READING & WRITING : WRITING & READING


Shakespeare Did It

Since 1986 I’ve been crafting ‘Found Poems’ from texts while reading them, an active reflection on the text in front of me, a kind of creative note-making. I established this habit at a time when it used to irk me that when I was writing I wasn’t reading and when I was reading I wasn’t writing. I remember wondering how it might be possible to do both together.

Shakespeare did it in reworking Holinshed’s Chronicles into the history plays and Coleridge’s Kubla Khan is a great example of something re-written in a dream-state after a reading of Purchas, his Pilgrimes (1613). William Rice Burroughs, after DADA, popularised ‘cut-ups’; Eliot drew on multiple sources for The Wasteland, finding things and re-using them in creative ways… In art, the objet trouvé is a long-time respectable form.

I pretty soon came to the ritual of writing Found Poems. Since 1986 I’ve written hundreds of them, starting with those culled from the nature essays of Richard Jefferies (Some Spirit Land, Hub Editions 1986) which was followed in 2003 by Found Haiku from Samuel Looker’s Notebooks of Richard Jefferies (Something Beyond the Stars, Hub Editions 2003). Between those years I constructed three or four books consisting entirely of Found Poems from a variety of authors, always diligently noting the source in order to honour it, sometimes rescuing it from complete oblivion. It became an obsession. More recently I’ve fused Found poems into books of my own poems and they have often been more in the nature of Reflections – found texts plus my own thoughts.

I’ve just finished reading Yuval Noah Harari’s brilliant book Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind. Philosophers are good sources of Found Poetry – the stories they use to illustrate their argument often seem to constitute ‘notes for poems’. Sapiens is philosophical writing in that it causes the reader to re-assess the meaning of life, death and the universe. I feel as though I have distilled much of what I want to retain from the 466 pages by writing the following Found Poems.

This is done in neither the hope nor the expectation of making something out of another person’s labours but as an honest celebration of what they have done and a way of retaining a personal gist of their writing. I hope the author of Sapiens will not be too affronted.

TWELVE CONTEMPLATIONS
FROM FROM YUVAL NOAH HARARI’S SAPIENS

I

like the elite of Ancient Egypt

most people in most cultures
dedicate their lives
to building pyramids –
only the names
shapes & sizes
of these pyramids
change from one culture
to another – they may take the form
(for example) of a suburban cottage
with a swimming pool
and an evergreen lawn
or a gleaming penthouse
with an enviable view

very few people question the myths
that cause us to desire a pyramid
in the first place

II

in medieval Europe

the nobility believed
in both Christianity and chivalry:
a typical nobleman went to church in the morning
& listened to the priest hold forth
on the lives of the saints –
vanity of vanities all is vanity –
riches – lust & honour
are dangerous temptations:
you must follow in Christ’s footsteps –
be meek & mild & turn the other cheek

returning home in meek & pensive mode
the same nobleman would change into
his Sunday best silk to go to a banquet
in his lord’s castle where the wine
flowed like water & the minstrel sang
of Lancelot & Guinevere
while the guests exchanged dirty jokes
& bloody war tales

the baron declared: it is better to die
than to live with shame; if somebody
questions your honour
only blood can wipe out the insult –
what is better in life
than to see your enemies flee before you
their pretty daughters
tremble at your feet?

in order to buffer the contradiction
from his thought-process
(such as it was)
he went off to fight the Crusades
where he could prove
that a really good Christian
makes a good knight and that the best knights
were naturally Christians

(Note: Harari seems to think this is OK and ‘fuels culture’. He says that ‘consistency is the playground of the dull mind’ and that ‘cognitive dissonance is … a vital asset…’ Though the latter comment is certainly true, I think he may well be being ironical…)

III

money

is not a material reality –
it is a psychological construct
(unless you don’t have any I suppose)

but it’s still interesting to ask
why anybody would be willing
to exchange a fertile rice paddy
for a sackful of useless cowrie shells
flip hamburgers & sell insurance
or babysit obnoxious brats
when all you get for your exertions
is a few pieces of coloured paper

