Tag Archives: Poetry

‘Not waving but drowning’ by Stevie Smith

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.

I admit this is the only poem by Stevie Smith I have ever read. But I always liked it. I think it is easy to relate to. It talks about something that I think we all understand: that there are great — often catastrophic — distances between what we say and what people understand, and between what we mean to say and what we actually express.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘On the sea’ by John Keats

It keeps eternal whisperings around
Desolate shores, and with its mighty swell
Gluts twice ten thousand caverns, till the spell
Of Hecate leaves them their old shadowy sound.
Often ’tis in such gentle temper found,
That scarcely will the very smallest shell
Be moved for days from where it sometime fell,
When last the winds of heaven were unbound.
O ye! who have your eyeballs vexed and tired,
Feast them upon the wideness of the Sea;
O ye! whose ears are dinn’d with uproar rude,
Or fed too much with cloying melody, –
Sit ye near some old cavern’s mouth, and brood
Until ye start, as if the sea-nymphs quired!

This poem speaks about the solace and freedom that can be found in nature. The sea is the embodiment of nature here, and is presented in great contrast to the artificiality of urban life. As a Romantic, John Keats was inclined to reject the new realities of the Industrial Revolution and the monotonous drudgery of life in the cities, preferring to seek solitude for his thoughts in the natural beauty of wild, remote landscapes. This rebellious, Romantic spirit in Keats is reflected in his contempt for the “uproar rude” and “cloying melody” that are the vulgar sounds of modern urban society. Nature, he tells us in this poem, is the solution for all those wearied by modern life. The Romantic poets who preceded Keats, such as Coleridge and Byron, had also been preoccupied with condemning the evils of the modern age of industry, and extolling the virtues of nature as its opposite. All this also promotes the idea of the contrast between the artificial nature of ‘polite society’, and the more natural, honest nature of the unrefined.

From the opening lines of this poem, Keats laments that man has forsaken nature for the city. This is a common grievance expressed in Romantic poetry. We are given a vision of “desolate shores” – an image of nature abandoned by man. The scene is beautiful, yet no one but the poet, it seems, sees or admires it. The “mighty swell” of the sea, this great energy in nature, “keeps eternal whisperings” around the barren landscape so carelessly deserted by man. I get the impression here of something spiritual, almost pagan; the “eternal whisperings” lend a mythical, mysterious feeling to the poem, with its resemblance to religious chanting. You could derive an image here of the seas protecting the shores as it “keeps” them and “gluts” the “caverns”, as a benevolent deity protects his people. This is a clear example of ‘god in nature’, which is another popular theme of Romantic poetry. Keats and his fellow poets had a tendency towards non-conformism with regard to orthodox religion, and were more inclined to believe that there was a god who inspired the imaginative and spiritual. The reference to the goddess Hectate also encourages this notion, and the idea of the transitory nature of gods and religions. Nature, in contrast, is “eternal”.

Perhaps, though, Keats’ depiction of the sea is intended to represent the artist himself. The Romantic poets were essentially keeping “eternal whisperings” around the “desolate shores” of the world. Poets have, through the ages, seen this as their task; to voice truth amid the chaos and confusion of the societies in which they found themselves. Keats also observes that “often” the poet finds himself at a loss for inspiration; so much so that “scarcely will the very smallest shell/ Be moved” from where it “sometime fell”. Here the “shell” appears to represent the idea given to him by “the winds of heaven”. This derives from the creed held by many of the Romantics that the poet’s inspiration comes from some divine being. Keats also describes the reality of a poetic blockage; he often cannot make progress “for days”. This ‘blockage’ occurs when the poet is in a “gentle temper”, which implies that he needs to become impassioned in order to write.

