ON POETRY, WRITING AND RANDOM CULTURAL MATTERS

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Paris Lit Up - Open Mic

A bright, shiny, new Open Mic night will start in Paris on 21 February - details here - you'd be mad to miss it

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Writing Workshop - Journeys - with Sylvia Plath

My next Writing Workshop for Paris Lit Up is next Sunday, 3 February, at 12h30 in the Library at Shakespeare and Company. The theme is Journeys. Ahead of that, let's take a look at one of Sylvia Plath's poems and here's a suggestion to write something in response.

In Ariel, Plath's poem Totem, is a journey of a less literal kind. Deceptively it starts on a railway line running through countryside, but from the beginning this life metaphor is unstintingly visceral and threatening: 'The engine is eating the track' and 'the farmers like pigs....(have) blood on their minds'. Indeed the poem is soaked in the red stuff from 'the butcher's gullotine' and the aborted hare to Plato's afterbirth, Christ blood and so on: 'the world is blood-hot and personal'. She returns to the travel imagery towards the end of the poem:

'There is no terminus, only suitcases

Out of which the same self unfolds like a suit
Bald and shiny, with pockets of wishes,

Notions and tickets, short circuits and folding mirrors.'

Mirrors again - a Plath trope. It's a frighteningly uncompromising vision of life's journey and the tied nature of existence:

 '...blue children
In nets of the infinite,

Roped in at the end by the one
Death with its many sticks' 

culminating with death in its last line.

Me and the girls, Bryce Canyon, Utah, 2003.
Here's the writing challenge: think of a mode of transport (there are plenty to choose from Shank's pony to parachutes, sailing ships to skateboards, and bicycles to balloons) that represents or could represent your life journey and use its imagery and specialist vocabulary to say something(s) about either your life so far, the life you plan to have in the future, or the life you wish you'd had in the first place. Enjoy and Good Luck.

Saturday, 26 January 2013

Presiding Spirit 2013: Sylvia Plath


It’s a doldrum day at the slow turning of the year. It’s pouring with rain again and I am not talking the dog out in a gale. Instead I lift a slim volume of verse from my shelves. It’s one of my most precious books: a first edition of Ariel by Sylvia Plath: red hard back, simple gold lettering, edges slightly browned, pages dark cream, forty poems dedicated to her children, Frieda and Nicholas. I bought it more than twenty years ago. It doesn’t have a dust jacket and so it’s monetary value, a knowledgeable poetry bookseller told me recently, is less than it would be if it had, but I don’t care.

Its worth is inside, in those marvelous poems she left on her desk in February 1963 and which Faber published in 1965, after some reshuffling of the order by Ted Hughes. A restored edition was published in 2007 and makes for fascinating comparison. Fifty years after her death, I am reading her again for the umpteenth time. It’s a little pilgrimage. It’s disturbing, but comfortably familiar. That’s why she’s my this year’s  Presiding Spirit.
Over the coming twelve months you will find articles, essays and readings on this page on Plath. Please check back often and leave a comment on the writings you find here. If you would like to contribute to this project, you are most welcome.
The opening poem of Ariel is Morning Song, a poem of a mother’s anxiety at night, listening to her sleeping child waiting for the sound that requires her response:
‘One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and floral
In my Victorian nightgown.
Your mouth opens clean as a cat’s.’
But it is much more than this as it starts and ends with the child claiming its voice: ‘The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry/Took its place among the elements.’; ‘And now you try/Your handful of notes;/The clear vowels rise like balloons.’ The skill of Plath here is to have at one and the same time an ordinary register of language, the matter of factness of the mid-wife’s action and the child’s vocalisation, coupled with the extraordinary in idea of our voices joining the elements and the strange simile of vowels rising like balloons. The image of the breast-feeding mother as ‘cow-heavy’ has stayed with me. I think it was one of the first things I’d found for myself that alerted me to the exciting possibilities of language and its physicality when I was a teenager. It’s simple, all the best ideas are.
In the tradition of reading the first and last poems in a book in order to decide whether it is any good; a habit which many people have and might be borne in mind when ordering a collection for publication, let’s look at the final poem, Words. It’s short, but full of complex imagery that begins with a startling one word line ‘Axes’ and goes on to celebrate the felling of a tree for the sound of the wood ringing and echoing ‘off from the centre like horses’, another thought-provoking simile; and for the sap that wells up like water ‘striving/To re-establish its mirror/Over the rock'. Mirrors are a frequent Plath image and I have already written about that in an earlier post - scroll down. Words then become ‘hoof-taps’ echoing the earlier horse image, but in the end ‘dry and riderless’, while the finality of the poem’s last lines is a depressing expression of pre-determinism: ‘From the bottom of the pool, fixed stars/ Govern a life.’
In between these two poems you will find some of her most famous work such as Lady Lazarus, Tulips and Daddy. To finish this first introductory piece, just a short note, again by way of welcome, to the four bee poems, as this is a current topic in certainly British poetry with a least two collections having been published on it in the last year (Carol Ann Duffy’s The Bees and Sean Borrowdale’s Bee Journal).
The Bee Meeting is a longer narrative poem on the opening of hives to locate and remove newly-hatched queens, where Plath’s existential position is as questioning outsider, at first improperly dressed: ‘I am nude as a chicken neck’ and perplexed as to what is going on: ‘Is it some operation that is taking place?’, but never comfortable, even down to the final lines: ‘Whose is that long white box in the grove, what have they accomplished, why am I cold.’
The Arrival of the Bee Box is more than an empty super: ‘...the coffin of a midget/Or a square baby’, as it is locked, dangerous and swarming with bees. This time properly attired (she is learning) in her ‘moon suit and funeral veil’ she considers whether to open the box. A kind of modern day Pandora, she hopes they will ignore her as she is ‘no source of honey’ and resolves the dilemma of action in the poem: ‘Tomorrow I will be sweet God, I will set them free. / The box is only temporary.’ Again control over life and death is worked though in this piece as Plath describes herself as both god and Caesar.
Stings is for me a very powerful poem, set at honey harvest and involving the scraping of the frames for extraction. The stand-out sentiment is contained in these adamant lines:
‘I am no drudge
Though for years I have eaten dust
And dried plates with my dense hair.’
and the elision of the poet with the queen bee at the poem’s close: ‘...I/Have a self to recover, a queen.’
In Wintering extracted honey is perfectly described as ‘six cat’s eyes in the wine cellar’, an otherwise forbidding place of blackness and decay for Plath that echoes the danger the all female bees are in as regards their survival, living as they have to on replacement honey (sugar) ‘the refined snow’. It ends on a positive note: ‘The bees are flying. They taste the spring.’ Thus the year turns. Have a very happy 2013.

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Paris in the Snow

Is there anything more beautiful than early morning snow, the city quiet, just a few kids kicking up the soft flakes and trying to build a snow man, and a crow in search of food. This is the Place des Vosges an hour ago.






Thursday, 17 January 2013

Dali at the Pompidou

The metamorphosis of Narcissus

Huge block buster of a show - allow at least two hours if you don't want to watch the films and much, much longer if you do. I recommend a comfort break before you go in. There wasn't much of a queue when I went last Sunday. I had not booked tickets in advance and only had to stand around for about half an hour to get in. The good thing about waiting for an exhibition on a cold day at the Pompidou is that there's a great view of Paris to be had and when you are bored with that read your book (you always carry one of those don't you?) or the exhibition leaflet that the staff helpfully hand out to the line. It's available in French and English, so just ask.



What of the exhibition itself? Well, it's Dali, no introduction needed and it's all of Dali: a massive retrospective of over a hundred canvasses, as well as sketches, books, sculpture and films. There was a lot of work that I had never seen before. If it isn't from London or New York that will always be the case for me. So, I enjoyed discovering the white lobster phone (above) as I've only ever seen the red one in Tate Modern, plus all the paintings on the horrors of war (Spanish civil and World), which make for unsettling viewing. And there's all the usual stuff - dripping clocks, ants, narcissi.

The most annoying moment was provided by some rather young people (not that it is their fault they are young) whose inane comments about it all being 'cool and dreamy' (no, really?) got right up my nose. Still...call me old, intolerant, whatever.

