Archive for May, 2017

Wednesday 31st May 2017

Posted in Life the Universe and Other Things on May 31, 2017 by bishshat


A Poem for his birthday 2017

65 years old tomorrow

After Dylan Thomas

Beans fill the field
They rise to his chest
No more grass needed
The pigs have all passed away
So the field is less visited
All around him chaos
His thoughts smothered
His eyes see black smoke rise
Lots of blood, whaling mothers
Crying fathers and young men’s anger
The women hold court and batter the red men blue
They humiliate they poke they prod
He doesn’t like these angry women
He doesn’t like these angry men
His fight is over
He can ride the free bus
But it will only take him so far
Spare him the pain
Spare him the misery
Cut the dead wood
Fill the green bin
Sgt Pepper may be number one
But that’s just silly
He wants to be left in peace holding the baby

John Bish 31st May 2017


On His Twenty-Third Birthday

John Milton

How soon hath Time, the subtle thief of youth,
Stol’n on his wing my three-and-twentieth year!
My hasting days fly on with full career,
But my late spring no bud or blossom shew’th.
Perhaps my semblance might deceive the truth
That I to manhood am arriv’d so near;
And inward ripeness doth much less appear,
That some more timely-happy spirits endu’th.
Yet be it less or more, or soon or slow,
It shall be still in strictest measure ev’n
To that same lot, however mean or high,
Toward which Time leads me, and the will of Heav’n:
All is, if I have grace to use it so
As ever in my great Task-Master’s eye

when he was still a student at Cambridge. The sonnet shows a sense of dedication to a great mission, and the spirit of resignation to the Will of God. His life’s great ‘task’ requires inward ripeness. This is the passion of a great soul for noble achievement.
The poet says that time like a clever thief has very quickly and quietly taken away twenty three years of his life. The poet feels that time is fleeting but he still does not have to his credit some work of achievement as a poet.
In the next stanza, the poet says that his outward appearance might appear deceptive and go against the truth. He says that he has almost reached his manhood and has a mature look outwardly but has too little maturity of mind. The inner maturity of mind is more important for a poet than the physical one. That is why the poet envies his friends whose spiritual and physical developments go hand in hand.
The poet seems to be reconciling himself to the situation. He says that the inner maturity, in less or more quantity will surely come to him one day may be sooner or later. This would happen by the will of God. He shows his belief in God who decides all things for the best. The poet decides that when he acquires his intellect fully, he would use it for the service of God by composing religious poetry. This shows that the poet has high seriousness of purpose.

A Poem On His Birthday

Dylan Thomas
In the mustardseed sun,
By full tilt river and switchback sea
Where the cormorants scud,
In his house on stilts high among beaks
And palavers of birds
This sandgrain day in the bent bay’s grave
He celebrates and spurns
His driftwood thirty-fifth wind turned age;
Herons spire and spear.

Under and round him go
Flounders, gulls, on their cold, dying trails,
Doing what they are told,
Curlews aloud in the congered waves
Work at their ways to death,
And the rhymer in the long tongued room,
Who tolls his birthday bell,
Toesl towards the ambush of his wounds;
Herons, stepple stemmed, bless.

In the thistledown fall,
He sings towards anguish; finches fly
In the claw tracks of hawks
On a seizing sky; small fishes glide
Through wynds and shells of drowned
Ship towns to pastures of otters. He
In his slant, racking house
And the hewn coils of his trade perceives
Herons walk in their shroud,

The livelong river’s robe
Of minnows wreathing around their prayer;
And far at sea he knows,
Who slaves to his crouched, eternal end
Under a serpent cloud,
Dolphins dyive in their turnturtle dust,
The rippled seals streak down
To kill and their own tide daubing blood
Slides good in the sleek mouth.

In a cavernous, swung
Wave’s silence, wept white angelus knells.
Thirty-five bells sing struck
On skull and scar where his lovews lie wrecked,
Steered by the falling stars.
And to-morrow weeps in a blind cage
Terror will rage apart
Before chains break to a hammer flame
And love unbolts the dark

And freely he goes lost
In the unknown, famous light of great
And fabulous, dear God.
Dark is a way and light is a place,
Heaven that never was
Nor will be ever is alwas true,
And, in that brambled void,
Plenty as blackberries in the woods
The dead grow for His joy.

There he might wander bare
With the spirits of the horseshoe bay
Or the stars’ seashore dead,
Marrow of eagles, the roots of whales
And wishbones of wild geese,
With blessed, unborn God and His Ghost,
And every soul His priest,
Gulled and chanter in youg Heaven’s fold
Be at cloud quaking peace,

But dark is a long way.
He, on the earth of the night, alone
With all the living, prays,
Who knows the rocketing wind will blow
The bones out of the hills,
And the scythed boulders bleed, and the last
Rage shattered waters kick
Masts and fishes to the still quick stars,
Faithlessly unto Him

Who is the light of old
And air shaped Heaven where souls grow wild
As horses in the foam:
Oh, let me midlife mourn by the shrined
And druid herons’ vows
The voyage to ruin I must run,
Dawn ships clouted aground,
Yet, though I cry with tumbledown tongue,
Count my blessings aloud:

Four elements and five
Senses, and man a spirit in love
Thangling through this spun slime
To his nimbus bell cool kingdom come
And the lost, moonshine domes,
And the sea that hides his secret selves
Deep in its black, base bones,
Lulling of spheres in the seashell flesh,
And this last blessing most,

That the closer I move
To death, one man through his sundered hulks,
The louder the sun blooms
And the tusked, ramshackling sea exults;
And every wave of the way
And gale I tackle, the whole world then,
With more triumphant faith
That ever was since the world was said,
Spins its morning of praise,

I hear the bouncing hills
Grow larked and greener at berry brown
Fall and the dew larks sing
Taller this thuderclap spring, and how
More spanned with angles ride
The mansouled fiery islands! Oh,
Holier then their eyes,
And my shining men no more alone
As I sail out to die


Tuesday 30th May 2017

Posted in Life the Universe and Other Things on May 30, 2017 by bishshat

We Reap What We Sow

The children await an answer to the dreadful delivery

The labour party is over
Socialism is over
The dream of the common man is already real
Those with the wealth do not want to help the masses
The mass of those with a job don’t want to loose what they have
Those with nothing are a nuisance
The old are a nuisance
The sick are a nuisance
The poor scared incomers can go back to where they came from
The disconnected are sick so they too are a nuisance
Those with land want you to stay away from it
There is no common land
If you think we are one nation strong and stable
Think again
Zero hours contracts are great for me
Child labour at £4 an hour is great for me
Keep the masses away from education
Educating the masses is dangerous
We have seen this before
The lack of homes makes me richer
The brainwashed sit on fat arses in judgement
They vote for the trivial
The jungle
The x factor
Big brother
Well big brother is coming for you
Labour is done for
Socialism is dead
Even the Tory leader is seen in red

John Bish 30th May 2017


That’s Just The Way It Is

Phil Collins

All day long he was fighting for you
And he didn’t even know your name
Young men come and young men go
But life goes on just the same

And I don’t know why
Why do we keep holding on
I don’t know why
Pretending to be oh so strong
Oh why
Is there something I don’t know
Or something very wrong, with you and me
or maybe

That’s the way it is, there’s nothing I can do,
That’s just the way it is.

They’ve been waiting for word to come down
They’ve been waiting for you night and day
They won’t wait any longer for you
It may already be too late

And I don’t know why
You see the dying, you feel the pain
What have you got to say
If we agree that we can disagree
We could stop all of this today

It’s been your life for as long as you can remember
But you cannot fight no more
You must want to look your son in the eyes
When he asks you what you did it for

‘Cause all day long he was fighting for you
And he didn’t even know your name
Young men come and young men go
But life goes on just the same

I don’t know why
Why do we keep holding on
I don’t know why
Pretending to be, oh so strong
Oh why
Is there something no-one told me
Or something very wrong, with you and me
or maybe

That’s the way it is, there’s nothing I can do,
That’s just the way it is.

Monday 29th May 2017

Posted in Life the Universe and Other Things on May 29, 2017 by bishshat


June 8th Election. Corbyn v May on Paxman ch 4

I’ve been thinking. When Mrs May says about Brexit that no deal is better than a bad deal. It’s a lie. It sounds strong and people think ooo she is a tough woman but it’s really a cop out. It’s another falsehood because some sort of arrangement or a deal has to be drawn up in the leaving process. We are leaving she is going to see we get a deal. Good or bad some deal has to be brokered. Sounds strong to say she will walk away but she cannot it has to be done. There is no walking away from it. Or am I wrong?


Sunday 28th May 2017

Posted in Life the Universe and Other Things on May 29, 2017 by bishshat



Sylvia is a 2003 British biographical drama film directed by Christine Jeffs and starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Daniel Craig, Jared Harris, and Michael Gambon. It tells the true story of the romance between prominent poets Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. The film begins with their meeting at Cambridge in 1956 and ends with Sylvia Plath’s suicide in 1963.

Born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1932, Plath developed a precocious talent as a writer, publishing her first poem when she was only eight years old. That same year, tragedy introduced itself into her life as Plath was forced to confront the unexpected death of her father. In 1950, she began studying at Smith College on a literary scholarship, and while she was an outstanding student, she also began suffering from bouts of extreme depression. Following her junior year, she attempted suicide for the first time. Plath survived, and, in 1955, she was granted a Fulbright Scholarship to study in England at the University of Cambridge.)


The film begins with a shot of Plath sleeping, then opening her eyes. As a student at Cambridge she rides along on her red bicycle and wearing an academic gown. She hears of a party to celebrate the publishing of a magazine called St. Botolph’s, where she meets the young poet Ted Hughes. The two fall in love and marry in 1956, then go off to Massachusetts where her mother lives (Aurelia Plath, played by Paltrow’s mother Blythe Danner). While they both are teaching at Smith College. Sylvia quickly learns that others are also enthralled with her husband, for a combination of his good looks, charisma, fame and success. They return to England, first to London and then to Devon, where Sylvia raises their two children and lives in her husband’s professional shadow as she tries to eke out her own writing career, which doesn’t come as naturally to her as it does to Ted. After a visit by David and Assia Wevill, who had rented their London flat, Sylvia rightly accuses Ted of infidelity. She kicks him out and then begins to write the poems that would be published posthumously in her collection titled Ariel. Sylvia then moves back to London with her children. Ted visits at Christmas and they make love again but he says he cannot leave Assia, who is pregnant. Shortly thereafter she prepares for her suicide, sealing off the children’s room from the gas from her gas oven. A nurse comes to take out the children and Ted sees Plath’s manuscript on her desk. A closing title informs us that her book made her much beloved and that Ted wrote his response in 1998 (just before his death), in a collection titled The Birthday Letters.


Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) is a poet whose troubled life and powerful work remains a source of controversy. Born in Boston in the USA she was precociously intelligent, publishing her first poem at the age of eight. The same year her German father, Otto, died suddenly, a trauma which surfaces in her poetry repeatedly. Plath suffered from bouts of severe depression throughout her life, her first serious breakdown occurring in 1953 and later remembered in her autobiographical novel The Bell Jar (1963).


This episode led to her first suicide attempt, but she recovered and graduated from Smith College, Massachusetts before winning a Fullbright Scholarship to Cambridge University. Here she met the English poet, Ted Hughes, their passionate courtship leading quickly to marriage in June 1956. After two years teaching in the United States the couple returned to the UK when Plath became pregnant, their daughter Frieda being born in April 1960. By this time Hughes was established as a significant new voice in British poetry, but now Plath’s own first collection The Colossus was published and began to receive attention. After the birth of their son in 1962 their marriage became increasingly fraught with Plath’s mental instability and Hughes’ infidelity both likely contributing factors. The couple separated and Plath took the children to live with her in London. During an extraordinary burst of creativity in the autumn of 1962 Plath wrote most of the poems on which her reputation now rests. However, that winter was particularly severe and Plath became increasingly isolated and depressed: on February 11th 1963 she committed suicide by gassing herself in the kitchen of her flat. Debate has raged ever since over who was to blame for Plath’s early death, the feminist movement adopting her as an icon and interpreting Hughes’ role as her literary executor, particularly his destruction of her final journal, as continuing a patriarchal oppression she had experienced in life. More recently this interpretation has been challenged, not least by Hughes himself in his collection Birthday Letters, which give his view of their marriage in a series of tender and searing poems. Plath’s own work, with its intense sometimes shocking use of metaphor and her exploration of extreme states of mind, refuses to be overshadowed by her tragic biography: in 1982 she became the first poet to be posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her Collected Poems.

17thumbSylvia Movie - Gwyneth Paltrowhqdefault

‘Parliament Hill Fields’ was written after she had experienced a miscarriage in February 1961 and shows her ability to invest external landscape with the urgency of psychic disturbance. In her introduction to this poem, Plath’s comments suggest that the poem’s narrator is a third party, not herself. This is revealing: whilst considered a leading “confessional” poet, Plath often uses dramatic monologue, as in her famous poem ‘The Applicant’. In this devastating satire on the conventional marriage, she uses the sales-speak of modern commerce to expose society’s de-humanising expectations. Both poems show Plath’s skill in manipulating the sound of language: the rich alliteration and assonance of ‘Parliament Hill Fields’ creating a palpable sense of place, whilst the short lines of ‘The Applicant’ contribute to its aggressive tone, as encapsulated in her repeated use of the pronoun “it”. Plath’s reading style is cool and controlled but this only emphasises the driven energy of these extraordinary testaments, sent from the edge of experience.

Parliament Hill Fields

Sylvia Plath

On this bald hill the new year hones its edge.
Faceless and pale as china
The round sky goes on minding its business.
Your absence is inconspicuous;
Nobody can tell what I lack.

Gulls have threaded the river’s mud bed back
To this crest of grass. Inland, they argue,
Settling and stirring like blown paper
Or the hands of an invalid. The wan
Sun manages to strike such tin glints

From the linked ponds that my eyes wince
And brim; the city melts like sugar.
A crocodile of small girls
Knotting and stopping, ill-assorted, in blue uniforms,
Opens to swallow me. I’m a stone, a stick,

One child drops a barrette of pink plastic;
None of them seem to notice.
Their shrill, gravelly gossip’s funneled off.
Now silence after silence offers itself.
The wind stops my breath like a bandage.

Southward, over Kentish Town, an ashen smudge
Swaddles roof and tree.
It could be a snowfield or a cloudbank.
I suppose it’s pointless to think of you at all.
Already your doll grip lets go.

The tumulus, even at noon, guards its black shadow:
You know me less constant,
Ghost of a leaf, ghost of a bird.
I circle the writhen trees. I am too happy.
These faithful dark-boughed cypresses

Brood, rooted in their heaped losses.
Your cry fades like the cry of a gnat.
I lose sight of you on your blind journey,
While the heath grass glitters and the spindling rivulets
Unspool and spend themselves. My mind runs with them,

Pooling in heel-prints, fumbling pebble and stem.
The day empties its images
Like a cup or a room. The moon’s crook whitens,
Thin as the skin seaming a scar.
Now, on the nursery wall,

The blue night plants, the little pale blue hill
In your sister’s birthday picture start to glow.
The orange pompons, the Egyptian papyrus
Light up. Each rabbit-eared
Blue shrub behind the glass

Exhales an indigo nimbus,
A sort of cellophane balloon.
The old dregs, the old difficulties take me to wife.
Gulls stiffen to their chill vigil in the drafty half-light;
I enter the lit house.

MCDSYLV EC035WKD HUGHES PAPERS-185036040CD72A000005DC-3259321-image-a-3_1443956581295

Lady Lazarus 

Sylvia Plath 

I have done it again.
One year in every ten
I manage it——

A sort of walking miracle, my skin
Bright as a Nazi lampshade,
My right foot

A paperweight,
My face a featureless, fine
Jew linen.

Peel off the napkin
O my enemy.
Do I terrify?——

The nose, the eye pits, the full set of teeth?
The sour breath
Will vanish in a day.

Soon, soon the flesh
The grave cave ate will be
At home on me

And I a smiling woman.
I am only thirty.
And like the cat I have nine times to die.

This is Number Three.
What a trash
To annihilate each decade.

What a million filaments.
The peanut-crunching crowd
Shoves in to see

Them unwrap me hand and foot——
The big strip tease.
Gentlemen, ladies

These are my hands
My knees.
I may be skin and bone,

Nevertheless, I am the same, identical woman.
The first time it happened I was ten.
It was an accident.

The second time I meant
To last it out and not come back at all.
I rocked shut

As a seashell.
They had to call and call
And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls.

Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.

I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I’ve a call.

It’s easy enough to do it in a cell.
It’s easy enough to do it and stay put.
It’s the theatrical

Comeback in broad day
To the same place, the same face, the same brute
Amused shout:

‘A miracle!’
That knocks me out.
There is a charge

For the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge
For the hearing of my heart——
It really goes.

And there is a charge, a very large charge
For a word or a touch
Or a bit of blood

Or a piece of my hair or my clothes.
So, so, Herr Doktor.
So, Herr Enemy.

I am your opus,
I am your valuable,
The pure gold baby

That melts to a shriek.
I turn and burn.
Do not think I underestimate your great concern.

Ash, ash—
You poke and stir.
Flesh, bone, there is nothing there——

A cake of soap,
A wedding ring,
A gold filling.

Herr God, Herr Lucifer

Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.


Sylvia Plath

Viciousness in the kitchen!
The potatoes hiss.
It is all Hollywood, windowless,
The fluorescent light wincing on and off like a terrible migraine,
Coy paper strips for doors
Stage curtains, a widow’s frizz.
And I, love, am a pathological liar,
And my child look at her, face down on the floor,
Little unstrung puppet, kicking to disappear
Why she is schizophrenic,
Her face is red and white, a panic,
You have stuck her kittens outside your window
In a sort of cement well
Where they crap and puke and cry and she can’t hear.
You say you can’t stand her,
The bastard’s a girl.
You who have blown your tubes like a bad radio
Clear of voices and history, the staticky
Noise of the new.
You say I should drown the kittens. Their smell!
You say I should drown my girl.
She’ll cut her throat at ten if she’s mad at two.
The baby smiles, fat snail,
From the polished lozenges of orange linoleum.
You could eat him. He’s a boy.
You say your husband is just no good to you.
His Jew-Mama guards his sweet sex like a pearl.
You have one baby, I have two.
I should sit on a rock off Cornwall and comb my hair.
I should wear tiger pants, I should have an affair.
We should meet in another life, we should meet in air,
Me and you.

Meanwhile there’s a stink of fat and baby crap.
I’m doped and thick from my last sleeping pill.
The smog of cooking, the smog of hell
Floats our heads, two venemous opposites,
Our bones, our hair.
I call you Orphan, orphan. You are ill.
The sun gives you ulcers, the wind gives you T.B.
Once you were beautiful.
In New York, in Hollywood, the men said: “Through?
Gee baby, you are rare.”
You acted, acted for the thrill.
The impotent husband slumps out for a coffee.
I try to keep him in,
An old pole for the lightning,
The acid baths, the skyfuls off of you.
He lumps it down the plastic cobbled hill,
Flogged trolley. The sparks are blue.
The blue sparks spill,
Splitting like quartz into a million bits.

O jewel! O valuable!
That night the moon
Dragged its blood bag, sick
Up over the harbor lights.
And then grew normal,
Hard and apart and white.
The scale-sheen on the sand scared me to death.
We kept picking up handfuls, loving it,
Working it like dough, a mulatto body,
The silk grits.
A dog picked up your doggy husband. He went on.

Now I am silent, hate
Up to my neck,
Thick, thick.
I do not speak.
I am packing the hard potatoes like good clothes,
I am packing the babies,
I am packing the sick cats.
O vase of acid,
It is love you are full of. You know who you hate.
He is hugging his ball and chain down by the gate
That opens to the sea
Where it drives in, white and black,
Then spews it back.
Every day you fill him with soul-stuff, like a pitcher.
You are so exhausted.
Your voice my ear-ring,
Flapping and sucking, blood-loving bat.
That is that. That is that.
You peer from the door,
Sad hag. “Every woman’s a whore.
I can’t communicate.”

I see your cute decor
Close on you like the fist of a baby
Or an anemone, that sea
Sweetheart, that kleptomaniac.
I am still raw.
I say I may be back.
You know what lies are for.

Even in your Zen heaven we shan’t meet.


Sylvia Plath

The idiot bird leaps out and drunken leans
Atop the broken universal clock:
The hour is crowed in lunatic thirteens.
Out painted stages fall apart by scenes
While all the actors halt in mortal shock:
The idiot bird leaps out and drunken leans.

Streets crack through in havoc-split ravines
As the doomstruck city crumbles block by block:
The hour is crowed in lunatic thirteens.

Fractured glass flies down in smithereens;
Our lucky relics have been put in hock:
The idiot bird leaps out and drunken leans.

The monkey’s wrench has blasted all machines;
We never thought to hear the holy cock:
The hour is crowed in lunatic thirteens.

Too late to ask if end was worth the means,
Too late to calculate the toppling stock:
The idiot bird leaps out and drunken leans,
The hour is crowed in lunatic thirteens.

Poet Ted Hughestumblr_kz53coyyc71qadfqfo1_500

Ted Hughes

Ted Hughes (1930-1998) is a brooding presence in the landscape of 20th Century poetry, not unlike the six hundred feet-high Scout Rock which overshadowed his Yorkshire childhood. Hughes’ early experience of the moors and his industrially-scarred surroundings were the keynotes of his later poetic imagination: an unflinching observation of the natural world and the shaping, often damaging, presence of man. Also important in moulding his sensibility was the strong dissenting tradition of this part of the world which would later feed into Hughes’ critique of the utilitarian rationalism of Western culture. Hughes grew up in Mexborough, a coal-mining town, and in 1948 won an Open Exhibition to Cambridge University. He began by studying English, but switched to anthropology: his encounter with the poetry and folklore of primitive societies would also be an important influence. Whilst at Cambridge Hughes met the talented but already emotionally vulnerable American poet, Sylvia Plath, and after a passionate romance they married four months later. Plath’s drive and faith in her husband’s ability hugely contributed to the publication of his ground-breaking first collection, The Hawk in the Rain (1957). This made an immediate impression, not least because it constituted such a profound shift away from the restrained language and ironies of the Movement generation of poets that preceded Hughes. With its harsh rhythms and diction, influenced by Anglo-Saxon, and its vivid, grandiose imagery, The Hawk in the Rain showed Hughes was prepared to risk greater claims for poetry and to celebrate what the Movement poets thought should be repressed; primitive energy and the power of the unconscious. After a period spent teaching and writing in the United States, Hughes and Plath returned to England in December 1959. The following year saw the publication of Lupercal which sealed Hughes’ reputation as a major poet and includes many of his most popular evocations of animals, including the Archive-featured ‘Pike’. His growing professional success was, however, at odds with his personal life; by now Plath and Hughes had had two children, but her jealousy and mental instability had begun to drive a wedge between them. Hughes began an affair with a married woman, Assia Wevill, and separated from Plath. Left alone with the children in a London flat, Plath’s growing despair is immortalised in her final book, Ariel, and she committed suicide in February 1963. Further personal trauma was to follow for Hughes when Wevill also committed suicide, taking their daughter, Shura, with her in 1969. These events and the furore around his relationship with Plath in particular never died down, and perhaps explain Hughes’ reluctance to live in the public eye, even after his appointment as Poet Laureate in 1984. It’s not surprising that his fourth book published in 1970 is also his darkest: Crow, with its greedy, violent protagonist is written in a slangy vernacular and draws on the dark fabulist tradition of Eastern European poetry which Hughes did a great deal to bring to British readers’ attention. In 1970 Hughes married Carol Orchard and finally settled in her home county of Devon where he became a farmer and began to enjoy the domestic peace which had eluded him previously. His passionate belief in writing for children prompted a collaboration with Seamus Heaney on two best-selling anthologies, The Rattle Bag and The School Bag. Hughes was also the presiding influence behind the establishment of the Arvon Foundation to promote creative talent through residential writing courses. Hughes’ creative energies remained high, producing acclaimed collections including, just before his death, The Birthday Letters (1998), which revisited the fraught territory of his first marriage with searing honesty and tenderness.

One of Hughes’ most famous poems, ‘The Thought Fox’ demonstrates the inextricable relationship between the poet’s imagination and the natural world, the paw prints of the fox in the snow becoming the marks of the words on the page which describe them. The creative process in this poem is akin to a kind of hunting, an analogy Hughes made explicit in a BBC broadcast called ‘Capturing Animals’ from which his reading of ‘Pike’ is taken: like the angler, the poet must hunt his subject with patient concentration. ‘February 17th’ from Moortown Diary (1989) demonstrates a different method of composition, with Hughes recording his impressions of an event in a kind of spontaneous rough verse. Throughout his career, Hughes seldom used strict form, being more interested in the raw energy of the moment of witness. This poem is an extreme example of his favoured technique, its bleak and beautiful music revealing the harsh realities of life and death through one small happening on a Devon hillside.

Ted Hughes and wife Carol Orchard at their home in Devon 1970s_85790889_tedhughescarol1984pa

The Thought-Fox

Ted Hughes

I imagine this midnight moment’s forest:
Something else is alive
Beside the clock’s loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.

Through the window I see no star:
Something more near
Though deeper within darkness
Is entering the loneliness:

Cold, delicately as the dark snow,
A fox’s nose touches twig, leaf;
Two eyes serve a movement, that now
And again now, and now, and now

Sets neat prints into the snow
Between trees, and warily a lame
Shadow lags by stump and in hollow
Of a body that is bold to come

Across clearings, an eye,
A widening deepening greenness,
Brilliantly, concentratedly,
Coming about its own business

Till, with sudden sharp hot stink of fox
It enters the dark hole of the head.
The window is starless still; the clock ticks,
The page is printed.

The Minotaur

Ted Hughes

The mahogany table-top you smashed
Had been the broad plank top
Of my mother’s heirloom sideboard-
Mapped with the scars of my whole life.

That came under the hammer.
That high stool you swung that day
Demented by my being
Twenty minutes late for baby-minding.

‘Marvellous!’ I shouted, ‘Go on,
Smash it into kindling.
That’s the stuff you’re keeping out of your poems!’
And later, considered and calmer,

‘Get that shoulder under your stanzas
And we’ll be away.’ Deep in the cave of your ear
The goblin snapped his fingers.
So what had I given him?

The bloody end of the skein
That unravelled your marriage,
Left your children echoing
Like tunnels in a labyrinth.

Left your mother a dead-end,
Brought you to the horned, bellowing
Grave of your risen father
And your own corpse in it.

