Book Review: A Streetcar Named Desire

A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams

Although this one wasn’t for my classics book club, I have wanted to read it for years. As a play, it’s a relatively quick read, so I was able to tuck it in among other readings.

Spoilers possible.

A Streetcar Named Desire may be a better, more entertaining play than The Glass Menagerie, but together they suggest a pattern of playwright fixation on the destruction of fragile, helpless women at the hands of hapless or hostile men. Yet, although critics claim that Stanley is the catalyst for Blanche’ s tragedy, I see undeniable, culpable shades in the sorrows of sister Stella and would-be husband Mitch. Besides these influences, a case can be made that Blanche needs little nudging by anyone to plunge her into her ultimate abyss, a place she seems headed for from the start. Either way, the question is posed clearly before the tragedy is complete: Who is to blame?

The tragic arc is a twisted tree root. Plunging through the rich soil of clever, careful staging, eerie overlays of music and echoed sounds, and crisp, character-making dialogue, the reader (not just the playgoer) falls irrevocably into the suffocating depths of a taut, primal, sensual plot. With his usually detailed stage directions, Williams also leaves nothing in the production plan to chance, while his storytelling strikes a delicate balance by revealing just enough both to engage and to mystify his audience.

The emotional effects of these elements for Blanche are a haunting by the past that cannot be shaken and a shackling by her imagination that stunts her growth. Her character is static in the course of the play as the distance between the danger and the fall proves all too short. Stanley, likewise, is static, and so they come together like immovable object and unstoppable force. The intriguing question for me is what change must occur in Stella beyond the play’s ending as a result of this close family tragedy, with one member the victim and the other, the perpetrator. Stella, at least, has dynamic potential as collateral damage.

cover_A-Streetcar-Named-Desire_images.duckduckgo.com

Penguin Modern Classics edition book cover

Still, none of the main characters reads as a monotone stereotype; they themselves get to play with those concepts as they size each other up. The tension permeating the play stems from perceptions of class differences, ethnic backgrounds, sexual attraction, and affectations brought into sharp relief by the visit of Blanche DuBois to her sister and brother-in-law’s small apartment during a typically oppressive New Orleans summer.

The result is a smoldering tragedy without a clear path as to how it might have been avoided. Remarkable paradox comes through Williams’ writing: Stella, Stanley, and Blanche all prove to be decent people even as their inflexible selfishness, by turns, renders them on many levels indecent–and ultimately inhumane–to one another.

Raw, obvious character flaws, especially Stanley’s, do contribute to the mess, however. His inherent roughness of manner, speech, action, and mere presence directly feed and elicit Blanche’s carefully constructed delicacies, charms, snobbery, and veneer of the victim. They could hardly be more different, and as foils, these opposites both attract and repulse.

Like the down-to-earth Stanley, the reader knows upon meeting her not to take Blanche at face value, but as we get to know her, we begin to empathize with, if not believe in, Blanche DuBois. When Stanley finally exposes her past sins, the whole truth of them is doubtful, they are inextricable from her suffering, and we see that both Stanley and Stella can be right about her sister in their opposing views.

Blanche is a menace being treated unfairly.

An emotional atmosphere of steamy New Orleans chaos reigns over the play. Ripples of racist overtones, sexism, raw sensuality, crime, vice, and class prejudice collide and reinforce one another to disrupt the characters’ moral compasses. Danger vibrates constantly just beneath the surface, and I kept expecting brawl, beating, or suicide around the next corner. Peripheral scenes foreshadow ultimate conflict as violence escalates, but it’s all very restrained, held in check for the bulk of the story, which makes each scene all the more intriguing.

The shock of the penultimate act of violence, committed between active scenes, can resolve into either the satisfaction of poetic justice or an indignation against grave injustice, a verdict that rings loudly through the end. The ensuing resolution is also unequivocally sad, and we even get a moral from the perfect, trembling lips of Blanche DuBois. Coming from her, the line “I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers” is both ironic caution and sad testament to a frail psyche.

This is one of the few plays I’ve read besides Shakespeare that so strongly compels me to seek out a production to watch this very minute. In A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams exposes seedy corners of mid-twentieth-century American society and equally dark corners of its minds and hearts. First, he is the realistic, impartial painter of human coarseness, failure, beauty and love. Then, in affecting lyrical form, he hints at judgment of all these through their close, unflinching examination. In his complex process, Williams has crafted a true literary and theatrical treasure.

Five out of five stars.


Learn about the 1951 film version at A Streetcar Named Desire.

This Hunted Story

Am I late, am I late, for a very important date?

If not, as long as I tell myself I run that risk, motivation survives, at least for something I already feel compelled in a deeper way to do—writing. So before it IS too late, it’s time to journal about my Jabberwock novel, a story of Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There from the Jabberwock perspective. Time to muse upon the fickle nature of the Muse. Time to log, on the Web, my thoughts about this story-making process, the state of this art. Time to blog about novel writing.

My hope in doing so is that it will help me get a handle, by November 1st at midnight, on my story outline so I can hit the ground running as NaNoWriMo 2016 kicks off. The goal of National Novel Writing Month is to “write with reckless abandon,” and as a planner (as opposed to a pantser), I’ll feel readier to do that if I have a sound story structure to populate with all that compelling characterization, magical description, and sparkling dialogue. * sigh *

Prompted by S of JS Mawdsley to write fanfic “so [S] wouldn’t be the only one” doing that for Camp NaNoWriMo this past July, I showed up at a write-in early in the month and started listing the fiction I’m a fan of. Not long into the exercise, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass popped up and led to my premise.

