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...

Poem: “I Started Out Alone”

I started out alone
with no numbers and no words.
The people gave me food and clothes.
I loved the sun and birds.

And when I reach the end,
numbers and words all done,
have to be fed and dressed again,
I’ll love the birds and sun.

This little poem was published recently in Bewildering Stories, and I like it for a couple of reasons: its simplicity (echoing the simplicity of the states of beginning and end of life, the simplicity of the basics of being human); and its completeness – it covers an entire life, and I can’t think of more words that could be added; and the formality, not only of the simple rhythm and simple rhymes, but of the structure, the line-by-line echoing of the beginning of life in the end of life.

For all these reasons it is an easy little poem to remember and recite, and that is satisfying in itself.

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Formal Launch: Potcake Chapbook 4 – Families and Other Fiascoes

The fourth Potcake Chapbook is now launched into the wide world, with its contributors coming from England, Wales, Greece, the Netherlands, Canada, and coast to coast in the US.

04 Families and Other FiascoesPoets new to this series are, in order of appearance, Maryann Corbett, Vera Ignatowitsch, Kathryn Jacobs, Anthony Lombardy, Susan de Sola, Jane Blanchard and Michael R. Burch.  A glance at their profiles in Sampson Low’s Potcake Poets page will show you they include editors at Able Muse, Better Than Starbucks, The Hypertexts and The Road Not Taken, as well as various prizewinners.

Returning contributors are A.E. Stallings, Ed Conti, Tom Vaughan, Ann Drysdale, Gail White and Chris O’Carroll, who of course can boast their own editing and prizewinning. And returning as well is the artwork of Alban Low.

It’s hard to do justice to families in a mere chapbook. Not only are there dozens of possible family relationships (and the number is actively increasing thanks to both social changes and biotech developments), but each of those relationships can close or distant, sweet or bitter, simple or complex, present or merely remembered. It requires science fiction to describe an individual entirely without a family.

This chapbook touches on a great deal, but by no means all, of what “family” means. Send a copy to someone who appreciates the bittersweetness that accompanies family love, up and down the generations.

Poem: “Careless Youths”

Carefree Youths

Like fishing boats sailing a landless sea,
an edgeless game-board for an endless game,
hauling their random catch from wide-spread nets,
hunting without the hunter’s hunt and aim,
but sailing, drifting, without cares or frets,
so carefree youths under the bowl of sky
will chance their drifting lives on random lips.
And then the Kraken rises, sinking ships.

“Carefree Youths” was published a couple of days ago in Bewildering Stories. It is in iambic pentameter with irregular rhyme. After the meandering start to the poem (about the youths’ meandering lifestyle), the last line is a hard punchline (reflecting the brutal ending of that lifestyle). There are no sequential rhymes until the last two lines, which thereby become the clear ending of the poem. The form of the poem accentuates the poem’s meaning. That is what form should do.

Final rhyming couplets were used extensively by Shakespeare in various ways. In his sonnets they provide a very strong ending after four quatrains, and is a reason for preferring the Shakespearean sonnet’s ABAB CDCD EFEF GG over the Petrarchan sonnet’s more mannered but less forceful ABBA ABBA CDE CDE. Many of his final couplets are well known – such as:

If this be error and upon me prov’d,
I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.

Shakespeare did the same sort of thing throughout his plays, in which a scene or a soliloquy will be in blank verse but often terminate in a rhyme. Some of the best-known examples being:

the play ‘s the thing
Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king. (Hamlet)

Fair is foul and foul is fair:
Hover through the fog and filthy air. (Macbeth)

Good night! Good night! Parting is such sweet sorrow
That I shall say goodnight till it be morrow. (Romeo and Juliet)

The rhymed sentence helps sum up the scene, and signals that the scene is ending and that a new scene is about to begin – particularly useful since in Shakespeare’s time there were no stage curtains and no real sets to speak of.

Ah, formal verse! So many uses!

Review: “A Joy Proposed” by T.H. White

‘A Joy Proposed’ is a nice, somewhat strange, assembly of 57 often derivative poems from across the life of T.H. White. Many of the pieces were written in Ireland where White lived as a Conscientious Objector throughout the Second World War. His love of the countryside and his previous experiences as a schoolmaster (including at Stowe, a boarding school in rural Buckinghamshire with 600 acres of grounds) shine through in the constant juxtaposition of poems about game birds, dogs and landscapes alongside anger and bitterness about innocent lives lost to war.

The style varies from extreme simplicity, as in ‘A Choirboy Singing’:

Know not, but sigh.
Think not, but die.
Hope not, but high
Ache against ill.

to outpourings evocative of Whitman or Hopkins, as in ‘A Dray Horse’:

Meek Hercules – passion of arched power bowed in titanic affection,
Docile though vanquishing, stout-limber in vastness, plunging and spurning thy road –
Tauten thy traces, triumph past me, take thy shattering direction
Through misty Glasgow, dragging in a tremendous beer-waggon thy cobble-thundering load.

