Tuesday, 24 June 2014

9 Reasons I Think You Should Read The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith

 My love for crime fiction has been left largely unsatisfied during my adult reading life. Each time I pick up a great crime or detective novel I promise myself to read more, but I'll then leave months before starting another.

However, I think that reading Robert Galbraith's Cormoran Strike series is changing this. The Cuckoo's Calling was one of my favourite books of last year, and The Silkworm didn't let J.K. Rowling down as Robert Galbraith. The sequel did start off slow, but soon everything started falling into place.

Here's a quick introduction to the novel:

When the eccentric novelist Owen Quine goes missing, his wife calls in Cormoran Strike as private detective. At first it seems like a simple case of Quine going off by himself for a few days like he has before, but as Strike investigates, evidence appears to the contrary. Quine has just completed a manuscript featuring poisonous pen-portraits of almost everyone he knows. If the novel were to be published, it would ruin lives. Yet while the novel is silenced, the author is found under horrific circumstances...

To help you get a wider view of the novel, Galbraith also cleverly chooses this epigraph by Thomas Dekker:
blood and vengeance the scene, death the story,
a sword imbrued with blood, the pen that writes,
and the poet a terrible buskined tragical fellow,
with a wreath about his head of burning match instead of bays.
―Thomas Dekker, The Noble Spanish Solider

Based on my own reading, here are some reasons why I think you should read The Silkworm:


1. It's a fascinating take on the streets of London


The constant mapping of characters onto London streets, as well as famous bars and restaurants, has been slightly criticised in some British reviews of The Silkworm. However, I thought it was brilliantly done. Living not far from London, I loved the real and intricate geography of the book.


2. Like The Cuckoo's Calling, references to the classics and Jacobean literature are everywhere


Every chapter starts with a quote from the likes of John Lyly, Ben Jonson and John Webster. These are so cleverly chosen, and I'm sure they'll evoke in many a reader the desire to learn more about the lives and work of Jacobean writers.


3. We get a fascinating insight into the British literary world and publishing circles

“The whole world's writing novels, but nobody's reading them.”
― Robert Galbraith, The Silkworm


4. Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott are like the modern Sherlock Holmes and John Watson


I'm a great fan of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's work, as well as ever-so-slightly obsessed with the BBC Sherlock adaptation. Galbraith has done marvellous work to create this modern reflection of Holmes and Watson.


5. Robin Ellacott is a superb female detective figure


Robin Ellacott must be one of my favourite characters of the moment. I could often relate to her curiosity and desire to learn,  as I'm sure many of you readers would too. Attention to her good looks does tend to overshadow her intelligence at times, but perhaps this will change in future novels.


6. We're asked to make deductions of our own


Behind the scenes of The Silkworm, there's Robert Galbraith, J.K. Rowling, and ourselves as reader. We're left making our own Sherlockian deductions with the clues we're given, but we're left guessing right up until the end. That makes for a great reading experience.


7. Strike isn't your typical hero (or even detective)


As well as being a war veteran and amputee, Cormoran Strike stands out from any crowd - there's little that's subtle about the detective.


8. There's a superb play on introversion versus extroversion


Throughout The Silkworm, I found myself dividing characters into two camps: the publicity-hungry and the quiet and scheming. I was also so excited to see that Rowling thanks her editor, David Shelley, as "stalwart supporter and fellow INFJ" in the acknowledgements. I love it when figures I admire admit their own Myers-Briggs personality class (I know, it's probably not accurate). I'm an INTJ, by the way.


9. You want to know what happens after The Cuckoo's Calling


If you enjoyed book one of The Cormoran Strike series, you'll probably want to give The Silkworm a go at some point. After reading both, I'm tempted to start again from the beginning...


Like more of the same? Subscribe to the Tolstoy Therapy Newsletter and receive a round-up of the week's articles every Sunday to enjoy with your coffee. Click here to subscribe or take a look at an example copy here.

Friday, 20 June 2014

Remedy a Reading Slump: 10 Ideas For When You're Having Trouble Reading

"Music and Literature," oil on canvas, by the American artist
William Michael Harnett (1878)
Being a bookworm is great, but it's not always a smooth process. You'll probably agree with me on this. Haven't we all experienced a reading slump at some time or another?

Every so often I find myself struggling to make time for books, or I simply find it difficult to turn as many pages as I used to. You may remember me admitting that my obsessive-compulsive tendencies can get in the way of my reading, too.

