Articles on this Page
- 01/18/13--06:33: _Guardian Books podc...
- 01/18/13--09:12: _Interview: Olwyn Hu...
- 01/18/13--09:16: _Interview: Elizabet...
- 01/18/13--12:00: _Guardian book club:...
- 01/18/13--13:00: _The Seacunny by Ge...
- 01/19/13--04:00: _The Healers
- 01/19/13--11:00: _The Overhaul by Kat...
- 01/20/13--03:34: _Sundance film festi...
- 01/21/13--02:30: _Lucretius, part 1: ...
- 01/21/13--03:27: _Poem of the week: T...
- 01/22/13--06:34: _Ruth Siverns obituary
- 01/22/13--08:29: _Richard Blanco's in...
- 01/22/13--08:41: _Sylvia Plath: 50 ye...
- 01/23/13--09:51: _James Franco: the a...
- 01/25/13--01:00: _Go Giants by Nick L...
- 01/25/13--01:30: _My Hero: Robert Burns
- 01/25/13--04:40: _Burns is not the on...
- 01/25/13--23:29: _Sharon Olds: Confe...
- 01/26/13--01:30: _Saturday poem: Bruc...
- 01/28/13--02:00: _Lucretius, part 2: ...
- 01/18/13--09:12: Interview: Olwyn Hughes, Sylvia Plath's literary executor
- 01/18/13--12:00: Guardian book club: Love Poems by Carol Ann Duffy
- 01/18/13--13:00: The Seacunny by Gerard Woodward – review
- 01/19/13--04:00: The Healers
- 01/19/13--11:00: The Overhaul by Kathleen Jamie – review
- 01/20/13--03:34: Sundance film festival 2013: Kill Your Darlings - first look review
- 01/21/13--03:27: Poem of the week: Tam O'Shanter by Robert Burns
- 01/22/13--06:34: Ruth Siverns obituary
- 01/22/13--08:29: Richard Blanco's inaugural poem for Obama is a valiant flop
- 01/23/13--09:51: James Franco: the actor who wrote a poem for Barack Obama
- 01/25/13--01:00: Go Giants by Nick Laird - review
- 01/25/13--01:30: My Hero: Robert Burns
- 01/25/13--04:40: Burns is not the only bard
- 01/25/13--23:29: Sharon Olds: Confessions of a divorce
- 01/28/13--02:00: Lucretius, part 2: all things are made of atoms | Emma Woolerton
Two hundred years after Pride and Prejudice was first published and 50 years after The Bell Jar first appeared in print, we look back to examine the legacy of Elizabeth Bennet and Esther Greenwood.
With women triumphing in every category of this year's Costa awards, Francesa Segal discuss her debut The Innocents, a novel that transports Edith Wharton's Age of Innocence to NW11.
The critic Sarah Churchwell joins us in the studio and argues that Austen's irony still exerts a powerful influence on the way we tell stories. The bravery with which Plath transforms material drawn from her own life has inspired women to tell the truth about their inner lives.
And in the week when the poet Sharon Olds won the TS Eliot prize with a collection exploring the pain of her divorce we hear from the award ceremony, where she performed two poems from Stag's Leap.
Ted Hughes's sister tells Sam Jordison how misrepresented she feels the story of her sister-in-law's death has been
Click here to read Elizabeth Sigmund's side of the story
I spoke to a number of Plath biographers and friends after speaking to Elizabeth Sigmund (including Al Alvarez, Carl Rollyson and Ronald Hyme). They confirmed the substance of what she said – in particular, that Plath had not wanted The Bell Jar to go out under her own name while her mother was still alive. Elizabeth also produced a scan of the letter from Charles Monteith explaining that Faber was unaware that those were Sylvia's wishes.
However, since it was almost 50 years after the event, and Faber were consequently unable to supply any further information, it became clear that the only person who really knew about the omission of the dedication to Elizabeth and her husband from the 1966 edition was Olwyn Hughes. Fortunately, she agreed to speak to me and set down her side of the story.
The following conversation comes verbatim, from my notes. I would just like to add that in spite of the force of many of her words, that Olwyn seemed good-humoured and peculiarly charming. It might help if you imagine the following spoken in a warm Yorkshire accent:
I want to ask about the name change on The Bell Jar?
She [Plath] was very worried about it because she thought it was going to upset her mother. It was a nightmare for her, actually. She got quite paranoid about it towards the end. And then she was disappointed when it came out and it didn't have a very good press.
Sorry, I meant the decision to actually use her name?
The decision to use her name was taken after her death, when everybody really seemed to know it was by her. Her friends all knew. There seemed no point in not publishing under her own name.
I've been speaking to Elizabeth Sigmund …
Oh God, have you? I mean gabble, gabble, gabble, gabble … Has she some new stories for you?
She was telling me about the dedication.
She [Plath] dedicated it to Elizabeth and her husband, because she didn't want the London lot to know – you know, her real friends. She didn't know Elizabeth very well, you know. Although according to Elizabeth … Anyway, we've had enough of Elizabeth … [Goes on to suggest that Elizabeth Sigmund's accounts of events were not always reliable.] What has she told you?
She was saying she was left off the 1966 edition …
Oh yes, that was a Faber error. She thought that was a terrible plot of Ted's. I don't know what that was about. It was just Faber left it off. These things happen in publishing.
She also said that she was sure that Sylvia Plath never wanted it published under her own name.
Well, yes. She didn't want to upset her mother. What it tells, The Bell Jar, is a watered down version of her own breakdown. And that was also very painful to her – quite apart from the fact that there's a passage in the book that's rather unpleasant for her mother to read, about the mother's snoring or something. Sylvia got very het up about the book because I think it was so self-revelatory. In a way she liked that – and in a way she didn't.
That's certainly what I think happened with Ariel– her whole trauma, her father's death upsurged. I think writing The Bell Jar provoked that … And all that traumatic material that came up in Ariel. I think it caused her a lot of aggro. She was a very agonised lady. She had to battle to live every day – as you might glean from The Bell Jar. When I read it after she died, I just wept.
But people don't realise. They didn't then, even. She didn't always show how troubled she was – but she had no inner calm at all. The Bell Jar deals with the beginnings of the trouble. Then she spent the rest of her life dreading its return.
The nonsense that has continued to be written about the story is shocking to me. Sylvia wasn't the innocent victim, or half so helpless as she's been made out to be. You just have to look at some of her poetry. She was just nasty in the last poem about her husband and father ["Daddy"]. She was vicious and I think a bit crazy. I watched her going through her torment and it was agony. But Ted was so taken with her. I don't know why. I don't know how she did it … Especially because I don't think that she could control the negativity in herself. You've got to remember the venom that Sylvia dished out.
I don't think anyone has taken into account how injurious the rubbish that's been written about her has been. What the feminists don't take into account was how much psychological trouble she was in. She was a very difficult woman with a very difficult personality. She was horribly unjust both to her mother and to Ted. And I'm sick of reading that he left her for Assia – that's all you get whenever his name is mentioned. Assia. But Ted didn't walk out.
It was actually a friend of Assia's who told Sylvia. She rang her up and thought maybe she was helping her, or wanted to warn her, or something, I don't know. But this person had no idea how on edge Sylvia was. That she wouldn't be able to cope with this information. And so when Ted next went down [to their house in Devon] she was in a rage and threw him out.
I wish the newspapers would get it right. He didn't even know that Sylvia would find out about Assia. He'd done everything he could to be very discreet. It was just one of those things … And of course Sylvia, when she did hear about it, it reminded her of all her terrors about abandonment and everything else. She wouldn't listen to anything but separation and divorce. But he didn't leave her for Assia. That's just not true. He was actually staying on friends' floors in London until he got a little place by himself. He certainly wasn't living with Assia.
Oh and she took all the money out of their bank account. She was a monster actually.
So what about changing the byline. How was that decision taken?
What people want after they're dead. That just goes. And nobody was going to be able to keep the secret about who wrote the book for decades. Besides it was a very good little novel.
She was disappointed when she was alive – she was worried about the Jennifer Dawson's novel The Ha-Ha– which was similar and got a lot more attention at the time. She hadn't the calm in her necessary to cope with it.
There was all that martyr talk, even after Ted's death … in America there were a couple of biographies that were terribly bad. They didn't take account of the fact that Ted had nursed the bloody woman for seven years. The patience that he had with her!
Of course, I didn't quite understand or realise that she was quite sick. We didn't know as much about psychology in those days. But let me tell you about one thing. Ted was meeting an old teacher once – and she just ran off. He had to run out onto the moors after her. She did that in front of his old teacher. Can you imagine? And he lived with it.
And when you read her journals – there were some very dark things in there … And there was a furore when they first came out that they were cut. And a few things were taken out – mainly at the request of her mother, but otherwise he did nothing. But there was this great furore and suggestion that there was an attempt to hide things. But what were the secrets?
Of course, nobody actually read the journals! They were too busy focusing on what they thought wasn't there. And if they did read it properly they'd have found a very damaged girl. A very mixed-up girl. You just had to look at the dreams she described. Her dreams were bad enough to spoil your own.
I understood then how powerful a grouping the feminists can be. And how it still goes on. This crap. No matter what goes on, you can't counter it. They just lie, and if they find themselves in the wrong, they just ignore it.
I'm collecting all the press I've got and giving it to Pembroke College. There was one thing, by someone from the Guardian that I found really upsetting … Katherine … I can't remember her name. All that martyr stuff. It was just a few days after Ted died that it came out and I thought aren't The Guardian ashamed of themselves? [We're unable to pin down the piece to which she's referring. There's an article by Katharine Viner on the Plath diaries from 2000, but this was 18 months after Hughes' death.]
I don't have any time for them, really the press. I don't normally talk to journalists.
I must be very fortunate ...
Hmm. Well. I wish you'd print what I actually say. You know I would love to talk to some journalist and they could take me seriously – and actually put down what I say. That would be the first time.
Sylvia Plath's friend tells Sam Jordison about her memories of getting caught up in a family's tragedy
Click here to read Olwyn Hughes's side of the story
Elizabeth Sigmund was a friend of Sylvia Plath's and, along with her husband David, a dedicatee of The Bell Jar when Plath first published it under the pseudonym of Victoria Lucas. She contacted The Guardian when we started our Reading group coverage of The Bell Jar, because she had a remarkable story to tell.
I spoke to her on the phone several times. Here's what she said:
"I first wrote to Ted and Sylvia when they'd done a piece on Radio 3 called 'Two Of A Kind' … They were speaking about how they were both writers and they had this baby daughter [Frieda] and how they had to take turns at writing and babysitting.
"My husband then, David Compton, was a writer of science fiction and stuff like that – and we lived in a thatched house in Devon, in Fairy Cross near Bideford. I was looking after our own children so I wrote to them and said: 'If you'd like a holiday in the country, you can come and stay with us. I'll look after Frieda along with my children and you three can go off and write.'
"My husband, who was a complete cynic, said: 'You stupid woman, they'll never answer'. And I didn't hear anything for a year. But then Ted wrote to me out of the blue and said, 'We too are living in a thatched house in Devon and we'd love you to come and have lunch.'
"So that's why we went down to Court Green and had lunch with them. David and Ted were talking about money – as always happens with authors – and Sylvia asked me what I did. I told her I did a bit of canvassing for the Liberal party. (The prospective candidate in that bit of Devon was Mark Bonham Carter.) And Sylvia rushed across to Ted and shook him by the shoulders and said: 'I've found a committed woman!' Which I thought was very funny when I thought about the small beer that the Liberal party was. But we talked quite a bit of politics … And then we saw them repeatedly. My son was the same age as Frieda, and it grew into a really close friendship."
Dream of rural life
"One time when I went round to lunch with her, Sylvia took me round the house and said, 'I want five children - that's where the boys will sleep and that's where the girls will sleep.' She was growing her vegetables and keeping her bees, and she had a beautiful flower garden. She brought onions and potatoes as presents. She was very sure that Ted was happy writing, and she was writing and they had a really lovely woman called Nancy who worked for her and kept the house clean and tidy. She was living a life that she thought was ideal.
"In one of the letters she wrote to me later, from London, after the break-up, she said: 'Ted comes around to visit the children, but I can't help sighing for lost Eden.' And I think that's what it was for her. It was a very idyllic life. She had no idea that there could be someone like Assia who would come and try – deliberately – to break it down … That's part of the reason if hit her so hard.
Assia Wevill and Ted Hughes began an affair while she was married to the poet David Wevill and he to Plath. Plath discovered the affair in July 1962. In 1969, six years after Plath's suicide, Wevill killed herself and her daughter, Shura, also using a gas oven.
"Fay Weldon knew Assia. They worked in an advertising agency together. She told Fay that she and her husband were going to stay with Ted and Sylvia – and she said I'm going to have an affair with him. She was boasting. She was a remarkably beautiful woman. She was extraordinary.
"And when Assia had been to stay with Ted – with them, she rang up to speak to Ted pretending she was a man, putting on a very deep voice. Of course Sylvia was not having that; she knew who it was. She called Ted to come down and he was very, very embarrassed. When he finished talking to Assia, Sylvia pulled the phone out of the wall.
"She came up to see me with Nick [Plath's second child with Hughes] in his carrycot, in floods of tears and said: 'He's a little man, he's lying to me, I can't bear it'. And she stayed the night with us.
"And that was really the beginning of our friendship and how close we were."
Sylvia the person
"She was very interested in politics. She thought a lot about the military industrial complex and weaponry and that sort of thing. She and I talked about nuclear weapons and were very much on the CND side. Somebody wrote about her when she took Frieda on an Aldermaston march when she was a baby. She was wrapped up very well because it was a cold day, but this person said it was irresponsible and unkind to take a baby out in such cold weather.
"I introduced her to Mark Bonham Carter. He used to go frequently and talk to her. He was very upset when she died.
"Sylvia and I had a lot in common – it amused us both. I remember looking through her books when she was alive and saying it's interesting: we both have Jung's Dreams, Memories and Reflections and we both have Dr Spock On Raising Children …
"What I didn't know until quite recently was that her father was suspected of being pro-Nazi. My father left us when I was five to join the Blackshirts, which seems to me a curious coincidence. Of course, we never talked about it, because it never came up.
"She was a very fascinating person, extremely funny and generous. She came on my birthday – 6 July 1962 – and brought me a homemade birthday cake. She made all my friends who were having tea with us laugh and laugh describing how she lay in bed and watched swallows stealing her thatch to make their nest.
"She was a very special person."
"She wrote to me and said, 'if you want I'll dedicate The Bell Jar to you, but it will be in a funny place because my decision has come rather late – opposite chapter one. Is that OK?' Of course, I said yes. But I didn't read it until she was dead. Which was quite dreadful. If I'd known her history I would have been much more wary of what might happen to her."
"I had a letter from her about four days before she died in which she said she was going to compere a poetry reading at the Roundhouse, she'd been invited to be on The Critics, and she'd be back at Court Green 'in time for my daffodils'. And she said: 'Thank God you're there.'"
"Then I went out on Sunday and got the Observer and there was their epitaph … I went to a friend's house and rang a friend and we were both crying on the phone saying 'what a dreadful, dreadful waste, what a dreadful thing'."
"Those last four days made a huge difference. I think from her letter to me she was beginning to find her feet in London, and to be a success. But in the last two or three days of her life, Ted's story Difficulties Of a Bridegroom was broadcast on the radio. All his friends would have heard it, and it was dreadful because he described driving to London and running over a hare … Well, Ted had always described her as being like a hare – as mystical and strange, a creature aligned with the moon. And in this play her runs over a hare, takes it to a butcher gets the money and buys some roses for his mistress … It's dreadful to think that she heard it.
"Also, I believe that she found out that Assia was pregnant. That would have really, really hit her … she thought that somehow she was safe so long as Assia was – as she described her in her poetry – a woman with a marble womb where no fish swims. She wanted to have that safety, that she was the only one with children. And she had flu, and the weather was dreadful … and it was just all too much."
"She was writing right up to the end. I didn't know about that of course; until it was published I didn't see any of it. It was so awful to read - the moon … her hood of bone - awful poems, desperate poems. It was terrible to read them; I still find it hard. I find it hard to relive that time and to talk about her, too. But it's got to be done."
Sigmund Elizabeth is convinced that Plath would not have wanted The Bell Jar to be published under her own name while her mother was still alive. She also feels that Olwyn Hughes, the sister of Ted who became Plath's literary agent and executor after her death, caused the dedication to be taken out of the first Faber edition so she (Sigmund) wouldn't be able to speak to the press about the name change.
"Faber published The Bell Jar in 1966, with Ted and Olwyn Hughes's agreement, under Sylvia's name. And of course she'd always said that she never wanted it to be published under her own name because it would hurt so many people, including her mother.
"Also they cut out the dedication.
"I wrote to the TLS and said that I was very sad to see this because it was extremely precious to us. You know, from a very dear friend. And that I couldn't understand why such a reputable firm had done it. And Charles Monteith [the longstanding chairman of Faber] then wrote to me and said that he was really sorry – they didn't notice this. I don't believe they didn't notice it, because it was directly opposite chapter one. Couldn't miss it. Anyway.
"They put it back again in 1974 and reinstated the dedication. I can only think that Ted and Olwyn wanted them to cut it out because they didn't want anyone who knew Sylvia to have any contact with the press … And the press would have got onto that quickly.
"Olwyn Hughes, as I see it, I'm afraid is the fly in the ointment. She wrote to me about it, saying that Faber were 'probably trying to save a sheet of paper'. But when I put this to Charles Monteith he wrote back and said:
'I'm a little surprised, I confess, at some of Olywn's remarks. Particularly her remark that Faber were "probably trying to save a sheet of paper in their design of the book" which seems to me to be completely meaningless. I certainly never heard that Sylvia had expressed a wish that The Bell Jar should never be published under her own name. When we published it posthumously under Sylvia's real name, we did so with the express consent of Ted and Olwyn Hughes.'
"So there you've got it in black and white. But he doesn't explain how they came to cut the dedication out.
"There are two sides to this of course. Because it was a brilliant book, one is glad that it was credited to her. But also, you have to regard her wishes. If she said that so definitely: that she didn't want to hurt people's feelings, by having it published under her own name … I certainly think that Ted and Olwyn should have mentioned that – because Ted certainly knew. And then Faber would have had to make up their minds. But for Monteith to say that he'd certainly never heard that – it just seems that they were keeping it from Faber."
"What did Sylvia think of Olwyn? I hardly dare say. She said that Olwyn was absolutely obsessed with Ted. When they were first married she used to go and bang on their door early in the morning and say: 'You ought to be taking care of your guest. I haven't even had a cup of tea.'
"When Sylvia went up to stay with his parents and Olwyn was there, Olwyn was very affronted because the Hughes family treated Sylvia as if she were something special; being an American was regarded as very special. Sylvia was voicing her opinion about something and Olwyn got up and said: 'You're not the daughter in this family, I am and I wish you'd shut up.' And that was the first time Sylvia really knew that Olwyn hated her.
"When Sylvia died Ted knew that Olwyn hated her and he appointed her as the sole executor for her work. She was appointed as the agent for Ted and for Sylvia.
"It's a very tortured story I'm afraid."
"After Sylvia was dead, I saw him on his own and he was guilt-stricken and felt absolutely dreadful. He said: 'It doesn't fall to many men to murder a genius,' and gave me the book. But he was referring to her poetry more than The Bell Jar, I think. He looked absolutely wretched, like a beaten dog. He said: 'I hear the wolves howling all night' – because you know they're quite near Regents Park – 'which seems appropriate'.
"He asked us to go and live in Court Green because he wanted to sell it. He couldn't bear to go back. He said: 'The house is full of ghosts.'
"So we thought about it very hard and we agreed to go and live there. That was a really extraordinary experience, being in the house with her clothes there. And then he wanted to come back and live there after all …
"We bought a house in the village. It sounds odd but we kept a relationship with them. And with the children. Because Sylvia had said to me, when she was crying that night, 'if anything happens to me, you'll always stay close to the children, won't you?' I said nothing is going to happen – but of course I would. So I tried my best.
"It was obvious that at that stage, when she'd had such a big shock, that she thought about the bell jar again, coming down over her. I suppose she thought that there was always the possibility that she would take her own life. But then she got over that stage. Until the end.
"One of the reasons she felt so comfortable with me was that I had no designs on Ted. And I wasn't a literary or academic threat. I was just a friends of hers. Whereas a lot of people who were friends with her were friends with Ted.
"That's not to say I didn't like him. He was Yorkshire and I was Lancashire. We had something in common, you see, which made us friends. When he was just a friend, instead of being sought by women, he was a very nice bloke. But it was as if he was incapable of saying 'no' to the these women who gathered around him. He never tried anything with me – because neither of us were interested … I was Sylvia's friend and he knew that.
"When I think about it, I don't know what he was … Weak and stupid. But there was something about him that did fascinate people. Especially women. He was the most attractive man I've ever seen – I didn't feel it myself, but I saw the attraction. I saw it because I observed it.
"He was human. Once he took me and the children onto Dartmoor for a drive – there was a wonderful sky – it was dark and then there was a break in the clouds and right away Ted said: 'That's the eye of God.' It was magical. On those occasions, he was a nice person."
Hopes for 2013's anniversary
"I hope that people will concentrate on the brilliance of her work. And not constantly talk about her troubles, which were dreadful. Remember her as a living poet – not concentrate on her death."
A subject that challenges the resources of verse
Carol Ann Duffy is often praised (or occasionally dispraised) for her accessibility, and this is a matter of language as well as subject matter. When her poems ask us to recognise common experiences they are not afraid of using common combinations of words. Her poem "Twinned", for instance, takes the comically familiar idea of town twinning – a modern municipal vanity – as a metaphor for the giddy feeling that a person in love inhabits a related, but different place from the one in which they normally live. The ordinariness of the metaphor is signalled by the first line, which deploys a well-worn idiom. "I have been wined and dined / in the town with which this one is twinned". How appropriately easy is that opening cliché, which signals that the speaker has been indulged in a way that cannot last.
The language of Carol Ann Duffy's Love Poems is often close to the sentences and phrases that we ordinarily use and that we wear thin. This fact can be felt as hampering, for, whether enraptured or disappointed, a lover traditionally yearns for poetic phrasing. In "Syntax", the poet does not wish to say "I love you" but thinks of the better words of Renaissance love poets. "I want to say / thee, I adore, I adore thee". In "The Love Poem", lines and half-lines from great works intrude into Duffy's own, as if the poet were setting a quiz: "my mistress' eye … let me count the ways … come live with me … one hour with thee …". She likes fine phrasing as much as the next (or the last) love poet, and hangs her own metaphors on these tags.
But she usually comes back to well-known idioms. Geoffrey Hill has said that Duffy's mission seems to be "to humanise the linguistic semantic detritus of our particular phase of oligarchical consumerism". (His own verbose wording here being designedly as far removed from the demotic as he can manage). Hill's judgement is a criticism: he thinks Duffy's mission is futile. The linguistic "detritus" of a consumer age is not worth bothering about, let alone delighting in. It is true that some of Duffy's poems contemplate the reduction of language to abbreviated elements, experiencing feelings that are the more powerful for the inadequate linguistic means available. "Text" is about texting the person you love, and the charge that this gives to the messages you receive (those "small xx" that are the sign – of what?). But love makes the most reduced language both expressive and inadequate.
Language is often Duffy's subject matter in these poems, for love calls upon it to do impossible things. "Love is a look / In the eyes of any language". Not so much what words say as what we intuit from them. Yet a poem can bring life to almost dead bits of language by using them in unexpected ways. A poem about rereading love letters contemplates, like the imagined reader of such letters, the embarrassment of some words: Darling, always. So the poem itself appropriately plays with clichés: "their own recklessness written all over them … / Private jokes, no longer comprehended, pull their punchlines, / fall flat in the gaps between endearments". The language of these letters is, in retrospect, absurd – but compelling.
Love challenges the resources of poetry, for has it not been said before, and is it not all so obvious? "I am no one special" says the speaker of "Deportation", with a small jolt applying that evasive idiom used of others ("Who was it on the phone?" "No one special") to her – or himself. "I want you and you are not here," begins another poem, baldly summarising in an uninteresting sentence a whole subgenre of romantic poetry. Duffy gives a new twist to the poetic lover's eloquent declaration that words are not up to the job of representing passion. "I am in love with you and this // is what it is like or what it is like in words".
The phrase you have often heard before can have a sharp edge of sarcasm. In "Adultery" the poet depicts the heady drama of infidelity through a series of highly charged metaphors, but then bitterly reaches for a banal phrase for sexual excitement. "Turn on your beautiful eyes // for a stranger who's dynamite in bed, again / and again". Verse, as even Geoffrey Hill might acknowledge, is good at reanimating the hackneyed phrase, the inevitable combination of words. In "To the Unknown Lover", the poet pretends to be resistant to the thought of any future lover – "Be handsome, beautiful, drop-dead / gorgeous, keep away" – and the line break discovers that other, dismissive idiom (Drop dead!) preserved within our strange modern cliché for irresistible attractiveness. (Who first ever used the phrase drop-dead gorgeous?) The unresourceful idioms that the speaker uses let us hear how unconvincing she (or he) must be. "Read my lips. No way. OK?" She protests too much when she has to use such debased coinage. "Get lost. / Get real. Get a life. Keep schtum". It's all been said before.
Join Carol Ann Duffy for a discussion of her Love Poems on Wednesday 13 February at 7pm, Hall Two, Kings Place, London N1 9AG. Tickets £11.50/£9.50. www.kingsplace.co.uk
A note of immovable discord permeates a new collection by Gerard Woodward
Michael Donaghy wrote that having a tattoo done required "a whim of iron". Gerard Woodward, who in The Seacunny joins the ranks of Donaghy's elegists, plays on such a notion of whimsy in "Cow Tipping", where the possibility of tipping over a field of cows by night is explored. The act might require the lightest of touches, making "the whole blue field collapse / Into nothing but shadows / on the grass", but the poem concludes by abandoning the project: "Forget it. And none of this is true anyway."
Among various things going on here, Woodward seems to include his own poem in a critique of the joyless, insistent whimsy with which contemporary poetry is over-supplied, whereby conceits seek unsuccessfully for a transcendent exit from themselves. In this case the author does the reader the favour of giving up first. As Woodward remarks in "Hanging", a poem addressed to Donaghy, "Well, it's all about taking liberties / Isn't it, this business?"
Readers of Woodward's novels, such as the wonderful I'll Go to Bed at Noon, will recognise certain tones here. Woodward's comedy is of an unaccommodated kind: when the yawning void has been exposed, whatever domesticity the poems might seek to fall back on proves to be a series of false floors through which they go on patiently, observantly falling. This enables Woodward to deal near-fatal blows to various other contemporary genres, even as he perfects them.
There is, for example, the elaborated list poem, as in "The Lights" (paired here with "The Electricity Gallery"): "thick-stemmed / Candle bulbs, screw-in spotlights / (Three different sizes), with their misted / Corneas, pearly bulbs with bayonet fittings, /Two roseate forty-watters that do their thing / Beneath the faux logs of the electric fire …" Readers quickly know these things for grave-goods. We are headed for the dark: the only questions are how and when we shall get there. Woodward in this instance favours something akin to a shaggy-dog story. If he were a stage comedian, he would be like Tommy Cooper – relentless, irresistible, infecting the audience with spores of incurable daftness.
Woodward remembers Donaghy as a comedian of a different sort: "You greeted me with your conjuror's handshake / And told a long. Complicated, unfunny / But brilliant joke which, like the handshake, /Was a way of drawing the unravelled string / Of our tension into a ball that would fit / Easily into your pocket." Both here and in the next, final stanza, Woodward resists a certain kind of completeness in favour of a more tentative and unsparing response, the laughter hesitant and complicated. This also holds true of the elegy for his one-time editor, the poet Mick Imlah, who would mimic hurling a book like a cricket ball from the deep, or sprint away with it like a rugby back "With a man over and forty yards to the line". It is the boyish awkwardness of such gestures from the normally graceful Imlah that arrests the poet's attention.
The most ambitious of the elegies, "Brambles", in memory of Peter Redgrove, takes a different approach by acting out a Redgrovian process of re-absorption into the natural world. Worn out from trudging around Manchester, the speaker comes on unripe brambles in a railway cutting, and by a process of brilliantly grotesque intensification akin to Brian Aldiss's terrifying novel Hothouse, imagines being eaten by the plants to protect their emergent fruit. They would "strip me down to a drifting core /Of spirit, wardrobe my flesh in leafy wardrobes, / And have the wasps and flesh-flies paddle in my blood on its platters, / Then those Salomes to come in the heel of summer / When they take the heads of the fruit in which I'm implicated, / To fill their Kwik Save carrier bags with gore …" Just as he refuses to be sentimentally "the same" as Donaghy and Imlah, Woodward is compelled, as Redgrove seems on the whole not to have been, to see a Richard Dadd-like dimension of horror in the seething, waste-free processes of nature, and to make no claims at all at the end of the poem: "And the promise of my bleeding again in afternoons to come, / Lying painlessly wounded on the back of a child's finger, / Mistaken for blood and kissed away."
The Seacunny is a diverse book, and yet its focus is often domestic – a series of philosophical proofs of the existence of poodles stands next to an account of the difficulty of telling actual bears apart from people wearing bear-suits ("Get off, you cunt!"). If this sounds like whimsy creeping in unnoticed, the effect is by no means cuddly. There is also at times an atmosphere of immovable discord, a house literally divided, as in "Flatland", or doomed ("Life in a House to Be Demolished") but in the meantime occupied by a herd of offended cows. The invention rarely flags (a cube-shaped planet, fake Assyrian laws regarding the treatment of oxen, a transvestite found in disarray in a supermarket), and although the impression grows that we may have fallen into the hands of a madman whose conception of meaning is so alien from the norm as to be finally unfathomable, it would be unwise to infer that this is necessarily a bad thing. Woodward is an original.
• Sean O'Brien's November is published by Picador.
By Sharon Olds
winner of the TS Eliot Best Collection of 2012 prize
When they say, If there are any doctors aboard,
would they make themselves known, I remember when my then
husband would rise, and I would get to be
the one he rose from beside. They say now
that it does not work, unless you are equal.
And after those first thirty years,
I was not the one he wanted to rise from
or return to - not I but she who would also
rise, when such were needed. Now I see them,
lifting, side by side, on wide,
medical, wading-bird wings - like storks with the
doctor bags of like-loves-like
dangling from their beaks. Oh well. It was the way
it was, he did not feel happy when words
were called for, and I stood.
Kathleen Jamie's spare verse is both in tune with nature and at home with itself
Kathleen Jamie's The Overhaul is easy to overlook (as I did when it came out towards the end of last year) because although attentive, it is in no way attention-seeking. This is its power and, although the least vainglorious poet imaginable, Jamie has been scooping up prizes (most recently the Costa award for this collection). Her poetry is to be admired as one might a winter garden for its outline, clarity and light. Her writing is spare: words work hard and are not encouraged to put on fancy dress or show off. Thrift is her strength and an effortlessness that cannot be achieved without effort. One feels that if it were possible to write poems without language, she would be content. What she is after is the unmediated – nothing, including words, must get in the way of what she sees.
Reading the collection is, on one level, the equivalent of taking a Scottish walk, observing birds, deer, sheep and the sea. She lives in Fife and this collection is, one assumes, a Fife littoral. Along the way there is many a Celtic word (some have to be got over like stiles): teind, teuchit, fank, bothy … and it occurs to me that her poems are themselves like bothies: shelters for their readers.
By Jamie's standards, Moon is one of the collection's more fanciful poems. But I love the image of the moon as an elegant traveller with a "small valise of darkness" – not to mention scholarly pretensions, considering the bookcase, encouraging the books to confess. It is Jamie herself who opens up in the end. And as moon and mother collide, there is something biblical about the "unto" in the last line that gives the confession a stiffness that insures against sentimentality.
These poems ask how the world accommodates us and Jamie puzzles over how animals, birds and people know their places. In a wonderful poem, Ospreys – part of a sonnet sequence – she marvels at their long-haul flight from Senegal to Scotland and wonders, as they return to last year's battered nests, whether it was worth it:
there'll be a few glad whispers round town today:
that's them, baith o' them, they're in.
The ordinary warmth of this is moving and characteristic.
She applies the same sympathy to the lives of flowers – skilfully avoiding whimsy. In Roses, she considers the brief life of a rose and competition from rival roses: "'I haggle for my little/ portion of happiness',/ says each flower, equal, in the scented mass." In Avowal, she makes a tender comedy of the bluebell's helpless acquiescence, answering all inquiries with an "undemurring yes!" In another excellent poem, she takes the part of a spider, describing it memorably as a "slub in the air's weave". Slub – the accidental knot in the yarn – was not a word I knew and now one I shall cherish.
Jamie has said this is a collection about midlife. If so, it does not describe a midlife crisis but registers the importance of stopping, midstream, to reflect. And she finds a cheering equivalent to the middle-aged person in The Overhaul, the title poem, as she considers a boat named the Lively, above the waterline, awaiting… an overhaul.
… but hey, Lively,
it's a time-of-life thing,
it's a waiting game –
This is advice – as these fine, unhurried poems show – she does not need to apply to herself.
This Beat generation film - starring Daniel Radcliffe as Allen Ginsberg - hammers out a surprisingly complex and satisfying rhythm, with just the odd dud note
Films about the Beat generation are all too often made for kudos by well-meaning but not so well-read dilettantes who simply want to advertise their often misguided interest in the this now-infamous bohemian group of writers. Kill Your Darlings, though, is the real deal, a genuine attempt to source the beginning of America's first true literary counterculture of the 20th century. It doesn't resemble Paul Thomas Anderson's film in style but an alternative title could easily be There Will Be Blood, since it is about the way fate can be determined in the crucible of violence, via a little-known but, in its own intimate way, galvanising moment in modern, but now fast-fading, literary history.
It begins in the early 40s, with Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) surprising his poet father with the news that he has been accepted into New York's Columbia University. His mother's mental issues have forced him to grow up fast but Ginsberg is still unworldly, and a chance meeting with fellow student Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan) opens his eyes to a world of strong drugs, freeform jazz and, most confusing of all, sex. Carr is a guru of sorts, giving Ginsberg new and subversive ideas about art and literature, but behind him at all times hovers the spectre of David Kammerer (Michael C Hall), a much older man – an obsessed and mysterious "guardian angel" – who cannot let him go.
That Carr would one night murder Kammerer is will documented in all useful Beat biographies, but director John Krokidas really gives substance to this still-fascinating story, not simply by recounting it but giving it some much-needed context. Like Kammerer, the young Ginsberg becomes sexually fixated on Carr too, but Krokidas smartly doesn't use this as a gay awakening story (as he would have every right to do), rather as a turning point in this wide-eyed, middle-class boy's life. Which turns out to be the film's beauty; Krokidas perfectly isolates the Carr-Kammerer affair as a milestone in Beat history, forcing the three key players – Ginsberg and writers Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston) and William S Burroughs (Ben Foster) – to question their place in history and society.
Inevitably for a Beat story, the women don't have too much to do, but Krokidas rather beautifully undermines the overly male nature of this world by firmly setting the high-faluting ideals of the tough-talking but, let's face it, largely draft-dodging Beats against the brutal context of the second world war. He also resists the temptation to divide the group's protean sexuality into gay and straight, instead portraying events as a kind of underground Big Bang that sent Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs off to their respective parts of the literary universe.
Best of all, though, it creates a true sense of energy and passion, for once eschewing the clacking of typewriter keys to show artists actually talking, devising, and ultimately daring each other to create and innovate. And though it begins as a murder-mystery, Kill Your Darlings may be best described as an intellectual moral maze, a story perfectly of its time and yet one that still resonates today.
The subject of Lucretius's six-book poem De Rerum Natura was not war, love, myth or history – it was atomic physics
Lucretius (full name Titus Lucretius Carus) lived in the first half of the century BC, probably from 99 to 55 BC. He overlapped chronologically with the political titan Cicero (who had read and admired Lucretius's work), and wrote during the tumultuous times that led, in the period after his death, to the collapse of the Roman republic and the establishment of the Roman emperors. His only work is De Rerum Natura, a six-book poem of roughly 7,500 lines, the beauty and power of which inspired allusion (the most literary form of flattery) and outright tribute in his more famous Roman poetic successors, including Virgil and Ovid. He wrote in a register of Latin that was self-consciously poetic, with occasional use of archaic vocabulary, and in the metre that since Homer had been the rhythm of epic heroes. But his subject was not, as we might expect, war, love, myth or history; it was atomic physics.
The title of his work reveals the ambition: De Rerum Natura is variously translated as "The nature of things", "On the nature of things" and "On the nature of the universe", a poem to explain the entire world around us. The choice of poetry as a medium for discussing and (as is Lucretius's stated aim) teaching physics might seem bizarre to us, but Lucretius did have some precedent in the pre-Socratic philosophers, who tried to explain the physics of the world, as several wrote in verse; most notably (for Lucretius), Empedocles had written a work, On Nature, setting out his physical theory (he believed everything was made from the four elements). The idea of a Latin poem about atomic physics jars us, however, not just because we don't naturally associate physics with verse, but because when someone mentions atoms, we tend to think of large hadron colliders rather than togas.
Several centuries before Lucretius was writing, however, some Greek thinkers had come to the conclusion that, if the world were actually to be able to exist as we perceive it, it would need to be made of some form of microscopic stuff that was in some way permanent. Atom literally means "indivisible"; Democritus and Leucippus first set out the idea of indivisible things (in response to ideas about the seeming paradoxes of divisibility most famously proposed by Zeno) in the 5th century BC. During the period that saw Alexander the Great rise to power, a Greek called Epicurus adopted and adapted that atomic theory for a very specific purpose: the promotion of human happiness.
"Epicurean" is a word that to modern ears implies (if anything) behaviour we don't tend to connect with modern physics: epicurean.com, for example, is "For food and wine lovers", and calling someone an Epicurean has, since at least the time of Milton, meant calling them an indulgent pleasure seeker to some degree. That meaning comes from the fact that Epicurus's philosophy is, at its heart, a hedonistic, or pleasure-seeking, creed; however, Epicurus believed that the greatest pleasure was simply to be free from mental distress, and that the surefire route to such a de-stressed soul was understanding atomic physics.
Lucretius tells us that Epicurus's belief in the human need for science was rooted in compassion: he looked around and saw a world full of people cringing in fear and dread of the wrath of the gods, as expressed via random phenomena such as lightning and earthquakes, which he aimed to teach them were in fact purely natural disasters (the legal shorthand "act of god" would have had his hackles rising). It was to appease that soul-crushing fear that Epicurus turned the atomic theory of Democritus and Leucippus into a means to provide a physics-based rationale of the world around us: if we understand the physics, we will see that we have nothing to fear from the gods. Epicureans were not atheists, but believed that the gods had no interest in humanity or our world. Lucretius' mission is to explain that physics in beautiful poetry, to make it more understandable and more palatable to his readership than its occasional philosophical obscurity might otherwise be.
Richard Feynman said that the sentence that contained the most scientific information in the fewest words was "all things are made of atoms". De Rerum Natura gives us that basic of physics, and a lot more besides: refutations of rival theories, explanations of mirrors and magnets, reasons not to fear death, some strong words about the folly of love, a mini-survey of human history and a range of causes for celestial and meteorological phenomena. Lucretius shows us the existence of invisible particles via the visible reality of the world around us, bombarding his reader with arguments and examples, to bring us what he believes is the truth of the universe and the key to contentment.
To mark the Bard's birthday week, one of his own favourites, describing a celidh to remember
This week, the Scottish Bard's birthday will be celebrated around the world, and what better relish to accompany your dram of usquabae than the mock-heroic, hero-mocking "Tam o'Shanter, a Tale", said to have been Burns's own favourite among his poems. It's a substantial feast of 224 lines, so I've chosen an extract, some verses from the climax of the narrative.
Burns wrote it for his friend Francis Grose, who had asked for a few lines to accompany the illustration of Alloway Kirk intended for volume two of his book The Antiquities of Scotland. Burns remembered the Ayrshire tale from his boyhood. A farmer from Carrick, detained after a long market-day, rides his mare home in the early hours, his course unavoidably passing by the haunted Alloway Kirk. Through the brightly-lit church windows he watches a demonic ceilidh, with Old Nick himself playing the pipes. One young witch, dancing in an under-slip too short for her, so impresses the farmer that he shouts, "Weel luppen, Maggy wei' the short sark!" – with the result that the demonic crew rounds on him and gives furious chase. In the poem, Burns changes the witch's name to Nannie Dee, and gives her an inspired nickname, having the irrepressible Tam call out "Weel done, Cutty-sark" ("Well-done, Mini-skirt!" in rough modern translation). Cutty-sark gave her name and figurehead to the Clyde-built tea-clipper and "tam o'shanter" (the surname probably derived from the Scots noun, mishanter) entered the language to denote a flat-crowned woollen hat with a pom-pom. Poetic immortality can take some strange twists and turns.
A clever exposition sets the scene of booze and bonhomie but works up a few Gothic expectations with warnings about "the mosses, waters, slaps and styles / That lie between us and our hame." After that, it's impossible to resist following the tale to – well, the tail-end – which, for the benefit of new readers, I won't divulge.
Among the sprightly innovations of the narrative, the way it frequently engages directly with Tam is especially piquant. There's no doubt Burns loves the character he has invented. He scolds Tam near the beginning for not heeding his wife's advice and here, in the third segment of our extract, where Tam stares transfixed by the "rigwoodie hags", challenges his taste in women. It's a chance for a sexual boast, too: if the witches had been handsomer, the narrator asserts, he'd have lent them his own once-plush "breeks".
Burns is always conscious of his readers. He draws us into the joke, whatever our gender, because the joke is ultimately on human frailty. His laughter is never cruel, his occasional deliveries of homely wisdom never self-righteous. The poem is not without moments of pathos, and may even have given its first readers a shudder or two in its gleeful summary of the "horrible and awefu',/ Which even to name wad be unlawfu'…" but there's never a doubt that the comic spirit presides. The rhymed tetrameter couplet seems the perfect vehicle for such uniquely rollicking irony. Burns's pace is carefully varied – headlong when it needs to be, sometimes reined-in, but never lacking momentum – and the Scots-English diction is unco' rich, packing the lines with colloquial grittiness and dense harmonies. Enjoy!
From Tam o'Shanter, a Tale
Inspiring bold John Barleycorn!
What dangers thou canst make us scorn!
Wi' tippeny, we fear nae evil;
Wi' usquabae, we'll face the devil!—
The swats sae ream'd in Tammie's noddle,
Fair play, he car'd na deils a boddle.
But Maggie stood right sair astonish'd,
Till, by the heel and hand admonish'd,
She ventured forward on the light;
And, vow! Tam saw an unco sight!
Warlocks and witches in a dance;
Nae cotillion brent new frae France,
But hornpipes, jigs, strathspeys, and reels,
Put life and mettle in their heels.
A winnock-bunker in the east,
There sat auld Nick, in shape o' beast;
A towzie tyke, black, grim, and large,
To gie them music was his charge:
He screw'd the pipes and gart them skirl,
Till roof and rafters a' did dirl.—
Coffins stood round, like open presses,
That shaw'd the dead in their last dresses;
And by some devilish cantraip slight
Each in its cauld hand held a light.—
By which heroic Tam was able
To note upon the haly table,
A murderer's banes in gibbet airns;
Twa span-lang, wee, unchristen'd bairns;
A thief, new-cutted frae a rape
Wi' his last gasp his gab did gape;
Five tomahawks, wi' blude red-rusted;
Five scymitars, wi' murder crusted;
A garter, which a babe had strangled;
A knife, a father's throat had mangled,
Whom his ain son o' life bereft,
The grey hairs yet stack to the heft;
Wi' mair o' horrible and awefu',
Which even to name wad be unlawfu'.
As Tammie glow'rd, amaz'd, and curious,
The mirth and fun grew fast and furious:
The piper loud and louder blew;
The dancers quick and quicker flew;
They reel'd, they set, they cross'd, they cleekit,
Till ilka carlin swat and reekit,
And coost her duddies to the wark,
And linket at it in her sark!
Now, Tam, O Tam! had thae been queans,
A' plump and strapping in their teens,
Their sarks, instead o' creeshie flannen,
Been snaw-white seventeen hunder linnen!
Thir breeks o' mine, my only pair,
That ance were plush, o' gude blue hair,
I wad hae gi'en them off my hurdies,
For ae blink o' the bonie burdies!
But wither'd beldams, auld and droll,
Rigwoodie hags wad spean a foal,
Lowping and flinging on a crummock,
I wonder didna turn thy stomach.
But Tam kend what was what fu' brawlie,
There was ae winsome wench and wawlie,
That night enlisted in the core,
(Lang after kend on Carrick shore;
For mony a beast to dead she shot,
And perish'd mony a bony boat,
And shook baith meikle corn and bear,
And kept the country-side in fear:)
Her cutty sark, o' Paisley harn,
That while a lassie she had worn,
In longitude tho' sorely scanty,
It was her best, and she was vauntie.—
Ah! little kend thy reverend grannie,
That sark she coft for her wee Nannie,
Wi' twa pund Scots, ('twas a' her riches),
Wad ever grac'd a dance of witches!
But here my Muse her wing maun cour;
Sic flights are far beyond her pow'r;
To sing how Nannie lap and flang,
(A souple jade she was, and strang),
And how Tam stood, like ane bewitch'd,
And thought his very een enrich'd;
Even Satan glowr'd, and fidg'd fu' fain,
And hotch'd an blew wi' might and main:
Till first ae caper, syne anither,
Tam tint his reason a' thegither,
And roars out, 'Weel done, Cutty-sark!'
And in an instant all was dark:
And scarcely had he Maggie rallied.
When out the hellish legion sallied.
Tippeny – ale at tuppence a pint
boddle – a worthless coin
brent new– brand new
towzie tyke– ragged mongrel,
gart them skirl– made them shriek
cleekit – linked arms
carlin – witch
queans– young girls
creashie flannen– greasy flannel
crummock – crook
fu' brawlie– full well
coft – bought
fidg'd fu' fain – twitched with excitement
hotch'd – fidgeted
tint – lost
Young fiancee of Philip Larkin and inspiration for some of his early poetry
Ruth Siverns, who has died aged 85, was engaged to the poet Philip Larkin from 1948 until 1950 and inspired some of his most significant early poems. When he took up the post of librarian in Wellington, Shropshire, in 1943, Larkin was 21 and Ruth Bowman, as she then was, was a schoolgirl of 16. She recalled that, with his nervous stammer and the glamour of an Oxford degree, he dazzled her. They roamed the town and Ercall wood, reciting poetry to each other. The relationship was cemented when she stole a copy of Yeats's poems from her school for him.
At Oxford, Larkin had run the imaginative gamut of sex and gender: from DH Lawrence to Théophile Gautier; from WH Auden to Dorita Fairlie Bruce. In the months before his move to Wellington, he had written a girls' school story, Trouble at Willow Gables, under a "lesbian" pseudonym. Now, still a virgin, he found himself entangled with a real, serious-minded schoolgirl, whose vulnerability was accentuated by a slight limp. For all his complexities, ingenuous empathy was fundamental to his character, and he became deeply involved.
Their first sexual encounter was prompted two years later, in 1945, by Ruth's imminent departure to read English at King's College London. But the example of his own parents made Larkin reluctant to marry. The following year, after accepting a deputy librarianship in University College, Leicester, he attempted to persuade himself into commitment through poetry.
Wedding-Wind, a dramatic monologue in the voice of an ecstatic farmer's wife on her wedding morning, is a key poem in his oeuvre, and one of the earliest-written of the works that would be published in his first mature collection, The Less Deceived (1955). As therapy, however, it failed. Ruth feared she had become pregnant, and he retreated into stubborn misogamy. Following his father's death in 1948, Larkin made a bid for maturity by proposing marriage. But he was unable to abandon the "glittering loneliness" which he needed in order to write. The final break came after much anguish in 1950 when he moved to a post at the library in Queen's University Belfast.
In Belfast, he wrote the poignantly regretful No Road. Leaves drift unswept, grass creeps unmown, but the road still stands clear: "... so little overgrown. / Walking that way tonight would not seem strange, / And still would be allowed." The pain of the failed relationship can still be heard in 1962, in the sulky self-recrimination of Wild Oats: "... I was too selfish, withdrawn, / And easily bored to love. / Well, useful to get that learnt."
Ruth's grandfather persuaded her to destroy the letters Larkin wrote to her – there were more than 400 of them. Today we hear the voice of the young lover only refracted in letters to his male friends: ribald comments concerning "Misruth" or "the school captain" to Kingsley Amis and scathing self-criticism to James Sutton.
With the engagement ended, Ruth's life still lay ahead of her. She married John Siverns, only to be widowed before her son, also John, was born. She converted to Catholicism and never remarried, spending many years as a teacher in Wolverhampton.
Her spirit was resilient and creative. Her book for children, Barlow Dale's Casebook (1981), featuring a Blue Persian cat detective, is delightfully ebullient. In later years she re-established contact with Larkin, who helped pay for the hip operation that technology had by then made possible. Her final years were spent in Romsey, Hampshire, where she became friends with Winifred Dawson (nee Arnott), Larkin's colleague in the library at Belfast, who was immortalised in his Lines on a Young Lady's Photograph Album in 1953.
Ruth is survived by her son.
• Ruth Siverns, teacher and writer, born 15 May 1927; died 31 December 2012
'One Today' has some fine lines, but writing good poetry for a grand national celebration is an impossible feat
The celebratory public poem is an extinct genre in our sceptical postmodern times, and probably ought to stay that way. It presents the writer with insurmountable challenges in form, tone and content. How do you praise your nation wisely – with honesty and caution? How do you root that public voice in the personal and private spaces where thoughts grow? How do you write a mass-market poem?
Richard Blanco's new inauguration poem, "One Today", composed to usher in Barack Obama's second term, is a valiant but not always convincing attempt to square the circles.
Ambitious in its length (69 lines), "One Today" reveals a novelistic eye for detail and broad, sweeping description. It begins, slightly heavy-handedly, with daybreak: "One sun rose on us today …" The rhymed spondee of "One sun" sets the recurrent motif, the theme of unity, picked up as the speaker moves through the day: "One light, waking up rooftops, under each one, a story/ told by our silent gestures moving behind windows." Later on, we have "one ground", "one wind" and, repeated in the last three stanzas "one sky", followed by "one moon" and (you saw it coming), "one country".
Parallelism is a useful device for creating an incantatory lift and narrative logic to a poem in danger of becoming a sprawl of lists, but what if the motif itself isn't strong enough to bear so much repetition? There's a logical problem here that a child could point out: it's not only America but the world which has one sky, one sun, one moon. The unity that pulls diversity together and gives everyone hope is an ideal rather than the reality being urged on us. The imaginative possibilities run down until there's really nothing to say, except the unexceptional: "… all of us –/ facing the stars / hope – a new constellation / waiting for us to map it, / waiting for us to name it – together."
The writing's not always this tired. As he takes us through the working day, Blanco quick-sketches in vivid strokes the "pencil-yellow school buses" and the "silver trucks heavy with oil or paper –/ bricks or milk". These bustling scenes are idealised, of course, but the descriptive simplicity is fresh and engaging. Later on, "we head home: through the gloss of rain or weight / of snow, or the plum-blush of dusk …" Here, a real unity of aspiration (if only to get home) is sensuously rendered.
