In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing
About the dark times.
– Bertolt Brecht, motto to Svendborg Poems, 1939

In an essay called ‘Undefeated Despair’, John Berger wrote of ‘Despair without fear, without resignation, without a sense of defeat.’ ‘However you look at it’, the Guardian editorialised a few days ago, ‘2017 offers a fearful prospect for America and the world.’ In the words of Paul Simon’s ‘American Tune’, I don’t have a friend who feels at ease when weighing the prospects for the year ahead. In the spirit that some solace may be found in poetry in these dark times, I offer a selection of poems or brief extracts – some have which have appeared in posts here before – which seem to offer meaning and hope; they may reflect Berger’s stance of undefeated despair, offering not ‘a promise, or a consolation, or an oath of vengeance (forms of rhetoric he states are are for ‘the small or large leaders who make History’), but rather insists that ‘One was born into this life to share the time that repeatedly exists between moments, the time of Becoming.’ .

After the bewildering act of national self-harm perpetrated in June’s referendum vote, John Donne’s verse, ‘No Man Is An Island‘ written in1624, came to mind:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manner of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

Looking back on the death and destruction inflicted on innocent civilians in Syria and in Europe, I returned to this verse by Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai:

God has pity on kindergarten children.
He has less pity on school children.
And on grown-ups he has no pity at all,
he leaves them alone,
and sometimes they must crawl on all fours
in the burning sand
to reach the first-aid station
covered with blood.

But perhaps he will watch over true lovers
and have mercy on them and shelter them
like a tree over the old man
sleeping on a public bench.

Perhaps we too will give them
the last rare coins of compassion
that Mother handed down to us,
so that their happiness will protect us
now and in other days.

As far-right groups across Europe took advantage of the fear and hostility aroused by the refugee crisis and horrific terrorist attacks, there was much talk of the death of Enlightenment rationalism. In Voltaire at Ferney, WH Auden recalled one of the greatest of Enlightenment figures whose library at his chateau at Ferney in France held around 7000 books. In Auden’s words, the philosopher observes that ‘As a rule, It was the pleasure-haters who became unjust.’

Yet, like a sentinel, he could not sleep. The night was full of wrong,
Earthquakes and executions: soon he would be dead,
And still all over Europe stood the horrible nurses
Itching to boil their children. Only his verses
Perhaps could stop them: He must go on working: Overhead,
The uncomplaining stars composed their lucid song.
– from WH Auden, ‘Voltaire at Ferney’, 1939

‘Only his verses perhaps could stop them’: Auden probed the same question of poetry’s efficacy a year later in the tribute he penned after the death of WB Yeats:

For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.
– from WH Auden,  ‘In Memory of W B Yeats’, 1940

In the shocked aftermath of the Trump victory and a year marked by Black Lives Matter protests against the shooting of unarmed black citizens by police officers, many Americans turned to the poetry of Maya Angelou:

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

[…]

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.
– Maya Angelou, from ‘Still I Rise

Ieshia Evans confronts police in Baton Rouge, July 2016
Ieshia Evans confronts police in Baton Rouge, July 2016

Another poem widely shared by Americans on social media in the last two months is Adam Zagajewski’s ‘Try to praise the mutilated world’:

Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June’s long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of rosé wine.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You’ve seen the refugees going nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the grey feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.
– Adam Zagajewski. ‘Try to Praise the Mutilated World‘, 2000

Airstrike on rebel-held city of Douma near Damascus 11 September 2016
Airstrike on rebel-held city of Douma near Damascus 11 September 2016

Then there are the poems for all times, favourite verses that will always speak of how, in John Berger’s words, we ‘share the time that repeatedly exists between moments, the time of Becoming.’:

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
– Wendell Berry, ‘The Peace of Wild Things’

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
the treasure in it. I realise now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past.  It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.
– RS Thomas, ‘The Bright Field’

Canada geese in flight

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
– Mary Oliver, ‘Wild Geese’

In another of his poems, Wendell Berry was also inspired by the sight of geese in flight:

Geese appear high over us,
pass, and the sky closes. Abandon,
as in love or sleep, holds
them to their way, clear
in the ancient faith: what we need
is here. And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye,
clear. What we need is here.
– Wendell Berry, ‘What We Need Is Here’

Vincent van Gogh, Two Poplars on a Road Through the Hills, 1889
Vincent van Gogh, Two Poplars on a Road Through the Hills, 1889

The rising hills, the slopes,
of statistics
lie before us.
the steep climb
of everything, going up,
up, as we all
go down.

In the next century
or the one beyond that,
they say,
are valleys, pastures,
we can meet there in peace
if we make it.

To climb these coming crests
one word to you, to
you and your children:

stay together
learn the flowers
go light

– Gary Snyder, ‘For the Children’

Leonard Cohen was just one of the voices sadly stilled in 2016, a year when truth seemed to have gone out of fashion. But the poet usually speaks the truth:

I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the lord of song
With nothing on my tongue but hallelujah
– Leonard Cohen, from  ‘Hallelujah’

year

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25 thoughts on “In the dark times will there also be singing?

  1. And who by fire, who by water,
    Who in the sunshine, who in the night time,
    Who by high ordeal, who by common trial,
    Who in your merry merry month of may,
    Who by very slow decay,
    And who shall I say is calling?

    And who in her lonely slip, who by barbiturate,
    Who in these realms of love, who by something blunt,
    And who by avalanche, who by powder,
    Who for his greed, who for his hunger,
    And who shall I say is calling?

