Category Archives: poets

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.

Launch: Potcake Chapbook 10, ‘Travels and Travails’

Maybe it’s just wishful thinking, but surely we’re going to get back to casual international travel again some day soon? The 10th chapbook in the Potcake series is now being mailed out from London, and I trust it augurs well for the happily peripatetic. As usual, the chapbook contains an assortment of the bright (D.A. Prince), the dark (Tom Vaughan) and the flippant (Max Gutmann), with everything in between, and all in rhythm and rhyme–and illustrated of course by Alban Low!

Returning poets are A.E. Stallings, John Beaton, Julia Griffin, Anthony Lombardy, Marilyn L. Taylor, D.A. Prince and Tom Vaughan; joining them are Amit Majmudar, Mike Cooper, Jean L. Kreiling, Ed Shacklee and Max Gutmann. (The links in the names are a mixture of websites, bios, and places to buy their books.) Most, but not all, of the poets are listed on Sampson Low’s webpage of Potcake Poets.

Let’s get everyone vaccinated so we can all start travelling again!

Evocative Fragments: Edward Lear

When awful darkness and silence reign
Over the great Gromboolian plain,
Through the long, long wintry nights; —
When the angry breakers roar
As they beat on the rocky shore; —
When Storm-clouds brood on the towering heights
Of the Hills of the Chankly Bore: —

Then, through the vast and gloomy dark,
There moves what seems a fiery spark,
A lonely spark with silvery rays
Piercing the coal-black night, —
A Meteor strange and bright: —
Hither and thither the vision strays,
A single lurid light.

It is, of course, the Dong With a Luminous Nose, wandering crazed through the forests seeking the Jumblie Girl he fell in love with. Edward Lear’s verse is known for its frivolous characters, actions and names, and his scribbly little drawings. But ignore the drawing and note the skill and control, the emotional pull, of the two stanzas above (even if he does sabotage them with words like “Gromboolian”). Similarly he was a remarkable artist when he wanted to be: one of the world’s great ornithological painters, a wonderful landscape artist, and well-enough respected to have given Queen Victoria a dozen lessons in drawing and watercolours in 1846.

Nonsense poetry in itself is a wonderful way to introduce children to literature, if it is handled as skilfully and, yes, emotionally as Lear does with his nonsense poems of travel, romance, heartbreak, and finding (or failing to find) lasting happiness.

Evocative Fragments: from Arnold’s ‘A Summer Night’ (2)

And the rest, a few,
Escape their prison and depart
On the wide ocean of life anew.
There the freed prisoner, where”er his heart
Listeth, will sail;
Nor doth he know how there prevail,
Despotic on that sea,
Trade-winds which cross it from eternity.
Awhile he holds some false way, undebarred
By thwarting signs, and braves
The freshening wind and blackening waves.
And then the tempest strikes him; and between
The lightning-bursts is seen
Only a driving wreck,
And the pale master on his spar-strewn deck
With anguished face and flying hair
Grasping the rudder hard,
Still bent to make some port he knows not where,
Still standing for some false, impossible shore.
And sterner comes the roar
Of sea and wind, and through the deepening gloom
Fainter and fainter wreck and helmsman loom,
And he too disappears, and comes no more.

This fragment is the response to the previous fragment from Matthew Arnold’s ‘A Summer Night’ that I blogged a few days ago. As a teen in a well-regimented boarding school I found that previous fragment terrifying with its prospect of living as a bored wage-slave forever, and this second fragment exhilarating in its freedom despite the expectation of catastrophe. Altogether a very subversive poem, and I thank my schooling for including such works. For the next couple of decades I followed its path, failing to earn a degree at universities in three countries, never holding a job for more than 18 months, frequently moving. Eventually I found an occupation that was constantly changing, where I was my own boss, and that took me to dozens of countries to teach business seminars. So it all worked out.

Arnold originally ended his poem:

Is there no life, but these alone?
Madman or slave must man be one?

but ten years later added a much more wishy-washy piece about learning from the pure heavens and seeing what a nice life you could make for yourself. I always thought he should have stopped with the original “madman or slave” view of life. Much more dramatic – even though I have to admit his addition may have been justified.

“Storm at Sea” by gentlemanbeggar is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Anomalous First Lines: Eliot’s ‘Prufrock’

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;

There are two points of interest in the first line of T.S. Eliot’s first professionally published poem, ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’. The first is the identity of Prufrock’s companion – never specified, it is normally assumed to be the reader of the poem, but it could equally be another person, or creature, or good luck charm, or hat, or umbrella, or even the Muse of Poetry herself. It plays no further part in the story and yet, well, it’s there for reasons of rhetoric or invocation.

The second point is grammatical. The line is so embedded in English poetry that it seems sacrosanct, but periodically someone will point out that it should be “you and me”. Consider these sentences: “Let me go to the store for you.” “Let us go to the store.” “Let’s you and me go to the store.” In all examples, “me” and “us” are the objects of the verb “let”; there is no occasion for “you and I” any more than there is for writing “we” instead of “us”. You wouldn’t say “Let we go to the store.”

Caveat: perhaps a Jamaican would. So Prufrock in patois could begin, “Mek we go den, you an I” or in deference to my Rastafarian brethren, “Mek we go den, you an I an I.” But other than in patois? No, it should be “you and me”.

So why did Eliot write “you and I”? It makes a useful rhyme as part of the startling image that follows. Those who debate this issue often come up with alternative opening lines with a rhyme for either “me” or “you”. Thomas Middleton in the L.A. Times suggests:

Let us go, then, you and me,
When the evening is suspended from a tree
Like a horse thief or a swing put up for children.

while Peter De Vries has offered:

Leave us go then, me and you,
When the evening is dropped like an old shoe,
The first of what must inevitably be two.

Eliot’s version seems better, even if grammatically dubious. However it still grates. And it has the feeling of a class issue. Against the lower-class “you and me” used as a subject–“You and me gonna fight about this”–the upper-class reaction is to use “you and I” pretentiously on all possible occasions, even as an object. But that would suggest that Eliot was a snob… or J. Alfred Prufrock is, at the very least… and I think the voices are the same.

Short Poem: ‘For Eliot’

I guess
Success
Not elation
Or creation
Alone may men not mock;

God bless
T.S.,
Spared the temptation
Of our generation —
Writing rhymes for rock.

First published in Metverse Muse in India. As you might guess, I wrote this before Andrew Lloyd Webber set that “Old Possum” T.S. Eliot‘s rhymes to music for the West End and Broadway hit Cats, disturbing everyone (except the Poetry Foundation)’s understanding of both Eliot and musicals.

Photo: “T.S. Eliot” by duncan is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Review: Max Gutmann, ‘Light and Comic Verse’

Quirkily-workily
Jorge Bergolio,
On a career path with
Quite a steep slope,

Unostentatiously
Worked as a janitor,
Then as a bouncer, and
Then as the Pope.

This elegant double dactyl on the life of Pope Francis is representative of ‘The Hearthside Treasury of Light and Comic Verse’: interesting, witty, technically perfect. The poems include limericks, clerihews, varieties of ballades, and are purported to be written by a variety of poets, several of whom are claimed to be the first-ever winner of the prestigious Blackfrier Prize for Poetry. The book’s veneer of being ‘edited by Max Gutmann’ is worn even thinner with the bio of his least likely poet, Ed Winters… “A devotee of Hemingway, Hart Crane and Sylvia Plath, Winters shot himself in the mouth while diving from a ship with his head in an oven.”

The book includes two pages of riddles in rhyme, of enjoyable difficulty: half were guessable for me, half not. There is also a full-length Poe parody (‘Quoth the Parrot: “Cracker. Now!”); scenes from The Merchant of Venice, King Lear and Titus Andronicus rewritten by W.S. Gilbert; outrage at the Trump presidency, the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, and the US Supreme Court’s appalling excuse for subverting the 2000 Presidential election; a poem appropriately written in the form of a dozen eggs; and various puns, off-colour jokes and random surprises. Many of the poems have previously appeared in Light poetry magazine, many others in a range from Asses of Parnassus to the Washington Post.

As for “The Hearthside Treasury” part of the book’s title… though there was (or is) a Hearthside Press, active from the mid-1950s to mid-70s; and an unrelated Hearthside Books, active from the mid-70s to the present, sort of; this “Hearthside Treasury” appears unconnected to anything. Indeed, it’s not even available on Amazon. It doesn’t have an ISBN. All this is a pity, as it is as enjoyable a book of light and comic verse as you can find anywhere. If you want a copy – and if you enjoy comic verse you really ought to have one – you’re going to have to contact the author directly through his website (which mostly focuses on his plays) at maxgutmann.com