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Posts Tagged ‘history’

27 OCTOBER, 2014

Sylvia Plath on Poetry and a Rare Recording of Her Reading the Poem “The Disquieting Muses”

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“Darker emotions may well put on the mask of quite unworldly things.”

In 1957, Sylvia Plath (October 27, 1932–February 11, 1963) — beloved poet, secret artist, dedicated diarist, passionate lover, little-known children’s book author, youthful beholder of the transcendence of nature, repressed “addict of experience” — submitted a few of her poems for consideration for broadcast in the BBC’s celebrated series The Poet’s Voice. They were rejected. But she kept trying. In the summer of 1960, she finally broke through — two of her new poems were accepted for broadcast, and soon she had an ongoing gig. Between November 20, 1960 and January 10, 1963 — just four weeks before she took her own life — Plath produced at least 17 known broadcasts for the BBC. Those that survive are preserved in The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath — the same magnificent archival gem that gave us Plath’s readings of “The Birthday Present” and “Tulips,” as well as that rare interview on literature and love.

One of the most powerful poems in these recordings is “The Disquieting Muses,” later published in Plath’s Collected Poems (public library). It is after the famous Giorgio de Chirico painting of the same name and inspired by the enigmatic figures in it — “three terrible, faceless dressmakers’ dummies in classical gowns, seated and standing in a weird, clear light,” per Plath’s own description, who suggest a twentieth-century version of “other sinister trios of women,” such as the Three Fates and the Witches in Macbeth. Emanating from Plath’s verses is a haunting lament about maternal neglect.

'The Disquieting Muses' by Giorgio de Chirico, 1916–1918

But perhaps even more notable than Plath’s enchanting reading of the poem is her short preface to it, into which she condenses her views on poetry in general with extraordinary precision and eloquence:

A poem can’t take the place of a plum, or an apple. But just as a painting can recreate, by illusion, the dimension it loses by being confined to canvas, so a poem, by its own system of illusions, can set up a rich and apparently living world within its particular limits. Most of the poems I will introduce in the next few minutes attempt to recreate, in their own way, definite situations and landscapes. They are, quite emphatically, about the things of this world.

When I say “this world” I include, of course, such feelings as fear and despair and barrenness, as well as domestic love and delight in nature. These darker emotions may well put on the mask of quite unworldly things, such as ghosts or trolls or antique gods.

She proceeds to read the poem itself:

THE DISQUIETING MUSES

Mother, mother, what illbred aunt
Or what disfigured and unsightly
Cousin did you so unwisely keep
Unasked to my christening, that she
Sent these ladies in her stead
With heads like darning-eggs to nod
And nod and nod at foot and head
And at the left side of my crib?

Mother, who made to order stories
Of Mixie Blackshort the heroic bear,
Mother, whose witches always, always,
Got baked into gingerbread, I wonder
Whether you saw them, whether you said
Words to rid me of those three ladies
Nodding by night around my bed,
Mouthless, eyeless, with stitched bald head.

In the hurricane, when father’s twelve
Study windows bellied in
Like bubbles about to break, you fed
My brother and me cookies and Ovaltine
And helped the two of us to choir:
“Thor is angry: boom boom boom!
Thor is angry: we don’t care!”
But those ladies broke the panes.

When on tiptoe the schoolgirls danced,
Blinking flashlights like fireflies
And singing the glowworm song, I could
Not lift a foot in the twinkle-dress
But, heavy-footed, stood aside
In the shadow cast by my dismal-headed
Godmothers, and you cried and cried:
And the shadow stretched, the lights went out.

Mother, you sent me to piano lessons
And praised my arabesques and trills
Although each teacher found my touch
Oddly wooden in spite of scales
And the hours of practicing, my ear
Tone-deaf and yes, unteachable.
I learned, I learned, I learned elsewhere,
From muses unhired by you, dear mother,

I woke one day to see you, mother,
Floating above me in bluest air
On a green balloon bright with a million
Flowers and bluebirds that never were
Never, never, found anywhere.
But the little planet bobbed away
Like a soap-bubble as you called: Come here!
And I faced my traveling companions.

Day now, night now, at head, side, feet,
They stand their vigil in gowns of stone,
Faces blank as the day I was born,
Their shadows long in the setting sun
That never brightens or goes down.
And this is the kingdom you bore me to,
Mother, mother. But no frown of mine
Will betray the company I keep.

Despite its antiquated audio format, The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath is well worth the effort. Complement it with Plath’s unseen drawings, edited by her daughter, her bittersweet-in-hindsight diary entry on the appetite for living at age 18, and wonderful children’s verses illustrated by Quentin Blake.

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24 OCTOBER, 2014

Mark Twain on Slavery, How Religion Is Used to Justify Injustice, and What His Mother Taught Him About Compassion

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“She never used large words, but she had a natural gift for making small ones do effective work.”

Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, is celebrated as America’s greatest humorist — from his irreverent advice to little girls to his snarky stance on creativity to his masterwork on masturbation. But underpinning his winsome wit was piercing insight into the human spirit and all its perplexities. From The Autobiography of Mark Twain: Volume 1 (public library) — which also gave us Twain on how morality and intelligence hinder each other — comes a moving anecdote about how his mother taught him the essence of empathy.

Half a century before “African American” came into popular use as a politically dignified term, Twain recounts his childhood friendships with black slaves:

All the negroes were friends of ours, and with those of our own age we were in effect comrades. I say in effect, using the phrase as a modification. We were comrades, and yet not comrades; color and condition interposed a subtle line which both parties were conscious of, and which rendered complete fusion impossible. We had a faithful and affectionate good friend, ally and adviser in ‘Uncle Dan’l,’ a middle-aged slave whose head was the best one in the negro-quarter, whose sympathies were wide and warm, and whose heart was honest and simple and knew no guile. He has served me well, these many, many years. I have not seen him for more than half a century, and yet spiritually I have had his welcome company a good part of that time, and have staged him in books under his own name and as ‘Jim,’ and carted him all around — to Hannibal, down the Mississippi on a raft, and even across the Desert of Sahara in a balloon — and he has endured it all with the patience and friendliness and loyalty which were his birthright. It was on the farm that I got my strong liking for his race and my appreciation of certain of its fine qualities. This feeling and this estimate have stood the test of sixty years and more and have suffered no impairment. The black face is as welcome to me now as it was then.

Twain with his longtime friend John T. Lewis, of whom the author remarked: 'I have not known an honester man nor a more respect-worthy one.' Lewis is said to have inspired the character of Jim in 'Huckleberry Finn.'

Twain’s account of these complex dynamics is both sweet and heartbreaking in bespeaking the innocent, impressionable ways in which children absorb the beliefs and norms of their culture — as well as the manipulation tactics that the dominant institutions of culture employ in instilling and maintaining those beliefs. A lifelong critic of religion’s capacity to corrupt the human spirit, Twain writes:

In my schoolboy days I had no aversion to slavery. I was not aware that there was anything wrong about it. No one arraigned it in my hearing; the local papers said nothing against it; the local pulpit taught us that God approved it, that it was a holy thing, and that the doubter need only look in the Bible if he wished to settle his mind — and then the texts were read aloud to us to make the matter sure; if the slaves themselves had an aversion to slavery they were wise and said nothing.

Portrait of Clemens's mother, Jane Lampton Clemens, by Edwin Brady (Vassar College Library)

Even though Twain recalls seeing no abuse of slaves in his hometown of Hannibal in pro-slavery Missouri, he recounts the story of one particular boy and how a simple, pause-giving remark from Twain’s mother — a testament to how such figures quietly but monumentally shape creative geniuses — suddenly opened his eyes to the culturally condoned atrocity of slavery and taught him a lifelong lesson about compassion:

There was, however, one small incident of my boyhood days which touched this matter, and it must have meant a good deal to me or it would not have stayed in my memory, clear and sharp, vivid and shadowless, all these slow-drifting years. We had a little slave boy whom we had hired from some one, there in Hannibal. He was from the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and had been brought away from his family and his friends, half way across the American continent, and sold. He was a cheery spirit, innocent and gentle, and the noisiest creature that ever was, perhaps. All day long he was singing, whistling, yelling, whooping, laughing — it was maddening, devastating, unendurable. At last, one day, I lost all my temper, and went raging to my mother, and said Sandy had been singing for an hour without a single break, and I couldn’t stand it, and wouldn’t she please shut him up. The tears came into her eyes, and her lip trembled, and she said something like this—

“Poor thing, when he sings, it shows that he is not remembering, and that comforts me; but when he is still, I am afraid he is thinking, and I cannot bear it. He will never see his mother again; if he can sing, I must not hinder it, but be thankful for it. If you were older, you would understand me; then that friendless child’s noise would make you glad.”

It was a simple speech, and made up of small words, but it went home, and Sandy’s noise was not a trouble to me any more. She never used large words, but she had a natural gift for making small ones do effective work. She lived to reach the neighborhood of ninety years, and was capable with her tongue to the last — especially when a meanness or an injustice roused her spirit.

Clemens on a river journey of 'wonder and delight' with his mother; illustration from St. Nicholas, 1916, color-tinted by Kent Rasmussen, 2004

Twain’s mother went on to inspire a number of characters in his beloved novels, including Aunt Polly in Tom Sawyer, where Sandy also made a cameo under a different name. Her penchant for small words may have been what prompted Twain to advise in his list of literary offenses: “Use the right word, not its second cousin… Eschew surplusage… Employ a simple and straightforward style.”

If you haven’t yet read The Autobiography of Mark Twain, do yourself a favor — Twain spent several decades writing it, but never finished in his lifetime and forbade his heirs from publishing the manuscript for 100 years after his death. The century-long wait was well worth it.

Also see Brené Brown the difference between empathy and sympathy.

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23 OCTOBER, 2014

A Wave in the Mind: Virginia Woolf on Writing and Consciousness

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“A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it.”

“A crisp sentence, an arresting metaphor, a witty aside, an elegant turn of phrase,” Harvard psycholinguist Steven Pinker wrote in his wonderful modern guide to style, “are among life’s greatest pleasures.” A century and a half earlier, Schopenhauer proclaimed that “style is the physiognomy of the mind.” Undoubtedly one of humanity’s most beautiful minds and greatest masters of elegant, pleasurable language is Virginia Woolf — a mastery that unfolded with equal enchantment in her public writings as well as her private, as both sprang from the same source of passion and perspicacity. But nowhere was Woolf’s intensity of heart, mind, and style more palpable than in the writing she did for and to her longtime lover and lifelong friend, Vita Sackville-West — from her novel Orlando, based on Sackville-West and celebrated as “the longest and most charming love letter in literature,” to the actual missives between the two women, which remain among the most bewitching queer love letters ever written.

In March of 1926, a year before her famous love letter to Vita, Virginia wrote to her lover about the very thing that brought them together, that invisible, immutable force which animated Woolf more than any other — her love of language. (Celebrated writers have a way of fleshing out their professional convictions about the craft in their most intimate correspondence — Nietzsche set down his ten rules for writers in a letter to his lover.)

The beautiful phrase at the heart of Woolf’s meditation, found in The Letters of Virginia Woolf: Volume Three (public library), is also what inspired the title of Ursula K. Le Guin’s spectacular collection of essays — Le Guin being, of course, the closest thing we have to a Woolf today.

Woolf writes:

Style is a very simple matter: it is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words. But on the other hand here am I sitting after half the morning, crammed with ideas, and visions, and so on, and can’t dislodge them, for lack of the right rhythm. Now this is very profound, what rhythm is, and goes far deeper than words. A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it; and in writing (such is my present belief) one has to recapture this, and set this working (which has nothing apparently to do with words) and then, as it breaks and tumbles in the mind, it makes words to fit it. But no doubt I shall think differently next year.

Complement with Woolf on how to read a book, the creative benefits of keeping a diary, and the only surviving recording of her voice, then revisit Anaïs Nin on why emotional intensity is essential to creativity.

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