His pessimism, or perhaps mere sadness, at the human condition comes through again and again in the sense of the young lives he has been educating that will now be thrown away:

When I look at your comely head
And the long fingers delicately live
And the bright life born to be dead
And the happy blood to be shed
(…)
I die within me. And I curse
The witless fate of man without all cure.
Music I curse, and verse,
And beauty worse,
And every thing that helps us to endure.

… but mitigated always by his love of Nature, both hunting (as in kestrels and dogs he owned) and hunted (as in game birds he shot).

White is primarily known for his ‘Once and Future King‘ retelling of the Arthurian legends, and those novels soon went to stage and screen as the musical ‘Camelot’ and the Disney animation ‘The Sword in the Stone’. If it wasn’t for those novels, his other novels would probably be forgotten today and his poetry would be unknown. It isn’t great poetry, and yet I have read it and reread it. He was a writer and with it he was lonely, alcoholic, bitter, witty, learned, compassionate, and alive to the natural world. All of that comes through in these verses, with his self-awareness of who he was and what he was achieving. As he wrote in ‘Lines Cut on the Cottage Window’:

A bitter heart lay here and yet
It was not bitter to the bone.
It made what Time does not unmake
All hopeful, and alone.

Poem: “From the Heart of Europe”

Warning, it’s long: 140 lines. And it’s a rant, a chant, with formal passages only towards the end. It is published in the current issue of Snakeskin, whose editor George Simmers expressed reservations, calling it “your monster of a poem. It’ll be interesting to see if there are indications that anyone gets to the end of it. My suspicion is that 24 lines is about the maximum most people are willing to read online. But I like having an occasional long poem in Snakeskin – gives readers a challenge.

So here it is… “From the Heart of Europe

Europe

I am the Celt, westering across Doggerland
Into the wilds – in me live
The stories of the monsters, dragons, ogres
I found as I struggled through trackless wilderness
Fighting off the wolves, bears and cavemen.
If you would see me, look to Ireland and to France,
To Scotland, Wales, Cornwall and Brittany.
When verbs are forming complicated trains you’re seeing my Gaelic grammar.

And I am the Roman, bringing engineers,
Underfloor heating, square buildings and straight roads.
Ten generations of the Middle Sea –
Italians, Greeks, Egyptians, Libyans –
Braving the cold and damp, our children British…
Until the Empire falls, and some go “home”
To warmer seas, to citrus trees, and Rome.
Look for me in the priestly words,
As in the black Irish who fled the Saxons.

For I am the Angle, Saxon, Jutlander,
Displacing Britons, making Angle-land.
Like ours, all tribes move west and south as Rome succumbs.
Clearing the forests, making free men’s farms,
Avoiding ruins of the Roman towns,
Avoiding ruins of the great square buildings.
Look for me in the fields and farms
Of Essex, Sussex, Saxony,
Of Anglia in England and Anglia in Germany,
And in the daily words of common folk.

Then I am the Viking, avenging Christian slaughter,
Avenging Verden’s massacre, five thousand dead.
Looting and raiding for slaves and wives, and –
Hey, that’s nice land on a quiet river…
Let’s stay here with our meetings and our laws.
Look for me in the Yorkshireman of the Danelaw
And all across the north lands to the east.

I am also the Northman who settled in France –
Where Romans had ruled Celts 500 years –
And now claim the rights of the Viking,
The rights of the Saxon,
Under Roman religion
To rule Angle-land.
I come with the Conqueror, follow the Bastard,
The Builder of Castles and Cities,
With renaissance of learning,
Enlightenment, Parliament,
Even including the poor, and then even women…
Look for me where I continued to conquer –
Where I fought other Europeans to control the world –
My branches spread everywhere – North America, India –
Hong Kong, Australia, Kenya, Jamaica –
But my roots… my roots are in Europe,
From Northlands to Rome and from Ireland to Greece.
You can prune back the branches,
But don’t think of cutting the roots.

When I see a wishing well – my roots
When I see an aqueduct – my roots
When I see men wear trousers – my roots
When I see women’s braids – my roots
When I eat bread and cheese – my roots
When I drink wine and beer – my roots
When I see people vote – my roots
When I hear legal judgement – my roots
When I smell farms and forests – my roots
When I hear waves and seagulls – my roots

And my roots are not without warfare.

In the Great War my grandfather died, so too both his brothers, all in their 20s.
This was not unusual in that war.
Then came a second world war. Europe said “Enough!”
The end of the war. Twin towns were an answer, building links.
Their history begins with Paderborn, Germany, and Le Mans, France.. in 836.
(The UK was a little late to the table, its first twin town was in 1905…)
Coventry now twinned with Dresden and Stalingrad.
The end of the war. The Treaty of Paris of ’51 for the European Coal and Steel Community,
The Treaty of Rome, the EEC of the western 6.
(The UK joined a little late in ’73.)
With Denmark and Ireland in the north, then adding 3 more in the south,
Then 3 more in the north, then 14 in the east,
Until almost Turkey, almost Russia, almost Morocco, Israel…
The Eurovision Song Contest, building links from ’56
(The UK joined late, ’57).
The It’s A Knockout! silly sports on TV (De Gaulle’s idea) from ’65
(The UK joined late, ’67).

Ah, that Europe of 50, 60 years ago…
When north and west and south worked to build links,
And you could wander freely, even go
Into the east (with bureaucratic waits and stamps and inks)…

And I have stood
Under the Transylvanian full moon
And eaten moon-green apples in a smooth wet field
And the lorry-driver spoke no English.

I have hitched
A ride from a Cologne motorway stop
With a limping German who spoke no English
In a fine car with leather seats
Over 250 miles to Hamburg in 2½ hours! – as if he said
“You only think you won the war.”

I have sat
In front of Goya’s Cowherds – Duel with Cudgels –
In the Prado in Madrid, and cried
For me, for us, for Europe, for the world.

I have slept
On the top steps of a Greco-Roman amphitheatre
In the tourist-Turkey fishing village summer nights,
And tourists took my picture.

I have eaten
In the impounded lorries of the smuggling Swiss
At the Turkish-Bulgarian customs zone
And got a ride to Munich.

I have seen
There is one street in Copenhagen no one knows but I.
Invisible, unless you watch those using it go by;
It winds above the buildings, up and down about the sky,
In single file ten thousand go by each day, and no lie! –
(The seagulls heading for the City Dump from out at sea.)

I have walked
South from Glasgow illegally on the motorway
With my thumb out as the snow began to fall.
The Police said “Get in”. They drove in silence 30 miles
And dropped me at a service station.

And still I think of that long night
When through and through the lorry-park
Rutted six inches deep in mud
The madman prowled, distraught and barefoot
Under the full moon, running his fingers through his hair,
Muttering and complaining, shouting aloud,
And the lorry-driver talked with him,
Explained to me
(And I through sparse Spanish guessed at his Romanian)
That the madman in the mud
Had killed someone
Or run him over
Or was on the verge of suicide,
Perhaps all three together…
And the madman muttered barefoot through the mud
Until the sun rose and we went our way.

That was my Europe, yesterday,
as still the British Isles today:
we are where the world meets.
We came, long past, from far away –
and more still come, some go, some stay…
the heart of Europe beats.

-.-.-.-.-

For what it’s worth, instead of those last 6 lines the poem originally had six 4-line stanzas. George Simmers was kind enough to critique them, attacking them from several directions and giving me the opportunity to write something better. They were the most formal section of the entire piece, and in being rejected they help people like Mike Burch make the case that “formal” isn’t the be-all and end-all of poetry.  🙂

Here is the original ending, giving a slightly different meaning and direction to the poem… Anyway, better or worse? What do you think?

But now England may
(Yes, I say May)
Go, with Wales, its own way –
(Though Scotland and Northern Ireland said stay.)

The peace we’ve been blest
With, the growth we’ve possessed
Has led the obsessed
To stoke enmity. Laws were transgressed

In winning the vote.
Weasel words, like a stoat
Changing colour of coat,
Were all lies. May they stick in their throat.

Our Europe is one:
Celt, Roman and Hun
May be how it’s begun,
But now, like the UK, everyone

From all round the globe,
In a suit, in a thobe,
In blue jeans, in a robe,
Has their place – each distinct as in strobe

Light, is lit as a part
Of the waves of fresh start
That newcomers impart
With, like all Europeans, their heart.

Review: “Strange Victory” by Sara Teasdale

“Strange Victory” is a thin, competent but uninteresting collection of short poems by Sara Teasdale, produced shortly before her suicide.

Moon, worn thin to the width of a quill,
In the dawn clouds flying,
How good to go, light into light, and still
Giving light, dying.

However, as this is neither her best selling “Rivers to the Sea” nor her Pulitzer Prizewinning “Love Songs”, perhaps one of those volumes would provide a better assessment of her worth as a poet.

Not recommended.

Poem: Sonnet: “From Cavemen to Post-Human”

This sonnet looks at the way humans have deliberately explored into challenging new

Girl on Log.jpg

“Mary, river daredevil” by magnetbox

environments, and suggests we will keep doing this until we’re human no longer. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, any more than our past changes appear bad to us now.

The poem was published last week in Bewildering Stories, the online science fiction (or speculative fiction) magazine which has been running for some 18 years. And with poetry, of course!

The link that I have given to the poem takes you to a further link where the editor solicits opinions about the meaning of some of the poem’s statements. The Challenge questions are an interesting addition.

 

From Cavemen to Post-Human

From the first cavemen clinging to some logs,
escaping with their lives from flood or slaughter,
to mega-palaces that cruise the water,
humans became amphibious as frogs.
Then into space: hostile environment,
no barrier to ways to stay alive,
no worse in Mars domes, modules at L5
than in an igloo or a desert tent.
Next, thought balloons by tech cut free of place,
drifting connecting through ethereal skies,
where we upload ourselves as thought and rise
into the cloud as a post-human race
in new non-human landscapes without land,
pure energy as a new tribal band.