Category Archives: poems

A Tragedy of Perfections

It occurred to me at stupid o’clock this morning when my brain had done its usual thing and whacked me over the head repeatedly to keep me awake, that the opposite of a Comedy of Errors would be a Tragedy of Perfections.  That struck me as a nice idea, and I began to ponder what a tragedy of perfections might involve.

The crossword is a case in point.  I may have mentioned before that I do the Guardian cryptic every morning to get – I was going to say, to get my brain in gear but as I said it’s already in top gear and revving hard – well, to get the verbal juices flowing and to sharpen my sense of what words are and how they work.  Cryptic crosswords are very useful for poets, and if I ever teach a creative writing course I will recommend them to my students.  But of course part of the joy of a cryptic is the puzzle.  If it’s too easy it’s not so enjoyable: likewise if it’s too hard.  Most of the time I get through OK but sometimes I’m stuck, and then those few blank spaces torment me.  Oh, if I could only get this crossword finished!  But here’s the thing: five minutes (or half an hour) later when I finally get it, my immediate reaction is disappointment.  It’s finished.  No more puzzle.  Now I have to wait till tomorrow.

And I guess that’s what I mean by the tragedy of perfection.  One of DH Lawrence’s characters (I think it was Birkin in Women in Love) said of the place where he was living: ‘Now that my rooms are complete I want them at the bottom of the sea.’  And that is the tragedy of being human; that we strive to complete things and when they’re complete we feel heartsick.  It’s like that old Chinese curse: ‘May your every desire be instantly fulfilled.’  We must have something to aim for, else what is the point of our lives?  Or, to put it another way, ‘a man’s reach must exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?’  (that’s Robert Browning, from this poem:

I like Robert Browning: he’s very direct and conversational.  But I digress.)

What, then, is the answer?  How do we deal with this utterly perverse tendency?  I’m going to turn to yoga philosophy now and specifically to the concept of karma yoga.  Karma is a term everyone knows nowadays – or thinks they know, anyway – and yoga is something every second person practises.  But karma yoga has nothing to do with yoga postures; it is a way of doing everyday tasks which somehow helps you to wriggle free of this endless cycle of desire and frustration – the tragedy of perfection.  For example: suppose I vacuum the sitting room carpet.  As the machine hoovers up the dirt I feel a great sense of satisfaction at the instant swallowing of every bit of dust and fluff (and don’t get me started on the hair-balls which can only emanate from OH’s head).  The task is done: I switch off the vacuum which dies with a satisfied sigh.  I look around me.  I see that it is good.  But! five minutes later someone walks in with dirt on their shoes.  The sofa is moved, scattering fine toast crumbs over a wide area.  Snacks are eaten.  People enter and leave.  OH pulls out tangles of hair and drops them on the floor (and nobody can tell me otherwise).  And in no time at all my (yes, MY) lovely clean carpet is covered in filth.  And if I’m not careful I can get quite miffed about it.

Karma yoga gives a way out of this.  First, when you undertake a task it is done without end-gaining; in other words, without attachment to the results.  This isn’t the same as not giving a toss; it means that if the vacuum doesn’t suck properly or you get interrupted or if for some other reason the carpet is not as clean as you’d like it to be, you don’t sweat it.  At the same time the job is done with focus.  You’d be amazed how much more quickly a job can be finished when you focus your whole attention on it.  Last year when digging the garden I was totally oppressed by how much work there was to do and was unable to concentrate on a little bit at a time.  This year I have made a conscious decision to focus only on what I’m doing and to let go of perfection – and guess what?  I’ve done four times the work in half the time.

That’s all for today folks.  Now to edit this post and make it perfect…

Kirk out






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About an Emperor

There’s nothing new under the sun – and not much new on this blog either.  I go to write about a topic and do a little search – and lo! I find three posts on the same subject without even trying.  But so what?  I mean, how closely are you paying attention anyway?

I’m kidding.  I know you’re all taking notes.

So, today’s topic is the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius.  Aurelius was a stoic; which in many ways is not a philosophy I’m drawn to: I’m not much enamoured of cold showers or camping in the snow and I absolutely decline to whisper as I kiss my children good night, ‘tomorrow you might be dead.’  (I tell myself that child mortality was much higher in his time than now – but that’s not the reason.  The reason is that I simply can’t contemplate it.)

But I can contemplate things which are happening at the moment – at least to some extent.  I’m not sure what M A would have made of the constant negative outpouring of news to which we are subjected 24/7; I suspect he would have rationed his intake of it just as I try to do.  I don’t wish to be callous; I know the situation in Syria is appalling but I don’t want to hear about it every day: I know austerity is causing suffering but there’s only so much of it I can read about.  When I find myself becoming angry, frustrated, depressed or anguished I simply turn it off, reflecting that while we have a responsibility to inform ourselves about what is going on, that responsibility needs to be balanced with protecting one’s own mental health.

But where Marcus comes in really handy for me is in the personal arena; and the saying I’m focussing on right now is this:

‘Love only what happens.  No greater harmony.’

Of course you can see a problem right away: how can I possibly ‘love’ some of the terrible things that happen to me?  How can I ‘love’ a partner’s gender dysphoria or a son’s mental illness or a total lack of money?  Well, in order to do this you have to dig deeper.  You have to believe that underlying every life event is a purpose, and that that purpose is for your own highest good.

I wouldn’t presume to say this to anyone else; and neither, incidentally, did old Marcus: his sayings were written for his own use only.  It’s quite heartwarming to read, across the millennia, a man writing to himself things like ‘for god’s sake stop!’ and ‘when will you ever learn?’  I can remember writing similarly frustrated exhortations to myself in my old diaries.

That a Roman Emperor who wielded power over much of the known world should find the time for reflection and the humility to chastise himself, is truly astonishing.  To put his advice another way, ‘If you don’t become the ocean, you’ll be seasick every day.’  That quote is from Leonard Cohen who, despite his sexual proclivities, was in many ways a stoic, able to look death and disaster in the face and know them for what they are:

Here’s some more information on Marcus Aurelius:

and a load of good sayings of his:

Incidentally, I can’t help wondering if the title character of ‘About a Boy’ was named for Marcus Aurelius?  He is after all a great stoic:

Kirk out

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There’s something about a Wednesday afternoon.  When I was a student this midweek time was given over to sports and leisure: you would wander round during fresher’s week signing up for boxing and ice skating and generally end up by week three hanging out in the coffee bar with your friends.  But this tradition seems to have gone by the board now, so that, instead of being a fallow period, Wednesday afternoon is a slump, a time when the enthusiasm of Monday has waned and the fun of Friday seems a long way away.

I’ve come to the conclusion that fallow periods are important.  Quakers, for example, traditionally don’t celebrate Christmas as every day is supposed to be special: and that’s fine, except that Christmas and New Year for many people are times of hibernation; a period when you can legitimately disconnect from everything and everyone.

In farming, too, it used to be the tradition to leave land fallow every fourth year in order to rest the soil – but that seems to have gone by the board now in favour of more and more fertilisers (there’s an evolving story on The Archers at the moment where Home Farm seems to have poisoned the River Am with nitrates.)

Then there’s the principle of Sunday as a day of rest (it doesn’t have to be Sunday but it’s convenient to have a day when nearly everyone’s off work.)  This morning on Thought for the Day Giles Fraser talked about the boringness of church being a good thing, as it’s important to allow time and space for the mind to wander.  I agree with him up to a certain point (though as a child my mind was never allowed to wander because you were supposed to pay attention.)  But there’s an important principle at stake here, which is that boredom is not some kind of disease to be eradicated but a fallow state which can be a prelude to great creativity.  When our kids said they were bored, instead of entertaining them we’d say ‘I’m sure you’ll find something to do.’  And they usually did.

I am more and more aware of the need to allow my mind to lie fallow.  It’s all too easy for the work ethic to sit on your shoulder and crack the whip, so that if you haven’t produced a certain number of words, you’ve done nothing.  This is not the case.  When the mind is in that fallow, ‘dreaming’ state, there’s no way to tell what you’ve done, because it’s happening under the radar – just as the regeneration of the fallow soil is happening in subtle, invisible ways.

Even so, on days like today I can feel a sense of futility.  What have I achieved?  What am I doing?  Where’s it all going?  What is the point?  These questions bump around in my head like particles in a Large Hadron Collider.

But if I stop trying to ‘work’ and just let things be, something interesting will happen.  I’m not sure what, but I’ll keep you posted.

The final thought for today is that there are parallels between the First World War and the state of the NHS – not in the severity of the situation, but in terms of the leaders and those on the ground.  Doctors and nurses working in the NHS today truly are lions led by donkeys – and the sooner we get rid of this government, the better.  So now that we’ve arrived at the First World War, here’s a taste of true futility:


Move him into the sun—
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields half-sown.
Always it woke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.
Think how it wakes the seeds—
Woke once the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides
Full-nerved, still warm, too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
—O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth’s sleep at all?
Kirk out

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Silent Music: Leonard, Prince of Paradox

Today I am spending the entire day honouring the memory of Leonard Cohen; poet, singer, guitarist and songwriter (1934-2016).  Although his death wasn’t announced until Nov 16th, he actually died on 7th, so it was one year ago today that we lost him.

Here’s how I found him.  It’s 1972 and I’m in a schoolroom in West London.  We are awaiting an English lesson when in comes a student teacher followed by a caretaker carrying a record player.  Great excitement: we rarely have music in class.  The teacher puts on the record and says, ‘we’re going to listen to this song and then discuss the lyrics.’  The guitar sounded, the voice began – and I was lost.

In those early days his voice haunted me like a busker on the underground, seeming to echo from afar down a long, dark tunnel.  But from the first inoculation he was in my blood, and there was no getting him out.  Vast wastes of emotion opened up in me: here was a way to link god and sex (which the church had cast asunder) here was a landscape of sublimity and pain – above all, here was one who was not afraid to stand and open his heart for all to see.  I loved that in him, as so many did.

Leonard was not a whole man, and he was unafraid to tell us so: the word ‘broken’ seemed to resonate through his early work where despair often won out over exaltation.  Whirled by winds of ‘deep distress’, he landed on Mount Baldy, a Zen monastery outside Los Angeles where he woke before dawn and walked through the snow to sit, silent and shorn, in meditation:

Since he never spoke, the other monks knew him only as zhikan, ‘the silent one’, having no idea that outside the monastery he was a famous singer.  But then, Cohen had so many incarnations: poet, Cuban revolutionary, Scientologist (‘did you ever go clear?’) Jew, Zen Buddhist, prophet and guru – and those are only the ones I know about.

And as for me, what can I tell you, my brother, my killer?  How can I possibly explain what Cohen meant to me?  I loved the openness in him, the way he never put on a front or pretended to be other than he was.  I loved the way he pursued each line of a song, even to the point of crawling across a hotel bedroom floor at 3 am trying to get it right.  And most of all I loved the way he treated his audience.

For Cohen, tours were not so much a way of promoting a record (though they were of course that) as a kind of reconnaissance, a way of experiencing the zeitgeist.  He had a great respect for his audience and in concerts he gave his all, dispensing with a support act and doing encores which sometime stretched out as long as the main set.  The last time we saw him, though he looked so much older, he skipped off the stage at the end: he was then 75.

And yet in those early years I suffered for his art.  Like other disciples before me I was pilloried in public for my allegiance to Cohen; I was mocked and jeered at.  The ‘grocer of despair’ was too easily dismissed as the bard of the suicidal (‘one hand on my suicide’) by those who never glimpsed his beauty.  As for Cohen himself, in those early years he was described as having ‘the stoop of an aged crop-picker and the face of a curious little boy’ but with meditation the stoop went and by and large he aged well, still looking good right into his sixties:


Image result for Leonard Cohen

(image removed on request)

In public Cohen was courteous and dignified, refusing to hit back at his critics or fight rudeness with rudeness.  But, though many consider him a sort of guru, Cohen was no saint; and his Achilles heel was women.  He did go through a period of celibacy at Mount Baldy, but in general seemed unable to stop pursuing women; and not limiting himself to one at at time either: Jennifer Warnes once sadly remarked that she never had a relationship with Cohen because she knew it wouldn’t be exclusive.  From the outside it appears that he never found lasting happiness or stability in relationships: his early affair with the Marianne of the song seemed a brief oasis in a stormy life; a storm which escalated into a crisis when his agent Kelly Lynch stole $5m and left him penniless.  Cohen showed remarkable public forbearance in the face of such devastation: all he would say was, ‘we understand that these things happen.’  But though we felt for him we were also delighted because a career which had seemed dead and buried was resurrected: Leonard was on the road again.

He continued recording almost to the day he died: his final album, ‘You Want it Darker,’ was released just 19 days before his death and recorded with difficulty.  In the end his son Adam had to stick a mic on a desk and into this Leonard breathed his last songs.  They do not, of course, have the vigour of his earlier work, but are nonetheless infused with a bleak beauty.

No, Cohen was no saint: but he was a prophet of sorts and for me a kind of paradoxical guru.  Leonard never would have wanted to be anyone’s guru: I never wanted to have a guru.  It’s the perfect relationship; and for me he will always be a guiding voice; bleak, sublime, courteous and above all, to his own self true.

If you want to know more, here’s the official site:

and here’s my blog post about that concert in 2008:

RIP Leonard, we love you.

Kirk out

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A pinch and a punch for the first of the month.  That’s what we used to say at school – and today, as well as being the first Wednesday it’s also the first actual day of the month; which means it’s time to link to the Insecure Writers Support Group:

November is the month of NaNo, of course: nothing to do with nano-technology (unless you write a particular kind of Lilliputian sci-fi) but National Novel Writing Month, a time when just about every writer I know goes into purdah in order to complete their latest project.  The idea is to write during the month of November an entire novel totalling no fewer than 50,000 words.  (If you’re wondering what 50K looks like, it’s a short novel: the average length is 80-100K.  But it’s still a huge achievement.)  And this month we are asked by the IWSG whether previously we have completed our NaNo projects (yes, nearly every time) and whether any of them have gone on to be published (no).

I’m not doing NaNo as such this year; I have, however, begun an epic poem along the lines of Wordsworth’s Prelude, telling in iambic pentameter the story of my life and poetry.  It’s epic in terms of length rather than subject, and I have no idea how long it will turn out to be, but we shall see.  It’s very hard to rhyme a poem of that length, so I have contented myself with blank verse, just the odd highlighted part in rhyming verse.  I’m finding it very helpful.

So that’s me.  If you’re doing NaNo I wish you all the best.  Let me know how you get on.

Kirk out



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Crossword Crossover

It’s funny the things that cross over from real life into blogland and the things that don’t.  As I said before, I’m very bad at telling people about this blog; but I am also quite bad at telling my readers about some things that happen in real life.  Viz: crosswords.  I have got into the habit of starting each day with – well, first of all with a pot of tea and second of all with a conversation (see previous posts) but third of all – once I’ve checked email and Facebook – with the Guardian crossword.

I began these when I felt stymied in my work.  Either no words came, or else the ones that did were dull and uninspiring; or they were interesting but like hair after washing I couldn’t do a thing with them (I’ve never understood that comment about hair, by the way) – anyway, I decided that a cryptic crossword would sharpen the wits and enable me to do more of the things I like doing with words – or more of the things that words like me to do with them.

At first it was hard.  I’d been used to solving the Telegraph cryptic with a couple of co-conspirators: and let me tell you, doing the Guardian alone is a whole new quantum level of difficulty.   The online-ness of it does help though, because one of the major drawbacks to a paper crossword is that you can’t make too many mistakes, wheresas with online crosswords you have a ‘check’ button so that you can try out different ideas without committing yourself.  If all else fails, you can hit the ‘reveal’ button.  So in some ways it’s easier.

And does it help with the words?  Well it certainly gets the brain going in the morning, and I’m a lot better at solving them than I used to be.  Cryptic clues help you to see words in a different way (a ‘flower,’ for example, is often a river) and to search your memory-banks for synonyms and your lateral brain-waves for homophones and lookalikes.  There are many tricks crossword-compilers use to construct their clues; and I’m constantly finding out new ones.  The Rev. Spooner is a staple, indicating that the beginnings of words have been swapped over.  Anagrams are near-universal: you also find the ends or beginnings of words chopped off, or else alternate letters used.  It’s a whole ‘nother language: it’s English but not as we know it – in fact there’s so much I could say about this that I’m going to go away and think about it and put it in a whole ‘nother post.  Or maybe a series of posts.

Anyway, here’s the link if you want to try one yourself: I recommend the Quiptic if you’re new to these.

Kirk out




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The Organ Grindr

Yesterday morning before I had even ingested an amount of tea sufficient to restore some sort of consciousness (it’s life, Jim, but not as we know it) OH informed me that there is now a ‘choral app.’  Not having any context to put this in I resorted to an irritable ‘what?’

‘A choral app,’ he said – repetition, in the mind of Mark, being equivalent to explanation.  He treats my queries rather in the manner of a Victorian colonialist who, when not understood by the natives, merely repeats himself more slowly and loudly.  I have long since learned that silence is the only response; sure enough, after only ten minutes of this he explained that an organ app is an app which tells you where your nearest choral evensong is.

‘It’s like Grindr,’ he explained.

‘Organ Grindr!’ I quipped.

Such puns are a staple of our daily conversation: I venture to assert that without them our married life would – ahem! – grind to a halt.  Another grind-related pun which surfaced quite early on in our joint existence arose out of the ubiquity of coffee-grounds.  OH and I are like Jack Spratt and his wife (name unrecorded) in that I only drink tea and he only imbibes coffee.  But whereas I dispose of my tea-leaves in a thoughtful and tidy manner (without reading them first) he merely gives the decanter a casual swill, leaving coffee grounds All Over The Place.  This being our honeymoon period, it took me a while to complain but when I did he instantly quipped ‘grounds for divorce!’ and so a tradition began.  Other standing jokes include such gems as ‘we were disgusted by the bus so we went by tandem’ (de gustibus non disputandem est) and many more which unfortunately I can’t remember (and neither can OH) because they arise out of the moment and are forgotten until the next moment.  When I asked if he could think of any, he suggested I should have written them down in a notebook.

‘I did!’ I said.  ‘I just don’t know where the notebooks are.’  And there’s the rub: generally speaking I write things down to forget them, not to remember them.  The whole point of writing is to get things out of your mind; words and ideas that would otherwise lodge there like awkward house-guests, never leaving and starting arguments with all the other guests.

So now you know the secret of writing.

Kirk out






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