Finding Everyday Inspiration Day 12: Textual Criticism of Sylvia Plath’s Mushrooms

[In response to the Finding Everyday Inspiration prompt for day 12, I am lazily reposting  a text on on Sylvia Plath’s Mushrooms, originally entitled Sylvia Plath’s Full Stops]

No postwar English language poet has received such unmitigated critical acclaim as Sylvia Plath. And rightly so. Her work is at once seminal, canonical, apocryphal and apocalyptic. She broke completely new ground as a fiercely female poet poised uncomfortably between the dark memories of the recent world war and the dubious freedoms and comforts of a hedonistic age of mass-consumption that had only just begun. Her poems combine untamable churning depths of emotion with supreme artistic self-control, drumming out a painstakingly honest, unwelcoming and unwelcome, anthem for the baby-boom doomed generation of youth to come.

Like William Carlos Williams, Plath mastered the clipped metrically unconventional line. But, whereas Williams used this modernist technique, mollified by enjambment, to promote a languid impressionistic sympathy for nature, fellow human beings, and, frankly, himself, Plath turns out self-flagellating whip cracks of lines, clearly punctuated by pregnant pauses and sharp stops, allowing neither the reader nor herself the respite of the enjambed phrase.
Compare the first stanza of Williams’s The Widow’s Lament in Springtime, which I cited in an earlier post, with the first stanza of Plath’s Tulips, to which it bears a certain superficial metrical and thematic resemblance.

The tulips are too excitable, it is winter here.
Look how white everything is, how quiet, how snowed in.
I am learning peacefulness, lying by myself quietly
As the light lies on these white walls, this bed, these hands.
I am nobody; I have nothing to do with explosions.
I have given my name and my day-clothes up to the nurses
And my history to the anesthetist and my body to the surgeons.

The rhythm here comes in stops and starts, marked by punctuation and harsh conjunctions and eruptions of direct speech. The only lines that come close to an enjambment—the third and the fifth—are deliberately hampered and held back by clumsiness and ambiguity. The punctuation of “quietly/as the light lies on these white walls” suggests a simile, but the line-break tempts us to read ‘as’ as a conjunction, itself ambiguous, hovering semantically between ‘because’ and ‘while’.

Compare this with Williams’s use of ‘as’ in the introduction to the Widow’s Lament. “the new grass/flames as it has flamed/often before,” in which the comparative use of the word is totally unambiguous, serving the purposes of a comforting nostalgia.
There is always something deliciously and delicately sadomasochistic about the way Plath forges words into sweetly savage little stanzas and fragmented lines. Yet her work is as utterly and refreshingly devoid of self-promotion or pomp as knitting is.

Plath understands, as is evident from her harrowing descriptions of suicide attempts in The Bell Jar, how the comfort of supposedly womanly and homely virtues is not a desirable end in itself, but part of a lethal mix of oppression and misogyny that poisons the human race. The trap of the pursuit of happiness drags a death-drive in its wake…Genocide, suicide, infanticide, the sempiternal abuse of women and children and human beings in general for the sake of a cynically utilitarian view of fulfillment and order constantly haunt her work…

Her last poem, Edge, ends ominously with the words “The moon has nothing to be sad about,/staring from her hood of bone.// She is used to this sort of thing./Her blacks cackle and drag.” Comfort, accommodation, and the absence of sadness are equated with the black arts of Hecate. While Williams’s imagined widow distances herself from the at once grim reality and potential comfort of self-destruction with more wistful and softly-focused emotions: “I feel that I would like/ to go there/ and fall into those flowers/ and sink into the marsh near them.”

One of my favorite Plath poems is Mushrooms… It was her last poem of 1959 and long precedes the manic flurry of creativity in the weeks and months before her death, for which she is best known.

Nature for Plath is not a source of solace, awe or inspiration, but rather some kind of infestation that needs to be battled or curbed, like weeds on a picket-fenced lawn or methicillin-resistant bacteria. Like the tulips at her hospital bedside, it is something artificial, invasive, nauseating. Like the gnarled root of a tree, whose grubby yet persistent existence bugs Jean-Paul Sartre’s alter ego in La Nausée.

