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The circle of the year is turning. As the leaves fall back home to the earth, and the evenings begin to turn in on themselves, there is a signalling to gather. Inwards.
The fire is lit. The poetry books are scattered around a low coffee table. The invite had been sent a few weeks previously. The season of the poetry salon is upon us. Now, all there is left to do is light some candles, and wait. ‘Whoever comes are the right people’, ‘Whenever it starts is the right time’. I reiterate some gathering guidelines I learned through the Art of Hosting community. They remind me that once an intention is set, once the foundations have been laid with beauty, beauty can only be braided deeper, whatever form it takes. This is not about numbers, after all, but about the act of gathering, and listening, and leaning into the space between friends and strangers, with poetry as the gateway and the salon as the template.
Lady Wilde, or ‘Speranza’ was a woman who lived up to her name, or so the accounts of the 1860s would have us believe. Oscar Wilde’s mother, a poet, Irish nationalist, folklorist and passionate women’s rights advocate, was a gatherer and host of one of the most notorious and flamboyant Dublin salons. Number One Merrion Square, grand and elegant, opened its doors to the literati, musicians, artists, social commentators, medics, law makers and perhaps law breakers, of the time. Under candlelight they gathered to discuss a gamut of affairs and culture. W.B Yeats, Ruskin and suffragist Millicent Fawcett, were all said to have crossed the door, with a young Oscar Wilde listening in from the alcoves.
Lady Wilde’s salon was not in isolation. Across Europe, from Italy to France in the 17th and 18th centuries, salons were places for the circulation of ideas, knowledge and conversation. Often hosted by women, the salon was a ground for the development of an active civic and public life. We can assume these gathering places were not always sober, and not necessarily always civil, but they did create public places for the gathering of difference, for dialogue and debate outside the formal realms of either church or state. They brought together the intersections of disciplines and sectors, where the rules of one did not outweigh the rules of another. Put a woman in the centre of things, especially in those times, especially in Ireland, and here are the ingredients for ripe and radical activism. Here was a way to do things differently.
We have Twitter now of course. And we have digital discussion rooms. But here we also have the digital infrastructure for polarisation and fraction to escalate. We have fear, and worse still, fear mongering. The institutions which one held the power and prestige are crumbling around us and in many cases, rightly so. But I question the spaces in which ‘conversations’ are happening. I watched the recent Presidential debates in Ireland for instance, and I wondered, ‘Where is the room for genuine listening? Where is the room for robust debate, unpinned with respect, and dare I say it, perhaps the most radical word of all, love. There was a poet in the midst too, running for re-election, now under attack for caring to too much about things that do not have a direct economic value. Things like poetry, and things like dignity. Would we, as a nation, dare to listen?
You find the respect in pockets of course, and the digital world can amplify those pockets. I find it with writers, like the environmentalist Terry Tempest WilIiams and Robert McFarlane, with social commentators like Rebecca Solnit, and I find it in online watering holes like BrainPickings and On Being, the latter offering us guidelines for convening with their ‘Grounding Virtues’. I love how words like ’Generous Listening’, ‘Adventurous Civility’, and ‘Humility’, are now active and explicit participants in this online space, values which I know spill over and enliven their public events. Here too: a template.
Right out at the edge of Europe on the west coast of Ireland, my little home goes by the name of ‘Wren Cottage’. It’s no Number One Merrion Square, but it’s cozy and if there are not enough chairs there are always cushions and floor space. Knock on the door by knock on the door, a little flock gathers. Some have come before, some are new. Tea is made, more logs on the fire, and we make our way naturally into a circle. I mention briefly the history of the salons, thinking of Lady Wilde, and I make reference to On Being’s ‘Grounding Virtues’. There is not much need for small talk and soon the poetry takes over. By way of tradition, Mary Oliver opens, then Rilke joins the chorus. There are sighs of awe, and sighs of not knowing what to say because the poem is just beyond words. The poems leave trails around the room. Another participant picks up a scent and offers fresh language into the circle.Then we laugh and marvel at Sharon Olds’ poem about breasts, and we delight in the spaciousness in the language of the Chinese poet Zhao Lihong, a poet new to most of us. Convulsions of laughter ripple outwards in thinking about Rumi on a modern dating site. The laughter builds a deeper bond. The circle tightens.
As the salon continues, I am aware of a friend of mine, attending an environmental conference in the US on the same weekend. It is a place for bringing together activists and changemakers. But he speaks of the fear in the room, and an intense anger too. He speaks of the deep deep grief for these times we are in, and a sense of paralysed frenzy. It makes us wonder, ‘What room for joy amidst such times? What room for beauty? And definitely, what room for poetry?’ A while later he sends me some words from another role model in our midst, the scholar and activist, Joanna Macy, on this thing called ‘Active Hope’;
‘Active Hope is not wishful thinking.
Active Hope is not waiting to be rescued by some saviour.
Active Hope is waking up to the beauty of life on whose behalf we can act.. a readiness to discover the size and strength of our hearts, our quickness of mind, our steadiness of purpose, our own authority, our love of life, the liveliness of our curiosity, the unsuspected deep well of patience and diligence, the keenness of our senses, and our capacity to lead. None of these can be discovered in an armchair or without risk’.
Around the circle the fire crackles and the flames spark. More tea is made. In my Celtic tradition, like so many indigenous traditions around the world, the circle was the primary shape of things. Stone circles. Fairy rings. In the shape of the circle is the container for the whole; fear and grief, joy and beauty. The circle holds both yin and yang, the masculine and the feminine, the light and the dark. It’s not a place for blind optimism, wishful thinking, nor deepest despair. Instead is a place to return those things back to their wholeness with a singular message: we are in this together.
I am interested in the intersections of things: ‘Where do you end and I begin?; Where does fear become courage?; Where do the arts become activism?; Where does beauty simply beget beauty and joy beget joy? In dark and challenging times, I’m with Joanna Macy on this: there is a radicalism in insisting on beauty and joy, for the very amplification of those things. Yes: Active Hope.
With that we get to ask questions like this: What if we didn’t need more platforms for opinions, but more platforms for presence and connection instead? What if our presidential candidates were seated in a circle, grounded in virtues and invited first to listen, then to speak. What if instead of defending a position, they were asked to defend their values? Then read a poem.
Last week, the Irish nation took to the polls. The poet was re-elected. Our president speaks of the power of words, and values. ‘We are in a time of transformation and there is a momentum for empathy, compassion, inclusion and solidarity which must be recognised and celebrated’, Michael D Higgins said at this acceptance speech, ‘Words matter. Words can hurt. Words can heal. Words can empower. Words can divide’.
The thing is this: people got up from their armchairs. They voted. They dared. Not all of us, not enough of us, but enough to #keepthepoet . Enough to insist on words mattering, and dignity too.
Back around the fire our poems circled and circled. Towards the end of the evening, my friend Orlagh suggested we each write a question on a post-it note. Any question, any question at all. Then we’d gather those questions to see how they converge. A few minutes later there is a shriek at the back of the kitchen where Orlagh is curating the post-it’s as an archivist would, or an archeologist. Two of us have written the exact same question. ‘Where does poetry come from and where does it go to?’ And the other questions? Well this is what emerged; a poem, written by the whole, from our wren circle:
Where do poems live when the book is closed?
Why does the light on the sea always stretch towards you,
Why do the stars stare?
Where does poetry come from and where does it go?
If the news showed poems instead of the tragic, what would the world become?
When is the Tao not the Tao?
Only in the forgetting of love.
Do I dare?
Around the circle, awe rolls out into the night with hints of laughter and impossible delight. I can feel Lady Wilde smiling from the great beyond, and Oscar Wilde listening in from the alcoves. This thing we are in together? We think it might be magic. If only we can get out of our way long enough to get out of our armchairs and hear the poetry of the world rising. I think the circle might just be our ears. And the salon? Well that’s up to you. Now you have a template. Go.