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Poem: ‘Love Poetry’

All the love expressed in poems overtly
Seems so pure they can be taught in schools,
Yet reading lives of all these divine fools
You realise that the impulses
That drove them to express themselves in verse
Include love that repulses
(Differing by era), and was forbidden:
Incest, same sex, underage, interracial,
Interfaith, cross-generational,
BDSM – even a pet, a dog.
Scandalous, and kept hidden,
At worst horrific and at best uncouth –
Yet all identity is just a fog
Of “You, my love”, expressed covertly.
And kids in school are never taught the truth.

Seriously, no one seems to pay any attention to the realities behind the love poetry that is taught and studied in schools. But much of the reason for the admired poem being so forceful is often that the poet was conflicted about being able to express their love at all – gay in a time of homosexual suppression is the one most easily identified now (in Shakespeare, Byron, etc, just as there are similar non-poetic gay passages in the Bible), but any strong but forbidden desire is capable of producing fine art.

This poem is not really formal. It has rhyme and meter but it is unstructured. Semi-formal, then, like much of the best work of Arnold and Eliot. It was published in that edgy, carefree journal the Rat’s Ass Review – thanks, Rick Bates!

“Love Poetry” by Kez Price is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Sonnet: ‘Fat-shaming’

Gorging on food, an atavistic trait
useful, essential, in the paleolithic–
like a man’s lust for teenage girl as mate–
is one not needed now, shamed as horrific.
It’s healthy, though, to recognise such drives,
note where they came from, why they once were good:
these traits in which the primitive survives,
inbuilt components of our personhood.

It’s acting on them, though, that we deplore:
those who fuck teens and those who overfeed,
like those who steal, or lie, or start a war,
aren’t shamed for primitive desire, but deed–
like those who pray to gods, follow religions,
or skry the future from entrails of pigeons.

It’s not PC these days to even mention various issues, and I seem to have covered a lot of them in this sonnet. But it’s a decent enough Shakespearean sonnet (iambic pentameter, ABAB CDCD EFEF GG, volta between the octave and sestet) and also a good enough expression of an opinion, so what is there to complain about? Originally published in that not-always-comfortable but always formal ‘The Road Not Taken – A Journal of Formal Poetry’. Thanks, Dr. Kathryn Jacobs!

“Young and Fat” by Tobyotter is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Short Poem: ‘Cryo Limerick’

The correct thing to do, when you’re dead,
Is have someone take care of your head;
There’s no chance of more drama
Without Futurama –
Don’t say you weren’t warned – act, instead.

Humans have tried to beat death since forever. Chinese herbs, Egyptian mummification, unlikely (but lucrative) promises of Paradise. In the present rapidly-evolving environment, transhumanism thrives on the ideas of physically and genetically modifying us for a longer life, and cryonics suggests being frozen as an “ambulance to the future” when repairs might be possible. The “head in a jar” image captures the wry appreciation that this stuff may work in the future, but won’t be of any use to us. But so what if the chance of success is a fraction of a percent? That still beats the chances of further life after cremation, or after being processed through the bodies of worms…

This limerick was originally published in ‘Transhumanity‘, edited by James Hughes. Both the magazine and the transhumanist movement have gone through changes of name and state, but the ideas are no longer as far on the fringe as they were a couple of decades ago.

“Futurama…?” by Emanuele Rosso is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Sonnet: ‘The Fall of Rome’

Jesus, a preacher with fake miracles,
his “Sea” of Galilee just eight miles wide–
rebelling against Rome and crucified–
his failure clear (though words were lyrical)…
you’d think “Messiah” was satirical!
But epileptic Paul a chance descried
to shut out other gods and thoughts worldwide,
thus sealing up Rome’s vital spiracles.
So, building on apocalyptic fears,
the Jewish Jesus ends where Paul begins.
Scientists, artists, poets, engineers,
are suffocated as the new faith wins.
All progress is set back a thousand years.
The Roman Empire died for Jesus’ sins.

Belief is strange. Take Covid vaccination: two thirds of us believe it’s an effective way to save lives, one third of us believe it’s a dangerous and unscrupulous way to make money and control people. Virtually no one has actually done any research and analysis of the issue, we just listen to our preferred sources of information and the community we’re a part of.

Or take religion: for the most part, children raised in Christian families remain Christian believers all their lives, Muslims remain Muslim, Buddhists remain Buddhist, and so on. Which makes it all the more impressive when someone can radically change the belief structure that surrounds them. Kudos then to the epileptic Paul of Tarsus, who created a Jewish-Mithraist-polytheist mishmash that has lasted almost 2,000 years. Pity about the Roman Empire, though.

This happily Petrarchan sonnet (iambic pentameter, and rhyming ABBAABBA CDCDCD) was originally published in Rat’s Ass Review, where respectfulness and respectability are not required. Thanks, Roderick Bates!

“Darkness Falls in Rome” by Storm Crypt is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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…