I’m not going to lie, trying to find a way to talk about what’s happening around us in a new and hopeful way felt daunting today. I am a relentless optimist for the most part, and have been largely keeping sane by drawing a new flower every day. But even with diving deep into flowers, poetry, cooking and the prolific English Spring, every few days there is an unpredictable pull towards chronic inattention which I made the mistake of interpreting as indifference.
I came across this poem today by John Ashbery and it truly did justice to the Ancient Greek origin of the word ‘poetry’ - poesis (the activity in which a person brings something into being that did not exist before). John Ashbery was an American poet who throughout his poetry career has won pretty much every major poetry award. The thing I like most about his work is summed up in this quote by John himself “I don’t find any direct statements in life. My poetry imitates or reproduces the way knowledge or awareness come to me, which is by fits and starts and by indirection. I don’t think poetry arranged in neat patterns would reflect that situation. My poetry is disjunct, but then so is life.”
By John Ashbery
Alone with our madness and favorite flower
We see that there really is nothing left to write about.
Or rather, it is necessary to write about the same old things
In the same way, repeating the same things over and over
For love to continue and be gradually different.
Beehives and ants have to be re-examined eternally
And the color of the day put in
Hundreds of times and varied from summer to winter
For it to get slowed down to the pace of an authentic
Saraband and huddle there, alive and resting.
Only then can the chronic inattention
Of our lives drape itself around us, conciliatory
And with one eye on those long tan plush shadows
That speak so deeply into our unprepared knowledge
Of ourselves, the talking engines of our day.
Where do I even start with this poem? The first line alone hits me as I sit surrounded by all the flowers I pick and draw every day. It seemed like a direct response to my thoughts of inadequacy at not having anything new to write about. I love that it then goes on to say “Or rather, it is necessary to write about the same old things / In the same way, repeating the same things over and over”. The last stanza works as a balm, reinforcing that, while we might not be thinking, doing, saying anything ‘new’, there is consolation in repetition and inattention too, how it brings us closer to our shadows, the machinery of our days and ultimately ourselves.
If this poem has been a balm to you, you might want to purchase books from the good folks at The Poetry Pharmacy, which prescribes poems for common ailments. This isn’t sponsored in any way, but is a cause parallel to what I’m trying to do with this newsletter.
Stay home, stay safe.
P.S: While poetry has been a balm for me and many others, there are still healthcare workers working 18hr shifts to fight COVID-19. A few friends of mine are volunteering/running ‘Meals for NHS’ - please consider donating to them to get meals to the NHS staff in hospitals all over the UK. They have already delivered 59,520 meals to 75 hospitals in the UK, and continue to work tirelessly every day.