Monthly Archives: October 2020

Got a really great poem? First prize is £5,000

The 2020 National Poetry Competition

Run annually by The Poetry Society since 1978, this is one of the most prestigious poetry competitions for a single unpublished poem, up to 40 lines.

Open to all poets worldwide aged 18 or over.

Ten Prizes
First Prize: £5000
Second Prize: £2000
Third Prize: £1000
Commendations: £200

The first poem submitted costs £7. Subsequent entries in the same submission cost £4 per poem. Poetry Society members (including those joining at time of submission) get one free second poem, with subsequent poems at £4.

Judges include Neil Astley, Karen McCarthy Woolf and Jonathan Edwards.

Entrants from NW England are also eligible for the Peggy Poole Award to win a year’s mentorship with Vona Groarke

You can read all ten of last year’s winners on the Competition site. Unfortunately only one of them has real form, Ann Pelletier-Topping’s sestina Granddaughter Moves In; it’s a good poem, but I’m not really fond of sestinas. The ten winners are all weighty, substantial, both in their subject matter and in their analysis. Most of them, therefore, are pushing the 40-line limit, though there is one that is only 13 lines long. Of course the judges will be different this year, but these past winners are all worth considering if you are choosing one of your own poems to submit.

Enter online by midnight on October 31 – but remember, that’s midnight UK time… earlier in the day in the Americas.

www.poetrysociety.org.uk/npc

Odd Poems: Thomas M. Disch, ‘A Child’s Garden of Grammar’

Thomas M. Disch (1940-2008) was a New Wave Science Fiction author, poet, theater critic, computer game designer, and much else. Not surprising, then, that his Grammar is a strange book. Sadly, it’s not really informative for either the grammar-beginner (it’s too obscure) or the grammar-expert (there’s nothing new). It has odd poems, some nice and simple like ‘Either/Or’:

Either and Or came to a door.
Either would enter, but not before Or,
So still they stand outside that door,
But now their names are Neither and Nor.

Some playing little games, as in the explanation of ‘The Indirect Object’:

I have to hand it to you, dear:
You’re the indirect object here–
Along with Thelma, Hank and Hugh.
I tip my hat to all of you.
You’ve set a fine example to me–
But I don’t get it, and I’m gloomy.

OK, so “to you” is the indirect object… and “I” can’t be an indirect object, it can only be a subject… Cute, but rather spoiled for me by the rhyme of “to me” (which I unthinkingly stress on the last syllable, as with all the previous lines of the poem) but then, having to rhyme it with the next line’s “gloomy”, have to go back and reread to get the rhyme…

And every poem is illustrated with simple cartoons by Dave Morice. If you’re addicted to strange, by all means buy it. To me it’s just an oddity, and without either the visual or verbal charm of other cartoon-illustrated short poetry collections such as Piet Hein’s Grooks. But after all, Disch is best-known for his SF, not his verse.

Poem: ‘Sandcastles’

We’re only children, making castles in the sand.
Enjoy the day.
Night comes, and tides wash all away.

The northern summer is over. Snowy places have snow. Even in the Bahamas and Florida the water temperature is dropping below what locals will swim in (though it doesn’t bother tourists). The day ages towards dark. The year ages towards winter. And we age too. But we know this when we sign up for morning, for spring, for life–and we sign up for everything because there is so much joy, beauty, discovery and love to be experienced.

In Kipling’s ‘Just So Stories‘ one of my favourite passages is the beginning of the story, ‘The Crab That Played With The Sea’:

Before the High and Far-Off Times, O my Best Beloved, came the Time of the Very Beginnings; and that was in the days when the Eldest Magician was getting Things ready. First he got the Earth ready; then he got the Sea ready; and then he told all the Animals that they could come out and play. And the Animals said, ‘O Eldest Magician, what shall we play at?’ and he said, ‘I will show you.’ He took the Elephant—All-the-Elephant-there-was—and said, ‘Play at being an Elephant,’ and All-the-Elephant-there-was played. He took the Beaver—All-the-Beaver-there-was and said, ‘Play at being a Beaver,’ and All-the Beaver-there-was played. He took the Cow—All-the Cow-there-was—and said, ‘Play at being a Cow,’ and All-the-Cow-there-was played. He took the Turtle—All-the-Turtle there-was and said, ‘Play at being a Turtle,’ and All-the-Turtle-there-was played. One by one he took all the beasts and birds and fishes and told them what to play at.

To me this is one of the great secrets of happiness: Play! Play at being who you are, what you are. That includes all your dreams and aspirations, because they are part of who you are. So play at them, as part of playing at what is to be done today. Just play. Play at being yourself.

‘Sandcastles’ was originally published in The Asses of Parnassus, a Tumblr site of “short, witty, formal poems”. This poem isn’t particularly formal, but it has iambics and a rhyme… and it’s short.

Photo: “Sandcastles” by RobW_ is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Review: James Joyce, ‘Pomes Penyeach’

That James Joyce would have written and published formal poetry seems out of keeping with his image of the writer of chaotic language (as in how he chose to spell his work’s title rather than Poems, a penny each), but the poems he wrote in the early 20th century are in the language of the time… moderated by his rich words.

Wind whines and whines the shingle,
The crazy pierstakes groan;
A senile sea numbers each single
Slimesilvered stone.

His poetry is often repetitive, but occasionally rich and memorable. (Another of his slim volumes, “Chamber Music”, is arguably more interesting than “Pomes Penyeach”.)

Pomes Penyeach was so small–14 poems of less than a page each–that when Faber republished it they added three more pieces: The Holy Office, Gas from a Burner, and Ecce Puer. The first two are early, crude and bombastic multi-page rants against poets and publishers:

Thus I relieve their timid arses,
Perform my office of Katharsis.

Ecce Puer (“Behold the Boy”) is a later light, sweet meditation on his newborn grandson:

Young life is breathed
On the glass;
The world that was not
Has come to pass.

You never know quite what you’re going to get with Joyce, and that in itself is one of the pleasures of reading him.

Odd poems: Tennyson dialect verse, ‘The Northern Farmer’, Old Style and New Style

Wheer ‘asta beän saw long and meä liggin’ ‘ere aloän?
Noorse? thoort nowt o’ a noorse: whoy, Doctor’s abeän an’ agoän;
Says that I moänt ‘a naw moor aäle; but I beänt a fool;
Git ma my aäle, fur I beänt a-gawin’ to breäk my rule.

This is the opening stanza of Alfred, Lord Tennyson‘s poem ‘The Northern Farmer: Old Style’. The farmer is dying, but obstinately overrules the doctor’s order that he not drink any more ale, just as he obstinately clings to traditional attitudes towards land and class, farming and money.

Where have you been so long and me lying here alone?
Nurse? You’re no good as a nurse; why, the doctor’s come and gone:
Says that I mayn’t have any more ale; but I’m not a fool;
Get me my ale, because I’m not going to break my rule.

It’s one of a series of poems he wrote that recapture the dialect of his Lincolnshire youth, and that reflect the old traditions and the modern changes of that part of the country. It is paired specifically with ‘The Northern Farmer: New Style’–Here the “new style” farmer, out in a cart with his son Sammy, hears the horse’s hooves clip-clopping “Property, property” and chides his son for not thinking enough about money:

Me an’ thy muther, Sammy, ‘as been a’talkin’ o’ thee;
Thou’s beän talkin’ to muther, an’ she beän a tellin’ it me.
Thou’ll not marry for munny–thou’s sweet upo’ parson’s lass–
Noä–thou ‘ll marry for luvv–an’ we boäth of us thinks tha an ass.

Seeä’d her todaäy goä by–Saäint’s-daäy–they was ringing the bells.
She’s a beauty, thou thinks–an’ soä is scoors o’ gells,
Them as ‘as munny an’ all–wot’s a beauty?–the flower as blaws.
But proputty, proputty sticks, an’ proputty, proputty graws.

or, in more modern words:

Me and your mother, Sammy, have been talking of you;
You’ve been talking to mother, and she’s been telling me.
You don’t want to marry for money–you’re sweet on the parson’s daughter–
No, you want to marry for love–and we both think you’re an ass.

Saw her today going by–Saint’s day–they were ringing the bells.
She’s a beauty, you think–and so are scores of girls,
Those with money and everything–what’s a beauty?–a flower that fades.
But property, property sticks, and property, property grows.

Tennyson was meticulous in trying to recapture the life and language of his youth. He wrote:

When I first wrote ‘The Northern Farmer’ I sent it to a solicitor of ours in Lincolnshire. I was afraid I had forgotten the tongue and he altered all my mid-Lincolnshire into North Lincolnshire and I had to put it all back.

And apart from the accuracy of the dialect, Tennyson was as skilled as ever with his carefully conversational metre, and natural rhymes working comfortably with the natural breaks of the lines.

Poem: ‘Poetic Themes’

You wake and see dew on the grass in spring
But I see futures present changes bring:
Global warming replacing dew with drought,
Nanotech replacing grass with grout,
A.I. replacing people’s minds and thought,
Genetic mods replacing us—with what?
In other words, our world’s about to pass.
Poetry must be more than dew on grass.

I was honestly a little surprised when Light Poetry Magazine told me they would publish this poem. I mostly associate them with their snippy, jokey little poems that appear weekly on topical subjects, Poems Of The Week. Maybe this is unfair, as their full twice-yearly magazine profiles individual poets and has useful book reviews as well as poetry from a couple of dozen formal poets. Be that as it may, I felt this poem might be a little more Dark than Light.

