Poems on Poets: George Simmers, ‘Poets in Residence’

The Head was ambitious and nobody’s fool,
A big man, efficient, and proud of his school.

At the start of the term, as he sorted his post,
The item of mail that intrigued him the most

Was a piece puffing National Poetry Day,
Including a list of the poets who’d stay

And workshop and somehow persuade the whole school
That poets were ‘groovy’ and poems were ‘cool’.

‘Here’s status,’ the Head thought. ‘It’s not to be missed.’
The one problem, though, was the names on the list;

Though doubtless they wrote quite respectable stuff,
Not one of them, frankly, was famous enough.

His school deserved more; his ambition took wing,
And so he decided to do his own thing.

With his usual flair, and with chutzpah exquisite,
He invited the whole English canon to visit.

Geoffrey Chaucer came first, on an equable horse,
And Spenser, and Marlowe, and Shakespeare, of course

(Who was grabbed by the teachers of English, imploring
‘Do come and persuade the Year Nines you’re not boring.’)

Keats arrived coughing, Kipling marched vigorously;
Matthew Arnold began to inspect the school rigorously –

Which delighted the Head, who with pride and elation
Showed the bards of the ages today’s education.

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;

Soon he’d sunk in a private and picturesque dream,
While Auden was ogling the basketball team.

Plath lectured the girls: ‘Get ahead! Go insane!’
Algernon Swinburne cried: ‘Bring back the cane!’

Dylan Thomas soon found the head’s cupboard of booze,
And Swift was disdainfully sniffing the loos.

And then the Head twigged, with a horrified jolt,
That something had sparked a Romantic revolt.

Shelley’d gathered the students out in the main quad,
And roused them to rise against school, Head, and God.

Byron soon joined him, and started to speak.
(He showed his best profile, and spouted in Greek.)

The bards of the thirties were equally Red,
And Milton explained how to chop off a head.

Decadents undermined all the foundations.
Surrealists threw lobsters and rancid carnations.

Pre-Raphaelites trashed the technology room
And the First World War poets trudged off to their doom.

Sidney with gallantry led a great charge in
(Tennyson cheering them on from the margin).

The Deputy Head, who was rather a dope,
Got precisely impaled on a couplet by Pope

(Who, while not so Romantic, was never the chap
To run from a fight or keep out of a scrap).

Then the whole solid edifice started to shake
As it was prophetically blasted by Blake. 

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.

He gave this to the Head, who just threw it aside
As he knelt by the wreck of his school, and he cried

Salty tears that went fizz as they hit the school’s ashes.
He said words that I’d better imply by mere dashes:

‘——– Poets! ——– Poetry – rhyme and free verse!
Let them wilt in the face of a Headmaster’s curse!

‘Let poetry wither! How sweet it would be
If all of the world were prosaic as me!’

*****

George Simmers writes: “Poets in Residence was written as a celebration of National Poetry Day many years ago. Several people had been mouthing blandly off about how lovely poetry was in contrast to that horrible pop music young people listen to. Schools were being encouraged to give children a lot of poetry because it was nice and beautiful, and would make them nice. ‘Do these people have no idea of how incendiary the English canon is?’ I wondered. I really enjoyed demolishing the school around the ears of the pompous and pretentious head. I was a teacher at the time.”

George Simmers used to be a teacher; now he spends much of his time researching literature written during and after the First World War. He has edited Snakeskin since 1995. It is probably the oldest-established poetry zine on the Internet. His work appears in several Potcake Chapbooks, and his recent diverse collection is ‘Old and Bookish’.

Photo: “Ndélé highschool student in front of destroyed school” by hdptcar is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Pino Coluccio, ‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles’

My sweater-vests and cardigans,
my necessary junk,
my shower-curtain rings of course:
my life is in my trunk.

A framed glossy picture
of Marie, my better half,
but not her perfume (jasmine),
her cooking, or her laugh.

From New York to Chicago
and Chicago to New York,
the days are seldom sunny,
the nights are always dark.

Pretty soon I’ll have to pack it in,
I’m getting old.
There’s not a lot worth having
that a travel trunk can hold.

*****

Editor’s comments: From Pino Coluccio you should expect light and dark combined, light but deep, usually short, always well-phrased… and always existential. This poem is from Class Clown, which won a Trillium Award, putting Coluccio in the company of fellow Ontarians Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje and Alice Munro.

Pino Coluccio lives in Toronto.

Photo: “Travelling Trunk” by Bart Heird is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Julia Griffin, ‘Wasp Waste’

The exoplanet Wasp in Pisces
Subsists despite unending crises:
It’s hard to keep an even keel
At near the melting-point of steel,
And even heroes’ hearts might cower
With winds 10,000 miles per hour.
The place can furthermore rely on
Incessant rain of molten iron.
All this might serve as a directive
To keep our problems in perspective.

*****

Editor’s note: Inspired by a story in The Guardian, “Scientists identify rain of molten iron on distant exoplanet. Conditions on Wasp-76b in Pisces include temperatures of 2,400C and 10,000mph winds”, this poem by Julia Griffin ran in Light’s Poems of the Week on 16 March 2020. It was reprinted in the Potcake ChapbookRobots and Rockets‘.

Julia Griffin lives in south-east Georgia/ south-east England. She has published in Light, LUPO, Mezzo Cammin, and some other places, though Poetry and The New Yorker indicate that they would rather publish Marcus Bales than her. Much more of her poetry can be found through this link in Light.

Photo: “Most Earthlike Exoplanet Started out as Gas Giant” by NASA Goddard Photo and Video is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Poems on poets: A.M. Juster, ‘Houseguests’

There’s shouting by the stove (it’s Plath & Hughes)
as Wystan wanders off without his shoes
and Whitman picks the Cheetos off his beard.
The Larkin-Ginsberg chat is getting weird,
for after countless hours they have found
bizarre pornography is common ground.
Old Emily is not
As prim as billed—
When Dylan finds her bra-hooks—
She is thrilled.
Poe strokes his bird; Pound yawps that it’s a pity
Eliot can’t sleep without his kitty.
Rimbaud’s on eBay searching for a zebra
while sneering, “Oui, a cheemp can write vers libre!”
The Doctor’s soggy chickens start to smell
and Stevens has insurance he must sell.
The readings are spectacular, I know,
but is there any way to make them go?

*****

A.M. Juster writes: “This was first published in The Barefoot Muse. It looks like I wrote it in late 2008, it was a fairly prolific period for me and I was a little distracted because I was running the Social Security Administration. (Under his unpoetic name, Michael J. Astrue. – Editor). I don’t remember now the impetus for writing it, but I did enjoy taking these poetry idols off their pedestals and making them more human for a few laughs. This was about the time that I finished my translation of Horace’s Satires in something like 1850 heroic couplets, so I was much more comfortable with the form than I would have been five years before. I think the imitation of Emily Dickinson’s form is an amusing touch for the reader, although it is undetected when I read it because it remains in rhymed iambic pentameter.”

A.M. Juster’s poems and translations have appeared in Poetry, The Paris Review, The Hudson Review and other journals. His tenth book is Wonder and Wrath (Paul Dry Books 2020) and his next book will be a translation of Petrarch’s Canzoniere, which W.W. Norton will release in early 2024. He also overtweets about formal poetry @amjuster.

Photo: “me drunk & chris’_MMVI” by andronicusmax is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Jerome Betts, ‘Ballade of Inevitable Extinction’

Where are the flushed and frantic teens,
The hormones’ fevered ebbs and flows?
(Fire buckets, water, verbal screens.)
The girls –good grief! – that parents chose
And others – how the mind’s eye glows! −
Who floated inches off the floor?
(Flout censor’s ruling – fish-net hose.)
With dodo, great auk, dinosaur.

Where are the doubtful magazines?
The female form from head to toes
(Dim lights. Spill simulated beans.)
In postures aimed to half-disclose
Behinds, aboves, and down belows,
With clefts and crevices galore?
(Check pressure here, in case it blows.)
With dodo, great auk, dinosaur.

Where are the eyeball-popping queens
Of X-films like the great Bardot’s?
(Props: G-string, well-packed blouse and jeans.)
Brigitte – with so much to expose
Far finer than the best French prose –
Removing most, and, sometimes, more . . .?
(Cue key-change, envoi, Villon, ‘snows’.)
With dodo, great auk, dinosaur.

Envoi
Prince, not again! The whole world knows
Time’s answer must be, as before,
(Stand by the curtain ! Down it goes!)
With dodo, great auk, dinosaur.

*****

Jerome Betts writes: “Ballade of Inevitable Extinction started off in callow youth as a sort of Finnegan’s Wake verbally mashed-up extravaganza sparked off by a news item about Brigitte Bardot. Then years later it became a rather clunky Spectator competition entry and even more years later evolved into something accepted by Kate Benedict for Tilt-A-Whirl and more recently by Beth Houston for her ‘Extreme Formal Poems‘ anthology.
Not only is the rhyme-scheme in English  a challenge but also getting some sort of development or progression into the three main stanzas (or even a coherent narrative as Joan Butler managed in her Ballade of the Ugly Sister in Lighten Up Online Issue 12 December 2010).
In this case, the suggestion of a three act play with stage directions and epilogue seemed a possible solution.”

