Political poem: Leonard Cohen, ‘Democracy’

It’s coming through a hole in the air
From those nights in Tiananmen Square
It’s coming from the feel
That it ain’t exactly real
Or it’s real, but it ain’t exactly there;
From the war against disorder
From the sirens night and day
From the fires of the homeless
From the ashes of the gay
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

It’s coming through a crack in the wall
On a visionary flood of alcohol
From the staggering account
Of the Sermon on the Mount
Which I don’t pretend to understand at all;
It’s coming from the silence
On the dock of the bay
From the brave, the bold, the battered
Heart of Chevrolet
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A

It’s coming from the sorrow in the street
The holy places where the races meet
From the homicidal bitchin’
That goes down in every kitchen
To determine who will serve and who will eat;
From the wells of disappointment
Where the women kneel to pray
For the grace of God in the desert here
And the desert far away
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

Sail on, sail on
O mighty ship of state!
To the shores of need
Past the reefs of greed
Through the squalls of hate
Sail on, sail on, sail on…

It’s coming to America first
The cradle of the best and of the worst
It’s here they got the range
And the machinery for change
And it’s here they got the spiritual thirst;
It’s here the family’s broken
And it’s here the lonely say
That the heart has got to open
In a fundamental way
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

It’s coming from the women and the men
Oh baby, we’ll be making love again
We’ll be going down so deep
The river’s going to weep
And the mountain’s going to shout Amen!
It’s coming like the tidal flood
Beneath the lunar sway
Imperial, mysterious
In amorous array
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

The United States is a “flawed democracy” (as defined by The Economist Intelligence Unit, see below). “Democracy” was written by the Canadian poet/singer/novelist Leonard Cohen over three years in the early 1990s. The song as we have it was boiled down from some 60 verses, scattered through seven or eight notebooks. In his book “Songwriters On Songwriting” he explains, “This was when the Berlin Wall came down and everyone was saying democracy is coming to the east. And I was like that gloomy fellow who always turns up at a party to ruin the orgy or something. And I said, ‘I don’t think it’s going to happen that way. I don’t think this is such a good idea. I think a lot of suffering will be the consequence of this wall coming down.'”

There are so many strong lines in this poem that, although written 30 years ago, resonate today. I particularly like

It’s coming from the sorrow in the street
The holy places where the races meet

and the mention of America as

The cradle of the best and of the worst

as well as the timeless, human dynamic of

From the homicidal bitchin’
That goes down in every kitchen
To determine who will serve and who will eat;

Photo: A map of the world showing the results of The Economist’s Democracy Index survey for 2016. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. The USA has been stuck in the third tier for the past few years, scoring below 8 on a 10-point scale. Those in the first tier, scoring above 9, are the five Nordic countries plus New Zealand, Australia, Ireland, Canada, Switzerland and the Netherlands.

Note that almost all of the top tier countries use some form of Proportional Representation (PR) to elect their governments. Several of their parliaments include parties with Trump-style xenophobic parties, because it is important to include representatives of all opinions in a democracy. But with PR the most extreme parties of right and left are unlikely to be included in a government, let alone dominate it. With PR the parliament gets the benefit of hearing all concerns and points of view, and the voters get the opportunity to vote more closely for who they want: a choice of libertarian, fundamentalist, green communist, as well as more mainstream conservative, liberal or social democrat. Voter turnout is naturally higher than in a two-party system which fails to address the interests of a large percentage of the population.

Other points that can be made from looking at the truest democracies: 1) Unicameral structures score best, meaning the US could have just the House, no Senate. 2) There is no need for separation of the Executive and Legislative functions; separating them doesn’t provide any benefit, despite the holy mantra of “checks and balances”, it merely destroys efficiency and obfuscates responsibility and encourages confrontation. 3) The Judiciary should not be appointed by the government, it functions best if it is developed with true independence within its own legal system.

The American system is an interesting historical artifact, but long outdated and highly counterproductive to good government. When Americans have written new constitutions for countries that they have taken over, the results have not been good. They should let the Scandinavians do it.

I recommend watching the Danish TV series ‘Borgen‘ (it has English subtitles) for a practical view of a single-chamber, multiparty system of coalition government.

Sonnet: ‘The Four Duties’

First, to your family, the spouse you chose,
children you gained who themselves had no choice;
to give a space wherein to find their voice
with safety, happiness, as each one grows.

