Analysis of ‘Spring Pools’ by Robert Frost

download (2)

Spring Pools

By Robert Frost

These pools that, though in forests, still reflect
The total sky almost without defect,
And like the flowers beside them, chill and shiver,
Will like the flowers beside them soon be gone,
And yet not out by any brook or river,
But up by roots to bring dark foliage on.

The trees that have it in their pent-up buds
To darken nature and be summer woods –
Let them think twice before they use their powers
To blot out and drink up and sweep away
These flowery waters and these watery flowers
From snow that melted only yesterday.

Analysis:  

Robert Frost was very much influenced by the Romantic and Victorian poets who had gone before him.  As with the Romantic poets, Frost sees the natural scene, accurately observed, as the primary poetic subject.  Nature is not described for its own sake but as a thought provoking stimulus for the poet, leading him to more insight or revelation.

Romantic nature poems, such as ‘Spring Pools’, were usually meditative poems.  The landscape was sometimes personified or imbued with human life as it is in this beautiful lyric.  The Romantics subscribed to Wordsworth’s belief that poets should ‘choose incidents and situations from common life’ and write about them in ‘language really spoken by men’ who belong to ‘humble and rustic life’.  Frost puts many of these principles to good use in this poem.

Unlike many American poets in the twentieth century, Frost upheld formal poetic values during turbulent and changing times, when formal practices were widely abandoned.  He emphasised the importance of rhyme and metrical variety, observed traditional forms and developed his technical skills.  He could claim without fear of contradiction that ‘I am one of the notable craftsmen of my time’.  His poetry was written so that the rhyming ‘will not seem the tiniest bit strained’.  He used terza rima, end-of-line rhymes, and full and half rhyme.

This short lyric poem opens as Spring begins to take hold of the landscape.  The forest pools formed by the last of the melting snows and rain still mirror the cloudy sky.  The poet informs us that these pools will not last long because the roots of the mighty trees in the Vermont forest will very soon greedily soak up these pools in order to encourage leaf growth.  This is a rather unusual and disturbing perspective on Nature – the poet sees an ominous, dark side to Nature.  The trees soak up the Spring pools and within a short period of time, they are covered in leaves that blot out the flowers on the forest floor and the pools of water which gave them sustenance.  This is symbiosis in reverse and reflects Frost’s unusual perspective on Nature.

Frost demonstrates to us here that he was a keen observer of the natural world.  Plants, geographical features and the seasons have their place in his poetry: the physical world of spring pools, winter snows, the sky, brooks, Vermont mountains are all part of the rich landscape he describes for us.

However, we must realise that the natural world is rarely described for its own sake or as a background against which the action of the poem takes place.  Instead, nature leads the poet to an insight or revelation.  Often a comparison emerges between the natural scene and the psyche, what Frost called ‘inner and outer weather’.  His descriptions of nature are not sentimental.  He describes a world that is bleak, empty and cold.

The imagination enables the poet to see the world in this new way.  In brief, intense moments he may enter a higher, visionary state.  This allows him to regenerate his imaginative and creative capability and provides him with fresh insights and new inspiration for his poetry.  This state cannot be sustained for long, however, and he must return to the real world.

The poet is being very philosophical here and looks at Nature in an unusual way.  Yet he is very balanced in his thinking and this balance is reflected in the structure of the poem.  Stanza One describes the coming of Spring in all its glory.  We see his efforts at balance in his use of repetition in the lines,

And like the flowers beside them, chill and shiver,

Will like the flowers beside them soon be gone,

In Stanza Two, Spring gives way to Summer and again Frost shares with us his understanding of the delicate and finely balanced relationships within nature.  He writes of nature with a keen eye and respects her beauty and her peculiar ways.  The poet observes that the ‘trees have it in their pent-up buds / To darken nature and be summer woods’.  He goes on to personify nature adding that the trees should ‘think twice before they use their powers / to blot out and drink up and sweep away’ the spring pools.  It is a very direct poem, a poem with purpose.

The main theme of this poem is mutability and the transience of time.  These are important, weighty concepts in poetry in general but especially here.  This poem, ‘Spring Pools’,  sees time as being destructive.  For him, yesterday’s flowers wither, Winter snows melt, spring pools are drained by trees, trees lose their leaves in Autumn.  The unpalatable epiphany for the poet is that Time destroys beauty.

Therefore, we see the imagery in some of Frost’s poems is deceptively simple.  There are images from the natural and the human worlds.  Some are everyday and ordinary, some are grotesque and macabre.  In this poem the imagery carries the meaning. Frost uses precise details to re-create the colour, texture and sounds of the world within the poem. This makes his poetry richly sensuous.  Yet, using the same technique, he can paint a cold, bleak scene that is chillingly realistic.  So, beware: simple poems can be symbolic of ideas that are more profound!

Nevertheless, in his beloved Vermont countryside, Frost himself tends to work ‘alone’, he walks alone, and plays alone, being ‘too far from town to learn baseball’.  His main concern, it would appear, is not with community but with the individual identity – of pools, of fences, of apples, and of himself.  Through his poems, we imagine a man who values self-sufficiency and individualism.  He chooses the road ‘less travelled’.  He can be seen turning, not outward towards community but inward towards his inner self in such poems as ‘After Apple-Picking’ where he reflects that ‘I am over-tired / Of the great harvest I myself desired’.  His inward quest is also balanced by his outward journey towards familiar things in nature, giving his verse a reflective and meditative quality, whether he speaks of himself or of nature.

Check out my overview of Robert Frost’s poetry here

 

2014-08-27_16_56_52_View_down_the_Stony_Brook_from_the_Stony_Brook_Trail_in_the_Stony_Brook-Millstone_Watershed_Association,_New_Jersey

Stoner by John Williams – A Belated Review

 

51nu26tHj-L._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_

Better late than never I suppose!  But then it seems I’m in good company!  My son suggested Stoner as part of my required reading on a recent week of rest and relaxation, good food and daily rambles by the sea.  His only comments were that it was achingly sad and that it came with a glowing imprimatur from John McGahern.  He was right – it is a stunning page-turner of a book, depicting the life, and indeed the death, of William Stoner, who lived his life in the quad and in the rooms and classrooms adjacent to Jesse Hall in Columbia University, Missouri.  Stoner’s time at the fledgling University, as student and as instructor and finally professor, spans a half century from 1914 and the outbreak of the Great War until the mid-nineteen fifties when another war, the Korean War, threatens to thin the ranks in Columbia’s hallowed halls for a third time in the one century.

John Williams’ novel is a deceptive masterpiece of writing – he manages by inference and sustained inner dialogue and by being confessional to evoke an era and to allow us close as he suffers the slings and arrows of a life which has been enriched by the study of literature.  His lack of confidence in his own ability as a teacher, his constant self-doubt and soul-searching in his own ability, struck a resonant chord with me – the hours of preparation, the repetition of courses, the grading of tests, the hours of mentoring and supervising post grads as they finalise their dissertations and theses, all necessary but removing him from his own specialisation, Renaissance Literature.

William Stoner is an unglamorous, hardworking academic who marries badly, is estranged from his child, toils manfully teaching sophomores and freshmen, year in year out, as his parents before him toiled in the arid, unproductive soil of their Missouri farmholding. Then he dies and is forgotten: a failure, an anti-hero.

A feature of the novel for me was the seamless continuity, the effortless move from one life period to the next as the story unfolds. We pass from Great War to The Roaring Twenties to the Wall Street Crash to Depression to World War as the backdrop to a humdrum life lived well.  Stoner’s life is ordinary, he doesn’t achieve a great deal, nor is he remembered often by his students or colleagues. Stoner isn’t a novel about a man achieving great heights or altering the world, it’s far more personal than that. The novel examines the quiet moments of a person’s life, their small victories and crushing defeats. A life may seem unremarkable on paper, but look a little closer and you will always find hidden depths. John Williams is, in effect, exploring the concept of heroism in twentieth century America.

As we read we find ourselves, then, to use Heaney’s phrase, ‘gleaning the unsaid off the palpable’ as the story unfolds, or to use Stoner’s phrase, we become aware of, “the epiphany of knowing something through words that could not be put in words.” I can only vouch for the fact that there are moments in its reading when the hairs on the nape of my neck stood on edge and I was transported to glimpse eternity through the darkening view from an office window on a winter’s evening as the shades of night come down.

 The novel’s values seem old-fashioned, and William Stoner is cocooned within the university milieu, cloistered would probably be a better description.  He finds his calling and labours conscientiously with little acclaim or recognition.  There are echoes of C.S. Lewis’s work in Oxford here and I also find echoes of Steinbeck and Salinger in John Williams’s depiction of a world view which no longer exists but is attractive for its simplicity and old world charm.

At times in my reading, I was left with the nagging suspicion that the novel is autobiographical and depicts and mirrors Williams’s own academic odyssey. I don’t know enough about John Williams’s life to support or refute this theory but if true his wife, his ‘Edith’, must be glad that the novel has remained obscure and neglected!  It definitely is a paean to his idea of a university and he extols the virtues of university life, a life sharply juxtaposed with the shortcomings and periodic savagery of the world outside the hallowed halls. I am also reminded of Heaney’s beautiful ‘Villanelle for an Anniversary’, commissioned for the three-hundredth anniversary of Harvard University, which evokes the pioneering work of the founder of that great university:

A spirit moved. John Harvard walked the yard,

The atom lay unsplit, the west unwon,

The books stood open and the gates unbarred.

