Posted in Feminism, poetry, publications, reading

Sunscreen and Poetry: Happy National Poetry Day!


October is here and the sun is shining. It’s National Poetry Day.  So – and I hope that this is not the first time you are wished this today – Happy National Poetry Day!  Each Day has a theme, and the theme this year is ‘Remember’.  Take part in this collective survey, remember and reread and old poem, or memorise a new one. You can read more about how you might celebrate here.  I will be doing what I have been doing a bit more of lately: reading my poetry aloud, in public (more of this later).  But first, in the spirit of remembering, let me take you back to 1999 via the lyrics of Baz Luhrmann’s hit ‘Everybody’s Free (to Wear Sunscreen)’

It’s a school assembly.  I don’t like school much, apart from the learning, obviously.  Mr Hearne is our Head of Year and looks rather like Postman Pat in a lab coat (I can say this now because we’re both grown-ups.  If you’re reading this, Mr Hearne, you know it’s true).  He teaches Physics, which is not one of my favourite subjects.  We are all sat cross-legged in the dining hall, getting pins-and-needles in our knees and numb bums.  Luckily, this doesn’t afflict Mr Hearne, who, taking his position behind a lectern, reads:

Don’t worry about the future
Or know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum
The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind
The kind that blindsides you at 4 p.m. on some idle Tuesday
Do one thing every day that scares you

Amongst other things, these words are a reminder that everything is borrowed.  Taken from a speech written by Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich in 1997, they have been remembered, replayed, misquoted and appropriated pretty much ever since.  I love the fact that when you read the speech in full, little ironies crop up to surprise you.  Schmich tells us of the pitfalls of giving (and receiving) advice, for instance – but the whole speech is both advice itself and a parody of such advice.  ‘Don’t worry’ but ‘do one thing every day that scares you’?!  I could only remember a handful of phrases and the title, but when I googled ‘Sunscreen’ to find the full document, I found these lines assembled in stanzas, and thought that they were rather apt for today’s theme.  They tell us to concentrate on the present moment, and let the future take care of itself.  ‘Advice is a form of nostalgia’, the song also tells us.  In essence, don’t spend too much time ‘painting over the ugly parts’ of the past.  Be careful when and what you remember.

In a previous post, I wrote about Muses.  Well, the mother of the Muses – whom we always forget – was Mnemosyne, goddess of memory.  As Elisabeth Bronfen argues in her book, Over Her Dead Body: Death, Femininity and the Aesthetic (1992), the classical narrative of poetic conception relies upon Mnemosyne:

‘As mother of the muses, Mnemosyne is also the mother of the source of poetic authority itself and as such the point of origination to be invoked in the poetic act. She is the powerful agent whereby the gap is closed between any poetic endeavour and a timeless source of memory, even though her voice can exist only in absence, as the point of origination, simultaneously put under erasure and articulated in the daughters who repeat and indirectly represent her.’ (p. 363)

In Hesiod’s Theogony, Mnemosyne has nine daughters. These daughters are the Muses (who go about inspiring poets) and their divine power comes from her maternity. Though Hesiod emphasises that the Muses are also the daughters of Zeus, it is Mnemosyne who gives them their ‘immortal song’ (l. 68). So not only is the source of all poetic conception a mother, but a memory.  Silent and absent, yet present both at ‘the point of origination’ and in the poetic act itself, Mnemosyne is the hidden mother at the heart of all poetry. When exploring the nature of poetic conception, rather than focus our attention on the artist-muse relationship, perhaps we should search for Mnemosyne and the mother-daughter relationship.  Mnemosyne conceived, birthed and nurtured her daughters, and they in turn ‘articulate’, ‘repeat’ and ‘indirectly represent’ her. Though hidden, she is nevertheless present.

Notice how I’ve ignored poetic fathers here – they don’t particularly interest me, I’m afraid.  Traditional formulations of the canon are full of fathers (Shakespeare is an obvious example, but so are all the Romantic poets you can name – Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Byron, Shelley…).  Harold Bloom famously wrote that literature was all about the ‘anxiety of [their] influence’.  Poetic mothers, however, operate differently.  They allow us to use memory without nostalgia; since childbirth is about the future as well as origins, poetic mothers look both forward and backwards.  This positions them in the present moment – which is pretty much what Baz Luhrmann, Mary Schmich and Mr Hearne told us that we should be doing.

If you want to see a poetic mother at work, read Sharon Olds’s ‘The Language of the Brag’.  Notice how she uses the present perfect tense repeatedly (‘I have wanted’) – this focuses our attention on the present result (the birth of Olds’s child/poem) of the past event (the desire to, amongst other things, write poetry).  It’s a fabulous poem, isn’t it.

So, this National Poetry Day, I’d recommend that you remember your mothers.  Find some women poets you haven’t read before.  Read  Furies (you know you want to).  I’ll be doing what scares me: reading in public.  Last week, I read at the Poetry Wales 50th birthday celebration in Cardiff, and in October I’ll be taking part in Made in Roath.  Also, I have a new poem on depression published here. Enjoy!


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