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Featured Anthologioes: The Ten Poem Series by Roger Housden
The anthologies that help you to feel the depth and resonance of a poem
Also see Roger Housden's Featured Author Page Collections by Roger Housden, which includes an interview with the author.
Roger Housden shares the introduction to the book in his Ten Poems series
Ten poems to set you free? Free of what? Of
complicated explanations, and other peoples’ stories ( Rumi); of caution and prudence ( Mary Oliver): of sadness ( Unamuno); of failing luck and work gone wrong ( Cavafy); free of whatever it is that prevents you in this moment from claiming the life that is truly yours. It is the truth that sets you free, and these poems are its messengers.
For underlying this title is a question, one which echoes through every one of these poems : how can I stand freely in the truth of my life, feel the mettle of my unique existence, and act from there, whatever my outer circumstances may be? It is a question that has echoed down through my days. Sometimes I know what it feels like, to stand in the center of my life; at other times, I forget, I lose myself in concerns and anxieties that have me running in circles like a gerbil in a cage. One reason I write books is to provide a structure, a context for the exploration of a question that absorbs me; and no question has taken up more of my attention than this one. In fact, the question itself has often had me chasing my tail.
When I have not known what to do with myself or where to turn next in my life, my deepest consolation has usually been to spend some quiet time in solitude. There, I am usually able to return to myself. In times such as these, my companion is likely to be a book of poetry. Unlike prose, poetry does not explain things. It conveys the feeling of what happens. It articulates our deepest wonderings and aspirations, it shows us the world and ourselves in ways we might never have noticed before; it can name the questions that we wrestle with. Sometimes, it can prompt you to live your own answers in response. All of the ten poems in this book have done this for me. The essays that follow them are a response to the poems from my own life experience.
Poetry, like anything else, is no miracle cure; no quick formula that you can apply to kick-start your life into action and fulfillment. Nor are the essays that follow the poems. But good poetry emerges from the wellsprings of the human spirit, and if we are in the right place in ourselves to hear it, it can call forth our own inarticulate knowings, and offer a mirror into the core and the truth of our own life. It can show us the spark, the fire at our center, which, in the end, is the only thing in us likely to endure; the only thing worthy of our true name. That fire is the real life in us, and it is this, in their different ways, that the poems in this little book invite us to claim.
The book is little because there is no need to overstate its case. These ten great poems are more than enough to send a shudder through your bones and remind you who you are and can be (for that is the real question). More than enough, too, to help you feel without fear the emptiness that can well up when you are faced with the big canvas of life, and, seemingly, no paintbrush.
What a short span we are here for, in this tender body of nerve and sinew, flesh and blood! Better then, to shape our experience with insights that mirror our deeper being, rather than with the passing flotsam of doubts and anxieties, hopes and fears, that can so easily fill the screen of our mind. These poems, in their different ways, speak from the store of human wisdom and insight, which shall always survive both the trials of time and the persistent opacity of our collective darkness.
Shake off this sadness, and recover your spirit.
the first poem, by Miguel de Unamuno, begins. Unamuno’s message is a call to action, and when it comes to setting yourself free of tired patterns of thinking and feeling, action is often, though not always, what is needed. Remember those lines by Mary Oliver, that begin her poem "The Journey":
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,…
It is one thing to know what you have to do; it is another to actually begin doing it. Both Oliver in "The Journey," and Unamuno in" Throw Yourself Like Seed", urge us to make that tiny, momentous step along the road that is ours to tread. I know from experience that one can easily fritter away months and even years talking, thinking, dreaming about what one may or may not do, instead of taking that first small step that is willing to exchange the safety of talk for the thrill and the risk of action. The kind of action that Unamuno means is specifically that of work:
……. start then, turn to the work.
he says later in the poem. For
from your work you will be able one day to
Work—what kind of work will fulfill us, be the vehicle for our creative energies, make a difference, provide a good income—is probably the single greatest challenge that most of us share in common, along with the task of intimate relationship (or the flip side, getting along on your own.) Unamuno doesn’t know what is best for you—nobody does—but his powerful words may be just the nudge you need to tip you over the edge into the fullness of a life that has been waiting for you all along. You never know. Try it. Read it. Not once, or twice, but several times over a week or so. And read it out loud to yourself, and slowly, so the meanings and the layers of the lines seep into you, and reach a place below your critical faculties. Read it to your lover, or to a friend, and have them read it back to you.
Do the same with all of these poems, for they deserve your care and attention. They are the fruit of the deep mind, of luminous insight, and they can call forth the same in you if you enter them this way.
Who will care, who will chide you if you wander away
from wherever you are, to look for your soul?
Mary Oliver asks, in her poem in this collection. For to live your true life is not just a matter of asserting your personal will in the world. It is not dependent on your level of outer ambition and worldly success, though these may indeed be an expression of the underground spring that your true life comes from. No, the life we are speaking of here cannot be gauged by where you are on the career ladder, or by how much money you have in the bank. As Mary Oliver reminds us in the lines above, we are speaking here of the life of the soul. And that life can be felt when you stand without excuse or apology in the outer world by the deepest truth you know inside.
This is why the theme of authenticity whispers its way through many of these poems. As in David Whyte’s poem, "Self-Portrait," in which he says he wants to know
if you are prepared to live in this world
with its harsh need
to change you. If you can look back
with firm eyes
saying this is where I stand.
And Rumi, who in Coleman Barks’ version called "Unfold Your Own Myth," says:
But don’t be satisfied with stories, how things
Have gone with others. Unfold
Your own myth, without complicated explanations,…
Then Stanley Kunitz, who says, in "The Layers":
I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
Jane Hirshfield’s poem, "Lake and Maple," takes a different, though related turn, by speaking to the need, the longing, to be fully engaged, utterly given to the life that is ours:
Who has not felt that longing to give oneself utterly—to a piece of work, perhaps, to the swell and movement of our own life, even to something we may have no name for? Mary Oliver, in her poem here, ("Have You Ever Tried To Enter The Long Black Branches Of Other Lives?") has her own ecstatic way of calling us to this degree of devotion:
For how long will you continue to listen to those dark shouters,
caution and prudence?
Fall in! Fall in! [These three lines are italic when the poem is set in roman]
This is the third book in the Ten Poems series, and there is a Mary Oliver poem in each volume. Rumi’s voice, too, is in each of the books. Both these poets, separated by seven hundred years, cry out in their own ways for an ecstatic immersion in life. Both are poets of love and truth, and I believe that no time more than our own has been in such need of their fierce, uncompromising calls; calls for love and truth that cut clean and straight to the bone. That is why I return to them again and again.
Do you think this world is only an entertainment for you?
No wonder we hear, in your mournful voice, the complaint
Mary Oliver’s ecstasy comes laced with a sober, astringent clarity into the nature of the human condition. In her poem, "So Much Happiness," Naomi Shihab Nye, on the other hand, calls us to our true estate by reminding us that, in essence, happiness is who we are. It is a natural result of claiming the life that is ours. Yet there is no effort in this claiming; no striving to get things right, to be at the helm of one’s life like a captain in a storm. It is rather a saying Yes! to what is already so. To who we already are. What is happening when you are happy is you.
Anna Swir, in her poem "Thank You, My Fate," makes something of the same discovery while making love. In his poem, "The God Abandons Anthony," the Greek, C. P. Cavafy, adds another layer of meaning to a life fully lived. He urges us, along with along with the poem’s protagonist, Mark Anthony, to embrace the losses in our life along with everything else. For they, too, are part of who we are; they, too, play their part in the process of our soul-making.
I had a fuller understanding of what he meant only recently, when I returned after some time to my origins, in England. I took in the land, the buildings, the frail light of the place, and felt how profoundly they nourished me. I felt, too, how likely it was that I would never live there again, having settled now in America. For the first time, I felt the full loss of my native country. Cavafy’s poem helped me not to minimize the truth of what I was leaving behind, not to play it down or rationalize it away, but rather to stand there and take in the full weight of it for what it was. I was claiming my origins in the same moment as leaving them.
Finally, the monk and writer, Thomas Merton, in his poem, "In Silence," asks us directly the question that is implicit in all of these poems:
He asks if we dare sit in the silence and risk everything we know dissolving into thin air. We are not, after all, who we think we are. Who you are, any one of these poems might just be the door to. As could the view through your window, the silence in the room when you wake up in the morning, the look on the cashier’s face as you buy this book, or another. You never know. But why not start, turn the page, and find out?