Category Archives: Poetry

Odd poem: Jimmy Carter, on dead people voting in Georgia

‘Progress Does Not Always Come Easy’

As a legislator in my state
I drew up my first vote to say
that citizens could never vote again
after they had passed away.

My fellow members faced the troubling issue
bravely, locked in hard debate
on whether, after someone’s death had come,
three years should be adequate

to let the family, recollecting him,
determine how a loved one may
have cast a vote if he had only lived
to see the later voting day.

My own neighbors warned me had gone
too far in changing what we’d always done.
I lost the net campaign, and failed to carry
a single precinct with a cemetery.


Jimmy Carter’s collection of poems ‘Always a Reckoning’ is unexpectedly good for a politician, and it was a best seller when published in 1995. And this particular poem is not only amusing, but it resonates strangely with 2020 presidential election, and claims of fraud in the Georgia results. It would appear from the poem that Georgia politics is more honest than it was in the 1960s, anyway.

Jimmy Carter followed a bizarre and contradictory path in politics, always having been firmly committed to racial integration and equality, but having to constantly support people like Alabama segregationalist George Wallace in order to get elected. Then, once elected, trying to move the state’s politics in a direction that many of his backers did not like. Whether things played out the way they are presented in the poem is not something I can determine from a superficial review of his career. But it’s a fun poem, anyway.

Photo: “39 Jimmy Carter” by US Department of State is marked with CC PDM 1.0

Poem: ‘Unexplained’

I’ve only once in my six decades–
Years spent in many lands and islands–
Had a crow fly to and caw at me…
It flew ahead and cawed from a second tree…
Then flew ahead to a fence post,
Cawed a third time as we came close.
Then flew away. This in the driveway
Of a well-treed hotel outside Nairobi.
Kenyans have no tradition of the crow
As messenger of death… but we sure do.
We checked the time: 1:05 pm.
As it turns out, that was the moment when
In the night in British Columbia
My favourite in-law, my children’s grandmother,
Died.

This is not exactly formal poetry… I can read it with four beats to a line, but only just; and as for rhyming couplets, yes, it has them, if you’re prepared to allow “rhymes” like driveway-Nairobi. Normally the needs of rhyme and meter will shape the finish of my poems, may alter its details, often add to its meaning in the process. But with this one, it was more important to me to stay as exact to the event as possible. I’ve short-changed the description by leaving out the presence of my wife Eliza, who was also close to my ex-mother-in-law; and a couple of other British Columbia-related coincidences that occurred in the previous hour in Kenya.

This poem was published appropriately enough in ‘Bewildering Stories‘. My suspicion is that everyone on very rare occasions experiences some woo-woo event that defies logic or probablility. In this case, say the event lasts a minute; to be generous to the gods of chance, let’s say it was accurate to within an hour on Molly’s death. Say I’ve been awake 16 hours a day for 60 years since childhood: that’s over 350,000 hours. Say that half a dozen people who I’ve felt really close to have died in that time. The chance that the one and only time a crow very deliberately comes up to me and caws three times is in one of the half-dozen hours that someone close has died, is therefore less than one in 50,000. That’s not impossible, of course. There are one-in-a-million lightning strikes and lottery wins. But crows have a reputation for doing exactly this.

I reject a mystical solution. I want to know the science of what happened. My purely speculative guess is that some quantum entanglement happens between people who are close (especially twins, or mother and child) and when there is a change of state in one, it registers with the other. Further speculation: that crows are so sensitive to the smell of death that they can register it in the changed state of a living but quantumly entangled person. Sorry, that’s admittedly unscientific, but at least it’s an attempt at a material rather than a spiritual answer.

Anyway, it happened.

“Carrion crow, cawing” by Drbrown1970 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Odd poem: Hemingway’s last poem, untitled

If my valentine you won’t be,
I’ll hang myself on your Christmas tree.

This is the 88th and last poem of the ‘Complete Poems’ of Ernest Hemingway (edited with introduction and notes by Nicholas Gerogiannis). Given that Hemingway ended his life by suicide, this might seem a worrying final poem; but he wrote it five years before his death, and it was truly light-hearted.

