This week, in 1956, Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems was published by City Lights in San Francisco.
This was a revolutionary collection of poems that connected Ginsberg’s poetic present to an American tradition that included Alt Whitman and William Carlos Williams, and also created the conditions for new forms of poetry.
Ginsberg was part of the group of writers who would come to be known as the Beat Generation – beaten down, the beat of the still marginal jazz music, beatific. 1957 would see the publication of other seminal (I use that word deliberately, as all of these texts have sex and sexuality as persistent and dominant themes) Beat texts – Kerouac’s On the Road in 1957 and Burroughs’ Naked Lunch in 1959.
Ginsberg and his fellow writers attempted a radical critique of their conformist, Cold War times. They did so by inheriting their ideas in, modified form, from the madmen and outlaws of the previous generation, to paraphrase Fitzgerald (who belonged to his own generation, the inter-war Lost Generation).
The Beats adapted their modes of expression to distance their work from the aesthetic orthodoxy: they introduced new rhythms and measures, new prose styles and vocabularies, new underworld themes and settings. Their work was to be spoken and heard, freeing it from the constraints of publishing and the academy.
Beat writers sought to expand consciousness – their own and that of their readers – through the experience and representation of travel, sex, drugs, Eastern mysticism and new literary forms; all of which appear in ‘Howl’.
‘Howl’ is a courageous response to the dominating passivity of the Cold War culture of conformity that succeeded the war, typified by the TV appearances of Senator McCarthy waving his evidence of communist infiltrators into American government.
Most people know the first lines:
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in
the machinery of night
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of
cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz
The poem is in 4 sections, including the later ‘Footnote’. This first section is a list of the fallen – Neil Cassidy, Burroughs, Kerouac, Naomi Ginsberg. They are American aesthetic and intellectual exiles whose joy, emotional and sexual appetites, hunger and despair set them apart from what has been termed ‘the republic of mere logic’.
In Part II, Ginsberg posits Moloch, a tyrannical Hebrew deity who demands child sacrifice, as the personification of the capitalism and uniform consumption, which banishes deviance, improvisation and spontaneity in all its forms.
Part III takes Carl Solomon, the lunatic saint who was inspiration and publisher to the Beats. ‘I am with you in Rockland’, Ginsberg declares – allying himself with the mental patient in the asylum (to employ the vocabulary of the time).
Part IV, or ‘Footnote’, is Ginsberg’s solution to the oppressions of his contemporary American culture and his attempt to escape from the rationality of the machine. Instead of Moloch, he proposes a society of spiritual grace which celebrates the sexual, behavioural, artistic and political deviances that Part I and Moloch seek to destroy – these then become ‘Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy….’. In Part I the soul, the spirit and the body are profane and transgressive, here they are spiritual and sacred. This reappraisal will result in a new American society that will accept Ginsberg and his friends who have previously been excluded.
Instead of embracing Ginsberg’s new poetic vision of citizenship – where deviance is holy – America banned his poem for obscenity.
In being taught how to read a text critically, the student learns how to see beyond what is presented on the page. That is, they may read the sentences that are written in black and white, but they will see the colour of socio-economic-historical contexts that frame the work in a time and place. Such a practice has a twofold benefit: the first is that it illuminates the text to show what treasures are nestled within; and the second is like it, that it illuminates the time and place in which the authors of those works lived and worked. This dual illumination stretches the imagination of the reader backwards and forwards, seeing the arc of change that has occurred over the years, and it is the literary critic who sets out to enable those changes to become more clearly recognised. The illumination of the past is that history is not always told as it should be, and the authors of the time help to bring true history to us, the illumination of the future is that we can see what the future may look like under the same arc, and these illuminate the present so that we recognise that we live in a moment of influence. That things were what they were is one thing, but things do not have to become what they appear to be heading towards. The track of our society can be given a junction to enable it to move in a new and better direction.
Yet for all that literary criticism does, there is an element of textual creation and engagement that stands alone — an element which illuminates the space around it in a completely unique manner. The element is noticeable whenever it is encountered, and undeniable to those who have experienced it. Such an element is readily available to see in places where old and precious books are displayed. One such place is the British Library, which displays works of great thinkers and creators from years gone by. There a visitor can see the First Folio of Shakespeare’s works, handwritten lyrics by John Lennon, manuscript paper of Mozart and the sketches of Da Vinci. These and more are housed in a gallery named ‘Treasures of the British Library’, which is as apt a name as could possibly be given to such a gallery.
As with all old books and manuscripts, the room has to be kept quite dim. The lights are not garish and brutal, but soft in a way that enables them to display the cases without causing too much damage to the things contained therein. Yet even for the room being in semi-darkness, there is an undeniable light that seems to shine from the very essence of the room, and which has a quality of staying with the one who views those works. The quality, or the element as it may also be called, is a difficult one to describe. It is a curious blend of these works being defining moments in the history of literature, the ways in which they have been crafted and the finality of them that makes them so appealing. That Austen sat down and wrote books that are still read two hundred years later, the original, neatly handwritten pages of which are shown clearly in a case, and that she will not write another ever again, cause an illumination to come to the text that cannot be emulated in any other fashion. Perhaps this is what Walter Benjamin meant when he spoke against reproduction of art. There is something more brilliant about seeing the original workmanship than could ever be attained by cratefuls of printed editions of those same books. The grandeur is not in the number of copies of the texts, but rather in the entirety of that person’s work and craft being contained by pen and ink on a handful of pages, and the enduring effects that those scribbles had. Though publishers will always seek sales, mere numbers hold no sway over the power of the original manuscript. Though literary criticism may help to bring context and understanding to a text, it stands separate from what the text in its own original manifestation can bring.
All this to say that when the Staffs Uni English students visited that room earlier this year, it was a sunny day. We exited the building, but there was a difference. On any other occasion, when exiting a building into sunlight, there is a point where the building appears very dark as the internal light pales in comparison to the brightness of the sun. Ordinarily, the dark building and the things within it are left behind as the person enters into glorious sunlight. But on this occasion the difference was that the building did not become dark. For behind us light was shining from the ‘Treasures’ gallery. And in some way, we didn’t leave that building and the things inside it behind, but we have taken it with us.
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:
Senior Lecturer in English and Creative
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.
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.
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.
an author and novel I return to over and again.
Senior Lecturer in English and Course
Director for Sound and Communication
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
More Female-Authored Fiction?
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’ 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
SeidelNew 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
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!
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.