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They hanged him, I said dismissively
having no other way to say he died
or that he was a dear friend
or that work wove us most intimately
in common tasks, ambitions, desires.
Now he is dead: and I dare not think
of the anguish that drove him to where he was
or the pain at their hands he must have faced
or how much he was racked by my distress:
now, it is still easiest to say, they hanged him,
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Men at Forty

Men at forty
Learn to close softly
The doors to rooms they will not be
Coming back to.

At rest on a stair landing,
They feel it moving
Beneath them now like the deck of a ship,
Though the swell is gentle.

And deep in mirrors
They rediscover
The face of the boy as he practices tying
His father’s tie there in secret,

And the face of that father,
Still warm with the mystery of lather.
They are more fathers than sons themselves now.
Something is filling them, something

That is like the twilight sound
Of the crickets, immense,
Filling the woods at the foot of the slope
Behind their mortgaged houses.

Donald Justice
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The wolf, now piously old and good,
When again he met Red Riding Hood
Spoke: ‘Incredibly, my dear child,
What kinds of stories are spread–they’re wild.

As though there were, so the lie is told,
A dark murder affair of old.
The Brothers Grimm are the ones to blame.
Confess! It wasn’t half as bad as they claim.’

Little Red Riding Hood saw the wolf’s bite
And stammered: ‘You’re right, quite right.’
Whereupon the wolf, heaving many a sigh,
Gave kind regards to Granny and waved good-bye.

Rudolf Otto Wiemer.
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Nobody hurt you. Nobody turned off the light and argued
with somebody else all night. The bad man on the moors
was only a movie you saw. Nobody locked the door.

Your questions were answered fully. No. That didn't occur.
You couldn't sing anyway, cared less. The moment's a blur, a Film Fun
laughing itself to death in the coal fire. Anyone's guess.

Nobody forced you. You wanted to go that day. Begged. You chose
the dress. Here are the pictures, look at you. Look at us all,
smiling and waving, younger. The whole thing is inside your head.

What you recall are impressions; we have the facts. We called the tune.
The secret police of your childhood were older and wiser than you, bigger
than you. Call back the sound of their voices. Boom. Boom. Boom.

Nobody sent you away. That was an extra holiday, with people
you seemed to like. They were firm, there was nothing to fear.
There was none but yourself to blame if it ended in tears.

What does it matter now? No, no, nobody left the skidmarks of sin
on your soul and laid you wide open for Hell. You were loved.
Always. We did what was best. We remember your childhood well.

Carol Ann Duffy
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There you met it - the mystery of that hatred.
After your billions of years in anonymous matter
That was where you were found - and promptly hated.
You tried your utmost to reach and touch those people
with gifts of yourself -
Just like your first words as a toddler
When you rushed at every visitor to the house
Clasping their legs and crying: 'I love you, I love you!'
Just as you had danced for your father
In the home of anger - gifts of your life
To sweeten his slow death and mix yourself in it
Where he lay propped on the couch.
To sugar the bitterness of his raging death.

You searched for yourself to go on giving it
As if after the nightfall of his going
You danced on in the dark house.
Eight years old, in your tinsel.

Searching for yourself, in the dark, as you danced,
Floundering a little, crying softly,
Like somebody searching for somebody drowning
In dark water,
Listening for them - in panic at losing
Those listening seconds from your searching -
Then dancing wilder in the silence.

The Colleges lifted their heads. It did seem
You disturbed something just perfected
That they were holding carefully, all of a piece.
Till the glue dried. And as if
Reporting some felony to the police
They let you know that you were not John Donne.
You no longer care. Did you save their names?
But then they let you know, day by day,
Their contempt for everything you attempted.
Took pains to inject their bile, as for your health,
Into your morning coffee. Even signed
Their homeopathic letters,
Envelopes full of carefully broken glass
To lodge behind your eyes so you would see

Nobody wanted your dance,
Nobody wanted your strange glitter - your floundering
Drowning life and your effort to save yourself,
Treading water, dancing the dark turmoil,
Looking for something to give -
Whatever you found
They bombarded with splinters,
Derision, mud - the mystery of that hatred.

