Category Archives: Study

May Sarton on the Cure for Despair and Solitude as the Seedbed of Self-Discovery

“Sometimes one has simply to endure a period of depression for what it may hold of illumination if one can live through it, attentive to what it exposes or demands.”

BY MARIA POPOVA

may sarton on the cure for despair“A great deal of poetic work has arisen from various despairs,” wrote Lou Andreas-Salomé, the first woman psychoanalyst, in a consolatory letter to the poet Rainer Maria Rilke as he was wrestling with depression, nearly a century before psychologists came to study the nonlinear relationship between creativity and mental illness. A generation later, with an eye to what made Goethe a genius, Humphrey Trevelyan argued that great artists must have the courage to despair, that they “must be shaken by the naked truths that will not be comforted. This divine discontent, this disequilibrium, this state of inner tension is the source of artistic energy.”
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Few artists have articulated the dance between this “divine discontent” and creative fulfillment more memorably than the poet, novelist, essayist, and diarist May Sarton(May 3, 1912–July 16, 1995). In her Journal of a Solitude (public library), Sarton records and reflects on her interior life in the course of one year, her sixtieth, With remarkable candor and courage. Out of these twelve private months arises the eternity of the human experience with its varied universal capacities for astonishment and sorrow, hollowing despair and creative vitality.

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On James Joyce’s deathbed, the author of “Ulysses” was reading Conrad Aiken’s poetry

By TYLER MALONE

on james joyceI first encountered Conrad Aiken in the 1920s literary magazine the Dial, hunched over a machine reading microfilm in the New York Public Library. At the same time, I was reading about him in the memoirs and biographies of the modernists. I read items — some undoubtedly exaggerated, others perhaps apocryphal — about how he introduced Ezra Pound to T.S. Eliot (so without him, the world would be sans “The Waste Land”); about how he’d written a book that Freud kept on his desk, which some were claiming was Freud’s favorite novel (Aiken’s second novel, “Great Circle”); about how H.D., the modernist poet, had actually attempted to get him psychoanalyzed by Freud (though this, unfortunately, never came to fruition); about how he had played a major part in solidifying Emily Dickinson’s place in the canon (as the editor of one of the early posthumous collections of her poems); about how he recognized the genius of William Faulkner as early as 1927 (seeing through the flaws of “Mosquitoes” and predicting the future prominence of the man of Yoknapatawpha County); about how, on James Joyce’s deathbed, the author of “Ulysses” was reading his poetry (specifically, “The Coming Forth by Day of Osiris Jones”); about how he not only mentored Malcolm Lowry, but served in loco parentis for the young writer who would go on to pen “Under the Volcano” (and whose first novel, “Ultramarine,” was an admitted imitation of Aiken’s own “Blue Voyage” — so much so that Aiken had joked that Lowry should just call it “Purple Passage”).
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Yet, for all the interesting tidbits I discovered about his life, it was his work that really wowed me, leaving me breathless in a way few authors ever have. I devoured the poems, the stories, the novels, and “Ushant,” his “naughtybiography” (a pun on “autobiography”). The sentences were like music, spiraling symphonies; the form seemed meticulously designed and, simultaneously, tossed off in the most natural way; the exploration of consciousness always felt both intimate and universal. To me, he belonged with Joyce, Woolf and Eliot, yet I never saw him among their ranks.

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100 Years of Hopkins

100 Years of HopkinsThe centenary of the first volume by Gerard Manley Hopkins, the Jesuit Victorian experimentalist was posthumously published among the Modernists.

Listen to the podcast from the Poetry Foundation: 100 Years of Hopkins

Read also: One hundred years of poems “counter, original, spare, strange”

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A Cure for Metaphor-Blindness

Christopher Benfey

A Cure for Metaphor-Blindness“Unless you are at home in the metaphor,” Robert Frost wrote, “you are not safe anywhere.” Frost gives an example of metaphor-blindness in his great poem “Home Burial.” A young couple has lost a child. The wife is in prolonged mourning. The husband thinks it’s time to move on. The wife is outraged that her husband, after burying their child near their house, and with dirt still on his shoes, could speak of “everyday concerns.” “I can repeat the very words you were saying,” she says:

“Three foggy mornings and one rainy day

Will rot the best birch fence a man can build.”

Think of it, talk like that at such a time!

What had how long it takes a birch to rot

To do with what was in the darkened parlor.

The answer she expects to her question (which Frost doesn’t grace with a question mark, since it’s not a real question) is: nothing. The husband can hardly say, in his own self-defense, “I was speaking metaphorically. By the birch fence, I meant our family.”

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The function of criticism

by Denis Donoghue

On T. S. Eliot’s essay on the evaluation of literature.

The function of criticismTS Eliot’s essay “The Function of Criticism” (1923) is a work of angry intelligence: it reads as if it were written under duress. Apparently Eliot would prefer to be writing about anything else, or to be silent. He accepts that criticism includes, unfortunately, every form of discursive writing from the most leisurely book-review to a supreme work of criticism such as Sainte-Beuve’s Port-Royal. In “Religion and Literature,” (1935) he says—in poor taste, admittedly—that we should not leave criticism “to the fellows who write reviews in the papers.” It is difficult to designate a function for a plethora. Given such a field of literary criticism, Eliot would like to see most of its wandering inhabitants ejected. In happier conditions, literary criticism would be rarely needed:

I have had some experience of Extension lecturing, and I have found only two ways of leading any pupils to like anything with the right liking: to present them with a selection of the simpler kind of facts about a work—its conditions, its setting, its genesis—or else to spring the work on them in such a way that they were not prepared to be prejudiced against it. There were many facts to help them with Elizabethan drama: the poems of T. E. Hulme only needed to be read aloud to have immediate effect.

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MARIANNE MOORE’S SEXIST RECEPTION

SHE WAS “TOO CRITICAL TO BE A POET AND TOO POETIC TO BE A CRITIC”

By Evan Kindley

Marianne_MooreIn January 1919, Marianne Moore wrote a letter—the first of many—to her fellow poet-critic Ezra Pound. Pound had initiated the correspondence after encountering some work Moore had submitted for publication in the Little Review, seeing in her work some similarities to his own. After politely deflating most of his conjectures (“The resemblance of my progress to your beginnings is but an accident so far as I can see”), she makes so bold as to advance an unsolicited opinion of Pound himself:

I have taken great pleasure in both your prose and your verse, but it is what my mother terms the saucy parts, which have most fixed my attention. In 1911, my mother and I were some months in England and happening into Elkin Matthews’s shop, were shown photographs of you which we were much pleased to see. I like a fight but I admit that I have at times objected to your promptness with the cudgels. I say this merely to be honest.
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The whole passage has a typically Moorish ambiguity of tone—the attention she pays to Pound and his work is decorous, flirtatious, and disapproving in equal measure—but the phrase that jumps out is the penultimate one, which characterizes not Pound but Moore herself: “I like a fight but I admit that I have at times objected to your promptness with the cudgels.” This qualified, partially self-negating criticism encapsulates a characteristic mode of Moore’s writing, what I will call her “antagonism toward agonism.” This is not the same as a simple abhorrence of confrontation or violence; after all, Moore admits that she does “like a fight” and is, not incidentally, picking one here—and with a formidable opponent—by objecting to Pound’s aggressive behavior. But the fact that Moore, at this relatively early stage of the development of modernism and of her career, felt the need to register an objection, not to any particular attack of Pound’s but to his tendency to attack in general, is significant.

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On Sylvia Plath and the Many Shades of Depression

GABRIELLE BELLOT CONSIDERS HOW A WRITER’S WORK IS MEASURED AGAINST HER DEATH

On Sylvia Plath and the Many Shades of Depression“I am only thirty,” the narrator of Sylvia Plath’s monumental 1962 poem, “Lady Lazarus,” announces early. “And like the cat I have nine times to die.” Like the biblical Lazarus, she has returned from the silent room from which one is never supposed to return; she also resembles Plath herself, who attempted suicide multiple times. Read in light of Plath’s history, her resurrections become the failures of both women’s suicidal attempts, a failure at once triumphant, in that she gets to live again, and tragic, for the same reason.
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In an introduction to the poem for the BBC in December of 1962, Plath described Lady Lazarus as “a woman who has the great and terrible gift of being reborn. The only trouble is, she has to die first. She is the phoenix, the libertarian spirit, what you will. She is also,” Plath added, “just a good, plain, very resourceful woman.”
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For some of us, Death offers her hand more than once for a dance in her ballroom. We may want her to, fed up as we are with life, or we may be swallowed up by the grey of depression, not even fully realizing we have taken Death’s dark-nailed fingers in ours. We sway, her blue curls brushing our cheeks, her soft scent become almost familiar after the second time around the floor under the pink-black lanterns, but we always find ourselves, with rage or relief, back beyond the dancefloor, breathing. We fail to die, try as we might.
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Listen to Sylvia Plath read “Lady Lazarus”
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Read also: “I’m an intelligence” by Joanna Biggs

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DICKINSON — SEX, SPANISH, STEW

William Eaton

EMILY, IN NOT SO FOREIGN TONGUES

DICKINSON — SEX, SPANISH, STEWThe first law of American literature: Somewhere, somehow, in God only knows what language, you are always going to come across one more, intriguing—if not indeed great—Emily Dickinson poem. A poem that you have previously overlooked, or not even heard of. And yet, there it is, ready to reward your attention.
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A rider: The poem might be about sex. Not sex like Henry Miller with his beloved Germaine du Café de l’Éléphant, soaping herself at the bidet and “murmuring all the while in that hoarse, cracked voice of hers that it was good, beautiful, a treasure, a little treasure.” But for heady sexiness we’re not going to improve on

        in the Isles of Spice —

The subtle Cargoes — lie —
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I sit down to lunch at la Fondación Miró in Barcelona, a menu is brought. It includes snippets of poetry, including “Me desperté temprano saqué al perro”. English reverse translation: “I started Early — Took my Dog,” a Dickinson poem I had previously ignored.
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May it not seem too vulgar or pretentious if my first comment in some connection to the poem is that, in addition to mon trésor, Germaine might have called her sex “ma chatte”—her Cat. And, shifting to biographical data and from sex to love, from petting to pets, I note that, in a letter to an older man who she at least admired and who had gone to England a few months earlier, Dickinson once wrote:
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it is a suffering, to have a sea—no care how Blue—between your Soul, and you. The Hills you used to love when you were in Northampton, miss their old lover, could they speak—and the puzzled look—deepens in Carlo’s [her dog’s] forehead, as Days go by, and you never come.
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It has been generally assumed, by the way, that—an unmarried woman in nineteenth-century western Massachusetts—Dickinson had little direct acquaintance either with sex or with the sea. Among other things, this may be to say that we do not understand what “direct acquaintance” could mean or involve. (And recent decades have brought increased speculations about a possible sex life. Or did she simply overhear her brother and his lover, who used her study for their adulterous trysts?)

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What Is Poetry?

Emilia Phillips

What Is PoetryThe question arises often in bookstore readings and writing workshops, cultural commentary and book clubs, and yet the answers remain slippery and incomplete, sometimes biased toward a particular aesthetic, other times umbrella-ed into compromising vagaries, all of which equally frustrate the long-haul poet and the beginning reader. A whole host of poets from Coleridge to Ginsberg have attempted to alchemize a pure-gold definition that would illuminate and charge poetry’s mission while delineating its borders. In A Poet’s Glossary, Edward Hirsch defines a poem as a “made thing, a verbal construct” and poetry as an “inexplicable (though not incomprehensible) event in language.” This latter definition suggests there’s a way into understanding what poetry is, even if we can’t neatly package a definition. Part of the reason why I love poetry so much is that it rejects synopsis, but its undefinability may be why it sometimes struggles to gain new readers, to appeal to the uninitiated. So how do we overcome this barrier?
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For me, the best definition of poetry is the act and the experience of reading a poem. For every poem I read, I redefine poetry, little by little, so that I’m always, consciously or unconsciously, grappling with what it is and can be. This can happen poem to poem in a single collection, or it may arrive through the serendipitous juxtaposition of a poem I sought out and another that someone gave me. Just yesterday, I spent a lot of time with two poems, “Inversnaid” by Gerard Manley Hopkins and “At the Tribunals” by Patrick Rosal, while leading sessions on sound and music in poetry at a teen writing camp. In our discussion, we considered the ways in which the sounds of language can modulate emotion and tone; control the pacing; onomatopoetically produce ambient sound effects; and demonstrate movements and arcs in rhetoric and character. The river that Hopkins describes as a “rollrock highroad roaring down” seems to intone through the sounds of the language the very rush and fall described by the words’ meanings. The opening of Rosal’s poem chunks together hard “-ck” and “-d” sounds as he describes getting into fights as a kid—“Once, in a brawl on Orchard, I clocked a kid / with a ridgehand so hard”—and then, after the poem’s turn toward the adult speaker’s reflection, the sounds become softer, relying upon humming sounds like “-m” and “-n” or a shushing “-s” and its combinations with other consonants. I made a big to-do about these poets’ sonic strategies, and I felt satisfied that I knew what poetry can do.

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The Temporary The All

Thomas Hardy

Change and chancefulness in my flowering youthtime,

Set me sun by sun near to one unchosen;

Wrought us fellowly, and despite divergence,

Friends interblent us.
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“Cherish him can I while the true one forthcome–

Come the rich fulfiller of my prevision;

Life is roomy yet, and the odds unbounded.”

So self-communed I.
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Thwart my wistful way did a damsel saunter,

Fair not fairest, good not best of her feather;

“Maiden meet,” held I, “till arise my forefelt

Wonder of women.”
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Long a visioned hermitage deep desiring,

Tenements uncouth I was fain to house in;

“Let such lodging be for a breath-while,” thought I,

“Soon a more seemly.
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“Then, high handiwork will I make my life-deed,

Truth and Light outshow; but the ripe time pending,

Intermissive aim at the thing sufficeth.”

Thus I … But lo, me!
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Mistress, friend, place, aims to be bettered straightway,

Bettered not has Fate or my hand’s achieving;

Sole the showance those of my onward earth-track–

Never transcended!
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In his book, THOMAS HARDY HALF A LONDONER, Mark Ford writes, “The Temporary the All,” […] is composed in Sapphics, a complex, even outlandish metre for anyone writing in English. Nevertheless, this was the poem chosen by Hardy to initiate his thirty-year campaign to persuade his followers that, the popularity of recent novels such as Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure notwithstanding, his true gift was for verse. The bracketed subheading ‘Sapphics’ was added only when the poem was reprinted in Hardy’s Selected Poems of 1916. Hardy’s interest in the metre was no doubt sparked by Swinburne’s poem, simply entitled ‘Sapphics’, published in 1866 in Poems and Ballads.
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For more analysis of “The Temporary the All,” see Great Poetry Explained.
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Read “Sapphics” by Algernon Charles Swinburne, the poem that inspired “The Temporary the All.”
The Temporary The All

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