Short poem: ‘Subduction’

All human nature, conflicts, nations, and all races
will be washed as by tides on beaches, all loves and lusts
will with Time disappear, all human traces
washed under as all plates are washed
by the subduction of Earth’s crusts.

This poem was published this month in Lighten Up Online – an excellent place to read light verse on subjects both light and heavy. Every issue has a mixture of longer and shorter poems, and a competition. This March 2021 edition concludes with the results of the eco-crisis competition, headed ‘The Airing of the Green’; ‘Subduction’ was one of the winners. Other sections of the magazine were also focused on the environment. Pollution and climate change are twin disasters, and you can express outrage, despair, or (more usefully) proposals for action. The million-year view of my poem isn’t useful but it’s low-hanging fruit, there to be taken.

I’m delighted to be in a magazine along with poems by fellow Potcake Poets Martin Elster, Michael R. Burch, D.A. Prince, George Simmers, Nina Parmenter, Gail White, Chris O’Carroll, Tom Vaughan, Jane Blanchard, Jerome Betts, Martin Parker and Melissa Balmain, as well as two poets who will be appearing in the next Potcake Chapbook, Bruce McGuffin and Julia Griffin, and the ever-anomalous Max Gutmann. Several of us have more than one poem in this issue.

“File:Tectonic-plates-subduction-zone-17280738.jpg” by Benjilrm is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Odd poem: ‘The Siege of Belgrade’, alliterative abecedarian poem by Alaric Alexander Watts

An Austrian army, awfully arrayed,
Boldly by battery besieged Belgrade.
Cossack commanders cannonading come,
Dealing destruction’s devastating doom.
Every endeavour engineers essay,
For fame, for fortune fighting – furious fray!
Generals ‘gainst generals grapple – gracious God!
How honours Heaven heroic hardihood!
Infuriate, indiscriminate in ill,
Just Jesus, instant innocence instill!
Kindred kill kinsmen, kinsmen kindred kill.
Labour low levels longest, loftiest lines;
Men march ‘mid mounds, ‘mid moles, ‘mid murderous mines;
Now noxious, noisy numbers nothing, naught
Of outward obstacles, opposing ought;
Poor patriots, partly purchased, partly pressed,
Quite quaking, quickly “Quarter! Quarter!” quest.
Reason returns, religious right redounds,
Suwarrow stops such sanguinary sounds.
Truce to thee, Turkey! Triumph to thy train,
Unwise, unjust, unmerciful Ukraine!
Vanish vain victory! vanish, victory vain!
Why wish we warfare? Wherefore welcome were
Xerxes, Ximenes, Xanthus, Xavier?
Yield, yield, ye youths! ye yeomen, yield your yell!
Zeus’, Zarpater’s, Zoroaster’s zeal,
Attracting all, arms against acts appeal!

Belgrade was besieged nine times between 1440 and 1806. It is right on the edge of the area the Ottoman Turks were able to wrest from the Christians, and control went back and forth. This poem is about the 1789 Siege of Belgrade, when the Austrians showed up in mid September with 120,000 troops and 200 siege guns to try to take control of the Belgrade fortress that was held by 9,000 Ottoman troops with 456 cannon. On 6th October the Austrians began a devastating bombardment. Two days later, in exchange for the surrender of Belgrade, the Ottoman garrison was given a free passage with their personal and private possessions to Orșova; a prisoner exchange was also arranged between the combatants.

The poem was written by British journalist and poet Alaric Alexander Watts (1797-1864) and published in 1828. There are a couple of versions floating about on the internet, with various spellings and typos, and with and without the ‘Just Jesus’ line which deteriorates from J’s to I’s. The rhyme pairing isn’t perfect, the metre is imperfect, the syntax is stretched in places, and meanings and references are sometimes obscure. (‘Suwarrow’ for instance is the brilliant Russian general Alexander Suvorov who, though instrumental in winning battles with Turkey and others in the late 18th century, was not present at the 1789 Siege of Belgrade. He was defeating the Turks elsewhere at the time, but how can you ignore a general credited with winning 63 major battles, and never losing one?)

