Category Archives: Poems

Poem: ‘Humankind at Dusk’

It’s in your newsfeed update every day:
The AI obsolescence on its way,
Replacing all tasks, everything we do.
There’ll be no need for people. That means you.
How much is merely existential dread
And how much knowledge of a road ahead:
Unlit, black ice, and your tires have no tread?

With the world stage held by strutters
While the UN talks and mutters.
They’re all out of date tut-tutters.
People in the street
Stand there angry, with lips pursed,
Feeling they’ve been conned, coerced,
Life has gone from best to worst.
Blame the rich elite.

Man, man, think fast:
With the AI racing
And our genes debasing,
Basic humans’ place in
Life won’t last.

Warnings now the TV utters:
Hurricane! But we’ve no shutters,
Power is out, the candle gutters,
Roofs are blown away.
Thrown into the storm head-first
No response can be rehearsed,
Save yourself though you be cursed:
Everything’s in play.

Man, man, think fast:
With the Hive replacing
Every human trace in
Life, be self-effacing
Or be past.

The rest ride the AI-bombs down the sky,
Waving their Stetsons: “We’re all going to die!”
Life always moves on from the old to new.
There’ll be no need for people. That means you.

‘Humankind at Dusk’ was originally published in the Speculative Fiction & Verse zine Bewildering Stories. It reflects my serious concern that we have no idea where we’re going as a species, with everything from genetic modification to brain implants now becoming a reality. Not that I object to it, any more than I object to hurricanes or earthquakes; they’re all part of the nature of things. As humans, we tinker, experiment, explore, run into problems, seek solutions, create all kinds of new problems, and so on. That’s just the way it is.

Technically, I was trying to replicate the nonce structure of a much earlier poem I wrote, ‘Camelot at Dusk‘, to see if this was a form that I could use when trying to create a sense of urgency and disaster bracketed within more reflective and dispassionate statements. So the opening and closing stanzas are in that nice and boring, meditative iambic pentameter; while the middle pieces switch back and forth between two other forms, with shorter, choppier lines and more repetitive rhyme. I created the form to meet the needs of the earlier poem, where I think it worked very well. I’m still (years later) pondering whether it was appropriate to try to reuse the form for this piece. I think I like it, but I’m not entirely sure.

Photo: “silence” by Cornelia Kopp is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Odd Poems: Oxbridge rivalry

The King, observing with judicious eyes
The state of both his universities,
To Oxford sent a troop of horse, and why?
That learned body wanted loyalty;
To Cambridge books, as very well discerning
How much that loyal body wanted learning.

This poem was written by Joseph Trapp in response to events in England in 1714. King George I, to celebrate his coronation, purchased the entire library of the recently deceased bibliophile Bishop of Ely and donated it to Cambridge University, more than tripling the number of books in the university library. Meanwhile Oxford had been having one of its frequent periods of disorder, and the King had had to send in troops to restore calm.

Oxford has a long history of riots, beginning in 1209 with “the hanging of the clerks”. In his 1220s history of England, Roger of Wendover wrote:

“About this time, a certain clerk engaged in the liberal arts at Oxford killed a certain woman by accident and when he found that she was dead he decided to flee.

“But when the mayor of the city and many others who had gathered found the dead woman they began to search for the killer in his house which he had rented together with three of his fellow clerks.

“Not finding the man accused of the deed they seized his three fellow clerks who said they were wholly ignorant of the murder and threw them into prison; then a few days later they were, by order of King John, in contempt of the rights of the church, taken outside the city and hanged.

“When the deed had been done, both masters and pupils, to the number of three thousand clerks, left Oxford so that not one remained out of the whole university; they left Oxford empty, some engaging in liberal studies at Cambridge and some at Reading.”

In effect, Cambridge University was founded by refugee scholars from Oxford–though there is some dispute about the actual timing and the numbers. Then the Pope got involved as part of his disputes with King John, and sent a Papal Legate who, among other things, imposed a payment by the town of Oxford to its University of 52 shillings per year in perpetuity.

The disputes between Town and Gown have continued for centuries, the most severe being the St Scholastica Day riot of 1355. This began with two students complaining about the quality of wine in a pub and ended three days later with 63 University people dead, as well as 30 people from the town and surrounding countryside. And you can read a 1990s anarchist analysis of the continuing conflict in our own time here.

But let’s go back to 1714. George I had been brought in from Hanover to be King with the support of the Whig party; their opposition, the Tories, were on uncertain ground as many of them supported the rival Stuart claim to the throne. George therefore looked favourably on Cambridge with its Whig establishment, while Oxford was a Tory stronghold. Hence the response to Joseph Trapp’s poem by William Browne:

The King to Oxford sent a troop of horse,
For Tories own no argument but force:
With equal skill to Cambridge books he sent,
For Whigs admit no force but argument.

And the rivalry between Oxford and Cambridge continues to this day.

