Tag Archives: Poetry

‘Love is not all’ by Edna St. Vincent Millay

Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink
Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain;
Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink
And rise and sink and rise and sink again;
Love can not fill the thickened lung with breath,
Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;
Yet many a man is making friends with death
Even as I speak, for lack of love alone.
It well may be that in a difficult hour,
Pinned down by pain and moaning for release,
Or nagged by want past resolution’s power,
I might be driven to sell your love for peace,
Or trade the memory of this night for food.
It well may be. I do not think I would.

Continue reading ‘Love is not all’ by Edna St. Vincent Millay

‘God Help the Wolf after Whom the Dogs Do Not Bark’ by Ted Hughes

There you met it – the mystery of hatred.
After your billions of years in anonymous matter
That was where you were found – and promptly hated.
You tried your utmost to reach and touch those people
With gifts of yourself –
Just like your first words as a toddler
When you rushed at every visitor to the house
Clasping their legs and crying: ‘I love you! I love you!’
Just as you had danced for your father
In his home of anger – gifts of your life
To sweeten his slow death and mix yourself in it
Where he lay propped on the couch,
To sugar the bitterness of his raging death. Continue reading ‘God Help the Wolf after Whom the Dogs Do Not Bark’ by Ted Hughes

‘Daddy’ by Sylvia Plath

You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe
In which I have lived like a foot
For thirty years, poor and white,
Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.

Daddy, I have had to kill you.
You died before I had time—-
Marble-heavy, a bag full of God,
Ghastly statue with one gray toe
Big as a Frisco seal

And a head in the freakish Atlantic
Where it pours bean green over blue
In the waters off the beautiful Nauset.
I used to pray to recover you.
Ach, du.

In the German tongue, in the Polish town
Scraped flat by the roller
Of wars, wars, wars.
But the name of the town is common.
My Polack friend

Says there are a dozen or two.
So I never could tell where you
Put your foot, your root,
I never could talk to you.
The tongue stuck in my jaw.

It stuck in a barb wire snare.
Ich, ich, ich, ich,
I could hardly speak.
I thought every German was you.
And the language obscene

An engine, an engine,
Chuffing me off like a Jew.
A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen.
I began to talk like a Jew.
I think I may well be a Jew.

The snows of the Tyrol, the clear beer of Vienna
Are not very pure or true.
With my gypsy ancestress and my weird luck
And my Taroc pack and my Taroc pack
I may be a bit of a Jew.

I have always been scared of you,
With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo.
And your neat mustache
And your Aryan eye, bright blue.
Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You——

Not God but a swastika
So black no sky could squeak through.
Every woman adores a Fascist,
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you.

You stand at the blackboard, daddy,
In the picture I have of you,
A cleft in your chin instead of your foot
But no less a devil for that, no not
Any less the black man who

Bit my pretty red heart in two.
I was ten when they buried you.
At twenty I tried to die
And get back, back, back to you.
I thought even the bones would do.

But they pulled me out of the sack,
And they stuck me together with glue.
And then I knew what to do.
I made a model of you,
A man in black with a Meinkampf look

And a love of the rack and the screw.
And I said I do, I do.
So daddy, I’m finally through.
The black telephone’s off at the root,
The voices just can’t worm through.

If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two—-
The vampire who said he was you
And drank my blood for a year,
Seven years, if you want to know.
Daddy, you can lie back now.

There’s a stake in your fat black heart
And the villagers never liked you.
They are dancing and stamping on you.
They always knew it was you.
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.

This is such a well-known poem. It is crashing and cathartic and hypnotically powerful… and I’m excited to write a blog about it.

I read ‘Daddy’ over and over as a teen, when I found it in an anthology that I had. That was before I read The Bell Jar or any other poems by Sylvia Plath. As my fascination for Plath’s life and work grew, ‘Daddy’ made deeper sense to me and I now understand how it is a defining poem for this poet. It still fascinates me every time I read it.

So, Plath presents us with an image of a father in this poem, and it is this father figure that I want to write about mostly. She affectionately and childishly addresses him as ‘Daddy’ in the poem, and yet he is a complex, dark, almost mythical figure that she has had to “kill”. You never get to know the father — we see him only from a distance variously as a “black shoe” in which the speaker has lived imprisoned, “Barely daring to breathe”, a Godlike, “Ghastly statue”, a Nazi, and a “vampire”. I think ‘Daddy’ in this poem certainly represents Plath’s own father; Otto Plath died when Sylvia was just eight-years-old, and his image haunts much of her poetry.

Plath writes in the poem, “Daddy, I have had to kill you./ You died before I had time”. This is a very important line and I think it is key to understanding the crux of the speaker’s issues with her father. Plath’s father did in fact die before she “had time” to kill him in the psychological sense that we all “kill” our parents. By this I mean that Plath’s father died at an age when he was still Godlike in the eyes of his daughter. To the eight-year-old Plath, her father was everything and she idolized him greatly. She never had time to get to know him on a personal level as an adult (“I never could talk to you”). As a consequence, as Plath grew up, it seems that her father remained a mythical, elusive and powerful shadow in her mind that she could never quite understand. This poem is about her getting what nowadays we call ‘closure’.

