Just as we’re all getting excited about making it to the end of January, the gods of winter wake up from their New Year nap. With a stretch and a flex of their muscles, they breath in deeply and the mercury drops: down, down, down. And then they exhale, and let loose their bone-chilling breath into the land.
This morning the grass was dusted with snow, and the air tasted sharp and clean like a gulp of ice water.
Although it was beautiful to see, and fun to have a change in the landscape and hear the snow crunch under my boots, I loved watching it all thaw most of all. In the garden, the sun came out and slowly the green tips of spring bulbs reappeared. Ice dripped from the roof tiles and trickled down drainpipes, each fat drop like the slow tick of a clock.
Alas, the slate grey skies are back now and a cold drizzle has started to fall steadily outside. January may be nearly behind us, but winter isn’t going anywhere.
The thing about winter is it’s too easy to spend ages indoors. If you’ve got a wi-fi connection and an electric blanket you needn’t leave the house for days. For me, Procrastinator Extraordinaire, the house is a minefield of displacement activities, and if I’m not vigilant hours will pass where I haven’t managed to focus on a single thing and I start feeling dopey and dull. The thorns start curling up around my mind, and I find myself coming to a standstill in front of a window, gazing outside at the fields, like a caged cat. Birdsong comes through the glass in muted peeps, and I just stand and watch the portly progress of a pigeon across the lawn, or a sheep hauling itself heavily up from the ground.
It’s amazing how hard it can be to will yourself through that window, and into that outside world. If I’ve been inside too long, pushing myself out of the house is sometimes like pushing through treacle. As if I have to pass through a portal, and thus escape some sort of enchantment.
But then sometimes you get a blue sky day. In deepest winter, these are like manna from heaven and not even the pull of an electric blanket or all the fleeting natterings of the internet can keep you indoors.
Boots on. Across the garden, and out through the gate.
A quick check up of the beautiful flock of dark-eyed ewes that live beyond our garden fence. They have churned up the field with their little hooves, but I don’t mind. They bring a promise of lambs in the spring.
The ground was hard, and the cold made my cheeks ache. In the time it took to snap this picture, my fingers went numb.
Off to inspect the woods. Grey squirrels leaped like firecrackers from the bushes, scuttling up the trees. After the quiet house it felt like so much life, so much busy activity. The wind flicked up the leaves, little movements that in the corner of my eye looked like darting birds or mice.
A pleasing little circlet of trees.
I always hear crows in this churchyard, cawing away in branches. It’s like they think they’re on a film set or something.
‘Oh, you’re back? I hadn’t noticed you’d gone. Now that you’re here though, you may stroke me while I tell you about the small creatures I have killed today.’
Walk over, the thorns are gone, cheeks are pink and lungs are refreshed. Much better.
I had no idea, until I heard it on the radio this morning, that today was National Poetry Day. I feel a slight, totally irrational sense of indignation that no one told me, and that I was thus unprepared to take full advantage of it. I don’t exactly know how I would take advantage of it… Perhaps by spending the day speaking exclusively in verse. Instead, and fortunately for my fellow humans, I jumped onto Twitter. Where I noticed with a happy sigh that #nationalpoetryday was trending, and that there were links, quotes, poems, podcasts and articles being flung around like nobody’s business. With the internet some days you really have to dig to find the good stuff, but some days its all just there for the taking. I chipped in with my two-pence worth, topped up my online reading list and then, because this is Twitter, somehow ended up on Pinterest via an article about Amal Alamuddin’s wedding dress (sigh).
I hauled myself offline and started flicking through my little collection of poetry books. Here it is, in all its eclectic, alphabetised, poorly photographed glory:
Then I started thinking about poetry, and why I read it. Like most, my first introduction to poetry was in school. Poems were chosen for us, and we learned to deconstruct them and recognise the skill behind them. I could appreciate poems for their cleverness, or their poignancy, but in the same way I could appreciate a lovely building, or a quadratic equation (the latter a particularly poignant concept for me). Pleasing in its way, but ultimately distant, separate; nothing to do with me.
I know it is such a cliché, and I can’t help but cringe as I admit this, but it wasn’t until I fell in love that my attitude to poetry changed. Under love’s strange new spell, I found myself casting around for writing that I could relate to. I instinctively gravitated towards writing that could express the truth of my newly electrified state. And in this situation, a novel or article just doesn’t cut it. For the first time in my life, I was reaching for poetry off my own bat. This is not to say I wrote poetry (I wasn’t such a hopeless case), but I found poetry to be an infinitely more helpful medium for exploring the abstract, baffling and utterly foreign experience of being in love.
As a result I spent a hazy, infatuated summer clutching a battered copy of the Penguin Book of Love Poetry like some sort of self-help manual. I kept it well hidden though, mortified at the soppy stereotype I had suddenly become. Incidentally, years later I discovered the witty, light-hearted Wendy Cope and realized I could have saved myself a lot of time by reading her poem ‘Two Cures for Love’ (“1. Don’t see him. Don’t phone or write a letter./ 2. The easy way: get to know him better.”)
I carry a deep affection for my copy of the Penguin Book of Love Poetry. I am sure there are better anthologies out there, but I’ll always treasure it and it sits on my shelf as a reminder of when I was newly, searchingly in love.
From these romantic beginnings, I have gone on to use poetry as the ultimate tool for expressing the inexpressible – whether that be young love, simple contentedness, sudden awe, or grief. Ever since that love-struck summer, poems have punctuated moments of my life and I am still reaching for poetry all the time.
