An Invitation To Join In
In sharing this Poetry page with friends and well-wishers my hope is to stimulate a dialogue about poetry. I invite you to submit, via the Contact page, a favourite poem which you have read so that we can share it here.
Tutto ho perduto
Tutto ho perduto dell'infanzia
E non potrò mai più
Smemorami in un grido.
L'infanzia ho sotterrato
Nel fondo delle notti
E ora spada invisibile,
Mi separa da tutto.
Di me rammmento che esultravo amandoti,
Ed eccomi perduto
In infinito delle notti.
Disperazione che incessante aumenta
La vita non mi è più,
Arrestata in fondo della gola,
Che un roccia di gridi.
(1888 - 1970)
I have lost everything of childhood
And I shall never again be able
To lose memory in a cry.
I have buried childhood
In the depth of nights
And now, by an invisible sword,
I am separated from it all.
I recall the delight of having loved you,
And here I am, lost
In an infinity of nights.
Hopelessness ever deepening,
Life is now no more for me
Than a rock of sobs
Stuck in my throat.
Translator: Maurice Rutherford
Giuseppe Ungaretti, whose parents came from Lucca in Tuscany, Italy, was born in Alexandria, Egypt, where his father was engaged in the excavation and development of the Suez canal. Modernist poet, critic, academic and essayist, Ungaretti was winner of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in its inaugural year of 1970.
During WW2 Ungaretti left Egypt for Italy and was received with great honours, but after Mussolini's downfall he was stripped of these accolades because of his fascist sympathies. Later in his life he developed bronchopneumonia, received treatment in New York City, but died whilst still under medical supervision. He is buried in Campo Verona, Rome.
I have posted poetry in translation previously, and hope to do so again, and in the absence of requested foreign language favourites, my best chance is in Italian, a language I love to hear and grapple with. In my youthful, angling days, I would throw cloud-bait and a few tempters upstream in the attempt to draw fish to my chosen swim. I'd like to find an equally successful way to attract English-speaking Italians or Italian-proficient Brits to this online swim by which I sit and hope. I don't seek dedicated tuition, but I'd be so grateful to feel a firm, frank, guiding hand on my shoulder, correcting me where I stumble wilfully on. May that hand please be yours.
Poem posted on Saturday 19th August 2017.
Worming at Short Beach
Short Beach, reaching
almost to the horizon, successions
of sandbars lay bared
to the low tide, the furthest,
toward which I walked
over the wormgrounds,
toward which I waded
through shallow sluices of channel,
almost indistinct, and now blurred,
a small island of the mind
I've tried to touch,
define, and hold.
But I remember, as gulls worked
the water's edge, ripped
hermits from houses of shell
or in my wake split
the razors I threw aside,
I remember, my back against
the sun's blaze, worming that far bar,
forking close to clumps of sawgrass,
turning the wet sand over,
breaking the worms' domains
open to the dark sheen
of my shadow.
My fork rasped against
the shells of softclams
that sprayed small geysers
as I dug, and the wind
was a thin whisper of scythes
over the waves. And now,
all this from a long time ago
is almost lost
and goes nowhere, except deeper,
year by year. But this was the way
when I worked that far bar,
the light fell: the sandworms
were blood-red in my shadow
as I forked them
into my shadow.
(Vanguard Publishers, New York, USA)
This beautifully composed and presented poem by Long Island poet William Heyen captures - as far as it can be captured - the almost lunar working of memory, interweaving visions of the past with what remains of them in the here and now. 'Worming at Short Beach' takes my memory back half a century to a not dissimilar coastal scene far from Connecticut, USA, to the Lincolnshire side of the Humber, England, and to the Sundays spent cockle-picking there, where the shapes of sandbanks and the course of runnels were never two tides alike, the sandscape mirroring memory itself, the mirror distorting, like those which sometimes surprise us in seaside amusement arcades.
Poem posted on Wednesday 17th August 2017.
Stick a pony in me pocket,
I'll fetch the suitcase from the van,
Cos if you want the best 'uns
But you don't ask questions
Then brother, I'm your man.
Where it all comes from is a mystery,
It's like the changin' of the seasons
And the tides of the sea.
But here's the one that's drivin' me berserk -
Why do only fools and horses work?
We've got some half price cracked ice and miles and miles of carpet tiles,
TVs, deep freeze and David Bowie LPs,
Ball games, gold chains, whatsnames, picture frames and leather goods,
And Trevor Francis track suits from a mush in Shepherds Bush,
Bush, bush, bush, bush, bush, bush, bush...
No Income Tax, no V.A.T.,
No money back, no guarantee,
Black or white, rich or poor.
We'll cut prices at a stroke...
God bless Hooky Street,
Viva Hooky Street,
Long live Hooky Street,
C'est magnifique, Hooky Street,
Magnifique, Hooky Street,
John Sullivan, 1981, 'Only Fools and Horses', BBC TV series.
If you're now imagining the dear old Reliant Robin three-wheeler, you're in the company of millions who remember the vehicle from their own experience or through the TV screen. But although the Robin comes immediately to the mind, it was in fact a Reliant Regal Supervan that the Trotter brothers drove around Hooky Street. For visitors from abroad not familiar with London's Cockney slang, the 'pony' of the lyric's first line is their way of saying £25 (a 'monkey' would mean £500). Nobody has yet claimed the prize for explaining why!
Poem posted on Saturday 12th August 2017.
As a boy with a richness of needs I wandered
As a boy with a richness of needs I wandered
In car parks and streets, epicure of Lagondas,
Minervas, Invictas, and Hispano Suizas;
And I sampled as roughage and amusing sauce
Little Rovers and Rileys, and the occasional funny
Trojan with chain drive, and the Morris Cowleys
With their modest bonnets, sedate Fiat
Of the nineteen-twenties, and the Alvis, middle-brow
Between the raffish sports car and the family bus.
I was tempted by aircraft too, sniffing
Over The Aeroplane and Flight - those kites,
They seem today, knocked up in a back yard
By young and oily artists who painted with rivets:
Westland Wapiti, Bristol Bulldog, and the great
De Havilland Hercules, invading the desert
And pulsing within its sleep like a troubling nerve;
And surely, I think, as I remember those feasts,
They were days of excitement and lavish surprise?
Where is the tantalizing richness and hazard
Of assertive styling, of crazy rigs,
Now that a car is unremarkably one of a million,
And an aeroplane is a tubular schedule? I wander
Still in the car parks, but now uneasily,
Thinking that engineering is a sort of evolution -
Out of the fittest come the many merely fit;
And I wonder if I am wrong, or the world, whose aspect
Is nowhere strange, but is nowhere home.
(1914 - 1971)
Clifford Henry Dyment FRSL was born in Alfreton, Derbyshire, moving in early childhood to Caerleon-on-Usk on the northern outskirts of the city of Newport, Wales. Poet, literary editor and journalist, in WW2 he was called upon to make films for the British government. His poetry is generally known for dealing with countryside topics, so it was rather a surprise to read of his wanderings in city car parks, but such names as Lagonda and Hispano Suiza, marques I haven't heard of since childhood cigarette card collecting days, caught my attention. Beautifully styled sleek cars - as was the Ferrari whose death was lamented by George MacBeth in his poem posted here back on 2nd November 2016 - desirable creations I only ever saw on the fag cards. In those days in our avenue only two of the neighbours owned a car; one a 'modern' Ford 8, and the other a Morris something-or-other, maybe Cowley, built like an upright pianoforte with what they called a Dickie Seat behind the pianist for the sheet-music turner who'd best wear a scarf and a hat with chinstrap.
I think Dyment describes and sums up the evolution extremely well.
'As a boy with a richness of needs I wandered' was published in 'Collected Poems' by J.M.Dent & Sons Ltd.
Of course,it isn't only these desirable unaffordable dream cars that find a parking space in the motorists' love and lore; even from the bargain basement there sometimes emerges a certain assemblage of ugliness which, seen through the rheumy eyes of an ageing populace, becomes beautiful enough to bring tears of nostalgic joy - or of laughter. One such old banger will be remembered in our next posting.
Poem posted on Wednesday 9th August 2017.
Hay for the Horses
He had driven half night
From far down San Joaquin
Through Mariposa, up the
Dangerous Mountain roads,
And pulled in at eight a.m.
With his big truckload of hay behind the barn.
With winch and ropes and hooks
We stacked the bales up clean
To splintery redwood rafters
High in the dark, flecks of alfalfa
Whirling through shingle-cracks of light,
Itch of haydust in the sweaty shirt and shoes.
At lunchtime under Black oak
Out in the hot corral
- The old mare nosing lunchpails,
Grasshoppers crackling in the weeds -
"I'm sixty-eight" he said,
"I first bucked hay when I was seventeen.
I thought that day I started,
I sure would hate to do this all my life.
And dammit that's just what
I've gone and done."
(From 'Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems', North Point Press, 1958)
Gary Snyder, born in San Francisco, 1930, is an American man of letters, widely published travel writer; among his awards, the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, 1985. There are rich seams to be mined among scree and mountain, and many collectable nuggets in the book where this poem is to be found.
Different country, another kind of grass, two dissimilar poetic approaches, but although Gary Snyder sees through a different lens from that of Molly Holden, each poet brings in knife-edge focus such outstanding detail of, say, the shirt each is viewing; but save a gasp of delight for their pin-sharp perceptions of moist meadow grass newly scythed, and snuff-dry, airborne snippets of alfalfa, (more commonly called lucerne in Britain), sunlit through cracks between the barn-side tiles.
Now with both poems in front of you, we'd love to receive your impressions.
Poem posted on Saturday 5th August 2017.
More on Grass
Far from Brian Patten's denuded city park to the farmed grasslands of Britain and America, this week's postings offer two reflections on grass grown not for pleasure, but for fodder; here is the first:-
Photograph of Haymaker, 1890
It is not so much the image of the man
that's moving - he pausing from his work
to whet his scythe, trousers tied
below the knee, white shirt lit by
another summer's sun, another century's -
as the sight of the grasses beyond
his last laid swathe, so living yet
upon the moment previous to death;
for as the man stooping straightened up
and bent again they died before his blade.
Sweet hay and gone some seventy years ago
and yet they stand before me in the sun,
stems damp still where their neighbours' fall
uncovered them, succulent and straight,
immediate with moon-daisies.
(1927 - 1981)
Molly Holden was a London-born British poet and Cholmondeley Award winner. Her maiden name was Gilbert, and she was a granddaughter of the popular children's author Henry Gilbert who published his 'Robin Hood and the Men of the Greenwood' in 1912.
Critics reviewing Molly Holden's poetry have commented on certain similarities with Thomas Hardy and Edward Thomas, and this can be no bad thing when they add that they see no imitation and that this poet's style is her own. Her observations draw on a concern for fine detail as she shares with her readers the joy of each fresh discovery.
'Photograph of Haymaker, 1890' was published in 'To Make Me Grieve', Chatto and Windus Ltd, 1968.
Poem posted on Wednesday 2nd August 2017.
Omphaloskepsis - the pro response:
Towards a Definition of Itself
When in public, poetry should take off its clothes
and wave to the nearest person in sight.
It should be seen in the company of thieves and lovers
rather than that of journalists and publishers;
on sighting mathematicians it should unhook the algebra
from their minds and replace it with poetry,
on sighting poets it should unhook the poetry from their minds
and replace it with algebra;
it should touch those people who despise being touched;
it should fall in love with children and woo them with fairy tales;
it should wait on the landing for two years for its mates to come home
then go outside and find them all dead;
when the electricity fails it should wear dark glasses
and pretend to be blind;
it should guide those who are safe into the middle of busy roads
and leave them there;
it should scatter woodworm into the bedrooms of all peg-legged men
not being afraid to hurt the innocent;
it should shout "evil, evil, EVIL" from the roofs of stock exchanges;
it should not pretend to be a clerk or a librarian;
Poetry should be seen lying by the side of road accidents;
hissing from unlit gas rings;
it should scrawl the nymph's secret on her teacher's blackboard
offering her a worm, saying "inside this is a tiny apple";
at dawn it should leave the bedroom and catch the first bus
home to its wife;
at dusk it should chat up a girl nobody wants;
it should be seen standing on the ledge of a skyscraper,
on a bridge with a brick tied around its heart.
Poetry is the monster hiding in a child's dark room,
it is the scar on a beautiful person's face,
it is the last blade of grass being picked from the city park.
(Recorded from a broadcast, long ago, in the age of steam radio and the taffling tape-recorder).
Poem posted on Friday 28th July 2017.
On Friday 28th July 2017, this mainly poetry website will celebrate its first anniversary and, considering our aims, what better way to mark the occasion than to indulge in a little poetic omphaloskepsis, navel-gazing, introspection! To open the debate we have chosen, for this Wednesday posting, to reverse the natural order of pros and cons, inviting to the platform a speaker for the cons. On Saturday we shall, I'm sure, be agog to hear the pro voice in answer.
For now, please welcome Basil Bunting:
What the Chairman told Tom
Poetry? It's a hobby.
I run model trains.
Mr Shaw there breeds pigeons.
It's not work. You don't sweat.
Nobody pays for it.
You could advertise soap.
Art, that's opera; or repertory -
The Desert Song.
Nancy was in the chorus.
But to ask for twelve pounds a week -
married, aren't you -
you've got a nerve.
How could I look a bus conductor
in the face
if I paid you twelve pounds?
Who says it's poetry, anyhow?
My ten year old
can do it and rhyme.
I get three thousand and expenses,
a car, vouchers,
but I am an accountant.
They do what I tell them,
What do you do?
Nasty little words, nasty long words,
I want to wash when I meet a poet.
They're reds, addicts,
What you write is rot.
Mr Hines says so, and he's a schoolteacher,
he ought to know.
Go and find work.
(1900 - 1985)
From 'Collected Poems, 1969, Fulcrum Press.
Basil Cheesman Bunting, British Modernist poet, was born at Scotswood-on-Tyne, Northumberland. His poetic reputation was sealed by the publication of the widely acclaimed long poem 'Briggflatts' in 1966.
He is noted for his love of music and concern for the sonic nature of poetry and his insistence that poetry "is a sound" and should be read aloud. A Quaker education contributed towards his pacifist beliefs and inWW1 his application for exclusion from conscription having been refused, he was arrested in 1918, handed over to the Military, court martialled, and imprisoned in Wormwood Scrubs and Winchester jails. Yet during WW2 he served with British Military Intelligence in Persia, and afterwards continued his work in intelligence for the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company until, in 1952, he was expelled by Mohammad Mossadegh, who had become prime minister the previous year. Back in England Bunting worked as a journalist and newspaper correspondent. He died at Hexham, Northumberland and was buried in the Quaker graveyard at Brigflatts, Sedburgh, Cumbria.
Poem posted on Wednesday 26th July 2017.
Poppies in July
Little poppies, little hell flames,
Do you do no harm?
You flicker. I cannot touch you.
I put my hands among the flames. Nothing burns
And it exhausts me to watch you
Flickering like that, wrinkly and clear red, like the skin of a mouth.
A mouth just bloodied.
Little bloody skirts!
There are fumes I cannot touch.
Where are your opiates, your nauseous capsules?
If I could bleed, or sleep!
If my mouth could marry a hurt like that!
Or your liquors seep to me, in this glass capsule,
Dulling and stilling.
But colorless. Colorless.
(1932 - 1963)
In requesting this poem, Grace Frankish says, I think, all that need be said: "My favourite poem is 'Poppies in July' by Sylvia Plath. I like the disjointedness of it all, and the dark imagery of things like drugs,infidelity and depression in something as innocent as a poppy."
If you'd like to add to this, please do let us know.
Poem posted on Sunday 23rd July 2017.
In some nissen-hut of my mind
I have a stacked bed-roll, wooden chair,
suitcase plastered with peeling labels,
and a cheap clock, measuring lethargic days.
I have no papers. Sometimes I am offered
forged ones, at too high a price.
Now you come, promising real
identity cards. Forgive me if till they arrive
I think too early to rejoice.
(From 'Not Without Homage', Christopher Davies, 1975).
It always lights my fire when I come across another poem for this website, so you can imagine the warmth of receiving a poem of importance to a poet and written by a much loved poet! And, what's more, a work which comes new to me. In suggesting today's poem by Ruth Bidgood, Merryn Williams wrote, "...95 this month and still going strong. [It is] a poem which I discovered at the beginning of my own poetry-writing career and which has always meant a lot to me". One can see why. Published over 40 years ago, this excellent example of poetic multum in parvo well stands the test of time. 'Stateless', I feel, crosses boundaries; it is not only placeless, but also timeless; restless too, blowing in the wind with a high pollen-count. I, too, am already 'catching the smit'! In fact the infection had set in by the time I came to the lines "...no papers. Sometimes I am offered/forged ones, at too high a price.", on the first of a number of readings. Who amongst us could not shape this hat to fit their own head at certain anxious times in our lives? How better express resisted temptation?
I draw comfort from the sense that 'Stateless' speaks both from and to all ages, young and old, saying in effect that although we may feel isolated in our present predicament we are, in spirit, not alone. Though our problem may seem insurmountable, the only way out is through, with each of us set to sing a personal Vincero-o-o...! as we strive towards a common goal. And, for myself, I might add - even if it runs into extra time. Lovely poem, one to keep with the cologne in the handkerchief drawer or, better still, to carry by heart. Vinceremo-o-o...!
Thank you, Merryn, for sharing this treasured work from a poet you love. It is a great pleasure to be posting the poem on the very day Ruth Bidgood reaches the age of 95!
We join Merryn in wishing you a very happy birthday, Ruth! May your pen be ever restless, your voice always strong.
In the intervening years since 'Not Without Homage', Ruth Bidgood has published around a dozen further titles, 'Land Music/Black Mountains', (Cinnamon Press, 2016) being, I believe, her most recent...but you never know...!
Merryn Williams is the founding editor of 'The Interpreter's House' magazine. Her latest poetry collection, 'Letter to my Rival' came out from Shoestring Press in 2015. Merryn is also the editor of 'STRIKE UP THE BAND', Poems for John Lucas at 80. (Plas Gwyn Books, 2017).
Poem posted on Thursday 20th July 2017.
The Body's Vest
Often I wish a thief would steal it,
or a tutting mechanic thumbs-down it,
or the police clamp it, or the Lord,
lowering a crane from the sky, up-reel it.
Each morning it waits to claim me,
demands oil and water, somewhere to go
and a hand to steer it. I confess I fear its
love of journeys; its Homeric glows shame me.
Others go by who put their lives on
every morning and sit inside them
and seem at home and know the way -
perhaps I've the wrong shape and size on?
Often I think I'd like to leave it,
an abandoned creature on the verge,
and 'casting the body's vest aside',
slip off on a slip-road and never retrieve it.
( 'Peterloo Preview 3', 1993)
In Andrew Marvell's poem 'The Garden', the speaker is glorying under the shade of fruit trees so peaceful that he imagines it a good place in which to die. The closing lines are:
' casting the body's vest aside
my soul into the boughs doth glide'.
Poem posted on Saturday 15th July 2017.
She walks in beauty...
She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that's best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes:
Thus mellowed to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.
One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impaired the nameless grace
Which waves in every raven tress
Or softly lightens o'er her face;
Where thoughts serenely sweet express
How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.
And on that cheek, and o'er that brow
So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
But tell of days in goodness spent,
A mind at peace with all below,
A heart whose love is innocent!
