From today I will write on this blog this series dedicated to the incidental, contemplative fragments of my cultural and intellectual life – snatches of poetry, flashes of insight or illusion (can we know the difference?), quotations that played a chord, discoveries of writers, arcane knowledge, words. modes of being in the world and this great ocean we know as history and culture.
For most of this year this blog has been republishing content from previous years, although not exclusively, and a lot of my creative energy has gone into completing the publication of my collected poems, Gathering Flowers of the Mind, reigniting my novel, and launching and then releasing 18 episodes so far of The Burning Archive podcast. This focus has been very rewarding. I published my poems and even sold some copies (feel free to buy some more), and brought to fruition years of empty talk about making a podcast, which has given me a way to deepen my thought, writing and investigations of history and culture.
Yet throughout the year I have also been resetting my mental habits to break the spell of power over my life, and to regenerate my spirit in the contemplation of poetry, the strangeness of history and the accidental advent of arcane knowledge. Most mornings I have begun the day with reading random or selected poems from my collection, and I have also maintained a reading journal, in addition to my daybook and diary. In Flowers of the Mind – let us call it a sub-series within the Burning Archive, a very special room saved from the flames of oblivion – I intend to connect and bring to this digital page those mindful happenstances – to gather, not discard, the flowers of my mind.
Through a podcast I discovered Michael Oakeshott’s essay, “The voice of poetry in the conversation of mankind” (1959). Oakeshott speaks for a mode of being separate from the modes of practical action (politics) and inquiry (science or erudition) that is experienced in the voice of poetry. The idiom of this voice is contemplation – “contemplating… is a specific mode of imagining and moving about among images, different from both practical and scientific imagining.” He retells a story from Cervantes’ Don Quixote about a painter, Orbaneja, who when asked what he was painting replied “Whatever it turns out to be”. So is the spirit of poetry; so is the spirit of Flowers of the Mind.
Oakeshott concludes his essay against Romanticist escape into art and dream. Contemplation is one mode of being and will not suffice to know or to act on the world.
“In short, there is no vita contemplativa; there are only moments of contemplative activity abstracted and rescued from the flow of curiosity and contrivance. Poetry is a sort of truancy, a dream within the dream of life, a wild flower planted among our wheat.”Michael Oakeshott’s essay, “The voice of poetry in the conversation of mankind” (1959) in Rationalism in Politics, p. 247
I have discovered or recovered two Russian women poets over the last week – Marina Tsvetaeva and Elena Shvarts.
Marina Tsvetaeva – I knew of her name, but had not read her poetry. I chose her from a collection I have been sampling in my daily readings of poetry, The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry (2015). Two collections of her poems and of her essays are being delivered to me, but through this week I had noted down lines from her poem of 1921 Roland’s Horn. Tsvetaeva’s life story is extraordinary, tragic, inspiring. Her life and this poem spoke to my own sense of isolation, abandonment and reliance of writing, imagination, the infinite conversation, and the flowers of the mind for hope.
the soldier has his comrades, the emperor his throne
but the jester has nothing but his hump to call his own
And so: tired of holding to the knowledge that I’m quite
alone and that my destiny is always to fight
beneath the heers of the fool and the philistine’s derision,
abandoned – by the world – with the world – in collision
I blow with all my strength on my horn and send
its cry into the distance in search of a friend
And this fire in my breast assures me I’ not all
alone, but that some Charlemagne will answer my callTsetaeva, Roland’s Horn, 1921
Elena Shvarts lived 1948 to 2010, and was for many years an underground poet in the Soviet era, unable to be published. The few poems I have read have an uncanny quality, and resonances for me, especially in these locked down times of the Great Seclusion of the voice of poetry escaping in the after life the oppression of a tyrannical regime. She writes of birdsong escaping a cage, just as I imagine my own cantos from a cage to find my way to a better life in this internal exile.
Is it worth singing where no one can hear,
unrolling trills on the bed?
I am waiting for you, I lean from the boat –
bird, ascend to the depthsElena Shvarts, “Birdsong on the Seabed”
Russia has been on my mind these last two weeks. I have begun in a determined way to learn the language, and have been reading Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot. And through the week as part of the endless pretence that remote work is as engaging as in person work I used a still from Russian Ark as my background for my MS Teams calls. I have used the same still as the feature image for this post. I do identify with the stranger narrator of the film, the voice of another world from the past.
And also this from Anna Akhmatova.
When it comes down to it what do we care
That everything finally turns into dust,
Over how many abysses I sang in despair,
Or in how many mirrors I lived as I must.Anna Akhmatova, Seven Poems: II The First Warning, 1963
St Petersburg. Songs of escape. Oblivion as both terror and release. Living as I must.
I have shown the month from the Czech calendar this week.
Image Credit: Sukurov, Russian Ark and of course, the Hermitage museum in St Petersburg that I have not visited twice in body and many times in spirit.