I remember read…

I remember reading Sylvia Plath’s ‘Mushrooms’ back in 1991.  At the time, I did not know anything about her, even though I knew who Ted Hughes was at that time.  It was taught to us as a sort of ‘meek inheriting the earth’-themed work.    I think that may be true for that poem, but when I read some of her other poems,  I find a conflict between triumph and destruction.  There is this desire to overcome, to triumph, but it is limited by mortality. 


Plath wrote three connected poems which when literally read, involve the practice of beekeeping.  In her poem, ‘Stings,’ the tone exudes magnificence not only among the new colony of bees, but also with the beekeeper and the speaker.  Their exposed skin is described with  a floral delicacy (‘The throats of our wrists brave lilies’).  The coating of the combs is compared to a piece of china (the pink teacup, being a common sight in the UK).    The speaker is uncertain of just how she impacts the lives of the bees.  She compares herself with the workers, as the worker bees are female (males are drones).  She does not identify herself as one of them (drudge), but she acknowledges her own times of drudging. 

She also identifies the beehive as a work of art, with the teacup reference, a emotionless machine, and finally a tomb for the queen bee, which flies around the hive as an angry poltergeist (as the speaker mentions the ‘engine that killed her’).

The females in this poem are the ones who fight, and the ones who die due to their fighting.  The only one who physically survives stinging is the queen, as her stinger has no barb on it.  Her death, as metioned in the last stanza, becomes a symbolic death, in that as her colony dies on account of protecting her, she becomes less and less of a queen, having less under her rule. 

The theme in this poem would be one of defiance, but it is not a defiance that ends in victory.  The bees and the queen are still full of fight at the end of the poem, but with the workers dying attacking the male beekeeper.  I don’t think Plath would have endorsed the idea of running from the fight for the sake of self-preservation, just from what I remember from her other work.  But also, the bees can not go against their nature and cooperate, as they are instinctively bound to protect the queen.   

It is a little chilling, to think that the bees are going on a path that leads to a sort of suicide, based on what happened to Plath in real life.  But, this is a recurrence in Plath’s work, where in the poem, a moment comes where the speaker or the character in the poem decides to put an end to what is happening, be it either the last line in ‘Daddy,’ or the bees dying in their defence of the queen.


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I have now decided to tackle the rather odd, but interestingly self-connected poems of John Ashbery. I refer to them as ‘self-connected,’ for the reason that at first read, many of his poems seem almost completely random in the use of imagery, but if the reader knows the source of the images, then his poems make a lot more sence.

I think ‘Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape’ stands out as a great example. Ashbery uses images from what was originally a comic strip called Thimble Theatre, which then later became an animated series titled, according to the main character, Popeye. He transposes several characters into a setting which would otherwise be totally foreign to them, that being the countryside, and an apartment (although, it very well could be an apartment nearby a pier). The roles each of them are playing in the poem are quite deviant form their characteristics in the comic. The Sea Hag was one of Popeye’s archenemies, and now she is relaxing in his apartment, functioning as a comrade to Wimpy and Olive Oyl and Swee’pea. Wimpy, while consistent in his attempts to charm everyone (with the ulterior motive of convincing someone to buy a hamburger on his behalf), is seen uncharacteristically consuming spinach. Popeye, according to the first stanza, has fled the apartment to the countryside.

The entire scene would almost not seem to make sence in that normally, the Sea Hag and Alice the Goon would be trying to undermine Popeye and the gang in some devious manner, but their roles are very much shifted around like game pieces. Amid their activity in the poem, Ashbery makes constant references to the darkness and thunder, even calling it spinach-coloured. This dark-green thunder occupies Popeye’s abode, and everyone in the house is ingesting it, until Olive comes and takes away Swee’pea, in which the two of them join Popeye out in the country. Popeye, content with playing with himself out in the country, has escaped the green thunder which has been sent as a sort of ‘curse’ by Popeye’s ‘wizened, duplicate father’ (who was a character in the series as well, and was basically an older version of Popeye). Olive almost seems more like a disgruntled mother in the way she takes Swee’pea out of the house, where the Sea Hag comes across more as a doting grandmother. In this respect, they seem oddly consistent in their roles, in that Popeye still escapes from the bad guys, and Olive follows suit (which was a recurring trend in the comics). In this way, the characters are really not so much out of character when it comes to the contrasts between them.

