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...

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

Review: ‘Old and Bookish’ by George Simmers

George Simmers has chosen a title for his latest collection of poems that describes it very well: “Old and Bookish”; and also–if being merely in our 70s isn’t premature–self-deprecatingly describes himself. But though he writes with understanding about oldness and bookishness, he makes it clear that he is not being autobiographical: The first section is called “from The songs of the Old Man”, the title immediately followed by: “Note: The Old Man is not me, but I know how he feels.”

The Old Man Walks his Dog; The Old Man Visits a Very Old Woman; even The Old Man’s Song About the Crematorium… poems about the kind of thoughts the Old Man has:
Both the slutty and the proper,
Both the crooked and the copper,
Those who decorate interiors,
And the very very serious,
Both the fervent Corbynista
And her fashionista sister
Who’s obsessed by the length of a hem –
They’ll all end up at the crem crem crem
They’ll all end up at the crem.

That gives a sense of Simmers’ work–smooth and amused in rhythm and rhyme, in tone and in message. Or take The Old Man’s Heaven–how would a music lover imagine eternity in the afterlife? Discounting the “hoity-toity… operatic… Bayreuth-y” and the alternative punk “one long mosh pit”, the Old Man with gentle amusement envisages an older blonde in a piano bar:
With a voice of smoky yearning,
A lady who has seen too much,
But she keeps the old torch burning.

She sings that life is made for love,
And time will kill the pain.
She sings that though your love’s gone bad
You still should love again.
She sings that there is always hope
And those who love are wise.
Yes, I could spend eternity
Hearing those lovely lies.

The second section of the book moves away from the internal view of the Old Man to the external view of Some Oldies. It begins with Rachel, the most energised:
Old Rachel’s fierce and heavy-browed
Her views are strong; her voice is loud.
She says the councillors are crooks;
She says the mayor cooks the books.
She says the government’s a mess –
Don’t start her on the NHS –
While London, which survived the Blitz,
Is being bought by foreign shits,
By criminals and sheiks and sharks,
And kleptocrats and oligarchs…

and ends with Christopher, aware of his life winding down, dozing off with a smile
For he is entering a dream –
A joyous dream where he’s pursued
By several plump and laughing women
In the pink bumgorgeous nude.

The third, final, and largest section of the book is where we get to Bookish. Here are poems on poetry, on poets, on words, on English. There is a 26-line Elsinore Alphabet that starts at the beginning of Hamlet:
A is for armour, which kingly ghosts wear.
B is for battlements, where the guards stare.

and works its way through to the very end:
Y, they’re all dead as Yorick, once such a great hoot.
Z’s for zero plot left. Bid the soldier-chaps shoot.

There is two-page book review in limericks of a book of limericks. And there is my favourite poem of the book, ‘Poets in Residence’. Simmers having been a schoolteacher, he takes obvious delight in his tale of a headmaster who invites all the best English poets to the school. Here are eight of the 33 couplets:
Geoffrey Chaucer came first, on an equable horse,
And Spenser, and Marlowe, and Shakespeare, of course…
Keats arrived coughing, Kipling marched vigorously;
Matthew Arnold began to inspect the school rigorously…
Vaughan was ecstatic, though Clough was more sceptical.
Ernest Dowson puked up in a litter receptacle.
Coleridge sneaked off to discover the rates
Of an unshaven person outside the school gates…

Unfortunately for the Headmaster, there is a Romantic Revolt:
Shelley’d gathered the students out in the main quad,
And roused them to rise against school, Head, and God…
The bards of the thirties were equally Red,
And Milton explained how to chop off a head…
Soon the School was destroyed. Eliot paced through the waste,
And reflected with sorrow and learning and taste,
Which he fused in a poem, an excellent thing,
Though rather obscure and a little right-wing…

And the Head is left amidst the rubble, cursing all poets and poetry.

It all makes for a thoroughly enjoyable romp through the many aspects of ageing, viewed both internally and externally; and the consolations and disconsolations of poetry itself. It is an easy read, the ease belying the breadth and depth of Simmers’ thought, his lifetime of experience including the 25 years he has spent editing and publishing that excellent monthly online poetry magazine, Snakeskin.

Old and Bookish is an excellent and memorable collection of verse.

