Category Archives: Robin Helweg-Larsen

Poem: “Said Poor Mrs. Owen”

Wilfred Owen

(“Futility” by Robbie Kerr) 

Said poor Mrs. Owen
To her son Wilfred
Why must you always
Write of the trenches?
Why can’t you write
Like that nice Mr. Wordsworth
Of flowers?

Said Mrs. Picasso
To her son Pablo
Why must you always
Paint so distortedly?
Why can’t you paint
Like that nice Mr. Monet
Some flowers?

Because we don’t always
Create what we celebrate,
Sometimes we model the
Things that we’d like to change,
Things we don’t like, or just
Things that we think about –
Thoughts of ours.

This poem was published in The Road Not Taken – a journal of formal poetry that is edited by Kathryn Jacobs in connection with Texas A&M University at Commerce, TX.

Technically the poem lacks some aspects of what we tend to assume is “form”, notably extensive rhyme, alliteration or assonance. But each of the stanzas has the same seven-line form, with two stressed syllables in each of the first six lines and a shorter seventh line. The first two stanzas have virtually identical structure, though one deals with poetry and the other with painting, and the third stanza answers them. The last lines repeat and rhyme.

It is really the natural rhythm of the poem that allows it to be included in a journal of formal poetry. In the sense that “form” is any trick of verse that allows it to be remembered word for word, form can be a lot broader than some of the narrow definitions of formal verse.

Poetry Resource: “SF&F Poetry Association”; Sonnet: “On a Dead Spaceship”

Spaceship

(“Golconda Uranium (2012)” by Alexey Kashpersky)

On a dead spaceship drifting round a star
The trapped inhabitants are born and die.
The engineers’ broad privileges lie
In engine room and solar panel power.
The fruit and vegetables and protein coops
Are run by farmers with genetics skills:
The products of their dirt and careful kills
Help service trade between the several groups.
Others – musicians, architects – can skip
Along the paths of interlinking webs.
Beyond these gated pods that the rich carve
For their own selves (but still within the ship),
In useless parts, are born the lackluck plebs.
Heard but ignored, they just hunt rats or starve.

This sonnet was published in Star*Line, the official journal of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Poetry Association, a quarterly edited by poet and English prof Vince Gotera. Each issue contains a vast diversity of sf&f poetry. Not much of it is formal, but that is all part of the diversity which is appropriate to its genre.

So a sonnet is fine. And this one, like so much sf, is a metaphor for Earth today: circling the Sun, carrying highly unequal societies.

Technically, it is a sonnet to be sneered at by purists: it rhymes ABBA CDDC EFGEFG, the second quartet failing to rhyme with the first, making it a flawed Petrarchan sonnet. In addition, rhyming “star” with “power” is a bit of a stretch, one syllable against two, and none of them sharing quite the same vowel… Oh well, it’s only Science Fiction…

Poetry Resource: “Shot Glass Journal”, Poem: “In the Metal Box”

You sit in the humming metal box
And the unlikely landscape rolls
Beneath you in its crumpled seas and rocks
Seen from some miles above on long papyrus scrolls.

This little poem was recently published in Shot Glass Journal, whose motto is “… brevity is the soul of wit …” Accepting only short verse (although “16 lines or less” seems overly generous for “short”) in either free or form, it is remarkable for an American institution in reserving half its space for non-US poets. In the current issue, the left-hand column of 21 US poets is balanced by the right-hand column of 21 poets from Australia, the Bahamas, Canada, India, Ireland, Israel, New Zealand, South Korea, Turkey and the UK. This in itself adds richness and interest to the journal, all the more tasty and accessible in a short-form environment.

Normally edited by Mary-Jane Grandinetti, the current issue (#29) is guest-edited by poet R.G. Rader, the poet and playwright who founded Muse-Pie Press. Muse-Pie Press publishes Shot Glass Journal, as well as two other idiosyncratic magazines, Bent Ear Review of spoken poetry (audio or video submissions only, naturally) and the fib review of Fibonacci poetry. All are open to both formal and free verse.

Technically, this might or might not be a “throwaway poem”. That’s how I would describe it, meaning just a casual thought in verse; but on the other hand some people use the term to mean hand-written thoughts (usually not well-formed) on scraps of paper left behind on public transit or in the park. This one has a bit of form: rhyme, meter, and the last two lines lengthening in imitation of the endlessness of air travel and of the landscape that is being flown over.

 

Sonnet: “Unanswered”

The Afterlife – some Happy Hunting Ground?
Or Jesus, virgins, merging flesh and breath?
Or god of your own world, white-robed and crowned?
Or ghost? Rebirth? Just, please, no final death!

The sparrow through the Saxon hall at night –
Brief light and warmth, then cold obscurity.
Is this our life? But yet the bird in flight
lived in the dark, both pre and post. Do we?

Frogs, living in a buried water tank,
spend all their time in darkness. Then the lid
is lifted and sun shines into the dank –
lid down, light gone… but they live on, though hid.

We work and play throughout our brief day’s sun –
Day raises many questions – night, just one.

This sonnet was published in Snakeskin No. 265, edited by George Simmers. I write both religious and irreligious poetry as the muse suggests, but my own personal views are Fundamentalist Agnostic: “Nescio et tu quoque”, “I don’t know and neither do you.” The sparrow reference is to a passage in the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People which usually seems to resonate well.

Technically the sonnet is Shakespearean: iambic pentameter rhyming ABAB CECD EFEF GG. The three quatrains are each self-contained, but leading to the resolution (or lack of resolution) in the couplet. The last line is the strongest, which is always satisfying.

Sonnet: “Beat This Level”

Forget that crap about some God or Devil –
you’re on your own against the Universe;
but till you’re free of our Stage One’s perverse
orientation, you won’t beat this level.
The Heaven idea is fraudulent, and worse:
Father McKenzie wields a deadly shovel.
Stage Two’s extended life – hard, but don’t snivel.
Stage Three: genetic change, youthful reverse.

You must want Life – must fight Death all the way,
ignoring social norms, pressure from peers;
such life will need a gamer’s vigilance.
Your other futures are: ashes, or clay.
And if help’s late, as you slide down the years,
cryonics is your waiting ambulance.

This sonnet, written over 20 years after the previous “Death Will Be Harder Now”, was first published as a pair to it in Ambit No. 190, October 2007. (Also like the earlier sonnet, it was reprinted in Bewildering Stories, edited by Don Webb.)

The theme is our age-long human dream of avoiding death, including that celebrated by Father McKenzie, “wiping the dirt from his hands as he steps from the grave.” (No one was saved.) For the first time in history we can see the realistic prospect of indefinite lifespans coming closer, if we can just live long enough for genetic modification to give us not only better hair and wrinkle-free skin, but actual rejuvenation. If you die before that happens, cryonic suspension is your ambulance to the future… you may not survive the ride, but you’ll have a better chance of a fresh lease of life than if you let them cremate you or pass you through the bodies of worms.

Technically the sonnet is unconventional, reversing the rhymes in the second quartet rather than echoing them, so that the poem reads ABBABAAB CDECDE. I don’t think that’s a problem; probably the bigger sin was splitting noun from adjective in lines 3 and 4, breaking the rhythm of the pentameters, which the other lines hold comfortably.

 

Sonnet: “Death Will Be Harder Now”

“trying to sneek a peek” by lastbeats 

Death will be harder now, as, year by year,
We solve the clues of immortality:
Emotions sink to animality
As false hopes tighten screws of desperate fear.
Hormone control will make age disappear—
After false starts, most horrible to see—
But those already old must beg to be
Frozen for the genetic engineer.
While war, starvation, pipe Earth’s gruesome jigs,
Successful businessmen will fight to gain
Some dead teen’s body, to transplant their brain,
The already-old beg to be guinea-pigs.
Children, look back, hear our despairing cry:
We bred immortals, but we had to die!

This sonnet was originally published in the British quarterly Ambit in 2007, back when the amazing pediatrician and novelist Martin Bax was editing it and accepting formal verse. Perhaps the best-known piece Martin published was J.G. Ballard’s “The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race”…

But although the poem’s subject-matter seems current, it dates from 1982 when I was first becoming aware of cryonics and the speculative thinking around genetics and nanotechnology. I believe if a person is truly aware of their surroundings, they are going to be aware of both their historical context and their possible science fiction futures. Otherwise, to repeat, they aren’t truly aware of their surroundings.

As Heraclitus said, “The only constant in life is change.” He couldn’t have imagined our present world. The rate of change is accelerating. I doubt anyone today can imagine the world a hundred years hence.

Poem: “Agenda for a Political Career”

Help the peaceniks
With their cut-backs
To the Army,
It’s fulfilling;

Once elected,
Buy cheap arms stocks,
Start a war and
Make a killing.

This poem was originally published in Lighten Up Online, edited by Jerome Betts. I dislike war, but even more I loathe “chicken hawks“, those who personally avoided combat when their country called them up but who later in their careers advocated war and made a fortune from it. That includes a lot of American politicians.

Good guys: Eisenhower and his military-industrial complex warning. Kennedy, assassinated when he was trying to pull US troops out of Vietnam. Carter. All military men who understood war.

Total jerks: Johnson, ramping up the Vietnam war while everyone was distracted by the Kennedy funeral. Kissinger even more than Nixon. Cheney even more than George W. Bush. Trump. Chicken hawks.

The US doesn’t have a monopoly on avaricious politicians. The UK’s Tony Blair has been rewarded by the world of oil and wars to the extent of acquiring an estimated $90 million and a property portfolio worth $37.5 million in the first eight years since leaving office (i.e. 2007-2015).