Category Archives: From the Box

From the Box: Sylvia Plath

If we have our why in life, we shall get along with almost any how. Man does not strive for happiness; only the Englishman does that. (Nietzsche, TI 12.)

Anchored misery, misery that has something external to the sufferer as as both its cause and its object can, in some ways, be easier to bear. At the end of her penetrating essay ‘Joy’, Zadie Smith quotes Julian Barnes on the subject of mourning: “It hurts as much as it is worth.” If we have a ‘why’ of suffering, it doesn’t diminish it or make it any lighter to drag around with us, but it does give it a place and an importance in our ethical lives. Misery is the appropriate response to loss of something valued, whether that is a person, a relationship, innocence or even a rosebush. Continue reading


From the Box: Don Paterson

This was the poem that started my blistering love for Don Paterson. I remember reading it a few years ago, and being hit by this wonderful thud of recognition; other people also embraced those heady moments spent waiting for someone to arrive, felt some kind of disappointment when they did. It still remains, by far, my favourite ‘love’ poem.

Continue reading

From the Box: Amy Hempel

“Linguistic practice is not for something…[it is not] a means to secure some other end specifiable in advance of engaging in linguistic practice- not adaptation to the environment, survival, reproduction, nor co-operation- though it may serve to promote those ends. Even if.. those functions explain why we came to have language, once we did have it, our transformation into discursive creatures swept all such considerations aside. For discursive practice is a mighty engine for the envisaging and engendering of new ends.” – Robert Brandon

If this is true- which I believe it is- then the languages we use to talk and write are weighty, wonderful things.

But it is also true that there are simpler languages,  ones which skulk around the edges of our linguistic practice and cannot hope to transform us in the same way. These languages are sometimes imagined, sometimes stipulated, sometimes required to fulfil a certain role. They rub uneasily against our native languages- too different for adequate translation, too similar for us to not try and attempt it. Continue reading

From the Box: Sharon Van Etten

The psychiatric term for it is experiencing intrusive thoughts (or obsessive thinking,) but most of us know it simply as the inability to stop turning something over and over in your mind, to worry at it like a dog even as you desperately try and drive it from your consciousness.

I get it worst when I’m trying and failing to sleep. Sometimes, in those miserable minutes or hours, my chain of thought becomes so involuntary that it almost seems those thought processes have a serpentine life of their own, writhing and turning back in and over each other. Pulling up thought after awful thought until what is happening no longer feels like something I am doing, but something that is done to me.

Continue reading

From the Box: Seamus Heaney

(For an explanation of what ‘From the Box’ is about, click here)

I found this poem in Heaney’s ‘Opened Ground’ collection (though it’s originally from ‘The Haw Lantern’.) On the back of my edition there is this quote from the critic John Carey:

“More than any other poet since Wordsworth he can make us understand that the outside world is not outside, but what we are made of.”

I know it’s not exactly unexpected that Romanticism would make some kind of showing on this blog, but you have to admit that the whole romantic gang did a damn good job of finding strange and creative ways to talk about the “inner” (and yes, I guess my interpretation of what’s going on in the below poem might run the other way from Carey.)

Still, all that aside, this poem just hits me somewhere. Particularly the second half of the first verse.

Grotus and Coventina

Far from home Grotus dedicated an altar to Coventina                                                       Who holds in her right hand a waterweed                                                                                   And in her left a pitcher spilling out a river.                                                                               Anywhere Grotus looked at running water he felt at home                                                 And when he remembered the stone where he cut his name                                               Some dried-up course beneath his breastbone started                                                        Pouring and darkening- more or less the way                                                                          The thought of his stunted altar works on me.

Remember when our electric pump gave out,                                                                           Priming it with bucketfuls, our idiotic rage                                                                               And hangdog phone-calls to the farm next door                                                                       For somebody please to come and fix it?                                                                                    And when it began to hammer on again,                                                                                     Jubilation at the tap’s full force, the sheer                                                                                  Given fact of water, how you felt you’d never                                                                            Waste one drop but know its worth better always.                                                                 Do you think we could run through all that one more time?                                               I’ll be Grotus, you be Coventina.