The Poetry of The Communist Manifesto: a combination of past and present

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What would have happened if Karl Marx had become a poet? In this article, Peter Raynard takes The Communist Manifesto to new, poetic levels. 

The Foundation

“Capitalism has subjected the country to the rule of the towns. It has created enormous cities. Capitalism has agglomerated population, centralised means of production, and has concentrated property in a few hands.”

As many readers will know, Karl Marx wrote these words, but used the term ‘bourgeoisie’ instead of capitalism. The words were swapped in a 2012 lecture by John Lanchester (he of Whoops, and Capital) marking Marx’s 193rd birthday, to show how prescient he was in describing the structure of capitalism and the way in which it changes the landscape.

But as well as Marx’s prescience, he has also been lauded for his literary style of writing. In Robert Paul Wolff’s book, ‘Moneybags Must Be So Lucky: on the literary structure of Capital’, he references Edmund Wilson who likens Marx to the great ironist, Swift.

“Compare the logic of Swift’s ‘modest proposal’ for curing the misery of Ireland by inducing the starving people to eat their surplus babies with the argument in defence of crime which Marx urges on the bourgeois philosophers…: crime he suggests, is produced by the criminal just as ‘the philosophers produce ideas, the poet verses, the professor manuals,’ and practising it is useful to society because it takes care of the superfluous population at the same time that putting it down gives employment to many worthy citizens.”

Where Marx may have used satire in Capital, The Communist Manifesto is more of a Promethean tragedy; or as has been argued, Marx is more of a dialectical Promethean;

“the idea or practical conviction that what is made can be unmade, what is bound can be unbound by purposeful action. It is the sober acceptance that stealing fire from the gods will have serious consequences that will ultimately lead either to the emancipation, or the annihilation, of humanity.”

The Combination

Karl Marx had two great loves in his late teens, which he put into practice by joining two social clubs when at the University in Bonn; the first was the Tavern Club, which his father disapproved of because of the prevalence of drunken duels (it’s said that Marx did in fact engage in a duel); the second, was the Poets’ Club, of which his father did approve. Writing to his father however, his love of poetry was superseded by the events around him, ‘I had to study law and above all felt the urge to wrestle with philosophy.’ I wonder what impact he would have had, if he became a poet.

But as we all know, he didn’t and some twelve years later, he wrote The Communist Manifesto. However, the mix of prescience, satire, and tragedy in theses writings seemed to me to be the perfect ingredients for a poetic response.

In January this year, I was introduced to the poetic form of coupling by Karen McCarthy Woolf. The form is a poetic response to a piece of text, where the poet divides up lines of prose and responds with lines that include rhyme, repetition and assonance. I took a paragraph of the Communist Manifesto. I decided to explore the form further; writing the Preface, then Part One, and so on, until three months later I had matched 12,000 words of Marx’s masterpiece with roughly the same amount of my poetic own.

Drawing on a wide range of references, I have tried to situate the Manifesto in a variety of contemporary cultural places, in particular to emphasise the dialectic nature of the text, in the form I am presenting. This is complemented by a series of images, again matching the bound with the unbound. As far as I am aware, this is only the second poetic response (after Brecht) to the Communist Manifesto.

Below is a sample of the book, where Marx is describing the rise of the bourgeoisie:

Extract from The Combination

(rise of the bourgeoisie)

The feudal system of industry, in which industrial production
a set of pipes excavated from the intestines of serfs

was monopolised by closed guilds, now no longer sufficed
because the human body parts were too emaciated

for the growing wants of the new markets
who were still yet to discover the delights of the flesh

The manufacturing system took its place.
robots of various stomach sizes, blustered and bulged their way ahead

The guild-masters were pushed on one side by the manufacturing middle class
something the middle class did very passively aggressive like

division of labour between the different corporate guilds
confraternity contracts between belligerents, some say

vanished in the face of division of labour in each single workshop
atomising systems turning the metal of men into powder

Meantime the markets kept ever growing, the demand ever rising.
man-sized tissues no longer required, as it was nothing to be sneezed at

Even manufacture no longer sufficed
hands took to the machine not the article of craft

Thereupon, steam and machinery revolutionised industrial production
playthings of the mind, exponential change in fortunes, spin the wheel

The place of manufacture was taken by the giant, Modern Industry
all hail the shibboleths of mammon and their bloody tongues

the place of the industrial middle class by industrial millionaires
poor souls in the middle playing catch and missing

the leaders of the whole industrial armies, the modern bourgeois
come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough

Modern industry has established the world market
connecting cracked palms that never shake hands

for which the discovery of America paved the way
with their independent isolationist do-what-I-say

This market has given an immense development to commerce
so fly high my sweet nightingales of the east, you bulbul song birds

to navigation, to communication by land
enabling the troops of civilisation and Sodom to rape for progress

This development has, in its turn, reacted on the extension of industry;
a cleaning up if you will of virulent middle-aged faces

and in proportion as industry, commerce, navigation, railways extended
like a pop-up book with a mind of its own

in the same proportion the bourgeoisie developed
maturing like cancerous cheese on a wood-rot board

increased its capital, and pushed into the background
its nodules of self-aggrandisement, displacing

every class handed down from the Middle Ages
and so say some of us, and so say some of us, for

We see, therefore, how the modern bourgeoisie
the one percent to you and me

is itself the product of a long course of development
yes, yes, yes, we know what you meant

of a series of revolutions in the modes of production and of exchange
round and round we go, where will we stop – hold on, I know!

Each step in the development of the bourgeoisie was accompanied
by the ‘gertcha’ of Chas and Dave eulogising the end of days and

by a corresponding political advance of that class
who still dance on this parliamentary isle to Milton’s ‘light fantastick’

An oppressed class under the sway of the feudal nobility
as it was, as it is, as it was always meant to be

an armed and self-governing association in the medieval commune
oh for those lazy, crazy anarchistic days, sat around a smoky haze

here independent urban republic (as in Italy and Germany)
where townsmen gave purchase to their rights with moneyed fists

there taxable “third estate” of the monarchy (as in France)
the 98% of us scrapping over a share of bronze medal

afterwards, in the period of manufacturing proper
the threads of stratification began to untwine

serving either the semi-feudal or the absolute monarchy
the Naxalites of India can tell you a thing or two here

as a counterpoise against the nobility,
it always comes down to standing, back straight!

and, in fact, cornerstone of the great monarchies in general
whose spines were now curving to the submittal

the bourgeoisie has at last, since the establishment of Modern Industry
with all its rising fallacies and clocking on palaces

and of the world market, conquered for itself, in the modern representative State
the porous borders of innovative disorder

exclusive political sway.
you turn if you want to, but the old lady of England, is not for turning

The executive of the modern state is but a committee
with their bingo numbers to hand & Saturday night covers band

for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie
so not the main party to make us all free

About the author of this post

Peter Raynard Photo (6)

Peter Raynard is the editor of Proletarian Poetry: Poems of Working-class Lives (www.proletarianpoetry.com). He has written two books of poetry, his debut collection Precarious (Smokestack Books, 2018) and The Combination, a poetic coupling of the Communist Manifesto (Culture Matters, 2018), available here.