IV

within a century of Captain Cook’s arrival

the natives of Tasmania
were completely wiped out
to the last man woman & child

having lived for 10,000 years in splendid isolation
they were driven off the richest parts of the island
by European settlers who (coveting
even the remaining wilderness)
hunted them down and killed them systematically

the few survivors were hounded
into an evangelical concentration camp
where well-meaning
but not particularly open-minded missionaries
tried to indoctrinate them
in the ways of the modern world: they were instructed
in reading & writing & Christianity
and all kinds of productive skills
such as sewing clothes & farming

becoming ever more melancholic
they refused to learn;
they stopped having children
lost all interest in life and finally
chose the only route out of the modern world
of science & progress – death

but then science & progress
pursued them even unto the afterlife: the last corpses
were seized in the name of science & progress
by anthropologists and curators; they were dissected
weighed measured, and analysed in learned articles;
skulls and skeletons were put on display
in museums and anthropological collections

only in 1976 did the Tasmanian Museum give up
the skeleton of Truganini (the last native Tasmanian
who had died one hundred years earlier) for burial;
the English Royal College of Surgeons held on
to samples of her skin and hair until 2002

V

in the good old days

(which they certainly were)
we depended on cycles of natural time
and organic growth quite unable
to make precise time measurements –
not even being very interested
in doing so; we went about our business
without clocks & timetables
subject only to the movement of the sun –
no uniform working day –
routine changing from season to season

we knew where the sun was
and watched for the likelihood of storm
but we didn’t know the time
by minute & hour and hardly cared
about the passage of a year

if you (traveller lost in time)
appeared in a medieval village
and asked a passerby what year it was
she’d be as bewildered by the question
as she would be by your ridiculous clothes

in these benighted times
we have to make conscious effort
not to know what the ‘time’ is –
construct of the imagination

VI

in order to survive

any large-scale organisation
(modern state/medieval church/archaic tribe)
has to be rooted in common myths
existing only in the collective imagination:

two catholics who have never met before
can go on a Crusade together
or collect funds for a hospital
because both believe that God
was incarnated in human flesh
and allowed himself to be crucified
to redeem our sins

two Serbs who have never met before
might risk their lives to save each other
because they believe in the myth
of the Serbian nation
its flag & general ethic

two lawyers who have never met before
are able to combine efforts
to defend a complete stranger
because they believe in the existence of laws
justice & human rights…
and the money paid out in fees

none of these things exist
outside the stories people invent
to tell each other round the communal bonfire

there are no gods in the universe
outside of people’s minds;
no nations
no money
no human rights
no laws
no justice
outside the common imagination of human beings

it’s worth bearing this in mind
next time you read the newspaper
listen to a politician’s earnest lie
or the earnestness in some religious broadcast…

that way is possible a kind of centred sanity…

VII

over the years

people have woven
an incredibly complex network of stories
– whole great fictions like those of banks & churches –
social constructs imagined realities
but not lies – I lie when I say: look out!
there’s a dinosaur in the room…

fictions like the Tory Party
Woolworths (remember it?)
Palm Sunday (this very day in 2017)
have a social reality that exerts
immense (if unstable) force

most millionaires sincerely believe
in the existence of money
and limited liability companies

the fictional warp & woof – weft & warp –
is so extensive that it has become
more or less impossible to distinguish
the nature of reality
from the stories we choose to inhabit

look! this beautiful large-eyed beefly
swooping around in front of me
deck-chaired on a sunlit lawn all afternoon
as though wanting to see what I’m writing

(Note: ‘not ideas about the thing but the thing itself…’ Wallace Stevens)

