Kathleen Raine (on preference for ugliness, need for beauty)

“I have found myself wondering why the present age seems positively to shrink from beauty, to prefer the ugly, to feel safer, more at home with it; and I have come to realize that there is a reproach in the beautiful and the perfect; it passes its continual silent judgment and it requires perhaps a kind of courage to love what is perfect, since to do so is an implicit confession of our own imperfection. Can it be that the prevalence of the low and the sordid in contemporary writing is a kind of easy way, a form of sloth, an avoidance of that reproach which would call us, silently, to [aspire to] a self-perfection it would cost us too much to undertake? And yet it is in order to work upon us that transformation … that works which embody the beautiful alone exist. That is their function…”

Kathleen Raine (1908-2003) was an English poet and critic. I don’t know much about her, sorry to say. I believe this extract (the underlining is my emphasis, not hers) comes from a collection of her essays called Defending Ancient Springs (Oxford 1967). I ran across it in an essay by the Canadian poet Roger White, in a book called The Creative Circle: Art, Literature, and Music in Bahá’í Perspective, and can only think that this is more true now than when Ms. Raine wrote it.

Piet Hein (three “grooks”)

This Danish scientist, inventor and WW2 resistance hero had an odd sideline as the writer of quirky, deep little poems in English. I love ’em.

Here’s one:

I’d like to know

what this whole show

is all about

before it’s out.

Here’s another, called “Living”.

Living is

a thing you do

now or never

which do you?

(In case you missed it, there is a simple, and simply terrifying challenge in that last three-syllable line.)

Here’s the first he wrote, a simple poem about loss, published under a pseudonym in 1940. It passed the Nazi censors, but later began to appear all over Copenhagen as the Danes knew exactly what he was saying:


Losing one glove is certainly painful,
but nothing compared to the pain,
of losing one, throwing away the other,
and finding the first one again.

(Glove 1? Freedom. Glove 2? Dignity, patriotism, pride…)

PIET HEIN (1905-1996) was a friend of Albert Einstein and Neils Bohr. 


Poets Leading

I stage-whispered, proclaimed, I hollered and I sang to my classes, elementary and secondary, “Readers are LEADERS!” It was an article of faith, the Creature’s Creed, a plea for evidence of things perhaps not unseen but increasingly rare, especially among the young and male. (Unless they are sons of mine, in which case they read with absorption and fury and discrimination. Dad the Lucky.)

I have loved and cited often a passage from the American poet, Richard Wilbur: “What is our praise or pride / But to imagine excellence and try to make it?” But I don’t know his work very well, or very much of it, so I’m reading his recently issued Collected Poems: 1943-2004. I don’t read enough poetry. Maybe you don’t, either. to the rescue! Here’s the full text of Wilbur’s “The Reader”, which I cite in this week’s He Said/She Said… It is a telling artefact of the poem that its “reader” is female, but not a necessary condition! All of us need to visit (and discover all over again) the “realms of gold”…

The Reader

She is going back, these days, to the great stories
That charmed her younger mind. A shaded light
Shines on the nape half-shadowed by her curls,
And a page turns now with a scuffing sound.
Onward they come again, the orphans reaching
For a first handhold in a stony world,
The young provincials who at last look down
On the city’s maze, and will descend into it,
The serious girl, once more, who would live nobly,
The sly one who aspires to marry so,
The young man bent on glory, and that other
Who seeks a burden. Knowing as she does
What will become of them in bloody field
Or Tuscan garden, it may be that at times
She sees their first and final selves at once,
As a god might to whom all time is now.
Or, having lived so much herself, perhaps
She meets them this time with a wiser eye,
Noting that Julien’s calculating head
Is from the first too severed from his heart.
But the true wonder of it is that she,
For all that she may know of consequences,
Still turns enchanted to the next bright page
Like some Natasha in the ballroom door—
Caught in the flow of things wherever bound,
The blind delight of being, ready still
To enter life on life and see them through.

It will mean more if you read it again. Trust me. This is not text messaging. (Well, actually, it is, but you know what I mean.)

On the Walrus Shelf

How lucky am I? Well, I’m David’s Dad, for one thing, and last night that meant an invitation to an amazing event. My kid is finishing up at Canterbury High School, the specialty arts school for this region. (We chose Ottawa, in large part, because of his successful application. And it’s public education, speaking of great institutins and lucky fathers.) CHS, with its Literary Arts program, took a strong role in hosting The Walrus magazine’s Ottawa instalment of its “Bookshelf” promotion, and My Dave was one of two student readers at McGinty’s Pub downtown.

Four novelists were there to read from their work. James Meek read from The People’s Act of Love. From the United Kingdom, Meek draws here from his years as a journalist in Russia. The novel sounds bleak and fascinating, though I found his writing about sex clumsy. (I find nearly everybody’s writing about sex clumsy, though Bruce Cockburn, oddly, is an exception. Maybe sex and prose don’t mix.) Rawi Hage, born in Lebanon and living in Montreal, read searing stuff on the adolescent idiocy of civil war from his début novel DeNiro’s Game. Jaclyn Moriarty comes from an entirely different authorial zone, and she was a delight. She is Australian, a lawyer with a Ph.D. and a practice she has left behind for writing. (It’s hard to imagine that charming and quirky voice arguing copyright law, but that’s my bias.) I Have a Bed Made of Buttermilk Pancakes is suburban fantasy, I suppose, and it was intriguing and funny. The remarkable Canadian Ann-Marie MacDonald closed with a superbly delivered (hardly a surprise, given her acting and performing background) series of readings from The Way the Crow Flies. (Wow.)

Yes, and my Dave and Fatima read their poetry, too, and hundreds of teachers and librarians (and the odd freeloading parent) absorbed beer and bar food and WordsWordsWords with rapt attention. The editor of The Walrus, Ken Alexander, spent several years as a high school English teacher. The Walrus Bookshelf hit 12 Canadian cities this year, and its partnership with publishers like HarperCollins, Anansi and Vintage Canada results in schools walking away from the evening with dozens of autographed copies of the novels at hand for use with their students (25,000 books, I’m told, across the country). It’s all about reading and the good teaching that encourages it.

And until Dave leaves for university next year, I have four signed hardback novels under my roof, and they are squirming to be read. (That’s me squirming, I admit it, especially since I still haven’t read MacDonald’s ridiculously successful first novel, Fall On Your Knees.) My guy was a bit overwhelmed, in his usual understated way, as we walked away: “I had no idea how prestigious this was.” That made two of us. What a great night to be a Dad, to be a (once upon a time) teacher, to be a writer with an itch.