Tag Archives: Poetry

‘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