Category Archives: Books

Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me by Kate Clanchy

When I finished reading this book, I let out a cry of exultation. For whilst this is an account of the author’s thirty year journey teaching in the UK, bursting with anecdotes – with all the rich tapestry of emotions that humanity yields – it is ultimately a revelatory celebration of all that is good and life-enhancing when teachers with the requisite skill, passion and flair for their subject are able to teach, and how they can have such a positive impact on their charges.

“Some Kids I Taught…” is written with a poet’s telling eye for observation and comparison. Kate Clanchy is a wonderful writer and what becomes apparent is that she is an equally wonderful teacher, with a gift for self-deprecation, as well as being able to see things that others perhaps don’t. There is a refreshing honesty and wit embedded in her insights. You feel that despite the politics in education and the various battlegrounds that have ensued as to how best deliver state education, the author firmly believes in the enabling and civilising influence that such education can provide when it is well-managed, well thought out, well-funded and teachers are provided the freedom to practise what they love doing, without short-sighted political interference.

Anyone who reads this will acquire a sharper and more enlightened understanding into the various challenges that teachers currently face in the UK and why it is a profession that gives anyone who has ever been a part of it, plenty of “wow” moments. Not only should every person involved in education read this, but every politician too – they may learn a thing or two and consider how best to create a 21st century state educational system in which students are best able to demonstrate their creative skills and flourish.

In the despairing world that is Brexit and Trump, where division has reared its head with purulent intent, it is uplifting to read a book that praises multiculturalism and diversity as beautiful ideals to embrace. In one scene, Clanchy describes looking around her classroom thus:

“I look around the room. It contains Muslims from five countries,
one Hindu, a Filipino fundamentalist, one transgender kid,
two mixed race girls of no faith, two white kids, a Pole,
and the rule range of human skin colour. Fabulous.”

Isn’t this what education, life, and this beautiful world of ours are all about?

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“Felicity” by Mary Oliver

Is there a book that you like to give away over and over? Is there a book that you turn to at regular intervals in your life? Is there a book that acts as a counsellor, a friend, a comfort, a consoler, a realist, an idealist, a bridge to empathy, a window of light? if there is, then this why books possess an indefinable magic and why, like all great loves, their spirit never truly dies.

“Felicity” by the American poet Mary Oliver is one such book for me. Mary Oliver, who died early 2019, was one of the great American poets of the latter part of the 20th Century and early 21st. Steeped in the transcendentalist vision of Emerson and Thoreau, the exuberance of Whitman, and the eager eye of Emily Dickinson, Mary Oliver wrote with brilliant perception about the physical world she immersed herself in, letting the natural world take centre stage and reminding her audience that there are other worlds and other dimensions to taste and relish besides the human one. Her philosophy is one of deep sensitivity, lucid empathy, and a life-affirming sense of expansion, that nothing is too small to be wondered about.

These qualities shine forth in “Felicity”, which examines that most fascinating of topics that interests us all: love. Some of the poems are only a few lines long, yet this is to suggest a disservice as to their merit. Within these parameters, Oliver conveys more sense and beauty that many lesser poets would strive to achieve in poems of greater length and opaqueness. “Felicity” can be read in a quick thirty minute burst from cover to cover but in order to savour the full magic of the writing, it is best to read slowly and fully appreciate each poem for the enriching morsels they are.

Oliver invites us along the journey with the great Persian poet, Rumi, acting as a guiding spirit, injecting the poems with pearls of wisdom, a credo for living and loving, threaded with compassionate humour. There are poems that you will want to declaim in recognition and commit to memory, for the sheer sense of exuberance and aliveness they contain. For example, in “Moments”, the central lines underscores one of the main themes of the collection:

Your heart is beating, isn’t it?
You’re not in chains, are you?

These nuggets of learning sit cheek by jowl with poems that more obviously speak of love. In “I Know Someone” , the poet compares kissing with a flower opening and, despite acknowledging a flower’s potent charm to captivate, concludes that ultimately it is humans who are the fortunate ones as we can kiss other humans and realise the supreme and tangible delight of connection.

There is a recurring sense in this collection of 38 poems, that love is the highest ideal that we can aspire to, “love is the one thing the heart craves”. Notwithstanding the pain and affliction that life will throw at us, from time to time, it is a force worth seeking out, worth embracing, and worth singing about. Mary Oliver may have departed from earth, but her poems transcend the mundane and will continue to blaze bright, long into the future. Seize the rich lens of attention, she advocates, and never lose your childlike sense of awe, your acceptance of mortality and, above all, your desire to love. Live while you can, have fun along the way, and wear the cloak of gratitude with unbounded joy.
To put it blithely, these poems capture perfectly why harbouring an open heart and an alert mind are fundamental qualities in a poet, besides a keen sense of the precision of language and an eye for the fitting image, “I don’t want to lose a single thread/ from the intricate brocade of this happiness”. Dive in, at any point, into this book and you will come swimming to the surface in a state of buoyancy – revitalised, refreshed, and reborn.

