Poetry Friday: Mirror (Sylvia Plath)

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Sylvia Plath’s poem is heart-rending to anyone who’s ever struggled with self-image, literally disliking what they see in the mirror in front of them or with their perception of themselves. When she calls the mirror a “little god”, she’s absolutely right in the petty yet all-consuming obsession that can result from putting too much faith in your perception of the reflection rather than trying to see the ‘truth’ – whatever that might be. It can be destroying, looking at your reflection and seeing what you think is less than what it should be, whether you struggle with body consciousness, weight, not being able to get your hair right, or whatever – it’s never as trivial as it sounds to someone else, and can be horrifyingly oppressive.

Plath’s mirror claims to reflect “faithfully” while the woman herself reaches for “candles or the moon”, trying to change her reflection and dim what she sees – but I think there’s enough language at the beginning – “swallow”, the protestations it’s “not cruel” – to suggest that she’s aware at least in part that what she sees is not necessarily truthful after all. The woman returns over and over, watching her young self “drown” not just in age, but in dislike of herself too.

Mirror

I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.
What ever you see I swallow immediately
Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.
I am not cruel, only truthful—
The eye of a little god, four-cornered.
Most of the time I meditate on the opposite wall.
It is pink, with speckles. I have looked at it so long
I think it is a part of my heart. But it flickers.
Faces and darkness separate us over and over.

Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me,
Searching my reaches for what she really is.
Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon.
I see her back, and reflect it faithfully.
She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands.
I am important to her. She comes and goes.
Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness.
In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman
Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.

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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.

Poetry Friday: Glory of Women

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I loved my A-level English class. A really great group, I have fantastic memories of discussion in a room that I probably remember as smaller than it really was, and the way my teacher made everything both absolutely clear and made me think at the same time! One of the novels we read was Pat Barker’s Regeneration, which was wonderful. The story of Dr Rivers, who worked at a mental hospital called Craiglockhart during WWI, and treated during his time there patients including Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen – it was where the two met.

I found the breadth of masculine relationships in the novel fascinating, and have returned to the novel repeatedly, including studying at university and reading it many times since. I love the way that Rivers interacts with Sassoon and with another patient, Prior, and the way Sassoon mentors Owen – sometimes rather brutally!

Sassoon’s deep conflict about the war comes through in this poem, I think. He does, in Regeneration, try to reconcile the government’s instructions and his patriotism with the unrelenting horrors of war and the massacres he witnesses on a daily basis. In this poem, the bitterness is evident as he blames everyone at home for their insistence on triumph, seemingly at any cost and ignoring the price being paid across the water. Then, he twists again by addressing German mothers: he’s deeply resentful of both sides of this conflict, and sympathetic towards soldiers in both trenches.

Glory of Women

You love us when we’re heroes, home on leave,
Or wounded in a mentionable place.
You worship decorations; you believe
That chivalry redeems the war’s disgrace.
You make us shells. You listen with delight,
By tales of dirt and danger fondly thrilled.
You crown our distant ardours while we fight,
And mourn our laurelled memories when we’re killed.
You can’t believe that British troops ‘retire’
When hell’s last horror breaks them, and they run,
Trampling the terrible corpses–blind with blood.
O German mother dreaming by the fire,
While you are knitting socks to send your son
His face is trodden deeper in the mud.

Siegfried Sassoon

Poetry Friday: Porphyria’s Lover

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This is a poem I use at school for various things, from teaching pathetic fallacy to a comparison with Much Ado About Nothing’s view of women. The gothic tragedy of it has always appealed to me, from the sullen spiteful wind tearing down the elm trees just because it can, to the final, haunting image of the couple sitting together at the end.

I always find students’ responses very interesting to it as well – it’s not really my intention to talk much about my day job here, but I think it’s fascinating how in whichever class I’ve used it with there’s always a majority who are shocked and appalled, and just one or two, no more, who think that it’s the most romantic thing they’ve ever read. Is that a failure of feminism, or simply a teenage girl’s interpretation of romantic passion? I think I probably would have thought similarly when I was younger – although I probably would have taken the view that to be the lover left alive was the most tragic outcome. Now, I see it very differently, but I still love the imagery that this poem has and the way that the speaker gradually disassociates himself from both his actions and Porphyria by referring to her as somehow less than human. It’s dark, creepy and fantastical, and it’s one that stays with you, which is what I love about poetry.

