Author Archives: Robin Helweg-Larsen

About Robin Helweg-Larsen

Reading, writing and editing poetry. Poetry about traveling, thinking, reading, writing, politics, history, religion, family, strangers...

Evocative Fragments: from Arnold’s ‘A Summer Night’ (1)

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 as, year after year,
Fresh products of their barren labor fall
From their tired hands, and rest
Never yet comes more near,
Gloom settles slowly down over their breast.
And while they try to stem
The waves of mournful thought by which they are prest,
Death in their prison reaches them,
Unfreed, having seen nothing, still unblest.

I’m very grateful to my schooling for putting Matthew Arnold on the curriculum – this subversive little passage seems designed to undermine the office and factory culture which has flourished since his time, to undermine even the student writing endless essays. Arnold was an inspector of schools as well as a poet and social critic, so we can assume he knew what he was doing. But isn’t it suggesting that a dissatisfied person should just drop out? More on that in the next fragment.

The other thing I like about the piece is its easy, flowing style. Every line rhymes, but without pattern. The lines are iambic, mostly pentameter, but a scattering of them are shorter. It feels very conversational, and it is certainly very easy to learn by heart (which is one of the reasons that poetry evolved in the first place). The only hiccup to natural speech are the displacement of ‘live’ and ‘give’ to the ends of their lines for the sake of the rhyme and even that, though artificial, is done conventionally enough to read smoothly. The rest of it is in normal speech. When T.S. Eliot came out with ‘Prufrock’ some decades later, though it had a different, Imagist sensibility, the only real difference in style was in dropping the thou’s and thee’s that Arnold still clung to.

Photo: “Office workers in Executive Building Room No. 123 prior to alterations, Brisbane” by Queensland State Archives is marked with CC PDM 1.0

Short poem: ‘Life Extension’

Religion leers
“Join me, or you face death”
And History jeers
“Inevitable death”,
But Science still adheres
To schemes to postpone death…
The path of a 1000 years
Starts with a single breath.

It’s interesting to speculate how long it will take before humans can start regenerating enough key pieces of our ageing and failing bodies that we can uncap our lifespan. A matter of decades rather than centuries, I think–but not soon enough for me, I fear.

The last sentence of the poem riffs on the Chinese saying attributed to Lao Tzu (also rendered as Laozi and Lao-Tze) that “The journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.”

The poem was originally published in Bewildering Stories, a weekly of speculative writing of all types, edited by a multinational team but headquartered in Guelph, Ontario.

Photo: “Death” by Andrea Kirkby is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Short poem: ‘Beach’

Here on the vast beach, you, my hundred friends,
Can see how sea stretched tight round curved earth bends,
How empty sun-filled sky fills timeless Time.
My arms stretch out, but you can’t see how I’m
Trapped, caged, confined, boxed in, in love, alone.
Come, sun, burn beach and skin, bleach hair and bone,
Flay life to its essentials: love alone.

This poem was originally published in The Rotary Dial, a wonderfully rich monthly published as a pdf in Toronto, much missed after suddenly stopping publication. It was edited by Alexandra Oliver and Pino Coluccio, both prize-winning Canadian formal poets, Oliver being the more serious and Coluccio less so, as his collection titled ‘Class Clown‘ suggests.

Coluccio was very kind in comments about my poem, calling it “Borderline Hopkinsesque in a way, ecstatic quality” which made me reevaluate and revalue it. This is one of the interesting things about having your work published, or even merely read by others – things that you take for granted may be found exciting by others, just as things that excite you may just elicit yawns elsewhere. One human may have some diversity of moods, but that is nothing compared to the enormous diversity of humans as a whole. It is fascinating to hear the reactions of others, in all things.

‘Beach’ was subsequently republished in The HyperTexts and in Better Than Starbucks.

WARNING: The Rotary Dial domain name now appears to have been taken over by an unrelated and anonymous group. I would avoid it.

Photo: “beach” by barnyz is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Evocative Fragments: from Eliot’s ‘Waste Land’

A woman drew her long black hair out tight
And fiddled whisper music on those strings
And bats with baby faces in the violet light
Whistled, and beat their wings
And crawled head downward down a blackened wall
And upside down in air were towers
Tolling reminiscent bells, that kept the hours
And voices singing out of empty cisterns and exhausted wells.