In my opinion the ‘Daddy’ figure in this poem also represents Plath’s husband, Ted Hughes. Hughes left Plath for another woman not long before she wrote this poem (and she wrote this poem not long before committing suicide in 1963). We become aware of her husband’s relevance in the poem as it nears its end, when Plath writes (addressing her Father): “I made a model of you,
/A man in black with a Meinkampf look/ And a love of the rack and the screw.
/And I said I do, I do.” This is clearly telling us that Plath found a replica of her father in her husband. She suggests that Hughes has tortured her in the same way her father did, and stifled her voice in the same way; “If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two”, she says, communicating that by the end of this poem she will be through with her Father, and with her husband (a model of the Father figure and just as creatively smothering). The similarities between Plath’s ‘Daddy’ and Hughes is even clearer as she describes her husband as “The vampire who said he was you/ And drank my blood for a year,/ Seven years, if you want to know”.

I also think that the ‘Daddy’ figure represents another force that was very present in Plath’s writing life — something that I heard her call “the weight of English Literature” in an interview that I saw on Youtube. There is no escaping the reality that English Literature is dominated by men (dead, white men), and this can be very intimidating for a female writer even today. Virginia Woolf called it “Milton’s bogey” in A room of one’s own. Woolf acknowledged the incredible weight of male dominance in literature as she wrote the following:

“For my belief is that if we live another century or so […] and have five hundred a year each of us and rooms of our own; if we have the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think; […] if we look past Milton’s bogey, for no human being should shut out the view; if we face the fact, for it is a fact, that there is no arm to cling to, but that we go alone and that our relation is to the world of reality and not only to the world of men and women, then the opportunity will come and the dead poet who was Shakespeare’s sister will put on the body which she has so often laid down..”

‘Daddy’ in this poem, represents Milton’s bogey. It weighs upon Plath’s mind and prevents her from using her voice (“Ich, ich, ich, ich,
/I could hardly speak.”) The fear of writing can become very real when one is aware of all that has gone before. How does one follow Milton (this ‘Daddy’ figure — the dead, white male poet par excellence)?

T.S. Eliot also acknowledges the weight of English Literature on modern writers in The Waste Land:

“O o o o that Shakespeherian Rag —
It’s so elegant
So intelligent

What shall I do now? What shall I do?
I shall rush out as I am, and walk in the street
With my hair down, so.
What shall we do to-morrow?
What shall we ever do?”

But Plath frees herself from this heavy inheritance by the end of the poem. The ending is so cathartic, so triumphant:

There’s a stake in your fat black heart
And the villagers never liked you.
They are dancing and stamping on you.
They always knew it was you.
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.

I love the sense of victory that is brought by that dancing and stamping. The parallels made with the Nazis in this poem makes it all the more powerful (and it compels our attention) — I think it allows us to understand the gravity of what this father figure has done to Plath and the effect it has had on her life. He has almost killed her. When faced with him she automatically assumes the role of the victim, turning him into a Nazi and her into a “Jew” being chuffed off to “Auschwitz, Dachau, Belsen”. There is so much confusion in this poem; Plath has had to kill an oppressor — two oppressors — that she loved in order to be free.

But there is something so cathartic about those final lines — we feel that Plath has got her ‘closure’. The villagers “always knew”, so there is triumph there too — he never really ‘won’. And I love the irreverence of the “you bastard, I’m through”; Plath is certainly seeing past “Milton’s bogey”. She does not need to imitate him or anybody else: this is Plath’s own voice, real and profound and transcendent. And with that voice she has written something that stands alone as its own pillar of greatness. She is free of the ‘Daddy’: free of the past, the mythical ‘Greats’ of literature and male oppression. She is free to write with her own voice.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘The Lovers’ by Jalalud’din Rumi

The Lovers
will drink wine night and day.
They will drink until they can
tear away the veils of intellect and
melt away the layers of shame and modesty.
When in Love,
body, mind, heart and soul don’t even exist.
Become this,
fall in Love, and you will not be separated again.

Rumi’s poetry has become very important to me over the past couple of years. His descriptions of God make sense to me. I chose this particular poem as an example because I love the analogy that Rumi often uses of God as a lover. Sufis talk about God as ‘The Beloved’ and I think this is such a perfect name. A lot of Rumi’s poems could be read as love poems, but they are in fact addressed to the Divine, and I just think that is very beautiful.
This poem explains how finding God is like falling in love. You have to become intoxicated by Him, like the Lovers, and the “veils of intellect” must fall away. The “body, mind, heart and soul don’t even exist” when one is in love — you become the other that you love. “Shame and modesty”, and the “intellect” — these are the things that separate us from God. We must “become” a Lover — fall in love with the Divine — “and you will not be separated again”. If we are not separated from the Divine then we are the Divine — one with God.(And if you are thinking that such a surrender of the intellect is stupid, then I refer you to my blog about ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn by John Keats’. That explains why I don’t think this is stupid, and why I don’t believe the intellect is the only path that can lead us to truth.)

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘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.

Continue reading ‘Not waving but drowning’ by Stevie Smith

‘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. Continue reading ‘One Art’ by Elizabeth Bishop

‘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