Month: November 2018

Altering Paintings

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I was intrigued today in class when we talked a bit about how Bruegel’s painting, “The Battle Between Carnival and Lent,” was altered after he finished it. Bruegel himself made changes to the painting which can be seen with x-ray technology, but more fascinating and, to me, seemingly wrong are the later alternations made by other artists. Several parts of the painting that were very graphic, such as corpses, were delicately covered up.

The image is a link to the NY Times article that describes the painting and includes some really interesting pictures of the x-ray images.

I thought I would share in case anyone else was intrigued in class.


One further point that relates more to our study of poetry is the general alteration of art. Poems are often edited by publishers and different editions exist from several sources. I think it begs us to wonder why these changes are made and if they are just.

What happened in class on Friday?

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Since I was not in class today, I am going to comment on all of the poems that we read for today’s class. If you talked about any of these points during class, I would like to know what was said.

I find it interesting that Brueghel’s Icarus is mentioned yet again in W. H. Auden’s “Musée des beaux arts”. Before taking this class, I had never heard of or seen this painting, but now it appears again. For me, I only see the connection between this imagery and the rest of the poem through the title. I imagine that the speaker is someone looking at different paintings around an art museum and reflecting on the different images and Icarus is one of these images. Because of this interpretation, I don’t understand the need to mention Icarus specifically.

I did some research and found that the version of “The Truth the Dead Know” that is in our anthology is not the first version Anne Sexton wrote. This poem is a very personal reflection on the experience of losing both parents in a short amount of time, so it makes sense that her ideas evolved over time. When I think of poetry, I think of drawing from personal experiences as the starting place, so to have the whole poem be an explicit description of what happened to her makes me rethink my own approach to poetry.

In Sexton’s “And One for My Dame,” she once again discusses her father’s life and legacy, but the form of the poem is what caught my attention the most. There doesn’t seem to be any pattern to the syllables in each line, so I think the line length and line breaks are merely for aesthetics. I know that we have seen other poems where it appears the line breaks do not mean anything, but I’m curious if the class came up with a conclusion as to why Sexton chose to do this.

Thanks for any and all insight!

Skunk Hour

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“Skunk Hour” is a bleak poem. The towns millionaire has left, the shopkeeper is poor and unhappy and the speaker himself admits to some mental instability. However, I really appreciated the word choice and imagery in this poem sometime reinforcing the bleakness and other times reinforcing confidence or peace.

A few lines I really liked:

“Nautilus Island’s hermit” Literally this line represents a person living in solitude on Nautilus Island. But while the line is meant to immediately reinforce loneliness, the ocean reference in Nautilus makes me think of an ocean habitat were the hermit (crab) is not lonely but part of a wondrous ocean ecosystem.

“A red fox stain covers Blue Hill” This line reads very poetically. While it reads beautifully the imagery in this line reflects some of the speaker’s bleak thoughts. Literally, I think it represents the falling of red leaves, which while this represents death the imagery is also more complex. The red fox stain describes the blood left after a kill, which is left to cover Blue Hill. Possibly described as blue to represent sadness.

“They march on their soles up Main Street” Skunks are nocturnal, so it is normal for them to scavenge at night. Everywhere they walk the skunks walk around of the soles of their feet. However, this word choice brings back the imagery of souls. The previous lines reference the “ill-spirit.” By using the word sole it made a normal image far more ominous. The forceful word of marching combined with the idea their souls are calling them to walk down the city street, for me, elicited an eerie apocalyptic scene.

While just a few lines I liked, I think this poem’s deliberate word choice provokes many complex images many of which reinforce the speaker’s unease.

Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts”

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This poem opened my eyes to a problem that is all too real today. Auden references Pieter Brueghel’s painting, “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” which we previously discussed after reading William Carlos Williams. When I first saw this painting it seemed that the characters did not notice the flailing legs of Icarus in the ocean as he drowns to death. But Auden has a different take. The speaker observes, “the ploughman may \ Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry, \ But for him it was not an important failure” (15-17), and then, “the expensive delicate ship that must have seen \ Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky, \ Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on” (20-21). The speaker claims that the ploughman and the sailors on the ship saw Icarus fall, but chose to turn away and tend to their own business instead of trying to save the child.

Hard as it may be to admit, we do things like this all the time. We see problems and turn away because we either think they are too difficult to solve or we are buried in our own tasks and problems. Even more troubling is the idea that the choice is not even made explicit. The decision to save Icarus or let him drown was not a huge ethical debate that occurred between the sailors on the ship. Instead, they “calmly” sailed away, while Icarus’ legs fell beneath the surface of the water. Whether it is an issue abroad or at home, a hurricane or forest fire, a mass shooting or a bombing, Auden is asking us to open our eyes and acknowledge the suffering that lies before us, and hopefully to find solutions.