There are many evocative passages in T.S. Eliot’s marvellous and fragmented portrayal of the spiritual wasteland of the early 20th century, but the one that most resonates for me is this passage towards the end, in the final section ‘What the Thunder Said’. The section as a whole is full of signs and portents and the possibility of restoration, but who cares? These lines are just so wonderfully gothic!

Photo: “Juvenile Mariana Fruit Bat” by USFWS Pacific is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Poem: ‘The Buddha Died at 80’

The Buddha died at 80, and they say
That Lao Tzu reached 200, by the Way;
But Jesus, only 33, was stood
Arms out against the circus side-show wood:
His hands first, then his feet and side and heart
Pierced by the drunken dagger-thrower’s darts;
The crowd had lost a man, but, quite unbothered,
Named him a God, and went and killed each other.
And you and I and sanity lost out
With Christ’s name from Humanity crossed out.

Well, that’s an earlier take I had on Jesus. More recently I have seen him as a fundamentalist Jew, violently opposed to the pollution of the Promised Land by the idolatrous, beard-shaving, pig-eating military occupation by Westerners. No wonder he tried to take over the Temple and cleanse it; no wonder the Romans crucified him (the punishment reserved for rebels and insurrectionists).

Anyway, this poem (from a gentler, more naive era) was originally published by Rubies in the Darkness, a periodical now defunct.

“Best Jesus Ever” by C+H is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Anomalous First Lines: Eliot’s ‘Prufrock’

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;

There are two points of interest in the first line of T.S. Eliot’s first professionally published poem, ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’. The first is the identity of Prufrock’s companion – never specified, it is normally assumed to be the reader of the poem, but it could equally be another person, or creature, or good luck charm, or hat, or umbrella, or even the Muse of Poetry herself. It plays no further part in the story and yet, well, it’s there for reasons of rhetoric or invocation.

The second point is grammatical. The line is so embedded in English poetry that it seems sacrosanct, but periodically someone will point out that it should be “you and me”. Consider these sentences: “Let me go to the store for you.” “Let us go to the store.” “Let’s you and me go to the store.” In all examples, “me” and “us” are the objects of the verb “let”; there is no occasion for “you and I” any more than there is for writing “we” instead of “us”. You wouldn’t say “Let we go to the store.”

Caveat: perhaps a Jamaican would. So Prufrock in patois could begin, “Mek we go den, you an I” or in deference to my Rastafarian brethren, “Mek we go den, you an I an I.” But other than in patois? No, it should be “you and me”.

So why did Eliot write “you and I”? It makes a useful rhyme as part of the startling image that follows. Those who debate this issue often come up with alternative opening lines with a rhyme for either “me” or “you”. Thomas Middleton in the L.A. Times suggests:

Let us go, then, you and me,
When the evening is suspended from a tree
Like a horse thief or a swing put up for children.

while Peter De Vries has offered:

Leave us go then, me and you,
When the evening is dropped like an old shoe,
The first of what must inevitably be two.

Eliot’s version seems better, even if grammatically dubious. However it still grates. And it has the feeling of a class issue. Against the lower-class “you and me” used as a subject–“You and me gonna fight about this”–the upper-class reaction is to use “you and I” pretentiously on all possible occasions, even as an object. But that would suggest that Eliot was a snob… or J. Alfred Prufrock is, at the very least… and I think the voices are the same.

Poem: ‘Barefoot’

After your city feet in socks and shoes,
After your crowded evening with its booze,
Your air is tainted with your body’s sweat,
Unclean and laden with a vague regret.
But we are free
Who live beside the sea,
Can choose what our life spurns or craves.
Surely we reach
Purity on a beach,
Daily dallying barefoot in the waves.

I grew up barefoot. The only downside came when I was sent away to school, and shoes were always too tight even if they were EEE width. That in turn meant that in England I suffered from chilblains all winter. As an adult I still go barefoot, wear sandals in town, have shoes for rare stuations. But let’s face it – shoes make your feet sweat, and also make it hard to climb trees and to swim.

The form of the poem reflects the argument: the first four lines about shoe-wearing are regimented: iambic pentameters, rhyming AABB. The barefoot lines are less constrained, more playful, rhyming CCDEED – the short lines could be written together as iambic pentameters, but the rhymes work against seeing and hearing them that way. And the seventh line is the most unorthodox, having only four feet, while the last line is the most whimsical with its ‘daily dallying’.

The poem was originally published in The Orchards Poetry Journal.

Photo: “25/02/2009 (Day 3.56) – Definitions” by Kaptain Kobold is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Poem: ‘God is Two Brothers’

God is two brothers, one dark and one light,
Riding out Time in a tiny ship;
Half day and half night gives little room;
God knows that a rose, red rose or white,
Is a rose is a rose is a bud is a bloom
Is brown blown petals and a drying hip;
And the length of Time’s budding, blowing park
Walk the arm-linked arguers, Light and Dark.

I wrote this poem in Morocco in my 20s, after an encounter with some of the herbs they grow there. As an aside, I don’t necessarily believe or subscribe to the things I write in my poems – they are just expressions of thoughts, moods, landscapes, overheard conversations or whatever. That said, I still like this poem: I find it simultaneously all-embracing and meaningless, and that’s OK. Apparently my recital of it, while pulling dying petals off a rose bush, captivated a young lady at the beginning of our friendship… and we’ve now been together for 31 years.

The poem was first published by Ryerson Free Press.

Photo: God and devil.jpg by Yumeshan Lakshitha is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

Anomalous First Lines: Arnold’s ‘Scholar-Gypsy’

“Go, for they call you, shepherd, from the hill;”

The first line of ‘The Scholar-Gypsy’, one of Matthew Arnold’s best-known poems, is anomalous in two ways: first by the introduction of a shepherd whose identity and purpose are never detailed, and secondly by the use of the word “you”.

The shepherd is, according to various pieces of literary analysis, an evocation of the pastoral spirit. All well and good, but what is he doing? The poet summons him to get to his morning work, and then asks him to “again begin the quest” in the evening – the quest being (presumably) the search for the Scholar Gypsy. The first stanza reads in full:

Go, for they call you, shepherd, from the hill;
Go, shepherd, and untie the wattled cotes!
No longer leave thy wistful flock unfed,
Nor let thy bawling fellows rack their throats,
Nor the cropp’d herbage shoot another head.
But when the fields are still,
And the tired men and dogs all gone to rest,
And only the white sheep are sometimes seen
Cross and recross the strips of moon-blanch’d green,
Come, shepherd, and again begin the quest!

The poet will wait for the shepherd all day in the shady corner of a half-reaped field, rereading Glanville’s ancient account of the Oxford student who dropped out to join a band of gypsies. It is a slow start to a rambling poem, and though shepherds are mentioned again they prove unnecessary in the 24 stanzas that follow. The poet is determined to track down the scholar-gypsy who is a) seen from time to time, b) over 200 years old, and c) ageless because he is untainted by modern life (Matthew Arnold wasn’t that big on science or history, apparently). The purpose of tracking the scholar-gypsy down turns out to be to tell him:

But fly our paths, our feverish contact fly!
For strong the infection of our mental strife,

And then thy glad perennial youth would fade,
Fade and grow old at last, and die like ours.

Thanks a lot, Matthew Arnold! You want to track down someone who is hard to find, in order to warn him not to make contact because it will be fatal? Not sure you’re thinking clearly here…

The other anomaly in the first line of the poem is the use of the word “you”. It is natural enough, until you realise that the remaining 249 lines are purely “thee” and “thou”. If Arnold wanted to write in the artificial language that was still (barely) normal for poetry in his day, why didn’t he do so in the first line of the poem? I can’t think of any reason, and assume it was unintentional – perhaps the first line of the poem just came to him as it is, and he accepted it; but as he worked on the rest of the poem in more deliberate fashion he adopted the style he felt appropriate. A pity. He stood on the cusp of contemporary language, but didn’t quite get there.

Photo: “sheep at hillside” by christophercjensen is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Short poem: ‘Golden Childhood’

Golden girl on a sunset beach
With a dog and a horse,
Golden boy spears a silver shark
Under the sea;

Is such a dream forever in reach
Or forever false?
We stumble, emotional, through the warm dark
Back to the sea.

I wrote this in my 20s when I was saying goodbye to the Bahamas – my father had died, my mother had sold the house and moved back to Europe. For the next few decades I lived in Denmark, Canada, the US… but eventually came back to the sea.

The poem was originally published in Candelabrum. I always had difficulty with that seventh line. Originally it had “emotionally”, and I sort of justified it with the line itself being a stumble… but it’s a bad line, too many syllables, too many consonants. Sometimes when I submit a poem to a magazine, the editor points out a flaw, and more rarely, offers a useful alternative. Poems can always be tinkered with.

Photo cropped from “Girl riding a horse at sunset on Bali” by Jimmy McIntyre – Editor HDR One Magazine is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0