In a reversal, or extension (depending on your viewpoint), of the situation in Looking-Glass Land, I set up the Jabberwock as the story’s hero and the Red and White Nobles as the antagonists in their world of giant chessboard squares. Alice retains a position resembling her protagonist role in the original stories, entering the grand game of chess in book two in order to become queen by reaching the Eighth Square.

Simple, right?

So . . . I’ve been working on this intermittently since July and figured there’s plenty to write in November, too. Although I don’t exhibit the discipline JS Mawdsley do/es, which leads to such awe-inspiring story-writing productivity, it’s been a victory for me to remain interested in my story even after each, sometimes long, hiatus.

I’m intrigued enough by the concept, along with the outlining, mind mapping and analyzing I’ve done of it so far, and the handful of scenes I’ve written in full, that I feel confident I won’t lose interest any time soon, let alone halfway through NaNoWriMo.

The magic has come from seeing themes, symbols, and character relationships periodically connect in unexpected ways, from discovering that the ideas that bubble up work with the overall concept instead of against it. It gives me hope that the unity of the story can be preserved, assuming I can build it into a cohesive whole in the first place. This is the year, baby!

Still, it is by no means simple. The plot has been quite the code to crack. For me, that’s typical, but this one poses the extra challenges to work within the original story structure, use pre-existing characters, and figure out how the heck to weave in the new story.

If I have bitten off more than I can chew, by gum, at least I’m still chewing on it and my jaw hasn’t yet broken or frozen.

I confess to adding the pressure of creating something brilliant and eminently publishable out of a timeless classic that’s been thoroughly studied, adapted, spoofed, and spun off in every direction for over a hundred years. Otherwise, why spend all this time on it? But I’m fighting that tendency, too. I’m making a point of not reading the spin-off books and of not watching any more versions of the movie than I have already seen. I’m trying to let love lead. Love of Lewis Carroll’s work.

In addition, S made the point that because Looking-Glass is the less well-known of the pair of Alice stories, it will be wise to borrow characters from Adventures for this re-telling, to add reader interest. I’ll try not to make that issue a major priority; it, too, presumes publication.

The saving grace may be that, if a tangible end result ever does come, and whether or not it’s any good, at least it will have been one hell of a writing experiment that prepared me for success on simpler projects. Oh, if only I knew how to go simple. To do the work, day after day, without imploding under the weight of expectation.

Although I may not blog liberally about the intricacies of the Jabberwock story puzzle, I’ll try to use both blogging and private journaling to keep up my momentum through the exciting upcoming month of story stress, construction, and socializing.

A couple of days ago, I chose a title that took entirely too much time to think of: Hunted Song of Looking-Glass Land. Song is my main character, the teenage Jabberwock heroine who, in partnership with the younger human Alice, fights the good fight against the establishment. This much I know.

Hunted Song is my first fantasy story, first fan fiction (sort of, if we don’t count the one about Shakespeare’s mistress), and possibly first happy ending compared to my two most recent stories, which I actually finished drafting. There’s so much to look forward to, and the fact that I started this story well before November reassures me of my stamina to see it through to whatever moment declares itself the end.

Perhaps it’s fitting that this is my topic in the year of the 150th anniversary of the first book’s publication. These splashes of newness and flashes of specialness are keeping my eye on the prize, to follow through to create a good story that I can call mine.

What’s your story?

Join me and half a million other people worldwide this year in the storytelling adventure called NaNoWriMo. No experience necessary. No Plot? No Problem. No judgment. Just start writing. Ready. Set. Novel!. Also, check out the NaNoWriMo Blog.


For more about how my current story’s journey started, check out this summer’s post Packing for Camp.

jabberwocky

Featured image: Illustration of the Jabberwocky by John Tenniel, original artist for both Alice books.

 

Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 5: Of Mice, Men and Rabbie Burns

In honor of my trip to Scotland, the harvest season, nature poetry, and Scottish National Poet Robert Burns, this post shares a few excerpts and a discussion of his famous poem “To a Mouse.”

See the end of the post for links to more information and the poem’s full text, as well as a list of earlier posts from this blog series on nature poetry by well-known poets.


To a Mouse
On Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough, November, 1785

Wee, sleekit, cow'rin, tim'rous beastie,
O, what a panic's in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
               Wi' bickering brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an' chase thee,
               Wi' murd'ring pattle!

I'm truly sorry man's dominion
Has broken Nature's social union,
An' justifies that ill opinion
               Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor earth-born companion,
               An' fellow-mortal!

Language.

The first thing you may notice in these first two stanzas is the unorthodox orthography. Contractions for words like “cowering” and “timorous” and unusual terms such as “sleekit,” “bickering,” and “brattle” used in stanza one challenge the average reader.

The poem begins in a Scots dialect using conversational vernacular. This approach both conveys the startling nature of the encounter for the ploughman and creates intimacy between speaker and subject. The ploughman deeply sympathizes with his frightened, thwarted neighbor who happens to be a mouse. The regular, liberal use of exclamation points heightens this effect.

Distinctly formal diction then counteracts that sense of closeness with a thoughtful, reverential tone when Burns opts for the dramatic “O” and distancing pronouns “thy,” “thou,” and “thee” in place of “your” and “you.” Such choices set the mouse on a pedestal, almost as an object of worship.

Between word choice and ideas, the poem amounts to a humble, emotional message of significant length, firmly declaring Burns’s love for even the smallest wildlife despite its serving no utilitarian purpose as either food source, working animal, or even personal pet.

Scots terms in the first stanza:

  • sleekit – adj., sleek or, figuratively, slick (in Outlander ep105, Willie facetiously praises braggart Angus’s sexual prowess using this word: “Aye, aye, ye sleekit dog!”)
  • na – not
  • awa – away
  • sae – so
  • bickering – adj., hurried
  • brattle – n., scamper
  • wad – would
  • laith – loath
  • rin – run
  • pattle – plowstaff (“paddle”)

The stark shift to a philosophical tone in stanza 2 coincides with a shift in dialect from Scots to more standard English. While still directly addressing the mouse, this stanza’s language sets it apart from the rest, presenting the poet’s main thesis in words that non-Scots readers also will easily understand. Stanza 3 then returns to dialect, which persists through the end of the poem.

Central to the poem’s meaning, an oft-quoted line appears in stanza 7 of 8:

7
But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o' mice an' men
               Gang aft a-gley.
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain
               For promised joy.
8
Still thou art blest, compared wi' me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But och! I backward cast my e'e
               On prospects drear!
An' forward, tho' I canna see,
               I guess an' fear!

This famous line, of course, inspired the title of John Steinbeck’s novel Of Mice and Men.

Scots terms in the last two stanzas:

  • no thy lane – not alone
  • gang aft a-gley – often go awry
  • lea-e – leave
  • e’e – eye

Rhyme scheme. “To a Mouse” gives us a unique opportunity to explore the nature of rhyme. The overall pattern in the poem for each stanza is a rhyme scheme of aaabab. Six lines containing two distinct sets of rhymes in each stanza. The repetitive sound of the first three lines creates a build-up of emotion and suspense. Next, the change late in each stanza accents the new indented lines of a different rhyming pair, leaving us with those ideas to ponder as we move on to the next stanza.

The effect of his use of near rhyme adds interesting possibilities. Debates have surfaced over the centuries as to whether writing in dialect is a legitimate enterprise. Burns, among others, was heavily criticized by some for his chosen approach in cases like “To a Mouse.” As time has passed, judgments of acceptableness have evolved and varied. Ultimately, it is each reader’s prerogative to judge the work being read. So you decide: Do you see an artful use of “slant” or “near” rhyme, a perversion of standard English, or something else entirely? Consider the patterns and their aberrations.

In “To a Mouse,” if we go by only the vowel sound of the very last syllable of each line and follow standard English expectations, the rhyme schemes of the dominant rhyming lines in each stanza (lines 1, 2, 3 and 5 as opposed to the indented 4th and 6th lines) would be as follows:

  • St. 1: beastie breastie hasty thee – a a a a
  • St. 2: dominion union opinion companion – a a a a
  • St. 3: thieve live thrave lave – a b ? c
  • St. 4: ruin strewin new ane ensuin – a a b a
  • St. 5: waste fast blast past – a b b b
  • St. 6: stibble nibble trouble dribble – a a b a
  • St. 7: lane vain a-gley joy – a a a b
  • St. 8: me thee e’e see – a a ? a

On the surface, with simple line analysis, there appears to be no consistent rhyming pattern at all, but at least the first two lines of each stanza usually rhyme with each other. For larger patterns, only the first two stanzas of these groupings, that we can say with certainty, consistently rhyme with each other.

In this context, as one might expect, the more formal second stanza is among those with the most regular rhyme. The most divergent vowel sounds occur between the first three lines and line 5 of stanza 7, as the long “a” sound in “lane,” “vain,” and “a-gley” doesn’t even remotely resemble the vowel sound in “joy.” (Farther down the page, I discuss the special cases of the Scots terms in bold above.)

The only dominant pattern overall is of consonance or assonance ending each line, specifically, with the consonants n, v, st, and b, as well as the e vowel sounds. All stanza 7 gives us is the visual common y consonant between “a-gley” and “joy.” Like stanza 2, stanza 7 is an outlier.

The result of this close investigation might suggest unintended sloppiness on Burns’s part.

Form and meaning. However, is it coincidence that the themes of stanzas 2 and 7 match their respective degrees of exactness in rhyme? Standard English, -ion endings, and the idea of unity in stanza 2? Dialect, divergent line endings, and the idea of destroyed plans in stanza 7? Even if it was done subconsciously, Burns was an artist, an educated man, an intelligent person, and, like the rest of us, an incorrigible “schemer.” So, no. It’s not likely to be coincidence.

And what about their placement in the poem–a sort of thesis position for stanza 2 and similar location for stanza 7, the second and second-to-last stanzas, placed symmetrically in relation to one another across the whole poem?

Perhaps Burns is making a statement not only about man’s relationship with nature–between the broken union with the wild and the industrialization of the field–but also about man’s relationship with man, particularly, the relationship between the masterly English and the servile Scottish peoples. Or, is it a more egalitarian critique of the hubris and, thus, inevitably negative effects, of at least some of everyone’s best intentions?

Boldfaced Scots (no pun intended): I used question marks to indicate my ignorance about how to pronounce the bolded Scots words. I would be inclined to pronounce “breastie” like “beastie,” assuming a humorous intent on first reading the poem, but it could be pronounced with the short e vowel sound as in the typical pronunciation of “breast.” As one reads more of the poem, its serious tone becomes apparent.

In the next instance, not knowing the word at all, I would most likely take it on face value and pronounce “thrave” like “grave.” Lastly, I wouldn’t know how to pronounce “e’e” as a contraction of “eye.” Is it the long e as in “thee,” the long a in “way,” or the long i sound as in the standard “eye”?

At the very least, first-hand knowledge of this Scots dialect in its 18th-century context and perhaps a scholarly knowledge of Burns’s intent and poetic patterns across his body of work would be required to say definitively. It’s possible, however, that pronunciation could vary even further, placing spoken vowel sounds, not just of these isolated words but of any number of others, in between the surmised alternatives we know from standard English.

There is no single, perfected version of a dialect of any language, just as what we think of as standard language can vary within itself as well. In other words, there are multiple Scots dialects within the umbrella of English dialects.

If Burns and other writers in dialect teach us anything about spoken language, it’s that it is subjective and fluid, different and constantly changing across all sorts of cultural boundaries. Those boundaries are not stark black dividers, but gray realms of overlapping traditions and identities. Whatever linguistic purists might say, certainly spoken language, along with written language in many ways, is a living, breathing, moving–and sometimes wild–thing.

Meter and rhythm.

Further evidence of Burns’s well-laid schemes emerges with a look at the rhythmic elements of the poem. The meter is set down regularly as iambic tetrameter paired with iambic dimeter, and the changes closely match the rhyme scheme shifts. Lines 1-3 and 5 follow tetrameter, with 4 iambs per line, and lines 4 and 6 use dimeter, with 2 iambs per line. An iamb is a set of two syllables, also known together as a metric foot, that begins with an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable.

A simple illustration of an iambic foot is in the infinitive form of any one-syllable verb: to go, to breathe, to call, to jump, to know. We pronounce this pair of words with emphasis on the unique word in each pair: go, breathe, call, jump, and know. We don’t pronounce each set in the opposite manner, which would result in phrases with the sound of “TOO go,” “TOO breathe,” and so on, making the words sound strange, like the Roman garment “toga” or imaginary “tookle” for “to call” or “tune-o” for “to know.” Theoretically, one could create an iambic phrase solely out of infinitive verb phrases:

to WANT to KNOW, to WALK to YOU to SMILE  (iambic pentameter, five metric feet of syllable pairs, the first being unstressed, the second stressed)

where the capitalized words signify landing on them more heavily than on the word “to.”

Often, then, the stressed half of the metric foot (in these cases, the iamb) is where the more important words, and natural stresses in multi-syllabic words, arise. Another iambic pentameter line:

And if I fail to call, you’ll know I’ve left. The words if, fail, call, know, left make the central message.

The unstressed half of an iambic line is where the connecting words, less important words, and natural lack of stresses in multi-syllabic words would be.

And if I fail to call, you’ll know I’ve left. The words And, I, to, you’ll, I’ve are links and pronouns.

The unique feature of the iambic lines in “To a Mouse” is their often ending with a weak final syllable after the recognizable pattern of four or two iambs. Stanzas 1, 2, 4, and 6 contain this feature, ending on words like “beastie,” “startle,” “ruin,” and “dribble”–all words with a strong first syllable. There are exceptions even in these stanzas, with lines 4 and 6 in stanza 4 ending in “green” and “keen,” for instance, with stressed final syllables.

Still, the overarching tendency to add half an iambic foot to the end of many lines creates a lilting rhythm and lightness in tone, suggesting affectionate tenderness, as we sense from words like “beastie” and “nibble,” which are emotionally similar to diminutives like “sweetie” and cutie.”

The alternating stanzas with stressed last syllables and regular iambic feet include, from stanza 3, lines 1 (tetrameter, 4 stresses) and 4 (dimeter, 2 stresses):

“I doubt na, whiles, but thou may thieve; / . . . . ‘S a sma‘ request:”

The final two stanzas, shown above, also have regular iambic meter throughout, emphasizing the message there contained, for example, in the poem’s final two lines:

“An’ forward, tho‘ I canna see, / I guess an’ fear!”

In his poem, Burns deliberately places men and mice on an equal plane, both subject to the whims of fate and nature. Equating man with mouse is a startling choice, provoking thought and sometimes indignation. But the poet takes it one step farther, elevating the mouse above the man again in the final stanza: You know only how to live in the moment, you free and lucky mouse, whereas I’m a slave to regret for the past and to fear of the future.

For the full text of this poetic ploughman’s speech to a mouse, visit “To a Mouse” by Robert Burns. For an annotated version defining all the Scots terms, try scholarly sources such as page 748 of the full fifth edition (paperback) of The Norton Anthology of Poetry. My source for the terms I defined was the fourth edition.

The Burns legacy.

To learn more about Scots poet Robert Burns, check out the extensive article at Poetry Foundation. I also enjoyed visiting The Writers’ Museum in Edinburgh, which featured artifacts, writings, illustrations, and recordings about authors Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson. There are many other sites in Scotland dedicated to Burns and his legacy that I did not get to visit. I’ll share more about Scottish literary tourism in an upcoming post.

As the National Poet of Scotland, Robert Burns even has his own holiday: Burns Night, January 25th, when people in Scotland and worldwide Scots create and enjoy a special feast and a night of beloved poetry.


Previous posts in this series, featuring nature poems from both the Canon and a few contemporary poets, include:

  1. Nature Poetry by Famous Poets
  2. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 1: Sun Spots
  3. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 1a: “The Sunlight on the Garden”
  4. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 2: Elizabeth Bishop
  5. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 3: Wordsworth’s Daffodils
  6. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 4: Promise of a Fruitful Plath

I also wrote about the use of Burns’s work in the first Outlander TV series by STARZ:

Scotland’s Burns and Outlander rival Shakespeare’s bawdy

The Labor of Learning to Set Limits

Oh, Outlander‘s finale was grand indeed, but it was so . . . final. I thought I would follow it with at least one thorough blog response, but it proved too overwhelming to face fully, and the sorrow of finality echoed forward. Besides these, another emotional factor had already begun to influence my viewing prior to the last episode of the season–increasing disappointment with the essence of how Starz has adapted the central story relationship of Jamie and Claire. All together, these zapped my motivation even to start sorting.