Plath inverts the romantic notion of the sublime, but much more sharply and more viscerally than her existentialist and beatnik contemporaries. For her, existence does not precede or transcend essence; it fundamentally infests it. Life is as nauseating and futile as a fair-ride is; the freedom and the bondage, the apparent license combined with apparent safety, equally distasteful and equally fake, the vicious pair roped unwillingly and unwittingly together by chromosomes in the womb and beyond. We are locked in a constant three-way battle between zest and disgust, and the cold comfort of the lure of death.

In Mushrooms nature anthropomorphically vaunts its (self-) destructiveness, despite and because of its meekness and innocence.

“we are meek,
We are edible,

Nudgers and shovers
In spite of ourselves.
Our kind multiplies:

We shall by morning
Inherit the earth.
Our foot’s in the door.”

There is something Nietzschean about the idea of the meek inheriting but infesting the earth. Plath’s poem glides effortlessly over the question of good and evil.

There are sharp shifts of register in this poem, often from one line to another and even within lines. Sharp edges, which, like needles or knives, are at once homely and potentially deadly.

“We shall by morning” seems lifted from a general’s exhortation to his troops. “Inherit the earth” is a phrase obviously ripped from the gospel, but separated from the meekness that canonically qualifies the subject by five painful lines. The tercet ends “Our foot’s in the door”: with a vernacular reference to the bullying tactics of a travelling salesman, gold-digger or Gestapo officer and a deliberately clumsy sudden pronoun ambiguity, as the carefully maintained first person plural collapses into a single aggressive foot, bringing the poem to a metrically and semantically apt conclusion. There may even be a jazz-like joke in here at the expense of the fussily old-fashioned arrangement of poetic feet—a spondee (our foot) precedes an inverted dactyl (s’ in the door), the exact opposite of the norms of classical verse. Plath expertly turns tradition on its head with a bitter wit.

“Our kind multiplies” inter-discursively references racist discourse, whilst subverting it by replacing the usual exclusive third person plural possessive pronoun with the first. The hint of a Biblical reference is also undermined by substitution of an understood second person imperative (“Go forth and multiply!”) by the willful and somewhat sinister triumphant inevitability of the first person plural—a collective ego run wild rather than a compliant flock.

The word ‘kind’ is the hinge of this clipped but crucial line, poised subtly, dark yet sweet, semantically-speaking, between the racist, exclusionary connotations of the noun, and the commonplace sentimentality of the adjective, and tipping down like a see-saw into a Biblical euphemism for sexual reproduction translated into mathematical abstraction. Plath packs so much psychosexual history into this short line that it feels aptly, for good or ill, fit to explode.
I would argue that it is best to read this poem backwards, as it often is with poems. Working backwards from “our kind multiplies,” we get to “nudgers and shovers/in spite of ourselves”. At this point we realize that, despite the unremitting, perhaps deliberately mesmeric use of an anthropomorphic first person plural, Plath is ‘actually’ (if that means anything in her precociously ‘virtual’ approach to her work) referring (under erasure) to her own experience of womanhood and procreation. At the time of writing of this poem, she was half-way through her first pregnancy.

The ‘nudgers and shovers’ seem to be both fetuses fighting their way out of the womb and cocky ad-men seeking advancement in their career within a brutal capitalist system… To this dark revelation, she appends “in spite of ourselves,” giving the line a final hamartiological umbilical twist. Human beings transcend the pursuit of wealth and status, into which they are unleashed at birth, but are inevitably, from the outset, dragged into it. In a single terse couplet, Plath juxtaposes capitalist and social Darwinist cynicism with a religious notion that babies are born against their better nature, pure pre-existent souls corrupted from the outset by the act of copulation and conception.

Plath, however, is a master of the subtlest ambiguity. The ‘nudgers and shovers’ may be the fetuses in their mothers’ wombs, but they could also be the mothers themselves, forced by instinct to push out babies in labor, irrespective of their true desire to do so.

“We are shelves, we are/ tables, we are meek/ we are edible,” still working back through the poem, is the next stanza. The unfathomable ambiguities of the persistent ‘we’ cluster together here. Are ‘we’ women, children, human beings in general? Or perhaps just mushrooms? A basic form of life feeling its way out fumblingly into the darkness of the world.

