‘Is my life so intriguing?/Is it for this you widen your eye-rings?’: Sylvia Plath, conflict, and privacy

gail crowther

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In recent weeks a new collection of Plath material was advertised for sale, owned by Harriet Rosenstein, an early Plath biographer. The archive consists of Rosenstein’s research notes, recordings of people she interviewed for her book, and unseen photographs of Plath (provenance as yet unknown). However, other material included in the sale were the coroner’s report from Plath’s inquest, medical notes from Plath’s stay in McLean Hospital after her first suicide attempt in 1953, and letters written to her therapist, Dr Ruth Beuscher, between the years 1960 – 1963. The hospital notes were stolen by Beuscher from McLean who eventually handed them onto Rosenstein.

In recent days the British media have picked up on some of the content of these letters (which were previously thought destroyed), namely allegations of domestic abuse by Ted Hughes. Some articles link one instance of this happening to just two days before Plath miscarried their…

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Advice from a maestra – Wislawa Szymborska on how to write (and not write) poetry

Wonderful (and witty) advice from one of our greatest poets. Makes me want to go back to the beginning and start again.

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This article was first published in The Poetry Foundation.
The following are selections from columns originally published in the Polish newspaper Literary Life. In these columns, the Nobel prize-winning poet, Wislawa Szymborska, answered letters from ordinary people who wanted to write poetry. Translated by Clare Cavanagh.
To Grazyna from Starachowice: “Let’s take the wings off and try writing on foot, shall we?”

To Mr. G. Kr. of Warsaw: “You need a new pen. The one you’re using makes a lot of mistakes. It must be foreign.”

To Pegasus [sic] from Niepolomice: “You ask in rhyme if life makes cents [sic]. My dictionary answers in the negative.”

To Mr. K.K. from Bytom: “You treat free verse as a free-for-all. But poetry (whatever we may say) is, was, and will always be a game. And as every child knows, all games have rules. So why do the grown-ups forget?”

To Puszka from Radom: “Even boredom should be described with gusto. How many things are happening on a day when nothing happens?”

To Boleslaw L-k. of Warsaw: “Your existential pains come a trifle too easily. We’ve had enough despair and gloomy depths. ‘Deep thoughts,’ dear Thomas says (Mann, of course, who else), ‘should make us smile.’ Reading your own poem ‘Ocean,’ we found ourselves floundering in a shallow pond. You should think of your life as a remarkable adventure that’s happened to you. That is our only advice at present.”

To Marek, also of Warsaw: “We have a principle that all poems about spring are automatically disqualified. This topic no longer exists in poetry. It continues to thrive in life itself, of course. But these are two separate matters.”

To B.L. from the vicinity of Wroclaw: “The fear of straight speaking, the constant, painstaking efforts to metaphorize everything, the ceaseless need to prove you’re a poet in every line: these are the anxieties that beset every budding bard. But they are curable, if caught in time.”

To Zb. K. of Poznan: “You’ve managed to squeeze more lofty words into three short poems than most poets manage in a lifetime: ‘Fatherland,’ ‘truth,’ ‘freedom,’ ‘justice’: such words don’t come cheap. Real blood flows in them, which can’t be counterfeited with ink.”

To Michal in Nowy Targ: “Rilke warned young poets against large sweeping topics, since those are the most difficult and demand great artistic maturity. He counseled them to write about what they see around them, how they live each day, what’s been lost, what’s been found. He encouraged them to bring the things that surround us into their art, images from dreams, remembered objects. ‘If daily life seems impoverished to you,’ he wrote, ‘don’t blame life. You yourself are to blame. You’re just not enough of a poet to perceive its wealth.’ This advice may seem mundane and dim-witted to you. This is why we called to our defense one of the most esoteric poets in world literature—and just see how he praised so-called ordinary things!”

To L-k B-k of Slupsk: “We require more from a poet who compares himself to Icarus than the lengthy poem enclosed reveals. Mr. B-k, you fail to reckon with the fact that today’s Icarus rises above a different landscape than that of ancient times. He sees highways covered in cars and trucks, airports, runways, large cities, expansive modern ports, and other such realia. Might not a jet rush past his ear at times?”