Here are some ideas I use to get back on track when I'm having trouble reading.

1. Listen to an audiobook


Audiobooks are brilliant to listen to before bed, during exercise, or when you're pottering around the house tidying, cooking or gardening. When I find myself struggling to make sense of a book, or re-reading lines over and over again, I know it's time to try an audiobook.

2. Pick something you think is too lighthearted and easy to read


I'm guilty of thinking that some novels are too easy to read, or even too lighthearted and enjoyable. Therefore, every so often I challenge myself to pick up a novel purely because I like the sound of it, rather than for reasons of educating myself.

3. Try a speed reading app


If I'm reading for pleasure and can't get into a book, I'll usually stop after the 50 page mark, but if I have to get through it - say for university - speed reading apps can be superb.

There has been a lot in the media about Spritz, an upcoming speed reading tool, and they've recently made their 'Spritzlet' available to add to your bookmarking bar and read articles online.

Also, you can use a Chrome extenstion called Spreed, or upload files and PDFs to Readsy.

One of my favourite reading hacks is to use a speed reading Chrome extension for online ebooks (ebooks@Adelaide have an unbeatable collection).

4. Buy a short story collection


Short stories are great if you're in need of something succinct, especially if you make sure you don't pressure yourself to read them all at once or chronologically. Alice Munro, Leo Tolstoy and F. Scott Fitzgerald all have wonderful short story collections.

5. If you normally read ebooks, try a paperback instead


I don't tend to read too many ebooks in a row, largely because I like getting back to the tactile reading experience that paperbacks provide. When I'm stuck in a reading rut, purchasing a beautiful paperback - or treating myself to a new hardback release - often reminds me why I love to read.


You could also:


6. Read poetry
7. Experience a genre or author that's completely new to you
8. Make sure not worry about having a reading break if you need one
9. Talk to fellow bookworms about the books that they've been enjoying
10. Have reasonable expectations: remind yourself you don't need to read everything on the Booker Prize list!

How do you get out of a reading rut?



Like more of the same? Subscribe to the Tolstoy Therapy Newsletter and receive a round-up of the week's articles every Sunday to enjoy with your coffee. Click here to subscribe.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

"Let My Country Awake" by Rabindranath Tagore to Inspire Individual and Social Change

"Let My Country Awake" by Rabindranath Tagore
Rabindranath Tagore was a Bengali polymath who
 reshaped Bengali literature and music in the late 19th
and early 20th centuries. Author of Gitanjali, he became
the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in
 Literature in 1913.
Reading the Poems That Make Grown Men Cry anthology by Anthony and Ben Holden has introduced me to so many wonderful poems, poets and - perhaps most of all - stories, especially those of the 'grown men' who chose the collection's one hundred poems.

One such story was by Salil Shetty, Indian-born human rights activist and Secretary General of Amnesty International. The poem he chose was "Let My Country Awake" by Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), accompanied by a particularly poignant introduction.

Salil Shetty describes the poem as "a powerful call to action and a declaration of belief in achievable change". Perhaps most moving, however, is his statement that the final phrase, "let my country awake", could quite easily be replaced with, "let the world awake".

To Salil Shetty, the poem is "about universal aspirations", and I think we could all do well to read it with our own aspirations and that of wider society in mind. When considering how we might act in the interests of others, but also improve ourselves, this poem is a great source of inspiration and motivation.


"Let My Country Awake"


Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action -
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.


The original Bengali language poem, "Chitto jetha bhayashunyo", was published in 1910 and included in the collection Gitanjali by Tagore.


Like more of the same? Subscribe to the Tolstoy Therapy Newsletter and receive a round-up of the week's articles every Sunday to enjoy with your coffee. Click here to subscribe or take a look at an example copy here.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Proust on How the Finest Friendships Can be Made by Reading Fiction

Forming friendships with characters we look up to, see ourselves in, and aspire to be like must be one of the greatest gifts of reading fiction.

It's easy to scoff at the idea that we can become friends with fictional characters, but Marcel Proust makes a convincing argument in Sur la lecture that it's the perfect term to use:

In reading, friendship is restored immediately to its original purity. With books there is no forced sociability. If we pass the evening with those friends - books - it's because we really want to. When we leave them, we do so with regret and, when we have left them, there are none of those thoughts that spoil friendship: "What did they think of us?" - "Did we make a mistake and say something tactless?" - "Did they like us?" [...] All such agitating thoughts expire as we enter the pure and calm friendship of reading (p.40, translation by Keith Oatley)

Our favourite literary characters can teach us how to approach challenging feelings and situations, guide us through hard times, and help us relieve anxious feelings. They can come to mind entirely at random, or we can summon them when we're in need of some advice. Surely we can count this as a form of friendship?

My greatest literary friend? It must be Pierre Bezukhov from Tolstoy's War and Peace. Other contenders include: Roald Dahl's Matilda, Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird and Great Expectation's Joe Gargery.

Proust on friendships and reading
Marcel Proust, a great believer in the feel-good qualities of fiction. Image source.

To read more about the friendships created and nurtured by literature, check out Keith Oatley's Such Stuff as Dreams: The Psychology of Fiction. You can also find the above translated passage of Proust's Sur la lecture on p38 of the same book.


Like more of the same? Subscribe to the Tolstoy Therapy Newsletter and receive a round-up of the week's articles every Sunday to enjoy with your coffee. Click here to subscribe or take a look at an example copy here.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Here's Why You Should Reread Your Favourite Novels (Again and Again)

Note to reader: you have until Sunday to enter the Tolstoy Therapy Birthday Giveaway!

Master those books you have. Read them thoroughly. Bathe in them until they saturate you. Read and reread them…digest them. Let them go into your very self. Peruse a good book several times and make notes and analyses of it.
-Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students

Reasons to reread The Great GatsbySome readers may find rereading illogical: why return to an old book when you could start a new one that you might enjoy more? Yes, it is certainly enjoyable and beneficial to read widely and in unfamiliar directions, but rereading holds more benefits than many of us would expect.

I currently reread Tolstoy's War and Peace every August. It is a time consuming experience I will certainly admit, but the benefits far outweigh any arduousness of length and getting to know nearly six hundred characters. Each time August comes around, I find myself reacquainted with my favourite Russian princes and princesses and their lofty meditations on life, beauty and meaning.

People may shake their heads in disbelief that such a long book (without pictures) could be enjoyable, but, according to a recent study in the Journal of Consumer Research [see footnote], it makes complete sense.


Rereading a favourite book "reignites" the positive feelings we first felt


This study focuses on "repeated hedonic experiences", or the repeated carrying-out of activities we gain pleasure from in order to receive more enjoyment and positive feelings. This has much to do with rereading, and explains why I haven't yet got bored of the almighty Russian tome I gained so much from on my first reading. 

If you particularly enjoyed reading Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie as a child, or The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Wiesberger on a particularly relaxing cruise holiday, it may do you good to return to such books. Returning to familiar stories that we enjoyed the first time round, or read during an especially happy period of our lives, can on each rereading "reignite" the positive feelings we originally felt. 

Why not re-read Where'd You Go, Bernadette this summer?

This applies to music, art and other enjoyable experiences too
The repeated contact or reacquaintance with a hedonistic experience, be it reading, a piece of music, or something entirely different, results in a "renewed appreciation" of the experience and even provides mental health benefits, the research suggests.

Some participants in the study did worry they would be considered odd for repeating consumption, yet many concluded that repeat experiences led to heightened awareness and pleasure. Therefore, we should not hesitate to go back and reread books – or re-do experiences – that we’ve enjoyed beforehand: there is a high chance that they will appeal to us again.


What about the other reasons to reread great novels?


As well as being enjoyable, rereading allows us to increase our knowledge of a book’s plot or characters, and therefore certainly form more developed and well-considered judgements. 

If a novel contains a character that we can relate to, time spent rereading may allow us to further compare our own life and situation with that of the character, and as a result find encouragement, reassurance, or a guide forwards. To read more on this, check out my post on fiction as a simulation of real life.


Create your own rereading plan


1. Try jotting down on paper some of the books that you have most enjoyed reading


Any book that brings up positive memories or feelings is worth noting down, as is any novel with an immediately memorable plot or character.

For some inspiration, you can take a look at my list of books I'd like to reread for years to come.


2. After making your list, consider the following:


  • Do you have any of these books tucked away on a bookshelf?
  • Do you think any of the books you have listed would fit your current situation in life, or make a situation that you are facing easier to deal with? 
  • Do you need a pick-me-up that a feel-good novel you once read on holiday could provide?


3. Dust off your dog-eared paperback and enjoy the book a second time around



Rereading books reignites the happy feelings we originally felt


This blog article is a condensed version of the chapter "Rereading" from my ebook, Tolstoy Therapy: A Fiction Prescription


[i] “The Temporal and Focal Dynamics of Volitional Reconsumption: A Phenomenological Investigation of Repeated Hedonic Experiences”. The Journal of Consumer Research. Electronically published 28 October, 2011. JSTOR. Web.


Like more of the same? Subscribe to the Tolstoy Therapy Newsletter and receive a round-up of the week's articles every Sunday to enjoy with your coffee. Click here to subscribe or take a look at an example copy here.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

What The Secret History by Donna Tartt Can Tell Us About Cultivating a Love for Learning


For if the modern mind is whimsical and discursive, the classical mind is narrow, unhesitating, relentless. It is not a quality of intelligence that one encounters frequently these days. But though I can digress with the best of them, I am nothing in my soul if not obsessive.
The Secret History

I should have read The Secret History by Donna Tartt a long time ago. Published in 1992, there's something timeless about The Secret History, particularly (although not exclusively) for a young adult audience. Perhaps this is to do with the novel's central theme of friendship, but for me it's tied up with the theme of learning, both academically and in a wider sense.

A mosaic of (possibly) Belisarius,  who
featured in Procopius's Secret History.


A quick overview of The Secret History


As we enter the novel, Richard Papen leaves his home town of Plano, Texas, for the romantic, isolated Hampden College in New England. Despite leaving Plano as a fairly undistinguished teenager, relying heavily on financial aid to enter the college, Richard is quickly seduced by an elite group of five worldly, self-assured Greek scholars. As Richard becomes the group's sixth member he becomes entangled with their gruesome secrets, and we nervously await the murder that's foreshadowed on the novel's first page.


What The Secret History Can Teach Us About Cultivating a Love for Learning


The Lyceum at Hampden College is where the main characters's Greek lessons take place, under the tutelage of the elusive and charismatic Julian Morrow, but it's also the central landmark for many important parts of the novel: events are triggered, friendships are created, and information is uncovered.

By reading The Secret History, here are a few lessons that can help us to cultivate our own love for learning, as well as for life itself:


1. Books form connections between people and allow for introductions


Outside the Lyceum, books help create so many social ties. It is by interrupting the group's study session with a translation suggestion that Richard enters the group, and soon becomes accepted as one of them. Soon, surroundings like this become the norm for Richard:

Walking into the library, I took in my breath sharply and stopped: glass fronted bookcases and Gothic panels, stretching fifteen feet to a frescoed and plaster-medallioned ceiling. In the back of the room was a marble fireplace, big as a sepulchre, and a globed gasolier--dripping with prisms and strings of crystal beading--sparkled in the dim.


2. We should seek our own mentors for learning and life


By reading The Secret History, we can consider who our own mentors are: who do we go to when we want to build our knowledge, learn new things, or find advice or feedback? While teachers can be the best mentors, we can all find people to help us with our own life and learning.

A beautiful classic-inspired Penguin edition of The Secret History. Source.


3. Classics can still be relevant today


I love how The Secret History emphasises the relevance of the classics today. Take this wonderful quote from the novel as an example:

It's a very Greek idea, and a very profound one. Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it. And what could be more terrifying and beautiful, to souls like the Greeks or our own, than to lose control completely? To throw off the chains of being for an instant, to shatter the accident of our mortal selves? Euripides speaks of the Maenads: head thrown I back, throat to the stars, "more like deer than human being." To be absolutely free!


4. Knowledge and books may stick with us when friendships and circumstances do not


Even after tragedy unfolds, the value of books and education remains. When in hospital after an incredibly deadly few weeks, Richard narrates:

[Henry] brought me pencils and paper, for which I had little use but which I suppose he would be lost without, and a great many books, half of which were in languages I couldn't read and the other half of which might as well have been.

When spoken words don't quite come naturally for Tartt's characters, books often stand in their place (even when ill-chosen).


5. Attending university can actually include learning


Although drugs and alcohol are perhaps the sixth and seventh members of the Greek study group, as well as Richard's ties to the wider university, the Greek scholars actually do want to learn. Many an evening is spent settling down with a book or some Greek grammar, and Henry (think of him as the Sherlock Holmes of the novel) often replaces sleep with a pile of heavy, obscure reading.

"You're up early", I said [...] "What are you doing, Greek?"
Henry set the cup back into its saucer. "A translation of Paradise Lost."
"Into what language?"
"Latin," he said solemnly.
Dionysus sarcophagus, Hellenistic marble sculpture; Metropolitan Museum, New York.

As reader, we're left to watch awkwardly from afar. We're not meant to relate entirely to the characters - particularly when it comes to their 'tragic flaws' - but we can relate to their love for learning and reading. This is what made the novel such a memorable read for me.


It is is better to know one book intimately than a hundred superficially.

Keep your eyes peeled for Part II on The Secret History, all about the books mentioned in the novel and what we can learn from them.




Like more of the same? Subscribe to the Tolstoy Therapy Newsletter and receive a round-up of the week's articles every Sunday to enjoy with your coffee. Click here to subscribe or take a look at an example copy here.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Tolstoy Therapy Birthday Giveaway: Which Book Has Shaped Who You Are Today?

Two years ago (only two years?), I started up Tolstoy Therapy as a summer project after finishing my first year of university. It was a way of keeping myself busy and adding another layer to my reading, but it's become the most worthwhile experience.

221 posts later, I've met the most wonderful readers and bloggers, and I've been introduced to so many books that are now favourites. For this, alongside many other reasons, I thank you!

As means of a small thank you gesture, I'm giving away a £15 email gift certificate to spend on Amazon books. I wish I could think up something more imaginative, but I think this will be the easiest way to treat a fellow booklover!

Simply comment below with the book that has most shaped who you are today (a difficult choice, I know!), and a week today - on Sunday 15th June - I'll randomly select one person to receive it.

I'll contact the winner by email (if I know it), or as a reply to your comment. Therefore, you don't need to leave any personal details, but perhaps check the comments in a week's time!

Once again, I'm so grateful to all my readers. I'm looking forward to hearing which books are chosen by you all!




Like more of the same? Subscribe to the Tolstoy Therapy Newsletter and receive a round-up of the week's articles every Sunday to enjoy with your coffee. Click here to subscribe or take a look at an example copy here.

Friday, 6 June 2014

10 Quick Ways to Feel Better With a Book

Reading fiction is my first port of call when I'm feeling a bit stressed or low; it calms me down, grounds me when my mind is wandering, and helps me gain a wider perspective.

Whether you're facing a stressful interview, experiencing trouble sleeping, or if you're just in need of a mood-boosting book, here are ten ways to use bibliotherapy on a day-to-day basis. How do you use books to feel better?

Dedications in books, as in Definitely, Maybe
A dedication in a lovely edition of Jane Eyre, from the film Definitely, Maybe.

1. Pop a book in your bag


Carry a book with you and you'll be prepared to deal with unexpected waiting, nervous feelings before a big event, or anything that leaves you wanting to be cheered up.

2. Memorise one or two lines from poetry, a sentence from a favourite book, or a great quotation


Reinforce your mental fortress with words you know will bring you strength and tranquility when you most need it. Tennyson's "Ulysses" has helped me out on many an occasion, but here are some favourite lines from "If" by Rudyard Kipling that we'd all do well to remember:

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise...

3. Buy a reading journal and scribble down some thoughts on what you're reading


There's just something about writing in a personal reading journal that Goodreads can't ever compete with. Moleskine book journals are my favourite.

Moleskine reading journal to fee better with fiction
The wonderful Moleskine Passion Book Journal (I must share a photo of my own in a future post!)

4. When in a difficult situation, ask yourself what a character or author would do


Whether you look up to Mr. Bennett or Charles Dickens, Jane Eyre or Zadie Smith, get in touch with your inner literary guides and ask what they would do.

5. Buy a friend a book and leave a note or dedication in it


After being pleasantly surprised by Definitely, Maybe, a film which praises dedications in books, I've remembered how much I truly appreciate receiving a book with a few personal words in its inlay.

6. Spend an hour in a library or bookshop


Because being surrounded by the wisdom of thousands of years and the ingenuity of humankind's best minds is surely a great thing.

7. Flick through a book of quotes


Whether you choose an anthology of quotations (I use the Penguin New Dictionary of Quotations), or a little quotes bible of your own making, you'll be sure to find some reassuring guidance to uplift your mood.