VIII

is was once believed

that human brain power
grew by leaps & bounds
after the first agricultural revolution
twelve thousand years ago…
that progress was fuelled by it
that evolution gradually produced
ever more intelligent people
that eventually they were so smart
they were able to decipher nature’s secrets
enabling them to tame sheep
and cultivate wheat – as soon as
this happened it was said they cheerfully
abandoned the gruelling dangerous
& spartan life of hunter-gatherers
and settled down to enjoy
the pleasant & satiated life of farmers

not so! just another fiction
without any evidence that people
have become more intelligent over time:
foragers knew the secrets of nature
long before farming became the norm –
their very survival depended on
an intimate knowledge
of the animals they hunted
and the plants they gathered

and they were able to spend their time
in more stimulating & varied ways
than farmers consumed by the chore
of clearing fields of stones & weeds
and defending them against attack

we did not domesticate wheat –
wheat domesticated us

and you couldn’t go back –
the change happened over centuries
and people always forget
what it was like in the good old days
like – what did we do before computers?

there’s no proof that human well-being
improves as history moves along
no proof that cultures beneficial to humans
must inexorably succeed & spread –
there is no objective scale of comparison
– shared myths is all…

IX

how do we get people

to believe in shared myths
like Christianity & democracy & capitalism?

first you must never ever admit
that they are myths or imaginative fictions

then you insist that your particular myth
(Christianity say) is an objective reality
– that there really was a man on a donkey
who was put there by the great gods
or the laws of nature

that people are unequal not because of
‘man’s inhumanity to man’
but because that’s how the great gods
decreed it… or that people are equal
not because philosophers variously assert it
but because that’s how the Omnipotent set it all up

after that you educate people thoroughly:
from the moment they are born
you constantly remind them
of the principles of your imagined order
which are incorporated into anything
and everything like a lock in a door
or the way trees sway in the wind –
fairy tales & drama paintings
song & etiquette & political propaganda
architecture & recipes & fashion

though the imagined order of things
(whatever it might be) exists only in the mind
it can be woven into material reality
to meld & shape even what we imagine to be
our most personal desires

so people go on expensive holidays abroad
because they believe in romantic consumerism
– the way it will ‘change your life’

to change all this hocus-pocus
we would have to convince
countless millions that they live out a fiction

I look up at the passing clouds
in the evening sky; there’s a wind
from somewhere & small birds twittering

X

they all seemed to accept

the divinity of Christ
his gospel of compassion & love
but they disagreed about the nature of love

protestants believed that divine love
was so great that God incarcerated in flesh
chose to be tortured & crucified
thereby opening the gates of heaven
to all ex-sinners – while catholics
asserted that the opening of said gates
was only for believers who participated
in church ritual and engaged in good deeds
– which protestants refused to accept
arguing that such a quid pro quo
belittled God’s greatness & love
by magnifying individual self-importance

this theological barny about love
got rather violent: a massacre
on St Bartholomew’s Day 1572
involved the slaughter of
near 10000 protestants in twenty-four hours
as a result of which the Pope
was so overcome with joy
that he organised festive prayers
and got Vasari to commemorate
the massacre with a fresco –
the Vatican room whose walls
are thus decorated is off-limits to visitors

XI

compare a medieval French peasant

with a modern Parisian banker: the peasant lived
in an unheated mud hut overlooking the local pigsty;
the banker goes home to a splendid penthouse
with all the latest technological gadgets
and a view of the Champs-Elysées

we might expect the banker
to be much happier than the peasant
but mud huts penthouses and the Champs-Elysées
don’t really determine our mood – serotonin does…

when the medieval peasant completed
the construction of his mud hut
his brain neurons secreted serotonin
reaching a certain optimum level

when the 21st Century banker made the last payment
on his wonderful penthouse his neurons secreted
an amount of serotonin bringing it up to
more or less the same optimum level:
it makes no difference to the brain that the penthouse
is far more comfortable than the mud hut;
the only thing that matters is that at present
the level of serotonin is where it is –
the banker could never be one iota happier
than his great-great-great-great-grandfather
the poor medieval peasant

