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‘Tender Towards Innocence’ by Carmen Bugan: a blog on Innocence in a Troubled World

Carmen Bugan explains how her new course: ‘A Quest for Innocence in a Troubled World‘ will help you write poetry that faces up to this worrisome time.

I borrowed the title of this piece from Seamus Heaney, who has said about Czeslaw Milosz:

Tender towards innocence, tough-minded when faced with brutality and injustice, Milosz could be at one moment susceptible, at another remorseless.

I suspect that a desired ‘poetic state of mind’ might be a combination of tenderness and ability to strike with mercurial and seamless figurative language. One couldn’t know the thrill of innocence unless one faces the brutality and injustice all around us. The power of metaphoric language is precisely in creating a coherent, living self out of language that expresses (and nurtures) both innocence and experience. 

But innocence is the kind of word you know until you must explain it: it wonders all over the place, from the toddlers’ delightful but dangerous chase of bees in lavender bushes, to the courtroom theatrical, devastating arguments about crime and absolution, to the loss of virginity, civilian casualties of war, and religious purity. Consequently, it accumulates a lot of linguistic layers as it travels with us from one experience to the next. The word is prone to ridicule, especially nowadays when we’re surrounded by images of death, destruction, manipulation, greed, and opportunism at every turn. Cynicism seems more comforting for many: it’s non-committal and morally bland, perfectly fitting those who prefer to sit on the fence.

How to turn to innocence instead of cynicism

Should we, with Milosz and Heaney, be more tender towards innocence? How do we do that? The poetry-making becomes the job of lifting the various layers of experience off the word, to uncover that ‘original’ meaning, for example the Latin ‘not to hurt’.  What is poetry that means ‘not to hurt’?

Such trust in the delicious joy-bringing potential of art and intellect was protected by strong bulwarks built from the knowledge and experience that he had gained at first hand and at great cost.

Two days ago, my son came home with news that at a high school not too far from us, a teenager brought a loaded gun to school, which was found and confiscated just on time. I held my son’s gaze: I held my breath. He said, ‘Don’t worry, since we moved here, we got used to the lock-down drills.’  Was this an almost-hit or almost-miss? There is something about trust and innocence that irks me; what is public safety?

“An innocent part of us was satisfied (the one that has to do with the capacity to stare open-mouthed at the glorious sky) and another part of us learned that things can change.”

Earlier this April, the solar eclipse was visible from Long Island, New York, where I live, so, together with a friend, I took the children to the park next door to watch it.  For a short time darkness entered the day. When everything returned to normal, something inside was awakened: we looked at each other, surprised by wonder. An innocent part of us was satisfied (the one that has to do with the capacity to stare open-mouthed at the glorious sky) and another part of us learned that things can change.

Image for 'A Quest for an Innocence in a Troubled World'. A window with green shots growing outside the window.

A few days before the eclipse, there was a small earthquake. I only heard a disgruntled sound coming from deep below the house and felt the walls register vibrations no larger than the ones felt when a large truck passes on the road. But my kids said they felt the earthquake at the schools, and they experienced the shifting ground under them for the first time, pencils rolling off the desks, books off the shelves. Once again, we were awakened to a sense of awe, but this time it brought us off-kilter.

A poem to eclipse fear and darkness

I wrote a poem about the solar eclipse but not about the sinister gun presence at the high school close by, and not about the earthquake. The almost within-reach flight of snowy egrets during the eclipse was compelling, and singular. If I could, I would fill the language with the tremendously loud sound of swans taking off the pond and flying almost at eye-level: it makes the whole body reverberate with joy.

Solar eclipse

Snowy egrets flew just above our heads,
Waded at the water’s edge.

A blue-grey heron
Roosted in the yellow magnolia.

Cormorants flapped their wings
On the floating tree trunks in the pond.

Geese talked in pairs.
Swans napped over their nests.

A row of turtles sunned themselves.
The moon slid over the sun like an eyelid

And everything went cool and quiet.
My kids whispered of sunset,

The spring flowers glowed in the field.
And then the moon slid off the sun

Returning all the songs to the birds.
We are changed forever, having witnessed

Night inside the day, having
Heard the wings of snowy egrets.

Carmen Bugan is teaching the course: A Quest for Innocence in a Troubled World. 1 full-day session, running 10.30am – 4.30pm (BST), on 13 July 2024. This course will take place at Somerset House, Strand, London, WC2R 1LA. 

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