The novel is a kind of masterclass in creative writing.  At times it is subtle and at other times – in its structure, for example – it can be almost brutal, cruelly juxtaposing characters, indeed at times tending to caricature rather than characterise.   For me, the craftsmanship is reminiscent of George Eliot or Dickens.  The juxtaposition of the two women in Willaim Stoner’s life is a very good example of this.  There are no shades of grey here!  Edith and Katherine Driscoll are cruelly juxtaposed as in a melodrama. Edith, has been raised in an emotional vacuum, taught only useless ornamental skills, sheltered as wholly as possible from reality, and “her moral training … was negative in nature, prohibitive in intent, and almost entirely sexual” – effectively cultivated to become a brittle, conniving hysteric. Also, to add to the unsubtlety of the novel’s structure, two of Stoner’s antagonists are disfigured and maimed: Hollis Lomax, Stoner’s bête noir and academic adversary and Lomax’s protégé, Charles Walker.

Stoner isn’t an easy read – not because it’s dense or abstruse but because, as I’ve mentioned earlier, it’s so painful and achingly sad. In a vengeful act, Stoner’s wife, Edith, undertakes a deliberate campaign to separate him from his daughter, the one person he truly loves. Later on, after his daughter has been lost to him, Stoner finds real love again with a young student, Katherine Driscoll, his intellectual equal – and once again an enemy, seeing his happiness, sets out to take it from him. At the university, his superior, Hollis Lomax, contrives to make his teaching life a hell, a horrendous endurance test, a battle of wills.  Williams contrives to forcibly deprive his hero of happiness in his marriage, his daughter, his lover, even his vocation. Here again, there are echoes of Silas Marner and it all feels grindingly inevitable, like the notion of the gods in Tennyson’s ‘Lotus Eaters’ or a Greek tragedy.

Part of the novel’s greatness is that it sees life whole and as it is, without delusion yet without despair. The confessional inner dialogue is sustained and Stoner realises at the last that he found what he sought at the university not in books but in his love and study of them. His life has not been in vain, he has had a Pauline conversion and has discovered the joys of literature and he has also loved and lost in his relationships with his parents, his wife, Edith, his daughter, Grace, and his lover, Katherine. The book’s conclusion, such as it is, is that there is nothing better in this life. The line, “It hardly mattered to him that the book was forgotten and served no use; and the question of its worth at any time seemed almost trivial,” in reference to his own published text on Renaissance Literature, could be seen as the novel’s own epitaph. As he slips quietly towards oblivion he gives us one of the most beautiful sentences in the novel, as his book falls from lifeless fingers into silence:

“The fingers loosened, and the book they had held moved slowly and then swiftly across his still body and fell into the silence of the room.”

 Every word is perfect.

**************

After finishing Stoner, my son thrust the Vintage copy into my hands and told me I just had to read it straight away.  Now, days later having finished it myself, I sit here at my laptop desperately trying to find the right words to describe how John Williams’ novel Stoner has affected me.  I’m speechless, I’m in awe,  I’m wide awake, and all I know for sure is that my head is buzzing way too much for me to get to sleep.

Stoner-Quote

 

“Roosters” by Elizabeth Bishop – A poem whose time has come again?

 

 

a81272433929a0bd7338bab6924ff600

Taking recent political events in America into account,  this poem seems to me to be one whose time has finally come round again!  In 1938, as another war threatens to engulf the world, Elizabeth Bishop stops off in Key West for almost a decade on her slow, leisurely migration South.  In 1941, shortly after the tragic events of Pearl Harbour, she produced this classic poem, a poem which many claim depicts American chauvinism at its worst and a poem that was read with interest by millions of returning soldiers and marines as they undertook the challenging reintegration back into civilian life after its publication in 1946 as part of her collection North and South – a collection of quintessential Bishop poems about waking up and the sea.

It is one of her ‘long narrow poems’ (44 stanzas) and yet Colm Tóibín in his analysis of the poem states rather controversially that, ‘it is important to insist that the poem “Roosters” is about roosters’.  He goes further and insists that ‘more exactly, it is about roosters in Key West’.  This may be so but even a cursory reading, in these revisionist times, will no doubt point up the presence of many other important sub-themes which are scrutinised and analysed here by the poet, such as militarism, male/female roles, war-mongering, forgiveness, and waking up to reality.  However, her treatment of the roosters is generally subtle, though not always so, and I have to agree with Tóibín’s final assessment that, ‘she managed to write one of the great poems about power and cruelty by not doing so.’

The poem was written at a time when the navy was gearing up for a war in Europe and other far-flung theatres of war.  Key West had been chosen as a new navy base and she was at one stage, much to her annoyance, forced to rent her beloved property to navy personnel.  In other areas of Key West, property was being purchased compulsorily and some houses were being demolished.  Therefore, it is no wonder that the poem has been read as an anti-war poem and a poem condemning arbitrary authority, ‘what right have you to give / commands and tell us how to live.’

The poem opens in Key West with the town waking to a morning light which she characterises as militarised, the morning is ‘gun-metal blue dark’.  The poet and her lover, the ‘we’ of the opening stanza, are rudely awakened from their slumbers by a martial rooster. This initial call is soon echoed by others and within a short time, there is a cacophony of strident roosters calling the sleepy Key West community to face a new day.  In a letter to Marianne Moore, Bishop wrote that she wanted the opening to represent the baseness of military warfare, and had in mind, too, Picasso’s Guernica.  From the weaponized colour of dawn to the macho “first crow of the first cock,” Bishop lures us into the poem as if from sleep, from non-consciousness, and forces us to face our own new (political) reality post November 8th!!

The macho roosters, symbolic of American chauvinism, ready themselves for another day of domination, of seeing off rivals, and indulging in some megaphone diplomacy.  They are depicted as ‘stupid’, using their ‘traditional cries’ and she personifies their behaviour, ‘their protruding chests’, ‘their green-gold medals dressed’; she ridicules their efforts ‘to command and terrorise the rest’.  One of the many things that makes Bishop’s anti-war argument in “Roosters” so interesting is her rare lack of reticence to disclose the struggles of women to survive against the rhythms of male competition, rivalry, discord, the taking up of arms, and combat.   She is anything but subtle here and, in my opinion, it is one of the times when her customary reticence and use of understatement goes out the window.  This is very evident in her unflattering depiction of the roosters’ wives:

The many wives

Who lead hens’ lives

Of being courted and despised;

She uses the traditional image of the ‘tin rooster’ as weather vane on ‘our little wooden northern houses’ to introduce the concept of militarism again.  She uses military imagery to depict their battles and skirmishes.  The roosters make ‘sallies’, setting out their territory, ‘marking out maps’, and the image of a great operations centre with maps ‘like Rand McNally’s’ with ‘glass-headed pins’ and military uniforms is created with imagery like ‘oil-golds and copper greens’.  The roosters are compared to the ‘scarlet majors’ in Sassoon’s anti-war poem, ‘Base Details’, who send their “glum heroes up the line to death”.   Again they are personified, they are ‘screaming’ at the inhabitants of Key West to ‘Get up! Stop dreaming!’.  The poet refers to the idea that the Greeks used these ‘very combative’ birds for their cock fighting spectacles.

There follows more imagery of roosters fighting, flying, dying – the blood has gone to their heads, which are ‘charged with all your fighting blood’.  She disapproves of their ‘virile presence’ and their paradoxical ‘vulgar beauty’.  Bishop is playing with us here: is she not saying, ‘Whatever else we say about these roosters, they’re not chicken’!

All my adult life I have been aware of America as having a predisposition to enter conflicts all over the world.  My memories of the 60’s and 70’s are of harrowing television clips from Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos.  In recent years, especially since 2003, America has been mired in military intervention, military deployments  and full blown wars which seem to be unwinnable despite the seeming one-sided nature of the contests. Nothing, Bishop’s poem reminds us, is ever won from war.  This poem is a perfect example of her honesty and here she shows her nerve to review human nature honestly and she also  portrays a steely resistance to duplicity and coercion.

Bishop, up to this point, has looked at roosters from many different angles but now she focuses on an association between the rooster and St. Peter in the Gospel account of the denial of Jesus before his Crucifixion:

And Peter remembered the word of Jesus, which said unto him, Before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice. And he went out, and wept bitterly.

In the Latin version of the Bible “gallus canit” means “the cock crowed,” and “flet Petrus” means “Peter wept.”  So this is one of the reasons why roosters are so often used ‘on basilica and barn’ to depict, not so much Peter’s denial and humanities overall frailty, but the unconditional forgiveness offered by Christ.  The climax of the poem is beautifully rendered as we witness the literally “cocky” roosters subside in the last part of the poem to become an image of peace, ‘The cocks are now almost inaudible’.   Morning has returned, with immense hope, to the world.  By poem’s end, the rooster crows and Peter weeps as the poem shifts from remorse to salvation to inescapable hope—like a re-enactment of civilisation’s transformation from militancy to humility—so that the rooster’s call is a symbol of forgiveness.

The final five stanzas take us back to the beginning – morning has broken and the master craftswoman uses beautiful slender ‘l’ sounds to depict a new dawn, a new beginning:

In the morning

A low light is floating

In the backyard and gilding

Colm Tóibín so rightly asserts that ‘In ‘Roosters’, she … managed to produce one of the great poems about the morning’.  ‘The sun climbs in’ and transforms ‘the broccoli leaf by leaf’ and ‘the tiny floating swallow’s belly’.  She uses the beautiful simile ‘like wandering lines in marble’ to depict the creeping rays of sunshine.  The only discordant note to this otherwise idyllic, hopeful ending is the ambiguous role played by the sun – it can be seen as either an ‘enemy’ or a ‘friend’.

