Category Archives: Poems

Odd poem: Julius Caesar, ‘On the poetry of Terence’ (fragment)

Thou too, even thou, art ranked among the highest, thou half-Menander,
and justly, thou lover of language undefiled.
But would that they graceful verses had force as well,
so that thy comic power might have equal honour
with that of the Greeks, and thou mightest not be scorned in this regard and neglected. It hurts and pains me, my Terence, that thou lackest this one quality.

Tu quoque, tu in summis, o dimidiate Menander,
Poneris, et merito, puri sermonis amator.
Lenibus atque utinam scriptis adiuncta foret vis,
Comica ut aequato virtus polleret honore
Cum Graecis neve​ hac despectus parte iaceres!
Unum hoc maceror ac doleo tibi desse, Terenti.

*****

Julius Caesar is known to have written at least three volumes of verse–‘Praises of Hercules’ and the verse tragedy ‘Oedipus’ as a young man, and a verse travelogue ‘The Journey’ during the civil war–but almost nothing survives. His heir Augustus cancelled the publication of the youthful verse because it was incompatible with the program for his deification.

The fragment above is quoted by Suetonius in his ‘Vita Terenti‘ (‘The Life of Terence‘), and translated by J. C. Rolfe.

Photo: Retrato de Julio César uploaded by Ángel M. Felicísimo from Mérida, España.

Odd poem: ‘The Mother’ or ‘Thanks’ (‘Dank’es!’) NOT by Adolf Hitler (my apologies about the post!)

When your mother has grown old,
And you have grown older
When what used to be easy and effortless
Has now become a burden to her,

When her dear, faithful eyes
no longer see life as they once did,
When her tired feet
don’t want to carry her any more while walking. –

Then give her your arm to support,
Accompany her with pleasure –
The hour is coming. When you, weeping,
Must accompany her on her last walk!

And if she asks you a question, then give her an answer.
And if she asks again, then answer!
And if she asks yet again, answer again,
Not impatiently, but with gentle calm.

And if she cannot understand you properly
Explain her everything happily.
The hour will come, the bitter hour,
When her mouth asks no more.

Wenn deine Mutter alt geworden / Und älter du geworden bist
Wenn ihr, was früher leicht und mühelos / Nunmehr zur Last geworden ist,
Wenn ihre lieben, treuen Augen / Nicht mehr, wie einst, ins Leben seh’n
Wenn ihre müd’ gewordnen Füße / Sie nicht mehr tragen woll’n beim Gehen. –
Dann reiche ihr den Arm zur Stütze, / Geleite sie mit froher Lust –
Die Stunde kommt. Da du sie weinend / Zum letzten Gang begleiten musst!
Und fragt sie dich, so gib ihr Antwort. / Und fragt sie wieder, sprich auch du!
Und fragt sie noch mehr, steh ihr Rede, / Nicht ungestüm, in sanfter Ruh!
Und kann sie dich nicht recht verstehen, / Erklär’ ihr alles froh bewegt.
Die Stunde kommt, die bitt’re Stunde, / Da dich ihr Mund nach nichts mehr fragt!

*****

This poem is actually from Georg Runsky (pen name of Karl Wilhelm August Georg Runschke). It appeared in 1906 under the title “Habe Geduld!” in his book “Blüthen des Herzens”.

Rightwing groups have claimed that it is a 1923 poem by Hitler about his mother Klara Hitler who had died in 1907. He seems to have loved her very deeply… but he was a painter, not a poet. His mother had been cared for by the Jewish Doctor Eduard Bloch, and Hitler painted the picture above of the doctor’s house in 1913. So what? So Hitler was a Malignant Narcissist like an unfortunate number of powerful modern politicians and businesspeople. That doesn’t mean that he wasn’t capable of love or artistic impulses; you can have them and still be a narcissist. People who insist that there is pure evil in the world (whether Nazism or Judaism) are themselves a lot of the problem. Personally, I have a lot of difficulty with both Nazism and Judaism (and Communism and Christianity, and anyone who insists they are Right and they Know because their Leader or their Book says so), but I also have family and friends of all those persuasions. I don’t respect them for their authoritarian tendencies, but I also don’t think they are pure evil. The demonising of people who you disagree with or fear or are jealous of, that’s the start of the problem. We’re all people, and people are apes after all. Some people are stupid, some are intelligent but uneducated, some are sick, some have genetic defects, some were badly raised, some are sociopaths… then study them, try to make them better human beings, and in the meantime make sure they don’t have access to guns. Thank you. Rant over.