Jerome Betts lives in Devon, England, where he edits the quarterly Lighten Up Online. Pushcart-nominated twice, his verse has appeared in a wide variety of UK publications and in anthologies such as Love Affairs At The Villa NelleLimerick Nation, The Potcake Chapbooks 1, 2 and 12, and Beth Houston’s three Extreme collections. British, European, and North American web venues include Amsterdam QuarterlyBetter Than StarbucksLightThe Asses of ParnassusThe HypertextsThe New Verse News, and  Snakeskin.

Photo: “Faded Beauty – Beauté fanée” by monteregina is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Quincy R. Lehr, ‘Lines for my father’

I think I owe some kind of explanation
As I grow tired and listless fingers writhe
Above the unpecked keyboard pad. I’m not
Quite out to blame you or your generation
For where I’m at tonight. You paid the tithe
That life exacts. It’s sanctimonious rot
If we deny the pain of paying it–
And our denials never help one bit.

Unlike you, I found myself involved
In protest politics when I was young.
I spouted crap about the working class
While searching for a problem to be solved.
I mocked you then, since stirring tunes are sung
In brayed crescendos, with a blaze of brass
Booming triumphs won against the odds–
Unjust societies and jealous Gods.

You seemed so cautious–tastefully attired
With modest ties and polished wing-tipped shoes,
A cautious, kindly smile that reached your eyes.
A man to be respected, not admired,
Neither adulated nor abused.
Ambitions of an ordinary size
Were often past your reach. A nagging doubt
Set in, and now I know what that’s about.

Tonight, I type these words as it gets late,
And no one calls to beckon me to bed.
I scoffed at what you’d craved–the tenure track,
The slow-accruing pension from the state,
The wife (who left you). Though you’re good and dead
(And at this hour, my eyes are going slack)
And though you cannot answer, I’ll report
–While having to imagine your retort–

That we’re no happier than you, and can’t
Quite seem to sit for tests that you had failed.
Our phones are packed with numbers we won’t call.
The televisions blast a constant rant
That we ignore like letters still unmailed–
Or unconceived. Clichés about a ball
That’s dropped don’t work–or maybe don’t apply.
We never picked it up. I wonder why.

This recognition’s only dawning now
As streetlights speckle glimmers on your urn
Beside my unmade bed, and as I write
These words to you in lieu of sleep. Somehow,
The brays of drunks outside my window turn
Almost comforting, as if the night
Is full of us–insomniac, astray,
And muttering defiance at the day.

*****

Quincy R. Lehr writes: “As for that poem, my father died in 2003, when I was twenty-seven. The content pretty much speaks for itself, I think. I was young, lonely, and frequently drunk when I wrote it.”

Editor’s comment: I admire the technical skill of the poem: the steady iambic pentameter; the abcabcdd rhyme scheme with the final couplet providing a punch; the integrity of the individual stanzas, each patiently laying out a mood, a thought, a situation. And I relate to the young man’s restless, unquiet, unsettled life, and the comparison to his father’s existence, his dismissal of his father’s achievements, his simultaneous recognition of the inevitable connections. It is a satisfying telling of an individual’s unique early life, in the context of the universal discord between generations.

Born in Oklahoma, Quincy R. Lehr is the author of several books of poetry, and his poems and criticism appear widely in venues in North America, Europe, and Australia. His book-length poem ‘Heimat‘ was published in 2014. His most recent books are ‘The Dark Lord of the Tiki Bar‘ (2015) and ‘Near Hits and Lost Classics‘ (2021), a selection of early poems. He lives in Los Angeles.
https://www.amazon.com/Quincy-R.-Lehr/e/B003VMY9AG

Marcus Bales, ‘Air Guitar’

Bit by bit they deconstruct the thing:
no frets, no pegs, no bridge, removing its
harmonic parts until at last each string
is slack, and lacking resonating bits.
They put the rest, the body, neck, and head,
aside as too much like a prop for those
whose earnestness is all they need instead
of craft and art to fake that they can sing.
So there they are, on either stage or page:
The foremost poets of the modern age,
Who, writing their relineated prose,
Will swagger as they grimace, strut, and pose
Pretending they are better than they are
While playing nothing but an air guitar.

