“Katrina, I had in mind a prayer, but only this came,” Bruce Dawe wrote to his infant daughter, new-born, in intensive care, her life in the balance, declaring as poets must that their poems are the best and only real gift they can give.
I did not know Dawe, who died aged 90 on Wednesday, but I knew his poetry from my first years of reading poems. For decades, the first contemporary poems many Australians read were his.
Born in 1930 in Fitzroy, a failed student after attending seven schools, he worked as a labourer like his father, a farmhand, a postman, and spent a year on the University of Melbourne campus where he became a poet and a Catholic. He joined the RAAF in 1959.
As well as publishing a growing list of books, he studied part time until he achieved a PhD. His teaching life at the Darling Downs Institute of Advanced Education and the University of Southern Queensland lasted from 1969 until 1993. By then he was easily Australia’s most well-read and well-loved poet. His death this week is a significant moment for poets and readers of poetry.
A skilled mate
We know that poetry is somehow central to our nation’s soul, but mostly we like to keep its presence at the margins. In living memory, Les Murray and Dorothy Porter managed to bring poetry to wide audiences, but neither of them so broadly, neither of them prompting the passion of Dawe’s many readers.
When it comes to poetry, readers know pretty quickly what is authentic. Dawe’s poems are real enough to talk to you with one arm over your shoulder, or sit beside you, inviting you to look with them at what this whole damned creation is doing now.
But he couldn’t have survived as a poet by simply being genial. His poetry always held a deep steadiness of purpose in its gaze. This was his special skill. He was able to bring us in to seeing for instance how “the spider grief swings in his bitter geometry” (from Homecoming) when dead soldiers are freighted home.
He was uncannily capable of making poetry that talked plainly but still mysteriously about the most extreme of our experiences: funerals and suicides, drowned children, a mother-in-law’s glorious death falling out of her chair at a barbecue, the last nail being driven into the body of Christ (“the iron shocking the dumb wood”), the 1995 massacre at Srebrenica, or the hanging of Ronald Ryan.
You cannot read his poems without finding some personal connection to them too; my grandmother who once held a telegram announcing her son’s wartime death, and whose home was opposite Ronald Ryan’s bloody shootout on Sydney Road, had seemed to me to have had her life marked by images in Dawe’s poems.
In Australia, we know there’s another job requirement for any poet worth their salt, and that is a dry and thoroughly demotic wit. Dawe’s hilarious At Shagger’s Funeral is just one gem that Lawson would have been proud to have chiselled out.
Tests of time
New themes of gender, ethnicity, identity politics, the explosion of poetry since the avant-garde experiments of Fluxus might seem to leave Dawe’s poetry suspended in a historical moment, but this is to say no more than what happens to every strong and distinctive poet.
No one wrote poetry quite like Dawe. Lots of poets took inspiration from him too, many without realising it – the vibrant “street poetry” movement in Melbourne through the 1970s and 80s, morphing into performance poetry and spoken word – each take their impulse from Dawe’s confidence in poetry’s place as a voice for, about, and from life as it’s lived by the most desperate and the most ordinary of us.
The bravery of his poetry, its wit and sensitivity to the world are there in one of the most stark and touching love poems you could imagine reading:
Hearing the sound of your breathing as you sleep,
with the dog at your feet, his head resting
on a shoe, and the clock’s ticking
Like water dripping in a sink
– I know that, even if reincarnation were a fact,
given the inherent cruelty of the world
where beautiful things and people
are blasted apart all the day long,
I would never want to come back, knowing
I could never be this lucky twice …
(from You and Sarajevo: for Gloria)
He has been praised for the technical achievement of blending the colloquial with the lyrical, something he often got “right”. But beyond this deftness, his poems always reach towards our most humane responses to the world.
We know from our present troubles as a nation, as a planet, and as a species, that we need poets as right and true as Bruce Dawe to continue this sometimes visionary and sometimes laughably inadequate work.
Being in isolation might be a great time to try something new. In this series, we get the basics on hobbies and activities to start while you’re spending more time at home.
While many are cancelling treks to Nepal, putting dreams of Venice on hold and wondering what we can substitute for a tropical beach escape, it is worth remembering we’re not the first who have had to rethink the notion of travel.
There is a precedent for thinking about journeys in a more imaginative sense: travel and the near-at-hand.
Vertical travel and travel writing – where we immerse in the spaces around us in greater detail, peeling back layers of history, botany and culture – goes back to the late 18th Century in Turin and a man named Xavier de Maistre.
De Maistre wrote A Journey Around My Room while imprisoned in his bedroom for six weeks after he was caught fighting a duel in the north Italian city in 1790.
Rather than sulk through his imprisonment, he decided to challenge the popularity of imperialist travel writing and he wrote a travel book about the contents of his bedroom. De Maistre observed his surroundings, detaching and looking with new eyes to give the reader an alternative perspective on what travel could mean:
What a comfort this new mode will be to the sick; they need not fear bleak winds or change of weather. And what a thing, too, it will be for cowards; they will be safe from pitfalls and quagmires. Thousands who hitherto did not dare, others who were not able, and others to whom it never occurred to think of such a thing as going on a journey, will make up their minds to follow my example.
De Maistre’s room became a place with latitude and topography.
He immersed in the scenes of the paintings on his walls and saw his bed as a vehicle for imaginative transportation alongside his dog, Rose, his trusted travel companion. De Maistre was so taken by the journey that he subsequently wrote A Nocturnal Expedition Around My Room to “revisit the country which I had formerly so delightfully travelled through”.
Writing of a microcosm
There were many inspired by this new style. Heinrich Seidel refocused his apartment into a microcosm where each item had a history and an interconnected story. Similarly, Alphonse Karr produced two volumes and 700 pages focused solely on his garden where he lived in Montmartre with his pet monkey Emmanuel.
In Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854), the author lived alone and in seclusion in a log cabin at Walden Pond; George Orwell meticulously captured the intricate details of weather, vegetable production and an egg count in his domestic diary from the early 1940s.
A Week at the Airport: A Heathrow Diary (2009) sees Alain de Botton at a desk in the departure hall of London Heathrow’s Terminal 5, confined for the duration of his stay, to understand the airport both as a destination in itself and as a location with a distinct culture.
Meg Watson’s essay Another life in Paris for The Saturday Paper focuses on her experience inhabiting another person’s space as an Airbnb guest in Paris:
On my first night in Canelle’s bed, I watch Midnight in Paris and drink rosé from one of her stained teacups. In a classic display of unabashed French nonchalance, the bedroom door is nothing but a clear panel of glass.
Within the intimacy of the apartment, Watson shows the reader a closer and more nuanced perspective of Paris. Simultaneously, the voyeurism of this approach also allows the reader to appreciate the sameness of many travel experiences.
Tips for your own close travel
Take a closer look at the items around your house.
Especially if you have things from previous travels, take the time to reflect on the item’s journey, write its story, or look through the photos of that period– it might even involve some research of your own, discovering what the pattern on your Moroccan mirror means, or the significance of the Easter Island statues on your bookshelf.
Stroll through your garden. Take a closer look at all the plants, the soil and the trees. Look closer again.
By sifting through my own soil I discovered shards of 100-year-old-bricks which prompted my journey towards a better understanding of the history of my state.
Remember the outside world
Look out your window. Just as many have in Wuhan, Barcelona and Rome, conversations with new encounters, impromptu music performances and shared meals and experiences (even over a fence or across a road) are much of what we search for in conventional travel.
This new dimension can bring surprising togetherness.
As the author of threebooksabout essayist, poet and philosopher Henry David Thoreau, I highly recommend “Walden,” Thoreau’s 1854 account of his time living “alone” in the woods outside Concord, Massachusetts. I qualify “alone” because Thoreau had more company at Walden than in town, and hoed a bean field daily as social theater in full view of passersby on the road.
Published in over 1,000 editions and translated into scores of languages, “Walden” is the scriptural fountainhead of the modern environmental movement, a philosophical treatise on self-reliance and a salient volume of the American literary canon. In his introduction to the Princeton edition, John Updike claims that Thoreau’s masterpiece “contributed most to America’s present sense of itself” during the cultural renaissance of the mid-19th century, yet “risks being as revered and unread as the Bible.”
Another reason to read or reread “Walden” during trying times is that it gushes with sorely needed optimism and is laced with wit. And Thoreau befriends you by writing in the first person.
Reality lies within us
As governments mandate social distancing to protect public health, many readers may be coming to grips with solitude. Thoreau devotes a chapter to it, extolling the virtue of getting to know yourself really well.
“Why should I feel lonely?” he asks, “is not our planet in the Milky Way?” Elsewhere he clarifies the difference between what we need and what we think we need, writing, “My greatest skill has been to want but little.”
“Walden” doesn’t have to be read straight through like a novel. For readers who have previously given up on it, I suggest rebooting in the middle with “The Ponds,” which opens thus: “Sometimes, having had a surfeit of human society and gossip, and worn out all my village friends, I rambled still farther westward than I habitually dwell…” Thoreau then retreats away from the mindless distractions of community life toward an immersion into Nature, with water at its spiritual center.
Next, flip back to the earlier chapter “Where I Lived and What I Lived For.” Here Thoreau invites readers on a downward journey, from the fleeting shallows of their social lives to the solid depths of their individual lives:
“Let us settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance, that alluvion which covers the globe, through Paris and London, through New York and Boston and Concord, through Church and State, through poetry and philosophy and religion, till we come to a hard bottom and rocks in place, which we can call reality…”
Our brains build that reality – yours, mine, everyone’s – by integrating external sensory signals with internal memories. Thoreau’s point – which is supported by 21st-century cognitive and neuroscience research – is that the real you precedes the social you. Your world is built from the inside of your skull outward, not vice versa.
