Love the past

Robert Graves’ greatest book is The White Goddess. He himself always believed it to be his most important work, and it is certainly his most controversial. The influence of The White Goddess has been wide, even among those who have never actually read it. Its basic tenets arouse strong feelings. With its emphasis on ancient Goddess religion and the tyranny of patriarchy it’s no wonder that this book is an embarrassment to the (male-dominated) literary establishment, who would otherwise love to claim Robert Graves for their own.

I have read TWG three times all through, and I’ve dipped into it countless times, as it is such an extraordinarily fascinating and informative tome. It’s a difficult book to come to cold, especially if (like me) you lack an old-fashioned Classical education. Another difficulty is its non-linear structure. It is not argued in a straightforward academic way, which may be one reason why I’ve never seen a serious critique of it (it wasn’t on the syllabus of my Eng. Lit. course at university, despite it being a book about poetry!). Although Graves intended it as a study of the nature and meaning of the poetic impulse, in fact it ranges widely across comparative mythology, religion, prehistory, linguistics, anthropology, sexual politics, folklore, and the history of literature. If that sounds unnecessarily complicated, it’s because Graves saw all these aspects of life as being inter-connected. Unlike typical patriarchal scholars, he did not set out to make distinctions and categorize, but to make connections. These sometimes bizarre connections act rather like poetic metaphor by stimulating one’s unconscious to respond. It is an inspirational method of writing, and makes it unwise to try to use bits of it out of context to prove some hypothesis.

He wrote it in a frenzy of ecstatic inspiration – the first draft was completed in just three weeks – and afterward he set about checking his references, confirming facts and generally tidying it up. This was how he wrote his best poetry too. Not only did he believe that the substance of the book was correct, but he really did believe that it had been divinely inspired (by the Goddess), and that the Goddess Herself would see to it that its truths were ultimately recognised – to the extent of cursing those unenlightened enough to obstruct its publication! Robert shocked and embarrassed many of his friends by insisting that opponents of the Goddess (and of his book) would be, or had already been, divinely punished. But he was so generally liked, and he was such a delightful and erudite companion that his friends, biographers and fellow-writers tend to play down this rather extreme aspect of his character, at least in public.

Hilary Llewellyn-Williams
Robert Graves and the White Goddess

thrill the imagination

February 10, 2018

butterflies in hand

Sappho lies remote from us, beyond the fashions and the ages, beyond sight, almost beyond the wing of Thought, in the world’s extremest youth.

To thrill the imagination with the vast measure of time between the world of Sappho and the world of the Great War, it is quite useless to express it in years, one must express it in æons, just as astronomers, dealing with sidereal distances, think, not in miles, but in light years.

Between us and Sappho lie the Roman Empire and the age of Christ, and beyond the cross the age of Athenian culture, culminating in the white flower of the Acropolis.

Had she travelled she might have visited Nineveh before its destruction by Cyaxares, or watched the Phœnicians set sail on their African voyage at the command of Nechos. She might have spoken with Draco and Jeremiah the Prophet and the father of Gautama the founder of Buddhism. For her the Historical Past, which is the background of all thought, held little but echoes, voices, and the forms of gods, and the immediate present little but Lesbos and the Ægean Sea, whose waters had been broken by the first trireme only a hundred and fifty years before her birth.

Men call her the greatest lyric poet that the world has known, basing their judgment on the few perfect fragments that remain of her song. But her voice is more than the voice of a lyric poet, it is the voice of a world that has been, of a freshness and beauty that will never be again, and to give that voice a last touch of charm remains the fact that it comes to us as an echo.

For of Sappho’s poetry not a single vestige remains that does not come to us reflected in the form of a quotation from the works of some admirer, some one captured by her beauty or her wisdom or the splendour of her verse, or some one, like Herodian or Apollonius the sophist of Alexandria, who takes it to exhibit the æolic use of words or accentuation, or Hephæstion, to give an example of her choriambic tetrameters.

Only one complete poem comes to us, the Hymn to Aphrodite quoted by Dionysius of Halicarnassus, and one almost complete, the Ode to Anactoria, quoted by Longinus; all other quotations are fragments: a few lines, a few words, a word, the merest traces.

What fate gave us the shipping lists of Homer, yet denied us Sappho; preserved the Lexicon Græcum Iliadis et Odysseæ of Apollonius, yet cut the song to Anactoria short, and reduced the song of the orchard to three lines? or decided that Sophists and Grammarians, exhibiting dry-as-dust truths, should be a medium between her and us?

Some say that her works were burned at Constantinople, or at Rome, by the Christians, and what we know of the early Christians lends colour to the statement. Some that they were burned by the Byzantine emperors and the poems of Gregory Nazianzen circulated in their place.

But whatever the fate it failed in its evil intention. Sappho remains, eternal as Sirius, and it is doubtful if her charm and her hold upon the world would have been strengthened by the full preservation of her work.

As it is, added to the longing which all great art inspires, we have the longing inspired by suggestion. That lovely figure belonging to the feet she shows us “crossed by a broidered strap of Lydian work,” would it have been as beautiful unveiled as imagined? Did she long for maidenhood? Why did the swallow trouble her, and what did the daughter of Cyprus say to her in a dream?

There is not a fragment of Sappho that is not surrounded in the mind of the reader by the rainbow of suggestion. Just as the gods draped the human form to give desire imagination, so, perhaps, some god and no fate has all but hidden the mind of Sappho.

H De Vere Stackpoole

alien landscape1

I don’t think science fiction is a very good name for it (what I write), but it’s the name that we’ve got. It is different from other kinds of writing, I suppose, so it deserves a name of its own. But where I can get prickly and combative is if I’m just called a sci-fi writer. I’m not. I’m a novelist and poet. Don’t shove me into your damn pigeonhole, where I don’t fit, because I’m all over. My tentacles are coming out of the pigeonhole in all directions…

…I draw on the social sciences a great deal. I get a lot of ideas from them, particularly from anthropology. When I create another planet, another world, with a society on it, I try to hint at the complexity of the society I’m creating, instead of just referring to an empire or something like that…

…For most of my career, getting that label — sci-fi — slapped on you was, critically, a kiss of death. It meant you got reviewed in a little box with some cute title about Martians – or tentacles…

…I just knew from extremely early on – it sounds ridiculous, but five or six – that writing was something I was going to do, always. But just writing, not any mode in particular. It started as poetry. I think I was nine or ten before I really wrote a story. And it was a fantasy story, because that’s mostly what I was reading. By then, my brother and I were putting our quarters together to buy, now and then, a ten-cent magazine called something like “Fantastic Tales” – pulp magazines, you know…

…the fiction I read, because I was an early beginner, tended toward the fantastic. Realism is a very sophisticated form of literature, a very grown-up one. And that may be its weakness. But fantasy seems to be eternal and omnipresent and always attractive to kids.
But when people say, Did you always want to be a writer?, I have to say no! I always was a writer. I didn’t want to be a writer and lead the writer’s life and be glamorous and go to New York. I just wanted to do my job writing, and to do it really well…

…My first publications were all poetry, and that’s partly because of my father. He realized that sending out poetry is quite a big job. It takes method and a certain amount of diligence and a good deal of time. And he said, I could help you do that, that would be fun! He got interested in the subculture of the little magazines and realized that it is a little world, with rules all its own…

Ursula K Le Guin
Interview with John Wray for Paris Review fall 2013

divine madness

February 6, 2018

Possession and madness comes from the Muses. This takes hold upon a gentle and pure soul, arouses it and inspires it to songs and other poetry, and thus by adorning countless deeds of the ancients educates later generations. But he who without the divine madness comes to the doors of the Muses, confident that he will be a good poet by art, meets with no success, and the poetry of the sane man vanishes into nothingness before that of the inspired madmen.

