Category Archives: Robin Helweg-Larsen

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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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!

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.

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.

Poem: Haiku: “Haiku on Haiku”

Despite my complaints yesterday about Haiku not being poetry, I can see a solution to the problem:

HAIKU ON HAIKU

Syllables are prime,
But words do more than count time;
Haiku should still rhyme.

This was originally published in Asses of Parnassus, 14 March 2018

Poem: Haiku: “Haiku on Verse”

Japanese haiku qualify as formal verse in Japanese, and in some ways in English. Traditionally they have three standard aspects as explained in Wikipedia:

The essence of haiku is “cutting” (kiru). This is often represented by the juxtaposition of two images or ideas and a kireji (“cutting word”) between them. This is the equivalent of the volta in a sonnet, the turn from the initial argument or exposition to its extension or contradiction.
Traditional haiku often consist of 17 “syllables” in three phrases of 5, 7, and 5. This is not standard in English verse, where the number of stressed syllables (i.e. the number of feet) has always been more important than the total number of syllables. Even where there are a fixed number of syllables in the foot of the particular meter being used, the feet overrule the syllables.
A kigo (seasonal reference), usually drawn from an extensive but defined list of such terms. English verse is by no means hostile to seasonal references, but is considered superior when it uses fresh words rather than drawing on a predefined list.

In addition, there is no value placed on rhyme, on the meter of the lines, or on the inclusion of either alliteration or assonance. It may be verse in Japanese, but in English the haiku (as defined above) will normally be a sentence of prose that has been artificially broken into three lines.

HAIKU ON VERSE

Haiku challenge my
Fundamental sense of verse:
(Insert last line here).

The above was published in Snakeskin in April 2017. And it doesn’t even have a kigo.

Poem: Sonnet?: The Antikythera Mechanism

In 1900, sponge divers found a shipwreck in 150 feet (45 m) of sea off the Greek island of Antikythera. It proved to be a Roman cargo ship from the first century BC. Among the objects subsequently retrieved was a mechanism for calculating astronomical positions and eclipses decades in advance, generally considered to be the world’s earliest known analogue computer.

This poem was originally published in Snakeskin in June 2017

ANTIKYTHERA MECHANISM

The Antikythera Mechanism fits
Comfortably in no category I know;
A thing of Metal, from the Earth below,
For studying the heavens (Fire or Air)
While trapped in Water for two thousand years.
This ancient artefact from cultures past,
Designed to calculate future events,
Has a contemporary feel at last –
Making allowance for its steampunk look.
Not a computer, less whole than distressed,
It sits anomalously, missing bits,
But speaks loud of that loss much more intense
When the religious dogmas of The Book
Destroyed the nascent scientific quest.

This is a Sunday blog post, so I put a bit of religion in it. I recognise pros and cons to religion. (“All religions united with government are more or less inimical to liberty. All, separated from government, are compatible with liberty.”) It’s nice for people to use religions to explore their relationship with the universe, but I hold the inherent intolerance of monotheism responsible for setting civilisation back a thousand years.

On the use of form: well, the poem has aspects of form – it’s in iambic pentameter, like a regular sonnet; it has 14 lines, ditto; it rhymes… but there’s no structure to the rhyme. The combination of structure and chaos suits the mood of the poem, the odd position in history of this mechanism, and its odd state of semi-survival. Reconstructions of the Antikythera Mechanism have been made confidently, and put on display next to its fragments in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens