The link below is to an article taking a look at the shortlist for the 2019 T. S. Eliot Prize for poetry.
Goths are typically regarded as being on the fringes of society – members of a subculture which finds beauty in the darker elements of human experience. And while their dress code is much imitated – and celebrated – over Halloween, they have a proud history that stretches far beyond a seasonal horror festival.
In fact, the French poet Charles Baudelaire (1821-67) could easily qualify as the template goths (and other bohemians) aspire to. He often dressed in black, dyed his hair green, and rebelled against the conformist, bourgeois world of mid-19th century Paris in both his personal life and his art.
His first collections of poems, Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil, 1857), was prosecuted for offending public morals, challenging its audiences with its startling treatments of sex, Satanism, vampirism and decay. No wonder his words would one day be set to music by The Cure.
Aside from his writing, Baudlaire’s dissolute life was a checklist of boho credentials. He fell out with his family. He went bankrupt. He pursued reckless sexual experiments and contracted syphilis. He developed a drug habit. He associated with artists, musicians, writers and petty criminals rather than “respectable” people.
He outraged his family by having a mistress who was mixed race and probably illiterate. He refused conventional employment and made a precarious living as a writer, critic and occasional art dealer.
He wrote poetry which was prosecuted for obscenity and was adored by like-minded souls throughout Europe while being hated, even feared, by “straight” society. And then he died young, after years of serious illness and addiction, at the age of 46.
Baudelaire was also a dandy, clean-shaven in an age of whiskers and dressed immaculately despite squalid domestic circumstances. Never ostentatious, he wore sombre black in mourning for his times.
Considering nature to be tyrannical, he championed everything which fought or transcended it, while being, like many of his contemporaries, overtly misogynistic. “Woman is natural. That is to say, abominable,” he wrote.
Nevertheless, he recognised how both genders were trapped within their fleshly prisons and urged resistance to such incarceration through costume and cosmetics, recreational sex, drugs and alcohol.
Baudelaire sounds like many later writers, actors and rock stars, but it is unfair to suggest his cultural importance resides only in his delinquent mannerisms. What makes Baudelaire so significant, and so relevant today, is his recognition in Les Fleurs du Mal, his prose poetry, and essays, that the urbanised, industrial and increasingly godless modern world is radically different from any earlier epoch.
Artists responding to these new conditions of existence cannot cling to outworn traditions. They need instead to cast off convention and rethink their relationship to their culture and surroundings.
Baudelaire’s translations of Edgar Allan Poe brought the American writer to a new audience – and the morbidity of many Baudelaire poems suggests the two men were kindred spirits. In Une Charogne (A Carcass, 1857) for example, he recounts finding a woman’s maggot-infested body, cataloguing her obscene decay in hideous detail before telling his lover that one day, she too will be rotten and worm-eaten.
Like his contemporary, Gustave Flaubert, Baudelaire felt stifled and alienated by the bombastic hypocrisy of Napoleon III’s Second Empire. He despaired at the gulf between public morality and private vice, and was sickened by the rise of bourgeois respectability, the protestant work ethic, and the sweeping modernisation of Paris itself.
Disdaining realism’s preoccupation with appearances, his writing examined the mental states his surroundings produced: boredom, an aggressive self-lacerating melancholy, and ennui – the listlessness and depression which left sufferers joyless and blasé.
He depicted himself as being like the king of a rainy country gripped by an unending despair, prematurely aged, impotent and sorrowful with no clear cause. “Life is a hospital,” he wrote, “in which all the patients are obsessed with changing their beds. One would prefer to suffer beside the fire, another thinks he’d recover sooner if placed by the window.”
A series of unfortunate events
More than 150 years after his death, Baudelaire remains a challenging figure – not least for his sexual attitudes. Nevertheless, his influence is undeniable. T.S. Eliot hailed him in The Waste Land (1922), borrowing his line: “Hypocrite lecteur – mon semblable – mon frère!” (Hypocrite reader, my likeness, my brother), for his dissection of the post-1918 world.
More recently, English author Angela Carter’s Black Venus (1985) gave a voice to Baudelaire’s mistress, Jeanne Duval, who rages at how “his eloquence denied her language”. And How Beautiful You Are, by Gothic rockers The Cure (1987) adapted his prose-poem Les Yeux des Pauvres (The Eyes of the Poor).
Baudelaire’s rich musical heritage is being currently documented by the Baudelaire Song Project. His notion of the “flaneur”, the aimless urban idler, influenced the German philosopher Walter Benjamin and the explorations of modern psychogeographers. His presence even lurks in the young adult fiction of Lemony Snicket, where the Baudelaire children suffer a series of unfortunate events.