Phaedrus (245a)


One Sunday I tuned into a radio programme called ‘Homer’s Landscapes’, written and presented by Adam Nicolson. In it, Nicolson examined the journey Odysseus made to Hades, where he must feed blood, honey and wine to the ghost of Tiresias, in order to restore to him the gift of speech. Only Tiresias can offer Odysseus the directions he needs to complete his homeward journey. According to Nicolson, it is as if the Greeks believed that the body and taste of these things were essential not only to life, but to language too. This is a metaphor for poetry itself – for any attempt to make absences or abstractions concrete. The ghosts need their blood and honey, otherwise they’ll remain silent shadows.

Matthew Clegg
Feeding the dead is necessary


With an “overturned brandy glass” for a planchette, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes often navigated their handmade Ouija board for inspiration. In a note accompanying Plath’s poem “Ouija,” Hughes describes how she “occasionally amused herself, with one or two others, by holding her finger on an upturned glass, in a ring of letters laid out on a smooth table, and questioning the ‘spirits.'”1

The name of their usual spirit guide was Pan. He spelled out everything from his favorite poems by each poet—“Pike,” in the case of Hughes, and “Mussel-Hunter” by Plath (the spirit admitted: “I like fish”)—to what the couple should name their children or which press would publish Plath’s next book (correctly: “Knopf”).

As Plath recalls in her journal on July 4, 1958:

Even if our own hot subconscious pushes it (It says, when asked, that it is “like us”), we had more fun than a movie.2

The Ouija board was her husband’s idea, as Plath scholar Kathleen Connors writes: “Along with compiling lists of potential subjects for Plath’s poems and stories, Hughes advised her on meditation techniques, and used hypnotism and their hand-made Ouija board on a regular basis. Calling these sessions ‘ magnificent fun,’ Plath was intrigued by the concept of ‘Pan,’ their main ‘spirit contact’ called on for advice on poetry subjects, and sometimes to get numbers for horse races.”3

Many poems were inspired by this process, the two most notable being Plath’s “Ouija” and “Dialogue Over a Ouija Board.” The latter is a conversation between a couple, Sibyl and Leroy, about the nature of channelling itself. Ultimately, that particular verse drama ends with the two concluding:

When lights go out
May two real people breathe in a real room

Plath writes in “The Colossus” (interestingly, Pan’s own “family god,” was named ‘Kolossus’):

Perhaps you consider yourself an oracle,
Mouthpiece of the dead, or of some god or other.

Or perhaps not. Either way, for Plath, channelling was one means of coming in contact with herself.

1. Sylvia Plath: Collected Poems (Faber & Faber, 1981), p. 276.
2. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath (Anchor Books, 200), ed. Karen V. Kukil, p. 400.
3. Eye Rhymes: Sylvia Plath’s Art of the Visual (Oxford University Press, 2007), ed. Kathleen Connors and Sally Bayley, p. 111-112.

lonely moan for the world

September 1, 2017

Poems are praise songs or a careful, lonely moan for the world: either way, it is the world itself that lifts them forward. They are the speechlessness of things ripening, pressing, into language. The poet contributes attention, permeability, a courageous leisure in which transfixity may occur; the poet combs out the lines until they come as close to shining as he can bring them. Yet another sort of silence can be a room you inhabit, a room of waiting, a room which is a sort of ear; writing is this availability, listening’s stripped place, in which the hidden lives of things, pumpkins, poplar groves, might be transcribed; writing is mostly this craning quiet.

Tim Lilburn
Walking out of Silence


July 21, 2017

Yet, it is true, poetry is delicious; the best prose is that which is most full of poetry.

Virginia Woolf
The Common Reader (series one)


July 17, 2017

If you have the words, there’s always a chance that you’ll find the way.

Seamus Heaney
Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney

An artist

July 12, 2017

I think that the best thing for me as an artist is to be able to turn my back on a piece of work. What that means is that I put my best effort, my best intention and care into it. I see it as a raft that I’m sending down river, and I’m on shore, so I get to turn around and see what else I can make with my hands.

Ocean Vuong
Interviewed by David Winter for the Poetry Foundation