In the second half of the poem Keats speaks to all those who are weary of the modern world. He commands them to “feast” their eyes upon the “wideness of the sea”. It is in simply the vastness of the sea in which he suggests we can find peace. In the city there are many intricate designs in architecture, there is complex machinery to understand. The sea is massive, and seemingly eternal. Keats here draws an important comparison between life in ‘civilised’ society during the 19th Century, where there were petty conventions and customs that one was obliged to be constantly aware and cautious of, and life in rural areas, where things were considerably less complicated, but more honest, and beautiful. In the same way that Keats finds peace in nature, he also seems to be suggesting that it exists within the poet’s soul. Keats, in godlike fashion, creates this beautiful scene in the poem himself; with his imagination. He imports the notion through this poem that it is not simply the exterior landscapes in which we can find inspiration, but also in interior landscapes; the landscape of our own imaginations. This was an extremely important idea for the Romantics. Keats appears to be condemning the trivial conventions of polite society, inferring that ‘natural’ behaviour is the most desirable.

Keats tells us to “feast” our eyes on the sea and “brood/ until ye start”. These lines deliver the notion that the poet wants us to allow nature to ‘awaken’ us. It is as though he believes that society has been sleeping of late; living apathetic lives. Man’s pursuit of profit has seemingly dehumanised him, left him dead to such things as beauty. Keats’ reference to “sea-nymphs” singing is again one that imports a notion of the supernatural and the mythical; things of the imagination. The poet ends this poem with one final, desperate attempt to awaken the imagination of his readers. I think this is what most attracts me about Keats: there is something so heroic about his poetry.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘Sill I rise’ by Maya Angelou

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own back yard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

The first thing I read by Maya Angelou was her memoir, I know why the caged bird sings, which covers her childhood years. I found that book to be a real inspiration. I was astounded by the spirit of this incredible woman because, although she suffered atrocious traumas and hardships in her life, and was subjected to all sorts of abuse, she rose above it all to become this utterly amazing person, and a poet with a positive message. There is a defiant generosity in her poetry, and it is just brimming with attitude — and I love that.
This poem in particular — probably one of her best-known — is certainly full of defiance. As a survivor of childhood abuse, Angelou here expresses defiance of that oppression, speaking with pride of her own “sassiness”, and “sexiness” — dancing “like I’ve got diamonds/ at the meeting of my thighs”. But Still I rise also speaks for the African-American people for whom Angelou fought so courageously during the Civil Rights Movement. That she is speaking for them is made clear at the end of the poem when she talks about being a “black ocean, leaping and wide”, and says “I am the dream and the hope of the slave”. This is a poem of victories with its repetitive chant, “I rise/ I rise/ I rise”. This is a chant but it might also be an incantation, willing this to be so — willing other peoples to “rise” and fight for their rights, as the African-American people have done.
I love the descriptions of wealth in this poem — she uses them to evoke what it feels like to break free from oppression. This is relevant to both the political persecution that Angelou lived through, and also the personal and sexual abuse that she suffered. It is as though the poet has to explain the value of Freedom in monetary terms to people who never been deprived of it. Her “sassiness”, “haughtiness”, and “sexiness” come from a sense of pride, of self-worth, of Freedom from oppression… all these things that she has won for herself, through political fight, and through personal battles too. The poet explains that now she walks “like I’ve got oil wells/ pumping in my living room”, and laughs “like I’ve got gold mines/ Diggin’ in my own back yard”, and dances because she’s got “diamonds/ At the meeting of my thighs.” I just love these images because they’re so provocative and triumphant.
It seems to me that this poem is a hymn for oppressed peoples and people anywhere.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘Le Dormeur du Val’ by Arthur Rimbaud

C’est un trou de verdure où chante une rivière,
Accrochant follement aux herbes des haillons
D’argent ; où le soleil, de la montagne fière,
Luit : c’est un petit val qui mousse de rayons.

Un soldat jeune, bouche ouverte, tête nue,
Et la nuque baignant dans le frais cresson bleu,
Dort ; il est étendu dans l’herbe, sous la nue,
Pâle dans son lit vert où la lumière pleut.

