norbert blei | in memoriam

28 05 2009

St. Patrick at work at Gordon Lodge

NOTES from the UNDERGROUND No.182 | May 22, 2009

IN MEMORIAM, A FINAL TOAST TO THE WORLD’S GREATEST BARTENDER:

ST. PATRICK

by
Norbert Blei

In the end, St. Pat died pretty much the way he always lived—chasing that rainbow, that horse to the finish line. Only this time the odds were against him, age…poor health. And both the dream and the man finally died.

I’ll keep this short and add some excerpts from a chapter devoted to him which appeared in the third book of the Door Trilogy series. There’s a fourth book in the works. The final end of St. Pat will be found there. You can bet on it.

For now, let’s leave it like this: St. Pat crossed the finish line in Ohio last Friday, May 22, at the age of 81. If you knew the man, be assured he went out in style, grace, never at a loss for words, a smile on his face, with a ticket to ride on a long shot: Win, Place, or Show.

I haven’t read this piece since I wrote it over 20 years ago. I was amazed to discover how it ended–then and now.

Excerpts from

“St. Pat—and the End of the Rainbow”

Ah, for the breath of some blarney in a confused world of too many serious people trying to make too much sense out of everything. And nobody serves it up better (straight or on the rocks) then St. Patrick (alias James Patrick Fagan), Door County’s father to fallen souls, comforter (Southern or name you own nirvana) to troubled and untroubled hearts, Grand Marnier Master of Ceremonious Nights on the Door. (He tells of one forgettable night in his particular parish—the Top Deck of Gordon Lodge—when Grand Marnier flowed in such abundance that the Saint himself seemed baffled the next morning to find all the money slots of the cash drawer filled with it.) A man of many miracles. Wine to water was easy. But a cold cash drawer to Grand Marnier? Only an un-canonized Irish bartending saint could do.

Smile, Patrick! (Which is his winning way with the world.) He’s always smiling. (Or will be again, he promises, as soon as he gets his teeth fixed. He’s made a deal at the bar with some dentist. And you can bet your own teeth that St. Pat will soon be smiling with his new ivories—high-tailing it to Chicago, to Florida, or back to Door—while the dentist will be wondering who took the big bite out of him.

He’s a rolling stone, a ramblin’ man, the veritable “condition” our elders warned we might someday find ourselves in if we weren’t thrifty and well-behaved: a man without a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out. Smile, Paddy! Your horse is in the money.

There he goes, snapping those fingers in front of your face, brushing that long wisp of black hair over his balding pate, flashing that smile, giving you the Irish: “I’m tellin’ ya! Listen to me!” Giving you his beautiful bullshit.

Dressed, always, partially in green, baggy pants hanging from his rather thin frame, his hands constantly fishing his front pockets for a cigarette lighter or cash. One of the biggest tippers of all time, he carries a crumpled wad of bills (his life savings) in his front pocket, pulling off fives and singles for the “help”—with whom he of course identifies. A single cup of coffee from a smiling waitress (say Denise Braun at Al’s) will net her at least a three dollar tip. Maybe five. The last of the big-time spenders. Definitely a city-type.

He loves children. Loves people. Loves charitable causes. More than a bit of the Irish in him. He’s definitely the guy who would give you the shirt off his own back. “I will donate to anything, as long as it’s a worthy cause.” Rich or poor, he’s been both. Sometimes in a matter of minutes.

Bless the fast horses, St. Patrick. And the long shots.

Of course there’s a bit of the con-artist about him. (Aren’t we all a little envious of the fast talker?) It’s the language of the survivor who must live by his mouth. A hustling life doesn’t come easy. And there are times the piper must be paid. Even moments of sadness around those black, beetle-brows and bright blue eyes of St. Pat. Bartender! Maybe just one more before I have another.

“Say,” he says to an attractive lady smoker, “Weren’t you at Gordon’s the other night? The Top Deck? Would you have an extra cigarette? Thanks. Did I hear Chicago?” he swings around toward another table. “Isn’t it beautiful here, this county? Stop by at the Top Deck for a drink.” He begins passing out brochures from his back pocket.

I manage to hustle him off one morning to a quiet picnic bench along the Lake Michigan shore for a few hours—definitely a fish out of water. St. Pat without a crowd—without strangers, without a bar to sit at or set up—is a drinker, a smoker doing cold turkey.

“Sit down, St. Pat, damn it! This is Mother Nature all around you. What you keep telling the tourists you love about Door County. Yes, I know, all it needs is a racetrack,” I tell him. Talk, say something!

But he’s befuddled. Frustrated. He’s on his last Camel cigarette. (Not that it matters what kind of cigarette at this point.) Already his flickering eyes are scanning the horizon, the empty picnic benches, the empty beach. St. Pat in exile. Who’s he gonna hit up for a smoke in this place?

“Don’t you have one cigarette on you?” he pleads. “Not one …’uckin’ cigarette? It’s OK. I’m alright. I’m telling you . . .” And he does.

His father, Peter Fagan, from County Cork, a railroad man, died when Patrick was 10. His mother, Mary Lenehan, lived to the age of 93. Cleveland, Ohio is home—was home. He doesn’t really have a home, except for summers in Door County, tending bar.

He lives in a suitcase, owns no car, no house, no bank account. Nothing. Zero. Zilch. Zip. A man on the run.

“I travel with a deck of cards, ten pairs of socks, five pairs of shorts, and a rosary,” he laughs. “I’m not afraid to go into any city without a dime in my pocket. I’ve never missed a meal. Willing to do anything. I’m at ease with the Vanderbilts and the bums on the street because I speak the international language—friendship. Money is nothing to me. Money is a kernel of corn the Indians used to trade. I’ve seen wealth in action—many, many unhappy people screaming over a few measly dollars.”

Like many a good Irish lad, Jimmie Fagan seemed destined for the priesthood. That was his mother’s wish. “And there I was, on my way to Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit. I left Holy Name High at the age of 14.1 worked nights on the railroad as a switchman. But I loved horses too. I worked days at the racetrack—Ascot Park in Akron, galloping the horses. Exercise boy. And then the family threw this party for me, sending me off to the seminary to be a priest. I had the black suit and the sheets and everything. And I was on the bus, talking to the driver, and we passed a racetrack in Maumee, Ohio . . . 1945. And the driver knew! He knew! Let me out of here! And I was off to the races. Because of my Irish mother, I didn’t go home for three years. Nor did I talk to her.

“I knocked around racetracks all over the country, and I noticed how dressed-up the jockey agents were. Agents are solicitors for mounts for a jockey. You gotta know breeding, be an excellent handicapper—which I was. It looked like dream street. The end of the rainbow! (St. Pat is standing now, hollering, rummaging through his pockets for a cigarette. I offer him a pipe—no good. The stub of my cigar—no good.) I’m alright! I’m alright! Let’s go. I gotta sell some more damn tickets!

“Where was I? The end of the rainbow! But little did I know, little did I know” (lots of drama in his wonderful Irish storytelling voice, lots of facial expression) “that the jockey agents were mostly broke! But anyway, I moved out of the bam and into a hotel. And I met a jockey, Eric Guerin, who went on to win every major stake in the country. And I was with him for 14, 15 years. Hialeah, New York, the Jersey . . .

“Goddamn it! Doesn’t anyone have a cigarette? It’s alright.

“I learned about the fast life—booze, broads, the good times. A beautiful woman in every city. Nice ladies. Mucho women. But they weren’t promiscuous women. I made them that way!

“At one point my jockey couldn’t make the weight anymore. And I felt I never really wanted another jockey because we were such good friends. So I went to Palm Beach, Florida on a vacation and I met a guy, Joe O’Hara, who said he needed a bartender. I lied and told him I could do it. He put me into the service area that night. And all of a sudden here come 10 professional cocktail waitresses, and they all started ordering drinks I never knew existed. I said, PLEASE, GET ME OUT OF HERE!

“O’Hara asked me if I could make a Scotch and water. Hell, that’s what I drink! Anyway, he told me he would teach me how to tend bar, but I could not participate in tips, or salary, till I learned how. After 10 days, he came in one night all dressed up with his wife. It was a Saturday night. And he said, “You’re on your own!”

“I was in my 30’s then. I had black beautiful hair and white teeth. The women would just roll all over me. I love all women, and no particular woman will ever catch my eye. Marriage, no. Still … I love kids. I would have loved to have some kids.”

“Some of the famous customers I served . . . Bishop Sheen, a CC Manhattan with a water back. Jack Kennedy. I trembled when he came in. Dewar’s White Label Scotch on the rocks. Always some joke. The latest joke. Jackie Gleason and his beautiful wife would sit at the bar and make my day by ordering champagne, $75 a bottle, I was very low key with him because I was always nervous when he came in. And he always shook my hand when he left—with a crisp C-note for the Saint!