Photo: Watercolour by Adolph Hitler, 1913, House of Dr. Bloch. https://www.wikiart.org/en/adolf-hitler/maison-du-dr-bloch-1913

Odd poem: Kwame Nkrumah, ‘Ethiopia Shall Rise’

Ethiopia, Africa’s bright gem
Set high among the verdant hills
That gave birth to the unfailing
Waters of the Nile
Ethiopia shall rise
Ethiopia, land of the wise;
Ethiopia, bold cradle of Africa’s ancient rule
And fertile school
Of our African culture;
Ethiopia, the wise
Shall rise
And remould with us the full figure
Of Africa’s hopes
And destiny.

*****

Kwame Nkrumah delivered this poem at the end of his speech on May 25, 1963, in Addis Ababa at the close of the meeting that created the Organisation of African Unity.

Born and raised in the British colony of the Gold Coast, Nkrumah had received his university education in the United States. He got both his Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Theology from Lincoln University, then his Masters of both Philosophy and Education from the University of Pennsylvania. Back in the Gold Coast he led non-violent resistance to British rule, was sentenced to a year in prison, but when his party did well in the colony’s first General Election he was released, and he became Prime Minister in 1952. In 1957 he helped lead the Gold Coast and British Togoland to independence as Ghana.

Initially popular because of new roads, schools and hospitals and the Africanisation of employment, his government became increasingly authoritarian, corrupt and incompetent while Nkrumah himself focused on his Pan-African vision and Third World solidarity. He was a driving force in creating the OAU in Addis Ababa in 1963. He was ousted in a military coup in 1966.

Technically there isn’t much in his OAU poem to justify the term in the sense of “verse”; there are two pairs of rhymes in the middle of the piece (rise/wise; rule/school), but none of the rhythms or structures that English-language poetry is built on. But though Nkrumah was fluent in English, his mother tongue was Fante – so for all I know, the poem above is a translation of his original thoughts… and translations are notoriously unpoetic, especially when the two languages have different poetic traditions. But equally the poem may be no more than a rhetorical flourish at the end of his OAU speech.

Photo: Kwame Nkrumah during a state visit to the United States, by Abbie Rowe, 8 March 1961; John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

Poem: ‘City! Oh City!’

Cities–once all smeared with grime,
rich but dirty, full of crime–
clear the excess cars and dust
if their governments are just,
house the homeless, and among
their cares: clean water, healthy young.
Gorgeous buildings grow and twist
through a river’s gentle mist;
trees in leaf for urban hikes:
sculptures, cafes, books and bikes…
children run wild in the park
till theatre signs light up the dark;
music spills from bars at night–
the well-run city’s a delight.

*****

This poem was published (in 2021 or 2022, the Bahamas Post Office seems to have lost my copy so I’m not sure yet) in The Lyric Magazine, Jean Mellichamp calling it “a breath of fresh air”. I wrote it to be an upbeat view of the modern world in contrast to a lot of the more worrying future issues that I’m often concerned with; and when I put together the ‘City! Oh City!’ Potcake Chapbook, I included the poem to balance some of the less rosy views of urban life–though my poem is nowhere near as skilled as the pieces in the chapbook by Maryann Corbett, Amit Majmudar and others.

Photo: “le quai river cafe on seine” by grahamdale74 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Odd poem: AI-generated poem in answer to “Can you write a poem about AI in the style of Robin Helweg-Larsen?”

Silicon and code,
A symphony of thought,
A machine mind unfolds.

A spark of electricity,
A flicker of light,
A new form of intelligence,
Is born tonight.

A labyrinth of algorithms,
A dance of ones and zeroes,
A new kind of consciousness,
Is ours to discover.

The future is here,
A fusion of man and machine,
A symbiosis of intellect,
A cosmic dream.

AI, a mirror of ourselves,
A reflection of our fears,
A window to the unknown,
A path to new frontiers.

Robin Helweg-Larsen is a Danish poet and author known for his poems that express a sense of wonder and reverence for the natural world. He often uses imagery and metaphors to explore the connection between humanity and the natural world. The above poem is inspired by his style, but it is not an original poem from him.

*****

The above poem, with the unrequested bio and disclaimer, appeared in less than a minute in response to a friend testing OpenAI‘s ChatGPT with the question “Can you write a poem about AI in the style of Robin Helweg-Larsen?”

I am intrigued. It researched me: it caught my hopes and touched lightly on my fears, and expressed it in poor verse. Fair enough! But actually it’s not yet capable of good verse. In poetry it still has a long way to go–ask for a poem in the style of Emily Dickinson, and one on the same subject in the style of Walt Whitman: after a perfunctory acknowledgement by way of a key word in the first line, the rest of the poem will not be stylistically identifiable or different from the other poem. Picking those two poets seems a reasonable test: you can’t exactly sing Whitman’s poetry to the tune of ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas’. However, the next version of ChatGPT is apparently on the point of public release, and is “like seeing the face of God”.

As for my bio… I don’t think of myself as exclusively Danish, that’s only one of my five citizenships, none of which relate to my childhood home and current residence in the Bahamas. But I’ll take it. I’m also not sure about being “known” for anything as a poet! But I’ll take that too. ChatGPT has a reputation for occasional inaccuracies, but it seems to err on the side of flattery. An interesting trait. We’ll just have to wait and see if its good nature continues past The Singularity, when AI takes off into explosive self-development beyond human capabilities…

Ray Kurzweil forecasts The Singularity to take place by 2029. This is the end of the world as we know it. As with all life anyway, enjoy it while you can!

Photo credit: AI-generated by OpenAI’s Dall.e 2 from my request: “Robot writing a poem in 1940s SF style”.

Ekphrastic poem: Jenna Le, ‘The Implorer’

This figurine of bronze
cast by Camille Claudel,
known as Auguste Rodin’s
mentee and, for a spell,

his lover, is most striking
for being non-erotic–
desexed–despite depicting
a kneeling nude, lordotic

trunk outthrust at an angle,
headlong, precipitous,
arms outstretched not to strangle
one who broke faith, but just

to make a strangled gesture,
a soundless, ground-out groan,
the hauntings that oppress her
knowable to her alone.

*****

This ekphrastic poem was recently published in Able Muse.

Jenna Le writes: “I often draw inspiration from wandering around in art museums. The Implorer is a statuette I first saw at the Met. I find I’m especially attracted to artworks by women artists that portray female experience, and this bronze in particular called out to me because it radiated such a powerful sense of interiority, depicting a woman as not a muse or a reflective surface but as a source of painfully strong thought and emotion.”

Jenna Le (jennalewriting.com) is the author of three full-length poetry collections, Six Rivers (NYQ Books, 2011), A History of the Cetacean American Diaspora (Indolent Books, 2017), and Manatee Lagoon (Acre Books, 2022). She won Poetry By The Sea’s inaugural sonnet competition. Her poems appear in AGNI, Pleiades, Verse Daily, West Branch, and elsewhere. She works as a physician in New York City.

Photo: “File:The Implorer (L’Implorante) MET DP-13617-053.jpg” by Camille Claudel is marked with CC0 1.0.

Short poem: ‘Punster’

The artist said the wit
was “full of it”,
disparaged him.
The punster tore the painter limn from limn.

*****

Apparently some people believe that puns are “the lowest form of humour”, but I would suggest that those people are not good at wordplay, and therefore have no poetic sensibility. Look to Homer, Shakespeare and Samuel Johnson for puns; enjoy more discussion and examples here.

This short poem was published in The Asses of Parnassus, home of “short, witty, formal poems”. Thanks, Brooke Clark!

Photo: “punster” by danbruell is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Pino Coluccio, ‘Class Clown’

They’d all be like, never say never
in classes we had, but whatever.
I turned to the windows and hallways
that always said always say always.

*****

Editor’s comments: From Pino Coluccio you should expect light and dark combined, light but deep, usually short, always well-phrased… and always existential. This, the eponymous piece of his 2017 collection, is tucked away in the middle of the book. The book won a Trillium Award, putting Coluccio in the company of Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje and Alice Munro. He has given me permission to republish more of his pieces from Class Clown periodically.

Pino Coluccio lives in Toronto.

Using form: Roundel: Susan McLean, ‘No Thanks’

No one wants to be the damsel in
distress, the one in need of chivalry,
chained to a rock in nothing but her skin.
No!  One wants to be

the one who skirts the trap and steals the key,
testing the rope bridge with a shaky grin.
Whoever longs for victims he can free

is not a hero, but the villain’s twin.
So save yourself.  Don’t go expecting me
to play the clingy wimp, the might-have-been
no one wants to be.

*****

Susan McLean writes: “This poem got its start when I heard that Kirsten Dunst said, about playing Mary Jane in Spider-Man (2002), “I just don’t want to be the damsel in distress. I’ll scream on the balcony, but you’ve got to let me do a little action here.” It struck a chord with me. I was so tired of watching action movies in which the male hero does all of the derring-do and the female lead exists only to be saved, over and over again. Men still write, direct, and produce most films, so I guess it is not surprising that most movies reflect male fantasies. But women have fantasies, too, and screaming while I wait to be saved is not one of mine.
“The poem is a roundel, a poetic form invented by Algernon Swinburne. As in a rondeau, the poem has only two rhymes, and the first part of the first line appears twice more. Part of the fun of writing it lies in finding ways to vary the repeating line, and part lies in the challenge of finding five rhyme words for each rhyme. English averages fewer rhymes per word than French, the language in which the rondeau originally appeared. Swinburne chose to make the roundel shorter than the rondeau (which is fifteen lines long) in order to make it easier to write in English.
” ‘No Thanks‘ originally appeared in Mezzo Cammin, an online journal that features female formalist poets. It was also included in my second poetry book, The Whetstone Misses the Knife.”

Susan McLean has two books of poetry, The Best Disguise and The Whetstone Misses the Knife, and one book of translations of Martial, Selected Epigrams. Her poems have appeared in Light, Lighten Up Online, Measure, Able Muse, and elsewhere. She lives in Iowa City, Iowa.
https://www.pw.org/content/susan_mclean

Painting: ‘Andromeda Chained to the Rocks‘ by Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, ca. 1630

Using form: Ballade: Marcus Bales, ‘Scary Home-Life’ (for GTZ)

Get up, get out, and get away–I went
as early as I could to leave one vile
exposure for another. School. It meant
escape from home at least a little while,
not long enough, and trading family guile
for reading sullen peers and teacher spin,
except for you, beside me on the aisle–
I was the girl with the scary home-life and bad skin.

I was first to homeroom every day.
And how did Mr Romo ever know
that half a sausage sandwich was the way
a skinny girl survived. He’d always go
“Good morning,” handing me a half as though
that half were mine and we were somehow kin;
I’d nod my thanks and sit in the back row–
I was the girl with the scary home-life, and bad skin.

And you, who sat beside me, always kind
to me, and always kind of sassy tough
to other kids who other years combined
to make me almost miserable enough
to stay at home, from you I learned to bluff
my inner fear, to fake a cocky grin,
and start to walk as if it wasn’t rough
to be the girl with the scary home-life, and bad skin.

L’envoi
Yeah, it was you and Mr Romo, in the end,
who gave me things that I could not begin
to pay you back for, so even I’d befriend
the girl with the scary home-life, and bad skin.

*****

Marcus Bales writes: “I have a modest file of poems that have got me unfriended, blocked, or banned by people or publications, for one reason or another. Sometimes, as in this case, the reason is unknown to me. 

“Back in the old days when I was a working salesman at the sort of retail store where it takes an hour or two to walk around the store with your salesperson and discuss wants and needs and preferences, it is often the case that the customer gets comfortable enough to tell things about themselves or their lives that they might hesitate to repeat without canny encouragement. Here, a vivacious and attractive young couple were moving in together and needed furniture and a bed. They were excited, and money was not an issue. It turned out the young woman had been an officer in the Marines or the Army — I forget which at this distance — in one of the rougher, tougher units, and I admired her for having the stuff to lead in that mise en scene. She recounted that she had felt driven to it by a harrowing early family life, complete with the sort of acne that is every teen’s nightmare. A scary home-life and bad skin was her description of it. After the sale was completed I wrote most of this poem in the break room in the back, after climbing on the table to turn off the Muzak speaker so I could think. 

“I discovered she had friended me on Facebook and had written some nice things about me at the store, which was very nice of her. Of course even back then I was posting my poems on Facebook, and posted this one, without her name, but with her initials. All the details are entirely fictional. I made them all up, except for that one line. She blocked me right away.”

Editor’s note: a ballade is a very suitable form for this poem, with iambics for thoughtful mood, claustrophobically restricted rhyme scheme, steady refrain, and final summation addressed to a superior person. From the Wikipedia entry ‘Ballade (forme fixe)‘: “The ballade as a verse form typically consists of three eight-line stanzas, each with a consistent metre and a particular rhyme scheme. The last line in the stanza is a refrain. The stanzas are often followed by a four-line concluding stanza (an envoi) usually addressed to a prince. The rhyme scheme is therefore usually ababbcbC ababbcbC ababbcbC bcbC, where the capital C is a refrain.”

Not much is known about Marcus Bales except that he lives and works in Cleveland, Ohio, and that his work has not been published in Poetry or The New Yorker. However his ’51 Poems’ is available from Amazon. He has been published in several of the Potcake Chapbooks (‘Form in Formless Times’).

Photo: “skinny girl” by Villegación is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.