Mushrooms spring up from the lawn overnight or can be grown indoors on shelves of fertile earth in attics or airing cupboards. They can be a source of nutrition, delirium or deadly poison. Unlike plants and animals, fungi do not require taming, tilling, harvest or slaughter. They pop up out of the dark, already good to eat… There is something Saturnine about them. They do not partake of the cycle of photosynthesis. Unlike newborn babies, animals or plants, they play no part in human lives as sources of affection, companionship or decoration… We feel no romantic or sentimental attachment whatsoever towards them. Their value is mired in myth. They are simply edible, fungible, seemingly inexhaustible products of the earth, parasites or symbiotic slaves to the supposedly nobler animal and vegetable kingdoms. All life, Plath suggests, however, may be like this.

“We
Diet on water,
On crumbs of shadow,
Bland-mannered, asking

Little or nothing.
So many of us!
So many of us!
*
But who are ‘we’/’they’? Although the first half of the poem is gorgeously mushily mushroomy and could easily and brilliantly have ended at line 18 with the delicious intermixing of anthropomorphism and pure description that is “shoulder through holes,” the second half is crucial to the true meaning Plath intends and this is invited in by the unexpected and metrically eccentric enjambment of an evocative “we” hanging in the middle of the poem at the end of the 18th line.

“We” in English and most other Indo-European languages is a highly ambiguous pronoun. There is no distinction between the exclusive and inclusive (me and you; or me and you as opposed to them). The mushrooms declaring themselves anthropomorphically as ‘we’ in Plath’s poem seem to be inserting themselves as aliens into the individualistic ordered world of the author; pushing their way in, one foot aggressively fixed in the door. An imagined “we” opposed to ‘us’, like rats or dry rot. On the other hand, there is the ‘we’ that is the first person singular plus another first person singular… The grammatical archetype of truces, trysts and affective ties.
Plath brilliantly combines two or more meanings in this hanging ‘we’. The mushrooms as a chthonic force of nature, marshalling themselves against humanity; children in the womb worming their way into our affection, forcing themselves into existence; we the parents, obstetricians, gossiping midwives, interfering pastors and priests, urging them to be born.

Mushrooms is a monumental, almost perfectly executed, poem that deals subtly, yet dispassionately, with the profound—perhaps ultimate—question of what it means to come into existence or bring a living creature into being, from the unique viewpoint of a troubled, talented woman with a child kicking in her womb.

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Young Women in a Coffee Shop

[Not that inspired by today’s 11th Finding Everyday Inspiration https://dailypost.wordpress.com/blogging-university/writing-everyday-inspiration/ prompt , I recycle another item from my back catalogue of observational poem, this one from around 2010, based on a weird scene I observed in a coffee bar ]

Young Women in a Coffee Shop

 

She has her laptop set up in a coffee-shop

before her slender frame,

black eye make-up & attitude in her voice,

foot tapping in toe-twirling confidence

wound up

within her flip-flopped youthful yet complaining gait;

& something twinkling in her world-filled eyes.

*

The friend arrives in heels,

bust out, bum up,

her lip-stick smeared into a whinge

across the back-drop of her face,

emptiness in her eyes.

*

Smiles exchanged,

the pair unwrap a batch

of brand new medical equipment

like Christmas presents

& set excitedly about

taking each other’s blood pressure,

as they await decaf and tea.

 

Finding Everyday Inspiration 10: observational poem

[In response to the tenth Finding Daily Inspiration prompt https://dailypost.wordpress.com/blogging-university/writing-everyday-inspiration/, I submit one of a series of observational poems that I initially wrote back in 2004-2006, at a time when I would spend most of my evenings ensconced with a notebook and a beer in a corner seat in a bar that I came to regard as my own personal space, watching and writing about the other patrons around me.]

 Family Night-Out

 The father tut-tuts seriously,

seeing the way the match is going.

In front of the TV, he’s boss.

His eye for error’s keen; his limbs

toned by a lifetime of hard

manual work, of which he’s proud.

 

The second missus, head rested

on his shoulder, sniffs noisily at cheap

meat on a stick to check it’s

fresh. She has her doubts but, all the

same, she wolfs it down, so nothing

goes to waste. Bored slightly,

she’s distracted by the other people

round. Her husband pays

her no attention at all.

 

The boyfriend is a gentleman

in the making; doing his best

to show his gallantry, in his gauche way,

when not distracted by the game

& worries of a hard yet

idle life that tell on his

lank looks & limbs.

