Friday, November 9, 2018

Moonlight Musings















Lust and Rage

'What else have I to spur me into song?' asked Yeats. He had a point.

I've been in a writer's block for several weeks – a rare occurrence for me, but even so I couldn't be philosophical about it. I need to be making poems or I get a bit cranky. Usually I can find something to help me get out of it. I've shared some of these tricks with you before. But this time they didn't work. I could still write prose, but for me that doesn't really count.

Those who dip into our Poetry Pantry know that I've recently tried some found poems – 'found micropoetry' to be exact – in the hope that that would get me writing again. It didn't. I enjoyed the exercise, but words of my own still didn't happen.

Then, today in VoW Writers (the 'Village of Women' writers' group which I mentor) Maryanne said she wanted to try and write a song, adding that she was inspired by a Ryan Adams song about his fantasies of Sylvia Plath. She played it for us, and also I Googled the lyrics (they are here). The song hadn't even finished playing before I burst out, 'I hate it! In fact it offends me. It's so not Plath.'

MaryAnne tried to explain it wasn't meant to be about Sylvia, but about the song-writer himself. I expostulated further that even as a fantasy it was a travesty of who and what Plath was, adding that I considered her the greatest poet of the 20th Century.

'I love it when Rosemary expresses an opinion she feels strongly about. She's so clear and definite, you're left in no doubt of her feelings,' Cathy, the social worker who started our Village of Women, said with a laugh (perhaps trying to be diplomatic).

Bronny asked how I knew that the song was 'so not Plath', adding that she herself didn't know anything about Plath, and wasn't taking issue with me: she was just curious. I told them that (a) I'd been a huge Plath fan for decades and (b) there's a lot of material out there in the public record, not only her own poetry but biographies and critical studies.

Then I told Maryanne that despite my forcefully-expressed opinion, she was of course free to write whatever she liked. She suggested the prompt: 'a fantastic idea'. As always, people wrote a variety of responses to this. Maryanne herself wrote something beautiful and soaring, nothing like the Adams song.

I read mine last. It was a piece of rhyming doggerel, three verses long, going on some more about the ridiculousness of even trying to write about or like Plath, who was such a unique genius. (Actually I have written about her in the past, but I took poetic licence to ignore that inconvenient fact.)

No, I'm not going to show you, but I did read it to the group.

'Yay, she's back!' yelled Cathy. And I suddenly realised – my outrage at Ryan Adams had broken my writer's block. I'd been so caught up in the emotion, I hadn't even registered that!

'Now you know what to do,' said Bronny.

I said thank you to Maryanne, and admitted I should probably be thanking Mr Adams too.

Now that I've had the breakthrough, I see that I should have realised. I am always telling students that it's much easier to write from emotions like anger and grief than from happiness and calm.

So I abandoned what I had had in mind for this post and thought I would find a Plath poem to regale you with. Plath, after all, was a master of the fantastic idea. Take for instance Lady Lazarus. (Now, that poem mentions ash, but very, very differently from the kind of ash Ryan Adams ascribes to her in his fantasy.) You could take pretty much any one of her wondrous poems, and encounter fantastic ideas. You can read a lot of them at Poem Hunter if you don't own a copy of Plath.

But when I looked for one to share with you, I found that – beautiful, startling and musical as they are – they are nearly all very bleak. Sylvia was sad, there's no denying it. At present, for half the world winter is coming; there have been shootings, stabbings, and natural and other disasters all over the place; and there was that American election, which will have pleased some to some extent but others not at all. It didn't seem like good timing to share something sad or angry, no matter how extraordinary the writing.

Also, I hate to confess that reading through so much of Plath all at once has changed my perception ... along with the passage of time, I suppose.  Yes, she was incredibly gifted, and we also know she worked tirelessly at her craft – but I'm not so sure after all that she was the greatest poet of the 20th Century.

It's hard to assess any artist during their own time. Even the most  acclaimed don't always maintain their reputations – though of course some do. Maybe she doesn't tower over Yeats and Eliot after all. And maybe all poets are better appreciated in small doses than by a frantic search through their whole oeuvre in a short space of time.

So where does the lust of my heading come in? I suppose Ryan Adams meant his song to be titillating, but I think Yeats had in mind something much fiercer and realer. And yes, we all know that countless poems and songs have been written from that spur. For sure, that too could be a way out of writer's block. But not so much for me any more, as a 79-year-old widow. Yeats said that both lust and rage danced attendance on his old age, but I think he counted himself as aged when he was actually much younger than I am now. For me rage will have to do.

Of course, now that the block has broken, I hope I won't need to keep summoning up anger.

Maryanne suggested that listening to music is a good way into writing, whatever the mood; and I recall that my second husband Bill, a fiction writer, used to find that Dvorak's New World Symphony did the job for him.

[Who is mentoring whom in the Vow Writers group, you might wonder. Yes, often it's my students who teach me.]

Please feel free to share your thoughts.



Material shared in ‘Moonlight Musings’ is presented for study and review. Poems, photos and other writings remain the property of the copyright owners, usually their authors.

This photo of Plath is by 
Giovanni Giovannetti/Grazia Neri and is now out of copyright and in the Public Domain.

23 comments:

  1. Have you read her journals? They contain, by far, her best poetry, if you ask me. I cling to her because she is so like me, in that when she tries to write poems, the product is sort of so-so, but when she just writes, free-flowing paragraphs, MAN is that poetry.

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    1. Ok, ta, will get. Also will get the letters.

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  2. I always enjoy your musings, Rosemary, and loved hearing about your lively session with your Village of Women. Here in North America, there is much to spark rage, but i just feel a profound weariness and loss of hope under the current rise of white supremacy. How can we be revisiting this in 2018? More hopeful is the election of so many women this week, and the appearance finally of some diversity in the House.

    As for lust, it is all over the place, but give me my peaceful solitude and i am happy. I am not writing at the moment either, at least not well. But poems will come when they come. I resonated with Plath in my painful youth. I am sorry for her sad end and sorrier for her children. Sigh.

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    1. I think perhaps the great issues are too big for rage, more conducive of despair and/or escapism. As for the smaller angers, this one of mine arose spontaneously of course, rather than being summoned on purpose.

      Yes, peaceful solitude has a lot to recommend it! Perhaps writing in praise of it is the way to go?

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  3. Oh, I listened to the song — I agree that it's not Plath at all but along with being her person and a wonderful, wonderful poet, she is a part of our pop culture too, with her story and autobiographical accounts as in The Bell Jar and her journals widely read. So, contemporary writers and artists do take liberty in creating a sketch or a fantasy about these icons in their work. I have written a couple of poems devoted to her too. Still, I just didn't like the lyrics of that song; it's reductive and limiting her to a stereotypical image even in fantasy. She deserves better.

    It's interesting how 'negative emotions' fuel creativity like nothing else; it's the experience of rage or melancholy that leads to an outpouring of intrinsic thoughts which make for a good material to play around with in a poem. Thanks for sharing about your session and your understanding of the poet and of poetry and creativity, Rosemary. <3

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    1. Thank you for the wise words, Anmol. Yes, good point about the pop culture. I guess the song also highlights the dangers of it: how it can end up celebrating a false idea of the person, missing what deserves celebration. One of the women in the group asked if she should read The Bell Jar – as if that was the only thing of note that Plath ever wrote! Would it be too dark, she wondered. 'Well, she can also be very funny,' I said ... but then it became clear she really knew nothing of the book, so I summed up what it's about – and she decided against it. *Sigh.*

      I'm glad you agree about the song, which you sum up perfectly.

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  4. I couldn’t agree more ❤️ Writing comes naturally when one is experiencing intense emotions .. the words just flow.

    The song threw me completely off my chair it’s nothing like Plath at all but since you have explained here that it’s about the song writer himself so it makes sense. 😊

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    1. I still have unkind thoughts about him, and have to stop myself from actively ill-wishing!

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  5. Good writing, great topic ... thank you Rosemary :)

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  6. Rosemary, I love it when you express an opinion you feel strongly about too. Smiles. And I wish I had an opportunity to be in the writers' group you mentor.

    I agree that it is easier to write from emotions like anger and grief than happiness and calm. I wonder why this is really. My theory is that when one is happy and calm one is not thinking about writing poetry; but when one is angry or feeling grief one needs and outlet and poetry can be that outlet. Rosemary, what do YOU think? Others - Susan? - what do you think?

