‘Meeting point’, by Louis MacNeice

Time was away and somewhere else,
There were two glasses and two chairs
And two people with the one pulse
(Somebody stopped the moving stairs)
Time was away and somewhere else.

And they were neither up nor down;
The stream’s music did not stop
Flowing through heather, limpid brown,
Although they sat in a coffee shop
And they were neither up nor down.

The bell was silent in the air
Holding its inverted poise –
Between the clang and clang a flower,
A brazen calyx of no noise:
The bell was silent in the air.

The camels crossed the miles of sand
That stretched around the cups and plates;
The desert was their own, they planned
To portion out the stars and dates:
The camels crossed the miles of sand.

Time was away and somewhere else.
The waiter did not come, the clock
Forgot them and the radio waltz
Came out like water from a rock:
Time was away and somewhere else.

Her fingers flicked away the ash
That bloomed again in tropic trees:
Not caring if the markets crash
When they had forests such as these,
Her fingers flicked away the ash.

God or whatever means the Good
Be praised that time can stop like this,
That what the heart has understood
Can verify in the body’s peace
God or whatever means the Good.

Time was away and she was here
And life no longer what it was,
The bell was silent in the air
And all the room one glow because
Time was away and she was here.

MacNeice’s poem Meeting point is a magisterial expression of the extraordinary way in which time can seem to be suspended during intense moments of human connection. It describes the very ordinary scene of two lovers sitting together in a café and ‘having a moment’ – a ‘moment’ that transports them out of time and place.  The poet also manages to inject a subtle but sustained tension throughout the piece – a vague, nagging threat in the background of this blissful moment – which adds an extra dimension to the whole thing.

The crux issue of Meeting point seems to me to be Time. Each stanza is contained within a repeated refrain – the first line of each is later revisited as the final line of each. This structure, and the use of sing-song rhyming, adds to the effect of Time being suspended or controllable. “Time was away and somewhere else”, begins the speaker. I love this refrain and the way it sounds like the start of a nursery rhyme. The speaker purposefully begins by describing solid things (as if to say ‘I can tell you what was there for sure even if I can’t explain where Time went’): “There were two glasses and two chairs/ And two people with the one pulse”. This is the safe territory of inanimate objects – easy to quantify and pin down. And the couple are in love – they share a pulse. He adds “Somebody stopped the moving stairs”. This image of the escalator having been stopped adds perfectly to the general effect of the endless loop of Time pausing for these two people.

The line ‘And they were neither up nor down’ is of course straight out of the nursery rhyme, The grand old Duke of York. The use of this phrase is incredibly clever. Through it, MacNeice delivers a sense that these two lovers are in a sort of limbo – a world of childish wonder and naivety – waiting for the clock to recommence its ticking – waiting for reality to set in. The idea of their surroundings being very banal and ordinary is accentuated by the “limpid brown” music “flowing through heather”. Here is one of many displacements in the poem – suddenly we are out among the heather “Although they sat in a coffee shop”.

“The bell was silent in the air”; I love this line, which opens the third stanza. For me, this silent bell is a solemn timekeeper – we are waiting for it to toll again and release these two people from the spell of their moment of intense connection. I think this bell could also be read as withholding judgment on them. There is a great sense of tension (“Holding its inverted poise”). Also, “between the clang and clang” is “a flower,/ A brazen calyx of no noise“. This, I think, is making reference to Keats’ “spirit ditties of no tone” in Ode on a Grecian Urn, which is another poem about the nature of Time (“Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard/ Are sweeter”, wrote Keats). I think that MacNeice is suggesting here that this moment is the most precious this couple will ever have – nothing has happened yet – it is perhaps their first meeting – they are the untainted, fictitious, painted characters on the Urn. They will never grow old – their love will never fade – because they exist within this poem. MacNeice has immortalised their Meeting point forever.

Moving into the fourth verse, we are immediately transported again into a place far distant from the coffee shop, this time to a place more exotic – the desert: “The camels crossed the miles of sand”. There being miles of sand between the “cups and plates” gives us an idea of just how far Time is stretching out within this moment. Sand is always connected with the notion of Time (hourglasses etc.) but this desert is “their own” and they “planned/ To portion out the stars and dates”. The couple, within their eternal moment, make plans about their future together – their stars and dates.

As happens in all moments of bliss, the awareness of mortality has disappeared in this moment, and this is communicated through the refrain “Her fingers flicked away the ash”. This is such a carefree action – flicking away the idea of death. This is what Keats was saying in Urn and what I think is generally accepted to be true of poetry – it is an attempt to slow time down, to pause it even, give us relief from its endless, inevitable passing, and also relieve us of our awareness of death.

