Poetry Friday: Anne Hathaway (Carol Ann Duffy)

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A favourite of mine – have studied it a lot with students and it’s always proclaimed the favourite at some point. I think I first came across it when teaching GCSE but it’s just as popular at A-level, perhaps more so because I think the students can understand some of the nuances of longing a little more by then.

Shakespeare famously left Anne Hathaway his “second best bed”, as Duffy uses for the inspiration in her epigraph – because, it’s widely assumed, the best bed was the one reserved for guests and so he’s leaving her the bed they shared together.

On first reading, the poem is a beautiful elegy to a writer, full of fantastical imagery and lyrical fairytales: the height of romantic description. It is slow, thoughtful, and ends sombrely – the “casket of my widow’s head” meaning she’s left with just her memories and imaginations (casket also having the dual meaning of both coffin and a box for the most precious of documents and possessions).

On a second reading, however, the poem becomes more than that – it’s an intensely private recollection of a relationship, loving one another in the most intimate moments. The way they touched, kissed, the sensation Anne expresses that she is only here now because she has become something more or other than herself as a result of his having touched her, as if he has brought her to life. It’s far more physical than the elusive “verb dancing in the centre of a noun” would suggest at first thought, and therein lies some of its appeal for me. It’s a poem that requires a second reading but doesn’t demand it. You can read this, think it’s lovely, and move on. But it rewards a second look.

 

Anne Hathaway
by Carol Ann Duffy from The World’s Wife

‘Item I gyve unto my wife my second best bed …’
(from Shakespeare’s will)

The bed we loved in was a spinning world
of forests, castles, torchlight, clifftops, seas
where we would dive for pearls. My lover’s words
were shooting stars which fell to earth as kisses
on these lips; my body now a softer rhyme
to his, now echo, assonance; his touch
a verb dancing in the centre of a noun.
Some nights, I dreamed he’d written me, the bed
a page beneath his writer’s hands. Romance
and drama played by touch, by scent, by taste.
In the other bed, the best, our guests dozed on,
dribbling their prose. My living laughing love –
I hold him in the casket of my widow’s head
as he held me upon that next best bed.

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Kindle publishing – the new slush pile?

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I’ve become a bit of a Womans Hour listener while on my summer holiday, and quite enjoy the mix of discussion that they have – plus I find Jenni Murray’s voice very soothing!!

I listened to one programme in particular, hosted actually by Kate Mosse whose books I love and which I found fascinating, about publishing. The programme’s described thus:

Author Kate Mosse interviews Woman’s Hour Power Lister Ursula Mackensie on her role as Chief Executive of Little, Brown and Lennie Goodings, Publisher at Virago. Are fewer women reaching the top in publishing in the digital age? Former publisher, now agent, Clare Alexander; author and chair of the Society of Authors Anne Sebba and Philip Jones, editor of the Bookseller join Kate to discuss. Peter Stothard, editor of the Times Literary Supplement and journalist and reviewer Alex Clark debate why books by men, reviewed by men, dominate the pages of newspapers and journals.

I might talk about the male-skewed statistics another day, but for the moment this tallied with a particularly harsh article I read here (thanks to The Parasite Guy for directing me to this interesting topic!). The article suggests that all indie authors are all terrible (they use stronger language than that) who can’t write, want a quick buck and think the world owes them a living. In the programme, Mosse asks whether the indie publishing so prevalent on Amazon in particular is ‘the slush pile in which we all started’. The R4 programme is pretty balanced, really – the participants agree that there is some rubbish out there, but they are surprisingly (to me) positive about the indie publishing experience and that it can be a very positive thing for authors.

I’ve just published a novella on Kindle – Balancing Act – and several short stories before that, and I think that self-publishing this way can be a very useful thing for a new author to do. It encourages you to write better – to thoroughly edit, to make sure that you’re telling the best story that you can so that people want to buy it. The power of having an audience – any audience – is an enormous confidence boost; for anyone suffering low self-esteem or the chronic fear of ‘is this good enough?’ it is brilliant to realise that people you don’t know are buying something that you wrote!

Building the habit of finishing

It can be a training ground. I wouldn’t suggest anyone published something that they thought was terrible, but I would suggest that people who want to write publish. Whether you send it to magazines for consideration or whether you e-publish, writers need the habit of finishing work to the best of their ability and putting it out there for other people instead of just leaving it on your hard drive. At the end of every project, you should feel that you have done something worthwhile. I also often feel that if I was going to start this project again, I could do better – but that’s where moving on to the next project is incredibly important, because otherwise you run the risk of starting and restarting, and never truly finishing anything.