 

References:

Barker, Jason (2016) EPIC OR TRAGEDY? KARL MARX AND POETIC FORM IN THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO, (sourced here)

Lanchester, John (2012) Marx at 193 (LRB podcast)

Nicolaievsky, Boris & Maenchen-Helfen, Otto (1933) Karl Marx: man and fighter (Pelican Books)

Wolff, Robert Paul (1988) ‘Moneybags Must Be So Lucky: on the literary structure of Capital’ (University of Massachusetts Press)

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Writers and artists have a collective duty to mock Trump, the thin-skinned charlatan

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Sometimes, the only thing you can do is laugh.

Around the world, brutes have risen – and continue to rise – to power. Far from challenging these despotic tyrants, our supposedly liberal western democracies have cow-towed to them, flattering them, and inflating their egos. In the UK, the weak and decrepit conservative party hangs on to power with long vicious fingernails and asks the taxpayer to foot the bill of hosting one of these new brutish demagogues so that they can shower him in pageantry and golf. 100 years ago, America and Europe were united in trying to create and preserve a new world peace where liberty and human rights would flourish, and the horrors of imperial wargames would cease. Now these same powers squabble like school children, trading insults and threats, seemingly unaware that theirs in an order that requires radical change – not more of the same.

This is all such madness it would be funny, if it weren’t so easy to feel terrified by it all.

Donald Trump is clearly the most obvious fault-line in the current alignment of our stars. The charge list against him is impossible to tolerate: there is the racism of his immigration policies that bans people from Muslim countries entering the USA, and which separates young children forcibly from their parents; then there is the threats posed to the rights of women, people of colour, and LGBT people. He ignores the catastrophic effects of man-made climate change or the fact that our rampant over consumption is threatening our planet’s survival. He sucks up to tyrants, launches trade wars, insults allies, praises fools and dictators, and campaigns against the free press. He is also a coward and a fraud who has tiny hands and evidence suggests he regularly pays prostitutes to urinate on him.

Our response to Trump, as writers, artists, creatives and – ultimately – human beings, is crucial. It must be appropriate, balanced, and precisely reactionary. If only to support Newton’s third law, our reaction to Trump’s hatred, fear and bigotry, must be equal in its opposition to these traits. In other words, it must be one of love, bravery, and inclusivity.

To our minds, there is nothing that brings people together more so than laughter. There is nothing braver than laughing at those who would beat you (or worse) for doing so. And there is nothing that can invoke feelings of love more than the euphoria of hysterical humour.

It is for this reason that we call for all creatives to unite in mocking Trump as the thin-skinned charlatan he really is.

Join the resistance

To an extent, the mockery of Trump through satirical art has already begun in earnest. There has been a huge influx of resistance-themed art, whether it’s commentary on world leaders with the graffiti styling’s of Mr. Dheo or Bambi (pictured below), or more simply the crowd-funded Trump baby balloon, which has been flying above London during the President’s visit to the UK.

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Bambi

The proliferation of this kind of art perhaps recognises the fact that to continue making art as before is an insufficient response to the state of the world. The dark reality is that intensity, beauty, and devotion to making beautiful creative things are insufficient to halt violence. Indeed, one need only to look to history – to see and hear the march of Nazism accompanied by the tunes of Wagner – in order to realise how these aspects of art can become the accompanying soundtrack to evil.

We do not use terms such as evil lightly. To label everyone and everything one disagrees with as fascism is surely to dissolve the meaning of a term that threatens the fabric of democracy and liberal decency. And it is for this reason that aggressive art – art that seeks to create representations of darkness, evil, violence and hatred – are equally ill-equipped as positive, beautiful art, for confronting the realities of our times and challenging them. Holding a mirror to violence and anger reflects, but does not shatter, the illusion of power that they hold. Only by making fun of and satirising those who trumpet hate and division can we truly expose the intrinsic lack of power that they have.

Exposing Trump

Trump is in many ways the epitome of the weakness of hate and anger. His inflated ego and thin skin make the giant Trump baby currently floating in the skies above London a perfect symbol of a man who is nothing more than hot air: a thin-skinned charlatan who uses racism, homophobia and misogyny to stoke fear among people struggling to get by in a country riven by divisions caused by incessant neoliberal capitalism – that has left the vast majority poorer whilst an extreme minority of billionaires collect ever more wealth. The fragility of Trump’s ego is easily exposed; one need only witness how he rushes to defend the size of his hands, the size of his penis, or that he doesn’t need to use Viagra, to see how afraid the man is of being exposed.

Indeed, in every encounter with Trump he appears like all those bullies at school who tried to pull the chairs from beneath girls they liked, or boys they were not as smart as, or kids who were more athletic and better looking than them. He exhibits all the behaviours of someone trying desperately hard to scare people into not mentioning his countless failures; his ugliness; his stupidity. If he were your grumpy, rude co-worker who made uncomfortable comments in team meetings, you might think him a sad case of a person who has never known love.

But Trump is not your grumpy, rude co-worker. He is the President of the United States; a great country that has irrefutably shaped the world (not always for good; but certainly not always for ill); and he is a representative of how the USA is in a moment of deep political crisis – as is all Western Democracy.

Challenging him and his ethos would usually fall to journalism or traditional media. Yet his clever use of ‘fake news’ and the inability of his opponents to mount an effective alternative to his reign has proven that traditional approaches will not suffice in this instance. Into the breach in its stead must step art – specifically, satirical art, and writing, which can put political pressure on misinformation, folly, and the abuse of power.

The power of satire

Satire is so subversive – and often politically fatal for those who rule – because it exposes the absurdities of power. Authority attempts to assert itself partly through a veneer of respectability and seriousness. When that is stripped away, its legitimacy can be lost, along with our subservience.

Historically, one can trace the power of Satire through such notable pieces as Jonathan Swift’s ‘A Modest Proposal’, which brought public attention to the plight of the Irish people and attacked those British politicians who had ignored the famines ravaging the country. You can also look to the satirical art that accompanied the French Revolutions which, as Will Self notes “were each accompanied by a satiric outburst”. Prior to and during the American revolutionary war of independence, satirical cartoons mocking King George “the buffoon” flourished in towns across America. In all these instances, it was the power of artistic satire that united people together to challenge the status quo and demand change; more so than the anger or shock of individuals could ever hope to achieve.

This point is crucial: our own individual convictions are worthless if all we do with them is try to shout more loudly or aggressively than ever other angry voice.

Anger at our political elite seldom fuels action to do anything about it, engendering instead an enraged passivity: people WRITE POLITICAL RANTS ALL IN CAPS on Twitter and Facebook, but this serves no purpose. No one reading these ravings who does not already agree with them will find anything of value to them. At best, it will confirm their belief that the world around them is full of anger and best avoided if possible. They will not engage with anger and hate unless it is an anger and hatred they already feel.

