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The precise phrasing of Hilaire Belloc‘s little squib may have been outdated by the likes of Margaret Thatcher, Angela Merkel and Kamala Harris… but the complaint by the common voter (or disillusioned non-voter) is valid, that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

Poem: ‘Hobo’

Come you young gunsel and sit by my fire of old skids.
They don’t like you in school, not the teachers and not other kids.
You’re different, I know it, you’re wise in that body of yours
that has grown past their rules and your parents’ commandments and chores.
Have a smoke, have a drink, you can tell me of pills that are new.
Here you’re safe in the open, I’m staying a night, maybe two.
We can share all you want, for the sadness you know I have known,
and the paths that you fear are the strictures that I have outgrown
and the dreams in your mind I now live on the paths that I roam,
for the life that I live is a life where the world is my home.
So go home, go to school, and come back in the evening again.
I’ll be here for a while, until I get on the next train
and you’ll stay, more mature, and experienced in a new world –
or you’ll come on that train, and you’ll see the whole country unfurled –
and you’ll end up like me, and your friends will be such as you were.

This poem was originally published in Rat’s Ass Review, a long string of poems both formal and free, ordered alphabetically by author. As suggested by its name, the magazine’s editors don’t give a rat’s ass for anyone’s opinions or objections, they publish whatever appeals to them. You will find a random mix of work, much of it edgy, much of it about sex and love and death.

I don’t think of myself as a hobo–although, yes, I have jumped a freight train as part of my hitchhiking 25,000 miles on four continents, back before I became a respectable management consultant… But I have great affection for W.H. Davies, a fine nature poet and the author of the superb ‘Autobiography of a Super-Tramp‘.

‘Hobo’ has elements of anti-establishment and counter-culture; and they in turn are part of the human social animal’s constant dialogue between alienation and the search for community. Or, say, about wanting to be free but still have friends. Technically it is written in anapaestic pentameter–each line having five feet of da-da-DUM (with casual exceptions, of course). I don’t have a strong sense of this being the most appropriate metre for this piece, but it feels conversational and flowing. It’s comparatively unusual for me, I normally write in iambics. But the form of a poem is determined for me by the first phrases that occur to me, and that is presumably what happened here.

Photo: “Hobo sitting on a fence, ca.1920 (CHS-1428)” by  is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Political poem: Hilaire Belloc’s epitaph on a politician

Here richly, with ridiculous display,
The Politician’s corpse was laid away.
While all of his acquaintance sneered and slanged
I wept: for I had longed to see him hanged.

The US and UK have been so polarised for the past several years that it seems everyone has a politician they would like to see executed–or jailed at the very least. But this is neither a recent phenomenon nor a merely Anglo-American one. All round the world notorious pillagers of their countries go to the grave with great pomp, while most of their countrymen and -women are simply glad that they are finally going.

This sarcastic little poem by Anglo-French writer Hilaire Belloc suggests two things: that all successful political leaders are loathed by a large percentage of the population; and that to make your sarcastic comment truly memorable if it is more than five or six words long, you do well to put it in verse. The rhyme and meter not only make the words easier to remember, they also lend a magical impression of inevitability and authenticity to the idea expressed. Well-constructed verse provides a fraudulent but powerful proof that the idea expressed is valid. Rhetoric and oratory inhabit this area also. Well-expressed ideas have more credibility than badly expressed ones, regardless of the relative merits of the ideas themselves.

Perhaps we should count ourselves lucky that few politicians exhibit much interest in poetry…

Photo: “President Cyril Ramaphosa attends former President Robert Mugabé’s State Funeral in Harare” by GovernmentZA is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Poem: ‘Winter Night Roads’

Full midnight moon on fields that yield but snows,
Air apple-clean, crisp, sweet
In lungs and nose,
The only sound your feet
Past silent woods –
Inhaling moods and modes
Of midnight roads.

In twenty minutes, you hear only this:
A dog bark twice. An owl hoot once.
A horse snort by a fence.
Some heavy breath behind a hedge: a cow.
A mile away a car’s lights show, then go.
You walk unknown, alone, towards some place
With light and life, perhaps a warm cafe
To make a break in travelling towards day.

This quiet little winter poem (sorry about the timing, Australia…) was first published in The Orchards Poetry Journal. The editors tend toward the bucolic and the formal… but they make exceptions, thank goodness, because this piece is not quite formal. It may be in iambics, but without a pattern to the line length or to what rhyme there is.

But it’s true to the winter outdoor experience–and pleasant enough, so long as you have good boots and adequate clothes!

Photo: “Moonlight” by Jyrki Salmi is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Poem: ‘Politics’

He played the game and loved its vicious tricks,
deceit, despair, all power-politics;
and made good progress, never in retreat,
with no despair at politics’ deceit…
and now still climbs that endless rain-slick stair
of power-politics, deceit, despair.

If you search for photos of politicians, this is the kind of thing you get… There are (occasionally) really, really good people who devote their lives to trying to improve their part of the world; but… Anyway, it seems like a good time to blog this poem!

This short piece was originally published in Snakeskin. Couplets of iambic pentameter, with politics, deceit and despair in the second line of every couplet and providing the rhymes. But you could see that.

Photo: “President Trump at the Israel Museum. Jerusalem May 23, 2017 President Trump at the Israel Museum. Jerusalem May 23, 2017” by U.S. Embassy Jerusalem is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Odd poem: ‘The Influenza’ by Winston Churchill, age 15

Oh how shall I its deeds recount
        Or measure the untold amount
        Of ills that it has done?
        From China’s bright celestial land
        E’en to Arabia’s thirsty sand
        It journeyed with the sun.

I omit the next nine stanzas, as the influenza makes its way to Britain. The poem ends:

        For though it ravaged far and wide
        Both village, town and countryside,
        Its power to kill was o’er;
        And with the favouring winds of Spring
        (Blest is the time of which I sing)
        It left our native shore.

        God shield our Empire from the might
        Of war or famine, plague or blight
        And all the power of Hell,
        And keep it ever in the hands
        Of those who fought ‘gainst other lands,
        Who fought and conquered well.

Written in 1890 when he was a lazy 15-year-old Harrow schoolboy who did badly at everything except English, Winston Churchill partially redeemed himself with this prizewinning poem on the global influenza epidemic (which may have been a Coronavirus) of his day. This “Asiatic Flu” or “Russian Flu” killed about a million people worldwide.

The photograph shows Churchill in his school clothes at age 14.

So there you have him: a teenage Churchill, with excellent control of English and an early exposition of his oratory, bombast, nationalism, imperialism, and enjoyment of warfare. And fifty years later he did brilliantly for Britain in the Second World War (but thank goodness for Clement Attlee picking up the pieces afterwards).

Potcake Chapbooks: Updated Call for Submissions

The “Potcake Chapbook” series is named for the dogs of the Bahamas and the Caribbean – strays that live off the burnt scrapings of cooking pots. The poems in the series are a mixed bunch – but the potcake of our logo wears a bow tie to show that he and all the poems are formal. These poems are memorable in part because they rhyme and scan, as all truly memorable (i.e. easily memorisable) poetry does. We subscribe to the use of form, no matter how formless the times in which we live.

Potcakes hunt around the back streets and beaches, looking for something unguarded to eat. Like a potcake, I’m always looking to see if there is some good poem to carry off. The plans for the chapbooks are a bit sketchy, always changing–everything depends on what I run across and what Alban Low would like to illustrate. Perhaps half the poems we have published have come from my poking around back issues of online poetry magazines; and the other half have come from material that has been sent for me to look at.

When there is enough good material on a single theme to fill 13 pages of a chapbook (still leaving room for Alban’s work, of course), then it may become the next project. But until a chapbook actually goes to print everything is subject to change. An even better poem may show up and displace one tentatively placed. A slew (or slough) of poems on a new theme may cause a reprioritisation of planned chapbooks.