The final stanza is a marvel. I just love the way MacNeice brings all these elements to such a neat conclusion. “Time was away and she was here”; this refrain gets to the real reason for all this bliss and stopping of time – she was here. This is all that matters, ultimately, which is why this as our final line as well. The bell is still “hanging in the air” but it no longer matters to the speaker; he has seemingly arrived at the realisation that this moment is eternal and that, regardless of what follows –  whatever pain and trials the future may hold for the couple – they will always exist in this one bright, glowing moment of pure connection that can never fade:

“All the room one glow because/ Time was away and she was here”.

Louis MacNeice

Louis MacNeice

‘Your Paris’, by Ted Hughes

Your Paris, I thought, was American.
I wanted to humour you.
When you stepped, in a shatter of exclamations,
Out of the Hotel des Deux Continents
Through frame after frame,
Street after street, of Impressionist paintings,
Under the chestnut shades of Hemingway,
Fitzgerald, Henry Miller, Gertrude Stein.
I kept my Paris from you. My Paris
Was only just not German. The capital
Of the Occupation and old nightmare.
I read each bullet scar in the Quai stonework
With an eerie familiar feeling,
And stared at the stricken, sunny exposure of pavement
Beneath it. I had rehearsed
Carefully, over and over, just those moments –
Most of my life, it seemed. While you
Called me Aristide Bruant and wanted
To draw les toits, and your ecstasies ricocheted
Off the walls patched and scabbed with posters –
I heard the contrabasso counterpoint
In my dog-nosed pondering analysis
Of café chairs where the SS mannequins
Had performed their tableaux vivants
So recently the coffee was still bitter
As acorns, and the waiters’ eyes
Clogged with dregs of betrayal, reprisal, hatred.
I was not much ravished by the view of the roofs.
My Paris was a post-war utility survivor,
The stink of fear still hanging in the wardrobes,
Collaborateurs barely out of their twenties,
Every other face closed by the Camps
Or the Maquis . I was a ghostwatcher.
My perspectives were veiled by what rose
Like methane from the reopened
Mass grave of Verdun. For you all that
Was the anecdotal aesthetic touch
On Picasso’s portrait
Of Apollinaire , with its proleptic
Marker for the bullet. And wherever
Your eye lit, your immaculate palette,
The thesaurus of your cries,
Touched in its tints and textures. Your lingo
Always like an emergency burn-off
To protect you from spontaneous combustion
Protected you
And your Paris. It was diesel aflame
To the dog in me. It scorched up
Every scent and sensor. And it sealed
The underground, your hide-out,
That chamber, where you still hung waiting
For your torturer
To remember his amusement. Those walls,
Raggy with posters, were your own flayed skin –
Stretched on your stone god.
What walked beside me was a flayed,
One walking wound that the air
Coming against kept in a fever, wincing
To agonies. Your practiced lips
Translated the spasms to what you excused
As your gushy burblings – which I decoded
Into a language, utterly new to me
With conjectural, hopelessly wrong meanings –
You gave me no hint how, at every corner,
My fingers linked in yours, you expected
The final fate-to-face revelation
To grab your whole body. Your Paris
Was a desk in a pension
Where your letters
Waited for him unopened. Was a labyrinth
Where you still hurtled, scattering tears.
Was a dream where you could not
Wake or find the exit or
The minotaur to put a blessed end
To the torment. What searching miles
Did you drag your pain
That were for me plain paving, albeit
Pecked by the odd, stray, historic bullet.
The mere dog in me, happy to protect you
From your agitation and your stone hours,
Like a guide dog, loyal to correct your stumblings,
Yawned and dozed and watched you calm yourself
With your anaesthetic – your drawing, as by touch,
Roofs, a traffic bollard, a bottle, me.

This poem, taken from Hughes’ Birthday Letters (a collection of poems all written about and addressed to his wife Sylvia Plath) is a kaleidoscopic, emotion-heavy snapshot of the couple in Paris, where they apparently went as part of their honeymoon in 1956. When reading this poem, I think it is vital to remember that it is very much coloured by hindsight, and that it was only published in 1998 (35 years after Plath committed suicide in 1963).

Many have accused Hughes in his Birthday Letters of being over-critical and cruel about his (probably manic-depressive) poet wife; he has even been labelled by some as misogynistic – of objectifying Plath. I do not take this view, however, admirer though I am of Plath and her work. In any case, I dislike any discourse that tries to take sides in the much-publicised, complicated relationship of this literary couple, and consider it a pretty fruitless activity for readers or critics to squabble over who was the real victim in their story – all that he said, she said nonsense.

Hughes admits from the outset that this is only a portrait from his own perspective; the “I thought” saves him from sounding too tyrannical, indeed throughout this piece (and throughout the entire collection for that matter) I feel Hughes is showing us how elusive Plath (or any human being) is – how hard it is for him to pin her down.

So, he thought her Paris was “American”. The opening statement introduces the notion of difference – here cultural, educational difference, but also a difference in attitude – that is developed as the poem goes on. Plath steps out, in a “shatter of exclamations” of the “Hotel des Deux Continents”. The name of the hotel of course accentuates the feeling of estrangement – these two people are as different and distanced from each other as two continents. They are also each as heavily laden with history as two continents.

Plath in Paris is portrayed as ecstatically (perhaps manically?) enthralled with everything, even to the point of violence (the “shatter of exclamations”, her ecstasies “ricochet[ing]/ off the walls”) and very much wrapped up in the bohemian Paris of the interwar years – the Paris of the American ex-pat writers that Hughes lists (“Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Henry Miller…” etc.) She seems to very purposefully ignore the recent plight of Paris during the Second World War and the Occupation, from which in 1956 the city would still have been recovering. Is she afraid of something? Hughes is certainly afraid of ‘bursting her bubble’, as it were, for he states quite plainly “I kept my Paris from you”. The impression I import here is that Hughes was rather walking on eggshells around the explosive Plath – afraid to upset her.

But what was Hughes’ own Paris like? It was “only just not German”, he says. Hughes depicts himself as having been keenly aware of the recent war and all that had gone on in Paris – the reality of it was too present for him to ignore and feel nostalgic for the interwar jazz age. For Hughes, this was the city of “Occupation and old nightmare”, and the bullet scars in the Quai stonework gave him an “eerie familiar feeling”. I wonder whether Hughes (with the dye of hindsight inevitably colouring his memory) is relating to the suffering of Paris here – to the idea of Occupation. Perhaps he feels a connection to this city since the ghost of Plath has ‘occupied’ him – possessed him even – as is evident from this collection of more than eighty poems addressed to her over thirty years after her death.

Hughes is not interested in Plath’s Paris: “I was not much ravished by the view of the roofs./ My Paris was a post-war utility survivor,/ The stink of fear still hanging in the wardrobes.” He is full of “the Camps”, “the Maquis” and the “Mass grave of Verdun”, but for Plath (he remembers) all that was just “the anecdotal aesthetic touch/ On Picasso’s portrait/ Of Apollinaire”. It is made clear that Plath is hiding from something – from her own reaction to this history of violence, and perhaps from the notion of shame too. The shame of the collaborateurs perhaps drew too keen a comparison to Plath’s own ‘occupation’ by the memory of her father and the wound of his death (his towering ghost was ever-present in her poetry, most memorably in the masterfully controlled detonation that was Daddy but was never, it would seem, entirely exorcised).

This is certainly suggested by Hughes, who describes her as using her “lingo” as “an emergency burn-off/ To protect you from spontaneous combustion/ Protected you/ And your Paris.” She is hiding from the violence of recent history, hiding from her “torturer” (her father/ her illness) waiting for him to “remember his amusement”. Hughes describes her father as a “stone god” (reminding us of Plath’s poem The Colossus), which really creates a sense of their helplessness – both of them – faced with the reality which was that Plath had been picked on by fate – by the Gods –  and by a mental illness that would eventually kill her.  Hughes describes Plath as a “walking wound that the air/ Coming against kept in a fever, wincing/ To agonies”. The word “wincing” is extremely important here, I think. With this word, Hughes is acknowledging Plath’s suffering but he is also allowing himself to express his anger and frustration at her.

A language barrier between the two poets is evoked with Plath’s “gushy burblings” having to be “decoded into a language, utterly new to me” and which he admits he interpreted with “hopelessly wrong meanings”. His fingers are “linked in [hers]” yet she is “hurtl[ing]” through a “labyrinth… scattering tears”, locked in a nightmare from which she could not wake, and “The Minotaur” (again, her father/her illness?) could not put “a blessed end/ To the torment”. This mention of a blessed end to the torment is even more devastating with the knowledge of how Plath’s suffering would eventually finish.

I will finally mention the end of the poem, and this touching image of Plath calming herself down by drawing, probably in the hotel room. Hughes paints himself as a blindly loyal partner, with many references to himself as dog-like throughout the piece – “happy to protect you”, and “Like a guide dog” – he “Yawned and dozed and watched [her] calm [her]self” by drawing, “as by touch, Roofs, a traffic bollard, a bottle, me”. I think this end line is just perfect, and very clever. It is as though with hindsight Hughes feels that he was in some way ensnared by Plath – that he became her victim; the way he makes her turn on him at the end – suddenly, the unexpected “me” – is very sinister, eerily foreboding and powerful.

Ted Hughes with Sylvia Plath

Ted Hughes with Sylvia Plath

‘Nothing gold can stay’ by Robert Frost

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf,
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day
Nothing gold can stay.

This doesn’t need much explaining or commentary, I think; it is a perfectly contained poem, with economical, loaded language and images. It voices (with a little more flair and melancholy beauty) the adage that all good things must come to an end.

This blog, though indisputably good, is however not coming to an end, but rather getting going again.

Robert Frost

Robert Frost