Burst the balloon

Here is where quality satirical art plays such a crucial role; because it helps engage those who otherwise find politics tedious. Laughter, it is famously said, is the best medicine. It’s true. You only need to have ever told a joke and made others laugh to see how they immediately warm to you. If you make people laugh with you, you can more easily direct their attention to the failures that exist in society. You can help them, gently and warmly, recognise the faults of those in power. And from there, they are far more likely to choose to fight against people like Trump who seek to sow fear and anger rather than laughter and love. And even if they don’t fight, their laughter at the cowardly bully trying to look tough may just be enough to burst his ballooning ego.

A call to arts

There is of course an argument that we need art that lifts up other, dispossessed voices. That keeps their ideas and creativity alive at a time when their existence is threatened by the policies of Trump and his right-wing cronies.

This too, we need. Of course this too. There is too much hate and anger in the world and we need diversity of thought more than ever. We need to support emerging artists and voices; but we also need to fight back. But it is not the pen that is mightier than the sword; but rather the laughter of millions that is more powerful than the fearful rage and angry Twitter ramblings of an infantile, cowardly egoist.

So, join in the good fight, comrades – before we can defeat Trump, we must deflate him. All power to your satirical typewriters and easels!

 

Get involved and submit your satirical pieces of art or writing to us directly through our contact us page. To get the ball rolling, read our collection of ‘Donald Trump poetry‘ – lines and verses taken straight from the rambling mouth of the fat dotard himself. 

 

 

 

 

Eat My Debt

Cash receipts and till slips

Receipts are very obviously very wrong. Anyone – man or woman – after a day’s Christmas shopping can see this. The hardware shop you go into to buy your dad that new pair of gardening gloves has a stupid bit of token paper about one inch square, whereas when you go to the stereo shop to get the electrical wire for your nephew’s speakers they give you two sheets of A4. Supermarkets tend to give you an acceptably-sized ticket, though that’s only because all you’ve bought is two bottles of Cava and a box of Matchstick chocolates, and then going into the clothes shop to get your sister that jumper, and they give you another bloody receipt of another bloody size. And do not get me started on Apple now doing “electronic receipts” by email oh dear gods they need to burn, burn, burn.

A man’s wallet is the same size – whomever the man, whatever his wallet. It’s battered, and contains his cards, his work ID, a couple of pictures of his kids, a used train ticket and a fiver. It’s 7 inches long by 3 1/2 high (yes yes – calm down), and can a twenty, a ten and a fiver (a £50 note is actually slightly too big for it – the Royal Mint know this, and that’s why they’re that size – to repress the peasants and make sure that should we ever get hold of one we ruin it’s loveliness immediately if we try to store it away, thus perpetuating the mental subjugation of the working classes).

So the solution is this: make all receipts the same size. 2½ inches wide by as many as necessary long. This will offer enough room for a company logo, time and date, transactions, and a corporate pleasantry at the bottom. They will then be big enough to be stored together in an easily filed, accessible manner; smaller than the notes but big enough to read, and will have the added advantage that also women’s handbags and purses can then be adapted to have a dedicated receipt section (and every handbag is only ever on the brink of being replaced for a newer, nicer one, as eny fule no), thus boosting the economy.

It’s an obvious problem, and this is the obvious solution.

About the author of this post

goatmanThe Goatman – due to the usual experiments going wrong etc etc, The Goatman is  an internationally-available gentleman of letters, raconteur and wit. His amorous conquests are myriad, his taste in whisky of renown, and his ability to look comfortable in extreme situations is of significant scientific study. He has been known to conspire with Vagabond Images.

The Making of Manifest, the Warwick MA Anthology

Warwick University’s Writing Programme (WWP) has been consistently ranked as the best creative writing course in the UK for the past five years. In this article, Ellen Lavelle, one of the 2018 cohort of WWP’s MA students, takes us through the trials and tribulations of publishing a unique anthology of student writing. 

I am not a team player. This is probably because a) I am an only child and b) I took AS Theatre studies at school, when I learned that all group projects are doomed to failure, you can’t trust anyone to do anything and that betrayal is an inherent part of human nature. I can trace the solidification of these beliefs to the moment when I discovered that, five minutes before we were supposed to go onstage to give our final performance of A Street of Crocodiles, a cast member had eaten a crucial prop. Apparently, a boy in my class does a good impression of me in this moment, blinking and murmuring ‘you’ve eaten it – you’ve actually EATEN it,’ repeatedly in a dark corner of the rehearsal room.

And so, I never expected the MA in Writing Anthology to work very well. My distrust in people is probably one of the reasons I like writing so much. Everything within the universe of your story, poem, memoir, essay, etc. is down to you. You control every element, at least until you have to get it published. I think it’s a fair assessment to say that most writers exhibit control-freaky behaviour, tend to be perfectionists and can generally be unwilling to compromise. Rounding up twenty-two of us and telling us to create an anthology of our writing as a team, from generating the content to designing the cover and getting it printed, was a pretty ballsy move by the Warwick Writing Programme.

“Becoming a successful writer is no longer just about writing a good book”

But, in this changing landscape for literature, these kinds of skills are becoming increasingly important to writers. Becoming a successful writer is no longer just about writing a good book; it also involves participating in a wider literary culture, editing and reviewing the work of other writers, knowing how to speak to people at events and having an answer ready when Norma from Grimsby sticks up her hand and asks if you think e-books are the work of the devil and are going to destroy reading for everyone, everywhere. Creating the anthology was a great idea; but it was going to be tough. It would involve talking to people that didn’t agree with me and trying not to sound like a power-crazed lunatic. However, I do have the ability to be diplomatic, buried somewhere deep within me, so I reckoned I’d get by okay. As long as I didn’t have to do anything with money.

During the first meeting, back in October, a representative from the previous years’ cohort, Steve, turned up with a big bag of money. Steve is in his fifties and is a responsible human – he has a career and grown-up children, is able to wash his clothes without making everything pink or several sizes too small. I’m twenty-two and recently had to google how much rice is too much rice. But Steve was giving that bag of cash to someone and, because I was the slowest person to avert my eyes and sit on my hands, that person ended up being me.

‘You get a little card-reader,’ Steve said, handing me a folder of paperwork and the bag of cash. ‘To confirm your identity when logging in.’

I went home and tried to log in. Access denied. I realised that the person that had created the account didn’t know how to spell the word they’d set as a password. I logged in.

We had money left to us but we needed to raise more. This was where the creative energy came in. Also useful was the expertise of Annie, who owns her own communications company and has thirty years’ experience in the business world, making connections and money; getting shit done.

Annie enrolled on the MA course in order to give herself time to write the novel she’s been waiting years to complete – an account of the life of Cecily Neville, mother of Edward IV, Richard III and matriarch of the fifteenth-century House of York. Annie could give Cecily a run for her money. Half a meeting in, we were discussing agreements with Costa Coffee, fundraising events, and a ’Friends’ initiative – where people could sign up formally to be supporters.

Katie, another of our  MA cohort, had also left a career to return to studying and is an expert at event organisation, having put together several LGBTQ literary festivals and worked on publicity teams for charities. It was her initiative to start up an Eventbrite page, an Anthology Mailchimp account and a profile on the university crowdfunding platform, so that people could donate easily online.

