Poetic journeys

October 6, 2008

Have just been checking out a friend’s new poetry blog, which got me wondering about poetic journeys. Yesterday the sun was shining and it was the first good rain-free Sunday we’ve had for a few weeks. P and I did a lovely 2-hour walk along the contour path. I was afraid we might run into some banditos on the mountain so left the camera at home but instead, there were a lot of hikers and a few dogs. Bonnie was in her element swimming in all the mountain streams.

One of my favourite parts of that walk is the stretch with the boardwalk. (Photo by Danie van der Merwe at Flickr).

In my mom’s garden.

Then this morning, thinking more broadly about poetic (and inner) journeys, I have a few to share. The first one that springs to mind is Robert Frost’s “two roads diverged in a wood” but it’s not quite the mood I’m looking for. Neither is T.S. Elliot’s Journey of the Magi. It wasn’t a cold coming we had of it at all, it was pleasantly warm. Very interesting poem though (which I’m sure has been well picked-over by Elliot scholars).

One poem leads to another and I land up with Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”. Stevens, who lived in Hartford, Connecticutt, used to walk two miles to work every day composing poems in his head as he went. Here’s an extract:

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendos,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

Then there’s ‘When First I Came Here” by Edward Thomas and “Journey to the Interior” by Margaret Atwood.

When First I Came Hereby Edward Thomas

WHEN first I came here I had hope,
Hope for I knew not what. Fast beat
My heart at the sight of the tall slope
Or grass and yews, as if my feet

Only by scaling its steps of chalk
Would see something no other hill
Ever disclosed. And now I walk
Down it the last time. Never will

My heart beat so again at sight
Of any hill although as fair
And loftier. For infinite
The change, late unperceived, this year,

The twelfth, suddenly, shows me plain.
Hope now,–not health nor cheerfulness,
Since they can come and go again,
As often one brief hour witnesses,–

Just hope has gone forever. Perhaps
I may love other hills yet more
Than this: the future and the maps
Hide something I was waiting for.

One thing I know, that love with chance
And use and time and necessity
Will grow, and louder the heart’s dance
At parting than at meeting be.

Journey to the Interior (Margaret Atwood)

There are similarities
I notice: that the hills
which the eyes make flat as a wall, welded
together, open as I move
to let me through; become
endless as prairies; that the trees
grow spindly, have their roots
often in swamps; that this is a poor country;
that a cliff is not known
as rough except by hand, and is
therefore inaccessible. Mostly
that travel is not the easy going

from point to point, a dotted
line on a map, location
plotted on a square surface
but that I move surrounded by a tangle
of branches, a net of air and alternate
light and dark, at all times;
that there are no destinations
apart from this.

There are differences
of course: the lack of reliable charts;
more important, the distraction of small details:
your shoe among the brambles under the chair
where it shouldn’t be; lucent
white mushrooms and a paring knife
on the kitchen table; a sentence
crossing my path, sodden as a fallen log
I’m sure I passed yesterday

(have l been
walking in circles again?)

but mostly the danger:
many have been here, but only
some have returned safely.

A compass is useless; also
trying to take directions
from the movements of the sun,
which are erratic;
and words here are as pointless
as calling in a vacant wilderness.

Whatever I do I must
keep my head. I know
it is easier for me to lose my way
forever here, than in other landscapes

On Empathy

September 10, 2008

I’ve decided to make September empathy month here at the Couch Trip. We’ll see how far I get with that but I’ve definitely got a few posts on this topic. For starters I was wondering whether the words “fun” and “empathy” can exist in the same sentence. Is empathy just serious or can it be sexy?

I was thinking yesterday about a case from last year. A young girl (in her teens) was referred to me for a cognitive assessment to help with school placement. On the intelligence test she scored in the “Cognitively Handicapped” range but there was a very big discrepancy between her Verbal and Performance IQs. Her Verbal IQ was basically terrible while her performance in the non-verbal tests was significiantly better. She was very anxious and she was, to use the language of Klein or Winnicott, very caught up in her internal world. My heart went out to her and I really wanted to help if I could but there wasn’t much that I could do. We did the assessment and I wrote up my report (recommending she be transferred to a more technical school, but also that she receive therapy and that her mother attend parental guidance classes and also therapy of her own). Remembering the case, I feel a bit sad. Perhaps I identify with the teenager caught up in their internal world and needing a helping hand to build more meaningful relationships.

There are many aspects of empathy that I’d like to mention. I initially got on to the topic by looking at violence. In August I opened a file on my computer called ‘Violence Research’ and started filling it with articles on “Freud and Violence” and so on. But after about two weeks of this, I realised that I was very possibly missing the point. Violence (like evil) flourishes in the absence of empathy. Shouldn’t we rather focus on the empathy (and the lack thereof) rather than on the violence? I liked what Barack Obama said about the “empathy deficit” being a problem that should receive as much attention as the budget deficit. (What a pity if the polls are right and the Republicans win once again.)

And, following Arthur Saltzman, I would love to make this topic dance, to come alive. But as with the issue of sanity (which Adam Phillips made so interesting in Going Sane), I think the issue of empathy could do with a makeover. So where to begin?