    And who by brave assent, who by accident,
    Who in solitude, who in this mirror,
    Who by his lady’s command, who by his own hand,
    Who in mortal chains, who in power,
    And who shall I say is calling?

  2. Ath bhliain faoi mhaise, Gerry, and all readers, who probably like me read and are nourished by this blog but often dont comment. Thanks for a good year of insight and reflection.

  3. Hi Gerry, thank s for the blog and for the beautiful poetry especially “The Bright Field” , long a favourite of mine.
    May I very respectfully say that I dont share the sense of hoplessness that so many speak about publicly. That these are dangerous times I would agree. But we have had dangerous times before especially during the Blair era and we will again in twenty years or more. May I also say I do not believe the vote for Brexit was some kind
    of suicide note written by rascists. I am minister of a church of well over one thousand people from 47 nationalties, and despite the fact that I am white , the church is black majority. I know the blessing and joy of a mutli racial community, my son lives in France , speaks the language fluently and has a French girlfriend. The problem I have with those who wanted to remian is that rest of us are WRONGLY and very ignorantly portrayed as “little Englanders” or xenophobes. I wish you could meet many of the people I know who voted to leave , it would, I have no doubt, change your perspective. Alas, the Guardian does not do its journalistic work with much honersty in this sphere.
    Some years ago we joined an economic community. This year we left a Europoean Union. This is what drove many to say no. I do wish the Guardian wouldlisten, it is the failure of Europes Politicians to listen which has brought many of the issues we face today. I hope you have a great New Year and that for you hope rises in every sphere of life.

    1. Thanks, Andy, for taking the time to add your comment. While racist motives clearly did not impel you to vote Leave, those who led the campaign which you supported were not similarly inclined. The incitement of hostility towards immigrants and fellow-Europeans played a key part in determining the outcome and has had a poisoning effect on attitudes and behaviour since. I blame the Remain campaign almost as much as the leaders of the Leave campaign for the outcome – few British politicians have ever been prepared to justify membership of the EU beyond matters of narrow self-interest, or to explain the origins of the project in the ruins of 1945, brought about by the traumas of war and nationalism. All politicians and journalists have ever done in Britain is either to ridicule or regard it with indifference. Whilst the EU is far from being a perfect organisation, the model of painstaking (indeed, often painful) negotiation to achieve a common approach to matters of foreign policy, environmental protection, civil rights and much more is something unique in the world. May I respectfully recommend that you read a short book (it’ll take only a couple of hours) which is calmly and lucidly written and reveals Brexit as likely to be the biggest act of national self-harm that a country has ever inflicted upon itself: Brexit: What the hell happens now? by Ian Dunt (http://amzn.to/2hELT4K). All the very best for you in 2017!

  4. Thank you Gerry – from Poland where awful things have been on the increase all through 2016 but have been met with a huge upsurge in resitence, protest, all sorts of groups springing up to create a better reality – but this all happens mostly in the cities and I am part of a small, isolated rural community which pretty much ignores what is happening elsewhere so your blog is inspiring and helps to keep me focussed on the light – as well as being a brilliant guide to which books and films to treat myself to ! I look forward to reading more from you in 2017

    1. It’s good to hear, Ewa, that there is growing resistance to the initiatives of the government of the Law and Order party (see: http://bit.ly/2eXpydf). In the Guardian here we saw a bit about huge protests against the proposal to ban abortion but your comment suggests a lot more is going on than we learn about over here. Thank you for your nice comments, and I wish you all the best in 2017.

  5. A nurturing post – glimmer of hope, much solace in painful times. You do help the light to get in. Thank you for all your posts. A good and satisfying, even joyful new year to you!

  6. Refreshing read. It’s a good time for poetry because poetry can start speaking when arguments, ideas and rhetoric are worn out. Interesting how many of these poets of hope were/are religious (Donne, Thomas, Berry, Angelou, Auden, Oliver…)

  7. Hi Gerry and a happy 2017. Two thoughts;

    Your great mistake is to act the drama
    as if you were alone. As if life
    were a progressive and cunning crime
    with no witness to the tiny hidden
    transgressions. To feel abandoned is to deny
    the intimacy of your surroundings. Surely,
    even you, at times, have felt the grand array;
    the swelling presence, and the chorus, crowding
    out your solo voice You must note
    the way the soap dish enables you,
    or the window latch grants you freedom.
    Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity.
    The stairs are your mentor of things
    to come, the doors have always been there
    to frighten you and invite you,
    and the tiny speaker in the phone
    is your dream-ladder to divinity.

    Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into
    the conversation. The kettle is singing
    even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots
    have left their arrogant aloofness and
    seen the good in you at last. All the birds
    and creatures of the world are unutterably
    themselves. Everything is waiting for you.

    — David Whyte

    The current system of power is fundamentally pretty invisible to us. It resides in finance, in all sorts of new kinds of management, and within computers and the media, which involves invisible algorithms that shape and manage what information we get. I think one of the most beautiful things artists and journalists can do at this moment in time is to be sympathetic and understanding to the people who voted for Brexit and Trump, and then bring to the fore the invisible power structures that those people feel completely distanced from so that they know where power is. And do it in such a way that isn’t obscure so people like me don’t have to read it three times just to understand it. Do it in a way that really grabs ordinary people’s imaginations – Adam Curtis

    1. As always, thanks for your contribution, Les. I liked both the poem and the Adam Cutis quote (admirably concise compared to his films!) I wish you all the best in 2017.

  8. Thank you A sad, but inspiring window into the future of possibilities. I can’t be anything except miserable -a European pessimist at heart! I also appreciated Adam Curtis’ words and David Whyte’s poem.

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