“Within a few months, we had our first fundraiser. Our tutors read, drank wine and Warwick professor, David Vann, conquered the raffle. Meanwhile, I learned that you need more than one Tupperware box to effectively run a drinks stall, a food stall and a tombola.”

We went on to have three fundraisers and I learned a lot more. I learned that you need to stop people distracting you while you set up a float, otherwise you’ll forget how much you put in. I learned to never invite untested comedians to perform on open-mic nights because they’ll do long, drawn-out jokes about blind people bumping into things while your blind friend sits next to you, her guide dog panting in the central aisle.

But I also learned that expert bar staff lurk in all kinds of places. Ed, who finished his undergrad at Warwick last year and writes tense, emotional dramas, is also the President of Warwick’s Real Ale society. My lack of Tupperware didn’t stop him making a mint on the drinks stall, bantering with guests, pouring cheap wine into plastic cups like it was rare, exalted champagne. I learned that some people will travel a long way, in crammed cars, stuffy trains, to support their friends or family. They will pay five pounds for a paper plate of Costco buffet food and sit on uncomfortable chairs in windowless rooms, listening to nervous people read out loud from something they’ve worked really hard on. I learned that windowless rooms can be exciting places.

Costanza is Italian, did ballet for sixteen years, and is now writing a novel about Clytemnestra, the queen who, according to Greek myth, killed her husband, Agamemnon. She wears amazing earrings and has friends that are artists.

‘What do you think of this?’ she asked us, holding up her phone. It was an illustration by her friend Gaia, of a collection of abstract, cartoony faces. And then we had our cover.

A few quick-fire observations:

Names are hard. Whatever you do, don’t ask me to name anything. In the end, we went for ‘Manifest’, which is vague enough to encompass all twenty-two featured pieces of writing, but hopefully interesting enough to encourage people to pick up the book. It wasn’t an easy decision. Feathers were ruffled. We voted and when there were signs of dissention, had another vote. There were still murmurings, but you can’t argue with democracy. Even when you want to.

Deadlines: lie to people. Tell them the deadline is at least a week before it really is. Have no shame. You’ll thank me, when people decide to change what they’re submitting, or don’t give feedback in time or give feedback too enthusiastically and brutally, prompting the author of the story to have an existential crisis and consider giving up writing forever.

Sign off from harsh emails that enforce deadlines or chastise bad behavior as ‘the committee’, not as yourself. ‘The Committee’ is a usefully vague entity. Sometimes, they made tough decisions, but they got the job done. And it was important that those tough decisions couldn’t be traced back to a single person. It wasn’t me or Katie, Annie or Vanwy, who sees the good in absolutely everyone, even when the rest of us find it impossible. It wasn’t Costanza or Luke, whose facial expressions never reflect what’s going on around him but what’s going on inside his head, as he breaks away from discussions to jot down lines for his stories in a little green notebook. You couldn’t blame Anna or Miloni, who worked so hard buying food, booking rooms but bore it all smiling. It wasn’t any of us. It was the committee.

People moan and want to have someone to blame, but they’d probably moan no matter what. You have to do the thing. Who made the decision? The Committee. Who’s to blame? The Committee. Who got the book published? The Committee.

But of course, it’s about the journey, not the destination. Our book launch is on 13th June, at Waterstone’s Piccadilly in London. It will be amazing to hold the book in my hands, to meet agents and publishers that could help me get the career I want in writing. It will also be amazing to watch my colleagues, now friends, read the writing I’ve seen them working on. We had our last meeting in the pub and, when it was over and I was walking away, I turned back towards the table. Sometimes, people don’t eat the props. Sometimes, they create props that are better than anything you could do on your own.

A note to any prospective employer: I am in fact a great team player. My only flaws are my extreme modesty and my tendency to underestimate my own abilities. And, just for the record, 75g of rice is the right amount of rice.

About the author of this article

Ellen LavelleEllen Lavelle is a postgraduate student on The University of Warwick Writing Programme. An aspiring novelist and screenwriter, she has worked with The Young Journalist Academy since the age of fourteen, writing articles and making short films for their website. She’s currently working on a crime novel, a historical fiction novel and the script for a period drama. She interviews authors for her blog and you can follow her @ellenrlavelle on Twitter.

 

Readers of the world, unite! Vote to save your public libraries

czech-library

Libraries are the ideal sanctuary for books. Pictured: the Klementinum Library

“If you do not value libraries then you do not value information or culture or wisdom,” opined Neil Gaiman as he reminded us of our obligation to support libraries. With Local Elections now taking place across England in thousands of towns and villages, English citizens (and readers of Nothing in the Rulebook) now have a chance to fulfil that obligation, by voting for party candidates who have stressed support for libraries.

Now, if you didn’t need convincing that libraries are a fundamental necessity to supporting our culture and society, consider the words of famous writers, artists, politicians and even astronauts – who all, many moons ago now, wrote letters to schoolchildren on the value of our public libraries.

You may also consider the words of Ayub Khan, president of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP), who says: “Public libraries have transformed in recent years to become a true ‘hub’ at the heart of their communities. They offer opening hours to suit local needs, high-quality Internet and WiFi access, business and enterprise support, local information and digital skills along with a huge range of events and activities that add richness to the lives of local residents.”

After years of a Conservative government in the UK houses of parliament, funding for libraries has been repeatedly slashed – with local conservative councils often cutting funding completely. Indeed, almost 600 libraries have closed since the Conservatives came to national power in 2010.

So, what can be done?

At a national level, the only two political parties who have stressed a commitment to supporting local libraries are the Green Party and the Labour Party. Some local Lib-Dem candidates talk a good talk about saving libraries in their community; yet at a national level the party continues to doggedly believe in austerity and neoliberalism, which have led to the decline of libraries as such vital pieces of infrastructure and support for local communities.

The inverse is sometimes true of Labour – with some local councils, such as Lambeth, Lewisham and Sheffield, cutting councils despite national party policy to the contrary. Of course, these councils argue the cuts are a necessity, caused by crippling cuts to local authority budgets enforced by on high by the inept, cruel, and deluded Conservative national government.

What this all means in the immediate term is a need to vote for your local councillors based on their personal commitment to libraries in your area.

What it means for the longer-term is that pressure needs to be applied on a local and national political scale to ensure libraries across the UK no longer suffer the successive series of cuts, which will surely  continue under a Tory government.

Yet, there is hope. 

As Alan Wylie, writing in Open Democracy, explains:

“The good chance of a Corbyn led Labour government in the near future affords us an opportunity to influence policy which supports public libraries and the staff who work in them.

[…]

We need to get Labour to develop a national policy and then use it to whip these and other councils into line and commit to upholding and strengthening the statutory basis of public libraries. Then we stand a chance of reversing/halting the damage.”

There are a number of excellent campaign groups organising around our local libraries that you can also get involved with. These groups help lobby politicians on national and local levels to ensure continued support for these “ideal sanctuaries for books“.

For example, the ‘Speak up for Libraries’ campaign is organising to get MPs and councillors to commit to the following manifesto:

  • Give libraries a long-term future, with a vision for their future development and clear standards of service.

  • Enforce the commitment in law for local authorities to provide a ‘comprehensive and efficient’ library service. This commitment should also include digital, ICT and e-book services.

  • Acknowledge that libraries are important to individuals and communities – especially in times of hardship.

  • Enforce the duty that local authorities have to properly consult with communities to design services that meet their needs and aspirations.

  • Ensure that local authorities receive sufficient funding in order to deliver properly resourced and staffed library services.

  • Recognise that properly resourced library services contribute to the health and well-being of local communities and of society as a whole and therefore complement the work of other public services and of national government agendas.

Once you’ve voted; the obligation to support our libraries continues. Use the above manifesto to petition your councillors and MP yourself. And, of course, spread the word on social media!

A haiku for voting

Before you go, and as a treat for reading to the end of the article, we’ve written the following #Getoutandvote haiku, just for you. Enjoy!

Today: don’t forget,

Exercise your right to vote

Raise your voice for change

 

A book review by other means: Politics of the Asylum, by Adam Steiner

politics of asylum

When it comes to reviewing new works of fiction, the Nothing in the Rulebook team are always keen to jump at the opportunity. So, when we were offered the opportunity to review Politics of the Asylum, the debut novel by poet, publisher, short story writer and concept artist Adam Steiner, we leapt (both figuratively and literally) at the chance. What’s more, when we heard that Steiner’s book would draw on his own personal experiences working in the NHS, examining some of the tragic effects of recent neoliberal politics on our treasured healthcare service, we were filled with a genuine excitement (this may be expected; after all, our biggest creative project last year involved the publication and distribution of thousands of haikus in support of the NHS).

So, first thing’s first, what’s the plot?

Politics of the Asylum follows Nathan Finewax – a cleaner in a hospital steadily falling apart. He’s working on a ward where staff cheat, lie and steal to get ahead, where targets, death tolls and finance overrule patient care, and every day the same mistakes are repeated in a seemingly unstoppable wave of failures. Nathan is sucked deeper into the hospital routine as he dreams of escape, trying to avoid one day becoming a patient himself in this house of horrors.

Sounds great, right? Well, that’s where things get a little more nuanced. You see, this is a novel that, while startlingly original, is also almost as challenging as it is unique. In fact, to call it a novel, in the traditional sense of the word, is perhaps somewhat misleading. So much so, that we are somewhat bemused to say that Politics of the Asylum is perhaps the first novel we have reviewed that has split the opinions of our creative collective firmly down the middle. A little bit like marmite, there are those here at Nothing in the Rulebook towers who love the book; and those who found it more difficult.

As we are nothing if not a democracy, we decided that the best way to approach the review of this book, therefore, was to turn it less into a review, and more into a transcribed conversation between our two reviewers.

Without further ado, therefore, we hereby introduce you to a colossal debate of expert opinion between Professor Wu – amphibious philosophical mastermind and all-round fan of Steiner’s work; and Tom Andrews – NITRB’s resident book reviewer and human being, and some may say a ‘Steiner-sceptic’ (at least, for now…).

Bang the gong: aka – reviewers, fight (verbally, of course)!

Professor Wu (PW): 

Okay, so this is powerful prose if ever I saw it. Though you can tell Steiner is a poet. The language he uses in the book vividly depicts a broken system – an institution where madness abounds and insanity reigns supreme. It would have been easy to say “the NHS is falling apart because of systematic government cuts, bonkers private finance initiatives and underhanded privatisation” – because all that has been said a thousand times before. It’s all true of course; neoliberalism is destroying one of Britain’s most sacred institutions. But what Steiner does so brilliantly is to make the reader not just see what is happening – but to feel what is happening to the NHS. His lyric essays – which is how I’d describe them – capture the frustrations and rage of those people caught within the tangled bureaucracy in a way I’ve personally not seen or experienced before. If we ever needed proof that we find new ways of looking at the world through stories; this is it. Totally unique – and an important work for our times!

Tom Andrews (TA):

Can I just start by quoting the first line of this book?

‘I intensify atoms. With every step, every breath between pause, a rushing haze  of red water flicks – to remind me – there’s that ugly taste on the lips.’

It’s a long way from ‘Once upon a time..’ I fear that the language rather tends to obscure the message and the author is too concerned with being poetic to be clear. Some may struggle to get beyond the early pages – it’s not a book concerned with telling a story or being accessible. Steiner should be praised for his ability to find inspiration in the most unlikely and mundane places (he is currently producing a series of poetry films about the Coventry ring road).  He captures well the dullness, the numbing and futile nature of a dead end job.

PW:

I understand where you’re coming from with the first line – there’s an element of obscurity that may not be to everyone’s taste. I think in part you almost have two options here – analyse it line by line, word by word, on a granular detail – or take it more in swathes, read each piece of the jigsaw and try and see what images or feelings it stirs within you, as a reader.

For the general reader I think the second approach is best. No writer wants (or should want) to turn their work into a classroom exercise where you have to find meaning in a rose thorn. But in the same way I can happily go to a modern art or traditional art gallery and stare at artworks without any schooling in the medium, I think readers can take this book and find emotions and themes without necessarily having to have them laid out in a traditional narrative model. In a way, the point may even be the obscurity – working within a bureaucratic behemoth like the NHS is bound to make one feel not only obscure; but confused, alienated; disoriented.

This, for me, speaks to an even bigger theme and question at the heart of the book. You rightly raise the point about accessibility. You’re talking about accessibility of language, but within the context of the NHS, we should be talking about accessibility of healthcare. Increasingly what we are seeing is that the founding principles of the NHS are slowly being corrupted under this Tory government, and that healthcare is increasingly restricted, and less accessible. The recent case of Albert Thompson is an extreme example, but we are now at the point where UK citizens are being denied access to life saving treatment because of their background. And that’s before we even start to think about increased waiting times, and certain services being removed from NHS provision. In this way, you could say that some of the inaccessibility is a way of holding a mirror up to a system that is being turned into such a mess of procedures and process that restricts access to patients – just as we as readers are restricted from an ‘easy’ or accessible route into the narrative.

I appreciate this may be a bit of a cheap argument – and I think it’s important to note that this book perhaps isn’t for anyone looking for just a bit of light reading before bed. But for me, part of the narrative comes from the way the reader has to find meaning and explore the language of the book in the same way the principle protagonist/narrator has to explore the tangled web of work within the NHS.

I also think you’re dead right about the way this doesn’t just have to be about the NHS – it could, as you say, be about any ‘dead end’ job. For workers and people living in a world in which it so often seems the only purpose of your life is to go out and get things for yourself and gratify yourself and buy things and own more and more and more – finding meaning within your existence (and poetic meaning at that) is something we could all with having more of.  

“You do have a point about this book resembling it’s subject matter: it’s chaotic and overstretched, much like the service itself.” – Tom Andrews

TA:

I don’t want to dismiss the work as dead end – it keeps the NHS going.

