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.

Poem: ‘The Future as CDG Terminal 1’

The future is a long low passage,
Whitewashed, undulating,
A moving forward-flowing track,
No chance of going back.

The future has no message,
Its ads are guides only to the past,
Misleaders, redesignposts,
Echoes, undefined ghosts.

The future is travelled without presage,
Always onward, none comes back.
Predestination without destination.
Stationary or walking, you’ve no final station.

The future goes on until you get off.
I won’t. I will not to get off.

This poem (set in Charles de Gaulle airport’s people-mover) is halfway to being a sonnet: it has three sets of four lines and a final couplet, and its lines are not far from being tetrameters or pentameters. But the rhyme scheme is idiosyncratic: abcc adee afgg hh. But even that is being kind: the last couplet doesn’t rhyme, it just repeats its end words.

And yet, mishmash though it is, it was published in The Rotary Dial, Canada’s leading formal poetry publication for the few years of its incandescent life. So perhaps it is at least semi-formal poetry.

“sba-cdg85” by dsearls is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Sonnet: ‘Maya’

When God took Time to spin a length of Matter,
And, nothing at each end, tied the ends together,
He held between his fingers and surveyed
The first cat’s-cradle, and since then has played.

Flames flicker, flare, re-form as a friend’s face;
Dogs mime all features of the human race;
The willow weaves a walker from the air;
All Nature helps us see things that aren’t there.

To read Life’s Meanings, we must write the text:
What’s Right one day is often Wrong the next –
I’m rich or poor only as I profess,
Must ask your love or hate, for you can’t guess.

If love’s illusion, so are hate and fear…
Why not choose love?, when it’s so great, and near?!

Reareading this poem after a number of years, I have my doubts about it. It seems to start strong, and ends weak. What to do about a poem like that? The stuff about Maya, the illusory nature of the universe, is OK; but maybe cut it off after eight lines, before it starts preaching. But then maybe it would be lacking an ending, and I’d have to come up with something better than what’s there now.

As it is, it was first published in the defunct ‘Rubies in the Darkness’, and republished in India’s ‘Metverse Muse’. But I’m not happy with the poem…

“Cat’s Cradle by N.O. Bonzo” by wiredforlego is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Short Poem: ‘Young Men Go Off To War’

Young men go off to war
And score
Deaths, rapes, across an alien nation
Which they chimp-like can revel in –
Which they in later years regret,
Never discuss, never forget.

The one thing that Donald Trump and Joe Biden could agree on: get out of the trillion-dollar waste of Afghanistan. Trump had Pompeo negotiate with the Taliban–the US would leave in 2021 so long as the Taliban didn’t kill any more US personnel; he presumably wanted to wait until the 2020 election was over, because the withdrawal might be chaotic and would look bad anyway. Biden stuck with the Trump agreement, and his calculation must be that, messy or not, hopefully it will be ancient history by the 2024 election.

You can’t fault the US for wanting to go after Osama Bin Laden after 9/11… but that’s separate from trying to stay and nation-build a supremely difficult and corrupt country. And it was probably not criminal under international law, whereas the subsequent Iraq invasion *was* illegal and breached the UN Charter, as Secretary-General Kofi Annan said. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz (and Tony Blair)… many people see them all as war criminals, unpunished, and leaving their front-line pawns (if they survived) to live with guilt and PTSD.

The American defeat in Vietnam turned out to be very good for the Vietnamese. Let’s just hope things turn out well for the Afghans. And congratulations to Joe Biden for getting the US out – you can’t impose human rights on a corrupt tribal society by invasion. It doesn’t work like that. There are far more constructive ways to approach international human rights issues… like cleaning your own house first.

This poem was published by Visions International, a poetry journal with perhaps a brighter past than present.

“New recruits at physical jerks – Flinders” by State Library Victoria Collections is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Evocative Fragments: from Macaulay’s ‘Horatius at the Bridge’

But the Consul’s brow was sad,
And the Consul’s speech was low,
And darkly looked he at the wall,
And darkly at the foe;
“Their van will be upon us
Before the bridge goes down;
And if they once may win the bridge,
What hope to save the town?”