Yesterday my group had a really good discussion about empathy and our poet-priest reminded us of Agape (unconditional love) as well as introducing us to a Tonglan meditation, which effectively asked us to “breathe in the pain” and “open your heart-mind”.

I like this poem by the Canadian poet Carmine Starnino called ‘The Last Days’ (posted by Alex Boyd at The Danforth Review) :
When the nurse let go, my aunt
stood there, disoriented, swaying a little
from side to side, and we understood
that for one more day she had been
returned to us, her body given back
to the world. My uncle, waiting behind her,
smiled with the excitement of a father
watching his daughter’s first steps
as my aunt tottered toward the vase
of flowers by the window, taking one step
then another, squinting into the sunlight
that warmed the hospital room, filling it
with the rich fragrance of lilac.

Carl Rogers talks about empathy as a “way of being” rather than doing. And then I’m reading about Winnicott (Adam P again). Here’s Winnicott on imagination: “A sign of health in the mind is the ability of one individual to enter imaginatively and accurately into the thoughts and feelings and hopes and fears of another person; also to allow the other person to do the same to us … ” Doesn’t that sound a bit like blogging? Perhaps blogging could be promoted as a way to cultivate inter-subjective empathy?

By the way the picture at the top refers to walking around in someone else’s shoes (photo by PataGata at Flickr). Another image that I think would work is a Mark Rothko print. Very New York psychotherapist’s office.

Lastly, another quote from Alex Boyd’s excellent article in TDR. Here he quotes Alden Nowland’s “Johnnie’s Poem”

Look! I’ve written a poem!
Johnnie says
and hands it to me
and it’s about
his grandfather dying
last summer, and me
in the hospital
and I want to cry,
don’t you see, because it doesn’t matter
if it’s not very good:
what matters is he knows
and it was me, his father, who told him
you write poems about what
you feel deepest and hardest.


August 12, 2008

I had a group meeting yesterday on the theme of commitment so I went looking for inspirational poems or quotes while I allowed myself to get side-tracked into The New Yorker for poems and cartoons.

Being in a slightly melancholy mood, I turned to a melancholy-sounding poem called “The God of Loneliness” by Philip Schultz. It’s about fathers queuing outside a toy store for their sons and it reminds me of how I tend to take my own father for granted. Then I read “One can miss mountains” by Todd Boss. The last lines go: “A man can leave this earth and take nothing — not even longing — with him”. Loneliness and longing remind us of what we’re trying to regain. Jack Gilbert, in “After Love”, writes: “There is somehow a pleasure in the loss. In the yearning. The pain going this way and that.”

There’s nothing I can find about commitment in The New Yorker poetry section but there is a fun poem about gadgets by Dorothea Tanning called ‘Never Mind’. “I caught the toaster eating my toast,” she says. “Did I press the right buttons on all these buttonless surfaces, daring me to press them?” And then I enjoyed reading “Slow Drag Blues” by Kevin Young. I like the part about grief who keeps dogging him and who he addresses as “Good Grief”.

And then a quote on Commitment I can use (by W.H. Murray, who also quotes Goethe):

Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (& creation,) there is one elementary truth— the ignorance of which kills countless ideas & splendid plans: That the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too.
All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favour all manner of unforeseen incidents & meetings & material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would come his way.
Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now.

Some Rumi for a cold day

June 12, 2008

I was recently introduced to the Persian Sufi poet Rumi by a poet who is also a life coach. So, to get my mind off getting lost yesterday and to set the tone for a productive and imaginative day, here are some Rumi poems. Did you know that Rumi is apparently the most widely-read poet in the world (including the United States)? Not bad for a Muslim who would have turned 800 years old last year.

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 are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honourably.
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.

The Worm’s Waking

This is how a human can change:
there’s a worm addicted to eating
grape leaves.
Suddenly, he wakes up,
call it grace, whatever, something
wakes him, and he’s no longer
a worm.

He’s the entire vineyard,
and the orchard too, the fruit, the trunks,
a growing wisdom and joy
that doesn’t need
to devour.

I’m not entirely convinced by that one. For me, there’s a bit of denial there. It’s as if it’s not cool to be a needy, devouring worm so, in a leap of mental dexterity, the poet imagines that he’s the entire vineyard. But I also like the idea of looking beyond yourself and seeing the whole, so that life is not just about your needs and desires.

Desire and the importance of failing

A window opens.
A curtain pulls back.
The lamps of lovers connect, not at their ceramic bases,
but in their lightedness.
No lover wants union with the Beloved
without the Beloved also wanting the lover.
Love makes the lover weak, while the Beloved gets strong.
Lightning from here strikes there.
When you begin to love God, God is loving you.
A clapping sound does not come from one hand.
The thirsty man calls out,
“Delicious water, where are you?” while the water moans,
“Where is the water-drinker?”
The thirst in our souls
is the attraction put out by the Water itself.
We belong to It, and It to us.


Disease comes, and the organs fall out of harmony.
We’re like the four different birds,
that each had one leg tied in with the other birds.
A flopping bouquet of birds!
Death releases the binding, and they fly off,
but before that, their pulling is our pain.
Consider how the soul must be, in the midst of these tensions,
feeling its own exalted pull.