My disappointment helped me realize that the other thing I needed to do was take a break from “obsessenaching,” which, for the uninitiated means fanatically obsessing like, with, or about Sassenach*, aka Claire Fraser/Caitriona Balfe/Jamie Fraser/Sam Heughan and the whole Outlander lot. I could see my life was straying farther and farther from any semblance of balance. I was having a series of dreams invaded by actor Sam Heughan.

Now, the only reason I feel comfortable enough to admit this, despite finding it rather embarrassing, is that my obsession has made me privy to the obvious fact that many, many other fans’ obsessions with Sam (as must be the case with most handsome stars of the large and small screens) are far more serious and crippling to those people. I am happily married after all and do not hang my self-esteem on whether or not a celebrity re-tweets or responds to my comment. Undoubtedly, dignity and cool would fail me were I actually to meet said celebrity, but never mind.

Although, like many women of retirement age–of which I am not yet technically one for decades to come (hopefully)–I have more “free” time than most people, I have yet to earn the privilege of actual retirement. Based on where I have indulged my pleasures, I’ve come to see: It is this privilege that allows so many Outlander fans of 20+ or 2 years’ duration to indulge their fanaticism.

In my compromised youth, I still recognize the imperative of making life count for something. But without religion, robust health, paid profession, or penchant for routine, I figure some kind of inner drive needs to take the role of holding oblivion at bay for an independent-minded yet provided-for married woman approaching middle age without children. I believe one can really save only herself.

I did take a break of sorts. I put away my Outlander images collection. I stopped re-watching season 2 episodes. I stopped using Twitter altogether, let alone allowing notifications of Sam’s and Caitriona’s latest tweets. I was helped in this by the need to reduce the use of my phone while it showed signs of dying.

But with a new phone came renewed vigor and curiosity about technological capacities, i.e., gadget toys, and soon, I was right back in it. I justified this by the notion that I wouldn’t want to be out of the loop right before our big trip to Scotland. Still to happen, that trip in itself is a direct outgrowth of my Outlander obsession. I have no small hope of bumping into the cast and crew during season 3 filming this fall. I continue to “interact,” i.e., tweet, with the likes of the show’s consultants, producers and other reps. I receive regular notifications of tweets from slightly more than a few of them.

A married couple who are friends of mine just returned from their own Scotland trip, and I made sure to ask them all about it. I have scoured the travel guides, in print and online, compiled details on the sights selected for our itinerary, and delegated GPS setup to the hubby. We’ve bought street maps, new clothes, new shoes, RFID-blocking wallets, international driver’s licenses, travel insurance, theater tickets, steam train tickets, sightseeing passes, a detachable Bluetooth keyboard for my tablet, and a new rain coat for me. I downloaded 30 some apps for use before and during the trip, including the UK Highway Code, a bus tracker, weather apps, general news and sightseeing apps, one for each hotel and other vendor we’re using, and Scotland tourism apps. I’ve been planning our trip since May, and there are a slew of tasks still on our list, but it’s finally almost here.

I am excited, to be sure, but also worried that I won’t have the physical strength and energy to tackle even half of the itinerary I’ve tentatively planned for us. I tried to be realistic and arrange alternatives for things to do each day, but at least one day will be a real doozy with a full-day Outlander tour followed by an evening play, and we’re going largely DIY with all this, including renting a car for most of the trip. I also worry that my poor track record with packing sensibly will plague this voyage, too.

Still, I’ve never prepared so well, for so long, and so . . . obsessively for travel as I have for travel to and around Scotland. The excursion will be the single longest vacation my husband and I have ever taken. We’ll likely get through it somehow, but I do hope the experience proves to be worth all the time, money, and work invested in it. Who knows when the chance will come again?

The good news for balance is that I continue to think about it and make efforts at routine productivity. I still tutor weekly, and I’m still writing, in spite of my unplanned hiatus from this blog of late. I’ve been working on a novel since the July Camp NaNo (see my previous post about Packing for Camp), and now that fall approaches, I anticipate pursuing it through November, the official National Novel Writing Month I’ve participated in for the past five years.

[Note on the future of this blog: I’ve refrained from going into details about it here, or doing much posting at all, for fear of disrupting my momentum. But I must admit that it doesn’t take much to do that, and more often than not, blogging about my writing projects has injected new life into them rather than shut them down. So, I guess, besides tales from the trip, I can feel confident in having more to write about at Philosofishal going forward.]

There are other positive signs of balance to acknowledge as well. I have carried the bulk of responsibility for planning our Scotland trip over time, but I haven’t neglected all household management in the mix. I’m in the process of reassessing my autoimmune conditions treatment plan, I’ve begun a new financial investment project for us, and I’ve started walking regularly, mostly for the trip but also to combat high triglycerides, excessive computer sitting, and chronic pain. More goals are also brewing.

Perhaps I’ve been more balanced and productive than I give myself credit for. My limitations have not been as limiting as I believed. It’s just that some health challenges have a special, enduring talent for disappointing long-held expectations. So it has been for me, and so follows the need to keep adjusting those expectations, embrace joy where I can, and continue to set reasonable limits, especially on my propensity to obsess.

Setting limits for oneself is about awareness, love, and the will both to refrain and to reach for better. The good that comes from setting good limits can shatter perceived limitations. What once seemed impossible becomes not only possible but proven. Making wise limit setting a habit then means acknowledging that proof and using it to fuel future action.

Know_Your_Limitations_Then_Defy

Easier said than done.

To make it doable, I think I’ll work to visualize myself going through something like a par course or speed dating session with my various tasks and projects. (Picturing actual juggling just intimidates me.) No one can go, go, go forever; we all need rest after running the course. For me, though, the emphasis is different because chronic health issues make restfulness from sleep a fantasy and daily rest rather void. For me, maintaining and strengthening balance largely means remembering to change the status quo: to get up, move from one foot to the other, keep moving, take a brief rest, and repeat the cycle.

Learning to prioritize and set limits on the consumption of time, while it imposes its own limits, is my greatest challenge and experiment.


  • For more about the term “sassenach,” see:

Outlander | Speak Outlander Lesson 1: Sassenach (video featuring Sam Heughan, lead actor, and Adhamh O Broin, Gaelic Consultant for the show) | STARZ (2013)

Dictionary.com definition of “sassenach”

“Scots Word of the Season: Sassenach” by Maggie Scott | The Bottle Imp (date not specified)

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Five-Phrase Friday (32): Remember This

A daily e-newsletter I’m receiving inspired my second post of phrases for National Poetry Month. Of breaking lines and cracking art projects, I sing with the chorus (the featured poet’s piece), and of the need to be gentle with oneself and one’s art, lest either one break and crumble.

The Cuyahoga County Public Library’s program “Read + Write: 30 Days of Poetry” each day presents a short poem and a poetry writing prompt at readwritepoetry.org. Today’s (April 8) featured poem is Maggie Anderson’s “The Thing You Must Remember.”

The portion that especially caught my notice emphasizes the delicate work of art making and, in a sense, the perils of a perfectionist approach to art, as that drive is grounded in fear of not being enough. (The arts and perfectionism are recurring themes of my blog.)

The passage also happens to speak directly to a major theme of the novel I’m writing for Camp NaNoWriMo this month about a young teacher’s obsessive efforts to combat bullying among her students. What a fine synchronicity of events and ideas!

With this sample of verse, I altered the format to make my usual handy grouping of five lines. My unsanctioned re-formatting raises the question of the mechanics of how to read a poem and how you can arrange the lines while writing one. I address these questions with some analysis below the excerpt.

Note: Ellipses for omitted text, brackets adding text for clarity, and slash lines signalling the end of a line as originally formatted–these are all my marks.

So here are lines 8-13 of the single-stanza, 16-line poem “The Thing You Must Remember” by Maggie Anderson, from Cold Comfort. University of Pittsburgh Press, 1986.

. . . When the [clay] dog’s back / stiffened, then cracked
to white shards / in the kiln, you learned
how the beautiful / suffers from too much attention,
how clumsy / a single vision can grow, and fragile
with trying too hard. . . .

The same excerpt with the poet’s original breaks of selected lines 8-13:

. . . When the dog’s back
stiffened, then cracked to white shards
in the kiln, you learned how the beautiful
suffers from too much attention, how clumsy
a single vision can grow, and fragile
with trying too hard. . . .

A poem of this general form–containing relatively equal-length lines whose endings do not rhyme (free verse) and bearing punctuation at the middles and ends of lines–is meant to be read fluidly across the line breaks. It uses punctuated pauses (commas) and stops (periods) as if it were prose, as do most poems, even if those pauses and stops happen to correspond with line endings.

This “continuation of the sense of a phrase beyond the end of a line of verse” is called enjambment. The online Encyclopaedia Britannica has a helpful entry on this concept with an example to illustrate it clearly.

When we read the above poem aloud, then, we pause not after “back” (l. 8) but after “stiffened” (l. 9), and not after “shards” (l. 9) but after “kiln” (l. 10), and so forth.

Hearing the reading under such conditions, one might think this is not a poem at all, but other characteristics, such as length, word choice, point of view, and often style of voice while reading, all help signal to listeners that they are indeed hearing a poem.

Poetry is meant to be read aloud, but when line breaks don’t match pauses and stops, that doesn’t mean the break choices have no use or purpose. The visual effect can also be part of the package.

Aligning these phrases as Anderson does brings words with similar sounds (with techniques like internal rhyme, assonance, consonance) and similar appearances closer together. For instance, notice the internal rhyme of “back” with “cracked” and the consonant combination “nd” sound at the end of “stiffened” and “learned” (consonance).

Both visually and aurally, the pattern of short “i” rhyming words (assonance) lining up with each other is clearer than it would be if the commas and line endings corresponded; the cascade of the words “stiffened, in, kiln, single, vision, with, trying” all comes down the left side of the stanza in a delicate, suggestive bombardment.

The effect of certain sounds on a reader can vary, but for me, lots of short “i” words all stacked up like that suggests a sense of claustrophobia, being hemmed in and flattened like the very letter “i,” an application of pressure mirroring what happens to the clay figurine that “suffers from too much attention.” Think “squish” or “pinch.”

With this interpretation at least, form and meaning reinforce each other, and you notice these aspects more with free verse because there is no end rhyme to distract you from them. Similarly, any alliteration, repeated consonant sounds at the beginnings of words, is barely noticeable in the poem. Consonance describes matching consonant sounds at the ends of words.

Attention away from the ends, we are free to focus on the middle.

So now, you may start to see how poetic form and presentation can work together to encourage readers to take time, take it all in, and notice the clever or beautiful little convergences and connections–of word with word and word with meaning and meaning with meaning.

Once this happens, the overall message of the poem can more readily penetrate and resonate.