Then out spake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the Gate:
“To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his gods!”

An alliance of neighbouring city-states is attacking the young Roman republic with 10,000 cavalry and 80,000 foot soldiers. The River Tiber provides a natural defence, but the broad wooden bridge is a weak spot. Horatius with two friends will try to hold off the enemy while the bridge is being destroyed underneath them. Enemy champions attack them in single combat and are defeated, until the huge Astur strides up with his “four-fold shield”, shaking the sword “which none but he can wield”. He attacks Horatius and gashes his thigh. Horatius

… reeled, and on Herminius
He leaned one breathing-space,
Then, like a wild-cat mad with wounds,
Sprang right at Astur’s face.
Through teeth and skull and helmet
So fierce a thrust he sped,
The good sword stood a handbreadth out
Behind the Tuscan’s head.

(…)

On Astur’s throat Horatius
Right firmly pressed his heel,
And thrice and four times tugged amain,
Ere he wrenched out the steel.
And “See,” he cried, “the welcome,
Fair guests, that waits you here!
What noble Lucumo comes next
To taste our Roman cheer?”

I was probably 11 when our English classes in my Jamaican boarding school were enlivened by Macaulay’s nearly 600-line poem (though, truthfully, our textbook cut out a lot of the slow introductory verses). As someone who otherwise lived on works like Tarzan of the Apes and Bomba the Jungle Boy (and of course banned comics of Superman and Batman when I was home for the holidays), it was wonderful to discover that verse could deliver just as dramatic, violent and heroic a story as novels and comics. Further, verse can do so in passages of enormous emotional power, heightened by the drama of their rhythm and rhyme, with short passages sticking in the mind forever even if you aren’t trying to learn them by heart.

The other qualities that appealed to me were undoubtedly the feelings of patriotism and religious approval that I suspect are natural in children – the sense of community, of tribe, of duty, of being morally in the right, of overcoming difficulties, of excelling, of supporting and saving people, of being praised for it. And what I value in that today is that it was done without any reference to an actual modern-day country or an actual modern-day religion. In other words the emotions could be stirred up and the child could be (at least temporarily) ennobled, without the poisons of nationalism or religious fundamentalism finding a place. Indeed, by placing the heroic emotions outside the here and now, I think the poem helped inoculate me against such diseases.

I was already very comfortable with poetry when I was introduced to ‘Horatius’ – A.A. Mine, Edward Lear, Robert Service and the Anglican hymn book come to mind – but this poem took poetry into another dimension entirely!

Call for Submissions: Christmas etc holiday poems

It has been suggested that the Potcake Chapbooks really ought to include one for the Christmas season, as people already send out some of the chapbooks in place of greeting cards to friends and family. Well, it’s August – if I can find a wide enough assortment, perhaps we can get a chapbook out by the beginning of November… otherwise, we should be able to do it by next year.

What I’m looking for, of course, is a diversity of poems in a diversity of forms, but all with rhythm and rhyme. Not too long, because there will only be 13 pages of poetry – two to 20 lines preferred. With a mix of attitudes: sentimental, cynical, happy, rueful, whatever, but preferably elegant and witty. And not just Christmas, but all holidays of the season: Hanukkah, Divali, Kwanzaa, Festivus, New Year’s Eve, office parties, skating parties, special meals and drinks, customs and habits… (And of course I can only take 12-15 poems anyway.)

That’s a lot to ask for a little chapbook, we’ll have to see if it’s workable. If you have something you think I might like, on this or any other topic, preferably previously published, please send poems in the body of the email or as a single attachment to robinhelweglarsen@gmail.com. Contributors receive five copies.

Photo: “Christmas Cookies” by Kiss My Buttercream is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Poem: ‘God Modernises’

We sealed Joe’s body in its envelope
for dropping in the mail slot in the ground,
addressed to God. But the Recording Angel
coughed, said, “God has an online work-around,
so doesn’t take them like that any more.”
How email Joe to God, to bless or damn?
Cremation goes to Heaven… but, knowing Him,
souls just end up in limbo, marked as spam.

