Monthly Archives: September 2021

Review: ‘That Shakespeherian Rag’ by Edmund Conti

The problem of being
a 17-year
locust
is trying to stay
for 16 years
focused.

That poem is ‘Short Attention Span’ from Edmund Conti’s latest collection of verse. Originally the title was to be ‘O O O O’ in reference to T.S. Eliot’s lines from The Waste Land where the poet is being criticised by his wife:

“Are you alive, or not? Is there nothing in your head?”
But
O O O O that Shakespeherian rag—
It’s so elegant
So intelligent

It seems that the publishers sensibly preferred a title that would be more comprehensible, without the confusions of O and 0. So the next part of the quote was chosen–still idiosyncratic, but more useful. And, yes, Conti seems to have poetry singing rhythms in his head all the time, and he produces beautiful jazz-like drawings as in the book’s cover.

Both titles for the collection are pure Conti–he has a playful, Zen-like approach to life, highly literate, constantly referencing other writers (and other writers referencing other writers), expecting a level of knowledge and engagement from the reader, and often reducing his expositions to the shortest possible. So this latest volume is full of memories and meditations, jokes and puns, and threaded through with the words of others. Conti divides the book into 11 Shakespearean sections, starting with memories of childhood and youth, and then weaving through reading and writing, books and poetry, his neighbors and family (and their views of his verse), into a closer and closer look at mortality: the last four pieces having respectively four lines, two lines, one line, and nothing.

Conti writes both formal and free verse, depending what kind of playfulness he’s up to. When he parodies Emily Dickinson, of course it’s in her standard ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas’ meter and rhymes ABAB. But he’s a lot more free when he just wants some snide commens and a punchline. Here’s ‘Losing Battle’:

In a final desperate attempt
at survival, the sun sets
fire to the western sky.
Overblown, say my poet friends.
Cute, say my non-poet friends.
What does it mean? asks my neighbor.
How much will you get paid for it?
That’s from my wife.

My father’s an astronaut,
my son lies.

Engaging, amusing, thought-provoking, with many short passages that stay in the memory. A fun book for all poets. Just published this month by Kelsay Books.

Short Poem: ‘Days’

Where do they go, the days, twirling around?
Leaves in a dust-devil, swirled on the ground –
Water makes whirlpools just touching a drain –
Then the basin is empty. And no days remain.

September, heading towards the equinox and (in the northern hemisphere) winter. The end of the summer, back to school, back to work, loss of freedom, into the cold and the dark. Another year gone–having a September birthday doesn’t help!–the trees giving up, dry leaves falling and whirling in outside corners of asphalt and concrete… Head south, where it is still summer!

This short poem was published on a page of short pieces in the September issue of Lighten-Up Online – thanks, Jerome Betts!

“Water down the drain” by David Blackwell. is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Sonnet: ‘The Thief’

More than the actual loss, it’s helplessness
That we most loathe when suffering a theft:
The arbitrary way one daring, deft,
Brass act leaves careful order in a mess;
The knowledge the thief’s wilder and cares less;
The easy way he tears the warp and weft
Of dull security; the insight left
The cosmos can as quickly curse as bless.

Therefore the fears are mostly overblown-–
The thief himself causes no loss or strife
More than insurance or day’s work redeems.
But there’s a greater thief, and more unknown,
Who comes each night and steals one third your life,
Leaving no more than fingerprints, your dreams.

Sleep and dreams are so large a part of our existence that they seem to merit more attention than most people pay them. Sure, we need some rest, but we can get physical rest while awake during the day. So do we really need seven or eight hours every night to defrag our minds and delete unnecessary memories?

I like to think (this is close to “I believe”, but it isn’t belief) that there is something crucial going on that we are missing. The occasional “big dream” that resonates life-changingly. The dream of a distant loved one saying goodbye, before you get the news the next day of their death. The awareness that your unconscious is actually running your show, and that you better pay attention and assist where you can. All these reduce the apparent dominance of the waking mind, and open cans of existential worms. There are no certain answers. We are nowhere near understanding how our bodies, our minds or the universe works.