The importance of Rhyme in “And One for My Dame”

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For the first half of this semester almost every poem we read had a rhyme scheme that could be felt, identified and categorized. After Whitman, this has been lass common. However, the rhyme used in Anne Sexton’s poem “And One for My Dame” caught my attention in a way others haven’t. In each three line stanza the last two lines rhyme, giving Sexton’s very serious story a sing-song quality. I enjoyed the rhythm this format provided, but struggled with how it was used to portray such an upsetting cycle of  imbalanced power between the speaker and the men in her life. However, once I read the footnote explaining how the poem’s title references the popular nursery rhyme “Baa Baa Black Sheep” I more fully understood the ironic tone. Read with this consideration, the rhymes feel taunting, as though the speaker is mocking her own entrapment and affirming the cyclical nature of her relationships. First she was “hovered” over by her father then by her husband whose “sample cases [were] branded with [her] father’s name” (13, 45). Even the “Yes sir, Yes sir” line pulled from “Baa Baa” feels sinister and indicative of strife within Sexton’s verse.

Symbolically, this poem reminds me of William Blake’s “The Lamb.” Though the two pieces differ thematically the poems seem to be in dialogue, as the innocence expressed in Blake’s child is thoroughly undermined by Sexton’s woman. Even the two work’s descriptions of wool are hard to reconcile. For Blake it is soft and “bright” “clothing of delight” (5-6). In contrast Sexton’s wool are “wet-down bales” “greasy and thick, yellow as old snow” (5, 42). This substance begins as a holy example of God’s intention and ends as a commodity, bought and sold by flawed men. Additionally, Blake sees love embodied by Jesus’ care for mankind expressed through the lamb, whereas Sexton explains that it is like a highway, “raw and speedy” (48). Perhaps for different poets at different times love can be all of these things: comforting and nurturing, destructive and greedy.


Indifference to Suffering in “Musée des Beaux Arts”

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Think about how controversial the claim this poem (and perhaps the painting too) is making—that we are indifferent to that suffering that surrounds us every day, that we often refuse to help those who are in dire need. I think that for most people this is a pretty counterintuitive (and maybe even offensive?) idea. After all, if you saw someone drowning, hopefully you would not “[turn] away / Quite leisurely from the disaster.”

But think about the metaphorical implications of the poem. I know that if I’m being honest with myself, there are things that often impact me more emotionally on a day-to-day basis (e.g. a fight with a friend, a bad test score) than larger social problems like homelessness or hunger that occur every day around us.

And when we expand to the preventable tragedies throughout the world, our societal indifference to suffering can be almost unbearable. Thousands of children in sub-Saharan Africa die from neglected tropical diseases; many of these deaths could be prevented if wealthier individuals in the “first world” donated more to charity. Our foreign policy has played a role in perpetuating the horrendous famine in Yemen where 85,000 children have died, yet it is barely covered in the news and not really a political issue in the United States. Look at these startling images of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority in Myanmar who are the victims of genocidal violence so brutal that hundreds of thousands of people have had to flee to neighboring Bangladesh where they have settled in the largest refugee settlement in the world (Many in the United States have not even heard of the Rohingya.):

The implicit lesson of the poem, I think, is that instead of turning away from “the disaster,” we should face it.

Thoughts on “The Truth the Dead Know” By Anne Sexton

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What first struck me first about this poem, was the speaker’s bluntness. Beginning with the word “Gone” the speaker masterfully introduces the cause of her grief. There is no poetic language or large words that are used to gloss over this process. This is further exemplified later on in the first stanza with the speaker’s confession, “I am tired of being brave.” This admission demonstrates the effect grief has on the speaker. She isn’t angry or resentful of her parents death.  Instead, she is tired of fighting with the intense emotions their deaths have caused. I found this honesty very striking.

This honesty is also found in the speakers description of nature when she travels to the Cape after her father’s funeral. The speaker describes  her surroundings as “the sun gutters from the sky” and “the sea wings in like an iron gate.” Words and imagery such as “gutter” and “iron gate” illustrate how negative and dark the speaker sees the world. Instead of regarding its beauty, the speaker only sees how nature continues to move on, unaffected by death. Furthermore, the image of an “iron gate” is a reference for death itself. To me, this reference alluded to the entrance to Heaven which is typically shown as a large iron gate. Personally, I found this imagery not only beautiful, but really spoke to the change in perspective the speaker experiences after her parent’s deaths occurred in close succession.

Ultimately, it is this which is what the poem is speaking about. The speaker is coming to terms with the indifference of death. She has realized that death isn’t pleasant and nature continues on despite it. However, unlike previous poems we have discussed in class, this poem also articulates some comforts that she has in processing her own mortality. The speaker talks about connecting with others multiple times in her poem. In one instance she states, “and when we touch we enter touch entirely.” I interpret this statement as suggesting that human touch and connection with others is a relief and conform for grief during this process.

As a result, I regard the title of the poem, “The Truth the Dead Know,” to be the acceptance of death along with the actual experience of dying. Only they understand that process and have actually faced their own mortality.