Not that I’m pessimistic about the future. I’m intrigued, and resigned. Just as in William Golding’s ‘The Inheritors’ in which a tribe of early humans finds modern humans moving in and displacing them, so modern humans look like being displaced by something we can’t yet identify. We are like Native Americans when the Europeans started arriving, like White America as the demographic shifts to a more globally representative population, or like every generation that finds the children and grandchildren listening to unrecognisable music and using incomprehensible technology. Is any of this bad? It can be handled well or badly, but it is a natural and unending process.

And now we’re facing a variety of technologies that together can completely remake the human: genetic engineering, A.I., robotics, infinite data-crunching, nanotechnology… Will we casually and irresponsibly start remaking humans? Of course. It’s inevitable. If one country clamps down on it, it will simply happen elsewhere. And what is the likely outcome? I haven’t a clue, but I’m intrigued.

Photo: “morning dew” by haglundc is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

The Nobel Prize for Literature: Louise Glück

Archaic Fragment

I was trying to love matter.
I taped a sign over the mirror:
You cannot hate matter and love form.

It was a beautiful day, though cold.
This was, for me, an extravagantly emotional gesture.

…….your poem:
tried, but could not.

I taped a sign over the first sign:
Cry, weep, thrash yourself, rend your garments—

List of things to love:
dirt, food, shells, human hair.

……. said
tasteless excess. Then I

rent the signs.

AIAIAIAI cried
the naked mirror.

Source: Poetry (January 2006)

So Louise Glück has won the 2020 Nobel Prize for Literature, “for her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal.” This is all very well–she has powerful insights, strong images, and these translate well into other languages. But as an advocate of the use of poetic tools inherent in language–rhyme and rhythm in particular, for English–I can’t classify the expressions of her poetic voice as poetry.

The simplest touchstone is this: How easy is it learn the passage by heart, to recite it word for word from memory? Because that is why we developed the tricks of poetry, the different rhythms for different moods, the different forms for different levels of complexity. Poetry is song with the emphasis shifted from the melody to the words; but the music is still there in shadow form.

It is very hard to keep the actual poetry when a poem is translated from one language to another. It is easy enough to translate the insights and imagery, but what of the music of the language? It can be done by a skilful translator, but the fidelity is often compromised to remake the poetry. Yeats was very free with the French of Pierre de Ronsard when he wrote

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

but he captured the poetry and made it into one of his own best-loved pieces. James Joyce translated the German of Gottfried Keller as

Now I have fed and eaten up the rose
Which then she laid within my stiffcold hand.
That I should ever feed upon a rose
I never had believed in liveman’s land.

It’s Keller, but it’s also poetry, and with Joyce’s own voice. Glück indeed has a voice, but how simple is it to learn her work and recite it word for word, compared with the Yeats or Joyce work above? And if you learn it by heart, will you still be able to recite it verbatim years later? I think not. So I submit that her work is not poetry.

That doesn’t mean that it isn’t literature. It just means that we need a word for such work, writing that is too poetic to be called prose, but too prosaic to be called poetry. Poetry needs its undercurrent of song. When the Nobel Prize was being awarded for poetry, Bob Dylan was a far wiser choice than Louise Glück.

Odd poem: prize-winning limerick by Boris Johnson

There was a young fellow from Ankara,

Who was a terrific wankerer.

Till he sowed his wild oats,

With the help of a goat,

But he didn’t even stop to thankera.

To make sense of this limerick, and why Boris Johnson wrote it, and the various reasons that it won a £1,000 prize, we have to poke around the politics of a few years ago. It started when a German video mildly mocked the authoritarian and repressive President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The Turkish government summoned the German ambassador to “explain and justify” the video. As Turkey had become extremely repressive to journalists, German TV comedian Jan Böhmermann then decided to show Erdoğan what free speech meant, by broadcasting a deliberately offensive poem.

On a set with a Turkish flag and portrait of Erdoğan, and with subtitles in Turkish, Böhmermann read his poem of twelve rhyming couplets. Here is a rough translation:

Defamatory Poem, by Jan Böhmermann

Stupid as fuck, cowardly and uptight,
Is Erdoğan, the president,
His gob smells of bad döner,
Even a pig’s fart smells better,
He’s the man who hits girls,
While wearing a rubber mask,
But goat-fucking he likes the best,
And having minorities repressed,

Kicking Kurds and beating Christians
While watching kiddie porn,
And even at night, instead of sleep,
It’s time for fellatio with a hundred sheep,

Yep, Erdoğan is definitely
The president with a tiny dick,
Every Turk will tell you all,
The stupid fool has wrinkly balls,
From Ankara to Istanbul,
They all know the man is gay,
Perverted, louse-infested, a zoophile,
Recep Fritzl Priklopil

Head as empty as his balls,
Of every gang-bang party he’s the star,
Till his cock burns when he has a piss,
That’s Recep Erdoğan, Turkish president.

Erdoğan filed complaints with German prosecutors in a bid to have the poem suppressed, and Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed to investigate, which led to a court injunction, but also to the poem being read out in the German parliament.

Boris Johnson–at the time a backbench Conservative MP as well as former Mayor of London–was interviewed shortly after by The Spectator and a conservative Swiss paper, on immigration, Brexit and related issues. The subject of the poem came up. Johnson–one of whose great-grandfathers was Turkish–called it a scandal that a German court had issued an injunction against the poem being repeated. He said “If somebody wants to make a joke about the love that flowers between the Turkish president and a goat, he should be able to do so, in any European country, including Turkey.” As The Spectator had issued a £1,000 ‘President Erdogan Offensive Poetry’ challenge, Johnson was asked if he had entered. He said no, but when pressed, came up with his apparently spontaneous limerick.

Poetry judge Douglas Murray said the competition received thousands of entries, and he tweeted: “Can I remind entrants that you cannot just make up words. ‘Wankerer’ does indeed rhyme with Turkey’s capital. But it is not a word.” (For non-Brits: “wank” = masturbate, and “wanker” = stupid jerk.) However, Boris Johnson ended up with the £1,000 prize. Perhaps the fact that he is a former editor of The Spectator had something to do with it.

Poem: ‘Chrysalis’

After a billion years of larval hit-and-miss
humans emerged, stood up, and fed, and grew,
started to build their city chrysalis
from which, 3,000 years entombed, now formed anew,
they burst in wild bright flight with wings deployed
out to the stars. The egg case of this final birth,
the Earth,
was, naturally, destroyed.

We have good news and bad news. The bad news is that the rate of change is ever-increasing in all aspects of human life–from our bodies to our planet–and we will never return to the old normal. The good news is that this is the process by which life advantages to higher levels of organisation and intelligence.

This poem was originally published in Star*Line, one of the two magazines of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association (SFPA). The other magazine is Eye to the Telescope (ETTT).

The poem rhymes and is written in iambics; but the rhymes are not structured to a pattern, and the lines are of uneven length. This casual form is used by Matthew Arnold and T.S. Eliot among others, in some of my favourite poems such as A Summer Night (I have always loved the three paragraphs beginning with:

For most men in a brazen prison live,
Where, in the sun’s hot eye,
With heads bent o’er their toil, they languidly
Their lives to some unmeaning taskwork give,
Dreaming of naught beyond their prison wall.
)

and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. The form doesn’t have the musicality of more regular forms like the sonnet or limerick, but it provides all the memorising strength of rhythm and rhyme within a more conversational flow, and facilitates different lengths of thought including, if wanted, a punchline.

We live in difficult times, what with the unprecedented challenges of climate change, mass migration, infectious diseases, unpredictable technological advances in weaponry, and more. And the problems will continue to multiply and get larger, even as we develop solutions to the smaller, simpler ones. And from the inevitable destruction of our form of life will emerge… what? We cannot know, we probably cannot even imagine.

Photo credit: “Cicada emerging from old exoskeleton” by Shek Graham is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Review: “The Listeners and other poems” by Walter de la Mare

The poem ‘The Listeners’ is one of de la Mare’s best–evocative, ghostly, inconclusive, easy to read and to recite.

‘Is there anybody there?’ said the Traveller,
Knocking on the moonlit door;

It justly appears in any short sampling of his work. Several of the other poems in this collection are of that quality, mostly those of portraits of individuals: Old Susan, Old Ben, Nod the Shepherd

Softly along the road of evening,
In a twilight dim with rose,
Wrinkled with age, and drenched with dew,
Old Nod, the shepherd, goes.

and, at the other end of life, Little Louisa in ‘The Keys of Morning’:

The thinness of his coal-black locks,
His hands so long and lean
They scarcely seemed to grasp at all
The keys that hung between:

Those poems are all at the beginning of the book, and after them the poems degenerate into unequal attempts to catch the evocative spirit.

De la Mare produced a lot of verse. If a dozen or two of his poems are memorable, that is a remarkable achievement that (almost) anyone writing verse would be proud of. And the way to reach those one or two dozen is to write down everything that occurs to you, good or bad, and then to work on it as best you can. There is no way to decide “Today I will write a good poem” and produce it unless you are already in an appropriate state of mind–inspired, or bemused as it were. But to not write when a line or thought occurs to you is to turn off the taps of creativity. So all must be written.

No one should fault a poet who has produced verse good enough to sell, when they a) continue to write material of uneven quality, b) continue to publish it. It is a good process for keeping the lines of communication open with the muse, and hopefully producing even better work in future.

As for this particular collection: I like the first 13 poems, and the title poem. I forgive the rest.