Monday, 18 July 2016
Tony Conran and the Purpose of Life....
I guess most of us at some stage wonder something like "why are we here?" "What is the meaning of human life, what's it all for?" Hence all the nervous jokes, e.g. "What if the Hokey Cokey really is what it's all about?" Or "42."
Here's a poet's answer.
Is there a reason
Like a hiraeth*
For the one shy kiss
Of first love, the question's
Beyond our imagining -
The first what-must-have-been -
The first love song -
The first time I was shown
The cherry tree
Of the world
Bending, flowering insanely
White around us
Like a blockade of stars,
My mother's canopy
And me in her arms.
* hiraeth, Tony tells us, is not fully translatable from the Welsh, but it means something like nostalgic longing with a touch of grief.
Tony was often a pretty uncompromising modernist poet, so sometimes he can seem "difficult;" this seems to me movingly clear, and I hope his shade will excuse me if I lumber about in it a bit.
The first shy kiss from a first love, gone and un-revisitable, leaves us with hiraeth. Thus does the yearning for an answer to "why am I here" stay with us even when we know it's "beyond our imagining." We long for a home, a great and finally satisfying home, which could start with "why am I here?"
Such a lovely straightforward answer. Why we are here is beyond our imagining. In my simplistic terms: we simply are. The meaning of life is life. We can trace the evolution of a robin redbreast (Tony writes powerfully about evolution) but in the end, a robin simply, is. It has no purpose, in the usual terms of human agency.
A bus has a purpose. I don't, and nor do you.
Tony's "beyond our imagining" might well have had a religious context, at the personal and individual level (i.e. the answer might involve Divinity, if there is an answer) Yet it seems to me that for any of us, a final and valid answer is unimaginable.
"What am I for?"
"To be. That's what you are for."
"But one day I won't be. What then?"
"To be. That's what you are for. And when you've done with being, you won't be."
No wonder we feel hiraeth about the purpose of life, even though "purpose" and "life" may be oxymorons.
And then the poem switches to the cherry tree of the world, the absolute cherry tree of the poet's first meeting with one, the total unique fully and entirely present cherry tree of a small child's fully-absorbed wonder. Hiraeth here, and Tony's mother, and I'm close to tears.
Tony Conran died a couple of years ago. I can't always get a lot from some of Tony's poems, because I lack the width and breadth of his eloquent understanding, but a poem like this is something for which I never stop feeling deeply grateful. It's to be found in this volume: