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Essay On The Poem Revelation By Liz Lochhead

Transcript of Revelation

Firstly, consider
what is a revelation?
Think about the connotations of the word.

When might someone experience a revelation?
religious ...
Book of Revelation or the Apocalypse of John ...
... a visionary experience
involving vivid symbolism?
Achievements of life are momentary, but realizations are longer lasting
The experience when something is revealed dramatically that was not previously known ...!
a dawning
I remember once being shown the black bull

when a child at the farm for eggs and milk.
I remember once
They called him Bob – as though perhaps

you could reduce a monster

with the charm of a friendly name.
A symbol of male sexuality? Of violence?
Of aggression ...?
Symbols of what? Nurture? Femininity?
Innocence ...?
Consider Lochhead's use of contrast ...
At the threshold of his outhouse, someone

held my hand and let me peer inside.
But consider the metaphorical sense of threshold ...
literally: a doorway
And in the yard outside,

oblivious hens picked their way about.
contrast in place
contrast in subject
Consider too the contrast
between 'picked' here and
'trampling', 'clanking' in the previous stanza ...
What does a word like 'oblivious' suggest? Lack of awareness ... ? Of what ... ?
The faint and rather festive tinkling

behind the mellow stone hasp was all they knew

of that Black Mass, straining at his chains.
I ran, my pigtails thumping on my back with fear,

past the big boys in the farm lane

who pulled the wings from butterflies and

blew up frogs with straws.
Pigtails are a symbol of childhood
innocence. Yet here they become
animated with fear and violence...
link to the 'black bull'
through alliteration ...
destruction ...
wanton cruelty
Past thorned hedge and harried nest,

scared of the eggs shattering –

only my small and shaking hand on the jug’s rim

in case the milk should spill.
Think about the 'thorned hedge' and 'harried nest'. What might they be symbols of ...?
Why has Lochhead used the word 'shattered' rather than simply broken?
How would you read he final lines of
the poem? A picture of childhood
A treatment of
Liz Lochhead's poem
of the mind ...
only my small and shaking hand on the jug’s rim
in case the milk should spill.
or, innocence touched
by experience ...?
female sexuality ...
Consider words such as 'faint', 'festive', tinkling' ... feminine connotations? Contrast the manly, aggressive 'jerking' and 'clanking' ...
consider the connotations
of Black Mass - evil, satanic
ritual ...
Black Mass - a play on words ...?
I had always half-known he existed –

this antidote and Anti-Christ, his anarchy

threatening the eggs, well-rounded, self-contained –

and the placidity of milk.
© David Miller 2010
At first, only black

and the hot reek of him. Then he was immense,

his edges merging with the darkness, just

a big bulk and a roar to be really scared of,

a trampling, and a clanking tense with the chain’s jerk.
look at the syntax -
no verb
What is the impact of the synaesthesia ...? 'hot reek' captures both bull's powerful smell and the heat from his body ...
The caesura here creates a dramatic pause! What is the poet's intention?
Lochhead's imagery - 'darkness' and 'roar' - has powerful connotations of dread and panic, emphasising what ...?
The alliteration on 'b' adds extra force!
The verbs 'trampling' and 'clanking' focus attention on the bull's powerful hooves and the chains restraining him.

What else does the use of present participles (-ing) add to the evocation of the girl's experience ... Movement ...? Immediacy ...?
'tense' is a play on words ... The chain is tense with the bull's strength, but also the little girl is tense with fear ...
Why is the word 'jerk' more effective than the more ordinary 'pull' ...? What impact does the word choice have here ...? How effective is it?
His eyes swivelled in the great wedge of his tossed head.

He roared his rage. His nostrils gaped.
Why has Lochhead used
a word like 'reek' rather than 'smell' ...?
Consider how effective these words are.
Imagine the effect of less emotive words ...
Or, it might be a more personal
revelation ...
and so, to the poem ...
Consider Lochhead's use of contrast ...
the transition from ...
to experience ...
A religious experience ...?
'... peer...' - what is the effect of the poet's word choice?
Again, consider the contrast ...
'Thorned hedge' ... 'harried nest' ... think about Lochhead's imagery here. Is the symbolism significant?
What now do you see as the revelation of the title ...?

Full transcript
Liz Lochhead’s work frequently focuses on girlhood, motherhood, the female side of a relationship. She is also fascinated by interstices, and points of connection between past and present. She is very much a Scottish writer, and Scotland is not an infrequent presence in her work, in one way or another. A good place to start this critical analysis, then, is her punchy play Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off (1989), which brings all three together. In 2011, the play was given a fresh run by the Royal Lyceum and Dundee Rep, directed by Tony Cownie. And (alas) it continues to have prescient echoes: the main protagonist, Mary Stuart, is, after all, a Catholic queen in a Protestant land, and a woman in a man’s world.