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Sea of Light

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For those who may be interested, I am delighted to say that my latest collection of musings, Sea of Light, is now available to purchase from the kindle store.

The book contains poems that have leapt from this blog into the book and others that have crept in from the sidelines, more out of curiosity than anything else. If you do take a morsel, may the poetical palate be pleasantly pricked.

The poetry of earth is ceasing never
(John Keats)

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“Talking To My Body” by Anna Swir: An Unflinching Examination of Body and Soul

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Czeslaw Milosz, the great Polish poet, writes of Anna Swir, in the introduction to this collection, that she is “a poet of personal life, of love and love’s pains.” This, to me, seems a pithy yet perfect summation of Swir’s form and content. Her writing is such, that once you dip into her poetical waters, it is impossible not to want to embrace fully the limpidity of her poetry. Some may quibble that the plainness and seeming unsophistication of the style may militate against placing a high value on the currency of Swir’s poems. This reader would beg to differ. What may at first appear to be a simplicity, conceals profound truths about some of the fundamental themes in life that affect us all.

The diversity of the subject matter helps to make this collection resonate; whether that be poems about her parents, poems exploring the role of femininity, poems that deal frankly with matters of flesh, sex, ageing, mortality, motherhood, childhood and poems that investigate that greatest of emotions: love. This is poetry rooted in an earthiness, delineating the rich textures of daily-life. Abstraction is considered but these are poems that have a concrete foundation and, in their connectedness, celebrate the indomitability of the human spirit.

It has often been said that poetry is a “broad church”, which naturally means there are many definitions of what poetry is. I have always been fond of the brilliant British poet, Carol Ann Duffy and her belief that “poetry, above all, deals with emotion.” The emotional honesty in “Talking to My Body” rings apparent. It is as if Swir has taken a scalpel to her body and exposed the nest of feelings and tangled thoughts beneath. One gets the impression that these poems are written with an intent to impose some order,beauty and meaning on events. The intensity is manifest. Reflecting on the birth of her child in “Maternity”, Swir writes:

“And suddenly I am flooded

by a high, luminous wave

of humility

Powerless, I drown”

The translators have done a magical job in capturing the intensity and depth of feeling that Swir strove for her in her poetry (it seems fitting that Milosz, one of the greatest poets of the 20th century, should have a hand in promoting and praising his compatriot’s poetry). There are phrases that leap off the page, which the keen reader will want to cherish and savour: “How good to own/ a portable sun”; “I want to be clean as Nothingness”; I made love with my dear/ as if I made love dying/ as if I made love praying.” One can discern that Swir is triangulating three branches, which might best be described as: thinking, feeling, knowing. For there is no doubt that these are poems for the mind as much as they are for the body and soul.

Perhaps of equal significance to this compelling collection is the discussion at the end between Czeslaw Milosz and his collaborator in translation, Leonard Nathan; the discussion is as much a philosophical investigation of Swir’s form and style as it is interpretive and makes for essential reading. Of course, the poet should have the final word and Swir’s assertion on what she considers the poet to be will, one hopes, strike a chord and may be a springboard for those yet to discover the limpid,earthy and sapient quality of a supreme stylist: “the poet should be as sensitive as an aching tooth.”

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Leonard Cohen: He’s Your Man

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Listening to a song by Leonard Cohen or reading a line of his verse is a deeply immersive experience – enchanting and enlightening in equal measure – suffused with wisdom and grace, witty and subversive. This biography has a similar feel. Sylvie Simmons’ thoroughly-researched paean to the “Bard of Montreal” is steeped in admiration for her subject; the writing flows effortlessly and the reader will quickly become absorbed in the diverse tapestry of Cohen’s life; the rich Jewish-Canadian/Russian/Lithuanian heritage, the influences, the environment etc. There are plenty of revelations – so much so that as I read, not only did I think Cohen’s place as one of the most compelling figures of culture, music and poetry of the 20th/21st centuries is lucidly re-affirmed but his life brings to mind a line by Albert Camus, on the nature of personality and self, “We continuously shape our personality all our lives.”

Simmons is especially good at highlighting the themes that run like constant refrains in the fabric of Cohen’s life and work; sex, love, relationships, religion, depression, power, compassion etc. whilst accentuating what is, perhaps, his most salient trait: his resilience, “Leonard was a lover, but when it comes to survival he was also a fighter.” At times, it feels like there is a sense of destiny to Cohen’s actions, a knowingness laced with humility; anyone who has had the fortune to see Cohen perform live will testify to this. The blend of intelligence and humour is palpable, the mix of power and vulnerability hugely magnetic. Somehow, it feels no surprise that the flaneur who walked the streets of Montreal as a young man, questing for knowledge and fresh experiences would always end up as a legendary troubadour, displaying his gifts of observation and insights – about the great issues of life – to the world. His avenue? The open road of the globe.