Keeping Race in Mind

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The first time I came across Langston Hughe’s name it wasn’t in an academic environment it was when I was listening to one of my favorite songs by my favorite rapper and entertainer. Lupe Fiasco, known for his social commentary and affiliation with Hamilton’s Men’s Soccer Team, wrote a song called “Audobon Ballroom.” Lupe opens the third verse with: “Black Panthers, black anthems, black blues/With black answers for black stanzas: Langston Hughes/Breaking rules, ain’t it cool?/Took it old, and made it new.” I think that this notion of taking the “old” and “making it new” is especially applicable in Langston Hughe’s poems. This black American was disliked by contemporary literary critics both black and white. The predominant black literary critics of the time disliked how Hughes portrayed the black experience. They called his writing a “disgrace to the race, a return to the dialect tradition, and parading of all our racial defects before the public” (Poetry Foundation). It is impossible for me to take the viewpoint of a black literary critic, but in one sense I can appreciate their frustration. 

That being said, I think that “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” is a brave and beautiful poem. I love the historical references and the imagery of blood flowing as a river in the veins of the human body. To me this poem speaks to the deep cultural and historical roots of the African American experience, something that the majority of Caucasians are unable to relate to. 

I think as we discuss the work of this great American poet we must ensure that we aren’t too quick to white-wash his work. It would be easy for us to laud him and talk about the success he had as a black poet in America, but I think we should keep in mind the (valid) critiques of his critics.   

The truth the dead know

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Sexton’s confrontation of the permanence of death in “The Truth the Dead Know” is truly heart-wrenching and filled with emotion. The first stanza sets the tone for the rest of the poem that is to follow. Right from the first line, this poem is clearly about death, as it literally gives the death date of Sexton’s mother and father. However, the poem took a different turn than I was expecting. The speaker skips going to the funeral and is “tired of being brave,” which I think is an interesting statement. When grieving the loss of both parents in such a short period of time, I imagine that carrying on with everyday routine requires an immense amount of bravery. Having to suddenly live without the presence of two people who have been present for her entire life is entering into unchartered territory. So initially, I was expecting that the rest of the poem that would follow would be about this pain and difficulty.

However, the last stanza of the poem makes me think otherwise. I’m not too sure how to interpret the language and the comparisons Sexton makes, but overall the theme I pick up on is that the dead are just that — dead. They can’t do anything or feel anything, so any kind of funeral or memorial is pointless to the dead because they can’t appreciate it. Memorials and funerals then exist for the living, for them to feel that their love is extended to the dead even though the dead cannot notice it. The phrase “they refuse / to be blessed” makes the speaker almost sound resentful towards the dead — as if the dead are rejecting the gift of a blessing.

Yet the title of the poem itself implies that the dead have a conscious, such that they’re capable of the act of “knowing”, which contrasts this idea of death being a finite end of existence and emotion.

Is Theme for English B Autobiographical?

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At first glance, it would seem so. The speaker presents details about his education that slightly resemble those of Hughes’s. After all, when Hughes was around the speaker’s age, he was attending school in New York City (although at Columbia, rather than at CCNY, which the speaker reveals he attends). Unlike the speaker, however, Hughes wasn’t born in Winston-Salem (he was born in Joplin, MO). Furthermore, it’s unlikely that “Theme for English B” was written when Hughes shared the speaker’s age, since it appears later in the anthology’s list of Hughes poems (it’s difficult to put a pinpoint on when the poem was first published – online sources seem to disagree on the year).

It wouldn’t be fair to conclude that the poem isn’t autobiographical, since Hughes may as well be channeling his life in a character. Part of the beauty of poetry revolves around the use of symbolism as a means of implicitly and beautifully conveying ideas. Autobiographical poems don’t have to be as explicitly autobiographical as “Written After Swimming from Sestos to Abydos.” The speaker hints at some pressure he may face at school due to the fact that he is “the only colored student in [his] class” (10). Additionally, the speaker expresses his attachment to Harlem in the last stanza: “Harlem, I hear you: / hear you, hear me—we two—you, me, talk on this page” (18-19). From the introduction of Harlem, the speaker offers conceits about racial relations by writing in the second person. In directly addressing the presumed audience of this hypothetical writing assignment, the speaker effectively conveys his idea that one race’s feelings about another race may be reciprocated. While this is written in the context of the speaker being “a part of” the instructor, and vice versa, the implication of a mutual lack of desire of this relationship could be extrapolated and interpreted in other contexts involving racial relations. This is especially true if we assume “Theme” was really written in the 1950s, where interracial tensions continued to build concurrent to onset of the Civil Rights movement.

While the “assignment” itself is heavily open-ended, this discourse on racial relations comes off as somewhat tangential, given the sudden transition between the last stanza and the last line. Ultimately, one can interpret “Theme for English B” as being symbolic of Hughes’s time at Columbia, especially since “he was attracted more to the African-American people and neighborhood of Harlem than to his studies” (Wikipedia biography). To an extent, the poem is indeed autobiographical.