Ted Hughes, The Art of Poetry No. 71

Interviewed by Drue Heinz

Born Edward James Hughes on August 17, 1930 in the small mill town of Mytholmroyd, he is the youngest of the three children of Edith Farrar Hughes and William Henry Hughes. The first seven years of his life were spent in West Yorkshire, on that area’s barren, windswept moors. Hughes once said that he could “never escape the impression that the whole region [was] in mourning for the First World War.”
He began to write poetry at age seven, after his family moved to Mexborough. It was under the tutelage of his teacher at the town’s only grammar school that Hughes began to mature—his work evolving into the rhythmic passionate poetry for which he has become known throughout the world.
Following two years of service in the Royal Air Force, Hughes enrolled at Pembroke College, Cambridge University. He had initially intended to study English literature but found that department’s curriculum too limited; archeology and anthropology proved to be areas of the academic arena more suited to his taste.
Two years after graduating, Hughes and a group of classmates founded the infamous literary magazine St. Botolph’s Review—known more for its inaugural party than its longevity (it lasted only one issue). It was at that party that Hughes met Sylvia Plath, an American student studying in England. Plath would recall the event in a journal entry: “I met the strongest man in the world, ex-Cambridge, brilliant poet whose work I loved before I met him, a large, bulky, healthy Adam, half French, half Irish, with a voice like the thunder of god—a singer, story-teller, lion, and world wanderer, a vagabond who will never stop.” They were wed on June 16, 1956 and remained married for six and a half years, having two children, Frieda and Nicholas. In the fall of 1962 they became estranged over Hughes’s alleged infidelities. On February 11, 1963, while residing in a separate apartment, Plath placed towels under the door of the room where her children were napping, laid out a snack for them, turned on the gas jet of her kitchen stove and placed her head in the oven—asphyxiating herself.
A few months after their marriage Plath had entered a number of her husband’s poems in a competition judged by W. H. Auden, among others. Hughes was awarded first prize for his collection Hawk in the Rain. It was published in 1957 by Faber & Faber in England and Harper & Row in America. With his next publication, Lupercal, in 1960, Hughes became recognized as one of the most significant English poets to emerge since World War II, winning the Somerset Maugham Award in 1960 and the Hawthornden Prize in 1961.
His next notable work was Wadwo, a compilation of five short stories, a radio play, and some forty poems. Although it contained many of the violent animal images of Hughes’s earlier work, it reflected the poet’s growing enchantment with mythology. Wadwo led Hughes into an odd fascination with one of the most solitary and ominous images in folklore, the crow. While his aspiration to create an epic tale centering on this bird has not been fulfilled, he did publish Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow in 1970, sixty-six poems or “songs,” as Hughes referred to them. The American version, published by Harper the following year, was well received. The New York Review of Books said that Crow was “perhaps a more plausible explanation for the present condition of the world than the Christian sequence.”
Still deeply interested in mythology and folklore, Hughes created Orghast, a play based largely on the Prometheus legend, in 1971, while he was in Iran with members of the International Center for Theater Research. He wrote most of the play’s dialogue in an invented language to illustrate the theory that sound alone could express very complex human emotions. Hughes continued on this theme with his next work of poetry entitled Prometheus on His Crag, published in 1973 by Rainbow Press.
His next two works of note, Cave Birds and Gaudete, were predominantly based on the Gravesian concept that mankind has sinned by denying the “White Goddess,” the natural, primordial aspect of modern man, while choosing to nurture a conscious, almost sterile intellectual humanism.
Following the publication of his 1983 work River, Ted Hughes was named poet laureate of Great Britain. His recent publications, Flowers and Insects (1987) and Wolfwatching (1991), show a return to his earlier nature-oriented work—possessing a raw force that evokes the physical immediacy of human experience.
Hughes has shown a great range in his work, and aside from his adult verse, he has written children’s stories (Tales of the Early World), poetry (Under the North Star) and plays (The Coming of the Kings). Hughes has also edited selections of other writers’ work, most notably the late Plath’s. The controversy surrounding Hughes’s notorious editing and reordering of Plath’s poetry and journals, the destruction of at least one volume of the latter, as well as the mysterious disappearance of her putative final novel have mythologized both poets and made it difficult for Hughes to live the anonymous life he has sought in rural Devonshire.

Would you like to talk about your childhood? What shaped your work and contributed to your development as a poet?
Well, as far as my writing is concerned, maybe the crucial thing was that I spent my first years in a valley in West Yorkshire in the north of England, which was really a long street of industrial towns—textile mills, textile factories. The little village where I was born had quite a few; the next town fifty. And so on. These towns were surrounded by a very wide landscape of high moorland, in contrast to that industry into which everybody disappeared everyday. They just vanished. If you weren’t at school you were alone in an empty wilderness.
When I came to consciousness my whole interest was in wild animals. My earliest memories are of the lead animal toys you could buy in those days, wonderfully accurate models. Throughout my childhood I collected these. I had a brother, ten years older, whose passion was shooting. He wanted to be a big game hunter or a game warden in Africa—that was his dream. His compromise in West Yorkshire was to shoot over the hillsides and on the moor edge with a rifle. He would take me along. So my early memories of being three and four are of going off with him, being his retriever. I became completely preoccupied by his world of hunting. He was also a very imaginative fellow; he mythologized his hunting world as North American Indian, paleolithic. And I lived in his dream. Up to the age of seventeen or eighteen, shooting and fishing and my preoccupation with animals were pretty well my life, apart from books. That makes me sound like more of a loner than I was. Up to twelve or thirteen I also played with my town friends every evening, a little gang, the innocent stuff of those days, kicking about the neighborhood. But weekends I was off on my own. I had a double life.
The writing, the reading came up gradually behind that. From the age of about eight or nine I read just about every comic book available in England. At that time my parents owned a newsagent’s shop. I took the comics from the shop, read them, and put them back. That went on until I was twelve or thirteen. Then my mother brought in a sort of children’s encyclopedia that included sections of folklore. Little folktales. I remember the shock of reading those stories. I could not believe that such wonderful things existed. The only stories we’d had as younger children were ones our mother had told us—that she made up, mostly. In those early days ours wasn’t a house full of books. My father knew quite long passages of “Hiawatha” that he used to recite, something he had from his school days. That had its effect. I remember I wrote a good deal of comic verse for classroom consumption in Hiawatha meter. But throughout your life you have certain literary shocks, and the folktales were my first. From then on I began to collect folklore, folk stories, and mythology. That became my craze.
Can you remember when you first started writing?
I first started writing those comic verses when I was eleven, when I went to grammar school. I realized that certain things I wrote amused my teacher and my classmates. I began to regard myself as a writer, writing as my specialty. But nothing more than that until I was about fourteen, when I discovered Kipling’s poems. I was completely bowled over by the rhythm. Their rhythmical, mechanical drive got into me. So suddenly I began to write rhythmical poems, long sagas in Kiplingesque rhythms. I started showing them to my English teacher—at the time a young woman in her early twenties, very keen on poetry. I suppose I was fourteen, fifteen. I was sensitive, of course, to any bit of recognition of anything in my writing. I remember her—probably groping to say something encouraging—pointing to one phrase saying, This is really . . . interesting. Then she said, It’s real poetry. It wasn’t a phrase; it was a compound epithet concerning the hammer of a punt gun on an imaginary wildfowling hunt. I immediately pricked up my ears. That moment still seems the crucial one. Suddenly I became interested in producing more of that kind of thing. Her words somehow directed me to the main pleasure in my own life, the kind of experience I lived for. So I homed in. Then very quickly—you know how fast these things happen at that age—I began to think, Well, maybe this is what I want to do. And by the time I was sixteen that was all I wanted to do.
I equipped myself in the most obvious way: whatever I liked I tried to learn by heart. I imitated things. And I read a great deal aloud to myself. Reading verse aloud put me on a kind of high. Gradually all this replaced shooting and fishing. When my shooting pal went off to do his national service, I used to sit around in the woods, muttering through my books. I read the whole of The Faerie Queene like that. All of Milton. Lots more. It became sort of a hobby-habit. I read a good deal else as well and was constantly trying to write something, of course. That same teacher lent me her Eliot and introduced me to three or four of Hopkins’s poems. Then I met Yeats. I was still preoccupied by Kipling when I met Yeats via the third part of his poem “The Wandering of Oisin,” which was in the kind of meter I was looking for. Yeats sucked me in through the Irish folklore and myth and the occult business. My dominant passion in poetry up to and through university was Yeats, Yeats under the canopy of Shakespeare and Blake. By the time I got to university, at twenty-one, my sacred canon was fixed: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Blake, Wordsworth, Keats, Coleridge, Hopkins, Yeats, Eliot. I knew no American poetry at all except Eliot. I had a complete Whitman but still didn’t know how to read it. The only modern foreign poet I knew was Rilke in Spender’s and Leishmann’s translation. I was fascinated by Rilke. I had one or two collections with me through my national service. I could see the huge worlds of other possibilities opening in there. But I couldn’t see how to get into them. I also had my mother’s Bible, a small book with the psalms, Jeremiah, the Song of Songs, Proverbs, Job, and other bits here and there all set out as free verse. I read whatever contemporary verse I happened to come across, but apart from Dylan Thomas and Auden, I rejected it. It didn’t give me any leads somehow, or maybe I simply wasn’t ready for it.
Was it difficult to make a living when you started out? How did you do it?
I was ready to do anything, really. Any small job. I went to the U.S. and taught a little bit, though I didn’t want to. I taught first in England in a secondary school, fourteen-year-old boys. I experienced the terrific exhaustion of that profession. I wanted to keep my energy for myself, as if I had the right. I found teaching fascinating but wanted too much to do something else. Then I saw how much money could be made quite quickly by writing children’s books. A story—perhaps not true—is that Maxine Kumin wrote fifteen children’s stories and made a thousand dollars for each. That seemed to me preferable to attempting a big novel or a problematic play, which would devour great stretches of time with doubtful results in cash. Also, it seemed to me I had a knack of a kind for inventing children’s stories. So I did write quite a few. But I didn’t have Maxine Kumin’s magic. I couldn’t sell any of them. I sold them only years later, after my verse had made a reputation for me of a kind. So up to the age of thirty-three, I was living on what one lives on: reviews, BBC work, little radio plays, that sort of thing. Anything for immediate cash. Then, when I was thirty-three, I suddenly received in the post the news that the Abraham Woursell Foundation had given me a lecturer’s salary at the University of Vienna for five years. I had no idea how I came to be awarded this. That salary took me from thirty-four years old to thirty-eight, and by that time I was earning my living by my writing. A critical five years. That was when I had the children, and the money saved me from looking for a job outside the house.
Do you have a favorite place to write or can you write anywhere?
Hotel rooms are good. Railway compartments are good. I’ve had several huts of one sort or another. Ever since I began to write with a purpose I’ve been looking for the ideal place. I think most writers go through it. I’ve known several who liked to treat it as a job—writing in some office well away from home, going there regular hours. Sylvia had a friend, a novelist, who used to leave her grand house and go into downtown Boston to a tiny room with a table and chair where she wrote facing a blank wall. Didn’t Somerset Maugham also write facing a blank wall? Subtle distraction is the enemy—a big beautiful view, the tide going in and out. Of course, you think it oughtn’t to matter, and sometimes it doesn’t. Several of my favorite pieces in my book Crow I wrote traveling up and down Germany with a woman and small child—I just went on writing wherever we were. Enoch Powell claims that noise and bustle help him to concentrate. Then again, Goethe couldn’t write a line if there was another person anywhere in the same house, or so he said at some point. I’ve tried to test it on myself, and my feeling is that your sense of being concentrated can deceive you. Writing in what seems to be a happy concentrated way, in a room in your own house with books and everything necessary to your life around you, produces something noticeably different, I think, from writing in some empty silent place far away from all that. Because however we concentrate, we remain aware at some level of everything around us. Fast asleep, we keep track of the time to the second. The person conversing at one end of a long table quite unconsciously uses the same unusual words, within a second or two, as the person conversing with somebody else at the other end—though they’re amazed to learn they’ve done it. Also, different kinds of writing need different kinds of concentration. Goethe, picking up a transmission from the other side of his mind, from beyond his usual mind, needs different tuning than Enoch Powell when he writes a speech. Brain rhythms would show us what’s going on, I expect. But for me successful writing has usually been a case of having found good conditions for real, effortless concentration. When I was living in Boston, in my late twenties, I was so conscious of this that at one point I covered the windows with brown paper to blank out any view and wore earplugs—simply to isolate myself from distraction. That’s how I worked for a year. When I came back to England, I think the best place I found in that first year or two was a tiny cubicle at the top of the stairs that was no bigger than a table really. But it was a wonderful place to write. I mean, I can see now, by what I wrote there, that it was a good place. At the time it just seemed like a convenient place.
What tools do you require?
Just a pen.
Just a pen? You write longhand?
I made an interesting discovery about myself when I first worked for a film company. I had to write brief summaries of novels and plays to give the directors some idea of their film potential—a page or so of prose about each book or play and then my comment. That was where I began to write for the first time directly onto a typewriter. I was then about twenty-five. I realized instantly that when I composed directly onto the typewriter my sentences became three times as long, much longer. My subordinate clauses flowered and multiplied and ramified away down the length of the page, all much more eloquently than anything I would have written by hand. Recently I made another similar discovery. For about thirty years I’ve been on the judging panel of the W. H. Smith children’s writing competition. Annually there are about sixty thousand entries. These are cut down to about eight hundred. Among these our panel finds seventy prizewinners. Usually the entries are a page, two pages, three pages. That’s been the norm. Just a poem or a bit of prose, a little longer. But in the early 1980s we suddenly began to get seventy- and eighty-page works. These were usually space fiction, always very inventive and always extraordinarily fluent—a definite impression of a command of words and prose, but without exception strangely boring. It was almost impossible to read them through. After two or three years, as these became more numerous, we realized that this was a new thing. So we inquired. It turned out that these were pieces that children had composed on word processors. What’s happening is that as the actual tools for getting words onto the page become more flexible and externalized, the writer can get down almost every thought or every extension of thought. That ought to be an advantage. But in fact, in all these cases, it just extends everything slightly too much. Every sentence is too long. Everything is taken a bit too far, too attenuated. There’s always a bit too much there, and it’s too thin. Whereas when writing by hand you meet the terrible resistance of what happened your first year at it when you couldn’t write at all . . . when you were making attempts, pretending to form letters. These ancient feelings are there, wanting to be expressed. When you sit with your pen, every year of your life is right there, wired into the communication between your brain and your writing hand. There is a natural characteristic resistance that produces a certain kind of result analogous to your actual handwriting. As you force your expression against that built-in resistance, things become automatically more compressed, more summary and, perhaps, psychologically denser. I suppose if you use a word processor and deliberately prune everything back, alert to the tendencies, it should be possible to get the best of both worlds.
Maybe what I’m saying applies only to those who have gone through the long conditioning of writing only with a pen or pencil up through their mid-twenties. For those who start early on a typewriter or, these days, on a computer screen, things must be different. The wiring must be different. In handwriting the brain is mediated by the drawing hand, in typewriting by the fingers hitting the keyboard, in dictation by the idea of a vocal style, in word processing by touching the keyboard and by the screen’s feedback. The fact seems to be that each of these methods produces a different syntactic result from the same brain. Maybe the crucial element in handwriting is that the hand is simultaneously drawing. I know I’m very conscious of hidden imagery in handwriting—a subtext of a rudimentary picture language. Perhaps that tends to enforce more cooperation from the other side of the brain. And perhaps that extra load of right brain suggestions prompts a different succession of words and ideas. Perhaps that’s what I am talking about.
So word processing is a new discipline.
It’s a new discipline that these particular children haven’t learned. And which I think some novelists haven’t learned. “Brevity is the soul of wit.” It makes the imagination jump. I think I recognize among some modern novels the supersonic hand of the word processor uncurbed. When Henry James started dictating, his sentences became interminable, didn’t they? And the physical world, as his brother William complained, suddenly disappeared from them. Henry hadn’t realized. He was astonished.
How long does it take to write a poem? Of course it depends on length and hibernation time, but still . . .
Well, in looking back over the whole lot, the best ones took just as long as it took to write them down; the not-so-satisfactory ones I’d tinker with sometimes for two or three years, but certainly for a few days, and I’d continue making changes over months. Some of them I’d still like to change.
Are poems ever truly finished?
My experience with the things that arrive instantaneously is that I can’t change them. They are finished. There is one particular poem, an often anthologized piece that just came—“Hawk Roosting.” I simply wrote it out just as it appeared in front of me. There is a word in the middle that I’m not sure about. I always have this internal hiccup when I get to it because I had to make the choice between the singular and the plural form and neither of them is right.
Has the answer occurred to you since?
No. I don’t know that it could be solved. It’s just one of those funny things. So that poem was abandoned insofar as I couldn’t solve that problem. But otherwise it’s a poem that I could no more think of changing than physically changing myself. Poems get to the point where they are stronger than you are. They come up from some other depth and they find a place on the page. You can never find that depth again, that same kind of authority and voice. I might feel I would like to change something about them, but they’re still stronger than I am and I cannot.
Do you read or show your work to others while it is in progress?
I try not to. There’s a Jewish proverb that Leonard Baskin’s always quoting: Never show fools half-work. That “fools” is a bit hard, but I imagine most people who make things know what is meant.
How has criticism of your work affected you or your poetry?
I think it’s the shock of every writer’s life when their first book is published. The shock of their lives. One has somehow to adjust from being anonymous, a figure in ambush, working from concealment, to being and working in full public view. It had an enormous effect on me. My impression was that I had suddenly walked into a wall of heavy hostile fire. That first year I wrote verses with three magical assonances to the line with the intention of abolishing certain critics! Now I read those reviews and they seem quite good. So it was writer’s paranoia. The shock to a person who’s never been named in public of being mentioned in newspapers can be absolutely traumatic. To everybody else it looks fairly harmless, even enviable. What I can see was that it enormously accelerated my determination to bring my whole operation into my own terms, to make my own form of writing and to abandon a lot of more casual paths that I might have followed. If I’d remained completely unknown, a writer not commented on, I think I might have gone off in all kinds of other directions. One can never be sure, of course.
Wasn’t there ever a desire to do something else?
Yes, always. Yes. I’ve sometimes wondered if it wouldn’t be a good idea to write under a few pseudonyms. Keep several quite different lines of writing going. Like Fernando Pessoa, the Portuguese poet who tried four different poetic personalities. They all worked simultaneously. He simply lived with the four. What does Eliot say? “Dance, dance, / Like a dancing bear, / Cry like a parrot, chatter like an ape, / To find expression.” It’s certainly limiting to confine your writing to one public persona, because the moment you publish your own name you lose freedom. It’s like being in a close-knit family. The moment you do anything new, the whole family jumps on it, comments, teases, advises against, does everything to make you self-conscious. There’s a unanimous reaction to keep you as you were. You’d suppose any writer worth his salt could be bold and fearless and not give a damn. But in fact very few can. We’re at the mercy of the groups that shaped our early days. We’re so helplessly social—like cells in an organ. Maybe that’s why madness sometimes works—it knocks out the oversensitive connection. And maybe that’s why exile is good. I wonder if the subjective impression of most writers is that whenever they take a new step, some big, unconscious reaction among readers tries to stop them . . . often a big conscious reaction among colleagues. Hardy stopped writing novels by just that. In his late years, while he was up in an apple tree, pruning it, he had a vision of the most magnificent novel—all the characters, many episodes, even some dialogue—the one ultimate novel that he absolutely had to write. What happened? By the time he came down out of the tree the whole vision had fled. And it never reappeared. Even Goethe, back then, made some remark about the impossibility of producing a natural oeuvre of fully ripened works when everything was instantly before the public and its hectic, printed reactions. Of course Goethe himself was a terrible stopper of other young writers. One of the strongest arguments that Shakespeare’s plays were written by somebody unsuspected, maybe, was the uniquely complete development of that creative mind and its vision.
Also, there’s a tendency to lay down laws for yourself about the kind of thing you want to do—an ideal of style, an exemplary probity of some kind, or maybe an ideal of thuggery, a release into disregard for all conventions and so on. Once they become your expected product, these are all traps. One way out of this might be to write a kind of provisional drama where you can explore all sorts of different provisional attitudes and voices. Remember the unresolved opposition of Trigorin and Treplev in Chekov’s The Seagull? Chekov had a huge nostalgia for Treplev’s weird vision. Somewhere he described the sort of work he longed to write—full of passionate, howling women, Greek tragedy dimension—and he bemoans the gentle doctor’s attentiveness that imbues his actual writing. Now, if he’d been anonymous from the start, might he have explored the other things too? In poetry, living as a public persona in your writing is maybe even more crippling. Once you’ve contracted to write only the truth about yourself—as in some respected kinds of modern verse, or as in Shakespeare’s sonnets—then you can too easily limit yourself to what you imagine are the truths of the ego that claims your conscious biography. Your own equivalent of what Shakespeare got into his plays is simply foregone. But being experimental isn’t enough. The plunge has to be for real. The new thing has to be not you or has to seem so till it turns out to be the new you or the other you.
You say that every writer should have a pseudonym for writing things different than their usual work. Have you ever used one?