To self: to keep yourself happy and whole,
free of both physical and mental pain
through yoga, exercise, good stress, good strain,
a moderate diet, peaceful self-control.

To all humanity: using some gift,
some insight, skill set, asset, useful tool
to better people’s lives through work or school,
some mast and sail or oar for those adrift.

And to the Muse that underlies the world:
express yourself—banners are useless furled.

This sonnet feels a little uncomfortably preachy, pretentious, self-righteous, and generally out of touch with the flippant persona I prefer. But it’s what I actually believe deep down. To me, it’s self-evident in terms not just of personal morality, but also as regards what makes a person feel fulfilled and happy. And the last bit is important: everyone has a creative aspect, and everyone has a Muse. The Muse is just part of how the world works, perhaps how your creative subconscious communicates with your conscious mind, perhaps how God or gods or angels communicate with you… it’s a little mysterious, but it’s part of your reality. And the correct thing to do is to express yourself creatively when you have an idea for it: that turns on the tap for further creativity. Not doing anything with the creative idea you get turns the tap off, and reduces future creativity. You need to honour the Muse when he/she/it appears.

‘The Four Duties’ has just been published in the Winter 2020 edition of The Orchards magazine of formal poetry. A few days late for that year, perhaps, but I just saw a weather forecast for “six more weeks of 2020”. Indeed, a sense of calm and responsibility is what the world needs, now and always.

Photo: “Her duty” by Go-tea 郭天 is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Political poem: Shelley’s ‘England in 1819’

An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying king,–
Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow
Through public scorn, mud from a muddy spring,–
Rulers who neither see, nor feel, nor know,
But leech-like to their fainting country cling,
Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow,–
A people starved and stabbed in the untilled field,–
An army which liberticide and prey
Makes as a two-edged sword to all who wield,–
Golden and sanguine laws which tempt and slay;
Religion Christless, Godless, a book sealed,–
A Senate—Time’s worst statute unrepealed,–
Are graves from which a glorious Phantom may
Burst to illumine our tempestuous day.

Shelley wrote this sonnet in 1819 in response to the Peterloo Massacre: a peaceful crowd of 60,000 had gathered in Manchester to call electoral reform, but were charged into by a local Yeomanry regiment, and then by a cavalry regiment of the King’s Hussars with sabres drawn. Official numbers show 18 people killed, including several women, and 400 to 700 injured: bayoneted, sabred, knocked down, trampled.

Shelley blames the mad King George III and his sons (including of course the Regent, the future George IV), and the ruling class in a time of unemployment and economic recession, and further blames the illiberal army, and harsh laws, and morality-free religion, and a Parliament that was refusing all civil rights to Catholics. They might all be graves of corruption, but Shelley hopes that from their decay will come a glorious new spirit to brighten the world.

Not all of the poem resonates with any particular political situation in the world today; but “an old, mad, blind, despised and dying king”… well, that’s certainly the impression given by the White House in early 2021.

Technically: the sonnet is in iambic pentameter as you would expect, but the rhyme scheme is unconventional: ababab cdcdccdd. The illustration is an engraving of George III in later life, by Henry Meyer.

Sonnet: ‘Mythic Memories’

From all the mythic memories we make
Of childhood’s forests, gardens, beaches, seas,
Disturbed by adults’ eccentricities,
Come all the world’s religions – Tree and Snake,
Hero and Mother, Martyr, Saint and Fake.
Then let us make our mythic memories
(Implying endless possibilities)
From all that follows in the island’s wake:

Climbing up banyans, palms and tamarinds –
Firelight and starlight – total black of caves –
Spearing a lionfish – running on pink sand –
And unknown flowers scented on sea winds –
And jagged cliff heights where the ocean raves –
And views of huge horizons past all land.

I think it is important for children to experience the diversity of the world in different ways: when very small they need to feel the rhythms of day and night, winter and summer, and celebrate them with memorable festivals. When they are a little older, say six to eight, it is useful to experience the diversity of the world: if they live in cities, to go to farms and mountains and forests and beaches; if they grow up in a rural area as I did, it is a huge experience to spend a few days in a city. In either of those cases, the experiences make school learning much more relevant, something that can understood and believed in, because of the personal memories. I was fortunate to experience cities and countryside, jungles and deserts, before I started school. History, geography and languages were always very interesting as a result.

For even older children our family advocates a further step: in grade 10–i.e. at age 15–each of our kids got to choose where they were going for a year of schooling overseas. The only restriction was: Not an English-speaking country! They went away for Grade 11 and returned to finish high school with their friends for Grade 12. They went through competent organizations (YFU–Youth For Understanding, and AFS… though one went to the family of a boy we had hosted the previous year). The normal structure was that they went to a family (best if there are other children in the family) in which one parent spoke English; they had a week or two of prep time with the organization in the new country before the school year started; in school, initially they sat at the back of the class and didn’t know what was being said except in English classes and maybe Maths; by Christmas they understood everything; by Easter they spoke fluently; by the end of the year they had acquired the regional accent. The five kids each chose different countries: Denmark, Costa Rica, Italy, Japan and France.

They came back several years more mature than when they left. Instead of dreaming of owning a car, they none of them wanted a car particularly: they had learned to get around a strange city by bus and metro, which is cheap and flexible. Instead of believing that there is only one appropriate style of clothing and only one good type of music for their generation, they realized that even if all teens think that, those clothes and music are different in different countries, and it is a matter of choice. Instead of fighting with us, their parents, over teenage complaints of lack of freedom, they came home delighted to return to the rules and life they had known, with a year of living differently under their belt. And they had seen a lot of the world in a very deep way, the childhood and school experience, the local family experience, all the seasonal foods and songs and rituals, something that is very hard for an adult to ever experience in a foreign country.

And as it is from our childhood experiences that we derive our understanding of the world, and make the myths we live by and the goals we strive for, it is beneficial for us to have as wide and deep a range of childhood experiences as possible. So I believe, anyway.

This poem was originally published in Snakeskin. It may feel like an unfortunate post for a time of Covid and lockdowns in various parts of the world, but the days of good travel should return soon, and we can start planning…

Photo: “Pink Sand Beach” by Cédric Z is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Review: ‘Beowulf’, translated by Seamus Heaney

I can’t imagine a better version of Beowulf than this brilliant rendition into appropriately alliterative verse by Nobel prizewinning poet Seamus Heaney, with full colour photographs on alternating pages of the massive 3,000-line poem. It has the rhythm of the original, it is essentially faithful to the original, and the illustrations (even more than the notes) give a sense of landscape, ships, weapons, jewelry, halls, etc that helps bring the entire story to life.

The story itself is in three parts: Beowulf travels from what is now Sweden to help the king of the Danes against a monster, Grendel, that is attacking and devouring his people, and Beowulf defeats Grendel by tearing an arm off. Gifts are given, and everyone relaxes. However Grendel’s mother comes the next night seeking revenge, and Beowulf goes after her the next day, diving into her murky pool and killing her with a sword. More gifts are given, and Beowulf returns home. Fifty years later Beowulf, now himself a king, goes to fight a dragon that has been roused and is pillaging the countryside; he fights the dragon and they kill each other; the dragon’s hoard is buried with Beowulf in the tomb that is built for him.

The historical persons in the tale, and the Danish king’s hall at Lejre, date to the mid-6th century. Then and for the next 500 years Scandinavia was innocent of Christianity, and the warrior society and the constant blood-feuds are a part of the story. But the poem as we have it have it was apparently composed in the 9th century in Christiansed England, and the will of a very Old Testament God is referenced throughout as overruling the abilities of humans. This feels like no more than an unimportant veneer of a modern religion over a Scandinavian sense of weird, wyrd, or destiny.

The poem is important as the beginning of English poetry, and its place and relevance is heightened by Heaney’s long and delightful introduction in which he details how he, as a Northern Ireland Catholic who felt deprived of his Gaelic birthright, came to fuse Gaelic, Old English and modern English into a sense of community and identity.

So because of the Introduction and the photos and illustrations as well as the superbly rhythmic and semi-alliterative translation, this is the Beowulf if you want a Beowulf!

Poem: ‘Good Enough For Me’

The wide world has its glories
In a rich complexity
But sitting watching the sun set
Is good enough for me.

Canada has six time zones
From sea to sea to sea
But one tide lapping where I sit
Is good enough for me.

The muezzins in the Saudi mosques
Wake all to pray and pee
But a rooster crowing in the bush
Is good enough for me.

And Singapore is lush and green
And managed prettily
But scrub grass and a sandy beach
Are good enough for me.
All – good enough for me.

