brim of his hat if there was no paper to hand.

In Visitation by Maitreyabandhu, 2010, there are four stanzas of 7, 8, 7 and 8 lines. The 'you' of the poem arrives as if you had been there all the time, / like a pair of gloves left in a pocket. There was no waiting, the 'you' was just there like the shadow of a church // or a quiet brother. And the 'you' was seen as a slant of grey, / the perfect grey of house dust and was light-years away from Byzantium. And yet this was also like light, / as if a skylight opened in my skull, / and into the darkness fell / a diagonal of pure Bodmin Moor. Although this is too bright an image Call it 'dust' then, or the bloom / of leaf-smoke from an autumn fire. And this is echoed by DH Lawrence Life, the ever-present, knows no finality, no finished crystallisation.

There was much enjoyable discussion on these vivid depictions of the natural world and of life within the moment. There were memories of nightjars and of the spiritual saying Learn to listen to the river. There was mention of Seamus Heaney who talked of John Clare's work as this poetry of the living present. Each of the poems looked at here have that vivid immediacy of vibrant life.

Liz concluded with another quotation from DH Lawrence: The perfect rose is only a running flame, emerging and flowing off, and never in any sense at rest, static, finished.

Notes by Helen Overell

30th June 2014

Mysticism, Tony Marcoff

Mysticism is linked to the Greek word meaning to open a door and is associated with both visionary intuition and enthusiasm and this comes from the Greek word entheos meaning God within. The dawn can be seen as the opening of the day, the time when light begins to flood over the land and birds begin to take to the sky.

Tony brought readings from:

1) William Blake,1757-1827,All Religions are One
The Divine Image
2) William Wordsworth,1770-1850,(from) Tintern Abbey
(from) The Tables Turned
3) Shusaku Endo,1923-1996,(from) Deep River
4) Mary Oliver,1935 - ,You do not have to be good
5) ee cummings, 1894-1962,i thank You God
6) Jalal-ud-Din Rumi, 1207-1273,Love's Apocalypse, Love's Glory
Lord, the air
Only Breath
7) Old Testament,(from) The Song of Solomon
8) Denise Levertov, 1923-1997I believe the earth
9) Tony Marcoffland, & the river

We looked first at readings from William Blake, All Religions are One and The Divine Image. William Blake was a visionary from a young age and believed that all religions have one source. Part of The Divine Image in which Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love have both divine and human form is used as a hymn. Kathleen Raine shared Blake's view that it is divine vision that makes a poet.

Buddha, in his flower sermon, raised a single flower to the two hundred disciples who had gathered to hear him speak and said not a word. And when a Zen priest was shown the "lilies of the field" sermon in Matthew's gospel, he considered the writer to have been close to Buddhahood.

William Wordsworth drew inspiration from nature and this can be seen in his poem Tintern Abbey which is close to the River Wye. In this poem can be seen the three classical stages in the mystical experience recognised by Plotinus. For Neo-Platonists the goal was the attainment of unity with the Deity through asceticism. These stages are first, physical quiet, second, new spiritual awareness, and finally the mystic's attainment of a vision of the absolute, a recognition of a new relationship between all created things. And in The Tables Turned Wordsworth tells how a wood in springtime can teach more than any sage.

Shusaku Endo was a Catholic Japanese. He wrote Deep River in which a young Japanese man, Otsu, corresponds with Mitsuko, telling of his experiences at the seminary which was run by Jesuits. The Western hierarchical view of the life-force that causes flowers to bloom being different from that within human beings has caused problems for him. He has been accused of pantheism. He has opened himself to fierce criticism when he said that God was among the Jews and Buddhists and Hindus as well as in the churches and chapels of Europe.

Varanasi, city of light, in India, is a place where Hindu people go to die, and when they have been cremated, their ashes are offered to the Ganges. The river is often seen as a symbol of spirituality. Siddhartha in the novel by Herman Hesse learns to listen to the river on his spiritual journey of self discovery.

In Mary Oliver's poem You do not have to be good there is great comfort and reassurance within the clear pebbles of rain and the wild geese high in the clean blue air. There is a place in the world for each of us in the family of things.

ee cummings talks of an awakening to the wonders of the world and to faith in i thank You God and another poet who could have been included here is GM Hopkins.

Rumi, a Sufi and thirteenth century Persian poet, lived in Iran. Sufism is the mystical heart of Islam. Kathleen Raine, a mystic and a poet was very familiar with Rumi's work. Andrew Harvey, wrote a book on Rumi called The Way of Passion. In the poems looked at here the imagery of light and fire at the heart of the universe and of belonging to no one religion but to the beloved continue the theme of God in all things.

In the extract from the Song of Solomon there are flowers and the singing of birds. A dove is called from out of the clefts of the rock. The Drunken Universe, an anthology of Sufi poems, contains imagery similar to that of the Song of Songs. This imagery is also found in the mediaeval The Cloud of Unknowing and in the the writings of the Christian Mystics, Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross.

