Dying is an art.

Image result for sylvia plath

Today is the birthday of Sylvia Plath, born in 1932 and dying of suicide in 1963, aged only 30.  Forever young, forever turgid with what may have been.

The poem below is a description of her relationship with suicide.  The death of her father when she was 8 years old remained with her all her life.  He died of complications following the amputation of his foot from diabetes.  Does the reference to her own right foot reflect this in the poem below?

Her father Otto Plath self diagnosed his illness – incorrectly.  Is this “Herr Doktor”?  This poem and “Daddy” are imbued with German imagery, Nazi imagery, Holocaust Imagery.  Having a German father and an Austrian mother during WW2 clearly carried a weight of guilt for the young Plath.

Her success in suicide was achieved ironically in an oven, gassing herself to death, a parody of the gassing and burning of the Jews in death camps.  Those were the days when we used towns gas, made from coal or naphta, which was poisonous.  These days if you stick your head in a gas oven you will simply get a headache.  Natural gas is not poisonous.

Lady Lazarus is one of Plath’s most analysed poems.  You will find analysis that claims it as a holocaust poem, survivor guilt, a feminist tirade against the patriarchy, a commentary on the vampire like demands of the audience on the artist, the legacy of her fathers early death, the abusive relationship with her husband Ted Hughes, the pressures on women to conform to a societal ideal, and so on.  It is a rich soup of imagery for any critic.

 

Lady Lazarus by Sylvia Plath

I have done it again.
One year in every ten
I manage it——

A sort of walking miracle, my skin
bright as a Nazi lampshade,
my right foot

a paperweight,
my face a featureless, fine
Jew linen.

Peel off the napkin
O my enemy.
Do I terrify?——

The nose, the eye pits, the full set of teeth?
The sour breath
will vanish in a day.

Soon, soon the flesh
the grave cave ate will be
at home on me

and I a smiling woman.
I am only thirty.
and like the cat I have nine times to die.

This is Number Three.
What a trash
to annihilate each decade.

What a million filaments.
The peanut-crunching crowd
shoves in to see

them unwrap me hand and foot——
the big strip tease.
Gentlemen, ladies

these are my hands
my knees.
I may be skin and bone,

nevertheless, I am the same, identical woman.
The first time it happened I was ten.
It was an accident.

The second time I meant
to last it out and not come back at all.
I rocked shut

as a seashell.
They had to call and call
and pick the worms off me like sticky pearls.

Dying
is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.

I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I’ve a call.

It’s easy enough to do it in a cell.
It’s easy enough to do it and stay put.
It’s the theatrical

comeback in broad day
to the same place, the same face, the same brute
amused shout:

‘A miracle!’
that knocks me out.
There is a charge

for the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge
for the hearing of my heart——
it really goes.

And there is a charge, a very large charge
for a word or a touch
or a bit of blood

or a piece of my hair or my clothes.
So, so, Herr Doktor.
So, Herr Enemy.

I am your opus,
I am your valuable,
the pure gold baby

that melts to a shriek.
I turn and burn.
Do not think I underestimate your great concern.

Ash, ash—
you poke and stir.
Flesh, bone, there is nothing there——

a cake of soap,
a wedding ring,
a gold filling.

Herr God, Herr Lucifer
beware
beware.

Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
and I eat men like air.

Happy Birthday Andrew Motion

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UK poet laureate from 1999 to 2009, following in the footsteps of Ted Hughes (husband of Sylvia Plath).  The top choice for that gig was Seamus Heaney, but the Irishman ruled himself out.

Born Oct 26th 1952 Motion had the good fortune to study under W.H Auden in Oxford and to have Philip Larkin as a colleague at Hull.  He followed Malcom Bradbury as professor of creative writing in University of East Anglia.  Now esconced at Johns Hopkins University, Maryland, USA.  A brilliant poet from a stable of brilliant poets.

Andrew Motion shares a birthday with Dublin Poet Trevor Joyce, but we’ll give this page to Andrew on the day England defeated the All Blacks in the 2019 Rugby World Cup Semi-Final in Yokohama.

Diving; by Andrew Motion

The moment I tire
of difficult sand-grains
and giddy pebbles,
I roll with the punch
of a shrivelling wave
and am cosmonaut
out past the fringe
of a basalt ledge
in a moony sea-hall
spun beyond blue.
Faint but definite
heat of the universe

flutters my skin;
quick fish apply
as something to love,
what with their heads
of gong-dented gold;
plankton I push

an easy way through
would be dust or dew
in the world behind
if that mattered at all,
which is no longer true,
with its faces and cries.

Happy Birthday Stevie Smith

Stevie

Sylvia Plath described herself as a “desperate Smith addict” and wrote a letter expressing an interest in meeting Stevie, but first committed suicide.  Smith herself struggled with depression all her life and was a fatalist from a young age.  Abandoned by her father as a small child she grew up in a house of independent feminists, particularly her Aunt Madge who she called “The Lion Aunt”.

At age five she was diagnosed with tuberculosis and was sent to a sanatorium.  She resolved herself to death at age seven.  At age eight she was discharged.  Her mother, never in the best of health, passed away when Smith was 16.

Smith was born on this day in 1902 and passed away aged 68 in 1971.

 

I do not speak; by Stevie Smith

I do not ask for mercy for understanding for peace
And in these heavy days I do not ask for release
I do not ask that suffering shall cease.

I do not pray to God to let me die
To give an ear attentive to my cry
To pause in his marching and not hurry by.

I do not ask for anything I do not speak
I do not question and I do not seek
I used to in the day when I was weak.

Now I am strong and lapped in sorrow
As in a coat of magic mail and borrow
From Time today and care not for tomorrow.

 

For the love of poetry?

Leaving Certificate Exam, English literature paper is sat today in Ireland.  All those lucky students are now scanning their notes for the last time to remember the nugget that will land them an extra few points.  Have you tended your garden of knowledge well?  What was it that Iago said about Virtue and Figs?

“Tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus. Our bodies are our gardens to the which our wills are gardeners.”             Othello, Shakespeare

Each year students in their tens of thousands play dice with the poetry syllabus.  They are given eight poets to study.  Eight wonderful poets with beautiful rich compositions.  Eight leading lights to brighten the dark corridors of your existence.  What do students do?  Study all eight?  No way.  They play dice, and gamble on how few they can study and land a question they can answer.

This year the poets are Paul Durcan, Elizabeth Bishop, T.S. Eliot, Eavan Boland, Sylvia Plath, John Donne, John Keats and Gerard Manley Hopkins.  Durcan, Bishop and Eliot came up last year, so unlikely to resurface.

There is usually a woman, so Plath is hot favourite.  There is always an Irish poet, so Boland is a favourite.  Fingernails are being chewed to the quick as the minutes tick by!  What do those mermaids have to do with the musical “Cats”?  Oh God, my teacher told me this……………..

 

The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock; by T.S. Eliot

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question …
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes,
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;

Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair —
(They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”)
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin —
(They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”)

Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

For I have known them all already, known them all:
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume?

And I have known the eyes already, known them all—
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
And how should I presume?

And I have known the arms already, known them all—
Arms that are braceleted and white and bare
(But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!)
Is it perfume from a dress
That makes me so digress?
Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl.
And should I then presume?

 

And how should I begin?
Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows? …
I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.
And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!
Smoothed by long fingers,
Asleep … tired … or it malingers,

 

Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.
Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?
But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet — and here’s no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.

And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it towards some overwhelming question,
To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,

Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”—
If one, settling a pillow by her head
Should say: “That is not what I meant at all;
That is not it, at all.”
And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worth while,
After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor—

And this, and so much more?—
It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:
Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
“That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all.”

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—

Almost, at times, the Fool.

I grow old … I grow old …
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Shall I part my hair behind?   Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.

I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.
I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

 

Bright flames

Match

Simon Armitage wrote his poetry collection “Book of Matches” with the idea that each sonnet should be read quickly, in the time it takes for a match to burn out, about 20 seconds.  I love this idea, too many people labour the reading of poetry.  They put on the “poetry reading voice” which has a plummy accent and a low, monotonous droning drawl that makes everything sound bloody boring.

Poetry should leap from the page and dance across your lips and tongue.  It should be read in a real voice, a natural voice, your own accent.  The pace may be slow, if that is what is called for, but it can also be machine gun fast.

As an added bonus the title of this poem becomes its own joke when you add in the author.  In truth I am not very bothered by Simon Armitage, I like the guy.  I like him enough to wish him a happy birthday today.

Back to those matches then.  I am reminded of Sylvia Plath staring into candle flames.  I am reminded of the little match girl and the visions she sees by the light of each match.  I am reminded of Enda St. Vincent Millay and her double ended candle.  It reminds me of all those poets who have elucubrated deep into the night to craft their work under flickering flames.  It reminds me of T.H. White and his “Once and Future King” who is a candle against the wind, a bastion against the darkness and embodies the hopes and dreams of a better world.  Matches are evocative.