There’s a lot of argument to be had about it, but I think it comes down to some key ideas:

Are indie authors all simply rubbish writers who can’t get a ‘proper’ publishing contract?

No. Of course not. There are some great indie authors who write powerful, interesting work that for one reason or another aren’t with a traditional publisher. Conversely, there are some terrible ones as well. That’s inevitable in any platform which is open access. But there are some traditional authors who aren’t that good as well – they might have fixed the typos but it might still be a bad book, or even just simply not to your taste.

So how does a reader find a good book?

In exactly the same way as with traditional publishing! You listen to who your friends are reading, you read reviews (magazines, newspapers, online) and see what other people think. You browse the top 100, whether of fiction in general or in a category that you particularly like, you look at the ‘people also bought’ at the bottom of the Amazon page.

Once you’re on an item’s page, Amazon is great for weeding out books you’re not interested in – in just the same way as you can browse in a bookshop, you can read the blurb, look at the cover and read the first few pages to see what you think. If the blurb sounds like a rough translation or is badly misspelled, or the formatting of the first few pages looks terrible, then don’t buy the book! But if you like the look of it, the first pages get your attention and you want to read more – well, then why would it matter if an editor likes it, as long as you do?

The programme is available here.

Review: The Winter Palace by Eve Stachniak

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The Winter Palace (A novel of the young Catherine the Great)

This novel is described as being the story of the young Catherine the Great, on her way to power in the Russian palace, playing at palace intrigue and alternately watched and helped by a spy, Varvara. Varvara came to the Russian court as an orphaned Polish child, left alone when her parents die. She starts in the wardrobe and then moves up to become spy of the Chancellor, gradually becoming more confident and self-reliant, until she befriends Catherine.

Russian Winter Palace

Russian Winter Palace

I don’t really know anything about Catherine the Great and I do agree with one of the reviews on the book itself that says this book sends you back to the history books – but this is also because I didn’t really learn anything about Catherine herself. As a novel of palace intrigue and spys believing themselves indispensable for those they work for, this was fairly standard and I didn’t enjoy it as much as Philippa Gregory‘s The Queen’s Foolwho is part-way between entertainer and spy.

The character of Varvara herself was interesting but again not quite as riveting as I’d hoped; I’m usually quite a fan of this historical fiction and can race through quite happily – this time I’m not sure I would have finished it if I hadn’t been on holiday and reading it over a couple of days. I just found the character a little flat, perhaps because she was looking back over her life rather than writing in the present tense, and there wasn’t a particular tension that she was in danger while all around her were characters who are threatened, imprisoned, etc.

I’d definitely like to read more about Russian history on the back of this book and it was an entertaining, unchallenging holiday read.

3/5

Review: Wide Sargasso Sea

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The prequel to Jane Eyre is often hailed a classic of post-colonial literature: does it live up to the name?

Wide Sargasso Sea cover

Wide Sargasso Sea cover

Wide Sargasso Sea (Penguin Modern Classics) is the story of Bertha Mason, Rochester’s unfortunate wife who ends up locked in the attic at Thornfield, a ghostly presence tormenting Jane – and Rochester – throughout the book. According to the student edition (an excellent version for anyone interested in studying this text) Jean Rhys disliked the way that Charlotte Bronte had demonised her character from the West Indies, and thought that her presentation suggested racism endemic in the British Empire. To an extent, I can see that – the fact that this madwoman in the attic, Jane’s unhinged double, is from the West Indies does suggest a discomfort with otherness and being different. On the other hand, it is perhaps because Bertha is from the West Indies that Rochester is able to marry her and then treat her the way he does; she has no protection, especially once she reaches England.

Rhys’s story is complex – for a relatively short novella, she employs a lot that readers and writers would find interesting. Told over three perspectives – Bertha, Rochester and Grace Poole – Rhys explores how Bertha (renamed as Antoinette by Rhys) and Rochester get married, and then Bertha’s gradual mental decline. I found it very confusing; Antoinette’s narrative is incomplete, hiding ideas, emotions and events, sometimes deliberately and sometimes because Antoinette herself is unaware full of what she is telling us.

I think, as with Jack Maggs, I didn’t enjoy it as much because it came with that weight of expectation alongside it. While I empathise with Rhys’s suggestion of colonial racism, I found that her portrayal of Bertha Mason didn’t really solve that problem. I did find it interesting that Rochester renames her – and silly as it sounds, I never really thought before about the fact that she is referred to as Mason, rather than Rochester. It’s still not her own name, which Rhys gives her, but it is not Rochester’s either, and I do find that interesting.