This literary tour de force broke new ground in its attitude to, and treatment of, war and pacifism on the one hand and the sometimes fraught relations between men and women in a post-war world on the other.  If there is hope, and the poem ends with a new dawn, then Bishop is bold enough to suggest that it lies with women.  She sees a future America where hope lies in the power of women to seize a greater share in mapping out the future destiny of the nation and wrestle it away from stubborn, war-mongering men.  I said at the beginning of this piece of commentary that I thought this was a poem whose time had come again – I hope America have not lost their chance to carry out Bishop’s manifesto with the recent defeat of  a strong female candidate in the Presidential Election.  Time will tell but it adds to the cachet of this poem that it has had the power to continue to shape America from its first publication in 1941 until the present day.

pc5785

 

Works Cited:

Bishop, Elizabeth. The Complete Poems, 1927 – 1979.  New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroix, 1983

Tóibín, Colm. On Elizabeth Bishop, Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2015. Digital

See also Reviews Rants and Rambles:  https://vinhanley.com/2015/08/28/themes-and-issues-in-the-poetry-of-elizabeth-bishop/

Reviews Rants and Rambles: https://vinhanley.com/2016/11/29/commentary-on-sandpiper-by-elizabeth-bishop/

Commentary on ‘Sandpiper’ by Elizabeth Bishop

Sandpiper

By Elizabeth Bishop

The roaring alongside he takes for granted,
And that every so often the world is bound to shake.
He runs, he runs to the south, finical, awkward,
In a state of controlled panic, a student of Blake.

The beach hisses like fat. On his left, a sheet
Of interrupting water comes and goes

And glazes over his dark and brittle feet.
He runs, he runs straight through it, watching his toes.

– Watching, rather, the spaces of sand between them
Where (no detail too small) the Atlantic drains
Rapidly backwards and downwards. As he runs,
He stares at the dragging grains.

The world is a mist. And then the world is
Minute and vast and clear. The tide
Is higher or lower. He couldn’t tell you which.

His beak is focussed; he is preoccupied,

Looking for something, something, something.
Poor bird, he is obsessed!
The millions of grains are black, white, tan, and gray
Mixed with quartz grains, rose and amethyst.

A “music video” treatment of the Elizabeth Bishop poem, “Sandpiper” produced by Pink Dog Productions

Commentary: This exquisitely constructed poem sees the poet compare herself in an extended analogy to the lowly sandpiper. The poem is inspired by observations made on a return visit to Nova Scotia in 1965 and in it she personifies the bird, giving it human characteristics and eccentricities.  She tells us that ‘he’ is ‘a student of Blake’, referring to the great English poet and painter, William Blake, who famously celebrated seeing ‘a World in a Grain of Sand / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower’ in his poem, ‘Auguries of Innocence’, which, by the way, is a poem from one of his notebooks now known as The Pickering Manuscript.

We sense the continuous, nervous movement of the bird as ‘he runs to the south’, searching, exploring, discovering.  The bird is ‘finical’ or finicky and ‘awkward’ as it ceaselessly searches for the perfect grain, the discarded morsel.  The movement ‘south’ in turn mimics Bishop’s own migration south from Nova Scotia to Boston to Key West and later further south to Rio de Janeiro and Brazil.

Colm Tóibín in his effortlessly scholarly work, On Elizabeth Bishop, mentions that the ‘search for pure accuracy in her poems forced Bishop to watch the world helplessly, as though there was nothing she could do’.  She shares this trait with many other poets and artists.  This debilitating feature is also evident in Hemingway and Hopkins, this ceaseless search for the perfect word or phrase, and also features and is dramatised in the content and unique structure of Emily Dickinson’s poems with her use of dashes and capitalisation and other structural tricks to highlight the honing and triple distillation of each poem.  It also reminds me of something my son wrote very honestly  in one of his blogs, writing about his own writing process and that famous Irishman, Jack O’Metty!:

I’m the type of person who makes casual reference to Alberto Giacometti in everyday conversations. I have a vivid childhood memory of watching a Euronews cultural vignette which outlined the great sculptor’s methods: starting from a large scale he would pare down and reduce his sculptural figures until almost nothing remained save only the most minimal of features which could be said to represent man.  Giacometti’s problem was knowing when to stop before his clay figures, once larger than himself, disappeared to nothingness.  I use this as a metaphor for my own critical thought.  I consider and consider and pare and reduce until sometimes nothing remains. The trick is to create some academic content before this happens. I don’t always succeed. https://nicholasstreet.wordpress.com.

Many of the places she visited (Nova Scotia, the Straits of Magellan, the Amazon Estuary, Key West, Florida) stand at the boundary between land and sea and this tension between land and sea is very evident here in ‘Sandpiper’ and also in such poems as   ‘At the Fishhouses’, ‘Questions of Travel’ and ‘The Fish’, with the sea viewed as a strange, indifferent, encircling power.  In this poem, the sandpiper patrols that dividing line between sea and land and perhaps this is a metaphor for the conflict between the artist and life.

Bishop is fascinated by geographical extremities: straits, peninsulas, promontories, wharves, bights, mountains, jungle, outback, attracted to the near-isolation of these places.   Colm Tóibín makes the very astute observation that she, ‘made her homes on a single line of longitude, or close to one: Massachusetts, Nova Scotia, New York, Key West, Rio de Janeiro, Boston’.

In 1976, three years before she died, she wrote:

All my life I have lived and behaved very much like that sandpiper – just running along the edges of different countries ‘looking for something’.  I have always felt I couldn’t possibly live very far inland, away from the ocean; and I have always lived near it, frequently in sight of it …. timorously pecking for subsistence along coastlines of the world.

The second stanza opens with the domestic simile, ‘the beach hisses like fat’ and the caesura which follows is meant to demarcate the dividing line between left and right, sea and land, north and south.  A feature of her style is her continuous self-correction and search for exactness and greater precision in her description of the scene:

He runs, he runs straight through it, watching his toes.

– Watching, rather, the spaces of sand between them
Where (no detail too small) the Atlantic drains
Rapidly backwards and downwards.

This is immediately followed by another feature of her poetic work and craft: contradiction and deeper clarification of what has gone before:

The world is a mist. And then the world is
Minute and vast and clear. The tide
Is higher or lower. He couldn’t tell you which.

The poem ends with the poet again personifying the bird and it is clear to us that if we but simply change the gender, she could be talking about herself and the poetic process, just as Heaney does so eloquently in such poems as ‘Digging’ and ‘The Forge’:

His beak is focussed; he is preoccupied,

Looking for something, something, something.
Poor bird, he is obsessed!

Perhaps we can say, ‘Poor bird, (s)he is obsessed!’ with the impossibility of the task which she has undertaken as a poet: It’s as if the sandpiper who has been looking for ‘something, something, something’ suddenly sees the drab beach (with its millions of differing grains of sand as opposed to Blake’s one grain) transformed into a dazzling bejewelled walkway glistening with diversity and riches,

The millions of grains are black, white, tan, and gray
Mixed with quartz grains, rose and amethyst.

Bishop (7)

Works Cited:

Bishop, Elizabeth. The Complete Poems, 1927 – 1979.  New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroix, 1983

Tóibín, Colm. On Elizabeth Bishop, Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2015. Digital

See also Reviews Rants and Rambles:  https://vinhanley.com/2015/08/28/themes-and-issues-in-the-poetry-of-elizabeth-bishop/

Some Personal Thoughts on ‘the Road not Taken’ by Robert Frost

two_roads_in_a_yellow_wood_-robert-frost

The Road Not Taken

by Robert Frost

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

 

‘The Road not Taken’ has always been a very popular poem and despite 21st Century developments such as Google Maps and iPhones and Sat Navs it still bears a relevance for the modern reader.  Then again not all journeys are easily mapped and some take place off-road!  This lyric poem, a first-person narrative tale, describes  a key moment in the poet’s life.  In the poem, the speaker, whom we can assume is Robert Frost himself, is faced with a choice that appears quite suddenly as he walks along a forest track.  Imagine walking through beautiful woodland in upstate New York or Vermont as the Fall takes hold and imagine at this moment, the route on which you travel diverges into two separate paths.  This mirrors the poet’s dilemma in the poem and he faces a difficult decision that has to be made for the moment, yet may have repercussions that last a lifetime.  This is what makes the decision so difficult.

If you consider, briefly, some decisions you make in your own life, you know that you might make hundreds of choices in any one day, most without even noticing!  Deciding where to go for lunch is usually not too difficult; however, a much more difficult decision is the career to follow after your Leaving Cert or A Levels.  Your choice may affect your life for many years and so you tend to take time and effort in arriving at that decision.

So, Frost comes to a fork in the road.  If taken on a literal level, the choice is simply the path along which to continue.  However, if these paths are seen in a symbolic or allegoric way, then the choice is more challenging.  Great poetry and literature have always given us many examples where life is seen in terms of a journey on which we will meet many twists and turns.  So, therefore, the moment described so beautifully in the poem could be such a moment in anyone’s life.

