Tag Archives: literature

“Let America Be America Again” by Langston Hughes

et America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
America!

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!

The patriotic idea embodied in the poem “Let America Be America Again” is still relevant today, almost a century after the poem was written. Continue reading “Let America Be America Again” by Langston Hughes

William Shakespeare’s Hamlet

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ‘tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.—Soft you now!
The fair Ophelia! Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins remember’d.

William Shakespeare’s works are famous all around the world. Even the critics who express doubts about the authorship of the works attributed to Shakespeare still consider their author a genius. Continue reading William Shakespeare’s Hamlet

‘The Bright Field’ by R. S. Thomas

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the
pearl of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realise now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

Continue reading ‘The Bright Field’ by R. S. Thomas

‘Napoleon’ by Walter de la Mare

‘What is the world, O soldiers?
It is I:
I, this incessant snow,
This northern sky;
Soldiers, this solitude
Through which we go
Is I.’

I love Walter de la Mare for his capacity to conjure such startling images with clear, plain language. There is also, I think, a greatly musical quality to his poems, and Napoleon is full of all the lyrical simplicity that I admire so much about this poet’s work.

This poem seems to me to be a exquisite expression of the loneliness that can surround power and aggression. The mention of the “incessant snow” and the “northern sky” put me in mind of Napoleon’s Russian campaign, which led to his downfall and ultimate exile. The imagery in the poem evokes the disastrous Russian winter (the best weapon against invaders) and the Russian tactic of continuous retreat (each time Napoleon and his troops advanced, they met with only deserted, burnt land). The Russians burnt the land to prevent Napoleon from feeding his soldiers (he had anticipated a relatively short campaign), and this eventually forced Napoleon’s greatly diminished Grande Armee to retreat.

For me, these images deliver the idea of the ego’s aggression being met with icy (and an ultimately more powerful) silence. Napoleon’s pursuit of empire through war and conquest is a perfect example of the force and violence of the ego (the poem is certainly not a condemnation of Napoleon in particular, but rather uses him as an example for all those who seek power through aggression or conquest). In the end, nature, in the form of the Russian climate, dealt with Napoleon; the Russians did not have to. I think this is such a powerful image, and one that I think de la Mare captures beautifully in this short poem.

The speaker (Napoleon) begins with a question for his men; “What is the world?” he asks. Of course, he does not wait for their response, but answers himself: “It is I”. There is such clear confidence in this answer, and this seems perfectly befitting of the power-crazed, arrogant character that has been ascribed to Napoleon.

De la Mare’s Napoleon is a wonderfully dramatic piece. It seems to capture the legendary quality of the man, with its grand, heroic tone, but it also illustrates the way in which ego and violence will always reach a point of burning out, or a point where there is no one left to conquer. I think the image of the “incessant snow” is a beautifully poignant one. I just imagine Napoleon staring into the silence of the snow falling — deserted, and the ground burned — and realising that there was nobody there to fight. Violence is a force that must be spent, apparently, but once it is spent; once you have slaughtered and fought and conquered — however much ground or wealth you may have gained — you still have to face the deafening silence and the emptiness of the world you have created.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘Flood’ by Gillian Clarke

When all’s said, and done,
if civilisation drowns
the last colour to go
will be gold –
the light on a glass,
the prow of a gondola,
the name on a rosewood piano
as silence engulfs it.

And first to return
to a waterlogged world,
the rivers slipping out to sea,
the cities steaming,
will be gold,
one dip from Bellini’s brush,
feathers of angels, Cinquecente nativities,
and all that follows.

Continue reading ‘Flood’ by Gillian Clarke

‘Cezanne’s Ports’ by Allen Ginsberg

In the foreground we see time and life
swept in a race
toward the left hand side of the picture
where shore meets shore.

But that meeting place
isn’t represented;
it doesn’t occur on the canvas.

For the other side of the bay
is Heaven and Eternity,
with a bleak white haze over its mountains.

And the immense water of L’Estaque is a go-between
for minute rowboats.

This poem is about a painting by Cezanne called ‘The Gulf of Marseilles seen from L’Estaque’. You can see the painting below.

I think Cezanne’s Ports is a fascinating poem. Ginsberg fascinates (and often troubles) me anyway, but here I love how he finds such a poignant significance to this beautiful painting — significance that I admit I would not have found myself without nudging.

So, the poet starts by talking about the foreground of the painting, and describes it as “time and life/ swept in a race/ toward the left hand side of the picture.” I love this description, because there is a sense of the bustle of triviality (which I certainly get from the sand-coloured puzzle of roofs), and how it is always on its way to “Heaven and Eternity” (which the poet next tells us is represented by the far grey shore of hills, with their “bleak white haze”.)

The “meeting place”, where “shore meets shore”, is not represented in the painting; it “does not occur on the canvas.” Why does it not occur in the picture? Is it because “Heaven and Eternity” are impossible to depict in art? Because they are impossible to comprehend in life?

In the final verse, Ginsberg talks about the sea — the “immense water of L’Estaque” — as a “go-between/for minute rowboats.” I like the curt manner of this ending because it amplifies the sweetness and triviality of the tiny rowboats (I think the term “rowboat” is significant because he is using an almost childish word to describe the boats, and of course “minute” ensures that we visualise them in a certain way.)

For me, these little rowboats represent our human efforts to understand the divine — our attempts to understand “Heaven and Eternity” in life. These attempts are not futile, but they are perhaps, as I said before, sweet and trivial, when you consider how the whole of the foreground is being inescapably “swept” towards the left of the painting, and Heaven. Ginsberg was a Buddhist for much of his life, and I think that this may have influenced this poem a great deal.

P.S. Ginsberg was also greatly influenced by Blake and Whitman. From Whitman, in particular, he inherited his love of free verse, and his long lines that are ‘single breath units’. I love this style, and I would like to share with you some enlightening extracts from “When the Mode of Music Changes, the Walls of the City Shake”, which Ginsberg wrote in 1961:

“one must verge on the unknown, write toward truth hitherto unrecognisable of one’s own sincerity, including the avoidable beauty of doom, shame and embarrassment, that very area of self-recognition (detailed individual is universal remember)”

“For if we write with an eye to what the poem should be (has been), and do not get lost in it, we will never discover anything new about ourselves in the process of actually writing on the table, and we lose the chance to live in our works, & make habitable the new world which every man may discover in himself, if he lives — which is life itself, past present & future”

“The only poetic tradition is the Voice out of the burning bush. The rest is trash, & will be consumed”.

I think that final quotation is true and beautiful, and I also think the influences of Blake, and Buddhism are very evident there.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘Education for Leisure’ by Carol Ann Duffy

Today I am going to kill something. Anything.
I have had enough of being ignored and today
I am going to play God. It is an ordinary day,
a sort of grey with boredom stirring in the streets.

I squash a fly against the window with my thumb.
We did that at school. Shakespeare. It was in
another language and now the fly is in another language.
I breathe out talent on the glass to write my name.

I am a genius. I could be anything at all, with half
the chance. But today I am going to change the world.
Something’s world. The cat avoids me. The cat
knows I am a genius, and has hidden itself.

I pour the goldfish down the bog. I pull the chain.
I see that it is good. The budgie is panicking.
Once a fortnight, I walk the two miles into town
for signing on. They don’t appreciate my autograph.

There is nothing left to kill. I dial the radio
and tell the man he’s talking to a superstar.
He cuts me off. I get our bread-knife and go out.
The pavements glitter suddenly. I touch your arm.

This is from Carol Ann Duffy’s 1985 collection, Standing Female Nude. Blake’s poem, The Fly, from yesterday, reminded me of this because Duffy’s poem also has a reference to that line from King Lear (“As flies to wanton boys are we to the Gods/ They kill us for their sport.”)

Education for Leisure is written from the point of view of a young person, who has presumably left school and is on unemployment benefit (every fortnight, he goes into town for “signing on”). I find the speaker’s voice at once frightening and heartbreaking; I can see that this person is capable of doing terrible things (he squashes a fly with his thumb, he wants to kill the cat, and he flushes the goldfish “down the bog”) and yet his voice also seems to contain hues of a wounded child, with lines like “I have had enough of being ignored”, and the bit about Shakespeare being “in another language”.

An obviously frightening aspect to this character is that he is clearly deluded and probably a psychopath. He begins with the statement, “Today I am going to kill something. Anything.” This person is destructive, angry, and desperate. But why does he feel this need to “kill”? Why does he want to “play God”? I think one reason is that he is afflicted by “boredom”, which seems to be a result of his neglectful education. The other reason, I think, is a need to take control of a life that seems so far beyond his power to change.

The second stanza is the one that breaks my heart the most. He squashes and kills a fly with his thumb, remembering Shakespeare’s King Lear from school. “It was in/ another language and now the fly is in another language”, he says. The speaker is extremely bitter about not having understood things at school, and perhaps not being given enough attention or time to improve himself. He feels like a victim, with no control over his future. So, as revenge, he imposes the same thing on the fly.

The speaker tries to convince himself that he is worth something more than he has apparently been told. “I breathe out talent,” he writes; “I am a genius”. He wants to change the world — “Something’s world”. He knows that the only power his has is physical, violent power, and so the only way he can change the world is to destroy it. The poem follows his desperate search for something “to kill”. The cat hides from him, flushing the goldfish is not enough, the budgie is “panicking”, but that is not enough, either.

This person, like all of us, wants to be heard, to be listened to. He is seeking approval and human contact just as any of us. I think this is also why he phones up “the radio” in the final stanza, and tells the man “he’s talking to a superstar.” The man cuts him off. This is yet another blow for the speaker, who told us from the start that he has “had enough of being ignored”. Since nobody takes notice of him, he moves on to hurting people. The poem ends with the ominous line, “I touch your arm.”

I think the final line to this poem is brilliantly clever. If we do not care about the  speaker by this stage of the poem; if we are still thinking to ourselves, ‘this person has nothing to do with me’, well, he now turns on and actively addresses the reader. The speaker in this poem is an example of a very real problem (though it was written in Thatcher’s Britain, I believe it is still very relevant), and I think it is very dangerous to ignore him.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘The Fly’ by William Blake

Little Fly,
Thy summer’s play
My thoughtless hand
Has brushed away.

Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me?

For I dance
And drink, and sing,
Till some blind hand
Shall brush my wing.

If thought is life
And strength and breath
And the want
Of thought is death;

Then am I
A happy fly,
If I live,
Or if I die.

I read The Fly today and it reminded me of a line from King Lear, when Gloucester says: “Like flies to wanton boys are we to the Gods,/ They kill us for their sport.” Like that line from Shakespeare, Blake’s poem (from his Songs of Experience) explores the idea that man lives constantly under the shadow of the “blind hand” of death, just as a fly is subject to the whims of the “thoughtless hand” of man.

The way Blake creates a parallel between the fly and the speaker, by likening the fly’s “summer’s play” to his own merriment of dancing, singing and drinking, creates (I think) a powerful sense of the fleetingness and fragility of life. In the face of the ephemeral nature of existence, the fly and the speaker are equal. There is something very egalitarian about this poem, because it seems to suggest that all creatures are equal in the face of mortality.Below is the etching that Blake did for this particular poem, (he created these for all his poems in Songs of Innocence and Experience.) This etching seems to me to fit the poem perfectly. Like the poem, the image of the children and the mother figure seems perfectly innocent, just like the sing-song, nursery-rhyme tone and rhythm to the written piece. However, on closer inspection, the image becomes more sinister, and we can see that the children playing are very fragile; one plays merrily with a racket and shuttlecock, and the other needs the help of the mother as he attempts to walk. The trees that frame the image are bare, skeletal and oppressive, as if to remind us that death is never far away.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘Le Mistral Gagnant’ by Renaud

A m’asseoir sur un banc cinq minutes avec toi Et regarder les gens tant qu’y en a Te parler du bon temps qu’est mort ou qui r’viendra En serrant dans ma main tes p’tits doigtsPuis donner à bouffer à des pigeons idiots Leur filer des coups d’ pieds pour de faux Et entendre ton rire qui lézarde les murs Qui sait surtout guérir mes blessuresTe raconter un peu comment j’étais mino
Les bonbecs fabuleux qu’on piquait chez l’marchand
Car-en-sac et Minto, caramel à un franc
Et les mistrals gagnants Continue reading ‘Le Mistral Gagnant’ by Renaud

‘Minority’ by Imtiaz Dharker

I was born a foreigner.
I carried on from there
to become a foreigner everywhere
I went, even in the place
planted with my relatives,
six-foot tubers sprouting roots,
their fingers and faces pushing up
new shoots of maize and sugar cane.

All kinds of places and groups
of people who have an admirable
history would, almost certainly,
distance themselves from me.

I don’t fit,
like a clumsily-translated poem;

like food cooked in milk of coconut
where you expected ghee or cream,
the unexpected aftertaste
of cardamom or neem.

There’s always that point where
the language flips
into an unfamiliar taste;
where words tumble over
a cunning tripwire on the tongue;
where the frame slips,
the reception of an image
not quite tuned, ghost-outlined,
that signals, in their midst,
an alien.

And so I scratch, scratch
through the night, at this
growing scab on black on white.
Everyone has the right
to infiltrate a piece of paper.
A page doesn’t fight back.
And, who knows, these lines
may scratch their way
into your head –
through all the chatter of community,
family, clattering spoons,
children being fed –
immigrate into your bed,
squat in your home,
and in a corner, eat your bread,

until, one day, you meet
the stranger sidling down your street,
realise you know the face
simplified to bone,
look into its outcast eyes
and recognise it as your own.

This is another wonderful poem by Imtiaz Dharker. I think Dharker is one of the most exciting poets writing in English today; her work is so fresh and relevant, and I love the way she doesn’t shy away from subject matter that is politically taboo. I particularly love the way she explores identity in her poems.

Minority gives a very insightful depiction of what it feels like to be “foreign” in many places. The poem begins with the line, “I was born a foreigner”. How can you be born a foreigner? Well, sadly today in many of our Western societies (including in the UK and in my adopted country, France) the children of immigrants can be made to feel this way. The poem says, “I was born a foreigner… and “carried on from there/ to become a foreigner everywhere/ I went”. The speaker in the poem seems to belong nowhere – “even in the place/ planted with my relatives”. On returning to the country of her parents, this speaker feels like a foreigner, too. In this situation, many people understandably feel incredibly displaced and victimised, as they find themselves facing prejudice from both the country they were born in, as well as the country of their parents and relatives.

The speaker tells us “I don’t fit”. She compares herself to “food cooked in milk of coconut/ where you expected ghee or cream” or an “unexpected aftertaste/ of cardamom or neem”. I love this use of taste to describe a feeling of being foreign; it’s so evocative. A country’s cuisine is essential to its culture and so I think this is a very clever inclusion here. I also find it very interesting that Dharker imports flavours from her own very multicultural identities, which are (as well as British) Pakistani and Indian.

The subject of the next stanza if language, and this is something that I can relate to personally, having lived, studied and worked in abroad for several years now. The speaker talks about “that point where/ the language flips/ into an unfamiliar taste”, and words become a “tripwire”. Is she talking about accent here, where the language might “taste” differently on the tongue? Or is she talking about being unable to find the words for something? I have heard many people say this about being bilingual; it is incredibly frustrating when you cannot think of a word in the language you are trying to speak, because you are afraid that you might be better at one language than another. This only adds to the feeling of not-belonging that runs all the way through this poem.

The penultimate stanza explores the act of writing, and its role in the creation of identity. Dharker uses beautiful language to describe herself (or the speaker) going “scratch, scratch” at the “growing scab on black and white”. I just love this description of writing as a “scab”. She is writing to make sense of a wound, or even to heal it. Dharker encourages the notion of the transformative and healing power of literature here, and then she remarks upon its democracy. “Everyone has the right/ to infiltrate a piece of paper”, she writes; the page is not prejudiced; it “doesn’t fight back”. Poetry becomes a medium through which the speaker can freely express herself — a way she can communicate. And perhaps the message will get through to people; literature is a great teacher of empathy. “Who knows”, writes Dharker, perhaps these lines will “scratch their way/ into your head” — break through the prejudices that “community” and “family” can breed.

Perhaps one day, she writes in the final verse, you (the reader) will meet “the stranger sidling down your street” and recognise that face “as your own”. I just love the way the poem suddenly turns on the reader, near the end, with that very direct “you”. Dharker is putting the reader on the spot; these questions are now directly put to us. This poem beautifully displays its author’s belief in the power of literature to transform, educate and create understanding, and I think it’s a wonderful piece.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh