Every little mammal Likes a little cuddle. Man or mouse or camel, Life becomes a muddle If there is no cuddle For the simple mammal.
There’s nothing much to this little poem. Sometimes an awareness of a rhyme or near-rhyme sparks a thought, sometimes a random thought contains words that rhyme, or nearly… and if it’s not a large thought, it’s not a large poem. But it’s there all the same. And if you’re really lucky, you can find an appropriate illustration…
This short poem was originally published, like a hundred others of mine, in Snakeskin. Thanks for all of them, editor George Simmers!
Hogamus, higamus, Man is polygamous; Higamus, hogamus, Woman’s monogamous.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say this is American anthropologist Margaret Mead‘s creation. I have a clear memory of reading the story many years ago, probably in ‘Male and Female’, of her waking up in the middle of the night with an understanding of the secret of the universe. She grabbed the pencil and paper she kept by her bedside and wrote it down, then went back to the sleep. And in the morning she found she had written the above verse.
I was so certain it was Margaret Mead that I began this blog post about her before trying to check which book the verse came from and if I had the wording correct. (I last read Mead decades ago, and I leave beyond the reach of bookstores and real libraries.) To my frustration, all I can find in Google is attribution to William James, Dorothy Parker, Ogden Nash, Bertrand Russell, Alice Duer Miller… and Mrs. Amos Pinchot, who allegedly denied authorship. According to Quote Investigator, “The first known evidence of this unusual anecdote appeared in the Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper in November 1939. The article ‘Thanksgiving Nightmare’ by Claire MacMurray (…) presented a supposed episode in the mental life of a person named Mrs. Amos Pinchot”, and tells the tale as I remember it. Mead’s ‘Male and Female’ came out in 1949, so (if the poem was in that book) it may have been referring to the Pinchot story, or it may have been something that had happened more than ten years previously to Mead, and she had shared the story and it had spread by itself.
The poem itself is brief, witty, amusing. It is rhythmic, repetitive, well rhymed, very catchy. Those are all excellent qualities. As for the content, it seems very 20th century: it gives the impression of having broken out of the conventions of society and church, and to be saying that the two sexes have differing needs for propagating themselves successfully. It is also 20th century in being simplistic. Where does the concept of serial monogamy fall? How does the rhyme relate to the LGBTQ+ members of society? The verse is definitely not comprehensive enough for the 21st century. But Margaret Mead was a controversial opener of cans of worms in the early 20th century, and that is where this little poem came from. Her obsession with gender roles and her self-deprecating humour make her a good candidate for its author.
And where the poem came from, apparently, was a communication from the unconscious, a gift to the dreamer. Always respect and preserve what the Muse offers you – who knows, a couple of lines of verse may be treasured and quoted for a hundred years!
Standing hip deep in the sea Is nice in itself, but the reason for being there Is the wait for a big wave.
A wave rising, a sudden tower Smooth with devouring power But one you can launch yourself forward in tune with – and Hurtle ecstatic, unseeing and breathless For as long as breath can hold Through the water and up along over and onto the sand, Sand thick in your hair, jammed in every fold, Scraped, battered and rolled, Triumphant, beached, deathless.
For this the saint prays, For this the artist stares open-eyed, For this the poet lets wounds bleed unstanched, For this: this hope of being launched, Controlled and uncontrolled By what can’t be withstood or denied.
(Or else you could duck under the wall, Let it pass over while you count three, Hear the boom of its crested fall, Yourself unbroken, inactive, safe, free.)
The sea is always there Whether or not you are in it Standing hip deep in it Waiting for the next big wave.
Another of my “Is it formal?” poems. How much rhyme, rhythm and consistent structure do you need in order to consider it formal? Where is the cut-off between form and free? I don’t know. But I felt the alternation – between quiet waiting sections and the breathless rush of a good wave – was an appropriate expression in itself.
The poem was originally published in Snakeskin. Thanks, George Simmers!
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.
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…)
First, to your family, the spouse you chose, children you gained who themselves had no choice; to give a space wherein to find their voice with safety, happiness, as each one grows.
To self: to keep yourself happy and whole, free of both physical and mental pain through yoga, exercise, good stress, good strain, a moderate diet, peaceful self-control.
To all humanity: using some gift, some insight, skill set, asset, useful tool to better people’s lives through work or school, some mast and sail or oar for those adrift.
And to the Muse that underlies the world: express yourself—banners are useless furled.
This sonnet feels a little uncomfortably preachy, pretentious, self-righteous, and generally out of touch with the flippant persona I prefer. But it’s what I actually believe deep down. To me, it’s self-evident in terms not just of personal morality, but also as regards what makes a person feel fulfilled and happy. And the last bit is important: everyone has a creative aspect, and everyone has a Muse. The Muse is just part of how the world works, perhaps how your creative subconscious communicates with your conscious mind, perhaps how God or gods or angels communicate with you… it’s a little mysterious, but it’s part of your reality. And the correct thing to do is to express yourself creatively when you have an idea for it: that turns on the tap for further creativity. Not doing anything with the creative idea you get turns the tap off, and reduces future creativity. You need to honour the Muse when he/she/it appears.
‘The Four Duties’ has just been published in the Winter 2020 edition of The Orchards magazine of formal poetry. A few days late for that year, perhaps, but I just saw a weather forecast for “six more weeks of 2020”. Indeed, a sense of calm and responsibility is what the world needs, now and always.
To make sense of this limerick, and why Boris Johnson wrote it, and the various reasons that it won a £1,000 prize, we have to poke around the politics of a few years ago. It started when a German video mildly mocked the authoritarian and repressive President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The Turkish government summoned the German ambassador to “explain and justify” the video. As Turkey had become extremely repressive to journalists, German TV comedian Jan Böhmermann then decided to show Erdoğan what free speech meant, by broadcasting a deliberately offensive poem.
On a set with a Turkish flag and portrait of Erdoğan, and with subtitles in Turkish, Böhmermann read his poem of twelve rhyming couplets. Here is a rough translation:
Defamatory Poem, by Jan Böhmermann
Stupid as fuck, cowardly and uptight, Is Erdoğan, the president, His gob smells of bad döner, Even a pig’s fart smells better, He’s the man who hits girls, While wearing a rubber mask, But goat-fucking he likes the best, And having minorities repressed,
Kicking Kurds and beating Christians While watching kiddie porn, And even at night, instead of sleep, It’s time for fellatio with a hundred sheep,
Yep, Erdoğan is definitely The president with a tiny dick, Every Turk will tell you all, The stupid fool has wrinkly balls, From Ankara to Istanbul, They all know the man is gay, Perverted, louse-infested, a zoophile, Recep Fritzl Priklopil
Head as empty as his balls, Of every gang-bang party he’s the star, Till his cock burns when he has a piss, That’s Recep Erdoğan, Turkish president.
Erdoğan filed complaints with German prosecutors in a bid to have the poem suppressed, and Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed to investigate, which led to a court injunction, but also to the poem being read out in the German parliament.
Boris Johnson–at the time a backbench Conservative MP as well as former Mayor of London–was interviewed shortly after by The Spectator and a conservative Swiss paper, on immigration, Brexit and related issues. The subject of the poem came up. Johnson–one of whose great-grandfathers was Turkish–called it a scandal that a German court had issued an injunction against the poem being repeated. He said “If somebody wants to make a joke about the love that flowers between the Turkish president and a goat, he should be able to do so, in any European country, including Turkey.” As The Spectator had issued a £1,000 ‘President Erdogan Offensive Poetry’ challenge, Johnson was asked if he had entered. He said no, but when pressed, came up with his apparently spontaneous limerick.
Poetry judge Douglas Murray said the competition received thousands of entries, and he tweeted: “Can I remind entrants that you cannot just make up words. ‘Wankerer’ does indeed rhyme with Turkey’s capital. But it is not a word.” (For non-Brits: “wank” = masturbate, and “wanker” = stupid jerk.) However, Boris Johnson ended up with the £1,000 prize. Perhaps the fact that he is a former editor of The Spectator had something to do with it. (And technically, this is a very limerick.)
The poem ‘The Listeners’ is one of de la Mare’s best–evocative, ghostly, inconclusive, easy to read and to recite.
‘Is there anybody there?’ said the Traveller, Knocking on the moonlit door;
It justly appears in any short sampling of his work. Several of the other poems in this collection are of that quality, mostly those of portraits of individuals: Old Susan, Old Ben, Nod the Shepherd
Softly along the road of evening, In a twilight dim with rose, Wrinkled with age, and drenched with dew, Old Nod, the shepherd, goes.
and, at the other end of life, Little Louisa in ‘The Keys of Morning’:
The thinness of his coal-black locks, His hands so long and lean They scarcely seemed to grasp at all The keys that hung between:
Those poems are all at the beginning of the book, and after them the poems degenerate into unequal attempts to catch the evocative spirit.
De la Mare produced a lot of verse. If a dozen or two of his poems are memorable, that is a remarkable achievement that (almost) anyone writing verse would be proud of. And the way to reach those one or two dozen is to write down everything that occurs to you, good or bad, and then to work on it as best you can. There is no way to decide “Today I will write a good poem” and produce it unless you are already in an appropriate state of mind–inspired, or bemused as it were. But to not write when a line or thought occurs to you is to turn off the taps of creativity. So all must be written.
No one should fault a poet who has produced verse good enough to sell, when they a) continue to write material of uneven quality, b) continue to publish it. It is a good process for keeping the lines of communication open with the muse, and hopefully producing even better work in future.
As for this particular collection: I like the first 13 poems, and the title poem. I forgive the rest.
Les sanglots longs Des violons De l’automne Blessent mon cœur D’une langueur Monotone.
Tout suffocant Et blême, quand Sonne l’heure, Je me souviens Des jours anciens Et je pleure;
Et je m’en vais Au vent mauvais Qui m’emporte Deçà, delà, Pareil à la Feuille morte.
English translation: Autumn Song
The long sobs Of the violins Of autumn Wound my heart With a monotonous Languor.
All breathless And pale, when The clock strikes, I remember The old days And I cry;
And I go In the ill wind Which carries me Here, there, Like the Dead leaf.
Published as part of his first collection ‘Poèmes saturniens’ in his early 20s, ‘Chanson d’automne’ has always been one of Paul Verlaine’s most popular poems. Even if a very young man saying “I remember the old days, and I cry” seems as questionable as the teenage Mary Hopkin singing “Those were the days, my friend”, the poem rings true. And Verlaine was certainly unsettled. Attracted to men, he soon married a young woman to try to “heal himself of the disease”. But then came Rimbaud.
Le Bateau ivre
Comme je descendais des Fleuves impassibles, Je ne me sentis plus guidé par les haleurs : Des Peaux-Rouges criards les avaient pris pour cibles Les ayant cloués nus aux poteaux de couleurs.
English translation: The Drunken Boat
As I went down impassive rivers, I no longer felt myself guided by the haulers: Yelling Redskins used them as targets Having nailed them naked to coloured stakes.
This is the first quatrain of Arthur Rimbaud’s 100-line poem The Drunken Boat, one of his very best, written when he was 16. It is technically traditional, written in alexandrine quatrains rhyming abab. Told in the voice of the boat itself on a river, the drunken boat is throwing off the restrictions and requirements of its old life, feeling an inescapable desire to follow the natural flow to its destiny, the sea. Some of the sights are appalling (like a dead whale rotting), some ecstatic (like phosphorescent waters), as the boat fills with water and the desire to be completely absorbed.
Earlier that year Rimbaud had explained his approach to poetry in a letter: “I’m now making myself as scummy as I can. Why? I want to be a poet, and I’m working at turning myself into a seer. You won’t understand any of this, and I’m almost incapable of explaining it to you. The idea is to reach the unknown by the derangement of all the senses. It involves enormous suffering, but one must be strong and be a born poet. It’s really not my fault.”
He then introduced himself to Verlaine by letter with various poems including The Drunken Boat. Verlaine, 11 years older than him, invited him to stay and fell for him completely. Rimbaud moved in, behaved scummily (belching and spitting at the table, talking with his mouth full) and made an immediate enemy of Mrs Verlaine who he only ever referred to as “the rat”. He had to leave. None of Verlaine’s friends could put up with him, so Verlaine rented rooms for him. Within a year Verlaine had effectively abandoned wife and young son, moving in with Rimbaud, and so together to London, then Brussels. Having fired a couple of pistol shots at Rimbaud in a fit of drunken jealousy, Verlaine was imprisoned for 18 months. Rimbaud moved on to new lovers and new countries–Java, Aden, Ethiopia, writing ever more experimental poetry, before returning to die in France at age 37. Verlaine taught in England for a few years, then taught English in France; he fell in love with one of his pupils, but lost him to typhus. He wrote increasingly symbolist poetry and sank into drug addiction, alcoholism (absinthe, of course) and poverty. He died five years after Rimbaud, aged 51.
And now the French government is grappling with a petition to relocate both poets from their comparatively obscure burial places to the Pantheon, “alongside other great literary figures like Voltaire, Rousseau, Dumas, Hugo and Malraux”. The Culture Minister is in favour of the idea, but there is an angry backlash. There is a BBC story here.
But there is no argument that the poetry itself is among the best produced by France.
I long for Prose – but darkly, distantly,
She looks at far-off lands.
It’s Poetry who brings persistently
Small gifts in small white hands.
I confess that I have always wanted to be a novelist rather than a poet… but when, over the years, several novels remain as unpublished manuscripts but the poetry contributes to bubble up and find a home, what can you do? Smile ruefully and accept the gifts you are offered, and be grateful.