Another strange little poem; who knows where they come from, or why? Where they go is more knowable: to whoever is most likely to accept them! In this case, The Road Not Taken–a journal of formal poetry. Thank you for tolerating my morbid flippancy, Dr. Kathryn Jacobs!

I think we have all lost friends and family during the pandemic. The good news now is that vaccines are so widely available. We still have a “pandemic of the unvaccinated”, and the sooner those people come to their senses, the sooner everyone can focus on the other major issues: climate catastrophe and corrupt demagoguery. (But it’s still a beautiful world!)

“capper or beginning? (crematorium Zuerich/Schweiz)” by SphotoE is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Resources: Goodreads

Goodreads’ stated mission is to help people find and share books they love, and to improve the process of reading and learning throughout the world. (That was crafted before they were bought by Amazon, so their mission may have a somewhat more mercenary aspect these days.) Founder Otis Chandler got the idea when looking at a friend’s bookshelf, and wishing there was a way to share discoveries and opinions of books online. Launched in January of 2007, by December it had 650,000 members–clearly it was on to something! And by the end of 2019 (i.e. pre-Covid) it had 90 million members, a number that can only have grown since then.

It’s a place where you can spend your time in a variety of ways: making shelves of the books you’ve read, sorting them by topic, giving them 1 to 5 stars, writing reviews of them… Developing a list of friends to follow or to share reviews with, joining a group with topics that you like, using the site to find books you are likely to enjoy… Setting a goal of how many books to read in the coming year, and having Goodreads track your progress, praising you or nagging you depending on whether you’re ahead of schedule or behind.

More completely, “Goodreads,” says Wikipedia, “is an American social cataloging website that allows individuals to search its database of books, annotations, quotes, and reviews. Users can sign up and register books to generate library catalogs and reading lists. They can also create their own groups of book suggestions, surveys, polls, blogs, and discussions.”

Because my main reading these days is formal poetry (of course–though leavened with Simenon, Le Guin and thick works of history) I have been looking to see what kind of poetry groups operate in Goodreads. I only found one of formal verse, with half a dozen members, and dormant for over a year. So I have started a new one called ‘Formal Verse – Mostly’. If you, reading this, are interested in reading, writing or discussing formal poetry, old or new, your own or that of others, then consider joining us.

But even if you don’t want to be that active, don’t want to join a group, Goodreads still offers a range of benefits for all readers. I’ve been reading more each year for the last few years, largely thanks to the Reading Challenge and being nagged when (as now) I’m behind schedule.

Photo: “My Books” by Jennerally is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Sonnet: ‘Marion Campbell of Kilberry, 1919-2000’

In winter’s broken skies, in spring’s thin drizzle,
The gardens wall in sun to warm the ground,
Can still be worked: vegetables grow year-round.
Fingers are cold – but hearths will crackle, sizzle.
It’s drear – but through a week’s rain, and two fair
Days’ sun, daffodils flood the world with light.
Otters slide down rocks, lambs jump in delight,
Rooks tumble, jump and slide, in empty air…
You love their flight; but, grounded, here you stand.
The summer dry and hot, sea almost warm,
Unpeopled heather hills, long days, no storm.
And you, embodying castle and land:
Stone walls and floors, trophies and weaponed walls,
Books read, books written, haunting ancestral halls.

Marion Campbell was a truly remarkable archaeologist, author and cultural activist. Her enormous store of memory of history and lore blended with personal experience, together with her desire to share her knowledge through writing books and creating local museums, is summed up in a charming anecdote at the start of her obituary in The Herald:

Two days before her death, as she lay apparently unconscious in the hospital at Oban, I was telling someone in the same ward about a lost standing-stone at Ballymeanach and remarking that nobody knew when it had fallen. Suddenly a muffled voice from behind the oxygen mask said: ”Well, I know! It was in 1943, when a Shetland pony was sheltering against it from the storm. The poor beast was nearly scared to death.”

She was a cousin of my mother’s, and I was fortunate enough to spend weeks and months with her at Kilberry in my teens and 20s. This sonnet, written in fond tribute, was published in The Orchards Poetry Journal a couple of years ago.

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