Category Archives: Robin Helweg-Larsen

Poem: “Post-literacy”

Yes, I know it seems unlikely
but I simply can’t help feeling
there’s an urgency to writing:
and in verse, and fluently.

We’ve our cultural traditions
that have coevolved with language
and each language has its verse forms
that are aids to memory.

It’s all fine that we are moving
to post-literate existence
where the things all talk and tell you
everything you need, you must

when the neon signs and fridges
can discuss with you their content,
you don’t need to read or count, if
their integrity you trust.

But embedded in our braincells
are the patterns of our language
and our need to think in patterns
drives our songs, makes us a folk,

it gives dub and rap and hip hop,
it drives rhetoric in speeches,
and the false anticipation
of the punchline of a joke.

With our cultures integrating
with AI and with each other,
we risk losing all our history,
all our culture and, what’s worse,

Our minds! So sing to babies,
have kids memorise long poems,
learn the maths of songs and music –
learn and read and write in verse!

This poem, recently published in Bewildering Stories, speaks to the heart of the matters that this blog deals with. Songs and music, rhyme and rhythm, dance, melodies, alliteration and assonance, structures and patterns and verses and choruses, are all part of something that is deeply human. It starts for us with the heartbeat in the womb, is nurtured with lullabyes and rocking, carries on through the songs and music and dance that are important to every generation of teenagers. It is such a fundamental part of our humanity that educational systems that ignore it are ignoring a powerful natural teaching tool.

The issue is larger than the fact that learning verse by heart is easier than learning prose by heart. Larger than the benefits of developing the ability to remember and memorise accurately. It is about recognising and nurturing those inner forces that make us human. It is about not letting our humanity be eroded by a culture that doesn’t acknowledge the rhythms that permeate our lives.

This blog is about the value of formal verse. Part of that value is poetry’s contribution to the sanity that comes from being a complete human being.

Technically this poem’s lines could be described as iambic tetrameter, which each fourth line being truncated and rhymed. But I prefer to read it almost as a patter song with each line composed of two tertius paeons, Short-foot-meter.svg Short-foot-meter.svg Long-foot-meter.svg Short-foot-meter.svg (each fourth line still being truncated and rhymed). In other words, it is designed to have the third and seventh syllables in each line be the ones with the greatest stress or emphasis. And that includes the rhymes, naturally.

Poem: “Rubble Faced”

 

 

Because my mind and life’s so active
my face has been reduced to rubble.
I’m glad I think I’m unattractive –
it helps to keep me from worse trouble.

The Asses of Parnassus published this as their Valentine’s Day post in 2018. Thanks, Brooke Clark!

As for the truth of the poem, who knows. Maybe it applies to all of us to some extent, as we age?

Poem: “Seasonal”

When Mr. Warm-as-winter-under-the-covers
Meets Cool-as-summer-in-the-evening-breeze
He’ll spring to leave ideas they could be lovers –
But her thoughts fall away like leaves from trees.

First published in Lighten-Up Online.

Poem: “Post-Adult”

Adults — earthworn, careweary,
grave, gravid and gravity-constrained —
take it all so seriously, furiously, fearsome and wearisome,
spuriously furious over the small stuff,
incessantly never having enough,
insensibly insatiable, insensate,
irrational, irascible,
driven by status, riven by expense,
dismissive of all greater age and experience.

How fortunate to age into osteoporosis,
bones lightening like a bird’s as you get older,
the wearying weights lifting off the shoulder,
and you drift up into the sky with your levity,
leaving behind adult cares and gravity,
unattached, detached,
careful but careless, unlatched.

This poem was recently published in Bewildering Stories. But what is it, technically? Does it have any form? It has elements of form–alliteration, assonance, scattered rhyme, the kind of rhythm (in parts) that you find in rap with emphasis on stresses, not on syllables–but none of it is organized, structured, codified, repeated…

I think it could be improved. If I come up with a significant improvement, I’ll switch it out. But there’s always the danger that the later “improvement” loses primal energy for the sake of trying to achieve an intellectual outcome. As with Auden’s poetic progress. But a little more formal structure would be good, I think.

Poem: “Cinderella”

Cinderella

Cinderella, by Arthur Rackham

Every youngest daughter’s
Always Cinderella:
Never at the party,
Always in the cellar;

Tired of washing dishes,
Tired of sweeping dirt;
Wants to be a lady,
A scientist, a flirt;

Wants to travel world-wide,
Read till reading’s done;
Wants to be a mother,
Playing in the sun;

Wants to be the princess,
Beauty of the Ball –
Fairytales happen –
Watch, she’ll have it all!

First published in Lighten-Up Online (“LUPO”), the quarterly edited by Jerome Betts in the UK; republished in The HyperTexts, the massive anthology of poetry curated by Michael R. Burch. Good poets, both of them.

Poem: “The Knife of Night”

Dark Woods

“Dark Trees” by MonoStep

The knife of night
Spreads swirls of black and white
Over the slice of here.

The taste is bold:
A pinch of cold,
Spiced with primeval fear.

This little poem was first published in Candelabrum, a British print magazine that ran twice yearly from 1970 for some 40 years. Its editor, Leonard McCarthy, was a lone voice dedicated to keeping traditional poetic sensibilities of metrical and rhymed
verse alive.

The poem itself came from a nighttime ramble in the forests that cut through the residential areas of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Hundreds of acres in town are undevelopable because of steep slopes, creeks and ravines. Where the night woods are unlit except by moon and stars, there are deer, possums, foxes, flying squirrels, owls… copperheads… poison ivy… The night is beautiful, but you can’t help moving through its darkness in a different state of being, compared with daylight.

 

Poem: “Zombie Apocalypse”

Zombie Apocalypse –
humans have always had
end-times fear: Ragnarok,
Judgement Day, World War III,
comet strike, Y2K,
supervolcano – well,
you get my drift.

Zombie Apocalypse –
there’s a pandemic and
AI has run amuck –
this is no practice round,
this is for real!

Zombie Apocalypse –
head for a tropic isle,
live on fish, coconuts –
solar will last a few
years, then corrode.

Zombie Apocalypse –
walls can be built without
concrete or plastering,
fight infestations of
zombies and dogs.

As the world splits in two
all the Enhanced are gone,
gone to the Cloud and space;
only the Left Behind
scrabble, deteriorate,
left in the dirt and ash,
left on the Earth.

I, the last poet am
here on Earth’s farthest beach,
toweled, not panicking,
waiting for Branson and
Musk in their ships.

Yes, humans love the threat of the end of the world, the collapse of civilisation, all apocalyptic disasters. We don’t want the disasters to be inflicted on us… but we love thinking about them. Perhaps it’s a way of thinking about our own mortality, without actually thinking that it is we who will die one day.

The Zombie Apocalypse is wonderful because it is both a complete fantasy (as in the photo) and an image for the kind of catastrophic real-world disaster that an out-of-control plague can inflict–a medieval Black Death killing a third of the population… an early 20th century Spanish Flu infecting a third of the world’s population (but “only” killing maybe 50 million)… or, of course, a coronavirus leaping out of a food market in Wuhan and spreading around the world before anyone can get a proper handle on it. Death is real. Around the world, 150,000 people die every day. What can you do but work to minimize death–and laugh at it?

And then there’s the fantasy of being one of the lucky few survivors, faced with the difficulties of a post-apocalyptic world, a post-nuclear Wasteland, a flooded Waterworld, a Biblical Left Behind, reminiscent of Nevil Shute’s On The Beach, John Christopher’s The Death of Grass (No Blade Of Grass in the US), even Ursula Le Guin’s post-alien-invasion City of Illusions. Carrying a towel like Ford Prefect to hitchhike through the galaxy, away from doomed Earth. Dramatically, heroically, surviving the destruction of the world as we know it. As though you can dramatically, heroically, survive the time-driven destruction of your body…

The poem itself (yet another one published in Bewildering Stories) is unrhymed, but written in a form inspired by double dactyls. Technically double dactyls are eight-line poems with a few additional requirements–the form was created by Anthony Hecht, Paul Pascal and Naomi Pascal in 1951, and popularized by Hecht’s and John Hollander’s collection Jiggery Pokery… the name of the book being a double dactyl, naturally. So this poem is only “inspired by” double dactyls. But, as with limericks, the bouncy rhythm adds to a mood of flippancy, frivolity, which is always suitable (in my mind) when discussing existential catastrophe. I tip my hat to Country Joe and the Fish for the I Feel Like I’m Fixin To Die Rag, and to all political cartoonists everywhere.

Life is short; enjoy each day.