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Poetry to save your life

In my previous post on the Pleasures of Reading I ruminated on why we read and why as humans we find art so essential. I reflected that perhaps it was because we are essentially social animals needing to communicate and something about seeing life reflected that helps us give meaning to our experiences.

This got me thinking why I read or why I turn to a particular piece of work when I am in a certain mood. Sometimes it is literally reading to save myself, reading to see my melancholy and despair understood and experienced, reading for words of inspiration, reading as a balm for hurt, to be cheered, to laugh and to know that as Kahlil Gibran said we see only the ’surface of things and not their secrets’.  

Poetry is made for this kind of drama of the heart which is why it is so delightful to share. I remember (sometimes still now but more in my uni days) swapping poems indulging in wild despair with friends (other poets of course, my own excesses were locked safely in drawer of course).  

 Poems are like magnified, concentrated bursts of of bang.  Prose on crack. Which is why there is a poem for every feeling, from the follies of ambition and fame (Emily Dickenson’s  ’admiring bog’ , existential despair (Larkin), heartbreak (Yevgeny  Yevtushenko),  rage (Erica Jong), idealism (Elizabeth Barrret Browning) and of course soul-food (Rumi).

At the risk of crowding this post I am going to share some of my personal favourites.  Two of these are translated from the Russian and Farsi so let us respectfully acknowledge they are magnified by a thousand in awesomeness in their original language.  This one is one is “The Guest House” from 13th century Sufi mystic Jalaladin Rumi.

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.
He 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. 

If that doesn’t get you through your worst day with that annoying telemarketer,   those hideous in-laws or jarring colleague I don’t know what will.

The best ones are the one sent by friends on the commiserations of failed love. This one ’Unrequited Love’ by Yevgeny Yevtushenko is on well, the obvious, and also the courage needed to transcend yourself.

We yawn and play at shabby little passions,
discarding hearts as though they’re last year’s fashions,
afraid of tragedy, afraid to pay.
And you and I, no doubt, are being weaklings
whenever we so often force our feelings
to take the easier,  less binding way.

Then there is the mysterious one left in your inbox that makes you laugh out loud and of course want some of what she’s having please.  This one is ‘I don’t want you for your beauty alone’

I don’t love you
For your beauty alone,
but also for your large vocabulary
When you say emporium and brouhaha instead of
shops and a fistfight it really turns me on.
tell me all the synonyms for smitten
and I’ll tell you what I am.

We can’t figure out who the poet is but apparently she is English (and a pretty cool chick). If anyone knows please enlighten us here. And of course let us know what are your favourite reads to save your soul.

From ABC bookshow blog

books · culture

Literary heroes and villains

We all know them. They are those characters in books who feel like real people, who live on with you well after you finish the book. Their thoughts mirror your own; their struggles resonate with you and leave you ruminating. Or conversely they infuriate you and challenge you to think differently. Here are my top five:

1. Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte’s ‘Jane Eyre’)

It probably helps if you are brainy, angsty teenager suffering from an identity crisis to really ‘feel’ Jane, but anyone who feels they were not blessed with life’s advantages can empathise with Bronte’s heroine.  Lonely and poor, orphan Jane forges her way from a cruel boarding school to love and independence.  Even when she falls for Mr Rochester, she has the confidence to negotiate the terms of their equal partnership.  She is not beautiful, wealthy or connected but she has self-respect damn it, and that’s why she is No.1.

2. Raskolnikov (Dostoevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’)

The tortured soul of Dostoevsky’s classic, Raskolnikov’s journey from his philosophical experiment to eventual redemption, is the ultimate in existential literature (the only other exception being Dostoevsky’s other foray into The Meaning of Life ‘The Brothers Karamazov’.)  If you have been a starving student in Sydney’s overblown rental markets, you will feel Raskolnikov’s pain (and the Russian winter too, viscerally.)

3. Atticus Finch (Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’)

Some may like their bad boys, your Dorian Gray’s and Heathcliff’s (two who were hotly contested for this list), but I’ve always loved the noble man. Atticus is the ultimate straight shooter, a widower who uses his skills as a lawyer to controversially stand up for justice by defending a black man accused of rape in America’s segregationist south. It is Atticus’ love for his children, his integrity and quiet humility that make him a winner on my list

3. Elizabeth Bennett (Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’)

Bright and beautiful, Elizabeth Bennett, the heroine of Austen’s classic, is beloved precisely because she has the confidence to be haughty despite the manifest disadvantages of being a woman in Victorian England and coming from a somewhat dysfunctional family.  Ms Bennett wins because she is another strong woman who has the courage to navigate her own destiny within and even transcending the limitations of her circumstances and unlike the earnest Jane, she does it with wit and style.  When she is not trading barbs with her love interest Darcy, she’s laughing up a social custom or absurdity.

4. Channu (Monica Ali’s Brick Lane)

The Bengali husband in Monica Ali’s Man Booker prize short-listed novel Brick Lane, Channu is a favourite, because he is complex and nuanced. One of those characters one cannot help loving and hating, sometimes at the same time. It would have been easy to relegate him to the 2-D cliché of the overbearing patriarch, but Ali’ genius lay in her ability to give even her make even her  ‘villainous’ character sympathetic,  flawed and human.

5. Mrs Dalloway (Virginia Woolf’s ‘Mrs Dalloway’).

The wife of a Tory MP who ‘had parties to cover the silence’, Clarissa Dalloway is chosen, because despite being conventional and insipid, she loves life and gives an insight into the sometimes uncomfortable mind of comfortable privilege. We meet Mr and Mrs Dalloway fleetingly in Woolf’s first novel ‘The Voyager’ and are immediately intrigued.  She is one of those superficial, yet mysterious people you’ve always wanted to be able to decode and somehow get inside their head.  We know Mrs Dalloway is more than meets the eye because she attracts interesting people like the marauding Peter Walsh and the once outrageous Sally Seton. She’s also an archetype, the natural socialite and gravitational centre from which everyone is brought together.

Who are your favourite characters?

From ABC bookshow blog