See I would argue that poetry is also a mind altering substance. It is one of the few art forms that can genuinely change your mental furniture. Sometimes an image or line resonates and appeals so strongly that it plants itself in your head and changes your mental landscape forever.
In ‘District and Circle’ Seamus Heaney describes the apparently mundane act of taking an escalator down to the Tube: “Posted, eyes front, along the dreamy ramparts / Of escalators ascending and descending.” And now whenever I’m on a an escalator I’m on a “dreamy rampart.”
In ‘The Signpost’, describing a view over Belfast, Nick Laird says, “and two cranes swung their arms low over the city / as if giving a blessing.” And now whenever I see cranes swing round, as I sit looking out of the window at work, they are blessing the congregation of the city.
Then one night at the marvellous Poetry Unplugged open-mic at the Poetry Café in Covent Garden I heard an unassuming middle-aged man get up and sing to the room of, “The dental nurse, the dental nurse / the gentle curse of the dental nurse.” It’s a sure bet that the next time I go to the dentist whether I like it or not I’ll find myself humming “the gentle curse of the dental nurse” under my breath!
I find some of the imagery of dew being “like Pearls”, and “Sovereign Barns”, and the “pretty Tunes” of breezes overly Romantic – although maybe that’s the difference between my sitting in Woolwich over-looking some scrub-land and Emily looking over the vistas of New England.
But, just the line “The Grass so little has to do” sits so right with me, it rings so true – a lawn, a field of grass just seems to wait, and be. But then the activity of the Grass, that it is doing the “threading” of the pearls of dews, is an interesting twist – it may be that the Grass has so little do to but it does nevertheless have some jobs, they are just all so pleasant, to us and to itself – to “hold the Sunshine in its lap”, “And make itself so fine.”
And again those dashes (we discussed her use of punctuation when tackling Ed Miliband) add to the dreaminess of it all. But, the near-misses of the half rhymes on the end consonants (Green / entertain, along / everything), and some of the sonic veerings of the, I don’t know, “quarter eye rhymes” where sounds are are almost similar but not quite (fine / noticing, then in the next stanza, divine / perishing) does give a weirder structural backbone to the apparently simple, childish whimsy of the piece. Yet the way the fullest rhyme of the poem appears in the final stanza using the final word (“away” with “Hay”) seems to bring it to such a satisfying pause…although that final dash mean it’s not fully closed, it goes on, perhaps in the cycle of growing and dying.
I hope that after reading this poem you never look at grass in the same way again, not of the lawn variety at least.
The Grass so little has to do The Grass so little has to do -- A Sphere of simple Green -- With only Butterflies to brood And Bees to entertain -- And stir all day to pretty Tunes The Breezes fetch along -- And hold the Sunshine in its lap And bow to everything -- And thread the Dews, all night, like Pearls -- And make itself so fine A Duchess were too common For such a noticing -- And even when it dies -- to pass In Odors so divine -- Like Lowly spices, lain to sleep -- Or Spikenards, perishing -- And then, in Sovereign Barns to dwell -- And dream the Days away, The Grass so little has to do I wish I were a Hay -- EMILY DICKINSON