Thursday, 26 November 2015

Ekphrastic Prompt 6: The Mask of Agamemnon

Mask of Agamemnon

Isn't this an amazing image? A golden mask, life-sized, flattened, with eyes which are at the same time open and closed. Beard, eyebrows, ears, hammered and chased into fine detail - simultaneously naive and strangely sophisticated.

This mask was discovered in 1876 by Heinrich Schliemann, a C19th German businessman who became a famous treasure hunter/archaeologist, and is now in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens. Schliemann had previously excavated the remains of Troy, where, as told in Homer's Iliad, an epic ten year war was fought between the Greeks and the Trojans. The leader of the united Greek armies was Agamemnon, the king of the Mycenaeans, whose brother's wife, Helen, had been abducted by the Trojan prince, Paris.

When Agamemnon returned from the war, the legend is that he was killed by his own wife's lover, Aegisthus, or perhaps even by his wife Clytemnestra herself. This mask was found in a royal grave at Mycenae, and Schliemann was convinced that it was the death mask of Agamemnon himself, although some have claimed it to be a fake, and some archaeologists now believe it pre-dates the Trojan War by several hundred years. It is made of beaten gold, with the fine details chased out using a sharp tool. It is an amazing artefact. I saw it in Athens nearly thirty years ago when backpacking around Europe and it remains an iconic memory for me.

Today's prompt is to take this mask as a starting point for a poem. There are so many directions in which it could take you! You could just think about masks in any or all of their forms; you could concentrate on Agamemnon and his story; you could think about Schliemann; you could explore ideas of real and fake. You could even link back to what is often considered the first piece of ekphrastic writing: the description of The Shield of Achilles' in Book 18 of The Iliad.

If you are interested in some background, there's an interesting discussion here, and an article about the authenticity question here.

If you fancy reading or rereading The Iliad the translation by Richmond Lattimore is the one to go for.

And here's what Google has to say about the word 'mask':

noun: mask; plural noun: masks; noun: masque; plural noun: masques
  1. 1.
    a covering for all or part of the face, worn as a disguise, or to amuse or frighten others.
  2. 2.
    a covering made of fibre or gauze and fitting over the nose and mouth to protect against air pollutants, or made of sterile gauze and worn to prevent infection of the wearer or (in surgery) of the patient.
    synonyms:mattephotomaskshadow mask, masking, masking tape
    "a mask that blocks out part of the image"
    • a protective covering fitting over the whole face, worn in fencing, ice hockey, and other sports.
      synonyms:face mask, protective mask, gas maskoxygen mask, fencing mask,iron mask, ski mask, dust mask; More
    • a respirator used to filter inhaled air or to supply gas for inhalation.
  3. 3.
    a face pack.
    "this exfoliating mask helps clear your pores and leaves your skin feeling soft and healthy"

  4. 4.
    a likeness of a person's face moulded or sculpted in clay or wax.
  5. 5.
    a manner or expression that hides one's true character or feelings.
    "I let my mask of respectability slip"
    synonyms:pretencesemblanceveilscreenfront, false front, facadeveneer,blind, false colours, disguiseguiseconcealmentcovercover-up,cloakcamouflage
    "de Craon had dropped his mask of good humour"

  6. 6.
    a piece of material such as card used to cover a part of an image that is not required when exposing a print.
  7. 7.
    a patterned metal film used in the manufacture of microcircuits to allow selective modification of the underlying material.
  8. 8.
    the enlarged labium of a dragonfly larva, which can be extended to seize prey.
verb: mask; 3rd person present: masks; past tense: masked; past participle: masked; gerund or present participle: masking

  1. 1.
    cover (the face) with a mask.
    "he had been masked, bound, and abducted"
    synonyms:hideconcealdisguise, cover up, obscurescreencloakcamouflage,veilmantleblanketenshroud
    "people carried herbs to mask the stench"
  2. 2.
    conceal (something) from view.
    "the poplars masked a factory"
    synonyms:hideconcealdisguise, cover up, obscurescreencloakcamouflage,veilmantleblanketenshroud
    "people carried herbs to mask the stench"


  3. 3.
    cover (an object or surface) so as to protect it during painting.
    "mask off doors and cupboards with sheets of plastic"
    synonyms:mattephotomaskshadow mask, masking, masking tape
    "a mask that blocks out part of the image"


mid 16th century: from French masque, from Italian mascheramascara, probably from medieval Latin masca ‘witch, spectre’, but influenced by Arabic masḵara ‘buffoon’.

Image Credit: "MaskOfAgamemnon" by Xuan Che - Self-photographed (Flickr), 20 December 2010
Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons.

Definition Credit: Google

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Art from poetry/poetry from art: blueshift

I've just had the pleasure of reviewing this lovely pamphlet, a linked sequence of original art and poetry responses, at Abegail Morley's Poetry Shed. You can read the review here, and purchase the book here. It's beautiful, and would make a lovely Christmas present for anyone who likes art or poetry! 

The poets and artists featured in the pamphlet are:

Stephanie Arsoska
Becky Cherriman
Claire Collison
Karen Dennison
Sheena Drayton
Lizanne van Essen
Saras Feijoo
Tessa Frampton
Rebecca Gethin
Pam Job
Pete Kennedy
Agnes Marton
Sam Smith
Emmy Verschoor

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Warsan Shire

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark

I bought Warsan Shire's pamphlet teaching my mother how to give birth on the strength of some of her poems that had been widely shared and quoted on Twitter and Facebook. 

I'm so glad I did. 
It's not comfortable reading. And that's a good thing. 
The poems are brilliant. 
Buy it. 

Warsan Shire has 53.5K followers on Twitter - when you read her poems you can understand why. 

Here's  'Home' which is not in the pamphlet, but which I've quoted from above.

Warsan Shire: teaching my mother how to give birth, flipped eye, 2011

Monday, 23 November 2015

Reddled Days

red letter days
red alert
red admiral
red apple
red arrows
red ball
red bull
red blood cells
red cabbage

red cross
red carpet
red onion
red october
red umbrella
red berries
red ochre
red wine

red dwarf
red dragon
red dress
red riding hood
red kite
red lentil soup

red eye
red ensign
red flag 
red fox
red pepper
red planet

red giant
red velvet
red hair
red herring
red nose
red queen
reddled days

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Is My Team Ploughing?

‘Is my team ploughing,
  That I was used to drive         
And hear the harness jingle   
  When I was man alive?’         

Ay, the horses trample,           
  The harness jingles now;       
No change though you lie under          
  The land you used to plough.

Some A.E. Housman for you today. Above are the first two verses of 'Is My Team Ploughing?', Poem XXVII from A Shropshire Lad, published in 1896. You can read it in full here at The Poetry Foundation, and below is a video of a performance by Dan Kempson of the beautiful setting by George Butterworth.

Butterworth composed the his settings for a selection from A Shropshire Lad in 1911 - 12, before the start of the First World War. He died only a few years later, aged just 31, at the Battle of the Somme, and his music is a poignant reminder of what is lost in war.

A thought: is the setting of poems to music a precursor to the filmpoem?

Saturday, 21 November 2015

A Bit of Grammatical Light Relief

I bought 'A Choice of Comic and Curious Verse' in 1975, when I was twelve. It's been one of my cherished possessions ever since. The spine is cracking, the glue is decaying, the pages are yellow and there is a stain on the cover. But the poetry is still brilliant - the complete range from wry to hilarious, with a smattering of rather rude.

Here's one of my favourites, by the German poet Christian Morgenstern, and translated by RFC Hull, better known for translating the works of Jung! I have no idea how this works in German, but I love it in English.

The Werewolf by Christian Morgenstern, tr. R.F.C. Hull

There's another translation here along with more information about Morgenstern, but I think the translation above is by far the better!

If anyone knows of an anthology currently in print which contains this (or any) translation of 'The Werewolf', I'd be very grateful if they could give me the details.

Friday, 20 November 2015

Ekphrastic Prompt 5: In Your Own Background

Pieter Bruegel de Oude - De val van Icarus
'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus', Bruegel

One of the most famous poems which responds to a work of art is Auden's 'Musee des Beaux Arts', which famously zooms in on and out from the figure of Icarus falling to his death in Pieter Bruegel the Elder's 1558 'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus'. Icarus is a tiny figure, and Bruegel's genius is in the way in which this strange death is situated in the 'everydayness' of a C16th landscape, where, in Auden's words
...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.
This made me think of other pictures by Bruegel - those crowd scenes where all those ordinary people must also have their stories that no one else knows or cares about. And paintings by other artists: the people in background of Ford Madox Brown's 'The Last of England', or the followers in Gozzoli's Procession of the Magi, a picture full of ordinary people who are not the main focus of the image.

Gozzoli magi
Gozzoli's 'Procession of the Magi'

But today's prompt does not use a painting by a famous artist. It uses an image created by you.

Most people take photos - if you are anything like me, you take quite a lot! And when you are on holiday, focussing your camera on a building, or a church, or your child playing on the beach, you quite often take pictures which contain people you don't know. Have a look at your holiday snaps; find one with strangers in it. If it's a digital photo on your computer, zoom in on someone. If it's not digital, you'll just have to make your eyes work a bit harder. Is there someone there who looks out of place? Someone whose expression hides something? That's your springboard, your Icarus. Write about that person, that crowd, that location. Write about your relationship with that person - because you have one now, now that you've noticed them. Or think of it another way - what if you were the stranger in someone else's holiday snaps?

So this prompt is a kind of echoing ekphrasis, springboarding you, as writer, off the Auden/Breugel motif of people unaware or uninterested in what is happening in the background to their lives, to find the people you didn't notice in a day in your own life. Could be interesting!

With thanks to Sally Flint, whose suggestion to write a poem from an image of someone you don't know led me to this idea.