When we got married, a very dear and talented person wrote us a poem. It was printed on the front of our order of service, and to this day is one of the most beautiful things I have ever read. For the final reading of the ceremony my darling brother, handsomely suited and smiling, read a simple, heartfelt sunbeam of a poem by American poet Arnold Kenseth. At other times, bumbling about in the darkness of grief, it is poems that have come like little lanterns into my life, illuminating and comforting. They are songs; they are prayers; they are self-help manuals; they are art.
Like any great artwork, a great poem is the result of a lot of work behind the scenes. For me, the best poetry distills emotion and experiences, and great poets know how to reduce words to their most powerful effect. A great poet, like a great artist, takes only a few lines to show you something beautiful, something true. When people say ‘there are no words’, it is poetry that proves, again and again, that there can be.
So, Happy National Poetry day. I’d love it if you’d tell me your favourite poems below, as you can see my bookshelf is still pretty limited. I need all the recommendations I can get.
It’s Friday! In honour of the weekend, I give you my current jam: Ingrid Michaelson’s ‘Girls Chase Boys’. I guarantee that if you play this within a mile radius of me I WILL start dancing. So if you’re staying in, whack this on loud and HEY PRESTO, party for one.
The video is a bit weird (it’s a copy of this one, from the eighties). If you’ve ever wondered what ‘confused alarm’ looks like, show it to a heterosexual male.
Whilst the fashion on show is questionable (aside from Ingrid’s glasses, which are on point as far as I’m concerned), there are some serious red lips going on. I was inspired to dig out this bottle of beauty; Dior Addict Ultragloss in ‘Flash’. I was given it years ago as a birthday present, and it’s now back in circulation. Layer up for glossy ‘going out’ pout, or just pat on as a light stain during the day for a pop of colour. For a tutorial on how to apply, go to 1:28 in this clip from Mulan. Done.
So there you have it: dancing and putting on lipstick. Two things guaranteed to cheer up any girl. Or – of course – any boy. And basically all you need for a Friday night.
I thought I’d squeeze this post in before September got its toe in the door, but you know… Sunday evenings. They disappear faster than any evening in the week. And when I woke up this morning, another August had quietly let itself out. So first, here’s to August. To bare legs, cream teas and bicycle rides. Also falcons.
We are fortunate that the best cream tea in England is but a cycle ride away. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and I often agree. But still, a picture cannot summon up the warm, biscuit-soft scent of a fresh scone.
Should you can encounter any judgemental birds of prey, you can deflect their piercing look with a wave of the hand – ‘yes,’ you say, as you place your teacup back on the saucer, ‘but the cycle home is all uphill, you see.’ He understands. Tea on the lawn. I am immensely (and illogically) fond of this teapot. I love its comforting, glossy mahogany glaze. There is an authority to that teapot. You know where you are with a teapot like that.
Rehydrated and refueled, bicycle spokes ticking quietly over the gravel, we headed back out into the last August afternoon. Sheep. They also understand.
Home again. To potter about in flip-flops, in the last of the Sunday evening sun. And not write blogs. Ha.
And then in the dark, warm night as the hedgehogs rummaged and the owls hooted, one month became another. Today the politicians are back in parliament, Hogwarts students are gathering at platform 9 and 3/4 for another school year, suddenly it’s Monday 1st September and summer is behind us, autumn ahead.
I remember once, not long after getting married, sitting on a train to work and flipping back through the pages of my diary. I remember placing myself back at those pages, when those dates were ‘the day’ or ‘only tomorrow’ and everything was still to come, and how I ached with nostalgia. Turning the pages forward, I felt as if the light and laughter of those days was receding, folded quietly away as the paper dates closed on top of them. When I looked ahead to still-empty pages, I felt I was quite blind – black winter mornings waited, but what else? The days seemed pretty bleak. Needless to say, I made myself terribly melancholy.
It occurred to me then, that we are living the very days that we will one day miss. So the trick is to make these days the days of laughter and light. Of course looking forward made me feel blind — the mind cannot tell you what you will think five seconds in the future, because the future does not exist, only the present. As the supremely wise Eckhart Tolle says; ‘realize deeply that the present moment is all you have. Make the NOW the primary focus of your life.’
This morning, August or no August, I opened the curtains to a world that looked like this:
So yes; here’s to faded August and here’s to undiscovered September, but more importantly here’s to the present. And to the inescapable logic of this old Sanskrit poem, which I find rather beautiful. It is almost a prayer, I feel. Or could be made into one. Either way, I think it’s a useful thing to read on a Monday.
“Look to this day, for it is life, the very life of life.
In its brief course lie all the realities and truths of existence.
The joy of growth, the splendour of action, the glory of power.
For yesterday is but a memory and tomorrow is only a vision.
But today well lived makes every yesterday a memory of happiness
and every tomorrow a vision of hope.
Look well, therefore, to this day.”
I picked this up as I was dashing out of the house, about to embark on two days of heavy train travelling. It was my saviour. Terry Pratchett is a genius. I would be sitting in a cramped corner of a crowded carriage, dark windows looking out onto stationary train tracks, while the driver’s voice announced more delays… And my shoulders would be shaking with silent laughter.
Thank you, Mr Pratchett. You made me disappear into the hilarity, and the magic, of Discworld.
On BBC 4’s ‘With Great Pleasure’ the other day, A.S. Byatt chose as one of her readings an extract from Terry Pratchett’s ‘Reaper Man’. She said she admired Pratchett enormously, claiming him to be a comic genius. Byatt is already one of my favourite writers, and hearing this she rose even higher in my estimation.