It’s Edgar Allan Poe’s birthday. Poe is a figure who has fascinated readers for nearly 2 centuries. His death at the age of 40, on a Baltimore street at election time, has led to speculation that he died of alcohol poisoning, in a political brawl or, more recently, a diabetic coma. His stories also remain enigmatic. He is best known for his gothic horror tales and as the inventor of the literary detective (in ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’). The aristocratic and eccentric Auguste Dupin and his narrator-recorder-sidekick are the model for Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson. His hysterical tale of incest and aristocratic decay, ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’, explores Freudian concepts of Oedipal conflict and the uncanny many decades before Freud even contemplated them. One of his most influential stories, ‘The Man of the Crowd’, combines both in the pursuit of a criminal figure through the labyrinthine streets of a gothic London night, lit by the flickering glare of early gaslight. Walter Benjamin sees this as a story that contains the origins of modernism that would take many decades to catch up with this literary genius.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that any blog post about Jane Austen must begin with an awkward homage to her best-known novel, Pride and Prejudice (1813).
It is also a truth universally acknowledged that, since her death on 18 July 1817, aged only 41, many writers have sought to capture the magic of Austen’s writing, and to pay tribute to her through imitations, sequels, retellings, and reimaginings of her work.
So, in honour of Austen’s birthday (16 December 1775), I wanted to share six of my favourite literary reimaginings and retellings of her most famous work. For keen readers of Austen, I hope these will share new light upon a favourite novel. For those yet to become acquainted with her, maybe these will serve as a means of introduction? For me, the versatility and variety of the following books demonstrates the genius of Austen’s characterisation and plotting, the timelessness of her themes, and the resonance that the stories she told continue to have for thousands of readers today.
The Other Bennet Sister by Janice Hadlow
Published in 2020, Janice Hadlow’s The Other Bennet Sister tells the story of Mary, middle of the five Bennet girls, plainest of them all and, arguably, the most overlooked by both her family and her creator. An introvert in a family of extroverts, Mary is very much a peripheral figure within Pride and Prejudice – and is usually depicted alongside Mr Collins as a figure of fun in the many film and TV adaptations. Hadlow, however, manages to convey the depth of Mary’s character, showing us a young woman who, though different from her siblings, has no less passion and no fewer dreams. For those new to Austen, this lively modern novel may encourage you to read Pride and Prejudice the first time whilst, for Austen-lovers, seeing Lizzie, Darcy, Jane, Lydia et al. from Mary’s point of view provides a chance to reflect on the value of wealth and beauty from the perspective of a young woman without either.
Ayesha at Last by Uzma Jalaluddin
Set in modern-day Canada, Uzma Jalaluddin’s Ayesha at Last takes the plot and themes of Pride and Prejudice and combines them with a modern Muslim romance. Heroine Ayesha Shamsi has set aside her dreams of becoming a poet to pay off her debts to her wealthy uncle. Adding to her problems, she’s still single whilst, as her boisterous family are always reminding her, her flighty younger cousin Hafsa is close to rejecting her one hundredth marriage proposal. When Ayesha meets Khalid, she finds herself irritatingly attracted to someone whose conservative and judgemental nature means he looks down on her choices and dresses like he belongs in the seventh century. Yet unbeknownst to Ayesha, Khalid is also wrestling with what he believes and what he wants. Despite announcing a surprise engagement to Ayesha’s cousin Hafsa, Khalid just can’t get the outspoken Ayesha out of his mind. Ayesha at Last is a lot of fun and, for me, demonstrates that the themes and concerns of Austen’s novel resonate not only across time but also through cultures. Another modern re-telling worth a shout is Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible, which moves the action to modern-day Ohio and adds in a dash of reality TV.
Death Comes to Pemberley by P. D. James
Pride and Prejudice…and murders! Queen of Crime P. D. James brings her expert plotting and fine eye for detail to Pemberley in this elegantly gauged tribute to Austen’s vitality. Set in 1803, the orderly world that Darcy and Elizabeth have created for themselves is threatened when, on the eve of their annual ball, Lydia Wickham – Elizabeth’s unreliable sister – stumbles out of a carriage screaming that her husband has been murdered. James’s pastiche of Austen is laced with authentic smatterings of Austen’s trademark wit, combining this with a thoroughly researched portrait of Georgian law and order. As a crime story, Death Comes to Pemberley is deeply enjoyable in its own right but, for me, it also demonstrates the versatility of Austen’s imagination and the way in which her sharp observations of society and wicked sense of humour underpin a genre so seemingly disparate as crime fiction. For more genre-bending Austen, fantasy fans might also like to look up Heartstone by Elle Katherine White for Pride & Prejudice with additional dragons.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith
Okay, so I mostly put this one in here because it’s Pride and Prejudice WITH ZOMBIES. And what isn’t to love about that as a concept? Look beneath the parodic swordfights and ignore the ninjas for a moment (because yes, there’s also ninjas in this one), however, and you’ll find a wry commentary on literary expectations and Regency-era society. The academic literature on this adaptation of Austen’s classic is, honestly, very interesting and considers everything from the meaning behind Charlotte Lucas’s zombification to the importance of sword-wielding heroines for modern female readers. For those seeking to move beyond Darcy and Elizabeth, Grahame-Smith added a kraken and some pirates to Austen’s first published novel to create Sense and Sensibility and Sea-Monsters, and wrote a sequel called Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dreadfully Ever After.
What Matters in Jane Austen by John Mullen
Mullen is a Professor of English at University College London and has taught Austen to university students for over a quarter of a century. Distilling that knowledge into a lively and accessible piece of literary criticism, What Matters in Jane Austen endeavours to answer twenty crucial puzzles about Austen’s work including, How Much Does Age Matter?, Do We Ever See the Lower Classes?, and Is There Any Sex in Jane Austen? Mullen is an entertaining and knowledgeable guide – especially to Austen’s lesser-known works – and his book is the perfect primer for revisiting the novels with a fresh critical eye.
Longbourn by Jo Baker
Speaking of the lower classes, who does wash the mud of Elizabeth Bennet’s skirt after she troops over to Netherfield Park to appal polite society? The answer, for Jo Baker at least, is Sarah: one of the housemaids at Longbourn, the Bennet family home. Baker’s eye for detail undercuts the televised romanticisation of Austen’s era, depicting not only the lives of those who do the dirty work that enable Austen’s polite heroines to take tea or go to balls, but also reflecting on the turbulent politics of the era and, poignantly, on the aftereffects of the Napoleonic Wars.
These are just a smattering of many adaptations and appropriations of Austen’s work but, hopefully, they’ve given you a flavour of just how resonant her writing remains. More than 200 years after her death, Austen’s novels and short fiction continue to be read and enjoyed by readers across the globe. And whilst F R Leavis saw Austen as one of the cornerstones of the ‘canon’ of English Literature, for me, her work resonates not because of its universality or intrinsic brilliance (although I do think Austen is brilliant) but because of the way that her intricate examinations of love, marriage, family, society, and commerce invite new perspectives, new approaches, and new imaginings that encourage us to reflect not only on the period in which she lived and wrote but on our own experiences and society today.
This week, it is 123 years since the birth of CS Lewis (B. Nov 29th, 1898). Children’s Literature provides a fascinating lense through which to view social attitudes to childhood and to explore the development of fantasy literature as a form. Here at Staffs Uni, we take a look at Children’s literature from both a critical and a creative perspective.
CS Lewis’ best known novel, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, was written in the immediate post-War years (1948/9) and published in 1950.
The seemingly escapist fantasy of the novel – with its talking animals and fairytale story elements – looks at first like an uncomfortable juxtaposition with the grim reality of a scarred and austere society seeking to re-build after the catastrophe of the war.
However, there are many aspects of the narrative which reflect the time of its production. For example, the novel is a reflection on evacuation and its effects on children and the dislocation of family. These would have been familiar scenarios for child readers at the time of publication. It is a wartime narrative of children separated from parents – fathers at the front, women working for the war effort, fathers killed in action, parents killed in the Blitz. The children negotiate the world without adult supervision or authority. Now, this is a familiar trope that is familiar in everything from Alice to Swallows and Amazons, Enid Blyton, all the way to Harry Potter. The professor is a distant but comforting figure who is sympathetic to the children’s stories; he seems to understand children but not the wider social realm. He is a link between the world of fantasy and imagination and a primary or real world. In this respect, he is similar to the narrator who is also more concerned with the interests of children than the adult world. Finally, Turkish Delight reminds us that sweets, chocolate and biscuits were rationed into the 1950s and rationing didn’t entirely end until 1954, 9 years after the war had ended.
The most significant convention of children’s literature here is the movement between a primary world and one of fantasy or imagination. It is important to consider the journey through the wardrobe – this magical portal – as an ambiguous journey for the children, as both real and not real. It is significant, I think, that initially it is the younger children who are able to go through the wardrobe to Narnia. The balance between the children is interesting and symptomatic of some of the observations made by the critics whose definitions and approaches we have just looked at. We have two younger children and two older children, with a male and a female child in each. The older children take responsibility for their younger siblings, allowing the reader to see how the war is reshaping childhood and reshaping our understandings of knowledge and innocence. The younger children, however, have not lost their innocent trust in freedom and imagination, leaving them able to conjure other worlds. Does Narnia exist or do they encourage their big brother and sister to join them in a game so convincing it becomes real to them all?
The older children are caught between the world of adults and the world of children, while the younger children demonstrate the power of the childhood imagination over the rationality and diminishing creativity of adolescence and early adulthood. Equally, we see how gender roles are socially motivated and the ideologies of gender work at a very early stage in a child’s development.
The wardrobe – a portal between this world and another – is a familiar trope in children’s literature, from Alice’s looking glass (which gets an oblique reference here) to platform 9 and 3/4 in the Harry Potter novels. Here, the children travel from the corrupted world of war, violence and destruction to a wood – a natural world that should be a haven for them and provide protection. This, after all, is the Romantic view in children’s literature. The wood, in contrast to expectations, is itself riven by a battle between forces of good and evil and the children are forced to take sides and, crucially, take action to establish a moral principle. Again, a distinct echo of the real world beyond the wardrobe door and a recognisable one for the contemporaneous reader. The forces of good face an overwhelming and immoral foe who has all the characteristics of a charismatic and violent dictator. The animals of the wood along with their allies, the children, then become the plucky resistance able to challenge the occupation of the White Witch. There are, though, collaborators who must be punished at the end.
So Narnia becomes the site of negotiation of the adult world of conflict and the expectations that are to be placed on our central characters as they mature. In this natural fantasy realm the children face challenges that children should not face. They challenge evil in battle and become fair and just when called upon to rule. The parallel or fantasy world functions as an alternative or symbolic site through which issues of growing up, responsibility and good and bad are explored and negotiated.
October 7th is Beat Poetry Day. It marks the anniversary Allen Ginsberg reading his radical poem, ‘Howl’, at the Gallery 6 in San Francisco in 1955. The poet and owner of the City Lights Bookshop (still there to this day, visit if you get the chance),
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, was subsequently tried for obscenity and cleared. Here, Visiting Research Fellow, Martin Jesinghausen, reflects on Ferlinghetti’s influence.
New American Poetry against the Plague
Over the last year or so I found some relief from virally or politically induced nightmares in poetry. New American writing proved particularly good as antidote against the atrocities of budding US-style fascism.
I came across two new writers Ocean Vuong (born 1988) and Jennie Xie (no data), immigrants into the USA from Asia at an early age, one from Saigon, Vietnam, the other from Hefei, China. Both are offering new perspectives on global culture and on North America today, often by rendering strange the tropes and images from an unknown homeland they left behind, through blending them with material representing their new-world environment, at the same time alien and familiar to them. As child-migrant outsiders they have grown up inside an adopted culture, in language acquired and honed to standards of poetic expressiveness. This is poetry that offers fresh and raw vistas, new ways of seeing and feeling across divides. Vuong’s collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds came out in 2016, Xie’s is called Eye Level and was published 2017.
Awarding the 2020 Nobel Prize for literature to Louise Glück (born New York 1943) came as a lovely surprise, the second American poet in a row following Dylan’s selection of 2016. Glück’s poetry is dark post-modernist word-music, her special voice that of a peculiar stream-of-consciousness, often as if history itself were speaking or dreaming. Material from myth and the collective unconscious resurfaces, salvaged from an underground flow of cultural jetsam and flotsam reaching us from ancient times. She has not published much very recently; her career is fully documented with complete collections in Louise Glück. Poems 1962-2012. The latest title dates back to 2014: Faithful and Virtuous Night.
A few weeks ago I discovered Terrance Hayes’s prize-winning 2018 collection entitled American Sonnets for my Past and Present Assassin. The intricate and strict formal architecture of the Sonnet, a new poetic form originating at the beginning of the modern period with Petrarch, proved attractive for the expression of complex, often contradicting, or even paradoxical thoughts, ever since its heyday when it was adopted (and adapted) in Elizabethan poetry, and especially Shakespeare, of course. Hayes appropriates the Sonnet as an Afro-American form. He does so by breaking away from the prescriptive traditional rules of Sonnet-construction. He ‘deconstructs’ the Sonnet by overhauling its old formal parameters so that it becomes fit as a medium for debates of the aggravating contradictions in contemporary US-culture. Riveting stuff!
Two of my older favourites, rather well-known in this country because of their long-standing association with the London Review of Books, have also been publishing new work recently. The first of them, Frederick Seidel (born St Louis 1936!), especially appeals because his texts are irreverent, grumpy, sinister, funny, sarcastic, and often politically less than correct, a virtuoso technician of words with a sharp scalpel against the arteries of current pseudo-culture and ogre-politics. Check out his 2016 poem ‘Trump for President’ published first in the LRB 29, 2016. Seidel is a city-jungle poet. His two last collections give evidence again of his deep attachment to New York: Widening Income Inequality, 2017, and Peaches Goes it Alone, 2019, are Seidel’s ‘late style’ monuments. Also search out perhaps ‘Karl’, ‘In memory of Karl Miller’, erstwhile editor of the LRB and friend of Seidel’s (first published New York Review of Books, November 20, 2014, also collected): a love letter from an American cosmopolitan writer to London as a hub of urban culture. Last month Faber published the latest selection of what Seidel deems fit for posterity: Frederick Seidel New Selected Poems, 2021. – The second of the old guard close to my heart is August Kleinzahler (born 1949, New Jersey), more gentle than Seidel, and as accomplished and wide-ranging in themes and forms, perhaps with a more narrative scope. His latest collection Snow Approaching on the Hudson came out this year, and cuts to the chase of the situation. The eponymous poem I found very touching. It chimes as a commentary on the current virus misery, a Covid winter-journey of the freezing mind.
Meanwhile, thankfully things have come to a head on the politics front, for the moment at least, or so it seems, with American fascism defeated on 21 January. Can poetry save the world from evil and affliction? American poetry had certainly done its bit in the battle against populism as a form of public deception and fascist dictatorship. A month after Bidens’s inauguration Lawrence Ferlinghetti passed away, on 22 February, at the ripe age of 101.
Ferlinghetti used poetry as a political weapon. As a publisher and in his own poetry he fought political authoritarianism. He advocated enlightenment values, breaking a lance for liberty, equality, justice, globally and at home, reason, internationalism, and, in true Californian spirit, free love, boundless imagination and expansion of the mind. With the slaying of the Trump dragon he lived to enjoy a small victory in his lifelong, nearly 70 year-fight against bigotry, obfuscation, dictatorship, war-mongering and media terror.
A few more thoughts on this large figure of post-war poetry might suffice. Ferlinghetti entered the arena 1955 with a first collection called Pictures of the Gone World, published by City Lights Books Press, the printing-press side of the bookshop he founded in San Francisco in 1953. The independent bookstore-publication model he had transplanted to San Francisco from good old Modernist Paris, Europe, where in 1919 Shakespeare & Company, was set up by the American Sylvia Beach: from Paris to San Francisco with love – a transatlantic shuttle that worked in both directions. Like Shakespeare & Company for new experiments in Modernist writing, City Lights Books turned into a laboratory for new forms and styles of post-modern writing, a locus/focus for the Beat Generation. And like the Parisian motherlode, before it was closed down by the Fascists in 1941, the San Franciscan franchise provided (they both still do; Shakespeare & Company re-emerged after the war! Go visit!) networking space and independent printing opportunities for artists and writers, with an agenda of broadening cultural and political horizons of readers, writers and small-gig audiences at readings and concerts. The publication of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl in 1956 by City Lights Books press was as momentous for the burgeoning revival of post-modern American poetry as the publication of Joyce’s Ulysses in 1922 by Shakespeare & Company for the elevation of the Modernist project on both sides of the Atlantic.
Ferlinghetti’s poetry always was political, in all senses of the word. Thus he flipped the notion of populism on his head in his Populist Manifestos, published 1976, when he demanded of poetry to get out there and go populist (First Manifesto):
‘Poets, come out of your closets,
Open your windows, open your doors,
You have been holed up for too long
in your closed worlds…’
In the Second Manifesto he asks the
‘Sons of Whitman sons of Poe
Sons of Lorca and Rimbaud
or their dark daughters,
poets of another breath
poets of another vision
Who among you still speaks of revolution
Who among you still unscrews
the locks from the doors
in this revisionist decade?
“You are president of your own body America”’,
He here quotes a Mexican poet with a statement that he throws as a wake-up call at his North American poetic fellow travellers to start the fight for a political re-envisioning of a progressive America. I detect echoes here of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s dictum (in Defence of Poetry, 1821) that ‘poets are the legislators of the world’.
Ferlinghetti’s sees poetry as an ‘insurgent art’ (title of a poem of 2007), but he can also speak with a tender and intimate poetic voice, privately political, as in much of his work, notably in the aforementioned A Coney Island of the Mind, for example
A Coney Island of the Mind #20
The Pennycandystore beyond the El
is where I first
fell in love
Jellybeans glowed in the semi-gloom
of that september afternoon
A cat upon the counter moved among
the licorice sticks
and tootsie rolls
and Oh Boy Gum
Outside the leaves were falling as they died
A wind had blown away the sun
A girl ran in
Her hair was rainy
Her breasts were breathless in the little room
Outside the leaves were falling
and they cried
Too soon! too soon!
It was a pleasure to meet architects, urban planners, artists and performers from Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Sweden and the UK at the eurau conference over the last few days. Panels were held at Staffs and at Birmingham City University. The panel I chaired attended to the concerns of art and performance in engaging with the contemporary city and addressing issues of marginalisation and regeneration. Fabiano Miocci considered the historic and contemporary use of collage to imagine and re-imagine the city by juxtaposing images and symbols that relate to the experience of urban space in the context of 21st century Athens. Ludovica Campione and Giovangiuseppe Vanneli, both postgrads at the University of Naples, talked about the relationship between architecture and performative arts in articulating marginalised identities in heterotopic spaces in both conventional theatre spaces and site specific performance. Anna Moro told us about the fascinating new processes and methodologies being used in and around Milan to reconnect marginalised, disadvantaged and fragile communities to the wider city through community arts.
As part of the conference, we were treated to a fantastic meal at the sumptuous Potters Club near to the university and a performance on the last day exploring, through dance, play and multi-media (joined by the magic of the internet by artists from India) the relationship between the body and space. We concluded with a tour of the inspriring Stoke on Trent British Ceramics Biennial.
A new project has been conceived as a result of the conference. A Psychogeography of the 6 Towns will explore the polyvalent nature of Stoke on Trent’s historic six towns through urban exploration, architectural history, poetry and urban theory. The participants will be Maria Maria Martinez Sanchez (urban planning and architecture), Martin Brown (urban and architectural history), Lisa Mansell (geo-poetics) and Mark Brown (urban cultures and theory). We will deploy Situationist techniques to explore the centres, margins and inbetween spaces of the city to plot and map its history, culture and future.
On Baudelaire’s two-hundredth Birthday I am with my mother-in-law for our weekly French lesson. It is her birthday too, today. As the occasion demands, we read a few passages from ‘Spleen’, which was first published in Fleurs de Mal [Flowers of Evil] in 1857.
Baudelaire wrote on the cusp of literary modernism—one hand in velvet-strewn Gothic Romanticism infused with Poe’s influence and symbolism, and the other in realist naturalism: documenting life as it really was in almost medical detail. His use of form too is caught between two movements. Baudelaire, the inventor of the prose poem, evolved his use of long lines from the alexandrine; the alexandrine was to French literature what iambic pentameter was to English verse—ubiquitous poetic signature of a nation, but also the prosodic status quo: the old poetry of an old world.
The blending of Gothic and Naturalist imagery can be observed on the following passage, from the third part of ‘Spleen’:
—Je suis un cimetière abhorré de la lune,
Où comme plus de morts se traînent de longs vers
Qui s’acharnent toujours sur me morts les plus chers.
—I am a graveyard by the moon abhorred,
where, creeping, like remorse, the long worms spread
their train to feast upon my dearest dead.
Here, the symbolic moon and the graveyard set the gothic scene followed by the bathetic realism of the corpse-eating worms below. But reading this in French drew my attention to something new—something I had never noticed in translation. The phrase ‘longs vers’ first read to me as ‘vers’ as in ‘vers libre’ and not ‘vers’ as in worms. Could it be that the poem metatextually reflects on its own composition on this double-sensed ‘vers’? In this metaphor for poetics itself, the persona becomes the landscape, the graveyard (I am a graveyard/ Je suis un cimetière) and the long lines(verses) feast upon the dead which all together divulge a cryptic allusion to a self-conscious shift from the Gothic Romanticism (the graveyard, the dead) via Baudelaire’s innovative ‘long lines’ freed from their alexandrine constraint, and towards a new poetics–towards modernism.
Today is the 200th anniversary of the French poet, Charles Baudelaire – a poet associated with the emergence of literary modernism and the figure of the urban wanderer; the flaneur.
The flâneur is the prime urban walker and recorder in literature. The flâneur’s impression of the city is formed through walking and is thus shaped at street level, through the confusion and immediacy of the urban sensual phenomena of the crowd. From the crowd emerge the individual ‘urban types’ that populate Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal (1857). Baudelaire’s poetry is that of the flâneur (along with other marginal figures), who has, in some form, inhabited the city in literature since Edgar Allan Poe. One of the most famous statements on modernity and the modern metropolis is in Baudelaire’s essay on the artist Constantin Guys in ‘The Painter of Modern Life’: ‘modernity is the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent; it is one half of art, the other half being the eternal and the immutable’.
Baudelaire isolates the ragpicker and the flâneur (along with the prostitute) as types with whom he associates himself as a poet. The ragpicker is the epitome of human misery in the city, collecting rags to be used in industrial processes. The affinity between the ragpicker and the poet arises from a coincidence of activity – as Baudelaire also sees himself collecting social refuse from the city street and fashioning it into a precarious living.
Baudelaire’s flâneur occupies a very particular time and place and is of a class that is able to indulge in strolling as a pastime. His arena is initially that of the boulevards, but with the advent of the arcades he finds his perfect environment. Here he can be an observer, and a peruser of the commodities in the arcades, as well as a commodity spectacle to be observed. He is a man, according to the 20th century critic Walter Benjamin, who goes ‘botanizing on the asphalt’ and who is at home in the street.
Baudelaire’s poem ‘To a Passer-by’ invests the crowd with a potential to offer exciting but fleeting metropolitan encounters. The poet describes a brief and anonymous encounter with a beautiful widow who is borne to him and away from him by the crowd.
To a Passer-By
about me roared with a deafening sound.
Tall, slender, in heavy mourning, majestic grief,
A woman passed, with a glittering hand
Raising, swinging the hem and flounces of her skirt;
graceful, her leg was like a statue’s.
Tense as in a delirium, I drank
From her eyes, pale sky where tempests germinate,
The sweetness that enthralls and the pleasure that kills.
flash… then night! Fleeting beauty
By whose glance I was suddenly reborn,
Will I see you no more before eternity?
far, far from here! too late! never perhaps!
For I know not where you fled, you know not where I go,
O you whom I would have loved, O you who knew it!
William Aggeler, The Flowers of Evil (Fresno, CA: Academy Library Guild, 1954)
‘What this sonnet communicates is simply this:’ Benjamin writes, ‘far from experiencing the crowd as an opposed, antagonistic element, this very crowd brings to the city dweller the figure that fascinates. The delight of the urban poet is love – not at first sight, but at last sight’. The way in which the crowd conveys this mysterious beauty to the gaze of the poet illustrates both the anonymity and the fascination of the crowd. However, Baudelaire’s attitude to the crowd as ambivalent. It is Baudelaire’s very status as a poet that prevents him becoming fully immersed in the city; both his class position and his professed role as dispassionate observer must separate him from the mass.
The complexity of an environment emerging from these conditions requires a mode of expression equal to its volatility. Consequently, Baudelaire’s poetic project was to create a prose adequate to the metropolis of his age. Baudelaire as a poet, seeks an urban poetics adequate to both the rational and the phantasmagorical elements of urban experience. In an echo of the two parts that constitute modernity, he wrote of his own poetry:
Who among us has not dreamt, in moments of ambition, of the miracle of a poetic prose, musical without rhythm and without rhyme, supple and staccato enough to adapt to the lyrical stirrings of the soul, the undulations of dreams, and the sudden leaps of consciousness. This obsessive idea is above all a child of the experience of giant cities, of the intersecting of their myriad relations.
What Baudelaire seeks is a mode of representation that engages with the eternal and (seemingly) immutable physical metropolis in terms which at the same time are able to capture the ephemeral and fugitive interrelations he finds so compelling.
Our English and Creative Writing lecturers pick some some significant poems for World Poetry Day
Kate Tempest: Brand New Ancients (2013)—The New Waste Land.
If you invest in just one poetry collection this year, get Brand New Ancients by Kate Tempest. In fact, it is not a collection—rather, a long poem which bounds with vociferous energy over its forty-seven pages. The book begins with an aphoristic inscription: “This poem was written to be read aloud”, and to read it alongside a recording of Tempest’s virtuosic spoken-word performance is enthralling.
The text begins with a meditation on myth:
In the old days
the myths were the stories we used to explain ourselves.
But how can we explain the way we hate ourselves,
the things we’ve made ourselves into,
the way we break ourselves in two,
the way we overcomplicate ourselves?
But we are still mythical. (Tempest, 2013, p.1)
Note the lexical stride of ‘ourselves’ as it shifts its syntactical position in each line, much like the shifting of our own subjectivity, culture and the passing of time: a civilization taking one step forward and two steps back.
In this next passage, assonant sonority meanders through these phrases like a soundwave where ‘your’/ ‘distorted’ and ‘moss’/’emboss’, ‘rock’/work’ curl subtle filigrees against the more stoic, conventional rhyming of ‘loathing/clothing’ at the lines’ end. Generous, round vowels evoke gravitas and the echo of deep, ancient time:
[. . .] Kevin, your altar is covered in moss,
the inscription distorted, embossed long ago, it said once—
stay true, even if others do not.
He breaks through the rock of his silent self-loathing,
climbs into his clothing
and heads off to work. [. . .] (Tempest, 2013, p.8)
Tempest is not the first poet to gaze into the antique past, to myth and the Classical world, in order to explain ‘ourselves’. T.S. Eliot’s monolithic poem, The Waste Land (1922), too is a collage of intertexts which crisscross through Dante, Shakespeare, ancient Buddhist scripture, but also popular songs and lewd limericks. Part II of the Waste Land, ‘A Game of Chess’, dramatises the unhappy marriages of two couples, inflected with allusions to Anthony and Cleopatra, Dido and Aeneas, Elizabeth I and Leicester. Tempest, in her narrative poem, renders the relationships of two families with Eliotian pessimism, but not in the manner of pastiche. Tempest layers her own careful palimpsest of lyric pathos, dramatic epic, and their modern-day reincarnations: street poetry and rap. She glissades easily between speech, recitative and song in stiches so rhythmically complex they defy traditional scansion.
Brand New Ancients is, perhaps, the Waste Land of our age.
My grandma died on the 16th of March 2017 and it was a strangely hot day. It took her a long time to die. And while I waited I read a lot of poetry.
I wrote a creative non-fiction essay in part about her death called ‘The Familiar Absence of Words.’ Here is a brief extract:
I stayed with grandma for most of that day and read from a poetry book. The words were soothing. Love and loss are easier on a page: less ragged than real life. I read in bursts to the noise of grandma’s rasping breaths and paused during the worrying silences in between. I read with intensity: I held the book like a bible.
This was one of the poems I read as my grandma lay dying.
I was watching a robin fly after a finch — the smaller bird
chirping with excitement, the bigger, its breast blazing, silent
in light-winged earnest chase — when, out of nowhere
over the chimneys and the shivering front gardens,
flashes a sparrowhawk headlong, a light brown burn
scorching the air from which it simply plucks
like a ripe fruit the stopped robin, whose two or three
cheeps of terminal surprise twinkle in the silence
closing over the empty street when the birds have gone
about their own business, and I began to understand
how a poem can happen: you have your eye on a small
elusive detail, pursuing its music, when a terrible truth
strikes and your heart cries out, being carried off.
You can read the full essay ‘The Familiar Absence of Words’ here.
A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London
Never until the mankind making
Bird beast and flower
Fathering and all humbling darkness
Tells with silence the last light breaking
And the still hour
Is come of the sea tumbling in harness
And I must enter again the round
Zion of the water bead
And the synagogue of the ear of corn
Shall I let pray the shadow of a sound
Or sow my salt seed
In the least valley of sackcloth to mourn
The majesty and burning of the child’s death.
I shall not murder
The mankind of her going with a grave truth
Nor blaspheme down the stations of the breath
With any further
Elegy of innocence and youth.
Deep with the first dead lies London’s daughter,
Robed in the long friends,
The grains beyond age, the dark veins of her mother,
Secret by the unmourning water
Of the riding Thames.
After the first death, there is no other.
The renowned critic, Terry Eagleton, argues of this poem that ‘the imagery … is largely at a tangent to the poem’s official subject’, and goes on to say how much he dislikes it. But isn’t this to miss the point of Thomas’s refusal and the anti-elegiac ambition of the verse? We have here 4 tightly structured sestets of rigid line-length and rhyme structure, giving the feeling of the conventional poetry of famous elegists such as Milton and Shelley. We become aware of the challenge to the conventions of the form in the long first line that takes us, breathlessly, from the opening, resistant ‘Never…’ into the 3rd stanza. It is only here, in the 13th line of the poem, that the girl killed by the fire bombing of London becomes the subject of the poem; this line becomes the pivot of Thomas’s contemplation of time and loss. Once acknowledged, the site and manner of the girl’s death, in the underground stations where Londoners sheltered from the bombers, she becomes London’s daughter, buried with the city’s innumerable dead and the earth of the city takes her back as a mother. The symbolism of the poem draws attention to the condensation of time into these moments of loss: Thomas records how he enters the ‘Zion of the water bead’ and ‘the synagogue of the ear of corn’ to show how nature contains all of time.
Thomas defers the lamentation of the dead girl to the second half of the poem to illustrate the futility of attempting to capture the tragedy of this loss – one of so many in the war – in the form of a poem. He ‘shall not murder’ her again, he insistently tells us, with an ‘Elegy of innocence and youth’.
Dylan’s anti-elegy records the loss of the girl in the blitz but as her death is insignificant in the scale of the war and the immensity of time, he is unable to offer consolation.
Here is a great old-fashioned Romantic poem by Thomas Hardy: The Darkling Thrush. I love this poem because it spoke to me when I was about 12 and in no way a reader of poetry. When I say ‘spoke to me’, I mean it spoke of things that had, up till then, been only the vague and unfocused experience of my own life. It was a surprise to read, for example, that ‘The land’s sharp features seemed to be the century’s corpse outleant’ and to realise that somebody else (a dead poet) had once felt a rocky landscape, like the ones I knew from the Welsh mountains, to be an ancient body. The ‘century’s corpse‘ gives this image a stronger connection with human life (our artificial slicing up of infinite time into hundreds of years). And this corpse is then made even more human by the addition of cloud and wind: ‘His crypt the cloudy canopy, The wind his death-lament‘.
That ordinary landscape could express the whole drama of human life so clearly and directly seemed magical to me. And that is just in one of the verses. How about the next bit: ‘The ancient pulse of germ and birth was shrunken hard and dry’? What is the ‘ancient pulse’? It doesn’t exist, except in our own sense of what life is. Dylan Thomas, in another great nature poem, called it ‘the force’. The title alone is a poem: ‘The force that through the green fuse drives the flower’. Learn these two poems and they will stay with you for life: every winter, every spring, you’ll communicate with these two long dead voices.
The Darkling Thrush
I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.
The land’s sharp features seemed to be
The Century’s corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.
At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.
So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.
We are publishing work from our students for World Poetry Day.
Here, Layla tells us about the work she is doing with a health website and brings us a poems on the theme of IVF.
I am writing and recording a series of poems on the theme of infertility for a media company. The poems are based on interviews with people who have experienced fertility issues, as well as research into how those affected sufferer mentally and emotionally.
The poems are part of an ongoing creative project with the company to creatively explore the complex emotions, fears and prejudices around the issue of fertility.
The poem “Game of Hormones” is performed by actor Eddie Bammeke, who is a film student at Staffordshire University. It was written for the Tiktok app, so it’s exactly 59 seconds long.
The prose poem “Just” was commissioned by a company that makes fertility probiotics to explore the advice that their customers are given at various stages of their life.
Just don’t come home pregnant, your dad will lose his mind. Just remember to take your pill every morning. Just don’t sleep around & you won’t have to worry about it. Just slow it down, don’t get too serious too quickly. Just remember, you have plenty of time for all of this.
Just don’t ruin your life like she did. Just her and the baby in that tiny flat. Just a waste of potential really. Just threw her life away.
Just focus on your studies. Just get your qualifications first. Just get to know each other.
Just save up and get a house before you start worrying about babies. Just wait another year for the promotion.
Just got married have you? Just don’t keep us hanging around too long for grandchildren, OK?
Just relax, you’re overthinking it. Just go on holiday, it’ll happen. Just keep trying, that’s the fun part! Just enjoy the peace while it lasts! Just enjoy your lie-ins while you can. Just hurry up a bit though, time’s getting on.
Just get that checked out. Just to make sure. Just sit tight, I’ll ring the hospital. Just don’t blame yourself, that’s all. Just try to breathe. Just remember, everything happens for a reason. Just try again when you’re ready.
Just a bit of advice, don’t keep that photo on the side like that. Just a bit morbid, that’s all. Just need to move on. Just need a holiday or something. Just the two of you.
Just do some yoga. Just lose a bit of weight. Just lose a bit more weight. Just cut out alcohol, caffeine and dairy. Just get him checked out too just in case. Just get yourself fit. Just don’t overdo it with the running though. Just don’t get too thin, that’s all.
Just talk to the doctor. Just choose a clinic. Just do the IVF. Just a needle, that’s all. Just your hormones. Just have another cycle as soon as you can. Just save up! Just borrow it off your Mum. Just take out a loan. Just sell the car.
Just use donor eggs! Just, I don’t know, get a surrogate like that woman off the telly did. Just adopt! Just playing Devil’s Advocate, that’s all. Just saying. Just give it another go. Just my opinion. Just give up. Just a waste of time. Just accept it. Just too old. Just wasn’t meant to be then, was it.
We are publishing work from our students for World Poetry Day on March 21st.
Here is Chloe’s poem, meditating on the effects of the pandemic on her generation. Thank you, Chloe, for your contribution.
Generation Lost In Satellites
We are the generation
that got lost in satellites.
Caring more about comments
on our social media than the fact
that an empty packet of
crisps can kill the environment.
We have no wars to fight,
Stonewall has been rioted.
Women got the vote.
The Bastille has been stormed.
We are the restless generation.
We have nothing to do.
There’s nothing left for us to do.
We’re just sat on this
floating rock, drifting in an infinite
loop until the sun expands
and we all burn.
There are no new worlds left to conquer,
Everest has been climbed.
Slavery was abolished.
There are footprints on the moon.
We are the restless generation.
We have nothing to do.
There’s nothing left for us to do.
But that’s not entirely true…
Now we face a new foe,
a new enemy to be vanquished.
Now we have a war to fight,
one we fight together.
With doctors and nurses on the front line,
while everyone else is told
to stay inside.
This time there are no evacuees,
no bomb shelters to hide in,
no air raid sirens to listen out for.
Although the industries have been revolutionised,
there is still lots of work to do.
with new vaccines, a ray of hope,
a light at the end of the tunnel.
But we are just the generation
that got lost in satellites.
Who cares more about comments
on our social media than
whether or not we
should say please and thank you.
What do we know?
With the world on pause,
and the stock market a minute away from crashing,
the queue to the jobcentre is
longer than the list of jobs available.
But we are just the generation
that got lost in satellites,
what do we know?
We live in a world that revolves
around diet plans and phone updates,
where nobody can say what
they mean in fear of offence.
But we are just the generation
that got lost in satellites.
Who cares more about comments
on our social media than
whether or not we meet
with people outside in real life.
Chloe Birchall, March 2021