Denise Levertov, who moved from Judaism to Catholicism, speaks of each dust mote of the earth lit as by a candle, of the threatened world and of doubt and faith, the ordinary glow / of common dust in ancient sunlight .

Tony Marcoff's poem land, & the river brought elements of light and God, flower and river. The river in this poem is the Mole and is like steel, & curving and in which the sunrise gathers. There is a swan which searches for the sun and flies white into light. There is a kingfisher, assertive and fleeting, brief brilliant / blue.

The talk was a poem in itself - the mysticism of centuries encompassed within the space of an hour, offering insight and knowledge with grace and humour.

Notes by Helen Overell

28th July 2014

Summer school: Interstices, Helen Overell

The summer school is a creative space providing a touchstone for ideas so that the beginnings of poems can be set down on the page. Writing exercises are both individual and collaborative with opportunities for sharing what has been written.

An interstice is a space that intervenes between closely spaced objects, a gap or break in something continuous, a short space of time. Such spaces can be found between bricks in a wall, within whorls on a fingerprint or around seeds of a pomegranate.

The session began with a reading of How to paint the portrait of a bird by Jacques Prévert in which the bars of the cage are painted in order to capture the bird and then erased one by one. This was followed by Carol Ann Duffy's Prayer where gaps are portrayed in the sieve of hands and playing of piano scales. A single word is repeated so as to form a shape on the page which has a gap at the centre in the concrete poem Silencio by Eugen Gomringer. In the tanka "Although the wind ..." by Izumi Shikibu moonlight leaks through gaps between roof planks. Imtiaz Dharker in her poem How to cut a Pomegranate talks of trying to make a necklace from the seeds which are jewels of the world and remind her of another home. Helen Overell's poems Interstices and The noticing of interruptions in light contained images of slivers of air amongst grass stems and the fine lines and grooves on the shell of a tortoise.

Writing exercises followed with opportunities to share what had been written after each one and to re-read and underline unusual and interesting words and phrases. In one of the collaborative exercises each person contributed a line or phrase. This is one of the poems which arose as a result of re-ordering some of the contributions:

When dusk falls
Light puddled and pooled
Crunched like bones
Neither seeing nor seen
Writing silence

And in the following composite poem there were contributions from everyone present:

The way through and beyond,
the open door as they all stream in
laughing and waving banners
throwing hats into the air, dancing
whooping joyously and cart-wheeling
scarlet petticoat fanned out
like a full-opened poppy in the sunny field
when sky seemed white as lily flowers.

This was an enjoyable and interesting afternoon and provided ideas for further writing.

Notes by Helen Overell

9th August 2014

Sofa Poet, Jane Draycott

Jane Draycott led a most interesting workshop on the relationship between poetic composition and drama. Rhythm and patterning is common to both and the rhythms of language are more readily appreciated when spoken aloud. The setting of a poem can be likened to a stage set and the sudden 'turn' that surprises the reader with the incongruous or unexpected is akin to a change of lighting which brings out some aspect on stage not hitherto seen. The telling of a legend can have even more impact when presented in poetic or dramatic form. The slow motion unfolding of a poem is similar to the development of dramatic action onstage. Drama is about change and transformation and these elements need to be present in poetry. The translating of poetry from one language to another gives an opportunity to recognise the essential elements within a poem that give wings to words. The writing exercises encouraged a dramatic outlook and the session concluded with a reading from Jane Draycott's translation of the fourteenth century poem Pearl. This was an enjoyable and insightful exploration.

Notes by Helen Overell

20th September 2014

Siftings, Helen Overell

At the turn of this century the Independent on Sunday, sister paper to The Independent introduced a weekly discussion on a contemporary poet through an example of their work. This ran for about five years. To begin with, the the space available was generous, half a page or more, but as the years went on this was whittled down. The poetry editor, Ruth Padel, based a book on this column - 52 ways of looking at a poem or How reading modern poetry can change your life published by Chatto & Windus in 2002.

Having cut out and kept most of the poems from the Independent on Sunday, I sifted through these cuttings and chose poems by Jane Draycott (our sofa poet this year), Seamus Heaney, Imtiaz Dharker, Eavan Boland, Billy Collins, (all of whom were mentioned during the sofa poet event) Martina Evans, Jane Yeh, Donald H Rumsfeld, John Burnside, Chris Beckett, Judy Gahagan, Annemarie Austin, Stanley Moss, Katherine Pierpoint and Carole Satyamurti. Photocopies of these cuttings were spread out on the table.