The girlfriend,

still a girl, smiles throughout

through lively eyes & missing teeth.

She throws brief looks at me, watching,

&writing, and at her watch,

giggles&yawns (not bored: this is the best

it gets she thinks), just wanting

to go to bed.

*

Their eyes, though skewed in different

directions, stake out the corners

of a square mirroring table

& a screen. A sudden goal brings them

together in a star of joy.

Mother

& daughter-in-law-to-be will not

set foot inside the restroom,

unless they go together. The

girl glances my way more often

than mere curiosity would

warrant, as if I were a cameraman

whom none but she can see.

Creative Idleness

[Written in response to the Finding Everyday Inspiration https://dailypost.wordpress.com/blogging-university/writing-everyday-inspiration/ prompt for Day 9]

I have never been a great advocate of the classical division of productive time into studium, negotium and otium (study, business and leisure). Learning is as important as work, if not more so, and should continue throughout life and there is no reason whatsoever, in an ideal world, why both should not be enjoyable fulfilling experiences. I have been lucky enough always to have been able to study and work with things that I enjoy, things that I would do anyway in my leisure time. By contrast, leisure activities, such as socializing and sports, that other people find rewarding and replenishing have always been a source of great stress for me.

I recently spent a long period (over four years) working only with writing but, in the last few months, have started to go back to teaching English as a foreign language, which is my only other economically useful skill.

I feel different about teaching and about myself as a teacher after such a long break. I find, somewhat counterintuitively, that the break has given me more confidence in what I do. Far from feeling rusty, I find myself somehow more finely tuned. This is not something I can really explain.

There is a theory of learning whereby a learner ‘naturally’ moves from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence to unconscious competence and finally to conscious competence. If this is true—and I imagine that the path is far bumpier in practice than these neat chiasms would suggest—the break somehow helped me to negotiate the last of these transitions so far as teaching is concerned, even though I literally did nothing during it.

There have also been breaks in my creative writing and, looking back now, they have tended to be creative ones. I produced a lot of work during the last few years I was living in England in the early 1990s but this dried up when I moved to Brazil. Over the following fallow period, however, I somehow reinvented myself as a poet and, between 2000 and 2005, produced a large amount of work very different from my earlier efforts. This would be followed by another hiatus. This time it lasted ten years. While these were in many ways the happiest and the busiest years of my life, they were not really very productive so far as writing is concerned. I felt that my career as a poet, such as it was, was over. I had produced what I was able to and that was that.

When I became seriously ill in 2012, I started looking back over my life and my work and decided that the latter at least was something important that needed preserving and set about taking steps to effect its preservation. This process would eventually lead to the creation of this blog.

Through the blog I was encouraged by other writers to start writing again and, in the course of 2015, I produced a whole book of new poems, the vast majority of which were originally written in response to prompts and requests coming from this blogging community. My style changed somewhat again, but in large measure retained the distinctive poetic voice that I have been (self-consciously or not) building up over the years.

As a result, I now feel the same way about poetry as I do about teaching. I have a calm, conscious confidence in my competence, even though (or perhaps because) I am aware that the way I work is different from that of others and obviously not to everyone’s taste.

As a teacher and a poet, at least, I am now fully comfortable in my own skin.

This path, however, is not inevitable. It is punctuated and driven by long periods of idleness, near-death experiences, and personal crises and will continue to be so until the day we draw our last breath. Much of the most important input is extrinsic, unpredictable and comes unexpectedly from other people. It is not a path that you can plan or forge for yourself.

 

Habeas Corpus

I have for a long time now been working on and off on a poetry project involving prison letters and prison dating. The project goes by the working title of He said she said (inside) and bundles together a large number of my poetic and non-poetic interests/obsessions: found poems, crowd-sourced writing, acrostic poetry, randomness, statistics, lists, internet search engines, corpus linguistics, discourse analysis of the use of little words (prepositions, pronouns and the like), ambiguity, the interface between art and science, gender differences, social inclusion of underprivileged voices, voluntary or involuntary confinement/’encavernment’ and the illusory constitution and projection of the self through language.

In response to today’s Finding Everyday Inspiration task https://dailypost.wordpress.com/blogging-university/writing-everyday-inspiration/ on the subject of letters I am, for the first time, publishing some preliminary results of this ongoing creative writing research project.