Even the cover illustration gets a little write-up at the end of the book, including a last poem by Simmers:

“I am very grateful to Bruce Bentzman for permission to use again his ‘Raven’ drawing, which made an earlier appearance in our Animals Like Reading collaboration. I approve of this bird, both for his obvious appetite for reading, and for his air of scepticism, which once inspired this rhyme:
‘Human nature? Bloody chronic!’ Raven caws in tones sardonic,
And adds: ‘I’ve read some rubbish as I’ve studied human lore,
But I’ve read no book that’s dopier than Sir Thomas More’s Utopia,
Which imagines human harmony and man (that carnivore!)
Being so nice to his neighbour he abjures all thoughts of war.’
Quoth the raven: ‘Never, More.’

And as for that Raven’s comment about warfare: it should be noted finally that George Simmers also authors a blog called Great War Fiction plus which focuses on fiction of the First World War, but also goes off on whatever tangents seem interesting.

Odd poem: French Verse on painting, by Winston Churchill

La peinture á l’huile
Est bien difficile,
Mais c’est beaucoup plus beau
Que la peinture á l’eau.

The translation: “Oil painting / Is certainly hard, / But it’s much lovelier / Than watercolour.” For reasons unknown, Winston Churchill came up with what is almost a Clerihew in style, but in French, as a comment in his little 1948 book ‘Painting as a Pastime‘.

Churchill first took up painting in 1915 at age 40 when he was removed as First Lord of the Admiralty. His fall was a result of the disastrous Dardanelles and Gallipoli attacks on Turkey that he had organised.

He took up painting for distraction, but it became increasingly a part of his life. He didn’t have hopes of making money from his “daubs”, and didn’t consider he had mastered the art. As he wrote in that slim book, “When I get to heaven I mean to spend a considerable portion of my first million years in painting, and so to get to the bottom of the subject.” Early on he submitted and exhibited under pseudonyms as a way of assessing his abilities without the influence of his name. In 1921 he exhibited at Galerie Druet in Paris under the pseudonym Charles Morin and sold six paintings for £30 each. In 1947 he submitted paintings to the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition under the name David Winter, and was successful with two of them.

He continued to paint for over 40 years, landscapes when the weather was obliging, still lifes when stuck indoors. Wherever he travelled–Morocco and Egypt, France and Italy, Jamaica, Canada and the US–his easel, brushes and paints went with him and were put to use. He produced at least 500 paintings, giving many away and not keeping records of them. You can see several of his paintings here if you scroll to the bottom.

‘Photo: Churchill painting a view of the Sorgue river in 1948, photographer unknown

(Loosely) Anapestic Sonnet: ‘A Run’

Over the island from beaches this side where it’s blowing,
it’s only a mile to the side where today it’s flat calm;
so over the hill’s potholed tarmac, to tracks of sand going
along under southern pine, seagrape, gum elemi, palm;
and then between sea-oats and cocoplums over the dunes
and down to the beach where the sand is as dusty as powder,
then lower across the high tide mark that seaweed festoons,
to harder packed sand under sun hot as bird-pepper chowder —
the sand at the ocean low tide, flat and hard as a ledge,
so flat you don’t feel that you’re running the side of a slope
where the ocean runs up inches deep and you splash through its edge,
one more mile to the end, where the sand is as pink as fresh hope,
is as pink as a conch shell, as pink as the still morning skies —
and you rest on the rocks in the shade while the southern pine sighs.

Eleuthera, the island where I was raised and where I live, is long and skinny like many of the Bahama Islands. A hundred and ten miles long, mostly a mile or two wide. I live on the south side (local name), the west side (tourist name), the sea side, the Sound side, the Caribbean side. It’s a great run of a mile over a 60 foot hill to the north side (or east side, ocean side, Atlantic side). On the south side the sand is white, and all the way out to the horizon the water is only 20 feet deep or so. On the north side the sand varies from powdery white to coarse pink, and long before you got to the horizon you would be in 8,000 feet of water. You can tell immediately from a photo which side you’re looking at: vegetation, beach, colour of the water, they’re all different.

This poem was published this month in Snakeskin, edited for 25 years by George Simmers. He is receptive to both traditional and free verse, everything depending on what appeals to him at the time. This is good for me, because I am inconsistent with what I produce. With this one, I went for the rhythm, the da-da-dum, da-da-dum which may not be the sound one person makes when running, but for me captures the mood of running. I can’t define it more than that. And so long as that rhythm is in the heart of each line, I don’t have a problem with being a syllable short at the beginning, or having an extra one at the end, so long as it all flows from one line to the next without a big hiccup.