George Gordon Noel Byron
Depending upon which of two biographers you believe, Byron was born either in Dover or London. It can be said with certainty however, that George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron, aka simply Lord Byron travelled widely in what was to be his brief life span, living for a number of years in Italy, seven of them with Percy Bysshe Shelley, later fighting with the Greeks against the Ottoman Empire.
Wearing the alliterative hats of Poet, Peer and Politician, he acquired a reputation not only for his Romantic poetic style, but also for his flamboyant lifestyle, huge debts, and for his numerous affairs, embracing both AC and DC liaisons.
But eclipsing all these extracurricular diversions, he is now remembered and revered for the results of the day job, and 'She walks in beauty' remains one of his most frequently quoted works, along with the narrative poems 'Childe Harold's Pilgrimage' and 'Don Juan'.
Poem posted on Wednesday 12th July 2017.
After Edward Thomas
Against us all
who wrong you,
won't you fight
as the baited bull
when driven by pain
to retaliate -
you English words.
I know you:
you are regal as queens,
juicy as fruit,
carefree as gay,
as butch as a dame
in a man's suit;
chick as a girl,
or as queer
as the transvestite
in the heat
of the night.
It is strange how the thought
of a close-cut lawn
to smack or crack;
that a joint
can be bought
not to roast
but to smoke,
and a poke
could be other
than the bonnet once worn
by one's mother.
But it's tough
to know what is meant
by a puff,
and a bust
with some frankness
whose flat-vowelled talk
has no frills,
from Grimsby and Clee
and old Ridings
where a spade stays a spade,
and invoices bills,
Let me sometimes stand
and turn my hand
against all whose aims
usurp your good names;
let us win back her wand
for the fairy.
from 'This Day Dawning', Peterloo Poets, 1989.
Poem posted on Saturday 8th July 2017.
Out of us all
That make rhymes,
Will you choose
As the winds use
A crack in the wall
Or a drain,
Their joy or their pain
To whistle through -
You English words?
I know you:
You are light as dreams,
Tough as oak,
Precious as gold,
As poppies and corn,
Or an old cloak;
Sweet as our birds
To the ear,
As the burnet rose
In the heat
Strange as the races
Of dead and unborn:
Strange and sweet
To the eye,
As the dearest faces
That a man knows,
And as lost homes are:
But though older far
Than the oldest yew, -
As our hills are, old, -
Again and again:
Young as our streams
And as dear
As the earth which you prove
That we love.
Make me content
With some sweetness
Have no wings, -
From Wiltshire and Kent
And the villages there,-
From the names, and the things
Let me sometimes dance
Or stand perchance
Fixed and free
In a rhyme,
As poets do.
(1878 - 1917)
- and this is not an end of the matter; Thomas's poem begs for response!
Poem posted on Wednesday 5th July 2017.
There is a
we feel, having
there is a
Set one out
like a bait goat
and wait and
But watch out:
roving packs can
pull your words
find your stake
yanked and some
Kay Ryan - 16th US poet laureate.
(from 'Poetry', Volume 192, No.5 September 2008, Chicago, USA.)
More musings on the wonderful worldscape of words? Yes; coming next.
Poem posted on Saturday 1st July 2017.
An Afternoon Visit
Deep she sank into Henry's mind, such years ago.
Now with her children & her lawyer husband O
she is visited by Henry.
Burned she his gorgeous letters: he kept hers:
some assistant professor for the curious
& to become an associate
will utter with footnotes them, so all can read
& wonder at her spirit, tumultuous
as if a spirit could bleed,
now comes the visit mild & decorous
with Henry's child, & this will happen again
in the world of women and men.
A Henry James title. - Spare her, Mr Bones.
Preserve her the privacy which she now owns. -
- O yes, I will, I will.
After our deaths, then will the problem rise
when my blind eyes look into her blind eyes,
in the bronze damp & the chill.
25 June 68
'[John Berryman, 1914-1972] a major American poet, is said to be one of the confessional poets. This term means that the poet uses his poetry in order to comment upon himself as a human, stepping outside his own skin, as it were, and looking back as if at another person. To do this well one needs to be a fine poet and Berryman is; he used a set formula for this, writing about a character he called Henry who was himself. Occasionally, Henry became Mr. Bones as well. This persona appeared widely in Berryman's life's work, his dream songs, a very long sequence of short poems. In all over 400 were published in addition to other Henry pieces. Becoming detached from himself, Berryman was able to be objective, look at his own weaknesses and strengths and, by writing about them, was able to accept them and himself for what he was. Many of the poems are humorous, as if Berryman was laughing aside at himself and they are written in a conversational style,as if the poet was actually talking. However, a closer look at the poems shows that under the apparently easy style of writing there is a very fine artistry. Strict rhyme-schemes appear, consonance and alliteration abound and the choice of words is expert, saying what is meant with a sharp clarity. Visual imagery is common, too.'
(Berryman's poem and these notes are taken from 'Contemporary British and North American Verse', Oxford University Press, 1981)
Poem posted on Wednesday 28th June 2017.
The Butcher and Friends
- with variations
One thing leads to another, and the same goes for people including tradesmen, so it's hardly surprising that Hugo Williams' 'Butcher' should send me in search of his friend the Baker and their mate who made candlesticks, in an old jingle I'd known when a child, as 'Three Men in a Tub'. My enquiries reached back to find that at the end of the eighteenth century, volume two of Hook's Christmas Box published a nursery rhyme under the title 'Dub a dub dub', rather than the heading we know today, 'Rub-a-dub-dub'. This short poem remains with us in many variations, three of which are reproduced here:
No. 1. Rub-a-dub-dub,
Three men in a tub,
And who do you think they were?
The butcher, the baker,
They all sailed out to sea,
'Twas enough to make a man stare.
No. 2. Hey! rub-a-dub, ho! rub-a-dub, three maids in a tub,
And who do you think were there?
The butcher, the baker, the candlestick-maker,
And all of them gone to the fair.
(The above version has been interpreted as concerning three 'respectable' ladies watching "a dubious sideshow at a local fair".
No. 3. Rub a dub dub,
Three fools in a tub,
And who do you think they be?
The butcher, the baker,
The candlestick maker.
Turn them out, knaves all three.
Should you wish to probe further, look up Roud Folk Song Index, a database set up by Steve Roud, and turn to Index No. 3101. Happy Reading!
Posted on Saturday 24th June 2017.
The butcher carves veal for two.
The cloudy, frail slices fall over his knife.
His face is hurt by the parting sinews
And he looks up with relief, laying it on the scales.
He is a rosy young man with white eyelashes
Like a bullock. He always serves me now.
I think he knows about my life. How we prefer
To eat in when it's cold. How someone
With a foreign accent can only cook veal.
He writes the price on the grease-proof packet
And hands it to me courteously. His smile
Is the official seal on my marriage.
(From 'Symptoms of Loss', OUP 1965)
Coming next: further reflections on the butcher and friends.
Poem posted on Wednesday 21st June 2017.
The Old Ladies
They walked in straitened ways,
They had not great possessions;
They lived before the days
When ladies learned professions.
And one was rather mad
And all were rather trying,
So little life they had.
So long they spent a-dying.
In spotless white lace caps.
Just sitting, sitting, sitting,
Their hands upon their laps
Or occupied with knitting.
And now they all are gone.
Miss Alice and Miss Ella.
Miss Jane (at ninety-one)
And poor Miss Arabella.
The house they loved so well
And always kept so nicely,
Some auctioneer will sell
'At six o'clock precisely.'
It seemed as though their lives
Were wasted more than others':
They would have made good wives,
They might have made good mothers.
Yet this was their reward:
Through ninety years of leisure
Small precious things to guard,
None else had time to measure.
Their crystal was their pride,
Their porcelain a token,
Kept safe until they died
And handed on unbroken.
(1895 - 1969)
From 'Mournful Numbers', Macmillan, London & Basingstoke.
I have previously written that "poetry happens", and of course it happens anywhere at any time, even in the busiest of lives. Colin Ellis, born into a family of builders' merchants served during WW1 in the Leicestershire Royal Horse Artillery, was seriously wounded and won the Military Cross. The interruption of normal working life by WW2 saw him appointed Director of Home Grown Cereals at the Ministry of Food in Colwyn Bay.
Beware the persons sitting next to you, they might be carrying the germ!
Poem posted on Saturday 17th June 2017.
Holy Sonnet XIV
Batter my heart, three-person'd God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp'd town to another due,
Labour to admit you, but oh, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv'd, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betroth'd unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
(1573 - 1631)
In directing us towards John Donne, Marta Ador writes, "I recommend his Holy Sonnet 14. It expresses that ultimate desire at the heart of faith to be utterly devoured and transmuted by divinity. A death wish and the urge to ascend at the same time."
Donne is generally recognised as 'Numero Uno' of contemporary metaphysical poets which included Andrew Marvell, George Herbert and Henry Vaughan, noted for a vibrant use of language, inventive metaphor and sensual observations. Donne became an Anglican priest in 1615 and was made Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral, London in 1621. Great learning, a dollop of poverty and a secret marriage to Anne More with whom he had 12 children, all coloured his life. You could say he was a busy man! He died in 1631 and was buried at the old St.Paul's Cathedral.
Poem posted on Wednesday 14th June 2017.
FLY, envious Time, till thou run out thy race;
Call on the lazy leaden-stepping hours,
Whose speed is but the heavy plummet's pace;
And glut thyself with what thy womb devours,
Which is no more than what is false and vain,
And merely mortal dross;
So little is our loss,
So little is thy gain.
For when, as each thing bad thou has entomb'd
And last of all thy greedy self consumed,
Then long Eternity shall greet our bliss,
With an individual kiss;
And joy shall overtake us, as a flood,
When every thing that is sincere and good,
And perfectly divine,
With truth, and peace, and love, shall ever shine,
About the supreme throne
Of Him, to whose happy-making sight, alone,
When once our heavenly-guided soul shall climb,
Then all this earthly grossness quit,
Attired with stars, we shall for ever sit,
Triumphing over Death, and Chance, and thee, O Time!
(1608 - 1674)
This poem, kindly requested by Brian Jones, will, I imagine, figure also on many people's list of favourites; it is a pleasure to be reminded of it.
Along with Love and Death, Time itself is a perpetual theme occupying poets. In our own twentieth century we have Larkin posing the question, in his poem Days, "What are days for?", and finally shying away from his search for an acceptable conclusion. But here we have Milton trying to come to terms with Time three centuries earlier, in an era of religious flux and political upheaval in England - which, come to think of it, seems vaguely familiar today. John Milton, born in Bread Street, London, went on to be a civil servant for the Commonwealth of England under Oliver Cromwell, and it might seem surprising that in those troubled times his mind wasn't always occupied with more pressing business. But Milton was also a scholar and social commentator, writing not only in English but also in Italian, Greek and Latin. He was a campaigner for freedom of speech and of the Press. I think we would have liked and thanked him, Paradise Lost or not.
Poem posted on Saturday 10th June 2017.
Intro to Naming of Parts
I can no longer withhold from this website the one poem above all to convince me that poetry is a necessary part of my life, although it had lain dormant for a good half-century. The need for poetry was jerked out of hibernation when I came across 'Naming of Parts', by Henry Reed. It is a poem which seemed written especially for me, so closely does it mirror my own experience as a young Private, Infantry recruit undergoing weapons training in the back garden of a 'civvy' billet in Cleethorpes. The year was 1941, for both of us. In Reed's poem, the weapon is a rifle, most likely a Lee Enfield, survivor of WW1.
Reed, a bright, successful scholar who excelled in Latin and, as Greek wasn't included in the school curriculum, taught himself the language, was a reluctant army conscript, whose obvious intelligence eventually singled him out for transfer to the code-cracking team at Bletchley Park. My guess that his short army career began in an Officer Cadet Training Unit, leading to commissioned rank, seems confirmed when in the poem the basically educated instructor, who had worked his way up from the Other Ranks perhaps to become Sergeant, uses the word 'please' which is nowhere to be found in any military training manual; this tells me that those in his audience were 'Officer Material' therefore gentlemen above his class, and that the word might have been intended sarcastically. If so, Reed's use of 'please' in the poem might be seen as an astute response to that sarcasm. The change in diction between the early part of each stanza and the lines that follow, exactly capture the very different voices of the clipped-spoken Sergeant and the otherwise-thinking poet who gives away to us his secret Springtime tendency towards the call of sex rather than the call to arms.
Let's now reprise this masterpiece.
Naming of Parts
TO ALAN MICHELL
Vixi duellis nuper idoneus
Et militavi non sine gloria
Today we have naming of parts. Yesterday,
We had daily cleaning. And tomorrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But today,
Today we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all of the neighbouring gardens,
And today we have naming of parts.
This is the lower sling swivel. And this
Is the upper sling swivel, whose use you will see,
When you are given your slings. And this is the piling swivel,
Which in your case you have not got. The branches
Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures,
Which in our case we have not got.
This is the safety-catch, which is always released
With an easy flick of the thumb. And please do not let me
See anyone using his finger. You can do it quite easy
If you have any strength in your thumb. The blossoms
Are fragile and motionless, never letting anyone see
Any of them using their finger.
And this you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this
Is to open the breech, as you see. We can slide it
Rapidly backwards and forwards: we call this
Easing the spring. And rapidly backwards and forwards
The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers:
They call it easing the Spring.
They call it easing the Spring: it is perfectly easy
If you have any strength in your thumb: like the bolt,
And the breech, and the cocking- piece, and the point of balance,
Which in our case we have not got; and the almond blossom
Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards,
For today we have naming of parts.
(1914 - 1986)
The Latin phrase addressed to Reed's friend translates to something like: 'Recently I lived a life suitable for a soldier, and served not without glory'. It is a clever reference all the way back to a work by the poet Horace (Born 65 BC, Quintus Horatius Flaccus: 'Horace's Odes', Book Three, No. XXVI, 'To Venus', which tells of successful conquests with girls (puellis). But Reed substitutes 'd' for 'p', to now read 'duellis', referring to the soldierly life which was being forced upon him while he ruefully yearned for the Horatian métier.
Poem posted on Wednesday 7th June 2017.
Lawrence - not the bearded one - the one
Who dressed up as a wog and crashed his bike
Doing a ton, if those old jobs could make it then,
Lawrence said something about courage: Courage is like
A bank account, you keep on writing cheques
Until the day comes when there's nothing there,
No more to draw. You're broke. What next?
They tie you to the gunwheel in the lashing air
Or blind you with a bandage and lead you out
As target for small arms.
If you are very rich,
Got plenty in that bank, you'll probably get hit
But by the other lot; wind up in a different ditch
But just as dead. With extraordinary luck
You might survive and get back home quite safe.
But what if all your days you've been dead broke,
Never owned a cheque-book in your life,
Nothing in the bank at all?
You go to jail
Or try to bluff it out, let others pay your way.
It's not an easy game, and if you fail,
Are shown up as a fraud, no matter what you say
You'll get the gunwheel or the firing-squad.
It isn't fair? All right, but don't tell me.
The Company Commander is the man to see
Or, better still, complain direct to God.
This hard-hitting poem by Vernon Scannell calls for some background consideration before either Scannell or I be labelled 'Racist' and the poem 'Unacceptable'. Firstly, given that poets often set their subject against the backdrop of their own youth or previous times, and as Scannell and I share the same birth year (1922) and parallel WW2 army service, and would both have been brought up with similar norms to observe, I take the liberty of speaking for us both.
The age of "the gunwheel" and "firing-squad" was as recent as WW1, and was now etched into military lore, still talked about.
As for Scannell's use of the word 'wog', I remember my daughter as a child, having among her dolls not only a gollywog but also a piccaninny called Tondelayo; she had, too, a gollywog lapel badge, the logo of a well-known jam firm.
Scannell's soldiering in North Africa would have taught him, as well as a few phrases in Arabic, the common use of 'wog' among the allied troops, and "dressed up as a wog" would have been frequently used in describing Lawrence of Arabia. The term wog has somewhere been explained as an acronym for Wily Oriental Gentleman. However,I can offer no argument in favour of using derogatory language, but it's what we sometimes, perhaps unthinkingly do; my own guideline, which I suppose I sometimes fail to observe, is to avoid causing offence.
The poem's title 'Any Complaints?' is itself a tongue-in-cheek side-swipe at the military procedure requiring the Orderly Officer of the Day, accompanied by the Cook, walking through the Other Ranks' Mess at meal times, repeating this question at the head of each table, and recalls the conspiracy of silence in response, even though no gunwheel, or pack-drill had been mentioned.
Poem posted on Saturday 4th June 2017.
'But that was nothing to what things came out
From the sea-caves of Criccieth yonder.'
'What were they? Mermaids? Dragons? Ghosts?'
'Nothing at all of any things like that.'
'What were they, then?'
'All sorts of queer things,
Things never seen or heard or written about,
Very strange, un-Welsh, utterly peculiar
Things. Oh, solid enough they seemed to touch,
Had anyone dared it. Marvellous creation,
All various shapes and sizes, and no sizes,
All new, each perfectly unlike his neighbour,
Though all came moving slowly out together.'
'Describe just one of them.'
'I am unable.'
'What were their colours?'
'Mostly nameless colours,
Colours you'd like to see; but one was puce
Or perhaps more like crimson, but not purplish.
Some had no colour.'
'Tell me, had they legs?'
'Not a leg or foot among them that I saw.'
'But did these things come out in any order?
What o'clock was it? What was the day of the week?
Who else was present? How was the weather?'
'I was coming to that. It was half-past three
on Easter Tuesday last. The sun was shining.
The Harlech Silver Band played Marchog Jesu
On thirty-seven shimmering instruments,
Collecting for Caernarvon's (Fever) Hospital Fund.
The populations of Pwllheli, Criccieth,
Portmadoc, Borth, Tremadoc, Penrhyndeudraeth,
Were all assembled. Criccieth's mayor addressed them
First in good Welsh and then in fluent English,
Twisting his fingers in his chain of office,
Welcoming the things. They came out on the sand,
Not keeping time to the band, moving seaward
Silently at a snail's pace. But at last
The most odd, indescribable thing of all,
Which hardly one man there could see for wonder,
Did something recognizably a something.'
'It made a noise.'
'A frightening noise?'
'A musical noise? A noise of shuffling?'
'No, but a very loud, respectable noise -
Like groaning to oneself on Sunday morning
In Chapel, close before the second psalm.'
'What did the mayor do?'
'I was coming to that.'
Robert Graves, English poet and novelist born in Wimbledon, is perhaps most widely known for his memoir based on experiences during the 1914-1918 war, saying "Good-bye to all That". Having, within a month of the war's outbreak voluntarily enlisted, Graves was commissioned into the Royal Welch Fusiliers and served in France where he was seriously wounded in the battle of the Somme. 'Stopping a Blighty one' brought him home to hospital and convalescence, after which he was posted back to France. His first collection of poems, 'Over the Brazier' came out in 1916. The son of Alfred Perceval Graves, a celebrated Irish poet with strong Celtic interests, Robert Graves, himself a Celticist and student of Irish mythology, produced over 140 works, and when published in Germany, used his full name of Robert von Ranke Graves. From the 1960s to shortly before his death Graves exchanged letters with poet/comedian Spike Milligan, a collection of which was published in a book titled 'Dear Robert, Dear Spike' (A.Sutton, 1991). He died at his eventual home in Deya, Majorca, and was buried in the nearby cemetery.
