Category Archives: poems

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:

https://www.google.co.uk/url?sa=i&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=images&cd=&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0ahUKEwiU7abRqKzXAhXiK8AKHWReAKYQjB0IBg&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.leonardcohenforum.com%2Fsearch.php%3Fst%3D0%26sk%3Dt%26sd%3Dd%26keywords%3D%252Bnovels%2B%2B%26fid%255B%255D%3D3%26ch%3D-1&psig=AOvVaw2SGymFgp4TNEmDg00wdVSE&ust=1510139077994737

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:

http://leonardcohen.com

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

https://lizardyoga.wordpress.com/2008/07/20/songs-of-leonard-cohen-170708/

RIP Leonard, we love you.

Kirk out

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NaNo

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:

http://www.insecurewriterssupportgroup.com

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.

https://www.theguardian.com/crosswords

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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Lay Your Head on the Writer’s Block

I’m never quite sure what writer’s block is.  I know it refers to an inability to write, but what actually counts as writer’s block?  If you sit staring at a screen for hours without writing a word, does that count?  Or is that too short a time?  Does it have to last at least a few days or weeks before you can call it writer’s block?  And when I wasn’t writing at all between the ages of eight and twenty-four, was that writer’s block?  Or was it a crisis of identity?

Aside from the question of how long it lasts, what kind of thing is writer’s block?  Is it the complete inability to write a single word?  Or does it mean you don’t write anything you’re remotely satisfied with?  If it’s the latter, I’m in trouble – because ‘not remotely satisfied’ describes nearly every day’s work for me.  But if it’s the former I’m OK because most days I manage to write something, even if it’s only a blog post.  Which is why I’m so glad I have this blog, because on really bad days where I can’t string two morphemes together, I can at least manacle a blog post into position, run it up the flag and see if anyone salutes it.  A blog post is usually less than 500 words; it’s achievable and, with the click of a button, it’s published and ready to read.

OH has an interesting view on overcoming writer’s block.  In the same way that Michelangelo saw the sculpture as being hidden within the stone

https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/m/michelange386296.html

you could regard writing as ‘taking away’ everything which is not the story.  I’m not sure how cutting things away works when faced with a blank page rather than a lump of rock, but it’s worth thinking about. *

In ‘His Dark Materials’, Phillip Pullman wrote of the subtle knife which cuts windows between different worlds, ‘you may have intentions but the knife has its own intentions.’

http://www.kidsreads.com/reviews/the-subtle-knife

This is an idea I try to bear in mind when writing a poem; that when writing I may have intentions, but the poem has its own intentions too.  Nevertheless, the blank page can be a very intimidating thing to overcome, so when I have a bad day and think all my thoughts are worthless, I try just to write, believing that anything is better than nothing and reminding myself without a first draft there can be no second draft, no finished version.

I guess the process of writing is hard to fathom, else there would be no such thing as writer’s block.  But it’s clear that writing begins with thought.  Thoughts occur in the mind, and the writer selects which of them to commit to paper: so maybe writer’s block begins here, at the level of thought.  When the mind is a blank, the page will be a blank.  However, in my experience what is more likely going on is that the mind is not producing anything your critical self deems worthy of using; hence a good exercise when blocked is to write whatever comes into your mind, no matter how nonsensical or seemingly worthless.  James Joyce did this, and look what he managed to produce just listening to the babbling of his mind!

Interesting things happen when we let go of controlling our thoughts.  And out of this arises poetry.

And I know it’s not the day for linking to it, but I’m going to link here to the Insecure Writers Support Group because this post is relevant.

http://www.insecurewriterssupportgroup.com/

Kirk out

*Sounds like some bizarre version of scissors, paper, stone…

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Gosh, That Was a Busy Day

Yesterday proved unexpectedly busy, what with going to the Utilise Social Cafe and then to a canvassing training session by the Labour Party.  Those were the planned events; but on my way home from the cafe I ran into Jan parking her bike.  This happens a lot these days, since she’s in Loughborough every Saturday, and it fell out that she was on her way to a pub.  Who am I to resist the promptings of fate?  I promptly fell in with her and accepted the generous offer of a drink, which took care of the intervening time until I went to Unity Building for the canvassing.

Canvassing is something I’ve often thought about doing but was too afraid to ask, the thought of knocking on people’s doors and asking them to vote for us being somewhat daunting.  So it was good to have some training in this area and next week I will be going out with some other reddish bods and doing it for real.

After the canvassing came another unplanned event.  At the cafe I got talking to a couple of women who go there, and they told me about a demo that afternoon against racism and for – well, peace and harmony and stuff.  I’m aware that this sounds a bit like Neil from The Young Ones, but there it is.  About half a dozen white British people and twenty or so Muslims turned up to stand around a banner and chant at the passers-by and marketeers who were packing up the Loughborough market.  I made up a couple of chants which were generally admired.  Well, I am a poet after all…

I shall be doing a write-up on this for the Loughborough Echo, exhorting people to stop tarring all Muslims with the same brush.  (Not you guys – I know you would never do anything so crass.)

So that was yesterday.  And a jolly good Saturday it was too.  Today I shall be mostly… going to Quaker meeting and then heading off for lunch to celebrate Alan’s birthday.

Kirk out

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The Year of Sitting Comfortably

Are you sitting comfortably?  Then I’ll begin.

You will only recognise those words if you are a) Old Like Me or b) young and into cultural irony like my son: I continue to be amazed at how much stuff from my youth he recognises because it’s referenced in things he watches.  Anyway, are you sitting comfortably?

Then I’ll begin: because today’s post is about the lost art of storytelling – by which I mean the old oral tradition of face-to-face narration (I realise plenty of stories are being told in print or on film.  Incidentally, remind me to post a review of La La Land.  I saw it on Friday and it is beyond description, but I’ll try.)

What started me off on this was – well, first of all it was because the title came to me and secondly because there is in Loughborough library a storytelling chair.  It’s large enough for one adult and one child, and it’s decorated with ladybirds.  Lovely, I thought, just right for a parent to read to a child.  And then I discovered that it’s actually an electronic chair: you sit in it and it tells you stories – and that seemed sad to me.  It seemed alienating and distancing – and moreover, a waste of money, especially as the funds had been raised by Friends of the Library and could have been spent on an ordinary comfy chair destined for face-to-face storytelling.

One of the first TV programmes I ever watched after we got our first black-and-white set was ‘Jackanory.’  This was a storytelling programme and as with all TV programmes, sitting comfortably was a prerequisite.  Jackanory went on for years and featured famous actors and actresses reading from a book, interspersed with pictures.  It was a simple but effective format.  Nowadays we have to turn to the radio for storytelling, but once every two months I go with Ruth to a group called Telling Tales.  The Leicestershire Guild of Storytellers puts on this event in Leicester and it features a mix of traditional and modern tales from a huge variety of cultures.  Last week we had stories from India, Norway, Germany and Iran, as well as my own largely descriptive account of the garden of the vicarage where I grew up.  I love telling stories and hearing them, and it is my firm belief that we need a return to our oral traditions; to go back to face-to-face storytelling.

And poetry, of course.

Kirk out

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