Category Archives: poets

Review: James Joyce, ‘Pomes Penyeach’

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.

Odd poems: Tennyson dialect verse, ‘The Northern Farmer’, Old Style and New Style

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.

The Nobel Prize for Literature: Louise Glück

Archaic Fragment

I was trying to love matter.
I taped a sign over the mirror:
You cannot hate matter and love form.

It was a beautiful day, though cold.
This was, for me, an extravagantly emotional gesture.

…….your poem:
tried, but could not.

I taped a sign over the first sign:
Cry, weep, thrash yourself, rend your garments—

List of things to love:
dirt, food, shells, human hair.

……. said
tasteless excess. Then I

rent the signs.

AIAIAIAI cried
the naked mirror.

Source: Poetry (January 2006)

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.

Poem: ‘Chrysalis’

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 as A 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.

Photo credit: “Cicada emerging from old exoskeleton” by Shek Graham is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Review: “The Listeners and other poems” by Walter de la Mare

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.

Verlaine and Rimbaud: the gay poets of gai Paris

Chanson d’automne

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.

Odd Poem: ‘The Skipping Rope’, by Tennyson

Sure never yet was antelope
Could skip so lightly by.
Stand off, or else my skipping-rope
Will hit you in the eye.

How lightly whirls the skipping-rope !
How fairy-like you fly !
Go, get you gone, you muse and mope —
I hate that silly sigh.

Nay, dearest, teach me how to hope,
Or tell me how to die.
There, take it, take my skipping-rope,
And hang yourself thereby.

This odd little poem appeared in the 1842 ‘Poems by Alfred Tennyson’, and was reprinted in every edition until 1851 when it was suppressed. I’ve italicised one of the two speakers in order to make the poem easier to understand on first reading. There is no visual indication, otherwise, that this is a conversation between an admirer and the irritated rope-skipper.

The very simple structure, very regular iambics, and very repetitive rhyme scheme are perfectly in keeping with the monotonous activity of skipping. I’ve always found the poem charming and amusing in its bizarre way.

(The photograph is “Girl with skipping rope, Albert Lomer studio, Sydney” by Blue Mountains Library, Local Studies.)

Review: ‘Chamber Music’ by James Joyce

James Joyce’s ‘Chamber Music’ was published in 1907, a tightly organised collection of very singable little love songs published three years after he met his future wife, Nora Barnacle. She was a chambermaid from Galway, and their first outing together–a walk through the Dublin suburb of Ringsend–was sufficently memorable (she masturbated him) that the date of 16 June 1904 was made the day of the events of Joyce’s novel ‘Ulysses’, and is now celebrated in various fashions around the world as Bloomsday.

The first poem of ‘Chamber Music’ sets the tone, not necessarily what you would expect from Joyce, but definitely related to his very fine singing voice:

Strings in the earth and air
Make music sweet;
Strings by the river where
The willows meet.

There’s music along the river
For Love wanders there,
Pale flowers on his mantle,
Dark leaves on his hair.

All softly playing,
With head to music bent,
And fingers straying
Upon an instrument.

Yes, well… Anyway, apart from the Joycean suggestiveness the lyrics provide a simple narrative over the 36 poems, short poems of eight to 18 lines. He sings of a girl, a maiden, shy, beautiful; she is a dove, a sweetheart, his true love, and only becomes a lady in Number 28. Then in the last three we have the “unquiet heart”, then “the grey winds”, and finally the last dream poem begins “I hear an army charging upon the land” and ends “My love, my love, my love, why have you left me alone?”

The narrative of the lyrics does not reflect Joyce’s life with Nora. She had moved with him to Austria-Hungary in 1904, and they stayed together until his death in 1941.

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Terese Coe, “Letter to Anton Chekhov”

Terese Coe

My Dear Anton,

I just came from The Seagull, and it’s still
the tour de force it was when it was written.
The jaded past, a tragic Russian vaudeville,
ushers in the star-struck and the smitten,
the ingénue, the predator, hard-bitten,
artists in a trance-like state and sordid,
bewitched by when and how they’ll be rewarded.

Success too young is said to be a curse
for writers—yours was neither smug nor rude.
By twenty-one, your stories filled a purse
to pay your famished family’s rent and food.
Your father’s violence had finally been subdued.
Doctor, writer, you could dress a wound
or stage a scene of pettiness lampooned.

Though philistines have claimed your plays lack action
there are secret histrionics of the mind
where characters break through the stupefaction
and character unfolds when it’s confined.
Whether tight, oblivious or blind,
the diva crippled by her little fame
reveals herself in fear of change, or shame.

Your plays still plumb the interplay between
words and silence, plotlessness and plot
in which you show an uneventful scene
composed entirely of what was not
to be—the spent emotion scattershot
around the stage in wraiths of lost pretension,
and meaning haunted by the fourth dimension.

How women loved Antosha! You could be
flippant, daring, timid, or a charmer.
Biographers today are on a spree:
computers link to lovers and their armor,
unsigned stories, letters to a farmer,
notes on pets. But did your gentle crane
mean more to you than Masha or demesne?

And Lydia Avilova! Tantamount
to love affair or game of cat-and-mouse,
no one could say by reading her account
of unrequited love, the empty house
once lent by friends, your hunch her child and spouse
(Karenina, or Lady with a Dog?)
would haunt her like a countermarch, a fog.

Or worse. Perhaps it was her child for whom
you stopped. Could she have let him go?
It might have meant despondency and doom,
and why should history have the need to know?
Eventually Avilova’s book would show
the years you spent inventing cryptic ruses,
the stifled passion, the letters bearing bruises.

Four years before you died, you took a wife,
the theater’s Olga Knipper—Like a colt,
you said—who thrived on acting, laughter, life,
and you. Your own Teutonic thunderbolt.
Masha would be the sister in revolt.
She’d broken her engagement years before
at your insistence. Masha was keeping score.

Juggling marriage, jealousy, TB,
and writing plays, in Yalta you missed Moscow,
Olga, the theater—in Moscow you craved the sea,
the ease, the heat. You dreaded every flow
of springtime melt, the break of ice and snow.
With spring came spitting blood, and you were weak.
Writing was a trial. You couldn’t speak.

In youth, you wrote: Of all the doctors in town,
I am the sorriest case. My carriage is broken,
my horses mangy, I don’t know the roads, I frown
at night and still can’t see, and I’m awoken
by pleas for cash, of which I’ve none. Unspoken
disease is rampant. I tire very quickly,
practice medicine gratis, and am sickly.

My paraphrase, and fraught with emendations.
The tragedy is clear. The truth is that
you struggled with the people’s deprivations
and gave yourself away sans caveat.
En route to France’s kinder habitat,
you died a “doctor’s death”—TB, champagne,
the German spa, and morphine for the pain.

Terese Coe writes: “The letter-poem speaks for me.”

Terese Coe’s poems and translations have appeared in Agenda, Alaska Quarterly Review, The Cincinnati Review, The Moth, New American Writing, New Writing Scotland, Ploughshares, Poetry, Poetry Review, Potcake Chapbooks, The Stinging Fly, Threepenny Review, and the TLS, among many other journals. Her collection Shot Silk was listed for the 2017 Poets Prize.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terese_Coe

Resources: Robin Houghton’s submissions list: UK and Ireland

Robin Houghton

Well-known British poet Robin Houghton has a blog that is also connected to her list of British and Irish poetry magazines, with information about their submission opportunities and requirements. This is similar to Trish Hopkinson’s blog and lists of predominantly American poetry magazines, with this major difference: Trish Hopkinson produces individually themed lists for the enormous US poetry scene, whereas Robin Houghton provides a single list of (currently) 107 magazines. (Subscribe to Robin Houghton’s free email list to get quarterly updates.)

But that’s not bad for formal poets, as British and Irish poetry magazines are far more likely than American ones to publish traditional (especially innovatively traditional) verse. I put the cultural difference down to the educational systems, at least as they were in my school days, decades ago. For those not familiar with the matter, the British system started with subject-specific teachers at the beginning of primary (= elementary) school, the American system not for another five or six years. So in those formative educational years, the Brits were learning English from an English teacher… while the Americans were learning from a generalist who was teaching English, history, mathematics, science, Spanish, etc etc, and doing it from an approved book because they didn’t necessarily have any particular knowledge or love of any of those subjects.

English teacher: let’s learn this poem by heart. Read it so you can hear the rhythm, catch the rhymes, that’s how you learn songs. Now try writing one.

American teacher: anyone can write poetry, it’s your feelings. Write down three words that describe how you feel today. That’s a poem! See? It’s easy.

The result is that the UK and Ireland have the rhythms and rhyme and background culture of verse more firmly embedded in their population than Americans do.

Robin Houghton’s list of poetry magazines is very rewarding for anyone who wants to work their way through the listings, look up a couple of sample poems and get a feel for a magazine, and find a new place to submit their own work–generally speaking, formal poetry is more likely to be accepted in the UK and Ireland than it is in North America.