Dickinson, Plath, Berryman

The spirit of blackness is in us, it is in the fishes.

A snag is lifting a valedictory, pale hand;
plath portrait
Stars open among the lilies.

Are you not blinded by such expressionless sirens?

This is the silence of astounded souls.

Impossible to know, when we started this year’s Writing Day series, what the outcome of running monthly online Writing Day anthologies was going to be.  The idea was to open up a space for thoughts generated in each Day to become poems at their own pace, with editing time available ahead of first sharing, and poets only sharing the pieces they felt had ‘worked’.  It was also possible, under this new scheme, to be a bit more adventurous than usual with the writing ‘prompts’.  I could suggest a range of exercises from which participants could choose, depending on their responses to the Day’s reading and discussion.  I could also propose a few absurdly ambitious  projects, knowing that no one would be sitting in the Pulteney Room frozen with lack of inspiration while those around were scribbling out their hearts.

One outcome of this experiment might have been a set of completely empty anthologies.

What has actually happened is that the poems submitted after every one of the first three Writing Days have been amazing – ambitious, successful, varied, challenging, and in many cases quite unlike the poet’s customary work. The online anthologies are a ‘safe space’ because they are only on view to the other people who came to the Day in question and then actually sent in work. The result is three fascinating volumes of rich poetry and prose from Sarah Barr, Mary Beddall, Rachael Clyne, Linda Ewles, Dawn Gorman, Sarah Gregory, Morag Kiziewicz, Ruth Marden, Ruth Sharman, Susan Jane Sims, Robin Thomas, John Waite, Trisha Waters and Shirley Wright. Many of these poets have contributed several startling good pieces over the three months. There is no cut off date for sending in.  With good fortune, we have a lot more March, April and May Writing Day outcomes still to come.

Surgeons must be very careful

When they take the knife.

Dickinson portraitUnderneath their fine incisions

Stirs the culprit, life. 

Dickinson, Plath, Berryman

May’s Writing Day focussed on three very different poets whose essential projects were all concerned with mapping the intimate spaces of the inner / private / domestic life. In the cases of Sylvia Plath and John Berryman, this often meant also the deeply troubled life, but the Day tried to steer away from biography so that our readings wouldn’t be distracted by hindsight and information essentially irrelevant to the achievements on the page. We tried to keep asking


And, of course, the core question for all of us as writers, what can we learn from this?

Writing Days often include spending time ‘off piste‘ with poems, or pictures relevant, but right-angled to the work of the ‘official poets’ of the Day.  Two of the richest sources of new poems so far have been Felicien Rops’ portrait of Charles Baudelaire and Henri Rousseau’s painting, The Dream, both pictures included in earlier pages on the Writing Days.  We started May’s session with Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale to remind ourselves what ‘confessional’ poetry sometimes looked like before the innovations of Dickinson and Plath. Keats’ intricate, mellifluous, mannered, marvellous stanzas – dwelling on the imminence of death – what a contrast with the two American women’s treatments of the same theme.

As a result of our Day, Susan Jane Sims of Poetryspace, with unerring and unnerving skill, had John Berryman  revisit Keats’  Nightingale. Sarah Gregory almost succeeded in holding an Emily Dickinson stanza form through seven stanzas. Rachael Clyne, Mary Beddall, Linda Ewles and Sarah Barr took us deep into Henri Rousseau’s Dream ( or nightmare, depending on your gender politics ) of a jungle.  Other powerful poems from Susan Jane Sims  and Rachael Clyne bookend the current version of the May anthology, which is, in its entirety,  a delight.


The June Writing Day will focus on Ted Hughes.








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