International Women’s Day

Here in the English and Creative Writing department, we like to think we celebrate amazing women every single day. From our brilliant staff and students through to the wonderful female novelists, poets, playwrights, short story writers, essayists, and literary critics featured on our modules, we are surrounded by amazing women all the year round.

That said, we are not ones to pass up an opportunity to shout even louder about amazing women in literature so, to mark International Women’s Day this week, we asked some of our team to tell us about their favourite novels by female authors:

Phillipa Holloway

Senior Lecturer in English and Creative Writing (Fiction)

My favourite book is The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall. This novel follows Rachel as she moves back from her job on a wolf reserve in the USA to the borders of England and Scotland to run a rewilding programme. Dealing with her mother’s death, and reconnecting with her estranged brother as she negotiates the project and the politics of wealthy Lairds and local communities, Rachel is a character of great strength and humanity: flawed, intelligent, determined, and responsive.

Hall’s ability to portray a woman so genuine and uncompromising in the face of so many literary tropes about motherhood, relationships, and landscape is thrilling. Her prose is precise, and her evocation of place and people captures the nuances of both.

Talking about her process, she says: ‘I’m interested in the working nature of the land as well as its resistance to what we place upon it, metaphysically, and sometimes physically. This is what I’ve grown up with when it comes to Cumbria – farming, sheep, rain, difficulties travelling, self-sufficiency, obduracy, respect’ (Hall, 2009), and this close attention to details shines through in her clear depiction not of only of place but the emplaced human within it.

This is an author and novel I return to over and again.


You can read more of Sarah Hall’s 2009 interview with the Lunecy Review at: https://performativeutterance.wordpress.com/2011/07/28/sarah-hall-interviewed-2009/

Mark Brown

Senior Lecturer in English and Course Director for Sound and Communication

Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar is an exploration of the social, economic, and sexual pressure on young women that seems as relevant today as it was in the 1950s, when the book is set.

At first glance, The Bell Jar does not strike the reader as an overtly political novel. The key themes that present themselves, and for which the book is popularly renowned, are the explorations of growing up in America, mental illness, teenage suicide, and the angst of a young woman finding her way in a large and scary world of work, fashion, education, and relationships. Consequently, The Bell Jar is often seen as a rites of passage novel.

These concerns are given added interest for the reader by the autobiographical detail that haunts Esther’s Greenwood’s narrative and continues to hold the public’s attention.

The novel was originally published in 1963 under a pseudonym. At the time critics found the book to be a thoughtful exploration of a young woman’s mind. However, when the book was published under Plath’s own name in 1966 its reception was strongly influenced by the circumstances surrounding her suicide at the age of 30in 1963, just after the book’s original release. Much attention, unsurprisingly, has been given to the stormy relationship with her husband, the British poet Ted Hughes, and her relationship with her two children.

But is all the biographical attention to the novel justified. Well, to some extent it is. The Bell Jar is an account of Esther’s time at college, her experiences as a ‘guest editor’ on a New York magazine and her subsequent breakdown – all supported by a wealthy sponsor.  Plath too went to an all-girl college, won a scholarship to Mademoiselle magazine and attempted suicide.

The title itself speaks of both clarity and constriction. The bell jar is a glass container in which the contents can be seen clearly but can also be read as the shop windows in which the fashion-conscious characters check their reflections.

But it is also about the suffocating constraints of Esther’s situation and society: fashion and commodity as part of 50s social ideology in America, the role of the patriarchal medical profession in Esther’s illness, and the constraints of the social and political environment on Esther’s gender role and in her relationships with men.

The novel’s opening reflects on the execution in the electric chair of the Rosenbergs for spying for the USSR and goes on to explore the effects of Electro Convulsive Therapy on Esther.

The issue of gender roles and freedom for women in this book is specifically related to the issue of sexual freedom. Before the pill, sexual and moral politics revolved around ideas of health, hygiene, and conformity. Esther’s mother, for example, sends her an article entitled ‘In Defense of Chastity’, which concludes that the best form of birth control is abstinence.

