Saying Mirror by Sylvia Plath

This week I learnt Mirror by Sylvia Plath. Here I am reciting this poem from memory.

Free and Easy

Although it is written in free verse I found it much easier to learn than other poems. I have always liked this poem. The poem is very sure of itself. The poem is the mirror speaking and the structure of the poem reflects this, with a symmetrical form.

Yet at the same time, all is not as it seems. It reflects everything “just as it is” but how can you reflect on the inner worlds and the outer worlds? The woman rewards the mirror with tears and an agitation of hands for its faithfulness. This is what the mirror thinks. But perhaps the mirror cannot see the real reason for the woman’s distress.

Can you look yourself in the mirror?

“At least I can look myself in the mirror…” is an expression we often hear. It means that I, unlike other people, have respected my integrity. I am able to look at myself in the mirror. Maybe some people can look at themselves physically in the mirror but they never hold that mirror up to their inner self. And notice that we say the mirror and not a mirror. This mirror is the mirror you look in at home.

The two stanzas reflect each other. They are mirror images. The stanzas contain no obvious beats or rhymes. There is no real feeling of certainty or reward. This is in contrast to the very sure way in which the mirror speaks about itself.

This poem sounds very nice, it sounds so natural and effortless. Here is Sylvia Plath talking about the poets she likes : “The poets I delight in are possessed by their poems as by the rhythms of their own breathing. Their finest poems seem born all-of-a-piece, not put together by hand; certain poems in Robert Lowell’s Life Studies, for instance; Theodore Roethke’s greenhouse poems; some of Elizabeth Bishop and a very great deal of Stevie Smith (‘Art is a wild  cat and quite seperate from civilisation’).”

Inner and Outer selves

It is a beautiful little poem which can stand as it is without too much explanation. However, knowing Plath’s life and her outward appearance as a polite and decorous woman and her lively, raging inner creative self we can also imagine this piece as a meditation on the hidden selves inside all of us. The difference between our inner and outer appearances. The woman comes to the mirror every morning. She searches its reaches for what she really is.

The mirror itself is not as fixed as it claims to be. In the second stanza it transforms into a lake…

And in the final line we can see that the mirror holds within itself a monster.

You can hear Sylvia Plath’s voice reading Tulips here.

How I say it

I say the poem in as simple a fashion as possible. Strangely enough as I recorded it my phone got stuck. You can hear the poem but the face is immobile.

Technical glitch that actually serves the poem.

Mirror

I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.
Whatever I see I swallow immediately
Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.
I am not cruel, only truthful ‚
The eye of a little god, four-cornered.
Most of the time I meditate on the opposite wall.
It is pink, with speckles. I have looked at it so long
I think it is part of my heart. But it flickers.
Faces and darkness separate us over and over.

Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me,
Searching my reaches for what she really is.
Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon.
I see her back, and reflect it faithfully.
She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands.
I am important to her. She comes and goes.
Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness.
In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman
Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.

By Sylvia Plath.

Saying Digging by Seamus Heaney

Saying Digging by Seamus Heaney…

This is a poem that I started learning at the end of August. I have been trying to learn a poem a week. It is now mid September.

I don’t really know why but this poem turned out to be so difficult to learn. It is a little longer than the other ones I have learnt so far but I think there is something about the message in the poem. Something about it that I can hear but not really feel.

The poem is one of Heaney’s earlier poems and he is looking at his father and his grandfather and how they were brilliant at digging. The rhymes are beautiful and subtle and it just sounds so natural. It is a beautiful poem. Maybe the core message did not vibrate with me.

Why so difficult?

Some of the reasons that made it so difficult to learn this poem was that there was a lot of stuff going on: it was the end of the holidays and then it was back to school for my young family. I tried a couple of times to record it but nearly everytime I tried to record it I got something wrong. Either when I was saying it or else something happened during the recording.

I have seen great advantages from learning poetry though. I have seen it  in re-learning some of my music and lyrics for the groups I play with.

Why learn?

There was a concert with Onze Onze and it was so easy to relearn all the lyrics after the holidays. In an earlier post I wondered about the utility of learning these poems so I suppose I am getting an answer already.

I can also feel it in my writing. I have continued drawing as well and there are things changing with that too. I will announce the news in relation to drawings on a separate post.

Last night, I was at the birthday party of a friend and he co-celebrated his birthday with his father. We improvised some music with some musician friends. I improvised some lyrics.

What can we say about time passing? About those who have come before? How can we live up to the ones who were before us?

Heaney answers you have to use the tools that you have.

Hope you enjoy this poem and see you soon…

Digging by Seamus Heaney.

Between my finger and my thumb   

The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.


Under my window, a clean rasping sound   

When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:   

My father, digging. I look down


Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds   

Bends low, comes up twenty years away   

Stooping in rhythm through potato drills   

Where he was digging.


The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft   

Against the inside knee was levered firmly.

He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep

To scatter new potatoes that we picked,

Loving their cool hardness in our hands.


By God, the old man could handle a spade.   

Just like his old man.


My grandfather cut more turf in a day

Than any other man on Toner’s bog.

Once I carried him milk in a bottle

Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up

To drink it, then fell to right away

Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods

Over his shoulder, going down and down

For the good turf. Digging.


The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap

Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge

Through living roots awaken in my head.

But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.


Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests.

I’ll dig with it.
Seamus Heaney, “Digging” from Death of a Naturalist. Copyright 1966 by Seamus Heaney.

Saying The Thought-Fox by Ted Hughes

Smell in your Dreams

The Thought-Fox by Ted Hughes is a poem about making a poem, almost like a dream it starts with the poet and a lonely clock ticking and then he senses something more nearer, he gets glimpses of this idea/being, slowly revealing itself to be a fox, everything building, until the final stanza when with ‘a sudden sharp hot stink of fox, it enters the dark hole of the head.’ The animal smell of the fox, this closeness to the idea/fox, wakes us from the dream. ‘The page is printed’, the poem is there.

Blood in his Dreams

When Ted Hughes read ‘The Thought-Fox’ in public he used to introduce the poem by telling the audience about a dream he had two years before he wrote it. At that time Hughes was studying English Literature at Cambridge. He believed that his studies stifled his creativity. He dreamt that a burnt and bloody fox, the size of a man with human hands, walking on his hind legs, came into his room. The fox put a bloody hand on the essay he was writing and said, ‘Stop this – you are destroying us.’ When he wrote ‘The Thought-Fox’, he may not have been thinking about this dream at all, but it is interesting that he subsequently made this connection.

As in so many things creative, it is often in hindsight that we can see the golden thread which links them together.

Why the Fox?

I am no stranger to foxes and wrote a poem which you can find elsewhere on this website called “Why the Fox?”.

Hughes claimed that the fox was his totemic animal. In some shamanic traditions the shamans never tell who their spirit animals are, while in others the shamans are quite open about this. Your totemic animals change and you may have several during your life in shamanic traditions.

I have been drawing a fox man for nearly a year now. I do not know why. I find it easy to draw him. It is of course partly autobiographical and an easy mask to hide behind. I can say or attempt to say things about the world I live in, while all the time imagining other worlds.

The fox is a cliché. it is often invoked to represent a mixture of the civilised savage: ourselves. Many people talk to me about Mister Fox the great film, and of course from time to time in my drawings the Crow puts in an appearance with the Fox. The Fox has a resonance in our culture- he is so common as to be invisible. He is known for the folk qualities of slyness and his trickster attitude. At the same time the fox is lovable. And deeper still the fox is wild. The fox is a wild animal.

The Fox in Contemporary Art

A friend of mine explained to me that the fox is very popular in contemporary art because it is easy to find stuffed foxes in antique shops. The fox dies, is stuffed and reborn again in an installation. If the fox is lucky its physical remains are not too badly treated in this reincarnation. For some it would be better that they were forgotten beside the battered, empty valved dusty trumpet at the back of the antique shop. When I see the fox’s helpless body mistreated and disrespected I feel sad.

Meeting the Fox for Real

I just came back to France from holidays in Dublin, my home town. This is also part of the reason why it has been so hard to post this video of me saying the Thought-Fox. I also have stopped drawing foxes. I don’t know why. Holidays I suppose…

Dublin is full of foxes. Real foxes and surely many false ones too. I saw a fox crossing the road in broad daylight. A fine healthy fox, well-fed with a beautiful coat. A couple of nights later I was coming home late from a friend’s house and I saw a fox in the same place in the dark. It may have been the same fox. It crossed the road in front of me and went down another road. It stood beneath the yellow lamp. I looked down the road after him and it turned to stare at me. We held the stare for a long time and then I reached for my phone to somehow capture it; a bad photo, a shaky video. It looked at me from the lamplight and I tried to discreetly take out my camera. Then it turned and was gone. I stood there with my useless smartphone.

I went on home thinking about how do we meet foxes? How do we meet animals? How do we meet that wild part of ourselves? And then we try to capture it. And if we capture the wilderness it runs away.

The Fox-Catcher

‘So you see, in some ways my fox is better than an ordinary fox. It will live for ever, it will never suffer from hunger or hounds. I have it with me wherever I go. And I made it. And all through imagining it clearly enough and finding the living words.’ Ted Hughes (Poetry in the Making)

Not everyone would agree that catching the wild thing is the right thing. And this is a Thought-Fox, notice that hyphen in the title now?

Attempt at Conclusion

It’s late at night, you are alone trying to find an idea, trying to draw, trying to write, trying to write music, trying to imagine a new thing, a way to put into something a something that you sense…

This is what the Thought Fox is about. It is about the birth of a poem.

So. I have started learning a poem by heart a week. At the end of the week I post the poem on my website and on my instagram. I am on week three and I don’t really know why I am doing it. I enjoy the process of learning and I imagine that I will start to see other benefits. But for the moment it is a way of selecting poetry that I love, an echo of the infinite contained in the finite body…

I am trying to learn a poem a week but this one has been a little tricky to learn and to find the time to say it.
There is nothing more useless and useful than poetry. Especially now so many of us have a need for the promise of poetry, the rawness of poetry, the true lies of poetry, the possible impossibility.
I was about to give up– I know so many people have done this before. I am doing this for me alone and my own enjoyment. I post it to give myself an obligation and a deadline. If you don’t like it, I don’t give a f**k… 🙂

I hope that it will give you the wish to do something that you want to do yourself- you don’t have to post it…

The Thought-Fox

by 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 a 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.

~

From The Hawk in the Rain (1957)