However, there is a certain air of futility, of fighting against a tide of mess just to create a fleeting cleanliness that is quickly destroyed.

The text itself certainly experimental and full of ideas. As the novel progresses, bold type, page layouts and single use onomatopoeia make an appearance. A later chapter is written in the form of a patient’s medical notes, including this delightful couplet.

‘This Pepto gives no cure to the fire/with haunting sounds of Orpheus’s lyre.’

I’m not saying a journalistic expose would be better and as you said there is no lack of statistics and first hand testimony to illustrate the problems facing the NHS, but I feel that by putting across his experiences in such a form, Steiner is in danger of preaching to the converted like you and me.

There’s a certain incoherence as if it is a collection of poems or lyric essays which want to be a novel rather than a novel in the strictest sense. The description as a novel is perhaps unhelpful as I was expecting something rather more conventional from the blurb. You do have a point about this book resembling its subject matter: it’s chaotic and overstretched like the service itself.

“I think Steiner’s work can act as a clarion call to all those who are invested in the continued existence of the NHS.” – Professor Wu

PW:

Your question of whether this book has an air of preaching to the converted is an interesting one – you’re certainly right that there’s an element that supporters of our healthcare system may approach this work and others like it with an air of intrinsic bias. We want to support the NHS by any means necessary, so any project that strives to do that may be one we inherently think positively of.

So the question here I suppose is whether the more superficial aspects of the work – the changes in form, structure, the poetic lyrics, etc – are unhelpful to reaching new audiences and convincing them of the value of the NHS (as well as the current challenges the system is facing).

My concern is that by arguing that such aspects hinder the accessibility of the work, one could use a similar thought pattern to dismiss poetry and lyricism more generally. Should readers be essentially pandered to? If someone expects to read a novel and suddenly finds they have accidentally read a poem or lyric essay, have they somehow been wronged? Do they deserve compensation? Do they require a warning label on the cover of any book along the lines of “warning, may contain poetry”?

Poetry has long been a vital form of art as a form of protest. Since Percy Bysshe Shelley was moved to pen poetic verse in protest at the Peterloo massacre. The Masque of Anarchy advocates radical social action and non-violent resistance: “Shake your chains to earth like dew / Which in sleep had fallen on you- / Ye are many — they are few”.

In the same way, I think Steiner’s work can act as a clarion call to all those who are invested in the continued existence of the NHS. Not only rallying the troops but gaining new supporters from those who appreciate writing that is attempting to do new things.

Conformity with formal structures of writing and the status quo may not have the same impact as a work that challenges its readers’ assumptions.  

TA:

The difficulty in reviewing experimental and out of the ordinary writing is that I might dismiss something just because it isn’t what I am accustomed to. I’m not sure that I have the tools to find the merits in this, lacking as I do the literary background of an amphibian professor like yourself. Certainly, I would not have chosen this book for my personal reading.

Lyrical makes it sound like this is going to be a pleasant, beauty in the details, kind of book. It’s more of a warts-and-blood-and-pus-and-death kind of book – imaginative but not necessarily beautiful.

It could well rouse opinions among people who are more vaguely angry about the NHS than specifically engaged, although it would be a distinctly avant-garde bit of clarion playing.

Intrigued? Perturbed? Baffled? Read the first chapter here –

https://adamsteiner.uk/2018/02/08/politics-of-the-asylum-one-month-to-launch/

 Read the book and want to get involved in the conversation? Leave a comment below!

Haven’t read the book and want to get involved? Buy the book from publisher’s Urbane Piblications via Amazon here https://urbanepublications.com/books/politics-of-the-asylum/

Book censorship: “bad language” vs bad writing

censorship

A quick scan over the list of books banned by American schools makes for some intriguing reading. Among their number you can find such famous titles as A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess, Howl and other poems by Allen Ginsberg, Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, Lord of the Flies by William Golding, and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain.

As recently as 2011, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5 was banned by schools in Republic, Missouri – with copies only available to students who could present written parental permission.

All of these books have been banned for their use of “bad” or otherwise offensive language.

In this way, the parents of American children who seek to ban these books align themselves with the Daily Mail – who have run a number of fear-filled pieces noting that swearing in books could potentially corrupt children’s minds. And they also share similarities with the notorious law passed by Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2014 that is still in effect today, in which writers can be fined and books banned for including “obscene” or “offensive” language or “objectionable words”, including swearing.

But what impact does banning books for supposedly ‘bad’ or ‘offensive’ language actually have, and what message does it send?

Censorship as suppression

The case against use of swear words or otherwise “bad” or “offensive” language is usually made by those who feat these words either corrupt the language itself or those people reading it. Here, the phrase ‘think of the children’ is frequently heard in shrill cries as concerned parents take a leap of faith in thinking that seeing swear words written down or used by characters in a book may make their innocent kiddos somehow no longer innocent – or otherwise corrupted.

Yet such thought-policing tactics ultimately amount to attempts to control and suppress certain voices and cultures.

Just think of Irvine Welsh, author of Trainspotting (a book which has three instances of “cunt”, one of “fuck” and one of “fucking” on the first page). Welsh rails against moves to censor literature on the basis of swearing – and explains:

“it seems to be an attempt to erase and/or marginalise certain cultures, i.e. the working class, the ghetto and so on. Language is a living, organic thing. If you try to control that and prescribe what people say, the next thing is prescribing what people think.”

Such concerns of course follow the thoughts of Orwell, who wrote in Politics of the English Language that “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” Indeed, Orwell also refuted the idea that one should follow “a ‘standard English’ which must never be departed from” – rather, he said, “correct grammar and syntax are of no importance so long as one makes one’s meaning clear”.

What this again illustrates is that to suggest a book is of poor quality because it deviates from the norm or standard, or because it possesses within its pages swear words or other words in which people find offense, is to completely misread such a book, and to misunderstand the point of it all – not just the book; but culture itself.

This is because culture is not standard. It should not, therefore, be contained or controlled. It is natural. It is alive. It flows and changes in various fluctuations and metamorphoses.

The sterility of censorship

Trying to impose censorship on books for their use of language ultimately serves as a form of defence for the status quo against new ideas and inspiration. This in turn prevents marginalised communities and voices from finding expression through artistic means.

This is a clear danger to all writers – aspiring or otherwise – as well as everyone involved in the book industry, including readers – and ultimately anyone who considers themselves a part of a diverse or inclusive society. This is because it limits freedom of expression in such a way as to suppress new ideas from emerging; enforcing the creation of dull and mundane art that all looks the same – for fear of doing anything that might fall foul of the new age thought police.

In 1945, American novelist and diarist Anais Nin discussed the act of censorship and its effect on originality in her personal diary, writing:

“The important task of literature is to free man, not to censor him, and that is why Puritanism was the most destructive and evil force which ever oppressed people and their literature: it created hypocrisy, perversion, fears, sterility.”

As we’ve discussed before, the act of censorship is indeed brutal and even fascistic in its oppression of freedoms. Indeed, it is often a clear act to control the thoughts and creative expressions of others – limiting originality as it does so.