Mary is a historical play of paranoia, love, lust, loathing, but it is more than this, shooting finally into the present context of a schoolyard, and revealing a sectarian and social continuum which the audience is compelled to acknowledge. In a sense this is comparable to one of Lochhead’s more recent plays, Misery Guts (2002), which also pulls the past into the present, by transferring the action of Molière's The Misanthrope into the 21st-century Scottish Parliament.

Lochhead, then, is an inventive and imaginative playwright, perennially contemporary, because of (rather than in spite of) her propensity to delve into a literary or historic heritage. In her poetry, too, we might sense parallels everywhere – between the poet and ourselves (Lochhead’s poems tend to focus on identifiable realities), past and present, ourselves and others.

In the nearly-title poem of her 2011 selected poems, ‘The Choosing’, the speaker recalls her similarity to a best friend – another Mary – at primary school. I say similarity, but really they seem almost identical, ‘with same-coloured ribbons in mouse-coloured hair’ and ‘a common bond in being cleverest (equal)’. But the friend’s father ‘didn’t believe in high-school education, / especially for girls’. The end of the poem finds the adult speaker ‘coming from the library / with my arms full of books’, symbolically embracing the solitary pursuit of learning, and suddenly confronted with the surprise of her old friend (and the friend’s devoted husband) on the bus, her arms ‘round the full-shaped vase that is her body’. And as so often in Lochhead’s most ambitious poems, an anecdote turns to a meditation:'I think of those prizes that were ours for the taking and wonder when the choices got made we don’t remember making.'

Both women seem to have reached one sort of fulfilment at the expense of another; neither women had dominion over their fate. The old friend is more than an old friend, she is an alter ego. The definite article in the title pulls its weight, emphasising the lack of agency the young girls had over their destiny as they came of age. Remarkably, Lochhead was still a teenager when she wrote this poem.

Lochhead’s is a perspicacious and often fast-paced poetry rooted in commonplace realities, whether these are the ‘gospel halls, chapels, Orange halls, / doctors’ surgeries’ of the edges of Glasgow, or childhood memories, or love, or dreaming, or drinking. Her poems are naturally streetwise; she is interested, to borrow Hardy’s sentiment, in touching our hearts by revealing her own. It is largely for this that she has generated widespread – and widening – acclaim. A very recent poem, ‘Poets Need Not’, begins with the assertion that ‘Poets need not be garlanded’, for ‘The pursuit’s its own reward’. Nonetheless, shortly after the publication of this poem in The Times in January 2011, Lochhead was made the second Scots Makar, a title previously held by Edwin Morgan. She is a natural successor, insofar as she is a poet of genuine vitality and personality, with a distinctive – and distinctively native – voice.

Morgan is undoubtedly an influence, though his work is often far more ostensibly experimental. For his 70th birthday, Lochhead composed a deferential poem in his honour, ‘5th April 1990’. A visit to the newly undivided city of Berlin leaves the poet wondering:

'Who could make sense of it?
Morgan could, yes Eddie could, he would.
And that makes me want to try.'

In fact, a number of Lochhead’s poems consider a world beyond Scottish, or British, shores, filtered through the conscience of a stranger who is very much aware of her strangeness and keen to make sense of it. In ‘Ontario October Going West’ she exalts in this strangeness:

the single drowned birch shrieks fingerbone.
the lake says frankly this is a very old trick    
it’s all done with mirrors.'
And the prairie ‘when you get to it / says keep going’.

The intrinsic chill and wonder might remind us of the superb travel poems of Charles Causley. ‘Fourth of July Fireworks’ is also a poem of chill and wonder, in slightly different proportions. The poem takes us to manicured Cape Cod, in New England, on America’s national day. It is familiar yet alien, unheimlich despite being (in the voice of an American addressing the speaker) ‘so English’. There is something metaphorical and portentous in the poem’s closing tercet:

'Raindrops big as bullets dent the roof we all stand under,
watching Canute’s fireworks out-rage the storm, try to steal its thunder.'

For a poet with a reputation for fizz, though, Lochhead’s voice can be disarmingly quiet. She is often a tender love poet, or a tender poet of love. Love certainly seems to be her overriding theme, one way or another. ‘Epithalamium’ is what its title professes it to be – at least up to a point:

'Delight’s infectious – your quotidian friends
Put on, with gladrag finery today, your joy,
Renew in themselves the right true ends
They won’t let old griefs, old lives destroy.|
When at our lover’s feet our open selves we’ve laid
We find ourselves, and all the world, remade.'

Philip Larkin once suggested that his task as a poet was to make true ideas into beautiful poems and beautiful ideas into true ones. To a conscience such as Larkin’s, of course, ‘Epithalamium’ would fit squarely into the beautiful-only camp, but to many it will be both. It is gutsy, too: the syntactic inversion in the penultimate line could have been avoided and isn’t exactly fashionable, but it lends the poem a stately grace and fitting air of timelessness. We might be reminded of Rupert Brooke’s metaphor for war, ‘swimmers into cleanness leaping’. But here, as elsewhere, Lochhead has captured something that will never be unanimously refuted, and which will always stand to make life richer.

Rory Waterman, 2012

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