Meanwhile, black remains one of the uniforms of teenage disaffection from London to Tokyo, shaping the subcultures of the past four decades. Baudelaire’s existential anxieties and refusal to capitulate to the forces of conformity make him a continued inspiration.
The link below is to an article reporting on the longlist for the 2019 US National Book Award for Poetry.
Memorisation can clash with creativity and analytical thought. Rote learning can be seen as mindless, drone-like, something done without really thinking about why we’re doing it and what the thing we memorise might mean.
In other words, it can be counterproductive to learn a poem by heart without understanding its content, knowing anything about its author or historical context, or asking what specific aspects of its language make it powerful and appealing.
Literature instructors tend to focus more on showing students how to conduct careful textual analysis than on having them reproduce poetic lines word-for-word. Analytical skills are crucial, and educators should continue to emphasise them.
But there is great value in memorisation as well. Internalising a poem need not be a rote process. Done right, in fact, it is an intellectual exercise that illuminates the structure and logic of the text.
Nevermore, evermore, nothing more
A teacher might prompt his or her class to reflect on which patterns of sound (such as rhyme, meter or alliteration) serve as memory aids, asking how these patterns interact with the narrative arc of the poem.
Let’s imagine a student sets out to memorise Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven.”
Here are two lines from that poem:
And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me–filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before
Someone searching for memorable patterns in the language would probably pay close attention to Poe’s internal rhyme: “uncertain” gives us “curtain,” and “thrilled me” prompts “filled me”.
But that same student might also struggle to keep the exact phrasing of the stanzas’ final lines straight, given that all eighteen of them conclude with “nevermore”, “evermore” or “nothing more”.
This could generate a conversation about the role of repetition in the poem – for instance, perhaps it reflects the obsessive and confused mindset of Poe’s speaker.
Students tasked with memorising poems are often required to speak them aloud as a test of mastery. This, too, has its benefits. Reciting a poem can provide a deep and visceral understanding of its linguistic strategies (think of all those rustling “s” sounds in “silken, sad, uncertain”).
And when saying the poem aloud, you can hear another consciousness speaking in the cadences of your own voice. Counting out the beats of each line, you may feel the poem’s metrical pulses in your tapping fingers and toes.
In this way, the poem becomes an embodied experience and not merely a printed object.
A rich mental resource
True, reading a poem aloud rather than memorising and reciting it can have similar effects to all those above. But performing that poem without the distracting mediation of the page helps incorporate it more thoroughly into mental life.
In doing so, you can enact the way in which many poems – even as they give voice to a sensibility outside our own – also appeal to us precisely because they seem to articulate our unuttered thoughts and feelings. Reciting a poem without reading it can make it feel like it’s just you talking, not necessarily somebody else.
Few of us have dealt with an ominous raven perching in our chambers, but most of us will at some point grapple with unhealthy fixations or paranoid fears.
Memorising poetry, then, is also a kind of long-term investment. To take a poem with us so we can truly know it, we must know it by heart.
When we commit poems to memory, we internalise a voice that may comfort or inspire us in the future. We create a rich mental resource that lets us summon compelling, evocative, finely-crafted language at exactly the moment when it is most relevant to our emotional lives.
Such language both illuminates and is illuminated by our experiences. Christina Rossetti’s “A Birthday” begins with these lines:
My heart is like a singing bird
Whose nest is in a watered shoot;
My heart is like an apple-tree
Whose boughs are bent with thick-set fruit.
For a school child who learns Rossetti’s poem, such metaphors may not be particularly meaningful. But if she carries those lines in her mind over the years, they are likely to take on fresh significance.
If later in life she falls in love or has an intense spiritual experience, they may help her articulate her feelings to herself. Perhaps on a snowy day she will think of Charles Wright’s words: “Things in a fall in a world of fall […]”.
Perhaps the arrival of a child will remind the former student of Sylvia Plath’s “Love set you going like a fat gold watch”.
Understanding our own sentiments through someone else’s words can provide a thrilling sense of connection, of shared humanity across time and space.
There are certain intellectual advantages to having a wealth of information at our fingertips at all times. But the vast resources that smart phones provide can’t make the beauties and insights of poetic language part of our everyday perspective on the world and fine-tune our emotional vocabulary in the process.
For that, we must still memorise.
Any prize for the most enigmatic character in English poetry would probably go to the truant knight in John Keats’s much-loved 1819 ballad La Belle Dame Sans Merci. All the desolate knight is able to tell us with any clarity is that a beautiful lady whom he met “in the meads” stole his heart before cruelly abandoning him. Even that account is open to interpretation, since we never hear La Belle Dame’s own version of events.
200 years on, we’re no closer to agreeing what the highly symbolic poem might mean, let alone to tracing the knight back to an actual historical figure. But a new discovery from the archives of the British Museum might be about to change that.
At some level, the ballad probably registers Keats’s own sense of doom over his relationship with fiancée Fanny Brawne. Illness and financial uncertainty were proving barriers to consummation and marriage. Beyond that lies only guesswork. Many have grown used to thinking about the famous romantic poem as the purest example of spontaneous inspiration. It even appears without preamble in one of Keats’s letters, increasing the impression that it arrived out of nowhere, dictated by the muse.
But that’s not how Keats usually worked. Many of his best-known poems take vital cues from the physical objects he saw around him. Think of the “heifer lowing at the skies” in Ode on a Grecian Urn. The mooing cameo owes its existence to a sculpted cow on the Parthenon frieze that Keats saw in the British Museum. Similarly, the anguished Titans in The Fall of Hyperion were likely inspired by the grimacing statues depicting manic and melancholic madness that adorned the gateposts of Bethlem Hospital (known to London and the world as Bedlam). Keats knew them only too well as a young boy growing up in Moorfields.
In the run-up to the ballad’s composition Keats was in Chichester to finish his medieval romance The Eve of St Agnes. During his stay he visited Chichester Cathedral, where a very striking knight-at-arms was housed. Millions of readers know it today from the perennial favourite Philip Larkin poem, An Arundel Tomb. Larkin visited in 1956, when the brawny alabaster effigy of a chain-mailed Richard FitzAlan, tenth Earl of Arundel, lying hand-in-hand beside his own Belle Dame, Eleanor of Lancaster, inspired one of the poet’s most quoted lines: “What will survive of us is love”.
It’s never occurred to anyone that Keats’s imagination might also have been set racing by the stone avatars of the Arundels, because the serene gleaming effigies don’t seem to have much in common with Keats’s haggard knight. However, intriguing visual evidence in the form of two little-known sketches in the British Museum may hold the key to the mystery.
Larkin viewed the alabaster effigies after their Victorian restoration. In 1843, the extensively damaged statues of Richard and Eleanor, which had been torn apart to save space, were reunited, presenting the sentimental tableau of conjugal affection that moved Larkin to an uncharacteristic moment of (albeit cagey) optimism about love.
When Keats visited the cathedral in January 1819, things were very different. The recumbent knight was grimy and badly weathered from having lain for a century outside in the elements (“sadly mutilated”, in the words of the 1844 Antiquarian and Architectural Yearbook). He was heavily graffiti-ed with “dates and initials of the mischievous and ignorant”, the earliest from 1604 – and he was missing an arm. His lady lay not beside him but stowed a few metres away at his feet, separated by a pillar. He was the very model of woe-begone.
The effigies also retained faint traces of medieval paint, including “small quantities of crimson”, which perhaps throw light on the “fading rose” of the feverish knight’s complexion in Keats’s ballad.
After visiting Chichester, Keats moved on to nearby Bedhampton, where he stayed with prosperous millers John and Letitia Snook. When illness allowed him to venture beyond the garden gate, he would have found a granary, a sedgy lake, and in the centre of the village Bidbury Mead. All feature in La Belle Dame Sans Merci, from the withered vegetation around the lake, and the meads where the knight encounters the lady, to the “squirrel’s granary”.
Visions of love
Could Chichester Cathedral’s famous effigies have inspired not just one but two well-known – though very different – visions of love? Larkin’s holds out the possibility that love conquers all. Keats’s looks towards the abyss. It’s even possible that Keats wasn’t above a dark pun at the effigy’s expense. Could it really be a coincidence that Keats came up with the idea of a “knight-at-arms” after seeing the cathedral’s wounded knight-without-arms? Whatever the case, the emasculated effigy of Richard FitzAlan would have resonated with Keats’s own precarious sense of virility.
Even the ballad’s birds who do not sing may have their origins in a real absence. The damp, wetland habitat around Bedhampton’s lakes made a perfect home for sedge warblers. These chattery passerines would have been wintering in sub-Saharan Africa when Keats arrived in the village. In other words, we may now know the sound of one of the most famous of literary silences.
Poems can rarely be chased back to a single source of inspiration. Even ekphrastic poems, which deliberately set out to describe physical objects, are hardly ever one-to-one engagements with their subjects. The poetic imagination simply doesn’t work like that. That’s especially true of La Belle Dame Sans Merci, a particularly rich example of writing that resists explanation. Nevertheless, Chichester Cathedral’s armless knight, usually associated with Larkin’s An Arundel Tomb, deserves to be recognised as part of the heady mix that produced a lover’s complaint which has haunted generations of readers.
The link below is to an article that takes a look at the use of the exclamation mark in contemporary poetry.
The link below is to an article reporting on the first poet to win the Rathbones Folio Prize.
The links below are to articles reporting on the shortlists and winners of The Best Translated Book Awards for 2019 for both fiction and poetry.
For more visit:
The link below is to an article reporting on the winner of the 2019 Jackson Poetry Prize, Joy Harjo.
Daphne du Maurier remains one of the 20th century’s most popular and enigmatic writers, her life captivating readers as much as her works, as the most recent biography, Manderley Forever by Tatiana de Rosnay, has shown. Her literary reputation is also finally on the rise and, although her most popular novel Rebecca has often overshadowed her wide-ranging achievements as a writer, the celebration of its 80th anniversary last year reinforced Du Maurier’s place in the canon of English Literature as a serious and influential author.
This will be aided by the recent discovery of unknown poems, written early in her writing career, hidden behind a stunning photograph of the young Du Maurier in a bathing costume on the rocks, poised to take flight into the sea that was such an inspiration to her work.
The poems were discovered by auctioneer Roddy Lloyd of Rowley’s auction house, Ely, as he prepared the archive of Du Maurier materials belonging to the late Maureen Baker-Munton for auction on April 27. Baker-Munton was PA to Daphne’s husband, Lt Gen Sir Frederick “Boy” Browning and she became a close and important friend to the Du Maurier Browning family, as expert Ann Willmore explains on the Du Maurier website.
Du Maurier is still primarily known as a novelist – as well as the bestseller Rebecca she is also rightly revered for the great Cornish novels, Jamaica Inn (1936), Frenchman’s Creek (1941) and My Cousin Rachel (1951). But, as I argue in the book I am writing on Du Maurier, she was a far more versatile, wide-ranging, and experimental writer than is currently recognised. Du Maurier wrote plays, short stories and biographies throughout her career but she was also a poet, as her son Kits Browning explained to me when we spoke over the telephone recently.
Honing her craft
The newly discovered poems were written when Du Maurier was honing her craft as a writer in the late 1920s. At that stage she was primarily writing short stories but, as Browning told me: “My mother wrote poetry throughout her life and career.” Indeed Du Maurier often used poetry as a way of exploring an experience or emotion or testing out a character before then expanding on her ideas in a short story or novel. One of the newly discovered poems focuses on loneliness:
When I was ten, I thought the greatest bliss,
would be to rest all day upon hot sand under a burning sun…
time has slipped by, and finally I’ve known,
The lure of beaches under exotic skies,
and find my dreams to be misguided lies,
For God! How dull it is to rest alone.
Du Maurier’s work is preoccupied by the difference between fantasy and reality – and the dangers of dreaming – and her work repeatedly returns to the tension between the desire for independence and the need for companionship and human contact.
Gender and sexuality
Another poem: Song of the Happy Prostitute, portrays a woman who is frustrated with the way her profession is represented.
Why do they picture me as tired and old…
selling myself with sorrow,
just to gain a few dull pence to shield me from the rain.
What on first sight might seem an unusual, even controversial, topic for the young writer in fact reflects the dominant themes of her early work, as Ann Willmore, of Bookends of Fowey, explained to me recently. Willmore discovered the unpublished Du Maurier short story The Doll in which a young woman, suggestively named Rebecca, protects her personal independence by keeping a sex doll. “The Happy Prostitute poem fits in with Daphne’s interests in gender and sexuality, especially in her early work, and she did seem to want to shock her readers”, Willmore told me.
The poem also, in my view, relates to two early short stories from the same period of Du Maurier’s life in which she created the character of a prostitute called Mazie who boldly claimed that her work enabled her to be independent. “I’m free, I don’t owe anything to no one, I belong to myself”, Mazie declares in the short story Piccadilly. Growing up in the 1920s, when the freedom and autonomy of women was increasingly a topic for public debate, Du Maurier’s choice of subject matter reflects the concerns of her day.
Du Maurier was a very privileged young woman, growing up in the grandeur of Cannon Hall in Hampstead – but her background was theatrical and Bohemian, as the daughter of celebrated actor-manager Sir Gerald du Maurier and stage actress Muriel Beaumont. And, as her son Kits Browning stressed, she was an avid reader and gained much imaginative experience of the world from the books she devoured as a teenager.
As to why the poems were hidden behind the photograph – either by Du Maurier herself or someone else – we are unlikely ever to find out. Browning told the Daily Telegraph that perhaps she did not want her parents to read them. Perhaps the Happy Prostitute found fuller expression in the Mazie short stories.
These newly discovered poems shed important light on Du Maurier’s early work and writing practice. Still often dogged by the incorrect label of “romantic novelist”, these poems highlight the important themes of independence, gender, and sexuality that were to fascinate Du Maurier throughout her career, in both prose and poetry. They show her boldness, spirit, and strength, just like the photograph behind which they were concealed for all these years.