Check your favorite poems for enjambment, seeing how the arrangement of parts adds to the whole, and how these intentional choices of the poet communicate meaning and art.

And remember this: Treat your artwork and yourself gently, with a sense of trust and calm, so that both of you may remain whole and beautiful.

All the little clay puppies thank you for your kindness and mercy.

Image_dog_clay_black_figurine


Image credit: clay figurine from etsy.com via duckduckgo.com search.

 

Book Review: Molière’s Tartuffe

Le Tartuffe, ou l’Imposteur (Tartuffe, or the Hypocrite)

by Jean-Baptiste Poquelin Molière

Note: In this detailed review, I discuss most significant plot turns, character developments and interactions, and issues of authorship and publication. I also compare English and French versions. These aspects may or may not spoil the book for you.

Another classic for my book club, this 17th-century comic play I read during November in both French* and English**, brushing up on some French vocabulary, switching to English when the going became too cumbersome. My first reading was in college French class. A manageable English read, the piece is relatively light in mood and not of excessive length, with a straightforward plot to match.

In French, Molière demonstrates impressive poetic skill, rhyming the entire work in couplets of roughly 6-foot meter (one more foot than in pentameter, for those learning prosody) and of varying rhythm (i.e., not all iambic). These elements augment the original language’s inherent music.

Certain translations of Tartuffe into English, our group discovered, take liberties with the bawdiness level (raising it) and modulate the degree of rhyming compared to the French version, among differences beyond the universal dilemma regarding works in translation: Some are simply truer to the original than others.

Tartuffe is a play with a societal message—a critique of the false zealot wherever he may rear his head, but particularly within the French religious establishment. It was so effective in touching a nerve in the day that the Church succeeded in convincing King Louis XIV to ban the play, which led to Molière’s significant revisions and redactions. It would be fascinating to be able to read the uncensored version for a clearer picture of Molière’s creative vision and political viewpoint, but alas, it has been lost to history.

Among admirable characters, Dorine shines as the ultimate bold and witty servant; lady of the house Elmire provides subtler moments of comic relief; and her brother Cléante is a great voice of reason advising the rest of the family. A kind of echo of Orgon, the young Damis lacks his father’s severe blindness to the impostor’s potential villainy.

Master of the house, Orgon, like his mother Madame Pernelle, is quite simply a blustering idiot and, I would argue, Molière’s primary satirical target as the French society archetype of the unthinking hothead. So easily and completely duped by vice in the guise of virtue, Orgon extends his obstinacy to the point of dismissing all his family’s concerns and doubting all their testimonies. He must, and does, see for himself.

At last, and late in the play, we come to the title character. Tartuffe represents the hypocritical icon pretending to be a holy pauper whom Orgon has taken in, but it is really Orgon who is taken in by Tartuffe. Using the veneer of Heaven, the impostor insinuates himself to gain power, financial reward, and the sexual conquest of the ladies of the house—the mother through lust and the daughter through marriage—and all right under Orgon’s nose. But like the young couple in love, Mariane (Orgon’s daughter) and Valère, Tartuffe serves merely as the fulcrum on which the household’s foolish zeal and reason rise and fall.

Overall, the action keeps a steady pace, and the dramatic developments are interesting and often amusing, but, primarily a play of ideas, Tartuffe studies the nature of morality and its pretensions in the hands of people. With the rather abrupt surviving ending, the Prince of France is exalted as a practically omniscient god swooping in to solve all conflicts swiftly and at once, dispensing justice against the impostor Tartuffe and supporting his loyal subject Orgon. The ass-kissing on Molière’s part is obvious, if understandable.

Despite this positive turn, with Orgon unchanged and a household saved from itself, it is zeal and emotionality—not reason—that emerge victorious.

Through the main characters’ portrayal, Molière manages to declare mixed results. After all, to adapt Obi-Wan Kenobi’s line from the film Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope, “Who’s the more foolish—the fool or the fool who follows him?” Who is the more dangerous figure? The cowardly, deceitful impostor or the extremist who violently shifts from blind zeal to blind rage in response to him? As layered in vice as Tartuffe is, Molière seems to condemn the latter more than the former. At least Tartuffe has a purpose, a method to his menace, whereas Orgon is aimlessly volatile.

Importantly, rationality, the one true weapon against the cowardly, hidden vice posing as and extolling virtue–that phenomenon the French call l’hypocrisie–arises from neither Orgon nor his Sovereign, but from his policing brother-in-law. As the curtains close, this measured man Cléante, and perhaps to a lesser extent the ill-respected and snarky Dorine, seems forever fated to keep his sister’s husband out of the trouble into which he so easily falls and drags the rest of his family.

If Molière has inserted himself into his most famous work, surely it is in the form of Cléante, but the extent to which post-publication surgery disfigured this apparent face of reason can never be known. Tangible life lessons and social critiques come through nonetheless, as Molière’s Tartuffe trains the discerning reader to think about, if not quite see through, even his own comedy’s “Tartuffery.”

