Posts Tagged ‘literal’


it happens daily —
the world turns, the sun rises
— my own blindness kills

This poem was born out of a feeling of regret. I dreamed I turned up to play French horn in an orchestra, but then realised I had no French horn. Awake, I fell to thinking of my teenage years and how lazy I was in regard to French horn practice. I now practice yoga on a daily basis, and because my body is old, I notice the stiffness immediately if I miss a day’s practice. I fell this morning into wishing I had realised the importance of practice. Who knows I might now be a professional musician. And this feeling of regret forced me to consider the totality of what we owe to this life or to ourselves by being alive. I suppose you could say I fell to regretting not having achieved enlightenment in this life. The subject of enlightenment was already fairly close the surface of my preoccupations since Friday night when a Buddhist friend used the term in a Buddhist sense and I found myself rebelling inwardly — I doubt whether it’s either helpful or meaningful, to accept enlightenment as something the Buddha achieved and the rest of us can only strive after in a futile sort of way. My poem wanted to bring back ‘enlightenment’ to the literal meaning of the literal light which fills our physical world. But of course I end up, in the poem, with a metaphorical blindness nevertheless.



an erect penis —
so much more than an item
of biology

Against the odds, I’ve managed a half-decent attempt to capture in words the flavour of last night’s dream. I found contemplation of the dream quite disturbing and depressing, and I began to despair of finding any kind of acceptable representation for the issues it raises. As a teenager, I had French horn lessons, because my father had been a French horn player. The French horn I learned on was his, the French horn teacher was someone he knew professionally. Then when I was 16 I moved to London and had a new teacher — a younger man with much more awareness of the latest ideas on horn technique. I had severe emotional problems and although obviously he could see that was the case, he rarely displayed anything other than suppressed impatience with the pathetic mass of insecurities which was me. But he was a good teacher who improved my playing, and we somehow found a way of working together. In my dream last night he seemed to be concentrating deliberately on sustaining an erection while he was teaching me. The penis was hanging visible. I thought I had to imitate him. At the literal level, I should make it clear this dream refers to nothing that ever took place in real life. At the symbolic level, I guess manhood (or assertiveness) was somehow the issue between us. I was a closet gay at that time. In the dream I was fascinated in a horrified way by the penis. In reality he was quite an assertive character. I used to hate his assertiveness, because he seemed so deliberately unsympathetic. But I had nothing better to offer.


night terror — the dark
is powerful, the mind is
dark — the will wants good
but does evil — night terror
deliver us from evil

The word Christian is a mysterious one, for me. I believe it’s quite possible Christianity has done more harm than good in the world, not just by supporting wars of every conceivable description, but psychologically by perpetuating a literal against a symbolic understanding of the story of Jesus and thereby depriving all of its adherents of their rationality and hence of their wholeness. It’s possible to believe the Gospel story literally only by suppressing one’s own (healthy) scepticism. Hence all Christian believers are engaged in a constant ‘doublethink’ — a more or less unconscious (but nevertheless deliberate) decision to drop one’s aspirations towards inner consistency of thought, at least in this one area of the Christian mysteries. Also Christian symbols themselves are over-optimistic in what is, for me, an unhelpful way. The world is clearly not saved, despite whatever happened on the cross two thousand years ago. To say that it is, is just more doublethink.

That’s my (very mild) tirade against the Christian religion. And once all that has been said, I am still a Christian, and I don’t fully understand why. The title of my poem was easy enough to arrive at, given the last line being a quote from The Lord’s Prayer. But the poem is an attempt to give shape to some very evil dreams last night, and I am pleased with the accidental dissonance between the upbeat attitude normally implied by the term Christian, and the very downbeat poem. I am a Christian without being your usual run-of-the-mill traditional Christian. But at the same time, there is a resonance between Christian irrationality and fear — and my own in this poem.

Some of the evils I was confronting in my dream last night were: post-nuclear-holocaust Paris and London; my father boasting that his side of the family contained no “serial…..[killers? rapists? child-molesters?]”; systematic intimidation of ordinary people by the secret services, employing anal rape; unbelievable distress of a ‘woodcraft’ worker, who had been fired thanks to government policy and had been unable to find any livelihood since.


words like ownership
and empowerment — words like
laptop — make me wish
with all my heart for a state
of utter destitution

I dreamed my laptop was buried under a pile of other laptops. I felt very attached to MY laptop as I hunted for it. Awake, I realised how much my laptop means to me, both in the abstract (a focus for my sense of ‘ownership’) and practically speaking (e.g. no laptop, no pornography). Ownership and empowerment are supposed to be positive things in the context of mental health. I do go along with that, and yet to another part of me these words sound like drivel. That part of me is sick of my current life, and my job in mental health, and my leisure time spent on emails and iPlayer and blogging and pornography — and believes I was better off spiritually in the eighties and nineties when I had nothing. There’s another part of me again however, thinks literal poverty is no escape. There would still be issues of ownership and empowerment to grapple with even if I had no laptop, even if I had nothing. Even if we lived in a society without money. The disjunct is between my current life and my previous life: I have never reconciled them and still feel like two people.


literal first, then
apologetic — and last
of all, far too late,
I can hear myself being
just plain rude: Do I know you?

The more I think about it now, the more it seems to me that I spend a remarkable amount of time and energy in the literal and apologetic realms. My social self is more or less defined by these two habitual modes. Or at least that’s how it seems to me. In my dream there was a girl who, it turned out, was a prospective volunteer for one of the charities I work for. But my first words to her were Do I know you? and I’ve succeeded quite well in this poem, in getting across the succession of cognitive stages I went through in the dream. The net result was a not-all-that-mild sense of social anxiety which is perfectly true to life. But since this is a dream, I’m allowed leeway to add another layer too: the symbolic. The girl in my dream is a part of myself. I’m asking myself do I know myself. It’s also legitimate to query how well any of us actually know the people we say we ‘know’. The symbolic layer is the most interesting to me. I wish I were more interested in people themselves instead. Layering is a curious title, with its connotations of dressing and fashion. But I guess both poem and dream are concerned with the self we present to the world. The tension and stages between inside and outside.

negative capability

there’s something absurd
in how the unknown never
rests just as it is —
but will pose like some fashion
model, for any label

As someone once said (Voltaire, according to Wikiquote): Si Dieu n’existait pas, il faudrait l’inventer. If God didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent him. God and schizophrenia have a lot in common. I believe in them both. But not really at the literal level. We invented them, to cover a multitude of sins. Whatever the thing itself is, that they refer to, it’s so far away from our understanding, we might as well at least concentrate instead on respecting the dignity of those who believe in them literally. These thoughts triggered by dreaming that I was gazing out of the window thinking of a pair of sisters, convinced that the mysteries of sisterhood are so closed to me (as a man), it’s equivalent to ‘the unconscious’. Another label of course. And in fact the label I felt impatient with, in order to write the poem. God and schizophrenia were afterthoughts. ‘Negative capability’ fits perfectly as a title. It really is every bit as brilliant a formulation as its currency within the world of psychotherapy implies. Keats was quite a lad.

[Since writing the above, I’ve checked the Wikipedia entry on ‘negative capability’ which is truly appalling. It’s unnecessarily complex and overworked, over-thought, over-reliant on ‘fact and reason’ in exactly the way referred to by Keats in the following extract from his letters: I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke, upon various subjects; several things dove-tailed in my mind, and at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason – Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge. This pursued through volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration]