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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 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
Than four
And most times immigrants bring more
Than minuses


(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

Selected Bibliography

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


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‘I read the news today, oh boy’

 

NagasakibombThe English army had just won the war
A crowd of people turned away
But I just had to look
Having read the book

(Lennon and McCartney, 1967),

 

The news these days, without fail, is terrible. Wherever you look you are confronted by misery, death, destruction and terror. Regular news channels and social media bombard us with increasingly horrific tales of people living and dying under tremendous pressure, both here in the UK and elsewhere in the world. Below are just a couple of examples drawn from the mainstream media over the space of a few days, each one an example of individual or collective misery. None of them are unique and they all made the headlines in the UK.

‘Deaths of UK homeless people more than double in five years’ 

‘Syria: 500 Douma patients had chemical attack symptoms, reports say’

‘London 2018 BLOODBATH: Capital on a knife edge as killings SOAR to 56 in three months’

‘Windrush generation NHS worker lost job and faces deportation despite living in the UK for more than 50 years’

So how do we make sense of these tumultuous times? Do we turn our backs and pretend it has nothing to do with us? Can we, as Criminologists, ignore such events and say they are for other people to think about, discuss and resolve?

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Stanley Cohen, posed a similar question; ‘How will we react to the atrocities and suffering that lie ahead?’ (2001: 287). Certainly his text States Of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering makes clear that each of us has a part to play, firstly by ‘knowing’ that these things happen; in essence, bearing witness and acknowledging the harm inherent in such atrocities. But is this enough? 

Cohen, persuasively argues, that our understanding has fundamentally changed:

The political changes of the last decade have radically altered how these issues are framed. The cold-war is over, ordinary “war” does not mean what it used to mean, nor do the terms “nationalism”, “socialism”, “welfare state”, “public order”, “security”, “victim”, “peace-keeping” and “intervention” (2001: 287).

With this in mind, shouldn’t our responses as a society, also have changed, adapted to these new discourses? I would argue, that there is very little evidence to show that this has happened; whilst problems are seemingly framed in different ways, society’s response continues to be overtly punitive. Certainly, the following responses are well rehearsed;

 

  • “move the homeless on”
  • “bomb Syria into submission”
  • “increase stop and search”
  • “longer/harsher prison sentences”
  • “it’s your own fault for not having the correct papers?”

Of course, none of the above are new “solutions”. It is well documented throughout much of history, that moving social problems (or as we should acknowledge, people) along, just ensures that the situation continues, after all everyone needs somewhere just to be.  Likewise, we have the recent experiences of invading Iraq and Afghanistan to show us (if we didn’t already know from Britain’s experiences during WWII) that you cannot bomb either people or states into submission. As criminologists, we know, only too well, the horrific impact of stop and search, incarceration and banishment and exile, on individuals, families and communities, but it seems, as a society, we do not learn from these experiences.

Yet if we were to imagine, those particular social problems in our own relationships, friendship groups, neighbourhoods and communities, would our responses be the same? Wouldn’t responses be more conciliatory, more empathetic, more helpful, more hopeful and more focused on solving problems, rather than exacerbating the situation?

Next time you read one of these news stories, ask yourself, if it was me or someone important to me that this was happening to, what would I do, how would I resolve the situation, would I be quite so punitive? Until then….

Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you (Nietzsche, 1886/2003: 146)

References:

Cohen, Stanley, (2001), States Of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering, (Cambridge: Polity Press)

Lennon, John and McCartney, Paul, (1967), A Day in the Life, [LP]. Recorded by The Beatles in Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, EMI Studios: Parlaphone

Nietzsche, Friedrich, (1886/2003), Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, tr. from the German by R. J. Hollingdale, (London: Penguin Books)

Is education more fun than building a Lego Yellow Submarine? Discuss

yellow submarine

This week some students, independently and across the years, introduced me to the novel idea that education should be “enjoyable” and “fun”. Furthermore, if it wasn’t enjoyable, it wasn’t being done right. Given Criminology’s subject matter is often grim, dark, focusing on the worst aspects of humankind, enjoyable and fun are not descriptions that often appear in relation to the discipline. Certainly, such a perspective is not one that I personally recognise; a day at an art gallery, playing Hungry Hippos with two little people, a nice bottle of wine, lunch with friends, building a Lego Yellow Submarine etc are things that I would say are enjoyable, perhaps even fun. But education……I’m not convinced! What follows are my vague ramblings around a subject which is very close to my heart (you are warned!).

All of the enjoyable activities I have described above are ones that I spend very little of my time doing and that to me, is part of their enjoyability (if such a word exists). They are attractive because they are rare and unusual, in my life at least. But education, learning, knowledge are part and parcel of my everyday existence, and dare I say fundamental to who am I. However, does any of this preclude education from being fun? Maybe, I just take for granted my thirst for knowledge in the same way as my thirst for water, just everyday appetites that need to be fed to maintain equilibrium and optimal performance.

I love considering new ideas and new perspectives, particularly if they challenge my thinking and jolt me out of complacency, so I want to consider this concept of enjoyable education.  I’ve always been a curious person, there’s lots of questions that I want to know the answer to and they generally begin with “why”? Like all children, I expect I drove my parents mad with the constant questions; never fully satisfied with the answer. I can trace my first early, tentative steps into criminological thinking to when I was a child and regularly had to pass HMP Holloway[1] on the way to various hospital appointments. I used to wonder who lived in this huge, forbidding building, why they were there, what had they done, when would they get out and where would they go? Some decades on, I have answers to some of those questions but I’m still actively searching for the others. This, of course, is experiential learning and children’s books (at that time) offered little by way of answers to such profound criminological questions.

Holloway_Prison

At school, the type of learning I liked best was when I could explore for myself. An experienced and knowledgeable teacher or lecturer explaining complex ideas could open the door so far, but I wanted to find out for myself as much as possible. For me, the best educationalists are those that gently guide and enable, not those who deliver information on demand. They also engender self-confidence and self-discipline encouraging the scholar to take control of their own intellectual journey. All of this leads me to the conclusion that learning is intrinsically neither enjoyable nor fun, although both may be by-products.  Education, knowledge, learning, all of these are painful, challenging, at times they appear almost impossible. But! The level of personal satisfaction, achievement and growth means that ‘some kind of happiness is’, not as the Beatles suggest ‘measured out in miles’, but through  intellectual endeavour (Lennon and McCartney, 1969). And to answer the essay question I set in the title, Lego has many charms but independent, self-direction is not one of them. Provided you follow the step-by-step illustrated instructions you will have your very own Yellow Submarine, but there are no surprises, whether positive or negative, which means I have no intellectual investment in the process. Furthermore, take the instructions away and I would not be able to recreate this “masterpiece”. Having said that, it does look rather lovely on my book case 🙂

 

Lennon, John and McCartney, Paul, (1969), Hey Bulldog, [LP]. Recorded by The Beatles in Yellow Submarine, Northern Songs: Apple

 

[1] HMP Holloway closed its doors for the final time in July 2016.

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