The Rochester Rhys sees is not quite the one I was expecting, and this again is perhaps because Rhys is exploring why he becomes the way he is in Jane Eyre I didn’t really get from this an explanation of why he married, or why he then locked her away – which I think is more sympathetically dealt with in Jane Eyre, but again I suppose that is the point. He was cruel at times, which tallies with Bronte’s Rochester – he can be quite callous and play games which have potential to hurt those involved. He doesn’t demonstrate the emotion or empathy I would have liked; I always felt that Bronte’s Rochester was damaged because he had been tricked and trapped in a marriage that went disastrously wrong, but I did think that ultimately he was doing the best he could for Bertha within the confines of what he would do. Locking her away was not, to my mind, intended as punishment; he says himself he could have sent her far worse places and keeping her in the family home, looked after, is actually quite a responsible thing to do.

 

Overall, I quite enjoyed the idea of Wide Sargasso Sea – I always like to imagine what has caused a character to be how they are when we meet them, and what happens next. I found myself being distracted by the structure – great for those studying A Level Victorian literature but not so great for getting involved in character! – and didn’t really get as much of a sense of character development as I would have liked. Interesting, but probably not one to return to over and over as with Jane Eyre.

 

3/5

The Fault in Our Stars

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Buy at Amazon

John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars was recommended by a sixth form student, who said reading it had changed her life. Any book that can be that influential is worth reading, so I downloaded it to my kindle as soon as I got home. It coincided with a Times article about how this ‘nerd’ had become a teen-lit favourite, and I’d watched his ted-talk about Paper Towns (the title of one of his books) and how online education has the potential to change the world (he is apparently also a prolific vlogger, having tutored his brother in maths, I think, and put all the tutorials online and continued) – a topic for my other blog, perhaps.

I liked it quite a lot; it grew on me as I read it, definitely. The protagonist, Hazel, is suffering from a severe cancer which is, for the moment, under control, and meets a fellow cancer-patient, Augustus, at a support group her mother makes her go to.  There’s a lot of potential for tragedy in this book, and Green doesn’t really pull the punches – there’s no miracles in this novel; I get the impression he’s not interested in the easy way out, but the hard questions.

A literary mind

One of the things I loved about this book was its attitude to literature; Hazel is obsessed with a book, about a girl her age who has cancer, and her urge to find out what happens after the end of the book is one of the major quests of the novel. Hazel is an incredibly literate protagonist and her narrative is filled with references to poetry and novels. Of the book with which she’s obsessed, she says:

Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book. And then there are books like An Imperial Affliction, which you can’t tell people about, books so special and rare and yours that advertising your affection feels like a betrayal

I have a book like that – The Sparrow – which I am constantly torn between buying for everyone I know, and being reluctant to give it to them in case they don’t like it and we can’t be friends anymore. I wonder if in some way this novel also reflects Green’s own literary evangelism – there are so many literary references that I ended up highlighting lots in my kindle and going in search of the poetry – and finding some glorious things as a result.

Green also questions what a novel itself should be:

This comment, however, leads me to wonder: What do you mean by meant? Given the final futility of our struggle, is the fleeting jolt of meaning that art gives us valuable? Or is the only value in passing the time as comfortably as possible? What should a story seek to emulate, Augustus? A ringing alarm? A call to arms? A morphine drip? Of course, like all interrogation of the universe, this line of inquiry inevitably reduces us to asking what it means to be human and whether—to borrow a phrase from the angst-encumbered sixteen-year-olds you no doubt revile—there is a point to it all.

He is gutsy, certainly – I love literature that seeks to explore and challenge itself, that wants to produce something with depth and layers to be discovered. And on top of this, there is some beautiful writing where you just think: yes. I think teenage fiction should be this challenging.

As he read, I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once.

What I love about this sentence is the way that it is just something everyone can relate to, that slow nodding towards sleep where you’re still fully aware of being awake but that any moment you won’t be. That there is no ‘in between’ – you’re either asleep or awake, in love or not, but there is a moment when you just become aware that you’re on your way, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.

So, what are the flaws?

