A Love Letter: in praise of poetry
Avoid loud and aggressive persons,
they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans
(Max Ehrmann, 1927)
Last week marked International Poetry Day (21 March 2019, to be precise) and it seems only right to consider this form of narrative in more detail. When I was younger (so much younger than today)[i] poetry left me rather cold. Why read short, seemingly impenetrable bursts of language when you could read whole books? To me, it seemed as if poetry was simply lyrics that no-one had got around to putting music to.[ii] Looking back, this may have been the folly of youth, alternatively, I simply was unable at that time to see the value, the beauty of poetry, both written and spoken.
Poetry isn’t meant to be consumed whole, like fast food to be gobbled in between anything and everything else, fuel to get you through the day. Neither is it like googling facts, just enough to enable you to know what you need to know at that instant. Instead, it’s meant to be savoured, to stay with you; like many good things in life, it takes time to ponder and digest. In turn, it takes on its own distinct and entirely personal meaning. It offers the opportunity for all of us, individually, to reflect, ruminate and interpret, at our own pace, according to our own place in time and space. The extract which opens this entry comes from Desiderata which carries particular resonance for me and my academic journey. It may or may not do the same for you, but it’s worth having a look at the entirety of the text, just in case.
An obvious criminological place to start to explore poetry, was always a favourite. Long before I discovered criminology, I discovered the work of Oscar Wilde (1854-1900). Starting with his novels, it wasn’t long before I stumbled upon his Ballad of Reading Gaol. With its haunting refrain; ‘each man kills the thing he loves’ it is difficult not to captured by its innate melody, as well as the story of the murderous soldier. After studying criminology and spending time in prison (albeit not serving a sentence), the verses take on a different dimension. It is difficult not to be moved by his description of the horror of the prison, even more so, given his practical experience of surviving in this hostile and unforgiving environment:
With sudden shock the prison-clock
Smote on the shivering air,
And from all the gaol rose up a wail
Of impotent despair,
Like the sound that frightened marshes hear
From a leper in his lair
(Oscar Wilde, 1898)
On the surface, poets like the Greek, civil servant C. P. Cavafy (1863-1933) have nothing to say about my life, yet his words make my heart ache. Cavafy’s tale of a mystical and mythical journey to Ithaka which seems to me to represent my educational journey in ways that I am only just beginning to appreciate. Replace the mythical Ithaka, with my all too real experience of doctoral study and you get the picture.
Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich
(C. P Cavafy, 1910/1911)
Furthermore, The Satrapy appears to represent ambition, desire and above all, the necessity of educating oneself in order to become something more. To truly realise your humanity and not just your mere existence, is a constant struggle. Cavafy’s words offer encouragement and a recognition that individual struggle is a necessity for independence of thought.
Your soul seeks other things, weeps for other things;
the praise of the public and the Sophists,
the hard-won and inestimable Well Done;
the Agora, the Theater, and the Laurels
(C. P. Cavafy, 1911)
Poets like Maya Angelou celebrate gender and race (among many other aspects), identifying intersectionality and the struggles fought and won, and the struggles still ongoing. Despite historical and contemporaneous injustice, to be able to shout from the rooftops Still I Rise in answer to the questions she poses, is truly inspirational:
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?
(Maya Angelou, 1978)
Likewise, Hollie McNish utilises her anger and frustration to powerful effect, targeting racism with the linguistic gymnastics and logic of Mathematics , demonstrating that immigration is one of the greatest things to happen in the UK. To really get the full force, you should watch the video!
Cos sometimes one that comes makes two
And sometimes one can add three more
And sometimes two times two is much much more
And most times immigrants bring more
(Hollie McNish, 2013).
To conclude, you have nothing to lose by immersing yourself in a bit of poetry, but everything to gain. The poets and poems above are just some of my favourites (what about Akala, Cooper Clarke, McGough, Plath, Tempest, Zephaniah, the list goes on) they may not be yours, but it doesn’t matter. Don’t rush it, read a little something and read it again. Let the words and imagery play around in your head. If it sings to you, try to remember the name and the poet, and you can return again and again. If it doesn’t sing to you, don’t lose hope, choose another poet and give their work a chance to inveigle its way into your life. I promise you, it will be worth it
Angelou, Maya, (1978/1999), And Still I Rise, (8th ed.), (London: Virago Press)
Cavafy, C. P., (2010), Collected Poems, tr. from the Greek by Daniel Mendelsohn, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf)
Lennon, John and McCartney, Paul, (1965) Help!, [CD], Recorded by The Beatles in Help!. Parlophone, [s.l.], Apple
Wilde, Oscar, (1898), The Ballad of Reading Gaol by C. 3. 3., (London: Leonard Smithers)
[i] Lennon and McCartney, (1965).