Macbeth - detail of one of the witches (typical of me to chose that!)


It was good to see Dali's theatre sets and those film collaborations with Brunel. I even enjoyed making my own surreal photo from a cunningly put together set. This was not just for the kiddies. (Note: you can take some photographs of some of the work). And by the way, I'm not sure I'd want to answer the kind of questions children ask when confronted with rather graphic work.



My overwhelming impression was of two things - just how great a technician Dali was - his landscapes are perfect in their geomorphological detail - really look at the rocks and you'll see what I mean; and deconstruction of the body and its reconstruction into another image - quite brilliant. Check for yourself. If you think surrealism is a license to be silly, you're missing the point. 13 Euros well spent and I am glad I ignored all the nay-sayers who simply don't get Dali.

For more go here before 25 March.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Museum of European Photography

Sometimes I amaze myself at how slow I am to actually go and see things in Paris that are literally on my door step, especially if they are things I am really interested in, like photography. This Museum is in St Paul, 4eme (i.e my 'hood) is in a lovely building which combines 18th century and modern architecture. The front court yard has a gorgeous Zen gravel garden of black and white raked gravel with a lovely glass sculpture.

On at the moment is a huge survey exhibition of French photography from the last fifty years: many iconic images and much of them familiar, but worthy of close inspection  Do visit if snapping is your thing.

Costs 7 Euros plein tariff. No queues. Well stocked book shop. Check it out.

Details here: http://www.mep-fr.org/us/

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Mirror Mirror on the Wall

The object speaks in Sylvia Plath’s Mirror[1][2] 

Most readers spend a lot of time stating the obvious about this poem. Yes, it’s about a woman coming to terms with or not coming to terms with the inevitable process of ageing. But we don’t get to that until the last few lines and that wonderfully startling final image of her face rising ‘like a terrible fish’.

For now I am much more interested in who’s doing the talking[3]. The mirror not the woman is the ‘I’ of this poem and that’s interesting. In the first nine lines of this eighteen line poem i.e. half of it (the whole of the first stanza), it explains itself – silver, exact, without preconceptions, truthful – and how it exists ‘Most of the time I meditate on the opposite wall’. All of this, even it metaphorically turning into a lake, is before the woman appears. And the mirror carries on talking. Why? Why give voice to an inanimate object?

I suppose much of the answer lies in the project of poetry to say things in interesting, unusual and surprising ways. It would be a dull poem if all it was about was a woman looking in a mirror and saying to herself something like “oh dear I am getting old, as in old trout” (if you’ll pardon the pun and reductio ad absurdum). Plath finds another way of doing this and makes the exchange between woman and mirror something active as the mirror has a voice and personality and knows its importance to the woman, even if it mourns its position of neglect.

Granted it is not the knowing mirror of Snow White, but it does reflect faithfully and does not predict. It is not cruel and has no prejudices. It does not produce flattering light like the lying candle and moon, but it does have a sense of grandeur and power (‘a little god’). Nor is it passive as the exchange involves the mirror actively swallowing and drowning the younger woman and being rewarded by her tears and ‘agitation of hands’.

The technique of voicing allows Plath to think about the mirror-iness of mirrors, to explore what they are in essence, how they function and what they represent in our lives; a kind of meditation if you will. It’s a way of getting below the surface of things and thinking more deeply about them; a self-reflection.

You can try this for yourself and it’s an oft-used workshop exercise. Find an object of significance, it can be anything, and ask yourself what it wants to say, what’s its story, character, attitude, interaction with you? Now give it voice and write in the first person. It sounds bonkers, but actually it’s a lot of fun and if done really well, might even rival Plath’s great poem. Good Luck.



[1] Written 1961. Published in Crossing the Water, 1971.
[2] As the poem seems to be widely available everywhere on the internet, please search it out or better still buy a book with it in it as the poem itself is not reproduced in this article.
[3] There are lots of different critical approaches one might take with this poem from the feminist to the psycho-analytical, but they are not my focus here.

Mindful Writing 2013

And we're off and kicking - go to the Work - Mindful Writing 2013 page daily if you would like to read the fruits of this year's challenge. Happy New Year.