As befits a project that is as much social science as art, I must first outline the methodology used to produce these ‘poems’.

Twenty letters were selected at random from a corpus gathered from prison inmate dating sites, ten written by male inmates, ten by females. Word frequency calculation software was used to arrange the words used in the letters, divided up into male and female groups, in order of frequency. Words were included in the final poems/results tables if they occurred with an overall frequency of ≥ 5 (i.e. 0.5 occurrences per letter), calculating separately for each group.

Crude intuitive cluster analysis was used to arrange the words by descending order of frequency into groups that make up the lines of the two poems (one for the males, one for the females). The poems are formatted in such a way that the font size of each line is proportionate to the frequency of the words it includes. (I was not able to reproduce this effect in this blog post.)

No attempt is made to massage or manipulate the resulting text so as to make it more grammatically or metrically acceptable. I find the resulting ‘poems’ eerily revealing and am thrilled by the idea that my authorship of them is at best minimal. These poems and this project belong to all incarcerated people around the world who take the trouble to put pen to paper.

While writing this post, I decided to rename the project Habeas Corpus.

 

She said (inside)

I

and to a

my with am for

you have

the love be

of me

very

new like is in enjoy

would that open know can

who what person but

things someone people out or learning if good

 

He said (inside)

I

to and

a

you am

the is

me of my in that

do

have

if with can

who

for not about it

this only be

would or friendship are

so like life know all

love little from at

your write will we very real on never looking great get

time take some share out one myself make God friends friend because

Finding Everyday Inspiration 7: Tattoo

The seventh Finding Everyday Inspiration task https://dailypost.wordpress.com/blogging-university/writing-everyday-inspiration/ is sort of a no-brainer for me. Given the choice of tweets offered, I am obviously going to go with this one.

“I´ve deleted enough tweets to know that I should never get a tattoo.”

–Abby Heugel

What I like most about this tweet is the fact that, when I first read it, it made absolutely no sense to me. I also like the way it starts out by referring to deleting items generated in the misanthropic universe of tweets and goes on, after a caesura of sorts, to conclude apparently incongruously that it is unwise to mutilate one’s own skin with ink. It took me a while to ‘get’ the, in fact, quite obvious, connection relating to regret.

I must admit that I have an instinctive aversion to tattoos. I regard them as a dangerous gateway to self-harming or worse—a sort of on-your-sleeve Munchausen syndrome. When anyone proudly shows me an elaborate tattoo that they have recently had etched into their epithelium, my suppressed reaction is always to cry out “Oh my God! You poor thing! What have you done to yourself.” I am aware that this is a quaintly old-fashioned point of view. I feel the same about plastic surgery.

I am especially disturbed when people ink themselves up with written words (often in a language and script of which they have no direct knowledge or understanding). I had no idea what the splurge of Sanskrit inked permanently down David Beckham’s forearm means and neither, I imagined, did he. It just looks cool. I liked to think that some wily Sanskrit-savvy tattoo-artist wrote something to the effect of “I am a dickhead” in the manner of a drunken frat boy on Beckham’s muscly arm. In fact—I just looked it up—it is his wife’s name spelt wrong, with a Sanskrit ‘h’ symbol before the ‘k/c’ in Victoria. Unsurprisingly Victoria is not a very popular name in post-Independence India.

If we wanted to say something by etching it permanently onto the support of our own bodies, (an impulse that already betrays compensation for a distinct lack of ability to communicate) shouldn’t it be something really important? And, if it were important, a short tweet of a tattoo surely wouldn’t do. You would have to tattoo the whole extent of the surface of your body with text, in the manner of Japanese Mafiosi or the premise of the TV series Blindspot or Peter Greenaway’s The Pillow Book, to achieve this end.

Tattooing only makes sense if the whole body is seen as paper and ultimately transmogrified into text. Anything short of this is mere quotation, subject to misattribution, misspelling and regret.

I once wanted a tattoo. A hammer and sickle, in red, yellow and black, if possible, on my left shoulder to demonstrate my continuing support for socialism shortly before the fall of the Berlin wall—a sort of last hurrah. I am very glad I never allowed that essentially cosmetic surgery to be carried out. History moves on and the last thing I want is to have it literally ‘under my skin’.