Political poem: Hilaire Belloc, on elections

The accursed power which stands on Privilege
(And goes with Women, and Champagne, and Bridge)
Broke–and Democracy resumed her reign:
(Which goes with Bridge, and Women and Champagne).

The precise phrasing of Hilaire Belloc‘s little squib may have been outdated by the likes of Margaret Thatcher, Angela Merkel and Kamala Harris… but the complaint by the common voter (or disillusioned non-voter) is valid, that professional politicians live in a very comfortable club that takes care of all its members regardless of who actually wins an election; and no fundamental change occurs.

A nice little quatrain, iambic pentameter, the simplicity strengthened by the bite of the repetition contradicting the idea of change. Easy to remember and quote because – of course – it rhymes and scans.

“2009 Five Presidents, President George W. Bush, President Elect Barack Obama, Former Presidents George H W Bush, Bill Clinton & Jimmy Carter, Standing” by Beverly & Pack is marked with CC PDM 1.0

Poem: ‘Hobo’

Come you young gunsel and sit by my fire of old skids.
They don’t like you in school, not the teachers and not other kids.
You’re different, I know it, you’re wise in that body of yours
that has grown past their rules and your parents’ commandments and chores.
Have a smoke, have a drink, you can tell me of pills that are new.
Here you’re safe in the open, I’m staying a night, maybe two.
We can share all you want, for the sadness you know I have known,
and the paths that you fear are the strictures that I have outgrown
and the dreams in your mind I now live on the paths that I roam,
for the life that I live is a life where the world is my home.
So go home, go to school, and come back in the evening again.
I’ll be here for a while, until I get on the next train
and you’ll stay, more mature, and experienced in a new world –
or you’ll come on that train, and you’ll see the whole country unfurled –
and you’ll end up like me, and your friends will be such as you were.

This poem was originally published in Rat’s Ass Review, a long string of poems both formal and free, ordered alphabetically by author. As suggested by its name, the magazine’s editors don’t give a rat’s ass for anyone’s opinions or objections, they publish whatever appeals to them. You will find a random mix of work, much of it edgy, much of it about sex and love and death.

I don’t think of myself as a hobo–although, yes, I have jumped a freight train as part of my hitchhiking 25,000 miles on four continents, back before I became a respectable management consultant… But I have great affection for W.H. Davies, a fine nature poet and the author of the superb ‘Autobiography of a Super-Tramp‘.

‘Hobo’ has elements of anti-establishment and counter-culture; and they in turn are part of the human social animal’s constant dialogue between alienation and the search for community. Or, say, about wanting to be free but still have friends. Technically it is written in anapaestic pentameter–each line having five feet of da-da-DUM (with casual exceptions, of course). I don’t have a strong sense of this being the most appropriate metre for this piece, but it feels conversational and flowing. It’s comparatively unusual for me, I normally write in iambics. But the form of a poem is determined for me by the first phrases that occur to me, and that is presumably what happened here.

Photo: “Hobo sitting on a fence, ca.1920 (CHS-1428)” by  is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Political poem: Hilaire Belloc’s epitaph on a politician

Here richly, with ridiculous display,
The Politician’s corpse was laid away.
While all of his acquaintance sneered and slanged
I wept: for I had longed to see him hanged.

The US and UK have been so polarised for the past several years that it seems everyone has a politician they would like to see executed–or jailed at the very least. But this is neither a recent phenomenon nor a merely Anglo-American one. All round the world notorious pillagers of their countries go to the grave with great pomp, while most of their countrymen and -women are simply glad that they are finally going.

This sarcastic little poem by Anglo-French writer Hilaire Belloc suggests two things: that all successful political leaders are loathed by a large percentage of the population; and that to make your sarcastic comment truly memorable if it is more than five or six words long, you do well to put it in verse. The rhyme and meter not only make the words easier to remember, they also lend a magical impression of inevitability and authenticity to the idea expressed. Well-constructed verse provides a fraudulent but powerful proof that the idea expressed is valid. Rhetoric and oratory inhabit this area also. Well-expressed ideas have more credibility than badly expressed ones, regardless of the relative merits of the ideas themselves.

Perhaps we should count ourselves lucky that few politicians exhibit much interest in poetry…

Photo: “President Cyril Ramaphosa attends former President Robert Mugabé’s State Funeral in Harare” by GovernmentZA is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Poem: ‘Winter Night Roads’

Full midnight moon on fields that yield but snows,
Air apple-clean, crisp, sweet
In lungs and nose,
The only sound your feet
Past silent woods –
Inhaling moods and modes
Of midnight roads.

In twenty minutes, you hear only this:
A dog bark twice. An owl hoot once.
A horse snort by a fence.
Some heavy breath behind a hedge: a cow.
A mile away a car’s lights show, then go.
You walk unknown, alone, towards some place
With light and life, perhaps a warm cafe
To make a break in travelling towards day.

This quiet little winter poem (sorry about the timing, Australia…) was first published in The Orchards Poetry Journal. The editors tend toward the bucolic and the formal… but they make exceptions, thank goodness, because this piece is not quite formal. It may be in iambics, but without a pattern to the line length or to what rhyme there is.

But it’s true to the winter outdoor experience–and pleasant enough, so long as you have good boots and adequate clothes!

Photo: “Moonlight” by Jyrki Salmi is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Poem: ‘Politics’

He played the game and loved its vicious tricks,
deceit, despair, all power-politics;
and made good progress, never in retreat,
with no despair at politics’ deceit…
and now still climbs that endless rain-slick stair
of power-politics, deceit, despair.

If you search for photos of politicians, this is the kind of thing you get… There are (occasionally) really, really good people who devote their lives to trying to improve their part of the world; but… Anyway, it seems like a good time to blog this poem!

This short piece was originally published in Snakeskin. Couplets of iambic pentameter, with politics, deceit and despair in the second line of every couplet and providing the rhymes. But you could see that.

Photo: “President Trump at the Israel Museum. Jerusalem May 23, 2017 President Trump at the Israel Museum. Jerusalem May 23, 2017” by U.S. Embassy Jerusalem is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Odd poem: ‘The Influenza’ by Winston Churchill, age 15

Oh how shall I its deeds recount
        Or measure the untold amount
        Of ills that it has done?
        From China’s bright celestial land
        E’en to Arabia’s thirsty sand
        It journeyed with the sun.

I omit the next nine stanzas, as the influenza makes its way to Britain. The poem ends:

        For though it ravaged far and wide
        Both village, town and countryside,
        Its power to kill was o’er;
        And with the favouring winds of Spring
        (Blest is the time of which I sing)
        It left our native shore.

        God shield our Empire from the might
        Of war or famine, plague or blight
        And all the power of Hell,
        And keep it ever in the hands
        Of those who fought ‘gainst other lands,
        Who fought and conquered well.

Written in 1890 when he was a lazy 15-year-old Harrow schoolboy who did badly at everything except English, Winston Churchill partially redeemed himself with this prizewinning poem on the global influenza epidemic (which may have been a Coronavirus) of his day. This “Asiatic Flu” or “Russian Flu” killed about a million people worldwide.

The photograph shows Churchill in his school clothes at age 14.

So there you have him: a teenage Churchill, with excellent control of English and an early exposition of his oratory, bombast, nationalism, imperialism, and enjoyment of warfare. And fifty years later he did brilliantly for Britain in the Second World War (but thank goodness for Clement Attlee picking up the pieces afterwards).

Odd poem: 19th century Science Fiction by Tennyson

For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see,
Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be;

Saw the heavens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails,
Pilots of the purple twilight dropping down with costly bales;

Heard the heavens fill with shouting, and there rain’d a ghastly dew
From the nations’ airy navies grappling in the central blue;

Far along the world-wide whisper of the south-wind rushing warm,
With the standards of the peoples plunging thro’ the thunder-storm;

Till the war-drum throbb’d no longer, and the battle-flags were furl’d
In the Parliament of man, the Federation of the world.

There the common sense of most shall hold a fretful realm in awe,
And the kindly earth shall slumber, lapt in universal law.

This excerpt from Tennyson’s ‘Locksley Hall’ has a steampunk feel to it–“the nations’ airy navies grappling”–what exactly did he imagine? The hot air balloons that had been developed in the previous century, now using grappling hooks and rifles in their battles? And it ends not with a talking-shop United Nations, but with a World Federal Government… It is quite a vision from the young Tennyson; and this slice of the poem has taken on a life of its own, quite distinct from the general ranting about his failed love affair which is the theme of ‘Locksley Hall’.

The full poem contains well-known lines such as

In the Spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love;

and the poet foresees his former lover, now married to a man he dislikes, in a poor relationship:

He will hold thee, when his passion shall have spent its novel force,
Something better than his dog, a little dearer than his horse
.

A situation which he thinks she deserves, and which brings out his (pre-)Victorian misogynism:

Woman is the lesser man, and all thy passions, match’d with mine,
Are as moonlight unto sunlight, and as water unto wine—

So we can leave all that alone, and just look at his science fiction passage: the skies filling with commerce and warfare, before the world achieves global peace and quiet. A nice vision of a young man in his mid-20s, writing two years before Victoria became queen. 1835 is quite early. For comparison Jules Verne, often called “the Father of Science Fiction”, was only seven years old when Tennyson wrote ‘Locksley Hall’. But that hardly makes Tennyson unique as a prophet: Mary Shelley had published ‘Frankenstein’ in 1818, and her apocalyptic dystopian ‘The Last Man’ in 1826. And fantastical speculation goes back a lot further, to at least the 2nd century with the bizarre work of Lucian of Samosata, an Assyrian who wrote A True Story. But at least compared with Lucian, Tennyson was on the right track, with a little more science to back his fiction.

Photo: “steampunk attack” by tom.keil is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Poem: ‘Poems Like Mice’

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!

Photo: “Look at the cute mouse ^^” by letmehearyousaydeskomdeskom is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0