Dylan Thomas’ Do not go gentle into that good night has bothered me for many years.
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
It bothered me more when, in my 30s I sat with my dying father. All my dad wanted in his last days was release from pain. Imagine the sheer tone-deaf selfishness of that injunction in his ears. All I can hear is a young man’s impotent rage against the loss of his father. It makes me wonder about rage and poetry. Among other things.
It has been a quiet week here in Ossett, mainly because my wife, Flo, and then me, tested positive for Covid after two years and more of shielding, self-isolating, masking, handwashing, disinfecting and the avoidance of social gatherings. It’s made each of us alternately angry/depressed/philosophical/rueful…but mainly miserable and pissed -off. It doesn’t help that I’m increasingly prone to bouts of what I can only describe as rage-born-of-frustration. It sort of helps to know you’re not alone.
The poet Jo Bell’s given me permission to use this Facebook post; when I read it it chimed immediately:
“You all know this already, and this is a classic case of me speaking to my own bubble. I’m almost weeping with anger after hearing a government PR man on the Today programme, blithely pretending that Johnson knew nothing about a party – a party at which he [the PR man] exhorted people in writing to ‘not wave bottles around in front of the camera’ and later crowed that ‘we got away with it.’ The man also repeatedly made the point that Downing Street staff were ‘working very hard’. I don’t doubt it. But we all remember the pictures of NHS staff who were working on the frontline for 12 or 16 hours a day and sleeping in corridors, and quarantining their own families at home for months on end. Many of us, of course, couldn’t work very hard, and spent our way through our savings, because our lifetime’s work disappeared as the people around us kept to the rules, for the good of our neighbours and strangers.
A Ministry of Justice cleaner, Emmanuel Gomez, contracted Covid and died – possibly from the people around him. They were boldly flouting the rules that they themselves had put in place – and which we were all following at the expense of our own working and domestic lives, to keep each other safe. The level of explicit lying and doublespeak perpetrated by this government are gobsmacking. I didn’t get this man’s name, but I hope he goes home and bangs his head against the table in shame.”
Almost weeping with anger.
Exactly. It’s the anger, the rage, that makes you incoherent and impotent. At worst it makes you lash out. I’ve shouted at a bunch of Tory canvassers who knocked on my door (we’re in the middle of a bye-election here in Wakefield); I wanted to be cold and calm and and take them to them to bits while clearly maintaining a moral superiority. But I lost it. I could not handle a bunch of smug fools telling me self-evident bare-faced lies. I was impotent.
A couple of days ago, Flo and I spent a period of 26 hours trying to deal with the NHS 111 hotline that I was told, in an NHS letter, to use in the event of a positive Covid Test…because I would be eligible for anti-viral drugs.
It’s hard to describe the experience. Kafkaesque is a cliché but it’s as near as I can get. It involves long periods on hold, followed by being asked to spell out the reason for the call, followed by a lengthy questionnaire and then being put on hold while we arrange to put you in contact with a clinician. The same process is then repeated several times. There is apparently no way of maintaining an on-going record of the sequence of phone calls, so you constantly go back to the start and on no account do you collect £200. After a bit you simply stop trying. But in the morning your phone tells you NHS 111 rang you at 1.23am and at 3.27am….. Later you are rung by an actual pharmacist, you are put on hold, you lose the line. They ring you back. Eventually a doctor in our local hospital rings. He is appalled to be told about the process. He is a nice man, and tells us he sees no real need for me to try the anti-viral drugs. The only reason I rang in the first place was because a letter told me I should.
Why didn’t I ring my surgery and the doctor who know my case inside out? Because it’s a Jubilee and the surgery is closed for four days.
In other news (ironically) footage of our egregious PM being booed on the steps of St Paul’s is edited out of the footage by our public service broadcaster, and our Culture Secretary is in denial. Again. I’m almost constantly angry and it does no good. The Serenity Prayer in under enormous stress. But after all, this is a poetry blog. Facebook and Twitter are the places for ranting into the void . If you want that done well, then follow (as I do) Another angry voice, and I see you.
So, I’ve been brooding on the difficult relationship between art and anger. We’re taught to be comfy with notions of emotion recollected in tranquillity, or that beauty is truth and that’s all you need to know. Songwriters and singers can develop a creative partnership with anger (think Early Dylan) and arguably even with rage (think Sex Pistols).
I have a feeling that angry political poetry gets sidelined these days. Tony Harrison was villified for it by the ‘popular’ press. I’m thinking of “V”, particularly, but also his Gulf War poems. I’ve no doubt that lots of readers will help me out, but I can’t readily think of ‘angry’ poets or ‘angry’ poems outside the performance/stand-up circuit. And it makes me smile awkwardly to see how John Lydon and John Cooper Clark got assimilated into the ‘eccentric lovable national treasures corner’.
The only thing I’m sure about is the ways in which, one way or another, I seem to have shaped some of my own anger into poems…or poetry. What follows will be a bit scattershot. Forgive me…I’m still dealing with Covid, which is debilitating and annoying.