My initial impression is that the metre is an easy-to-read, easy-to-recite ‘four beats to the bar’, but the number of syllables varies with the needs of the alliteration:

An AUStrian ARmy, AWfully arRAYED, × / × × / × / × × × /
BOLDly by BATTery beSIEGED BelGRADE / × × / × × × / × /

But then it dawns on me that the poem is actually in iambic pentameter, with five beats… but the first line is so technically weak that it’s misleading: it has eleven syllables instead of ten unless you pronounce the second word ‘Austrin’, and also requires the ‘-ly’ of ‘awfully’ to be a stressed syllable. But once you reinterpret the rhythm of that line, the poem settles down properly. (There is a good lesson in poetics here: the technical purity of your opening line is super important!)

Anyway, I think we can cut Watts some slack: I don’t know of any other alliterative abecedarian poem at all, though surely there must be some. Wikipedia quotes this fragment from the Harper Handbook to Literature:

An abecedarius always alliterates
Blindly blunders, but blooms:
Comes crawling craftily, cantering crazily,
Daring, doubtless, dark dooms.

but I’m still looking for something more…

Photo: “Cossack Mannequin” by sarmoung is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Sonnet: ‘Irritated Muse’

My muse is angered by my Covid cares –
“You worry if the shops have food and beer,
and what a Zoom attendee rightly wears!
You’re just as mortal as you were last year,
and wrote of life and death, sickness and health.
Well, now’s an actual existential crisis!
Think family and friends, the world, your self…
forget the shopping and the product prices!
You’ll die; the question’s When. The only tool
for immortality is me, that clear?
You should be writing poetry, you fool!
This is your chance. Focus on me.” (Yes, dear.)
“Respect me as your muse: I’m not your shill.
If you can’t write a poem, write your will.”

This sonnet has just been published in Allegro in the UK, edited by Sally Long. The magazine comes out twice a year, one issue themed and the other open. It focuses on formal verse, but on a long continuum between fully formal and free.

Photo: “Thalia, Muse of comedy.” by Egisto Sani is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Fantasy Analysis: Auden’s ‘Jumbled in the common box’

Jumbled in the common box
Of their dark stupidity,
Orchid, swan, and Caesar lie;
Time that tires of everyone
Has corroded all the locks,
Thrown away the key for fun.

In its cleft the torrent mocks
Prophets who in days gone by
Made a profit on each cry,
Persona grata now with none;
And a jackass language shocks
Poets who can only pun.

Silence settles on the clocks;
Nursing mothers point a sly
Index finger at the sky,
Crimson with the setting sun;
In the valley of the fox
Gleams the barrel of a gun.

Once we could have made the docks,
Now it is too late to fly;
Once too often you and I
Did what we should not have done;
Round the rampant rugged rocks
Rude and ragged rascals run.

In January 1941, W.H. Auden had been living in New York for nearly two years. The Second World War had started, but not yet in the US. Auden had fallen in love with Chester Kallman who was now turning 20 and was too young to want to be sexually faithful; Auden had also returned from atheism to the existential Christianity that is common in the Anglican/Episcopalian church. It was a period of change, backgrounded by the widening war.

Regarding the poem from this time, I choose to imagine Auden rambling, reminiscing, muttering to himself: “Around the rugged rocks the ragged rascal ran… Nice metre as well as alliteration and, for people with difficulty pronouncing their Rs, a twuly tewwible tongue-twister. Rhythmic, memorable. Nonsense; not meaningful, but not meaningless; nonsense and nursery rhymes are right on the border. And it splits in two, you could easily rhyme it: rocks, box, blocks, brocks, cocks, cox, clocks, crocks… ran, Ann, ban, bran, can, clan, cran… or easy to change to run, or runs. A lot of rhymes, anyway. Run them out, see what transpires.

Once we could have made the docks, / Now it is too late to fly; that adds another rhyme, not a problem, maybe a 6-line stanza. Once too often you and I / Did what we should not have done; and into the last two lines, have to fill them out a bit to maintain the metre, keep the alliteration of course: Round the rampant rugged rocks / Rude and ragged rascals run… So that’s all right, that would make an ending.

