Tag Archives: 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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It’s not every day I sing the praises of a “crib”…

9781741253474-2T … but I am prepared to laud Maya Puiu and Lisa Edwards for their Pascal Press Study Guide for “Belonging” and Peter Skrzynecki’s Immigrant Chronicle. It really is a thorough and extremely intelligent guide.

It is in fact so good it could be dangerous for some students, if they were to draw on it too closely. Nonetheless, I do commend it and have used it myself – after my own efforts on this site, I should add perhaps. Learn from it, but after reading them search out your own quotes on “belonging” and your own supplementary texts. Use the material on the poems as part of a wider mix, including your class discussions and your own insights. Avoid the exact wording of this very helpful book, lest you and thousands of others begin to sound as if you have been cloned!

Even so, this gets a 10 out of 10 from me. It is that good!

I haven’t seen the other guides in the series, but it has been a good idea to publish comprehensive guides for each set text rather than a catch-all approach in one book.

Maya Puiu is no stranger either to ESL teaching or to Skrzynecki’s work. Some years ago she co-ordinated a book rap on the subject where there is some valuable material, even if not all the current set of poems are there.


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Poetry Viva — Wollongong 11 October 2008

Yet another email, this one from the South Coast Writers’ Centre.

Poetry Viva

11 October 2008

Join our most exciting contemporary poets for an afternoon of challenge and contemplation. Featuring Dorothy Porter, John Tranter, joanne burns, Judith Beveridge, Peter Skrzynecki, Barbara Nicholson, Chris Mansell, Elizabeth Hodgson, Merlinda Bobis and more reading from their work. Call in to Wollongong City Gallery for half an hour or the whole afternoon, and experience these extraordinary Australian writers. A co-production of South Coast Writers Centre and Viva La Gong. Supported by the Australian Poetry Centre.

12noon – 4.30pm, Saturday 11 October, 2008
The Fine Gallery, Level 2, Wollongong City Gallery, corner of Kembla and Burelli Streets Wollongong, NSW 2500

Free Event

More information: Ali Smith tel 02 4228 0151 or email

Bit nostalgic this one for me… Ten years I was down there, some thirty years ago.

HSC students will find it interesting. In her email Ali Smith says: students, teachers, and school librarians are more than welcome to come along and hear these poets read their work. I have highlighted poets Year 12 students/teachers may be especially interested in seeing. Deb Westbury will be there too, apparently.

Guess it’s nice that people are using my blog to publicise things too. 🙂


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Update to one of the most popular posts

Physical journeys and Peter Skrzynecki’s poems has been checked and updated today. There are some new resources there, but sadly one that seems to have gone, and one that may have.

There are also some new HSC videos in the VodPod.


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Some Shakespeare sonnets

Not what you associate with YouTube, is it?

Sonnet 38

How can my Muse want subject to invent,
While thou dost breathe, that pour’st into my verse
Thine own sweet argument, too excellent
For every vulgar paper to rehearse?
O! give thyself the thanks, if aught in me
Worthy perusal stand against thy sight;
For who’s so dumb that cannot write to thee,
When thou thyself dost give invention light?
Be thou the tenth Muse, ten times more in worth
Than those old nine which rimers invocate;
And he that calls on thee, let him bring forth
Eternal numbers to outlive long date.
If my slight Muse do please these curious days,
The pain be mine, but thine shall be the praise.

Sonnet 130 is actually very funny: it is a parody of the typical sonnet of the time, an anti-sonnet, but yet turns into a compliment. What do you think of Alan Rickman’s reading of it? Great voice, but is he too serious?

Here it is in 16th century spelling. ſ is “long S”, common up to the 18th century. Looks a bit like “f”.

MY Miſtres eyes are nothing like the Sunne,
Currall is farre more red,then her lips red,
If ſnow be white,why then her breſts are dun:
If haires be wiers,black wiers grow on her head:
I haue ſeene Roſes damaskt,red and white,
But no ſuch Roſes ſee I in her cheekes,
And in ſome perfumes is there more delight,
Then in the breath that from my Miſtres reekes.
I loue to heare her ſpeake,yet well I know,
That Muſicke hath a farre  more pleaſing found:
I graunt I neuer ſaw a goddeſſe goe,
My Miſtres when ſhee walkes treads on the ground.
  And yet by heauen I thinke my loue as rare,
  As any ſhe beli’d with falſe compare.

This one comes from Australia and works with Sonnet 18:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed,
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course untrimmed:
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st,
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Last, A short movie of Dave Mckean about Sonnet 138:

16th century spelling again. Notice how “u” and “v” are virtually interchangeable. That’s why we call W “double U”.

When my loue ſweares that ſhe is made of truth,
I do beleeue her though I know ſhe lyes,
That ſhe might thinke me ſome vntuterd youth,
Vnlearned in the worlds falſe ſubtilties.
Thus vainely thinking that ſhe thinkes me young,
Although ſhe knowes my dayes are paſt the beſt,
Simply I credit her falſe ſpeaking tongue,
On both ſides thus is ſimple truth ſuppreſt :
But wherefore ſayes ſhe not ſhe is vniuſt ?
And wherefore ſay not I that I am old ?
O loues beſt habit is in ſeeming truſt,
And age in loue,loues not t’haue yeares told.
  Therefore I lye with her,and ſhe with me,
  And in our faults by lyes we flattered be.

Go to The amazing web site of Shakespeare’s sonnets for all the sonnets on a very beautiful site, and more information on each one.


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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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