Blanco dips into personal experience at times – most movingly when remembering his mother, ringing up groceries for 20 years "so I could write this poem". There is a little more strain when, alluding to the school-shooting at Newtown, he refers to "the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won't explain/ the empty desks of children marked absent/ today, and forever". There are other moments of trying too hard. How does the sky yield "to our resilience" in the lines about the Freedom Tower? As the writer hauls himself from poetry into public accountability, he loses some of his sureness of touch.
Jahan Ramazani, an editor of The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry, has said of "One Today" that "a more knotty or abstruse poem … would have missed the mark as an act of public address as well as poetry". I agree, but it's perfectly possible to avoid the abstruse and not fall into banality, either. Blanco's poem achieves this delicate balance at times. There are lines simple in language and thought, and still effective as poetry, often because of the force of a single word: "mothers watch children slide into the day", "the day's gorgeous din of honking cabs" (my italics). But, as it goes on, the poem seems to be exhausted by its own energy. The use of imperatives ("breathe", "hear") rather desperately forces the pace.
It might seem that the biggest problem with writing a public poem is that crude simplifications are forced on a reluctant poet. Blanco, it seems, is able to write in this "genre" with more natural conviction than most. A shorter poem, and above all one with a tighter form, might have helped maintain a consistently high verbal pressure, with no sacrifice of accessibility.
Half a century after her death, the debate over the poet burns with ever-greater fervour, but it need not follow that if one is pro-Plath one is anti-Hughes
Last week I referred to the upcoming 50th anniversary of Betty Friedan's influential study The Feminine Mystique. As it happens, another half-century anniversary will take place next month, one also involving an American woman, but of a much sadder shade: on 11 February it will be 50 years since Sylvia Plath took her life and gained immortality. As her widower, Ted Hughes, wrote in his skin-pricklingly beautiful 1998 collection Birthday Letters: "Fame cannot be avoided. And when it comes / You will have paid for it with your happiness, / Your husband and your life."
Suicide attracts speculation and prurience like flies to rotting food. Most writers who have killed themselves – Ernest Hemingway, David Foster Wallace, Spalding Gray and Virginia Woolf, for example – established themselves before they died. Plath's fame bloomed under the cloud of her death and no other writer's life has cast as much of a shadow over their work as Plath's, and it's a shadow that only darkens. Just as Marilyn Monroe is now seen as the archetypal tragic Hollywood blonde, so Plath has been flattened into the prototype of the mentally tormented poet, the betrayed woman, the tragic literary blonde.
So it's unsurprising that, half a century on, the arguments about her burn with ever-greater fervour, as proven by the extraordinary battle conducted last week in the Guardian's books section between Plath's friend Elizabeth Sigmund and a characteristically combative Olwyn Hughes, Ted Hughes's sister and the literary executor of Plath's estate. Then there are the academics and fans who argue among themselves at least as much as they do with the famously protective Plath estate. Time seems only to have aggravated the emotions, as well as the ignorance. A typical example of the latter came from one British newspaper columnist who tweeted last week: "In her memoir, will Ted Hughes' widow comment on the fact that wives 1 & 2 BOTH committed suicide? And No 2 killed child #thisbothersme." Now, leaving aside that Assia Wevill (Hughes's lover, who killed herself and their daughter in 1969) and Hughes were never married, it is a safe bet that Hughes himself was a lot more "bothered" by the deaths of his wife, lover and child than someone who never knew them, no hashtag.
This is an all-too-typical attitude when it comes to Plath: that outsiders know better, maybe even feel more, than those she left behind, especially Hughes, who is often restyled as the Bluebeard of English literature.
Next month, another biography of Plath will be published, Mad Girl's Love Song by Andrew Wilson, focusing on the early part of her life, before she met Hughes, "reclaiming her from the tangle of emotions associated with Hughes". A commendable aim, undoubtedly, but in doing so, Wilson returns to the old bitter arguments about how Hughes edited Plath's work after her death, asking, with heavy nudge-nudging: "At what point did editorialising mutate into the sinister act of censorship?" Wilson points out that old bugbear about Hughes not publishing all of Plath's early poems and can't seem to believe that perhaps Hughes was genuinely looking out for Plath as best he could posthumously. Few writers would want all of their work published. Hughes's censoring of her journals is given the usual short shrift; perhaps because Hughes is still, outrageously, blamed by some for Plath's suicide, he is not deemed entitled to privacy. (Vera Nabokov burned her husband's letters about their marriage, and fair enough.)
All of this comes back to a bigger argument: who a writer's work belongs to, their family or the public. When Plath's daughter Frieda Hughes refused to allow the makers of the film Sylvia to use her mother's poetry, some were outraged: "She claimed in an article on Britain's National Poetry Day that 'poetry is for everyone', only to deny access to her mother's words a year later when approached by the Sylvia film-makers," fumed one novelist, as though Frieda Hughes's discomfort at Gwyneth Paltrow re-enacting her mother's suicide was tantamount to censorship. Similarly, the frequently voiced suspicion about Hughes destroying Plath's last journal always makes me marvel at the entitlement and egotism of some fans who think that uppermost in Hughes's mind when his wife died was the preservation of his reputation as opposed to, say, protecting his children. If Hughes really was so concerned with salvaging his reputation, then he was remarkably unsuccessful, seeing as the story of him and Plath is at least as well known as anything he actually wrote, presumably because a sensationalised story about a marriage is easier to read than poetry.
In my late teens I overly empathised with Plath in the way only an American young woman who found herself studying English literature at an English university can. But it does not follow that if one is pro-Plath, one is anti-Hughes. No one can know what really goes on in a marriage other than those involved, and the amount of intrusion – to say nothing of tragedy – endured by Frieda Hughes and her late father surely merits them some understanding and tact. Plath was killed by what she described as "the owl's talons clenching and constricting my heart". Hughes spent his life "permanently / Bending so briefly at your open coffin" (The Blue Flannel Suit). Mark the anniversary of Plath's death by reading her work: the rest, to borrow a phrase that Plath, Ted and Frieda Hughes all employed for their voyeurs, is for "the peanut-crunching crowd".
The Spider-Man star and polymath penned one to commemorate the president's second inauguration. And it's truly awful
Occupation: Actor, director, poet, musician, student, teacher, performance artist.
Did you say poet? It was in there somewhere, yes. Franco has written a poem to commemorate the second inauguration of President Barack Obama.
The guy from the Planet of the Apes movie wrote a poem? That's correct.
Wait, I think I see what's happened here: you're confusing James Franco, actor from the Spider-Man franchise and much-criticised one-time Oscar host, with Richard Blanco, the award-winning poet who was chosen by Obama to compose a poem for the swearing-in ceremony. I wish it were so, but it isn't. Franco also wrote an inaugural poem (and filmed himself reciting it), titled Obama in Asheville.
Where's Asheville? In North Carolina.
And what's Obama doing there? He's not there; Franco is.
Is this poem about Franco, or Obama? Good question. Here's an extract: "I was asked to write something/ For the inauguration of his second term, but what could I write?/ I was in Asheville, studying writing, but not the political sort/ I write confessions and characters, and that sort of thing ..."
Yeesh. "... I wrote my friend Frank about what I could do, but he was unresponsive./ I went to class and then the little burrito place where they know me ..."
Enough! What made him think he could write a poem in the first place? Franco is a bit of a polymath. When he's not acting, he's educating himself. He has a masters degree from Columbia, attends film and creative writing courses, is studying for a PhD at Yale while teaching a class at UCLA. He's also published a book of short stories, made short films and held gallery exhibitions.
Where does he find the time? He likes to keep busy. He even has a recurring role in the long-running daytime soap General Hospital.
Do say: "He acts, he paints, he writes and he thinks,/ He's a man of parts, but his poem still stinks."
Don't say: "Actually, Blanco's poem wasn't much good either."
The epic ambition of Nick Laird's latest collection of poems reveals the poet's genuine sense of the incomprehensible scale of the cosmos
Nick Laird hails from a land of giants – literary giants, whose shadows loom large over contemporary Irish writers, noticeably so in the style and reception of Laird's earlier poetry. Go Giants, his third collection, is easily his most accomplished to date, and it is tempting, therefore, to read its title as both a nod to his literary and cultural origins, and a form of banishment (a "Get thee hence!").
The title poem is a playful cacophony of cliche, quotation and cultural catchphrase, ranging from Inspector Gadget and Monopoly to the New York Giants and the Catholic mass, in which Laird sounds like everyone and like no one else: "Go Saints. / Go fly a kite … / Go in peace to love and serve the. / Go and get help. Go directly to jail." Other giants lurk in its pages too: there is a homage to "His high-ness", Robert Pershing Wadlow, whose image the poet "Sellotaped to my wall, like an icon" ("Pershing"). And in "A Blessing for the Big Men" (after the blind 19th-century Irish poet, Raftery) we are reminded: "It is not a little story this, / It is not the trouble of one house / or the grief of one harp-string."
The book's ambition is impressive. Laird is as unafraid of the "big" subjects – religion, astronomy, war – as he is of the "little" ones – personal anecdotes, the minutiae of day-to-day life. The long poem, "Progress" (which borrows its section titles from Pilgrim's Progress), is, on one level, a tortuous pilgrimage for the poet, away from, and back to, his own past: "The problem with leaving home," he tells us, "is home follows." As we journey in and out of the poet's childhood in Cookstown ("90% cement and 10% meat"), encountering Giant Despair and Giant Grim, and into his present day, we venture into other interwoven lives and histories – Galileo's "heresy", Tycho Brahe's metal nose, Pope Urban the Eighth, the Flight of the Earls and the Troubles all make an appearance. In "Progress", the mythical land of giants becomes "land of the giant / leylandii and four-bar bitumen fences. / Of porn mags stashed in blackthorn hedges", putting paid to romanticised conceptions of Ireland from Finn McCool through to the "unfenced country" of Heaney's "Bogland". "Progress" is a counterpointing of past and present that tells something of a personal history, but it is about refiguring history too, reaching its crescendo in the intense passages on Allegri's Miserere where, "like water meeting water", the (verbal) music "forces some new channel open in / the mind …"
The collection is stitched together with great skill and complexity. Its recurrent themes, images and motifs include the blind poet Raftery, the Great Hugh O'Neill, blind at the end of his life, and Galileo, blinded, so the myth goes, by his own discoveries, and coming up against some blinkered views too – which reverberate in the poet's experience of home. Then there's the dog, who appears to have migrated into these pages, in varying guises, from Louis MacNeice's "The Taxis". Such motifs – raw materials that rub one against the other – affirm poetry, as Laird describes it in an untitled poem on the dustjacket, as "a juncture of the two kinds of real ... fingertips pressed hard against their mirrored selves ..."