Sifting again from these siftings, we read and discussed several of these poems. There were linked themes - from surgeon to heart surgery to the function of the amygdyla, from terrorist / freedom fighter to the power of the media, from groundhog ghost to the quiet presence of the good neighbour. There was clarity of language and depth of meaning. There were poems of all shapes and sizes. We concluded with a poem in which childhood swimming lessons, indoors on a piano stool, gave rise to the idea of learning to fly being as straightforward and the obvious next step.

The poems sifted from the collection of cuttings were:

Notes by Helen Overell

29th September 2014

Poetry Pub - open mike event

Poetry Pub, an open mike evening held at the Stepping Stones pub, Westhumble, as part of the Arts Alive Festival included contributions from a wide range of voices and a variety of styles of writing and performing. This proved to be a great success - a room full of people and something for everyone which included slightly more serious work, humorous verse and performance poetry. Mole Valley Poets and poets from the floor gave twelve readings in each half of the evening. Music was provided by Ian Codd. This was also the launch for the most recent Mole Valley Poets anthology Along the way.

Feedback included:

Thank you to everyone involved in behind the scenes organisation and in production of the anthology and in taking part on the night.

Mole Valley Poets would like to thank the Arts Alive organisers for the support and encouragement which enabled us to take part in the Arts Alive Festival.

Notes by Helen Overell

6th October 2014

Persian Poetry, Bill Young

Bill began by playing a recording of music which included chanting of Persian poetry. This flourished in the Golden Era of the 11th to 15th centuries. In Britain this period is called the Middle Ages. The most well known Persian poet, Rumi, lived at the time of Chaucer. He is the best-selling poet in the USA. Kathleen Raine, who set up the Temenos Academy, was influenced by his work as were Goethe and Emerson.

Persian poetry originated in Iran, Central Asia, and Afghanistan and was influenced by pre-Arab as well as Islamic, especially Sufi traditions. Storytellers and bards passed the work down the generations. The poems are often di-glossic, being written in both Persian and Arabic.

Sanai from the 11th century is the original Persian mystical poet who influenced all who followed. We listened to and discussed two different translations of one of his ghazals. The version by Andrew Harvey is spare and concise while that of Coleman Barks is more embellished and elaborate. The emphasis is on God within and not as observer – an idea intrinsic to Sufism.

Attar's poem 'Looking for your own face' aligns with Zen teaching where the soul is likened to a mirror in which we can see our true nature. His poem the 'Conference of the Birds' tells of seeking for enlightenment.

'The Guest House', by Rumi, is a metaphor for the human being. Every morning brings a new arrival – a joy, a sorrow , a shame – and all are welcomed into the guest house. These guests are seen as guides from the beyond and all have something of value to offer. Learning arises from failures – whereas in the West the emphasis tends to be on learning from successes.

Rumi was born in the early 13th century in Afghanistan and fled to Central Turkey. His father was a theologian and he was a respected scholar. He met Shams of Tabriz, a wandering dervish with profound wisdom, and his life changed forever. Rumi would speak in an ecstatic state, a trance, and others would write his words down. After two years, Shams disappeared and left Rumi bereft. He wrote a Divan of forty thousand lines and he wrote about twenty five thousand couplets. He died aged 66.

Hafiz was born later than Rumi but, like him, was inspired by Sanai and Attar. He was also a Sufi. His writing is considered to be the pinnacle of Persian Poetry. In Iran, works by Hafiz are set alongside or instead of the Koran. Canaries are still used to pick a poem for a special occasion such as a wedding. Hafiz thought religiosity was dangerous. In his poem 'The Nightingale' life is likened to a game of chess and the soul weeps for lack of time 'I had not castled, and the time is gone'. In his poem 'It happens all the time in heaven' those who love each other ask 'How can I be more loving to you; // How can I be more kind?'

Translating poems from another language and era and culture is an immense task – two translators took 16 years to translate 30 of these poems – first of all transcribing word for word, then using maps so as to make links with cultural associations and then choosing language and line lengths so as to convey the lyricism of the original poetry.

There was much discussion on mysticism and the influences of Eastern thought on Western tradition, in particular in Spain where for a time Christianity, Judaism and Islam flourished alongside each other. This was a most interesting and illuminating talk.

Notes by Helen Overell

27th October 2014

Looking forwards

Tony Earnshaw led a discussion on the successes of this year and we considered the possibility of holding two Poetry Pub open-mike events next year - maybe one in May and one in October as usual as part of Arts Alive. We discussed the programme for next year and topics and leaders were decided for each of the Monday meetings. The date for the Sofa Poet is to be arranged when the poet is contacted. Libraries were discussed as venues for readings. A provisional date for the Summer School was set.

The workshop poems looked at the journey of river and song, at keys in a bowl linking mill work of the past with computer work in the present, at something gentle alighting from windblown dark, and at blackbird song and biting cold linking with memorials of war and their lack. The theme 'Winners' was set for the end of January for anyone who would like to work to a theme.

Notes by Helen Overell

24th November 2014

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