Beating upon the cloud

I need to start with a disclaimer. Everything I say here about poetry and music, or anywhere on this blog for that matter, is a personal response. But that’s a large part of what poetry and music do. They evoke personal responses.

Indeed, any setting of words to music is a subjective response – a composer’s response to a writer. One which can quite legitimately enhance or emphasise or even change the meaning of the text, whilst leaving the original untouched.

Or does it? Elgar, in The Apostles, sets these verses from Psalm 139:

Whither shall I go from thy spirit, or whither shall I flee from thy presence? … If I say, Peradventure the darkness shall cover me, then shall the night become as clear as the day…

All very well, but he puts the words into the mouth of Judas after the betrayal. They are the mark of Cain; Judas cannot escape judgement and damnation. So when a well-meaning friend sent me Psalm 139 as a message of reassurance and encouragement, I couldn’t escape the haunted, hunted voice of Judas spiralling towards suicide. Not, I suspect, what David had in mind when he wrote the psalm.

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In Loving Memory…

Ben Bennetts:

My daughter’s deeply moving tribute to her mother.

Originally posted on M.M. Bennetts:

On 25th August 2014, MM Bennetts passed away at her home in Hampshire, England. We can tell you all that it was painless and she was very peaceful.


Although she had been fighting her illness for some time, MM Bennetts was determined not to be known or remembered as the victim of a disease. She wanted people to know her as a writer, historian, keen horse-rider, great friend, mother and general smarty-pants.

002Many people have asked or wondered if MM was every inch the person that she seemed to be on this blog. The simple answer is yes. She was exactly as witty and knowledgeable in person as she was in writing, and talking to her was delightful. She had a quirky sense of humour that appreciated both sophisticated word-play and plastic slug pranks. And what she wrote was based on experience or extensive research.

When it came to…

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Going round in circles

I woke up yesterday morning with this Schumann song in my head:

I’d known Hugo Wolf’s setting of Mörike’s text since my teens, but had only discovered Schumann’s during a compare-and-contrast exercise in my final year at Oxford. (Thank you, John Warrack – your seminar was the undisputed highlight of my time there.) I’d been reminded of it at a discussion at Lake District Summer Music earlier this month, where the panellists were considering how different settings can bring out different facets of a poem – even facets that aren’t obvious in the words themselves. And then yesterday morning… well, there it was.

For me, the power of Schumann’s setting is the way the music accentuates the trapped, hopeless situaton the singer finds herself in. Listen to the rising and falling motif of the third and fourth lines (0:30-0:47) which reappears throughout the song. Listen too to the way the vocal line begins in the upper register, but is quickly and repeatedly dragged down to a lower register by that motif, despite a brave attempt to escape into the upper reaches with the flying sparks of the fire.

This song doesn’t offer its singer anything in the way of hope or escape, but it does offer her one thing: companionship. Sometimes that’s all we can cope with – not encouragement, not a well-meaning comment that things will get better, and God knows not a pep talk or a Bible verse – but just quiet, patient companionship. (Curiously enough I was listening to a podcast just last week which said exactly the same thing.) Continue reading

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The perils of the written word

Having (as you may have noticed) indulged in a surfeit of bloggery during the last couple of weeks, I’ve realised there is a problem with the written word. Two, actually.

It’s a well-known fact that when someone is talking to us, only a small proportion of what we “hear” comes from the words that are used. I’ve found it hard to pinpoint reliable numbers, but I have heard figures like this: 50% of what we take in is from body language, 43% from the tone of voice, and only 7% from the words that are used.

Rather revealing, really. It means that even if I pick up the phone to someone rather than emailing them, they are still only going to get half the message I might convey if we were speaking in person.

(If anyone can point me towards some reliable data about this, by the way, I’d be very interested to see it.)

I realised last weekend – talking to a friend in the pub, as it happens, face to face – that even these percentages only tell part of the story. When we’re doing the talking, particularly if we have something important to say, we are consciously or unconsciously watching the other person, gauging their reaction, checking to see if we have lost their interest, modifying our language and tone and body language to get the message across.

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Living from the heart

the-shack1Every once in a while I read a book that seems in some way to be describing me, and seems somehow to understand me better than I do myself. The latest is The Shack by William P. Young.

The Shack describes perhaps the worst experience a father can go through – the loss of a daughter to a kidnapper and murderer. The enormity of that experience is something most of us will never have to face, and it would be an insult to pretend that I could understand the shock waves of grief, despair and self-recrimination that ricocheted through the lives of the protagonist and his family after the tragedy.

But there is something about the way Mr Young tells the story, a warmth and an inclusiveness, a generosity, that somehow makes it about all of us – at least, if we want it to be.

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A voice that needs to be heard

QuietQuiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This may be one of the most important books of the last one hundred years. It is certain to be one of the most underrated.

I pick the timescale advisedly. Susan Cain starts the first chapter of Quiet in 1902 with the story of Dale Carnegie, whom she views as marking the beginning of America’s “culture of personality” – a fixation with an “extrovert ideal” which has come to dominate everything from the preschool classroom to the Wall Street boardroom. And not just in the USA, but increasingly in the rest of the Western world.

There’s a problem with that, she says. I would agree.

The problem is that one-third to one-half of the population, if they were subjected to a Myers-Briggs test, would identify themselves as introverts. And introvert has become a dirty word.

Cain takes pains to point out that introversion and extrovertion are not value judgments; they define where we get and where we spend our energy. Extroverts draw energy from social situations and find themselves drained by solitude. The introvert draws energy from solitude and is drained by the crowd. Most of us will recognise one or other of these about ourselves.

It is not only that the culture of personality and participation leaves many introverts feeling left out, though it does. Cain records case study after case study where the most influential voice in the room is the loudest, rather than the one with the most valuable things to say. She is alarmed by teaching styles which reward participation over achievement, everywhere from first grade to Harvard Business School. (I might have said something about these teaching styles myself a while ago…)

More disturbing, though, is the marginalisation of the the particular qualities that introverts offer. Continue reading

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Falling Upward

Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of LifeFalling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life by Richard Rohr

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Any book that quotes Gerard Manley Hopkins and T.S. Eliot in its first few pages is going to speak to me quite personally. I knew from the outset this would be a book to be taken seriously and considered thoughtfully. I guessed it might be hard work. I was not wrong.

Falling Upward is a book for those who are on a journey. Richard Rohr illustrates his thesis with the journey of Odysseus, but the journey he describes and seeks to explain is a spiritual and emotional one – and moreover a journey that, according to him, not everyone will be ready, willing or equipped to make.

Rohr’s central point is that we live a life of two halves, each with its own task: “The first task is to build a strong ‘container’ or identity; the second is to find the contents that the container was meant to hold”. The world’s focus, he says, is fixated on the first task: establishing one’s identity, creating boundaries, seeking security and status, building community. That is all our society and culture seems aware of or demands of us. But it is only half the story.

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