This poem was originally published in Snakeskin, and then found a place in The Hypertexts. It’s a simple poem, but after all we lead simple lives, sitting on our little planet going round our little star on the fringe of a minor galaxy. So the mood of the poem is: Our lives are unimportant, and brief. Relax and enjoy.

Review: ‘A Little History of Poetry’ by John Carey

A fascinating overview of the history of world poetry with a decidedly Anglo-American slant, very engaging and informative and yet inevitably irritating for wasting space on some aspects while ignoring other favourite poets–depending on the reader’s bias, of course.

Consisting of 40 seven- or eight-page chapters, the book leads with Gilgamesh and information new to me despite my familiarity with the poem; then the Greek and Latin classics, where I am vaguely interested but uninformed; then Anglo-Saxon poetry where I am incited to read more. And so it goes: a bit of this, a bit of that, with a lot of chatty biographical tidbits, clarifying who I want to read more of (Chaucer, Wordsworth, Hardy, the Thirties Poets, the Movement), confirming who is of no interest to me (Spenser, Milton, American Modernists, American Confessional poets). The chapter on Dickinson and Whitman had a very useful perspective; the one on Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop was a waste of space. There seemed less insight in general as we moved into the 20th century, especially regarding American poets.

One thing that surprised me was to find how the hymns quoted in the chapter ‘Communal Poetry’–‘When I survey the wondrous cross’, ‘Rock of ages, cleft for me’, ‘Amazing grace’, ‘Abide with me’–summoned up my decade of boarding school’s daily religion and made for a long meditation on the role of religious poetry in the forced familiarity with meter and rhyme. It almost justifies daily church attendance. But missing from this History is the similar role in other religions: the hymns of Hinduism, the Hebrew chants, the hypnotic rhythm and rhyme of the Quran… all aspects of verse being used to make a message word-for-word memorable, all building the use of poetry.

The other omissions were of English-language poets outside the Anglo(including Irish)-American sphere: I think McCrae is the only Canadian mentioned (for ‘In Flanders Field’), and Claude McKay (who?) and Derek Walcott the only other Commonwealth poets; also missing are modern ballad-writing poets like Bob Dylan; and, my particular peeve, no mention of either e.e. cummings or Gwendolyn Brooks.

I find Brooks and cummings the greatest American poets of the 20th century with the exception of Auden and Eliot (however you like to classify their nationalities). Their omission may reflect ignorance on the part of author John Carey, or they may have been left out as not fitting into his groupings of Modernists and members of the Harlem Renaissance. Whatever the reason, it’s a major flaw… in what is still a highly readable and rereadable history.

Sonnet: ‘Where Are The Lightning Bolts’

Where are the lightning bolts of poetry?
The rolls of thunder and the shattered oaks?
Where, beyond anger, is the ecstasy?
There must be more than parodies, kitsch, jokes–
Elvis-on-velvet, kittens in a room,
jibes at the Lords, the House, the Holy See,
unmetered waffling on a flower in bloom…
Come now, tap Earth’s potential energy!

Our planet on which tens of millions die
from some war, ’flu, government famine, plague–
we pillage land and sea, yet learn to fly
while stories, music, art, reshape the vague
into sublime, emotional or vatic…
Humans can’t last – so be brief, be ecstatic!

Here we are, putting the chaos of 2020 behind us, moving optimistically into the forever-changed and forever-changing future. The storm gods appear to rule our lives: our ape cousins respond in their way, and we should respond to the bigger forces we feel with the wider range of creative outlets that we have–dance, poetry and ecstasy are all appropriate!

This sonnet was first published in The Orchards Poetry Journal, edited by Karen Kelsay Davies who also heads up the four imprints of Kelsay Books. Technically it’s a Shakespearean sonnet by the rhyme scheme, but there is no particular significance in that. Sonnets of all kinds share the compression to 14 lines, and the volta, the redirection of discussion after the halfway mark, and, typically, the sonorous rhetoric of the iambic pentameter. But the driving need of the argument and the near inevitability of the best words will tend to move the rhyme scheme into one form or another. It is better to say powerfully what the poem demands, rather than to weaken the words by trying to strengthen a preconceived rhyme scheme. As elsewhere, “Go with the flow” has a logic to it here.

Photo: “Lightning Bolt Over Atlantic Ocean from Jupiter Coast” by Captain Kimo is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Teaching ESL with Songs and Poems

Babies learn by play and imitation. Children learn by play and imitation. There is no reason this isn’t the easiest way for adults to learn, as well (and I speak as someone who has made a successful career of using board games to teach business finance rapidly and enjoyably).

The imitation of language, with a baby learning to speak, is enhanced by repetition–not just simple sentences and phrases used again and again, but also lullabyes and nursery rhymes. The advantages to songs and poems are that they are engaging to the ear (even if the words are not understood); that they are repeated virtually identically each time the same person sings or recites them; that the repetition and music, the rhythm and rhyme, make it easy to learn; learning then moves from passive (understanding) vocabulary to active (speaking) vocabulary; and the word-for-word learning teaches the structure of the language, the syntax, the grammar, as well as basic vocabulary and playful other words.

The principles are no different for someone learning a second language, whether as a child or an adult. To make the process engaging, to develop active use of the language with a confident vocabulary and grammar, there is nothing better for the beginner than songs and poems. Recorded music is fine–then the repetition will always be exact, and learning to sing simple songs (The Beatles’ ‘Hello Goodbye’ comes to mind) will contribute to developing a native speaker’s accent. With ESL–English as a Second Language–you may need to decide if you want the Queen’s English, or Liverpool, or Nashville, or what.

But singing isn’t always a practical solution. In that case, look at the resources developed for ESL teachers. Here is a webpage developed by the British Council and the BBC. And here for teens and adults is an excellent website with ‘Popular Poems to Teach‘. Note that most of the poems (though not all) whether British or American are using rhyme and metre. And this, again, is because those factors make it easier to learn things by heart–and that is what songs and poems will achieve: learning not just words and rules, but rather entire sentences with their grammar and vocabulary, learnt by singing or reciting, far more enjoyably than by studying lists and charts.

And the advantage is universal. Songs and poetry are part of the human experience, whether you come from China, India, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria or Brazil. Learning to sing or recite in English is not to start again from scratch, but to enjoyably refresh a childhood experience, a skill that has already been mastered.

Photo: “Wittenberg International Student Party” by Matt Cline is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Poem: ‘Humankind at Dusk’

It’s in your newsfeed update every day:
The AI obsolescence on its way,
Replacing all tasks, everything we do.
There’ll be no need for people. That means you.
How much is merely existential dread
And how much knowledge of a road ahead:
Unlit, black ice, and your tires have no tread?

With the world stage held by strutters
While the UN talks and mutters.
They’re all out of date tut-tutters.
People in the street
Stand there angry, with lips pursed,
Feeling they’ve been conned, coerced,
Life has gone from best to worst.
Blame the rich elite.

Man, man, think fast:
With the AI racing
And our genes debasing,
Basic humans’ place in
Life won’t last.

Warnings now the TV utters:
Hurricane! But we’ve no shutters,
Power is out, the candle gutters,
Roofs are blown away.
Thrown into the storm head-first
No response can be rehearsed,
Save yourself though you be cursed:
Everything’s in play.

Man, man, think fast:
With the Hive replacing
Every human trace in
Life, be self-effacing
Or be past.

The rest ride the AI-bombs down the sky,
Waving their Stetsons: “We’re all going to die!”
Life always moves on from the old to new.
There’ll be no need for people. That means you.

‘Humankind at Dusk’ was originally published in the Speculative Fiction & Verse zine Bewildering Stories. It reflects my serious concern that we have no idea where we’re going as a species, with everything from genetic modification to brain implants now becoming a reality. Not that I object to it, any more than I object to hurricanes or earthquakes; they’re all part of the nature of things. As humans, we tinker, experiment, explore, run into problems, seek solutions, create all kinds of new problems, and so on. That’s just the way it is.

Technically, I was trying to replicate the nonce structure of a much earlier poem I wrote, ‘Camelot at Dusk‘, to see if this was a form that I could use when trying to create a sense of urgency and disaster bracketed within more reflective and dispassionate statements. So the opening and closing stanzas are in that nice and boring, meditative iambic pentameter; while the middle pieces switch back and forth between two other forms, with shorter, choppier lines and more repetitive rhyme. I created the form to meet the needs of the earlier poem, where I think it worked very well. I’m still (years later) pondering whether it was appropriate to try to reuse the form for this piece. I think I like it, but I’m not entirely sure.

Photo: “silence” by Cornelia Kopp is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0