Monthly Archives: February 2020

Poem: “Head of the Table”

Your grandparents die
And your children are born;
Then your parents die
Then grandchildren are born;
And you move one more seat
Round the mad table
To the head of the table,
At which point you’re expected to go.

As when the crow came
Wild, not tame – all the same
It cawed you the news
That confirmed death and time;
So when your time comes
And you feel in your bones
That the body is over
Where will you, the guest, go?

Then bring food and drink!
Glasses clink! Glance and wink
As you move to the brink
Of eternity.
Who knows what follows next?
“Afterlife” is absurd –
But then all life’s absurd –
We just know, when it’s time, that we go.

This is about as religious as I’ve found myself in the past 30 or 40 years – in other words, I waver between mild atheism (“None of this God stuff makes sense”) and militant agnosticism (“I don’t know, and neither do you.”) But at least you have a seat at the table! Enjoy the party while you can (preferably while being pleasant to others).

Originally published in Snakeskin No. 232 (or #232).

Poem: “Post-literacy”

Yes, I know it seems unlikely
but I simply can’t help feeling
there’s an urgency to writing:
and in verse, and fluently.

We’ve our cultural traditions
that have coevolved with language
and each language has its verse forms
that are aids to memory.

It’s all fine that we are moving
to post-literate existence
where the things all talk and tell you
everything you need, you must

when the neon signs and fridges
can discuss with you their content,
you don’t need to read or count, if
their integrity you trust.

But embedded in our braincells
are the patterns of our language
and our need to think in patterns
drives our songs, makes us a folk,

it gives dub and rap and hip hop,
it drives rhetoric in speeches,
and the false anticipation
of the punchline of a joke.

With our cultures integrating
with AI and with each other,
we risk losing all our history,
all our culture and, what’s worse,

Our minds! So sing to babies,
have kids memorise long poems,
learn the maths of songs and music –
learn and read and write in verse!

This poem, recently published in Bewildering Stories, speaks to the heart of the matters that this blog deals with. Songs and music, rhyme and rhythm, dance, melodies, alliteration and assonance, structures and patterns and verses and choruses, are all part of something that is deeply human. It starts for us with the heartbeat in the womb, is nurtured with lullabyes and rocking, carries on through the songs and music and dance that are important to every generation of teenagers. It is such a fundamental part of our humanity that educational systems that ignore it are ignoring a powerful natural teaching tool.

The issue is larger than the fact that learning verse by heart is easier than learning prose by heart. Larger than the benefits of developing the ability to remember and memorise accurately. It is about recognising and nurturing those inner forces that make us human. It is about not letting our humanity be eroded by a culture that doesn’t acknowledge the rhythms that permeate our lives.

This blog is about the value of formal verse. Part of that value is poetry’s contribution to the sanity that comes from being a complete human being.

Technically this poem’s lines could be described as iambic tetrameter, which each fourth line being truncated and rhymed. But I prefer to read it almost as a patter song with each line composed of two tertius paeons, Short-foot-meter.svg Short-foot-meter.svg Long-foot-meter.svg Short-foot-meter.svg (each fourth line still being truncated and rhymed). In other words, it is designed to have the third and seventh syllables in each line be the ones with the greatest stress or emphasis. And that includes the rhymes, naturally.

Poem: “Rubble Faced”

 

 

Because my mind and life’s so active
my face has been reduced to rubble.
I’m glad I think I’m unattractive –
it helps to keep me from worse trouble.

The Asses of Parnassus published this as their Valentine’s Day post in 2018. Thanks, Brooke Clark!

As for the truth of the poem, who knows. Maybe it applies to all of us to some extent, as we age?

Poem: “Seasonal”

When Mr. Warm-as-winter-under-the-covers
Meets Cool-as-summer-in-the-evening-breeze
He’ll spring to leave ideas they could be lovers –
But her thoughts fall away like leaves from trees.

First published in Lighten-Up Online.

Poem: “Post-Adult”

Adults — earthworn, careweary,
grave, gravid and gravity-constrained —
take it all so seriously, furiously, fearsome and wearisome,
spuriously furious over the small stuff,
incessantly never having enough,
insensibly insatiable, insensate,
irrational, irascible,
driven by status, riven by expense,
dismissive of all greater age and experience.

How fortunate to age into osteoporosis,
bones lightening like a bird’s as you get older,
the wearying weights lifting off the shoulder,
and you drift up into the sky with your levity,
leaving behind adult cares and gravity,
unattached, detached,
careful but careless, unlatched.

This poem was recently published in Bewildering Stories. But what is it, technically? Does it have any form? It has elements of form–alliteration, assonance, scattered rhyme, the kind of rhythm (in parts) that you find in rap with emphasis on stresses, not on syllables–but none of it is organized, structured, codified, repeated…

I think it could be improved. If I come up with a significant improvement, I’ll switch it out. But there’s always the danger that the later “improvement” loses primal energy for the sake of trying to achieve an intellectual outcome. As with Auden’s poetic progress. But a little more formal structure would be good, I think.

Review: “Selected Poems” by W.H. Auden

Auden

The best of Auden’s poems are so many, so varied, so technically accomplished and so witty that he stands with the greatest poets of the 20th century. My list of favourites includes:

“O where are you going?” said reader to rider
O what is that sound that so thrills the ear
A shilling life will give you all the facts
Look, stranger, at this island now
Miss Gee
As I walked out one evening
In Time of War
Musee des Beaux Arts
In Memory of W.B. Yeats
Law, say the gardeners, is the sun

and what many consider the greatest love-poem of the last 100 years:
“Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm”.
There is a universality about Auden’s depiction of relationships, an indeterminate quality that allows his thoughts to be applied to all people. This is in keeping with the fact that he was gay, and writing in a time when homosexuality was illegal. It provides an unexpected strength for his verse.

And yet, and yet… all of those poems listed above were written before he turned 33. He lived to age 66, writing longer and longer works, moving further and further away from traditional verse, and with less of the memorable genius of his youth.

It is therefore somewhat depressing to read these “Selected Poems” because they are set out chronologically, and the writing gets less interesting the further you read. Halfway through the book you run into the poem sequence “The Sea and the Mirror – a commentary on Shakespeare’s The Tempest”, which includes 25 pages of prose crammed with dense imagery and argument. Apparently Auden preferred this prose section, “Caliban to the Audience”, over all his other work. This preference was expressed at the time that he was rewriting the excellent poems of his youth to reflect his newer American, Christian, self-important academic personality. I found it unreadable.

The first edition of “Selected Poems” (selected and edited by Edward Mendelson) contains 100 poems. A more recent edition adds another 20 poems, “broadening its focus to better reflect the enormous wealth of form, rhetoric, tone, and content in Auden’s work. Newly included are such favorites as “Funeral Blues” and other works that represent Auden’s lighter, comic side”.

Unfortunately I only have the 100-poem version. If you buy a copy of this book, make sure it has the 120 poems!

Poem: “Cinderella”

Cinderella

Cinderella, by Arthur Rackham

Every youngest daughter’s
Always Cinderella:
Never at the party,
Always in the cellar;

Tired of washing dishes,
Tired of sweeping dirt;
Wants to be a lady,
A scientist, a flirt;

Wants to travel world-wide,
Read till reading’s done;
Wants to be a mother,
Playing in the sun;

Wants to be the princess,
Beauty of the Ball –
Fairytales happen –
Watch, she’ll have it all!

First published in Lighten-Up Online (“LUPO”), the quarterly edited by Jerome Betts in the UK; republished in The HyperTexts, the massive anthology of poetry curated by Michael R. Burch. Good poets, both of them.