There's no single transcendent "truth" for this poet, but a genuine sense of the incomprehensible scale of the cosmos, of what may be "the fundamental interconnectedness of all things", in Douglas Adams's phrase, beyond what we can see with the naked eye. There are other giants in this book: astronomical phenomena, "supergiants, red dwarfs, / the neon spiral nebulae", the "rudimentary study" of a "Black Hole (Artist's Impression)" through which he reflects on "modern death": "no light escapes. / You cannot see it only note / the wobble of the bodies / on their axes, in their orbits".
In the struggle to apprehend a vast, incommunicable whole, Laird is frequently pulled inwards to the black hole – death – at the core of human experience. If the epic scope of "Progress" is at one end of the spectrum, the intimate eight-line poem "Condolence", exemplary in terms of what Laird can do on a small canvas, is at the other. The speaker, as a boy, "half-follow[s] a story with a beginning and an end", while the mother writes letters of condolence, by hand, in "good / phrases, with such slow deliberation the slack is blanched / and collapses, and the fire consumed by its ashes". Grief is never a "little story". The concentration, the care with language (in contrast to a culture of rapid, too‑easy communication), is itself all‑consuming; the poem also says something about the inside workings of the poet's own aesthetic. Laird can seem an elusive character who gives little of himself away; the poetry he writes eschews the quick fix. But in another sense, he gives everything of himself in a poetry as expansive and thought-provoking as his considered response to an infinitely complicated universe needs it to be.
His poetry performed itself – it still demands to be heard aloud
Despite every Burns Supper I've ever been to being longer than the Tattoo; despite Hugh MacDiarmid being absolutely spot-on when he said "mair nonsense has been uttered in his name than in ony's barrin liberty and Christ", Robert Burns remains my hero.
Not just mine. Here in Scotland he's Oor Rabbie, your Rabbie, a'body's Rabbie … impossible to think of merely as a poet, more a myth, according to Edwin Muir, that we Scots shape to our own likeness, a myth endlessly adaptable. To the respectable, a decent man; to the Rabelaisian, bawdy; to the sentimentalist, sentimental; to the socialist, a revolutionary; to the nationalist, a patriot; to the religious, pious … and so on. True, he did inhabit all these personae, and with such conviction, such a vigorous and distinct range of voices. Above all, his poetry performed itself – still demands to be heard aloud.
Such energy, such dazzling brilliance, mastery of his own intricate, indigenous stanzas, or rather stanza-forms he made his own, being such a virtuoso with a range of tones and registers from "high" English to richly relished demotic, a heady mix, and bringing it all off superbly. Now none but a parodist dare essay the Burns stanza.
His poetic muse (give or take "Tam O'Shanter"– and, thank God, he took it) more or less deserted him in his late 20s and, in deep poverty and with broken health, he devoted his last decade to collecting folk tunes and writing lyrics to stop your heart.
He'd be my hero for the songs alone. Or if he'd never written anything but "Holy Willie's Prayer". But above all it's about the language he preserved and imparted. Because of all those words I would never know if I'd never, aged 10 or 11, learned him off by heart. To this day, every time I see a white hoar frost I think "cranreuch cauld", remembering Burns's "To a Mouse".
• Liz Lochhead was appointed Scots Makar ,
Still widely assumed a one-off because of his class, Burns actually had numerous contemporaries from ordinary backgrounds
In a slightly peevish strain, Sir Walter Scott wrote in the Edinburgh Annual Register for 1808 that "the success of Burns had the effect of exciting general emulation among all of his class in Scotland that were able to tag a rhyme. Poets began to chirp like grasshoppers in a sunshine day. The steep rocks poured down poetical goatherds, and the bowels of the earth vomited forth rhyming colliers". The reception Burns received from the Edinburgh literati – even their compliments and critical praises – had stressed a generation beforehand that he was something of a lusus naturae, that for a ploughman to write such poetry he must be "heav'n-taught", a minor form of miracle. But the truth is rather different. Scott deigns to mention only one similar poet, James Hogg, the "Ettrick Shepherd", who was a friend, a source for ballads and a rival. But there were a great many poets who were not from the monied classes at the times of Burns and in the decades thereafter, and it might be worthwhile this Burns Night to reflect on them. The valorisation of Burns as a unique, unrepeatable phenomenon of a writer obscures even further their achievements.
The Scott Monument has 16 busts of other Scottish poets surrounding the marble statue of Scott, including both Hogg and Burns (odd to think there was a time when the self-evident "national bard" was Scott, not Burns). Also among them is Robert Tannahill. Tannahill was born 1774 in Paisley and apprenticed as a handloom weaver at the age of 12. He worked in Bolton before returning home, and started to have some success publishing poems and songs in The Scots Magazine (his most famous is probably "The Braes of Balquhidder", which inspired "The Wild Mountain Thyme" with its opening words "Let us go, lassie, go to the Braes of Balquhidder". His work was, however, rejected by Archibald Constable in 1810; Tannahill drowned himself the same year.
This warl's a tap-room owre and owre
Whaur ilk ane tak's his caper
Some taste the sweet, some drink the sour
As waiter Fate sees proper;
Let mankind live, ae social core,
An drap a' selfish quar'ling,
And when the Landlord ca's his score,
May ilk ane's clink be sterling.
All the poets tend to be given patronising soubriquets, so Janet Little (1759-1813), from Ecclefechan, like the sage Thomas Carlyle, was The Scotch Milkmaid. She was supported by a friend of Burns, Frances Dunlop, and James Boswell. Though much of her poetry was not only formal English but replete with names like Damon, Celia and Alonzo, she did occasionally use mild forms of dialect. This is from her "Epistle to Robert Burns":
Did Addison or Pope but hear,
Or Sam, that critic most severe,
A plough-boy sing, wi' throat sae clear,
They, in a rage,
Their works wad a' in pieces tear
An' curse your page.
If I should strain my rupy throat,
To raise thy praise wi' swelling note
My rude, unpolish'd strokes wad blot
Thy brilliant shine,
An' ev'ry passage I would quote
Seem less sublime.
The talk I'll drop; wi' heart sincere
To heav'n present a humble prayer,
That a' the blessings mortals share
May be, by turns,
Dispens'd with an indulgent care
To Robert Burns
Many of the poets, because of their class, sought emigration: thus the horse-breaker Will Ogilvie (1869-1963) is better known in Australia than here; Thomas Pringle (1789-1834), although trained as a clerk in Kelso, became a farmer in South Africa (and a leading abolitionist) and James McIntyre (1828-1906) found fame not in his native Forres but as the "Cheese Poet of Ingersoll, Ontario": not all the poets are equal to Burns but McIntyre could give McGonagall a run for his money:
Ode to the Mammoth Cheese Weighing Over 7,000 Pounds
We have seen thee, Queen of Cheese,
Lying quietly at your ease,
Gently fanned by evening breeze;
Thy fair form no flies dare seize.
All gaily dressed, soon you'll go
To the provincial show,
To be admired by many a beau
In the city of Toronto.
Some poets never attempted a national or international audience: James Ruickbie (1757-1828) seemed quite content to be well-known around Hawick. By turns a miller, a toll-keeper and the publican of the Harrow Inn in Hawick, he was nevertheless sought out by Thomas Campbell (the author of The Pleasures of Hope and the once-famous Gertrude of Wyoming) and Allan Cunningham, the stonemason poet and friend of Burns. His poems of the Death and Resurrection of Whisky are a treat, as is his "Address to the Critics":
O ye lang-nebbit pryin' race
Who kittle words an' letters trace
Up to their vera risin' place
An' not a point
But ye maun put it to disgrace
If out o' joint
Ye're unco wise as ye suppose
An' mang poor scribblers deal your blows
Slap dash ye rin through verse and prose
Wi' piercin' look
An' never spit nor blow your nose
But by the book
Let poor folk write to ane anither
The way they learn'd it frae their mither
Or some auld aunt's loquacious swither
O' wit and glee
Wha valu'd not your college spither
There have been valiant attempts to consider properly this heritage, notably Tom Leonard's Radical Renfrew and a book I can't praise enough, Walter Elliot's New Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border 1805-2005, which analyses huge amount of poems published in local newspapers and chapbooks. It was Elliot who first introduced me to poets like Andrew Scott of Bowden (1757-1839), a farm-worker and church beadle who, as well as praising his local landscape, and tobacco, imagined a six-hour hot-air balloon flight service between Edinburgh and London, and Roger Quin (1850 -1918), a "gentleman of the road" or "milestone inspector" – in other words, a homeless poet – who now has a row of new houses named after him in Galashiels.
My final poet, however, didn't write much in the Scots language, but his work shows how even minor writers can have major afterlives: William Knox (1789–1825), who euphemistically "fell a victim to the undue gratification of his social propensities". There was a plaque to him in Lilliesleaf Kirk, where I worshipped as a child, and I knew the lines from his most famous poem, "Mortality", off by heart.
OH, why should the spirit of mortal be proud?
Like a swift-fleeting meteor, a fast-flying cloud,
A flash of the lightning, a break of the wave,
Man passeth from life to his rest in the grave.
It was only much later I learned that these were Abraham Lincoln's favourite lines of poetry, and that they were so highly regarded by one of the Tsars (the reference is obscure) that he had them engraved on a golden panel. Even more impressively, it was quoted as an epitaph for The Flash (Barry Allen) in DC Comics Crisis On Infinite Earths #8. Not quite as famous as "Auld Lang Syne", but not bad.
Forty years after a literary magazine dismissed Sharon Olds' poems about her children, she has become the first American woman to win the TS Eliot prize, for her exploration of an equally domestic theme – the breakup of her marriage
When Sharon Olds, who has just become the first American woman to win the TS Eliot prize for poetry, first submitted her work to a magazine in the early 70s, she was rejected with a condescending putdown. "They told me: 'This is a literary magazine. If you wish to write about this sort of subject, may we suggest the Ladies' Home Journal. The true subjects of poetry are ... male subjects, not your children.'"
Olds was undeterred. "I was desperate to copy life, to make some record, to give it some form." Over 40 years (she is now 70), she has built up an extraordinary body of work – deeply intimate, confessional poetry embedded in the physical and the domestic, about her own abusive childhood, her parents, her husband, her sexuality, her kids.