To T.W., Krakow: “In school no time is spent, alas, on the aesthetic analysis of literary works. Central themes are stressed along with their historical context. Such knowledge is of course crucial, but it will not suffice for anyone wishing to become a good, independent reader, let alone for someone with creative ambitions. Our young correspondents are often shocked that their poem about rebuilding postwar Warsaw or the tragedy of Vietnam might not be good. They’re convinced that honorable intentions preempt form. But if you want to become a decent cobbler, it’s not enough to enthuse over human feet. You have to know your leather, your tools, pick the right pattern, and so forth. . . . It holds true for artistic creation too.”

To Mr. Br. K. of Laski: “Your poems in prose are permeated by the figure of the Great Poet who creates his remarkable works in a state of alcoholic euphoria. We might take a wild guess at whom you have in mind, but it’s not last names that concern us in the final analysis. Rather, it’s the misguided conviction that alcohol facilitates the act of writing, emboldens the imagination, sharpens wits, and performs many other useful functions in abetting the bardic spirit. My dear Mr. K., neither this poet, nor any of the others personally known to us, nor indeed any other poet has ever written anything great under the unadulterated influence of hard liquor. All good work arose in painstaking, painful sobriety, without any pleasant buzzing in the head. ‘I’ve always got ideas, but after vodka my head aches,’ Wyspianski said. If a poet drinks, it’s between one poem and the next. This is the stark reality. If alcohol promoted great poetry, then every third citizen of our nation would be a Horace at least. Thus we are forced to explode yet another legend. We hope that you will emerge unscathed from beneath the ruins.”

To E.L. in Warsaw: “Perhaps you could learn to love in prose.”

To Esko from Sieradz: “Youth really is an intriguing period in one’s life. If one adds writerly ambitions to the difficulties of youth, one must possess an exceptionally strong constitution in order to cope. Its components should include: persistence, diligence, wide reading, curiosity, observation, distance toward oneself, sensitivity to others, a critical mind, a sense of humor, and an abiding conviction that the world deserves a) to keep existing, and b) better luck than it’s had thus far. The efforts you’ve sent signal only the desire to write and none of the other virtues described above. You have your work cut out for you.”

To Mr. Pal-Zet of Skarysko-Kam: “The poems you’ve sent suggest that you’ve failed to perceive a key difference between poetry and prose. For example, the poem entitled ‘Here’ is merely a modest prose description of a room and the furniture it holds. In prose such descriptions perform a specific function: they set the stage for the action to come. In a moment the doors will open, someone will enter, and something will take place. In poetry the description itself must ‘take place.’ Everything becomes significant, meaningful: the choice of images, their placement, the shape they take in words. The description of an ordinary room must become before our eyes the discovery of that room, and the emotion contained by that description must be shared by the readers. Otherwise, prose will stay prose, no matter how hard you work to break your sentences into lines of verse. And what’s worse, nothing happens afterwards.”

To Heliodor from Przemysl: “You write, ‘I know my poems have many faults, but so what, I’m not going to stop and fix them.’ And why is that, oh Heliodor? Perhaps because you hold poetry so sacred? Or maybe you consider it insignificant? Both ways of treating poetry are mistaken, and what’s worse, they free the novice poet from the necessity of working on his verses. It’s pleasant and rewarding to tell our acquaintances that the bardic spirit seized us on Friday at 2:45 p.m. and began whispering mysterious secrets in our ear with such ardor that we scarcely had time to take them down. But at home, behind closed doors, they assiduously corrected, crossed out, and revised those otherworldly utterances. Spirits are fine and dandy, but even poetry has its prosaic side.”

To H.O. from Poznan, a would-be translator: “The translator is obliged to be faithful not only to the text. He must also reveal the full beauty of the poetry while retaining its form and preserving as completely as possible the epoch’s spirit and style.”

To Kali of Lodz: “‘Why’ is the most important word in this planet’s language, and probably in that of other galaxies as well.”

2016 – The Literary Year That Was In It

Publication of second collection

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While 2016 was a rocky year globally, for me, personally, it was exciting. My second collection, Ghost of the Fisher Cat, was launched at the Cork International Poetry Festival, received positive reviews in prestigious journals, including the Dublin Review of Books, Pedestal (USA), Orbis (UK),  and Southword, and was nominated for the Forward Prize for best collection, for the Poetry Now award and for the Pigott prize.

Irish readings in 2016                                                                                                                         Readings took me around the country to several festivals, including the Cork International Poetry Festival, Cúirt Festival, Galway, Stanzas Festival in Limerick, the West Cork Literary Festival and the Allingham Festival in Ballyshannon. As well as that, I did readings at the Irish Writers’ Centre, at Facebook HQ for World Poetry Day, and at Staccato (Toner’s Pub) in Dublin, the Roundy and Alchemy in Cork, and also at O’Bhéal, for a special reading for American students, the Italian Institute in Dublin, the White House in Limerick, the pSoken Wrod (de Barra’s) in Clonakilty, in Castletownbere, and at North West Words, in Letterkenny. I was also interviewed on the RTE radio show, Arena, and on the Poetry Programme.

International readings

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As if it wasn’t thrilling enough with my second collection, my début collection, The Lucky Star of Hidden Things, was translated by Lorenzo Mari and published in Italy by L’Arcolaio in 2016 too! I was invited to Bologna to give readings and talks at two schools and in a well-respected, independent bookstore, Libreria Trame:

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The book was also reviewed and discussed at Bologna university. I have Raphael D’Abdon, an Italian poet and lecturer based in Johannesburg, to thank for introducing my work to Lorenzo. I met Raphael at the Poetry Africa festival in Durban in 2013, when I was one of a collective of four Irish poets invited to the festival. (The other major event of my poetry life).

I had previously been to Italy and to Bologna, when I was sent there by the Irish Writers Centre as part of an Italo-Irish Literary Exchange in 2014, so I already had connections and an affection for that beautiful city. While in Bologna, I was treated royally by Lorenzo, who introduced me to other poets, who exchanged collections with me. Now I’m aspiring to try my hand at translating too!

The Iowa Book Festival                                                                                                                         Another break came when Vona Groarke, editor of Poetry Ireland Review, selected me as one of Ireland’s rising poets for a special issue. Spin-offs from that included being featured on The Poetry Programme with Ailbhe Darcy and Vona Groarke, and also being invited by Poetry Ireland to take part in the Iowa Book Festival, along with Nell Regan and Jim Maguire. That was very exciting. I had previously undertaken an online poetry course with the Iowa Creative Writing Program and already felt an affinity with the place. I was thrilled to meet Christopher Merrill, and to present him with my collection.

Not least of the pleasures was the opportunity to get to know and to read with, Nell and Jim, both of whom I admire and whose collections I already owned. Ah, some great memories with them – especially the walk along the railway tracks!

One of the highlights was the reading by Suki Kim, the brave author of Without You, There is No Us, who went undercover to write a book about North Korea. Another was being invited by Mary Swander, the Poet Laureate of Iowa, to her home for a meal. She lives in an Amish community, so that was a glimpse at an unusual community and way of life. A third was seeing our books on display in the fabulous Prairie Lights bookshop, where several events took place. I came away with quite a haul from there.  There was a reception to meet other writers, and I am in email exchange with one or two. One of them asked me to offer an endorsement for the back of his new collection.  A group of us, including Marc Nieson, author of the memoir, Schoolhouse, went off to watch a play together, and have a late supper.  The pretty, small city was dominated by the Book Festival, with book stalls lining the sunny streets. Abiding memories are of a young guy playing an actual piano in the square, a child with a helium balloon watching, Wayne, the ebullient waiter at the hotel who told me his life story, and visiting the university  where a protest about the Dakota pipeline was taking place, with Native American speakers and hordes of supporters – with helicopters circling ominously overhead.

