Shards, Sweepings, Stealings, Sayings, Secrets

Month: July, 2012

One Sweet Harmony

“The interior solitude, along with the steady rhythm of walking mile after mile, served as a catalyst for deeper awareness. The solitude I found and savoured on the Camino had an amazing effect on me. The busyness of my life slowly settled down as the miles went on. For a good portion of my life I had longed for a fuller experience of contemplation, that peaceful prayer of the heart in which one is able to look intently and see each piece of life as sacred. Ten days into the journey, totally unforeseen, the grace of seeing the world with startling lucidity came to me.

My eyes took in everything with wonder. The experience was like looking through the lens of an inner camera — my heart was the photographer. Colours and shapes took on nuances and depths never before noticed. Each piece of beauty appeared to be framed: weeds along roadsides, hillsides of harvested fields with yellow and green stripes, layers of mountains with lines of thick mist stretching along their middle section, clumps of ripe grapes on healthy green vines, red berries on bushes, roses and vegetable gardens. Everything revealed itself as something marvellous to behold. Each was a work of art. I noticed more and more details of light and shadow, lines and edges, shapes, softness, and texture. I easily observed missed details on the path before me — skinny worms, worn pebbles, tiny flowers of various colours and shapes, black beetles, snails, and fat, grey slugs. I became aware of the texture of everything under my feet —stones, slate, gravel, cement, dirt, sand, grass. I responded with wonder and amazement. Like the poet Tagore, I felt that everything ‘harsh and dissonant in my life’ was melting into ‘one sweet harmony’.”

Joyce Rupp

(Thanks to Andy at Pilgrimpace for this quote.)

This World

“Discover the world in which you already live.” Walter Benjamin

Silence and Eternity

“Every great work of art has two faces, one toward its own time and one toward the future, toward eternity.”

“The tempo is the suitcase. If the suitcase is too small, everything is completely wrinkled. If the tempo is too fast, everything becomes so scrambled you can’t understand it.”

“There are many types of silence. There is a silence before the note, there is a silence at the end and there is a silence in the middle.”

Daniel Barenboim

In an interview for the BBC last week Barenboim was asked what he thought Beethoven‘s message was in the Choral Symphony. He reflected a while then answered: “The solution lies within.”

Sailing To Byzantium

I once heard an apocryphal story that half the population of Scotland’s Isle of Skye can play the fiddle. And the other half play the accordion. By the same token it wouldn’t surprise me if half the population of Ireland were poets or would-be poets. Poetry envelops Ireland like mist over bogland, and to have the occupation “poet” in your passport is as natural as having “sheep farmer” or “property developer”. As part of a postgraduate Librarianship course I did in the 1970s, I had to compile a bibliography of modern Irish poets and their work. The list went on for ever. Ireland has always punched above its weight in poetry and playwriting. The last century produced not one, nor two, nor even three, but four Irish Nobel Prize winners in Literature: Yeats, Shaw, Beckett and Heaney. And every village, bar and pub has its own storytellers (I hope I’m not falling into the trap of false “Irishry” here).

I’m sure that every poet writing today in Ireland would acknowledge his or her debt to that towering figure of early twentieth century Irish poetry, WB Yeats (1865-1939). I love Yeats, but he’s not an easy poet (some of the early Celtic Twilight poems aside) to get to grips with in one sitting. You have to put some work into reading him, and find out a little about his personal life, his use of symbolism, his “mythology”, about Ireland’s political background. This poem is the first in his collection The Tower, which was published in 1929. Many of the poems deal with advancing old age and its relationship to sex, friendship and creativity.

Sailing To Byzantium

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
— Those dying generations — at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

I won’t attempt an analysis of this endlessly interpretable poem, but will content myself with making just a few comments about it. Firstly, the second stanza about old age recalls the  first section of the  collection’s title poem, The Tower:

What shall I do with this absurdity —
O heart, O troubled heart — this caricature,
Decrepit age that has been tied to me
As to a dog’s tail?
Never had I more
Excited, passionate, fantastical
Imagination, nor an ear and eye
That more expected the impossible —
No, not in boyhood when with rod and fly,
Or the humbler worm, I climbed Ben Bulben’s back
And had the livelong summer day to spend.
It seems that I must bid the Muse go pack,
Choose Plato and Plotinus for a friend
Until imagination, ear and eye,
Can be content with argument and deal
In abstract things; or be derided by
A sort of battered kettle at the heel.

Secondly, what a wonderful description of the contrast between careless, romantic, sensual youth, and old age with its concerns about declining energy and approaching death. Yet the intellect need not rust; indeed, it can create a “singing school” of its own, a Byzantium of the imagination. The flesh may weaken but the soul may still sing, and eternity may be fashioned, even if it’s only an artifice.

And thirdly, I sure hope that soul claps its hands and sings in my own future advancing years, and that my imagination remains excited, passionate and fantastical.

Inniskeen Road: July Evening

Although I find the work of Patrick Kavanagh, the country boy from County Monaghan, frustratingly uneven, there’s a handful of his poems which I can read again and again with the same pleasurable thrill. As Seamus Heaney observes in his essay From Monaghan To The Grand Canal: The Poetry Of Patrick Kavanagh, Kavanagh treads a brave line between success and failure, but when he pulls it off the result is pure magic. I’ve already featured his poem The Hospital in this blog, with its inspired phrases “the inexhaustible adventure of a gravelled yard” and “the passionate transitory”. There’s another outstanding poem called Shancoduff which contains the line “When dawn whitens Glassdrummond chapel.” There’s On Raglan Road and the folksy charm of “And I said let grief be a fallen leaf at the dawning of the day.” And there’s this, the sonnet Inniskeen Road: July Evening:

The bicycles go by in twos and threes –
There’s a dance in Billy Brennan’s barn to-night,
And there’s the half-talk code of mysteries
And the wink-and-elbow language of delight.
Half-past eight and there is not a spot
Upon a mile of road, no shadow thrown
That might turn out a man or woman, not
A footfall tapping secrecies of stone.

I have what every poet hates in spite
Of all the solemn talk of contemplation.
Oh, Alexander Selkirk knew the plight
Of being king and government and nation.
A road, a mile of kingdom, I am king
Of banks and stones and every blooming thing.

It’s lovely, that “half-talk code of mysteries”, that “wink-and-elbow language of delight” and those “secrecies of stone”. And Kavanagh evokes so well that poignant sense of apartness, that isolation from village life, the young, gifted, provincial poet may feel. His talent may make him lord of all he surveys but, like Robinson Crusoe, he’s lonely on his small island of poetry, his mile of country road.


There’s a passage somewhere in Zorba The Greek where Kazantzakis compares human beings to maggots, and there’s also the section in which he graphically imagines maggots infesting Bouboulina’s dead body. This reminded me of a remark made by the artist and sculptor Louise Bourgeois (yes, she of the Maman spider figures) which I noted down recently: “A maggot is actually a symbol of resurrection.”


“A little child had fallen into a well, said the story. There it found a marvellous city, flower-gardens, a lake of pure honey, a mountain of rice-pudding and multi-coloured toys. As I spelled it out, each syllable seemed to take me further into that magic city. Once, at midday, when I had come home from school, I ran into the garden, rushed to the rim of the well beneath the vine-arbour and stood fascinated, staring at the smooth black surface of the water. I soon thought I could see the marvellous city, houses and streets, the children and the vine-arbour loaded with grapes. I could hold out no longer. I hung my head down, held out my arms and kicked against the ground to push myself over the edge. But at that moment my mother noticed me. She screamed, rushed out and caught me by my waistband, just in time . . .

As a child, then I had almost fallen into the well. When grown up, I nearly fell into the word ‘eternity’, and into quite a number of other words too — ‘love’, ‘hope’, ‘country’, ‘God’. As each word was conquered and left behind, I had the feeling that I had escaped a danger and made some progress. But no, I was only changing words and calling it deliverance. And there I had been, for the last two years, hanging over the edge of the word ‘Buddha’.

But I now feel sure — Zorba be praised — that Buddha will be the last well of all, the last word-precipice, and then I shall be delivered for ever. For ever? That is what we say each time.”

Nikos Kazantzakis Zorba The Greek

Don’t Think Too Much

“A man needs a little madness or else . . . he never dares cut the rope and be free.”

“You think too much. That is your trouble. Clever people and grocers, they weigh everything.”

“How simple and frugal a thing is happiness: a glass of wine, a roast chestnut, a wretched little brazier, the sound of the sea.”

“I felt deep within me that the highest point a man can attain is not Knowledge, or Virtue, or Goodness, or Victory, but something even greater, more heroic and more despairing: Sacred Awe!”

Nikos Kazantzakis Zorba The Greek

Zorba The Greek

I know some of my blogfriends have enjoyed this novel, but this is the first time I myself have read it. I’m loving the book, which pivots on the dynamic between the intellectual, self-searching narrator and the hedonistic, live-for-today Alexis Zorbas. The charting of the narrator’s spiritual journey and the evocation of Crete and the Greek character are totally absorbing. The book’s a classic.

“It was cold, the sea was booming, Venus was dancing roguishly in the east. I walked along the water’s edge playing a game with the waves. They ran up to try and wet me and I ran away. I was happy and said to myself: ‘This is true happiness: to have no ambition and to work like a horse as if you had every ambition.To live far from men, not to need them and yet to love them. To take part in the Christmas festivities and, after eating and drinking well, to escape on your own far from all the snares, to have the stars above, the land to your left and the sea to your right: and to realise of a sudden that, in your heart, life has accomplished its final miracle: it has become a fairy-tale.'”

Nikos Kazantzakis Zorba The Greek 

Art As A Response To An Imperfect World

“Some sort of pressure must exist; the artist exists because the world is not perfect. Art would be useless if the world were perfect, as man wouldn’t look for harmony but would simply live in it. Art is born out of an ill-designed world.”

Andrei Tarkovsky