Isn't poetry wonderful?
Friday evening. M and I are at this upmarket, 'happening' sushi restaurant. We have a reservation, but there's still a fifteen minute wait before our table will be ready. We slip down to the bar / lounge to wait.
The trouble is, I can't STAND lounges. My reaction to them is immediate and visceral - it's the sensation of something clenching up inside me, like every inch of my being were trying desperately to withdraw into the cocoon of itself. It makes me wish I really were a turtle and had a shell to be safe under.
It's the noise mostly. The mindlessness of the music thumping away in the background, the shrill cacophony of high-pitched female voices squealing and laughing all around me, the endless inanity of conversations that seem to consist entirely of exclamation marks. The ridiculous idea that being in a room where the noise levels are so high that you have to shout to be heard by the person next to you could be construed as being 'social', as though all that civilisation came down to was this herd instinct, this incapacity to deal with any idea not immediately accessible to the meanest intelligence.
Plus there's the claustrophobia of course. The dense, dark space, the haze of smoke, the constant jostling as people push past you. It's always amazed me that a group of people who are so protective of their private space on mass transit systems that they sometimes prefer standing to taking an empty middle seat, would willingly choose to pack themselves into this intensely uncomfortable environment like sardines, and actually seem to enjoy it.
At any rate, as M sidles off to the bar to get herself a drink (by this point I'm incapable of swallowing at all, so that a drink is clearly impossible) I can feel the nausea rising within me, I feel choked, my hands are clenched into fists, every muscle in my body has grown taut with tension. I shut my eyes and try taking deep breaths. That helps.
Then, just to take my mind off my surroundings, I try reciting poetry to myself. Eliot first. The first part of Ash Wednesday. Because I cannot drink / There where trees flower and springs flow, for there is nothing again. And then, more fittingly, Browning.
"As for Venice and her people, merely born to bloom and drop
Here on earth they bore their fruitage, mirth and folly were the crop
What of soul was left, I wonder, when the kissing had to stop
'Dust and Ashes'! So you creak it, and I want the heart to scold
Dear dead women, with such hair to, what's become of all the gold
Used to hang and brush their bosoms? I feel chilly and grown old".
There I am, in the middle of a floor crowded with beautiful people, in my scruffy raincoat and day old stubble, my eyes tightly shut, murmuring poetry to myself as though it were an incantation. Slowly, everything else around me fades out. The noise recedes, the individual voices bleached to a white static. I exist in a bubble of my own making. I am a spectre, I am a ghost. I am a planet of quiet but desperate gravity among these busy, unheeding constellations.
I feel a hand on my shoulder. I open my eyes and it's the security guard. He wants to know if I'm feeling okay. I cannot find the words to say to him. I want to tell him how utterly I reject him and these surroundings that he works in. I want to assure him that he needn't give me this half-amused half-pitying look that he reserves for those who don't fit in, because fitting in is never something that I've cared to do, and here, in this place, it's the last thing on my mind. But it's no use. No speech of mine could possibly reach him. From where I stand he seems too remote, too distant, as though he were a million miles away. I nod, then turn away, hoping he'll leave me alone, hoping he'll let me go back to my hard won peace. As I watch him drift away out of the corner of my eye, it occurs to me again how glorious poetry is, how life affirming, how necessary.
Auden writes: "Nights of insult let you pass / Watched by every human love". Without poetry to console us, lend us its gift of silence, could we survive the mindless hubbub of our everyday lives? I know I couldn't.
P.S. The title of this post comes from Ginsberg's amazing Mugging - a poem I'll always treasure, partly for the shock of discovering, at seventeen, that petty crime too, could be the subject of a poem and partly for the sweet irony of that final line - "my shoulder bag with 10,000 dollars full of poetry left on the broken floor" - the truth of that line both a triumph and a cause for despair - the world cannot steal our poetry from us, because the world will never know what it's really worth.
Categories: Poetry, Personal