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...

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Marilyn L. Taylor, ‘Reading the Obituaries’

Now the Barbaras have begun to die,
trailing their older sisters to the grave,
the Helens, Margies, Nans—who said goodbye
just days ago, it seems, taking their leave
a step or two behind the hooded girls
who bloomed and withered with the century—
the Dorotheas, Eleanors and Pearls
now swaying on the edge of memory.
Soon, soon, the scythe will sweep for Jeanne
and Angela, Patricia and Diane—
pause, and return for Karen and Christine
while Nancy spends a sleepless night again.
Ah, Debra, how can you be growing old?
Jennifer, Michelle, your hands are cold.

Marilyn Taylor writes: “The older I get, the more my poems seem to turn to thoughts of mortality, especially when I find myself reading the obituary pages in the Sunday paper. After having indulged this habit for several years (it’s something old people do, kids), I discovered that a reader-of-obits can often tell approximately how old the deceased was—especially in the case of a woman—at the end of her life, simply by noting her name. Women’s names have a strong tendency to go in and out of fashion over the course of several decades, albeit with a few exceptions—think “Catherine,” and the ever-popular “Elizabeth” and its many offshoots (although, oddly, “Betty,” now seems dated). I mulled over it for a few months and came up with the sonnet below. Sorry if your name is included; I have no dark motives.”

Marilyn Taylor, former Poet Laureate of the state of Wisconsin and the city of Milwaukee, is the author of six poetry collections. Her work has appeared in many anthologies and journals, including Poetry, Light, American Scholar, and Measure. She was recently awarded the Margaret Reid Prize for verse in forms. http://www.mltpoet.com/

Opposing poems: Ronald Knox on Berkeleyism

There once was a man who said “God
Must think it exceedingly odd
If he finds that this tree
Continues to be
When there’s no one about in the Quad.”

This limerick by the English priest and Sherlock Holmes fanatic Ronald Knox plays with the belief of Bishop George Berkeley that matter doesn’t exist – in the 18th century he wrote and preached that matter is only the product of mind and ideas, and needs to be observed in order to exist. Einstein, quantum physics and Schrodinger’s cat may lead us in that direction these days, but at the time it was radically new in the West. (In the East, ideas about the illusory nature of matter have been around for millennia.) It picked up the derisive name of “immaterialism“. And in his ‘Life of Samuel Johnson’, James Boswell recounts their hearing Berkeley preach:

“After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it — ‘I refute it thus‘.”

Philosophically, Johnson’s response is considered a logical fallacy, now called the “appeal to the stone“.

Ronald Knox, the 20th century priest, limerick author and Sherlockian, is probably also the author of this limerick that opposes the first one:

Dear Sir,
Your astonishment’s odd.
I am always about in the Quad.
And that’s why the tree
Will continue to be
Since observed by
Yours faithfully,
God

Perhaps we can think of the whole issue like this: if you play a strategy game like Civilization on the computer, you can only see part of the world at any one time. You move the cursor up, down or sideways, and you bring other parts of the world to the screen. What’s on the screen exists visually for you because that’s the part of the game world you can see; but the rest of the game world doesn’t exist visually – it exists as pure data in a program, and only materialises when you move the cursor to look at it. Berkeley suggests the physical world behaves similarly and, despite Samuel Johnson, this can’t be disproved. In that case, God would not cause the unobserved world to materialise – God would be the program, the organising principle for the data which would remain immaterial until observed…

Colour me Agnostic.

Photo: “Bishop Berkeley” by Infidelic is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Short poem: ‘White Recluse’

Her thoughts were all inside her –
Free from reality –
Poor little cramped-up spider
Who never saw the sea.

Much though I love her insightful and often wicked little poems, and deeply though I sympathise with her for (as I have heard) the traumatic and embarrassing seizures that restricted her life, I still have difficulty with this specific Emily Dickinson poem:

I never saw a Moor —
I never saw the Sea —
Yet know I how the Heather looks
And what a Billow be.

I never spoke with God
Nor visited in Heaven —
Yet certain am I of the spot
As if the Checks were given —

(There are two versions of this poem in circulation; but her poems were only edited and published after her death, and subsequently researched, de-edited and republished.) With all due respect, Miss Emily, if you had actually experienced the sea you would have realised that there is no way that a description and a couple of paintings can hope to capture the totality of waves: their warmth or chill, their taste, their sound, their movement against the body, the enjoyment, the danger, their feel in the water, their feel on a boat, their impact on a sandy beach or on a reef or against a cliff…

This also suggests to me that her understanding of God and Heaven is way too simplistic. She is making a good unwitting case for agnosticism. ‘White Recluse’ was published in The Asses of Parnassus, a suitable place for snippy little poems.

“Six Eyed Danger (Brown Recluse Spider)” by Lisa Zins is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Opposing poems: Alexander Pope and J. C. Squire

Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in night:
God said, Let Newton be! and all was light.

Pope’s “Epigram on Sir Isaac Newton” stood as a definitive statement until the 20th century, when J.C. Squire produced his “Answer to Pope’s Epitaph for Sir Isaac Newton”

It did not last: the Devil howling “Ho!
Let Einstein be!
” restored the status quo.

There is something very charming about an epigrammatic poem being answered by a poet with an opposite view. Some weeks ago I posted such a pair about 17th century Oxbridge rivalry, with Joseph Trapp referencing events of 1714 in six lines of verse to demonstrate Oxford’s superiority, answered by William Browne taking four lines to use the same events to argue for Cambridge. There are other such pairs… this obviously needs more research…

Illustration: “Alexander Pope” by immugmania is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Short poem: ‘Nothing’s Yours Always’

Nothing’s yours always, anyhow,
And Time shall lift from off your brow
Your troubles, wrinkles, hat and wig,
Leave you the basis for “long pig”.

So many unusual foods are described as “tastes like chicken”; it’s worth remembering that there is one that apparently tastes like pork. And really, when you’re dead, does it matter who benefits from the recycling of your atoms? The picture is of a figure from Ethiopian legend, Belai the Cannibal.

This poem was published in Metverse Muse, a long-established Indian journal that champions traditional verse, edited by Dr. Tulsi Hanamanthu.

Photo: “Belai the Cannibal” by A.Davey is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Short Poem: ‘The Hitchhiker’

Sometimes you’d sell your soul just to get warm! –
Your clothes are rags in the wind, your skin goes blue,
You doubt your mouth can ever smile again;
The lonely world grows dark before the storm
Whose icy rain’s a mile away… and then,
The sun breaks through!

I used to do a lot of hitchhiking – 25,000 miles is my best estimate, on five continents. It can be miserable, it can be ecstatic, but as a way of exploring the world without plans and preconceptions, it’s hard to beat. It used to be safe, then it became unsafe, but now it’s probably safe again – if you send a picture of the vehicle from your cell phone before you get in. Or if you live on an island with no public transportation, where everyone seems to know everyone and it’s just common courtesy to give people a ride.

The poem was published in the now-defunct Candelabrum, a twice-yearly British publication that championed traditional verse through the darkest days of “free verse” from 1970 to 2010. The magazine has ceased publication, but thank goodness the sun has broken through again!

“Winter Road” by ryanmcgilchrist is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Political poems: Byron on Castlereagh

Posterity will ne’er survey
a Nobler grave than this:
Here lie the bones of Castlereagh:
Stop, traveller, and p*** !

Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh (which rhymes with “pray”, if you choose to have that, rather than “piss”, as the last word of Byron’s little poem) was an Anglo-Irish politician who managed to make himself throughly hated.

Though generally in favour of concessions to the Irish he did not support Catholic Emancipation from the discrimination and civil disabilities they suffered under as disenfranchised second-class citizens. He took the lead in suppressing the Irish Rebellion of 1798; he advocated leniency to the common people but had leaders executed – including a Presbyterian minister who had canvassed for him in an election. From 1812 to 1822 he was the British Foreign Secretary, instrumental in managing the alliance that defeated Napoleon; and then at the Congress of Vienna, with the conservative Bourbons back on the throne of France, he advocated leniency for France and non-intervention by the UK in European affairs – which was seen as siding with the repressive Eastern European powers. This is from the ‘Dedication’ to Byron’s ‘Don Juan’:

Cold-blooded, smooth-faced, placid miscreant
Dabbling its sleek young hands in Erin’s gore,
And thus for wider carnage taught to pant,
Transferred to gorge upon a sister shore
The vulgarest tool that Tyranny could want,
With just enough of talent, and no more,
To lengthen fetters by another fixed,
And offer poison long already mixed.

Castlereagh’s suicide in 1822 further occasioned this from Byron:

Oh, Castlereagh! thou art a patriot now;
Cato died for his country, so didst thou:
He perish’d rather than see Rome en­slaved,
Thou cutt’ st thy throat that Britain may be saved!
So Castlereagh has cut his throat!–The worst
Of this is, – that his own was not the first.
So He has cut his throat at last!–He! Who?
The man who cut his country’s long ago.

Poem: ‘Spring Sprang’

Spring sprang full force with sudden storms then stopped.
Of which vertu engendred were the floods. We mopped.
Summer so wet dried into humid dank.
Sweat dripped, dried, dripped, and as we worked we stank.

This little poem was published in The Asses of Parnassus, where poems range from the short to the very short. Epigrams translated from the Greek or Latin alternate with modern insults and with odd little observations such as this post’s verse. It is a site for people who enjoy the occasional small random thought.

Why I wrote the poem, I don’t know. It probably started with the evocative sounds of “spring sprang”. Spring rains always bring Chaucer’s Prologue to my mind, whence the “of which vertu engendred” phrase. The whole thing is inconsequential, except that in one very important sense no creative act, not even the most trivial, is inconsequential: your creativity speaks to you, and your decision of whether or not to act on it determines many aspects of your life: not just your creative output, but your sense of satsfaction, your happiness, your mental balance, even your physical health. When the muse speaks, listen and act – the output doesn’t have to be significant, but keeping the lines of communication open to the inner and unconscious (but in several ways wiser and more knowledgeable) parts of yourself is supremely important. Call it the soul, if you want. Call it God, for all I care. There is something essential there: honour it. Your happiness, maybe even your life, depends on it.

OK, rant over. Back to other inconsequentialities.

Photo: “025457:Floods Central Library New Bridge Street Newcastle upon Tyne Unknown 1966” by Newcastle Libraries is marked with CC PDM 1.0

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