Poem posted on Wednesday 31st May 2017.
Aberdarcy: the Main Square
By the new Boot's, a tool-chest with flagpoles
Glued on, and flanges, and a dirty great
Baronial doorway, and things like portholes,
Evans met Mrs. Rhys on their first date.
Beau Nash House, that sells Clothes for Gentlemen,
Jacobethan, every beam nailed on tight -
Real wood, though, mind you - was in full view when,
Lunching at the Three Lamps, she said all right.
And he dropped her beside the grimy hunk
Of castle, that with luck might one day fall
On to the Evening Post, the time they slunk
Back from that lousy weekend in Porthcawl.
The journal of some bunch of architects
Named this the worst town centre they could find;
But how disparage what so well reflects
Permanent tendencies of heart and mind?
All love demands a witness: something 'there'
Which it yet makes part of itself. These two
Might find Carlton House Terrace, St. Mark's Square,
A bit on the grand side. What about you?
There's little I can add about this pair; sex-crazed librarian, the one, but who is Mrs. Rhys? And, look you, Aberwhere? I searched, and drew a blank. What about you?
Poem posted on Saturday 27th May 2017.
But For Lust
But for lust we could be friends,
On each other's necks could weep:
In each other's arms could sleep
In the calm the cradle lends:
Lends awhile, and takes away.
But for hunger, but for fear,
Calm could be our day and year
From the yellow to the grey:
From the gold to the grey hair,
But for passion we could rest,
But for passion we could feast
On compassion everywhere.
Even in this night I know
By the aweful living dead,
By this craving tear I shed,
Somewhere, somewhere it is so.
Ruth Pitter, CBE, FRSL, (1897-1992) was born in Ilford and during her lifetime published eighteen volumes of new and collected poetry as well as holding a partnership in which she worked as painter in a decorative furniture company. In 1955 she became the first woman to receive the Queen’s Gold Medal For Poetry.
Poem posted on Wednesday 24th May 2017.
Twilight it is, and the far woods are dim, and the rooks cry and call.
Down in the valley the lamps, and the mist, and a star over all,
There by the rick, where they thresh, is the drone at an end,
Twilight it is, and I travel the road with my friend.
I think of the friends who are dead, who were dear long ago in the past,
Beautiful friends who are dead, though I know that death cannot last;
Friends with the beautiful eyes that the dust has defiled,
Beautiful souls who were gentle when I was a child.
(A Reader-written Poem)
Most pupils of the 1920-1930s British schoolrooms would, if asked, be able to quote at least a few words from 'Cargoes' or 'Sea-Fever' by John Masefield who became U.K. poet laureate in 1930 until his death in 1967. Both of these are memorable for their strong sensory imagery and rhythmic beat; his lesser-known yet haunting 'Twilight', you might agree, is a harder nut to crack. The ability to determine where factual reality gives way to metaphor might provide the nutcracker revealing this poem's kernel and I, for one, am still searching and seeming to go from warm to cold in the hunt.
When Masefield, born 1878, was only six, his mother died giving birth to his sister and he was sent to live with an aunt. After an unhappy boarding-school education he was sent to HMS Conway to train for a life at sea, which his aunt had thought would cure his wasteful addiction to reading. Contrarily, Masefield found that the sailor's life not only gave him lots of time for both reading and writing, but a taste for the story-telling with which the crew entertained each other. The die was cast. When eventually he was tiring of nautical life, his final sea voyage was on a windjammer bound for New York where he 'swallowed the anchor' and deserted ship. But what kind of lifestyle gives background for the reader of 'Twilight'? After leaving his ship Masefield spent the next few months as a vagrant in New York State, taking whatever odd jobs he could find, before settling for a couple of years to a regular job in a Yonkers, NY carpet factory. Here he was required to work long hours in return for a wage which bought him a wide range of literature, both modern and classical, some weeks as many as twenty books. He returned to England on a passenger steamer in 1897.
So is 'Twilight' a distillation resulting from his early unsettled nature and wide reading, a quest for the meaning of human life?
Yes, I think it is, because it leaves me with all the shared, unanswered questions about the wonderful gift of friendship. And this is why in recent years I've returned to 'Twilight' more times than I have been called back by 'Sea-Fever' or 'Cargoes'.
Poem posted on Saturday 20th May 2017.
A Rose by Any Other...
(Blake, Burns, Parker)
The Sick Rose
O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:
Has found thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy soul destroy.
A Red, Red Rose
My love is like a red, red rose
That's newly sprung in June:
My love is like the melody
That's sweetly played in tune.
As fair art thou, my bonnie lass,
So deep in love am I:
And I will love thee still, my dear,
Till a' the seas gang dry.
Till a' the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi' the sun:
And I will love thee still, my dear,
While the sands o' life shall run.
And fare thee weel, my only love,
And fare thee weel a while!
And I will come again, my love,
Thou' it were ten thousand mile.
One Perfect Rose
A single flow'r he sent me, since we met.
All tenderly his messenger he chose;
Deep-hearted, pure, with scented dew still wet -
One perfect rose.
I knew the language of the floweret;
'My fragile leaves,' it said, 'his heart enclose.'
Love long has taken for his amulet
One perfect rose.
Why is it no one ever sent me yet
One perfect limousine, do you suppose?
Ah no, it's always just my luck to get
One perfect rose.
Poems posted on Wednesday 17th May 2017.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting - -
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
(from 'Dream Work', 1986)
Thanks go to Jesse Leon who wrote, [This is] "one of the poems that has spoken to me deeply."
Mary Oliver, a winner of the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, was born in 1935 in Maple Heights, Cleveland, Ohio, and became one of America's best selling poets, noted for her keen, close-up observations of the natural world. In one of her many memorable quotes she advises, "Keep some room in your heart for the Unimaginable".
Poem posted on Saturday 13th May 2017.
Like Nothing Else in the Habitable Globe
On reading the letters and journals of Dora Carrington
Virginia loved the way her purple words
tore like a mayfly up and down the page.
She wrote just like she talked, her friends observed,
all in one runaway rush. When her ink was green
the lines would dance. Minute was minuet.
She couldn't spell - once told of a sogjourn
(which might have done if it had poured with rain)
and felt annoyed - I can't make it look better.
Her quick nib spiralled out mistakes she saw
but most remained. Small letters mixed with
spawning eccentric words to twin with thought.
(The quotation which forms the title of this poem
is Virginia Woolf's description of Carrington's letters.)
(from 'Speaking English', Five Leaves Poetry, 2007)
Dora de Houghton Carrington (1893-1932), generally known simply as 'Carrington', was a painter and decorative artist working in a variety of genres including landscape and portrait, notably one of E.M. Forster, and became a member of the Bloomsbury Group associating with Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey and Ralph Partridge. Her work received little critical comment during her lifetime because she very seldom exhibited, and the fact that her art was never signed on completion suggests that she didn't seek fame and that she lived the artist's life for art's sake. Beyond this, as became the fashion of her set, living through the uncertain times of WW1, she had a number of sexual affairs with both genders, never finding constancy despite her marriage to ex-soldier Ralph Partridge in 1921. However, her abiding love for the homosexual conscientious objector Lytton Strachey led to her decision after he died of cancer in January 1932, that life without him was no longer worth living: using a borrowed gun, she killed herself. Her art lives on, in London galleries, in a number of books written about her life, and in the 1995 biographical film 'Carrington' written by Michael Holroyd, starring Emma Thompson, Jonathan Pryce and Steven Waddington.
Poem posted on Wednesday 10th May 2017.
I have come to the borders of sleep,
The unfathomable deep
Forest where all must lose
Their way, however straight,
Or winding, soon or late;
They cannot choose.
Many a road and track
That, since the dawn's first crack,
Up to the forest brink,
Deceived the travellers,
Suddenly now blurs,
And in they sink.
Here love ends,
Despair, ambition ends;
All pleasure and all trouble,
Although most sweet or bitter,
Here ends in sleep that is sweeter
Than tasks most noble.
There is not any book
Or face of dearest look
That I would not turn from now
To go into the unknown
I must enter, and leave, alone,
I know not how.
The tall forest towers;
Its cloudy foliage lowers
Ahead, shelf above shelf;
Its silence I hear and obey
That I may lose my way
(1878 - 1917)
Felix Hodcroft writes: "You ask for us to share poems we love. It was the hundredth anniversary, last Sunday, [9th April 2017] of Edward Thomas's death. A great, influential and still much-underrated poet. I offer his multi-levelled masterpiece 'Lights out'."
It will always be a privilege to revisit an Edward Thomas poem and search for, if not discover, solutions to his subtle clues; in this case Felix's brief description, 'multi-levelled' persists throughout the poem. It might not be a great exaggeration to suggest there are as many answers as there are readers of this posting.
My own reading of the poem suggests that the first couple of stanzas are about our busyness with the workaday strivings which allow little time for rest, until, in the third verse, the 'forest' of sleep overcomes all resistance and obliterates a the desperations, hopes and even love, and forces us into submission.
Stanza 4 seems an acknowledgement of our eventual mortality, and even, with background information given us later, perhaps a prophetic hint of his impending sudden death, "I know not how"?
With hindsight, my main impression of the final enigmatic verse, is of a deeply troubled mind, 'shell-shocked - as it used to be called - by the ravages of war; an imagery of forest-edge flowers (poppies?), with the forest "shelf above shelf" (bodies of the 'fallen' ?), the heard and obeyed silence (that of the corpses?) closing with the poet's readiness (eagerness?) for his own death in the face of it all.
It is sometimes said that the poet - and indeed any creative artist - has one less skin than the rest of us. This thought might be reinforced by the following biographical details:
Although a peace-loving family man already above the age for compulsory military service in July 1915, Edward Thomas voluntarily enrolled with the Artists Rifles, then in November 1916, was commissioned and transferred to the Royal Garrison Artillery, joining the regiment as Second Lieutenant. He was killed shortly after his arrival in the Pas-de-Calais during the Battle of Arras. His wife, Helen, recalls his leaving home to join the war, in her Memoir 'World Without End'; you can read a brief extract by turning to the Prose page and scrolling down to the entry of 22nd October 2016, on which same date Thomas's poem 'And You, Helen' appeared on the Poetry page.
As always your variant interpretations would be welcome via the Contacts page.
Poem posted on Saturday 6th May 2017.
A Kite for Michael and Christopher
All through that Sunday afternoon
a kite flew above Sunday,
a tightened drumhead, an armful of blown chaff.
I'd seen it grey and slippy in the making,
I'd tapped it when it dried out white and stiff,
I'd tied the bows of newspaper
along its six-foot tail.
But now it was far up like a small black lark
and now it dragged as if the bellied string
were a wet rope hauled upon
to lift a shoal.
My friend says that the human soul
is about the weight of a snipe,
yet the soul at anchor there,
the string that sags and ascends,
weigh like a furrow assumed into the heavens.
Before the kite plunges down into the wood
and this line goes useless
take in your two hands, boys, and feel
the strumming, rooted, long-tailed pull of grief.
You were born fit for it.
Stand in here in front of me
and take the strain.
Responding to a television interviewer, Heaney reflected on this poem, "The dedication to the children was because we both belong to the children...It's a very serious poem, it's a grievous poem in a way. It was risky to write it, in a way, I felt. I dedicated it to them, but it was remembering my own father. The one extraordinary thing that he did for me in childhood was fly a kite. He wasn't inclined to fly kites, he was rarely playing. He had a playful sense of the world, but he was a country man and a farmer, and he didn't tend to go and play with the children on the strand or on the beach or touch a football or anything like that. But the one extraordinary thing I remember was the kite, and the kite is extraordinary in itself. It looked so limber and light up there, but there was a powerful pull. There's a weight and it goes up, but it's hanging. Gravity is in that string. So it's that sensation that I remembered and it then became the long-tailed pull of grief. The poem. Where that came from, I don't know, but it's sunt lacrimae rerum, as Virgil says. Our mortality involves weeping and you'd better be ready yourself for it. The comment in the fourth stanza that the human soul weighs as much as a snipe may be a reference to Fludd* since that is probably the only other place where the idea of the human soul having weight is linked to kites; but 40 pounds is far too heavy for a snipe. Poetic licence, I suppose."
*Robert Fludd, 1574-1637, (born in Milgate House, Bearstead, just a few miles down the road from where I'm typing this) an English physician and astrologer with occult interests, who wrote in Latin and was known also as Robertus de Fluctibus, had published, in 1619, 'A History of the Kite in Europe'.
Poem posted on Wednesday 3rd May 2017.
'You are the bread and the knife,
The crystal goblet and the wine...'
- Jacques Crickillon
You are the bread and the knife,
the crystal goblet and the wine.
You are the dew on the morning grass
and the burning wheel of the sun.
You are the white apron of the baker,
and the marsh birds suddenly in flight.
However, not the wind in the churchyard,
the plums on the counter,
or the house of cards.
And you are certainly not the pine-scented air.
It is possible that you are the fish found under the bridge,
maybe even the pigeon on the general's head,
but you are not even close
to being the field of cornflowers at dusk.
And a quick look in the mirror will show
that you are neither the boots in the corner
nor the boat asleep in its boathouse.
It might interest you to know,
speaking of the plentiful imagery of the world,
that I am the sound of the rain on the roof.
I also happen to be the shooting star,
the evening paper blowing down an alley
and the basket of chestnuts on the kitchen table.
I am also the moon in the trees
and the blind woman's tea cup.
But don't worry, I'm not the bread and the knife.
You are still the bread and the knife.
You will always be the bread and the knife,
not to mention the crystal goblet and - somehow - the wine.
Thanks to Leah Tucker for sharing this favourite poem.
The epigraph, translated from the French writing of Belgian-born Jacques Crickillon, triggers off this delightful journey of fantasy and takes it full circle, bringing us eventually back to the original concept, leaving us in the tangled back garden of our own emotions.
William James Collins, United States Poet Laureate 2001-2003, published 'Litany' in Poetry Magazine in 2002 and it became immediately popular; it must surely have struck chords with the millions day-dreaming of how best to tell some-one how much they were loved. Billy Collins here taps fruitfully into "the plentiful imagery of the world" and takes his readers with him.
I remember, back in my early twenties and deeply in love with the dream of finding a girl to fall in love with, becoming infatuated with a Jerome Kern song, its lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein going like this:-
'You are the promised kiss of springtime
that makes the lonely winter seem long.
You are the breathless hush of evening
that lingers on the brink of a lovely song.
You are the angel glow that lights a star,
the dearest things I know are what you are...'
I once had the words by heart, and 'All The Things You Are' became for a while my 'girlfriend' until, I'm happy to say, reality intervened with a chance meeting and a dance to the changed music of Glen Miller. The dreams I still dream while awake continue to sustain me, like when I imagine Mr. Billy Collins reading all this, and his knowing that, for this old dreamer, his poem has done its job - and is still working.
Poem posted on Saturday 29th April 2017.
The cow is of the bovine ilk;
One end is moo, the other milk.
(1902 - 1971)
Nash's poem was requested by Lane Stroud whose letter of introduction may be read in full by clicking onto Readers' Responses.
Poem posted Wednesday 26th April 2017.
The Garden of Proserpine
Here, where the world is quiet;
Here, where all trouble seems
Dead winds' and spent waves' riot
In doubtful dreams of dreams;
I watch the green field growing
For reaping folk and sowing,
For harvest-time and mowing,
A sleepy world of streams.
I am tired of tears and laughter,
And men that laugh and weep;
Of what may come hereafter
For men that sow to reap:
I am weary of days and hours,
Blown buds of barren flowers,
Desires and dreams and powers
And everything but sleep.
Here life has death for neighbour,
And far from eye or ear
Wan winds and wet waves labour,
Weak ships and spirits steer;
They drive adrift, and wither
They wot not who make thither;
But no such winds blow hither,
And no such things grow here.
No growth of moor or coppice,
No heather-flower or wine,
But bloomless buds of poppies,
Green grapes of Proserpine,
Pale beds of blowing rushes
Where no leaf blooms or blushes
Save this whereout she crushes
For dead men deadly wine.
Pale, without name or number,
In fruitless fields of corn,
They bow themselves and slumber
All night till light is born;
And like a soul belated,
In hell and heaven unmated,
By cloud and mist abated
Comes out of darkness morn.
Though one were strong as seven,
He too with death shall dwell,
Nor wake with wings in heaven,
Nor weep for pains in hell;
Though one were fair as roses,
His beauty clouds and closes;
And well though love reposes,
In the end it is not well.
Pale, beyond porch and portal,
Crowned with calm leaves she stands
Who gathers all things mortal
With cold immortal hands;
Her languid lips are sweeter
Than love's who fears to greet her
To men that mix and meet her
From many times and lands.
She waits for each and other,
She waits for all men born;
Forgets the earth her mother,
The life of fruits and corn;
And spring and seed and swallow
Take wing for her and follow
Where summer song rings hollow
And flowers are put to scorn.
There go the loves that wither,
The old loves with wearier wings;
And all dead years draw thither,
And all disastrous things;
Dead dreams of days forsaken,
Blind buds that snows have shaken,
Wild leaves that winds have taken,
Red strays of ruined springs.
We are not sure of sorrow,
And joy was never sure;
To-day will die to-morrow;
Time stoops to no man's lure;
And love, grown faint and fretful,
With lips but half regretful
Sighs, and with eyes forgetful
Weeps that no loves endure.
From too much love of living,
From hope and fear set free,
We thank with brief thanksgiving
Whatever gods may be
That no life lives for ever;
That dead men rise up never;
That even the weariest river
Winds somewhere safe to sea.
Then star nor sun shall waken,
Nor any change of light:
Nor sound of waters shaken,
Nor any sound or sight:
Nor wintry leaves nor vernal,
Nor days nor things diurnal;
Only the sleep eternal
In an eternal night.
Algernon Charles Swinburne
(1837 - 1909)
This poem, a tour de force in rhyme and alliteration, was requested by Alexander Erbil, with the tentative 'It's a longer one, but it is the best one I have ever read.'
It is indeed a lengthy work, reflecting its concern with things
repetitive; timelessness. Proserpine is the Latin name of the Greek goddess Persephone who was married to Hades. The myth has it that she had a garden in the underworld with ever-blooming poppies which when picked would bring a waking sleep causing travellers to lose their sense of direction. She was known as the goddess of death and eternal sleep; it was also said that she would return to the upper world in Spring.
This is admittedly a very sketchy description of the backdrop to Swinburne's poem, but I hope it will help when you re-read the piece.
The poem next in line to follow Swinburne's garden marathon is requested by Lane Stroud, whose insightful and informative letter deserves printing in full on the Readers' Responses page at the same time of posting. As for the poem itself, no words of mine should defile the space it occupies, so I'll say them here:
A poem is a poem is a poem. Watch this space!
Poem posted Saturday 22nd April 2017.
This Spanish poem with English translation is selected by Iván Espinosa who sums up its importance to him, "...it means a lot to me, it always makes me feel good when I read it...because it helps me to feel less lonely with my own feelings." Iván invites our comments:-
Volverán las oscuras golondrinas
en tu balcón sus nidos a colgar,
y otra vez con el ala a sus cristales
Pero aquellas que el vuelo refrenaban
tu hermosura y mi dicha a conemplar,
aquellas que aprendieron nuestros nombres...
iesas... no volverán!.