The poet considers his options carefully.  He looks down both paths, ‘as far as I could’ in an attempt to see what they might offer.  But his view is limited by the bend as the track veers into the undergrowth.  It is, in other words, impossible to foresee what future may lie ahead – and Frost did not seem to have the luxury of a Change-of-Mind slip!  At first, each alternative is equally appealing or ‘just as fair’.  Similarly, both roads diverge into ‘a yellow wood’ – Vermont in all its Autumnal glory!  The first path, however, is a more popular route, while the other less-traveled path is overgrown and ‘wanted wear’.  The choice is clear but not at all simple: the common, easy path or the unusual, more challenging path?  The first road might prove more reliable, even reassuring, for others have gone that way.  The more difficult road, however, may produce a less predictable outcome yet perhaps a more fulfilling and individual one.

The poet is aware that the minor difference between the paths at this time will become major differences as the paths diverge further into the woods and into the future.  Each path is attractive and alluring in its own way, but he cannot travel both.  You can’t have your cake and eat it!  This he regrets.  Nonetheless, he decides.

Even as he travels his chosen path he still wonders about the path he has rejected and hopes to keep ‘the first for another day’.  Yet, he knows in his heart that ‘way leads on to way, / I doubted if I should ever come back’.  The poem, in this way, suggests that we can only hope to explore a very limited number of life’s possibilities.  Finally, the poet ‘sighs’, happy with his choice, yet wondering what if…..?  What experiences might have occurred along the other path?  Certainly, his choice has ‘made all the difference’.  That is gratifying; the decision has had a positive effect on his life and he is thankful for that and overall seems pleased with the road he has chosen.

This poem reminds us that important decisions in life are not exact predictions.  We base our choice on reflection of what might be encountered along the way.  Like Frost, we all hope that our major decisions will make ‘all the difference’ in our lives.  We need to believe they will.

Frost believed that each poem was a ‘little voyage of discovery’; a path to something else, rather than an end in itself.  Perhaps, the road not taken is just such a voyage?

 FROST (7)

Introducing ‘The Great Gatsby’

 great-gatsby-dust-jacket-01

A novel of the ‘Roaring Twenties’

This novel lays claim to being (probably) the most memorable fictional evocation of  America of the ‘roaring twenties’, the jazz-age America which came to such a devastating end with the Wall Street Crash at the end of that crazy decade.  Gatsby, Fitzgerald’s finest achievement, is interesting as the record of an era and  of the disillusionment felt by thoughtful, sensitive people with established institutions and beliefs and in their sense of moral chaos in America after the Great War of 1914-1918.

Such was Fitzgerald’s success in expressing what was widely regarded as the spirit of the twenties that he was virtually credited with inventing the period.  It was inevitable that he should be honoured with such dubious titles of distinction as ‘the laureate of the jazz age’ and ‘the novelist of the American dream’.  It is true that he is remarkably successful in rendering some of the essential features of an exciting time.   Sometimes it seems that Gatsby captures the moment and renders a more convincing account of the ‘Roaring Twenties’ than many a historical document.

The fragile, rich, drifting world of the twenties was the emotional heart of Fitzgerald’s life, the source of his happiness as well as his misery.  Gatsby is a reflection of his passionate involvement in the issues of his day, but also of his ambivalent attitude to what he saw and experienced.  It is, however, more than that.  In 1950, the critic Lionel Trilling remarked that  The Great Gatsby was still as fresh and as relevant as when it first appeared in 1925, and that it had even gained in stature and relevance, something that could be said of few American novels of its time.  Sixty five years after Trilling’s comment, there is little evidence that interest in the novel has in any way declined.  Indeed, its popularity has been enhanced by Hollywood film producers who have brought the novel and the era to the silver screen with great success and acclaim.

The American Dream

The Great Gatsby is, like many American novels, about an American dream, one dreamed by the romantic, wealthy bootlegger who gives the book its title.  Gatsby’s dream begins when, as a poor young man, he falls in love with Daisy, a girl whose charm, youth and beauty are coloured and made glamorous in his eyes by a lifetime of wealth, whose very voice, he notes, ‘is full of money’.  His dream that Daisy may become accessible to one of his class and background is nourished by two circumstances: the war makes him an officer, and his post-war activities elevate him to riches.  Gatsby must, however, learn that such things will not bring Daisy wholly within his reach and that however ardently he may pursue it, his dream cannot be realised simply because he wills it.

Class differences

In Gatsby, Fitzgerald is dealing with an important social theme.  He is fascinated by class distinctions and their relationship with the possession of wealth.  This places him firmly in the tradition of the great classical novelists.  The English novel originated in an age (the early eighteenth century) when class structures were drastically disturbed.  Most of the major English novelists have since continued to be absorbed by class differences, and to draw heavily on these and their influences on human behaviour and attitudes.  Think of the dominance of class and money in the novels of Jane Austen.  Although there is an evident ambiguity in Fitzgerald’s attitude to those who possess great wealth, the established rich, they still represent what Lionel Trilling calls, ‘the nearest thing to an aristocracy that America could offer him’.  Fitzgerald deals with the trappings and symbols of this American aristocracy, the great one being money.  In one of his stories, The Rich Boy, there is this telling comment:

Let me tell you about the very rich.  They are different from you and me.  They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them.

Readers of Gatsby will recognise that it is mainly about what money does to those who possess it in abundance.

There are, of course, two main versions of wealth in The Great Gatsby, dramatically contrasted throughout.  This contrast gives the book much of its interest.  Gatsby himself is the newly-rich tycoon, the boy from Dakota who thought he had to get rich quickly to win the love of a rich girl.  His wealth gives him a vulgar neo-Gothic mansion, an incredible car, and garish clothes; it causes him to assume uncharacteristic stances and attitudes, including ‘an elaborate formality of speech’.  All of these things placed side by side with the grace and ease associated with the representatives of the established rich, Daisy and Tom Buchanan, appear ludicrous.  Gatsby is, from one point of view, a vulgar upstart who purchases his standing in society by giving mammoth parties patronised by all and sundry.  (Check out Fitzgerald’s descriptions of these parties).  His great wealth, for all his efforts,  cannot imitate the effects produced by that of the Buchanans.

The world of the Buchanans

But the contrast is not entirely, or even mainly, in favour of the established rich.  Gatsby, for all his lavish vulgarity, turns out all right in the end in the eyes of the reader; the Buchanans do not.  Gatsby is using his money as an instrument with which to achieve something, to further his aim of enriching his life; he has a capacity for wonder, for excitement, not shared by the Buchanans.  Their wealth and that of their associate Jordan Baker is sterile, which induces a tired, bored attitude to life.  “We ought to plan something,” yawns Jordan, ‘sitting down at the table as if she were getting out of bed’; and again, “You see I think everything’s terrible anyhow … Everybody thinks so.”

What Fitzgerald establishes in the scenes involving the Buchanans is that their money has drained away their emotions.  Daisy’s pattern of living, based as it has always been on the security of possession, has given her the habit of retreating in the face of responsibility into ‘their money or their vast carelessness’.  This aspect of the mentality of the established rich is more than once contrasted with Gatsby’s heroic, if ludicrous, romantic idealism.  He watches outside the Buchanan house after the accident, seeking to shelter Daisy from its unpleasant consequences.  She is seated with Tom over a plate of cold chicken and two bottles of ale (‘an unmistakable air of natural intimacy about the picture’) when Nick arrives.  Gatsby looks at the latter ‘as though his presence marred the sacredness of the vigil’.  The vulgar tycoon can also be the chivalrous, incorruptible upholder of ideals, however, mistaken these may be.

Gatsby’s world

The superficial beautiful world of Tom and Daisy is just as ludicrous in its way as the one Gatsby creates around himself.  Gatsby’s world is, of course, a pathetic attempt to reproduce that of people like the Buchanans; by aping its surface, he fondly imagines that he can capture its heart.  His provision for himself of an acceptable background is part of the elaborate, absurd pretence.  As he reveals these fictional details, his speech becomes stiff and stilted, he chokes and swallows on the phrases:

I am the son of some wealthy people in the Middle west – all dead now.  I was brought up in America but educated at Oxford, because all my ancestors have been educated there for many years.  It is a family tradition.

Almost all of this is false, of course, the truth being less flattering: ‘An instinct towards his future glory had led him to the small Lutheran college of St Olaf’s in Southern Minnesota’.  His stay at Oxford is short and undistinguished.  But the attitudes of the Buchanans are exposed by Fitzgerald to as pitiless a scrutiny.  Here is a sample of what passes for thinking among them on ‘serious’ issues:

This idea is that we’re all Nordics.  I am, and you are, and you are, and – After an infinitesimal hesitation he included Daisy with a slight nod, and she winked at me again – And we’ve produced all the things that go to make civilisation – oh, science and art and all that.  Do you see?

The narrator Nick caraway remarks at the beginning that one of the things his father told him was that ‘a sense of the fundamental decencies is parcelled out unequally at birth.’  It is, oddly enough, in the socially deprived Gatsby rather than the long-established Buchanans that the ‘fundamental decencies’ are most in evidence.

 Balancing two worlds in the novel

‘The test of a first-class intelligence,’ Fitzgerald remarked, ‘is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.’  In The Great Gatsby, he holds contrasting ideas simultaneously on some major aspects of his material and successfully integrates opposing arguments and points of view.  The most obvious instance of this is when he oscillates between imaginative identification with the splendours of rich society and a recurring tendency towards objective analysis of its limitations.  The boredom, limited emotional range and narrowness of mind of the Buchanan set is very cleverly conveyed in the dialogue, but against this, he can also convey in a very sensuous way the attractions of being very wealthy:

All night the saxophones wailed the hopeless comment of the ‘Beale Street Blues’; while a hundred pairs of golden and silver slippers shuffled the shining dust.  At the grey tea hour there were always rooms that throbbed incessantly with the low, sweet fever, while fresh faces drifted here and there like rose petals blown by the sad horns around the floor.

But a more significant tension is that between the responses called forth by the two sides of Gatsby’s nature, as they are revealed in a few critical episodes and mediated to us through the play of Nick’s judgement of the events and his responses to them.  The central passage of the novel, taken in conjunction with Gatsby’s own account of his background, provides a good example of the ambivalence with which the hero is regarded by his creator:

I suppose he’d had the name ready for a long time, even then.  His parents were shiftless and unsuccessful farm people – his imagination had never really accepted them as his parents at all.  The truth was that Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself.  He was a son of god – a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that – and he must be about His Father’s business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty.  So he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen-year-old boy would like to invent, and to this conception, he was faithful to the end.

The obscene, gargantuan vulgarity of his weekend parties is evoked with sober irony:

Every Friday, five crates of oranges and lemons arrived from a fruiterer in New York – every Monday these same oranges and lemons left his back door in a pyramid of pulpless halves.  There was a machine in the kitchen which could extract the juice of two hundred oranges in half an hour if a little button was pressed two hundred times by a butler’s thumb!

 Gatsby as a tragic figure

If this were all there was to Gatsby, we would read the novel as a satire on contemporary manners.  Fitzgerald’s first publishers did, indeed, call the book a satire, but it is only incidentally so: principally in the contribution of the minor characters, and in the occasional comment on the incongruous activities of the major ones.  But the story and the main character are tragic.  The tragic implications of story and character arise chiefly from Gatsby’s redeeming qualities.  Like Fitzgerald himself, Gatsby is a romantic, and in the end meets the fate of all romantics: disillusion, a sense of inadequacy in the face of experience, a deeply felt sense of failure.  His romantic dream is centred on Daisy, an unworthy object as he finds out too late.

Gatsby’s romanticism is stressed throughout the book.  It sometimes involves an endearingly childlike attitude to experience, a sentimental attachment to anything associated with those he loves, not found in any of the other characters.  ‘If it wasn’t for the mist,’ he tells Daisy, ‘we could see your house across the bay.  You always have a green light that burns all night at the end of your dock.’  This green light acquires a symbolic force.  In a famous passage at the close of the novel, we are reminded of the sense of wonder Gatsby experienced when he first noticed the light at the end of daisy’s dock; it comes to stand as a memorial to his romantic idealism:

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us.  It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther …  And one fine evening – So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

gatsby

A sense of the past

Gatsby has the characteristic romantic preoccupation with the past.  This is beautifully evoked by Fitzgerald in a telling passage, which reveals some of the hidden springs of his failure and of his tragedy.  His great delusion is a sad and common one: that the past can be restored and duplicated, and the effects of the passage of time erased.  Gatsby wants Daisy to abandon Tom Buchanan so that, after she is free, she may go back with him to Louisville to be married from her house, ‘just as if it were five years ago’.  When caraway tells him he can’t repeat the past like this he can see no reason whatever why: ‘I’m going to fix everything just as it was before.’  His longing to do so is perfectly comprehensible.  His life has been disordered since his parting with Daisy: he wants to ‘recover something, some idea of himself, perhaps, that had gone into loving Daisy’.  He returns in his poignant day-dream to a starting place, to a scene with Daisy, described in heightened, poetic, emotionally-charged language, that can make sober realities pale into unimportance.  The incident takes on almost an absolute value, for us readers as well as for Gatsby.  Little wonder that he wants to begin again from such a point:

One autumn night, five years before, they had been walking down the street when the leaves were falling, and they came to a place where there were no trees and the sidewalk was white with moonlight.  They stopped here and turned toward each other.  Now it was a cool night with that mysterious excitement in it which comes at the two changes of the year …

His vain hope of recapturing such a past is finally extinguished by Tom Buchanan’s exposure of his activities during the intervening years.  The romantic cavalier is mercilessly stripped of his glamour: ‘He and Wolfstein bought up a lot of side-street drug stores here and in Chicago and sold grain alcohol over the counter … I picked him for a bootlegger the first time I saw him.’  Tom reduces Gatsby’s thrilling aspirations to the level of the sordid: ‘I think he realises that his presumptuous little flirtation is over.’  The end of the quest for lost happiness is tellingly rendered:

But with every word she was drawing further and further into herself, so he gave that up, and only the dead dream fought on as the afternoon slipped away, trying to touch what was no longer tangible, struggling unhappily, undespairingly, towards that lost voice across the room.

Fitzgerald the moralist

Scott Fitzgerald was at heart a moralist.  He once gave as his reason for writing fiction ‘a desire to preach at people in some acceptable form’.  Moralists often find their natural outlet in satire, and Fitzgerald was gifted with a keen satiric eye and a keen sense of the absurdities of human nature.  Tom’s defence of ‘civilisation’ against the ‘inferior’ races provides a good example.  There are more good satiric portraits of minor figures like Catherine and Mr. McKee:

Her eyebrows had been plucked and then drawn on again at a more rakish angle, but the efforts of nature toward the restoration of the old alignment gave a blurred air to her face … He informed me that he was in ‘the artistic game’, and I gathered later that he was a photographer and had made a dim enlargement of Mrs. Wilson’s mother which hovered like an ectoplasm on the wall.  His wife was shrill, languid, handsome and horrible.

But these, and the description of the massive vulgarity of the Gatsby residence are isolated patches; Fitzgerald was much more attracted to the affirmation of what he saw as the good than to the denunciation of the bad.  The positives celebrated in The Great Gatsby are the simple virtues: the hopeful, wondering, questioning attitudes of mid-Western America, o the ‘broad, sprawling, swollen towns beyond the Ohio’, over against which, in rich contrast, is the urban sophistication, culture, boredom and corruption of the jaded East.

 Flaws in the novel

The significance of the title of the book in relation to all this is often missed.  Gatsby is great is so far as he stands for the simplicity of heart Fitzgerald identified with the mid-West; he is a vulgar, contemptible figure in so far as he revels in the notoriety that his worldly success lends to his name.  He is, of course, a man of limited understanding, failing at once to appreciate his own real claims to recognition (his idealism, his high romantic aspirations) and to recognise his error in thinking that he really belongs to the world he has entered.  In its way, too, the novel is limited in its treatment of its central figure.  After all, we are expected to find the supreme value of the story and its hero in its romantic aspirations, in his ‘heightened sensitivity to the promises of life’.  There is no voice in the novel, no point of view which seems to question the adequacy of this attitude.  To many readers, it must seem a poor enough one in face of the complexities of actual living.  What is perhaps more disturbing is that the novelist himself seems to find Gatsby’s romantic stance entirely adequate.  A remark of his seems to bear this out:

That’s the whole burden of the novel, the loss of those illusions that give such colour to the world so that you don’t care whether things are true or false as long as they partake of the magical glory.

If this is the best that can be set over against the amoral world of the established rich, many readers will leave the book down with a sense of disappointment.

Merits of The Great Gatsby

Against this, however, one must stress the considerable virtues of The great Gatsby: its poetic quality (Fitzgerald was a devoted reader of T.S. Eliot, who influenced him here), its almost flawless structure, Fitzgerald’s mastery of technique.  His use of detail to suggest symbolic meaning is particularly impressive.  Here it is interesting to note that one of the best symbols in the book, the grotesque eyes of T.J. Eckleburg’s billboard came to him by chance.  His publisher had a dust jacket designed for The Great Gatsby, a poor quality picture intended to suggest, by means of two enormous eyes, Daisy brooding over an amusement-park version of New York.  Fitzgerald’s brilliant reworking of this in the book is a tribute to his intuitive skill.  Again, the slow, gradual presentation of Gatsby is a tour de force.  We are more than half-way through the book before we know the important things about him.  The evocation of atmosphere and background is memorable and utterly satisfying; a detail or two will often suffice to fix indelibly a scene, a character or a mood:

With an effort Wilson left the shade and support of the doorway, and, breathing hard, unscrewed the cap of the tank.  In the sunlight his face was green.

One must not ignore the intelligent use by Fitzgerald of Carraway as narrator; a good deal of the colour and subtlety of the novel arises from the response of the narrator’s judgement and feelings to the events he describes.

Finally, the power and impact of the book are greatly enhanced by Fitzgerald’s concentration of his story and theme into a relatively few telling scenes.

About the Author....

f__scott_fitzgerald_2_by_echaz

Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald (September 24, 1896 – December 21, 1940), known professionally as F. Scott Fitzgerald, was an American novelist and short story writer, whose writing gives us a memorable fictional evocation of  America of the ‘roaring twenties’ and  of the Jazz Age. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest American writers of the 20th century.  Fitzgerald is considered a member of the “Lost Generation” of the 1920s. He finished four novels: This Side of ParadiseThe Beautiful and DamnedThe Great Gatsby (his best known), and Tender Is the Night.  A fifth, unfinished novel, The Love of the Last Tycoon, was published posthumously.  Fitzgerald also wrote numerous short stories, many of which treat themes of youth and promise, and age and despair (Wikipedia).

 

 

An Introduction to ‘The Catcher in the Rye’

 

download (5)

 

This novel, first published on this day, 16th July in 1951, by the enigmatic J. D. Salinger, belongs to a category of fiction made popular by writers as diverse as Dickens and Joyce.  It is Bildungsroman, or novel about upbringing and education – a novel of maturation.  The heroes of novels of this type are invariably young people or children seeking to find their identities and roles in the big bad world.  Nineteenth-century examples are David Copperfield (1850) and Great Expectations (1861), both by Charles Dickens.  The most famous twentieth-century example is James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916).  Probably the most famous example from American fiction before Catcher in the Rye was the classic The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.  Many of these novels go far beyond the treatment of the educational development of the central figure, and concern themselves with profound spiritual and moral experiences.

