hoplite

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

sunrise

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

Delicious

July 21, 2017

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

Virginia Woolf
Montaigne
The Common Reader (series one)

Words

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

focus my craft

July 7, 2017

I really hated poetry for most of my life, so it is kind of interesting that I’m now a poet. I still don’t like a lot of poetry. I get bored easily, and I am not interested in reading poems about the woods or whatever. I don’t know what a pasture is. So, I think the way that I have tried to focus my craft is writing poems that feel relevant to me and my life and reflective of that.

Morgan Parker
Interview with Sydney Gore for Nylon

Poetry leads to the same place as all forms of eroticism – to the blending and fusion of separate objects. It leads us to eternity, it leads us to death, and through death to continuity. Poetry is eternity; the sun matched with the sea.

Georges Bataille
Eroticism: Death and Sensuality

contemporary poetry

June 17, 2017

In an Isis interview that marked the end of his tenure as Professor of Poetry at Oxford, Sir Geoffrey Hill was asked what he wanted from contemporary poetry. He began – and ended – with a negative. ‘I don’t want it to be a sort of simpering drizzle. I really do want there to be some sense of order battling anarchy within the very structure of a poem. I think one of the most dreadful sounds in all of modern culture is what I will call the poetry recital chortle, and most contemporary poems seem to me to be written in order to arouse the desire of the listener to chuckle appreciatively.’

Michael Schmidt
Order Battling Anarchy

It’s the last stanza, though, that makes Frost into a genius, both poetically but also in his insight into human character, storytelling and literature. The stanza is retrospective as the traveller/poet looks back on his decision – “ages and ages hence” – and comments how we create a life through the poetic fictions that we create about it to give it, and ourselves, meaning. The story that the poet will tell is that:

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.”

Notice the stuttering, repetitive “I” that Frost uses both to maintain the rhyme scheme (“I/by”) but also to suggest the traveller/poet’s uncertainty about who made the choice. The narrative drive is re-established with the penultimate line “I took the one less travelled by,” to conclude with a satisfying resolution that ties everything in a neat biographical lesson “And that has made all the difference.” But it has made no difference at all. The difference, the life, is created in the telling, something that Frost does, of course, masterfully.

David C. Ward
What Gives Robert Frost’s ”The Road Not Taken” Its Power?
Originally published on Smithsonian.com 10 August 2015