Odd poem: Prime Minister Clement Attlee’s limerick

There were few who thought him a starter,
Many who thought themselves smarter.
But he ended PM,
CH and OM,
an Earl and a Knight of the Garter.

Born into a middle-class family in 1883, Clement Attlee went to Oxford, became a barrister, but, after his volunteer work in London’s East End brought him into close contact with poverty, his political views shifted left and he gave up law and joined the Labour Party. Leader of the Labour Party from 1935 to 1955, including as Prime Minister from 1945 to 1951. His government “undertook the nationalisation of public utilities and major industries, and implemented wide-ranging social reforms, including the passing of the National Insurance Act 1946 and National Assistance Act, the foundation of the National Health Service (NHS) in 1948, and the enlargement of public subsidies for council house building. His government also reformed trade union legislation, working practices and children’s services; it created the National Parks system, passed the New Towns Act 1946 and established the town and country planning system.” – Wikipedia

Perhaps surprisingly he failed to see the value of the beginnings of the EU, preferring a stronger Atlantic alliance if possible. He is alleged to have said in a speech: “The Common Market. The so-called Common Market of six nations. Know them all well. Very recently this country spent a great deal of blood and treasure rescuing four of ’em from attacks by the other two.”

Now considered one of the UK’s greatest Prime Ministers, it is only fitting that his titles and honours include, as he boasts in his limerick, Prime Minister, Companion of Honour, Order of Merit, Earl Attlee, and Knight of the Garter.

Even Margaret Thatcher wrote of him: “Of Clement Attlee, however, I was an admirer. He was a serious man and a patriot. Quite contrary to the general tendency of politicians in the 1990s, he was all substance and no show. His was a genuinely radical and reforming government.”

Poem: ‘Lizard an Mosquito’

Mosquito bite yuman,
Now e full a blood.
Lizard eat mosquito
Say, man dis is good.

Lizard help hatch mosquito,
Raise dem up good.
Send dem out like good daddy
Fe go find yuman blood.

Mosquito so happy
Dem eat plenty blood.
Lizard so happy
Dem mosquito taste good.

Politician same like dis:
Yu clap an yu sing,
Yu eleck im an den
E tax yu ting an ting.

I don’t normally write dialect verse, but it seemed appropriate for this idea. It was originally published in Snakeskin, republished in both The Hypertexts and Better Than Starbucks. The Bahamian accent can sound impenetrable to foreigners, but the words and grammar are not so different from standard English. By the way, “ting an ting” is just the non-specific plural of “tingum”–unspecified “stuff” rather than a specific “thing”.

Photo: “Brutality against mosquitoes.” by Bobinson K B is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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.)

Poem: ‘We Dreamed’

We dreamed we could fly to the moon
With six grey geese pulling our sleigh.
We dreamed we could fly to the moon –
We can, but not in that way.

We dreamed we could see round the world
With a magical mirror display.
We dreamed we could see round the world –
We can, but not in that way.

We dreamed we could live forever
By doing whatever gods say.
We dreamed we could live forever –
We can, but not in that way.

It seems to me that anything that humans can imagine, some of them will try to achieve. Further, that the fairytale and fantasy dreams of preliterate days still continue, and they are indeed being achieved–though not necessarily as was originally imagined. Can we (or our descendants) attain indefinite lifespans? I think so, but probably not as the kind of human that we are today. After all, if you could halt ageing, if you could rejuvenate the body, what else would you think of tinkering with?

This poem was originally published in The Road Not Taken – the Journal of Formal Verse.

Photo: Southern Flight, Williraye Studio

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

Poem: “Bee”

“July Honey Bee” by MattX27 
Through the honeyed halls of Autumn
Hums the angry ageing bee;
As its work faces fruition,
And its life, redundancy.

This little poem was originally published in Candelabrum, a 1970 formalist hold-out that ran for forty years in the UK under Leonard McCarthy. More recently, it was just republished in Jerome Betts’ latest Lighten-Up Online.

Epigrammatic couplets and quatrains, being rhyme- and stress-based, are common throughout Indo-European languages. They hold the same natural place that haiku, senryu and tanka have in syllable-counting Japanese. It is easier to learn by heart a poem whose form uses the natural strengths of the language, rather than something written in a language-inappropriate form.

Similarly, when reading a poem in translation, you get the ideas and the imagery but you normally lose the enhancement of mood caused by the metre, the rhythm of the verse, as well as by the rhyme. So ideas and imagery alone give you prose, not poetry.

Consider the differences in tone of gravity or levity set by rhythm in these opening lines (and you need to read them aloud–in your head if you can do that, otherwise really aloud, in order to hear the rhythm, the beat of the lines):

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky...

I sprang to the stirrup, and Joris, and he;
I galloped, Dirck galloped, we galloped all three...

On the top of the Crumpetty Tree
The Quangle Wangle sat...

The first is meditative, the second full of action, the third is casual, informal… and those moods are set by the rhythm alone.

Metre is an essential component of English poetry. Make the metre-rule your yardstick. Don’t leave home without it.

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.

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Jerome Betts, “View of the Old Market”

Jerome Betts

The sun comes out. Street-closing hills that climb
Below the scoops of cumulus from Wales
Are woodland backdrops lit for pantomime,
Bright as the ribbons round the horses’ tails.

Where steam-frilled dung and strawy puddles mix
In iron pens, the mud-scaled cattle groan;
The auctioneers outbawl the rapping sticks
And rattling bars and hobnails scraped on stone.

Lost in the din, the gaiters, boots and wheels,
The lambs cry, unregarded. Overhead,
The clock, white marble up in front, conceals
That all behind is brickwork’s weathered red.

A stray dog pauses, sniffs, then, deaf to shouts,
Swings up its leg against a net of sprouts.

Jerome Betts writes: “I’m attached to this piece, first printed in Pennine Platform, as it began as wispy free verse in university days and gradually metamorphosed over many years. The bellowing from the market punctuated lessons in a West Midlands cathedral city and other elements were attracted, like the ribbons in the horses’ tails and then a reminder of the street-ending hills in a small town in Castilla y León, and the closing couplet from another in the East Midlands.But, aided by the grappling-hook of rhyme, something unexpected emerged from the depths and took over with the lambs and the clock, often an intriguing result of struggling with formal constraints.”

Jerome Betts was born and brought up on the Welsh border, but now lives in South Devon, where he edits the quarterly Lighten Up Online. In addition to articles and verse in consumer and specialist magazines his work has appeared in Pennine Platform, Staple and The Guardian, as well as anthologies like The Iron Book of New Humorous Verse, Limerick Nation, Love Affairs At The Villa Nelle, and The Potcake Chapbooks 1 & 2, and online at
Amsterdam Quarterly, Angle, The Asses of Parnassus, Autumn Sky Poetry Daily, Better Than Starbucks, The Hypertexts, Light, The New Verse News, Parody, The Rotary Dial, Snakeskin, and other sites.

https://www.lightenup-online.co.uk/