There was a lovely moment of serendipity too. I was reading The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison, another of the programmed writers, in a Korean restaurant (as I was thinking about Suki Kim) when a Korean woman passed and asked if I’d like company. I was about to decline politely (maybe she thought I was a saddo, sitting alone!) when she told me she had spotted the book I was reading and knew the author! So I invited her to join me, and we ended up going upstate to a Russian art exhibition! She also invited me back to her home to meet her family and have supper with them. I was only in Iowa for four days, but it was definitely memorable.

Irish Composers Collective

And that wasn’t even the end of my exciting year! As a finale, I was asked to collaborate with two composers from the Irish Composers Collective, along with Victoria Kennefick and Nessa O’Mahoney. Each of us wrote a poem, and two composers wrote responses to each of the poems. Shell Dooley and Roisin Hayes were the two composers who responded to my poem. In November, we were invited to 45 Merrion Square (the Architectural Archive) to experience soundscapes in each of the beautiful rooms. It was one of the most wonderful experiences of the year for me. The wine and canapés were a bonus too.

Can’t imagine how a year like that could be repeated. But here we go – into a PhD at UCC!

As the late, great Desmond O’Grady said: ‘Live a life. Leave a record.’ This time, I’ll try to keep a record as I’m going along. Watch this space!

38 Michigans by Eva H.D.

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You are thirty-eight Michigans away from me,

thirty-eight wolverine states into your cups

in the sky, because being dead is like being

profoundly tanked, profound as an empty silo,

with your thoughts and your arms and your

credit cards ignoring you, just eyes, eyes, and behind

those eyes nothing, or the sky, or the smell of manure,

or thirty-eight Michigans of black, bloated ice.

 

One Michigan is bigger by far than a football field,

and two or ten is one of those I’m a man who needs

no woman type of motorcycle trips and fifteen is all the

old routes of tea or silk or spice or Trans-Siberian

misery rolled; but thirty-eight is the size of the space where Oh,

I need to call you, though laying hands upon

the phone I am repelled by a forcefield of practicality,

grasping at the incongruities of the calendar year and my

desire and your non-existence. Thirty-eight Michigans away

you are no doubt somewhere or other, balking at being,

polishing off a sandwich made of rare, impossible air.

You are as likely as the apocalypse. I can almost hear

you on my radio, the cracks in your voice of clay.

 

I summon up photos of our planet as seen from

invented places like e.g.the moon and it looks

like a Rubik’s cube. Peel off the stickers and

solve the black plastic beneath. Solve this blank

sheet of aluminium. Solve this anteater.

 

Yes, I recommend walking in the rain,

sluicing in the lake, howling at the shadow

of the moon behind the moon. Say Go long

before you throw long. Say Heads. Give the

dead more than their due. Yes, I recommend cutting

and running. Can you hear me, thirty-eight

Michigans down the line? Go long.

 

EVA H.D.

 

 

Biography: Eva bartends on Queen West in Toronto and has published two collections: Rotten Perfect Mouth and Shiner. Sometimes she gets to run off and cook on tallships or canoe in Temagami. She has also worked as a translator for Legal Aid, a nanny, a woefully subpar drywaller, a bicycle messenger and a cardboard-folder on an assembly line. She sometimes tells people that Keith Richards is her boyfriend, and they believe her, because they have never heard of the Rolling Stones. Some people have called her a tough read. Other people have called her a tarantula. In her spare time she transcribes the fictional conversations of pigeons and crabs and makes unsolicited translations of popular song lyrics. She will send haikus to your home by postcard. She often gets asked for directions, and would like to buy you a beer.

The body with an elegy inside of it by Lo Kwa Mei-en.