“The name! The name! Saint Patrick. How I got my name. There was a theft at the hotel of towels and sheets—I mean, more than usual. And Mr. MacArthur hired some detectives and a lie detector expert to case the hotel. One day he came up to me and said: ‘Patrick, you really are a saint.’ I was clean. The detectives had watched me, cleared me. Little did he know I have a 6th sense about strange people watching me!”

. “…one time this couple comes in and tells me about their beautiful resort in Door County, Wisconsin. Phil and Curly Gordon, I snickered to myself and said, ‘Wisconsin? Door County, Wisconsin?’ After the Gordons left, a real elderly bartender, Eddie O’Brien, told me that Door County was exactly like Ireland. The next year, 1971 ,I arrived. By bus, of course, I don’t have my own car. I keep my life savings in my pocket.

“I said to myself :’This is it, brother. The end of the rainbow for me. ‘And I’ve been happy, happy, happy ever since.

“Phil Gordon to me was a genius. At first I didn’t realize why he had separated the bar from the dining room, but everything he did was right. He even had the windows of the Top Deck set a certain way so we can catch a double sunset. Genius! The man was a genius!

” One night he came into the Top Deck, I poured him his usual Scotch on the rocks, and he said: “You better have one yourself. He probably knew I already had 20. The people from Milwaukee always bought the bartender a drink. They didn’t tip—but they bought you a drink. Sure! Always. It’s an inside joke among the bartenders. We call them the F.B.I, agents because all they ever leave are fingerprints. And you must drink it right there. You can’t tell them you’ll have it later. They insist you have it in front of them. You see what Milwaukee’s done to me? I love ‘em.

“Many, many a night Phil Gordon and I sat alone in the Deck and drank till 7 in the morning. We discusses the world at large. He liked all the philosophers, and I liked Tolstoy—because he made love to every woman in sight! I loved Phil, Curly, the whole family.

“Where’s a cigarette, a cigarette?” He’s pacing the beach now, a determined man. “A butt, a butt. Isn’t there one stinking butt on this beach? See how clean this goddam county is! Can’t even find a cigarette butt here!

“My kind of bar is a one-man operation. It’s hard to work with other bartenders. I take charge of the room. I can see any argument starting in any part of the room. I eject them. No crabby people. Strictly happy people. I try to generate love in the room.

“The Top Deck is a finger-touch control bar. Phil created it. The view is the mostspectacular view in Door County. But the magic about the bar is the customers. Not just the hotel people, but the people in the county. And Chicago’s Northside. My favorites. Because they’re outgoing, likeable people, and it’s easy to make them laugh. If crabby people come in, it’s a personal challenge to me to make them laugh and enjoy themselves—because they’ll come back and tell their friends!

When the doors to Gordon Lodge and the Top Deck swing shut in mid-October, St. Pat is on the move once more. Time to pack the suitcase again. Time to board the bus. Take the act back on the road.

“Then it’s my vacation time,” he smiles. “After the season at Gordon’s and before coming back up here from Florida, I always hit Chicago. With my savings from both resorts in my pocket, I become a bartender’s delight. I check in at the Continental Hotel off Michigan Ave. All the staff, the help there know me. Gratuities flow like buttermilk. I can get any girl I want in Chicago by saying three magic words: Here’s a hundred. I high roll it!

“After about 7 days—the semi-annual collect call goes out to the good father for the non-transferable bus ticket to either Florida or Door County.”

The “good father”? “The Rev. H.J. Fagan, pastor of the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Madison, Ohio. My brother. I call him Harry. He’s a top fund- raiser like myself. Once in a while he tries to hit me up for something. And he talks almost as fast as I do.”

We’re heading back to town now. Lunch at Al’s. A pack of cigarettes for St. Pat. (“Camels! The humper. Five packs a day!”) He must open the Top Deck in a couple of hours, but from now until then he’s pushing tickets for the Roast. As for the origin of the Bartenders’ Roast…”…this will be the biggest Roast ever. Al Johnson—my kind of guy. I was dumb till I seen him work. I’ve copied him. He is the top restaurateur. That’s why I respect him—because I only like winners. His people all love him. Love him, are you kidding? How’s this when I help to introduce him: ‘Al Johnson’s driving up to Door County, and this beautiful hitchhiker stops him. ‘Say,’ she says, ‘Do you go all the way?’ And Al drove her to Washington Island.’ “

Later, that afternoon/night at Gordon’s, the conversation continues:

“A bartender must be a good listener,” he continues. “He must be able to listen to five different conversations at one time and blend them all into one so that you have 10 happy people at the same time. Never discuss religion or politics. Memory! You must remember their drinks. And sometimes you must remember to forget who they are drinking with! And for my beautiful, beautiful ladies, I give them titles: Countess, Princess, Queen. Because I really believe that’s what they are.”

The banter, the blarney, the bull—the magic of St. Patrick. It’s irresistible. As addictive as alcohol. A double-whammy: St. Pat and a drink of your choice. He’s working some out-of-town customers at the bar now, charming them all. One guy, who finds St. Pat’s hyper-delivery too incredible for words, finally asks: “How long can you keep this up? How long do you work?” “All afternoon, all night,” St. Pat answers. “Six days a week.” The guy shakes his head in wonder, and keeps drinking.

It’s the Irish in him, I suggest.

“Just like my mother,” counters St. Pat. “She was a fast talker. A politico. Banging doors. Dragging me along with her. Talk to the people. It’s our heritage. You’re brought up to be proud of being an Irishman. I’ve worn green all my life. Of course the Irish build castles in the air. They’re all daydreamers. It’s a magical feeling. The outgoing personality . . . sometimes overpowering to some people. I can’t explain it. A lot of dopers ask me what I take. I tell them I’m on a natural high. And I love it, this way. I’m like this from the moment I wake up. I’m down very rarely. Only for 30 seconds. Then I lift my bootstraps right away, and I’m off to the races! It’s another hill to climb—make that a mountain.”

And what’s the biggest tip St. Pat ever received?

“$300 one night here in the Deck. They guy smiled and said he finally met a bartender who, could high roll it. His tab came to about $600. He gave me a thousand—keep the change.

In and out the door many times, St. Pat reflects: “I’ve been fired from Gordon Lodge 36 times—and rehired the next morning.” And if by chance some day he awakes to find the door to the Top Deck closed to him for good? “I’ll come back and be a doorman at Al’s. Just to open those doors for the people, I’ll pay him a $100 a week! Or I’ll shine shoes. I’ve got a lot of pride, but I’d do anything to be here. I’m going to live to be 93 just like my fast-talking Irish mother. The man upstairs told me. So get used to me.”

Though there was some speculation that St. Pat might be a goner for good after last year’s season, he is on the mend. Amen. Off the hootch, since last year’s celebrated Door County Bar Hopping Trolley Ride (organized by who else but the Saint himself . . . purely for the benefit of good spirits).

“I tell you, if I drank one, I had 50 J.B.’s and water. I fell asleep…They thought I was dead. / thought l was dead! I don’t want to talk about health!

“The saddest time of the year coming up for me. The end of the season. The last two nights here. I miss the customers. Even the ones I don’t like! People drift in and out, ‘So long, St. Pat. See you next year.’ Next year! I mean, who knows? Who knows?”

One version of the end, according to St. Patrick: “We will all be greeted by a green police unit, for Sheriff Baldy will have St. Peter’s job. And for those who behaved— a clear path on clouds 42 and 57. I prefer 57.

“I will definitely be buried in Door County, and I hope the good people here will hold an Irish Wake Roast for me—with me in attendance, of course—and provide a shaded lot in a Catholic cemetery.

“And on my tombstone have it writ: He Carried His Life Savings In His Front Pocket To The End.”

[From DOOR TO DOOR, Ellis Press, 1985.]

Note: St. Pat requested that his ashes be scattered in Door County. There will be a gathering of friends this fall.

the writer, Coyote, Lovta DuMore X (the writer’s secretary) and St. Patrick, drawing by Charles Peterson—from CHRONICLES OF A RURAL JOURNALIST IN AMERICA, by Norbert Blei, Samizdat Press, 1990.





mark terrill | ways in, ways out

22 05 2009

Mark Terrill | Photo: Vudi

Poetry Dispatch No. 282 | 21, 2009

The Art & The Artists of Self Destruction, #2

MARK TERRILL

Ways In, Ways Out

by Mark Terrill

Hemingway’s looking down the
twin-barrel of the shotgun
into a blue metallic void.

Hart Crane has one foot on deck,
the other over the rail,
his eye on the ship’s boiling wake below.

Sylvia Plath’s on her knees in the kitchen
with her head in the oven,
wondering if she paid the gas bill or not.

Paul Celan looks down and sees
one last despondent metaphor
in the swirling waters of the Seine.

Richard Brautigan’s up in Bolinas
with a Saturday-night-special
nudged snugly in his graying temple.

Virginia Woolf’s got
rocks in her pockets,
the river tugging at her knocking knees.

Lew Welch loads his 30-30 rifle,
heads up into the California hills,
unsure about when he’ll be coming back.

Anne Sexton’s out in the garage,
doors shut tight, motor running,
finding solace in a noxious gray cloud.

The ways in merge with the ways out,
life’s complexity compounds daily,
and no one’s getting any writing done today.

Mark Terrill shipped out of San Francisco as a merchant seaman to the Far East and beyond, studied and spent time with Paul Bowles in Tangier, Morocco, and has lived in Europe since 1984, presently on the grounds of a former shipyard near Hamburg, Germany, with his wife and seven cats. The author of 15 volumes of poetry, memoir and translations, he recently guest-edited a special German Poetry issue of the Atlanta Review, which includes his translations of Günter Grass, Peter Handke, Rolf Dieter Brinkmann and many others. A three-time nominee for the Pushcart Prize, his own work has been translated into German, French and Portuguese, and he’s recently given readings in various venues in Amsterdam, Berlin, Paris and Prague. His latest chapbook is The Salvador-Dalai-Lama Express from Main Street Rag. Together with Cralan Kelder they edit & publish the poetry journal Full Metal Poem. http://home.arcor.de/markterrill

Editor’s Note: Please check for the archived version for this dispatch within the next 24 hours at:  www.poetrydispatch.wordpress.com





emmett johns | word & image

20 05 2009

NOTES from the UNDERGROUND No. 181 | May 19, 2009

EMMETT JOHNS
WORD & IMAGE,
THE ILLUSTRATED NOTEBOOK

The recent piece on Henry Denander (see archives, Poetry Dispatch #279) brings to mind my friend, Emmett Johns and his life upon the blank page.

I think it was the summer of 1995 that I first saw the sketchbooks / notebooks / journals he religiously keeps. For those who may know Emmett, “religious” is both the right and the wrong word. “Spiritual” is perhaps a little closer. With a deep bow to Zen, meditation, and the great good silence we seek. And for Emmett especially: How to show-&-tell, express all this, simply in a man’s life.

Many artists record what they see in sketchbooks—follow the line, pen or pencil. Emmett’s images sometimes break into words—what he’s seeing and thinking, inside. He is one of those. One of us–those of us who occasionally need to speak two languages simultaneously, word & image.

I remember gathering an armful of Emmett’s black sketchbooks / journals one fall, as he was preparing to leave Door County, for New Mexico. ( A man of two places, two minds.) I remember spending that whole winter going through his work, page after page, in search of a narrative, a greater story, a different book-of-sorts. The kind I like to see and read and write.

I remember the agony and the ecstasy of sifting through everything, looking for a form that would show and tell and in some way also ‘teach’—for readers who wanted to see and know and learn.

I remember finally settling on about 64 pages of drawings/writings from his sketchbooks—plus front and back cover illustrations. Plus inside the front and back covers. That’s how challenging and tempting it was. I couldn’t get enough of his work in a small chapbook—to suit me! And others, I was sure.

The book finally came together in a work called I THOUGHT YOU WERE THE PICTURE. Cross+Roads Press published it in 1996. Only the 6th chapbook to come off the press (presently at work on #32). Staple binding. Eight bucks. (A special signed and numbered edition of just a few more bucks where he did an original drawing in each book.) A total run of 500 copies. All of them—long gone.

I still love this book—cover to cover. Love looking into it. Always finding something new. Always finding the best of my good friend in these pages.

Here’s an introduction to Emmett for some of you: I THOUGHT YOU WERE THE PICTURE. A chapbook, revisited. We need to do this more often, revisit the stacks and shelves of small press publications we own. Honor their very existence. Honor ourselves–those who work for, have published in, or may be small press publishers. We’re a lot better than much of the mainstream out there, work a hell of a lot harder for little profit or exposure, with MUCH to show for our efforts. A whole history of underground literature in fact. Poetry Dispatch, Notes from the Underground, Basho’s Road—all these sites are filled with some astonishing work—by known and mostly unknown writers. With more to come.

Following the excerpts of Emmett’s work is a small poster about a workshop he will be teaching June 22, 23, 24 at the Peninsula Art School in Fish Creek. For details, contact: www.peninsulaartschool.com Those of you in the Midwest (or elsewhere)…I couldn’t recommend a better experience than working (just listening) to Emmett in a teaching atmosphere. You can contact him at: emmetjohnsatabqdotcom or www.emmettjohns.com. Norbert Blei

Artist Mike McCartney, artist Emmett Johns, writer Norb Blei...on an opening exhibit of Emmett's paintings.





carol ann duffy | mrs. rip van winkle & valentine

14 05 2009

duffy

Poetry Dispatch No. 281 | May 14, 2009

CAROL ANN DUFFY

Though I recently featured Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton in a Poetry Dispatch, occasionally a critic out there (including my old Yaqui Village friend, Judith Wiker—poet, singer, songwriter, curandera/Eastern healing arts) reminds me: Where are all the women?

So, this one’s for you—all of you. Men too: Britain’s first female Poet Laureate in 341 years! –Norbert Blei

strichstrich

Mrs. Rip Van Winkle

by Carol Ann Duffy

I sank like a stone
Into the still, deep waters
of late middle age,
Aching from head to foot.
I took up food
And gave up exercise.
It did me good.
And while he slept,
I found some hobbies
for myself.
Painting. Seeing the sights
I’d always dreamed about:
The Leaning Tower.
The Pyramids.
The Taj Mahal.
I made a little watercolour
of them all.
But what was best,
What hands-down beat
the rest,
Was saying a none-too-fond
farewell to sex.
Until the day
I came home with this
drawing of Niagara
And he was sitting up in bed
rattling Viagra.

strichstrich

AFTER 341 YEARS, BRITAIN PICKS A FEMALE POET LAUREATE

By SARAH LYALL

LONDON — The writer Carol Ann Duffy was appointed Britain’s poet laureate on Friday, becoming the first woman to take a 341-year-old job that has been held by, among others, Dryden, Tennyson, Wordsworth, Cecil Day-Lewis and Ted Hughes.

Ms. Duffy, 53, is known for using a deceptively simple style to produce accessible, often mischievous poems dealing with the darkest turmoil and the lightest minutiae of everyday life. In her most popular collection, “The World’s Wife” (1999), overlooked women in history and mythology get the chance to tell their side of the story, so that one poem imagines, for instance, the relief that Mrs. Rip Van Winkle must have felt when her husband fell asleep, finally giving her some time for herself.

Announcing the decision, the culture secretary, Andy Burnham, called Ms. Duffy “a towering figure in English literature today and a superb poet” who has “achieved something that only the true greats of literature manage — to be regarded as both popular and profound.”

Ms. Duffy told the BBC radio program “Woman’s Hour” that she had thought hard about accepting the post and that the decision to take it came “purely because they hadn’t had a woman.”

She added: “I look on it as recognition of the great women poets we now have writing,” and said that she hoped to use the job “to contribute to people’s understanding of what poetry can do, and where it can be found.”

Ms. Duffy, who has also written plays, and poems and stories for children, has a daughter, Ella. She had a relationship for some time with the
Scottish poet Jackie Kay. In an interview with the writer Jeanette Winterson several years ago, she said she had no interest in being known as a “lesbian poet, whatever that is.”

She added: “If I am a lesbian icon and a role model, that’s great, but if it’s a word that is used to reduce me, then you have to ask why someone would want to reduce me.” She said she preferred to define herself as “a poet and a mother — that’s all.”

It remains to be seen what Ms. Duffy will make of the laureateship, which is something of a work in progress, despite being so ancient.

Back in the days of Dryden, the first writer to take the job officially, poets laureate were glorified courtiers, writing flattering odes to royal occasions both significant (coronations, deaths) and banal (returns home from journeys abroad). This pressure to commemorate every little thing produced classics like the poem attributed to the Edwardian laureate Alfred Austin, upon the occasion of the Prince of Wales’s getting sick. It included the lines:

Across the wires the electric
message came
He is no better, he is much the
same.

But Andrew Motion, Ms. Duffy’s predecessor, used the laureateship to bring poetry into schools and elsewhere, and to serve as its most visible national cheerleader — a “town crier, canopener and flagwaver to poetry,” as he put it. He also started the Poetry Archive, a Web site (www.poetryarchive.co.uk) featuring recordings of poets reading their work aloud.

But he still felt compelled to write royal poems. In a recent interview Mr. Motion said he found composing the ones about minor events particularly wearisome, especially since the work was often ridiculed by sniping newspapers that seemed eager to find fault.

“You could be William Shakespeare and still find these poems difficult to write,” said Mr. Motion, who had held the post since 1999, for the fixed 10 year term.

“If the poet laureate is inclined to do it, let him write about events in royal life that are part of the national story,” he said, “but let’s not expect any poems about Prince William’s birthday.”

Ms. Duffy would seem to agree. When her name was mentioned for the job 10 years ago, she was quoted as saying: “I will not write a poem for Edward and Sophie. No selfrespecting poet should have to.”


That was a reference to the marriage of Prince Edward, the Queen’s youngest son, and Sophie Rhys-Jones, which Mr. Motion celebrated in a poem entitled “Epithalamium.” (The poem “has two immediate virtues,” the critic Robert Potts said in The Guardian, “it is very short, and it does not mention the couple.”)

On Friday Ms. Duffy seemed to soften her position, saying that there are “echoes to be found between poetry and monarchy,” in that both have the ability to transform the ordinary into the magical. But if she weren’t moved by a royal event, she added, “then I’d ignore it.”

Ms. Duffy, the oldest of five children, grew up in a workinglass neighborhood in Glasgow, Scotland. She began writing poetry in school, inspired by several teachers (she mentioned their names on the radio on Friday), and in 1983 won the National Poetry Competition in Britain.

Her collections, often extended dramatic monologues, have won the Whitbread, Forward and T. S. Eliot poetry prizes, among others. The poet Polly dark called one collection “an encyclopedia of minutely compressed novels,” and said that “the reader’s head spins with the exuberant voices of psychopaths, lovers, depressed dolphins and mischievous wives, each at a critical point in their life’s journey, each with a compelling backstory revealed in glimpses.”

Judith Palmer, director of the Poetry Society, said Ms. Duffy had “paved the way for a whole generation of women poets who came after her,” including Deryn Rees-Jones, Jo Shapcott and Alice Oswald.

“The World’s Wife” is full of the rage of women disappointed, discarded or overlooked by men, like the wife of Quasimodo, who falls in love with him despite his deformities, only to have him turn savagely against her for her own physical failings. It has some very funny poems, too, like “Mrs.Darwin”:

7 April 1852
Went to the Zoo
I said to him — Something
about that chimpanzee over
there
reminds me of you

Some of Ms. Duffy’s most evocative and moving poems are found in the collection “Rapture,” about the many facets of love, from the early “glamorous hell” of falling in love to the agonies of romantic unraveling.

In “Valentine” she writes of giving a lover not a heart or a rose, but an onion, whose “fierce kiss will stay on your lips,/possessive and faithful.”

Take it.
Its platinum loops shrink to a
wedding-ring,
if you like.
Lethal.
Its scent will cling to your
fingers,
cling to your knife.

As poet laureate, Ms. Duffy is to receive £5,750, or $8,500, a year. She said she planned to donate the money to the Poetry Society, to finance an annual poetry prize.

Poets laureate also traditionally receive “a butt of sack,” which translates into about 600 bottles of sherry. Mr. Motion has for some reason failed to collect his requisite sherry, Ms. Duffy said, “so I’ve asked for mine up front.”

[from The New York Times, May 2, 2009]

strichstrich

Valentine

by Carol Ann Duffy

Not a red rose or a satin heart.
I give you an onion.
It is a moon wrapped in brown paper.
It promises light
like the careful undressing of love.

Here.
It will blind you with tears
like a lover.
It will make your reflection
a wobbling photo of grief.

I am trying to be truthful.

Not a cute card or a kissogram.

I give you an onion.
Its fierce kiss will stay on your lips,
possessive and faithful
as we are,
for as long as we are.

Take it.
Its platinum loops shrink to a wedding-ring,
if you like.

Lethal.
Its scent will cling to your fingers,
cling to your knife.

Carol Ann Duffy,  (born 23 December 1955, Glasgow) is a Scottish poet, playwright, and freelance writer, who currently holds the position of Britain’s poet laureate. She is the creative director of Manchester Metropolitan University’s writing school. She was awarded an OBE in 1995, and a CBE in 2002.

Duffy succeeded Andrew Motion as poet laureate on 1 May 2009. She is the first woman, the first Scot and the first openly bisexual person to hold the position, as well as the first laureate to be chosen in the 21st century.

Carol Ann Duffy is the oldest child of Frank Duffy and May Black and she has four brothers. Her family moved to Stafford when she was four years old. Her father worked as a fitter for English Electric, stood as a parliamentary candidate for the Labour party and managed Stafford Rangers football club in his spare time. Raised a Roman Catholic, she was educated at Saint Austin’s Roman Catholic Primary School, St. Joseph’s Convent School (now a nursing home for old people) and Stafford Girls’ High School – where her literary talent was encouraged by English master J. A. Walker. She was also influenced by the poet Adrian Henri. She was a passionate reader from an early age, and she always wanted to be a writer. In 1977 she received an Honours Degree in Philosophy from the University of Liverpool.

Duffy’s poems provide voices for an extraordinary number of contemporary characters, including a fairground psychopath, a literary biographer, a newborn baby, disinherited American Indians, and even a ventriloquist’s dummy. Many of the poems reflect on time, change, and loss. In dramatizing scenes of childhood, adolescence, and adult life, whether personal or public, contemporary or historical, she discovers moments of consolation through love, memory, and language. She explores not only everyday experience, but also the rich fantasy life of herself and others.

Of her own writing, Duffy has said, “I’m not interested, as a poet, in words like ‘plash’ – Seamus Heaney words, interesting words. I like to use simple words, but in a complicated way.” Singer-composer Eliana Tomkins, with whom Duffy collaborated on a series of live jazz recitals, says “With a lot of artists, the mystique is to baffle their readership. She never does that. Her aim is to communicate.”

In her first collection Standing Female Nude (1985) she often uses the voices of outsiders, for example in the poems ‘Education for Leisure’ and ‘Dear Norman’. Her next collection Feminine Gospels (2002) continues this vein, showing an increased interest in long narrative poems, accessible in style and often surreal in their imagery. Her 2005 publication, Rapture (2005), is a series of intimate poems charting the course of a love affair, for which she won the £10,000 T.S. Eliot Prize. In 2007 she published a poetry collection for children entitled The Hat. Many British students read her work as set texts while studying for English Literature at GCSE and A-level, as she became part of the syllabus in England and Wales in 1994. The poet has characterized her poetry using a simile: “Like the sand and the oyster, it’s a creative irritant. In each poem, I’m trying to reveal a truth, so it can’t have a fictional beginning.” Online copies of her poems are extremely rare but her poem dedicated to U A Fanthorpe, Premonitions, is available online courtesy of The Guardian. And some further poems are now presented by the Daily Mirror.

John Mullan wrote of her in the Guardian that: Over the past decade, Carol Ann Duffy has been the most popular living poet in Britain, her sales greatly helped by the fact that she has succeeded Hughes and Larkin as the most common representative of contemporary poetry in schools (and, it seems, the most commonly read writer of verse), but there are also aspects of her poetry that appeal to English teachers for good practical reasons. Her poems are frequently humorous; they use clear schemes of rhyme and metre; they can be satisfactorily decoded by the diligent close reader.

According to the journalist Katharine Viner, ‘Her poems are accessible and entertaining, yet her form is classical, her technique razor-sharp. She is read by people who don’t really read poetry, yet she maintains the respect of her peers. Reviewers praise her touching, sensitive, witty evocations of love, loss, dislocation, nostalgia; fans talk of greeting her at readings ‘with claps and cheers that would not sound out of place at a pop concert’.

In August 2008, Duffy’s poem “Education for Leisure” was removed from the AQA examination board’s GCSE poetry anthology. This followed a complaint from an external examiner relating to references to knife crime in the poem. According to news reports, schools were urged to destroy copies of the unedited anthology, although a statement from AQA denied this. Duffy countered the removal with a poem highlighting violence in other fiction such as Shakespeare’s plays, called ‘Mrs Schofield’s GCSE’.

Duffy was almost appointed Poet Laureate in 1999 (after the death of previous Laureate Ted Hughes), but lost out on the position to Andrew Motion. According to the Sunday Times Downing Street sources stated unofficially that Prime Minister Tony Blair was “worried about having a homosexual poet laureate because of how it might play in middle England”. Duffy later claimed that she would not have accepted the laureateship anyway, saying in an interview with the Guardian newspaper that “I will not write a poem for Edward and Sophie. No self-respecting poet should have to.” She says she regards Andrew Motion as a friend and that the idea of a contest between them for the post was entirely invented by the newspapers. “I genuinely don’t think she even wanted to be poet laureate,”“The post can be a poisoned chalice. It is not a role I would wish on anyone – particularly not someone as forthright and uncompromising as Carol Ann.” said Peter Jay, Duffy’s former publisher.  The Guardian has also stated that Duffy was reluctant to take up the role in 1999 as she was in a relationship at the time, and had a young daughter, so was reluctant to take up a position which would have put her so prominently in the public eye. Nevertheless, she was finally appointed to the position in May 2009, as successor to Andrew Motion.