In his otherwise underwhelming autobiography, Morrissey reveals that he once fell in love with a guy who had the word ‘Battersea’—the name of a London neighborhood—tattooed onto his gums. I quite like this kind of tattoo—discrete, expressing loyalty to a local community and visible only to someone who has intimate access to your mouth. A tattoo revealed only in a kiss.

The Space of Writing

[Here is my take on today’s Finding Everyday Inspiration prompt https://dailypost.wordpress.com/blogging-university/writing-everyday-inspiration/, on the space of writing.]

 

The Space of Writing

I will take today’s prompt as an opportunity to hold forth on a subject that has always interested me: namely the issue of surface and support in so far as it relates to poetry.

These twin terms come from art theory and refer to the relationship between the traditionally purely bureaucratic support (canvas, celluloid and so forth) and the traditionally ‘important’ content imprinted on it by way of paint, ink, photochemical processes or whatever.

Modern and contemporary artists have for a long time now liked to subvert and play with this distinction by making the support part of the content of the work. Poetry, as with other features of this art form, has tended be much more conservative in this regard.

Poetry still invariably takes the form of words on paper (and little has been made of the transition from physical to digital paper, as if this were a mere convenience). Of course, poetry still also has a strong association with oral performance, in which words are supported by the surrounding air they cause to vibrate and, to some extent, by the (usually muted) reaction of an audience.

Modern poetry, however, has tended to step back from oral presentation and concentrate more on page layout, replacing the flourishes of performance with a more puritanical interest in brevity and use of blank space akin to that of minimalist and geometric abstract art.

Concrete poetry has never really taken off, although there has been much interesting theorizing about it, especially in Brazil. This is perhaps because concrete poetry is still just words on a page: it is not concrete in the way a sculpture is.

Mail art (another Brazilian specialty)—developed as a way of obviating censorship during the military regime and arguably an early precursor of the Internet—was another very interesting movement but one that is usually seen as art rather than poetry and still restricts itself to written words on paper, albeit in an interestingly networked way and with the spatially innovative use of an envelope or post-card.

Attempts (usually populist in nature) to use the urban or rural environment as a support have tended to be uninteresting and naff, involving inscriptions or billboards, which are hardly novel media for relating content to support.

I wonder what a non-Euclidean kind of poetry would look like—one written on a sphere or a Mobius strip. I have tried to do this but there is always something unappealing and awkward and ultimately conservative about it. I have also experimented with wireless technology, trying to see whether, when I wrote using a wireless keyboard in a room different from that in which the computer was located, it would produce some interesting results. It didn’t. More recently, I have been working on a project involving corresponding with offenders serving long-term sentences in US jails. This is still an ongoing project in its very early stages and (obviously) one of a very complex ethical and bureaucratic nature.

The only time I have ever come upon a poem that truly and effectively plays with the relationship between surface and support was in an underground pedestrian walkway in Liverpool that I was (illegally) riding a bike through. Someone had chalked lines of a love poem on the pavement at intervals that could only be read comfortably by someone cycling through. I made a point of going back and traversing the same route by foot to see whether the poem still made sense at a pedestrian pace. It didn’t. This was a poem that derived its very meaning from being mounted on a radically different support. There was no point even in getting my ‘found poems’ notebook out and writing it down.

And this poem was presumably produced by a jilted amateur graffiti artist with no pretensions to be a poet.

This then would be my ideal space for writing: crouched down on the pavement in an underground walkway in an underprivileged city ‘vandalizing’ public property by temporarily inscribing a message on it and carefully calculating the distance between lines in such a way that it only makes sense to someone ‘illegally’ riding through the same space at the speed of a push-bike. This—not the libraries and the academies nor the universities nor the lake district nor a comfortable room of one’s own—is the kind of cramped yet ample space in which true creative genius is born.

Between Quotes

[Here is my response to today’s Finding Everyday Inspiration prompt https://dailypost.wordpress.com/blogging-university/writing-everyday-inspiration/ on the subject of quotations. Sorry it is a bit stroppy.]

Do I contradict myself?

Very well then I contradict myself,

(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

–Walt Whitman, Song of Myself, stanza 51, lines 7-9.

I don’t generally do quotes or epigraphs. I am suspicious of them for the same reason that I am suspicious of sound-bites, tweets and the random citation of snippets of Holy Scripture as a quick (and cheap) way to make (and swiftly close) an argument.