The elusive simple life
Thoreau’s retreat to Walden Pond is often mistaken for a hermit’s flight deep into the woods. Actually, Thoreau put some distance between himself and his home and village so that he could understand himself and society better. When not in town, he swapped human companionship for the “beneficent society” of Nature for long enough to make “the fancied advantages of human neighborhood insignificant.”
Today mandatory social distancing is wrecking the global economy, based on traditional metrics like gross domestic product and stock prices. Viewed through “Walden,” this wreckage may look like a long-overdue correction for an unsustainable system.
Thoreau feared that the economy he saw was headed in the wrong direction. His opening chapter, “Economy,” is an extended rant against what he viewed as a capitalistic, urbanizing, consumption-driven, fashion-conscious 19th-century New England.
Of his neighbors, Thoreau wrote, “By a seeming fate, commonly called necessity, they are employed, as it says in an old book” – meaning the Christian Bible – “laying up treasures which moth and rust will corrupt and thieves break through and steal. It is a fool’s life, as they will find when they get to the end of it, if not before.”
In contrast, his recipe for a good economy is one of “Walden”‘s most famous quotes: “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand.”
Some Americans have tried at least halfheartedly to follow “Walden”’s idealistic advice by living deliberately, being more self-reliant and shrinking their planetary footprints. Personally, although I’ve downsized my house, walk to work, fly only for funerals and cook virtually every meal from scratch, in my heart I know I’ve also contributed to the world’s swelling population, burn fracked natural gas and am hopelessly embedded in a consumer economy.
Nevertheless, after several weeks of social distancing, I’m rediscovering the value of two of Thoreau’s key points: Solitude is helping me recalibrate what matters most, and the current economic slowdown offers short-term gains and a long-term message for the planet.
These benefits don’t compensate for the incalculable personal losses and grief that COVID-19 is inflicting worldwide. But they are consolation prizes until things stabilize in the new normal. On my daily solitary walk in the woods, I am mindful of Thoreau’s words: “Next to us is not the workman whom we have hired, with whom we love so well to talk, but the workman whose work we are.”
Words can help us imagine the world more deeply. Even as we retreat into our homes in this time of crisis, words can help us reach out to each other and pile up strength.
The Stella Prize is awarded each year to celebrate Australian women’s writing. This year’s shortlist brings together some of the best Australian writing in any genre. They are books about courage, strength, compassion and love. And they give us something of what we need – teaching us that to be alarmed is not to be cautious or careful; that to try to bear everything on one’s own is not necessarily to be strong.
These books can help us draw on our inner resources; to dig deep. Not only to find a point of calm, or, indeed, relief from boredom as the lockdown wears on – but more importantly, compassion, altruism, the capacity to cross social distances, reach out, help and support each other and our society in a time of crisis.
The Weekend by Charlotte Wood
When you read The Weekend you’ll probably learn some things about yourself that you didn’t know, and a few you’d rather not. This book takes a long look at women’s lives and friendships as we get old, at a time in life when everything we thought we knew – about ourselves, about our loved ones – is being thrown into doubt.
Three grieving women gather together for Christmas to clean out the beach house that belonged to their friend Sylvie, who has died. There is Jude, a once famous restauranteur, who has spent her adult life in a love affair with a wealthy married man. Adele, a once-famous stage actress, who is newly impoverished, having just broken up with her partner Liz. She is yet to tell the others. Finally Wendy, a public intellectual in her waning years, grieving for her dead husband. Without Sylvie to balance them, tensions rise.
This book cuts like a knife through social pieties but never loses its humanity. In one particularly wicked scene, Adele conducts a “leisurely inspection” of her best friends’ washbags, casually laying bare their “private vulnerabilities”: who has constipation, who takes Valium, and who still uses age-defying face cream.
As the characters clean out the house of “depressing old things” that “nobody wanted” the tensions of grief and emotion pull them in unexpected directions. Old betrayals are unearthed, words can’t be taken back (“out it slithered in a disgusting mass”) and lives shatter.
Wood has a keen eye for the emotional havoc life wreaks, even – or especially – as we amble off into old age. Her observations are knife-sharp, often merciless, but also warm and deeply alive.
The Yield by Tara June Winch
Language can take you deep inside experience – because words teach you not only how to speak, but also how to think and feel. A large part of Tara June Winch’s new novel is written as entries in a Wiradjuri dictionary, put together by the dictionary-maker Albert Gondiwindi. The first word – the “once upon a time for you” – is yarrany, Wiradjuri for a hickory acacia or spearwood tree, and Albert tell us “from it I once made a spear in order to kill a man”. Another word is baayanha meaning yield, which Albert calls “a funny word”. In English the word “yield” is the reaping, the things than man can take from the land”. But in Albert’s language “it’s the things you give to, the movement, the space between things”.