Duffy is also a playwright, and has had plays performed at the Liverpool Playhouse and the Almeida Theatre in London. Her plays include Take My Husband (1982), Cavern of Dreams (1984), Little Women, Big Boys (1986) Loss (1986), Casanova (2007). Her radio credits include an adaptation of Rapture. Her children’s collections include Meeting Midnight (1999) and The Oldest Girl in the World (2000). She also collaborated with Manchester composer, Sasha Johnson Manning on The Manchester Carols – a series of Christmas songs that premiered in Manchester Cathedral in 2007.

  • * 1974: Fleshweathercock and Other Poems Outposts
  • * 1977: Beauty and the Beast Carol Ann Duffy & Adrian Henri
  • * 1982: Fifth Last Song Headland (poetry)
  • * 1982: Take My Husband (play)
  • * 1984: Cavern of Dreams (play)
  • * 1985: Standing Female Nude Anvil Press Poetry (poetry)
  • * 1986: Little Women, Big Boys (play)
  • * 1986: Loss (radio play)
  • * 1986: Thrown Voices, Turret Books, a pamphlet (poetry)
  • * 1987: Selling Manhattan Anvil Press Poetry (poetry)
  • * 1990: The Other Country Anvil Press Poetry (poetry)
  • * 1992: Editor, I Wouldn’t Thank You for a Valentine Viking (poetry anthology)
  • * 1992: William and the Ex-Prime Minister Anvil Press Poetry, a 16-page pamphlet, ISBN 978-0856462535 (poetry)
  • * 1993: Mean Time Anvil Press Poetry (poetry)
  • * 1994: Editor, Anvil New Poets Volume 2 Penguin (poetry anthology)
  • * 1994: Selected Poems Penguin (poems)
  • * 1995: Penguin Modern Poets 2 contributor with Vicki Feaver, Eavan Boland, Penguin
  • * 1996: Grimm Tales Faber and Faber (play)
  • * 1996: Salmon – Carol Ann Duffy: Selected Poems Salmon Poetry
  • * 1996: Stopping for Death, Viking (poetry anthology)
  • * 1997: More Grimm Tales Faber and Faber (children’s play)
  • * 1998: The Pamphlet Anvil Press Poetry (poetry)
  • * 1999: Meeting Midnight Faber and Faber (children’s poetry)
  • * 1999: The World’s Wife Anvil Press Poetry (poetry)
  • * 1999: Editor, Time’s Tidings: Greeting the 21st Century, Anvil Press Poetry (poetry anthology)
  • * 2000: The Oldest Girl in the World Faber and Faber (children’s poetry)
  • * 2001: Editor, Hand in Hand: An Anthology of Love Poems Picador (poetry anthology); Duffy chose 36 poets from around the world, inviting each to select a love poem written by someone of the opposite sex and to appear opposite the selecting poet’s own love poem
  • * 2002: Feminine Gospels Picador
  • * 2002: Queen Munch and Queen Nibble (illustrated by Lydia Monks) Macmillan Children’s Books (children’s literature — picture book)
  • * 2002: Underwater Farmyard (illustrated by Joel Stewart) Macmillan Children’s Books (children’s literature — picture book)
  • * 2003: The Good Child’s Guide to Rock N Roll Faber and Faber (children’s poetry)
  • * 2003: Collected Grimm Tales, with Tim Supple, Faber and Faber (children’s literature — plays)
  • * 2004: Doris the Giant (children’s literature — picture book)
  • * 2004: New Selected Poems Picador
  • * 2004: Editor, Out of Fashion: An Anthology of Poems, Faber and Faber (poetry anthology)
  • * 2004: Overheard on a Saltmarsh: Poets’ Favourite Poems (editor) Macmillan
  • * 2005: Another Night Before Christmas (illustrated by Marc Boutavant), John Murray (children’s poetry)
  • * 2005: Moon Zoo Macmillan (children’s literature — picture book)
  • * 2005: Rapture Picador (poetry)
  • * 2006: The Lost Happy Endings (illustrated by Jane Ray) Penguin (children’s literature)
  • * 2007: Editor, Answering Back, Picador (poetry anthology)
  • * 2007: The Hat Faber and Faber (children’s poetry)
  • * 2007: The Tear Thief Barefoot Books (children’s literature — picture book)

Awards

  • * 1983: National Poetry Competition 1st prize (for Whoever She Was)
  • * 1984: Eric Gregory Award
  • * 1986: Scottish Arts Council Book Award (for Standing Female Nude)
  • * 1988: Somerset Maugham Award (for Selling Manhattan)
  • * 1989: Dylan Thomas Prize
  • * 1990: Scottish Arts Council Book Award (for The Other Country
  • * 1992: Cholmondeley Award
  • * 1993: Whitbread Awards (for Mean Time)
  • * 1993: Scottish Arts Council Book Award (for Mean Time)
  • * 1993: Forward Prize (for Mean Time)
  • * 1995: Lannan Award
  • * 1999: Signal Children’s Poetry Prize
  • * 2001: National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts Award
  • * 2005: T S Eliot Prize (for Rapture)
  • * Greenwich Poetry Competition (for Words of Absolution)





sylvia plath & anne sexton | the art & the artists of self destruction no. 1

6 05 2009


Poetry Dispatch No. 280 | May 5, 2009

The Art & The Artists of Self Destruction, #1

SYLVIA PLATH…ANNE SEXTON

This is the first in a projected series of Dispatches (pieces/writings) dealing with The End of the story…the way too many writers and artists through history have chosen to say goodbye. It’s not a recommendation, an approval, a judgment of any sort. It’s all about the creative act…the words, the thoughts, the feelings, the work…what it all leads to, so sadly for some. Its many manifestations. –Norbert Blei

Old Ladies’ Home

by Sylvia Plath

Sharded in black, like beetles,
Frail as antique earthenware
One breath might shiver to bits,
The old women creep out here
To sun on the rocks or prop
Themselves up against the wall
Whose stones keep a little heat.

Needles knit in a bird-beaked
Counterpoint to their voices:

Sons, daughters, daughters and sons,
Distant and cold as photos,
Grandchildren nobody knows.
Age wears the best black fabric
Rust-red or green as lichens.

At owl-call the old ghosts flock
To hustle them off the lawn.
From beds boxed-in like coffins
The bonneted ladies grin.
And Death, that bald-head buzzard,
Stalls in halls where the lamp wick
Shortens with each breath drawn.

[from SYLVIA PLATH, Collected Poems]

A TORTURED INHERITANCE

by Linda Gray Sexton
PALOMAR PARK, Calif. from: The New York Times, April 3, 2009

I HAVE been crying for Nicholas Hughes. I never met Dr. Hughes, yet I believe I know a great deal about him. He was the second child of the poet Sylvia Plath, who gassed herself in her oven when he was a toddler. I am the elder daughter of the poet Anne Sexton, who gassed herself in her car when I was 21.

Nicholas Hughes hanged himself two weeks ago at the age of 47. And despite my insistence that I would never turn out like my mother, I tried to kill myself, too — three times — and would have succeeded once had it not been for the efforts of a determined police officer, who forced open the window of my car.

Did it surprise me to read about his suicide? Not in the least. As my mother wrote in one of her most famous poems: “I have gone out,…a possessed witch … lonely thing, twelve- fingered, out of mind./A woman like that is not a woman, quite./ I have been her kind.” All of us who follow that depressing family path — from suffering to suicide — have known what it is like to be her kind.

Nicholas Hughes’s mother, and mine, succumbed to the exhaustion of unrelenting depression. They self-destructed. And we grew up in the wreckage of their catastrophe. Their deaths took away from him and his sister, Frieda, and from me and my sister, Joyce, the solace of a mother’s love. And worse, all four of us, I imagine, had to live with the knowledge that our mothers had quite willfully abandoned us.

Understanding and accepting this is heart-wrenching, but it is a necessary part of healing. I have wanted to kill myself, but I survived, and so can attest to what Dr. Hughes, like my mother, probably must have felt — that there was no other alternative.

Studies show that some kinds of depression are hereditary, and suicides tend to run in families. But even if there isn’t an absolute genetic component, there certainly is an emotional one. When I turned 45, the age at which my mother killed herself, I too began to be drawn to suicide as a way to escape pain. This was my inheritance. My guess is that I wasn’t alone: hundreds of thousands die by suicide each year. And hundreds of thou- sands of families are damaged by that loss.