Volverán las tupidas madreselvas
de tu jardín las tapias a escalar,
y otra vez a la tarde aún más hermosas
sus flores se abrirán.
Pero aquellas, cuajadas de rocío
cuyas gotas mirábamos temblar
y caer como lágrimas del día...
iesas... no volverán!
Volverán del amor en tus oídos
las palabras ardientes a sonar;
tu corazón de su profundo sueño
tal vez despertará.
Pero mudo y absorto y de rodillas
como se adora a Dios ante su altar,
como yo te he querido...; desengáñate,
iasí... no te querrán!
Gustavo Adolfo Becker
The dark swallows will return again
to hang their nests from your balcony,
again will their wings beat softly on your windowpane,
But those that paused for a moment in their flight
to see your beauty and my happiness,
those that learned to sing our names...
they... will not return!
Thick clusters of honeysuckle, to your garden will return,
lovelier than ever,
climbing the mud-brick walls, in afternoon,
their perfumed flowers opened full.
But those that were covered with heavy drops of dew,
which we watched tremble and fall,
like daytime tears...
they... will not return!
Love, again, will return
to sound with burning whispers in your ears;
again, perhaps, will your heart
be roused from languid sleep.
But silent and engrossed and fondly kneeling,
as God before his altar is adored,
as I have loved you dear... be not deluded,
love like this... will not return!
On my first reading I saw this as what I call an 'Alfie' poem begging the question in Burt Bacharach's song for the film 'Alfie', in which the girlfriend whose love is not being returned in kind, ponders two differing interpretations of love, "What's it all about, Alfie?" and continues to grapple with the problem. I offer this analogy with the deepest respect to Gustavo Adolfo Becker whose poem confronts us with a number of possibilities but rightly leaves the evaluation to his readers, who surely will not all agree on the conclusions.
Having now read the translation many times and persevered with the Spanish as best I'm able, I'm still undecided. The oscuras golondrinas/dark swallows of the first stanza immediately suggest a death. Of a person or of a love? Towards the poem's end, 'love, again, will return' seems to rule out death of a loved one, but what does the 'languid sleep' signify? The past tense of 'as I have loved you dear' tells me that the poem's speaker is lamenting the loss of his (her?) own love.
Ah, but what if ...? Any suggestions?
Poem posted Wednesday 19th April 2017.
Views Across The Years
Three Or So
That isn't me, is it?
Relaxing in that leather chair,
In that tacky Greek café.
People talking and drinking,
Music blaring and the rhythm thumping,
Me just sitting 'n' smirking.
First time I'd been abroad,
First time ever in Greece.
I kept irritating my mum 'cause
I wanted to go swimming,
Splash out on the beach,
And get in the way of the
Might be going back again,
To those sparkling beaches next year,
With my mum and brother
And my mum's best friend.
But I'll be thirteen then
Not two or three
And I'll never have the guts to
Interrupt a volleyball match again!
(from 'Spellbound', Poetry Now Young Writers, 1998) ISBN 0 75430 030 7
The World at Twelve
I peeped inside your room to see the wall
where Mum's subaqua mural crowns her long
devotion to the practice of fine arts,
and, yes! you're into Spice Girls now, with all
the actions, all the words of every song!
Encyclopedic knowledge of The Charts
is de rigueur and so, from just above
your bed the five smile down - top of the pops
with Boyzone. Smash Hits ring the VDU
that guards your desk. 'Don't Stop Looking For Love',
you sing; palazzo pants, peep-belly-tops
and platform shoes, your dream. Dreams can come true
so, Katy-Love, although your heart may ache
at times, be sure, when life's a piece of cake
you taste it to the full, don't miss one crumb.
Hold to your dreams, the best is yet to come.
Maurice Rutherford, Ovingham 1998.
(from 'And Saturday Is Christmas', Shoestring Press)
Poems posted Sunday 16th April 2017.
- for Olive
We hadn't thought to meet again
so soon after that first glance,
mutually approving, in the pub
before the dance. Introduction
superfluous. Tuxedo Junction. In the Mood.
I overstayed my leave, then back
to barracks; a last few tedious months
and every day our letters,
each repeating a love
that neither knew the measure of.
Late summer and I came home
to stay, to shake out a future
from the given cardboard box -
grey pinstripe and all.
And all that September we watched
the leaves re-colour our secret wood,
and months later, on the bus
passing that place, you would press
your knee to mine, and it was as good.
Our wedding in April; the honeymoon.
Primroses from a Sussex wood
pressed between cellophane sheets
in an album of fading fashions.
And so again to September, your dirndls
put away, the borrowed wrap-overs
letting out our secret
inch by flowered inch
to a brittle winter.
The burnished snow rejecting
my prints each evening
to your ward. Our firstborn.
The having, holding,
and the long, reluctant letting go.
(from 'And Saturday is Christmas', Shoestring Press).
Olive and I married on 12.04.1947 and our marriage lasted 65 years and 49 days until her death on 30.05.2012. 'Epithalamium' was written to celebrate our 40th (Ruby) anniversary. When Olive died, one of me died with her; this other survives to embrace her on what should have been our 70th (Platinum).
The spoken words may be heard by turning to the Readings page.
Poem posted Wednesday 12th April 2017.
A Few Words On The Soul
We have a soul at times.
No one's got it non-stop,
Day after day,
year after year
may pass without it.
it will settle for a while
only in childhood's fears and raptures.
Sometimes only in astonishment
that we are old.
It rarely lends a hand
in uphill tasks,
like moving furniture,
or lifting luggage,
or going miles in shoes that pinch.
It usually steps out
whenever meat needs chopping
or forms have to be filled.
For every thousand conversations
it participates in one,
if even that,
since it prefers silence.
Just when our body goes from ache to pain,
it slips off duty.
it doesn't like seeing us in crowds,
our hustling for a dubious advantage
and creaky machinations make it sick.
Joy and sorrow
aren't two different feelings for it.
It attends us
only when the two are joined.
We can count on it
when we're sure of nothing
and curious about everything.
Among the material objects
it favors clocks with pendulums
and mirrors, which keep on working
even when no one is looking.
It won't say where it comes from
or when it's taking off again
though it's clearly expecting such questions.
We need it
it needs us
for some reason too.
Lauren Perry's substantial introduction to this poem can be read on the Readers' Responses page, it closes with a frank declaration: "I don't even really believe in a soul. And yet something within me is moved by these words, and responds to them. I hope you like it."
I, too, am not at all convinced about the soul but, yes, I do enjoy the poem for its sustained wit and especially for its concluding open verdict which must surely leave believers amused yet unthreatened. Thank you, Lauren, for sharing your choice.
Poem posted Saturday 8th April 2017.
Garlic and sapphires in the mud
Clot the bedded axle-tree.
The trilling wire in the blood
Sings below inveterate scars
Appeasing long forgotten wars.
The dance along the artery
The circulation of the lymph
Are figured in the drift of stars
Ascend to summer in the tree
We move above the moving tree
In light upon the figured leaf
And hear upon the sodden floor
Below, the boarhound and the boar
Pursue their pattern as before
But reconciled among the stars.
At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from or towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.
The inner freedom from the practical desire,
The release from action and suffering, release from the inner
And the outer compulsion, yet surrounded
By a grace of sense, a white light still and moving,
Erhebung without motion, concentration
Without elimination, both a new world
And the old made explicit, understood
In the completion of its partial ecstasy,
The resolution of its partial horror.
Yet the enchainment of past and future
Woven in the weakness of the changing body,
Protects mankind from heaven and damnation
Which flesh cannot endure.
Time past and time future
Allow but a little consciousness.
To be conscious is not to be in time
But only in time can the moment in the rose-garden,
The moment in the arbour where the rain beat,
The moment in the draughty church at smokefall
Be remembered; involved with past and future.
Only through time time is conquered.
This poem, from the first of Eliot's Four Quartets, 'Burnt Norton', was sent in by Kalyb Prince. For further reading beyond the other three associated poems, the remaining three of the Quartets, written during WW2, are 'East Coker', 'The Dry Salvages' and 'Little Gidding'. Thanks go to Kalyb for re-whetting our appetites and tempting us to the whole banquet.
Poem posted Wednesday 5th April.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.
We think by feeling. What is there to know?
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
Of those so close behind me, which are you?
God bless the Ground! I shall wake softly there,
And learn by going where I have to go.
Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?
The lonely worm climbs up a winding stair;
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
Great Nature has another thing to do
To you and me; so take the lively air;
And, lovely, learn by going where to go.
This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.
This memorable villanelle by Roethke, shared by Dani Weisel and requested also by John Davis, is not weakened by some slight tweakings of the repeat lines, rather, it strengthens in its powerful impact. A masterpiece, and a valuable example of the poet's first having learnt the rules before gaining the wisdom to break them.
Poem posted Sunday 2nd April 2017.
Dear Readers and Selectors,
This Portuguese poem with a following English translation is the first of those received via Reddit. It brings all others one step closer. Thank you for your patience.
Amor é um Fogo que Arde sem se Ver
Amor é um Fogo que Arde sem se Ver;
É ferida que dói, e não se sente;
É um contentamento descontente;
É dor que desatina sem doer.
É um não querer mais que bem querer;
É um andar solitário entre a gente;
É nunca contentar-se e contente;
É um cuidar que ganha em se perder;
É querer estar preso por vontade;
É servir a quem vence, o vencedor;
É ter com quem nos mata, lealdade.
Mas como causar pode seu favor
Nos corações humanos amizade,
Se tão contrário a si é o mesmo Amor?
Luís Vas de Camões
An English translation from the Português:-
Love is a Fire that burns unseen
Love is a fire that burns unseen,
a wound that aches but isn't felt,
an always discontent contentment,
a pain that rages without hurting,
a longing for nothing but to long,
a loneliness in the midst of people,
a never feeling pleased when pleased,
a passion that gains when lost in thought.
It's being enslaved of your own free will;
it's counting your defeat a victory;
it's staying loyal to your killer.
But if it's so contradictory,
how can Love, when Love chooses,
bring human hearts into sympathy?
Luis Vaz De Camões
This English translation of a deep-probing introspective Portuguese sonnet searching for the meaning of love, together with the original script, is shared with thanks to Noah Zino.
It has often occurred to me that we English speakers are linguistically lazy, if indeed not arrogant, in expecting the rest of the world to grapple with our language and fickle pronunciations, instead of we with theirs. By 'our' language I mean what has over long years become our language, much of which was originally plundered from other tongues, or pressed upon us by greater nations. If my supposition is correct, we are losing out on much that is beautiful. For instance, isn't the first word of the poem, 'Amor', together with its various spellings and pronunciations in other languages, more romantically musical than the rather abrupt sounding 'love'? Doesn't the sound of the word amor suggest a longer-lasting emotion than its monosyllabic English equivalent? We don't even need to know how exactly to pronounce the Portuguese first line, simply guess and say it out loud to hear the music and warmth in its feminine word endings. Try, after being primed with the meanings in the translation, reading aloud the whole of the original work. It could be well worthwhile, if we open our arms and hearts to any language which at first comes strange to our ears.
Poem posted Wednesday 29th March 2017.
A free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wing
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.
But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.
The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.
The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn bright lawn
and he names the sky his own
But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.
The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.
(from 'Shaker, Why Don't You Sing?', Random House, 1983).
Differing from those in the previous poem, both cage and grave here become metaphorical, the captives' attempts to sing more successful, and the song heard much farther afield. It doesn't take much of an imaginative leap to see the cage as any one of the world's concentration camps housing political prisoners: Robbeneiland, say, muzzling Nelson Mandela for so many long years, and the eventual success of his re-echoed song demonstrated by his becoming President of South Africa (as also did two other former detainees, Kgalema Motlanthe and Jacob Zuma).
But there are many other unsung sufferers in 'open prisons' around the world, barred from enjoying the freedoms of expression and passage available to the more fortunate among us: what about them, and their songs? And there are those of us who become encaged simply by the reaction of others to the colour of our skin, the shape of our eyes or nose, and even to the number of complete and fully manoeuvrable limbs gifted to us, and so on. There are many, many songs to be heard. For readers who'd like to know more about the remarkable life from which this poem was sung, Random House also published a seven-volume autobiography of Maya Angelou.
Poem posted Saturday 25th March 2017.
The Caged Goldfinch
Within a churchyard, on a recent grave,
I saw a little cage
That jailed a goldfinch. All was silence save
Its hops from stage to stage.
There was inquiry in its wistful eye,
And once it tried to sing;
Of him or her who placed it there, and why,
No one knew anything.
Confining any creature - or person - in a cage is a violation, and I say this as one who has kept an aviary, albeit of birds bred in captivity and meticulously cared for. Captivity, physical or mental, is still exactly that; imprisonment.
In Hardy's brief poem we have the shock of the tiny prison left on a grave, with no carer present, and we shall never know the captive's fate. But the difficult suggestion to accept comes in that stark final line; are we being invited to include ourselves among the none who "knew anything", as on those occasions when a wrong was being done to someone or something, while we have looked the other way and kept schstum? This is a disturbing poem. Imprisonment takes many forms, not always requiring bars, walls, fences or other physical constraints. We shall look further into these injustices in the next poem we'll share.
Poem posted Wednesday 22nd March 2017.
Strew on her roses, roses,
And never a spray of yew.
In quiet she reposes:
Ah! would that I did too.
Her mirth the world required:
She bath'd it in smiles of glee.
But her heart was tired, tired,
And now they let her be.
Her life was turning, turning,
In mazes of heat and sound.
But for peace her soul was yearning,
And now peace laps her ground.
Her cabin'd, ample Spirit,
It flutter'd and fail'd for breath.
To-night it doth inherit
The vasty Hall of Death.
Requiescat: Let him/her rest in peace.
Poem posted Saturday 18th March 2017.
Little time now
and so much hasn't
been put down as I
should have done it,
But does it matter?
It's all been written
so well by my betters,
and what they wrote
has been my joy.
Nunc Dimittis: Now let depart. From the Gospel according to Luke, 2.29, 'Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace.'
It is a pleasure to post this poem and comments, and thanks go to Rodney Wood who took the trouble of sending it via the Contact/Submit page, in the spirit of sharing with us his own pleasure .
In his comments Rodney tells us that James Laughlin was an American poet born in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania who, in 1935 was persuaded by Ezra Pound to put aside his poetic ambitions and "do something useful, like publishing." Thus prompted, Laughlin set up as publisher of New Directions and went on to publish the innovative William Carlos Williams [he of 'The Red Wheelbarrow'], Henry Miller, Dylan Thomas, Delmore Schwartz et al. Laughlin is recorded having written, "It is better to be read by eight hundred readers and be a good writer than be read by all the world and be Somerset Maugham." [Maugham was a prolific British playwright, novelist and short story writer, reputedly the highest paid author of the 1930s]. Laughlin continued writing some poetry and these nine lean lines of 'Nunc Dimittis', which succinctly sum up for him, appeared towards the end of his life.
Rodney, whom I first met at a poetry book launch in The Voice Box, in the South Bank's National Theatre in 1989, goes on to tell us something about poetry in his own life:
"I didn't like poetry at school and only started reading it in my late 20s. My guide was Martin Seymour-Smith's monumental Guide to Modern Literature which introduced me to such stunning writers as Trakl, Vallejo and Mandelstam as well as the poetry of Spain, Italy and Eastern Europe. It's impossible to compete with them so the joy lies in reading them. The only thing you can do as far as writing is concerned is be yourself and discover that maybe there is something only you can say. It has taken me a lifetime to get there."
I'm sure he'd welcome your responses.
Poem posted Wednesday 15th March 2017.
Delirium in Vera Cruz
Where has the tenderness gone, he asked the mirror
Of the Biltmore Hotel, curato 216. Alas,
Can its reflection lean against the glass
Too, wondering where I have gone, into what horror?
Is that it staring at me now with terror
Behind your frail tilted barrier? Tenderness
Was here, in this very bedroom, in this
Place, its form seen, cries heard,by you. What error
Is here, Am I that rashed image?
Is this the ghost of the love you reflected?
Now with a background of tequila, stubs, dirty collars,
Sodium perborate, and a scrawled page
To the dead, telephone off the hook? In rage
He smashed all the glass in the room. (Bill: $50.)
My search for any review or critical comment on this harrowing poem lead to nothing more than biographical details of its author. It emerges that, apart from his writing of novels and poetry, an earlier major achievement was his winning at age 15 the Junior Golf Championship at the Royal Liverpool Golf Club, Hoylake, and you don't do this without having a wholesome breakfast and a fee-paying father, in his case a successful Cotton Broker. Unfortunately the young Lowry's golf prowess didn't grow strong enough to carry the bunkers of adult life, where he became plagued by relationship difficulties with women and with alcohol. You couldn't call his life a happy one.
I would gladly have forgone this peripheral detail for any thoughts on Lowry's poem and its background, and I earnestly plead for any enlightenment you, dear reader, might offer. Please click on Contact and Submit.
Poem posted Saturday 11th March 2017.
A Phone off the Hook
Left for five minutes
it starts up a wail, a siren,
its own private emergency.
It's the agony
of being left like this, open
but with the connection broken.
It would rather have whatever
you might spit or whisper into it
than this. The receiver put down wrong,
balanced at a bad angle
like a broken bone,
and no one coming to mend it.
(from 'Tilt', Jonathan Cape, 2007)
Poem posted Wednesday 8th March 2017.
'How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish'd, not to shine in use!'
Yes, that's his chair, and him asleep - his dream
perhaps the one in which he pans for gold
successfully along a mountain stream,
or if not that, could be he dreams the old
repeat of how he takes the trophy when
his chip-shot to the long eighteenth goes in.
The dullness, even rust, awaiting men
like him who're tossed into the offcut bin
with yesterday's steel pen and office stool
might mean a one-way ticket to the void
for lesser men than Smith, but he's no fool -
two fingers to the gainfully employed,
let Penny think he frets his time away -
Smith's chuckling in his dreams again today.
(from 'And Saturday is Christmas', Shoestring Press)
Poem posted Saturday 4th March 2017.
The brightest star came out, the day-star, dawn's star
And the seafaring ship drew near to Ithaca, to home
And that harbour named after the old man of the sea, two
Headlands huddling together as breakwater, windbreak,
Haven where complicated vessels float free of moorings
In their actual mooring-places.
At the harbour-head
A long-leaved olive overshadows a shadowy cave
Full of bullauns, basins hollowed out of stone, stone
Jars for honey-bees, looms of stone on which are woven
Sea-purplish things - also, inextinguishable springs
And two ways in, one looking north where men descend
While the other faces south, a footpath for the gods.
When they had scrunched ashore at this familiar cove
And disembarked, they lifted Odysseus out of his hollow
Just as he was, linen sheet and glossy rug and all,
And put him to bed on the sand, still lost in sleep.
It could be said that old tales are the best - and the better still for each retelling. Well, they don't come much older, or much better than the Greek myth of Homer's 'Odyssey', known also by its Roman title 'Ulysses', about the travels of the king of Ithaca who, after his part in the Trojan war, set sail for the journey home but took ten years to complete it, during which time his wife Penelope and son Telemachus had presumed him dead.
Here, Michael Longley tells his story of the final stage of the Odyssey in a comfortingly soft-pedal style ending as almost a bel canto lullaby, and in the process turns myth into the story-teller's truth. A lovely bedtime tale for children and adults alike and, who knows, perhaps of some consolation to the many waiting families who ever received the dreaded 'Missing believed dead' letter.
