A cool small evening shrunk to a dog bark and the clank of a bucket –
And you listening.
A spider’s web, tense for the dew’s touch.
A pail lifted, still and brimming – mirror
To tempt a first star to a tremor.

Cows are going home in the lane there, looping the hedges with their warm
wreaths of breath –
A dark river of blood, many boulders,
Balancing unspilled milk.
‘Moon!’ you cry suddenly, ‘Moon! Moon!’

The moon has stepped back like an artist gazing amazed at a work
That points at him amazed.

Ted Hughes

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.

Diary 21st / 22nd March

Lots of criticism of the concept of grammar schools lately. They’ve always been anathema to the socialists. And yet an entire generation of writers passed through them: Angela Carter, Ted Hughes, William Golding, John Carey, Tony Harrison, Alan Bennett – Angela Carter even went so far as to suggest they helped create a genuine British intelligentsia: ‘’a class of people who didn’t believe they were born to rule, who had no stake in maintaining the class-bound structure of British society but who made their livings through dealing with ideas.’

Carter, unlike other socialists, didn’t believe in ‘throwing the educational baby out with the bathwater.’

#

A weather forecast, or rather pastcast: rain, rain and more rain; mostly this miserable soaking drizzle. For two days last week the moor was clotted with fog (low cloud), its granite slopes melting into white; its ancient hidden secrets further obscured, and the sheep and cattle became simple shapes in the murk: bedraggled and pissed off, no doubt – probably suicidal, even: but of course lacking hands they cannot take a razor to their throats, unlike us.

Then, on Tuesday, a cold front rolled in off the Atlantic. The rain turned sleety. It’s s’posed to be the beginning of spring…!

On a more hopeful note, last Sunday I heard a lark singing. It probably wasn’t ascending, but the sound brought a smile to my face.

#

Some people have desires that can only be hinted at…

#

As I grow older I become more forgetful. I’d give you some examples but I’ve forgotten them already.

#

Notable events over the past week: lunch at Notter Bridge last Friday (this after an unexpected telephone call from my sister which I finally, rather rudely had to interrupt after almost an hour’s conversation, saying: ‘must go, we’re meeting friends for lunch…’)

Drinks with Henry B Saturday. He has an unending repertoire of anecdotes and a spontaneous humour that is the envy of us all. He is also currently persona non grata with the local BDSM group after last Christmas, and that unfortunate experience with D F. Still, his shoulders are broad and he handles his ostracization with casual good humour. He is, in short, unrepentant and imperturbable. For my own part, I have this indelible memory of Henry two years ago in lurid lycra, being flagellated mercilessly by an Asian lady in John R’s sitting room at St Mabyn.

Sunday I became quite intoxicated by the end of day. I managed to prepare food for us all. But afterwards fell asleep on the living room sofa.

Monday I finished my short story “Rats”. It’s a tale of a woman with a deep-seated fear of rats. It has a very unhappy ending. In part, I s’pose (and this with hindsight), the idea behind the story originated with a news report two or three years ago which concerned a woman who had a terrible fear of monkeys. This phobia meant she could never visit a zoo, and never even watch a wild life documentary on television if monkeys were involved.

She decided to seek help. She attended sessions with a therapist weekly for most of that year. Then she visited the monkey house with her family at London zoo. All okay. Her fear was gone, dissipated. She was cured.

The following year she went on holiday to Kenya with her husband and children. On the second day of this vacation she was attacked and torn apart by a group of angry baboons.

Tuesday was a hospital appointment and then shopping. Sleeting like mad when we left the hospital; peeing down with rain at the supermarket; bright sunshine on arriving home. All the seasons in the one day.

Talking, too, about the moor: how it can give substance to your dreams and nightmares. Ghosts on the moor, for certain. But then who’s to say that one or more of the people standing with you at the bus stop aren’t ghosts? That woman in a white raincoat and headscarf, for example?

#

I was reminded yesterday of a party in Hampshire ten years ago. A young man taking the part of Nijinsky, dressed as the faun in ‘L’Après-Midi’, dancing behind his shimmering gauze, cock stiff and swaying for the delectation of all. What a wild, unruly night that became.

#

‘Real artists are not nice people,’ W H Auden once wrote. ‘All their best feelings go into their work and life has the residue.’

So let that stand as a warning to us all.

lips2

When her husband (Ted Hughes) left her for another woman, she took his manuscripts, mixed them with a debris of fingernail parings and dandruff from his desk, and burned them in a witch’s ritual bonfire. As the flames died down, a single fragment paper drifted on to her foot. On it was the name of the woman he had left her for: Assia. “Her psychic gifts, at almost any time,” Ted wrote, “were strong enough to make her frequently wish to be rid of them.”

With Sylvia’s (Plath) personal nightmares to contend with, Hughes’s creative strategies would have worked on her like, say, the “recovered memory” games untrained rogue psychotherapists play on unwary patients – releasing the inner demons then stepping aside with no thought of the consequences. Because he truly believed in her talent he did it in the name of poetry. He handed her the key she had been looking for to find her dead father and, always the good student, she went down into the cellarage, key in hand. But the ghouls she released were malign. They helped her write great poems, but they destroyed her marriage, then they destroyed her.

Al Alvarez
Where Did It All Go Right?

fishing…

September 9, 2015

fishing

Though I haven’t been fishing in 7 years I dream every single night that I am fishing. Often it is the canal at home – vastly altered, sometimes flowing swift and very deep, with sharks – mostly it is Crookhill. I have every kind of fishing adventure. There’s always a big fish – and whenever I dream I catch that, the day after I sell a poem. One night I dreamed I caught the grandfather pike at Crookhill – at the corner near the outflow. You and Johnny were pulling at its fins, and I was heaving down the slope – we had twenty feet of it out – and still most of it was in the pond. The next day I sold my first poem and got married. Sylvia is my luck completely. In these fishing dreams my great enemies are eels. Joan, I cannot tell you your horoscope till I know the year. Was it 29?

Ted Hughes
Letter to Gerald and Joan Hughes, 24th February, 1957