My ratings: 4 out of 5 stars for the French edition*, 3 stars for the English translation**


* Goodreads.com metadata on the French edition I used:

I created this edition on Goodreads.
Le Tartuffe
0.00  ·  rating details  ·  0 ratings  ·  1 review
Paperback, Classiques Larousse – Texte Integral, 200 pages
Published 1990 by Larousse (first published February 5th 1669)
original title Le Tartuffe ou l’Imposteur
ISBN 2038713151

** Goodreads.com metadata on the English translation I used:

TARTUFFE OR THE HYPOCRITE
by Jean-Baptiste Poquelin Moliere, Curtis Hidden Page (Translator), Dagny and John Vickers (Producers)
Average: 3.65 of 5 stars  ·  rating details  ·  19,983 ratings  ·  427 reviews
Released January 2000.
ebook, EBook #2027, 126 pages.
Published October 26th 2008 by Project Gutenberg
http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/2027 (first published 1664)

Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 4: Promise of a Fruitful Plath

The third post in this series shared an earnest celebration of nature’s boundless beauty. Now we shift from Wordsworth in early nineteenth-century England to America’s Plath in the mid-twentieth century. As summer ends and the harvest season looms, my fourth feature in this series of nature verse by famous poets examines a far from Romantic attitude toward nature’s evident abundance.


The Poet: Sylvia Plath’s confessional poetry operates with turbulent incisiveness that often deftly exposes the true nature of life, poetry, relationships, and death, consistently with an intense gaze through the lens and at the subject of self. This biographical article at the Poetry Foundation website draws upon many literary voices observant of her life, work and legacy to demonstrate poet-human Plath as an invigorating, tragic, and ultimately fascinating figure.

Style and Subject: Although written in the midst of her struggles with mental health like most of her poems, “Blackberrying” is one of her more docile ventures into nature both experienced and hoped for. Plath selects details that speak to a clash, or perhaps a dance, between the not-so-charming wild and an even more dulling civilization. In the process, she shares her half-hearted, reluctant, and doubtful anticipation of encountering a grand natural scene.

Story: The narrative arc of the poem reveals a perspective teetering on the fence–or blackberry alley–between hope and despair, in which the speaker tries to shield herself from imminent disappointment by lowering her gaze and her expectations.

Form: The poem’s free verse with irregular but predominantly long lines conveys the speaker’s vacillating emotional journey as she describes her forward movement among the blackberries.

The Poem: Excerpts of the 27-line poem “Blackberrying” by Sylvia Plath (1961):

Lines 1-7:
Nobody in the lane, and nothing, nothing but blackberries,   
Blackberries on either side, though on the right mainly,
A blackberry alley, going down in hooks, and a sea
Somewhere at the end of it, heaving. Blackberries
Big as the ball of my thumb, and dumb as eyes
Ebon in the hedges, fat
With blue-red juices. These they squander on my fingers. 

Lines 14-16:
The high, green meadows are glowing, as if lit from within.
I come to one bush of berries so ripe it is a bush of flies,
Hanging their bluegreen bellies and their wing panes in a Chinese screen.

Lines 20-22:
From between two hills a sudden wind funnels at me,   
Slapping its phantom laundry in my face.
These hills are too green and sweet to have tasted salt. . . .

To read the entire poem, go here.

Theme: Whatever the subject or setting (this one is probably the English coast), common threads in Plath’s work are the circumlocutions of the mind and the meanderings of the heart. But the lines in “Blackberrying” are no less charming for the contradictions and ambivalence they portray. In fact, in Plath’s and other writers’ works, such tensions often add a kind of freshness that further engages the reader.

Figurative Devices: She personifies the blackberries, the flies (lines not shown), the wind, and the hills, a choice which at once signifies her human loneliness and suggests the power and value she sees in natural elements. On the flip side, Plath points out the absurdity of nature’s abundance in her description of the blackberries’ attributes–“big,” “dumb,” “fat” things that “squander” their resources.

Language and Sound: The poem’s simple diction delivers a direct but subdued tone, creating a sad mood. Alliterative phrasing (“bush of berries,” “bluegreen bellies”) and internal rhyme (“thumb” and “dumb”; “green,” “screen,” “between,” and back to “green”) then elevate the spirit by infusing the poem with wry humor and mild amusement, which I envision as the speaker’s half-smile.

Plath’s use of echoing repetition builds reader suspense (repeated words like “nothing,” “blackberries,” “bush,” and “hills”) and conveys both an insistent plea and its futility. Like a fist loudly banging on the door of a locked and empty house, she will not be let in.

Plath’s plural nouns communicate abundance, but their repeated final “z” sound also calls attention to the buzzing of flies (which also suggests death) and the hum of the speaker’s anticipation of something more.

Your turn. After reading the above excerpts or the whole poem, consider:

What else do you notice about the poem? Are there: Surprising images? Sensory details? Subtle hints of things? Stark revelations? Simile? Metaphor? Oxymoron? Other devices?

What feelings does this poem seem to express or stir in you?

Which lines or phrases make you smile or gasp or wonder?

Does the poem show its age, or is it timeless?

Since poetry is usually best read aloud, here is a series of audio recordings of Sylvia Plath reading her own poems. Although these do not include “Blackberrying,” you may still be able to hear her intense mind and emotions coming across. Listen and see!

Do you have a favorite Sylvia Plath poem? Which one?

Comments are welcome.


ICYMI: See the starting point of this series on nature poetry by famous poets here.

Would you like to recommend a sample of nature poetry for future posts? Let me know about it. I’m considering poems by W. B. Yeats, Percy Shelley, Mary Oliver, Emily Dickinson, and others, but you can help me choose!

I’ve noticed a trend of all-white, western European-descendent people in my series, so I’m also looking for nature poems by American and global Blacks (Rita Dove? Derek Walcott?), Hispanics, eastern Europeans, Middle Eastern ethnic groups (Rumi anyone?), and Asians (Indian, Chinese, Japanese–haiku is all about nature–etc.), and surely I should be able to find some Native American nature poetry, perhaps in the form of songs. Many cultures have wildlife-based creation myths.

Help dispel my ignorance!

Note: Poets writing in English or poems translated into English only, please. Thanks.