Poems should be concise: quick, small, like mice. Then one day you find they’ve made a nest in your mind.
I seem to be writing shorter, more epigrammatic verse recently. Probably influenced by reading too much FitzGerald/Khayyam.
This little poem was published in the December 2020 issue of Snakeskin–which celebrates 25 years as a monthly online poetry magazine, presumably the oldest (or rather “the most venerable”) such magazine in the world. Congratulations to its creator and sustainer, George Simmers!
FitzGerald’s version of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat is one of the glories of English poetry. It has contributed more phrases and common quotations to the language, relative to its size, than any other piece of literature – including the Bible and Shakespeare. “A flask of wine, a book of verse, and thou”… “The Moving Finger writes; and having writ // Moves on”… and so on.
FitzGerald came out with five editions of the Rubaiyat (the fifth being posthumous), with 75 four-line stanzas in the first edition, then tinkering with it for the rest of his life: adding another 30 stanzas, subtracting again, and constantly modifying words, phrases and punctuation. The first edition has several things in its favour: succinctness, and the fire and integrity of the original effort.
Edward FitzGerald was a strange character. His personal life was a long search for friendship of two types: intellectuals with a passion for literature (Tennyson, Thackeray, Carlyle), and unintellectual men much younger than himself who were noted for their “manly” looks. His life and search were difficult, as Victorian England didn’t make life easy for homosexuals.
On the creative side, this search for friendship showed up as a need to be a co-creator: showed up in art, where he had a lifelong habit of buying paintings and cutting them down to a better composition and touching up the work to improve it; in music, where he arranged the works of others for his friends to sing; and in literature, where he found his genius in the works of others, translating Aeschylus, Calderon and Khayyam from the original Greek, Spanish and Persian, striving to identify with the original author and replicate in English not their exact words but the thrust of their thought and emotion. And with the Rubaiyat he appears to have been successful in every way. The five versions published between 1859 and 1889 constitute the single best-selling book of poetry in English.
Of the hundreds of editions that have been published since FitzGerald’s death, my two favourites are: for the lushness, the one illustrated by Edmund Dulac; and, for the background and insights, the one with an introduction by Dick Davis and published by Penguin in 1989.
In this particular Penguin edition (there have been several others), FitzGerald’s first edition and fifth edition are given in full, together with a complete listing of all the other variations found in the intervening versions. But – FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat only being 300 or 400 lines, depending on the version – all of that barely takes up 50 pages. Dick Davis’ introduction, almost as long, was presumably commissioned to make this a saleable book. And it is his introduction that gives it its full value.
Davis covers the life and what can be known of the personality of Omar Khayyam and – in conjunction with a review of FitzGerald’s life, personality, agnosticism and guarded homosexuality – the attraction, almost identity, that FitzGerald felt for him. He also investigates and approves the depth of FitzGerald’s translation skills, and analyses his use of rhyme scheme and meter. FitzGerald originally started translating Khayyam into paired couplets (aabb) before seeing the benefit of Khayyam’s rubaiyat (aaba) – given the epigrammatic nature of the verses, each quatrain is a stand-alone philosophic proposition and the return in the fourth line to the rhyme of the first two lines tends to heighten the sense of inevitability in each stanza.
Perhaps the most intriguing thought to come from Davis’ Introduction is that the sensual illustrations of half-naked women, so common in our collection of Rubaiyats, are all wrong. From linguistic and cultural clues in both the Persian and the English, it appears that the Saki, the young cup-bearer, the Thou of the flask of wine and book of verse, should be an attractive young male with his first moustache starting to grow in. In other words, and despite my preference for Dulac, FitzGerald’s version of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam would perfectly support lush, ornate, gay illustrations; and that is likely what FitzGerald – and Khayyam himself – would have preferred.
