Monthly Archives: May 2021

Poem: ‘What Lasts?’

Munch’s Scream fades, and the Taliban
blow up the grandest statues that they can.
Safer are spoken treasures of the mind:
poems and songs outlast objects that rust,
or bust, or slowly crumble into dust.
Until from cave or dig comes some strange find…
but when Lascaux and Willendorf were young,
what was recited, or what songs were sung?

As regards “immortal” works of art… anything that is still respected in a hundred years is pretty good, anything still talked about after a couple of thousand years is doing very well… Songs and poems can manage that length of time, especially if connected a religion or other social ritual; but there is very little oral survival beyond that, and the survival of physical artifacts from tens of thousands of years ago is of the luckiest, perhaps of the lost or the most overlooked, not necessarily the best.

How wonderful if in the future we can recapture sounds from the Stone Age! At present there is no way to see how it could ever be done. But at least we have a few cave paintings and small carvings…

This poem was just published a short while ago in The Asses of Parnassus. Thanks, Brooke Clark!

“Austria. Wien Naturhistorisches museum Venus von Willendorf. Die Venus von Willendorf ist eine Venusfigurine aus der jüngeren Altsteinzeit (Jungpaläolithikum), dem Gravettien, und ist als Österreichs bekanntestes Fundstück heute im Naturhistorischen Museum” by Morton1905 is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Poem: ‘Friendly Advice’

“Listen, old feller-me-lad,” he said
With a rugger-player’s laugh
(Not that he was big and brawny,
Only about scrum-half)
“You can muck about till you’re blinking dead
Without a career or a wife,
But (I know that it sounds damn corny)
You’re wasting your bloody life!

“Look, Slater Walker would snap you up!
Anyone can see you’re no fool.
Or why not go round to the Honkers and Shankers?
You’ve been to a decent school.
But before you do, go and have a haircut
You can’t go through life as a clown.
Get a good job! You’ll only thank us
For helping you settle down.

“Work with a Bank, and go overseas,
That’s where you’ll get the best pay.
Look at us: Jill and I are content,
With our two kids, and one on the way.
We’ve enough for a car, and boarding-school fees,
And her clothes, and my drinking and smoking;
And the Bank pays us our large flat’s rent,
And we’ve got our own place in Woking.

“So we’ve got our means, and we’ve got our ends,
And we’re happy through and through;
But you, you do nothing, although you’re clever,
And we worry a bit about you.
Now look, we like you, we’re speaking as friends:
Settle down! Get a job and a wife!
You can’t go on mucking about for ever –
You’re wasting your bloody life!”

In my gap year between school and university I worked in the local Barclays Bank in my home town of Governor’s Harbour. My subsequent university career only lasted a matter of months and I began wandering between countries, but my former boss at Barclays had friendly advice for getting me back on track. His Englishness is there in the poem, which dates itself with references to the once-mighty Slater Walker investment house and with the nickname of the Hongkong & Shanghai Bank before it became HSBC. It was a while ago… if Tim Clark is back in Woking with his wife Jill, they must be in their 90s by now.

The scansion of the poem is a little casual, but there are alternating 4 and 3 feet to a line. The rhyme scheme is tighter, ABCBADCD in each verse. I think it works well as a piece of casual one-sided discussion. First published in Lighten-Up Online – thanks, Jerome Betts!

Photo: “Bored at Work” by D Street is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Review: Max Gutmann, ‘Light and Comic Verse’

Quirkily-workily
Jorge Bergolio,
On a career path with
Quite a steep slope,

Unostentatiously
Worked as a janitor,
Then as a bouncer, and
Then as the Pope.

This elegant double dactyl on the life of Pope Francis is representative of ‘The Hearthside Treasury of Light and Comic Verse’: interesting, witty, technically perfect. The poems include limericks, clerihews, varieties of ballades, and are purported to be written by a variety of poets, several of whom are claimed to be the first-ever winner of the prestigious Blackfrier Prize for Poetry. The book’s veneer of being ‘edited by Max Gutmann’ is worn even thinner with the bio of his least likely poet, Ed Winters… “A devotee of Hemingway, Hart Crane and Sylvia Plath, Winters shot himself in the mouth while diving from a ship with his head in an oven.”

The book includes two pages of riddles in rhyme, of enjoyable difficulty: half were guessable for me, half not. There is also a full-length Poe parody (‘Quoth the Parrot: “Cracker. Now!”); scenes from The Merchant of Venice, King Lear and Titus Andronicus rewritten by W.S. Gilbert; outrage at the Trump presidency, the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, and the US Supreme Court’s appalling excuse for subverting the 2000 Presidential election; a poem appropriately written in the form of a dozen eggs; and various puns, off-colour jokes and random surprises. Many of the poems have previously appeared in Light poetry magazine, many others in a range from Asses of Parnassus to the Washington Post.

As for “The Hearthside Treasury” part of the book’s title… though there was (or is) a Hearthside Press, active from the mid-1950s to mid-70s; and an unrelated Hearthside Books, active from the mid-70s to the present, sort of; this “Hearthside Treasury” appears unconnected to anything. Indeed, it’s not even available on Amazon. It doesn’t have an ISBN. All this is a pity, as it is as enjoyable a book of light and comic verse as you can find anywhere. If you want a copy – and if you enjoy comic verse you really ought to have one – you’re going to have to contact the author directly through his website (which mostly focuses on his plays) at maxgutmann.com

Odd poem: Margaret Mead(?), ‘Hogamus Higamus’

Hogamus, higamus,
Man is polygamous;
Higamus, hogamus,
Woman’s monogamous.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say this is American anthropologist Margaret Mead‘s creation. I have a clear memory of reading the story many years ago, probably in ‘Male and Female’, of her waking up in the middle of the night with an understanding of the secret of the universe. She grabbed the pencil and paper she kept by her bedside and wrote it down, then went back to the sleep. And in the morning she found she had written the above verse.

I was so certain it was Margaret Mead that I began this blog post about her before trying to check which book the verse came from and if I had the wording correct. (I last read Mead decades ago, and I leave beyond the reach of bookstores and real libraries.) To my frustration, all I can find in Google is attribution to William James, Dorothy Parker, Ogden Nash, Bertrand Russell, Alice Duer Miller… and Mrs. Amos Pinchot, who allegedly denied authorship. According to Quote Investigator, “The first known evidence of this unusual anecdote appeared in the Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper in November 1939. The article ‘Thanksgiving Nightmare’ by Claire MacMurray (…) presented a supposed episode in the mental life of a person named Mrs. Amos Pinchot”, and tells the tale as I remember it. Mead’s ‘Male and Female’ came out in 1949, so (if the poem was in that book) it may have been referring to the Pinchot story, or it may have been something that had happened more than ten years previously to Mead, and she had shared the story and it had spread by itself.

The poem itself is brief, witty, amusing. It is rhythmic, repetitive, well rhymed, very catchy. Those are all excellent qualities. As for the content, it seems very 20th century: it gives the impression of having broken out of the conventions of society and church, and to be saying that the two sexes have differing needs for propagating themselves successfully. It is also 20th century in being simplistic. Where does the concept of serial monogamy fall? How does the rhyme relate to the LGBTQ+ members of society? The verse is definitely not comprehensive enough for the 21st century. But Margaret Mead was a controversial opener of cans of worms in the early 20th century, and that is where this little poem came from. Her obsession with gender roles and her self-deprecating humour make her a good candidate for its author.

And where the poem came from, apparently, was a communication from the unconscious, a gift to the dreamer. Always respect and preserve what the Muse offers you – who knows, a couple of lines of verse may be treasured and quoted for a hundred years!

“Sex and Temperament in three primitive societies” by your neighborhood librarian is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Melissa Balmain, ‘Fluffy Weighs in on the Baby’

It’s hairless as an egg—
why bother petting that?
It doesn’t purr or groom your leg,
and yet you feed the brat.

Instead of catching mice,
it grapples with its socks.
It’s never taken my advice
to use the litter box.

It can’t climb up a tree,
it can’t chase balls of string,
it leaves you zero time for me—
just eat the wretched thing.

‘Fluffy Weighs in on the Baby’ is reprinted from Walking in on People (Able Muse Press)

Melissa Balmain writes: “The great light poet Bob McKenty calls himself ‘an editorial cartoonist who can’t draw.’ Given my fondness for writing persona poems, I think I qualify as a method actor who can’t act. As you might guess, adopting a persona lets me try on fresh points of view and say things I might not think to say (or dare to say) as myself. Plus, it can be a fun vehicle for mockery—as in ‘Fluffy,’ which aims its claws at new parents who ignore their pets. (Yes, I was one of those new parents…) Over the years I’ve attempted to channel not just animals and fellow humans in my poems, but also cartoon characters, plants, water, Satan, a dictionary, and, in my latest book, fairy tale characters. It’s the closest I’ll get to a SAG card.”