Missing the f*cking point

Scottish author James Kelman – who saw his own book How late it was how late challenged for its use of “offensive language” has himself challenges whether people trying to ban books for their use of swearing really understand how language works.

Kelman writes: “people can use swear words to emphasise the beauty of something – so it’s not really a swear word at all. If you say something is ‘fucking beautiful’, how can it be swearing, because you’re emphasising the beauty of something. If so-called swear words should only be used when appropriate, well what do you mean, ‘when appropriate’? I was in my 20s before I even realised the word ‘fuck’ had to do with a sexual act for some people. It was never used in that way for myself, and none of my community used it in that way.”

Indeed, Willy Maley recognises the range of functions swearing can adopt in Kelman’s work, in his essay ‘Swearing Blind’. Maley writes: “The swearing is integral to Kelman’s power as a writer. It is neither a vulgar and superfluous supplement nor an offensive coating concealing shortcomings in the narrative, dialogue or characterization.”

Were Kelman to have restricted his language and natural writing style to omit certain words, would we have been given such important literary works as he has produced as an author? Almost certainly not. And in this way we as readers would have been denied access to truly original pieces of fiction.

The difference between ‘bad language’ and bad writing

Just because a character in a novel likes to say the word fuck, or because the author of a book uses a narrator unafraid to use expletives in their narration, it does not mean the book you’re reading is bad – and certainly not that it should be banned.

It may seem obvious, but there is a very real difference between a good novel that contains swear words, and a bad novel that is written in fine, puritanical English.

This is because there is a difference between bad language and bad writing.

Bad language, according to Mark Twain, “has no lifelikeness, no thrill, no stir, no seeming of reality; its characters are confusedly drawn, and by their acts and words they prove that they are not the sort of people the author claims that they are; its humour is pathetic; its conversations are — oh! indescribable; its love-scenes odious; its English a crime against the language.”

Anyone who has read Fifty shades of Grey, which contains lines like “My subconscious has found her Nikes, and she’s on the starting blocks,” or anything ever written by renowned author Dan Brown will know what Twain is talking about here.

Indeed, you need only read some of the winners of the notorious ‘Bad Sex in Fiction’ award to see just how badly some writers can abuse language – yet even here (perhaps even curiously) there are often no swear words or expletives in sight. In their place you find only misplaced metaphors and “bulbous salutations”. 

Conversely, “bad language” is really nothing of the sort. When writers use expletives – or even deviate from traditional models of ‘standard English’ or spelling and grammar – may well be trying to capture language as it is used by their own community.

With this in mind, how can anyone, after all, be genuinely upset by swearing – words that irrefutably exist and form a crucial element to our language? People so often don’t even swear to be abusive or to cause offense: it’s just how people talk.

Of course, this is not to suggest simply including expletives for their own sake can ever be taken as a sign of good writing or mature writing skill. As legendary writer and editor E B White noted, “vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

When it comes to writing – and protecting your own work from genuine accusations of ‘bad language’ – therefore, the most important thing to keep in mind when penning your drafts is ensuring that every word you use is absolutely necessary. If that necessary word may offend Vladimir Putin or evangelical Christian parents in small US towns and states, then you must keep it in – if anything, in today’s world, it may be more necessary than ever before.

 

 

Donald Trump poetry

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My name is Donald, no, I’m not going bald; that’s not a toupee, what a rude thing to say.”

Donald Trump’s often bizarre and frequently unsettling use of language has been a source of both amusement and horror to onlookers around the world. Yet, like many egomaniacs before him, his words have a strange aesthetic quality that seems to lend them to the form of poetic verse.

For a man who spins his own fictions and creates his own realities, moving into the world of poetry may not be a surprising career move for Donald (although, considering this is the man who moved from reality TV star and frequent failed businessman to become President of the United States, no career move should really be surprising). Yet it must be admitted that his creative writing ability may be impaired by his extremely limited vocabulary and the fact he thinks he can use “schlong” as a verb.

Within Trump’s crude and simple use of language, however, lies a natural poetic lilt. He speaks in compact, distilled phrases that tell you a lot about who he is – often in only a handful of words. His frequent use of declarative sentences and severe lack of complexity gives both his speeches and his tweets a natural staccato rhythm.

Like a child first learning to write and speak, Trump also repeats words and phrases again and again. While this primitive use of language may amuse many – particularly within the liberal metropolitan elite – these are the same linguistic qualities that give Trump’s words power.

By using simple sentences and phrases again and again – accompanied by sweeping generalisations and categorizing his ideas into simple groups (mostly “winners”, “haters” and “losers) – Trump is in some ways a natural communicator to the masses. People remember what he says and take away messages from what he says in a way they seldom do during the triangulated, euphemism-filled speech of most other modern day politicians.

How do we approach this power? How do we deconstruct Trump’s aggressive, misogynistic, racist, and, ultimately, stupid, turns of phrase into something else?

Well, here the best approach seems not to deconstruct it (spending too much time analyzing the babblings of an unhinged idiot is about as fun as trying to remove an ingrowing hair from your crotch with a pair of rusty tweezers).

Instead; it seems we may be best to reconstruct his words – keeping the same natural structures in his choice of phrasing, but mixing his quotes up, in a form of poetic collage, to create new poems and poetry.

We have done just this, exploring the aesthetic power of Trump’s nonsensical babblings about covfefe, and turning them into new forms.

You can read each of our poems below for free through the following links:

Nothing to hide 

So beautiful

Like, really smart

Humble pie

Thank you for listening

So that was my words

The beauty and complexity of Irish literature

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If Ireland is seen by some people in the world as some kind of romantic ideal, it must be seen only through the prism of eyes that have not seen news or history of the killings in the North, or how Irish women were considered far too lovely for contraception (and still today too lovely to be given the right to abortions). Ireland, far from being a mystic isle of pure beauty and tribal innocence, is – like so many countries – a land of contradictions and complexities.

Ireland’s greatest litterateurs have embraced these sometimes conflicting differences to create works of fiction that are as beautiful as they are in themselves complex; that do not shy from painting the horrors that have befallen the island at times, but find lyrical ways of expressing these to readers across the world. Irish writers write against their own foolishness and flaws as much as they do against those of their fellow countrymen or those of colonial invaders – and in doing so they find ways of expressing truths that are delightful and intricate and small; and thereby discovering beauty that is real and full of power and significance.

Perhaps the lyricism and beauty of Irish writing is in part down to the tradition of oral storytelling and poetry within Irish history, combined with the suppression of the Irish language itself during the centuries of British colonialism. With the brutal restrictions placed upon not just the Irish people themselves, but the very words and language with which they used to communicate, the British, in a way, created the conditions necessary for new forms of writing to emerge. Irish writing so often seems at times to be born from the fragmentation of old certainties, and the need to say important things in an almost coded fashion, so as to avoid discovery. Fiction and poetry – creative writing in general – play a crucial role in conveying meaning through indirect means (metaphor, allegory, etc.). And so, in the face of an increasingly restricted and complex reality, Irish writers created their own worlds – spun into life in the most beautiful, unique and creative ways.