Reading a quotations book to cheer you up

8. Re-read a favourite novel


Reading a book that you've enjoyed before allows you to experience the positive feelings all over again. How good is that?

9. Prescribe yourself a brilliant novel you're yet to read (but sure to love)


If you keep hearing about a book that seems too good to be true, go out and treat yourself to it.

10. Put down everything and read for ten minutes!


Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Keeping Poets Alive: Why You Should Know About Jack Clemo

Clemo's Selected Poems, published
by Bloodaxe Books (out of print but
available second hand)
How do we ensure that a writer's work continues to be read? Over the past few years I've been working to do this for León Felipe, and I've come to believe that "so long as men can breathe or eyes can see" is not really enough. Rather, it's a case of making a conscious effort to keep the writer alive, particularly online.

To mull this over, I'd like to discuss a British poet and writer deeply entrenched in the Cornish surroundings, Jack Clemo (1916-1994).

Although his work is fascinating in itself (you can read some here), Clemo was a writer who became deaf around the age of 20, and blind about 19 years later, in 1955. It's perhaps inevitable that these become leading factors by which Jack is remembered and identified, yet I think that this should be at the surface of the matter; not far below, we want a body of work which is both preserved and as accessible as possible.

When first exploring Clemo's work, you'll notice that the rugged Cornish landscape is often at its forefront. Clemo's father was a clay-kiln worker, and his scenes of the Clay Country frequently symbolise mystical and religious experiences (a factor no doubt influenced by his religious upbringing). We witness scenes of the expanding clay industry overcoming nature, yet, Clemo reminds us, surely nature will eventually fight back.


These white crags
Cup waves that rub more greedily
Now half-way up the chasm; you see
Doomed foliage hang like rags;

The whole clay-belly sags.
- The Flooded Clay-Pit

One of the poems which stood out to me, largely for its intertextuality, is “William Blake Notes a Demonstration”. Putting a frightening spin on Blake's "Jerusalum", and slightly mirroring modern apocalyptic fears, Clemo illustrates Blake as witness of a hellish 20th century London:

Where’s my Jerusalem? That future London
I see in visions now I am near death,
Is not the Holy city: harlots abound
In street, school and pulpit,
And the winding-sheet seems made of protest banners.

In the poem, these "protest banners" are held by anti-nuclear demonstrators, which prompts Blake - as speaker - to build on what Heather R. Martin calls Clemo's "raw and unapologetically religious" writing (109):

If men can't die praising God
They're not ripe for life, not fit
To protest against the means of exit.

After reading this, you may well see how Clemo's Evangelical non-conformist views placed him at the margins, away from Britain's general readership. Also, his writing can easily be dismissed as difficult. However, we'd do well to follow Martin's view that, "it is for just these reasons that he needs to be rediscovered as a remarkable minor poet" (2).




"He walks the white hills of Egypt/Reading the map
of clay"“Homage to Jack Clemo”, Charles Causley

In the case of Jack Clemo, British universities are doing a brilliant job to facilitate this rediscovery. Warwick University held a seminar on Clemo's work in 2013, a few months before the first major academic conference on Clemo ('Kindling the Scarp') in Cornwall. Also, his literary papers, including manuscripts of his prose and poetry, are held by my own university, Exeter.

Opening seminars and research collections to the public are one step to take, but I think we need to go beyond academic interest when preserving the memory of a writer, particularly by focusing on blogs and social media.

Which writers, and particularly poets, would you like to keep alive? How would you go about doing it?

Martin, Heather R. "Jack Clemo's Vocation to Evangelical Poetry and Erotic Marriage: an Examination of his Poems of Personal Tribute and Critique" (2010)


Like more of the same? Subscribe to the Tolstoy Therapy Newsletter and receive a round-up of the week's articles every Sunday to enjoy with your coffee. Click here to subscribe or take a look at an example copy here.

Monday, 2 June 2014

Robert Frost: A Homesick Poet Stuck Mid-Atlantic?

On the point of returning to the United States from England, where he had lived from 1912-1915, Robert Frost wrote in a letter to a friend: “England has become half my native land - England the victorious” (“Selected Letters”). This is one of the more outward signs that Frost was facing a sense of physical “in-betweenness” or homesickness at this time, but we can also sense similar feelings - although in a more subtle, interior way - in Frost's poetry, largely through his illustration of uncertain location, landscape and feeling.