“Then of course we can have more stanzas leading up to it. Flick a bit of paint at the canvas, see what sort of patterns we can find to elaborate on. Time, decay, trepidation, warnings… out come the words and images around the rhymes, and suddenly it’s all as evocative and semi-coherent as a reading of tarot or yarrow or horoscope. Hm, tarot or yarrow, I hadn’t noticed that before, wonder if I can use that somewhere else…”

(Remember, this is a fantasy analysis, presupposing the poem to have been written with full skill to capture both rhymes and a mood, but without any serious intent beyond that. For a completely different intellectual analysis, you can always try this…)

Photo: “Jumble Box” by .daydreamer. is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Review: ‘Short and Sweet – 101 very short poems’

One of a series of short poetry collections that Faber produced in the 1990s, this one features a good introduction by the anthologist (and poet well-known in the UK) Simon Armitage, discussing and justifying the short poem:
“The short poem, at its best, brings about an almost instantaneous surge of both understanding and sensation unavailable elsewhere; its effect should not be underestimated and its design not confused with convenience.”

Of course I love them, they are my children.
This is my daughter and this my son.
And this is my life I give them to please them.
It has never been used. Keep it safe. Pass it on.

– The Mother, by Anne Stevenson

Armitage defines the short poem as no more than 13 lines, thereby ruling out the sonnet as something more than short. Other people define it in other ways: the Shot Glass Journal publishes anything up to 16 lines under its “Brevity is the soul of wit” motto, while another of my favourite collections of verse defines the short poem as ‘Eight Lines or Less’. There is no agreed definition of “short poem”. And as Armitage shows, in 13 lines you can still cover a lot of ground.

She lay a long time as he found her,
Half on her side, askew, her cheek pressed to the floor.
He sat at the table there and watched,
His mind sometimes all over the place,
And then asking over and over
If she were dead: ‘Are you dead, Poll, are you dead?’

For these hours, each one dressed in its figure
On the mantelpiece, love sits with him.
Habit, mutuality, sweetheartedness,
Drop through his body,
And he is not able now to touch her–
A bar of daylight, no more than
Across a table, flows between them.

– As He Found Her, by Jeffrey Wainwright

Some of the poems in the collection were new to me, including both the above. Some of the poems are extremely well-known but always a joy to read: Yeats’ ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’, William Carlos Williams’ ‘This is Just to Say’. And others hover half-known:

Where is the grave of Sir Arthur O’Kellyn?
Where may the grave of that good man be?
By the side of a spring, on the breast of Helvellyn,
Under the twigs of a young birch tree!
The oak that in summer was sweet to hear,
And rustled its leaves in the fall of the year,
And whistled and roared in the winter alone,
Is gone, — and the birch in its stead is grown. —
The Knight’s bones are dust,
And his good sword is rust; —
His soul is with the saints, I trust.

– The Knight’s Tomb, by Coleridge

Starting off with the 13-liners, the poems get shorter and shorter as you read on, but without losing their punch–perhaps, as the introduction suggests, condensing their power.
Shakespearean fish swam the sea, far away from land;
Romantic fish swam in nets, coming to the hand;
What are all those fish that lie gasping on the strand?

– Three Movements, by Yeats

… all the way down to the final poem with no text at all, but only its title:
– On Going to Meet a Zen Master in the Kyushu Mountains and Not Finding Him, by Don Paterson.

Most but not all of the 101 poems are formal; most are originally in English, though there are a few translations: Paz, Sappho, Apollinaire, Salamun and – most surprising in its elegant translation from the Polish – this one, ‘Bodybuilders’ Contest’:
From scalp to sole, all muscles in slow motion,
The ocean of his torso drips with lotion.
The king of all is he who preens and wrestles
with sinews twisted into monstrous pretzels.

Onstage, he grapples with a grizzly bear
the deadlier for not really being there.
Three unseen panthers are in turn laid low,
each with one smoothly choreographed blow.

He grunts while showing his poses and paces.
His back alone has twenty different faces.
The mammoth fist he raises as he wins
is tribute to the force of vitamins.

– Bodybuilders’ Contest, by Wislawa Szymborska.

Altogether an excellent and well-rounded collection.

Odd poem: ‘Changsha’ by Mao Zedong

Alone I stand in the autumn cold
On the tip of Orange Island,
The Xiang flowing northward;
I see a thousand hills crimsoned through
By their serried woods deep-dyed,
And a hundred barges vying
Over crystal blue waters.
Eagles cleave the air,
Fish glide under the shallow water;
Under freezing skies a million creatures contend in freedom.
Brooding over this immensity,
I ask, on this bondless land
Who rules over man’s destiny?
I was here with a throng of companions,
Vivid yet those crowded months and years.
Young we were, schoolmates,
At life’s full flowering;
Filled with student enthusiasm
Boldly we cast all restraints aside.
Pointing to our mountains and rivers,
Setting people afire with our words,
We counted the mighty no more than muck.
Remember still
How, venturing midstream, we struck the waters
And the waves stayed the speeding boats?

Mao Zedong wrote this poem in 1925, when he was 31. He had previously spent five years in Changsha at university, young, bold and enthusiastic. Now he returned, reflected, remembering his student days, pondering the land’s immensity and the nature of destiny, and he wrote his poem. And today the young Mao gazes again at the river from Orange Island… or would, if it wasn’t just a stone statue of his head.

Despite his revolutionary tendencies in other areas, Mao wrote in Classical Chinese verse. ‘Changsha’ is annotated “to the tune of Chin Yuan Chun”, marking it as belonging to the type of verse called tzu. The tzu originated in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE) as lines sung to certain tunes. Each tune prescribes a strict tonal pattern and rhyme scheme, with a fixed number of lines of a standardised varying length. Obviously, a translation into a European language is going to lose the structural form inherent in the original. Mao may not be one of the best Chinese poets, but his poems are generally considered to have literary quality. Arthur Waley, the eminent British translator of Chinese literature, however, described Mao’s poetry as “not as bad as Hitler’s paintings, but not as good as Churchill’s.”

Photo: “A young Chairman Mao” by timzachernuk is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Poem: ‘The Tale of Jesus’

Jesus, you came with Peter Rabbit,
Mowgli and Pooh Bear.
School tried to make your prayers a habit
But it was hard to care.

Teachers said do what you said
(Though things you did were odd),
But didn’t follow where you led –
So, just a load of cod.

I saw you as a man forthwith –
If you were real at all,
And not some mushroom-inspired myth,
Tales primitive and tall.

Though stored away up in the attic
The image of you stays:
Wit, healing, laughter… enigmatic
Violent angry frays…

Bush/Cheney occupied Iraq
As Rome did Palestine;
Bin Laden tales came down a track
With yours to intertwine:

Lean, bearded, robed and cinematic
Striding over hills,
Laughing and angry, the fanatic
Invokes, inspires and kills.

Pig-eating, beardless Westerners
Uniformed and well-armed,
Are just thieving idolaters
Who leave God’s people harmed.

Seize, cleanse the Temple at Passover,
King of the Jews! But all
Faith fails against Rome, you discover…
(The tale was changed by Paul.)

Whatever Jesus was, he wasn’t “meek and mild”. The Gospels have him cursing and withering a fig tree, telling his followers to get weapons, trashing the moneychangers in the Temple because of their handling of idolatrous coins; early legends of his childhood have him killing and blinding other children in fits of rage.

Occupied by the Romans, Palestine went into revolt every 20 or 30 years for a couple of centuries, until Rome finally tore the place apart and exiled all the Jews. Jesus had a minor role in the political history of this (but, thanks to Paul, a greater religious impact). My novel on this is The Gospel According to the Romans.

The poem was published in Snakeskin.

Photo: this t-shirt is available from Zazzle

Odd poem: Frederick the Great’s erotic poem for a male lover

‘La Jouissance’, translated as ‘The Ecstacy’ or ‘The Orgasm’

This night, vigorous desire in full measure,
Algarotti wallowed in a sea of pleasure.
A body not even a Praxitiles fashions
Redoubled his senses and imbued his passions
Everything that speaks to eyes and touches hearts,
Was found in the fond object that enflamed his parts.
Transported by love and trembling with excitement
In Cloris’ arms he yields himself to contentment
The love that unites them heated their embraces
And tied bodies and arms as tightly as laces.
Divine sensual pleasure! To the world a king!
Mother of their delights, an unstaunchable spring,
Speak through my verses, lend me your voice and tenses
Tell of their fire, acts, the ecstasy of their senses!
Our fortunate lovers, transported high above
Know only themselves in the fury of love:
Kissing, enjoying, feeling, sighing and dying
Reviving, kissing, then back to pleasure flying.
And in Knidos’ grove, breathless and worn out
Was these lovers’ happy destiny, without doubt.
But all joy is finite; in the morning ends the bout.
Fortunate the man whose mind was never the prey
To luxury, or grand airs, one who knows how to say
A moment of climax for a fortunate lover
Is worth so many aeons of star-spangled honour.

The poem may not be world-shaking, but the backstory is intriguing: Frederick, the oldest son of the King of Prussia, was gay which his ultramasculine father didn’t like. In his teens one lover, his father’s page, was exiled to an unpopular regiment on the Dutch border; another lover, a tutor, was executed–Frederick was forced to watch the beheading. At 21 he was married to a relative of the Habsburg dynasty although, as he wrote to his sister “there can be neither love nor friendship between us.” When he became King at age 28 he prevented his wife from visiting the Court. He set her up with a palace and with Berlin apartments, saw her rarely and never showed her any affection.

The poem above was written in French, Frederick’s preferred language, in July 1740, shortly after he became King. (The translation is by Giles MacDonogh.) Frederick had just been joined at Court by his Italian friend the philosopher Francesco Algarotti who had apparently made disparaging comments about the lack of passion in northern Europeans. Frederick wrote to Voltaire that the poem was a response to the charge; physical passion between Frederick and Algarotti was clearly part of the issue. Algarotti’s manuscript of the poem, headed ‘From Königsberg to Monsieur Algarotti, Swan of Padua‘, was discovered in archives in Berlin in 2011.

Frederick ruled for 46 years, his reign notable for military successes and Prussian expansion, and for his patronage of the Arts and support for the Enlightenment. He died at age 74 in 1786, childless of course.

Photo: “Frederick the Great Bust” by mrsmecomber is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Poem: ‘So Listen Now’

      So listen now to what the prophet saith, 
          He teaches anything, he gladly learns, 
             He follows scientists and what they say, 
             And now, Philosophy of DNA. 
           Regard the spiral of it as it turns, 
      And listen now to what the prophet saith: 
  The two as one, entwining intercourse, 
Then separate from toes to very head, 
And, separated, seek another bed, 
  Their separation procreation’s cause. 
      So listen now to what the prophet saith— 
           And this the canniballed male spider learns, 
                Eaten by her, as her he’d try to lay, 
                Who procreates in separation’s day— 
           No spark of love or life or hate there burns, 
      But, listen now to what the prophet saith, 
      Only a life of procreating death. 

Another of my early poems: I wrote this when I was 17, in my last year at school. DNA was still a newish concept to the general public, and it appealed to my nihilistic teenage state of mind. My opinions decades later are still pretty similar, though my attitudes are much more relaxed and happy.

I had been thoroughly immersed in iambic pentameter by then, studying several of the Canterbury Tales, several of Shakespeare’s plays, and a whole slew (or slough) of poets from Donne and Milton to Cummings and Frost–learn enough poetry by heart, and you become very comfortable writing in the forms you know. I developed the rhyme scheme to allow the indentation-by-rhyme to reflect as best I could the spiral of the subject: ABCCBADEEDABCCBAA, the rhymes winding back and forth across the much-repeated central line, ending with a couplet to round it out at 17 lines.

The poem was originally published in Metverse Muse, an Indian periodical that champions traditional verse.

Photo: “DNA rendering” by ynse is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Poem: ‘Hail Deth’

Hail Deth, that from alle Natur’s birth
Hast kept each living thing thy thrall!
Teech me to love thy quiet call,
To rest
Among the blest,
To be at peace with every thing on earth.

Come soft, without impediment;
Let mee slide sleeping to thy armes,
Discover alle thy soothing charmes;
And kill
My every ill,
Leave mee uninterrupted sediment.

This is one of my very earliest poems, with the form, theme and erratic spelling all obviously influenced by studying the Metaphysical Poets in school. I’ve always been fascinated by death–at least since the time I gave up Christianity, thanks to my excellent Church of England schooling. The poem was written tongue-in-cheek, of course: I’m in no hurry to die.

‘Hail Deth’ has just been published in the Shot Glass Journal which, in accordance with Shakespeare’s “brevity is the soul of wit”, publishes both formal and free verse so long as a poem doesn’t exceed 16 lines. It also divides contributions into American and International groups and lists them separately, which is interesting if not necessarily useful in any functional sense.

Photo: “NS-01023 – Death Head” by archer10 (Dennis) is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0