    I haven't read Sylvia Plath in a while. I remember liking her writing when I did. I think when I read Sylvia Plath I was in a period of life when I could kind of identify with her emotions; but since I am not right now not in that kind of frame of mind it does not appeal to me to read Plath. Does that make sense?

    I am glad your block has broken, Rosemary. I hope mine will too. Thank you for this thought-provoker. And - I wish you were closer and could be my real-life mentor.

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    1. Mary, I would enrol you as a co-mentor to those less experienced and needing encouragement! You are such a master of your craft, and have perfected the art of being concise and clear (which cannot always be said of Plath) while finding (as she does too) exactly the right words.

      Yes, I agree, the so-called negative emotions are more urgent in needing outlet and release.

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    2. Ah, Rosemarie, thank you for your kind words! And, alas, I do wish that positive emotions would inspire me as much as negative ones do....

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  7. I have read all the poems, journals, biographies, seen the movies because at one stage I was absolutely intrigued and obsessed with the whole sylivia shebang... plus Ted Hughes, his mistresses, his parents, her parents etc. There is a mine of inspiration in all of this to churn out poems ad infinitum, apart from being enjoyable and interesting. A 'must' for everyone interested in literature .I actually know someone who sacked his shrink because the shrink had never heard of Sylvia Plath.I agreed and understood completely,,,I would do the same. Probably the reason I am his only friend LOL.

    I am not going to listen to that song this weekend because I have been subjected to enough idiocy this week in my personal encounters . Fortunately I have not yet turned into a politically correct snow flake... the peak of emotion being 'disappointment', and can become outraged and enraged when confronted with stupidity, injustice and ignorance.

    Feel blessed Rosemary, that you still retain your anger and your passion .There is no fire without flame. And as for the lust thing...well, if there is no temptation it makes it a lot easier. I am not going to make any disparaging remarks about living in the Northern Rivers (LOL )..I used to live up the hill from the Channon for about 20 years dividing my time between Sydney and the rainbow region. I found it a wonderful place to appreciate the natural world and to devote myself to studious pursuits without any lustful distractions :)

    Thanks for a good read and the opportunity to vent.

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    1. Not listening to that song is an excellent decision! And yes, Northern Rivers is indeed full of natural beauty and low temptation. :-D

      I like 'no fire without flame'; thank you.

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  8. Some interesting points in this Rosemary. I love that your posts, give me pause to conceptualize that which has mostly flown under my radar - until it doesn't. For me, music definitely primes the creative pump. And I agree that strong emotion does play into it as well. In my case - more so - if that strong emotion has an element of droll humor or absurdity … perhaps even, irony. An awesome - thought provoking - post.

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    1. How wonderful to have the gift of humour! I'm afraid I seldom manage it successfully. But I do enjoy reading other people's

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  9. Love the thoughts... I often have to put myself into a dark mode to break the block... the stronger the subject the easier it becomes... the same with love, it has to be intense for me... So very interesting when I read the Lady Lazarus poem which title got me to think about a poem by Carol Ann Duffy form the World's Wife called Mrs Lazarus.

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    1. Thanks Bjorn. Others have mentioned that Duffy book. I think I must get it!

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    2. I think it's my favorite poetry book.. you can read it from beginning to end...

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  10. " I am always telling students that it's much easier to write from emotions like anger and grief than from happiness and calm."
    If I had students, I would tell them exactly the same thing. But if you ask me why, I could not quite pinpoint the reason. Perhaps i could not shout out all that anger or grief. perhaps writing it gets it off the mind easier.

    As usual, Rosemary, an excellent article.

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    1. I think perhaps those emotions clamour for release, whereas we want to hold on to happiness.

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  11. I'd never heard that song...and (confessions, confessions) I'm not as well-read on Plath as I'd like. I think she may have frightened our school board too much to make the syllabus (and Mom preferred Emily Dickinson, so she was my go-to for years). Still, I a experienced a visceral dislike from the minute I read the lyrics. Grrrr. For me, emotions like rage and lust benefit (in the abstract) from being put in whatever order poetry provides. Trimming the wick sharpens the fire. :)

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    1. Well, Emily is certainly an excellent choice!

      I love your final saying.

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