[ii] Not always the case, as can be seen by the Arctic Monkey’s (2013) musical rendering of John Cooper Clarke’s I Wanna Be Yours
Brexit – anxieties, misinformation and political wrangling
This week’s blog was bound to reflect the news this week – Brexit. I almost resisted the temptation to write about this, I feel worn down by it all, but there are just some things which need saying. However you voted, however you feel about what should happen, the whole process has brought to light some alarming issues about our political classes, the process of implementing policy, decisions made about spending of our taxes and the priorities of government. At the time of writing this, Parliament has voted against no-deal, for extending Article 50, there are threats from various ministers about resigning and confusion reigns.
To me, Brexit has felt like an exercise in placing ideology before country, on both sides of the political spectrum. It does seem Labour’s proposals do at least protect jobs and the economy, and respect the vote from 2016. I still think on balance we should remain, but I could live with a soft Brexit, and a government which addresses many of the reasons people voted to leave. On the right, however, thanks to the ERG (European Research Group) we have a situation where we are hurtling towards no deal – the vote to take it off the table is apparently not legally binding – or at best, a delay. At the time of writing this, Parliament has voted for delaying our exit, and Theresa May is planning one last vote on her deal, seemingly to secure a delay which the EU will accept as legitimate and worthwhile. The Brexiteers on the left and right seem to want no deal and WTO rules, for reasons I cannot understand, aside from serving their own prejudices and financial gains.
The vote itself and the campaigns on the leave side seem mired in corruption and questions over funding and tactics to mislead the public, so I do have to wonder why instead of the outrage at this, there is an acceptance this is the will of the public, and must be acted on. With this and the recent activities of Chris Graying (him again!), costing the tax payer over £500m with failed ferry contracts and privatisation of probation, and now Boris Johnson suggesting investigating historic sexual assaults cases is a waste of money, our political leaders seem to be normalising incompetence. They seem to be able to resist any sense of shame, remorse and criticism of their performance, which is simply staggering. In the face of evidence about this, it amazes me that they don’t reflect on this and the harm being caused. Perhaps I have too high expectations of MPs and I should not tar all of them with the same brush, there are plenty who do a good job, who have the interests of their constituents at heart and value their job as a public servant.
Another example of this normalising of incompetence is when MPs suggested this last minute panic and uncertainty is how all negotiations with the EU go. Well, I can then see why some people are turning against both Parliament and the EU – the anxieties created by this as clear, people have already lost jobs, moved, disrupted family life due to trying to manage the uncertainty. Attention towards domestic issues is diverted by focus on Brexit, blinding many to the well document harms of Universal Credit, increasing homelessness, climate changes and knife crime. I believe many are fed up and would take leaving just to end the discussion and re-focus on domestic needs, but I fear many don’t realise the further problems they may face if we were to leave without a deal. It is then surely the responsibility of MPs and our political leaders to inform the public, make it clear what the best options are and maybe even make an unpopular decisions for the good of their constituents. If I were an MP, I would be concerned about all of this and also the legacy of this – much like Labour having to continually shake of the label of irresponsible spenders, through being blamed solely for creating the ‘winter of discontent’ in the late 1970s. Both parties continuing to insist we press ahead with Brexit could be dealing with a similar situation. Younger voters in particular maybe more open to new political parties, less like to be loyal to either Conservative or Labour and may embrace the change that The Independent Group is promising.
To continue with a policy which is creating so many problems, costs, and mental health issues feels like leadership who simply won’t listen to those people they are meant to support and serve. The link to mental health has been make clear in an article in the Guardian reporting that British farmers have reached out to crisis networks due to the implications of Brexit – this is manifest in farmers being on suicide watch, and serious concerns about those not even trying to contact such services (Parveen, 2019). The article reports that farming is just one of many industries which will be hit hard by a no deal Brexit, and in a research study on the extent of this, those who voted remain are reporting heightened mental distress (depression, anxiety, feelings of worthlessness), while those who voted leave reported a ‘bump’ in life satisfaction (Powdthavee et al, 2019). I can only imagine how the further harms caused if more jobs are lost, the economy slumps and the reality of craving sovereignty and blue passports bites.
Yet I don’t really have to imagine this, it seems blatantly obvious that we are not prepared to leave the EU, more time is needed to come up with a cross party consensus and maybe even a further referendum to be clear this is what the people want. When any leadership disregards the concerns raised from so many sectors, their constituents and colleagues, to press ahead with a policy which will cause harm then we can really see just how normalised incompetence and placing ideology before country has become.
Dr Susie Atherton
Senior Lecturer in Criminology
Parveen, N (2019) Brexit and bad weather puts UK farmers at risk of suicide, say charitie, see https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/mar/03/brexit-and-bad-weather-puts-uk-farmers-at-risk-of-suicide-say-charities
Powdthavee, N., Plagnol, A.C., Frijters, P. and Clark, A.E. (2019) Who Got the Brexit Blues? The Effect of Brexit on Subjective Wellbeing in the UK, Economica, see https://doi.org/10.1111/ecca.12304.