He was living with his fourth wife, Mary Welsh Hemingway, at “Finca Vigía” (“Lookout Farm”), a 15-acre property he bought and lived in for 22 years. She writes that he became so fond of the Christmas tree that he wouldn’t allow it to be removed for months after Christmas. This was his 1956 Valentine for her.

Hemingway’s poems are unremarkable at best (despite Eliot having apparently told him that he had promise as a poet). They are not what he won the Nobel Prize for in 1954. But if you like reading biographies, reading his poems is an interesting way of finding out about his thoughts and activities.

Photo: “Ernest Miller Hemingway” by tonynetone is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Poem: ‘The Future as Event’

The future like an avalanche
is roaring down the sky.
If you’ve prepared no hiding place
then be prepared to die.
You never reason why.

The future like a question mark
is scything humankind.
If you can see, then handle it –
you’ll be cut down if blind.
The future doesn’t mind.

The future like a giant wave
is heading for the shore.
If you can ride that wall-like wave
it’s no wall, but a door
into forever more.

I was looking for one of my poems that might be appropriate for the aftermath of the 2020 US election, regardless of any of the possible outcomes. This is the best I could find: no matter who wins which election in any country in the next couple of decades, the world is going to be struggling to play catch-up with enormous changes happening in the climate, the sea, cyber warfare, space militarisation, A.I., genetic modifications… Trump, Biden, BoJo, Putin, Xi, they are all corks on an ocean with a hurricane coming.

‘The Future as Event’ was originally published in the much-lamented ‘Rotary Dial’, produced in Toronto by award-winning poets Pino Coluccio and Alexandra Oliver. A delightful monthly of formal verse, it ceased without warning. So it goes.

Photo: “Giant waves at Half Moon Bay in Calif.” by robertg6n1

Review: ‘Selected Poems’ by Louis MacNeice

Louis MacNeice was born in 1907. By his early 30s he had published four volumes of verse (as well as other material), sufficiently good and well-received for him to publish this early selection in 1940. The tone is set with the opening lines of the first piece, ‘An Eclogue for Christmas’:

A:  I meet you in an evil time.
B:                                The evil bells
    Put out of our heads, I think, the thought of everything else.
A:  The jaded calendar revolves,
    Its nuts need oil, carbon chokes the valves,
    The excess sugar of a diabetic culture
    Rotting the nerve of life and literature.

Throughout the book we have the passage of time with the deterioration of society, culture and one’s own life, expressed in a blending of old and new images, in rhyme. They are poems of the 1930s, of the Great Depression and the imminent war, all from the same man, all on the same theme.

And yet one or two stand out: ‘The Sunlight on the Garden’ is one of the best poems in the English language, casting a spell with its dazzling intricate rhymes sustained over four stanzas, insightful, wistful, immediately memorable, endlessly anthologised. It relates specifically to his first wife having left him – he wrote this “love-song” for her after their divorce was finalised.

The sunlight on the garden
Hardens and grows cold,
We cannot cage the minute
Within its nets of gold,
When all is told
We cannot ask for pardon.

‘Bagpipe Music’ is also very commonly anthologised because of its bounce, cynicism and humour:

The Laird o' Phelps spent Hogmanay declaring he was sober,
Counted his feet to prove the fact and found he had one foot over.
Mrs. Carmichael had her fifth, looked at the job with repulsion,
Said to the midwife 'Take it away; I'm through with over-production'.

A good question, then, is why these two poems stand out against the rest in the book. What makes them so successful, with their very different moods? I think their common quality, largely lacking in all the other pieces, is that they are very easy to learn by heart and recite, they are almost singable even on a first reading. Pure poetry.

Got a really great poem? First prize is £5,000

The 2020 National Poetry Competition

Run annually by The Poetry Society since 1978, this is one of the most prestigious poetry competitions for a single unpublished poem, up to 40 lines.

Open to all poets worldwide aged 18 or over.

Ten Prizes
First Prize: £5000
Second Prize: £2000
Third Prize: £1000
Commendations: £200

The first poem submitted costs £7. Subsequent entries in the same submission cost £4 per poem. Poetry Society members (including those joining at time of submission) get one free second poem, with subsequent poems at £4.

