Category Archives: poets

Fantasy Analysis: Auden’s ‘Jumbled in the common box’

Jumbled in the common box
Of their dark stupidity,
Orchid, swan, and Caesar lie;
Time that tires of everyone
Has corroded all the locks,
Thrown away the key for fun.

In its cleft the torrent mocks
Prophets who in days gone by
Made a profit on each cry,
Persona grata now with none;
And a jackass language shocks
Poets who can only pun.

Silence settles on the clocks;
Nursing mothers point a sly
Index finger at the sky,
Crimson with the setting sun;
In the valley of the fox
Gleams the barrel of a gun.

Once we could have made the docks,
Now it is too late to fly;
Once too often you and I
Did what we should not have done;
Round the rampant rugged rocks
Rude and ragged rascals run.

In January 1941, W.H. Auden had been living in New York for nearly two years. The Second World War had started, but not yet in the US. Auden had fallen in love with Chester Kallman who was now turning 20 and was too young to want to be sexually faithful; Auden had also returned from atheism to the existential Christianity that is common in the Anglican/Episcopalian church. It was a period of change, backgrounded by the widening war.

Regarding the poem from this time, I choose to imagine Auden rambling, reminiscing, muttering to himself: “Around the rugged rocks the ragged rascal ran… Nice metre as well as alliteration and, for people with difficulty pronouncing their Rs, a twuly tewwible tongue-twister. Rhythmic, memorable. Nonsense; not meaningful, but not meaningless; nonsense and nursery rhymes are right on the border. And it splits in two, you could easily rhyme it: rocks, box, blocks, brocks, cocks, cox, clocks, crocks… ran, Ann, ban, bran, can, clan, cran… or easy to change to run, or runs. A lot of rhymes, anyway. Run them out, see what transpires.

Once we could have made the docks, / Now it is too late to fly; that adds another rhyme, not a problem, maybe a 6-line stanza. Once too often you and I / Did what we should not have done; and into the last two lines, have to fill them out a bit to maintain the metre, keep the alliteration of course: Round the rampant rugged rocks / Rude and ragged rascals run… So that’s all right, that would make an ending.

“Then of course we can have more stanzas leading up to it. Flick a bit of paint at the canvas, see what sort of patterns we can find to elaborate on. Time, decay, trepidation, warnings… out come the words and images around the rhymes, and suddenly it’s all as evocative and semi-coherent as a reading of tarot or yarrow or horoscope. Hm, tarot or yarrow, I hadn’t noticed that before, wonder if I can use that somewhere else…”

(Remember, this is a fantasy analysis, presupposing the poem to have been written with full skill to capture both rhymes and a mood, but without any serious intent beyond that. For a completely different intellectual analysis, you can always try this…)

Photo: “Jumble Box” by .daydreamer. is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Odd poem: ‘Changsha’ by Mao Zedong

Alone I stand in the autumn cold
On the tip of Orange Island,
The Xiang flowing northward;
I see a thousand hills crimsoned through
By their serried woods deep-dyed,
And a hundred barges vying
Over crystal blue waters.
Eagles cleave the air,
Fish glide under the shallow water;
Under freezing skies a million creatures contend in freedom.
Brooding over this immensity,
I ask, on this bondless land
Who rules over man’s destiny?
I was here with a throng of companions,
Vivid yet those crowded months and years.
Young we were, schoolmates,
At life’s full flowering;
Filled with student enthusiasm
Boldly we cast all restraints aside.
Pointing to our mountains and rivers,
Setting people afire with our words,
We counted the mighty no more than muck.
Remember still
How, venturing midstream, we struck the waters
And the waves stayed the speeding boats?

Mao Zedong wrote this poem in 1925, when he was 31. He had previously spent five years in Changsha at university, young, bold and enthusiastic. Now he returned, reflected, remembering his student days, pondering the land’s immensity and the nature of destiny, and he wrote his poem. And today the young Mao gazes again at the river from Orange Island… or would, if it wasn’t just a stone statue of his head.

Despite his revolutionary tendencies in other areas, Mao wrote in Classical Chinese verse. ‘Changsha’ is annotated “to the tune of Chin Yuan Chun”, marking it as belonging to the type of verse called tzu. The tzu originated in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE) as lines sung to certain tunes. Each tune prescribes a strict tonal pattern and rhyme scheme, with a fixed number of lines of a standardised varying length. Obviously, a translation into a European language is going to lose the structural form inherent in the original. Mao may not be one of the best Chinese poets, but his poems are generally considered to have literary quality. Arthur Waley, the eminent British translator of Chinese literature, however, described Mao’s poetry as “not as bad as Hitler’s paintings, but not as good as Churchill’s.”

Photo: “A young Chairman Mao” by timzachernuk is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Review: ‘Old and Bookish’ by George Simmers

George Simmers has chosen a title for his latest collection of poems that describes it very well: “Old and Bookish”; and also–if being merely in our 70s isn’t premature–self-deprecatingly describes himself. But though he writes with understanding about oldness and bookishness, he makes it clear that he is not being autobiographical: The first section is called “from The songs of the Old Man”, the title immediately followed by: “Note: The Old Man is not me, but I know how he feels.”

The Old Man Walks his Dog; The Old Man Visits a Very Old Woman; even The Old Man’s Song About the Crematorium… poems about the kind of thoughts the Old Man has:
Both the slutty and the proper,
Both the crooked and the copper,
Those who decorate interiors,
And the very very serious,
Both the fervent Corbynista
And her fashionista sister
Who’s obsessed by the length of a hem –
They’ll all end up at the crem crem crem
They’ll all end up at the crem.

That gives a sense of Simmers’ work–smooth and amused in rhythm and rhyme, in tone and in message. Or take The Old Man’s Heaven–how would a music lover imagine eternity in the afterlife? Discounting the “hoity-toity… operatic… Bayreuth-y” and the alternative punk “one long mosh pit”, the Old Man with gentle amusement envisages an older blonde in a piano bar:
With a voice of smoky yearning,
A lady who has seen too much,
But she keeps the old torch burning.

She sings that life is made for love,
And time will kill the pain.
She sings that though your love’s gone bad
You still should love again.
She sings that there is always hope
And those who love are wise.
Yes, I could spend eternity
Hearing those lovely lies.

The second section of the book moves away from the internal view of the Old Man to the external view of Some Oldies. It begins with Rachel, the most energised:
Old Rachel’s fierce and heavy-browed
Her views are strong; her voice is loud.
She says the councillors are crooks;
She says the mayor cooks the books.
She says the government’s a mess –
Don’t start her on the NHS –
While London, which survived the Blitz,
Is being bought by foreign shits,
By criminals and sheiks and sharks,
And kleptocrats and oligarchs…

and ends with Christopher, aware of his life winding down, dozing off with a smile
For he is entering a dream –
A joyous dream where he’s pursued
By several plump and laughing women
In the pink bumgorgeous nude.

The third, final, and largest section of the book is where we get to Bookish. Here are poems on poetry, on poets, on words, on English. There is a 26-line Elsinore Alphabet that starts at the beginning of Hamlet:
A is for armour, which kingly ghosts wear.
B is for battlements, where the guards stare.

and works its way through to the very end:
Y, they’re all dead as Yorick, once such a great hoot.
Z’s for zero plot left. Bid the soldier-chaps shoot.

There is two-page book review in limericks of a book of limericks. And there is my favourite poem of the book, ‘Poets in Residence’. Simmers having been a schoolteacher, he takes obvious delight in his tale of a headmaster who invites all the best English poets to the school. Here are eight of the 33 couplets:
Geoffrey Chaucer came first, on an equable horse,
And Spenser, and Marlowe, and Shakespeare, of course…
Keats arrived coughing, Kipling marched vigorously;
Matthew Arnold began to inspect the school rigorously…
Vaughan was ecstatic, though Clough was more sceptical.
Ernest Dowson puked up in a litter receptacle.
Coleridge sneaked off to discover the rates
Of an unshaven person outside the school gates…

Unfortunately for the Headmaster, there is a Romantic Revolt:
Shelley’d gathered the students out in the main quad,
And roused them to rise against school, Head, and God…
The bards of the thirties were equally Red,
And Milton explained how to chop off a head…
Soon the School was destroyed. Eliot paced through the waste,
And reflected with sorrow and learning and taste,
Which he fused in a poem, an excellent thing,
Though rather obscure and a little right-wing…

And the Head is left amidst the rubble, cursing all poets and poetry.

It all makes for a thoroughly enjoyable romp through the many aspects of ageing, viewed both internally and externally; and the consolations and disconsolations of poetry itself. It is an easy read, the ease belying the breadth and depth of Simmers’ thought, his lifetime of experience including the 25 years he has spent editing and publishing that excellent monthly online poetry magazine, Snakeskin.

Old and Bookish is an excellent and memorable collection of verse.

Even the cover illustration gets a little write-up at the end of the book, including a last poem by Simmers:

“I am very grateful to Bruce Bentzman for permission to use again his ‘Raven’ drawing, which made an earlier appearance in our Animals Like Reading collaboration. I approve of this bird, both for his obvious appetite for reading, and for his air of scepticism, which once inspired this rhyme:
‘Human nature? Bloody chronic!’ Raven caws in tones sardonic,
And adds: ‘I’ve read some rubbish as I’ve studied human lore,
But I’ve read no book that’s dopier than Sir Thomas More’s Utopia,
Which imagines human harmony and man (that carnivore!)
Being so nice to his neighbour he abjures all thoughts of war.’
Quoth the raven: ‘Never, More.’

And as for that Raven’s comment about warfare: it should be noted finally that George Simmers also authors a blog called Great War Fiction plus which focuses on fiction of the First World War, but also goes off on whatever tangents seem interesting.

Sonnets: ‘Confronting Churches and the Void’

A man-like god creates the universe?
Two hundred billion galaxies? Each holding
a hundred billion stars? And each star moulding
its planets into life, teeming, diverse!
All this from some bearded old angry face
who says “Build me a temple, pray, and pay
the priests who’ll guide you onto Heaven’s way,
erase your sins . . . or you’ll go in disgrace
to torment underground — eternally.”
No way your life gains from such small belief,
passed on by some royal or holy thief
who says “God wants your money, send it me —
my palace honours Him . . .” The human lurches
fearful, confused, through wastes of wasteful churches.

As social animals, we find our place
by walling others out, putting them down:
these walls, my family; those walls, my town.
Even more walls: tribe, country, faith or race.
This atavism’s bad for mental health,
supports no sense of personal strengths or meaning,
allows no purpose, individual leaning,
denies achievement to your inner self.
Identity’s reduced to football fan,
or something uniformed, or some group prayer;
without those — alcohol, drugs or despair,
not knowing how to move past Nowhere Man.
Know yourself, human, to confront the Void:
your proper study’s all that’s anthropoid.

You can think of these two sonnets as the result of ten years of Church of England boarding school–five years in Jamaica, five in England–where Scripture lessons and daily church services were complemented by solid science and rigourous literature. And of course the Church of England recognises no Pope except the man who wrote “Know then thyself, presume not God to scan; the proper study of Mankind is Man.” So here you see the fruits of a well-rounded education.

This poem has just been published in Better Than Starbucks, a remarkably extensive poetry journal (and with some fiction too). The bulk of my BTS-published poems are in the Formal Poetry section, but there are many other sections–it’s a 100-page magazine. The online version is free, and well worth exploring.

“stepping across the bridge” by Max Nathan is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Political poem: Amanda Gorman’s ‘The Hill We Climb’, excerpts

First: a warning: I haven’t seen the printed version, but I have modified a transcription to try to catch the essence of the various types of wordplay that the poet engaged in, with bold for rhyme and italics for alliteration and repetition. These excerpts are from the earlier parts of her poem, skipping some less poetic portions.

When day comes we ask ourselves where can we find light in this never-ending shade?
The loss we carry, a sea we must wade.
We’ve braved the belly of the beast.
We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace.
In the norms and notions
of what just is
isn’t always justice.
And yet, the dawn is ours before we knew it.
Somehow we do it.

And yes, we are far from polished,
far from
pristine,
but that doesn’t mean
we are striving to form
a union that is perfect.
We are striving to forge
our union with purpose.
To compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters, and conditions of man.
And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us,
but what stands before us.
We close the divide
because we know to put our future first, we must first put our differences aside.
We lay down our arms
so we can reach out our arms
to one another. We seek harm
to none and harmony
for all. Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true.
That even as we grieved, we grew.
That even as we hurt,
we hoped.

That even as we tired,
we tried
that will forever be tied
together victorious. Not because we will never again know defeat,
but because we will never again sow division.

Scripture tells us to envision
that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree and no one shall make them afraid.
If we’re to live up to her own time, then victory won’t lie in the blade,
but in all the bridges we’ve made.
That is the promise to glade
the hill we climb if only we dare. It’s because being American is more than a pride we inherit.
It’s the past we step into and how we repair it.
We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation rather than share it.
Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy. This effort very nearly succeeded.

Amanda Gorman’s poem for President Biden’s inauguration was an extremely well received performance of Spoken Word. As the Wikipedia entry states, Spoken Word focuses on “the aesthetics of recitation and word play, such as the performer’s live intonation and voice inflection.” With its roots in preliterate societies, it searches for all possible tricks for both capturing the audience’s attention, and making it easier to memorise the words. Amanda Gorman did this extremely well in her recitation, with clarity and with effective pacing, pausing and emphasis, carrying the thoughts along in a chant-like flow of rhymes, half-rhymes, puns and alliteration. It was a superb piece of Spoken Word, and left listeners enthused and uplifted. It was perfect for the mood of the inauguration.

But it wasn’t flawless. In places either the transcription is flawed or the poet has sacrificed meaning for the sake of a rhyme. Take “even as we tired, we tried that will forever be tied together victorious”. There is a flow of suggestion that imparts a meaning, but looked at under a bright light the words sound like those of a drunk.

Or take the rhyme sequence “afraid, blade, made, glade”. OK, but I stumbled over “That is the promise to glade”. Perhaps she means “the promise to make an open clearing through the forested hill we are climbing.” My bias is that I think of a glade as a flat clearing in woodland–I didn’t see the meaning of the verb she created, I didn’t think of a hill being climbed as being forested, but that may all be my problem. Similarly, I like the rhyming of “inherit” with “repair it” and “share it”; but what does this mean: “We’ve seen a force that (…) would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy.” This is clumsy. It’s not clear exactly what is being said. If “would” means “is intended to”, then presumably she should have inverted the phrase: the force wanted to delay democracy, even if it meant destroying the country. Yet it is clearly all part of a political message: the end of Trump’s deliberate White America divisiveness, a return to the modern world’s multiethnic inclusiveness. As she triumphantly ends her piece:

The new dawn blooms as we free it.
For there is always light.
If only we’re brave enough to see it.
If only we’re brave enough to be it.

So we have an inspiring piece of performance art, of spoken word, by a 22-year-old who has a lot of talent and a great stage presence. I’m sure we’ll hear a lot more from her. But I suspect that if her words are to last, she will have to develop a stronger control of meaning. The jagged nature of her lines is not a problem; the lack of structure to her rhyme is not a problem; in some ways she seems close to Old English and other Germanic poetry with their emphasis on a heavy beat (rather than a set number of syllables), and a long way from the “modern poetry” that, without metre or rhyme, tries to get an effect by being laid out provocatively on a page.

Amanda Gorman is an interesting but unformed poet, and a superb presenter. You can see the recitation here towards the bottom of The Guardian coverage. And the full transcript is here.

Political poem: Leonard Cohen, ‘Democracy’

It’s coming through a hole in the air
From those nights in Tiananmen Square
It’s coming from the feel
That it ain’t exactly real
Or it’s real, but it ain’t exactly there;
From the war against disorder
From the sirens night and day
From the fires of the homeless
From the ashes of the gay
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

It’s coming through a crack in the wall
On a visionary flood of alcohol
From the staggering account
Of the Sermon on the Mount
Which I don’t pretend to understand at all;
It’s coming from the silence
On the dock of the bay
From the brave, the bold, the battered
Heart of Chevrolet
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A

It’s coming from the sorrow in the street
The holy places where the races meet
From the homicidal bitchin’
That goes down in every kitchen
To determine who will serve and who will eat;
From the wells of disappointment
Where the women kneel to pray
For the grace of God in the desert here
And the desert far away
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

Sail on, sail on
O mighty ship of state!
To the shores of need
Past the reefs of greed
Through the squalls of hate
Sail on, sail on, sail on…

It’s coming to America first
The cradle of the best and of the worst
It’s here they got the range
And the machinery for change
And it’s here they got the spiritual thirst;
It’s here the family’s broken
And it’s here the lonely say
That the heart has got to open
In a fundamental way
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

It’s coming from the women and the men
Oh baby, we’ll be making love again
We’ll be going down so deep
The river’s going to weep
And the mountain’s going to shout Amen!
It’s coming like the tidal flood
Beneath the lunar sway
Imperial, mysterious
In amorous array
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

The United States is a “flawed democracy” (as defined by The Economist Intelligence Unit, see below). “Democracy” was written by the Canadian poet/singer/novelist Leonard Cohen over three years in the early 1990s. The song as we have it was boiled down from some 60 verses, scattered through seven or eight notebooks. In his book “Songwriters On Songwriting” he explains, “This was when the Berlin Wall came down and everyone was saying democracy is coming to the east. And I was like that gloomy fellow who always turns up at a party to ruin the orgy or something. And I said, ‘I don’t think it’s going to happen that way. I don’t think this is such a good idea. I think a lot of suffering will be the consequence of this wall coming down.'”

There are so many strong lines in this poem that, although written 30 years ago, resonate today. I particularly like

It’s coming from the sorrow in the street
The holy places where the races meet

and the mention of America as

The cradle of the best and of the worst

as well as the timeless, human dynamic of

From the homicidal bitchin’
That goes down in every kitchen
To determine who will serve and who will eat;

Photo: A map of the world showing the results of The Economist’s Democracy Index survey for 2016. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. The USA has been stuck in the third tier for the past few years, scoring below 8 on a 10-point scale. Those in the first tier, scoring above 9, are the five Nordic countries plus New Zealand, Australia, Ireland, Canada, Switzerland and the Netherlands.

Note that almost all of the top tier countries use some form of Proportional Representation (PR) to elect their governments. Several of their parliaments include parties with Trump-style xenophobic parties, because it is important to include representatives of all opinions in a democracy. But with PR the most extreme parties of right and left are unlikely to be included in a government, let alone dominate it. With PR the parliament gets the benefit of hearing all concerns and points of view, and the voters get the opportunity to vote more closely for who they want: a choice of libertarian, fundamentalist, green communist, as well as more mainstream conservative, liberal or social democrat. Voter turnout is naturally higher than in a two-party system which fails to address the interests of a large percentage of the population.

Other points that can be made from looking at the truest democracies: 1) Unicameral structures score best, meaning the US could have just the House, no Senate. 2) There is no need for separation of the Executive and Legislative functions; separating them doesn’t provide any benefit, despite the holy mantra of “checks and balances”, it merely destroys efficiency and obfuscates responsibility and encourages confrontation. 3) The Judiciary should not be appointed by the government, it functions best if it is developed with true independence within its own legal system.

The American system is an interesting historical artifact, but long outdated and highly counterproductive to good government. When Americans have written new constitutions for countries that they have taken over, the results have not been good. They should let the Scandinavians do it.

I recommend watching the Danish TV series ‘Borgen‘ (it has English subtitles) for a practical view of a single-chamber, multiparty system of coalition government.

Political poem: Shelley’s ‘England in 1819’

An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying king,–
Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow
Through public scorn, mud from a muddy spring,–
Rulers who neither see, nor feel, nor know,
But leech-like to their fainting country cling,
Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow,–
A people starved and stabbed in the untilled field,–
An army which liberticide and prey
Makes as a two-edged sword to all who wield,–
Golden and sanguine laws which tempt and slay;
Religion Christless, Godless, a book sealed,–
A Senate—Time’s worst statute unrepealed,–
Are graves from which a glorious Phantom may
Burst to illumine our tempestuous day.

Shelley wrote this sonnet in 1819 in response to the Peterloo Massacre: a peaceful crowd of 60,000 had gathered in Manchester to call electoral reform, but were charged into by a local Yeomanry regiment, and then by a cavalry regiment of the King’s Hussars with sabres drawn. Official numbers show 18 people killed, including several women, and 400 to 700 injured: bayoneted, sabred, knocked down, trampled.

Shelley blames the mad King George III and his sons (including of course the Regent, the future George IV), and the ruling class in a time of unemployment and economic recession, and further blames the illiberal army, and harsh laws, and morality-free religion, and a Parliament that was refusing all civil rights to Catholics. They might all be graves of corruption, but Shelley hopes that from their decay will come a glorious new spirit to brighten the world.

Not all of the poem resonates with any particular political situation in the world today; but “an old, mad, blind, despised and dying king”… well, that’s certainly the impression given by the White House in early 2021.

Technically: the sonnet is in iambic pentameter as you would expect, but the rhyme scheme is unconventional: ababab cdcdccdd. The illustration is an engraving of George III in later life, by Henry Meyer.

Review: ‘Beowulf’, translated by Seamus Heaney

I can’t imagine a better version of Beowulf than this brilliant rendition into appropriately alliterative verse by Nobel prizewinning poet Seamus Heaney, with full colour photographs on alternating pages of the massive 3,000-line poem. It has the rhythm of the original, it is essentially faithful to the original, and the illustrations (even more than the notes) give a sense of landscape, ships, weapons, jewelry, halls, etc that helps bring the entire story to life.

The story itself is in three parts: Beowulf travels from what is now Sweden to help the king of the Danes against a monster, Grendel, that is attacking and devouring his people, and Beowulf defeats Grendel by tearing an arm off. Gifts are given, and everyone relaxes. However Grendel’s mother comes the next night seeking revenge, and Beowulf goes after her the next day, diving into her murky pool and killing her with a sword. More gifts are given, and Beowulf returns home. Fifty years later Beowulf, now himself a king, goes to fight a dragon that has been roused and is pillaging the countryside; he fights the dragon and they kill each other; the dragon’s hoard is buried with Beowulf in the tomb that is built for him.

The historical persons in the tale, and the Danish king’s hall at Lejre, date to the mid-6th century. Then and for the next 500 years Scandinavia was innocent of Christianity, and the warrior society and the constant blood-feuds are a part of the story. But the poem as we have it have it was apparently composed in the 9th century in Christiansed England, and the will of a very Old Testament God is referenced throughout as overruling the abilities of humans. This feels like no more than an unimportant veneer of a modern religion over a Scandinavian sense of weird, wyrd, or destiny.

The poem is important as the beginning of English poetry, and its place and relevance is heightened by Heaney’s long and delightful introduction in which he details how he, as a Northern Ireland Catholic who felt deprived of his Gaelic birthright, came to fuse Gaelic, Old English and modern English into a sense of community and identity.

So because of the Introduction and the photos and illustrations as well as the superbly rhythmic and semi-alliterative translation, this is the Beowulf if you want a Beowulf!

Review: ‘A Little History of Poetry’ by John Carey

A fascinating overview of the history of world poetry with a decidedly Anglo-American slant, very engaging and informative and yet inevitably irritating for wasting space on some aspects while ignoring other favourite poets–depending on the reader’s bias, of course.

Consisting of 40 seven- or eight-page chapters, the book leads with Gilgamesh and information new to me despite my familiarity with the poem; then the Greek and Latin classics, where I am vaguely interested but uninformed; then Anglo-Saxon poetry where I am incited to read more. And so it goes: a bit of this, a bit of that, with a lot of chatty biographical tidbits, clarifying who I want to read more of (Chaucer, Wordsworth, Hardy, the Thirties Poets, the Movement), confirming who is of no interest to me (Spenser, Milton, American Modernists, American Confessional poets). The chapter on Dickinson and Whitman had a very useful perspective; the one on Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop was a waste of space. There seemed less insight in general as we moved into the 20th century, especially regarding American poets.

One thing that surprised me was to find how the hymns quoted in the chapter ‘Communal Poetry’–‘When I survey the wondrous cross’, ‘Rock of ages, cleft for me’, ‘Amazing grace’, ‘Abide with me’–summoned up my decade of boarding school’s daily religion and made for a long meditation on the role of religious poetry in the forced familiarity with meter and rhyme. It almost justifies daily church attendance. But missing from this History is the similar role in other religions: the hymns of Hinduism, the Hebrew chants, the hypnotic rhythm and rhyme of the Quran… all aspects of verse being used to make a message word-for-word memorable, all building the use of poetry.

The other omissions were of English-language poets outside the Anglo(including Irish)-American sphere: I think McCrae is the only Canadian mentioned (for ‘In Flanders Field’), and Claude McKay (who?) and Derek Walcott the only other Commonwealth poets; also missing are modern ballad-writing poets like Bob Dylan; and, my particular peeve, no mention of either e.e. cummings or Gwendolyn Brooks.

I find Brooks and cummings the greatest American poets of the 20th century with the exception of Auden and Eliot (however you like to classify their nationalities). Their omission may reflect ignorance on the part of author John Carey, or they may have been left out as not fitting into his groupings of Modernists and members of the Harlem Renaissance. Whatever the reason, it’s a major flaw… in what is still a highly readable and rereadable history.

Political poem: Hilaire Belloc, on elections

The accursed power which stands on Privilege
(And goes with Women, and Champagne, and Bridge)
Broke–and Democracy resumed her reign:
(Which goes with Bridge, and Women and Champagne).

The precise phrasing of Hilaire Belloc‘s little squib may have been outdated by the likes of Margaret Thatcher, Angela Merkel and Kamala Harris… but the complaint by the common voter (or disillusioned non-voter) is valid, that professional politicians live in a very comfortable club that takes care of all its members regardless of who actually wins an election; and no fundamental change occurs.

A nice little quatrain, iambic pentameter, the simplicity strengthened by the bite of the repetition contradicting the idea of change. Easy to remember and quote because – of course – it rhymes and scans.

“2009 Five Presidents, President George W. Bush, President Elect Barack Obama, Former Presidents George H W Bush, Bill Clinton & Jimmy Carter, Standing” by Beverly & Pack is marked with CC PDM 1.0