The action of The Yield centres on Albert’s granddaughter, August, who has returned to Country for her grandfather’s funeral after years in exile. Memories resurface, as August is entangled in circles of kinship, with aunties, nieces and cousins.
There are sombre notes. To August, everything is “browner, bone-drier”, and the evocative place name Massacre Plains reminds us that this is a site of invasion and violence. And then there’s the mystery of August’s missing sister, Jeddah.
The community is besieged by a mining development. Diggers roll into town, flanked by military-green Humvees. Winch charts the relationships between white activists and Indigenous rights groups, as they organise acts of resistance.
Aunty Betty and Aunt Carol Gibson get themselves locked against a fence in an act of protest. “Don’t fight back” says Mandy to August. “They can’t arrest us for sitting in”. Hours later rocks are hurled, water cannons discharge, and police squirt teargas. The past “filtered into their voices as they screamed together ‘Re-sist!‘”
Of course, Albert’s dictionary – “the old language, kept safe. Digitised. Captured forever” – is another kind of resistance. When August listens, she can hear the way “English changed their tongues, the formation of their minds”. This is also a book of hope in this resurgent language.
Here Until August by Josephine Rowe
The opening story in Josephine Rowe’s collection is called Glisk, a Scots word meaning a split second: a flash; a single instant. It’s a wonderful opening title in a short story collection that seems to telescope, stack and compress time, propelling characters across continents, through stark or solemn landscapes, or pinning them down in small towns.
Rowe’s characters are mostly fleeing grief or trauma, trying to find solace in strange lands. In Glisk, protagonist Fynn returns after working in a whiskey distillery in the Northern Isles of Scotland. The title conjures the fatal car accident that drove Fynn from Perth. But it also describes an earlier accident in which Fynn and his siblings built a raft with foam and buckets so they could journey out to an island to see the bioluminescence in the ocean. Only that time, catastrophe had been avoided.
These are wonderful stories. In Chavez, an agoraphobic young woman grieving for a dead husband, stays at home watching terrorist videos, until a neighbour asks her to look after her dog, forcing her to engage with the world. In The Once-Drowned Man a taxi driver and her passenger head for the Canadian border, engaging in an oddly uncomfortable struggle over grief and hurt.
Rowe’s stories deftly capture the fleeting and precarious moments that can shape and place us, or move us – like Fynn – towards a faltering redemption, “with the dark folding over the top of him”, all in a glisk.
There Was Still Love by Favel Parrett
Parrett’s third novel opens with an image of extraordinary dislocation, evoked through all the “little brown suitcases … on trains, and on carts” or “strapped to the top of buses” carried by people whose lives have been uprooted by war. Inside the suitcases, not just clothes and toiletries, but “all they can hold … your heart, your mind, your soul”.
Favell’s novel tells the story of two sisters, Liska and Ludek, who are separated as teenagers, firstly by the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia and then by the Cold War. Ludek stays in Prague, while Liska travels to London and on to Melbourne.
Liska negotiates the problems of a second language, together with her husband’s straightened work opportunities. Ludek travels the world as a member of Prague’s Black Light Theatre, a child kept at home to ensure her return to life behind the Iron Curtain. Both raise children in vastly different worlds. Both build and sustain homes that are marked by love.
Parrett paints a picture of the sometimes troubling life lived in a communist state, coloured by vivid details of 1980s culture. The prose is lyrical, and the child’s perspective is diffuse with a kind of magic.
This is a book about strong women. It is a story about complicated family lives, longing for home, and the worlds women build – through love – for their families.
Diving into Glass by Caro Llewellyn
Just after her 40th birthday, Caro Llewellyn – recently arrived in New York, working her dream job as director of the PEN Festival for writers – collapsed as she ran through Central Park. In hospital a few days later, her neurologist told her that she had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, an illness associated with the central nervous system – chronic, debilitating and lifelong.
This memoir is a record of Llewellyn’s struggle not to be defined by her disability. Its title enviably encapsulates the things that glitter and shimmer and exhilarate in this book. A sense of breathless energy just leaps off the page. “I was a runner all my life,” Llewellyn writes. Not just long and short distance, but also hurdles and relay. “It didn’t matter what I ran, so long as I was spent when I crossed the finish line”.
This is a book about many things: Llewellyn’s career, the strength she draws from her charming and ingenious father who was wheelchair-bound, having been struck by polio at 20. He married twice, courting his first wife – a hospital nurse – from deep inside an iron lung. Llewellyn learned a lot from her parents, though not always strictly wise. They included, “carry on like absolutely nothing’s wrong”, “build an impenetrable wall around your weaknesses”, or best of all “no matter how impossible it seems, how long the odds, words and a good story can help you overcome every single thing stacked up against you”.