In this view, Irish writers rise to a cultural prominence in which they are defined both by their creative genius and by their nationality. Their identity is absorbed by their craft, and the geopolitics of it. This is an idea captured by Sean O Faolain – a pillar of twentieth century Irish short story writing – who wrote:

“Irish literature came to its great period of effervescence in a romantic mood whose concept of a writer was almost like the concept of a priest: you did not just write, you lived writing; it was a vocation; it was part of the national resurgence to be a writer.”

In honour of these writers, we have brought together a far from exhaustive list of our recommended Irish books to read at any time; but perhaps most fittingly on St Patrick’s day.

You can read our book list here.

Sylvia Plath on writing, and the complexities of life

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It is It is fifty five years since Sylvia Plath killed herself, in her flat in London, near Primrose Hill, in a house where William Butler Yeats once lived. She was thirty-one. Her two children, Frieda, age three, and Nicholas, barely one, slept in the next room. The details of her suicide are known most likely by everyone with a tangential connection to poetry – the rags and towels blocking the doorway; the oven; the two young children sleeping next door; the glasses of milk she left for them on the kitchen table.

In the months leading up to her death, she had published her autobiographical novel The Bell Jar, and completed a manuscript of her influential poetry collection, Ariel.

Both works have rightly contributed to the widely shared view of Plath as a creative genius. Robert Lowell, who contributed a forward, is said to have exclaimed, when he opened and read the manuscript, “Something amazing has happened.”

The feeling that Plath’s work has the capacity to be revelatory to both new and returning readers has never really faded. Yet the near mythicism that is attached to her death – and the frenzied period of creativity that seemed to lead up to it – have contributed to the almost stereotypical belief that all the greatest writers and artists must also be tortured souls who carry their demons with them.

This is an unhelpful view to hold, primarily because it risks diminishing the complexity of other human beings. In the case of Sylvia Plath, it risks simplifying her existence to a simple Wikipedia footnote – the idea that she is simply a tragic figure of creative genius and inner turmoil. But, as with all human beings; Plath is so much more.

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While it’s impossible to forget or ignore how Plath died, the question that today has fresh urgency is how she wrote – and how she lived.

In 1975, nearly a decade before Plath’s posthumous Pulitzer Prize, Aurelia Plath, the poet’s mother, edited a loving selection of Sylvia’s letters to her family, published as Letters Home: Correspondence 1950–1963. Tucked between their lines is the enormity of emotion that animated the poet’s restless spirit.

Within these pages are glimpses of a character and a life so much more than a simplified summary that suits our inclination toward drama and tragedy. And they also show Sylvia as entirely human. For instance, at 17, she expresses such a feeling of invincibility instantly recognisable as that of a teenager:

“Somehow I have to keep and hold the rapture of being seventeen. Every day is so precious I feel infinitely sad at the thought of all this time melting farther and farther away from me as I grow older. Now, now is the perfect time of my life.

In reflecting back upon these last sixteen years, I can see tragedies and happiness, all relative — all unimportant now — fit only to smile upon a bit mistily.

I still do not know myself. Perhaps I never will. But I feel free — unbound by responsibility.”

In other letters, the young Plath speaks of the fears of growing older that also grip so many on the cusp of adulthood:

“At the present moment I am very happy, sitting at my desk, looking out at the bare trees around the house across the street… Always I want to be an observer. I want to be affected by life deeply, but never so blinded that I cannot see my share of existence in a wry, humorous light and mock myself as I mock others.

[…]

I am afraid of getting older. I am afraid of getting married. Spare me from cooking three meals a day — spare me from the relentless cage of routine and rote.”

In other letters, she does express some sentiments of inner turmoil – of not knowing what she wants or if she ever will. But again, here, who has not felt such things? Read on:

“I want to be free — free to know people and their backgrounds — free to move to different parts of the world so I may learn that there are other morals and standards besides my own. I want, I think, to be omniscient… I think I would like to call myself “The girl who wanted to be God.” Yet if I were not in this body, where would I be — perhaps I am destined to be classified and qualified. But, oh, I cry out against it. I am I — I am powerful — but to what extent? I am I.

Sometimes I try to put myself in another’s place, and I am frightened when I find I am almost succeeding. How awful to be anyone but I. I have a terrible egotism. I love my flesh, my face, my limbs with overwhelming devotion. I know that I am “too tall” and have a fat nose, and yet I pose and prink before the mirror, seeing more and more how lovely I am… I have erected in my mind an image of myself — idealistic and beautiful. Is not that image, free from blemish, the true self — the true perfection? Am I wrong when this image insinuates itself between me and the merciless mirror. (Oh, even now I glance back on what I have just written — how foolish it sounds, how overdramatic.)”

Nonetheless, in her fears of the future, she also harbours a clear vision of hope in herself, as well as joy in the knowledge that the future is still hers – is still anyone’s – and that no individual must be entirely bound to any defined destiny:

“There will come a time when I must face myself at last. Even now I dread the big choices which loom up in my life — what college? What career? I am afraid. I feel uncertain. What is best for me? What do I want? I do not know. I love freedom. I deplore constrictions and limitations… I am not as wise as I have thought. I can now see, as from a valley, the roads lying open for me, but I cannot see the end — the consequences…

Oh, I love now, with all my fears and forebodings, for now I still am not completely molded. My life is still just beginning. I am strong. I long for a cause to devote my energies to…”

Even the way she signs off some of her letters to her mother speak volumes of her hope and love, as well as her happiness:

“Honestly, Mum, I could just cry with happiness. I love this place so, and there is so much to do creatively… The world is splitting open at my feet like a ripe, juicy watermelon. If only I can work, work, work to justify all of my opportunities.

Your happy girl,

Sivvy”

In other letters, the subject of Plath’s writing is more mundane and perfunctory. At aged fourteen, she writes to her mother from summer camp:

“I am very busy, but not too much to write regularly to you,” she writes. “Last night I had three big helpings of potatoes (mashed) and carrots for supper and a scant helping of meatloaf as well as 2 pieces of bread and butter, 2 apricots & a glass of milk.”

And in others, she speaks intimately of her innate calling to the written word. In July of 1956, twenty-three year old Plath writes:

“Dearest Mother,

… Both of us are just slowly coming out of our great fatigue from the whirlwind plans and events of last month; and after meandering about Paris, sitting, writing and reading in the Tuileries, have produced a good poem apiece, which is a necessity to our personal self-esteem — not so much a good poem or story, but at least several hours work of solid writing a day. Something in both of us needs to write for a large period daily, or we get cold on paper, cross, or down… We are really happiest keeping to ourselves, and writing, writing, writing. I never thought I should grow so fast so far in my life; the whole secret for both of us, I think, is being utterly in love with each other, which frees our writing from being a merely egoistic mirror, but rather a powerful canvas on which other people live and move…”

What these letters clearly demonstrate is that there is heartbreaking tragedy and despair, it’s true: but there is also wholehearted exuberance. There is the hum drum of daily life and meals and eating; there is the excitement of life changing events; there is fear and there is hope; there is, simply, life.