XII

our medieval ancestors

were happy because they found meaning to life
in collective delusions about the afterlife –
as long as nobody punctured their fantasies

from a purely scientific viewpoint
human life has absolutely no meaning:
humans are the outcome
of blind evolutionary processes
without goal or purpose; our actions
are not part of some divine cosmic plan;
if planet Earth were to blow up at 10am tomorrow
the universe would keep going – business as usual;
human subjectivity would not be missed

any meaning people ascribe to their lives is just a delusion;
other-worldly meanings that medieval people
found in their lives were no more deluded
than those of humanist/nationalist/capitalist meanings now:
the scientist who says her life is meaningful
because she increases the store of human knowledge
the soldier who declares that his life is meaningful
because he fights to defend his homeland
the entrepreneur who finds meaning in building
a new company are no less delusional
than their medieval counterparts who found meaning
in reading scriptures going on a crusade
or building a new cathedral –

perhaps happiness is synchronising one’s personal delusions
with the prevailing collective delusions:
as long as my personal narrative is in line
with the narratives of the people around me
I can convince myself that my life is meaningful
and find happiness in that conviction – perhaps…

it’s like the person who stands for decades on the seashore
embracing certain ‘good’ waves
trying to prevent them from disintegrating
& simultaneously pushing back ‘bad’ waves
to prevent them from approaching – day in day out
you stand on the beach (even at night alone)
driving yourself crazy with this fruitless exercise

eventually you might sit down on the sand
& let the waves come & go just as they please –
or you can choose to let the pursuit of happiness
continue to trap you in misery

5 thoughts on “READING & WRITING : WRITING & READING

  1. For starters – I for one am very appreciative of your found poems, sometimes sent at precisely the right moment. I am quite sure that any author would be similarly appreciative of your succinct and artful way of reflecting and celebrating the fruits of his/her own labours. What comes across in this collection is what a profoundly sensible book!

    For Mains

    I am currently making a small water garden – I am doing it because it pleases me to do it and to gaze upon it from my study window. I have bought plants suitable for their position and when it’s finished it will be something else I take pleasure from. Partly from the satisfaction of having done it, and partly from the finished article which will provide the sound of water tipping over the edge of a pot into some pebbles. It’s a sort of meditative sound that will send me of into my senses.

    Am I doing it in pursuit of happiness, no I’m doing it because it pleases me to do it. Am I happy because of having done it? I suppose first it would be useful to have definition of happiness, Am I content – yes. A small peacefull achievement brought about by some modern gadgetry and a bit of physical effort – the aim to sit and appreciate it.

    To boost my serotonin levesl yes, my Grandfather, born in the 19th century, took similar pleasure in planting vegetables and flowers to provide for his family

    For Pud

    From time to time I take great pleasure in catering for my freinds and family – the greatest pleasure is in seeing the pleasure they derive from eating the food I have provided.

    All these things provide me with contentment – and then I hear something Donald Trump has said and it disappears because I can do absolutely nothing what so ever about it. And so after I’ve harrumphed a bit, I let the annoyance subside and go back to gardening or sewing or cooking or writing or reading and reading and writing – It’ll do me even if it is all an illusion.

    Coffee to finish

    None of the above is done in deliberate pursuit of happiness, never the less …happiness (contentment) is attained and I am grateful for it. Noticing an unusual ginger coloured bee sipping industriously at a euphorbia by a garden bench where I am drinking in spring sunshine – does the same thing without me having to DO anything. That is bliss.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Lovely Pat!
      Hope you appreciate this then!

      *

      making a small water garden

      because it pleases me to do it
      & to gaze upon it from my study window

      plants suitable for their position
      and when it’s finished there’ll be
      the sound of water
      tipping over the edge of a pot into pebbles:
      a meditative sound
      that will send me off somewhere else

      an unusual ginger coloured bee
      sips industriously at a euphorbia
      by the garden bench
      where I sit drinking
      in spring sunshine
      boosting my serotonin levels

      born in the 19th century my Grandfather
      took a similar pleasure
      in planting vegetables and flowers
      to provide for his family

      Like

  2. Wonderful, Colin! I’ve just recently added Sapiens, and Harari’s latest book, Homo Deus, to my to-read list. I plan on returning to this glob after reading them both – or perhaps right after reading Sapiens, when I’m sure I will be better able to appreciate your Found Poems above.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for this Colin – and thank you for drawing my attention to your Found poem.

    I had thought Isigned up to follow as usual, but I had not it seems as I had no clue you had done this – thank you x

    Like

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