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.
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.
One of the greatest resources for any lover of words is the (free) email subscription to A.Word.A.Day from wordsmith.org, founded by Anu Garg in 1994. Of course, you may well be getting this already as one of the 400,000 subscribers in 170 countries, enjoying the definition, pronunciation, etymology, usage and visual illustration of a not-quite-random word five days a week. Added bonuses include a quotation from a writer on their birthday, and limericks, anagrams and puns in the readers’ comments on the weekend.
This week’s theme is words used by singer-songwriter Roy Zimmerman, and is the trigger for my posting about A.Word.A.Day. Roy Zimmerman, as guest editor for A.Word.A.Day, writes:
“When my wife Melanie and I write a song, the Idea is out in front. People often ask which comes first, the melody or the lyrics. We say the Idea, with a capital I. The Idea takes shape as a hook — a little snatch of lyrics and melody — and the hook gives birth to a tune, a meter scheme, and a rhyme scheme.
We both love words. We’re both aware that words do real work in the world, especially words that rhyme and meter well. That’s what we’re trying to do with these songs — provide context, history, laughter, and encouragement for the work of social justice.“
The description of the sequence for songwriting is virtually identical to that for writing poetry – and although poetry doesn’t necessarily have a tune, poetry definitely has a tone, a mood, that forms in the same place. Songs and poetry are very close siblings. Sometimes songs are forgiven weak lyrics because of a strong melody; sometimes poems are forgiven their lack of rhythm and rhyme because of their strongly expressed ideas and images. But at their most memorable they fuse as catchy songs that can also be fully enjoyed as poems without the music.
In either case, they are completely dependent on words. And to prod your word awareness, there is nothing simpler than the daily email from Anu Garg.
You may not be able to decide to write a poem, but there are a variety of things that you can do to increase the chance of being in a poem-writing state of mind.
Erato, Muse of Poetry, by Sir Edward John Poynter 1870
The first, of course, is to read poetry. We are all influenced by what we are seeing and hearing. Our voices and accents shift towards those we’re talking with, the tunes we hum or whistle are influenced by what we’ve been listening to, and how we write is influenced by what we’ve been reading. Read poetry, especially rhymed and metered, and you’ll be more likely to find your unstructured thoughts expressing themselves in verse.
And that word “unstructured” is also one of the keys. Poetry can come from a chance phrase in your head, from a random rhyme opportunity that you run across that intrigues you for whatever reason, or from an unexpected image or similarity that carries an idea or a metaphor into your thoughts.
So the second thing you can do is, whenever some tiny fragment like this occurs to you, write it down! It is a gift to your conscious poetry-writing mind from your unconscious poetry-dreaming mind.
If it happens in a restaurant, write it down on anything you can take out. If it happens just when you’re going to sleep, sit up, get up, write it down. If it is only a phrase or an idea, write it down. If anything else occurs to you while writing, write it down too. If what you have seems structured, but some other unstructured thoughts are hovering around, write them down too. It doesn’t have to be perfect. You can always come back to it later. But if you don’t grab it when it appears, you are unlikely ever to find it again, or even to remember that there was ever anything there.
The third is to worship the Muse. Really? No, not really, but there’s no other simple way to describe it. There are forces in your subconscious of which you are unaware. They speak to you in dreams when something is really important. You have probably experienced the difference between what can be called “big dreams” and “little dreams”–messages from the unconscious mind, vs tidy-up-and-defrag dreams.
Somewhere inside your mind a creative engine is at work. You can ignore it, and then not only will you never write poetry, but you are likely to screw up your life. Or you can listen to it, let it sing to you, let it give you little gifts of wordplay or insight, and it will help you stay grounded in what is important. So writing down everything interesting that occurs to you out of the blue is a way of honouring that creative engine, that we can call your Muse. Be grateful to it. Accept that your unconscious may know things about you that you have no clue about, everything from how to keep your heart beating, to how to remember the name of someone from 20 years ago, to how to count time and wake you up at a certain time without an alarm clock. Poetry is the tiniest tip of the iceberg of all the unconscious mind can do. Honour it! And it will reward you.
You can find a guide to “Calling the Poem”–how to identify the poetic mood, how to encourage it, how to deal with it–in a chapbook of mine published by Snakeskin, and downloadable for free at http://www.snakeskinpoetry.co.uk/snake236.html
How to write the poem, when you’re in the right mood… More thoughts on that in the next post.
In an odd but interesting book called “Poet’s Choice” that came out in 1962, editors Paul Engle and Joseph Langland asked 100 poets from Robert Frost to Leonard Cohen to name a favourite poem, and provide some insight into their choice. (Some wrote three lines, some three pages.) One of the most extensive answers came from John Wain. Here is an excerpt:
If I write a novel, or a story, or a critical essay, I soon make up my mind as to its merits; I can read it, more or less, as if it had been written by someone else. But I cannot do this with my poems because they are more instinctual; they arrive, from some deep place in my being where forces are at work which I cannot command, though I can thwart and deny them. After a poem has arrived, and been born, I look at it much as one looks at a natural object: I didn’t write it–it happened to me. As a professional writer, I can say, “Today I will write a story,” or some criticism, or a scene for a play, or whatever it may be: but I cannot say, and no one has ever been able to say, “Today I will write poetry.”
Poems, in this understanding, are the closest form of writing to dreams. We may have some control, but not a lot. As Wain points out, we can thwart or deny them when they are available or (if they are part of our will separate from our conscious mind) when they are trying to come. But we cannot consciously create them if they are not available. They are absolutely mood-dependent. In the right mood, Coleridge could knock out the 54 lines of “Kubla Khan” as fast as he could pen them. In the wrong mood, Oscar Wilde could say “I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again.”
So the difference is between deciding to write a poem, and knowing when you can write one. But how and when would you know you could? And can you enhance the chances of it happening? This will be the subject of the next post.