Judges include Neil Astley, Karen McCarthy Woolf and Jonathan Edwards.

Entrants from NW England are also eligible for the Peggy Poole Award to win a year’s mentorship with Vona Groarke

You can read all ten of last year’s winners on the Competition site. Unfortunately only one of them has real form, Ann Pelletier-Topping’s sestina Granddaughter Moves In; it’s a good poem, but I’m not really fond of sestinas. The ten winners are all weighty, substantial, both in their subject matter and in their analysis. Most of them, therefore, are pushing the 40-line limit, though there is one that is only 13 lines long. Of course the judges will be different this year, but these past winners are all worth considering if you are choosing one of your own poems to submit.

Enter online by midnight on October 31 – but remember, that’s midnight UK time… earlier in the day in the Americas.

www.poetrysociety.org.uk/npc

Odd Poems: Thomas M. Disch, ‘A Child’s Garden of Grammar’

Thomas M. Disch (1940-2008) was a New Wave Science Fiction author, poet, theater critic, computer game designer, and much else. Not surprising, then, that his Grammar is a strange book. Sadly, it’s not really informative for either the grammar-beginner (it’s too obscure) or the grammar-expert (there’s nothing new). It has odd poems, some nice and simple like ‘Either/Or’:

Either and Or came to a door.
Either would enter, but not before Or,
So still they stand outside that door,
But now their names are Neither and Nor.

Some playing little games, as in the explanation of ‘The Indirect Object’:

I have to hand it to you, dear:
You’re the indirect object here–
Along with Thelma, Hank and Hugh.
I tip my hat to all of you.
You’ve set a fine example to me–
But I don’t get it, and I’m gloomy.

OK, so “to you” is the indirect object… and “I” can’t be an indirect object, it can only be a subject… Cute, but rather spoiled for me by the rhyme of “to me” (which I unthinkingly stress on the last syllable, as with all the previous lines of the poem) but then, having to rhyme it with the next line’s “gloomy”, have to go back and reread to get the rhyme…

And every poem is illustrated with simple cartoons by Dave Morice. If you’re addicted to strange, by all means buy it. To me it’s just an oddity, and without either the visual or verbal charm of other cartoon-illustrated short poetry collections such as Piet Hein’s Grooks. But after all, Disch is best-known for his SF, not his verse.

Poem: ‘Sandcastles’

We’re only children, making castles in the sand.
Enjoy the day.
Night comes, and tides wash all away.

The northern summer is over. Snowy places have snow. Even in the Bahamas and Florida the water temperature is dropping below what locals will swim in (though it doesn’t bother tourists). The day ages towards dark. The year ages towards winter. And we age too. But we know this when we sign up for morning, for spring, for life–and we sign up for everything because there is so much joy, beauty, discovery and love to be experienced.

In Kipling’s ‘Just So Stories‘ one of my favourite passages is the beginning of the story, ‘The Crab That Played With The Sea’:

Before the High and Far-Off Times, O my Best Beloved, came the Time of the Very Beginnings; and that was in the days when the Eldest Magician was getting Things ready. First he got the Earth ready; then he got the Sea ready; and then he told all the Animals that they could come out and play. And the Animals said, ‘O Eldest Magician, what shall we play at?’ and he said, ‘I will show you.’ He took the Elephant—All-the-Elephant-there-was—and said, ‘Play at being an Elephant,’ and All-the-Elephant-there-was played. He took the Beaver—All-the-Beaver-there-was and said, ‘Play at being a Beaver,’ and All-the Beaver-there-was played. He took the Cow—All-the Cow-there-was—and said, ‘Play at being a Cow,’ and All-the-Cow-there-was played. He took the Turtle—All-the-Turtle there-was and said, ‘Play at being a Turtle,’ and All-the-Turtle-there-was played. One by one he took all the beasts and birds and fishes and told them what to play at.

To me this is one of the great secrets of happiness: Play! Play at being who you are, what you are. That includes all your dreams and aspirations, because they are part of who you are. So play at them, as part of playing at what is to be done today. Just play. Play at being yourself.

‘Sandcastles’ was originally published in The Asses of Parnassus, a Tumblr site of “short, witty, formal poems”. This poem isn’t particularly formal, but it has iambics and a rhyme… and it’s short.

Photo: “Sandcastles” by RobW_ is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Review: James Joyce, ‘Pomes Penyeach’

That James Joyce would have written and published formal poetry seems out of keeping with his image of the writer of chaotic language (as in how he chose to spell his work’s title rather than Poems, a penny each), but the poems he wrote in the early 20th century are in the language of the time… moderated by his rich words.

Wind whines and whines the shingle,
The crazy pierstakes groan;
A senile sea numbers each single
Slimesilvered stone.

His poetry is often repetitive, but occasionally rich and memorable. (Another of his slim volumes, “Chamber Music”, is arguably more interesting than “Pomes Penyeach”.)

Pomes Penyeach was so small–14 poems of less than a page each–that when Faber republished it they added three more pieces: The Holy Office, Gas from a Burner, and Ecce Puer. The first two are early, crude and bombastic multi-page rants against poets and publishers:

Thus I relieve their timid arses,
Perform my office of Katharsis.

Ecce Puer (“Behold the Boy”) is a later light, sweet meditation on his newborn grandson:

Young life is breathed
On the glass;
The world that was not
Has come to pass.

You never know quite what you’re going to get with Joyce, and that in itself is one of the pleasures of reading him.

Odd poems: Tennyson dialect verse, ‘The Northern Farmer’, Old Style and New Style

Wheer ‘asta beän saw long and meä liggin’ ‘ere aloän?
Noorse? thoort nowt o’ a noorse: whoy, Doctor’s abeän an’ agoän;
Says that I moänt ‘a naw moor aäle; but I beänt a fool;
Git ma my aäle, fur I beänt a-gawin’ to breäk my rule.

This is the opening stanza of Alfred, Lord Tennyson‘s poem ‘The Northern Farmer: Old Style’. The farmer is dying, but obstinately overrules the doctor’s order that he not drink any more ale, just as he obstinately clings to traditional attitudes towards land and class, farming and money.

Where have you been so long and me lying here alone?
Nurse? You’re no good as a nurse; why, the doctor’s come and gone:
Says that I mayn’t have any more ale; but I’m not a fool;
Get me my ale, because I’m not going to break my rule.

It’s one of a series of poems he wrote that recapture the dialect of his Lincolnshire youth, and that reflect the old traditions and the modern changes of that part of the country. It is paired specifically with ‘The Northern Farmer: New Style’–Here the “new style” farmer, out in a cart with his son Sammy, hears the horse’s hooves clip-clopping “Property, property” and chides his son for not thinking enough about money:

Me an’ thy muther, Sammy, ‘as been a’talkin’ o’ thee;
Thou’s beän talkin’ to muther, an’ she beän a tellin’ it me.
Thou’ll not marry for munny–thou’s sweet upo’ parson’s lass–
Noä–thou ‘ll marry for luvv–an’ we boäth of us thinks tha an ass.

Seeä’d her todaäy goä by–Saäint’s-daäy–they was ringing the bells.
She’s a beauty, thou thinks–an’ soä is scoors o’ gells,
Them as ‘as munny an’ all–wot’s a beauty?–the flower as blaws.
But proputty, proputty sticks, an’ proputty, proputty graws.

or, in more modern words:

Me and your mother, Sammy, have been talking of you;
You’ve been talking to mother, and she’s been telling me.
You don’t want to marry for money–you’re sweet on the parson’s daughter–
No, you want to marry for love–and we both think you’re an ass.

Saw her today going by–Saint’s day–they were ringing the bells.
She’s a beauty, you think–and so are scores of girls,
Those with money and everything–what’s a beauty?–a flower that fades.
But property, property sticks, and property, property grows.

Tennyson was meticulous in trying to recapture the life and language of his youth. He wrote:

When I first wrote ‘The Northern Farmer’ I sent it to a solicitor of ours in Lincolnshire. I was afraid I had forgotten the tongue and he altered all my mid-Lincolnshire into North Lincolnshire and I had to put it all back.

And apart from the accuracy of the dialect, Tennyson was as skilled as ever with his carefully conversational metre, and natural rhymes working comfortably with the natural breaks of the lines.