I heard the squelch of death again – or was it just a neuron firing deep within my boggy brain,
or possibly a cell expiring down amongst a mucus mess? It could have been my heart perspiring
(that may be a thing I guess) or, deep down in the adipose, the squealing of a fat-lump pressed
to serve as fuel, and I suppose it might have been a small mutation – ‘Pop!’ (we get a lot of those),
a bronchiole’s sharp inhalation, ‘Hiss!’ a membrane’s gooey breath, a bile-duct’s bitter salivation…
Probably, it wasn’t death.
Nina Parmenter writes: “I had such a good time writing this poem. For a start, I got to have a lovely little geek-out researching a few anatomical details. I do like writing poems which require a little research, and biology seems to be a favourite subject at the moment. With bronchioles and bile ducts firmly in place, I granted myself permission to fill the rest of the poem with as many gooey, yucky words and noises as I pleased. And who wouldn’t enjoy doing that?
To compound the pleasure, I wrote the poem in terza rima form – such an elegant, flowing puzzle of a form, and one of my favourites to write in.
Honestly, this is one of those poems that I wish had taken me longer, because I didn’t want the (slightly dark) fun to stop.”
As a legislator in my state I drew up my first vote to say that citizens could never vote again after they had passed away.
My fellow members faced the troubling issue bravely, locked in hard debate on whether, after someone’s death had come, three years should be adequate
to let the family, recollecting him, determine how a loved one may have cast a vote if he had only lived to see the later voting day.
My own neighbors warned me had gone too far in changing what we’d always done. I lost the net campaign, and failed to carry a single precinct with a cemetery.
Jimmy Carter’s collection of poems ‘Always a Reckoning’ is unexpectedly good for a politician, and it was a best seller when published in 1995. And this particular poem is not only amusing, but it resonates strangely with 2020 presidential election, and claims of fraud in the Georgia results. It would appear from the poem that Georgia politics is more honest than it was in the 1960s, anyway.
Jimmy Carter followed a bizarre and contradictory path in politics, always having been firmly committed to racial integration and equality, but having to constantly support people like Alabama segregationalist George Wallace in order to get elected. Then, once elected, trying to move the state’s politics in a direction that many of his backers did not like. Whether things played out the way they are presented in the poem is not something I can determine from a superficial review of his career. But it’s a fun poem, anyway.
When all the old gods go on trial, loud cursed In the High Court of Public Thought Review, Jehovah (tribal god of bronze age Jews) Stands of his vast pretentiousness accused: Claims he created Heaven and Earth When he was born six thousand years ago! (Can’t define Heaven, doesn’t even know If there’s a difference between Earth and Universe.) God of the Christians and the Muslims too! Won’t do anything against the AI Displacing all the gods. Thor in the dock Scratches his bull-neck, Odin his empty eye, Zeus his cock. The gods are human, know they face death, forgotten As any carven deity, buried, rotten. Concerned, they fidget restlessly – Only Jehovah, the least self-aware, Storms he’s exempt, blusters with beard and hair, Thinks his small tribe is all that there can be.
I have a lot of sympathy with apocalyptic thinking: the end of the world as we know it is always happening, being replaced by something with unfamiliar and disturbing aspects. All the old ways are always ending. And those who grow up with the new ways, which is all children, mature and age and find their ways displaced in turn. But the scale of displacement varies… a war raging across your homeland is worse than a wave of new immigrants, though both of these are familiar problems. But the rise of AI and a host of new technologies, and the wholesale washing away of gods and pre-scientific explanations, is leading to a future where not even the make-up of the human can be known for sure. The gods shrink and become amusing.
The poem was originally published in Snakeskin. It’s a bit slapdash, mostly in iambic pentameter, mostly rhyming, but not technically great. But then, I was always one of those students whose report cards read “Could try harder”, “Could do better”.
When, at last, auditions ended parts were cast and roles assigned. By the time the vows were taken expectations had declined.
She replaced the silk with sweatshirts He drank beer instead of wine, They had tired of pretending Both agreed that it was fine.
Sometimes laundry went unfolded, furniture grew thick with dust. They had made accommodations Every happy couple must.
When her garden went unweeded when he failed to take out trash they hung in there, through the hard times long on love, though short on cash.
Through the years of strife and struggle, obstacles they couldn’t plan they held fast, to face the future- each the other’s biggest fan.
Leading man and leading lady both had heard the casting call. Their romantic comedy became the envy of us all.
Kathy Lundy Derengowski writes: “I selected this poem for submission, because it is one that just “fell into place” and because it still captures the essence of a satisfying marriage.”
Kathy Lundy Derengowski’s work has appeared in Summation, California Quarterly, Silver Birch Press, Autumn Sky Daily, Turtle Light Press, the Journal of Modern Poetry, as well as the latest Potcake Chapbook, ‘Houses and Homes Forever‘. She has won awards from the California State Poetry Society and was a finalist in the San Diego Book Awards poetry chapbook category.
Although she does not have a website or blog, you can find a reading of a few of her earlier poems on YouTube under Kathy Lundy Derengowski.
I’ve only once in my six decades– Years spent in many lands and islands– Had a crow fly to and caw at me… It flew ahead and cawed from a second tree… Then flew ahead to a fence post, Cawed a third time as we came close. Then flew away. This in the driveway Of a well-treed hotel outside Nairobi. Kenyans have no tradition of the crow As messenger of death… but we sure do. We checked the time: 1:05 pm. As it turns out, that was the moment when In the night in British Columbia My favourite in-law, my children’s grandmother, Died.
This is not exactly formal poetry… I can read it with four beats to a line, but only just; and as for rhyming couplets, yes, it has them, if you’re prepared to allow “rhymes” like driveway-Nairobi. Normally the needs of rhyme and meter will shape the finish of my poems, may alter its details, often add to its meaning in the process. But with this one, it was more important to me to stay as exact to the event as possible. I’ve short-changed the description by leaving out the presence of my wife Eliza, who was also close to my ex-mother-in-law; and a couple of other British Columbia-related coincidences that occurred in the previous hour in Kenya.
This poem was published appropriately enough in ‘Bewildering Stories‘. My suspicion is that everyone on very rare occasions experiences some woo-woo event that defies logic or probablility. In this case, say the event lasts a minute; to be generous to the gods of chance, let’s say it was accurate to within an hour on Molly’s death. Say I’ve been awake 16 hours a day for 60 years since childhood: that’s over 350,000 hours. Say that half a dozen people who I’ve felt really close to have died in that time. The chance that the one and only time a crow very deliberately comes up to me and caws three times is in one of the half-dozen hours that someone close has died, is therefore less than one in 50,000. That’s not impossible, of course. There are one-in-a-million lightning strikes and lottery wins. But crows have a reputation for doing exactly this.
I reject a mystical solution. I want to know the science of what happened. My purely speculative guess is that some quantum entanglement happens between people who are close (especially twins, or mother and child) and when there is a change of state in one, it registers with the other. Further speculation: that crows are so sensitive to the smell of death that they can register it in the changed state of a living but quantumly entangled person. Sorry, that’s admittedly unscientific, but at least it’s an attempt at a material rather than a spiritual answer.
This is the legend of Cassius Clay, The most beautiful fighter in the world today. He talks a great deal, and brags indeedy Of a muscular punch that’s incredibly speedy. This brash young boxer is something to see And the heavyweight championship is his destiny.
This kid fights great. He’s got speed and endurance. But if you sign to fight him, increase your insurance. This kid’s got a left, this kid’s got a right, If he hit you once, you’re asleep for the night. And as you lie on the floor while the ref counts 10, You pray that you won’t have to fight me again.
The fistic world was dull and weary, But with a champ like Liston, things had to be dreary. Then someone with color and someone with dash, Brought fight fans a-runnin’ with plenty of cash. For I am the man this poem is about, The next champ of the world, there isn’t a doubt. I am the greatest!
As an 18-year-old, Cassius Clay won boxing gold in the 1960 Rome Olympics. Three years later, when he was on the verge of fighting the heavily favoured Sonny Liston for the World Heavyweight title, he produced this poem, and issued it with modifications as the flipside of a single (covering ‘Stand By Me’ on the A side). I had a copy of that 45 when I was a teenager in England, but who knows what happened to it.
He had a street-smart way with words, a natural ability to rap: rhyme, rhythm, wit and a big ego. It wasn’t for nothing that he was known as the Louisville Lip. They were all good defences in his battles outside the boxing ring, where he confronted white racism. His heavyweight titled was stripped from him when he refused to fight in the Vietnam War, saying “Viet Cong never called me ‘nigger’.” He changed his name to Cassius X when he joined the unorthodox Nation of Islam, then changed it again to Muhammad Ali as a more standard Sunni Muslim. Prevented from fighting throughout his late 20s, he returned and regained his title–but he had lost what would probably have been his most successful years.
He was a popular favourite around the world.
Photo: Cassius Clay with his trainer Joe E. Martin, the Louisville cop who redirected the 12-year-old’s anger into learning to box.
I wonder what it’s all about, and why We suffer so, when little things go wrong? We make our life a struggle, When life should be a song.
Our troubles break and drench us, Like spray on the cleaving prow Of some trim Gloucester schooner As it dips in a graceful bow.
Our troubles break and drench us But like that cleaving prow, The wind will fan and dry us And we’ll watch some other bow.
But why does sorrow drench us When our fellow passes on? He’s just exchanged life’s dreary dirge For an eternal life of song
What is the inborn human trait That frowns on a life of song? That makes us weep at the journey’s end, When the journey was oft-times wrong?
Weep when we reach the door That opens to let us in, And brings to us eternal peace As it closes again on sin.
Millions have gone before us, And millions will come behind So why do we curse and fight At a fate wise and kind
We hang onto a jaded life A life of sorrow and pain A life that warps and breaks us, And we try to run through it again.
Let’s face it, it’s doggerel–the meter comes and goes, sometimes three and sometimes four stresses in a line; the second and fourth lines in each stanza rhyme, but there is a lot of repetition. However, kudos to a 17-year-old to put together a strong, optimistic view of life, part faith-filled, part commonsense, a view that he retained throughout his life. Ronald Reagan (as illustrated in The Hypertexts) was a charming, witty, self-deprecating person.
On the other hand, he was largely responsible for the destruction of the American middle class, the increasing inequality of American society, and the beginning of the breakdown of public services by defunding – now impacting public education, environmental protection, etc. His foreign policy was riddled with lies and law-breaking. And on the personal level, he was not a good parent.
Loss of response of toes, legs turned to jelly, we’re fighting rearguard actions through the body: the hair deserting, skin becoming shoddy, strengths all withdraw – to reinforce the belly. Under sustained attacks, the ankles fail, cannot provide support. Legs mutiny, they seize the muscles when no scrutiny at night stops leg cramps grabbing to impale.
Stamina fading in both heart and lung, sex organs weakened, bold lusts dying back, skull’s the last stronghold where all force retreats. With fading senses out the window flung, success is redefined not as Attack, but barely maintained memory and wits.
In the aftermath of the no-holds-barred wrestling match for the US Presidency by Trump and Biden, both septuagenarians, let us remember that they are past the “threescore years and ten” that humans are allocated by the Bible–to which both wrestlers profess to adhere. Things are going downhill at this point, regardless of how much care you take.
It’s time for science, the medical profession and gengineers specifically, to step up and give us all the tools to stop us ageing. Thank you, and I personally would appreciate it sooner rather than later!
This sonnet was originally published in Snakeskin, currently prepping for its 25th anniversary as a monthly online poetry magazine–likely the oldest such in the world!