Les pieds dans les glaïeuls, il dort. Souriant comme
Sourirait un enfant malade, il fait un somme :
Nature, berce-le chaudement : il a froid.

Les parfums ne font pas frissonner sa narine ;
Il dort dans le soleil, la main sur sa poitrine,
Tranquille. Il a deux trous rouges au côté droit.

Here is my translation:

It is a green hollow where a river sings, 
Its silver tatters clinging madly to the grass;
Where the sun, of the proud mountain,
Shines: it is a little valley frothing with sunbeams. 

A young soldier, mouth open, head bare, 
And his neck bathing in the cool blue cuckooflower,
Is sleeping; he is stretched out upon the grass, under the sky, 
Pale in his green bed where the light rains upon him.

His feet among the flags, he is sleeping. Smiling as
A sick child would smile, he is dozing:
Nature, hold him close and rock him: he is cold. 

Scents do not make his nostrils quiver.
He is sleeping in the sun, his hand on his calm
Chest. In his right side, he has two red holes.

 

I love this poem. As always, it is so hard to translate something as language-specific as a poem, but I wanted to have a go.

Images of nature seem to be very important in this poem. In the first verse in particular, for example, the river and the mountain are given human qualities; the river is “madly” clinging to the grass, and the mountain is “proud”. To me, these descriptions bring to mind the idea of a proud nation (the mountain) and the young soldiers of that nation (the river) clinging madly to the grass just as young men flung into war cling madly to their lives as they struggle to survive the war imposed upon them by the politicians.

It is so beautiful the way that we can almost believe the soldier is simply sleeping until the end of the poem, when we learn that he has “two red holes” in his side, and that he is dead. The description of the soldier until that final sentence is so peaceful: the valley is “frothing with sunbeams”, he is “sleeping” with his head in the “cool blue cuckooflower”, in a “green bed”. The image of the light raining upon him evokes, for me, an image of nature mourning the dead boy. For this is certainly a boy; the innocence of the soldier is very much made evident in this poem, as he smiles as “a sick child would smile”, and with his hand on his chest. Also, the mentioning of his feet being among the flags, brings with it the idea of patriotism and sacrifice.

My final thought is this: I feel that the image of the two red holes in the soldier’s right side are reminiscent of Christ’s wounds upon the cross. Rimbaud did not have to say that the soldier had two bullet holes in his side; he could easily have said one, or three… but two holes reminds me of Christ’s wounds in his hands when he was nailed to the cross. And this image reinforces that of an innocent victim, sacrificed for the pride of a nation (that proud mountain.)

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘One Art’ by Elizabeth Bishop

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster,

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

– Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like a disaster.

This is a beautifully crafted villanelle, and a fascinating illustration of a person’s internal struggle with denial over how much they have been affected by the loss of a someone they love.

I love the way the poet shows the self-deception involved, as she tries to convince herself that she can learn to be able to cope with significant loss. The mantra, “The art of losing isn’t hard to master”, runs through the poem. The repetition of these words suggests that the speaker is trying desperately to convince herself that it is true.

The speaker starts off by talking about trivial things that she has lost (things that are ‘safe’ for her to talk about). She tells us that she has lost “door keys” and “an hour badly spent”. Losing these things “wasn’t a disaster”. Then she advises us to “loose something every day” — to “practice” loosing increasingly significant things — as if this will help to prepare us for when we loose something vital to us, like a loved one.

As the speaker moves on to talking about more valuable things that she has lost (“my mother’s watch”… and then “two cities”, “two rivers” and “a continent”) she tells us, “I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster”. We can see that she is aware that loosing material things is nothing compared to loosing a person that she loves.