On the one hand, I believe that anything truly worth expressing will always be so shot through with ambiguities, contradictions and possible counter-claims that a lengthy exposition is always necessary. Arguments, like fine wines, need time to develop, preferably in dialogue with other writers.

On the other hand, isolated quotations shorn of their historical and immediate intertextual context invariably distort the originally intended meaning and the most famous and oft-repeated of these are more often than not outright misquotations, the waters further muddied by frequent misattribution.

If you are going to quote someone, my advice is that:

a) you quote a whole text or substantial chunk of it (a whole poem for example, rather than an apparently clear-cut snippet of an otherwise ambivalent whole). The oft-quoted Ages of Man speech from Shakespeare’s As you Like It, for example, is frequently referenced without noting that, in the play, these words are put into the mouth of a jaded character, of whose views both the author and the other characters obviously disapprove;

b) you source your quotations scrupulously and provide a full reference. I recently wanted to entitle a blog post Damned Lies and Statistics. I therefore studiously checked out the origin of this quite common phrase and found that there is in fact no consensus among scholars as to who first said it or (more importantly) why. I chose therefore not to use the title and not even to finish writing the post.

The only exception that I make to this general self-imposed rule concerns the case of quotations that are in themselves deliciously (and preferably deliberately) ambiguous and paradoxical. The fragments of the Ancient Greek pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus constitute a rich source in this regard, although, even in this case, it is clear that the process of quotation and fragmentation of the thinker’s work over time may have seriously distorted his original (now irrecoverable) intent. The same is true to some extent of thinkers, such as Nietzsche and Wittgenstein, who are deliberately aphoristic, although nowadays I tend to find more subterfuge than subtlety in this device. Nietzsche’s ‘philosophizing with a hammer,’ for all his erudition, is a little too Trump-like for my taste.

My favorite quotation is the famous one about self-contradiction from the 51st stanza of Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself, with which ironically I began this post. It is of course a much more enriching, if a little more challenging, experience to read it in the context of the whole stanza, with which I end this post.

The past and present wilt—I have fill’d them, emptied them.

And proceed to fill my next fold of the future.

Listener up there! what have you to confide to me?

Look in my face while I snuff the sidle of evening,

(Talk honestly, no one else hears you, and I stay only a minute longer.)

Do I contradict myself?

Very well then I contradict myself,

(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

I concentrate toward them that are nigh, I wait on the door-slab.

 Who has done his day’s work? who will soonest be through with his supper?

Who wishes to walk with me?

Will you speak before I am gone? will you prove already too late?

Sally in the Woods

[I tend not to write fictional prose. I feel I don’t have the patience, stamina or aptitude for it. I prefer to write either cold academic discourse or short poetic texts in a splurge of inspiration, or, sometimes, somewhat incongruously, mingle the two genres. That has not, however, stopped me from trying privately to write novels, short stories and screenplays. This post, in response to today’s Finding Everyday Inspiration prompt involving an image of a girl in the woods https://dailypost.wordpress.com/blogging-university/writing-everyday-inspiration/, presents a small first part of one of my many attempts to produce a more extensive narrative. It dates back nearly two decades now and is, like most of my work in this genre, unpolished and incomplete. The idea was to write a dark murder mystery entirely from the point of view and in the voice of a ten-year-old boy loosely based on a remembered version of myself in the 1970s—a sort of cross between P.D. James and South Park. I would be interested to know what people think of it.]

Sally in the Woods

 Chapter 1

The Accident (Part 1)

Sean and Reb Grainger’s mum and dad died in a car crash driving down the hill to Hayford. A lorry braked sharply in front of them to avoid running over a hedgehog and they ploughed straight into the back of it. They were killed instantly. Tommy says both their heads were shorn sharp off. But I don’t believe much that Tommy says these days.

Tommy told me once that the weird old man who lives in the old lodge just outside of school hunts for toads in the night and eats them for breakfast. So we went to his house one day and Tommy said he had to go to the toilet and, while the old man took him there, I looked into the larder and the fridge and all I found was ordinary things. So I don’t believe anything Tommy says any more.

But it is true that Sean and Reb’s mum and dad were killed outright in a car crash driving down the hill to Hayford. Daddy went to their funeral. I felt a bit sad and Sally, my big sister, couldn’t go to the funeral, because she was so upset and cried a lot in her room I suppose.