Never—except once or twice at university. But I wish I had. I wish I’d established one or two out there. The danger, I suppose, of using pseudonyms is that it interferes with that desirable process—the unification of the personality. Goethe said that even the writing of plays, dividing the imagination up among different fictional personalities, damaged what he valued—the mind’s wholeness. I wonder what he meant exactly, since he also described his mode of thinking as imagined conversations with various people. Maybe the pseudonyms, like other personalities conjured up in a dramatic work, can be a preliminary stage of identifying and exploring new parts of yourself. Then the next stage would be to incorporate them in the unifying process. Accept responsibility for them. Maybe that’s what Yeats meant by seeking his opposite. The great Sufi master Ibn el-Arabi described the essential method of spiritual advancement as an inner conversation with the personalities that seem to exist beyond what you regard as your own limits . . . getting those personalities to tell you what you did not know, or what you could not easily conceive of within your habitual limits. This is commonplace in some therapies, of course.
What kind of working relationship have you had with editors of both poetry and prose?
On the whole I’ve been lucky with them. Extremely lucky. I was more than lucky to have T. S. Eliot as my first editor in England. Sylvia had typed up and sent off my manuscript to a Ninety-second Street Y first poetry book competition—judged by Marianne Moore, Stephen Spender, and Auden. First prize was publication by Harper Brothers. When it won, Sylvia sent Faber the typescript and a letter with that information in which, in American style, she referred to me as Ted. They replied that Faber did not publish first books by American authors. When she told them I was British they took it. That’s how I came to be Ted rather than something else.
Eliot’s editorial hand on me could not have been lighter. In my second book of verse he suggested one verbal change, but I didn’t follow it. I should have. He made some very useful suggestions in a book of verse for children that I wrote. I certainly followed those. My present children’s editor at Faber, Janice Thompson, is brilliant in that she definitely gets me to write more things than I otherwise might and makes very acute judgments and suggestions about what I do produce. Editors in the U.S.—well, I’ve liked and got on with them all. But at that long distance I’ve never got to know any so well as I’ve known the Faber succession. Except for Fran McCullough at Harper. Fran became a close friend while she was editing Sylvia’s books and mine. She edited Sylvia’s novel The Bell Jar and Letters Home. Later she edited Sylvia’s Journals. Some explosive drama in all that. Only the beginning of bigger explosions. I hope we’ve remained friends in the fallout.
Has it ever become impossible to write?
The nearest I’ve ever felt to a block was a sort of unfitness in the athletic sense—the need for an all-out, sustained effort of writing simply to get myself into shape before starting on what I imagined would be the real thing. One whole book arrived like that, not a very long book, but one which I felt I needed to galvanize my inertia, break through the huge sloth I was up against. On the spur I invented a little plot: nine birds come to the fallen Adam urging him to get up and be birdlike. I wrote the whole as a bagatelle to sweat myself out of that inertia—and to conjure myself to be a bit more birdlike. Then, suddenly there it was, a sort of book. Adam and the Sacred Nine. I’d written a book just trying to get to the point where I might begin to write something that might go into a book. Still, did it break through to the real thing? That’s the question, isn’t it? A block is when we can’t get through to the real thing. Many writers write a great deal, but very few write more than a very little of the real thing. So most writing must be displaced activity. When cockerels confront each other and daren’t fight, they busily start pecking imaginary grains off to the side. That’s displaced activity. Much of what we do at any level is a bit like that, I fancy. But hard to know which is which. On the other hand, the machinery has to be kept running. The big problem for those who write verse is keeping the machine running without simply exercising evasion of the real confrontation. If Ulanova, the ballerina, missed one day of practice, she couldn’t get back to peak fitness without a week of hard work. Dickens said the same about his writing—if he missed a day he needed a week of hard slog to get back into the flow.
Could I ask about your relationship with other poets? You knew Auden and Eliot.
I met Auden for more than a hello only twice. It was at a poetry festival in 1966. Our conversation was very brief. He said, “What do you make of David Jones’s Anathemata?” I replied, “A work of genius, a masterpiece.” “Correct,” he said. That was it. The other occasion was after one of the 1966 International Poetry Festival evenings on the South Bank in London when he was fuming against Neruda. I listened to his diatribe. We’d asked Neruda to read for twelve minutes, maybe fifteen. He’d read for over half an hour, longer—apparently from a piece of paper about four inches square. Auden always timed his readings to the minute. Neruda and Auden died almost on the same day; The New Statesman gave Neruda the front page and tucked Auden inside. I felt pained by that, though I have no doubt that Neruda is in a different class, a world class, as a poet. I sort of swallowed Auden whole some time in my early twenties—or tried to. He was so much part of the atmosphere. Some of his work I have always admired a lot. And I admire him—the Goethean side, the dazzle of natural brilliance in all his remarks. But I never felt any real poetic affinity with him. I suppose he is not a poet who taps the sort of things I am trying to tap in myself. Eliot was. I met Eliot only rarely and briefly. Once he and his wife Valerie invited Sylvia and myself to dinner. We were a bit overawed. Fortunately Stephen Spender, who was there, knew how to handle it. What do I recall? Many small humorous remarks. His very slow eating. The size of his hands—very large hands. Once I asked him if the Landscapes, those short beautiful little pieces each so different from the others, were selections from a great many similar unpublished things. I thought they might be the sort of poem he whittled away at between the bigger works. No, he said. That’s all there were. They just came. It’s a mystery. He wins the big races with such ease—but how did he keep in trim? How did he get into form? He seems to me one of the very great poets. One of the very few.
What did you think of Ezra Pound? Did he give you pleasure?
He did, yes. Still does. But as a personality—he doesn’t have the power to fascinate as a personality that, for instance, Eliot does; or Yeats, perhaps because his internal evolution, or whatever it was, was so broken, so confused by a militance that took it over from the outside. Perhaps one recoils from what feels like a disintegration. But many pages of the verse seem to me wonderful in all kinds of ways.
You have been associated with Mark Strand and W. S. Merwin. How do you see their work as compared to yours?
I know Merwin’s work pretty well. Mark Strand’s less well, though I look at it very closely wherever I find it. I’ve been close to Bill Merwin in the past. I got to know him in the late fifties through Jack Sweeney who was then running the Lamont Poetry Library at Harvard. They had a house in London, and when Sylvia and I got back there in late 1959 they helped us a lot, in practical and other ways. Dido Merwin found us our flat, then half furnished it, then cooked things for Sylvia in the run-up to our daughter being born. That was the high point of my friendship with Bill. He was an important writer for me at that time. It was a crucial moment in his poetry—very big transformations were going on in there; it was coming out of its chrysalis. And I suppose because we were so close, living only a couple of hundred yards apart, his inner changes were part of the osmotic flow of feelings between us. Very important for me. That’s when I began to get out of my second collection of poems and into my third—which became the book entitled Wodwo. He helped me out of my chrysalis too. Partway out. And he was pretty important for Sylvia a little later when the Ariel poems began to arrive in early 1962. One of the hidden supply lines behind Ariel was the set of Neruda translations that Bill did for the BBC at that time. I still have her copy. It wasn’t just Neruda that helped her. It was the way she saw how Bill used Neruda. That wasn’t her only supply line, but it was one. I think Bill’s traveled further on his road than any contemporary U.S. or British writer I can think of. Amazing resources and skills.
What do you think of the label “confessional poetry” and the tendency for more and more poets to work in that mode?
Goethe called his work one big confession, didn’t he? Looking at his work in the broadest sense, you could say the same of Shakespeare: a total self-examination and self-accusation, a total confession—very naked, I think, when you look into it. Maybe it’s the same with any writing that has real poetic life. Maybe all poetry, insofar as it moves us and connects with us, is a revealing of something that the writer doesn’t actually want to say but desperately needs to communicate, to be delivered of. Perhaps it’s the need to keep it hidden that makes it poetic—makes it poetry. The writer daren’t actually put it into words, so it leaks out obliquely, smuggled through analogies. We think we’re writing something to amuse, but we’re actually saying something we desperately need to share. The real mystery is this strange need. Why can’t we just hide it and shut up? Why do we have to blab? Why do human beings need to confess? Maybe if you don’t have that secret confession, you don’t have a poem—don’t even have a story. Don’t have a writer. If most poetry doesn’t seem to be in any sense confessional, it’s because the strategy of concealment, of obliquity, can be so compulsive that it’s almost entirely successful. The smuggling analogy is loaded with interesting cargo that seems to be there for its own sake—subject matter of general interest—but at the bottom of Paradise Lost and Samson Agonistes, for instance, Milton tells us what nearly got him executed. The novelty of some of Robert Lowell’s most affecting pieces in Life Studies, some of Anne Sexton’s poems, and some of Sylvia’s was the way they tried to throw off that luggage, the deliberate way they stripped off the veiling analogies. Sylvia went furthest in the sense that her secret was most dangerous to her. She desperately needed to reveal it. You can’t overestimate her compulsion to write like that. She had to write those things—even against her most vital interests. She died before she knew what The Bell Jar and the Ariel poems were going to do to her life, but she had to get them out. She had to tell everybody . . . like those Native American groups who periodically told everything that was wrong and painful in their lives in the presence of the whole tribe. It was no good doing it in secret; it had to be done in front of everybody else. Maybe that’s why poets go to such lengths to get their poems published. It’s no good whispering them to a priest or a confessional. And it’s not for fame, because they go on doing it after they’ve learned what fame amounts to. No, until the revelation’s actually published, the poet feels no release. In all that, Sylvia was an extreme case, I think.
Could you talk a bit more about Sylvia?
Sylvia and I met because she was curious about my group of friends at university and I was curious about her. I was working in London but I used to go back up to Cambridge at weekends. Half a dozen or so of us made a poetic gang. Our main cooperative activity was drinking in the Anchor and our main common interest, apart from fellow feeling and mutual attraction, was Irish, Scottish, and Welsh traditional songs—folk songs and broadsheet ballads. We sang a lot. Recorded folk songs were rare in those days. Our poetic interests were more mutually understood than talked about. But we did print a broadsheet of literary comment. In one issue, one of our group, our Welshman, Dan Huws, demolished a poem that Sylvia had published, “Caryatids.” He later became a close friend of hers, wrote a beautiful elegy when she died. That attack attracted her attention. Also, she had met one of our group, Lucas Myers, an American, who was an especially close friend of mine. Luke was very dark and skinny. He could be incredibly wild. Just what you hoped for from Tennessee. His poems were startling to us—Hart Crane, Wallace Stevens vocabulary, zany. He interested Sylvia. In her journals she records the occasional dream in which Luke appears unmistakably. When we published a magazine full of our own poems, the only issue of St. Botolph’s, and launched it at a big dance party, Sylvia came to see what the rest of us looked like. Up to that point I’d never set eyes on her. I’d heard plenty about her from an English girlfriend who shared supervisions with her. There she suddenly was, raving Luke’s verses at Luke and my verses at me.
Once I got to know her and read her poems, I saw straight off that she was a genius of some kind. Quite suddenly we were completely committed to each other and to each other’s writing. The year before, I had started writing again after the years of the devastation of university. I’d just written what have become some of my more anthologized pieces—“The Thought Fox,” the Jaguar poems, “Wind.” I see now that when we met, my writing, like hers, left its old path and started to circle and search. To me, of course, she was not only herself—she was America and American literature in person. I don’t know what I was to her. Apart from the more monumental classics—Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and so on—my background reading was utterly different from hers. But our minds soon became two parts of one operation. We dreamed a lot of shared or complementary dreams. Our telepathy was intrusive. I don’t know whether our verse exchanged much, if we influenced one another that way—not in the early days. Maybe others see that differently. Our methods were not the same. Hers was to collect a heap of vivid objects and good words and make a pattern; the pattern would be projected from somewhere deep inside, from her very distinctly evolved myth. It appears distinctly evolved to a reader now—despite having been totally unconscious to her then. My method was to find a thread end and draw the rest out of a hidden tangle. Her method was more painterly, mine more narrative, perhaps. Throughout our time together we looked at each other’s verses at every stage—up to the Ariel poems of October 1962, which was when we separated.
Do you know how Sylvia used her journals? Were they diaries or notebooks for her poetry and fiction?
Well, I think Janet Malcolm in The New Yorker made a fair point about the journals: a lot of what’s in them is practice . . . shaping up for some possible novel, little chapters for novels. She was constantly sketching something that happened and working it into something she thought might fit into a novel. She thought of her journals as working notes for some ultimate novel although, in fact, I don’t think any of it ever went into The Bell Jar. She changed certain things to make them work, to make some kind of symbolic statement of a feeling. She wasn’t writing an account of this or that event; she was trying to get to some other kind of ancient, i.e., childhood, material. Some of her short stories take the technique a stage further. Wanting to express that ancient feeling.
What happened to Plath’s last novel that was never published?
Well, what I was aware of was a fragment of a novel, about seventy pages. Her mother said she saw a whole novel, but I never knew about it. What I was aware of was sixty, seventy pages that disappeared. And to tell you the truth, I always assumed her mother took them all on one of her visits.
Would you talk about burning Plath’s journals?
What I actually destroyed was one journal that covered maybe two or three months, the last months. And it was just sad. I just didn’t want her children to see it, no. Particularly her last days.
What about Ariel? Did you reorder the poems there?
Well, nobody in the U.S. wanted to publish the collection as she left it. The one publisher over there who was interested wanted to cut it to twenty poems. The fear seemed to be that the whole lot might provoke some sort of backlash—some revulsion. And at the time, you know, few magazine editors would publish the Ariel poems; few liked them. The qualities weren’t so obvious in those days. So right from the start there was a question over just how the book was to be presented. I wanted the book that would display the whole range and variety. I remember writing to the man who suggested cutting it to twenty—a longish intemperate letter, as I recall—and saying I felt that was simply impossible. I was torn between cutting some things out and putting some more things in. I was keen to get some of the last poems in. But the real problem was, as I’ve said, that the U.S. publishers I approached did not want Sylvia’s collection as it stood. Faber in England were happy to publish the book in any form. Finally it was a compromise—I cut some things out and I put others in. As a result I have been mightily accused of disordering her intentions and even suppressing part of her work. But those charges have evolved twenty, thirty years after the event. They are based on simple ignorance of how it all happened. Within six years of that first publication all her late poems were published in collections—all that she’d put in her own Ariel and those she’d kept out. It was her growing frame, of course, that made it possible to publish them. And years ago, for anybody who was curious, I published the contents and order of her own typescript—so if anybody wants to see what her Ariel was it’s quite easy. On the other hand, how final was her order? She was forever shuffling the poems in her typescripts—looking for different connections, better sequences. She knew there were always new possibilities, all fluid.
Could you say a bit more about how your own poems originate and how you begin writing?
Well, I have a sort of notion. Just the tail end of an idea, usually just the thread of an idea. If I can feel behind that a sort of waiting momentum, a sense of some charge there to tap, then I just plunge in. What usually happens then—inevitably I would say—is that I go off in some wholly different direction. The thread end of an idea burns away and I’m pulled in—on the momentum of whatever was there waiting. Then that feeling opens up other energies, all the possibilities in my head, I suppose. That’s the pleasure—never quite knowing what’s there, being surprised. Once I get onto something I usually finish it. In a way it goes on finishing itself while I attend to its needs. It might be days, months. Later, often enough, I see exactly what it needs to be and I finish it in moments, usually by getting rid of things.
What do birds mean for you? The figures of the hawk and the crow—so astonishing. Are you tired to death of explaining them?
I don’t know how to explain them. There are certain things that are just impressive, aren’t there? One stone can be impressive and the stones around it aren’t. It’s the same with animals. Some, for some reason, are strangely impressive. They just get into you in a strange way. Certain birds obviously have this extra quality that fascinates your attention. Obviously hawks have always done that for me, as a great many others have—not only impressive in themselves but also in that they’ve accumulated an enormous literature making them even more impressive. And crows too. Crows are the central bird in many mythologies. The crow is at every extreme, lives on every piece of land on earth, the most intelligent bird.
Your poem “The Thought Fox” is thought to be your ars poetica. Do you agree with that?
There is a sense in which every poem that comes off is a description or a dramatization of its own creation. Within the poem, I sometimes think, is all the evidence you need for explaining how the poem came to be and why it is as it is. Then again, every poem that works is like a metaphor of the whole mind writing, the solution of all the oppositions and imbalances going on at that time. When the mind finds the balance of all those things and projects it, that’s a poem. It’s a kind of hologram of the mental condition at that moment, which then immediately changes and moves on to some other sort of balance and rearrangement. What counts is that it be a symbol of that momentary wholeness. That’s how I see it.
Why do you choose to speak through animals so often?
I suppose because they were there at the beginning. Like parents. Since I spent my first seventeen or eighteen years constantly thinking about them more or less, they became a language—a symbolic language which is also the language of my whole life. It was not something I began to learn about at university or something that happened to me when I was thirty, but part of the machinery of my mind from the beginning. They are a way of connecting all my deepest feelings together. So when I look for or get hold of a feeling of that kind, it tends to bring up the image of an animal or animals simply because that’s the deepest, earliest language that my imagination learned. Or one of the deepest, earliest languages. People were there too.
What would you say is the function of poetry as opposed to the function of prose?
In the seventies I got to know one or two healers. The one I knew best believed that since everybody has access to the energies of the autoimmune system, some individuals develop a surplus. His own history was one of needing more than most—forty years of ankylosing spondylitis. In the end, when he was past sixty, a medium told him that no one could heal him, but that he could heal himself if he would start to heal others. So he started healing and within six months was virtually cured. Watching and listening to him, the idea occurred to me that art was perhaps this—the psychological component of the autoimmune system. It works on the artist as a healing. But it works on others too, as a medicine. Hence our great, insatiable thirst for it. However it comes out—whether a design in a carpet, a painting on a wall, the shaping of a doorway—we recognize that medicinal element because of the instant healing effect, and we call it art. It consoles and heals something in us. That’s why that aspect of things is so important, and why what we want to preserve in civilizations and societies is their art—because it’s a living medicine that we can still use. It still works. We feel it working. Prose, narratives, etcetera, can carry this healing. Poetry does it more intensely. Music, maybe, most intensely of all.
On another matter entirely, do you think the literary communities in England and America differ from each other?
Yes, profoundly. The world and the whole grounding of experience for American writers is so utterly different from that of English writers. The hinterlands of American writing are so much more varied and the scope of their hinterlands is so infinitely vast. Many more natural and social worlds are available to American writers. For every generation of Americans there’s more material that is utterly new and strange. I think the problem for American writers is to keep up with their material, whereas the problem for English writers is to find new material—material that isn’t already in some real sense secondhand, used-up, dog-eared, predigested. You see this in a very simple way in the contrast between the American and English writing about field sports—shooting and fishing. The range, richness, variety, quantity, quality of the American sports writing is stupefying. There are some fine writers on these subjects in the U.K., but one has the impression that they are simply updating, modernizing material that was used up generations ago, and a very limited range of material it is.
What do you think of writing workshops and M.F.A. programs?
Sometimes they work wonders. When the Arvon Writing Foundation—what would be called a creative writing college in the U.S.—was started here in England in 1969, I was asked to join the founders. I had taught creative writing classes at the University of Massachusetts and it had been rather a wonderful experience. I learned an awful lot from the students themselves. I saw how those classes worked, how the students educated each other in writing skills, how one talented student can somehow transform the talents of a whole class. But on the whole I felt that the idea was impractical for England. I thought I knew too well the bigoted antagonism that most of our older writers felt about transatlantic ideas of creative writing. I’d heard it expressed too often. So I thought the idea could not work here simply because the writers would not cooperate. But the founders of Arvon, two poets, went ahead and invited me to give a reading of my verses to the first course. The students were a group of fourteen-year-olds from a local school. Within that one week they had produced work that astonished me. Within five days, in fact. They were in an incredible state of creative excitement. Here in England the idea worked in a way that I had never seen in the U.S. So Arvon developed. Younger writers, and most of the older writers as it turned out, tutored the courses with an almost natural skill and very often with amazing results. The experience persuaded me that a creative writing course of Arvon’s kind has more impact here, perhaps because the English personality and character tend to be comparatively fixed and set, rigid, so that any change comes with a bang. You get revelations of talent in people who had never dreamed they could write a word. Amazing conversions.
Would you like to have had such a program available to you when you started out?
I’ve often wondered. I’m not sure if I would have gone. What I wanted to do was work it all out in my own terms and at my own pace. I didn’t want to be influenced, or at least I wanted to choose my influences for myself. Between the age when I began to write seriously and the time I left the university at the age of twenty-four, I read very little in poetry, novels and drama apart from the great authors—the authors I considered to be great. Within that literature I was a hundred-great-books reader. My first real encounter with the possibilities of contemporary poetry came only in 1954 or 1955 when a Penguin anthology of American poetry came out. I’d become aware of some names of course—Frost, Wallace Stevens, even Theodore Roethke, Hart Crane. That anthology came out just as I was ready to look further. So I completely bypassed contemporary English poetry, apart from Auden and Dylan Thomas, and came fresh to the American. Everything in that book seemed exciting to me—exciting and familiar. Wilbur, Bill Merwin, Elizabeth Bishop, Lowell. But most of all John Crowe Ransom. For two or three years Ransom became a craze of mine, and he still was when I met Sylvia. I managed to enthuse her to the point that he seriously affected her style for a period. But many things in that anthology hit me, pieces like Karl Shapiro’s “Auto Wreck.” When I met Sylvia I also met her library, and the whole wave hit me. I began to devour everything American. But my point is that up to then my exciting new discoveries in poetry had been things like the first act of Two Noble Kinsmen (not usually included in Shakespeare’s complete works), or Lady Gregory’s translation of the Arran song: “It was late last night the dog was speaking of you.” What I felt I wanted to do didn’t seem to exist. I was conscious mainly of a kind of musical energy. My notion was to make real and solid what would contain it—something to do with the way I read poems to myself.
And you eventually burst out of that.
The earliest piece of mine that I kept was a lyric titled “Song” that came to me as such things should in your nineteenth year—literally a voice in the air at about 3:00 A.M. when I was on night duty just after I’d started national service. Between that and the next piece that I saved, the poem I titled “The Thought Fox,” lay six years of total confusion. Six years! That’s when I read myself to bits, as Nietzsche said students do. Also, I ran smack into the first part of the English lit tripos at Cambridge. I got out of that and into anthropology none too soon. I was writing all the time, but in confusion. I mopped up everything that was going on inside me with Beethoven’s music. Throughout that time, he was my therapy. After university I lived in London, did various jobs, but I was removed from friends and from constant Beethoven, and for the first time in years I thought about nothing but the poem I was trying to write. Then one night up came “The Thought Fox” and, soon after, the other pieces I mentioned. But I had less a sense of bursting out, I think, more a sense of tuning in to my own transmission. Tuning out the influences, the static and interference. I didn’t get there by explosives. My whole understanding of it was that I could get it only by concentration.
In the late twentieth century is there a tradition of British poetry that is different from other English-speaking nations?
Well, when I began to write I certainly felt there to be. The tradition had its gods, the great sacred national figures of the past. Some of them not so great. But they policed the behavior of young poets and they policed the tastes of readers—most of all the tastes of readers. Yes, in the 1950s it was still a strong orthodoxy. Eliot and Pound had challenged it, but they hadn’t fractured it. I’m not even sure if they modified it much. Mainly you were aware that this tradition was distinctly not-continental and distinctly not-American. It had hypersensitive detectors for any trace of contamination from those two sources. In general, I suppose, it was defensive. We were made very aware of it in the early fifties by Robert Graves. He gave a series of lectures at Cambridge that purged the tradition of its heretics—bad Wordsworth and so on—and of its alien stowaways Eliot and Pound. Graves had a strange kind of authority through the late fifties—the man of tradition, the learned champion of the British tradition. I fancied he had an effect even on Auden, who certainly admired him a lot. But then came the sixties. In the U.K. the shock of the sixties is usually tied to the Beatles. But as far as poetry was concerned their influence was marginal, I think. The poetry shock that hit the U.K. in the sixties started before the Beatles. Sylvia responded to the first ripples of it. In a sense, Ariel is a response to those first signs, and she never heard the Beatles. What happened were two big simultaneous events in the world of poetry—the first was the sudden waking up of the world from the ice age of the war. Countries that had been separated by blockades or crushed under the Communist ice suddenly seemed to wake up. In poetry they rushed to embrace one another, first on that amazing boom of translation, then in the International Poetry Festivals that got going mid-decade. Maybe the Pasternak explosion in the late fifties was the beginning. But in general, Bill Merwin had translated a huge amount of various authors. We had Robert Bly’s first volumes of his Sixties magazine. We collected the first translations of Zbigniew Herbert and Holub—unearthed by Alvarez in, I think, 1962. I’m not sure when the Penguin translations began, but their first Lorca edition had appeared in 1960. The boom began early and then simply grew right through the decade.
The other momentous event came from the U.S.—the shockwave not so much of pop music but of the lifestyle of the Beat poets, with Allen Ginsberg as high priest. That shockwave, which swept America at the end of the fifties, hit England in the beginning of the sixties. The Beatles were its English amplifiers in one sense, but the actual thing at the time was the lifestyle. You saw all your friends transformed in a slow flash. And with the lifestyle came the poetry, the transcendentalism, the Beat publications. Those two big waves—one of international poetry and the other, the California revolution, blend into one. What was really very strange was the way the fans of the new pop music and folk music craze all took to buying poetry—especially translated modern poetry. Penguin stepped up their output of new titles; every publisher seemed to be commissioning new translations of foreign poets. Those fans bought huge numbers of the books. They were packed in at the first of the Art Council’s big International Poetry Festivals in 1966, which I helped organize. Our program was based on an issue of Daniel Weissbort’s new magazine, Modern Poetry in Translation, which I think was the first such magazine in Britain. It was an amazing occasion. Almost every big figure I invited accepted and came. And by chance, on the day of the festival London happened to be full of poets from all over the place. We invited quite a few and they joined in. Any young poet in the U.K. aware of that must have been hit pretty hard. The variety of different poetries that were not only suddenly available, but in high fashion, was staggering.
The mad atmosphere of those early International Festivals only lasted a year or two. Probably that one in 1966 and the earlier, more spontaneous one in 1965 were the great ones. But the rest of it reeled on into the early seventies until finally the translation boom began to flag. Still, the best of the books haven’t gone away. And that awakening of all the countries to one another’s poetry hasn’t gone to sleep. Poets like Holub have become almost honorary British poets. In many ways, none of that has closed down. Has it modified British tradition? Well, it must have modified it one way: at least all young British poets now know that the British tradition is not the only one among the traditions of the globe. Everything is now completely open, every approach, with infinite possibilities. Obviously the British tradition still exists as a staple of certain historically hard-earned qualities if anybody is still there who knows how to inherit them. Raleigh’s qualities haven’t become irrelevant. When I read Primo Levi’s verse I’m reminded of Raleigh. But for young British poets it’s no longer the only tradition, no longer a tradition closed in on itself and defensive.
You’ve just come back from Macedonia—a poetry festival that was obviously very important. What was the understanding of British poetry there?
I had a curious experience on the airplane coming back. I boarded in Skopje and noticed this young woman on the opposite side of the aisle, oh, about thirty-five. I saw her look at me and I thought because the whole festival in Struga had been so publicized and televised throughout Macedonia—that maybe she felt she had seen me, maybe even recognized me since they gave me the Laurel Wreath of Gold this year and there’d been a certain amount of camera concentration. But neither of us said anything. Then there she was again on the next leg of the flight in the seat in front of me, and she asked if I was who I was. She had seen me on TV. Finally she said, I was very surprised that they gave the prize to British poetry. Naturally I asked her why. And she replied, Well, I thought British poetry was dead. It turned out she was a doctor in Dubai. I had with me this rather magnificent Macedonian-made volume of my poems translated into Macedonian. So I handed her the book and said, Here’s an opportunity to examine the patient. When she returned it to me half an hour later she was very gracious. Ten minutes after that I saw she was reading the latest Times Literary Supplement!
It’s like the British poet is dead every few years, isn’t it?
What struck me was that it came out so pat. A sort of obvious truism, as if everybody over the continental landmass simply knew it. And in the TLS she had her finger on the pulse.
Is poetry as vital to people now as it was thirty years ago? Aren’t sales of poetry going up?
Well, it’s a fact—not much observed maybe except by the judges of children’s writing competitions—that the teaching of how to write poetry is now producing extraordinary results. Mainly at the lower ages. This might not be so new in the U.S., but in the U.K. it’s a phenomenon of the last fifteen years, especially of the last ten. The twenty-five-year influence of the Arvon Foundation can’t be ignored. You only have to ask around among young published poets and look at the prizewinners of the various competitions. And Arvon has spawned a host of other places doing a similar job. All this must be helping sales in the U.K. It’s a new kind of reading and writing public that simply didn’t exist in Britain before the early seventies. And it’s definitely not confined to the universities.
But I expect the real reasons must be deeper. Poetry sales are supposed to rise during a war, aren’t they, when people are forced to become aware of what really matters. You could invent an explanation, I’m sure. Maybe something to do with the way we all live on two levels—a top level where we scramble to respond moment by moment to the bombardment of impressions, demands, opportunities. And a bottom level where our last-ditch human values live—the long-term feelings like instinct, the bedrock facts of our character. Usually, we can live happily on the top level and forget the bottom level. But, all it takes to dump the population on the top level to the lowest pits of the bottom level, with all their values and all their ideas totally changed, is a war. I would suggest that poetry is one of the voices of the bottom level.
The poetry translation boom of the sixties was inseparable, I think, from the Vietnam War. That war felt like the Cold War finally bursting into flames—the beginning of war with the combined Communist regimes. And the translated modern poetry boom was inseparable from that catastrophe. It pervaded everything. Two societies, the U.S. and the U.K., that were notably stuck on the top level were trying to divine the bottom-level reality being lived out in Southeast Asia. But in general everyone under the Communist regimes was on the bottom level. You remember all those attempts to actualize it, to live it secondhand? To be part of it somehow?
Pasternak was the first big voice to be heard from under the Russian ice. But then came Yevtushenko and Voznesensky on their reading tours through the West. Their popularity, their glamour, was amazing. I remember C. P. Snow introducing Yevtushenko onstage at the South Bank by characterizing him as “what we really mean by a celebrity.” Behind that, Mandelshtam, Akhmatova, Mayakovsky, and the rest were suddenly the greatest names; translations began to pour out. There was a huge thirst. And I remember the big shock—another of the big literary shocks in my life—of discovering the poetry of Russia’s victims in Herbert, Holub, Popa, and so on, and along with that the poetry of Amichai, Celan . . . So you could say the great craving of the U.S. and the U.K. on the top level to anticipate and experience that reality on the bottom level did take in one way the form of a craze for translated poetry, an almost undiscriminating appetite for any news whatsoever through that hotline. The market for those books was colossal.
Now what’s going on in the Balkans is making that bottom level resonate again, as well as the African famines, the thirty-odd horrible little wars crackling away, and behind all that a new sense of impending global disaster, an obscure mix of environmental and political breakdowns, runaway populations, and the economic threat of the Far East. Anyway, a sense of big trouble coming, with all the evidence of the first phases jamming the TV screens. Here in the U.K. we’re still only an audience on the top level watching the calamities taking place on the bottom level. But we’re a twenty-four-hour-a-day top-level audience, supersaturated with impressions of life on the bottom level. The war in former Yugoslavia has raised the curtain on it all. So given that model of the two levels, the appetite for poetry should be rising again, a little. Or slowly.
Finally, what does this progression mean in terms of form? What are your thoughts on free as opposed to formal verse?
In the way you’ve put the question “formal” suggests regular metrics, regular stanzas and, usually, rhyme. But it also suggests some absolute form that doesn’t have those more evident features; it suggests any form governed by a strong, inflexible inner law that the writer finds himself having to obey, that he can’t just play around with as he can play around with, say, the wording of a letter. That kind of deeper, hidden form, though it doesn’t show regular metrical or stanzaic patterning or end rhyme, can’t in any way be called “free.” Take any passage of “The Waste Land,” or maybe a better example is Eliot’s poem “Marina.” Every word in those poems is as formally fixed, as locked into flexible inner laws, as words can be. The music of those words, the musical inevitability of the pitch, the pacing, the combination of inflections—all that is in some way absolute, unalterable, the ultimate perfect containment of unusually powerful poetic forces. You could say the same of many other examples: Smart’s “Jubilate Agno,” any passages in Shakespeare’s blank verse, Shakespeare’s prose. To my mind, the best of the kind of verse usually called free always aspires towards that kind of formal inevitability—a fixed, unalterable, musical, and yet hidden dramatic shape. One difference between this kind of verse and regular, metrical, rhymed stanzas is the problem it sets the reader at first reading. Regular formal features give the reader immediate bearings, the A-B-C directions for reading or performing the piece being nursery simple; the poem has a familiar, friendly look from that very first encounter. But when these are missing—no regular meter, no stanza shape, no obvious rhyme—the reader has to grope, searching for that less obvious, deeper set of musical dramatic laws. That takes time, more than one or two readings. And it takes poetic imagination—or some talent for rhythmical, expressive speech. But if those laws are actually there, as they are in the Eliot, the Smart, and the Shakespeare, sooner or later they assert their inevitability in the reader’s mind, and the reader begins to recognize the presence of some absolute, inner form. Of course if those laws aren’t there, they can never assert themselves. The piece never gets a grip on the reader. It might be interesting and even exciting to read at first encounter, but then it will slowly fall to bits. The reader will begin to recognize the absence of any law that makes it go one way rather than another . . . the absence of any deeper pattern of hidden forces. So the thing ceases to be read.
In the long run, the same fate—to be rejected and forgotten—overtakes most formally shaped verse too, no matter how strict its meter or how accurate and dexterous its rhymes. Good metrical rhymed verse, if it’s to grip the imagination and stay readable, has to have, as well as those external formal features, the same dynamo of hidden musical dramatic laws as the apparently free verse.
Having said that, I think you are then left with the pro and contra arguments for using or not using those features of regular meter, stanza, rhyme. The main argument, to my mind, for not using them is to gain access to the huge variety of musical patterns that they shut out. Imagine if Shakespeare had stuck to sonnets and long-rhymed poems and had never got onto the explorations of his blank verse and those wonderful musical flights of dialogue or onto his prose. Imagine what might have come out of the eighteenth century in England if the regime of the couplet hadn’t been so absolute. How could Whitman ever have happened if he’d stuck to his crabby rhymes? That seems to me a strong argument. But the main argument for using meter, rhyme, stanza also seems strong. It’s not just that rhymes and the requirement of meter actually stimulate invention—which they obviously do, at certain levels—but it’s the strange satisfaction of making that square treasure chest and packing it. Or making that locket with its jewel or its portrait. Or making that periscope box of precisely arranged lenses. There’s mystery to it, I’m quite sure. Maybe a mathematical satisfaction. Take the ballad stanza, which is basically just an old English couplet. The best of those quatrains have a kind of primal force, not just musical finality but an inner force, a weight of paid-for experience that most people can recognize. Yet when you break the meter, lose or disarray the rhymes, everything’s gone. Then there’s Primo Levi’s remark. He found that in the death camps, where it became very important to dig poems out of the memory, the poems of regular meter and rhyme proved more loyal, and I’m not sure he didn’t say that they were more consoling. You don’t forget his remark.

Saturday 27th May 2017

Posted in Life the Universe and Other Things on May 27, 2017 by bishshat


Friday 26th May 2017

Posted in Life the Universe and Other Things on May 26, 2017 by bishshat

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Wednesday 24th May 2017

Posted in Life the Universe and Other Things on May 24, 2017 by bishshat


Chinese Ritual Bronzes

The Shang Dynasty

The Shang dynasty (Chinese: 商朝; pinyin: Shāng cháo) or Yin dynasty (殷代; Yīn dài), according to traditional historiography, ruled in the Yellow River valley in the second millennium BC, succeeding the Xia dynasty and followed by the Zhou dynasty. The classic account of the Shang comes from texts such as the Book of Documents, Bamboo Annals and Records of the Grand Historian. According to the traditional chronology based on calculations made approximately 2,000 years ago by Liu Xin, the Shang ruled from 1766 to 1122 BC, but according to the chronology based upon the “current text” of Bamboo Annals, they ruled from 1556 to 1046 BC. The Xia–Shang–Zhou Chronology Project dated them from c. 1600 to 1046 BC.

The Shang dynasty is the earliest dynasty of traditional Chinese history supported by archaeological evidence. Excavation at the Ruins of Yin (near modern-day Anyang), which has been identified as the last Shang capital, uncovered eleven major royal tombs and the foundations of palaces and ritual sites, containing weapons of war and remains from both animal and human sacrifices. Tens of thousands of bronze, jade, stone, bone, and ceramic artifacts have been found.

The Anyang site has yielded the earliest known body of Chinese writing, mostly divinations inscribed on oracle bones – turtle shells, ox scapulae, or other bones. More than 20,000 were discovered in the initial scientific excavations during the 1920s and 1930s, and over four times as many have been found since. The inscriptions provide critical insight into many topics from the politics, economy, and religious practices to the art and medicine of this early stage of Chinese civilization.

Before the 20th century, the Zhou dynasty (1046–256 BC) was the earliest Chinese dynasty that could be verified from its own records. However, during the Song dynasty (960–1279 AD), antiquarians collected bronze ritual vessels attributed to the Shang era, some of which bore inscriptions. These types of early inscriptions were later traced to the Yinxu site in the Yellow River valley.

Yinxu site
In 1899, it was found that Chinese pharmacists were selling “dragon bones” marked with curious and archaic characters.[12] These were finally traced back in 1928 to a site (now called Yinxu) near Anyang, north of the Yellow River in modern Henan province, where the Academia Sinica undertook archeological excavation until the Japanese invasion in 1937.

Archaeologists focused on the Yellow River valley in Henan as the most likely site of the states described in the traditional histories.

Huanbei site
The remains of a walled city of about 470 hectares (1,200 acres) were discovered in 1999 across the Huan River from the well explored Yinxu site. The city, now known as Huanbei, was apparently occupied for less than a century and destroyed shortly before the construction of the Yinxu complex.

Zhengzhou Shang City
After 1950, the remnants of the earlier walled settlement of Shang City were discovered near Zhengzhou. It has been determined that the earth walls at Zhengzhou, erected in the 15th century BC, would have been 20 m (66 ft) wide at the base, rising to a height of 8 m (26 ft), and formed a roughly rectangular wall 7 km (4 mi) around the ancient city. The rammed earth construction of these walls was an inherited tradition, since much older fortifications of this type have been found at Chinese Neolithic sites of the Longshan culture (c. 3000–2000 BC).

There are two important archaeological sites near the modern city of Yanshi: Erlitou site, and Yanshi Shang City. Yanshi lies on the Luo River, which is a tributary of the Yellow River.

In 1959, the site of the Erlitou culture was found in Yanshi, south of the Yellow River near Luoyang.

Radiocarbon dating suggests that the Erlitou culture flourished ca. 2100 BC to 1800 BC. They built large palaces, suggesting the existence of an organized state.

In 1983, Yanshi Shang City was discovered 6 kilometres (3.7 mi) north-east of the Erlitou site in Yanshi’s Shixianggou Township. This was a large walled city dating from 1600 BC. It had an area of nearly 200 hectares (490 acres) and featured pottery characteristic of the Erligang culture.

Panlongcheng site
The Panlongcheng site in the middle Yangtze valley was an important regional center of the Erligang culture.

Chinese historians living in later periods were accustomed to the notion of one dynasty succeeding another, and readily identified the Erligang and Erlitou sites with the early Shang and Xia dynasty of traditional histories.

The actual political situation in early China may have been more complicated, with the Xia and Shang being political entities that existed concurrently, just as the early Zhou, who established the successor state of the Shang, are known to have existed at the same time as the Shang. It has also been suggested the Xia legend originated during the Shang dynasty, the Shang having a myth of a people preceding them who were their inverse.

Related and contemporary sites
Shang dynasty is located in China ErlitouErlitou ZhengzhouZhengzhou PanlongchengPanlongcheng AnyangAnyang SanxingduiSanxingdui WuchengWucheng
Major archaeological sites of the second millennium BC in north and central China
The Erligang culture represented by the Yellow River sites is found across a wide area of China, even as far northeast as the area of modern Beijing, where at least one burial in this region during this period contained both Erligang-style bronzes and local-style gold jewelry. The discovery of a Chenggu-style ge dagger-axe at Xiaohenan demonstrates that even at this early stage of Chinese history, there were some ties between the distant areas of north China.

Accidental finds elsewhere in China have revealed advanced civilizations contemporaneous with but culturally unlike the settlement at Anyang, such as the walled city of Sanxingdui in Sichuan. Western scholars are hesitant to designate such settlements as belonging to the Shang dynasty. Also unlike the Shang, there is no known evidence that the Sanxingdui culture had a system of writing.

In contrast, the earliest layers of the Wucheng site, pre-dating Anyang, have yielded pottery fragments containing short sequences of symbols, suggesting that they may be a form of writing quite different in form from oracle bone characters, but the sample is too small for decipherment.

Late Shang at Anyang

Oracle bones pit at Yin
The oldest extant direct records date from around 1200 BC at Anyang, covering the reigns of the last nine Shang kings. The Shang had a fully developed system of writing, preserved on bronze inscriptions and a small number of other writings on pottery, jade and other stones, horn, etc., but most prolifically on oracle bones.
The complexity and sophistication of this writing system indicates an earlier period of development, but direct evidence of that development is still lacking. Other advances included the invention of many musical instruments and observations of Mars and various comets by Shang astronomers.

Their civilization was based on agriculture and augmented by hunting and animal husbandry. In addition to war, the Shang also practiced human sacrifice.
Crania of sacrificial victims have been found to be similar to modern Chinese ones (based on comparisons with remains from Hainan and Taiwan). Cowry shells were also excavated at Anyang, suggesting trade with coast-dwellers, but there was very limited sea trade in ancient China since China was isolated from other large civilizations during the Shang period. Trade relations and diplomatic ties with other formidable powers via the Silk Road and Chinese voyages to the Indian Ocean did not exist until the reign of Emperor Wu during the Han dynasty (206 BC–221 AD).

Court life

Bronzewares from the excavated tomb of Fu Hao
At the excavated royal palace of Yinxu, large stone pillar bases were found along with rammed earth foundations and platforms, which according to Fairbank, were “as hard as cement.” These foundations in turn originally supported 53 buildings of wooden post-and-beam construction. In close proximity to the main palatial complex, there were underground pits used for storage, servants’ quarters, and housing quarters.

Many Shang royal tombs had been tunneled into and ravaged by grave robbers in ancient times, but in the spring of 1976, the discovery of Tomb 5 at Yinxu revealed a tomb that was not only undisturbed, but one of the most richly furnished Shang tombs that archaeologists had yet come across. With over 200 bronze ritual vessels and 109 inscriptions of Lady Fu Hao’s name, archaeologists realized they had stumbled across the tomb of the militant consort to King Wu Ding, as described in 170 to 180 Shang oracle bones. Along with bronze vessels, stoneware and pottery vessels, bronze weapons, jade figures and hair combs, and bone hairpins were found. Historian Robert L. Thorp states that the large assortment of weapons and ritual vessels in her tomb correlate with the oracle bone accounts of her military career and involvement in Wu Ding’s ritual ancestral sacrifices.

The capital was the center of court life. Over time, court rituals to appease spirits developed, and in addition to his secular duties, the king would serve as the head of the ancestor worship cult. Often, the king would even perform oracle bone divinations himself, especially near the end of the dynasty. Evidence from excavations of the royal tombs indicates that royalty were buried with articles of value, presumably for use in the afterlife. Perhaps for the same reason, hundreds of commoners, who may have been slaves, were buried alive with the royal corpse.

A line of hereditary Shang kings ruled over much of northern China, and Shang troops fought frequent wars with neighboring settlements and nomadic herdsmen from the inner Asian steppes. The Shang king, in his oracular divinations, repeatedly shows concern about the fang groups, the barbarians living outside of the civilized tu regions, which made up the center of Shang territory. In particular, the tufang group of the Yanshan region were regularly mentioned as hostile to the Shang.

Apart from their role as the head military commanders, Shang kings also asserted their social supremacy by acting as the high priests of society and leading the divination ceremonies.
As the oracle bone texts reveal, the Shang kings were viewed as the best qualified members of society to offer sacrifices to their royal ancestors and to the high god Di, who in their beliefs was responsible for the rain, wind, and thunder.


Chinese Shang dynasty bronze face masks, 16th–14th century BC
Shang religious rituals featured divination and sacrifice. The degree to which shamanism was a central aspect of Shang religion is a subject of debate.

There were six main recipients of sacrifice: (1) Di, the High God, (2) nature powers like the sun and mountain powers, (3) former lords, deceased humans who had been added to the dynastic pantheon, (4) predynastic ancestors, (5) dynastic ancestors, and (6) dynastic ancestresses such as the concubines of a past emperor.

The Shang believed that their ancestors held power over them and performed divination rituals to secure their approval for planned actions. Divination involved cracking a turtle carapace or ox scapula to answer a question, and to then record the response to that question on the bone itself. It is unknown what criteria the diviners used to determine the response, but it is believed to be the sound or pattern of the cracks on the bone.

The Shang also seem to have believed in an afterlife, as evidenced by the elaborate burial tombs built for deceased rulers. Often “carriages, utensils, sacrificial vessels, [and] weapons” would be included in the tomb. A king’s burial involved the burial of up to several hundred humans and horses as well to accompany the king into the afterlife, in some cases even numbering four hundred. Finally, tombs included ornaments such as jade, which the Shang may have believed to protect against decay or confer immortality.

The Shang religion was highly bureaucratic and meticulously ordered. Oracle bones contained descriptions of the date, ritual, person, ancestor, and questions associated with the divination.
Tombs displayed highly ordered arrangements of bones, with groups of skeletons laid out facing the same direction.

Bronze working
Chinese bronze casting and pottery advanced during the Shang dynasty, with bronze typically being used for ritually significant, rather than primarily utilitarian, items. As far back as c. 1500 BC, the early Shang dynasty engaged in large-scale production of bronze-ware vessels and weapons. This production required a large labor force that could handle the mining, refining, and transportation of the necessary copper, tin, and lead ores. This in turn created a need for official managers that could oversee both hard-laborers and skilled artisans and craftsmen. The Shang royal court and aristocrats required a vast number of different bronze vessels for various ceremonial purposes and events of religious divination. Ceremonial rules even decreed how many bronze containers of each type a nobleman or noblewoman of a certain rank could own. With the increased amount of bronze available, the army could also better equip itself with an assortment of bronze weaponry. Bronze was also used for the fittings of spoke-wheeled chariots, which appeared in China around 1200 BC.


The taotie is both one of the four evil fiends in Chinese mythology and a motif commonly found on Chinese ritual bronze vessels from the Shang and Zhou dynasty.

The design typically consists of a zoomorphic mask, described as being frontal, bilaterally symmetrical, with a pair of raised eyes and typically no lower jaw area. Some argue that the design can be traced back to jade pieces found in Neolithic sites such as the Liangzhu culture (3310–2250 BCE).

In ancient Chinese mythology like “Classic of Mountains and Seas”, taotie (饕餮) is one of the “four evil creatures of the world” or four fiends along with Hundun (混沌), Qiongqi (穷奇) and Taowu (梼杌). On the opposite side, there are Four Holy Creatures in Chinese mythology which are called Azure Dragon, Vermilion Bird, White Tiger and Xuanwu. Four fiends are also sometimes juxtaposed with Four Benevolent Animals which are Qilin (麒麟), Dragon (龍), Turtle (龜) and Fenghuang (鳳凰)

Scholars have long been perplexed[7] over the meaning (if any) of this theriomorphic design, and there is still no commonly held single answer. The hypotheses range from Robert Bagley’s belief that the design is a result of the casting process, and rather than having an iconographic meaning was the artistic expression of the artists who held the technological know-how to cast bronze,[8] to theories that it depicts ancient face masks that may have once been worn by either shamans or the god-kings who were the link between humankind and their deceased ancestors (Jordan Paper).

The once-popular belief that the faces depicted the animals used in the sacrificial ceremonies has now more or less been rejected. (Although some faces appear to be oxen, tigers, dragons, etc. some argue[who?] that the faces are not meant to depict actual animals, feline or bovine.) Most scholars favor an interpretation that supports the idea that the faces have meaning in a religious or ceremonial context, as the objects they appear on are almost always associated with such events or roles. As one scholar writes “art styles always carry some social references.” It is interesting that even Shang divination inscriptions shed no light on the meaning of the taotie.


It is not known what word the Shang and Zhou used to call the design on their bronze vessels; as Sarah Allan notes, there is no particular reason to assume that the term taotie was known during the Shang. In fact, the first known occurrence of this word is in Zuo Zhuan, where it is used to refer to one of the four evil creatures of the world Chinese: 四凶; pinyin: sì xiōng: a greedy and gluttonous son of the Jinyun clan, who lived during the time of the legendary Yellow Emperor. The word taotie itself was glossed by a Zuo Zhuan commentator as “glutton”.

Nonetheless, the association of the term taotie with the motif on the Zhou (and Shang) bronzes is sufficiently ancient. It comes from the following passage in the Lu’s Spring and Autumn Annals (16/3a, “Prophecy”): The taotie on Zhou bronzes [ding] has a head but no body. When it eats people, it does not swallow them, but harms them.

(In another translation, given in Allan 1991, p. 145, the second sentence is translated as follows: “It devoured a man, but before it could swallow it, its own body was damaged”.) In Sarah Allan’s view, association between gluttony (the meaning in Zuo Zhuan) and the dings’ use for food sacrifices to the “insatiable” spirits of the dead is significant.[

Li Zehou comments on the description of the taotie in the Spring and Autumn Annals as follows: It is hard to explain what is implied in this, as so many myths concerning the taotie have been lost, but the indication that it eats people accords fully with its cruel, fearful countenance. To alien clans and tribes, it symbolized fear and force; to its own clan or tribe, it was a symbol of protection. This religious concept, this dual nature, was crystallized in its strange, hideous features. What appears so savage today had a historical, rational quality in its time. It is for precisely this reason that the savage old myths and legends, the tales of barbarism, and the crude, fierce, and terrifying works of art of ancient clans possessed a remarkable aesthetic appeal. As it was with Homer’s epic poems and African masks, so it was with the taotie, in whose hideous features was concentrated a deep-seated historic force. It is because of this irresistible historic force that the mystery and terror of the taotie became the beautiful—the exalted.

Li Zehou further notes, “Some scholars consider that the meaning of ‘taotie is not “eating people” but making a mysterious communication between people and Heaven (gods).”

The Bronze Age

The Bronze Age was the time when men learned how to mine and smelt copper and tin to make bronze weapons and tools. These activities required an organized labor force and skilled craftsmen. In Neolithic times (before the Bronze Age), people had made tools out of stone and hunted and gathered their food. However, in the Bronze Age people learned how to farm and produce enough extra food to feed other workers — such as miners, bronze-smiths, weavers, potters and builders who lived in towns — and to feed the ruling class who organized and led society.

The Chinese Bronze Age had begun by 1700 B.C. in the kingdom of the Shang dynasty along the banks of the Yellow River in northern China. At times the Shang kings ruled even larger areas.

Contrary to common notions about the Chinese, the Bronze Age Chinese did not drink tea or eat rice. Both these commodities came from the south and were not popular in the rest of China until hundreds of years later. Instead the ordinary people consumed cereals, breads and cakes of millet and barley and drank beer. Members of the royal court could afford to vary their diet with meat and wine.

The Shang kings spent most of their time riding forth from their walled cities with their nobles and knights to hunt and fight wars. The farmers were peasants who belonged to the land and were supervised by vassals of the king. In many ways society in Bronze Age China resembles society in Medieval Europe. In the centuries after the Zhou dynasty (11th century B.C. to 221 B.C.) replaced the Shang kings, the lords and barons seized more and more power and became more and more independent.

The Bronze Age Chinese held extraordinarily different ideas about kingship and religion from Medieval Europe. They believed the king’s right to rule was based on his good relations with the spirits of his ancestors who controlled the destiny of the domain. The king continually posed questions to his ancestors about policy. He did this by instructing his scribe to write the question on an “oracle bone” — that is, an animal shoulder blade or the breast bone of a turtle. A priest then held a hot rod to the bone until it cracked and interpreted the pattern of the cracks for the answer.

It was also the king’s duty to please the great forces of nature — the sun and rain gods — who controlled the outcome of the harvest. So that these gods and his ancestor spirits would look favorably on his kingdom, the king made regular sacrifices of wine and cereals, which were placed in elaborate bronze vessels and heated over the fires on the temple altar. During the Shang dynasty bronze vessels were the symbol of royalty, just as the gold crown became the symbol of royalty in Europe. [Paragraphs 3, 4, 5, and 6 in the exhibition pamphlet (reproduced below) describe the history and use of these bronzes.]

At times the Shang kings make animal and human sacrifices as well; and when the king and powerful members of the royal court died, it was not unusual that their wives, servants, bodyguards, horses and dogs were killed and buried with them. During the Zhou Dynasty people gradually turned away from this custom and substituted clay figures for real people and animals.
The Importance of Archaeology

Until less than a hundred years ago the Shang Dynasty was only legend. In 1898, a few oracle bones were found accidentally. Two scholars recognized that the scratches on the bones were an ancient form of Chinese writing and managed to decipher the inscriptions. In 1928 the first scientific excavations of an ancient Chinese site began at Anyang, the last capital of the Shang dynasty. Within the beaten earth walls of the city archaeologists uncovered hundreds of oracle bones. In the tombs of kings and nobles they found magnificent bronzes, fine grey pottery, marble figures of animals and jade carvings. What has not survived and what must be filled in with the imagination are the colorfully painted wooden palaces and temples, the royal gardens, royal zoo, the silk robes, flags and trappings of the court, the earth and thatch huts of the townspeople and peasants and their rough clothes made of hemp and leather.

Most of the 105 objects in the exhibition have been excavated in China in the last 25 years. Besides the bronzes, there are jade pieces and one iron object — a belt buckle. (Iron did not appear in China until the 5th century B.C.)

At the entrance to the exhibition is a wine cup made in the 17th century B.C. which is one of the earliest known Chinese bronze vessels. At the far end of the first gallery is an alcove where seven jade carvings and six bronzes belonging to Fu Hao are displayed. Her tomb excavated at Anyang in 1976 is the only intact undisturbed royal tomb to be discovered to date. From inscriptions on the nearly 200 bronzes packed in the tomb archaeologists identified the occupant as Fu Hao. Dozens of oracle bone inscriptions found at Anyang refer to Fu Hao’s many activities. She was a wife of a Shang king and not only bore him children but also led his armies in battle and represented him at state ceremonies.

Within her small rectangular tomb (26 feet deep) were remains of her lacquered wood coffin set inside a larger wooden container, 16 sacrificial victims and 6 dogs. There were also more than 200 bronze weapons and tools, 600 small sculptures and ritual objects of jade and stone, ivory cups inlaid with turquoise, several bronze mirrors, 500 carved bone objects and about 7,000 cowrie shells, which were used for money.

In 1974, farmers sinking a well made an even more extraordinary discovery. Close by the tomb of China’s first emperor, the ruler of Qin, they happened upon an underground chamber which lead to the discovery of some 7,000 life-sized terracotta warriors, charioteers and cavalrymen. (Eight of these figures are in the exhibition. Look at the cover of the grey pamphlet [image not included here] which shows a striding infantryman and the postcards of the kneeling archer and the cavalryman. Their costumes, the armor made of pieces of bronze and leather and their military gear are shown in exact detail.) The Qin emperor had led an exceedingly active life [see the last paragraph of the exhibition pamphlet]. The pits were situated to the east of the emperor’s tomb, the direction from which his enemies would attack.

Many of the bronzes are amazingly heavy, suggesting a high level of technology. The four Shang bronzes on the postcards [not shown here] weigh as follows: the rectangular food cauldron, 181 lbs.; the square wine vessel with rams, 75 lbs.; the elephant, 6 lbs.; and the covered wine vessel, about 23 lbs.

The designs on the bronzes are fascinating. Shang artists were obviously obsessed with real and imaginary animal forms. Use a magnifying glass to study the four bronzes on the postcards. In addition to the elephant (not native to northern China and probably brought from the south for the royal zoo) and the rams, find the birds, dragons and animal masks called taotie. In the exhibition even more animal forms can be found: owls, tigers, bulls, snakes and rhinoceros. The background for the beasts is a series of spiral patterns. The silhouettes of some vessels bristle with fin-like flanges.

Often one animal form flows into another animal form as they do in the animal mask. The masks facing the viewer can also be seen as dragons in profile looking at each other.

At the end of the Shang gallery a turn to the left leads into the Zhou and Han Dynasty (206 B.C. to 220 A.D.) gallery. Although the spiral patterns, the taotie masks, and dragon designs resemble Shang bronzes, later Zhou bronzes display patterns that are more open and flowing, the animals are less abstract, and the vessels are made in new shapes. Look at the rhinoceros poster, the postcards of the Zhou wine vessel, the Han incense burner, the bull and tiger ritual object. The Han lamp in the form of a servant girl holding a candle stand is one of the first clearly represented human figures in Chinese art. A close inspection of the 5th century B.C. bronze wine vessel nearby (#91 in the exhibition) reveals lively inlaid figures dancing, playing musical instruments and battling on land and water. They are among the earliest known attempts by the Chinese to show pictures of people.

New bronze, being largely copper, is shiny like a copper penny, only slightly more yellow. When bronze has been buried a long time, it reacts to the minerals in the ground. The exact way it reacts depends upon the amounts of copper, tin and lead in its composition. As a result the surface colors, called “patinas,” are variations of green, blue-green, blackish green, red, rust, and blackish brown.

From the first simple wine cup — one of the earliest Chinese bronze vessels yet known — to the extraordinary life-sized terracotta figures buried with the First Emperor of Qin, this exhibition features discoveries that have fundamentally changed our knowledge of ancient Chinese history and art.

At about the same time that Stonehenge was rising in England and Abraham was framing the principles of Judaism in the Middle East, a Bronze Age culture was developing in China that in many respects was seldom equaled and never surpassed. This development seems to have occurred early in the first half of the second millennium B.C. in the fertile Central Plains of the Yellow River valley. For thousands of years this area had sustained Neolithic cultures of increasing complexity, which ultimately culminated in the first Chinese civilization. By the time of the Bronze Age this culture was characterized by a strong centralized government, urban communities with stratified social classes, palatial architecture, a distinctive system of writing, elaborate religious rituals, sophisticated art forms, and bronze metallurgy.

Unlike other cultures, where bronze was first used chiefly for tools and weapons, in China this alloy of copper and tin was reserved for the manufacture of majestic vessels that played central roles in state ritual and ancestor worship for more than 1,000 years, even after the official beginnings of the Iron Age in the fifth century B.C. Representing the wealth and power of the rulers, these ritual utensils show the highest degree of technical and artistic accomplishment in early Chinese civilization.

The legend of the founding of China’s first dynasty demonstrates the importance of bronze to the ancient Chinese: After King Yu of the Xia brought the primordial floods under control, in about 2200 B.C., he divided his land into nine provinces, and had nine ding (food cauldrons) cast to represent them. When the Xia dynasty fell, the “nine ding,” also called the “Auspicious Bronzes of the State,” passed to the Shang dynasty, and, in turn, to the Zhou when they conquered the Shang. Possession of bronze vessels thus became a symbol for the holding of power and prestige. Rulers used bronze cauldrons, cups, drinking vessels, and other containers to present offerings of food and wine to royal ancestors and deities. In this way they reaffirmed their hereditary rights to power and attempted to persuade the ancestors to influence events favorably.

During Shang times wine played a major part in such ritual observances, and containers for wine therefore far outnumber other types. Then, the Shang were criticized for excessive wine drinking by their conquerors, the Zhou, who felt that such overindulgence had offended Heaven and given the Zhou the right to usurp Shang power. Safeguarding their own dynasty, the Zhou produced fewer wine vessels and replaced the favorite Shang shapes with new types of cooking and storage vessels.

After the Shang period, ritual vessels became more important as expressions of personal prestige than as vehicles for pious offerings. This is evident from the changing content of bronze inscriptions. Cast into the surface of a vessel, these inscriptions first appeared during the last Shang dynasty as a terse identification of the vessel’s owner or of the ancestor to whom it was dedicated. During the Western Zhou period inscriptions became increasingly common and lengthier, extolling the achievements of the owner and expressing the poignant wish that the piece might not only honor his forebears, but also recall his own merits to his descendants “for generations without end.” By the end of the Bronze Age, the vessels became worldly status symbols, more important in celebrations of the living than in rituals for the dead. Inscriptions all but disappeared, replaced by rich surfaces inlaid with gold, silver, and precious stones.

In ancient China, bronze vessels were cast by an indigenous process that employed a mold made of sections. After fashioning a clay model of the object, the founder packed it with another layer of clay that was allowed to dry, cut into sections, pried off, and fired. The model was then shaved down to become the core of the mold, the sections assembled around it, and the molten metal poured between the two. Once the bronze had cooled, the mold was removed and the surface of the vessel burnished smooth.

The decorations of early Chinese bronzes was executed directly into the model or modeled and cast into the bronze, not worked into the cold metal afterward. Undoubtedly the section-mold casting method influenced the nature of decorative designs: Shang decor is distinguished by symmetry, frontality, and incised ornament, usually arranged in horizontal bands that complement the vessel contours. The most frequently encountered decoration in the Shang period is a frontal animal mask (see illustration, below). During the Western Zhou period zoomorphic forms become more and more abstract, as the Shang motifs dissolve into linear elaboration. A new vocabulary of wave and interlace patterns based on serpentine shapes evolves during the Eastern Zhou era, and these, along with purely geometric patterns, cover the vessels in overall designs. At the same time, handles become sculptural, depicting tigers, dragons, and other beasts in poses that emphasize the swells and curves of the body’s musculature.

We owe the preservation of these ancient bronzes to their burial, either in storage pits, where they were hastily hidden by fleeing members of a defeated elite house, or, more commonly, in tombs. During the Shang dynasty, members of the royalty were accompanied in the afterlife by their bronzes, ceramics, weapons, amulets, and ornaments, and even the human and animal entourage that surrounded them in life: servants, bodyguards, horses, chariots, and charioteers. During the Zhou and Han periods sumptuous burials continued, but human sacrifice was rarely practiced, although the custom was preserved by the substitution of figurines of wood or clay intended to resemble the retinue of the deceased.

Perhaps the most startling examples of this practice are the more than 7,000 life-sized terracotta warriors and horses made to accompany the First Emperor of Qin to his grave in about 210 B.C. Just 11 years before his death the Qin ruler had united all of China under his leadership. Defeating and absorbing a series of rival states, he brought an end to centuries of disorder and laid the foundations for the unified empires of later Chinese history. Vast labors, such as the 1,500-mile-long Great Wall, rapidly exhausted the new state’s resources, however, and Qin rule collapsed shortly after the First Emperor’s death. Not the least of his prodigious undertakings was the construction of his own mausoleum, a task employing some 700,000 laborers. In 1974, farmers sinking wells came upon evidence that led to the discovery of an entire army of clay figures buried to the east of the First Emperor’s tomb site as an eternal sentinel. The spectacle of this imperial bodyguard emerging from the earth is awesome beyond imagination. Individually modeled with great attention to facial features, details of dress, armor, and coiffure, they bring to life the Chinese people who created the works of art in this exhibition, and suggest the untold riches that still await the archaeologist in Chinese soil.


The pain is greatest for a poet
When the words are mush inside his head
When the subject is too painful to form
Today the words are crushed
I am collapsed inside my thoughts
The news
The news
I cannot bear it
Yet I must
So must they
Strength beyond strength I wish them
It’s only words I have lost
Its only words I cannot find
They have lost everything
Now the words have gone again
I have to stop here for writing more is stupid