I love the final stanza because it is so self-aware. She is trying to convince herself that she can cope with losing the “you” to whom this poem is addressed. The way she describes the person as “the joking voice, a gesture/I love” shows us that she has lost a person very dear to her — someone she has spent a great deal of time with. It could be a friend, a lover, or even a spouse. It is theirpresence that she misses. Again she repeats that “the art of losing things isn’t hard to master”, but finally admits that “it may look like (Write it!) like a disaster”. I love this final line. The “Write it!” part  makes me think about how writing can be very therapeutic. The act of writing can make things more real and help us to accept them. Here, it seems that when the poet writes “Write it!” she is trying to convince herself to admit it — to admit that losing this person is a disaster for her.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘The Listeners’ by Walter de la Mare

“Is there anybody there?” said the Traveller,
Knocking on the moonlit door;
And his horse in the silence champed the grass
Of the forest’s ferny floor;
And a bird flew up out of the turret,
Above the Traveller’s head:
And he smote upon the door again a second time;
“Is there anybody there?” he said.
But no one descended to the Traveller;
No head from the leaf-fringed sill
Leaned over and looked into his grey eyes,
Where he stood perplexed and still.
But only a host of phantom listeners
That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight
To that voice from the world of men:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,
That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirred and shaken
By the lonely Traveller’s call.
And he felt in his heart their strangeness,
Their stillness answering his cry,
While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,
‘Neath the starred and leafy sky;
For he suddenly smote on the door, even
Louder, and lifted his head:–
“Tell them I came, and no one answered,
That I kept my word,” he said.
Never the least stir made the listeners,
Though every word he spake
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house
From the one man left awake:
Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,
And the sound of iron on stone,
And how the silence surged softly backward,
When the plunging hoofs were gone.

This was a favourite poem of mine as a child. It was probably the rhymes and the mystery of the story that first attracted me. I think it is a poem that really sets the imagination reeling. I love how the Listeners never do answer the Traveller. Sometimes, there are no answers to our questions; sometimes, we are not meant to know.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘Valentine’ by Carol Ann Duffy

Not a red rose or a satin heart.

I give you an onion.
It is a moon wrapped in brown paper.
It promises light
like the careful undressing of love.

Here.
It will blind you with tears
like a lover.
It will make your reflection
a wobbling photo of grief.

I am trying to be truthful.

Not a cute card or a kissogram.

I give you an onion.
Its fierce kiss will stay on your lips,
possessive and faithful
as we are,
for as long as we are.

Take it.
Its platinum loops shrink to a wedding-ring,
if you like.

Lethal.
Its scent will cling to your fingers,
cling to your knife.

This is one of my favourite poems by our Poet Laureate. I just love the image of an onion being like love, bright like “a moon”. And, like love, the beauty of the onion has to be unwrapped; it is wrapped in “brown paper”. We often have to peel away the layers of our own fears, prejudices or insecurities to see love. Like love, the onion will “blind you with tears” and cause grief. I love the image of the “fierce kiss” of the onion lingering on the lips — “possessive and faithful”, like a lover, and the image of the onion’s “platinum loops” shrinking to become a wedding ring. The scent of the onion will “cling to your fingers”, and “to your knife”. There is something dangerous about the onion here — it is “Lethal”.
As Duffy says in the poem, she is “trying to be truthful”. An onion and what it represents here is a more appropriate gift for a lover than a “cute card or a kissogram”. The representation of love in this poem is beautifully real. I really like the way the onion illustrates love as being at once beautiful, bright, enduring, painful, dangerous and sad… it’s great.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ by John Keats

Thou still unravished bride of quietness,
Thou foster child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loath?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endeared,
Pipe to the spirit dities of no tone.
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal—yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss
Forever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unweari-ed,
Forever piping songs forever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
Forever warm and still to be enjoyed,
Forever panting, and forever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloyed,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.

Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands dressed?
What little town by river or sea shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.

O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity. Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty”—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

This poem has had an enormous impact on my life since I first read it. It has given me a great amount of pleasure (and still does). I don’t want to do a detailed analysis because it would be such a long blog and nobody would read it. I just want to talk about the final two lines, which are probably the most famous words that Keats ever wrote.