Poem posted Wednesday 1st March 2017.
Let me put it this way
Let me put it this way:
if you came to lay
your sleeping head
against my arm or sleeve,
and if my arm went dead,
or if I had to take my leave
at midnight, I should rather
cleave it from the joint or seam
than make a scene
or bring you round.
how does that sound?
(from 'Book of Matches', Faber & Faber, 1993)
Poem posted Saturday 25th February 2017.
That was why I was crying, as you talked on the 'phone:
I saw one image too many. I was watching it alone.
I saw a dog with only three legs, with something in its jaw.
It looked just like a bit of flesh; it caught me on the raw.
You thought that I was laughing, then; I'd changed the channel too.
You didn't see the things I saw; you weren't forced to view
just line on line of burnt-out trucks, smoke-blacked, brown with rust
and all that stuff they'd tried to take vivid in the dust.
I think it was the Carmen rollers, though, that really did the trick.
I think it was thinking of what the dog had that almost made me sick.
I think the torn huddle of bodies it was that made me switch it off -
I'm crying at this bloody traffic jam. You thought it a laugh or cough.
('Peterloo Preview 3', 1993)
Poem posted Wednesday 22nd February 2017.
I Remember, I Remember
Coming up England by a different line
For once, early in the cold new year,
We stopped, and, watching men with number-plates
Sprint down the platform to familiar gates,
'Why, Coventry!' I exclaimed. 'I was born here.'
I leant far out, and squinnied for a sign
That this was still the town that had been 'mine'
So long, but found I wasn't even clear
Which side was which. From where those cycle-crates
Were standing, had we annually departed
For all those family hols?...A whistle went:
Things moved. I sat back, staring at my boots.
'Was that,' my friend smiled, 'where you "have your roots"?'
No, only where my childhood was unspent,
I wanted to retort, just where I started:
By now I've got the whole place clearly charted.
Our garden, first: where I did not invent
Blinding theologies of flowers and fruits,
And wasn't spoken to by an old hat.
And where we have that splendid family
I never ran to when I got depressed,
The boys all biceps and the girls all chest,
Their comic Ford, their farm where I could be
'Really myself'. I'll show you, come to that,
The bracken where I never trembling sat,
Determined to go through with it; where she
Lay back, and 'all became a burning mist'.
And, in those offices, my doggerel
Was not set up in blunt ten-point, nor read
By a distinguished cousin of the mayor,
Who didn't call and tell my father There
Before us, had we the gift to see ahead -
'You look as if you wished the place in Hell,'
My friend said, 'judging from your face.' 'Oh well,
I suppose it's not the place's fault,' I said.
'Nothing, like something, happens anywhere.'
Poem posted Sunday 19th February 2017.
In the Dome-Car
The train, as if departure were a state-
Secret, pulls out without a sound. I glance
Up from The Globe and Mail surprised to see
Through the dome car's dull window, Canada
Lurching quietly by. Find the dome car,
You said to me. You'll see it all from there.
And so I do. Or think I do. At first,
The Bow River, surface of china blue,
Indigo-coloured water squeezing through;
The rail-cars straightening in line ahead.
Giacometti trees like naked men
Stand, sky-high, in a littleness of snow;
Adverts for Honda, holidays (Try us
Ski Jasper); hunks of rock; the red Dutch barn
Recurring like a decimal; a thin
Smear of gold-leaf that is the coming corn.
In ice-edged light the train moves cautiously
Above a toy village, a clip of black
And white Indian ponies, a tepee
Hoisted beside a brake of pointed sticks.
A bridge hurries to meet us; spills across
A frozen lake. A car parked on the ice,
In shifting light, glitters a mile from shore.
We gape at it. But what I see is you
Walking the long nave of the train-station,
Never turning. You'll see it all from there.
We rush the stone horizon. At the last
Moment the mountains part; admit us to
Indian country, where the patient snow
Refuses the year's passage, scars the floor
Of a pale valley, lies in wait for more.
(from 'Causley at 70', edited by Harry chambers, Peterloo Poets, 1979)
Poem posted Wednesday 15th February 2017.
No room for mourning: he's gone out
Into the noisy glen, or stands between the stones
Of the gaunt ridge, or you'll hear his shout
Rolling among the screes, he being a boy again.
He'll never fail nor die
And if they laid his bones
In the wet vaults or iron sarcophagi
Of fame, he'd rise at the first summer rain
And stride across the hills to seek
His rest among the broken lands and clouds.
He was a stormy day, a granite peak
Spearing the sky; and look, about its base
Words flower like crocuses in the hanging woods,
Blank though the dalehead and the bony face.
Sidney Keyes (1922-1943)
Two very different worlds, then, measured by the the respective poets' life-spans, one of eighty years terminated by natural causes - pleurisy; the other, curtailed by enemy action in WW2's Tunisian Campaign, a month short of age twenty-one.
Poetry happens; what more need be added?
Poem posted Saturday 11th February 2017.
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gather'd now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not - Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.
(For comment, please see the poem written in homage to Wordsworth, to follow on Saturday next.)
Poem posted Wednesday 8th February 2017.
Class Incident from Graves
Wednesdays were guest night in the mess, when the colonel expected the married officers, who usually dined at home, to attend. The band played Gilbert and Sullivan music behind a curtain... Afterwards the bandmaster was invited to the senior officers' table for his complimentary glass of Light or Vintage.
Robert Graves, from 'Good-bye to All That'
At the officers' table, for half an hour afterwards, port,
The bandmaster. He accepts, one drink long,
All the courtesy of the gentlemen. They are suave, and equal.
'I expect with your job...Do you find...Oh well...'
The bandmaster edges the shining inch of port along the grain of the table,
Precisely covering the knot with the transparent
Base of the glass. He crouches forward over the polished wood
Towards the officers, not comfortably convivial,
Eyes always going to the face speaking next,
Deferential, very pleased.
The band put away their instruments out at the back, having
Drunk their beers, standing.
The detachable pieces of brass lie down
In the felt grooves of the cases, just as they should.
There is laughter of men together, coming from inside.
'Mitchell's still in there, hob-nobbing with the officers.'
The delicate soft-pedal composition of this poem tells us all we need to know about British class distinction as it was during the period bracketed by two world wars. If we didn't get the poet's message in the earlier lines, we can be in no doubt by the time we come to the instrument parts, like the bandsmen themselves, being kept in their place, "just as they should."
I don't think I ever set foot inside an Officers' Mess, but I recall that in my own regiment, promotion to sergeant brought with it the upgrade from beer to the earned trustworthiness of one bottle of gin on the monthly mess bill. These class barriers could be raised to suit changing circumstances - and quickly lowered again afterwards. In war time, on active front-line service, the Officers' Mess and the Other Ranks' Latrine became as one, and it must be said that the result produced was a mutual respect and trust, of each caring for the wellbeing of the other. It is to be hoped that something of this blending remains to make us more accepting and open-minded. Was it a pointer in this direction that, together with my demob suit and 'Exemplary' discharge I was given, not a cap, but a trilby hat?
Poem posted Sunday 5th February 2017.
Counting the Beats
You, love, and I,
(He whispers) you and I,
And if no more than only you and I
What care you or I?
Counting the beats,
Counting the slow heart beats,
The bleeding to death of time in slow heart beats,
Wakeful they lie.
Night, and a cloudless day,
Yet the huge storm will burst upon their heads one day
From a bitter sky.
Where shall we be,
(She whispers) where shall we be,
When death strikes home, O where then shall we be
Who were you and I?
Not there but here,
(He whispers) only here,
As we are, here, together, now and here,
Always you and I.
Counting the beats,
Counting the slow heart beats,
The bleeding to death of time in slow heart beats,
Wakeful they lie.
The fact that I've forgotten when and where first I became aware of this poem is of little importance, because 'Counting the Beats' is itself timeless and placeless. It seems that the pulse of my own heart was already in synchronization with Graves' identical line-end rhyme scheme and gradually increasing length of the first three lines of each stanza. There appears something in the pacing of this poem which is uncannily akin to the smoothly regulated diastolic/systolic rhythm of the human heart. For me, this poem comes labelled, 'Once Read, Never Forgotten'.
There are of course many other works which establish Graves as a major poet and which, some years ago on holiday in Majorca attracted me, rubberneck, grockle from the North, to stand outside the house in Deya where he had lived, and pay a silent homage. Nothing of that cloudless day would add to the pleasure of reading Graves' poems; what I remember is reaching up to pluck a leaf from a lemon tree, crushing and crumpling it between finger and thumb, and carrying away the astringent fragrance to which I remain susceptive, to the extent that zesting a lemon or lime can bring a Deyan pause into my cooking. I welcome the intrusion.
Poem posted Wednesday 1st February 2017.
Visiting from Britain I take my ease
In a Massachusetts yard. Willows
Have opened overnight along the ridge;
This is the second spring I've seen this year.
I watch as my once-English hostess
Moves across the shadow of the spruces
At her door. She calls her home a cottage
And puts on homeliness like a sweater.
She's tried, over and over, to grow grass
Around the place; grass, and a few roses,
And even, look, a bit of privet hedge
To remind her of home in Warwickshire.
She brings me bourbon in an ice-packed glass
And tinkles on about the neighbours' houses.
Americanisms glint like a badge
Pinned onto her. She much prefers life here,
She protests, remembering what life was
For her in England - the dirt, rising prices,
Always having to live at the edge
Of her nerves. Not to mention the weather.
I stir my drink. "I'd not mind it either,
For a while," I say. Martins lodge,
Like my swallows at home, in crevices
Of her roof. "Oh, purple martins, those
Damn things. I'll have to rake them down from there,"
She says. "Mind you, it's not that I begrudge
Them somewhere to live. But if you saw the mess
They make, you wouldn't think me heartless."
Now, in his office near a fall-out shelter
High over downtown Boston, husband Reg
Will be turning his calendar (English views
In Summertime) into May. The two of us,
Last evening, swept the last of winter
Cones into a heap. Outside his garage
Afterwards, he told me, watching the flames,
Of all his new, perpetual worries:
There's his job - they daren't have kids. And Russia.
And how he'll never keep up with the mortgage.
Not to mention the droughts, the six-foot snows,
In the yard where nothing English ever grows.
(from Contemporary British and North American Verse, Oxford University Press, 1981)
'The émigrés', by Sussex born Ted Walker, is one of those excellent tantalizing poems which demand further readings in order to view all the implications arising; it presents a panorama rather than a vista. Consider the restrained use of half/slant/pararhymes in succeeding stanzas until the certainty of full rhyme in conclusion. Give thought to the suggestive Aesopian ghosting of grass appearing greener, grapes being sour; who's disclosing honest feelings, or hasn't even found them yet. And then read the poem once more and see what comes out while burning the cones.
Poem posted Saturday 28th January 2017.
'It's the tobacco that counts'
Epitome of all that's brave and true,
England's Hero, flanked by sail and steam,
surveys the sea, a master of the waves.
A life-belt framed the splendid, bearded face
he lent to pushing fags from hoarding boards.
Epitome of all that's sad but true,
England's Smoker, flanked by sputum pots,
lies fastened to his bed by lung disease.
A Ventimask conceals his stubbled chin
but fails to pink the navy of his lips.
So what avails your life-belt, Hero,now?
What line can reach a man who sinks on land?
Does he remember how your trusty face
conspired to seal him off against the air
and let him drown in seas of open space?
Raymond Tallis (Peterloo Review 1, 1988)
I started on the assault-course of seered throat, coughing and dizziness which was a rite-of-passage for most early-teen-age lads of the middle thirties impatient to emulate fathers and elder brothers and prove their manhood, when I was about 14, and a thin paper packet of five 'Woodbine' cigarettes could be had by breaking the law and daring to feed twopence into a slot machine - another rite-of-passage. I must already have confirmed my addiction to the weed by the time I was earning an office-boy's wage and could spend sixpence on "Ten Player's, please" and the anticipation of opening that favourite branded packet of pleasure soon became as addictive as the contents. Such was the power of pictorial advertising. Later, in the army, the odd man out proved to be the non-smoker, when days were chopped up into 50 minute sessions with 10 minutes' "Fall out for a smoke" with, on overseas postings, fifty fags free issue per week.
I was almost 40 when a chronic dose of 'flu put tobacco out of my life for a month and although I didn't at the time think so, it was my good fortune that my attempts to light-up again foundered, and 'the penny dropped'. I got the message!
Tallis's poem captures the Hero's allure, almost frighteningly, and in my lasting unhookedness, I must cast my vote for plain-packaging, and hope for it to be effective.
P.s. Addiction to poetry is a fine substitute, and comes without a health warning.
Poem posted Wednesday 25th January 2017.
From the helicopter he sees at last
anomalies in the pattern of melt.
The snow has turned informer.
It must have seemed the perfect accomplice,
erasing everything, the way a quilt
might be thrown over a wrecked bed.
Earth was another - tons of it,
shovelled by hand and then by machine,
a loan from the building site
where somebody's cousin worked -
and time, of course. The wound
closed, scabbed over. In summer
there was rough grass, yellow flowers,
Circle again, he says, and hears
his own voice cracking and slipping.
He reads the diagram of broken snow.
He'll need to radio down, get it ground-truthed.
They'll peel back the scab,
expose what everyone knows already:
under the heaviest winter, the stash of warmth.
Jean Sprackland (from 'Tilt', Jonathan Cape, 2007)
Poem posted Saturday 21st January 2017.
The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
World is suddener than we fancy it.
World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.
And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world
Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes -
On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one's hands -
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.
Poem posted Wednesday 18th January 2017.
Her kitchen window faced onto the sea,
The sea became her echo, and her company.
She spent each morning at her laundry,
Dipping and wringing, though her flying hands
Grew older, older as her linens drowned.
She worked for absolution. Every tide
Returned with its fresh burdens.
Waters soared. All was submerged, replenished,
Rinsed and drained.
She met the crested rivers, blue and white.
The pattern of her days swam by like moons.
Wearily the ocean watched, and wept,
As music grieves upon its rooted thread.
Its task was also feminine. To grind.
Refining every shore and stone to sand,
Remaking matter into running time.
Rocks into pebbles. Everything made smooth.
Then on her little land, cut from the hill,
She strung the beating sheets, as white as wings.
Air was her witness, and her medium.
She saw the sun was fastened to the stars,
Day on, day on and all things in accord.
The ocean sang and grieved against its bed.
Maureen Wilkinson (Peterloo Preview 1, 1988)
I wonder how many people there are worldwide who go through life, or a large chunk of it, with a natural creative bent burning away inside of them unexpressed because a need to earn the wherewithal to sustain family or other commitments usurps the long hours pursuance of their art would demand?
Maureen Wilkinson, whose perception of, and curiosity for the beauties of the world around her were sharpened when as a child she helped her accident-blinded father come to terms with the loss of eyesight. From the age of seventeen she went on to study painting, four years later receiving a B.A. degree in fine art. Then came life's interventions and inescapable priorities.
But from an early age she had written, especially poetry, and fortunately now her pen gradually took over the self-expression she had planned to release on canvas, and her poetry earned publication. One of her poems, 'Bringing The Night Cow Down', won the 1st (£1,000) prize in the 1987 Peterloo Open Poetry Competition. Somewhere along the way Maureen found herself in tune with the Taoist philosophy of Lao Zi which advocates a simple honest life and noninterference with the course of natural events. I think it is because her empathy with this lifestyle, which rings so true in 'Every Tide' that I commend this poem to you.
Poem posted Saturday 14th January 2017.
Forlorn and glum the couples go
While Capital and Labour fight.
For lack of houses they can't unite
And love says 'Yes,' the builders, 'No.'
Yet, troubling not for time nor rest,
The courting rooks be flying thick,
And not a beak wi'out a stick
And not an elm wi'out a nest.
It do cast down my ancient mind
How senseless fowls can run their show,
Marry and help their children grow,
And not us clever human kind.
Lords of creation we may be,
Though what the mischief we creates
But trouble, taxes, higher rates,
Be damned to us if I can see.
Eden Phillpotts (1862-1960)
Sharing this poem in winter, 2016/2017, when the housing shortage in U.K. is for many an unsurmountable problem, I need only emphasize that it wasn't written yesterday, but at least sixty years ago - and the rooks are still ahead of the game, now flexing their wings for spring. Even today we read (The Guardian,02.01.17), not of activity, but merely plans: "English garden villages to bring 50,000 homes. Fourteen garden villages with almost 50,000 homes are to be built across England...ministers have said."
As Shakespeare had Hamlet say, "Words, words, words."
Poem posted Wednesday 11th January 2017.
This house has been far out at sea all night,
The woods crashing through darkness, the booming hills,
Winds stampeding the fields under the window
Floundering black astride and blinding wet
Till day rose; then under an orange sky
The hills had new places, and wind wielded
Blade-light, luminous black and emerald,
Flexing like the lens of a mad eye.
At noon I scaled along the house-side as far as
The coal-house door. I dared once to look up -
Through the brunt wind that dented the balls of my eyes
The tent of the hills drummed and strained its guyrope,
The field quivering, the skyline a grimace,
At any second to bang and vanish with a flap:
The wind flung a magpie away and a black-
Back gull bent like an iron bar slowly. The house
Rang like some fine green goblet in the note
That any second would shatter it. Now deep
In chairs, in front of the great fire, we grip
Our hearts and cannot entertain book, thought,
Or each other. We watch the fire blazing,
And feel the roots of the house move, but sit on,
Seeing the window tremble to come in,
Hearing the stones cry out under the horizons.
There's little left to be said about this poem which is so strongly descriptive as to make its subject almost tangible, its title hardly necessary by the time we reach the third line. I can add only that for anyone who hasn't previously read Ted Hughes, its language and style of speech are typical of the man from Mytholmroyd, Calderdale, West Yorkshire, with its brittle limestone gritty texture redolent of that area's blunt, beautiful landscape; the man for whom Sylvia Plath's 'Ode' was written.
Poem posted Sunday 8th January 2017.
Ode for Ted
From under crunch of my man's boot
green oat-sprouts jut;
he names a lapwing, starts rabbits in a rout
legging it most nimble
to sprigged hedge of bramble,
stalks red fox, shrewd stoat.
Loam-humps, he says, moles shunt
up from delved worm-haunt;
blue fur, moles have; hefting chalk-hulled flint
he with rock splits open
knobbed quartz; flayed colors ripen
rich, brown, sudden in sunglint.
For his least look, scant acres yield:
each finger-furrowed field
heaves forth stalk, leaf, fruit-nubbed emerald;
bright grain sprung so rarely
he hauls to his will early;
at his hands' staunch hest, birds build.
Ringdoves roost well within his wood,
shirr songs to suit which mood
he saunters in; how but most glad
could be this adam's woman
when all earth his words do summon
leaps to laud such man's blood!
(from 'Sylvia Plath', Poems chosen by Carol Ann Duffy, Published in 2012 by Faber & Faber Ltd)
Poem posted Wednesday 4th January 2017.
The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
World is suddener than we fancy it.
World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.
And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world
Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes -
On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one's hands -
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.
Poem posted Saturday 31st December 2016.
The Storm Cone
This is the midnight - let no star
Delude us - dawn is very far.
This is the tempest long foretold -
Slow to make head but sure to hold.
Stand by! The lull 'twixt blast and blast
Signals the storm is near, not past;
And worse than present jeopardy
May our forlorn to-morrow be.
If we have cleared the expectant reef,
Let no man look for his relief
Only the darkness hides the shape
Of further peril to escape.
It is decreed that we abide
The weight of gales against the tide
And those huge waves the outer main
Sends in to set us back again.
They fall and whelm. We strain to hear
The pulses of her labouring gear,
Till the deep throb beneath us proves,
After each shudder and check, she moves!
She moves, with all save purpose lost,
To make her offing from the coast;
But, till she fetches open sea,
Let no man deem that he is free!
Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936)
Kipling's poem appears to be concerned not immediately with rough coastal weather, but with the forecast of it and a warning to inshore shipping by the hoisting of the storm cone; it then continues graphically to describe what might be in store for ship and crew if they fail to get well clear of the hazardous coastline in time.
But is this perhaps a warning of some much greater catastrophe looming ahead?
Bearing in mind Kipling's considerable poetic track record in military matters, government and power blocs - 'Tommy', 'Danny Deever', 'The Sergeant's Weddin', ' Cities and Thrones and Powers' etc., consider now a few dates: the poem was first published in 1932, fourteen years after the end of The Great War in 1918 and, although Kipling himself didn't live to witness it, WW2 was to begin only seven years after his poem was printed. And there are other records of his strong feelings about England's unpreparedness. Was this his warning that while Germany was rapidly re-arming itself, Britain remained - in naval terms - 'Not Under Command', with another world-changing war in the offing? Was the vulnerable 'she' of this poem a 'Dirty British Coaster' or the 'Ship of State'? Or neither? Can you suggest a variant spin?
Poem posted Wednesday 27th December 2016.
Christmas Eve, and three of the clock.
'Now they are all on their knees,'
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in the hearthside ease.
We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.
So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
'Come; see the oxen kneel
'In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,'
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.
Poem posted Sunday 25th December 2016.
La Figlia Che Piange
O quam te memorem virgo...
Stand on the highest pavement of the stair -
Lean on a garden urn -
Weave, weave the sunlight in your hair -
Clasp your flowers to you with a pained surprise -
Fling them to the ground and turn
With a fugitive resentment in your eyes:
But weave. weave the sunlight in your hair.
So I would have had him leave,
So I would have had her stand and grieve,
So he would have left
As the soul leaves the body torn and bruised,
As the mind leaves the body it has used.
I should find
Some way incomparably light and deft,
Some way we both should understand,
Simple and faithless as a smile and shake of the hand.
She turned away, but with the autumn weather
compelled my imagination many days,
Many days and many hours:
Her hair over her arms and her arms full of flowers.
And I wonder how they should have been together!
I should have lost a gesture and a pose.
Sometimes these cogitations still amaze
The troubled midnight and the noon's repose.
T. S. Eliot (from 'Prufrock and Other Observations')
Nobody without an education in classics - this means most of us, and certainly includes me - is ever going to find Eliot an easy read but, like so many things in life, the effort can be more than amply repaid by the results. La Figlia Che Piange (literally 'The Daughter Who Is Weeping', generally translated as 'Young Girl Weeping') is the name of a carved stone tablet that a friend of Eliot suggested he look for in a museum during a visit to Italy. It is said that although he searched many times, Eliot never found the artwork depicting the young woman standing by a garden urn. It follows, then, that his poem is written from the imagination rather than from the viewed memorial to a young woman. Eliot's own classical studies had led him to the Latin epigraph taken from Virgil's 'Aeneid' in which Aeneas greets Venus, who is disguised as a huntress, with the words "O quam te memorem virgo...", (Maiden, by what name shall I address you?". This of course was the question occupying Eliot's mind while composing his poem about a young lover whose elusive stele had thwarted all his attempts to locate it.
I am in no way qualified to offer a scholarly reading of this poem, only to share my own essentially shallow interpretation. In stanza one, I first imagine the poem's speaker being an onlooker observing the break-up of a love affair, struck by the girl's "resentment" and willing her to fling the offending flowers to the ground. In the other two verses it seems to me that the speaker also becomes the poet himself. attempting to choreograph from his own imagination the unfound tablet's scene, a preoccupation which continues to disturb his nights and even his siestas. No doubt this poem, like so many other great works, will remain for my speculation, unless someone comes forward with a more comprehensive explanation. In the meantime, the adjective 'thwarted' might be applied fourfold, albeit in varying degree: to lover, observer, poet, and to me.
Poem posted Wednesday 21st December 2016.
Somewhere Around Christmas
Always, or nearly always, on old apple trees,
Somewhere around Christmas, if you look up through the forest,
You will see, fat as a bullfinch, stuck on a high branch,
One lingering, bald, self-sufficient, hard, blunt fruit.
There will be no leaves, you can be sure of that;
The twigs will be tar black, and the white sky
Will be grabbed among the branches like thumbed glass
In broken triangles just saved from crashing to the ground.
Further up, dribbles of rain will run down
Like spilt colourless varnish on a canvas. The old tins,
Tyres, cardboard boxes, debris of back gardens,
Will lie around, bleak, with mould and rust creeping over them.
Blow on your fingers. Wipe your feet on the mat near the back door.
You will never see that apple fall. Look at the cat,
Her whiskers twitch as she sleeps by the kitchen fire;
In her backyard-prowling dream she thinks it's a bird.
John Smith (from 'A Landscape of My Own', Robson Books)
Poem posted Saturday 17th December.
Ode on Solitude
Happy the man, whose wish and care
A few paternal acres bound,
Content to breathe his native air,
In his own ground.
Whose herds with milk, whose fields with bread,
Whose flocks supply him with attire,
Whose trees in summer yield him shade,
In winter fire.
Blest, who can unconcern'dly find
Hours, days, and years slide soft away,
In health of body, peace of mind,
Quiet by day.
Sound sleep by night; study and ease,
Together mixt; sweet recreation:
And innocence, which most does please
Thus let me live, unseen, unknown,
Thus unlamented let me die,
Steal from the world, and not a stone
Tell where I lie.
Alexander Pope (1688-1744) was born to Catholic parents, his father was a successful London linen merchant. At that time in England, Catholicism disqualified one from various 'rights' including University education and the electoral roll, and even Catholic schools were illegal, although in some places becoming tolerated. From early age the young Pope suffered ill-health, including a form of tuberculosis and respiratory problems; deformity rendered him a hunchback, and his growth was stunted to around four feet six inches (less than a metre-and-half). Despite all these drawbacks, Pope worked his way through education wherever it could be found, reading widely of the Classics, becoming multi-lingual, meeting and associating with and learning from literary masters of the day. He never married.
Why, in view of my belief that it is the poem which is important, not the poet's life, do I offer these notes? Well, I'm also of the opinion that all serious poetry is, to some extent whether great or small, autobiographical. I have to square these two convictions. There is always a tendency to read a poem as if the speaker is also the poet, and it is sometimes not until we are well into the narrative that we can be pretty sure one way or the other. Often it may be biographical fore-knowledge which colours our conclusion.
Having now read the Notes for yourself, why not try reading the poem afresh; see if the balance is altered.
And does it matter?
Poem posted Wednesday 14th December 2016.
Woman in the Crowd
For Jeannie, in a slow winter, 1992.
Your Mum and I down town -
new mall, old market place -
and in the shifting crowd
briefly perhaps your face,
Two youngsters of your own,
with half a lifetime gone,
your home a world away
from home and moving on.
Yet here you are
where albums hold you still
freeze-framed along the years;
your paintings in our hall;
your laughter, letters, tears
wring in locked drawers;
and sometimes, in the folds
of dreams, a daughter's call -
we waken to your name -
a known kick on the wall
of the spent womb.
Maurice Rutherford, Love is a four-Letter World, 1994.
-To Jeannie on her Birthday, 2016.
Poem posted Saturday 10th December.
To fillet any poem cannot be fair, and to top-and-tail a MacNeice masterpiece and discard all the flesh must rank very high on my Crime Sheet. However, having already quoted the opening lines of 'Autumn Journal', I feel it only right, regardless of the heavy hand of accusation on my shoulder, and being conscious of my own share of the collective guilt for inhuman acts committed during WW2, to give equal treatment to the closing pages of this account of a nation's somnambulism through Prime Minister Chamberlain's "peace in our time" appeasement dream, into the phony, soon to become brutal, war I knew as a youth:
(extract from xxiv)
While we sleep, what shall we dream?
Of Tir nan Og or South Sea islands,
Of a land where all the milk is cream
And all the girls are willing?
Or shall our dream be earnest of the real
Future when we wake,
Design a home, a factory, a fortress
Which, though with effort, we can really make?
What is it we want really?
For what end and how?
If it is something feasible, obtainable,
Let us dream it now,
And pray for a possible land
Not of sleep-walkers, not of angry puppets,
But where both the heart and brain can understand
The movements of our fellows;
Where life is a choice of instruments and none
Is debarred his natural music,
Where the waters of life are free of the ice-blockade of hunger
And thought is free as the sun,
Where the altars of sheer power and mere profit
Have fallen to disuse,
Where nobody sees the use
Of buying money and blood at the cost of blood and money,
Where the individual, no longer squandered
In self-assertion, works with the rest, endowed
With the split vision of a juggler and the quick lock of a taxi,
Where the people are more than a crowd.
So sleep in hope of this - but only for a little;
Your hope must wake
While the choice is yours to make,
The mortgage not foreclosed, the offer open.
Sleep serene, avoid the backward
Glance, go forward, dreams, and do not halt
(Behind you in the desert stands a token
Of doubt - a pillar of salt).
Sleep, the past, and wake, the future,
And walk out promptly through the open door;
But you, my coward doubts, may go on sleeping,
You need not wake again - not any more.
The New Year comes with bombs, it is too late
To dose the dead with honourable intentions:
If you have the honour to spare, employ it on the living;
The dead are dead as Nineteen-Thirty-Eight.
Sleep to the noise of running water
To-morrow to be crossed, however deep;
This is no river of the dead or Lethe,
To-night we sleep
On the banks of Rubicon - the die is cast;
There will be time to audit
The accounts later, there will be sunlight later
And the equation will come out at last.
Louis MacNeice (from 'Autumn Journal', Faber and Faber Limited, 1939).
- with apologies for the missing middle months, and a recommendation to read the entire poem, which is guaranteed to be still available carrying the 'ff' logo long after "we that are left grow old".
Poem posted Wednesday 7th December.
Opening the Welcome page to this website, in answer to the question "Why poetry?", I wrote, "Because poetry happens". And so it does, sometimes in unexpected settings. Today's poem was written within hours of its young author's facing the executioner.
There is no precisely dated record of the birth of Chidiock Tichborne; the only certainty is that he was executed on the 19th September 1586, a married man aged between 23 and 28. The story goes something like this:
Chidiock's ancestry dates back to the twelfth century when the family were rich landowners at Tichborne, near Winchester . Chidiock Tichborne was brought up in the Roman Catholic faith and both Chidiock and his father had brushes with the law more than once when caught returning from visits to Italy, bringing home Catholic items of worship, illegal at that time. However, the young Tichborne was not to be deterred, religious zeal leading eventually to his involvement with a scheme to murder Queen Elizabeth and have the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots enthroned in her place. When, in June 1586, the plot was foiled, Chidiock was found guilty, imprisoned in the Tower and sentenced to death.
Considering his life of religious fervour, you may find it surprising that the poem is not addressed to the God he worshipped:
(written on the night before his execution)
My prime of youth is but a frost of cares;
My feast of joy is but a dish of pain;
My crop of corn is but a field of tares;
And all my good is but vain hope of gain;
My life is fled, and yet I saw no sun;
And now I live, and now my life is done.
The spring is past, and yet it hath not sprung;
The fruit is dead, and yet the leaves be green;
My youth is gone, and yet I am but young;
I saw the world, and yet I was not seen;
My thread is cut, and yet it is not spun;
And now I live, and now my life is done.
I sought my death, and found it in my womb,
I looked for life, and found it was a shade,
I trod the earth and knew it was my tomb,
And now I die, and now I am but made:
The glass is full, and now my glass is run,
And now I live, and now my life is done.
Poem posted Saturday 3rd December 2016.
In August 1938 I was nearing the end of my first job as Office Junior with Shell Mex & B.P. Limited at Saltend, East Hull preparatory to taking a similar post nearer home in West Hull, with Hellyer Brothers Ltd., Trawler Owners, on St. Andrew's Dock. I was approaching my 16th birthday, earning pocket money and something towards my keep in a world of perpetual sunshine, starlings, horse droppings and the potpourri of aviation spirit, molasses, hops, hides,fats and fish. A world of workers, whistlers, sleep-walking through a fog of false peace preceding a war to be fought for six years, which would prove longer than the truncated lives of some as yet unborn in Holderness Road, or Coventry, or Dresden, Leningrad, Hiroshima; a war whose effects are still in evidence today.
At this same time, down in the south of England, a man born in Belfast, by this time into his early thirties, was beginning to chronicle this period of uncertainty from his own feelings and observations of life around him, and his beautifully written account perfectly captured and defined an overcast pre-war Britain. That man was Louis MacNiece, and his work, 'Autumn Journal'. Here, to set the scene, are the opening lines:
Close and slow, summer is ending in Hampshire,
Ebbing away down ramps of shaven lawn where close-clipped yew
Insulates the lives of retired generals and admirals
And the spyglasses hung in the hall and the prayer-books ready in the pew
And August going out to the tin trumpets of nasturtiums
And the sunflowers' Salvation Army blare of brass
And the spinster sitting in a deck-chair picking up stitches
Not raising her eyes to the noise of the 'planes that pass
Northward from Lee-on-Solent. Macrocarpa and cypress
And roses on a rustic trellis and mulberry trees
And bacon and eggs in a silver dish for breakfast
And all the inherited assets of bodily ease
And all the inherited worries, rheumatism and taxes,
And whether Stella will marry and what to do with Dick
And the branch of the family that lost their money in Hatry
And the passing of the Morning Post and of life's climacteric
And the growth of vulgarity, cars that pass the gate-lodge
And crowds undressing on the beach
And the hiking cockney lovers with thoughts directed
Neither to God nor Nation but each to each.
But the home is still a sanctum under the pelmets,
All quiet on the Family Front,
Farmyard noises across the fields at evening
While the trucks of the Southern Railway dawdle... shunt
Into poppy sidings for the night - night which knows no passion
No assault of hands or tongue
For all is old as flint or chalk or pine-needles
And the rebels and the young
Have taken the train to town or the two-seater
Unravelling rails or road,
Losing the thread deliberately behind them -
Louis MacNeice (from 'Autumn Journal', Faber and Faber Limited,1939)
Hatry: Clarence Hatry (1888-1965) was a financier whose dealings were 'questionable'; the collapse of the Hatry Group has been cited as a substantial contributor to the Wall Street Crash of 1929.
MacNeice's deft touch, "and what to do with/Dick" speaks clearly to me of that nepotistic practice of placing a less than competent son into a privileged managerial position beyond his capability in the family firm, and propping him up with a more able staff, which culture crinkled my 'learning curve' as an office boy on the fish-dock - where 'Dick' held a definitely lower position in the vernacular.
Poem posted Wednesday 30th November.
The fisher men peered, with slackened lines beyond the breaking waves
But saw no prey.
Their eyes were not so clear as once they were.
The residents called them Snowbirds from the North.
The Osprey, now relaxed with man since being introduced
Dropped in feet first, so close,
the ad-hoc club of Knots and Terns
surprised, swayed sideways.
The silver swimmer never felt the stabs behind
Just mild surprise at climbing quite so high.
A new perspective on it's view of life.
The final portion of it's flight to death.
No time before the end to lose it's breath.
No traveller returns.
Closer to heaven.
Nearer My God.
The Osprey unattended by such lofty thoughts
had time mid flight to shake off excess brine
and re-adjust its shining, forward looking catch.
Yet this torpedo never would be launched again.
My ballet in the air gives way to earthier thoughts.
A takeaway meal for one.
Only the freshest fish.
A telegraph pole to be the Table D'Hote.
The hobby fishers missed the lesson from the King.
They too had wintered here to feed but not to breed.
But would be happy peering,
Waiting for their journey.
John Alderton, Daytona Beach, February 1998.
Poem posted Saturday 26th November 2016.
I have never attempted to log the Rutherford genealogy, and doubt I ever shall, but over the years I have chanced upon a few interesting facts, notably a flourishing fecundity. Even in my generation, where I was one of five children, our family was considered large; my father was one of eight siblings. In a poem written at the cusp of the 18th/19th centuries, we find a Rutherford who lead into battle nine gallant warrior sons. I know that my surname is included with others of the 'Border Reivers', feuding rustlers plundering the borders of Scotland and England. Holidaying a couple of times during the 1980s in the Coldstream area, I frequently came across my own name, above shop fronts etc., and it was from Edinburgh that my paternal grandfather came down to find work in England. Considering all of this, you might imagine my curiosity and fascination on finding the following passage in this long poem by Walter Scott:
Lay of the Last Minstrel
The Goblin Page, omitting still
No opportunity of ill,
Strove now, while blood ran hot and high,
To rouse debate and jealousy;
Till Conrad, Lord of Wolfenstein,
By nature fierce, and warm with wine,
And now in humour highly cross'd,
About some steeds his band had lost,
High words on words succeeding still,
Smote, with his gauntlet, stout Hunthill;
A hot and hardy Rutherford,
Whom men called Dickon Draw-the-sword.
He took it on the page's saye,
Hunthill had driven these steeds away.
Then Howard, Home and Douglas rose,
The kindling discord to compose:
Stern Rutherford right little said,
But bit his glove, and shook his head. -
A fortnight hence, in Inglewood,
Stout Conrad, cold, and drenched in blood,
His bosom gored with many a wound,
Was by a woodman's lyme-dog found;
Unknown the manner of his death:
Gone was his brand, both sword and sheath:
But ever from that time, 't was said,
That Dickon wore the Cologne blade.
Sir Walter Scott
Lord Conrad of Wolfenstein: A German mercenary officer.
Rutherford, Dickon Draw-the-sword, aka the 'Cock of Hunthill'.
Howard, Home and Douglas: natural enemies, but today joining forces, attempting to keep the peace.
But bit his glove: a signal of revenge to come.
Lyme-dog: dog kept on a lyme (leash).
Cologne blade: it is implied that Rutherford had slain Conrad, then taken the Cologne man's sword for his own use.
Poem posted Wednesday 23rd November.
English by Default
The world is smaller now than 'what' it was,
And 'different to' or is it 'different from'?
Do they assert the reason is 'because'
All television broadcasts have become
A model of good English for today?
So 'let's face it' just 'between you and me'
The speakers are not clear in what they say
'At this moment in time' or it may be
We stand 'shoulder to shoulder' as we must;
'I mean' 'you know', the standard is not high;
These flaws of speech are common as the dust
And 'at the end of the day' I could sigh.
So have we 'hit the nail upon the head'?
These people should be careful where they tread.
Jonathan Pool (from 'The Questioner': Thoughts of a Questioning Man,
Janus Publishing Company)
So, we have a changing English.
So, for further thought, please turn to the Prose page, and
Poem posted Saturday 19th November.
In Search of Lost Childhood
Close beyond the angle of the scullery wall, by the galvanized iron water-butt beside which snails clung to the tall spikes of Iris, here may be where my youth is hiding: 'Southernwood', we called it, the twiggy shrub whose strange smell had the power both to attract and to repel, as also did the undulating undercarriage of the shiny-shelled snails.
Artemisia Abrotanum hides behind many another alias; here are two, which Edward Thomas knew:
Old Man, or Lad's-Love, - in the name there's nothing
To one that knows not Lad's-Love, or Old Man,
The hoar-green feathery herb, almost a tree,
Growing with Rosemary and Lavender.
Even to one that knows it well, the names
Half decorate, half perplex, the thing it is:
At least, what that is clings not to the names
In spite of time. And yet I like the names.
The herb itself I like not, but for certain
I love it, as some day the child will love it
Who plucks a feather from the door-side bush
Whenever she goes in or out of the house.
Often she waits there, snipping the tips and shrivelling
The shreds at last onto the path, perhaps
Thinking, perhaps of nothing, till she sniffs
Her fingers and runs off. The bush is still
But half as tall as she, though it is as old;
So well she clips it. Not a word she says;
And I can only wonder how much hereafter
She will remember, with that bitter scent,
Of garden rows, and ancient damson trees
Topping a hedge, a bent path to the door,
A low thick bush beside the door, and me
Forbidding her to pick.
As for myself,
Where first I met the bitter scent is lost.
I, too, often shrivel the grey shreds,
Sniff them and think and sniff again and try
Once more to think what it is I am remembering,
Always in vain. I cannot like the scent,
Yet I would rather give up others more sweet,
With no meaning, than this bitter one.
I have mislaid the key. I sniff the spray
And think of nothing; I see and I hear nothing;
Yet seem, too, to be listening, lying in wait
For what I should, yet never can, remember:
No garden appears, no path, no hoar-green bush
Of Lad's-Love, or Old Man, no child beside,
Neither father nor mother, nor any playmate;
Only an avenue, dark, nameless, without end.
Poem posted Wednesday 16th November.
C. L. M.
In the dark womb where I began
My mother's life made me a man.
Through all the months of human birth
Her beauty fed my common earth.
I cannot see, nor breathe, nor stir,
But through the death of some of her.
Down in the darkness of the grave
She cannot see the life she gave.
For all her love, she cannot tell
Whether I use it ill or well,
Nor knock at dusty doors to find
Her beauty dusty in the mind.
If the grave's gates could be undone,
She would not know her little son,
I am so grown. If we should meet
She would pass by me in the street,
Unless my soul's face let her see
My sense of what she did for me.
What have I done to keep in mind
My debt to her and womankind?
What woman's happier life repays
Her for those months of wretched days?
For all my mouthless body leeched
Ere Birth's releasing hell was reached?
What have I done, or tried, or said
In thanks to that dear woman dead?
Men triumph over women still,
Men trample women's rights at will,
And man's lust roves the world untamed.
* * * * *
O grave, keep shut lest I be shamed.
Poem posted Saturday 12th November.
Westgate-on-Sea, Kent, 2016.
I came last year to live in an 'attended development', in a comfortable self-contained flat. My computer screen-saver is a photograph I took shortly after arrival, showing the green marine growth decking the dark harbour wall - where once I fell, and needed help to rise - with a sunlit view out across the bay. This is a place where retired people come to live, and where people die; no-one comes here to die. Most of my neighbours are here to be near loved- and loving-ones, as also am I. There is no atmosphere of resignation or resentment here; only resolve and resourcefulness to wring the best from the time left to us, however long or short. Ours is a happy home; laughter is heard here every day; we laugh at ourselves and we laugh with each other. Morale, not even spoken of, is high. Yet I doubt there is one amongst us whose resolve would not be reinforced by the example set by Clive James in his book 'Sentenced to Life', which might even prove an efficacious substitute for some of our collective pill-popping.
Here is a sonnet-sized sampler:
Procedure for Disposal
It may not come to this, but if I should
Fail to survive this year of feebleness
Which irks me so and may have killed for good
Whatever gift I had for quick success -
For I could talk an hour alone on stage
And mostly make it up along the way,
But now when I compose a single page
Of double-spaced it takes me half the day -
If I, that is, should finally succumb
To these infirmities I'm slow to learn
The names of lest my brain be rendered numb
With boredom even as I toss and turn,
Then send my ashes home where they can fall
In their own sweet time from the harbour wall.
Clive James (from 'Sentenced to Life', published by Picador @ £9.99)
Poem posted Wednesday 9th November.
Blue Remembered Hills
Sometimes I have heard or read a phrase I'd met before, the use of which was surely intended to suggest some deeper significance which, had I read more widely, might have been obvious to me. This was most likely to happen when in the company of lecturers from English Departments, themselves published poets, who had the squirrel-like tendency in their conversation to hop from one literary twig to another. One such lack to set me regretting my ignorance, was explained to me some years ago, when I chanced upon a poem on the everlasting subject of lost youth. The following short poem by Housman explained the troubling phrase and filled a gap in my education. The poem does little more than scratch an eternal itch, yet I love, and wouldn't want to be without its comforting empathy:
Into my heart an air that kills
Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?
That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.
Poem posted Saturday 5th November.
My first motor car was a 1945 Austin 8 with genuine leather seats and a sliding sun-roof, bought for £100 in 1961. At 16 years old and with 70,000 miles behind it, it wasn't long before I was spending as much time lying between the wheels as sitting behind the wheel, a blowing exhaust pipe and silencer being the first wrestling opponents in the fight for the preservation of JV 9356.
I think I must have climbed a little up the ratings to the Wolseley 1500 by the time I attended a poetry reading by Adrian Henri and George MacBeth in Lincoln. MacBeth, although his lamented car was in a thoroughbred league way beyond my aspirations, couldn't have had a more attentive, empathetic and richly entertained listener than me when he read his poem that night:
Death of a Ferrari
in memoriam 840 HYK
It was made for the manager of Crockford's,
Driven in a Monte Carlo rally,
Owned by a salesman, later, at Maranello's,
A retired colonel, then me.
I couldn't afford that wastrel elegance.
I could scarcely carry
The seven-foot, iron exhaust system
When it cracked, and broke, in Leeds.
I loved its worn, greyed ivory leather,
The petrol-blue of its hide.
It growled along at 104
With its bad brakes, and its leaking seal.
I can hear now that famous,
Belly-flustering Ferrari roar
Bounced back off the wall of the underpass
One night, in Piccadilly. It was like the blitz.
All right. So the door was rusted,
Smoke came out of the dashboard wires
The first time I drove it on the M4.
Who cares? It was a major car.
It didn't crash on the motorway,
Or blow up at 150.
It didn't burn itself out over a cliff
Taking a bend too fast, in Scotland.
It was ditched in a car-park
On Willesden Green.
So under the Civic Amenities Act 1967
Section No. 20
Removal and Disposal of Abandoned Vehicles
The Transport and Cleansing Division
Of the London Borough of Brent
Will sell it for scrap.
Some other owner is responsible,
The next sucker in the line.
But I feel tonight a remote sense of guilt
Mixed with a tinge of outrage
To think of the rationality of that great engine
Ripped into shreds,
The camshaft smashed, the radial tyres torn loose,
And the little dancing horse stripped from the grill.
It had electric windows in 1961.
It had the original radio, with its aerial.
It could out-accelerate any car in Europe.
They don't come off the floor like that any more.
Poem posted Wednesday 2nd November.
The Gift of Imagination -
"To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour..."
- These frequently quoted opening lines from William Blake's 'Auguries of Innocence' - and note that he leaves it open to the reader to see not merely the World and the Heaven, but any world or heaven of our imagination - came to mind recently when I read in an anthology a remarkable poem by a poet whose work I hadn't previously met, Muriel Stuart. It seems unlikely that someone writing poetry of this quality had never read Blake, so was she conscious of the similarities evident in the thought process of the two works, I wonder. And does it matter? I think not. Providing that a work isn't deliberate plagiarism - and it is in the nature of the chosen art that all writers feed off each other - each new work adds flavour to the stockpot. Savour for yourself the subtleties of Muriel Stuart's delightful fancy - and do, please, let us know your thoughts:
The Seed Shop
Here in a quiet and dusty room they lie,
Faded as crumbled stone or shifting sand,
Forlorn as ashes, shrivelled, scentless, dry -
Meadows and gardens running through my hand.
In this brown husk a dale of hawthorn dreams;
A cedar in this narrow cell is thrust
That will drink deeply of a century's streams;
These lilies shall make summer on my dust.
Here in their safe and simple house of death,
Sealed in their shells, a million roses leap;
Here I can blow a garden with my breath,
And in my hand a forest lies asleep.
Poem posted Saturday 29th October.
John Osborne's poem 'Love's Economy' comes as a deliciously naughty and humorous work in its own right while it also pays homage to the Metaphysical Poets, and raises a cheeky middle finger in the direction of Marx's 'Das Kapital'. It is, in the purest sense of the word, a clever attempt to weave together ancient and modern, and Osborne brings it off in style.
Consider it a form of compound wealth:
In pleasuring me, you gratify yourself.
Your lips and mine conjoin to mint a kiss,
Our bodies ratify a state of bliss,
We give to take, take to give -
A larceny that proves our love.
There is no fee for entry to this bed -
Save all your cares, and all your clothes, be shed:
Why stress, why strive to earn the wherewithal
To buy another dress or blouse or shawl?
Life's greatest pleasures were ever those
Preceded by the discarding of clothes.
So join me on this bed-shaped isle of bliss
Where time distils to now and here and this,
Where nakedness alone is currency,
Where capital equates to penury,
Where all you know and need to know of wealth
Is: pleasuring you, I gratify myself.
The sense of OTT Marxist ideals on wealth and theft comes pretty clearly through as the poem builds towards its witty climax; neither will the Metaphysical elaboration have been missed by many readers. But if you're comparatively new to poetry, it would be well worthwhile scrolling back about four centuries to read, say, 'The Good-Morrow' by John Donne, or Andrew Marvell's 'To His Coy Mistress', to consider how, in a sense, nothing changes, yet in the hands of the skillful poet it needn't be left to go stale. Like the three-letter subject itself, it is better if spiced up from time to time. You might agree that Osborne flavours it scrumptiously. If so - or even if it's not to your palate - do please write in and have your say.
Poem posted Wednesday 26th October.
And You, Helen
And you, Helen, what should I give you?
So many things I would give you
Had I an infinite great store
Offered me and I stood before
To choose. I would give you youth,
All kinds of loveliness and truth,
A clear eye as good as mine,
Lands, waters, flowers, wine,
As many children as your heart
Might wish for, a far better art
Than mine can be, all you have lost
Upon the travelling waters tossed,
Or given to me. If I could choose
Freely in that great treasure-house
Anything from any shelf,
I would give you back yourself,
And power to discriminate
What you want and want it not too late,
Many fair days free from care
And heart to enjoy both foul and fair,
And myself, too, if I could find
Where it lay hidden, and it proved kind.
It serves us well to remember that the creation of any work of art, in whatever genre, involves sacrifice whether on the part of the artist, their family or other connections, and there are no fair rules as to how the suffering be shared. Turn now to the Prose page and read a little of Helen Thomas's memoir.
Poem posted Saturday 22nd October.
Think About It
Poetry is said to be a minority interest, especially perhaps in England. Indeed, to say this about the poem in its entirety is almost certainly true, yet of a poem's component parts, it has to be accepted that the opposite is the case. From sunrise to the next sunrise our daily lives are peppered with rhyme, rhythm, repetition, assonance, alliteration etc in a diet fed to us by advertisers, politicians, presenters of radio and television programmes, song-writers, old Uncle Tom Cobley and all! And which of these didn't learn the value of verse as an aide-memoire from their first church or school hymnal?
True, we don't hear a lot of poems being recited, but how would we know how many are being written and lovingly kept under the lining paper of handkerchief drawers or bedside cabinets? Poetry writing isn't usually done in the company of others, rather, as Dylan Thomas says, "...in the still night/When only the moon rages/And the lovers lie abed...". Seldom will such poems be published, and of those that do few will become widely known unless the poet achieves worldwide recognition in some other field. An example is seen in this English translation of a poem written by an Austrian while in his mid-thirties:-
Think About It - poem on Mother's Day
When your mother has grown older,
And you have grown older,
When what was once easy and effortless
Now becomes a burden,
When her dear, faithful eyes
No longer see life as they once did,
When her feet, grown tired,
No longer want to carry her as she walks -
Then give her your arm for support;
Accompany her with gladness and joy.
The hour will come when, weeping
You will accompany her on her final walk.
And if she asks for something, then answer her.
And if she asks again, then speak.
And if she asks yet again, respond to her,
Not stormily, but with gentle calm.
And if she cannot understand you well,
Explain everything to her joyfully.
The hour will come, the bitter hour,
When her mouth will ask for nothing more.
Here is the original poem as published in German:
Wenn deine Mutter alt geworden
Und älter du geworden bist,
Wenn ihr, was früher leicht und mühelos
Nummehr zur Last geworden ist,
Wenn ihre lieben, treuen Augen
Nicht mehr, wie einst, ins Leben seh'n,
Wenn ihre mud' geword'nen Füsse
Sie nicht mehr tragen woll'n beim Geh'n,
Dann reiche ihr den Arm zur Stütze,
Geleite sie mit froher Lust;
Die Stunde kommt da du sie weinend
Zum letzten Gang begleiten musst!
Und fragt sie dich, so gib ihr Antwort,
Und fragt sie wieder, sprich auch du!
Und fragt sie nochmals, steh' ihr Rede,
Nicht ungestum, in sanfter Ruh'!
Und kann sie dich nicht recht versteh'n,
Erklär' ihr alles froh bewegt;
Die Stunde kommt, die bitt're Stunde
Da dich ihr Mund - nach nichts mehr frägt.
Adolf Hitler, 1923
- Yes indeed, think about it!
Poem posted Wednesday 19th October.
To follow Danny North's admirable all-guns-blazing declaration of love for his native West Riding of Yorkshire dialect, I can't resist the urge to hold my head above the iron curtain which separates his homeland from my East Riding birthplace in Hull. When, at age 18, I enlisted in a Leeds, West Yorkshire infantry regiment, I found that as far as my fellow (local) recruits were concerned, Hull was some insignificant halt halfway to Norway (or was that 'Nowhere'?).
Some fifty years later, retired to a nearby seaside town, I was to write the following poem:
Come back soon to a real Bridlington welcome
- notice boards on the main roads west.
Those summer holidays, our nineteen-twenties
parents freed us here, their skinny kids
in handknit woollen swimsuits -
crotches like anglers' landing-nets -
peeing a catch of seawater
between sun-toughened knees;
and schooldays following, bubblegums
of skin peeled from our shoulders
pagefuls of rubbings-out.
Retirement brought us back to spend
the nineties, perhaps to close our book
in the comfort of this place.
But now we find that holidays
mean all the parking spaces filled;
we're jostled off the pavements
by macro-bosoms from McGill,
ogled by Cyclops beer-guts,
leered at by anal cleavages
escaping from Bermudas;
we're tripped by men in sandals
and obligatory black socks;
there's cellulite in armfuls here
and all the very ones who "really shouldn't"
force-feed each other burgers.
From Sheffield, Bradford, Barnsley most,
the locals call them Comforts for the way
they say they've "come for t'day".
And when they've "done us brass" and driven off
westward past the come-back signs -
to the wife's part-time, the old man's emphysema -
what they leave behind for us
(discounting all the parking bays
of dunked-out teabags, disposables and stubs)
is the comfort of a season's end
in open space, the scour of rough seas
and the culling winds of winter.
Maurice Rutherford (From And Saturday Is Christmas, Shoestring Press)
Poem posted Saturday 15th October.
Give it 'em Hot
Give it 'em hot, an be hanged to ther feelins!
Souls may be lost wol yor choosin' yor words!
Out wi' them doctrines 'at taich o' fair dealins!
Daan wi' a vice tho' it may be a lord's!
What does it matter if truth be unpleasant?
Are we to lie a man's pride to exalt!
Why should a prince be excused, when a peasant
Is bullied an' blamed for a mich smaller fault?
O, ther's too mich o' that sneakin and bendin;
An honest man still should be fearless and bold;
But at this day fowk seem to be feeared ov offendin,
An' they'll bow to a cauf if it's nobbut o' gold.
Give me a crust tho' it's dry, an' a hard 'en,
If aw know it's my own aw can ait it wi' glee;
Aw'd rayther bith hauf work all th' day for a farden,
Nor haddle a fortun wi' bendin' mi knee.
Let ivery man by his merit be tested,
Net by his pocket or th' clooas on his back;
Let hypocrites all o' ther clooaks be divested,
An' what they're entitled to, that let em tak.
Give it 'em hot! but remember when praichin,
All yo 'at profess others failins to tell,
'At yo'll do far moor gooid wi' yor tawkin an' taichin,
If yo set an example, an' improve yorsel.
Poem taken from Yorkshire Lyrics - Poems written in the Dialect as Spoken in
the West Riding of Yorkshire.
I love my accent, I love Yorkshire, and I miss it greatly. I think this poem is a fine example of the type of talking Yorkshire people are renowned for. Both figuratively and literally. We are known for our truth telling, and this lovely poem is a teacher of that, but the way we talk is almost as famous, and I am often at the sharp end of people taking the michael out of it. Sometimes it's the people I love (Jenna all the time!) to which I know it's just friendly infatuation with my accent, and those I don't know at all, just random people, which I always feel is rather rude of them. Either way I'm proud because it's a stamp on me, much like my tattoo's, that I simply can't wash off. It is my flag, it is my family crest, it is my mark that I carry with pride, for the land I grew up in was cold and hard, but the people warm and loving. That is Yorkshire, that is the North.
Poem posted Wednesday 12th October.
Wind In The Crescent
The great bridge did not lead to you. I would have reached you navigating the sewers at a command from you. But already my powers were, with the sun on the verandah windows, gradually spending themselves.
The man preaching on the Crescent asked me "Do you know where God is?". I did, and told him. He shook his head. He vanished in the whirling wind that snatched up men and houses and lifted them on high, upon pitch blackness.
This is a prose translation of the following Italian poem:-
Vento Sulla Mezzaluna
Il grande ponte non portava a te.
T'avrei raggiunta anche navigando
nelle chiaviche, a un tuo commando. Ma
gia la forze, col sole sui cristalli
delle virande, andavano stremandosi.
L'uomo che predicava sul Crescente
mi chiese "Sai dov'e Dio?". Lo sapevo
e gliolo dissi. Scosse il capo. Sparve
el turbine che prese uomini e case
e li sollevo in alto, sulla pecce.
These two versions are taken from 'The Penguin Book of Italian Verse', with plain prose translations. I don't suggest that it is fair to compare verse with prose, nor do I intend to do so; I simply want to argue that in the sheer musicality of his native language the Italian poet 'has it all going for him'. All those melodious open vowel word endings, in such abundance that he can afford to drop a few along the way, as in the elisions, T'avrei, L'uomo, dov'e when it suits, and still have some to spare. Yes, you might say the Italian poet has got it made - well, I might, because despite my scant knowledge of it, I love the language. This doesn't mean I wouldn't proudly defend my own native English, northern accent and all, to the last word.
On the subject of languages, 'Brewer, The Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, compiled by The Rev. E. Cobham Brewer, LLD, first published in 1870, quotes the following 'Characteristics of European languages':-
L'Italien se parle aux dames.
Le Francais se parle aux hommes.
L'Anglais se parle aux oiseaux.
L'Allemand se parle aux chevaux.
L'Espagnol se parle à Dieux.
An all-male audience, then. Any comments?
Poem posted Saturday 8th October.
The moment when, after many years
of hard work and a long voyage
you stand in the centre of your room,
house, half-acre, square mile, island, country,
knowing at last how you got there,
and say, I own this,
is the same moment when the trees unloose
their soft arms from around you,
the birds take back their language,
the cliffs fissure and collapse,
the air moves back from you like a wave
and you can't breathe.
No, they whisper. You own nothing.
You were a visitor, time after time
climbing the hill, planting the flag, proclaiming.
We never belonged to you.
You never found us.
It was always the other way round.
It is a special pleasure to post this poem requested by Kathy Sumnall of London - that's London, Ontario, Canada. Welcome, Canada! How wonderful that this website reaches you, wire-less. Marvellous, especially to one who, as a lad, would tune in to short-wave wireless broadcasts from stations with strange, sometimes exotic-sounding names - Riga, Stuttgart, Cincinnati, Schenectady - their sound waves tantalisingly, repeatedly fading, then almost returning, like the waves of an ebbing tide, until they were beyond hearing, half a world away, and my tuner-twiddling resumed to the invasive bleed-in of multi-frequency Hilversum. Welcome, Canada, indeed!
In direct contrast with the previous Dylan Thomas poem, there is nothing 'difficult' in Margaret Atwood's arresting poem which simply, slowly and effectively superimposes itself on the mirror we vainly look into. The delicacy and beauty of the thought process in this writing comes startlingly through, and remains when after the final stanza we turn away from the looking-glass. All of this was expressed to me by Kathy when she sent in her request with admirable verbal economy, writing, "...it's fab." Quite so, Kathy, it is, it is!
Poem posted Wednesday 5th October.
Especially when the October wind
Especially when the October wind
With frosty fingers punishes my hair,
Caught by the crabbing sun I walk on fire
And cast a shadow crab upon the land,
By the sea's side, hearing the noise of birds,
Hearing the raven cough in winter sticks,
My busy heart who shudders as she talks
Sheds the syllabic blood and drains her words.
Shut, too, in a shower of words, I mark
On the horizon walking like the trees
The wordy shapes of women, and the rows
Of the star-gestured children in the park.
Some let me make you of the vowelled beeches,
Some of the oaken voices, from the roots
Of many a thorny shire tell you notes,
Some let me make you of the water's speeches.
Behind a pot of ferns the wagging clock
Tells me the hour's word,the neural meaning
Flies on the shafted disc, declaims the morning
And tells the windy weather in the cock.
Some let me make you of the meadow's signs;
The signal grass that tells me all I know
Breaks with the stormy winter through the eye.
Some let me tell you of the raven's sins.
Especially when the October wind
(Some let me make you of autumnal spells,
The spider-tongued, and the loud hill of Wales)
With fists of turnips punishes the land,
Some let me make you of the heartless words.
The heart is drained that, spelling in the scurry
Of chemic blood, warned of the coming fury.
By the sea's side hear the dark-vowelled birds.
Like many of us, you might find this Dylan Thomas poem difficult to understand on a first reading. Certainly it is complex, challenging, teasing, but who can not be captivated by the musical composition of language Thomas uses. A second reading might confirm, and go some way towards fleshing out the impression of hardening autumn weather presaging a winter, with the raven "coughing" in the bare branches, the world closing in on a poet and his word hoard, set against the beauty of autumn's colours and the glow of a reddening sun in which he sees his "shadow crab".
I'm not sure of the depth of 'meaning' in this poem, nor do I know if further 'interpretation' would increase my pleasure, but I'd warmly welcome your views, dear reader.
Poem posted Saturday 1st October.
In the beginning, this Poetry page opened with a sonnet to my Mum; today I redress the balance and offer a cri de coeur to my Dad.
Postscript To My Father
' Über Sternen muss er wohnen'
- Friedrich Schiller, 'An die Freude'
Those not-forgotten soured days, the booze-
blitzed nights, dawn absences - the man I knew
but mostly didn't. Dad, tonight I choose
to break with these and find a later you,
the one I took to golf, saw home again
drunk on the laughter of a fluked par-three,
and baited-up for, once, on Hedon Drain -
work-knackered, dragging your redundancy -
that time you grassed a 2-ounce roach and caught
the smit, remember? Lately, those few days
snatched in maturity return - hard-bought,
the bill paid in advance. If there were ways
of reeling-in snagged lines to cast again
in new-found swims, could you or I resist?
Some unfished pool: who knows what specimen,
what sport, what joy! This time, the catch not missed
like football in the park or Guy Fawkes Night,
the conkering we never got to share
or subtleties of keeping-up a kite...
These got away before. Dad, if I dare
believe you'd found an afterlife, I'd wish
- no, pray - this postscript reach you, there above
tonight's brief stars: I know a stream, a fish
which, lured, hooked and landed, could be love.
Maurice Rutherford (And Saturday Is Christmas, Shoestring Press)
My father, of whom it has to be said had a rather short fuse when in his cups, made a success of his working life to which he devoted long hours earning what was considered 'good money' to bring up a growing family, but at the cost - to all of us - of his sharing in what is now called 'quality time'. Each summer, Mother took the family to the seaside on holiday; I remember Dad joining us only once, for a mid-fortnight Sunday in Filey! Not until the demise of the Hull trawling industry robbed him of his raison d'etre did he find and enjoy some of the pleasures he had sacrificed to a binding Occupational Loyalty.
Today, my 94th birthday, I see Dad freeze-framed in his eighties a popular,gentle man, softly spoken, still very much my elder and wiser than I shall ever be.
Poem posted Wednesday 28th September.
No words of mine are necessary in introduction of today's poet or of the theatre director/actor whose comment on his choice follows the poem:-
Those long uneven lines
Standing as patiently
As if they were stretched outside
The Oval or Villa Park,
The crowns of hats, the sun
On moustached archaic faces
Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank Holiday lark;
And the shut shops, the bleached
Established names on the sunblinds,
The farthings and sovereigns,
And dark-clothed children at play
Called after kings and queens,
The tin advertisements,
For cocoa and twist, and the pubs
Wide open all day;
And the countryside not caring:
The place-names all hazed over
With flowering grasses, and fields
Shadowing Doomsday lines
Under wheat's restless silence;
The differently-dressed servants
With tiny rooms in huge houses,
The dust behind limousines;
Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word - the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.
Philip Larkin, 'The Whitsun Weddings', 1960
Larkin's poem is wonderfully and painfully deceptive. It leaves a punched stomach. It has no main verb, and is a rolling, gentle evocation of a peaceful world. Our own after knowledge provides the smack to the guts. It is reminiscent of Auden's 'Musee des Beaux Arts' in its deception. I used a line from it, 'August Bank Holiday Lark', as the title of Debbie Andrew's award winning play for Northern Broadsides in 2014.
Poem posted Saturday 24th September.
The Second Coming
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
On the wall of the high altar in Sandham Memorial Chapel, Burghclere is Stanley Spencer's painting 'The Resurrection of the Soldiers which was painted shortly after World War One,or The Great War, the War To End All Wars, as it erroneously became known; It was inspired partly out of Spencer's experience during the war in which he served for a time in Macedonia. The dust jacket of my 'Oxford Book Of Twentieth Century English Verse', chosen by Philip Larkin, has, by kind permission of The National Trust, an illustration of this arresting painting.
This week's poem, sent in by David Morrish, 'The Second Coming', by W.B. Yeats, was written at around the same time, based on his own experience of the war. I first came across this poem because of its inclusion in the Larkin anthology which wears this arrestingly illustrated jacket.
Poem posted Wednesday 21st September.
I nod and nod to my own shadow and thrust
A mountain down and down
Between my feet a loch shines in the brown,
Its silver paper crinkled and edged with rust.
My lungs say No;
But down and down this treadmill hill must go.
Parishes dwindle. But my parish is
This stone, that tuft, this stone
And the cramped quarters of my flesh and bone.
I claw that tall horizon down to this;
My shadow jumps huge miles away from me.
Alan D'Arcy wrote from London to say, "l don't really have a favourite poem; there are a lot I enjoy, but for different reasons (and moods). Here's one of Norman MacCaig's who, as you'll know, wrote a lot of good 'uns. This one is 'Climbing Suilven' and comes from his Riding Lights". [Hogarth Press, 1965].
How right you are, Alan, Norman MacCaig did write fine poetry, and he read them very well to an audience. I once attended a reading he shared with the blind poet John Heath-Stubbs in Grimsby, Lincolnshire and was moved by his infectious enthusiasm for his subject. More recently, during a televised interview, I was even more deeply disturbed by the poem he'd written shortly after the death of his wife, the opening lines of which I remember, though perhaps not quite correctly as,"She dies. Everywhere I go, she dies. No sunset, no city scene, no lurking beautiful mountain but has her death in it." This occurred not long after my own wife had died, so of course I was vulnerable, but isn't it at exactly times like these that poetry is at its most potent: the poet's exploration of his own feelings matches precisely those of the reader/listener. Not only Suilven but all Highland mountains were MacCaig's 'other love'. Come to think of it, there were a number of interests he was passionate about, as diverse as his solitary fly-fishing on the remote lochs, and his companionable social drinking lifestyle. He was at once sensitive and courageous - you'd have to be brave to register as a conscientious objector during WW2 - and his sensitivity to the natural world is well evidenced in the poem Alan requested.
Poem posted Saturday 17th September.
Back in the early days of my interest in poetry I was asked: had I read Matt Simpson's work. No, I hadn't. "You should, I think you'd like it". So, I did - and I did. A letter of appreciation to Matt led to our becoming firm friends. Sadly, Matt died in June 2009, but the memory and strength of our friendship live on. In a pamphlet collection titled Dead Baiting published by 4 Eyes Press, Matt had expressed his own definition of friendship whilst recording an angling friend's practical declaration of it. In paying homage to Matt, fine poet and much-missed friend, I have chosen one of a sequence of elegies Matt wrote in memory of his fishing partner who had died in 1982.
His First Barbel
Over drenched fields spooked with shapes
snorted by cows; over gates and styles melting
in dew; rodbags snatching at bramble,
waders skidding on blood-red clay: that day
we fished frustratedly, dawn to blue-green dusk,
until he found the spot to cast in - legering worm
on gravel; and then his rod-end tugged, his line
became a singing violin, a fish kicked surface;
saw him lift, kiss it, sober as a man marrying;
into waters that were chuckling, ease it back.
And again, again - finding a shoal, six more
bronze and whiskered barbel crashing water
to his net; called me, set me down, showed me where
and how to send my lead, my spiked knot of worm,
wanting to share, wanting the joy of it for me.
In his lifetime Matt befriended, encouraged, and in his day job tutored many aspiring young poets, and I'm sure he would have applauded the following poem by Gavin Ewart, and his Liverpudlian sense of humour would have embraced the cheeky idea of a fictitious Mancunian poet arriving to step unto his vacated place:
A New Poet Arrives
A new man flies in from Manchester.
Death to the Public Schools,
Ready to piss in the eye of the Old Universities.
A big woolly striped scarf around his neck,
The hunched antagonism of a left wing student.
How right he is!
Through immense spectacles he sees clearly
That only a New Movement can save our souls.
Wordsworth's great break was pecking at that apple.
The tree of knowledge,
Dividing line between the past and future.
Take off those vestments, and those vested interests.
Show as a naked soul. You must admit
He's onto something.
Change, in the Arts, is nearly always good.
Poems posted Saturday 10th September.
When Katy was setting up this website for me, I asked Carol Rumens would she be kind enough to let me have one of her poems to help get the site off to a good start; she readily responded, 'yes'. This week we are privileged to post her poem, which arrived accompanied by her apology for having taken so long over her choice. This is typical of Carol's generosity - not so much the apology, but more her patience in searching through the mass of published work for just the right poem, the one which is, in her own words, "still dear to my heart". This lovely, tender, sad evocation of an age we'd like to think has passed, takes the form of the 'villanelle', which description will be of no help to those not familiar with the term, yet many will know by heart the opening line of one: Do not go gentle into that good night, by Dylan Thomas. Is it because the villanelle is such a difficult, tight-reined form that we see few being written today? It certainly does take practice and patience to pull it off with success. Let's enjoy Carol's poem, then dwell a while on how the expert does it.
A Case of Deprivation
A shelf of books, a little meat -
How rich we felt, how deeply fed -
But these are not what children eat.
The registrar rose from his seat.
Confetti danced, and thus were wed
A shelf of books, a little meat.
We sang, for songs are cheap and sweet,
The state dropped by with crusts of bread -
But these are not what children eat.
They came demanding trick or treat?
We shut our eyes, and served instead
A shelf of books, a little meat.
Then on our hearts the whole world beat,
And of our hopes the whole world said
But these are not what children eat.
Two shadows shiver on our street.
They have a roof, a fire, a bed,
A shelf of books, a little meat -
But these are not what children eat.
Carol Rumens (Star Whisper, Secker, 1983, London)
Poem posted Saturday 3rd September.
De boom die mijn vader plantte
uit zijn tuin pak ik een bijl
en tak voor tak
breek ik de boom
en aan het werk
de miljoen gestoorde spaanders,
het vuur van de nacht.
Ik zorg alleen voor as.
(uit het Engels vertaald door Jan-Willem Ankers)
The tree my father grew
from his garden I take an axe
and branch by branch
I break the tree
and set to work
the million maddened bits,
the fire of night.
Only for ash I keep.
(English translation by Jan-Willem Ankers)
In the closing paragraph of my introduction to this website I invite others to share in the pleasures of poetry. Today, still blushing following last week's posting of friendly panegyric, I crawl out from behind the settee to suggest there can be few better demonstrations of sharing than we find in the collaboration of six poets from Britain and the Netherlands, resulting in the bi-lingual publication from which I have chosen this week's poem by Daljit Nagra, a British/Asian poet translated by Jan-Willem Ankers.
I am grateful to Five Leaves Press (firstname.lastname@example.org) for permission to post this 'heart and head' poem taken from the 2006 publication By Heart - Uit Het Hoofd, edited by Victoria Briggs. It would be interesting to receive your thoughts after having read both the English and Dutch, to print and share them with others.
Poem posted Saturday 27th August.
The Remarkable Maurice Rutherford I am pleased to call my friend of many years.
The start of this love fest was a slim volume of his wonderful poetry dropping un-announced on my doormat with a note from him in his wonderful handwriting to a fellow Hullite. “Poetry not selling like hot cakes. Please enjoy.”
The first one I read made me laugh out loud. The second made me weep. I rang him within an hour and our friendship was born. Later I read a selection of my favourites on Humberside Radio with Maurizio on the other side of the studio glass wiping a tear. He reads them much better.
A great writer makes you feel that you could have written what you have just read because that’s exactly what you feel if only you had thought of it.
A great writer of wit will lead you down the garden path and not reveal the quick reverse to come.
A great writer of poetry shows you his heart of truth.
Maurice does all this. I love him.
John Alderton, August 2016
Here is the poem I'd like to share:-
When I am dead, my dearest
When I am dead, my dearest,
Sing no sad songs for me;
Plant thou no roses at my head,
Nor shady cypress tree:
Be the green grass above me
With showers and dewdrops wet;
And if thou wilt, remember,
And if thou wilt, forget.
I shall not see the shadows,
I shall not feel the rain;
I shall not hear the nightingale
Sing on, as if in pain:
And dreaming through the twilight
That doth not rise nor set,
Haply I may remember,
And haply may forget.
Christina Rossetti (1830 - 1894)
Poem posted Sunday 21st August.
Orchid-lipped, loose-jointed, purplish indolent flowers,
with a ripe smell of peaches, like a girl's breath through lipstick,
delicate and coarse in the weedlap of late summer rivers,
dishevelled, weak-stemmed, common as brambles, as love which
subtracts us from seasons, their courtships and murders,
(Meta segmentata in her web, and the male waiting,
between blossom and violent blossom, meticulous spiders
repeated in gossamer, and the slim males waiting.)
Fragrance too rich for keeping, too light to remember,
like grief for the cat's sparrow and the wild gull's
beach-hatched embryo. (She ran from the reaching water
with the broken egg in her hand, but the clamped bill
refused brandy and grubs, a shred too naked and perilous for
life, offered freely in cardboard boxes, little windowsill
coffins for bird death, kitten death, squirrel death, summer
repeated and ended in heartbreak, in sad, small funerals.)
Sometimes, shaping bread or scraping potatoes for supper,
I have stood in the kitchen, transfixed by what I'd call love
if love were a whiff, a wanting for no particular lover,
no child, or baby, or creature. 'Love, dear love,'
I could cry to these scent-spilling ragged flowers,
and mean nothing but 'no' by that word's breath,
to their evident going, their important descent through red, towering
stalks to the riverbed.
It's not, as I thought, that death
creates love. More that love knows death. Therefore
tears, therefore poems, therefore long stone sobs of cathedrals
that speak to no ferret or fox, that prevent no massacre.
(I am combing abundant leaves from the icy shallows.)
Love, it was you who said, 'Murder the killer
we have to call life and we'd be a bare planet under a dead sun.'
Then I loved you with the usual soft lust of October
that says 'yes' to the coming winter and a summoning odour of balsam.
This poem, gratefully received from Anne Stevenson, written at Hay-on-Wye, was published in 1982 by OUP in a collection titled Minute By Glass Minute.
Poem posted Sunday 14th August.
Balsam impatiens. Leaves
oval, slightly toothed. Flowers
fine-petalled with a full lip,
a hood and spur of silk.
On this slow autumn day
the apple branches lean
against the grass, the white
seeds ripen privately
in the apple's darkness.
Noli me tangere.
Balsam is purple, yellow.
The pods explode in my hand
as the beat of a trapped
animal there, the seed
on my palm. The hawsers
of the pod recoil, greens
never seen before, damp
silks worn new, still shaking.
Himalayan balsam, found
in stony places, secretly
especially by streams.
A handwritten, colour-illustrated copy of this beautiful poem, as delicate as the subject it explores, was given to me by its author, Gillian Clarke on 8th February 1980. I feel sure you will enjoy it as much as I do. It recalls a day at Lumb Bank where Gillian and the late Frances Horovitz were tutors and Anne Stevenson guest reader, 'popping' the balsam seeds on the banks of the river Colden. Gillian went on to become the present Laureate of Wales.
Poem posted Sunday 7th August.
Sonnet: Through Mother's Eyes
(In celebration of the successful cornea-grafting operation
performed shortly after Mother's death, using her eyes in
the restoration of sight to someone unknown)
An ear for music, eye for pretty sights
were gifts she'd share with anyone who cared.
She gave a rhythm to the spoken word
and lent her eyes to brighten starless nights;
she saw life's colours, not mere blacks and whites,
perceived a peacock in the plainest bird,
lit optic beacons when her joy was stirred
by children's songs or colourbox delights.
She showed her gratitude in later years,
bequeathed her eyes that others might see still,
and I'm aware, as I soliloquize,
that though my words may fail to reach her ears,
by some coincidence - and surgeon's skill -
my poem might be read through Mother's eyes.
Maurice Rutherford from Slipping the Tugs, 1982
'Through Mother's Eyes' was the first sonnet I'd ever written and it stands as a departure point for the many more that followed, some of which I plan to include in the poems I shall be adding to this page from time to time. I should also be pleased to consider any requests via the 'Contact' page.
Poem posted Thursday 28th July.