The infectiousness that Sylvie Simmons has for Cohen shines out so much that one wonders whether she hasn’t been mesmerised by his fabled hypnotic powers. She is equally good at showing what makes Cohen tick as a man and as an artist. Yes, she is a fan but she writes with great skill and sensibility, “the great songs, the ones that keep drawing us back again and again are mysteries.” In many ways, Cohen’s output can best be described as a type of “assisted living”. Like Samuel Johnson’s perceptive quote on writing that it “enable[s] the reader better to enjoy life, or better to endure”, Cohen’s songs have a similar pull. Or, as a fan from Cohen’s tour in 1974 starkly puts it, “I was suicidal and I put on one of your records and you saved me.”

For many, this book will just confirm what Leonard Cohen already is in their eyes: a man blessed with a singular talent for poetry, lyricism and songwriting. The eloquence and compassion – central elements of his character- are manifest. As ex-lover and fiancée Rebecca de Mornay articulates, “he is so fully present, with compassion for the underdog, as well as genuine compassion for the enemy – which is very hard to do and hard-won.” Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of this terrific biography is that Simmons has unshackled Cohen from “banal” stereotypes that have attached themselves to Cohen over the years, like hackneyed labels which have become threadbare through repetition, and presented a rounded portrait of a highly sensitive, charismatic and intelligent man, whose greatest gifts have been for language and distilling experiences with a finesse of expression. In a nutshell, the opening line of this biography captures the essence of the man perfectly, “He is a courtly man, elegant, with old-world manners.” This is the kind of the book that will make readers want to rush out and grab some of Leonard Cohen’s books or listen to the albums. There can be no greater tribute.

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In The Realm of Love: A Poet Enchanted by Love’s Language

In an epigraph to this astonishing collection of poems, Carol Ann Duffy quotes from Shakespeare’s play, Two Gentleman of Verona: “Now no discourse, except it be of love;/ Now I can break my fast, dine, sup and sleep/ Upon the very naked name of love.” This is an apposite quotation for the book feasts upon the idea of love with a searching intensity, hitting the reader in the solar plexus by dint of that supreme poetical mix of thought, feeling and language – that makes poetry the most personal and emotive of art-forms.

Duffy’s skill as poet is on full display in Rapture. Not only is she a master of the poet’s craft in her command of assonance, alliteration, rhyme, rhythm, repetition, metaphor etc. but she is in full control of form, ensuring that the poems are accessible, without losing their heft, and that content and meaning are never lost. Perhaps this explains why Duffy’s poetry has always been popular. She is able to explore complex subjects (and is there anything more complex than love?) without being overwrought. The music is in the words and like a painter who selects the right hue for their composition, Duffy uses the mot juste for the emotion or aspect of love she analyses. Whether concentrating on love’s ecstasy or love’s despair, the poet’s gaze is never less than unwavering.

Kahlil Gibran once wrote that “poetry is a sigh that dries the tears”. This collection will do that, especially those poems that deal with the grief, the rancour and heartache when love falls. Yet this is poetry that enchants, making the heart soar; poems that the ardent lover and/or any keen student of love will want to absorb, words radiating a depth of feeling and a poet’s delight in language, on full display, shining like sparkling jewels. As the poet writes in “Finding the Words”, on the magic of the three most beautiful words in the lover’s armoury, “I rubbed at them until they gleamed in my palm.”

Rapture is a book that will certainly gleam in the consciousness of every reader who appreciates poetry that is written from the heart, is crafted with surgical precision, truthful yet tender, powerful yet beautiful. Whilst unflinching in examining the many facets of love – desire, faith, betrayal, separation, redemption – Duffy reminds us that love will live on, as sure as day follows night, “the blush of memory”, even when the heart is torn. Sometimes we just have to look elsewhere, including the natural world, before the light comes streaming in once more. Ultimately, even when mind and body have been stripped to the core, love is all, is all there is. Perhaps the greatest accolade that I can give to this book is that it is one that you will treasure, you will read over and over, possibly even give to a loved one. Words are timeless and in Rapture – that springs equally from the mind, heart and soul – Duffy has created a timeless classic, “upon the very naked name of love.”

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Sometimes

Sometimes it’s nice

Just to sit down

With a good book

And a cup of tea

But how much nicer

It would be

To sit down with

You and a cup of tea

Or maybe not even

With a cup of tea

Just you, the moon

And the daffodils.

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