Tag Archives: English poetry

“Sylvia” (2004)


star30 star30star30star30star30a  I watched this partly out of HSC-related duty, but also out of interest. I have to say I was very impressed by its accuracy and fairness. The lead review (at the moment) on IMDb pretty much sums up my reaction.

In 1998, "Hilary and Jackie" explored alleged episodes in the short life of cellist Jacqueline Du Pre and her pianist, now also conductor, husband, Daniel Barenboim. Despite very very good acting the film was largely a descent into the basement of scurrilous storytelling by relatives of the dead musician. Whatever the truth of the claim that she bedded her sister’s husband, the movie said nothing about the couple’s meteorically brilliant early careers. It was slanted voyeurism writ large.

Director Christine Wells has taken a very different and insightful tack in exploring the life of poet Sylvia Plath and her marriage to Ted Hughes, a poet with laurels garnered while Ms. Plath was still starting up a not very steady ladder to recognition.

Plath, an American, met Hughes in England. A short courtship was followed by marriage and then two children. The relationship was tumultuous and eventually it foundered because of Sylvia’s underlying emotional instability followed by her husband’s desertion to another woman…

Wells takes a sympathetic view of Ted and Sylvia, not joining in the political debate over feminism and Sylvia’s supposed maltreatment by Ted. Sylvia in this film is brilliant but also terribly brittle and her inner demons are not caused by a brutish or callous husband. As Platrow portrays her, I believe accurately, Sylvia was seriously and chronically depressed with life events worsening but in no regard initiating a downward spiral. Today she would probably thrive and be both prolific as a poet and happy as a person if successfully maintained on an effective anti-depressant.

Ted, played by Daniel Craig, is a bit transparent – loving but somewhat distanced by his own quest for fame. He hectors Sylvia to write more, annoyed that she bakes instead of composing verse while on a seaside vacation. He’s supportive but also blind to the deepening reality that he is dealing with a woman who needs help, not critical comments about non-productivity.

The supporting cast is fine but this is Paltrow and Craig’s film. She has a strong affinity for England and its culture (I believe she has moved there) and she gives the role deep conviction and understanding. It happens that she somewhat resembles Sylvia but the true recognition is internal and intellectual. And emotional, let’s not omit that…

"Sylvia" sets the record straight as Paltrow acts the part of a woman – mother as well as poet – who slowly loses control of her life while her husband reacts first with confusion and later with the self-protective armor of withdrawal.

Hughes went on to publish many fine poems and he became poet laureate of England, a post he definitely wanted and enjoyed (Hughes was one of the very few modern and relatively young intellectuals who was a convinced monarchist).

Not long before succumbing to cancer, Hughes published "Birthday Letters," an attempt to show through years of verse the nature of his relationship with Sylvia. Whether viewed as an apologia or a last record – and chance – to give his side, it’s an impressive work. And "Ariel’s Gift" by Erica Wagner is must reading for those who want more than a film and sometimes potted articles can provide. It analyzes the poets’ relationship through the prism of Hughes’s writings, most unpublished before "Birthday Letters." A recent book, "Her Husband: Hughes and Plath, Portrait of a Marriage," by Diane Middlebrook, is also recommended…

The movie is M15+ in Australia.

It would also perhaps be a good supplementary for “Belonging”.

Adapted from a post on my personal blog.


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Someone has posted on Ted Hughes (HSC Module C)

And I am very grateful, for one. See Fulbright Scholars some notes. Thanks to Mel McGuinness, who has in turn kindly referred students to this blog for Frankenstein and Blade Runner.


I propose to say something about Module C myself shortly.

Update 24 June

Some references I have found.


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War Poetry

Some HSC students read Wilfred Owen’s poetry, and at SBHS there was a unit in Year 9 or 10 on war poetry. This post was first prepared for that SBHS unit.