Ted Hughes
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I grow old, old

without you, Mother, landscape

of my heart.   No child, no daughter between my bones

has moved, and passed

out screaming, dressed in her mantle of blood



as I did

once through your pelvic scaffold, stretching it

like a wishbone, your tenderest skin

strung on its bow and tightened

against the pain.   I slipped out like an arrow, but not before



the midwife

plunged to her wrist and guided

my baffled head to its first mark.   High forceps

might, in that one instant, have accomplished

what you and that good woman failed

in all these years to do:      cramp

me between the temples, hobble

my baby feet.      Dressed in my red hood, howling, I went –




the white clad doctor and his fancy claims:       microscope,

stethoscope, scalpel, all

the better to see with, to hear,

and to eat – straight from your hollowed basket

into the midwife’s skirts.     I grew up



good at evading, and when you said,

“Stick to the road and forget the flowers, there’s

wolves in those bushes, mind

where you got to go, mind

you get there”. I

minded. I kept



to the road, kept

the hood secret, kept what it sheathed more

secret still.   I opened

it only at night, and with other women

who might be walking the same road to their own

grandma’s house, each with their basket of gifts, her small hood

safe in the same part.    I minded well.   I have no daughter



to trace that road, back to your lap with my laden

basket of love.  I’m growing

old, old

without you.    Mother, landscape

of my heart, architect of my body, what other gesture

can I conceive



to make with it

that would reach you, alone

in your house

and waiting, across this improbable forest

peopled with wolves and our lost, flower-gathering

sisters they feed on
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So Ruth Padel who was elected Oxford Professor of Poetry has resigned after she apparently took part in a "smear" campaign to discredit her rival Derek Walcott. I'm just kind of hmmm about the whole situation, firstly while I think her actions were not sensible from a pragmatic viewpoint, I doubt she would have felt the pressure to resign if shed been a man who sent an email expressing concern about a fellow candidates past behavior. Male poets and writers are allowed to get up to all sorts of shenanigans and are more often than not congratulated on it or at least indulged with a kind of "well you can't expect him to behave himself he's an artist" thing going on. Added to this top level academia is notoriously cut throat and it seems that ruthless ambition is a necessary characteristic needed to survive in it but presumably that is only acceptable in men, women must be punished for it.

Padell was apparently doing this for good reasons, she is quoted in the independent as saying she had felt compelled to remind journalists of the allegations against her 78-year-old rival because female students had come to her expressing concerns that Walcott's past was being "brushed under the carpet." So she was supporting other women in the academic system and telling the truth about how some men behave within that system but she was the one who got punished for it.

These allegations against Derek Walcott are not new or apparently substanceless, according to Katy Evans-Bush at Comment is free: Walcott was disciplined by Harvard University in 1982 (after which the university updated its sexual harassment policy) and settled out of court with another student, Nicole Niemi (now Kelby), at Boston University in 1996. He justified himself on the first occasion saying his teaching style was "deliberately personal and intense". In fact, it was so intense, according to the student who complained, that after she refused his advances, he refused to discuss her work and gave her a C, which the university later raised to a pass

But there's still a general feeling in the media that Padell shouldn't have bought it up because it's somehow not playing fair, as if sexual harassment of students is just a jape, as if it is something that can be brushed under the carpet, as if somehow those students were just collateral damage in the life of a brilliant man (I don't know Walcotts poetry so I have no idea whether he is brilliant or not, but that's the gist of much of the reporting.) Amit Chaudri goes to far as to say that the resurrection of this piece of Walcott's past is "opportunistic and "unfortunate" maybe it was opportunistic, there is certainly an argument for that. But it is "unfortunate"? It's unfortunate that men harass women, certainly, but why is it unfortunate that women then tell the truth about it? (except of course for the men who commit the crimes in the first place.)

There's also a kind of odd theme running through many of the opinion pieces on the issue. that of GOSH! poets behaving like human beings! how scandalous! As if poets are supposed to be detached from humanity, as if they are somehow supposed to have purer motives than "normal" people. To be a good poet you have to be fully human, fully engaged with the world. Although we life in a society that is constantly trying to make it so, poetry is not at heart an academic discipline, it is a physical, spacial, spiritual discipline. If we don't engage with and experience the world we can't write about it. This is not however an excuse for male poets to behave like predators and expect to get away with it.
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when Adrian Mitchell died, I was far, far sadder than I would have expected myself to have been

I've only read one of his collections, The Shadow Knows and it left me pretty much unmoved, I walked away from it with a kind of "oh okay then" feeling as if nothing had been lost or gained in the reading of it. To me his words are flat and motionless on the page.

And though I didn't like his poetry much or often I did like him because as Michael Kustow says:

He was a natural pacifist, a playful, deeply serious peacemonger and an instinctive democrat.

I bought The Shadow Knows on a whim bceuse the dedication reads
To all those who work for peace...
And all those who took part
on February 15 2003,
in the greatest demonstration against war
that the world has ever known
so far

And I was there that day, I was a part of that history

But he also said
of course poetry's important to the revolution
why else would they spend so much time in schools
teaching you to hate it?

The teaching of poetry in schools is something that I am frequently passionate and angry about because it is usually done so badly as to be worse than useless (literally worse than useless, it more often than not puts people of poetry rather than tunes them in to it.)

So I loved his sentiment and his politics and how important poetry was to him, and how he thought about poetry in very much the same way I do, that it could be, when utilised properly, a revolutionary, thought changing, life changing, important endeavour.

but also I loved that he was deeply aware that he was part of a history that matters, to me at least, that he knew he was an inheritor of Blake an Shelley (if there are any poets today arguing for unacknowledged legislator status Mitchell was definitely one of the loudest)

Also his work has the push/pull anxiety of influences of Keats and Harrison, who all wanted to be published poets but who didn't want to be part of the establishment and underlying that seems the fear that the establishment wouldn't want them. And that's a whole bundle of issues that I am just beginning to unpack with my own writing.

And having written this post I think now that If I hadn't read his poetry I would have known these things about him so clearly there are things I took from his poetry, they just weren't things that I was expecting.
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The Daily Mail in its usual foretelling of doom and societal breakdown mode has decided that teenage fiction is bad for its intended audience, only in usual Daily Mail style it conflates tenuously connected things and then comes to ridiculous conclusions. The article starts with:

Children's books are becoming so violent and sexualised they should be accompanied by explicit content warnings, it has been claimed

then goes on to say of the two books featured in the article that they:

had 'knife' in the title - Patrick Ness's winning effort The Knife Of Never Letting Go, and Anthony McGowan's The Knife That Killed Me. Both books were aimed at the 12-plus market.

Books aimed at the 12 plus market are not children’s books, and they need to be tackling issues that both effect young people and that young people are interested in, which these books are doing.

The Mail quotes Dr Tutt as saying

'The level of violence and adult themes in children's books is a worrying trend.

People didn't used to write for young children in this vein”

I think it isn’t true that these books are more violent than they used to be, its just as society had become more individualised so has literature, when I was reading teen books there was a lot of violence, it was just structural, holocaust, apocalypse, plague, war Brother in the land, children of the dust, tomorrow when the war began, Plague99 and the books weren't any less disturbing for it.

While as a genre I prefer apocalyptic/post apocalyptic adolescent literature I like that there are more adolescent books dealing with interpersonal violence, We live in a violent society, we shouldn’t but we do, and what else is adolescent literature for if not equipping adolescents with tools to deal with life? If they have learnt through fiction what violence looks like and what causes it then they will be better able to avoid it. Adolescent literature doesn’t create the society we live in it reacts to it.

Also if we are talking about the dangers of telling “very young children” (actual very young children, not twelve year olds) stories with violence in have we forgotten that we tell them fairy stories, that we tell them of children being, stolen, abandoned eaten? Why are fairy stories okay and teenage fiction not?

I know this is the Daily Mail and usually I would just roll my eyes and sigh in exasperation, but the whole article reminds me far too much of the Education for Leisure debacle, in which one of Carol Ann Duffy's poems was pulled from the GCSE syllabus because it was seen to be celebrating knife crime. (My favorite exploration of the issue is here.)

While I’m really pleased that Carol Ann Duffy is being taught in school, I'm also really frustrated that people who are, presumably, in charge of what gets taught and how, are so poetry illiterate that they read this poem in a diametrically opposite way to how it is intended. While there are many ways of reading poems this reading of it makes no sense at all, Duffy’s agent said:

"It's a pro-education, anti-violence poem written in the mid-1980s when Thatcher was in power and there were rising social problems and crime. It was written as a plea for education. How, 20 years later, it had been turned on itself and presented to mean the opposite I don't know. You can't say that it celebrates knife crime. What it does is the opposite."

But also what if any of these pieces of literature were celebrating knife crime? Would that be a reason to condemn them? To stop teenagers reading them? I don’t think so. They would still create a space to have discussions around why violence happens and what can be done about it. Are we supposed to shield teenagers from the world at the very point when they are psychologically and socially most equipped to learn how it works, and then what do we do? Once they hit eighteen we just let them loose into a society that they are unprepared for? Also what is very often forgotten or deliberately eclipsed in these moral crusades is that teenagers are, statistically, much more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators.

But if we did want to stop teenagers accessing violence in literature, (which is not a goal I would aim for anyway) why are we picking on these genres, why are we up in arms about adolescent literature and modern poetry, is it because we don’t take them seriously as literature, as art?

If parents and educators complained about the sex and violence in Shakespeare I somehow doubt that would be take of the syllabus or if there were complaints about Browning's My Last Duchess celebrating the murder of non compliant women Even though violence against women is much more prevalent in this society than knife crime

It seems we can, as a culture, talk this way about adolescent literature and modern poetry because we don’t see it as real literature, on the same syllabus as Education for Leisure are Lord of the Flies and Of Mice and Men, both of which deal with violence, but it seems they get a pass because they are really literature.

xposted to my other blog


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October 2010

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