Let’s start with Lear.. Here he is about to storm out of his daughter’s castle and into a transformative storm.
I will have such revenges on you both
That all the world shall – I will do such things –
What they are yet I know not, but they shall be
The terrors of the Earth! ….
O Fool, I shall go mad!
I’ve always thought this a wonderful gift to an actor, the character inarticulate with impotent rage, the fractured phrases, the dashes that invite you to consider how the actor will inhabit those spaces. He’s flailing for language and it wont come. Grrrrrrrrrrrr….. And shortly after he does go mad, and what’s rather wonderful and terrible is that he comes out the other side in what sounds like lucidity. It’s verse that never puts a foot wrong. Because the mad Lear is in control of this anger
Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! …………………..
Rage makes you incoherent. Articulation is the tongue-tied’s fighting. The gift is to find the right channel. I thought I’d cool my head and calm myself down by reflecting on the the rage I feel about the apparently untouchable sense of entitlement that characterises the last ten years of the contemporary Tory Party in power, and then how more or less by accident, I found a way of channelling it. The answer for me lay in the Greek Myths, the stories of the Greek pantheon, and particularly the version created by Garfield and Blishen in The God beneath the Sea.
Olympus is in the hands of arrogant and empathy-free public school bullies with supernatural powers. I came to think of Zeus (who crucifies Prometheus, the maker of humankind) as a divine psychopathic gangster:
Violent and vulgar as the Krays
a white bull, miasmic with testosterone,
or a shower of gold, or a flurry of wings
The whole pale mortal world
just asking for it.
A bit of blood and bruising.
No harm done.
(True Stories: Larach. [Ward Wood 2014]
There was a one conduit for the anger, and another in the persona of Apollo. Serial rapist and torturer of Marsyas the Satyr. It was Tony Harrison who taught me about Marsyas, via The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus which I saw at Salts Mill, performed by Northern Broadsides, 30 years ago. The anger at the silencing/muting of the working class that Harrison channels in The school of Eloquence erupts in this play that spins around the death of the satyr who has the temerity to surpass Apollo in a contest of musicianship. Some of the rage I felt at Cameron’s contempt for Jeremy Corbyn (wear a suit/stand up staright/sing the National Anthem) was given a shape, I realise, by what Harrison taught me.
Autodidact Marsyas, face to face
with god. Between us, flensers,
their knives along his wincing flesh.
Abject, in a loose wet skirt of his own skin:
this satyr’s all that my sealed eyes can see.
A scream that occupies all silences
all I can hear
(Apollo wishes to atone.. Outlaws and Fallen Angels. CVP )
He keeps turning up, Apollo. When Kim Moore was working on her first collection The art of falling, she got me hooked on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and thence to the story of the rape of Daphne by Apollo, appallingly and beautifully recreated in white marble by Bernini.
He doesn’t get it, this golden god
this spoiled pretty boy,
why his skin grows crusted,
why his supple fingers crack like kindling
why his large joints are querns
why clay and stones impede him
why his blood pulses slow and green.
(Metamorphosis: Outlaws and Fallen Angels. CVP )
I must be full of unconsummated anger. Or maybe I’ve finally exorcised it with this last poem, started in a Poetry Business Saturday workshop, with Rilke’s poem Archaic torso of Apollo as a starter. What I never saw coming was that it would be taken over by a phrase from a left wing blogger I follow on Facebook.
I see you, Apollo
“there is no place/ that does not see you. You must change your life. “
Sans head, no fingers,hands or arms.
No mouth. No lips. Someone found you beautiful.
You’re an accident of time,
the great convulsions of the earth,
the depredations of philistines or vandals,
the boys from the steppe, stinking of horse
and sweat, and blood that may be their own,
who cannot feel a wound, pumped up
with fear, testosterone, adrenalin,
flames, and screams of the nearly-dead.
I see you, Apollo, toying with a lyre,
testing the give of a string, and Marsyas
slowly dying nerve by nerve, slippery
with blood; his wet skin, his appalled gaze.
I see you exquisite in marble, oblivious to everything;
hot and reeking of musk, you’re blind
to tender leaves springing
from the fingers of a frantic girl.
I see you, Apollo, on a green hill. A gaping mask
the winds blow through. You have no body at all.
Like all the gods, you thought you’d fixed the game,
in the flatteries of myth, in bronze and marble.
You never saw us coming; libraries burning,
the statues overturned and smashed,
your lyre strings turned to garottes.
Do you see us Apollo,
the satyr’s children’s children? We see you.
[from Pressed for Time. Calder Valley Poetry 2022]
I think I may just have got Apollo out of my system. And here’s a thing. For the first time in days I don’t feel full of anger. Writing will do that sometimes. The tongueless man gets his land took.
Thanks for indulging me. Next week I’ll celebrate a collaborative collection that I really like and makes the worls a better place.