Damned if you do, damned if you don’t: it’s a funny old world.
“Did you just look at me?” says Queen Anne to the footman and, as he shakes his head staring into oblivion clearly hoping this was not happening, she shouts “Look at me”. He reluctantly turns his head, looking at her in obvious discomfort when she screams “how dare you; close your eyes?” A short vignette from the television commercial advertising the award-winning film ‘The Favourite’ and very much a case of damned if you do and damned if you don’t for the poor hapless footman.
A few weeks ago, I accompanied my wife to a bear fair in London; she makes vintage bears as a hobby and occasionally takes to setting up a stall at some fair to sell them. As I sat behind the stall navel gazing and wandering what the football scores were, when I was going to get something to eat and when would be an appropriate time to go for a wander without giving off the vibe that enthusiasm was now waning, my wife said, ‘did you see that’? ‘What’ I asked peering over a number of furry Ursidae heads (I’m told they don’t bite)? ‘That woman in the orange top’ exclaimed my wife. Scouring the room for a woman that had been Tango’d, I listened to her explaining that a 30ish year old woman had just come out of the toilets wearing a bright orange top and emblazoned across her generous chest were the words ‘eye contact’. ‘I suppose it’s a good message’ said my wife as I settled back down to my navel gazing.
I thought about the incident, if you can call it that, on the way home and that was when the film trailer came to mind as a rather good analogy. I get the message, but it seems a rather odd way to go about conveying it. From a distance we are drawn to looking but then castigated for doing so. A case of look at me, why are you looking at me? And so, it seems to me that the idea behind the message is somehow diluted and even trivialised. The top is no more than a fashion item in the sense of it being a top but also in a sense of the message. The message is commercialised; I wonder whether the top was purchased because of the seriousness of the message it conveyed or because it would look good and attract attention?
I discussed this with a colleague and she brought another dimension to the discussion. Simply this, where was the top made? Quite possibly, even likely, in a sweat shop in Asia by impoverished female workers. And so, a seemingly innocent garment symbolises all the wrong things; entrapment, commercialism and inequality. I can’t help thinking on this International Women’s Day that it’s a funny old world that we live in.
The Bride of Frankenstein
The classic novel by Mary Shelley back in the early 19th century was an apocalyptic piece of work that imagined the future in a world where technology appeared to be a marvel that professes to make everyday people into gods. The creation of a man by a man (deliberately gendered) in accordance to his wishes, and morals. The metaphysical constraints of the soul seemingly absent, until all comes to head. This was dystopic, but at the same time philosophical, of the future of humanity.
In the 20th century John B. Watson believed that he could shape the behaviour of anyone, mostly children in any possible way. Some of his ideas even made it into popular psychology where he offered advice to parents of how to raise their children. Although no monster is mentioned, there is still the view that a man can shape a child in whatever way he chooses. A creationist and most importantly, arrogant view of the world.
Decades later Robert Martinson, a sociologist will look at all these wonderful and great programmes designed to challenge behaviours and change people, so they can rehabilitate leaving criminality behind. He found the results to be disappointing. In the meantime, child psychologists could not achieve this leap that Watson seem to think they could make in changing people.
In the 21st century we began to realise at a discipline level that forcing change upon people is rather impossible. How about a man creating a man? Can you develop a new human that will be developed espousing the creator’s desired attributes and thus become a model citizen? In recent years we have been talking about designer babies, gene harvesting and genetic modification. Such a surprising concept considering the Lebensborn experience during the Nazi regime. That super-man concept was shattered in thousands little pieces, and for many relegated to history books. Therefore, designer babies are such a cautionary tale.
As a society we are still curious on what can technology can achieve, how far can we go and what can we develop. Still in science there are seeds of creationism proposing ideas of that we can develop; a world of people without illness, disorder and deviance. Pure, healthy and potentially exceptional individuals who may be physiologically right but sadly devoid of humanity. Why devoid? Because what makes a person? Our imperfections, deviances and foibles. These add to, rather than substract from, our uniqueness and individuality.
In a recent twitter discussion one of my colleagues engaged in a discussion about the repatriation of one of those women called “Isis brides”. The colleague posed the question, why not allow her to return, only to receive in response, because these are no humans. As I read it I thought, well this is a new interpretation of the monster. A 21st century monster that we can chase out of the proverbial village with torches because its alive and it shouldn’t be. We can wish for people to be good to us, open armed and happy all the time, but that is not necessarily how it is. We know that this is the case and of course we want to be reminded of our humanity, not for the positives but for the negatives. Not what we can be but what the others are not. So, we can always be the villagers and never the monster.
Mary Shelley (1888) Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus, London, George Routledge and Sons.