Her latest volume, Stag's Leap, which has won the award, is an arc of poems, an almanac of grief, written in the days, weeks and months after her husband, a doctor to whom she had been married for 32 years, left her for a colleague. Here is the moment he told her ("his navel, and the cindery lichen / skin between the male breasts"), the last time they slept together ("he put his palm / on my back, between the shoulder blades"), the telling of her mother ("I bought her / a doughnut and a hairnet"), pain and shock and yearning hunkered down into everyday objects, into washing machines, clocks, clothes.
"There is an expression – the devil is in the detail," she says. "I think the earth is in the detail. I am quite myopic. I wear glasses. I am not good at big abstracts. I focus on things up close to me. Some poets have better imaginations than I have. They write about ideas that come out of experience, not ordinary life itself."
She is talking on the phone from a cabin in a wood in New Hampshire where she spends half her time (the other half, she spends in an apartment in New York). She has a soft, lilting voice and speaks slowly, like the teacher she also is, often rephrasing an inquiry or sending it back ("So here is a question to put to both of us …"). Outside her window, she says, is a pond covered with ice, and she is gazing at it as we talk. Occasionally, she posts an update: "Oh, there is a cloud reflected on the pond. No, it is the shadow of a plane tree." She is jetlagged and a little shell-shocked from the recent flurry of attention: "It has always been obvious to anyone that my poems were autobiographical, but I used to think I would go to the grave without actually saying it. Then one day – I was talking to a young poet – I thought maybe, as long as one didn't refer to actual people, it might be helpful. But this last week …" She pauses. "I've felt like going back into the woodwork."
Her reticence comes as a surprise after her candour in print. For Oprah Winfrey's website, she compiled a guide to recovering from heartbreak, "Six Ways to Pull Yourself Back Up", and the tips – "small, tangible things" – are delightfully grounded, from the importance, in denial, of telling people – "I crept from apartment to apartment … a Typhoid Mary, a Divorce Shary" – to the value of creation. "Writing or making anything – a poem, a bird-feeder, a chocolate cake – has self-respect in it." If she feels restraint, she says it for others, predominantly her children (a son and daughter, now adult). "It was bad enough growing up with a poet in the house without me talking about them." She waited 15 years before publishing Stag's Leap – "They thought the marriage was permanent, they had their own adjustments to make" – and has never shown any of the poems she wrote during their adolescence ("I'm saving those"). She is respectful, too, of her ex-husband. She sent him the poems. What did he say about them? "I can't talk about it."
She has described her long hair as being "like a shawl, a protection", and says she has only recently acquired the confidence to disagree with colleagues at work (Oprah tip five: "Holding Your Own"). This lack of confidence comes from the upbringing she wrote about in her early poetry. "When you grow up with a lot of harsh judgments … I found it a lifetime's work to get on the other side of those."
She was brought up in San Francisco in a starkly religious household, fraught with repression and fear. During our conversation she refers to various things she had to learn for herself. Loyalty: "One picks it up by imitation and if, as in my case, you are never shown it as a child, you can have difficulties learning it." Motherhood: "I understood so little about it. In expressing, we slowly come to understand a little more." Anger: "If you grow up thinking anger is a danger to the soul, that it is not an option, it takes a while to know how to get appropriately angry, to respect your own emotions."
Reviewers have noted the absence of anger in Stag's Leap; it is there, but diverted, rarely overt, only occasionally surfacing. "I let him go, I lay and stretched on love's / fucking stretcher." She says she did feel anger – there is a poem that talks about "the whole car / of my anger" – but that it came after other emotions: disbelief, horror, loss. She came to understand, too, her own part in the success and failure of her marriage: "We were not so well suited to each other any more. He just realised it long before me … Then I didn't feel like a victim but more like an equal" (Oprah tip six: "Claim Your 50 percent"). Composition is itself a form of healing. "I focus so hard on the line, like a gladiator in the arena with the lions, just trying to be accurate, not being gloomy about your condition, but making something which may prove to be good."
She breaks off again. "It has only just occurred to me that the paradigm people have been using when they talk about the lack of anger is the cliche of the wife discovering the affair with a younger woman." So, that didn't happen to her? "If that had been the case, it would have been a whole different book. That would have been really different.
"You know, I have just made a change to a poem. I should tell the publisher. In Running Into You, the speaker describes the ex-husband as being covered with the new partner, 'like a child working with glue / who's young to be working with glue'. One critic pointed out this was the only nasty line in the collection ... I take criticism very seriously. And I looked at it again and thought, 'Oh my God, that is true.' It wasn't exact enough. I've added the line, 'or was I the one playing with glue?' I was the one having trouble getting unstuck from him."
Olds' life is joyful now. Friendship has been a great solace. As has singing and dancing. "Did you know there was a time when singing and dancing was one word, because they were always done at the same time?" She looks after herself. She doesn't wear makeup ("My own form of vanity"), but one of her first acts on winning the £15,000 prize money was to buy a cashmere cardigan. This morning, she has been reading the dictionary. "Frangipane: I am in love with the English language." She has another love in her life too – Carl, a retired cattle breeder. He was the one who found the cabins in the New Hampshire woods and refurbished them. They rent the others out. "We are even planning conferences."
She has a rich working life – teaching creative writing at New York University every other year, the rest of the time, writing and travelling and running workshops. She has set up various outreach programmes in hospitals and prisons, her latest for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Does she have grandchildren? "You would have to ask the person concerned." Which is itself an answer, I say. She gives a hoot of laughter.
Then she sighs – or I think it is a sigh; it could be a deep breath.
"It is interesting how much of an ordinary enough life can be a poem and have its own kind of beauty and be useful to other people. I guess I am someone who likes to push to the edge of what it is OK to have in a poem. That is my mischievous side, to teeter on the edge of good taste, on what is permissible."
• Stag's Leap is published by Jonathan Cape for £10. To order a copy for £8 with free UK p&p, go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop, or call 0330 333 6846
by Robert Burns
SCOTS, wha hae wi' Wallace bled,
Scots, whom BRUCE has aften led,
Welcome to your gory bed,
Or to glorious victorie!
Now's the day, and now's the hour!
See the front o' battle lour!
See approach proud EDWARD's pow'r!
EDWARD, chains and slaverie!
Wha will be a traitor knave?
Wha can fill a coward's grave?
Wha sae base as be a slave?
Traitor, coward, turn and flie!
Wha for Scotland's King and Law,
FREEDOM's sword will strongly draw,
Freeman stand or Freeman fa?
CALEDONIAN! on wi' me!
By Oppression's woes and pains!
By your sons in servile chains!
We will drain our dearest veins –
But they shall – they SHALL be free!
Lay the proud usurpers low;
Tyrants fall in every foe;
LIBERTY'S in every blow!
Forward let us do or die!
• Robert Burns: Selected Poems & Songs is published by Oxford University Press, RRP £14.99. To order a copy for £11.99 with free UK p&p go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop or call 0330 333 6846.
In Lucretius's universe, there are atoms and there is void – completely empty space. Nothing else can be said to exist
Lucretius's stated aim in his six-book poem, De Rerum Natura, is to free us from fear by enabling us to understand Epicurean philosophy, so giving us the rational explanation of phenomena that have previously attracted irrational explanation and thus created fear of the gods in men's minds – the soul, for example, or thunderbolts. Before he gets near either souls (which he explains in book three) or thunderbolts (book six), however, he needs to get down to the basics, and so he spends the first two books of his poem explaining the basic principles of Epicurean atomic physics.
Our starting point is a simple idea: nothing can ever miraculously be created out of nothing. Get that in our heads, he argues, and we will be able to fix our focus on the actual source for every thing on earth, and be clear that that isn't the gods. To prove it, he gives us a ridiculous counterfactual situation: if things could spring up from no seed, men would grow out of the sea or fish from the ground, the seasons would be meaningless and ageing spontaneous (from boy to man in an instant); that doesn't happen, so things must have fixed seeds. He proves the principle that he regards as its companion piece, nothing can ever be destroyed totally into nothing, in a similar way: if nature permitted total annihilation, any given thing could be wiped away to nothing instantly, with the merest touch required to destroy it; that not being the case, instead it must be that the stuff of a thing is, on the thing's destruction, channelled into another thing. The example we are given is a beautiful picture of the sky as father raining on mother earth, and that union leading to the world we see around us. That world does things in order: things have their seeds, and nothing is ever destroyed utterly.
Atoms are imperceptible, so Lucretius must also prove the existence of invisible particles. He appeals to the familiarities of the surrounding world: there are plenty of things we can't see but nevertheless know exist, such as wind and smells; even our drying laundry is proof that invisible particles exist – we can't see the particles of moisture being drawn out, but we can clearly see that they are.
Atoms in the Lucretian universe are accompanied by void – completely empty space, without any particles in it – both outside and within objects. Without it, there would be no motion, because there would be no space without particles in it into which particles could move, and a ball of wool would weigh the same as a ball of lead. Plenty of material objects have void in them, and can be destroyed; but the matter that doesn't have void in it can't be. Atoms and void are complementary: atoms are particles without void in them, and void is space without particles in it.
Atoms and void are it: nothing else in the Lucretian universe can be said to exist. Anything else is either a property of the atoms in a thing – something that can't be taken away from it without that thing ceasing to exist in that form, such as liquidity for water – or an accident: something that happens to collections of atoms and void, which does not have its own intrinsic existence, such as poverty or war. Atoms collide, stick together and form compounds, and that's how the world comes about. As and when compounds lose atoms, the compound starts to decay or else the lost atoms are either replaced (by eating food, for example).
And the stock of atoms is infinite, because the universe must be: for something to be finite, it has to have a boundary (one meaning of the Latin word, finis). Challenging us to find that boundary leads to one of Lucretius' most inspired images: he takes the historic Roman declaration of war – the hurling of a spear into enemy territory – and asks us to re-enact it at the alleged edge of the universe. If it hits something, there must be something more there; if it carries on flying, there can't be a boundary.
These, then, are Lucretius' basic principles, and not just of physics, but of argument: he tells us before he begins his arguments that the thing that will shake out the fear and shadows of our minds will be the external appearance and underlying explanation of nature (naturae species ratioque), and that is what he uses: familiar sights from our everyday life, or ridiculous counter-factual situations presented as the logical consequence of failing to accept his principles. Lucretius is seeking to explain the world around us, and uses a vibrant snapshot of that world to prove his point. The species of our world leads us inevitably to its ratio.