The theme, to me anyway, is one of escapism. Everyone, while remaining true to their roles in terms of their own disconnection with each other, is deviating from their assumed character. The Sea Hag, while still grotesque, is not actively pursuing Popeye with malicious intents. Wimpy, while still fanciful in his speech, is not trying to con anyone into buying him lunch. Olive, while still protective of Swee’pea as she was in the comic, would never refer to him as a ‘brat.’ Swee’pea, who was always innocent of anything in the comic, comes as a prophet, bearing a message on his bib (reminiscent of the doomsday prophets with the sing on their shoulders one may see on the streets of New York). Popeye is absent from his element, having contented himself with going further away form the sea. The one idea which also struck me at first reading is that of someone else’s life, where the family may be a little dysfunctional. The speaker, perhaps also a player in this poem, may be transposing his own family members with fictional characters. If the scene is a little stressful, one can imagine that inside the speaker’s imagination, everyone morphs into cartoon characters, creating what would seem more like a comical scene. This would be a means to relive the stress of the moment, and attempt to bring humour into an otherwise negative moment – basically another form of escapism.

(I can at least content myself with being glad to remember reading the old Thimble Theatre comics in an anthology some twenty-five years ago.)

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The Harlem Rena…

The Harlem Renaissance had many wonderful writers emerge, dealing with issues and topics which were otherwise untouched in the literary spectrum. The race factor, which dominated the entire culture, is one which is both painful and poetic when thinking of some of the real life experiences many had to endure.

What I tried to look for in the assigned writings was common experiences. Personally, I do understand the issues the writers had to face because of their race, having been targeted and even attacked because I was white (yes, it does happen….and, it is just as bad). But, there were some experiences the black poets tackled, which are really more universal when it comes to human experience.

One thing I did not like reading, and which I think in which the black community in America was a particular victim, was the Communist associations. The rhetoric the Communist groups used certainly was attractive to the black community, but, as this was happening in America, millions of people were murdered due to some of the harshest Communist regimes. And, this was a fatality count even higher than that of the Holocaust. What I am referring to is what happened during Josef Stalin’s ‘Five Year Plan,’ which involved the collectivisation of the Ukrainian farms. He deliberately targeted the Ukrainian peasants, and murdered them via starvation. After it was all said and done, over nine million Ukrainians were murdered under this action by Stalin (the event is referred to as the Holodomr in Ukraine today).

I don’t think the black writers were aware of what was happening, as much of the world was not aware, but it creates a painful historical paradox. The black writers, simply by wanting to overcome the oppression they faced, allied themselves with a movement that had and contunies to have(looking at China) probably the largest human rights abuse record when considering every country that subscribed to it. It is tragic, and I think this is one of the most severe examples of how the blacks in America were victimised.

Anyway, I won’t dwell on that, but it really weighed heavily on my heart when I was reading the selection. I went outside of the selection and found a poem by Claude McKay which had more universal appeal to me, that being the theme of nostalgia. In his poem, ‘The Tropics in New York,’ McKay draws on the senses, first remarking on the variety of foods and spices available in Jamaica. The memory of smell and taste are powerful ones, and I think any of us can remember that smell of a certain dish or a certain beverage when we were growing up. Those elements can evoke memories and emotions of better and safer times. In the second stanza, the fruits McKay used in the first stanzas are now viewed in the context of their trees, in which we may see the origin of the fruits. The effect this has is that the reader is drawn into the speaker’s upbringing. The sunrise is not blocked by towering buildings, and there is not a layer of smog discolouring or blurring the sky. McKay even gives a religious tone, in the ‘benediction over nun-like hills.’ As this was a childhood memory, there is a magical element to it, which runs deeper than simply a ‘grass is greener’ sentiment. In the final stanza, the poem comes full circle in the speaker’s reaction to the memory being evoked. He (assuming the speaker is McKay, which I think is safe) connects the three stanzas together in that he comes out of the vision hungry, for both the fruit and the previous way of life he had on the islands (having lived in Bermuda for several years, I can also personally identify with the way the sensory experience is touched in that region). What I found interesting is how we are left with a vague image of whether he was having an emotional moment while awake, or that he was coming out of a dream. When the ‘eyes grew dim,’ it could be interpreted as if tears were starting to come, and he could bear to look, or that he was coming out of a dream, in that he was reversing the idea of things growing dim (the dream world goes dim as the real world comes back). I personally think he was having that moment where all he could do was close his eyes and cry after the emotional experience.

Nostalgia is something we all feel when we grow older. Even if our life is wonderful, when a loved one dies, or when a child moves out to attend university, we are all struck by it. Even the miserable experiences sometimes have fond memories that we keep. McKay gives us a truly universal experience that does not depend on our ethnicity or background to appreciate.


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I remember arou…

I remember around eighteen years ago, when a former professor regarded Wallace Stevens as a ‘lone romantic’ in the midst of modern pessimism.

His reason for making that remark was his reaction to Williams’ ‘Sunday Morning.’ While I have yet to read that one (perhaps I will do so after reading the required selections), I am inclined to agree with him when I look at some of the other poems. Before I remark on that, I wanted to mention some of the interesting techniques Stevens uses in his poems.

He plays with perspectives in the same way that MC Escher played with them in his drawing. In ‘Anecdote of the Jar,’ Stevens creates a fish-eye image in the first stanza. The visual perspective shifts with the placement of the jar. With the second stanza, the visual perspective takes a topological scope. If we consider the visual perspective from the first stanza, when ‘the wilderness rose up to it,’ the fish-eye perspective forces a curling effect to take place on the edges of the image, almost like a sphere. The wilderness effectively has to emulate the shape of the jar, being round. In the third stanza, the jar is described as ‘taking dominion everywhere,’ and ‘grey and bare.’ While this could be read in a realist context, being a piece of glass litter that refuses to compost, and being an empty unmarked vessel, I am inclined to read it a little differently, just due to the play on perspective. Since the jar still remains the central image, with everything else warped around it in a sort of ‘metasphere,’ the notion of it being grey and bare presents a different idea. Grey does not mean dead so much. The jar now has the magnificence of the moon, which takes dominion in the night. Or, as my deeper impression was, the jar takes the magnificence of a human eye. When we look at one another, or look at people, when generally all body parts are healthy and otherwise in proportion, it seems as if the eyes are our point of fixation, and we always look to that when we want to read an emotion, reaction, or condition in someone. What we are most impressed by, are those eyes which do not shift, do not give away anything, but rather are solid and piercing. This is the effect of the jar in the poem.

This is where I think of it more romantically, although the romantic element in this poem is the foreign element (being the jar, as opposed to nature). The wilderness was slovenly prior to the jar being introduced. Now, the wilderness is poised to fixate around the jar, no longer slovenly, but upright, and is tamed (‘no longer wild’). The ‘gray and bare’ aspect of the jar, when thinking of the idea of the human eye, is that it is no longer unnatural and out of place, but an integral part, but so extraordinary, and so exposed, as being bare. However, the jar is unwavering. Like a determined unmoving eye, the jar does not produce anything, not ‘giving of bird or bush.’ While the realist reading would say that as a jar, it can not produce seeds or support nests, it also can be read that like a solid gazing eye, the jar does not reveal any deep secrets. The jar does not betray itself to the reader.

We are given a theme of permanence in this poem. The jar is trustworthy and unapologetic. Like no other part of the wilderness of Tennessee, the jar becomes the eye of the body of wilderness.


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New life has been given to this blog yet again, by way of Prof. Smith’s permission.

And, on to re-reading Ezra Pound. He has always been fascinating to me. While coming from a rural setting out in the Northwestern United States, he was always aware of his European ancestral roots, which he carried with him when he travelled to Europe.
What I enjoy about Pound is his multifaceted approach to a subject in his poems. In his Canto I, he does not only interject the voice of Odysseus into the poem, but reaches beyond the fantastic world in which Odyessus dwells. In line 68, he invokes the translator of the Odyssey which he is referencing for his poem. The universe of the Odyssey, according to Pound, is not only the imaginative world, but also incorporates the physical book which Pound was holding in his hands.

I was fortunate enough to have come across a band called Blood Axis in the late 1990s (and since then, have met the people behind it).  They sampled an audio recording of Pound’s voice, apparently during his tenure at St. Elizabeth’s hospital.  Aside from his very affected accent, he reads the verse with a meter which seems to deviate from the written version.  His oral version almost sounds like dactylic hexameter, which may have been deliberate on his part.



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Well, the time …

Well, the time went by quickly. I truly wish we had more time to cover more material, and explore more aspects of said material. Of course, all things considered, I think we accomplished quite a lot for the limited time we had.

I am now re-reading Virginia Woolf and Audre Lorde, and pondering the question of ‘using the master’s tools.’ Unfortunately, history can not be changed, and while the standards of literature were dominantly established by men, I can’t really see that as a cause to reject them. The standards are effective, and if they work, they should be used. And certainly, new ways of writing and discussing ideas can be introduced in the meantime. Many lessons have been learned from reading female writers who had no other choice but to use ‘male tools.’

And, we must remember that experiences are also unique to the individual. Not every female writer reacted the same way. Woolf seems to have taken Margaret Cavendish to task over what she sees as a colossal waste of literary effort on the part of Cavendish. She probably did not know about Cavendish’s suffering from a kind of social phobia. Considering that Cavendish found it difficult to endure large crowds of any kind, the fact she was present at court at all was quite extraordinary, regardless of their reactions. And, if Cavendish was getting jeered, she stayed there and endured it. I think that is quite amazing.

To Woolf’s credit, she was not engaging in the same kind of disparate literary criticism as many male critics may have done. And, even during Woolf’s era, female writers were attacked differently, or more severly on certain issues. The one comparison that comes to mind is James Joyce and Anais Nin. The content of Ulysses, compared to the content of Delta of Venus, is really not that much different, and Nin’s work was only in slightly more excess of explicit material. Both were accused of producing pornographic material in some instances, but Joyce was revered as a literary genius, while Nin for the most part, was discredited.

How are writers of both genders expected to react in these instances? If the ‘master’s tools’ are shunned, then, to expand on the metaphor, would ‘the master’ understand a constructed reaction created by a different set of tools, in a different engineered langauge?

This is where I break with Lourde’s reaction. If the interest is in equality, then everyone has the same space at the same table. The table is shared; a new table is not carved out to the same proportions, with all of the women sitting at their own, rejecting the ‘master’s tools’. What would be accomplished by that? That sounds to me as if everyone is right back where they were at the beginning. (Frankly, Lourde sounds a bit like one of the Black Panther’s girlfriends from the 60s, who screamed ‘kill the pigs!’. Often, violent tendencies are enshrouded in academic garb.)

I could go on and on. I will leave it at this, and embark on the Wikipedia quest. (I still am waiting for one book through document delivery, so it may be completed next week.)

Thanks, everyone. Class was fun and rewarding.

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Where shall I b…

Where shall I begin?

Hannah More’s Shepherd is the type of chracter who crosses my mind when out in the rural countryside.  While having very little materially, they are not emotionally engulfed in envy, misery, or really anything else negative.  Happiness is from within, in which we are never without.

I then went to the story about William and his leaving the household to become a soldier.  And, I think Hannah More had the right idea about Christ’s parable about putting new wine into the old wineskin.  William is a strong example of this:  He essentially changed everything in his life, expect his mode of thinking.  No matter what path he chose, he would ultimately have been miserable.

And, after reading Clara Reeve, I couldn’t help but smile at the idea of her complaining, ‘Why such a bloody big helmet, Horace?’  ‘And, what’s the point of giving it feathers, if all it does is fall to crash on top of someone?  No point in the feathers then, eh?’

I’ll write more in a short while.


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