Melissa Balmain edits Light, America’s longest-running journal of light verse. Her poems and prose have appeared widely in the US and UK. She’s the author of the full-length verse collection Walking in on People (Able Muse Press), chosen by X.J. Kennedy for the Able Muse Book Award; and the shorter collection The Witch Demands a Retraction: Fairy-Tale Reboots for Adults, new from Humorist Books. She is a recovering mime.

Poem: ‘Body Surfing’

Standing hip deep in the sea
Is nice in itself, but the reason for being there
Is the wait for a big wave.

A wave rising, a sudden tower
Smooth with devouring power
But one you can launch yourself forward in tune with – and
Hurtle ecstatic, unseeing and breathless
For as long as breath can hold
Through the water and up along over and onto the sand,
Sand thick in your hair, jammed in every fold,
Scraped, battered and rolled,
Triumphant, beached, deathless.

For this the saint prays,
For this the artist stares open-eyed,
For this the poet lets wounds bleed unstanched,
For this: this hope of being launched,
Controlled and uncontrolled
By what can’t be withstood or denied.

(Or else you could duck under the wall,
Let it pass over while you count three,
Hear the boom of its crested fall,
Yourself unbroken, inactive, safe, free.)

The sea is always there
Whether or not you are in it
Standing hip deep in it
Waiting for the next big wave.

Another of my “Is it formal?” poems. How much rhyme, rhythm and consistent structure do you need in order to consider it formal? Where is the cut-off between form and free? I don’t know. But I felt the alternation – between quiet waiting sections and the breathless rush of a good wave – was an appropriate expression in itself.

The poem was originally published in Snakeskin. Thanks, George Simmers!

“Superman body position while body surfing” by benaston is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Poem: ‘Warfare’

The mother’s nightmare
The child’s terror
The rapist’s freedom
The girl’s death.
The killer’s ecstasy
The band’s brotherhood
The youth’s excitement
The dying breath.

The glory of the lucky
The scream of the unlucky
The lost limbs, blindness, madness
The lifelong PTSD, homeless in the streets.
The poet’s puzzle
The politician’s porn
The aphrodisiac
The power-soaked sheets.

The demagogue’s cause
The demagogue’s solution
The warmonger’s profits
The fearmonger’s skill.
The blacksmith’s trade
The scientist’s incentive
The human fascination
The tribe’s need to kill.

The acceptance by the boys
The eagerness of teens
The avoidance by the men
The manipulation by the old.
The girl’s adoration
The woman’s greed
The widow’s grief
The body cold.

The king’s invocation
The priest’s sanctification
The scared population
The desolation.

The peasant’s loss
The trader’s loss
The teacher’s loss
The city’s loss.

The mortician’s gain
The tombstone maker’s gain
The coffin maker’s gain
The graveyard’s gain.

The medal maker’s gain.

And over it all God sits in His rocking chair
On His front porch in the sky
Saying, A crop, a very fine crop, an excellent crop this year.

Sits in His deck chair to look at the warfare waves
In the shade of a cloud in the sky
Watching the sandcastles washing away.

Sits in the night coming down on the battlefield
Watching crows, ravens, hyenas, stray dogs
Men and women pulling gold teeth from the dead.

Sits in His laboratory, looking at His guinea pigs
Sits in His concert hall, listening to the music
Thinking, All this is so interesting
All this is so tragic
All so inspiring
How far will they get till they blow themselves up?
Will these ones escape? Will they figure it out?
Can they conquer themselves and discover the universe?

Maybe it’s out of line to put this poem into a ‘formal verse’ blog… But there are two points to consider. First, there is a lot of form in the outraged chant of the beginning half–rhyme, rhythm, balance, some alliteration. Second, transitioning from that form to a less structured meditation in itself a use of form; it transitions the entire poem from one viewpoint to another by making the two halves so different. That’s my argument, anyway. Is it reasonable?

The poem originally appeared in Bewildering Stories. Thanks Don Webb and John Stocks!

Photo: “Battlefield Dead After the Battle of Gettysburg” by elycefeliz is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Bruce McGuffin, ‘Why It’s Important To Take Your Saxophone Hiking’

Whenever I go for a walk in the wood
I carry a saxophone, everyone should.
You need it in case you get caught unawares
By a band of unruly and ravenous bears.

When the bears leap from bushes intending to eat you,
You won’t have the time that it takes to retreat, you
Had better be ready to pull out your sax
If you don’t want to finish your day as bear snacks.

Play a song they can dance to, try Latin or swing.
Dancing bears like to rhumba, they might highland fling.
But beware, every bear is a dance epicure.
If you play Macarena they’ll eat you for sure.

https://lightpoetrymagazine.com/winter-spring-2020/Bruce McGuffin writes: “A respected poet1 once described Light Verse as “a betrayal of the purpose of poetry”. All I can say is whatever gave him the idea that poetry only has one purpose? With almost 8 billion people in the world there must be 8 billion plus purposes for poetry. Everybody wants to feel a little light and laughter now and then, and for me that’s one of the purposes of poetry. This silly poem (which originally appeared in Light Poetry Magazine, February 2020) about dancing bears, with its driving, almost chant-like, rhythm makes me happy whenever I read it. I hope it will make other people happy too.”

[1] Robin Robertson in Guardian Interview, September 28, 2018. 

Bruce McGuffin writes all kinds of poetry, but meter has a way of sneaking in even when it’s not invited, sometimes bringing rhyme along for the ride. His subjects range from the profound to the utterly frivolous with a decided tilt toward frivolous, which he justifies by claiming he writes for his own amusement. He divides his time between Lexington Massachusetts, where he has a day job as an engineer at a radio research lab, and Antrim New Hampshire, where he lives with his wife and pretends to be practical (when he’s not writing poetry). At work the practical engineers think he’s a theorist, and the theorists think he’s a practical engineer. His poetry has appeared in Light, Lighten Up Online, The Asses of Parnassus, Better Than Starbucks, and other journals.

Poem: ‘Zippori Story’

Context, people, context! Remember that
Herod was building his new royal city
Zippori some four miles from Nazareth
when Jesus was a child. And Joseph would
have walked there, worked there, daily; Jesus too.

When Judas of Galilee raised his revolt,
captured and burned it–Roman legions came,
defeated him, cast him in the Sea
of Galilee, a millstone round his neck,
and crucified two thousand rebel Jews.

This was the year that Joseph disappears
from Gospel narratives, all unexplained.
When Jesus chased two thousand Legion pigs
over a cliff into that selfsame sea,
think retribution; think guerrilla strike.

The lack of stories and legends about Jesus’ step-father is one of the great Christian mysteries. He simply disappears from the narrative in the year of Judas of Galilee’s revolt, and is never mentioned again in polite society. Nor is Zippori ever mentioned in the Bible, either by that name or the Romanized Sepphoris, although it was the local capital of Galilee. I have laid out what seem to me obvious suspicions in The Gospel According to the Romans, and blogged about it here and there.

This poem was just published in The Road Not Taken, a Journal of Formal Poetry, in the section themed on ‘Replies’. My thanks to Dr. Kathryn Jacobs.

Review: ‘¡OHO!’ by Rex Whistler, words by Laurence Whistler

This is one of the most unusual volumes of poetry, because the poems are far less engaging and memorable than the illustrations for which they were made. The witty and whimsical British artist, Rex Whistler, produced a series of drawings of people which, when turned upside down, show a different but related person; his brother Laurence produced poems to describe the relationships. The front and back covers are identical–except that there is no front and back; the book can be opened and read from either end. There are two poems facing each illustration, the lower one describing the face you see, the upper one appearing upside down… until you turn the book around and find it describes the other face.

The nurse and the patient; the old man and the young one; the panicked householder calling the Fire Department and the fireman delighted to have work; the glum Mayor of Standon Ceremony and the gleeful Madam the Mayor of Stanster Reason… as for the cover illustration, the young and old women, Laurence Whistler begins the former’s poem:

The sisters truly thought she looked like that,
Cinderella, with her brush and pan,
Slip-slopping down-at-heel around the flat,
Ash-coloured where she sat,
Deep in some fatuous daydream of a Man.

The reverse poem is the Fairy Godmother’s, beginning:

Be home by twelve!
The one condition
For beauty tremulous
With ambition.

The drawings were inspired by this illustration in the 1682 book ‘The Church of Rome Evidently Proved Heretick’ by Peter Berault:

The ‘¡OHO!’ illustrations were done in the 1930s; Rex Whistler was killed in the Second World War, and the book with Laurence’s poems came out in 1946. A subsequent edition, ‘AHA’, was published in 1978 to include seven more of the double portraits, four very engaging, two less so, while one is an unprepossessing Henry VIII with Anne of Cleves; though without verses for any of them. But the poetry is clearly incidental, anyway… here is the sour Patient and upbeat Nurse:

It’s a wonderful book. As the publishers wrote: “However you put this book down it will lie face up, which is to say face down. And upside down is how it can never be slipped into a bookshelf.”