*****

Marcus Bales writes: “Back in the day I spent more time than I should have arguing that freeverse was prose, and that freeversers are prose writers, not poets at all. Of course, when you strike at the core of a belief-system those who believe it feel you are attacking them personally, and respond with insults. They cannot address the reasoning of the arguments, so they resort to ad hominem. I was searching for a metaphor to substitute for argument, something that would reveal the fundamental paucity of the entire freeverser credo that prose is poetry if only they say it is. What I was looking for was something to demonstrate the posers as mere posers. What, besides writing prose and then arbitrarily or whimsically relineating it to resemble the ragged-right look of poetry on the page and calling it poetry, was an even more ridiculous example of that pose? Here it is.”

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. He has been published in several of the Potcake Chapbooks (‘Form in Formless Times’).

Photo: “Airnadette: Air Bass Guitar” by DocChewbacca is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0..

Poem: ‘True Believers’

A visionary dies an ignoble death;
prophets arise
who transmute his tale to a fairytale,
uplifting, wise,
and establish themselves to receive as
on his behalf, cash from pilgrims, believers–
all of it lies.

One of the new believers rashly tries
to challenge the powers the fairytale calls Evil,
strikes at the Powers That Be, is caught and dies,
dies an ignoble death… Prophets arise
and transmute the events into a new fable,
glory surpassing the skies.
At a cost, of course, they spread out a table
for all to gather and feast. They, the deceivers,
live yet again from the wealth of the true believers;
one of whom…

*****

I love seekers after Truth, Knowledge, the Meaning of Life, no matter where they are led in belief or unbelief. I loathe those who come after them to distort the message and extort innocent followers. But it’s all an old, old story.

This semi-formal poem was first published in Snakeskin – thanks, George Simmers!

Photo: “Megachurch” by Silly Deity is marked with Public Domain Mark 1.0.

Lisa Marshall, ‘Tango’

The night was cloaked
In disarray
My heart was soaked
In chardonnay
The joint I smoked
In shades of grey
The music broke
A new song played
And then you spoke
Looking my way
A need awoke
Swept me away
Feelings evoked
I dare not say

*****

Lisa Marshall writes: “The poem is one long stanza with alternating lines rhyming.  It is about a woman who is feeling forlorn on a night that isn’t going her way.  She uses substances like cannabis and alcohol to forget her feelings and herself.  But suddenly the music changes and she is asked to dance (tango) by a love interest. Suddenly her mood changes and she starts to feel something which she expresses through dance instead of words.”

Lisa Marshall is a poet and author who resides in beautiful Dartmouth, Nova Scotia – also known as the City of Lakes.  She is the author of Black Olive: A Novel and Poetry for the Feminist’s Soul, both of which are available on Amazon Kindle. 
Read more at Not Another Nice Girl Blog.

Richard Fleming, ‘The Servant’

Companion, constant presence in my life,
my guardian, trusty servant, I rely
on you the way a savage does his knife
and with my every order you comply.
When not required, on standby, you remain
impassive in the corner of my room
like furniture, prosaic and mundane,
then, on command, you waken and resume
your daily tasks but sometimes I detect
a certain stubbornness akin to pique,
an attitude of sneering disrespect,
antagonism when you should be meek.
Some subtle change is happening I fear.
This time next year will I be master here?

*****

Richard Fleming writes: “As our electronic devices increasingly hold us in thrall, I’ve noticed that two of the issues which seem to be causing most unease, as humanity becomes increasingly dependent on “intelligent” robots, are the fear that we may become subservient to them, and that they will seek to harm us.
I’ve tried to weave these twin concerns into this poem.”

Editor’s comments: The formality of this Shakespearean sonnet pairs well with the unformed future into which we are heading. Through ChatGPT and the like, we are interacting increasingly with a range of developing Artificial Intelligences, developing without a coherent plan or a forseeable end point. The most interesting exploration of this that I know of is John Varley’s ‘Steel Beach’ which is 30 years old, but deals with the problems of the Central Computer – which interacts with every person on the planet, but with an individualized personality for each – beginning to suffer from fragmentation and in effect schizophrenia… and what a personality breakdown in massive A.I. would lead to. It’s one of my favorite SF novels

Richard Fleming is an Irish-born poet currently living in Guernsey, a small island midway between Britain and France. His work has appeared in various magazines, most recently Snakeskin, Bewildering Stories, Lighten Up Online, the Taj Mahal Review and the Potcake Chapbook ‘Lost Love’, and has been broadcast on BBC radio. He has performed at several literary festivals and his latest collection of verse, Stone Witness, features the titular poem commissioned by the BBC for National Poetry Day. He writes in various genres and can be found at www.redhandwriter.blogspot.com or Facebook https://www.facebook.com/richard.fleming.92102564/