Green makes some fairly obvious choices, but they are all rationalised and clearly explored, so they don’t feel too out of place. I found Hazel’s voice slightly irritating at first, but I suspect that is because it is very teenage. She uses ‘like’, like, a lot, and doesn’t always allow to breathe. But once you let the narrative become dialogue, it becomes much more fluent and I did find the contrast between this and the intricate literary musings quite intriguing. She reminded me of some of the students I teach, who speak in quite a straightforward, stereotypically teenage way with fillers, false starts and slang, and then will come out with a profound commentary on the nature of Fitzgerald and Elliot. Several of Green’s critics seem to think that his protagonists speak in a very unrealistic way; I disagree.

Conclusion

The novel didn’t change my life, but I did finish it very quickly because I thought it was excellent. Novels which challenge, with a thorough emotional experience, always interest me beyond the closing of the pages,and this definitely did that.

Also read:

http://metatfios.tumblr.com/ – an exploration, or at least definition, of the literary allusions in the novel

http://johngreenbooks.com/ – John Green’s website, with his vlogs

 

4/5

 

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table;

The Semi-Colon

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ImageI was reading James Scott Bell’s Writing Fiction for All You’re Worth: Strategies and Techniques for Taking Your Fiction to the Next Level on my holiday (excellent – the only sunny week of the summer and we were in Kent!) and came across these comments:

“Do not use semi-colons. They are tranvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.” – Kurt Vonnegut

“For non-fiction, essays and scholarly writing, the semi-colon does serve a purpose; I’ve used them myself. In such writing you’re often stringing lots of thoughts together for a larger purpose and the semi-colon allows you to clue the reader in on this move. But in fiction, you want each sentence to stand on its own, boldly. The semi-colon is an invitation to pause, to think twice, to look around in different directions and wonder where the heck you’e going. Do you want that? Or do you want your story to move?”

Writing Fiction for All You’re Worth (James Scott Bell)

They struck me as strange. I understand Bell’s point to some extent – the semi-colon is an invitation to pause. I teach it to students as being a connection between two related sentences; a sort of glue that indicates to the reader to pause a moment and then have some linked point or explanation given to them. And I have to teach it because it’s a key piece of punctuation and it’s specifically mentioned on the GCSE English Language syllabus – students get marks for using it, and colons, effectively. So they have to use it. Why the semi-colon in particular, I’m not sure – and not sure that it should be required so specifically rather than the vaguer ‘accurate and imaginative use of ambitious punctuation’ which would require a bit more ingenuity, and a bit more inventiveness to use. Like Michael Rosen says – Semi-colons, semi-colonists, anti-semi-colonists – you can quite happily get by in life without it, but there’s no reasons to either elevate it or reject it entirely.

But the idea that you shouldn’t use it because it invites a pause made me, well, pause! I guess the point really is that you should use it when it’s needed or adds to the tone you want to get across. It’s not, as Vonnegut (above) and an Independent article suggested, a way to show yourself to be educated:

In English, there are not such tightly formed rules about the use of punctuation as there are in most European languages. A writer who uses the semi-colon well and expressively singles himself out as a skilful and accomplished craftsman.

Or at least, it shouldn’t be, GCSE exams aside. A semi-colon adds colour, adds information and detail. Sure, you can write these as simple, separate sentences. But that doesn’t automatically speed up the writing. Short sentences can speed or slow as you wish, depending on the words you’ve chosen to include. A series of short sentences with sibilance (a repeated ‘s’ sound) would likely sound faster than one with an alliterative ‘pr’ – the former is easier to say, and because it lacks the percussive nature of the ‘pr’ would feel quicker. It depends on what you’re trying to achieve. When you want a lengthy, languid description, a semi-colon here and there would be useful:

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” Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ’prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds.”

Bleak House (Penguin Classics)
Charles Dickens (1852-53)

Dickens has a real variety – the short sentence ‘fog everywhere’ could be enough in a thriller or action novel. But here, we want the description so that you really feel what it’s like to be inside that fog – and so he explores it further. If there weren’t semi-colons, you’d likely end up with something far more separated – it wouldn’t have that rolling quality that echoes the very movement of the fog itself. Of course, that’s a completely different tone to that which Bell is going for.

Looking online, the first use of a semi-colon in printing seems to have been around 1494, according to Lynne Truss’s book Eats, Shoots and Leaves. More recently, news articles are questioning whether the use of emoticons has killed the semi-colon. It seems to be something which riles people up – prescriptivists arguing that you should keep the semi-colon as being twice the pause of a comma, and those who say it should be banned entirely because it’s useless and people can’t use it well.

Oatmeal comic on how to use a semi-colon

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