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty”—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

I think the most obvious, surface explanation of this is something like: if beauty is truth, then, if art is not based on truth to a certain extent, then how can beauty exist in art? It’s the idea that art must contain aspects of reality in order to be beautiful and sublime.

But there is also a deeper, philosophical meaning to it which relates, I think, to how we reach Truth. How we find truth, how do we recognise it, and what is its source? For Keats, logic was not the answer. He did not believe that Truth could be reached by consecutive reasoning. He believed that since one can argue anything (logic can be applied to reasoning that does not lead to Truth) then Truth must come from some other source. That other source might be Beauty. As Keats wrote in a letter in 1817, “What the imagination seizes as beauty must be truth”.

I think that “Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty” is also connected to Keats’ views about the nature of poetry. He wrote that “if poetry does not come as naturally as leaves to a tree then it had better not come at all.” He described poetry as an “experience beyond thought” — the music or Beauty of the poetry contains Truth just as much as the meanings of the words. It makes sense that this kind of Truth is more trustworthy, because we have an innate understanding of what is beautiful, whereas logic can easily hoodwink us and have us believe falsehoods.

Keats wrote that poetry was best to be understood “through the senses”, and that is certainly true of this poem — it is a symphony of words and rhythm. For me, the meaning is almost secondary.

If you look at the beginning of the poem, there is a link to all of this. Keats describes the urn (which represents Art is all its forms) as a “still unravish’d bride”, “foster-child” and “Sylvan historian”. This mysterious opening allows us to understand that the urn is beautiful (an “unravish’d bride”) and knowledgeable (a “Sylvan historian). So art can be a source of both beauty and truth… and this of course foreshadows famous last lines of the poem.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘Flowers’ by Wendy Cope

Some men never think of it.
You did. You’d come along
And say you’d nearly brought me flowers
But something had gone wrong.The shop was closed. Or you had doubts –
The sort that minds like ours
Dream up incessantly. You thought
I might not want your flowers.It made me smile and hug you then.
Now I can only smile.
But, look, the flowers you nearly brought
Have lasted all this while.

Today, this poem reminded me of the final line of one of Philip Larkin’s: “What will survive of us is love” (that’s from An Arundel Tomb.)
Flowers is such a heartbreaking piece. Wendy Cope has an incredible ability to create witty, often funny poems that are also profoundly melancholy. I love the way she uses the simple language of grief and evocative short sentences here, such as “It made me smile and hug you then” and “Now I can only smile.” This poem illustrates so beautifully the way we remember the thoughtfulness, the intentions and attentions of our loved ones, and not the material objects they might lavish upon us. Flowers are a particularly appropriate metaphor here, I feel, because flowers last such a short time. In this poem, the person’s intention to buy flowers for the speaker, and his rather adorable self-conscious doubts that she would want his flowers, is what has endured — this is what will always make the speaker “smile”, even after the person has gone.
And I find this ending so sweet and deeply touching: “look, the flowers you nearly brought/ Have lasted all this while”.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘After Auschwitz’ by Anne Sexton

Anger,
as black as a hook,
overtakes me.
Each day,
each Nazi
took, at 8:00 A.M., a baby
and sauteed him for breakfast
in his frying pan.

And death looks on with a casual eye
and picks at the dirt under his fingernail.

Man is evil,
I say aloud.
Man is a flower
that should be burnt,
I say aloud.
Man
is a bird full of mud,
I say aloud.

And death looks on with a casual eye
and scratches his anus.

Man with his small pink toes,
with his miraculous fingers
is not a temple
but an outhouse,
I say aloud.

Let man never again raise his teacup.
Let man never again write a book.
Let man never again put on his shoe.
Let man never again raise his eyes,
on a soft July night.
Never. Never. Never. Never. Never.
I say those things aloud.

I beg the Lord not to hear.

I don’t think many readers will fail to be shocked by this poem. Its grotesque images and daring treatment of subject matter that seems untouchable for a poet certainly shocked me when I first read it.