This is one of the reasons that I prefer to consider only poems that have already been published–so that I don’t feel guilty about having a bunch of poems that will sit with me for months, years, and may or may not be included in the Potcake series. I have flagged a thousand poems that interest me; but I can only publish a dozen in a chapbook, and only a few chapbooks will get produced in a year.

However I am always keen to read and consider rhymed and metered verse that has already been published. There are several chapbooks that are jostling in the queue for completion and publication:

Travels and Travails (travel)
City! O city! (urban life)
Just a Little Naughty
Portraits Unpleasant
Various Heresies (religion)
Lost Loves
The Horror of Spring! (seasons)

and there are more; but the next one in the series, to come out early in 2021, will be one of science fiction, tentatively ‘Rockets and Robots’. Like all the chapbooks listed above, it is nearly full already. As with all of them, if I run across another poem I really like, I’ll include it.

Poems in the chapbooks run from two or three lines to some 40 lines in length–obviously, with space at a premium, poems over 20 lines and running over one page are less likely to be included… but it does happen. Other criteria: I’m looking for wit, elegance, a variety of traditional and nonce forms, a variety of voices and moods: happy, sad, angry, sardonic, meditative… anything interesting I can scrounge. If you have something you think I might like, on any topic, please send it along to robinhelweglarsen@gmail.com

I can’t promise to use it, but I will read it and reply!

Odd poem: 19th century Science Fiction by Tennyson

For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see,
Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be;

Saw the heavens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails,
Pilots of the purple twilight dropping down with costly bales;

Heard the heavens fill with shouting, and there rain’d a ghastly dew
From the nations’ airy navies grappling in the central blue;

Far along the world-wide whisper of the south-wind rushing warm,
With the standards of the peoples plunging thro’ the thunder-storm;

Till the war-drum throbb’d no longer, and the battle-flags were furl’d
In the Parliament of man, the Federation of the world.

There the common sense of most shall hold a fretful realm in awe,
And the kindly earth shall slumber, lapt in universal law.

This excerpt from Tennyson’s ‘Locksley Hall’ has a steampunk feel to it–“the nations’ airy navies grappling”–what exactly did he imagine? The hot air balloons that had been developed in the previous century, now using grappling hooks and rifles in their battles? And it ends not with a talking-shop United Nations, but with a World Federal Government… It is quite a vision from the young Tennyson; and this slice of the poem has taken on a life of its own, quite distinct from the general ranting about his failed love affair which is the theme of ‘Locksley Hall’.

The full poem contains well-known lines such as

In the Spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love;

and the poet foresees his former lover, now married to a man he dislikes, in a poor relationship:

He will hold thee, when his passion shall have spent its novel force,
Something better than his dog, a little dearer than his horse
.

A situation which he thinks she deserves, and which brings out his (pre-)Victorian misogynism:

Woman is the lesser man, and all thy passions, match’d with mine,
Are as moonlight unto sunlight, and as water unto wine—

So we can leave all that alone, and just look at his science fiction passage: the skies filling with commerce and warfare, before the world achieves global peace and quiet. A nice vision of a young man in his mid-20s, writing two years before Victoria became queen. 1835 is quite early. For comparison Jules Verne, often called “the Father of Science Fiction”, was only seven years old when Tennyson wrote ‘Locksley Hall’. But that hardly makes Tennyson unique as a prophet: Mary Shelley had published ‘Frankenstein’ in 1818, and her apocalyptic dystopian ‘The Last Man’ in 1826. And fantastical speculation goes back a lot further, to at least the 2nd century with the bizarre work of Lucian of Samosata, an Assyrian who wrote A True Story. But at least compared with Lucian, Tennyson was on the right track, with a little more science to back his fiction.

Photo: “steampunk attack” by tom.keil is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Poem: ‘Poems Like Mice’

Poems should be concise:
quick, small, like mice.
Then one day you find
they’ve made a nest in your mind.

I seem to be writing shorter, more epigrammatic verse recently. Probably influenced by reading too much FitzGerald/Khayyam.

This little poem was published in the December 2020 issue of Snakeskin–which celebrates 25 years as a monthly online poetry magazine, presumably the oldest (or rather “the most venerable”) such magazine in the world. Congratulations to its creator and sustainer, George Simmers!

Photo: “Look at the cute mouse ^^” by letmehearyousaydeskomdeskom is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Review: Fitzgerald’s ‘Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam’

FitzGerald’s version of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat is one of the glories of English poetry. It has contributed more phrases and common quotations to the language, relative to its size, than any other piece of literature – including the Bible and Shakespeare. “A flask of wine, a book of verse, and thou”… “The Moving Finger writes; and having writ // Moves on”… and so on.

FitzGerald came out with five editions of the Rubaiyat (the fifth being posthumous), with 75 four-line stanzas in the first edition, then tinkering with it for the rest of his life: adding another 30 stanzas, subtracting again, and constantly modifying words, phrases and punctuation. The first edition has several things in its favour: succinctness, and the fire and integrity of the original effort.

Edward FitzGerald was a strange character. His personal life was a long search for friendship of two types: intellectuals with a passion for literature (Tennyson, Thackeray, Carlyle), and unintellectual men much younger than himself who were noted for their “manly” looks. His life and search were difficult, as Victorian England didn’t make life easy for homosexuals.

On the creative side, this search for friendship showed up as a need to be a co-creator: showed up in art, where he had a lifelong habit of buying paintings and cutting them down to a better composition and touching up the work to improve it; in music, where he arranged the works of others for his friends to sing; and in literature, where he found his genius in the works of others, translating Aeschylus, Calderon and Khayyam from the original Greek, Spanish and Persian, striving to identify with the original author and replicate in English not their exact words but the thrust of their thought and emotion. And with the Rubaiyat he appears to have been successful in every way. The five versions published between 1859 and 1889 constitute the single best-selling book of poetry in English.

Of the hundreds of editions that have been published since FitzGerald’s death, my two favourites are: for the lushness, the one illustrated by Edmund Dulac; and, for the background and insights, the one with an introduction by Dick Davis and published by Penguin in 1989.

In this particular Penguin edition (there have been several others), FitzGerald’s first edition and fifth edition are given in full, together with a complete listing of all the other variations found in the intervening versions. But – FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat only being 300 or 400 lines, depending on the version – all of that barely takes up 50 pages. Dick Davis’ introduction, almost as long, was presumably commissioned to make this a saleable book. And it is his introduction that gives it its full value.

Davis covers the life and what can be known of the personality of Omar Khayyam and – in conjunction with a review of FitzGerald’s life, personality, agnosticism and guarded homosexuality – the attraction, almost identity, that FitzGerald felt for him. He also investigates and approves the depth of FitzGerald’s translation skills, and analyses his use of rhyme scheme and meter. FitzGerald originally started translating Khayyam into paired couplets (aabb) before seeing the benefit of Khayyam’s rubaiyat (aaba) – given the epigrammatic nature of the verses, each quatrain is a stand-alone philosophic proposition and the return in the fourth line to the rhyme of the first two lines tends to heighten the sense of inevitability in each stanza.

Perhaps the most intriguing thought to come from Davis’ Introduction is that the sensual illustrations of half-naked women, so common in our collection of Rubaiyats, are all wrong. From linguistic and cultural clues in both the Persian and the English, it appears that the Saki, the young cup-bearer, the Thou of the flask of wine and book of verse, should be an attractive young male with his first moustache starting to grow in. In other words, and despite my preference for Dulac, FitzGerald’s version of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam would perfectly support lush, ornate, gay illustrations; and that is likely what FitzGerald – and Khayyam himself – would have preferred.