 

 

Porphyria’s Lover

THE rain set early in to-night,
    The sullen wind was soon awake,
It tore the elm-tops down for spite,
    And did its worst to vex the lake:
    I listen’d with heart fit to break.
When glided in Porphyria; straight
    She shut the cold out and the storm,
And kneel’d and made the cheerless grate
    Blaze up, and all the cottage warm;
    Which done, she rose, and from her form
Withdrew the dripping cloak and shawl,
    And laid her soil’d gloves by, untied
Her hat and let the damp hair fall,
    And, last, she sat down by my side
    And call’d me. When no voice replied,
She put my arm about her waist,
    And made her smooth white shoulder bare,
And all her yellow hair displaced,
    And, stooping, made my cheek lie there,
    And spread, o’er all, her yellow hair,
Murmuring how she loved me—she
    Too weak, for all her heart’s endeavour,
To set its struggling passion free
    From pride, and vainer ties dissever,
    And give herself to me for ever.
But passion sometimes would prevail,
    Nor could to-night’s gay feast restrain
A sudden thought of one so pale
    For love of her, and all in vain:
    So, she was come through wind and rain.
Be sure I look’d up at her eyes
    Happy and proud; at last I knew
Porphyria worshipp’d me; surprise
    Made my heart swell, and still it grew
    While I debated what to do.
That moment she was mine, mine, fair,
    Perfectly pure and good: I found
A thing to do, and all her hair
    In one long yellow string I wound
    Three times her little throat around,
And strangled her. No pain felt she;
    I am quite sure she felt no pain.
As a shut bud that holds a bee,
    I warily oped her lids: again
    Laugh’d the blue eyes without a stain.
And I untighten’d next the tress
    About her neck; her cheek once more
Blush’d bright beneath my burning kiss:
    I propp’d her head up as before,
    Only, this time my shoulder bore
Her head, which droops upon it still:
    The smiling rosy little head,
So glad it has its utmost will,
    That all it scorn’d at once is fled,
    And I, its love, am gain’d instead!
Porphyria’s love: she guess’d not how
    Her darling one wish would be heard.
And thus we sit together now,
    And all night long we have not stirr’d,
    And yet God has not said a word!

Robert Browning

Poetry Friday: Bright Star

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One of the interesting things about collecting poetry from staff for National Poetry Day last week was that the majority of poems had a meaning from childhood. They were ems studied at school, that they had been made to learn by heart or that they remembered being read to in a classroom. It made me think a little about the poetry that I expose my students to. Is it always something that I think will have this kind of resonance? Is it poetry that I think should have some wider echo in their lives, become a ‘gobbet’ as Hector in The History Boys puts it – or is it a poem that I chose because it has an interesting example of a metaphor and that’s what I want them to learn today. There is space for both, I think, and it made me consider a little more how I choose the poetry I teach.

Today’s poem is one I was taught. Keats was on the a level syllabus, and we worked out way through most if the poems. My copy is diligently covered in notes, underlinings and comments. I loved this one from the first time I read it. It’s not by any means the most complex of the poetry we read, but I think it sounds beautiful – peaceful, calm and contemplative.

Bright Star
Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art —
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like Nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors —
No — yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft swell and fall,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever — or else swoon to death.

Poetry Friday: Eurydice

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As it was National Poetry Day yesterday, I asked colleagues at work for their favourite poems and stuck them up around the building. It’s been really great seeing what choices people make – I’ve read some poems I’ve never heard of before, re-read some gorgeous ones, and remembered some from when I was little that either people remember or they read with their children It’s also been fascinating when people have given me reasons for their choices. A lot of the time it’s been something they studied at school or something that they had to memorise (not something we do very much of now!) but I love the fact that these poems have stayed with them and I think it’s part of my responsibility to  make sure that the poetry I do with students has some of that resonance.

Below is a fairly lengthy poem  that was one of the choices – it’s one I first read at university when I took a modern American poetry unit, trying to explore poetry more because it wasn’t something I felt very confident with but wanted to enjoy more. Ironically, I still feel that way! Despite spending a lot of time analysing poetry I’ve spent very little writing it; one of my goals is to writer more poetry because it really makes you focus on language. When every word counts, you have to find precisely the right one.

I didn’t really get much of the unit’s poetry – I think we studied some Robert Frost that I quite liked, some Wallace and some e.e.cummings which I didn’t really. And this. We read a few works by HD (Hilda Doolittle) and I loved the imagery of it. The colours she uses here are some of my favourite, so vivid and real. More than that, though, I love the tone of this – the Eurydice myth is so enticing and has been reinvented by many writers, but I adore the way that HD makes Eurydice’s voice both angry and plaintive at the same time. Her repeated questioning of Orpheus, her phrasing “yet for your arrogance” is masterful, growing in frustration and anger, but I always imagine this being spoken in a very controlled, shaking under the surface voice where Eurydice is determined to have her voice, finally, heard.

The Carol Ann Duffy poem has a similar idea, that of giving Eurydice the opportunity to tell her side of the story, but I prefer  HD’s – Duffy’s is too arch, too knowing and smug herself (as I find several of her characters in The World’s Wife) but HD’s version is simply trying to explain to Orpheus the terrible mistake he has made in coming for her.

Eurydice

H. D.

I
So you have swept me back,
I who could have walked with the live souls
above the earth,
I who could have slept among the live flowers
at last;
so for your arrogance
and your ruthlessness
I am swept back
where dead lichens drip
dead cinders upon moss of ash;
so for your arrogance
I am broken at last,
I who had lived unconscious,
who was almost forgot;
if you had let me wait
I had grown from listlessness
into peace,
if you had let me rest with the dead,
I had forgot you
and the past.
                               II
Here only flame upon flame
and black among the red sparks,
streaks of black and light
grown colourless;
why did you turn back,
that hell should be reinhabited
of myself thus
swept into nothingness?
why did you glance back?
why did you hesitate for that moment?
why did you bend your face
caught with the flame of the upper earth,
above my face?
what was it that crossed my face
with the light from yours
and your glance?
what was it you saw in my face?
the light of your own face,
the fire of your own presence?
What had my face to offer
but reflex of the earth,
hyacinth colour
caught from the raw fissure in the rock
where the light struck,
and the colour of azure crocuses
and the bright surface of gold crocuses
and of the wind-flower,
swift in its veins as lightning
and as white.
                               III
Saffron from the fringe of the earth,
wild saffron that has bent
over the sharp edge of earth,
all the flowers that cut through the earth,
all, all the flowers are lost;
everything is lost,
everything is crossed with black,
black upon black
and worse than black,
this colourless light.
                               IV
Fringe upon fringe
of blue crocuses,
crocuses, walled against blue of themselves,
blue of that upper earth,
blue of the depth upon depth of flowers,
lost;
flowers,
if I could have taken once my breath of them,
enough of them,
more than earth,
even than of the upper earth,
had passed with me
beneath the earth;
if I could have caught up from the earth,
the whole of the flowers of the earth,
if once I could have breathed into myself
the very golden crocuses
and the red,
and the very golden hearts of the first saffron,
the whole of the golden mass,
the whole of the great fragrance,
I could have dared the loss.
                              V
So for your arrogance
and your ruthlessness
I have lost the earth
and the flowers of the earth,
and the live souls above the earth,
and you who passed across the light
and reached
ruthless;
you who have your own light,
who are to yourself a presence,
who need no presence;
yet for all your arrogance
and your glance,
I tell you this:
such loss is no loss,
such terror, such coils and strands and pitfalls
of blackness,
such terror
is no loss;
hell is no worse than your earth
above the earth,
hell is no worse,
no, nor your flowers
nor your veins of light
nor your presence,
a loss;
my hell is no worse than yours
though you pass among the flowers and speak
with the spirits above earth.
                               VI
Against the black
I have more fervour
than you in all the splendour of that place,
against the blackness
and the stark grey
I have more light;
and the flowers,
if I should tell you,
you would turn from your own fit paths
toward hell,
turn again and glance back
and I would sink into a place
even more terrible than this.
                              VII
At least I have the flowers of myself,
and my thoughts, no god
can take that;
I have the fervour of myself for a presence
and my own spirit for light;
and my spirit with its loss
knows this;
though small against the black,
small against the formless rocks,
hell must break before I am lost;
before I am lost,
hell must open like a red rose
for the dead to pass.

Poetry Friday: The Hug

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Next week is National Poetry Day. I’ve been gathering some poems from colleagues, partly for display and partly for a quiz for students – am thinking kind of a treasure hunt, though not sure about encouraging them to maraud around the school 😉

I probably won’t put this one in (I’m not sure which I’ll choose yet!) but I love reading it with sixth form as part of the Love through the Ages unit. This, to me, is love. It’s creeping into bed with a lover with whom you’re so familiar that you just fit, every inch.  It’s pressing together because you just need that close contact and can’t get enough of one another – as he says, not sex, but togetherness. It’s quiet, and peaceful, secure and long-lasting, not with the fleeting passion of lust but an altogether more fulfilling passion. Some students argue that it lacks passion – I think, as a teenager, I probably would have felt the same and I know my impression of what is important in a relationship has changed dramatically since then – since even five years ago. Yet I don’t think that this poem lacks passion. The “full length”, “strength…braced…locking me to you” speaks to me of a deep need for one another that is fulfilled in their embrace.

What would your favourite poem be for National Poetry Day?

The Hug

It was your birthday, we had drunk and dined
Half of the night with our old friend
Who’d showed us in the end
To a bed I reached in one drunk stride.
Already I lay snug,
And drowsy with the wine dozed on one side.

I dozed, I slept. My sleep broke on a hug,
Suddenly, from behind,
In which the full lengths of our bodies pressed:
Your instep to my heel,
My shoulder-blades against your chest.
It was not sex, but I could feel
The whole strength of your body set,
Or braced, to mine,
And locking me to you
As if we were still twenty-two
When our grand passion had not yet
Become familial.
My quick sleep had deleted all
Of intervening time and place.
I only knew
The stay of your secure firm dry embrace

– Thomas Gunn