At the conclusion of the novel Esther is assessed by the hospital board for a return to the society that she has rejected. To do so she must show that she is a well-adjusted, socially integrated, mentally well citizen of 1950s American society. You will have to read the book to find out if she succeeds.

Amy Louise Blaney

Associate Lecturer in English

There are so many literary works by female authors that I adore: Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet, Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World…the list goes on.

For this piece, though, I wanted to share my love of Donna Tartt’s debut novel, The Secret History. Partly because it is a brilliant piece of fiction that playfully inverts the rules of genre and can be seen to have kick-started a trend for so-called ‘dark academia’, but also because its conflicted central characters – and their struggles to find their place and identity within the world – continues to resonate with me in new ways every time I re-read the novel.

Set at an elite New England university, The Secret History tells the story of a close-knit group of six classic students who, it becomes apparent, have committed a terrible crime.

The novel is narrated by Richard Papen: a young man from a modest background who finds himself, through an unusual twist of fate, becoming part of an elite clique of students, hand-picked by charismatic classics professor Julian Morrow.

Richard’s position as an outsider is crucial to the novel. As the reader, we see the events of the novel solely through his eyes and we are, initially at least, invited to sympathise with this awkward, isolated young man, marooned and adrift amidst an elite world of apparent social, intellectual, and financial privilege.

As the novel progresses, however, the novel plays with and inverts ideas of tragedy, melodrama, and detective fiction to rewrite this singular worldview. As readers, we begin to question the veracity of Richard’s narrative and the plausibility of his perceptions. As we follow this murder mystery in reverse, we are invited to consider not who the killer is – we know this from the outset – but who the victim is and, more importantly, why they are the victim and what the significance of their murder is.

Simply put, The Secret History is, like all the best novels, a book that merits repeated reading and that, as I age and evolve as a reader, unpacks itself in new ways with each revisit. Read it, think about it, then put it on a shelf and come back to it in five- or ten-years’ time. I guarantee you will experience it again anew.

Want More Female-Authored Fiction?

The longlist for the 2022 Women’s Prize for Fiction was announced on International Women’s Day and contains a fantastic line-up on contemporary novels written by women. Past winners of the prize include Madeline Miller, Barbara Kingsolver, Tayari Jones, Ali Smith, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Zadie Smith, Helen Dunmore and Carol Shields, whilst this year’s shortlist features novels by Louise Erdrich, Ruth Ozeki, and Elif Shafak amongst others.

Dickens’ Birthday

7 Februarty 1812:

Dickens’ 210th birthday today, as good a reason as any to spend a thought or two on this outstanding writer. It’s even a platitude to say that the work of this most inventive of Victorian novelists has withstood the test of time (and shedloads of literary and autobiographical criticism to boot) and remains relevant, instructive and enjoyable to this day. Nothing could be a better reminder of Dickens’s art, of his extraordinary treatment of language, than the following excerpt from Oliver Twist of 1837-39, the foundational first of the whole host of new Realist Victorian novels to follow. As a fledgling text, this novel very much strikes us as experimental still, a laboratory of various narrative forms and styles, ranging from topical investigative journalism to educational journey, as in Bildungsroman, and allegorical morality tale.

The passage below shows Dickens’s full potential as narrative magician, with similar fireworks going off in all of his later novels. New Victorian Realism in full cry: London waking up in the in the early morning to the hustle and bustle of a crowded day… The reader wonders: who is talking? It is not Sikes, nor Oliver, who are walking across the stage here. When the prose heats up, the narrator does the vanishing act of much of later Modernist ‘free indirect discourse’. Whose consciousness is streaming here? Might it be that of the big city itself? I always ask myself in passages like this: was Dickens really in charge of his writing here, or was he being written (so-to-speak) by language that wants breaking out? One could say that langue is driving a coach and horses through the authorial project in sections like this….

Dr Martin Jesinghausen

From Oliver Twist,

Chapter 21: The Expedition.

It was a cheerless morning when they got into the street; blowing and raining hard; and the clouds looking dull and stormy. The night had been very wet: large pools of water had collected in the road: and the kennels were overflowing. There was a faint glimmering of the coming day in the sky; but it rather aggravated than relieved the gloom of the scene: the sombre light only serving to pale that which the street lamps afforded, without shedding any warmer or brighter tints upon the wet house-tops, and dreary streets. There appeared to be nobody stirring in that quarter of the town; the windows of the houses were all closely shut; and the streets through which they passed, were noiseless and empty.

By the time they had turned into the Bethnal Green Road, the day had fairly begun to break. Many of the lamps were already extinguished; a few country waggons were slowly toiling on, towards London; now and then, a stage-coach, covered with mud, rattled briskly by: the driver bestowing, as he passed, an admonitory lash upon the heavy waggoner who, by keeping on the wrong side of the road, had endangered his arriving at the office, a quarter of a minute after his time. The public-houses, with gas-lights burning inside, were already open. By degrees, other shops began to be unclosed, and a few scattered people were met with. Then, came straggling groups of labourers going to their work; then, men and women with fish-baskets on their heads; donkey-carts laden with vegetables; chaise-carts filled with live-stock or whole carcasses of meat; milk-women with pails; an unbroken concourse of people, trudging out with various supplies to the eastern suburbs of the town. As they approached the City, the noise and traffic gradually increased; when they threaded the streets between Shoreditch and Smithfield, it had swelled into a roar of sound and bustle. It was as light as it was likely to be, till night came on again, and the busy morning of half the London population had begun.

Turning down Sun Street and Crown Street, and crossing Finsbury square, Mr. Sikes struck, by way of Chiswell Street, into Barbican: thence into Long Lane, and so into Smithfield; from which latter place arose a tumult of discordant sounds that filled Oliver Twist with amazement.

It was market-morning. The ground was covered, nearly ankle-deep, with filth and mire; a thick steam, perpetually rising from the reeking bodies of the cattle, and mingling with the fog, which seemed to rest upon the chimney-tops, hung heavily above. All the pens in the centre of the large area, and as many temporary pens as could be crowded into the vacant space, were filled with sheep; tied up to posts by the gutter side were long lines of beasts and oxen, three or four deep. Countrymen, butchers, drovers, hawkers, boys, thieves, idlers, and vagabonds of every low grade, were mingled together in a mass; the whistling of drovers, the barking dogs, the bellowing and plunging of the oxen, the bleating of sheep, the grunting and squeaking of pigs, the cries of hawkers, the shouts, oaths, and quarrelling on all sides; the ringing of bells and roar of voices, that issued from every public-house; the crowding, pushing, driving, beating, whooping and yelling; the hideous and discordant dim that resounded from every corner of the market; and the unwashed, unshaven, squalid, and dirty figures constantly running to and fro, and bursting in and out of the throng; rendered it a stunning and bewildering scene, which quite confounded the senses.

Mr. Sikes, dragging Oliver after him, elbowed his way through the thickest of the crowd, and bestowed very little attention on the numerous sights and sounds, which so astonished the boy. He nodded, twice or thrice, to a passing friend; and, resisting as many invitations to take a morning dram, pressed steadily onward, until they were clear of the turmoil, and had made their way through Hosier Lane into Holborn.

Poe’s Birthday

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.

image courtesy of wikicommons

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

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.

Beat Poetry Day

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
                                        with unreality
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!

Conference on Architecture, Urbanism and Culture

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.

200th anniversary of the birth of Baudelaire

Charles Baudelaire - Wikipedia
Charles Baudelaire, 1821-1867 – the poet’s poet

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

The street 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;

Agile and 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.

A lightning flash… then night! Fleeting beauty
By whose glance I was suddenly reborn,
Will I see you no more before eternity?

Elsewhere, 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.

Staff Picks for World Poetry Day

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.

Lisa Mansell

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.

Detail
Eamon Grennan

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.

Hannah Stevens

A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London

Dylan Thomas

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.
Mark Brown

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

Thomas Hardy

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.

Margaret Leclere

World Poetry Day and in/fertility

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.

Layla Randle-Conde

Just

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.

World Poetry Day – the pandemic and social media

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’re restless.
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.

We’re restless.
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