Monthly Archives: October 2020

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.

Odd poem: Prime Minister Clement Attlee’s limerick

There were few who thought him a starter,
Many who thought themselves smarter.
But he ended PM,
CH and OM,
an Earl and a Knight of the Garter.

Born into a middle-class family in 1883, Clement Attlee went to Oxford, became a barrister, but, after his volunteer work in London’s East End brought him into close contact with poverty, his political views shifted left and he gave up law and joined the Labour Party. Leader of the Labour Party from 1935 to 1955, including as Prime Minister from 1945 to 1951. His government “undertook the nationalisation of public utilities and major industries, and implemented wide-ranging social reforms, including the passing of the National Insurance Act 1946 and National Assistance Act, the foundation of the National Health Service (NHS) in 1948, and the enlargement of public subsidies for council house building. His government also reformed trade union legislation, working practices and children’s services; it created the National Parks system, passed the New Towns Act 1946 and established the town and country planning system.” – Wikipedia

Perhaps surprisingly he failed to see the value of the beginnings of the EU, preferring a stronger Atlantic alliance if possible. He is alleged to have said in a speech: “The Common Market. The so-called Common Market of six nations. Know them all well. Very recently this country spent a great deal of blood and treasure rescuing four of ’em from attacks by the other two.”

Now considered one of the UK’s greatest Prime Ministers, it is only fitting that his titles and honours include, as he boasts in his limerick, Prime Minister, Companion of Honour, Order of Merit, Earl Attlee, and Knight of the Garter.

Even Margaret Thatcher wrote of him: “Of Clement Attlee, however, I was an admirer. He was a serious man and a patriot. Quite contrary to the general tendency of politicians in the 1990s, he was all substance and no show. His was a genuinely radical and reforming government.”