Category Archives: poets

Review: Helena Nelson, ‘Starlight on Water’

Helena Nelson’s 2003 poetry collection ‘Starlight on Water’ is quiet, reflective, beautiful and intensely intimate. Not necessarily personal – in some of the poems the poet has no children, in others a daughter or two, so there is no guarantee Nelson is writing of herself – but intimate with the senses and memories of existence. One of my favourite poems is ‘Ironing Day’:

I’ve never had an ironing board cover that fits
or a baby of my own.
None of the doors here properly shuts
and the garden wall’s come down.

But I shouldn’t ever want to lose my iron.
Pressing hard, I remember
grass between my toes
and the soft rain of September.

This speaks to several of my biases: going barefoot, enjoying rain, tolerating imperfection, triggering memories… and the music of casually rhythmical rhymed verse.

Not all of her verse is in the same style. Some poems are formally structured, some are free; the bulk of the book wanders all over internal and external landscapes, while the last third circles around and around Mr. and Mrs. Philpott, first one and then the other, a very caring couple of very distinct individuals in their mature second marriage. Here are some opening lines at random from the 19 Philpott Poems:

At the kitchen window
in his dressing gown,
Philpott stands alone
his sons have gone.
He’s on his own.

and

The sweetness of June, a summons conveyed
from strawberry fields, calls her to pick.
She drives to the farm, the car arrayed
with Tupperware tubs.

and

His father died at fifty-eight
and so he will die at fifty-eight.
He fetches a tumbler.
Two years to go.

and

Philpott’s anger lives in his shoes.
It tangles in the laces
and he wrestles like a lover

The first part of the book is about all manner of things – the spirit of a dead cat, say, or a night in an isolated Scottish cottage, or the teasing poem ‘Genderalisation’:

Women keep scales in their bedrooms;
Men keep weights.

The latter part of the book is just the Philpotts. What the whole book has in common is, without any sentimentality, the deep love that comes from respect, patience and close observation. It is all very intimate, and Nelson appropriately ends the Philpotts and the book with this short poem, ‘Love’:

He has tipped, he has spilled
his soul into her
and she carries it still
like starlight on water.

Review: ‘The Lesser Mortal’ by Geoff Lander

Geoff Lander has produced a score of full-page formal poems about various scientific luminaries: Maxwell, Einstein, Mendeleev and so on, combining career highlights with odd trivia about them. The poems are technically very skilful, with a variety of forms and metres being used (though the book is marred in a couple of places by the typesetting failing to follow the structure of lines and rhymes). Here is an excerpt from ‘On the Shoulders of Others’:

Does the gentle polymath,
Monsieur Henri Poincaré,
buried there in Montparnasse,
ponder how it came to pass
Einstein’s name now dominates
all things relativité?
(…)
In the central USA
near St. Louis one fine day
in 04 he first declared
E might equal mc2.

That was news to me. And it does raise the question of why Einstein should get all the recognition. Another of Lander’s poems, ‘Socks Off to Einstein’, suggests a possible answer:

While others may claim to have seen mc2,
they weren’t sock-eccentric, they weren’t spiky haired.
Their names are forgotten. Quite rightly that rankles–
the price you might pay if you coddle your ankles.
So three cheers for Albert, and get your heels bared!

Lander is a chemist by training and a computer programmer by profession, and poetry only came along when he started writing out other people’s verse to help his right hand recover from a stroke. Then, “encouraged from Scotland by Helena Nelson and from the grave by John Betjeman”, he started writing his own verse of which only a tiny fraction has been published.

New historical information and skilful light verse makes for a powerful combination! This very interesting little book from HappenStance Press contains most of what Geoff Lander has published to date.

Songs as poems: Lennon-McCartney, ‘Eleanor Rigby’

Eleanor Rigby picks up the rice in the church where a wedding has been,
Lives in a dream.
Waits at the window, wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door,
Who is it for?

All the lonely people,
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people,
Where do they all belong?

Father McKenzie writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear,
No one comes near.
Look at him working, darning his socks in the night when there’s nobody there,
What does he care?

All the lonely people, (etc)

Ah, look at all the lonely people!
Ah, look at all the lonely people!

Eleanor Rigby, died in the church and was buried along with her name,
Nobody came.
Father McKenzie, wiping the dirt from his hands as he walks from the grave,
No one was saved.

All the lonely people, (etc)

Written and released in 1966 on the Revolver lp and also as a double-A-side single with Yellow Submarine, ‘Eleanor Rigby’ was part of the Beatles’ dramatic move away from simple pop love songs into a vastly larger realm of portraits and social concerns and musical experimentation. Here, in a few lines, we have the protagonist’s lonely day-to-day life and unattended funeral, weaving back and forth with the empty church and its equally lonely priest. If Paul Simon’s ‘I Know What I Know’ is like a condensed Alice Munro short story, ‘Eleanor Rigby’ could be a full-length novel by Knut Hamsun or Kazuo Ishiguro… reduced to three 4-line verses and a refrain or two. The ideas are expressed as simple visual events, without speech. The words are straightforward, the rhymes uncomplicated–and some are slant rhymes, almost unnoticeable in song: been/dream, from/belong, grave/saved. But the impact is very powerful.

So who is the poet behind the song? Its article in Wikiwand states:

McCartney wrote the first verse by himself, and the Beatles finished the song in the music room of John Lennon’s home at Kenwood. John Lennon, George Harrison, Ringo Starr and Lennon’s childhood friend Pete Shotton all listened to McCartney play his song through and contributed ideas. Harrison came up with the “Ah, look at all the lonely people” hook. Starr contributed the line “writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear” and suggested making “Father McCartney” darn his socks, which McCartney liked. It was then that Shotton suggested that McCartney change the name of the priest, in case listeners mistook the fictional character in the song for McCartney’s own father.

McCartney could not decide how to end the song, and Shotton finally suggested that the two lonely people come together too late as Father McKenzie conducts Eleanor Rigby’s funeral. At the time, Lennon rejected the idea out of hand, but McCartney said nothing and used the idea to finish off the song, later acknowledging Shotton’s help.

Lennon was quoted in 1971 as having said that he “wrote a good half of the lyrics or more” and in 1980 claimed that he wrote all but the first verse, but Shotton remembered Lennon’s contribution as being “absolutely nil”. McCartney said that “John helped me on a few words but I’d put it down 80–20 to me, something like that.” Historiographer Erin Torkelson Weber has studied all available historical treatments of the issue and has concluded that McCartney was the principal author of the song, while speculating that Lennon’s assertions to the contrary were the result of lingering unresolved anger and the influence of manager Allen Klein.

John Lennon may have the stronger reputation as a poet, but this gem appears to be Macca’s. (Sorry; Sir Paul’s.)

Wikiwand credit: CC BY-SA 4.0 license

R.I.P. Susan de Sola

Wonderfully warm and witty poet Susan de Sola passed away last week after a short battle with cancer–she was only 59, very active, and had recently published ‘Frozen Charlotte‘ with Able Muse Press. Tributes in Snakeskin’s blog and Light Poetry Magazine have shown some of her charming, amusing work.

Her work appeared in a couple of the Potcake Chapbooks–‘Family and Other Fiascoes’ and ‘Strip Down’–but I think the most fitting poem for showing her spirit is the last poem in ‘Frozen Charlotte’. She likens the lives of humans to the brief lives of fruit flies and ends, acceptingly, with
“The fruit is fine, the day is long.
Let us feed, buzz, rejoice
.”

Indeed. But many of us miss you, all the same.

New magazine’s Call For Submissions – Pulsebeat Poetry Journal

Poet (and engineer) David Stephenson contacted me recently with the message “I am starting a new journal, Pulsebeat Poetry Journal, for poems with a strong musical element, especially poems in meter and rhyme. I don’t think there are enough venues for rhyming poetry.” He is putting out a general Call for Submissions on his web page https://pulsebeatpoetry.com/guidelines/

“Poems full of music, using meter and rhyme or other means, previously unpublished… Theme should be the human condition… Submissions by December 31, 2021, for the first issue to be posted in January, 2022.” More submission details are at that link above.

David Stephenson has published in The Formalist, The Lyric, etc. His ‘Rhythm and Blues‘ won the Richard Wilbur Award in 2007, which puts him in excellent company. On the Masthead page of his web site you can find links to more recent poems of his, published in Autumn Sky Poetry and Avatar Review.

I look forward to reading the Pulsebeat Poetry Journal, and wish David Stephenson good luck with the venture.

Songs as poems: Paul Simon, ‘I Know What I Know’

She looked me over and I guess she thought I was all right–
All right in a sort of a limited way for an off-night–
She said, “Don’t I know you from the cinematographer’s party?”
I said, “Who am I to blow against the wind?”

I know what I know
I’ll sing what I said
We come and we go
That’s a thing that I keep in the back of my head

She said, “There’s something about you that really reminds me of money,”
She is the kind of girl who could say things that weren’t that funny
I said, “What does that mean I really remind you of money?”
She said, “Who am I to blow against the wind?”

I know what I know, etc

She moved so easily all I could think of was sunlight
I said, “Aren’t you the woman who was recently given a Fulbright?”
She said, “Don’t I know you from the cinematographer’s party?”
I said, “Who am I to blow against the wind?”

I know what I know, etc

Paul Simon’s 1986 ‘Graceland‘ album is packed full of these little character sketches and snippets of conversation – and all done with rhythm, part-rhyme, and structured repetition in both verse and chorus. The song gives him the right to a repetitive chorus (as well as memorable tune), but he moves away from a traditional song’s full narrative into fragmented images that give a complete impression – here, an upscale event with two people assessing each other’s social and economic status and relationship possibility, as they talk of Fulbright Scholarships and a previous “cinematographer’s party”. It all sounds very New York.

It is a very extensive picture in a few words, leaving the sort of impression you get from an Alice Munro short story. And it is backed by the chorus that appears to verify that the conversation was real, as well as to state Simon’s recognition of how his mind and creativity work. So the song’s structure allows him to enrich the verses’ pictured conversation by stepping back to be more reflective and philosophical in the chorus.

And as it’s a song, he is carried by melody and instrumentation and can be a little free with metre without it being in any way jarring.

I view songs as a branch of formal verse. But in many ways, as shown here, song can easily flex into areas that are less natural for pure verse.

Photo by Luise Gub

Various updates

I am shifting the focus of this blog to give more coverage to the wide range of formal poets currently writing (especially those who have contributed to the Potcake Chapbooks) and to songwriters who, at their best, are superb poets with tricks up their sleeves not accessible to regular versifiers.

The Potcake Chapbooks continue to be produced on an occasional basis: the tenth in the series, ‘Travels and Travails’, came out recently and the 11th, ‘Lost Love’, has been assembled to be illustrated by Alban Low. Future titles may (or may not) include chapbooks on cities, on teachers, on the seasons, on pets… it all depends on my finding or being sent enough strong and diverse poems on an interesting theme.

I had hoped to have a Christmas-season-themed chapbook out this year, but I am having difficulty finding the diversity I want. Not only diversity of style, but also of content: I would like to acknowledge not just Christmas and Christmas trees and Christmas parties, but also Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Festivus… everything around the solstice that has given birth to celebrations of the change in the year. (And with some recognition that this looks very different in the southern hemisphere.) Perhaps I will find enough to pull this chapbook together for the end of 2022.

In the meantime I welcome submissions of formal poems on any theme to robinhelweglarsen@gmail.com, but I prefer poems previously published: I don’t have an “accept or reject” procedure, I simply hang onto poems I like until, one of these years, I may have a use for some of them. So, as I don’t want anyone getting antsy about a poem not being available for use elsewhere, the Potcake Chapbooks should not normally be your first place publishing any given poem.

“Temple of British Worthies” by foshie is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Marcus Bales, ‘Shore’

They grind across the continental shelf,
enormous in their long, well-muscled swells;
I know their sweaty smells of staling spray
and fishy sand; and oh, all by myself
I’ve heard the tide tell what it always tells:
some things wash up and others wash away.

They rise out there a long way from the beach,
and curl and pitch up face down on the sands
from roaming just too far to make it home,
and try to hold with fingers scrabbling, reach
for us, and fail and, failing, trail their hands
under water backwards in the foam.

Finally, though, the greyest weather clears:
small lapping waves replace exploding spume,
and one deep-breathing moment seems sublime;
sweet breezes sway embroidered window sheers
while pleasant sunlight fills the hospice room,
now empty, clean, and ready for the next time.

Marcus Bales writes: ‘The problem with me choosing or talking about one of my poems is that the impetus behind most of them is the same: a phrase or circumstance became a donnee because it resonated in some instant way, and I used it — and sometimes the actual donnee doesn’t survive the process of writing — to write something. It’s the resonance that interests me to turn the phrase over and look at it, clean it up, smear it with something, make it start, make it finish, bury it in the middle, whatever. The question that strikes me about a phrase with resonance is why does it resonate? The poem is the answer. In my view poetry is what a poet does to make a reader feel that resonance by putting it in a context that moves the reader to a feeling. I reject the notion that poetry is the poet expressing their feelings — at least, I don’t say poets cannot express their feelings, but that that expression must be in the service of making the reader feel the reader’s feelings in a directed way. Poetry is a method to make the reader resonate emotionally in response to the words.. If the best you can do is blurt out your pain or joy or whatever, then you’re doing it wrong. Yes, wrong. Write it in your diary, because poetry has never been about the poet. It’s always been about how the poet can make the reader feel in a directed way by using words, not a therapy-substitute for the poet. If you need therapy, get it, but don’t scatter the resulting words across ragged-margined pages and call it poetry.’

Not much is known about Marcus Bales except that he lives and works in Cleveland, Ohio, and that his work has not been published in Poetry or The New Yorker. However his “51 Poems” is available from Amazon.

Marcus Bales has appeared in several of the Potcake Chapbooks:

Tourists and Cannibals
Rogues and Roses
Careers and other Catastrophes
“Strip down,” she ordered
Wordplayful
Murder!
Houses and Homes Forever
Robots and Rockets

all available at https://sampsonlow.co/potcake-chapbooks/ for the price of a coffee.

Review: ‘That Shakespeherian Rag’ by Edmund Conti

The problem of being
a 17-year
locust
is trying to stay
for 16 years
focused.

That poem is ‘Short Attention Span’ from Edmund Conti’s latest collection of verse. Originally the title was to be ‘O O O O’ in reference to T.S. Eliot’s lines from The Waste Land where the poet is being criticised by his wife:

“Are you alive, or not? Is there nothing in your head?”
But
O O O O that Shakespeherian rag—
It’s so elegant
So intelligent

It seems that the publishers sensibly preferred a title that would be more comprehensible, without the confusions of O and 0. So the next part of the quote was chosen–still idiosyncratic, but more useful. And, yes, Conti seems to have poetry singing rhythms in his head all the time, and he produces beautiful jazz-like drawings as in the book’s cover.

Both titles for the collection are pure Conti–he has a playful, Zen-like approach to life, highly literate, constantly referencing other writers (and other writers referencing other writers), expecting a level of knowledge and engagement from the reader, and often reducing his expositions to the shortest possible. So this latest volume is full of memories and meditations, jokes and puns, and threaded through with the words of others. Conti divides the book into 11 Shakespearean sections, starting with memories of childhood and youth, and then weaving through reading and writing, books and poetry, his neighbors and family (and their views of his verse), into a closer and closer look at mortality: the last four pieces having respectively four lines, two lines, one line, and nothing.

Conti writes both formal and free verse, depending what kind of playfulness he’s up to. When he parodies Emily Dickinson, of course it’s in her standard ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas’ meter and rhymes ABAB. But he’s a lot more free when he just wants some snide commens and a punchline. Here’s ‘Losing Battle’:

In a final desperate attempt
at survival, the sun sets
fire to the western sky.
Overblown, say my poet friends.
Cute, say my non-poet friends.
What does it mean? asks my neighbor.
How much will you get paid for it?
That’s from my wife.

My father’s an astronaut,
my son lies.

Engaging, amusing, thought-provoking, with many short passages that stay in the memory. A fun book for all poets. Just published this month by Kelsay Books.

Review: ‘Ruth Pitter, Selected Poems’

An excellent selection of some of the better-known and some of the previously uncollected poems of one of the 20th century’s least known but most accomplished poets. Ruth Pitter‘s first book of poems was published with the help of Hilaire Belloc in 1920; her work was admired and praised by Yeats, Larkin, Skelton and Gunn; she was the first woman to win the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 1955, and was awarded a CBE in 1979. She died in 1992.

My personal favourite in this large chapbook from HappenStance is “Smoky Kettle, Stinging Nettle”, for its magical incantation of life and afterlife, of love and loss, of the countryside and all things human:

Smoky kettle,
Stinging nettle,
Lily my darling,
Toad and starling,
Fox in wood,
Solitude,
O be there, be there again,
When my end I shall attain,
When the knot is all unravelled,
And the tangled path is travelled.

But the poem is not typical of her work, and was not previously collected in a book. More commonly her style is like the beginning of ‘Spectrum’:

A little window, eastward, low, obscure,
A flask of water on the vestry press,
A ray of sunshine through a fretted door,
And myself kneeling in live quietness:

Heaven’s brightness was then gathered in the glass,

Her usual style is quiet, understated, with simple metre and rhyme scheme. Often there is a religious element–she was a friend of, and was influenced by, C.S. Lewis–and even an element of Anglican hymns. But none of that was enough to stop the militantly atheist Philip Larkin from including four of her poems in The Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse. And I found enough of interest in this 44-page chapbook to warrant ordering a copy of her ‘Collected Poems’, to explore further.