Tag Archives: Ruth Padel

Reading Death and Looking it in the Eye

Talking about death, thinking about death, reading about death, these are not morbid activities. Indeed, since the only certainties in life are death and taxes, (Benjamin Franklin, 1817) we may as well find out what we can about it. Perhaps we might find it easier to approach our own end if we consider what others say. As reading is my way into understanding the world and my life, it’s books I have gone to.

I belong to a group of wonderful women, originally eight of us, but Diana died a few years ago. Our group has been meeting for more than 12 years, exploring choices and possibilities in our lives, originally for retirement, but more recently about ageing and death. Some months ago we met to discuss our ideal death. Many of us referred to books in our contributions. I report on these before adding the results of further investigations.

The group’s recommendations

These books prompted us to think about death, good deaths, ideal deaths, and guided us in thinking about what we still needed to think about in relation to death. It was a session that contained as much laughter, as much encouragement and support, and as much help to look at our personal challenges as we always find from our group.

Salley Vickers Miss Garnett’s Angel

Ann Cleves Cold Earth

We know that we cannot easily choose how we die, but these two novels described the quiet and unexpected deaths of characters who were unaware that they were going to die. One of our members hoped for this kind of death. Having one’s things is order was considered part of this ideal death.

Max Porter Grief is the thing with feathers

This is a remarkable book, recommended by one group member who was asking the question ‘ideal for whom?’ reminding us that death affects more than the person who dies.

Another member frequently recommends poetry and she proposed the following:

Neil Astley Soul Food

Mary Oliver Wild Geese

Ruth Padel 52 ways of looking at a poem

In addition she recommended a book by Mark Doty, Dog Years, written by an American poet and telling of his experiences of deaths of partner and dogs.

We talked about people who choose suicide or assisted dying. Another reader mentioned Sweet Caress by William Boyd as it depicts the main character planning suicide but called back to life by suddenly realising she is thinking about what to have for breakfast next morning.

My own contribution was to read Canon Henry Scott-Holland’s Death is Nothing at All, frequently read at funerals.

Death is nothing at all.

It does not count.

I have only slipped away into the next room.

Nothing has happened. …

I told the group that it irritates me because it promotes the idea that separation at death is not permanent. But on rereading I had also found that it captures the idea that the dead remain with us, having influenced our lives and we can hear their voices and still think about them.

We also mentioned in our discussion these three writers and their books.

Diana Athill Somewhere towards the End and Alive Alive Oh

Terry Pratchett Shaking Hands with Death. Lecture on You Tube here.

Jenny Diski In Gratitude.

Books to read

Since then, and because I promised the group a list of books on the topic of death, I have noted these.

Before I say Goodbye by Ruth Picardie was published by Penguin Books in 1998. After she was diagnosed with breast cancer, Ruth Picardie described the progress of her illness in a series of articles in the Observer. They are collected here together with emails to and from friends, and a foreword and afterword by her sister and husband.

Dying: a Memoir by Cory Taylor. Her memoir on dying is ‘a remarkable gift’ according to three of her friends, writing in the Guardian.

Margaret Drabble wrote The Dark Flood Rises. It is a novel about several older people who are trying to live well in their final years. She spoke about death in October 2016, in an article entitled I am not afraid of death. I worry about living.

Katie Roiphe has written The Violet Hour: great writers at the end, published in 2016 by Virago. She writes a piece in the Guardian about her own experiences, and those of great writers. It is moving.

A Reckoning is a novel by May Sarton. Laura is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and on learning this decides to make a good death on her own terms. This intention is thwarted by her increasing dependency upon others, but she finds much to be pleased with in her final weeks.

The novelist Helen Dunmore has recently been diagnosed with cancer and wrote about mortality and legacy in the Guardian in March 2017: Facing Mortality and What we leave behind.

Another resource

Dying Matters website, strapline ‘Let’s talk about it’. This is an organisation that aims to help people talk more openly about dying, death and bereavement and to make plans for the end of life. Their site is a gateway to information and sources of support.

So let’s read about it, talk about it, plan for it. What do you think?

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On not blogging about poetry

Your blog covers everything – except poetry, my sister told me when I was reviewing bookword earlier this year. I find it hard to believe but this is my 50th post and this is my half-century response to her implied challenge.

The death of Seamus Heaney last week was an occasion for considerable public acclaim of his work, and a reminder that the Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to him in 1995. Paul Muldoon, fellow Irish poet, gave a moving tribute on In Tune on BBC Radio3. Heaney had a gift, he said, to connect the reader with the writer, and to give back the world of things and the things of the world, seeing them as if for the first time. He allowed in people who were not ordinarily interested in poetry.

50 anthol

I love reading poetry. I am very fond of anthologies. As a (former) Londoner I always enjoyed the serendipity of Poems on the Underground. I often dip into the two volumes of Poem for the Day. Again the randomness of the day’s poem is part of its delight. To read The Nation’s Favourite Poems (of which Rudyard Kipling’s If was the ‘clear and unassailable winner’ in the poll conducted in 1995) is to revisit poetry lessons at school. I have good memories of mutual pleasure in poems with my American penfriend, chosen from Palgrave’s Treasury. My sister also likes anthologies (suggested them for her Desert Island Books) and sent this photo.

50 H's poetry

And I have had great pleasure, too, in reading what poets write about poetry. These books have made good travelling companions. Roger Housden’s 10 poems to change your life introduced me to two poems I often reread: Mary Oliver’s The Journey and Derek Walcott’s Love after Love. I got a great deal out of Ruth Padel’s two books: 52 ways of looking at a poem and The Poem and the Journey and sixty poems to read along the way. In fact I think I will dip into both of them again.

50 on poetry

Recently I have read Glyn Maxwell On Poetry. In his review Adam Newey in the Guardian said it was the best book about poetry he’s ever read. I enjoyed the humour, the creativity and the technical details with which it explores form, rhyme patterns, line breaks and so on. It’s all a far cry from the kind of solemn incantation that school poetry encouraged.

The boy stood on the burning deck
Whence all but he had fled;
The flame that lit the battle’s wreck
Shone round him o’er the dead.
(From Casablanca by Felicia Dorothea Hemans, 1826)

According to Glyn Maxwell poetry, although a human activity, has been ‘unnecessary for almost all of creation’ (p10). Just pause a moment and notice the work of that word ‘almost’. When was the time that poetry was necessary? Is it now? Let’s hope it’s now, in our time. Maxwell takes the reader through some of his reflections on poetry, on poems, on the writing and reading of poems, a meander that is sometimes playful, sometimes teasing, passionate, fervent and unsettling.

He approaches poetry as both sensual and intellectual, an intellectual journey to enhance the senses, a sensual journey to be spiced with intellectual appreciation. The TLS reviewer seemed to think it fell short of being a decent course on writing poetry, but I did not read it as a how to write book. And that’s partly because I don’t write poetry.

I don’t write poetry. I try not to say I can’t write poetry, but I don’t seem to make any progress when I try to learn to write the stuff. I am still dissuaded by the criticism I received when I was 17, from a published poet. He didn’t agree that my poems were prize winners, and suggested I had written ‘chopped up prose’. After nearly half a century I am still bruised.

50 poets

I can’t memorise poems. But I have lots that mean something to me: Philip Larkin The Years; Mary Oliver, Wild Geese; Yeats, The Dancer and the Dance; Alice Oswald Dart … I revisit these with pleasure and anticipate many yet unknown.

I suspect that stillness is needed to enjoy poems. I don’t have much in my life. Don’t expect many blogs on poetry but I can’t help asking myself: would I be a better reader of poetry if I wrote more? Would I be a better writer of poetry if I read more?

What would you say to persuade me to try writing poetry? Would you take the trouble? What poetry do you like?

 

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