But, as Llewellyn writes, “The day my legs went numb on the running track in Central Park, every one of those lessons evaporated”. This is not a book about overcoming illness or disability. It ends – much like it starts – with Llewellyn’s gaze on the horizon, searching.
See What You Made Me Do by Jess Hill
Jess Hill’s book is a deeply felt exploration of institutional failure. It opens with Hill standing in her backyard “hanging clothes out to dry on a stunning summer night alive with the screeching of fruit bats”, in a place where she “felt content, peaceful; safe”. Then comes the stunning realisation that many women do not get to feel safe, not at night, and not in their own backyard.
It’s 2015, a year on from the morning Australians woke up to see Rosie Batty, “a solitary woman, raw with grief” on their television screens. In front of her was “a clutch of reporters who’d barely hoped for a statement”. Batty told the media about the murder of her son – 11-year-old Luke Batty – at the hands of his father. It was the scenario she’d warned about countless times, in courts and police stations, in front of lawyers and judges and to social workers. Her pleas had been dismissed and disbelieved.
See What You Made Me Do brings together stories of domestic violence and survival from all walks of life – from the affluent neighbourhoods of Sydney’s Bible Belt to struggling remote and regional communities. Hill investigates the social and psychological causes of domestic abuse and its terrifying consequences. She talks to frontline social workers, counsellors who work the hotlines, and police.
Hill’s book maps the contours of a twisted public debate, through which the rights of children and women to safety – to feel secure, to live free from violence – are repeatedly brought up short by politics.
The Stella Prize will be announced online by Julia Gillard from 8pm (AEST) on Tuesday 14 April 2020.
A leading figure of the Harlem Renaissance, the inspiration behind Lorraine Hansberry’s play “A Raisin in the Sun” and an uncompromising voice for social justice, Langston Hughes is heralded as one of America’s greatest poets.
It wasn’t always this way. During his career, Hughes was routinely harassed by his own government. And the nation’s literati, balking at his subversive politics, tended to overlook his work.
But the opposite was true abroad, in places like France, Nigeria and Cuba, where Hughes had legions of devoted readers who were some of the first to recognize the promise and power of the poet’s words. In my new book, “Langston Hughes: Critical Lives,” I trace Hughes’ budding international stardom, and how it clashed with the hostility he faced back home.
Building a fan base
Growing up in America, Hughes had experienced racism firsthand. As he matured as poet and writer, he started looking beyond America’s borders, curious to learn more about how racism impacted different cultures.
Between 1924 and his death in 1967, Hughes made trips to places as varied as Italy, Russia, England, Nigeria and Ghana.
During a visit to Cuba in 1930, Hughes met a young Cuban poet named Nicolás Guillén. Hughes had already successfully written dozens of poems inspired by the 12-bar structures, cadences, rhymes and subject matter of blues music. Over the course of several late-night dinners at Lolita’s restaurant in Havana, Hughes encouraged Guillén to do the same with his home country’s music.
Within days of Hughes’ departure, Guillén started writing poems making use of Cuba’s “son tradition,” a form of popular dance music. This was a key moment in the development of an artist who would go on to become Cuba’s national poet.
Hughes was also the only figure of the Harlem Renaissance who traveled to Africa. After several trips to the continent, he became determined to promote the work of his African peers – writers like Bloke Modisane and eventual Nobel Prize-winner Wole Soyinka. So in 1960, he edited his anthology “African Treasury,” which introduced many in the West to some of Africa’s greatest writers.
In countries like Nigeria, Hughes needed no introduction. In the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, dozens of Hughes’ poems had appeared in the country’s newspapers and journals. After Nigeria elected Nnamdi Azikiwe, its first native governor-general, in 1960, Azikiwe concluded his inaugural by reciting Hughes’ poem “Youth.”
When Hughes returned to Ghana and Senegal later in the decade, he was greeted like a superstar. Scores of his admirers trailed him in the streets of Dakar, much in the way sports heroes are hounded by children for autographs.
By the 1960s, Hughes’ works were being translated into Russian, Italian, Swedish and Spanish. But the first scholarly study of his poetry appeared in France. Literary critic Jean Wagner’s 1963 book “Black Poets of the United States” highlighted the talents of Hughes as both a poet and activist. Devoting over 100 pages to Hughes, Wagner noted that African Americans would never “produce a more fiery bard” who was simultaneously “one of the community refusing to stand apart as an individual.”
As the first black writer in the United States to make his living solely by writing, Hughes ultimately galvanized scores of emerging writers and poets in Europe, Africa and South America. To them, Hughes represented a critical Western link to other people of color around the world. He was also an exemplar of the jazz and blues music they so revered. As a testament to Hughes’ popularity abroad, it was Venezuela – not the United States – that sought to nominate him for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1960.
Making enemies at home
Back in America, Hughes certainly had his admirers, especially among the African American community. But most establishment figures – in politics, in the media and in law enforcement – viewed him as a menace.
As Hughes’ international fame grew, he was being denigrated as a subversive and a communist by his own government. Hughes had been under FBI surveillance since at least 1933, after he had traveled to Russia. Meanwhile his adamant calls for justice in the Scottsboro case of 1931 – when eight young black men were falsely accused of raping two white prostitutes – earned him the ire of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. Hughes’ piercing critiques of capitalism didn’t help his cause, either. Hoover would go on to wage a personal vendetta against Hughes, building a 550-page file on him that highlighted poems like “Goodbye, Christ” as evidence of his communist sympathies.
Then, in 1953, Hughes was called to testify before Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who wanted to use Hughes’ previous support of communist causes and his supposedly subversive allegiances to target suspected “reds” in the State Department.
The man who was exalted by political leaders overseas, who found himself elbowing his way through throngs of adoring crowds abroad, was attacked as “un-American” by McCarthy’s Senate Subcommittee.
Hughes was understandably conflicted about his native country, and he explored this ambivalence in poems such as “Let America Be America Again”:
Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me.)
That last line still resonates for many Americans – for those who have never known a golden age, nor tasted the nation’s promise of dreams, justice and equality for all.
How long, Hughes wondered in “Harlem,” would we have to wait? And what was the cost of kicking the can down the road?
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
Interestingly, Hughes had ended the first draft of this famous poem with the lines, “or does it atom-like explode / and leave deaths in its wake? Does it disappear / as might smoke somewhere?”
Writing on Aug. 7, 1948, the poet was keenly aware of what had happened only three years prior when nuclear bombs were dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
To me, this perfectly encapsulates Hughes’ international appeal. The poet sympathized with those who had felt the harshest wrath of American power and politics. His intended audience was never just his fellow Americans who were grappling with fear and anxiety; it was anyone who had suffered great and devastating loss – an anguish that knows no language or borders.
Stories can be mirrors that help young people express feelings about a given situation. They give children a vocabulary for what is happening. But, because of how fiction works in the brain, stories can also be windows. When we read fiction, we inhabit other bodies and feel the concerns of other people. This helps young people to develop empathy – but has another profound effect. Reading stories makes us feel experienced and increases resilience.
I’ve chosen some wonderful books that all function both as mirrors and windows for children as the world faces the effects of Coronavirus. They are beautifully written and/or illustrated and should fire young imaginations, while comforting the whole family.
The Red Tree
This is a beautiful picture book – sparse of text – with lush landscapes in Sean Tan’s magical style. The reader loses themselves in pages that are achingly evocative of yearning, loss and wonder in a kind of heady cocktail of intense emotion, boredom and stoicism.
Dark leaves fall in our character’s bedroom, but by the end, they have coalesced into a beautiful red tree.
There is space here for even a very young reader to express what they think is happening page by page. The art could stimulate imitation. I can also imagine making a little red tree trunk and branches and adding a leaf to it, day by day.
There is very little reading to be done, so a slightly older child could also “read” it to a younger one.
The Mousehole Cat
Antonia Barber sets her classic story on the Cornish coast. The narrative is about a cat who saves the day when her community is threatened. It is wordier than many picture books, but narrated by the cat in clear, beautifully written prose – it’s a pleasure to read aloud.
Nicola Bayley’s illustrations are engaging and immersive – who wouldn’t like to go to the seaside right now? – and the characters easily inspire affection.
Touching on concepts of scarcity and sacrifice, this is a very empowering story for a young listener or reader. The smallest character in the story is the hero who saves everyone – by singing. It would be easy to live in this story for a while, going fishing from the laundry basket, practising storm singing, repeating some of the turns of phrase.
The illustrations are inspiring for young artists and could also be the basis of remembering visits to the seaside, pretend beach picnics or natural history lessons.
Comet in Moominland
A trip to Tove Jansson’s Moominland always makes everything better. Here, the family flee from an approaching comet, meeting many favourite characters on the way.
The much-beloved Moomins are eccentric hippo-like people, very accommodating of difference and otherness. That said, many of the characters have their little ways, and being accommodating isn’t always comfortable. The realism of the relationships gives even the silliest of Jansson’s stories the texture of real life.
Quirky line drawings are immensely endearing and the story, while exciting with elements of real fear, never feels as if it will end badly. The language is fun, with word play and characters’ attitudes and, again, the child is the hero. It’s not hard to draw a Moomin, and there are endless opportunities for drama. Year twos or threes can probably read it to themselves, with someone on hand for the tricky bits, but it’s fun enough to engage older children, and silly enough for littlies.
The Wee Free Men
Tiffany Aching comes from chalkland, where nobody has it easy, and everyone works hard. When a rift opens on her doorstep and her despised little brother is taken, she discovers she’s not ordinary, after all. Armed with a cast-iron frying pan, she takes on the full force of Fairyland.
This is a riotous out-loud read from the late Terry Pratchett, featuring a tribe of “pictsies” who speak in a Scottish accent that sounds a lot like the stand-up comic Billy Connolly. Tiffany’s gran has recently passed away – and the danger feels quite real – but we know that Tiff will get us through. She certainly does, battling forces of depression and self-doubt to do so – another young leader in a time of community danger. Even hardened teenagers might smile at the best bits and tweens will devour it whole. Children as young as six or seven can follow along.
The narrative is a role-play bonanza and there are opportunities to investigate British folklore, identities in the United Kingdom and gender roles. Illustrations in the text might inspire art and mapping the settings would be an interesting exercise. Further adventures of some of the characters could be written, and geography lessons about chalk grassland would be easy to work in.
The Book Thief
For resilient older children and teens, Markus Zusac’s story is set in a time of many lives lost – Germany during the second world war – and narrated by Death. It is gorgeously written (an international bestseller, adapted for film) and, while the subject matter is difficult, the narrative pulses with life and hope.
For a young person engaged with current events, questioning authority and impatient of parental efforts to shield them from the grimmer elements of our current reality, this book could be a lifeline.
Liesel Meminger is illiterate when the story begins, but takes a book that has been dropped at her brother’s graveside. As she begins to read and to leave childhood behind, she steals many more books. Love, death and the importance of even futile actions inform the story of Liesel’s coming of age and provide ways of thinking about what it means to be human.
This could be read together silently, perhaps taking chapters in turn, rationed out as a treat for discussion or not. It’s a natural accompaniment to history lessons, geography, or some online German instruction and watching the film could lead to a discussion of adaptation. But perhaps you could just leave a copy of it out for anyone who needs it to find and make their own.
Many of these titles are available electronically, but local bookshops are delivering and posting orders. After all, there’s nothing more comforting than snuggling behind the protective embrace of an open book.
First, it centres on a love story. Secondly, it always ends well.
Our protagonists end up together (if not forever, then at least for the foreseeable future) and this makes the world around them a little bit better, too.
In times of uncertainty, upheaval and chaos, readers often turn to romance fiction: during the second world war, Mills & Boon was able to maintain its paper ration by arguing its books were good for the morale of working women.
The books the company was producing in this period were not about the war. Most never even mentioned it. Instead, they provided an escape for readers to a world where they could be assured everything was going to turn out all right: love would conquer all, villains would be defeated, and lovers would always find their way back to each other.
Today, romance publishing is a billion-dollar industry, with thousands of novels published each year. It covers a wide range of subgenres: from historical to contemporary, paranormal to sci-fi, from novels where the only physical interaction between the protagonists is a kiss, to erotic romance where sex is fundamental to the story.
Rule 34 of the internet states if you can think of something, then there’s porn of it. The same, I would argue, is true for romance fiction.
But where to begin? As both a scholar of romance fiction and an avid reader of it, I’ve put together this list of five great reads for people who might want to start exploring the genre.
The Austen Playbook is the fourth book in Parker’s London Celebrities series (all only loosely connected, so you can jump in anywhere).
Heroine Freddy is an actress from an esteemed West End family, trying to balance her desire to perform in musicals and crowd-pleasers over her family pushing her towards serious drama. Hero Griff is a theatre critic and his family estate is playing host to a wacky live-action Jane Austen murder mystery, in which Freddy is playing Lydia.
Parker is a gifted author, and this book is a light, bright and sparkling delight.
Paton is one of Australia’s smartest and most underrated romance authors. The Love Experiment draws on the 36 questions developed by psychologist Arthur Aron to explore whether intimacy could be generated or intensified between two people if they exchanged increasingly personal information.
The 36 questions were popularised in Mandy Len Catron’s 2015 New York Times essay To Fall In Love With Anyone, Do This. Here, journalist protagonists Derelie and Jackson undertake the experiment in Paton’s book, only to find love is more complex than 36 questions.
This book emerges from RomanceClass, a fascinating community of English-language romance writers and readers based in the Philippines. One of their distinctive features is their collaboration with local actors in Manila to perform excerpts from the books (including Project Saving Noah) at their regular gatherings. I was privileged enough to attend one of these last year.
Protagonists Noah and Lise are graduate students in oceanography competing for one spot on a research project, while simultaneously being forced to work together. Their romance is conflicted and compelling, but what stands out about this book is the vividness with which their environment – natural and academic – is constructed.
If you like your protagonists to have some maturity, try…
If Milan’s name sounds familiar, it’s because she was at the centre of the recent scandal engulfing the Romance Writers of America, which penetrated through romance’s usual cultural invisibility.
