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.
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.
You wake and see dew on the grass in spring But I see futures present changes bring: Global warming replacing dew with drought, Nanotech replacing grass with grout, A.I. replacing people’s minds and thought, Genetic mods replacing us—with what? In other words, our world’s about to pass. Poetry must be more than dew on grass.
I was honestly a little surprised when Light Poetry Magazine told me they would publish this poem. I mostly associate them with their snippy, jokey little poems that appear weekly on topical subjects, Poems Of The Week. Maybe this is unfair, as their full twice-yearly magazine profiles individual poets and has useful book reviews as well as poetry from a couple of dozen formal poets. Be that as it may, I felt this poem might be a little more Dark than Light.
Not that I’m pessimistic about the future. I’m intrigued, and resigned. Just as in William Golding’s ‘The Inheritors’ in which a tribe of early humans finds modern humans moving in and displacing them, so modern humans look like being displaced by something we can’t yet identify. We are like Native Americans when the Europeans started arriving, like White America as the demographic shifts to a more globally representative population, or like every generation that finds the children and grandchildren listening to unrecognisable music and using incomprehensible technology. Is any of this bad? It can be handled well or badly, but it is a natural and unending process.
And now we’re facing a variety of technologies that together can completely remake the human: genetic engineering, A.I., robotics, infinite data-crunching, nanotechnology… Will we casually and irresponsibly start remaking humans? Of course. It’s inevitable. If one country clamps down on it, it will simply happen elsewhere. And what is the likely outcome? I haven’t a clue, but I’m intrigued.
So Louise Glück has won the 2020 Nobel Prize for Literature, “for her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal.” This is all very well–she has powerful insights, strong images, and these translate well into other languages. But as an advocate of the use of poetic tools inherent in language–rhyme and rhythm in particular, for English–I can’t classify the expressions of her poetic voice as poetry.
The simplest touchstone is this: How easy is it learn the passage by heart, to recite it word for word from memory? Because that is why we developed the tricks of poetry, the different rhythms for different moods, the different forms for different levels of complexity. Poetry is song with the emphasis shifted from the melody to the words; but the music is still there in shadow form.
It is very hard to keep the actual poetry when a poem is translated from one language to another. It is easy enough to translate the insights and imagery, but what of the music of the language? It can be done by a skilful translator, but the fidelity is often compromised to remake the poetry. Yeats was very free with the French of Pierre de Ronsard when he wrote
When you are old and grey and full of sleep, And nodding by the fire, take down this book, And slowly read, and dream of the soft look Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
but he captured the poetry and made it into one of his own best-loved pieces. James Joyce translated the German of Gottfried Keller as
Now I have fed and eaten up the rose Which then she laid within my stiffcold hand. That I should ever feed upon a rose I never had believed in liveman’s land.
It’s Keller, but it’s also poetry, and with Joyce’s own voice. Glück indeed has a voice, but how simple is it to learn her work and recite it word for word, compared with the Yeats or Joyce work above? And if you learn it by heart, will you still be able to recite it verbatim years later? I think not. So I submit that her work is not poetry.
That doesn’t mean that it isn’t literature. It just means that we need a word for such work, writing that is too poetic to be called prose, but too prosaic to be called poetry. Poetry needs its undercurrent of song. When the Nobel Prize was being awarded for poetry, Bob Dylan was a far wiser choice than Louise Glück.
After a billion years of larval hit-and-miss humans emerged, stood up, and fed, and grew, started to build their city chrysalis from which, 3,000 years entombed, now formed anew, they burst in wild bright flight with wings deployed out to the stars. The egg case of this final birth, the Earth, was, naturally, destroyed.
We have good news and bad news. The bad news is that the rate of change is ever-increasing in all aspects of human life–from our bodies to our planet–and we will never return to the old normal. The good news is that this is the process by which life advantages to higher levels of organisation and intelligence.
This poem was originally published in Star*Line, one of the two magazines of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association (SFPA). The other magazine is Eye to the Telescope (ETTT).
The poem rhymes and is written in iambics; but the rhymes are not structured to a pattern, and the lines are of uneven length. This casual form is used by Matthew Arnold and T.S. Eliot among others, in some of my favourite poems such asA Summer Night (I have always loved the three paragraphs beginning with:
For most men in a brazen prison live, Where, in the sun’s hot eye, With heads bent o’er their toil, they languidly Their lives to some unmeaning taskwork give, Dreaming of naught beyond their prison wall.)
and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. The form doesn’t have the musicality of more regular forms like the sonnet or limerick, but it provides all the memorising strength of rhythm and rhyme within a more conversational flow, and facilitates different lengths of thought including, if wanted, a punchline.
We live in difficult times, what with the unprecedented challenges of climate change, mass migration, infectious diseases, unpredictable technological advances in weaponry, and more. And the problems will continue to multiply and get larger, even as we develop solutions to the smaller, simpler ones. And from the inevitable destruction of our form of life will emerge… what? We cannot know, we probably cannot even imagine.
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.
Through the honeyed halls of Autumn
Hums the angry ageing bee;
As its work faces fruition,
And its life, redundancy.
This little poem was originally published in Candelabrum, a 1970 formalist hold-out that ran for forty years in the UK under Leonard McCarthy. More recently, it was just republished in Jerome Betts’ latest Lighten-Up Online.
Epigrammatic couplets and quatrains, being rhyme- and stress-based, are common throughout Indo-European languages. They hold the same natural place that haiku, senryu and tanka have in syllable-counting Japanese. It is easier to learn by heart a poem whose form uses the natural strengths of the language, rather than something written in a language-inappropriate form.
Similarly, when reading a poem in translation, you get the ideas and the imagery but you normally lose the enhancement of mood caused by the metre, the rhythm of the verse, as well as by the rhyme. So ideas and imagery alone give you prose, not poetry.
Consider the differences in tone of gravity or levity set by rhythm in these opening lines (and you need to read them aloud–in your head if you can do that, otherwise really aloud, in order to hear the rhythm, the beat of the lines):
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky...
I sprang to the stirrup, and Joris, and he;
I galloped, Dirck galloped, we galloped all three...
On the top of the Crumpetty Tree
The Quangle Wangle sat...
The first is meditative, the second full of action, the third is casual, informal… and those moods are set by the rhythm alone.
Metre is an essential component of English poetry. Make the metre-rule your yardstick. Don’t leave home without it.
The sun comes out. Street-closing hills that climb Below the scoops of cumulus from Wales Are woodland backdrops lit for pantomime, Bright as the ribbons round the horses’ tails.
Where steam-frilled dung and strawy puddles mix In iron pens, the mud-scaled cattle groan; The auctioneers outbawl the rapping sticks And rattling bars and hobnails scraped on stone.
Lost in the din, the gaiters, boots and wheels, The lambs cry, unregarded. Overhead, The clock, white marble up in front, conceals That all behind is brickwork’s weathered red.
A stray dog pauses, sniffs, then, deaf to shouts, Swings up its leg against a net of sprouts.
Jerome Betts writes: “I’m attached to this piece, first printed in Pennine Platform, as it began as wispy free verse in university days and gradually metamorphosed over many years. The bellowing from the market punctuated lessons in a West Midlands cathedral city and other elements were attracted, like the ribbons in the horses’ tails and then a reminder of the street-ending hills in a small town in Castilla y León, and the closing couplet from another in the East Midlands.But, aided by the grappling-hook of rhyme, something unexpected emerged from the depths and took over with the lambs and the clock, often an intriguing result of struggling with formal constraints.”
Jerome Betts was born and brought up on the Welsh border, but now lives in South Devon, where he edits the quarterly Lighten Up Online. In addition to articles and verse in consumer and specialist magazines his work has appeared in Pennine Platform, Staple and The Guardian, as well as anthologies like The Iron Book of New Humorous Verse, Limerick Nation, Love Affairs At The Villa Nelle, and The Potcake Chapbooks 1 & 2, and online at Amsterdam Quarterly, Angle, The Asses of Parnassus, Autumn Sky Poetry Daily, Better Than Starbucks, The Hypertexts, Light, The New Verse News, Parody, The Rotary Dial, Snakeskin, and other sites.
The hurricane of 1929– That massive killer storm of ’29– Came when boats sailed, thinking the weather fine.
The storm came violent as a warrior– Crept up in silence, struck like a warrior The Ethel, Myrtle and Pretoria.
The three were bound for Andros, two escaped– The Ethel and the Myrtle, they escaped– But 35 drowned when the sea’s mouth gaped.
The storm sat over Nassau for three days– It killed a hundred, sitting for three days– Three quarters of all houses just erased.
Bahamians now don’t know what happened then… They just sing ‘Run Come See Jerusalem’.
The September 1929 hurricane is memorialised in the old Blind Blake calypso ‘Run Come See Jerusalem‘. Poorly-built structures and ships were destroyed throughout the Bahamas. 142 people were killed, out of a population of less than 50,000. Andros Island was within the envelope of the storm’s hurricane-force winds and storm surge for two days. Parts of the island were inundated by a 12 ft (3.7 m) surge that advanced 20 mi (32 km) inland, wiping out all crops and most fruit trees and livestock.
A wind gust of 164 mph (264 km/h) was measured in Nassau, which also experienced the calm of the hurricane’s eye for two hours. An estimated 73% of the city’s homes and businesses sustained damage, leaving more than 5,000 people without homes. The hurricane was a heavy blow to the declining sponge industry on the islands. Following the storm, wild birds and crops were brought from the Caribbean to replenish their losses in the Bahamas. New building codes were enacted after the 1929 storm to prevent similarly extensive destruction. (Wikipedia)
For the most part, hurricanes in this part of the world come west from Africa, turn northwest before or after reaching the Caribbean, and somewhere around Florida turn northeast, ending up as gales in Ireland and the UK. That’s their natural track, anyway. It seems that the storms that do the most damage in the Bahamas are those that get off track in the Atlantic, turn southwest into the Bahamas, and then pause for a couple of days while the surrounding weather systems slowly force them north again. That was true of Joaquin in 2015, Betsy in 1965, and the unnamed 1929 hurricane.
This week is the anniversary of Hurricane Dorian, the storm that devastated Abaco and Grand Bahama last year. Dorian turned from north-northwest to west, then stalled over Grand Bahama for a couple of days before turning north again. If the hurricane just keeps moving it may be powerful and destructive like Andrew in 1992 and Floyd in 1999, but no location will have strong winds for more than a couple of hours. Buildings can withstand this. But when a hurricane stalls, and the strong winds continue for a couple of days and nights, with storm surges on top of several high tides… that’s when the most damage can happen. But we’re into September. Hurricanes happen at this time of year.
As for the poem, it’s a Blues Sonnet, an established mashup of European sonnet and Afro-American blues. It contains less information than a regular sonnet because of the amount of repetition, but it works well to express a mood of lamentation. The Poet’s Garret has Hillary Clinton singing the blues as an example.
Read me a bedtime poem, said my son.
So I read him this:
We say hippopotami
But not rhinoceri
A strange dichotomy
In nature’s glossary.
But we do say rhinoceri, he said. Look it up.
So I read him this:
Life is unfair
For most of us, therefore
Let’s have a fanfare
For those that it’s fair for.
I smell a slant rhyme, he said, sniffing.
So I read him this:
While trying to grapple
With gravity, Newton
Was helped by an apple
He didn’t compute on.
My teacher says that’s not poetry, he said.
So I read him this:
René Descartes, he thought
And therefore knew he was.
And since he was, he sought
To make us think. He does.
That made me think, he said. But not feel.
So I read him this:
My hair has a wonderful sheen.
My toenails, clipped, have regality.
It’s just all those things in between
That give me a sense of mortality.
Did the earth move? I asked. Anything?
Nothing moved. He was asleep.
Ed Conti writes: “I sent the following quatrain to John Mella at Light and he accepted it (those were the good old days).
We say hippopotami
But not rhinoceri
A strange dichotomy
In nature’s glossary.
I don’t remember what the title was but I’m sure it didn’t hurt the poem. A few weeks later dis-accepted the poem. He had consulted with a fellow editor (I didn’t know they did that!) and found out you do say ‘rhinoceri.’ Now what? I didn’t want to trash the quatrain, not with ‘t those felicitous rhymes. So how to keep the verse and note the error. That was it, link a whole bunch of poems with their shortcomings (and I have a lot of those) and do a learned dissertation on what their problems were. And who better to do that than one of my two sons. Which one? It wouldn’t matter, I wouldn’t name him. That way if one of them said he didn’t remember that happening, I would say it was the other son. Besides they were too young to worry about personas (personae?) And I wasn’t sure if I actually knew what they were.
So what does the reader get out of this poem? Probably nothing. I write for myself because it’s fun. If the reader chooses to enjoy this poem, that’s his problem.”