Saturday, March 21, 2015

Was Assia One Of Those Girls?

What a place America is. Everything is in cellophane.
— Hughes to Olwyn in a letter, 1957

I've been reading up on Plath and Hughes, which I have done for class so many times, and this time a small detail I'd overlooked has caught my imagination. Plath's depression and eventual suicide is an enduring subject; Hughes' role in her creative work and in her life is equally interesting. They both hoped to become myth, and that they indeed apotheosized only intensifies the scholarship. But I'm starting to think about Assia.

I can't help but wonder if Assia was One Of Those Girls.

If you're a female, you know the type. She appears to be powerful because of her beauty, she incites jealousy because of her luck and her genetic inheritance, but it turns out that these are smokescreens, incidentals. She carries a much more devastating charm in that she is...well, what word will work here? Maybe unscrupulous is the right term for this quality. She uses it in a way that is invisible to men. They just can't discern it. It's like a dog whistle that only women can hear.

No, that isn't right. It may read as unscrupulous, but it's survival. She is focused. And here's where it befuddles me a bit. Hughes' grasp on Nature was invigorating to poetry, and troubling to civility. When his prizewinning first book Hawk in the Rain came along it was important in part because it spoke in a way that The Movement Poets—the UK poetry in fashion in the fifties—stylistically denied. Though poets such as Thom Gunn and Philip Larkin spoke of death, of loss of faith, or purposelessness, of most unsavory feelings, they did so with such restraint you barely saw the glimpse of fang. Even in his remarkable "Deceptions," Larkin's deep empathy could destabilize the most clear-eyed reader were it not in such tight, polite words and meter. It's a beautiful accomplishment, this.

Hughes on the other hand, was straightforward in awe of Nature's design, of its brutality, its efficiency. How he loved the single-mindedness! The thrush's efficacy, utility in killing to survive: "this bullet and automatic / Purpose"; the pike's rapacious mouth as its whole reason for existence: "A life subdued to its instrument."

What the civilized reader saw as brutal and violent, Hughes understood as essential. "My poems are not about violence but vitality. Animals are not violent; they are so much more completely controlled than me."
When my Aunt calls my verse “horrible and violent” I know what she means. Because I know what style of life and outlook she is defending. And I know that she is representative of huge numbers of people in England. What she has is an idea of what poetry ought to be… a very vague idea, since it’s based on an almost total ignorance of what poetry has been written. She has an instinct for a kind of poetry that will confirm the values of her way of life. So to define their use of the word violence any further, you have to work out just why her way of life should find the behaviour of a hawk “horrible” or any reference to violent death “disgusting," just as she finds any reference to extreme vehemence of life “frightening somehow." It’s a futile quarrel really.
How Nature was open about living for need. "With a man it is otherwise[,]" Hughes complains in "Thrushes," lamenting a civility that would sterilize dark temptations into denial. Isn't that what civility is? The refinement of rudeness, in order to avoid the kind of things that cause trouble. But it's really just wrapping paper on the loins. I think of Plath, who struggled so majestically to be both pure and herself, to be the fifties girl she was raised to be, while being, also, a magnificent sensual being. One only has to read her journals to see the deep jealousy she felt for boys who could roam:
I have too much conscience injected in me to break customs without disasterous effects; I can only lean enviously against the boundary and hate, hate, hate the boys who can dispel sexual hunger freely, without misgiving, and be whole, while I drag out from date to date in soggy desire, always unfulfilled. The whole thing sickens me.​
One could write a series of encyclopedias on the female animal and propriety, and the entry on Plath would be terrific. Once married with children, you either fly right and behave or you kindle come what may. Assia was relentless, which is to say, one can admire her for her focus and efficiency. In pursuing Hughes, and in letting herself be pursued, she was like any animal stimulated and awakened by hunt, by hunger. Like Hughes, she was unmoved by appeals for tenderness to others, as is Nature.


Photo of Assia on her Wedding Day to Richard Lipsey, October 1952. Courtesy of Celia Chakin, in Yehuda Koren and Eliat Negev's Lover of Unreason.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Why You Don't Want to Know What I Think of Your Poems: A Guide.

Like so many teachers of poetry, I imagine, I get random requests, often, from people I don't know, to tell me they write poems. They want to meet with me sometime, whenever it's convenient for me, in my office, or they offer to treat me to coffee or tea. They want to know what I think of their work.

So this post is my answer to you. You don't need to know anything about what I think of your work. What I think of your work isn't of much value. Are you hoping to hear that you're good? Me too.

My response would only be to ask what you think of your work in the context of poetry as it is and as it has been. Who are your reading? Who has had the greatest effect on you, positive and negative? Why? What do you think about the work you see in the journals you read? Whose essay on poetry moved you? Which writer challenges you? What ideas challenge you? What are you chasing in language that won't hold still?

I've had several of these meetings with people, and based on this experience, I conclude the following: 99% of people who wish to show you their work don't read poetry. And now for a banner announcement that is sure to surprise no one: If you are not reading poetry, you probably aren't writing it.

You don't need to know what I think of your work. Once you've scratched out a draft or twenty on the page, what any writer needs is that sharp, focused eye that is not satisfied. How do you get that eye?

Here is my guide:

1) Read more poetry. Read the books that have just been published, the books that were published ten years ago, the books that were published fifty years ago.  Read ten of the current issues of diverse poetry journals. Then look at that draft you've got there in your little plastic envelope (and why, why, must you keep a draft in a plastic envelope?)—and see if that draft won't take on a larger shape almost immediately.

2) Send your work to journals you love. You do want to know what editors think of your work. And there is a major side effect to sending your work out. Once you begin to think about attaching that draft in your submission or putting that draft in an envelope, once you begin to take seriously that an editor will at least start to read it, you bring the vision to the poem that you hadn't up until this point. There it is: your sharp, questioning eye, the eye that isn't flattered by anything.  That's the eye you want on your work.

3) You do want to know what you think of your work.

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