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Monday, April 4, 2011

Number 115: Katherine Mansfield "Voices of the Air"

Voices of the Air

But then there comes that moment rare
When, for no cause that I can find,
The little voices of the air
Sound above all the sea and wind.

The sea and wind do then obey
And sighing, sighing double notes
Of double basses, content to play
A droning chord for the little throats—

The little throats that sing and rise
Up into the light with lovely ease
And a kind of magical, sweet surprise
To hear and know themselves for these—

For these little voices: the bee, the fly,
The leaf that taps, the pod that breaks,
The breeze on the grass-tops bending by,
The shrill quick sound that the insect makes.

-- Katherine Mansfield

Hap Notes: Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923) is mostly noted for her short story work but I've always loved this poem because I like bugs so much. (Mansfield is no relation to me, I don't think, but we both use a family name as a pen-name. Her full name (before marriage) was Katherine Mansfield Beauchamp.

I like bugs, beetles, flies, creepy crawly things that others often eschew and I like the idea of them having "little voices." I know you mightn't like insects all that much but my advice to you is to make peace with them – they are the most successful species on the planet. There are 900,000 different kinds of living insects and they comprise 80 percent of the species of the world. It is estimated that at any one time there are 10 quintillion insects on the planet (that's a one with 18 zeros behind it.) They don't want to hurt you (not many of them, anyway) they just want to fly around, eat, mate and die. If they wanted to kill us off, they'd have done it by now. Just sayin'.

Mansfield isn't just talking about insects, here, anyway. She's talking about the myriad sounds the natural world makes that sometimes will break through the louder noises of life- in this case, the sound of the ocean. It's good to listen to "little throats sing." I suggest you join in once in a while. They must know something- they've been around for more than 100 million years.

Mansfield was born and raised in New Zealand though after she went to college in England she did not return much (partly because of her health). She was friends with D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf. Many of her short stories were published after her untimely death at 34. Lawrence is said to have somewhat based Gudrun in Women In Love on Mansfield and Gerald Crich is also somewhat based on Mansfield's husband John Middleton Murry.

She was a brilliant modern writer, a good thinker and a talented cellist, too. She often wrote that she and D.H. Lawrence were very similar in character and they remained close friends. Both of them suffered from tuberculosis and it would take both their lives when they were still quite young. (Lawrence died when he was 45.)

Here's a good Mansfield quote: "I'm a writer first and a woman after."

and another:

"When we can begin to take our failures seriously, it means we are ceasing to be afraid of them. It is of immense importance to learn to laugh at ourselves."

You can find more of Mansfield's poetry here:

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