 

I am very bothered; by Simon Armitage

I am very bothered when I think
of the bad things I have done in my life.
Not least that time in the chemistry lab
when I held a pair of scissors by the blades
and played the handles
in the naked lilac flame of the Bunsen burner;
then called your name, and handed them over.

O the unrivalled stench of branded skin
as you slipped your thumb and middle finger in,
then couldn’t shake off the two burning rings. Marked,
the doctor said, for eternity.

Don’t believe me, please, if I say
that was just my butterfingered way, at thirteen,
of asking you if you would marry me.

 

Plathitudes

A memoir to Sylvia, who died the year I was born, head in a gas oven.

They don’t make gas like that anymore.

And Ted, who was blamed by the feminists, the fantasists

who knew, but loved her still.

The Blue Flannel Suit; by Ted Hughes

I had let it all grow. I had supposed
It was all OK. Your life
Was a liner I voyaged in.
Costly education had fitted you out.
Financiers and committees and consultants
Effaced themselves in the gleam of your finish.
You trembled with the new life of those engines.

That first morning,
Before your first class at College, you sat there
Sipping coffee. Now I know, as I did not,
What eyes waited at the back of the class
To check your first professional performance
Against their expectations. What assessors
Waited to see you justify the cost
And redeem their gamble. What a furnace
Of eyes waited to prove your metal. I watched
The strange dummy stiffness, the misery,
Of your blue flannel suit, its straitjacket, ugly
Half-approximation to your idea
Of the properties you hoped to ease into,
And your horror in it. And the tanned
Almost green undertinge of your face
Shrunk to its wick, your scar lumpish, your plaited
Head pathetically tiny.

You waited,
Knowing yourself helpless in the tweezers
Of the life that judges you, and I saw
The flayed nerve, the unhealable face-wound
Which was all you had for courage.
I saw that what you gripped, as you sipped,
Were terrors that killed you once already.
Now I see, I saw, sitting, the lonely
Girl who was going to die.
That blue suit,
A mad, execution uniform,
Survived your sentence. But then I sat, stilled,
Unable to fathom what stilled you
As I looked at you, as I am stilled
Permanently now, permanently
Bending so briefly at your open coffin.

Goodbye Andreas

Andreas

It is with great sadness that we learned of the passing of our friend Andreas Von Fragstein.

Andreas and Eva were our neighbours in Clontarf at the turning of the millennium.  Their daughter, Hanna, played with our kids in the two back gardens.  We built snowmen together in the winter, had water fights in the summer, ate barbecues, drank beer and generally enjoyed each others company.  Charlotte was born in Clontarf, which is why she has an Irish middle name.

When they returned to Germany we tried to stay in touch with Skype, by email, on Facebook.  We wanted to get to Potsdam, but were tied down with kids, with life.  Eva visited with her work and we met up.  But over time the ties slackened and contacts became more and more rare.

It is so sad that he is gone, leaving behind a young family.  When you are at a distance from people you tend to keep up to date using Facebook and other social media.  As a result you tend to have a very plastic view of other peoples lives.  It can seem that everyone else is living the dream, because you see all the beautiful photos of your friends doing exciting things.  I certainly thought Andreas had the perfect life, perfect wife, perfect family.  Few of us use Facebook to post about the sad times, the bad days, the times when we feel blue.

Facebook makes us a bit lazy about relationships, so we don’t visit as often, write letters or make phone calls.  Then, when someone leaves this world we wonder could we, should we, have made a better effort?  Could we have been a bigger presence in that persons life?  Could we have been there when they needed an ear, a shoulder, a friend?

Andreas has shipped out from this plane of existence on a new journey.  It’s not a voyage I want to make anytime soon.  But one day maybe our wakes will cross again.

To Eva and the Von Fragstein family, and to the Böking family, we give our heartfelt sympathies.  It feels like a very small amount to give to fill such a large hole in so many lives.

Poppies in July; by Sylvia Plath

Little poppies, little hell flames,
Do you do no harm?

You flicker. I cannot touch you.
I put my hands among the flames. Nothing burns

And it exhausts me to watch you
Flickering like that, wrinkly and clear red, like the skin of a mouth.

A mouth just bloodied.
Little bloody skirts!

There are fumes I cannot touch.
Where are your opiates, your nauseous capsules?

If I could bleed, or sleep! –
If my mouth could marry a hurt like that!

Or your liquors seep to me, in this glass capsule,
Dulling and stilling.

But colorless. Colorless.

Rum