Could reading Frost's poetry reassure and help us with our own feelings of homesickness and displacement when we're in similar situations? 



Frost arrived on English soil in September 1912, hoping for a last chance at gaining the literary recognition he had not found in America. Frost was successful: it was in England where he achieved publishing success with the London firm of David Nutt, connected with his first real audience, and enjoyed the supportive atmosphere of English literary society. Frost felt a connection to both America and England, and, as his later poem "A Record Stride" shows, was figuratively caught mid-Atlantic as a result:

I touch my tongue to the shoes now
And unless my sense is at fault,
On one I can taste Atlantic,
On the other Pacific, salt.
One foot in each great ocean
Is a record stride or stretch (21-26).

Although Frost gained ground as a poet during his stay in England, we can say that it led to a displacement of culture, identity and place. Upon returning to America, Frost even wrote, “The first sight of America was very very bad and disposed us to sing Why did I cross the deep?” (“Family Letters”)

However, a sense of displacement may have influenced Frost’s decision to move to England. Five months before he set sail, Frost wrote “The Wood-Pile”. In this poem, Frost describes a disorientated speaker walking alone through a wood in winter, or through what Robert Pack describes as a “landscape of lostness”:

The view was all in lines
Straight up and down of tall slim trees
Too much alike to mark or name a place by
So as to say for certain I was here
Or somewhere else: I was just far from home (5-9).

Here there is no reassuring sense of place, only the supposedly comforting thought of being “just far from home”. The evocation of “home” implies a place to return to and feel comfortable, yet the speaker is devoid of any certainty and orientation, caught in a landscape of “trees/ too much alike to mark or name a place by”. Will the desire to return home become too strong for the speaker?

Robert Frost and his dog in the US, around 1943. Photograph: Eric Schaal/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

For Frost, being lost can be crucial in developing the speaker’s ability to discover new thoughts or to ruminate effectively. In “The Wood-Pile”, the speaker interprets with detail the pile of wood in front of him, “piled – and measured, four by four by eight” (24). The abandoned woodpile is in a state of in-betweenness, caught halfway between one state of existence and another. It belongs where it is found because it was made there and never moved, but it does not belong because it has not fulfilled its human purpose. Instead, with a “slow smokeless burning of decay”, it disintegrates slowly, like the “warping” bark of the trees around it (29).

Profoundly divided feelings are introduced at line two of “The Wood-Pile”: “I paused and said, ‘I will turn back from here./ No, I will go on farther” (2-3). Here the speaker confronts the tempting desire to return to his home that is only “just far” away, but resolves to go on into the unknown. However, the quick alternation between decisions undermines the reader’s belief that the speaker will keep to his intentions. I know that I've faced similar feelings before, wanting to turn back home when really I should be going forward into the new and unfamiliar.

This tone of uncertain deliberation in “The Wood-Pile” matches the unsuccessful attempts at decision making in “The Sound of the Trees”, particularly between lines 10-11: “They are that that talks of going/But never gets away”. In the last few lines of “The Sound of the Trees”, the speaker makes a resolution to leave, yet it is a decision couched in the vaguest of terms:

I shall set forth for somewhere,/ I shall make the reckless choice/ Some day (19-20).

The speaker appears fixed to a place that he wishes to leave, although he contemplates the possibility of eventually being content where he is as he grows “wiser and older” (13). Uncertainty and the fear of making a “reckless choice” compels the speaker’s feet to “tug at the floor” (15), and the reader cannot help but doubt that he will ever feel truly at home here. Haven't we all experienced this at some point or another?

Robert Frost’s poetry demonstrates a spatial displacement that can be linked to his own transatlantic journey between 1912-1915. As a result of his stay in England, Frost arguably developed a multi-faceted - or in-between - way of viewing and describing his surroundings, resulting in the prominence of uncertainty in his poetry. Not only do I find this interesting to explore in a literary way, it's proved so useful to apply to my own life and journeys. While living in Barcelona, Frost's poetry was a great provider of comfort and reassurance for my own feelings of homesickness.

So, if you're facing feelings of homesickness, or not feeling at home where you arguably should, why not try settling down with a Robert Frost anthology?



Like more of the same? Subscribe to the Tolstoy Therapy Newsletter and receive a round-up of the week's articles every Sunday to enjoy with your coffee. Click here to subscribe or take a look at an example copy here.