Saying “Definition of Your Attraction”

Short poem

Here I am saying a poem “Definition of Your Attraction” by János Pilinszky, (1921 – 1981) translated from the Hungarian.

I picked this poem because it is short. I have been very busy recently (you’ll read more about that on the website very soon) and I have not found time to learn a poem at all this week.

Short and simple?

Even though it is a short poem, when you know a little about Pilinszky’s life you appreciate this poem differently.


“Definition of Your Attraction”

On a fully broken-in animal’s back

a fully broken-in animal rides.

by János Pilinszky

Translated from the Hungarian by Peter Jay.

Saying Death of an Irishwoman by Michael Hartnett

Here I am Saying Death of an Irishwoman by Michael Hartnett.

This week here I am saying Death of an Irishwoman by Michael Hartnett.

This poem was written by Hartnett in memory of his grandmother, Bridget Halpin who died in 1965, aged 80. She raised Hartnett, who was a sickly child, when he was a young boy.

Missed funerals.

When she passed away Hartnett was in Morocco and missed the funeral. This poem is about the loss of this woman, whom he realises how much he loves her once she dies. It is also about the disappearance of the past, of all the knowledge, the songs, the language…

We never realise how much we miss things until they are gone. Also look how futile things are. These things that remain from the past, so fleeting. The memories that we have. Not all of the memories are good, with memories of the Black and Tans raiding the house. And yet, all of these memories seem to be universal- soldiers still raid houses, songs are not sung and more and more languages disappear.

Michael Hartnett an Irish poet was born in 1941 and died in 1991. He was a bilingual poet writing in both Irish and English.

Nettle soup

On the day I made the recording I made some nettle soup. It takes a little time to collect the nettles. I live in the city of Paris so I go out to the woods to collect the nettles. I got one of my sons to help me with his football gloves on. I was thinking of the poem as he collected the nettles. I remember eating nettle soup in Ireland. My aunt makes a great nettle soup. And her daughters too.

This auntie never forgets a birthday and for my birthday she actually sent me this pamphlet of Ten Poems from Ireland (selected and introduced by Paula Meehan) and this poem is the first in it. I had read it before. But I decided to learn this poem from the collection.

Funny to see how difficult it is to find nettles. This is also like those things that are so fleeting. You never realise how difficult it is to find them. I suppose my sons will remember the mornings where we collected nettles to make soup later on.

As we collected the nettles, I brought them to see an old bunker from the second world war. It is off the beaten track, overgrown with plants. Some nice nettles nearby…

To quote from the introduction by Paula Meehan, the poem “opens doors in the imagination, it starts conversations. It is a poem many of us carry as a talisman, as medicine bundle, as a reminder that important culture bearers often appear in humble guise.”

The effect of poetry

This is what I am learning more and more through making poems a part of me. Earlier on in the week I was invited to a dinner in the Centre Culturel Irlandais and it was great to see and meet all the other artists, one in particular Breanndán O Beaglaoich (he is much younger in the link here) was in particular fine form that night. I regretted that I didn’t know the poem Death of an Irishwoman by that time because I am sure he would have loved it. I am sure he knows it. It was an evening of song and poetry and chat as well. No one got their nose broken though… Not while I was there anyway.

Breanndán O Beaglaoich told us how his first language was Irish and he had learnt English later on in life. He sang beautiful songs and played beautiful music on the accordeon. He sang Roisin Dubh so beautifully. He told us a little about the history of the song. I think this so fascinating to imagine these songs being sung for so long. And we all remember songs that we were sung when we were young. This moment of the song in the present and in the past at the same time. I thought sometimes of recording some of it on my phone but it was not one of those moments. The moment had to be lived. The moment was eternal.

What is culture? Is it outside of us? Is it something that lives through us? Is it only those things that are organised by the festivals and official organisations? Or is it “a child’s purse, full of useless things?”

Death of an Irishwoman

By Michael Hartnett

Ignorant, in the sense
she ate monotonous food
and thought the world was flat,
and pagan, in the sense
she knew the things that moved
at night were neither dogs nor cats
but púcas and darkfaced men,
she nevertheless had fierce pride.
But sentenced in the end
to eat thin diminishing porridge
in a stone-cold kitchen
she clenched her brittle hands
around a world
she could not understand.
I loved her from the day she died.
She was a summer dance at the crossroads.
She was a card game where a nose was broken.
She was a song that nobody sings.
She was a house ransacked by soldiers.
She was a language seldom spoken.
She was a child’s purse, full of useless things.

© 1975, The Estate of Michael Hartnett
From: Collected Poems
Publisher: The Gallery Press, Oldcastle, 2001
ISBN: 978 1 85235 295 0

Editor’s Note: púcas: pookas, hobgoblins. In the Irish language a man of African descent is described as a “blue man”, fear ghoirm. In Irish, “an fear dubh” (“the black man”) exclusively denotes the devil. The “darkfaced men” of this poem does not have a racial connotation.


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.


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.