 The Catcher in the Rye is the story of the efforts of an adolescent American to relate to a grown-up world that he finds deeply flawed and fundamentally unsympathetic.  The central figure, Holden Caulfield, leaves his boarding school and spends a weekend in New York City.  Here he finds himself alone in what he sees as a grown-up world of corruption, unkindness and hypocrisy.  The main theme of the novel is Holden’s resistance to growing up into this kind of world, which, as he sees it, undermines youthful innocence and integrity.  The novel has no real plot.  It consists mainly of the observations of Holden on his experiences, particularly on the ‘phoniness’ of those he encounters.  His attempt to reconcile himself to the values of the adult world is a failure.  He retreats from this failure into mental illness, and writes his story while under psychiatric treatment.

Resistance to loss of innocence

The title of the novel is a glance at Holden’s dream of protecting other, younger children from the curse of maturity, of saving such innocents before the world corrupts them.  One of Robert Burns’s most famous songs has the line, ‘If a body meet a body coming through the rye’, Holden has misheard the words and thinks the line should go, ‘If a body catch a body coming through the rye’.  He uses the mistaken version as a slogan for his own dream-activity.  He will catch the innocent children who play in the ryefield because they are in danger of falling over the unseen edge of a cliff.  His vision of his saving role is pathetic in its futility:

 ‘I thought it was “If a body catch a body”,’ I said.  ‘Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all.  Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me.  And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff.  What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going.  I have to come from somewhere  and catch them.  That’s all I’d do all day.  I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all.  I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.  I know it’s crazy.’

 An uncaring adult world

Part of Holden’s depression arises from his awareness of himself as an innocent abroad in a world of phoney values, a world which, like Holden himself, needs love but does not know where to find it.  It is, in many of its manifestations, a world that believes that it can get on without love, or even without decency.  What passes for love in the adult world through which he moves is little better than selfish exploitation.  Most of those with whom he comes in contact are crudely dismissive of him and his concerns (the taxi-drivers, for example), try to exploit him for money, like the offensive pimp in the hotel, or seem ready to abuse him sexually, like Antolini, his former schoolmaster, to whom he turns in desperate need for help and advice.  It is not surprising that Holden cannot form a viable or stable relationship with adult society.  That society cannot give him the love and affection for which he craves.  These values seem to be associated in his mind with two things: death and the innocence that disappeared with the loss of childhood.

The death-motif and its association with love appear from time to time in Holden’s references to his much-loved brother, whose death from leukemia has blighted his family.  His longing to preserve innocence in a world given over to destroying it makes him the idealist who rubs obscenities off walls so that small girls will not have to see them.  In The Catcher in the Rye, Salinger, who clearly approves of his hero, raises fundamental questions about man’s inhuman treatment of his fellow-men.  What, we are forced to ask, makes New York an abode of indifferent, uncaring individuals?  Is the answer to be found in some radical flaw at the heart of human nature, or in society?  The novel suggests that human nature is not primarily to blame for the sufferings which Holden and others like him have to endure.  Salinger conveys a sense that the world is populated by fallible, foolish, pompous, careless, morally weak individuals rather than by evil ones, and that human beings are potentially loving and joyful if only society will permit them to satisfy these basic longings.  It was this aspect of The Catcher in the Rye that caused it to appeal most widely to a generation of American students in the nineteen-fifties.  As Anthony Burgess has pointed out, the novel was,

‘a symptom of a need, after a ghastly war and during a ghastly peace, for the young to raise a voice of protest against what the adult world was doing, or failing to do’.

Holden’s depression

The Catcher in the Rye has a single unifying theme: the nervous breakdown or intensifying depression of a sixteen-year-old boy.  The progress of Holden’s psychiatric illness is chronicled not from its origins but through its critical phase.  This is done with remarkable understanding of how depression actually works, and how it affects behaviour and the processes of thought.  Salinger is particularly impressive in his handling of the correlation between depressive illness and physical symptoms.  As his depression intensifies, Holden experiences psychosomatic symptoms, which feature a morbid fear of painful death (‘I figured I’d be dead in a couple of months because I had cancer’) and much physical distress (‘The thing is, if you get very depressed about something, it’s hard as hell to swallow’).  What we learn about him from his own narrative of his life makes his depressed state comprehensible enough.  The death of his much-loved brother Allie from leukaemia is one major influence on his mental and emotional states, leaving him with a grievance against the unfairness of things.  His emotional difficulties are not eased by his relationship with his parents.  His mother has been depressed since Allie’s death, and is not a positive force in his life, while his father, preoccupied with being successful, never discusses problems with him.

Holden is thus deprived of the parental guidance every adolescent needs.  His lack of emotional stability is not surprising.  The boarding school to which he is sent is no substitute for his parents.  His primary need is for the kind of understanding and sympathy that will see him through a difficult period in his life.  Whenever he seeks this from his acquaintances he is rebuffed or ignored.   As he ruefully remarks, Stradlater is not interested in a person’s ‘lousy childhood’, while Ackley will respond only if yelled at.  Both Ackley and Stradlater make little of the few achievements that might give Holden some badly needed self-confidence and self-esteem.  When Holden puts a heartfelt question to his history instructor (‘Everybody goes through phases and all, don’t they?’), the latter cannot answer him.  His old girl-friend Sally Hayes can do no better than the others in providing the understanding he needs if he is to keep depression at bay.  Carl Luce, an ex-schoolmate now at Columbia University, responds coldly and unfeelingly to Holden’s plea for help in sorting out his mental and emotional confusion, callously advising him to see a psychiatrist.

As a final despairing gesture, Holden turns to a man he respects, his teacher Mr. Antolini.  The latter can help him no more than the others could.  He lectures him at length, but fails to notice how deeply disturbed he is.  At this stage, Holden is at breaking-point, descending to deeper levels of depression, while Antolini is telling him that an academic education will give him an idea what size of mind he has.  Salinger provides some obvious pointers to Holden’s lack of mental stability in his numerous self-contradictions.  Our hero tells Antolini, for example, that a teacher at Pencey, ‘was intelligent and all, but you could tell he didn’t have too much brains’.  He also claims that there were a couple of classes he didn’t attend for a while, but that he didn’t cut any.  The outcome of the episode with Antolini is that Holden is more depressed than ever.  Convinced that society has finally failed him, he decides to run away and pretend to be a deaf mute, so avoiding, ‘any goddam stupid useless conversations with anybody’.  He will make no further efforts to gain the understanding of other people, and will renounce the ‘phoney’ world.

Phoebe, an agent of redemption

If he is to be redeemed from his hopelessly depressed state, this must now be through the voluntary, unsolicited intervention of somebody else.  His sister Phoebe becomes the agent of his redemption from total despair.  When Phoebe insists on running away with him, he comes to the conclusion that he cannot take responsibility for her, and decides that he must go home, not for his own sake, but for hers.  This gesture of submission is rewarded with a fleeting spell of intense happiness, lovingly described.  The sight of Phoebe going round and round on the carousel fills him with inexplicable joy and tranquility, although the contradictory account of how he fares in the rain is a sinister indication of his confused mental state:

‘My hunting hat really gave me quite a lot of protection, in a way, but I got soaked anyway.  I didn’t care, though.  I felt so damn happy all of a sudden, the way old Phoebe kept going round and round.  I was damn near bawling.  I felt so damn happy, if you want to know the truth.  I don’t know why.  It was just that she looked so damn nice, the way she kept going round and round, in her blue coat and all.  I wish you could’ve been there’.

 After his painful quest, involving disappointment, frustration, bitterness, depression and disillusionment, Holden has at last found something beautiful in a world he has so often condemned as ‘phoney’.  This does not necessarily mean that he novel has a happy ending.  We know that the carousel will have to stop, and Holden and his sister will have to return to the world from which all his instincts have been urging him to escape.  The best things that life has to offer him are the few fleeting moments of exaltation he has experienced watching Phoebe on the carousel.

Holden’s distorted view of the world.

The Catcher in the Rye is often read as a sympathetic account of a good-natured, sensitive boy confronted by a cruel, dishonest world, populated by freaks, exploiters and phoneys.  The following is typical of his view of other people:

 I was surrounded by jerks.  I’m not kidding.  At this other tiny table, right to my left, was this funny-looking guy and this funny-looking girl.

It is clear from the novel that Salinger likes Holden and expects his readers to like him, but the question must be asked, how likable is he?  Does he deserve to be taken at his own valuation as an idealist who suffers at the hands of others?  Are we to applaud his trenchant exposures of virtually all those who cross his path?

The presentation of Holden involves an obvious paradox: the childlike idealist with the vulnerable, sensitive nature can appear heartless and cruel in his comments on almost everybody else.  There is the curious fact that although he is constantly protesting against the phoniness of almost everybody else, he himself is far from exempt from this fault.  In this context, phoniness means hypocrisy, empty, insincere moralising and fraudulent attitudes and behaviour.  It is true that Holden is upset by such things; as he puts it, they cause him to ‘puke’.  The only people he can think of as being free from phoniness are his sister Phoebe, the two nuns he meets in the sandwich bar, and children in general.  Were he also to look more closely at himself, he would have to acknowledge that he shares the qualities he condemns in others.  He often tells lies, often pretends to be someone he is not, and can be quite bitter in his comments on his friends, while at the same time pleading for charity and kindness towards himself.

The key to Holden’s character is his mental confusion.  This shows itself particularly in his inability to see people and their activities in proportion.  Again, his lack of a proper sense of proportion expresses itself in an outrageously exaggerated habit of speaking.  By referring to almost everybody and everything in grossly inflated language, he can make relatively innocuous circumstances sound wicked and dangerous.

It is not enough for him to describe a woman who sits next to him at the cinema as the slightly inconsiderate person she is; he feels obliged to describe her as being ‘about as kind-hearted as a goddam wolf’.  He doesn’t like Ossenburger the undertaker, and takes exception to the man’s religious inclinations.  His dislike vents itself in great crude fantasies in which Ossenburger features as a monstrous fraud who shoves corpses into a sack and dumps them in the river, who prays fervently to Jesus to send him more corpses and who bores a captive audience with ‘about fifty corny jokes’.  He describes places and their atmospheres in the same wildly exaggerated fashion, particularly when their impact on him is unfavourable.  A hotel lobby cannot seem merely stale-smelling to him; it must convey the impression of ‘fifty million dead cigars’.  No wonder Phoebe tells him, ‘You don’t like anything that’s happening.’  This is because his view of reality is hopelessly distorted; his depressed state makes him so utterly negative about experience that he cannot see that even the worst people and situations have some redeeming qualities.

 ob_7d3cd6_wc-1a-catcherintherye

Exploring the Poetry of Adrienne Rich (1929 – 2012)

 Adrienne Rich (1)

THIS IS A PERSONAL REVIEW OF SOME THEMES AND ISSUES WHICH FEATURE IN THE POETRY OF ADRIENNE RICH. YOU SHOULD CONSIDER THESE IDEAS, THEN RE-EXAMINE THE POEMS MENTIONED FOR EVIDENCE TO SUBSTANTIATE OR CONTRADICT THESE INTERPRETATIONS.  IN OTHER WORDS MAKE YOUR OWN OF THESE NOTES, ADD TO THEM OR DELETE FROM THEM AS YOU SEE FIT.

THE FOLLOWING SELECTION IS SUGGESTED BECAUSE THEY DEAL WITH THE MAJOR THEMES WHICH RECUR IN RICH’S POETRY:

  • Storm Warnings,
  • The Uncle Speaks in the Drawing Room,
  • Living in Sin,
  • The Roofwalker,
  • Trying to Talk to a Man,
  • Diving into the Wreck,
  • From a Survivor.

YEATS SAID OF HIS POETRY THAT IT WAS ‘BUT THE CONSTANT STITCHING AND RESTITCHING OF OLD THEMES’.  CHECK THIS OUT FOR YOURSELF IN RELATION TO ADRIENNE RICH!  

YOUR AIM SHOULD BE TO PICK YOUR OWN FAVOURITES (THREE OR FOUR) FROM THIS SELECTION AND GET TO KNOW THEM VERY WELL. 

 

 

Adrienne Rich (2)

_______________ o __________________

 

MAJOR THEMES IN RICH’S POETRY

 

Relationships

Rich is best known as a feminist writer and many of her poems deal with the oppression of women by men.  Marriage, in particular, is seen as a tool by which women are kept under the thumb of men.  ‘From a Survivor’ emphasises how women can be mastered or controlled by their husbands.  The speaker suggests that her husband’s body was ‘the body of a God’ and that it had ‘power’ over her life.

Similarly, in ‘Trying to Talk to a Man’, the speaker again suggests that her husband might have dominated her life: ‘Your dry heat feels like power / your eyes are stars of a different magnitude’.  ‘Living in Sin’, too, touches on this topic although here the couple are simply living together.  Here it is the woman in the relationship who does all the work (What’s new?), who makes the bed and tidies the apartment: she ‘pulled back the sheets and made the bed and found / a towel to dust the tabletop’.  The man with whom she’s living, meanwhile, seems to contribute little to the upkeep of the household.  This can be taken as yet another instance, therefore, of a woman being dominated or controlled by man.  It is another poem in which Rich emphasises the fundamental inequality of marriage and of relationships between men and women.

‘The Roofwalker’ is another poem that presents marriage in a negative light.  In this poem the speaker realises that her marriage has been a terrible mistake, that she has wasted a great deal of time and energy creating a life that is not suited to her: ‘Was it worthwhile to lay / with infinite exertion / a roof I can’t live under?’  The life she has made for herself, this seemingly comfortable existence that centres on a happy marriage and healthy children, is a life she was pressured into: ‘A life I didn’t choose / chose me’.  Now she is prepared to leave this life behind, to abandon the comfortable structure of her marriage and brave the world beyond this comfortable shell.  She will become, she says, ‘like naked man fleeing / across the roofs’.

It is important to note, however, that Rich can also be positive about marriage and relationships.  There is also room in her poetry for straightforward romance and love.  In ‘From a Survivor’, for instance, she emphasises that her husband’s body is ‘as vivid to me / as it ever was’ suggesting the deep love she felt for this man who is now tragically dead.  ‘Trying to Talk with a Man’ also stresses the deep emotional bond that existed between Rich and her husband with its deeply moving litany of memories and intimate moments that the couple shared; ‘whole LP collections, films we starred in / playing in the neighbourhoods, bakery windows / full of dry, chocolate-filled Jewish cookies/ the language of love-letters……’

The Personal and the Political

One of the best-known aspects of Rich’s poetry is the way it blends political and personal concerns.  Again and again she finds unexpected parallels between her personal traumas and political events that take place in the wider world.  This technique is used in an especially moving way in ‘Trying to Talk with a Man’.  The disintegration of the couple’s relationships is depicted against the backdrop of the violence and fury of a nuclear test in the Nevada desert: ‘Out here in the desert we are testing bombs / that’s why we came here’.  As we read the poem we realise that external violence of the nuclear test is a metaphor for the internal or emotional violence of the couple’s break-up: ‘talking of the danger / as if it were not ourselves / as if we were testing anything else’.

Women in a Patriarchal Society

The poetry of Adrienne Rich (like the poetry of Boland and Plath) documents the struggles and difficulties that women endure in the modern world.  Many of these difficulties are the result of the nature of the society in which we live.  Rich suggests fairly forcefully that we live in a man’s world.  The consequence of this for women is that they are never given the opportunities to achieve and optimise their potential or even communicate their true feelings and desires.  In ‘Diving into the Wreck’, Rich uses the dive into the dark depths of the sea to symbolise her efforts to penetrate the murky waters of history in order to see what lies at the bottom.  She has read about what might be there in a ‘book of myths’ but she wants to find out for herself.  What she finds is a ‘wreck’, an old ship that is battered and broken, but ‘whose silver, copper, vermeil cargo lies / obscurely inside barrels’.  It seems that this ship is a symbol of the origins of who we are and how we understand ourselves.  Down here with the wreck the speaker of the poem seems to lose all solid notions of what it means to be a woman.  Her gender becomes ambiguous and gender definitions become fluid and vague.  (Could you tell if a diver in a wet suit is male or female from a distance under water?)  The suggestion seems to be that the roles of men and women in society have a history, they are not established in fact, are not absolutely intrinsic to who we are.  If we can get back to the origins, to the beginning, when these definitions were first established we might be able to re-define and re-determine roles.  Why, the poet asks, should we live our lives according to definitions that we had no role in creating, that were established way back before we were even born.  ‘Diving into the Wreck’ suggests that there may be possibilities of rediscovering and re-learning who we are, if we are willing to try:

                               We are, I am, you are

by cowardice or courage

the one who find our way

back to this scene

carrying a knife, a camera

a book of myths

in which

our names do not appear

Forces for Change

The idea of an outside force, something that is potentially dangerous and capable of affecting our lives, is present in a number of Rich’s poems.  In many of her earlier poems Rich gives the impression that she is at the mercy of elements that she can’t quite control.  In ‘Storm Warnings’, for example, Rich portrays the weather as a powerful force for change that threatens her fragile home.  All she can do is close the windows and lock the doors against the storm that is brewing outside.  As the poem points our, even with our fancy new-fangled technologies and our weather reports, we are unable to control the weather.  We might be able to predict what is going to happen, but we are powerless to prevent it happening.  Time and darkness are two other forces that we are unable to control.  She also seems to suggest that there are elements of our own lives that we are powerless to change also.  As Rich points out: ‘Weather abroad / And weather in the heart alike come on / Regardless of prediction’.  By this she seems to be talking about the depression and other moods that we suffer from throughout our lives.

The notion of an external force is also at play in ‘The Uncle Speaks in the Drawing Room’ which contains the speech of a rich man whose lifestyle is put under threat by the presence of an angry mob at his gate.  We are not aware of the mob’s grievance but its presence remains a potent and ominous force in the poem.  Again there is a suggestion that the world contains elements that are beyond our control, no matter how wealthy and powerful we might be.  As I have said on many occasions, change is a fact of life, and the only people who welcome change are babies with wet nappies.  The speaker in this poem, the uncle seems oblivious to the reality of the growing social unrest that is taking place around him.  One could say that he’s in denial – and as I often say the Nile is not just a river in Egypt!!!!!

Roofwalker - Adrienne Rich (3)

Sample Answer:

‘The poetry of Adrienne Rich shows us the relationship between men and women in all their glory and despair’.

With reference to the above statement say whether the poetry of Rich appealed to you.

 

Adrienne Rich was the poet on the Leaving Cert course whose work most appealed to me.  There were several reasons for this.  For me the most important aspect of Rich’s work was her depiction of relationships in a way that seemed very real.  Her poems take account of the fact that love so often goes wrong yet they also offer hope that the anguish of a failed relationship can be overcome.  I also enjoyed the feminist aspect of Rich’s work.  Her depiction of women being dominated by the men in their lives is as relevant today as it was when Rich first presented it.

In my opinion, too many poems and pop songs present an idealistic or overly romantic view of love.  Rich, however, is having none of this.  She is fully aware that all too often relationships don’t work out the way we want them to.  As she puts it in ‘From a Survivor’, every couple believes they are ‘special’: ‘Like everybody else we thought of ourselves as special’.  Yet no couple is immune to the ‘failure of the race’.  Every relationship will experience turbulence and difficulty.  In ‘The Roofwalker’ for instance, the speaker invests a great deal of time and energy in a relationship only to realise that she does not really belong with this man.  The life they have created together is not for her.  ‘Was it worth while’, she asks to ‘lay – / with infinite exertion – / a roof I can’t live under?’  This tragic waste of time and effort in the  cause of a failed relationship was something I could really relate to.

I could also identify somewhat with the situation depicted in ‘Living in Sin’.  This poem also shows us a woman whose relationship has not worked out as she expected.  This young woman believed she would have a perfect life with her lover in their studio apartment.  She imagined there would be ‘no dust upon the furniture of love’.  However, life in the studio has turned out to be quite miserable.  The apartment is dirty and unpleasant; ‘Half-heresy, to wish the taps less vocal, / the panes relieved of grime’.  Her lover appears distant and uncaring, and hardly speaks to her each morning before going ‘out for cigarettes’.  It is hardly unsurprising, therefore, that this young woman is filled with mental anguish, is haunted by the ‘minor demons’ of sorrow and disappointment.

Yet Rich’s most moving account of a relationship in crisis is surely ‘Trying to Talk with a Man’.  What impresses me most about this poem is the way it captures just how difficult it can be to communicate at the end of a relationship, with Rich brilliantly describing the lovers ‘surrounded by a silence … that came with us /and is familiar’.  This silence expands like a cancer at the heart of the couple’s relationship, forcing them to ‘give up’ the things they shared, such as  ‘the language of love-letters’ and ‘afternoons on the riverbank / pretending to be children’.

A strong belief in women’s liberation is also central to Rich’s poetry as she developed as a writer.  Many of her poems, including ‘Living in Sin’, focus on the inequality between women and men that exists at the heart of so many relationships.  The young woman in this poem seems to do all the housework while her boyfriend lounges about the place uselessly.  Though he is allegedly an artist of some kind he appears to do little artistic work, only sounding a ‘dozen notes upon the keyboard’ before heading ‘out for cigarettes’

However, Rich’s poetry also offers a lot of hope.  In both ‘The Roofwalker’ and ‘From a Survivor’ she shows that it is possible for a woman to reverse bad decisions and escape a relationship or way of life that is unsuitable to her.  In ‘From a Survivor’ the speaker has ‘made the leap’ and escaped her failing marriage.  Now her husband is no longer like a god to her and her new life is like a ‘succession of brief, amazing moments’.  ‘The Roofwalker’ also deals with this possibility of escape and shows the speaker desiring to leave behind a life she ‘didn’t choose’.  Yet this poem stresses how unnerving and intimidating it can be to leave a stable relationship behind.  To do so is to be exposed and vulnerable as ‘a naked man /fleeing across the roofs’.  I thought this was one of Rich’s finest images, brilliantly capturing feelings of vulnerability and isolation in an image that is both moving and amusing.

While Rich’s philosophy is important, it is her use of images, in my opinion, that makes her truly great as a poet.  Her use of metaphors is very eye-catching and there is a lovely example of this in ‘Living in Sin’ where a beetle is described as ‘an envoy from the moldings’.  There is also another excellent metaphor in this poem where the morning is compared to a ‘relentless milkman coming up the stairs’.  I found both of these images amusing but they also filled me with a certain unease and discomfort.  There is also a startling set of metaphors in ‘The Roofwalker’ that really appealed to me, where builders on a roof are described as sailors on a deck; the sky is depicted as ‘a torn sail’, and the night as a black wave about to descend.

To sum up, then, my admiration for Rich’s poems stems from the fact that she is not afraid to confront unpleasant realities such as the heartbreak that accompanies the failure of a relationship and the oppression of women.  Yet she is not a poet who is content to simply dwell on the negative.  Her work also offers hope, hope that the anguish of failed love can be overcome, that women can escape the traps in life they set for themselves and that they can gain power all of their own.

image

Sample Answer:

‘Adrienne Rich’s poetry is interesting both for its themes and its language’.  Discuss.

 I am in complete agreement with this statement.  Rich is one of the most important and provocative voices in modern day literature.  Her themes are always relevant and she often challenges us with her ideas on, for example,  male-female relationships and the role of women in society.  While her feminist perspective means that her work has an obvious attraction for a female audience, her appeal is not confined to one gender.  Her language is generally clear and direct and her images striking and memorable.

An idea that she often explores is the complex reality of male-female relationships.  ‘Living in Sin’ is interesting primarily because of its realistic depiction of male-female relationships.  Most people could relate to the experience of the woman who finds that the reality of living with her partner in a small studio apartment falls short of the romantic dream.  In her naivety, the woman had given no thought to the mundane realities of day-to-day life with her partner.  This idea is expressed in everyday language, ‘She had thought the studio would keep itself’.  Inevitably, harsh reality reveals the unglamorous truth: noisy dripping taps, grimy windows, scraps of leftover food and empty bottles.  Worst of all, she encounters a beetle among the saucers – the beetle is described in a memorably humorous image as an ‘Envoy from a village in the moldings’.  Aside from the grim physical environment, the woman has to cope with her partner’s lethargy and general indifference.  He seems to be a musician or composer, but lacks the motivation to practice his music, ‘sounded a dozen notes upon the keyboard, / declared it out of tune, shrugged at the mirror, /rubbed at his beard, went out for cigarettes’.  The shrugging image perfectly captures her partner’s apathetic attitude.  This poem provides us with an insight into sexual stereotyping – the man makes no attempt to tackle any domestic tasks and it is the woman who cleans the apartment.  Despite her disillusionment, the woman does not leave her indifferent boyfriend and the depressing apartment, ‘By evening she was back in love again’.  However, the next phrase (‘though not as wholly’) qualifies this statement, reminding us that her initial optimism about the relationship is beginning to fade away gradually.

Anyone of us who have found ourselves in a relationship, which is falling apart, will easily relate to ‘Trying to Talk with a Man’.  In this poem the speaker and her partner have gone into the desert ostensibly to witness (and protest about) the detonation of a nuclear bomb – however, we get the impression that the underlying purpose of this journey is to take stock of their relationship.  An excellent visual image suggests how the woman is growing in insight, ‘Sometimes I feel an underground river / forcing its way between deformed cliffs / an acute angle of understanding’.

This poem also highlights Rich’s effective use of metaphor and imagery to convey her themes.  The images of a ghost town and the desert effectively suggest the silent, barren nature of the couple’s relationship.  While the troubled lovers are ‘surrounded by a silence’ that sounds like the silence of the deserted town, the poet realises that the silence has come with them – it is ‘a familiar’ silence. The speaker acknowledges the extent of their problems in language that is admirably simple and direct, ‘Out here I feel more helpless / with you than without you’.    What I found interesting about this poem was the man’s unwillingness to discuss the problems at the heart of the relationship.  He talks only of external events such as the danger of nuclear testing, making no attempt to address the danger surrounding the relationship, ‘Talking of the danger / as if it were not ourselves’.  This poem stands out in my mind because it underlines an almost universal truth – women are more emotionally aware and more emotionally honest than men.

‘From a Survivor’ is a deeply personal poem describing the poet’s failed marriage.  What I found interesting – and indeed uplifting – about this poem was the affectionate nature of the poet’s reflection on her late husband and the fact that her brave ‘leap’ away from her marriage enabled her to find true joy.  The conversational language employed by Rich gives this poem a wonderful sense of immediacy, ‘I don’t know who we thought we were / that our personalities / could resist the failures of our race’.  The poet reminds us of the optimism that attends the early stages of romantic relationships, ‘Like everybody else, we thought of ourselves as special’.  She never anticipated that their marriage, like so many others, would not stand the test of time.  Despite the tensions of their marriage, the poet’s affection for her late husband endures, ‘Your body is as vivid to me / as it ever was’.  It was also encouraging to learn that, having come through a difficult period, the poet retains the capacity to find joy in life – she speaks of having experienced ‘a succession of brief amazing moments’.  Another aspect of this poem that I found interesting was the insight it provided into the changing nature of male-female relationships.  Social and cultural changes brought about largely by the active feminist movement mean that the poet now has a clearer perspective on her marriage.  When she married, marriage was an intrinsically unequal institution (and who wants to live in an institution….!), with the woman expected to be obedient to her husband.  In the past the poet had seen her husband as ‘a god / …with power over my life’.  As Rich grew as a person and as a poet, she ‘no longer’ viewed her husband as god-like.

In conclusion, Rich’s poetry is interesting both for its ideas and the way in which these ideas are expressed.  She explores issues that are relevant to the modern reader in language that is generally clear and accessible, making very effective use of imagery to express her themes.

 

 adrienne-rich-(4)