Of course, not everyone reacts in the same way. My sister doesn’t like to speak publicly about our mother, and she doesn’t think she is “her kind.” Perhaps Frieda Hughes is more like Joyce, perhaps her brother once was as well. Or maybe they were more like me, trying to recover by talking about what happened. My mother always said, “Tell it true,” and I believe she thought, as I do, that it is important to share the experience of depression with others, who may be suffering in the same way. Which is why we need to speak about these things, to help families deal with their depressed children, siblings and parents, and to intervene and alter the dark world of suicidal legacies. I continue to worry about myself — but I worry about my children more. Despite the dangerous inheritance my oldest son faces, and the depression he also fights, he urges me to keep writing about it, just as his grandmother did.

Sadly, I’ll never get to know Nicholas Hughes. I know he was a fisheries biologist living in the forests of Alaska. I know he was more than a suicide. In a memorial, a friend wrote that he was the kind of man who “would seek out a larch tree in a forest of spruce.” I hope he’s succeeded in reaching it.

[Linda Gray Sexton is the author of "Searching for Mercy Street: My Journey Back to My Mother, Anne Sexton."]

Her Kind

by Anne Sexton

have gone out, a possessed witch,
haunting the black air, braver at night;
dreaming evil, I have done my hitch
over the plain houses, light by light:
lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.
A woman like that is not a woman, quite.
I have been her kind.

I have found the warm caves in the woods,
filled them with skillets, carvings, shelves,
closets, silks, innumerable goods;
fixed the suppers for the worms and the elves:
whining, rearranging the disaligned.
A woman like that is misunderstood.
I have been her kind.

I have ridden in your cart, driver,
waved my nude arms at villages going by,
learning the last bright routes, survivor
where your flames still bite my thigh
and my ribs crack where your wheels wind.
A woman like that is not ashamed to die.
I have been her kind.

SYLVIA’S DEATH

by Anne Sexton

for Sylvia Plath

0 Sylvia, Sylvia,
with a dead box of stones and spoons,

with two children, two meteors
wandering loose in the tiny playroom,

with your mouth into the sheet,
into the roofbeam, into the dumb prayer,

(Sylvia, Sylvia,
where did you go
after you wrote me
from Devonshire
about raising potatoes
and keeping bees?)

what did you stand by,
)’ust how did you lie down into?

Thief!—
how did you crawl into,

crawl down alone
into the death I wanted so badly and for so long,

the death we said we both outgrew,
the one we wore on our skinny breasts,

the one we talked of so often each time
we downed three extra dry martinis in Boston,

the death that talked of analysts and cures,
the death that talked like brides with plots,

the death we drank to,
the motives and then the quiet deed?

(In Boston
the dying
ride in cabs,
yes death again,
that ride home
with our boy.)

0 Sylvia, I remember the sleepy drummer
who beat on our eyes with an old story,

how we wanted to let him come
like a sadist or a New York fairy

to do his job,
a necessity, a window in a wall or a crib,

and since that time he waited
under our heart, our cupboard,

and I see now that we store him up
year after year, old suicides

and I know at the news of your death,
a terrible taste for it, like salt.

(And me,
me too.
And now, Sylvia,
you again
with death again,
that ride home
with our boy.)

And I say only
with my arms stretched out into that stone place,

what is your death
but an old belonging,

a mole that fell out
of one of your poems?

(0 friend,
while the moon’s bad,
and the king’s gone,
and the queen’s at her wit’s end
the bar fly ought to sing!)

0 tiny mother,
you too!
0 funny duchess!
0 blonde thing!

[from LIVE OR DIE]

I Am Vertical

by Sylvia Plath

But I would rather be horizontal.
I am not a tree with my root in the soil
Sucking up minerals and motherly love
So that each March I may gleam into leaf,
Nor am I the beauty of a garden bed
Attracting my share of Ahs and spectacularly painted,
Unknowing I must soon unpetal.
Compared with me, a tree is immortal
And a flower-head not tall, but more startling,
And I want the one’s longevity and the other’s daring.

Tonight, in the infinitesimal light of the stars,
The trees and flowers have been strewing their cool odors.
I walk among them, but none of them are noticing.
Sometimes I think that when I am sleeping
I must most perfectly resemble them—
Thoughts gone dim.
It is more natural to me, lying down.
Then the sky and I are in open conversation,
And I shall be useful when I lie down finally:
Then the trees may touch me for once, and the flowers have time for me.

[from SYLVIA PLATH, The Collected Poems]

Sylvia Plath (October 27, 1932–February 11, 1963) was an American poet, novelist, children’s author, and short story author. Known primarily for her poetry, Plath also wrote a semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas. The book’s protagonist, Esther Greenwood, is a bright, ambitious student at Smith College who begins to experience a mental breakdown while interning for a fashion magazine in New York. The plot parallels Plath’s experience interning at Mademoiselle magazine and subsequent mental breakdown and suicide attempt. Along with Anne Sexton, Plath is credited with advancing the genre of confessional poetry initiated by Robert Lowell and W. D. Snodgrass.

Plath was born during the Great Depression on October 27, 1932 in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, to Aurelia Schober Plath, a first-generation American of Austrian descent, and Otto Emile Plath, an immigrant from Grabow, Germany. Plath’s father was a professor of apiology and German at Boston University and author of a book about bumblebees. Plath’s mother was approximately twenty-one years younger than her husband. She met him while earning her masters degree in teaching. Otto was alienated from his family because he chose not to become a Lutheran minister, as his grandparents wanted him to be. They went as far as taking his name out of the family Bible.

In April 1935, Plath’s brother Warren was born. The family moved to Winthrop, Massachusetts in 1936, where Plath spent much of her childhood on Johnson Avenue. Plath was raised a Unitarian Christian and had mixed feelings toward religion throughout her life. Plath’s mother, Aurelia, had grown up in Winthrop, and her maternal grandparents, the Schobers, had lived in a section of the town called Point Shirley, a location mentioned in Plath’s poetry. Plath published her first poem in Winthrop, in the Boston Herald’s children’s section, when she was eight years old.

Otto Plath died on November 5, 1940, a week and a half after Plath’s eighth birthday, of complications following the amputation of a foot due to diabetes. He had become ill shortly after a close friend died of lung cancer. Comparing the similarities between his friend’s symptoms and his own, Otto became convinced that he too was ill with lung cancer and did not seek treatment until his diabetes had progressed too far. Otto Plath is buried in Winthrop Cemetery, where his gravestone continues to attract readers of Plath’s poem “Daddy.” Aurelia Plath then moved her children and her parents to 26 Elmwood Road, Wellesley, Massachusetts, in 1942. Visiting her father’s grave prompted Plath to write the poem “Electra on Azalea path”.

Plath attended Smith College, where she dated Yale senior Dick Norton during her junior year. Norton, upon whom the character of Buddy in The Bell Jar is based, contracted tuberculosis and was treated at the Ray Brook Sanatorium near Saranac Lake; while visiting Norton, Plath broke her leg skiing, an incident described in the novel as suicidal, but in her journals she describes it as a legitimate accident (the suicidal aspect was likely fictionalized for the novel, which is not her autobiography).

During the summer after her third year of college, Plath was awarded a coveted position as guest editor at Mademoiselle magazine, during which she spent a month in New York City. The experience was not at all what she had hoped it would be, beginning within her a seemingly downward spiral in her outlook on herself and life in general. Many of the events that took place during that summer were later used as inspiration for her novel The Bell Jar. Following this experience, Plath made her first medically documented suicide attempt by crawling under her house and taking an overdose of sleeping pills. Details of her attempts at suicide are chronicled in her book. After her suicide attempt, Plath was briefly committed to a mental institution where she received electroconvulsive therapy. Her stay at McLean Hospital was paid for by Olive Higgins Prouty, who had also funded the scholarship awarded to Plath to attend Smith. Prouty had successfully recovered from a mental breakdown herself. Plath seemed to make an acceptable recovery and graduated from Smith with honors in June 1955.

She obtained a Fulbright scholarship to Newnham College, Cambridge where she continued actively writing poetry, occasionally publishing her work in the student newspaper Varsity. It was at a party given in Cambridge that she met the English poet Ted Hughes. They were married on June 16, 1956 (Bloomsday) at St George the Martyr Holborn after a short courtship.

Plath and Hughes spent from July 1957 to October 1959 living and working in the United States, where Plath taught at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. The couple then moved to Boston where Plath audited seminars by Robert Lowell that were also attended by Anne Sexton. At this time, Plath and Hughes also met, for the first time, W. S. Merwin, who admired their work and was to remain a lifelong friend.

Upon learning that Plath was pregnant, the couple moved back to the United Kingdom. Plath and Hughes lived in London for a while on Chalcot Square near the Primrose Hill area of Regent’s Park, and then settled in the small market town of North Tawton in Devon. While there, Plath published her first collection of poetry, The Colossus. In February 1961 she suffered a miscarriage, and a number of her poems address this event.

Plath’s marriage to Hughes was fraught with difficulties, particularly surrounding his affair with Assia Wevill, and the couple separated in late 1962. She returned to London with their children, Frieda and Nicholas, and rented a flat at 23 Fitzroy Road (only a few streets from the Chalcot Square flat) in a house where W. B. Yeats once lived. Plath was pleased by this fact and considered it a good omen.

Plath took her own life after she completely sealed the rooms between herself and her sleeping children with “wet towels and cloths.” Plath then placed her head in the oven while the gas was turned on. The next day, an inquiry ruled that her death was a suicide.

It has been suggested that Plath’s suicide attempt was too precise and coincidental, and that she had not intended to succeed in killing herself. Apparently, she had previously asked Mr. Thomas, her downstairs neighbour, what time he would be leaving; and a note had been placed that read “Call Dr. Horder” and listed his phone number. Therefore, it is argued that Plath must have turned the gas on at a time when Mr. Thomas should have been waking and beginning his day. This theory maintains that the gas, for several hours, seeped through the floor and reached Mr. Thomas and another resident of the floor below. Also, an au pair was to arrive at nine o’clock that morning to help Plath with the care of her children. Upon arrival, the au pair could not get into the flat, but was eventually let in by painters, who had a key to the front door.

However, in the book Giving Up: The Last Days of Sylvia Plath, her best friend, Jillian Becker says that, “according to Mr. Goodchild—a police officer attached to the coroner’s office . . . she had thrust her head far into the gas oven. ‘She had really meant to die.'”

Plath’s gravestone in Heptonstall churchyard bears the inscription “Even amidst fierce flames the golden lotus can be planted.” The gravestone has been repeatedly vandalized by some of Plath’s supporters who have chiseled the name “Hughes” off it. This practice intensified following the suicide in 1969 of Assia Wevill, the woman for whom Ted Hughes had left Plath, which led to claims that Hughes had been abusive toward Plath. “Hughes” is now written in bronze in order to prevent future vandalism. On March 16, 2009, Plath’s son, Nicholas Hughes, also committed suicide at the age of 47.

Plath began keeping a diary at age 11, and kept journals until her suicide. Her adult diaries, starting from her freshman year at Smith College in 1950, were first published in 1980 as The Journals of Sylvia Plath, edited by Frances McCullough. In 1982, when Smith College acquired Plath’s remaining journals, Hughes sealed two of them until February 11, 2013, the fiftieth anniversary of Plath’s death.

During the last years of his life, Hughes began working on a fuller publication of Plath’s journals. In 1998, shortly before his death, he unsealed the two journals, and passed the project onto his children by Plath, Frieda and Nicholas, who passed it on to Karen V. Kukil. Kukil finished her editing in December 1999, and in 2000 Anchor Books published The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath. According to the back cover, roughly two-thirds of the Unabridged Journals is newly released material. The American author Joyce Carol Oates hailed the publication as a “genuine literary event”.

Hughes faced criticism for his role in handling the journals: he claims to have destroyed Plath’s last journal, which contained entries from the winter of 1962 up to her death. In the foreword of the 1982 version, he writes, “I destroyed [the last of her journals] because I did not want her children to have to read it (in those days I regarded forgetfulness as an essential part of survival).”

Plath has been criticized for her controversial allusions to the Holocaust, and is known for her uncanny use of metaphor. Her work has been compared to and associated with Anne Sexton, W.D. Snodgrass, and other confessional poets. While the few critics who responded to Plath’s first book, The Colossus, did so favorably, it has also been described as somewhat staid and conventional in comparison to the much more free-flowing imagery and intensity of her later work. The poems in Ariel mark a departure from her earlier work into a more personal arena of poetry. It is a possibility that Lowell’s poetry—which is often labeled “confessional”—played a part in this shift. Indeed, in an interview before her death she listed Lowell’s Life Studies as an influence. The impact of Ariel was dramatic, with its potentially autobiographical descriptions of mental illness in poems such as, “Tulips”, “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus”.

In 1982, Plath became the first poet to win a Pulitzer Prize posthumously for The Collected Poems. In 2006, a graduate student at Virginia Commonwealth University discovered a previously unpublished sonnet written by Plath entitled “Ennui”. The poem, composed during Plath’s early years at Smith College, is published in Blackbird, the online journal.

As Plath’s widower, Hughes became the executor of Plath’s personal and literary estates. This proved to be controversial, as it is uncertain whether Plath had begun divorce proceedings before her death: if she had, Hughes’ inheritance of the Plath estate would have been in dispute. In letters to Aurelia Plath and Richard Murphy, Plath writes that she was applying for a divorce. However, Hughes said in a letter to The Guardian that Plath did not seriously consider divorce, and claims they were discussing reconciliation mere days before her death. He consequently oversaw the publication of her manuscripts, including Ariel (1965). He claimed to have destroyed the final volume of Plath’s journal, detailing their last few months together.

Many critics accused Hughes of attempting to control the publications for his own ends, although the money earned from Plath’s poetry was placed into a trust account for their two children Frieda and Nicholas. Examples cited include his censoring of parts of her journals that portrayed him unfavorably, and his editing of Ariel, changing the order of the poems in the book from the sequence she had intended and left at her death, as well as removing several poems. However, the poems were removed and the order changed for several reasons, including the request of the American publishers. Critics argue this prevented what was intended to be a more uplifting beginning and ending of Ariel, and that the poems removed were the ones most readily identified as being about Hughes.

Hughes hired an accountant to keep track of the estate, but the accountant did a poor job. A large and looming tax bill caused Hughes to convince Plath’s mother, Aurelia, to publish The Bell Jar in the United States. Because of this, she later asked Hughes’ permission to publish a volume of Plath’s letters, to which he agreed with strong reservations.

Ironically, Hughes’ sister, Olwyn — who was never close to and often openly hostile toward Plath during her life — eventually took over much of the duties of executor of the Plath estate. Like her brother, Olwyn Hughes was seen as being overly aggressive in limiting permissions if the works cast Hughes in an unfavorable light. In the realms of literary criticism and biographies published after her death, the debate about Plath’s work very often resembles a struggle between readers who side with her and readers who side with Hughes.

Poetry

  • * The Colossus and Other Poems (1960)
  • * Ariel (1965), includes the poems “Tulips”, “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus”
  • * Three Women: A Monologue for Three Voices (1968)
  • * Crossing the Water (1971)
  • * Winter Trees (1972)
  • * The Collected Poems (1981)
  • * Selected Poems (1985)
  • * Plath: Poems (1998)

Prose

  • * The Bell Jar (1963), under the pseudonym “Victoria Lucas”
  • * Letters Home (1975)
  • * Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams (1977)
  • * The Journals of Sylvia Plath (1982)
  • * The Magic Mirror (1989), Plath’s Smith College senior thesis
  • * The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, edited by Karen V. Kukil (2000)

Audio poetry readings

  • * Sylvia Plath Reads, Harper Audio 2000

Children’s books

  • * The Bed Book (1976)
  • * The It-Doesn’t-Matter-Suit (1996)
  • * Collected Children’s Stories (UK, 2001)
  • * Mrs. Cherry’s Kitchen (2001)

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Anne Sexton (born Anne Gray Harvey) (November 9, 1928, Newton, Massachusetts—October 4, 1974, Weston, Massachusetts) was an American poet and writer.

Sexton was born in Newton, Massachusetts, and spent most of her life near Boston, Massachusetts. She was born to Ralph Gray Harvey and Mary Gray Staples. In 1945, she began attending a boarding school, Rogers Hall, in Lowell, Massachusetts and later spent a year at Garland School, a finishing school in Boston. For a time as a young woman, she modeled for Boston’s Hart Agency. On August 16, 1948, she eloped with Alfred “Kayo” Sexton. They remained married until 1973.

Sexton suffered from complex mental illness. Her first manic episode took place in 1954. After a second breakdown in 1955, she met Dr. Martin Orne, who was to become her longtime therapist, at Glenside Hospital. Sexton believed she was not valuable except in her ability to please men and told Orne in her first interview that her only talent might be for prostitution. He later told her that his evaluation showed that she had a creative side and encouraged her to take up poetry. Though she was very nervous about it and needed a friend to make the phone call and accompany her to the first workshop, she enrolled in her first poetry workshop with John Holmes as instructor. After the workshop, Sexton experienced remarkably quick success with her poetry, with her poems accepted by The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, and the Saturday Review. Sexton also studied with Robert Lowell at Boston University alongside distinguished poets Sylvia Plath and George Starbuck.

Sexton’s poetic life was further encouraged by her mentor, W.D. Snodgrass, whom she met at the Antioch Writer’s Conference in 1957. His poem, “Heart’s Needle”, about his separation from his three year old daughter, encouraged her to write “The Double Image,” a poem significant in expressing the multi-generational relationships existing between mother and daughter. “Heart’s Needle” was particularly inspirational to Sexton because at the time she first read it her own young daughter was living with her mother-in-law. Sexton began writing letters to Snodgrass and they soon became friends. While working with Holmes, Sexton encountered Maxine Kumin, with whom she became good friends throughout the rest of her life. Kumin and Sexton rigorously critiqued each other’s work, and wrote four children’s books together. In the late 1960s, the manic elements of Sexton’s illness began to affect her career. She still wrote and published work and gave readings of her poetry. She also collaborated with musicians, forming a jazz-rock group called “Her Kind” that added music to her poetry. She also wrote “Mercy Street”, a play produced off-Broadway after several years of revisions in 1969.

On October 4, 1974, Sexton had lunch with Kumin to review Sexton’s most recent book, The Awful Rowing Toward God. Upon returning home, she put on her mother’s old fur coat, locked herself in her garage, started the engine of her car and committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning.

In an interview over a year before her death she explained she had written the first drafts of The Awful Rowing Toward God in twenty days with “two days out for despair and three days out in a mental hospital.” She went on to say that she would not allow the poems to be published before her death. She is buried at Forest Hills Cemetery & Crematory in Jamaica Plain, Boston, Massachusetts.

Sexton is seen as the modern model of the confessional poet. She was inspired by the publication of Snodgrass’ Heart’s Needle, and her work encompasses issues specific to women such as menstruation, abortion, and more broadly masturbation and adultery, before such subjects were commonly addressed in poetic discourse.

Sexton’s work has been criticized as being non-intellectual and non-rigorous by her writing peers.  For some people, her work began to deteriorate as her career progressed from her early successes. Her work towards the end of the sixties has been criticized as “preening, lazy and flip” by otherwise respectful critics. Some people see her dependence on alcohol as compromising her last work. However other critics see Sexton’s later work favorably in terms of comparing it with her early formal work. “Starting as a relatively conventional writer, she learned to roughen up her line [...] to use as an instrument against the politesse of language, politics, religion [and] sex [...].”

The title for her eighth collection of poetry and one of her last writings, The Awful Rowing Toward God, came from her meeting with a Roman Catholic priest who, although unwilling to administer the last rites, did tell her: “God is in your typewriter,” which gave the poet the desire and willpower to continue living and writing. Her last writings expressed her strange hunger for death: The Death Notebooks and The Awful Rowing Toward God. Her work started out as being about herself. As her career progressed she made periodic attempts to reach outside of her own life. Poet and critic Alicia Ostriker says, “[S]he was the least reticent personally [out of the confessional poets] to have her poems ‘mean something to someone else.'” Later she reached out of her own life story for themes in her poems. Transformations is one such book that attempts to use Grimm’s fairy tales as the source for her poetry. Later she used Christopher Smart’s Jubilate Agno and the Bible as the basis for some of her work.

Sexton’s work is extremely difficult to separate from her life. When Sexton died in 1974, many people saw suicide and despair as the inevitable outcome of being a writer. At the time of Sexton’s death, in the context of Sexton, Sylvia Plath who took her life in 1963, and to a certain extent John Berryman and Robert Lowell, poets Adrienne Rich and Denise Levertov protested in separate obituaries the confusion between creativity and death that Sexton’s own demise represented. Denise Levertov says, “we who are alive must make clear, as she could not, the distinction between creativity and self-destruction.”  Adrienne Rich wrote about how women’s anger is considered socially acceptable as long as it is turned inward, as Sexton’s addictions to pills, alcohol and finally dying by her own hand, illustrate.

But it also is praised as being honest, with many people admiring the self taught aspects of her life. By the end of her life the woman who had never graduated college had accumulated a Pulitzer Prize, several fellowships and several honorary doctorates. She worked and succeeded in a male dominated field that valued tradition and traditional educations in English literature. In the celebrity obsessed world of the 1960s that continues today, Sexton’s life reverberates with meaning about the implications of celebrity and its effects on the artist’s life.

Dr. Orne diagnosed her with bipolar disorder, but his competence to do so is called into question by his early use of unsound psychotherapeutic techniques. During sessions with Sexton he used hypnosis and sodium pentothal to recover supposedly repressed memories, while actually using suggestion to implant false memories of childhood sexual abuse, stated to be untrue from interviews with her mother and other relatives. However this is contradicted by Martin Orne’s obituary in The New York Times. The article states that as early as a Harvard undergraduate, Dr. Orne wrote that hypnosis in an adult frequently does not present accurate memories of childhood, instead “adults under hypnosis are not literally reliving their early childhoods but presenting them through the prisms of adulthood”. According to Dr. Orne, Anne Sexton was extremely suggestible and would mimic the symptoms of the patients around her in the mental hospitals she was committed. Dr. Orne eventually concluded that Anne Sexton was suffering from hysteria.

The Middlebrook biography also states that Anne Sexton had another personality emerge, named “Elizabeth”, while under hypnosis. Dr. Orne refused to encourage this development. Subsequently this “alternate personality” disappeared. Anne Sexton’s life is rich in implications in the study of the construction of mental illness and what it implies and directly says for women and for humanity.

When Diane Middlebrook published her biography of Anne Sexton with the approval of Sexton’s daughter and literary executor, Linda, it attracted extreme amounts of controversy. Dr. Orne gave Diane Wood Middlebrook the bulk of the tapes made in the therapy sessions between Orne and Sexton for her to use in Middlebrook’s biography of Anne Sexton. These tapes were released to Middlebrook, her biographer, after she had written a substantial amount of the first draft of Sexton’s biography. The addition of the tapes forced her to start the biography over. Controversy from the posthumous public release of tapes recorded during Sexton’s psychotherapy (and thus subject to doctor-patient confidentiality), revealed Sexton’s inappropriate behavior with her daughter Linda, her physically violent behavior towards her daughters and her physical altercations with her husband.  While writing the biography Linda Gray Sexton confirmed to the book’s author, Diane Wood Middlebrook, that she had been sexually assaulted by her mother.

However, for many people the real scandal was not the release of the therapy tapes but the fact that Sexton had an affair with the therapist that replaced Dr. Orne in the sixties. No action was taken to censure or discipline the second therapist. “What if one of the many doctors — Dr. Orne included — who knew about the relationship had blown the whistle on [the second doctor] instead of putting his career ahead of Sexton’s sanity.”  Dr. Orne considered the affair with the second therapist (given the pseudonym “Ollie Zweizung” by Diane Wood Middlebrook and Linda Sexton), to be the catalyst that eventually resulted in her suicide. These occurrences attracted considerable attention. Sexton’s family expressed strong opinions, both for and against the biography in several editorials and op-ed pieces, mainly in The New York Times and The New York Times Book Review.

Awards

  • * Audience magazine’s annual poetry prize (1959)
  • * Poetry magazine’s Levinson Prize (1962)
  • * National Book Award nomination for All My Pretty Ones (1963)
  • * American Academy of Arts and Letters’ traveling fellowship (1963)
  • * Ford Foundation grant (1963)
  • * Shelley Memorial Prize for Live or Die (1967)
  • * Pulitzer Prize in poetry for Live or Die (1967)
  • * Guggenheim Foundation grant (1969)
  • * Tufts University’s Doctor of Letters (1970)
  • * Crashaw Chair in Literature from Colgate University (1972)

Poetry and Prose

  • * Uncompleted Novel-started in the 1960s
  • * To Bedlam and Part Way Back (1960)
  • * All My Pretty Ones (1962)
  • * Live or Die (1966) – Winner of the Pulitzer prize in 1967
  • * Love Poems (1969)
  • * Mercy Street, a 2-act play performed at the American Place Theatre (1969)
  • * Transformations (1971) ISBN 0-618-08343-X
  • * The Book of Folly (1972)
  • * The Death Notebooks (1974)
  • * The Awful Rowing Toward God (1975; posthumous)
  • * 45 Mercy Street (1976; posthumous)
  • * Anne Sexton: A Self Portrait in Letters, edited by Linda Gray Sexton and Lois Ames (1977; posthumous)
  • * Words for Dr. Y. (1978; posthumous)
  • * No Evil Star: Selected Essays, Interviews and Prose, edited by Steven E. Colburn (1985; posthumous)

Children’s books

  • all co-written with Maxine Kumin
  • * 1963 Eggs of Things (illustrated by Leonard Shortall)
  • * 1964 More Eggs of Things (illustrated by Leonard Shortall)
  • * 1974 Joey and the Birthday Present (illustrated by Evaline Ness)
  • * 1975 The Wizard’s Tears (illustrated by Evaline Ness)

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