The Abounding Similarities Between Tea and Poetry

“It inculcates purity and harmony, the mystery of mutual charity, the romanticism of the social order. It is essentially a worship of the Imperfect, as it is a tender attempt to accomplish something possible in this impossible thing we know as life.”
Kakuzo Okakura

On a bright corner between Piccadilly and Green Street Stations sits my favorite London destination: two neighboring purveyors. To the left, Fortnum & Mason, department store and tea merchant since 1703; on the right, Hatchards, an inimitable vendor of warming poetry (and other books) since 1797.

Let’s wander.

Fortnum’s presents like a dream. Billowed drapes, exquisite shop windows, costumed attendants slicing fresh nougat. And small, idiosyncratic collectables like silver jam spoons and porcelain bears, tucked under glass panes. In the back, past the sweets, jams, honeys, curds, biscuits, chocolates, and sumptuous nougat, are the teas. A wall of canisters. An inventive tower allows (olfactory) sampling of the proprietary blends. The names are poetic:

Earl Grey: “Simple and stimulating”
Fortmason: “Perfumed and subtle”
Lapsang Souchong: “Delicious and smoky”
Russian Caravan: “Light and nutty”
Chai: “Spicy and exquisite”

Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

“Poetry is balance of things opposed.”

Who said that? Coleridge? It must be, for it was Coleridge’s own “Kubla Khan” that slaps us with contradiction.1 He artfully builds paradise with lines like “stately pleasure dome and scared rivers,” crossed by “fertile rivers” and teeming with “giant gardens bright.” Then, harshly, he ignites that lingering doubt—this cannot possibly be real—and destroys everything with “All should cry ‘Beware! Beware!’”

Nothing is the ultimate balance.

Coleridge can be a bit nutty. For a softer, more internal warmth might I recommend “Pleasures”2 by British poet Denise Levertov. An old favorite. I love how the right margin undulates in soothing harmony;

I like to find
what’s not found
at once, but lies

within something of another nature,
in repose, distinct.
Gull features of glass, hidden

in white pulp: the bones of squid
which I pull out and lay
blade by blade on the draining board –

tapered as if for swiftness, to pierce
the heart, but fragile, substance
belying design.

Read it aloud and tap as you go, find the syllables to stress; they are hidden, difficult. They don’t keep to the breaks. There is a delightful something hidden, something simple and stimulating.

Teapots made by Richard Brendon. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Tea has elegance too, in its proportion: hot liquid, cool pot. I hold empty pots to my neck in the summer. Tea to milk (I prefer milk), steeping. And even in the production: a simply plucked leaf, wilted, bruised, oxidized, shaped, and dried, all in proportion. I left with 250g of loose Russian Caravan, smoky and salutary.

An old favorite. Delicious poems await. Tea and poetry. Onward.

Hatchards, once you skoosh past the throngs of tourists, the stacks of best-sellers, and the queue for the till, opens to a large, beckoning interior. Lit shelves, dark wood struts, an ambling staircase.

First, a wonderful sip of Wodehouse (Hatchards has a lovely collection), a stir with Romantic verse, and finally, a selection of Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less Traveled.3

Fry cautions: “You can never read a poem too slowly.” He urges a pause, how delightfully British. “Keep calm…” and all that.

Something stirs. A contradiction. Few cultures celebrate tea as extravagantly as the British, how Graham Greene remembered in his memoirs: “The silver pot, the tall tiered cake-stand, like a Chinese temple, two kinds of bread and butter, white and brown, cucumber and tomato sandwiches cut razor-thin, scones, rock-buns, and then all the cakes…”4

Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Indeed. Yet, it is a culture that rejects indulgence often—from preferred weather-oriented conversation staples to the “Keep calm…” (and do-not-indulge-emotions) mantra. Yet, indulgence in tea and poetry. Why?

Drink tea. Read poetry. Do both indulgently?

In our modern life, there is much need for pause. Although random pauses accomplish little, specific pauses, between moments of stimulation (usually negative) and response, accomplish everything. Someone steps in your way, cuts in the queue, snaps; we can respond (usually negative), or we can pause.

We not only pause, we saturate that pause with comfort, thoughtfulness, and meaning—feelings created by tea, poetry. A reflection on those rich pleasures and the joy they bring… Will we be more likely to find empathy, patience, kindness? Our better selves?

Might we even find “purity and harmony”?

Those aren’t my words; they belong to Kakuzo Okakura, a Japanese scholar and cultural critic who wrote The Book of Tea in 1906 extolling the aestheticism of tea and the delight of the poetic-minded pause.5

It inculcates purity and harmony, the mystery of mutual charity, the romanticism of the social order. It is essentially a worship of the Imperfect, as it is a tender attempt to accomplish something possible in this impossible thing we know as life.

[…]

The afternoon glow is brightening the bamboos, the fountains are bubbling with delight, the soughing of the pines is heard in our kettle. Let us dream of evanescence and linger in the beautiful and foolishness of things.

Drink tea. Read poetry. Find something, possibly your best self.

In Praise of Slowness and All Things Snails

“And the snail, the peaceful bourgeois of the narrow trail, contemplates the landscape.”
Federico Garcia Lorca

Run, rest, run…yet, how often do we consider pace? A snail’s progress has much to offer. Their even pace has defined our notions of movement and fired our imaginations. (Notwithstanding their wonderful absence of feet.)

We don’t see many snails at our third-floor walk-up. When I found a mottled shell, occupied, in our window box, I was elated. She (snails are hermaphrodites, thus I felt her gender was my prerogative) arrived by way of herb pots, the black mint and marjoram. We nodded acquaintance, I showed her around.

Carefully, very carefully, I slipped her onto a spoon. Ah yes because a snail is not a slug in a shell. A snail without a shell or even a punctured shell will die. Shells are astoundingly light and delicate.

As we went, she absorbed the sights, moving her head, squirming in the shaded kitchen and shrinking in the sunny spare room. I moved slowly, evenly, and with considered steps. She twiddled rapturously as we passed the bright-blue work of English ceramicist Fenella Elms.

I tipped the spoon, and she took off across the Perspex, crossing the patterned small discs with the ease and rhythm inherent in the piece itself. She moved with determination and purpose befitting our understanding of snails.

"Flow" by Fenella Elms featured in "In Praise of Slowness and All Things Snails."
Our snail courses across stained porcelain discs of Fenella Elms‘ “Flow.” Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Pace is not the same as a break, although they have similar effect. A break is rest, an exhale or inhale. Pace, especially an slow, even one, is how we go where we go. The benefits of commanding pace are subtle but endearing. Steadiness goes hand in hand with a fixed gaze, focusing on what is meaningful and ignoring the extraneous.

In Federico Garcia Lorca’s marvelous and awfully existential The Dialogue of Two Snails,1 the snail is an adventurous soul, driven by a simple, authentic need:

And the snail, the peaceful
bourgeois of the narrow trail,
contemplates the landscape.
The divine serenity
of Nature
gave him courage and faith,
and forgetting the troubles
of his home, he longed
to see the end of the path.

My little snail set a beautiful pace, I wanted to see what she’d do with edges and corners. I introduced her to Isobel Egan’s “Miniature Spaces,”2 one of my favorite pieces whose removable boxes I rearrange to suit my moods. The porcelain is cold and fragile. To avoid breakage, I have to move them slowly, it’s an exercise in pace. They make a lovely noise, scraping against one another.

The snail sniffed, cautious, contemplative, seeking the best path. She moved quite slowly but she picked up the longer she remained. Ever guarded, however.

"Miniature Spaces" by Isobel Egan featured in "In Praise of Slowness and All Things Snails."
“Miniature Spaces” by Irish ceramist Isobel Egan. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Virginia Woolf, in her inimitable modern way, paid homage to the determined snail in her short story “Kew Gardens:”3

Brown cliffs with deep green lakes in the hollows, flat, blade-like trees that waved from root to tip, round boulders of grey stone, vast crumpled surfaces of a thin cracking texture – all these objects lay across the snail’s progress between one stalk and another to his goal.

How comforting that at any point in time, millions of snails are moving slowly towards their most desired end.

Snails converge on a seeding agapanthus. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

My snail was pooped. She had covered tens of inches.

I put a measure of soil in the spoon and scooped her up. We spoke softly of art, style, color and texture, rocks and pine cones, eternity and death. We sniffed spices and marveled at the freezer. Slowly and evenly I let her rest in a damp sink which she loved. I had never traced my home so carefully, or the precious things I keep nearby.

Time passed, I have no idea how much. Tens of minutes in praise of slowness. We walk paths in order to see, I walked her path today. I returned her to the thin lip of the herb box and wiped the spoon with disinfectant. What is it about snails that ignites reverence? Their consistency?

American modern poet, Marianne Moore, praises a snail’s singular style in her observational poem “To a Snail…”4

If “compression is the first grace of style,” you have it.
Contractility is a virtue as modesty is a virtue.

[…]

the principle that is hid:
in the absence of feet, “a method of conclusions”;
“a knowledge of principles,”
in the curious phenomenon of your occipital horn.

The absence of feet, an occipital horn, those sniffing eyes. Our snail remained (ever constant) throughout the summer, particularly found of the majoram, which thrived once she left. I say “left” because no shell remained.

Her path continued to her most desired end.

The Deep, Aching Longing for the Impossible

“Sometimes the desire to be lost again, as long ago, comes over me like a vapor.”
Mary Oliver

Quite early in the process of reading a bit of Housman’s (admittedly forlorn) poetry, I was interrupted by memory: a short dirt road, warmed by a sunny, unblemished sky, tall oaks on one side, fields on the other. The air sweet and thick. Cicadas chirring.

Summer’s end.

Country road, Michigan. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

I couldn’t stop longing for the impossible, that sunny short road. From Rimbaud: “Ah! That life of my childhood, the high road in all weathers…”1

There is something between the bars of poetry, memoirs, pictures—a pattern lacking common description, a feeling thrown against the backdrop of life. It works your nerves. It is so often mentioned that it bears collecting: this deep, aching longing for the impossible. A place we cannot go or return.

In her most recent collection of poems and essays, “Upstream,” the ever-contemplative American poet Mary Oliver wrote that she longed “to be lost again, as long ago.”2 Her words, compelling but opaque, suggest a need for space. Oliver walked upstream—did she find what she sought?

Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

English poet A.E. Housman, whose writing sparked my dirt roads, circled Cambridge University on daily walks. A preeminent classics professor in the early 20th century and a less-distinguished poet of longing (he carried a lifelong unrequited love for his heterosexual roommate), Housman took well-paced, lengthy steps marking boundaries where longing could exist.

In periods of acute feeling, such as after his love moved to India, when his longing spilled over into poetry. From “The Land of Lost Content”:3

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

A place we cannot return to is also a place where we can never arrive.

This impossible longing is further embodied in Doris Lessing’s short story “To Room Nineteen.”4 A woman (who feels achingly familiar)—dominated by the needs of children, family, husband, home, life—lives “in a state of mind she could not own.” She quietly, futilely, seeks space for existence. In a nondescript small hotel, she finds it: perfect nothingness, anonymity. Lessing won’t tell us what her character does in the room; so complete is the hide. Ultimately, however, as the title suggests, our heroine is ever traveling, never arriving.

Poet John Clare, who, like Housman, wrote without affectation, gazed on a place forever gone and recalled5:

Often did I stop to gaze
On each spot once dear to me
Known mong those rememberd days
Of banishd happy infancy
Often did I view the shade
Where once a nest my eyes did fill
And often markd the place I playd
At ‘roley poley’ down the hill

Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

“The place we playd…”

The French capture this longing in pitch-perfect phase: Mal du pays. Homesickness, but more than homesickness, a deep longing for places embedded in time. Time is critical, time prevents us from returning. I stood on my road, even took a photo. But I will never return to the road as the child who first saw it. I will never return to the road I’ve kept in memory. That road simply doesn’t exist. The past—what Oliver beautifully termed “as it was long ago”—is no longer.

In her memoirs, novelist Penelope Lively faced the “as it was long ago” with bold honesty:6

It is gone, it cannot be recovered. It is swamped, drowned out by adult knowledge. That child self is an alien; I have still some glimmer of what she saw, but her mind is unreachable; I know too much, seventy years on.

Perhaps our burden is to long, yes, but not despair. We might not return or arrive at then and there, but we can always be now and here.