Category Archives: poets

Review: “Verse” by John Updike

This paperback, Verse, is comprised of two earlier hardcover volumes of poems from John Updike, The Carpentered Hen from Harper & Row and Telephone Poles from Knopf. The poems date from the 1950s and early 1960s, and in the words of Phyllis McGinley, “His is what poetry of this sort ought to be: playful, but elegant, sharp-eyed, witty.”

Here are the beginnings of some of his poems. Some of them are pure wordplay, as in “Player Piano”:

“My stick fingers click with a snicker
And, chuckling, they knuckle the keys;
Light-footed, my steel feelers flicker
And pluck from these keys melodies.”

Several of them start with a quote from a newspaper story and then run wild with it, as in “The Descent of Mr. Aldez”:

Mr. Aldez, a cloud physicist, came down last year to study airborne ice crystals.
– Dispatch from Antarctica in the Times
That cloud–ambiguous, not
a horse, or a whale, but what?–
comes down through the crystalline mist.
It is a physicist!”

And some are meditative, as with “B.W.I.” (the old British West Indies of the 20th century):

“Under a priceless sun,
Shanties and guava.
Beside an emerald sea,
Lumps of lava.

On the white dirt road,
A blind man tapping.
On dark Edwardian sofas,
White men napping.”

A largely enjoyable collection, but not up to the standard of those similar 20th century poets, Phyllis McGinley and Dorothy Parker. But then again, Updike’s many American awards (Pulitzer, National Book Award, etc etc) were for his fiction. His poetry can be considered a remarkable bonus.

Review: “Send Bygraves”, by Martha Grimes

Send Bygraves

Martha Grimes is best known as an American author of mysteries set in England, each with the unlikely name of a pub for its title. Here she provides a thrilling piece of well-versified pseudo-murder-mystery nonsense: the enigmatic Bygraves appears in the distance of the characters’ views and of the book’s illustrations. Is he the most brilliant detective, or possibly the murderer, or perhaps the undefined victim… is it conceivable he is all three?

Mystery. It’s all the same:
Questions without end or aim.
What will lead us to the dead?
Footprints in the flower bed.
What appeals were made too late?
Sift the ashes in the grate.
What was fatal in the mug?
Pick the fragments from the rug.

The story, told in a range of voices and in styles from sonnet and pantoum to free verse, never clarifies quite what is going on.

We’re a decent lot. We cause no trouble.
(That spot of bother with the poisoned dogs
At Smythe-Montcrieff’s? We’d nothing to do with that!)
You standing, Sergeant? Ah, thank you, I’ll have a Double
Diamond. Jameson on the side. That fog’s
Thick as pea soup innit? I’ll tell you flat:
We don’t much like the Yard nosing about
In Little Puddley.

I would have given it five stars on first reading because it is so original and well-crafted. Rereading it some years later (with my expectations higher), I find the verse less inspired, the characters excessive to the point of being undifferentiated… but this is not a novel, this is a piece of art work (and the illustrations by Devis Grebu are a solid component of it). It gives the tone, the impression of an Agatha Christie or Peter Dickinson novel, but it is a smaller, more delicate and decidely more enigmatic work.

Constable Feathers, I see
Nothing unusual here:
The tradespeople, the gentry,
The servants, the village lout–
All of the villagers out
To murder one another
In typical English fashion.
I wander through the fog,
Pondering the red herrings:
The bloodstained glove, the dogs,
The marmalade, the locket–

It deserves a place on the bookshelf, not with the regular mysteries, but maybe between Edward Gorey and Jorge Luis Borges.

Review: “The Spectra Hoax” by William Jay Smith

Spectra Hoax

In ten days in 1916, two brash young poets – Witter Bynner and Arthur Davison Ficke – produced a volume of poetry parodying the Imagists. Writing as Emanuel Morgan and Anne Knish, and claiming to represent a whole new school, the Spectrics, their manuscript of Morgan’s formal poetry and Knish’s free verse, together with the blathery and pretentious preface, was unexpectedly accepted by a serious publisher and for 18 months was a major success on the American poetry scene. Poetry‘s editor requested half a dozen of their poems, but unfortunately the hoax was uncovered before publication; the editor was embarrassed and angry.

This book tells the full story of the Spectrism hoax, its defense, its termination, and how the hoaxers were in turn hoaxed by others… as well as telling the story of other 20th century poetry hoaxes from Australia and the US. It also contains the full text of Bynner and Ficke’s hoax poetry book, “Spectra”, and a selection of subsequent poems.

As Bynner and Ficke and others subsequently acknowledged, their parodies were unfortunately strong, better than much of the work of the Imagists and in some ways better than their own regular poetry. Consider these:

If bathing were a virtue, not a lust,
I would be dirtiest.

To some, housecleaning is a holy rite.
For myself, houses would be empty
But for the golden motes dancing in sunbeams.

Tax-assessors frequently overlook valuables.
Today they noted my jade.
But my memory of you escaped them.

– Anne Knish, Opus 118

Hope
Is the antelope
Over the hills;
Fear
Is the wounded deer
Bleeding in the rills;
Care
Is the heavy bear
Tearing at meat;
Fun
Is the mastodon
Vanished complete…

And I am the stag with the golden horn
Waiting till my day is born.

– Emanuel Morgan, Opus 2

Whatever else they are, the poems are fun. The story of the hoax and the collection of poems are both worth reading (especially if you like the Imagist poets), and go extremely well together in this book by William Jay Smith.

Triolet: “When Sunrise Gilds Your Hair”

You bring me back to when I once was young
When candles gild your eyebrows and your hair;
And to this rocky isle from which I’ve sprung,
You bring me back to where I once was young,
Birthplace of all the varied songs I’ve sung.
Now lying with you in the predawn air
You bring me back to when we both were young
As sunrise gilds your eyebrows and your hair.

This poem was originally published in The Rotary Dial, a Canadian monthly of 12 formal poems that ran some 50 issues before packing up in 2017. It was edited by two prize-winning Canadian poets, Pino Coluccio (winner of the Trillium Book Award for “Class Clown”) and Alexandra Oliver (winner of the Pat Lowther Award for her collection “Meeting the Tormentors in Safeway”). A very enjoyable magazine, I’m sorry it’s gone.

A triolet is strangely attractive form – it only has two rhymes, and several of the lines are required to repeat (though slight variations in the repetition are allowed, carrying the sense forward into new areas). So the rhyme scheme is ABaAabAB, with lines 1, 4 and 7 and lines 2 and 8 repeating, yet having fresh meanings as the little poem moves along.

In the case of this poem, being married for 25 years became enmeshed with returning to live in my home town after 40 years. The triolet’s structure of repetition suits a poem about development, ageing, memory, return. 

Review: “Holy Tango of Literature”, amazing parodies by Francis Heaney

Holy Tango

T.S. Eliot anagrams to “Toilets”. Francis Heaney therefore uses that theme to parody Eliot’s best-known poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, as the opening poem of the book:

Let us go then, to the john,
Where the toilet seat waits to be sat upon
Like a lover’s lap perched upon ceramic;
Let us go, through doors that do not always lock,
Which means you ought to knock
Lest opening one reveal a soul within
Who’ll shout, “Stay out! Did you not see my shin,
Framed within the gap twixt floor and stall?”
No, I did not see that at all.
That is not what I saw, at all.

To the stall the people come to go,
Reading an obscene graffito.

We have lingered in the chamber labeled “MEN”
Till attendants proffer aftershave and mints
As we lather up our hands with soap, and rinse.

And so it goes, throughout the Holy Tango of Literature: anagram the poet’s name, use that as the theme for parodying their best known poem. Here are some of the openings:

e. e. cummings: “nice smug me”

nice smug me lived in a pretty hip town
(with up so noses snobs looking down)
saks moomba vong prada
i wore my mesclun i ate my uggs

William Shakespeare: “Is a sperm like a whale?”

Shall I compare thee to a sperm whale, sperm?
Thou art more tiny and more resolute:

Gerard Manley Hopkins: “Kong ran my dealership”

I hired last summer someone simian, King
Kong of Indies islands, fifty-foot-fierce Gorilla, out of hiding

Chaucer, Dorothy Parker, Frost, Whitman, Gwendolyn Brooks… it is an extensive collection, including parodies of plays by Wilde, Woody Allen, Beckett, Pinter and so on. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who anagrams to “Multicolored Argyle Sea”, is a particular delight. Beginning

It is an ancient Mariner,
And he taketh lots of drugs,

it surreptitiously develops a second level of parody of a completely different drug-related poem. I’ll let you discover it for yourself.

And one of my favorites is William Blake, “Likable Wilma”:

Wilma, Wilma, in thy blouse,
Red-haired prehistoric spouse,
What immortal animator
Was thy slender waist’s creator?

When the Rubble clan moved in,
Was Betty jealous of thy skin,
Thy noble nose, thy dimpled knee?
Did he who penciled Fred draw thee?

Wilma, Wilma, burning bright, ye
Cartoon goddess Aphrodite,
Was it Hanna or Barbera
Made thee hot as some caldera?

The book is out of print, and its publisher out of business, but even if you can’t find a used copy, it is still available online for free, although without the illustrations. It is the most satisfying collection of parodies I have ever read. 

Review: “Poems” by Ralph Hodgson

Ralph Hodgson

It is a little strange to think of Ralph Hodgson’s ‘Poems’, collected and published in 1917, being contemporaneous with Eliot’s ‘Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ (begun 1910, published in Poetry in 1915), but there we are.

He was born in Yorkshire in 1871, the son of a coal miner or coal merchant. A champion boxer and billiard player, an actor in New York, an artist in London, he wrote most of his poems between 1907 and 1917. During the First World War he was in the Royal Navy, and then the British Army. In the 1930s he taught in university in Japan and was awarded the Order of the Rising Sun for his work in translating classical Japanese poetry into English. He then moved to Minerva, Ohio, living there until his death in 1962.

Hodgson was of the Georgian school – traditional, pastoral, occasionally longwinded, but often charming and memorable. Poems that I know and love in this collection include:

‘Time, You Old Gipsy Man’, with its simple, wistful philosophy:
“Time, you old gipsy man,
Will you not stay,
Put up your caravan
Just for one day?
(…)
Last week in Babylon,
Last night in Rome,
Morning, and in the crush
Under Paul’s dome;”

‘Eve’, with its lyrical portrayal of her seduction by Satan:
“Eve, with her basket, was
Deep in the bells and grass,
Wading in bells and grass
Up to her knees,”

‘Stupidity Street’, with the animal-lover and natural ecologist’s outrage:
“I saw with open eyes
Singing birds sweet
Sold in the shops
For the people to eat,
Sold in the shops of
Stupidity Street.

I saw in vision
The worm in the wheat,
And in the shops nothing
For people to eat;
Nothing for sale in
Stupidity Street.”

‘The Birdcatcher’:
“I lurk among the thickets of
The Heart where they are bred,
And catch the twittering beauties as
They fly into my Head.”

It’s not Eliot. But at his best, Hodgson is truly charming.

Poem: “Said Poor Mrs. Owen”

Wilfred Owen

(“Futility” by Robbie Kerr) 

Said poor Mrs. Owen
To her son Wilfred
Why must you always
Write of the trenches?
Why can’t you write
Like that nice Mr. Wordsworth
Of flowers?

Said Mrs. Picasso
To her son Pablo
Why must you always
Paint so distortedly?
Why can’t you paint
Like that nice Mr. Monet
Some flowers?

Because we don’t always
Create what we celebrate,
Sometimes we model the
Things that we’d like to change,
Things we don’t like, or just
Things that we think about –
Thoughts of ours.

This poem was published in The Road Not Taken – a journal of formal poetry that is edited by Kathryn Jacobs in connection with Texas A&M University at Commerce, TX.

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.