Category Archives: Poetry

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Daniel Galef, ‘Proverbs for Engraving onto Imperial Monuments’

War is the price of freedom. Depths bewilder.
The blow aimed at the beast hits him who shields it.
The sword of Justice best serves him who wields it.
The gibbet’s final victim is its builder.
A round coin rolls to him who most deserves it.
A tree outlives its leaves; an age, its fashions.
A carthorse needs its blinders; man, his passions.
The word of Justice best shields him who serves it.
The ardent spirit breaks the firm retort.
Power bears scrutiny like the sun the gaze.
God speaks His queer commands one thousand ways.
The worm awaits. The butterfly is dreaming.
The price of peace is bondage. Chains support.
Persuasion is a proof. Seeing is seeming.

Daniel Galef writes: “I majored in philosophy in college, and it’s very rare that I get a chance to use my degree in any way! (Even everyday critical thinking I engage in not without a little self-conscious embarrassment to be reliving those madcap cogitating days of my youth.) This sonnet began as an un-metrical list of aphorisms, vaguely inspired by Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell, but with an eye less to individual ideas and more to “ideology.” I’m very interested in how philosophy is appropriated by the state, in the form of slogans or anthems or little red books—it’s all fine and dandy to debate competing theories of morality until it’s time to order the transplant waiting list, or convene the board of censors.

“I don’t always do a lot of surgical revision on a poem, but it was after about two years of lying in a drawer [a digital drawer] that I took the loose collection of prose sentences and started pruning, finding and inserting rhymes, and arranging them into pentameter. I’m a poor free verse poet, and verses that start off free end up in metrical shackles much more often than the reverse, even though logically it ought to be tougher to turn prose into verse than vice-verse-a.

“I could write a page on every line in this sonnet, which says much more about my own pretentiousness than about the poem, but will limit myself to saying I chucked in snips and snatches from Plato, Maimonides, Zhuangzi, Lucullus, David Hume, Thomas Jefferson, Aesop, W. H. Auden, Slavoj Žižek, Wernher von Braun, George Orwell, and Groucho Marx. Just about every maxim in the poem has certain levels, interpretations, or applications that I agree with and others which lead to perverse, abhorrent, or outright dangerous positions—which is of course what makes them so useful.

“The poem was published in Philosophy Now, a glossy magazine with a specialized readership but a glossy magazine nonetheless, and one of the highlights of the first summer after I graduated was driving to the Barnes and Noble in Clifton Commons and finding myself there on the shelf along with the movie tie-in reprints and tote bags with snarky quotations on them. It’s probably normal for most poems published, even in larger or well-respected publications, to go essentially unnoticed. I don’t hear back from strangers about the majority of poems I send out into the world and my meager stream of fanfiction is archived in an email folder I dip into when depths start to bewilder. Yet this is the poem that keeps coming back—and the comments I receive on it indicate that different readers draw very different conclusions from it. The year after it was published it was awarded second place in the “Best Poems of 2020” list at the Society of Classical Poets Journal. Someone sent me a Chinese blog where it had been translated into Mandarin, with (Google Translate revealed) a spirited discussion in the comments section as to whether the “blinders” were the same device whether the line was translated as “horse” or as “donkey” (the verdict: they are distinct: the blindfold put on a donkey driving a wheel totally blocks its vision, whereas the blinders put on a horse drawing a vehicle do so only selectively).”

Daniel Galef is a graduate instructor of English at Florida State University and Associate Poetry Editor of Able Muse. His poetry has appeared in Atlanta Review, Able Muse, Measure, The Lyric, Light, First Things, The Christian Century, and Philosophy Now. He is listed in Webster’s dictionary under the entry for “interfaculty (adj.),” which means “brilliant and handsome.” Besides poems he also writes short fiction, humor, and plays, with a story published last year in Juked just awarded a spot in the 2020 Best Small Fictions anthology. He is currently searching for a publisher for a debut poetry collection, Imaginary Sonnets.

More of his work is listed at http://goo.gl/mpRUrs

Poem : ‘Some Who Would Teach’

Some who would teach
Preach,
But speech cannot reach
As far as silence.

Even the stars perhaps are noisy, but, far as they are,
We hear their silence, not their sound.

Words are not for teaching, adding or changing.
Words can only express
What is already known
To one who already knows.

Words feathered together
Can lift aloft
Any body of men.
Opinions are pinions
With which men fly.
But they come down again
And with their descent
What was meant
Is often lost, or is known
To have never been known.
For a word is a wing
But a body’s a thing
And the body is always the body
But the wing only is when it flies.

Therefore not by talking but being
Does one teach how to be,
And words are for singing–
A song sung
By those knowing their winging as being but having no meaning.
And the best words
Come from birds.

I wrote this, but do I subscribe to the ideas? Did I ever? Not in any absolute sense, but as a rejection of all noisy preachers of faiths, and a rejection of those who put academic lectures ahead of experiential learning. In that sense this (early) poem prefigured my 25-year career teaching business finance through the Income-Outcome interactive games we developed for global clients like Beam Suntory, Michelin and hundreds of other companies and universities.

In another sense this poem is just about the enjoyment of words and songs, regardless of any meaning that the words may have.

It was published by Anima Magazine in the UK, unfortunately quiescent since 2018.

Photo: “Korimako (Bell Bird) singing” by theirishkiwi is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Short poem: ‘White Recluse’

Her thoughts were all inside her –
Free from reality –
Poor little cramped-up spider
Who never saw the sea.

Much though I love her insightful and often wicked little poems, and deeply though I sympathise with her for (as I have heard) the traumatic and embarrassing seizures that restricted her life, I still have difficulty with this specific Emily Dickinson poem:

I never saw a Moor —
I never saw the Sea —
Yet know I how the Heather looks
And what a Billow be.

I never spoke with God
Nor visited in Heaven —
Yet certain am I of the spot
As if the Checks were given —

(There are two versions of this poem in circulation; but her poems were only edited and published after her death, and subsequently researched, de-edited and republished.) With all due respect, Miss Emily, if you had actually experienced the sea you would have realised that there is no way that a description and a couple of paintings can hope to capture the totality of waves: their warmth or chill, their taste, their sound, their movement against the body, the enjoyment, the danger, their feel in the water, their feel on a boat, their impact on a sandy beach or on a reef or against a cliff…

This also suggests to me that her understanding of God and Heaven is way too simplistic. She is making a good unwitting case for agnosticism. ‘White Recluse’ was published in The Asses of Parnassus, a suitable place for snippy little poems.

“Six Eyed Danger (Brown Recluse Spider)” by Lisa Zins is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Short Poem: ‘The Hitchhiker’

Sometimes you’d sell your soul just to get warm! –
Your clothes are rags in the wind, your skin goes blue,
You doubt your mouth can ever smile again;
The lonely world grows dark before the storm
Whose icy rain’s a mile away… and then,
The sun breaks through!

I used to do a lot of hitchhiking – 25,000 miles is my best estimate, on five continents. It can be miserable, it can be ecstatic, but as a way of exploring the world without plans and preconceptions, it’s hard to beat. It used to be safe, then it became unsafe, but now it’s probably safe again – if you send a picture of the vehicle from your cell phone before you get in. Or if you live on an island with no public transportation, where everyone seems to know everyone and it’s just common courtesy to give people a ride.

The poem was published in the now-defunct Candelabrum, a twice-yearly British publication that championed traditional verse through the darkest days of “free verse” from 1970 to 2010. The magazine has ceased publication, but thank goodness the sun has broken through again!

“Winter Road” by ryanmcgilchrist is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Poem: ‘Spring Sprang’

Spring sprang full force with sudden storms then stopped.
Of which vertu engendred were the floods. We mopped.
Summer so wet dried into humid dank.
Sweat dripped, dried, dripped, and as we worked we stank.

This little poem was published in The Asses of Parnassus, where poems range from the short to the very short. Epigrams translated from the Greek or Latin alternate with modern insults and with odd little observations such as this post’s verse. It is a site for people who enjoy the occasional small random thought.

Why I wrote the poem, I don’t know. It probably started with the evocative sounds of “spring sprang”. Spring rains always bring Chaucer’s Prologue to my mind, whence the “of which vertu engendred” phrase. The whole thing is inconsequential, except that in one very important sense no creative act, not even the most trivial, is inconsequential: your creativity speaks to you, and your decision of whether or not to act on it determines many aspects of your life: not just your creative output, but your sense of satsfaction, your happiness, your mental balance, even your physical health. When the muse speaks, listen and act – the output doesn’t have to be significant, but keeping the lines of communication open to the inner and unconscious (but in several ways wiser and more knowledgeable) parts of yourself is supremely important. Call it the soul, if you want. Call it God, for all I care. There is something essential there: honour it. Your happiness, maybe even your life, depends on it.

OK, rant over. Back to other inconsequentialities.

Photo: “025457:Floods Central Library New Bridge Street Newcastle upon Tyne Unknown 1966” by Newcastle Libraries is marked with CC PDM 1.0

Short poem: ‘Subduction’

All human nature, conflicts, nations, and all races
will be washed as by tides on beaches, all loves and lusts
will with Time disappear, all human traces
washed under as all plates are washed
by the subduction of Earth’s crusts.

This poem was published this month in Lighten Up Online – an excellent place to read light verse on subjects both light and heavy. Every issue has a mixture of longer and shorter poems, and a competition. This March 2021 edition concludes with the results of the eco-crisis competition, headed ‘The Airing of the Green’; ‘Subduction’ was one of the winners. Other sections of the magazine were also focused on the environment. Pollution and climate change are twin disasters, and you can express outrage, despair, or (more usefully) proposals for action. The million-year view of my poem isn’t useful but it’s low-hanging fruit, there to be taken.

I’m delighted to be in a magazine along with poems by fellow Potcake Poets Martin Elster, Michael R. Burch, D.A. Prince, George Simmers, Nina Parmenter, Gail White, Chris O’Carroll, Tom Vaughan, Jane Blanchard, Jerome Betts, Martin Parker and Melissa Balmain, as well as two poets who will be appearing in the next Potcake Chapbook, Bruce McGuffin and Julia Griffin, and the ever-anomalous Max Gutmann. Several of us have more than one poem in this issue.

“File:Tectonic-plates-subduction-zone-17280738.jpg” by Benjilrm is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Sonnet: ‘Irritated Muse’

My muse is angered by my Covid cares –
“You worry if the shops have food and beer,
and what a Zoom attendee rightly wears!
You’re just as mortal as you were last year,
and wrote of life and death, sickness and health.
Well, now’s an actual existential crisis!
Think family and friends, the world, your self…
forget the shopping and the product prices!
You’ll die; the question’s When. The only tool
for immortality is me, that clear?
You should be writing poetry, you fool!
This is your chance. Focus on me.” (Yes, dear.)
“Respect me as your muse: I’m not your shill.
If you can’t write a poem, write your will.”

This sonnet has just been published in Allegro in the UK, edited by Sally Long. The magazine comes out twice a year, one issue themed and the other open. It focuses on formal verse, but on a long continuum between fully formal and free.

Photo: “Thalia, Muse of comedy.” by Egisto Sani is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Fantasy Analysis: Auden’s ‘Jumbled in the common box’

Jumbled in the common box
Of their dark stupidity,
Orchid, swan, and Caesar lie;
Time that tires of everyone
Has corroded all the locks,
Thrown away the key for fun.

In its cleft the torrent mocks
Prophets who in days gone by
Made a profit on each cry,
Persona grata now with none;
And a jackass language shocks
Poets who can only pun.

Silence settles on the clocks;
Nursing mothers point a sly
Index finger at the sky,
Crimson with the setting sun;
In the valley of the fox
Gleams the barrel of a gun.

Once we could have made the docks,
Now it is too late to fly;
Once too often you and I
Did what we should not have done;
Round the rampant rugged rocks
Rude and ragged rascals run.

In January 1941, W.H. Auden had been living in New York for nearly two years. The Second World War had started, but not yet in the US. Auden had fallen in love with Chester Kallman who was now turning 20 and was too young to want to be sexually faithful; Auden had also returned from atheism to the existential Christianity that is common in the Anglican/Episcopalian church. It was a period of change, backgrounded by the widening war.

Regarding the poem from this time, I choose to imagine Auden rambling, reminiscing, muttering to himself: “Around the rugged rocks the ragged rascal ran… Nice metre as well as alliteration and, for people with difficulty pronouncing their Rs, a twuly tewwible tongue-twister. Rhythmic, memorable. Nonsense; not meaningful, but not meaningless; nonsense and nursery rhymes are right on the border. And it splits in two, you could easily rhyme it: rocks, box, blocks, brocks, cocks, cox, clocks, crocks… ran, Ann, ban, bran, can, clan, cran… or easy to change to run, or runs. A lot of rhymes, anyway. Run them out, see what transpires.

Once we could have made the docks, / Now it is too late to fly; that adds another rhyme, not a problem, maybe a 6-line stanza. Once too often you and I / Did what we should not have done; and into the last two lines, have to fill them out a bit to maintain the metre, keep the alliteration of course: Round the rampant rugged rocks / Rude and ragged rascals run… So that’s all right, that would make an ending.

“Then of course we can have more stanzas leading up to it. Flick a bit of paint at the canvas, see what sort of patterns we can find to elaborate on. Time, decay, trepidation, warnings… out come the words and images around the rhymes, and suddenly it’s all as evocative and semi-coherent as a reading of tarot or yarrow or horoscope. Hm, tarot or yarrow, I hadn’t noticed that before, wonder if I can use that somewhere else…”

(Remember, this is a fantasy analysis, presupposing the poem to have been written with full skill to capture both rhymes and a mood, but without any serious intent beyond that. For a completely different intellectual analysis, you can always try this…)

Photo: “Jumble Box” by .daydreamer. is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Poem: ‘So Listen Now’

      So listen now to what the prophet saith, 
          He teaches anything, he gladly learns, 
             He follows scientists and what they say, 
             And now, Philosophy of DNA. 
           Regard the spiral of it as it turns, 
      And listen now to what the prophet saith: 
  The two as one, entwining intercourse, 
Then separate from toes to very head, 
And, separated, seek another bed, 
  Their separation procreation’s cause. 
      So listen now to what the prophet saith— 
           And this the canniballed male spider learns, 
                Eaten by her, as her he’d try to lay, 
                Who procreates in separation’s day— 
           No spark of love or life or hate there burns, 
      But, listen now to what the prophet saith, 
      Only a life of procreating death. 

Another of my early poems: I wrote this when I was 17, in my last year at school. DNA was still a newish concept to the general public, and it appealed to my nihilistic teenage state of mind. My opinions decades later are still pretty similar, though my attitudes are much more relaxed and happy.

I had been thoroughly immersed in iambic pentameter by then, studying several of the Canterbury Tales, several of Shakespeare’s plays, and a whole slew (or slough) of poets from Donne and Milton to Cummings and Frost–learn enough poetry by heart, and you become very comfortable writing in the forms you know. I developed the rhyme scheme to allow the indentation-by-rhyme to reflect as best I could the spiral of the subject: ABCCBADEEDABCCBAA, the rhymes winding back and forth across the much-repeated central line, ending with a couplet to round it out at 17 lines.

The poem was originally published in Metverse Muse, an Indian periodical that champions traditional verse.

Photo: “DNA rendering” by ynse is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Poem: ‘Hail Deth’

Hail Deth, that from alle Natur’s birth
Hast kept each living thing thy thrall!
Teech me to love thy quiet call,
To rest
Among the blest,
To be at peace with every thing on earth.

Come soft, without impediment;
Let mee slide sleeping to thy armes,
Discover alle thy soothing charmes;
And kill
My every ill,
Leave mee uninterrupted sediment.

This is one of my very earliest poems, with the form, theme and erratic spelling all obviously influenced by studying the Metaphysical Poets in school. I’ve always been fascinated by death–at least since the time I gave up Christianity, thanks to my excellent Church of England schooling. The poem was written tongue-in-cheek, of course: I’m in no hurry to die.

‘Hail Deth’ has just been published in the Shot Glass Journal which, in accordance with Shakespeare’s “brevity is the soul of wit”, publishes both formal and free verse so long as a poem doesn’t exceed 16 lines. It also divides contributions into American and International groups and lists them separately, which is interesting if not necessarily useful in any functional sense.

Photo: “NS-01023 – Death Head” by archer10 (Dennis) is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0