When she’s not standing up against systemic racism, Milan writes excellent, mostly historical, romance. Mrs Martin is a delightful historical romp, as our two heroines Bertrice (aged 73) and Violetta (aged 69) team up against Violetta’s terrible nephew, and fall in love and eat cheese on toast together.
The coronavirus is concentrating our minds on the fragility of human existence in the face of a deadly disease. Words like “epidemic” and “pandemic” (and “panic”!) have become part of our daily discourse.
These words are Greek in origin, and they point to the fact that the Greeks of antiquity thought a lot about disease, both in its purely medical sense, and as a metaphor for the broader conduct of human affairs. What the Greeks called the “plague” (loimos) features in some memorable passages in Greek literature.
One such description sits at the very beginning of western literature. Homer’s Iliad, (around 700BC), commences with a description of a plague that strikes the Greek army at Troy. Agamemnon, the leading prince of the Greek army, insults a local priest of Apollo called Chryses.
Apollo is the plague god – a destroyer and healer – and he punishes all the Greeks by sending a pestilence among them. Apollo is also the archer god, and he is depicted firing arrows into the Greek army with a terrible effect:
Apollo strode down along the pinnacles of Olympus angered
in his heart, carrying on his shoulders the bow and the hooded
quiver; and the shafts clashed on the shoulders of the god walking angrily.
Terrible was the clash that rose from the bow of silver.
First he went after the mules and the circling hounds, then let go
a tearing arrow against the men themselves and struck them.
The corpse fires burned everywhere and did not stop burning.
Thucydides (c.460-400BC) and Sophocles (490-406BC) would have known one another in Athens, although it is hard to say much more than that for a lack of evidence. The two works mentioned above were produced at about the same time. The play Oedipus was probably produced about 429 BC, and the plague of Athens occurred in 430-426 BC.
Thucydides writes prose, not verse (as Homer and Sophocles do), and he worked in the comparatively new field of “history” (meaning “enquiry” or “research” in Greek). His focus was the Peloponnesian war fought between Athens and Sparta, and their respective allies, between 431 and 404 BC.
Thucydides’ description of the plague that struck Athens in 430 BC is one of the great passages of Greek literature. One of the remarkable things about it is how focused it is on the general social response to the pestilence, both those who died from it and those who survived.
A health crisis
The description of the plague immediately follows on from Thucydides’ renowned account of Pericles’ Funeral Oration (it is important that Pericles died of the plague in 429 BC, whereas Thucydides caught it but survived).
Thucydides gives a general account of the early stages of the plague – its likely origins in north Africa, its spread in the wider regions of Athens, the struggles of the doctors to deal with it, and the high mortality rate of the doctors themselves.
Nothing seemed to ameliorate the crisis – not medical knowledge or other forms of learning, nor prayers or oracles. Indeed “in the end people were so overcome by their sufferings that they paid no further attention to such things”.
He describes the symptoms in some detail – the burning feeling of sufferers, stomachaches and vomiting, the desire to be totally naked without any linen resting on the body itself, the insomnia and the restlessness.
The next stage, after seven or eight days if people survived that long, saw the pestilence descend to the bowels and other parts of the body – genitals, fingers and toes. Some people even went blind.
Words indeed fail one when one tries to give a general picture of this disease; and as for the sufferings of individuals, they seemed almost beyond the capacity of human nature to endure.
Those with strong constitutions survived no better than the weak.
The most terrible thing was the despair into which people fell when they realized that they had caught the plague; for they would immediately adopt an attitude of utter hopelessness, and by giving in in this way, would lose their powers of resistance.
Lastly, Thucydides focuses on the breakdown in traditional values where self-indulgence replaced honour, where there existed no fear of god or man.
As for offences against human law, no one expected to live long enough to be brought to trial and punished: instead everyone felt that a far heavier sentence had been passed on him.
The whole description of the plague in Book 2 lasts only for about five pages, although it seems longer.
The first outbreak of plague lasted two years, whereupon it struck a second time, although with less virulence. When Thucydides picks up very briefly the thread of the plague a little bit later (3.87) he provides numbers of the deceased: 4,400 hoplites (citizen-soldiers), 300 cavalrymen and an unknown number of ordinary people.
Nothing did the Athenians so much harm as this, or so reduced their strength for war.
A modern lens
Modern scholars argue over the science of it all, not the least because Thucydides offers a generous amount of detail of the symptoms.
Epidemic typhus and smallpox are most favoured, but about 30 different diseases have been posited.
Thucydides offers us a narrative of a pestilence that is different in all kinds of ways from what we face.
The lessons that we learn from the coronavirus crisis will come from our own experiences of it, not from reading Thucydides. But these are not mutually exclusive. Thucydides offers us a description of a city-state in crisis that is as poignant and powerful now, as it was in 430BC.