It’s all wonderful; but I still resent the amount of time I have to sleep. (And to those who say “It’s possible to sleep a lot less” I say “Yes, but at what cost? We have no idea.”)

I’m proud of this sonnet on a technical level. It is a true Petrarchan sonnet (iambic pentameter, and rhyming ABBAABBA CDECDE); the flow of words finds natural tiny pauses at the line breaks; only the volta, the twist to the exposition, is arguably in the wrong place, being strongest after the 11th line rather than after the eighth. But I feel it is all redeemed by a strong last line.

‘The Thief’ was originally published in ‘Candelabrum‘ – a magazine stolen by time.

Photo: “Thief Of Dreams” by Monica Blatton is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Review: ‘Ruth Pitter, Selected Poems’

An excellent selection of some of the better-known and some of the previously uncollected poems of one of the 20th century’s least known but most accomplished poets. Ruth Pitter‘s first book of poems was published with the help of Hilaire Belloc in 1920; her work was admired and praised by Yeats, Larkin, Skelton and Gunn; she was the first woman to win the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 1955, and was awarded a CBE in 1979. She died in 1992.

My personal favourite in this large chapbook from HappenStance is “Smoky Kettle, Stinging Nettle”, for its magical incantation of life and afterlife, of love and loss, of the countryside and all things human:

Smoky kettle,
Stinging nettle,
Lily my darling,
Toad and starling,
Fox in wood,
Solitude,
O be there, be there again,
When my end I shall attain,
When the knot is all unravelled,
And the tangled path is travelled.

But the poem is not typical of her work, and was not previously collected in a book. More commonly her style is like the beginning of ‘Spectrum’:

A little window, eastward, low, obscure,
A flask of water on the vestry press,
A ray of sunshine through a fretted door,
And myself kneeling in live quietness:

Heaven’s brightness was then gathered in the glass,

Her usual style is quiet, understated, with simple metre and rhyme scheme. Often there is a religious element–she was a friend of, and was influenced by, C.S. Lewis–and even an element of Anglican hymns. But none of that was enough to stop the militantly atheist Philip Larkin from including four of her poems in The Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse. And I found enough of interest in this 44-page chapbook to warrant ordering a copy of her ‘Collected Poems’, to explore further.

Short poem: ‘Every Little Mammal’

Every little mammal
Likes a little cuddle.
Man or mouse or camel,
Life becomes a muddle
If there is no cuddle
For the simple mammal.

There’s nothing much to this little poem. Sometimes an awareness of a rhyme or near-rhyme sparks a thought, sometimes a random thought contains words that rhyme, or nearly… and if it’s not a large thought, it’s not a large poem. But it’s there all the same. And if you’re really lucky, you can find an appropriate illustration…

This short poem was originally published, like a hundred others of mine, in Snakeskin. Thanks for all of them, editor George Simmers!

“Illuminated Manuscript, Collection of poems (masnavi), A mouse, clutching the reins of a camel, at a stream of water, Walters Art Museum Ms. W.626, fol. 94b” by Walters Art Museum Illuminated Manuscripts is marked with CC0 1.0

Poem: ‘The Divine Moon’

Do you remember when we used the Moon
To measure menses, measure time by month?
We’d found the Moon determined tides and blood,
So planted crops and children by its tides.

From tribal gods of weather, waves and war
We groped, pre-Science, through theology,
Trying to grasp the world and life and death,
Leaving the worship of the moon behind.

The atheist Gagarin, first to heaven,
Noted he didn’t see a God up there.
American believers, first to the Moon,
Quietly said nothing, and moved on.

Now city kids may never have seen stars…
Soon satellites will blanket the night sky…
With skyless nights, why should we still use months?
And when in space, why months? Or days? Why years?

Not knowing where we’re headed, all we know:
That god or goddess Moon’s left far behind.

This poem was published in the latest issue of Sally Long’s biannual Allegro Poetry Magazine. The issue has a theme of ‘Geography’, so the subjects range from the gardens at Stowe to the aftermath of Hiroshima. Perhaps the moon is in itself a little outside the Earth-bound definition of geography, but as it has always been such a big part of our lives on this planet I think it’s fair to include it. And people have been there, and will go again. And our attitudes to the Moon and Heaven and Earth will keep on evolving as humans themselves will change, moving forward in unknowable time and space.

The poem is in iambic pentameter, but lacks the rhyme and wordplay that I advocate for poetry. I thought of trying to shrink it down from 18 lines to a sonnet’s 14, which is a trick I’ve used before to make myself find rhymes and generally tighten up a poem; but in this case I couldn’t see which blocks of four lines I could combine, eliminate or otherwise reduce – they all seemed necessary, and hard to shrink. I hadn’t thought of going for four blocks of three lines each, with a concluding couplet… but that might provide a solution, if I feel up to attempting it for a couple of hours.

Meanwhile, if you’ve never seen Georges Melies’ 12-minute 1902 movie ‘Le Voyage dans la Lune’, here it is with an electronic soundtrack by Andreas Brink. Yes, our ideas about the moon keep changing…

Launch: Potcake Chapbook 10, ‘Travels and Travails’

Maybe it’s just wishful thinking, but surely we’re going to get back to casual international travel again some day soon? The 10th chapbook in the Potcake series is now being mailed out from London, and I trust it augurs well for the happily peripatetic. As usual, the chapbook contains an assortment of the bright (D.A. Prince), the dark (Tom Vaughan) and the flippant (Max Gutmann), with everything in between, and all in rhythm and rhyme–and illustrated of course by Alban Low!

Returning poets are A.E. Stallings, John Beaton, Julia Griffin, Anthony Lombardy, Marilyn L. Taylor, D.A. Prince and Tom Vaughan; joining them are Amit Majmudar, Mike Cooper, Jean L. Kreiling, Ed Shacklee and Max Gutmann. (The links in the names are a mixture of websites, bios, and places to buy their books.) Most, but not all, of the poets are listed on Sampson Low’s webpage of Potcake Poets.

Let’s get everyone vaccinated so we can all start travelling again!

Short Poem: ‘Cultural Field Trip’

Properly stroppily,
Off to Thermopylae
Busloads of schoolchildren
Grudgingly go;
Hoovered, manoeuvred
Off into the Louvre’d
Be better for profs who are
Trudgingly slow.

No, I agree, that’s not a true Double Dactyl because it doesn’t have a single-word double dactyl line. It’s just one of those poems I’ve written for no other purpose than to play with rhymes. The poem was published in this month’s Snakeskin, editor George Simmers privately commenting: “As an ex-teacher I empathise with the trudging profs.”

“Mona Lisa Madness” by Joe Parks is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Odd poem: Samuel Johnson on wordplay

If I were to be punishèd
For every pun I shed
There would be no puny shed
For my punnish head.

Strictly speaking, of course, this isn’t a poem–it was merely an apparently spontaneous reply (but how many “spontaneous” remarks have been thought of and prepared in advance?)

The story was told in the following way:– “Sir,” said Johnson, “I hate a pun. A man who would perpetrate a pun would have little hesitation in picking a pocket.” Upon this Boswell hinted that his “illustrious” friend’s dislike to this species of small wit might arise from his inability to play upon words. “Sir,” roared Johnson, “if I were punishèd for every pun I shed, there would not be left a puny shed of my punnish head.”

The moral of the story was presumably for Boswell and others to guard their possessions when Doctor Johnson was around…

“statue of Samuel Johnson outside St Clement Danes Church” by ell brown is licensed under CC BY 2.0