Resources for a study on how war poems from different ages and cultures embody diverse values and attitudes. Here are a few starting points to look at:

  • National Public Radio in the USA had a series in 2003 called The Poetry of War: Poems Inspired by Past Conflicts. There is much to read and hear there, ranging from ancient times to the present.
  • Lancaster Royal Grammar School has a page devoted to Attitudes to War, including much reference to poetry. The page is part of a Transnational Learning Network, the Comenius Project.
  • The Reliability of War Poetry. “These activities are designed to analyse the War poetry of a variety of poets, including the famous Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Rupert Brooke, alongside less well known poetry from other Allied and German servicemen of the First World War.”
  • The First World War: Prose & Poetry.

    “…throughout the history of poetry-making, poems have provided a commentary – often critical – on what people, communities and nations do. And in the 20th century, the horrors and irreversible changes created by modern warfare changed poetry for good.

    “The thirty or so poems in this selection [written between 1914 and 1998] demonstrate – among many other things – this change. After the First World War it was clear that the subject of war could no longer be treated as though its slaughter was solemn and glorious. But how could war now be written about by poets? The following poems illustrate the diversity of answers to that question, in a variety of ways expressing the fundamental unacceptability of war. They also show that poets have not found the subject easy…”

  • A small but good collection of War Poems
  • Poet Links on Professor Eiichi Hishikawa’s websites, Kobe University, Japan, has many of the main 20th century English language poets.
  • A fascinating page that gives the original of a Han dynasty Chinese poem, “At Fifteen I Went to War”, together with five different English translations.
  • War Poetry (UK) – War poetry of the First World War. War poetry and anti-war poetry about Vietnam, the Falklands War, Kosovo, Sierra Leone and Iraq.
  • Trinity College Perth – P L Duffy Resource Centre – more resources on War Poetry.
  • Poetry – the argument essay is very good. It includes this opening paragraph for an essay:

    In Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ and Tennyson’s ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’, both poets show clear attitudes to war. Owen’s poem centres around an horrific gas attack he suffered with a group of soldiers so tired they were ‘drunk with fatigue’. Owen leaves us in no doubt his attitude is anti-war but Tennyson’s poem is more generally thought to portray war as glorious and soldiers as heroes, ‘When can their glory fade?’ yet I believe that Tennyson shows an attitude that is far closer to Owen than might at first be realised…’

    The Poetry of War by John Stringer. “War, or battles, have been a subject for poetry since the earliest times. The Iliad, after all, is a war poem; and much of the message is concerned with the individual heroism and the ultimate overall pointlessness of it all…”


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    Now what do I know about Malouf and Wordsworth…?


    In 2005 I had two students who were reading David Malouf — or Wikipedia are both good places to start looking. One student was studying An Imaginary Life in the context of an “In the Wild” module also featuring Wordsworth. (He got Band 6 in the end.) Nature in is worth a visit. So of course is Wordsworth The other was studying The Great World as part of a Year 11 unit on “Visions of Australia”. Here is a site that fits Malouf into a postcolonial context. Could be useful.

    Here is a 1996 interview with Malouf in which he talks about “The Conversations at Curlow Creek, and other matters such as God and paganism and the sacred.”

    In January 2001 Malouf spoke with Ramona Koval on ABC Radio National; from his collection of short stories, Dream Stuff, Malouf read from one of the stories, called ‘Closer.’ He then talked about that story and his work. (This is a full transcript.)

    This Introduction to The Great World is concise but a reasonable start.

    This is one of the best things I have found so far for both books. Film Australia (PDF) has published these “viewing notes” for a documentary on Malouf also called An Imaginary Life.

    This New York Times review of the novel An Imaginary Life is worth visiting, as is this one of The Great World. (If the New York Times demand registration, remember it is free – and useful.)

    If you want a rather turgid essay in pomo style on An Imaginary Life, look at An Imaginary Life by David Malouf: The Struggle for the Sign, the Struggle for the Self”. Look too at “The Stranger in Three Novels by David Malouf” by Jorg Heinke, University of Kiel, Germany — even if it is oddly organised — or at least I think so.

    On Wordsworth there is “Wordsworth’s poetry” by Anne Collins, from HSC Online. You could also do some very profitable time-wasting by doing a virtual tour of Wordsworth’s Cumbria. Then, and I do warn you in advance, look at William “The Interminable” Wordsworth (1770-1850) written by someone else who has found “The Prelude” to be great for insomnia…


    Here is a beautiful site to look at: Nature, Beauty, and Power: The Romantics (Pitt State University). Another US university, Washington State, offers a plain no-nonsense introduction to Romanticism.

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    Posted by on December 19, 2006 in Australian, English studies, HSC, literature genres, student help, works/authors


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    In search of Yeats

    [July 2007 check: Some of the sites listed here when Ben and I were studying Yeats two years ago have gone, sadly. That’s the way of the Internet. I have deleted/replaced them.]

    All my coachees are from HK or Chinese background, some more recently arrived than others. Two last year, Erwin and Ben, were both studying Advanced English in the HSC. One Saturday I promised Ben I would look around to see what I could find about Yeats, a poet I like but do not always understand…

    Byzantium reads aloud brilliantly and leaves the reader awash in images: but what does it all really mean? Not so easy. And what are some of the various readings possible, if the poem is approached from a number of theoretical persepectives? Even harder… It was all too much for us when I was the age Ben is now and doing English II at Sydney University…


    That rather splendid image is from Yeats Goes to Byzantium. In “Sailing to Byzantium: Adrift on Perfection”, Sonia Jain concludes:

    …Byzantium cannot eternalize Yeats’ genius, for the reader must envision a city so basic that the very complexities that exist as a mere byproduct of the human condition fail to exist, and it is this very anomaly that reflects in the absurdity of the old man Yeats’ desire in quite literally “Sailing to Byzantium.” Yeats is faced with the biggest paradox, for he wishes to become the form that is essential to perfect art, yet despises the very senses without whose perceptions, perfect art could not exist.

    I do wonder if “eternalize” is quite the right word…

    Michael Fleming, “Myself That I Remake: Spiritual Renewal in the Life and Work of William Butler Yeats” is [was!] pretty good. A very different essay is this one [gone! But you have a bit below] on David Mitchell’s Number9Dream and some poems by Yeats:

    …Issues such as chaos and order, questing; a search for definition through context. The ways in which both Yeats and Mitchell’s characters ultimately find this clarity must be explored. The Second Coming, published first in ‘Michael Robartes and the Dancer’ (1921) depicts Yeats’ chaos theory; the heralding of a new order and destruction of the old ‘Turning and turning in the widening gyre/The falcon cannot hear the falconer’; an emblem of Yeats’ belief that upon every two thousand years a new world order would be enforced. The ‘widening gyre’ signifying his analogy of two overlapping inverted cones, humanity circumnavigating one until reaching its widest point and then exchanging realities with its coincident partner. The falcon, a symbol of purity and nobility ‘cannot hear the falconer’. – Semblances of the loss of communication between the old regulated and automated reality, the changing of context as the new order ‘Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born’ in a chilling moment of potential. Yeats acknowledged that this new rule would be neither better nor worse than its precursor, just dissimilar and for that matter fearsome, yet it is peculiar to identify the use of such images of pestilence ‘While all about it reel shadows of the indignant desert birds’. Having replaced the elegant falcon these vultures circle overhead presumably encompassing the carrion left in the wake of ‘The Second Coming’. ‘The blood-dimmed tide is loosed’ – their flight symbolising the tightening gyre of the transition of orders. Jesus Christ gives way to some ‘rough beast’, ‘The twenty centuries of stony sleep were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle.’

    Lindsay A. Lauersdorf writes on “Yeats’s Symbols: Cycles and Antinomes.” [Gone! It was interesting too. 😦 ] Timothy J Lord examines the work of Yeats and another famous Irish writer in “The Mariner and the Sea: the dual visions of Yeats and Joyce”.

    Here is a site [2007 added] where a poet, Brian Jones, looks at some of his favourite Yeats poems.

    At a much simpler level we have this study guide: Summary of some W. B. Yeats Poetry.

    On the Bored of Studies site a current HSC student posed this question, before indulging in a pithy four-letter view of Yeats’s work…

    “Yeats’s poetry can be seen not only in the context of the socio-political upheavals of the early twentieth century, but also as a pre-occupation with his own unique philosophies and symbolisms. His values are inherent in a reading of the following poems:

    “When You Are Old”
    “Easter 1916”
    “Wild Swans At Coole”
    “The Second Coming”

    Discuss your understanding of the historical, philosophical and literary values of each of the above works.

    Some of you reading this out there might be very very amazed at what HSC students are expected to deal with in forty or fifty minutes. It really is, don’t you think, the kind of question that immediately leads to some Pooh Perplex level of response. Do look at Danny Yee’s review of The Pooh Perplex, a book every English teacher or student should read some day.


    And then I googled “Yeats + Nietzche” and got among others:

  • Maria Voelkel “Meditations in Time of Civil War”.
  • “Influences on Yeats” from The Yeats Society Sligo, Hyde Bridge, Sligo, Ireland.
  • “Magic Words, Magic Brush: The Art of William Butler and Jack Yeats” from the Kennedy Center. A set of lesson plans for secondary classes.

    This unit on William Butler Yeats, the writer, and Jack Yeats, the painter, is dedicated to immersing students in a study of the brothers as voices of Ireland, and as two of the most renowned artists of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It is dedicated also to evoking students to see how the outlook of an age controls cultural expression, and how this expression is articulated in similar ways throughout genres of art. To help effect these major goals, focus is placed on: the impact of geography, place, and family on both William Butler Yeats and Jack Yeats; the influence of personalities of the time period on the two artists; also, the ways both Yeats align, in philosophical construct and creative expression, with the dynamic changes that occurred in the last part of the nineteenth and the early part of the twentieth centuries.

  • “The darkness drops again”: Yeats, Nietzsche, Ginsberg from The Dark Age Blog which is Canadian, and linked to another rather interesting looking site which may also prove to be totally weird: The Coming Dark Age. I suspend judgement on both until I have looked into them more. But The Dark Age Blog is interesting on “The Second Coming” and the following couple of entries are also relevant.

    Yeats’ famous poem, written just after the conclusion of the Great War of 1914-18, retains its popularity and power of dark enchantment down to this day. It may be the poem most commented upon to be found anywhere on the internet. In tone it is apocalyptic. In mood, it is darkly pessimistic and so it participates in the common mood of pessimism that prevailed in the West after the Great War. The Great War shattered the myth of progress — the widely held (and in some ways naive) optimism that history was simply the inevitable process of human progress. “The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned” was only an obvious fact to those who had lived through the conflagration. This myth of progress was one of the casualties of the Great War, along with so much else. As one literary critic pointed out, no utopian novels were written in the West after the war, whereas before the war they had been quite common. On the contrary, the mood in the genre became darkly dystopian, exemplified by Huxley’s Brave New World or Orwell’s 1984, amongst other less well-known examples…

  • Of course it goes without saying to visit Wikipedia or on Yeats, Nietzche, and so on and so on…

    NEW 2007

    George Orwell on Yeats (1943).

    The Life and Works of William Butler Yeats — National Library of Ireland.

    Profile of Yeats — an site. Leads to more sites.

    Modern Classics: William Butler Yeats — from the prestigious Poetry Magazine founded by Harriet Munroe in 1912.

    W.B. Yeats: An Examination of Civilization and Barbarity by John McGuirk on Literary Kicks. “Literary Kicks was founded in July 1994 by Levi Asher, then a struggling writer bored by his tech job at the headquarters of the JP Morgan bank on Wall Street. Operated surreptitiously from Asher’s cubicle as he pretended to work on PowerPoint presentations, LitKicks quickly became a popular online destination and critic’s favorite, also gaining wide usage on college campuses around the world.” Interesting site.

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    Posted by on December 4, 2006 in English studies, HSC, student help, works/authors


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