No-one goes into Sally’s room; but she spent longer than usual in there back then and I saw her eyes were very red when she came out occasionally to go to the loo. Daddy had a long talk with Sally after that and said he thought she was so upset about this because she still wasn’t over Mummy. She didn’t say very much as usual. But, I know that she was upset because she was soft on Sean and thought she would never see him again.

Sean was a sixth-former and old enough to look after his little sister on his own. And after a few months staying at their auntie’s they came back to live in the big house on the hill up our road that was now theirs.

I wish I were a sixth-former. I imagined what they got up to up there; staying up late playing video games, eating pizza every day, going to school when they felt like it, sleeping in the same bed, or in the garden if it was warm enough. They missed school quite a lot and the rumour was going round that social workers would be brought in. I don’t know what social workers really are, but they don’t sound very nice and I told Reb that she’d better tell her brother to bring her to school or she’d be taken away and locked up. And she cried.

Daddy told Sally that she should go visit them, since they must be very lonely and still very upset up there. And wasn’t she a friend of Sean’s? Sally twisted her nose the way she does when she doesn’t like something. Sally doesn’t like most things.

“And what am I going to say to them. Oooh, I’m soooo sorry your mum and dad are dead. Would you like me to bring them back for you? Besides, that Sean’s a pervert. They say he’s screwing his sister now. It’s all around school.”

Daddy said that wasn’t a very nice thing for a young lady to think and that it almost certainly wasn’t true. The Graingers were nice respectable children and had suffered a terrible tragedy and he was shocked at Sally’s sarcastic and insensitive attitude. He told her to go to her room instantly and stay there for the rest of the evening. She pouted, sighed and obeyed.

“Can I take my homework?” she added, “I suppose you want me to do that.”

“Go to your room!” Daddy ordered. Sally climbed the stairs as slowly as possibly, grabbing the satchel with her homework in it lazily from the bannister as she passed by, as if it were an afterthought. Her door slammed and the bang was immediately followed by a blast of loud pop music.

“And no music!” Daddy shouted up the stairs. A few seconds later the music stopped. Daddy looked concerned and then noticed I was on the floor in the hall, playing with my toy soldiers. His expression changed.

“Sorry, about Sally,” he smiled, “It’s her age.”

I beamed back at him. I knew what “screwing” meant.

Hope and Speed

[Here is my take on today’s Finding Everyday Inspiration https://dailypost.wordpress.com/blogging-university/writing-everyday-inspiration/ prompt on the subject of “Hope” ]

Hope and Speed

Latinate and Germanic languages and Ancient Greek diverge drastically when it comes to hope.

The Latin word for hope “spes” has a root meaning that very sensibly and practically refers to prosperity and, by extension, in Roman legal texts, to the process of recovering debts.

This contrasts with the Greek idea of hope as one of the cardinal sins; up there with hubris. This is exemplified in the canonical story of Orpheus and Eurydice (in which Orpheus is punished for looking back in hope) and the same theme is pounded out again and again in the dour choruses of Greek tragedies written under the shadow of the Peloponnesian Cold War.

No surprise, then, that Christianity went for Latin rather than Greek in developing its own very upbeat concept of hope.

This chirpier Latin root has not found its way into English words for hope, except by the circuitous route of French, and then only in its opposite “despair”. Instead, Germanic languages drew on an Indo-European root related to ‘hop’ to express this abstract idea.

Different from the Latin and Greek concepts (which are very abstract), the hope/hop field of meanings summons up a clearly visual idea of someone hopping up and down, leaning forward and looking out for better things to come, naïve as a small child or ‘hopped up’ on psychotropic drugs.

England’s history of industrial revolution, abolition of slavery and the establishment of fair play in the rule of law suggest that this way of conceiving of hope in terms of an adolescent girl hopping up and down in excited expectation may have its rewards.

The more practical Indo-European root of Latin ‘spes’ has, nevertheless, not been overlooked in the English language. It pops up in “speed,” in so far as this word refers to time-efficiency in achieving a desired goal. The same word is also employed, like ‘hop’, to refer to a drug that creates an illusion of this forward propulsion.

The various meanings bind together with a certain felicity in a term current in North America, but archaic in the United Kingdom: “God speed!”