Edith Sitwell: Poetry and Place Reclaimed

8 Sep

Last week I spoke about Edith Sitwell’s strange and wonderful descriptions of nature at a conference at an ASLE-UKI conference at Cambridge university (my paper is available to read on my academia.edu profile).

Before going to Cambridge, I happened to be in Sheffield and so I made a special visit to Edith Sitwell’s childhood home of Renishaw Hall in Derbyshire. For the last few weeks I had been hidden away in Manchester Central Library trawling through copious notes on Sitwell from my PhD and re-reading her poetry for passages to illustrate my arguments. It was only when I got to Renishaw Hall and wandered round its sprawling gardens that I actually became aware of the point of my talk.

The paper was about the impact of the natural world on the senses and the ability of poetry to allow us to look again at nature with a sense of wonder akin to that of childhood. I had been so engrossed in the structure and clarity of my argument that I had neglected the reality of the subject of my talk, but re-tracing Sitwell’s tracks in the place which inspired the poems shook me awake. The Hall itself is far bigger than I had imagined and impressively grand, but it was the gardens that captured my imagination, as they had previously done Sitwell’s.

The famous ornate, Italianate gardens designed by her father provided a striking contrast to the wilder land beyond it. The civilised order of the formal gardens giving way to thick woodlands, nestling abandoned buildings, centred by lakes and bordered by fields. Walking through these woodland paths I happened on the skeletons of out buildings, dark caves and broad misty lakes. I felt a great affinity with Edith Sitwell. I could understand how this place embedded itself in her psyche as a lonely and romantic girl wandering alone through the grounds. I can see why it remained with her even as she spent her adulthood in a slum area of London, and I can see how it distinguished her poetry from those of other modernists who turned away from beauty.

Most of all it taught me not to forget the importance of the real. There is a complex and rich relationship between poetry and nature, especially in Edith Sitwell’s poetry where the patterns and sensations of the natural world are embedded into the very fabric of her writing. However, if attention focuses on linguistic patterns, structure, rhythm, lineation and possible meaning we can become distracted from the real places that inspire great art and that require are continued protection.

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Ballard, Baudrillard and the Postmodern Ecological Warning: Ecocritical Reflections on Crash

15 Jan

ImageThe characters in J. G. Ballard’s novel Crash (1973) move through a relentlessly bleak landscape on the concrete periphery of London where natural landmarks and community centres have been replaced by the placeless monotony of motorways, slip roads, airport car parks, service stations and anonymous apartment blocks continuously circled by traffic. Such a novel, and such a setting, forces ecocriticism to shift from celebratory appreciations of the natural world to face the impact of its absence in modern urban society and assess the physical and psychological costs of our love affair with the machine. This focus on absence does not, however, end in despair but can reaffirm the importance of preserving meaningful contact with nature in modern society. This includes a commitment to protecting the environment which becomes more insistent in the face of postmodernism’s rejection of the real, as in the work of Jean Baudrillard, which threatens to dilute the damaging reality of environmental destruction within endless layers of simulation.

In his short essay on Crash, Baudrillard recognises how technology has developed from a tool for human progress to a violent force capable of deforming and destroying the human body. However, Baudrillard rejects any moral judgement on this progression as well as refuting the importance of any psychological component for the sexual possibilities created through the union of body and machine in the car crash. Instead the wounds inflicted by machinery are seen as creating a new set of signs on the body, exchanged through sex, that are free from the heavily symbolised association of sexual organs. With the moral judgement removed, the body becomes object in a world of simulation and artifice and with it, in the novel, comes the absence of the subjective experience of inhabiting the body: love, intimacy, compassion, conscience. With the artificial environment of the car all is simulation and the external world of nature loses any relevance as the characters retreat into the nightmarish world of their own fantasies mirrored all the time by the artifice of their environment.

Whilst Baudrillard may present a dead end for ecocritics in his rejection of the real in the age of mass media, J. G. Ballard explicitly describes his novel as a warning against the destructive impact of the speed and violence of modernity. The prospect of environmental destruction is a subject Ballard explored in his earlier science fiction, but here the prospect is made more disturbing by the recognisable setting of Crash. Rather than asserting the importance of nature by celebrating the beauty of rural Britain, this vision of a non-place where the absence of natural forces and processes have produced a new and destructive alliance with machines produces a more immediate form of warning. The continual drive of modernity leads to a world where human relations are based on artifice rather than nature and the absence of contact with nature is reflected in the lack of associated fertility or regeneration in the endless stationary traffic jam of contemporary urban existence. Read in this way, Crash becomes a more conservative response to modernity which echoes the tone of much ecocritical writing. The wider importance of the novel in raising questions of how literature and theory relate to the ethical sphere of human relations has been discussed. An ecocritical perspective can develop the discussion to consider how technological modernity impacts on the physical environment and how, equally, place experience informs and shapes those who inhabit it.

 

Tips on finishing your PhD

31 May

This may be a bit premature given that I am not submitting until the end of July, but I have been reflecting on the whole process of writing a PhD and have come up with some tips which may help others who are getting towards the end of the process.

 I would like to underline the fact that I am in no way an expert and can only speak from personal experience, but these are things that have helped me.  

Of course everyone’s situation is different. I am a part time student studying towards a PhD in English literature and not living near my university, but some points should have wider relevance. I hope at least one or two help. x

General

* To those wondering whether to do a PhD – only do it if you are absolutely sure it is what you want to do and you have clear reasons for doing it. It is not a hobby, it is at times a complete drudge and you need a clear reason for doing to see it out to the end. Also be aware that getting the dream job after is in no way a definite.

* This is common advice, but it really is vital to break the project up into small parts, then go even smaller so you can plan your day to day activities. I found that it is really important to have a clear idea of what you want to get done before you start. So think about it for 10 minutes as you are waking up or in the shower, or make sure at the end of one day you know what you are going to begin with the next.

* Have some confidence. Your supervisor doesn’t want you to be timid or scared to ask questions.

* Go to postgraduate events. It is incredibly lonely doing a PhD alone; especially if you do not live near your university. It helps to share your worries with others who understand.

* Keep in mind that you will be poor for three years or more. If you are money orientated this may be hard.

* If you get ‘the fear’ allow yourself to feel it, give yourself the day off, do something different then break it up into smaller bits again and just do one small bit. Some days you are just not into it so go shopping, read trashy magazines, go and get drunk with your friends – just a change, you will come back fresher.

* Join societies. They will be the only people interested in your work and it really helps to talk through your theories; especially as that is what you have to do in your viva.

* Go outside. You will never regret this. Take your problem for a walk and it will sort it out.

* Don’t present a paper before you feel ready. There is a pressure to but f you don’t feel confident enough about your stuff just don’t. I did my first conference towards the end of my third year and chose a really small and safe one. I also put loads of slides and images at the beginning so everyone was not just staring at me and I could ease myself in.

Towards the end

Look at this brilliant website and watch the webinars:  http://3monththesis.com/

*At some point you need to stop researching, draw a line under it and accept that you can’t possibly read every single book, article or essay on your subject. At this point you need to move on to writing.

* Choose a submission date if you have the freedom to do it yourself, but only when you are close enough to know when you will definitely make it. I made mine about four months before.

* Accept it won’t be absolutely perfect.

PRACTICAL

Consider moving home. I did. Not really by choice because I ran out of money in London, but actually the change of scenery (i live in the country) and comfortable setting really helped. And when I got cabin fever it helped spur me on to finish. Of course this depends on what ‘home’ is like. I am lucky to have very laid back and supportive parents and in return I cook and help. Not for everyone but could be a possibility

Email your work between your accounts as well as saving it on at least 3 devices. This means you can always retrieve it should any of those nightmare scenarios of losing it all ever happen. I also keep a copy in my car in case the house burns down (ridiculous I know, but just imagine losing all you work and do whatever it takes to prevent it.)

Disconnect from the internet for the majority of the day. Or at least do two hours before you allow yourself to go on facebook.  Also I realised that having break by going on the internet is not really a break because you are still staring at a screen. Go outside, ring someone.  Just do something not connected to work.

Open emails from your supervisor straight away and act on them. Make deadlines for yourself then tell your supervisor so you fulfil them. This will keep them happy and make you work hard. I have weekly deadlines at this stage.

As I get towards my submission deadline I will add more about the practicalities of binding and printing, the examination process and the viva, and if I get any interviews I will post about them too.

Good luck! x

 

A Reflection on the Edward Thomas Fellowship’s Birthday Walk, and Some Thoughts on Literary Pilgrimages and the Influence of Poetry on Our Perception of Place.

4 Mar

Edward Thomas’s birthday was yesterday and to commemorate it the Fellowship met this morning for a five mile walk around the countryside of the village of Steep in Hampshire. Walking around the places that inspired Edward Thomas made me think about how a place can be haunted by a writer’s work and wonder if their interpretation of a landscape restricted our own perception of certain places, or made us look more closely at the landscape.

The ingredients of Thomas’s poems were all there: the steady rain, the mist circling upwards, the fields laid out for miles from the height of the hill, the diverging paths, and the tree lined lanes. Even the glimpse of road fitted with his common themes. It made me visualise the poems more clearly, it also explained how such places lifted him,    temporarily, from his depression, and why home was such an emotive word for him when he was in France.