But I think the subject matter is carefully chosen specifically to that end – to shock and hold our attention. The words “Auschwitz” and “Nazi” can never fail to do that. Spell-like, these words are capable of instilling horror even in those who were born decades after the events, because they conjure visions of man’s worst atrocities; a vision of pure evil; the Devil inside us. I think Sexton is using the imagery of the Holocaust to amplify (and in some strange sense that I can’t quite qualify, to validate) her own personal trauma. Plath does the same thing in her poetry (Daddy is the perfect example). Of course, this poem (as the title suggests) is a response to Auschwitz. However, I think it is also a more general reaction to Man’s inhumanity, and perhaps also the inhumanity of men. Sexton was surely influenced by the Vietnam War, which was going on at the time of writing, and by events in her own life, such as her divorce, and her struggle with depression.

The first emotion in the poem – and the first word – is “Anger”. “Anger,/ as black as a hook,/ overtakes me”. We begin with an intensely personal moment, where the speaker feels completely overwhelmed and surpassed by her anger. Then, as though moving the camera lens away from herself, the poet states, almost incongruently, that “Each day,/ each Nazi” sautéed a baby “for breakfast,/ in his frying pan”. This image is painfully, disgustingly, unbearably visual. For me, this first stanza is as if Sexton starts out trying to express her own anger, and then (perhaps to avoid discussing what has made her angry) thrusts this horrifying image in our faces as if to say – ‘look: Man is evil, and this proves it’.

“And death looks on with a casual eye”, writes Sexton. This phrase is repeated twice in the poem, and each time death is performing a banal, repulsive action such as “pick[ing] the dirt under his fingernails” and “scratch[ing] his anus”. I think these images of death are repeated to deliver a sense of the banality of death and senseless inhumanity, but also to convey that evil is not only in action, but in theinaction of bystanders who witness evil and do nothing to stop it. In this case, those bystanders, looking on with a casual eye, are also “death” – also murderers.

Notice that the images of Man in this piece are all of a corrupted creature that once had the potential to be something beautiful. For example, he is described as a “flower/ that should be burnt”, a “bird full of mud” and “not a temple/ but an outhouse”. I can’t help but think of Sexton’s own relationship here, and consider that these lines might just as well be accusing the betrayer in a broken relationship. The repetition of the word “Man” in this piece is hard to ignore. Clearly, Sexton is using it in the universal sense of ‘mankind’, but for me that insistent repetition also delivers a strong anti-male vibe – as though this were the voice of a betrayed, disillusioned, heartbroken woman – and I think again of Sexton’s personal life.

In the final verse we are given some biblical sounding commandments for the new world after Auschwitz. The first is, “Let man never again raise his teacup.” I think this commandment refers to civilities; let us never again pretend to be sophisticated or civilised after what has happened. The second is, “Let man never again write a book.” Philosophy, poetry, science, acting educated… all these things seem ridiculous to the traumatised speaker; Man is not an intellectual being but a brute and a monster. The poet goes on to forbid Man from ever “put[ting] on his shoe” – from dressing himself up as anything other than an animal – and from “rais[ing] his eyes,/ on a soft July night”. Perhaps this final commandment forbids Man from looking for God, marvelling at the stars, or finding beauty in nature. After all – after Auschwitz – it is evident that Man is an abomination of nature, and does not deserve God’s forgiveness.

“I say those things aloud”, writes Sexton. I find this phrase intriguing because she does not say ‘these things are true’. She is simply saying them aloud. She is just daring to voice her anger, air her thoughts. The final line, “I beg the Lord not to hear”, is vital and telling, and sort of saves the whole poem from being utterly depressing. The whole poem has been expressing the notion that Man is a monster that deserves to die, and then at the end she admits that she begs God not hear her prayer. Despite everything, she does not wish to visit the same inhumanity that has sparked this poem, on the perpetrators – on Man. She begs God not to hear. She is desperately hoping that there might be some possibility of salvation.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh