Ignite or be gone Poetry, shamanism, love and a world of action

I have been sitting in my room this morning in candlelight. The first light has come into the sky now and the candle sends shadows flickering about the room suggesting shapes, forms, ideas, playing with time and space, moving my imagination between the worlds.

Candlelight is so evocative.

I have been sitting as I do each day in silence for half an hour. It has become a morning ritual for me- an important one. In recent days the end of this time has coincided with the sun’s rising- up over the hill that runs in a line north to south-the horizon of the view from my window. These last few days have been quite beautiful. Clear nights full of stars have led to bright frosty mornings, the sky an unimaginable array of blues and the sun itself, breaking over the hill, has jewelled the landscape, washed it each day with new light. The sun has been rising way over in the south west for months now. It is hard winter here still but I notice each morning that the sunrise comes just a few moments earlier. In a few months it will rise more or less entirely in front of me and finally, by midsummer, it will rise far away to my left almost out of view.

Sky wanderer

As it moves and changes with the days and seasons, how can we say that the sun is not alive-is not life itself-life begetting life.

‘Ignite’ wrote Mary Oliver, ‘or be gone.’

Yesterday I went out for a walk shortly after the sun had come up. It’s another more or less daily ritual when I’m at home and carries the same importance as the time I sit. There is a place that I like to stand on the top of the hill that gives its name to our village. In Somerset the old word for hill is barrow. I live in North Barrow. The village church sits on top of the hill and from the field I stand in the sun rises up behind a line of ash trees, silhouetting the church and casting the whole scene in the most glorious light. From this spot, the path I follow wanders thinly through fields over gates and stiles down to a small brook. On the descent the view opens right up. We live on the edge of the Somerset levels. In the distance, on a clear day such as yesterday was, you can see Glastonbury Tor rising like a beacon out of the landscape, a broad, distinctive hill, steep on its southern aspect and falling away more gently to the north. The simple remains of the church of St Michael are outlined at the summit and history presses in. It is ancient land. Stories layered upon stories.

The light yesterday was remarkable. If each day were immersed in these colours there would be fewer arguments about God. I stood awhile beside the stream and listened as it riffled and flowed over shingle and stones. The flow of water is such an eternal sound. The light caught the fence that runs alongside the stream illuminating strands of wool left by sheep that use it as a rubbing post. The trees- an old oak and the string of willows that hug the water, were outlined like charcoal drawings against the sky which was pristine. The whole scene shimmered.

I was standing at a spot where several weeks ago I had come across a song thrush. The small bird was dead though still warm. I picked it up and held it in the palm of my hand for some minutes. There were no marks on it at all-its death was a mystery. As I held it I thought of my friend who, as it turned out, had died the previous day. I had been visiting her at home in the months before her death. Her dying was no secret between us and we talked about her experience openly and honestly. We sat with it; as much as was possible we sat in it together as her-self, her story, began to dissolve back into that other greater story. We both felt the subtle changes, the easing away of something, the gravity and grace of impermanence as her grip on life changed to something softer. Slowly over many months she had unpicked the threads that bound her to this world. Her books, her family, her passions, her beliefs, her activism, all of it, softened, loosened, entered the current we could both feel. There was grief and joy. We laughed more often than we should have perhaps. The universal and the particular moved and flashed together-it was like watching a fish move, working and settling in the current of a stream.

To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
I placed the bird down beside the stream and covered its body though not its head, with several leaves that had fallen from the willows that lined the opposite bank. The next day I walked by again. The leaves were still there as I had left them, but the bird was gone.

Leaving the stream, the way home takes me up the lane, past a farm and down into the village, the circuit returning past the church and on down the hill to home. As I walked, I was struck quite suddenly by the transitoriness of this life. I felt it so strongly that I wept. It was not grief I felt, or joy exactly though it was both of these things and much more. It was, I’m sure, an affirmation, a blessing of sorts. I found myself turning the words of Prospero over in my thoughts as I made my way along the lane;

We are, he said,

such stuff

As dreams are made on, and our little life

Is rounded with a sleep.


I repeated the words several times and each time came the same gift of tears. It touched me in the way that breaks and forms in the same moment. It hurt in the way love can and does.


Words are powerful, especially as poetry. I share the opinion with Ted Hughes that poetry is shamanic. By nature, inclination and experience, I have come to believe this to be true.

‘Poetry leads us into the underworld, wrote Hughes, which is one of the main regenerative dramas of the human psyche, the fundamental human event’.

In a few simple lines good poetry will carry us down into the depths of ourselves. It will console, act as guide, mentor, teacher. It will also provoke us and encourage us to meet the immensity of the world its author intuits senses and seeks to describe. As such poetry is a bridge between the world of words as utility and the wordless silence which must remain always ineffable. There is an edge as Thomas Aquinas discovered beyond which words cannot go. In the burning presence of God, he put down his pen, put aside his final work and became silent.

We live out our days between time and the eternal and this is, I think, the landscape and territory of the poet in each of us. In these landscapes, the unfamiliar moves. There are footprints in the snow and in the mud, traces left on broken branches, there are thick forests and strange mists. This is the grimpen home of the poet who tracks and moves like a hunter in new fallen snow, seeking out image, symbol and metaphor, working with cadence and rhythm.

A poet will sit beside the bear cave of words all winter for a single sound, a smell, a vision.

We hear the drum sound and the feet of our souls-move.

Our spirits curl upwards like smoke. We respond.

There are, wrote Wendell Berry,

No unsacred places.

Only sacred places and desecrated places.

Here is a drum beat.

The world is sacred he says- not just in special places but everywhere, the world is first and foremost is holy, sacred ground. We know that don’t we-but we forget and in our forgetting, we lose ourselves, as Wordsworth said- in the light of common day. It is that sense of loss that so deadens the soul, separated as it is-as it seems to be, from its native goodness. I wonder if it’s a loss of a feeling for home or a longing for adventure, a keening to embark on the journey of return-I’m not sure, but if we lose that sense of being in it- if we lose the confidence that we are with our breath-involved-participants in the greatly mythic world around us, we suffer.

Our breath marks us as participant, as intimates with all that breathes and yet we can feel so alien. Even the rocks, breathe slowly. They sing too, so I hear.

Is there anything worse than to lose the capacity for awe and wonder in the face of the immanence of our un-being?

To be fierce with life is our birth right and what makes us truly human. It’s a strange image but it captures the courage that marks the best of our days, our living and our dying.  It is something to affirm our own lives in a world that is forever and perpetually affirming life, pouring it forth with wild abandon in a zero sum game that yet must include our own decay and death. Paul Tillich called this affirmation the courage of despair-the courage to be. That we can embrace being itself in the face of despair-this outlook is what makes things real.

Another drum beat.

How do we engage with our lives, not only our own lives but life in general-how do we participate-in the world?

Start close in.

There is our beginning. Make it what it is- what you know it is- which is personal. The poet knows;

..don’t take the second step
or the third,
start with the first
close in,
the step
you don’t want to take.

What is that step I don’t want to take?

This is the shamanic journey to the underworld.

Close your eyes and see the other world.

Adjust. Get close in.

You can feel the fire; see how the light tricks your eyes in the darkness of the question, of the invitation. There are many faces. Time past and time future swirls about your head. Intoxicated. The drum beats swims, dreams, the ground falls away; you die.  Animals come, there is pain, burning, tearing, move across landscapes, over water, the stars seem near and far, move, dance.

We are danced.

Life is dancing us, we are dismembered, drunk, in love, sensual, sexual, cold, alone, our heart pounds, we sweat, we bleed, we soften, we weep, we rest, we sleep, we are awake, we are sore and hungry and tired and awake, awake, awake.

That is the first step. Descent and return is always the step we don’t want to take

Not the second or the third step.

Start close in.

What is the step I don’t  want to take? The one that goes over the edge.

We know what we sense and we discern truth from fiction when we get close in.  There is a trustworthy voice that is wholly our own if we will listen Up close the truth is always personal but it’s also universal.

The poet diviner.

There are currents moving beneath us and around us that are more intimately who we are than anything the common day world can tell us or give us.

The shaman’s first tool.

Nature. Always nature.

There are no unsacred places. The earth knows that and we too know but we forget.

Seamus Heaney is our guide.

Cut from the green hedge a forked hazel stick

That he held tight by the arms of the V:

Circling the terrain, hunting the pluck…


Is that not our lives?  Are we not, at our most alive, our most engaged, our most committed-hunting the pluck?

What is that feeling? It is our own unique relationship with the great world which is also every relationship with the great world. If we meet the hidden world with confidence- we will be met.

Unfussed. The pluck came sharp as a sting.

We will be met

We will be met

We will be met

We will be met

The drum beats- we can smell the hide and the resin in our darker minds

Between earth and the hidden streams of life we are mediators. The tools of our work are all about us, in front of us, so common you might disregard them. The kingdom of heaven is all about but men do not see it.

Our work?

Nothing fancy

To fashion ourselves.

To get close in to our own lives first and then lend our weight to the public effort

To fashion the one green hazel that is our own, to walk into the world with bare feet, to engage. To meet our part of the bargain with confidence. The earth, the living world wants to respond and it waits only for our agreement.

The rod jerked down with precise convulsions,

Spring water suddenly broadcasting

Through a green aerial its secret stations.

The pluck comes.

I am at my desk again. The candle burns still but the daylight hides the shadow play. The days of bright sun and frosty mornings have passed and the morning has broken cold and grey. There is a northerly wind that whips around the edges of the house. When I stop writing and listen, I hear it at play. The branches of the tree just down the lane are swaying, dancing, and flocks of sparrows and starlings move across the sky in dark liquid flows. The crows, higher up, are scattered and windblown. It all seems like play. It is play.

My time of quiet in the morning is greatly important to me. I sit still. I have learned to simply be there loosening slowly around my need for things to happen. To be there is enough. Sitting at the feet of eternity. That’s how Teresa of Avila put it. Another poet.  Another shaman. There is silence. There is a drum beat which is also silence and that tells me it is good.

John Main, The Benedictine monk recommends that we don’t measure our progress when it comes to meditation;

‘…the great test is-are you growing in love? Are you growing in patience? Are you growing in understanding and compassion?

From the stillness it is time for work, time to make of the day what I can. Mary Oliver is right of course when she remarks that meditation is old and honourable;

Why should I

Not sit, every morning of my life, on the hillside,

Looking into the shining world?


She is right to, to challenge her own thinking

Can one be passionate about the just, the

ideal, the sublime, and the holy, and yet commit

to no labor in its cause? I don’t think so.


What cause do we labour for?  What is it that that connects us to what is just, ideal, holy, sublime?

Here we are in the territory of the poet guides. Poetry can drop us like a lead into other worlds. As we travel we realise that there are many different worlds, worlds of reflection, of wonder, of tremendous grief and sorrow, of terrible beauty, of love. We visit those worlds, inhabit them, and coming back with what boons we can we find if we are lucky that they are all one world and that we are the breath and eyes and ears and heart of that world which is really this world of ours in all its mystery. Then we are participant. Then we can labour in its cause.

We are, wrote TS Eliot, the music while the music lasts.

We are stillness and we are actors. I have watched my friend’s life shimmer from one to the other and I know consequently, in her absence, the reality of both. Her gift to me was to remind me of the imperative that we have to live our days as fully as we can and then, when it is time, to let go.

‘There is but one music in the world…’

wrote the mystic Evelyn Underhill,

‘……and to it you contribute perpetually, whether you will or no-your own little ditty of no tone. Mad with joy, life and death dance to the rhythm of this music. The hills and the sea and the earth dance. The world of Man dances in laughter and tears’.

It is good and beyond good that it is so. It is in the final reckoning beyond words that it is so and that is the territory of the gods- of God. Yet there is a territory that spans our days and gives them the texture of good words that bridge the mundane with the eternal, the sacred, the holy- and that word that voice is the voice of the poet and the poet-shaman, which is each of our deepest inheritance. We are dreamers and actors all, we are dancers and artists and as such we must where we can- find our drum, find our voice and sing.

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