 

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In time, we’ll lose another page’s worth
of what make the missive figs grow
fat as a love word rounding a lip and finite
as the body addressed. No matter

how hard. If your name has lodged
like a sickle beak in a fist-body of fruit,
what do I answer to. I’m awake and a vehicle,
though not readily. I know because

what’s inside me takes off. How light
will my bones get, down in the plot, and
what company will they learn to keep.
Where will you be. Look, how morning’s

strange birds freak and stain like a smashed cup.
It’s a mourner’s reversal, and the dark just
pours up. See what’s left to see in this hollow,
it says, naming itself, nodding, refusing

to sleep. Or release. Or come home.

 

 

Lo Kwa Mei-en is the author of Yearling (Alice James Books, 2015), winner of the Kundiman Poetry Prize, and two chapbooks, The Romances (The Lettered Streets Press) and Two Tales (Bloom Books). She lives and works in Cincinnati.

Postscript by Seamus Heaney

Ah now. For his anniversary. And because it’s always a lovely thing to revisit a much loved poem. A few comments by himself about the writing of the poem too.

Seamus Heaney

Postscript
By Seamus Heaney

And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.

Postscript, the final poem in The Spirit Level, strikes me as just such a “surge of utterance”, a single burst of inspiration.Was that how it seemed at the time?

It was written quickly, yes, and I believe I sent it off almost immediately to The Irish Times. It could have been given a long Wordsworthian title, something like Memorial of a Tour by Motorcar with Friends in the West of Ireland, but that would misrepresent the sudden, speedy feel of it.

Now and again a poem comes like that, like a ball kicked in from nowhere: in this case, I was completely absorbed in writing one of the last of the Oxford lectures when I had this quick sidelong glimpse of something flying past; before I knew where I was, I went after it.

It came from remembering a windy Saturday afternoon when Marie and I drove with Brian and Anne Friel along the south coast of Galway Bay.

We had stopped to look at Mount Vernon, Lady Gregory’s summer house – still there, facing the waters and the wild; then we drove on into this glorious exultation of air and sea and swans. There are some poems that feel like guarantees of your work to yourself.

They leave you with a sensation of having been visited, and this was one of them. It excited me, and yet publishing it in The Irish Times was, as much as anything else, a way of sending a holiday postcard – a PS of sorts – to the Friels.

Ballynahinch Lake in Electric Light seems to have been conceived as a companion piece to Postscript. The lines declaring that this time, yes, it had indeed / Been useful to stop seem in dialogue with the earlier poem’s Useless to think you’ll park and capture it / More thoroughly”.

All true. Again, the second poem was written very soon after the experience it records – a Sunday morning in Connemara when we parked beside ‘the utter mountain mirrored in the lake’.

I suppose the poem is saying ‘find the mortal world enough’ – something that Postscript would find difficult to agree with.

An extract from Stepping Stones, Interviews with Seamus Heaney by Dennis O’Driscoll, published by Faber in 2008.

Postscript was first published in The Irish Times. From Opened Ground: Selected Poems 1966-1996 by Seamus Heaney. © 1998 by Seamus Heaney. Reprinted by permission of Faber and Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Nailing Wings to the Dead by Eleanor Hooker

One of the most haunting poets in Ireland today. (Sorry about the small pic – Google wouldn’t let me use any other images!)

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Since we nail

wings to the dead,

she calls ravens

from the sky

to inspect our work. “For flight,”

they say, “first remove their boots.”

 

She leans in,

inspects a fresh hex

behind my eyes,

takes my feet

and lays them on the fire,

to burn it out, roots first.

 

We’re the last,

babička and me.

We’ve survived on

chance and bread

baked from the last store of grain.

And as we’re out of both,

 

we will die soon.

They are gathering

in the well.

We disrobe.

She hums whilst I nail her wings,

she tells me a tale, her last gift —

 

“This dark stain,

passed kiss to kiss-stained

fevered mouth,

blights love, is pulsed

by death-watch beetle’s

tick, timing our decay.

 

They know this.

They wait by water,

gulping despair.

The ravens keep watch,

they say the contagion’s here,

they promise to take us first.”

 

Her tale done,

we go winged and naked

to the well.

We hear them

climbing the walls, caterwauling,

but ravens are swift, and swoop.