Edward Thomas’s poetry seems to have a deep impact on a broad range of people. I walked with writers, academics, people who had just found him by chance, those who had learnt about him at school and returned to him later, and the organisers who work hard to ensure his talent is not forgotten. One writer I met said she would love to live in Steep and I can understand why. I think that meeting his great granddaughter Lucy was a huge privilege. She spoke about how special it was to have that heritage and the love of nature she thought she had inherited from him. She certainly had the same pale blue eyes as in the photos. We spoke about how Thomas would have felt about the biographies poking about his private life and about her father finding his war diary at the bottom of a case.

What I took from the day was a clearer impression of the place Edward Thomas loved and preserved for us in his writing. Walking with the Fellowship reaffirmed my observations of how people take his work to heart because of its honesty and lack of pretension. And finally, during the readings of Thomas’s poetry by his memorial stone the rain was beating so hard on my umbrella that only a few words reached me from each poem. This was similar to the experience of walking through the landscape he loved. My first reaction was to the beauty of the place in itself, but soon snatches of his poems entered my mind and attached themselves to the weather, the sounds, the views and the journey. It was if Edward Thomas walked with me; pointing things out, directing my gaze and making a beautiful place precious.

‘This is the way the world ends | Not with a bang but a whimper’: T. S. Eliot as a Prophet of Climate Change and Apocalypse?

19 Feb

Poets have long been thought of as prophets who have had visions of the world beyond their lifetime. Surprisingly for a poet known primarily for his engagement with the specific issues of post-war Britain (urbanism, psychology, sociology, symbolism etc.), T. S. Eliot repeatedly uses imagery which predicts the future consequences of industrialisation, intensive farming and exhaustion of natural resources.

Eliot’s use of images of barren waste lands and arid deserts is immediately recognisable within his middle period poetry, but I was surprised to notice that this theme of climatic disorder and environmental catastrophe continues through the more rural and philosophical Four Quartets. I have selected three examples of such imagery from the poem and commented briefly on them. I will explore them in more detail within my thesis.

Section two of ‘East Coker’. Lines 51-67.

The passage open with confusion over the overlapping of the seasons: ‘What is the late November doing | With the disturbance of the spring […] Late roses filled with early snow?’. This unease about the blurring of seasonal patterns extends to the heavens where ‘Deployed in constellated wars | Scorpion fight against the Sun | Until the Sun and Moon go down’. Should any further clarity be required that this is an image of apocalypse, the ambiguity is extinguished by the statement that these irregularities foretell ‘a vortex that shall bring | The world to that destructive fire | Which burns before the ice-cap reigns’.

Section two of ‘The Dry Salvages’. Lines 69-78

In the face of environmental catastrophe the psychological reaction of humans who ‘Cannot bear very much reality’ is to block the ability to ‘think of a time that is oceanless’ and retreat to the safety of imagining the ‘shallow banks unchanging and erosionless’ and the fisherman ‘forever bailing, | Setting and hauling’; despite ominous warning that it is now impossible to think of ‘an ocean not littered with wastage’.

Section two of ‘Little Gidding’. Lines 54-77

In the final movement of the poem the imagined apocalypse is replaced with the frightening reality of the destruction of London during the Blitz. In the aftermath of a bombing raid one by one the elements close down. The bombed building ‘where a story ended’ mark ‘the death of air’, the climatic extremes of ‘flood and drouth’ and the resulting ‘parched eviscerate soil’ tell of the ‘death of earth’, and the initial victory of water and fire in devouring ‘The town, the pasture and the weed’ ends in ‘the death of water and fire’ as the last elements themselves expire.

The result of these images within Eliot’s final masterpiece reveal a poet facing the very real prospects of death and destruction at the time of its writing, whilst also foreseeing the disastrous consequences of climate change that continue to be relevant to this day.

This shouldn’t surprise us. Eliot always looked bravely and deeply at that which most people find too terrifying to contemplate for more than a few moments.

Writing the City: A Lesson Plan for Creative Writing Workshops

2 Feb

On Saturday I am running a short workshop for Bath Poetry Cafe on how to write poetry about urban landscapes using Eliot as a model. I’m really looking forward to meeting other writers and sharing my ideas and thought it would be useful to put my lesson plan online as a reference for anyone else who teaches creative writing. It is very brief so if you need extra information about any part just ask.

Writing the City

Lesson Plan for a One Hour Workshop

BEGINNING

Share the aim of the session which is to provide the ingredients for a poem about urban landscape through examining the techniques used by T. S. Eliot.

Briefly discuss what you associate with urban environments drawing out the contradictions and complexities of cities.

EXERCISE ONE – 5 minutes

  • Think of a specific city or town that you know well.
  • Note down all you can think of about its landmarks, history, character, atmosphere, colours, sounds, people, and your personal experiences there.
  • Go round and hear which city each person has chosen and two of their observations about it.

THE WASTE LAND

This is the main part of the session where extracts from the poem are used as examples of Eliot’s approach to representing urban landscapes. It is important to remember that some participants may not know the poem so some foregrounding will be necessary.

THE POEM

Speak briefly about the time of publication and initial reaction to it, the context in which it was written (industrialisation, urbanisation, war, and societal change), and Eliot’s personal circumstances.

Next move on to the handout below which all participants should be given. Talk through each feature of The Waste Land on the list. Most of the features correspond to an extract of the poem such as point 7 on voices linking to number 7 of the extracts which is an example of the range of voices within the poem.

ENDING

End by encouraging participants to write at least one urban poem and invite them to send it to you. Also point out that while it is useful to examine Eliot’s approach, be aware that his is not the only way to approach urban landscapes and cities have changed since the 1920s so they do not need to confine themselves to his methods.

Writing the City: What Eliot can Teach us about the Poetry of Urban Places

Your City:

Things to consider

1.) Epigraph: Nam Sybillam quidem Cumis ego ipse oculis meis | vidi in ampulla pendere, et cum pueri illi dicerent:|  Στβμλλ τί Θέλεις; respondebat illa: άπσΘνειν Θελω.

2.) Extended Metaphor: The city as …

3.) Beginning: A strong beginning can help establish mood and atmosphere. Decide what your take on the city is first and whether it challenges or confirms its usual associations.

4.) City: At the heart of the city is its multiplicity. Start off with the concrete or specific : landmarks, street names, weather, colours, sounds then move to the personal or emotional: your associations, memories, people, literary associations etc.

5.) History: Consider researching a place to see how this relates to the present.

6.) Juxtaposition: Using sharp juxtaposition can highlight the contrasts and contradictions of the city, such as: rich/poor, historic/modern, tourists/locals, sophisticated/bawdy.

7.) Voice : Voices can give life to your poem and make it human. A range of voices will show the diversity of the city.

8.) Ending: Think of the poem as a journey through the urban landscape with the possibility of resolution or at least fresh understanding or comprehension at the end.

The Waste Land

3. ‘April is the cruellest month … and go south in the winter’.

4. ‘Unreal City … final stroke of nine’.

5. ‘The river sweats … a gilded shell’

6. ‘you ought to be ashamed … good night, good night’

7. Madame Sosostris, Stetson, nervous woman and man, Hyacinth garden.

8. ‘I sat upon the shore … shantih

‘The Certainty of all Beautiful Places Being Haunted’: W. B. Yeats

25 Jan

Cloister Cemetery In The Snow by Caspar David Friedrich

Yes, but not only beautiful places.

About a mile out of the village there is a mud track which curls through the fields then tightens in to a narrow path into the dark woods. There is something strange and disconcerting about the wood that always sets me on edge. The trees skirt round enormous holes like a quarry, remains of old building are reduced to piles of bricks and there is an ominous absence of birdsong.

I know woods are deeply associated in our minds with fairy tales, Freudian analysis, and newspaper stories of bodies dumped or cruelty practised; but it is not all woods that have this dark atmosphere for me; just this one.

In terms of the relationship between poetry and place, I believe that the landscapes poets loved and recorded are haunted not by the poets themselves but by their words. When I lived in London it was easy to darken my perception to see the necropolis of Eliot’s Waste Land every time I crossed London Bridge. Now I am in the country the paths that pepper Edward Thomas’s poetry cross into my mind when I walk down the lane to our farm. I think of his reluctance to die, only because he would miss the beauty of the countryside so much.

This is the reality of how we see place. It is multilayered and complex. There is the physical reality of the place: its individual geography and ecosystem, then there is its history, what happened to us there, what happened to others there, and our emotional reaction to it (which is often beyond language). Then, if we love poetry or music or art we start making links. The wood then becomes Robert Frost’s ‘lovely, dark and deep’ place of rest, or the condemned urban trees that Charlotte Mew cried for in ‘The Trees are Down’, or the ancient woodlands of Robin Hood, Macbeth, Hansel and Gretel, or Little Red Cap.

This does not take away from the autonomous status of the place but says much about how we approach places as humans, and why we need to protect the landscapes which inspires our imaginations and make us fully human.