Tag Archives: Chaucer

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.

Opinion: ‘Rhymes’ by Zach Weinersmith

John Milton was perfectly capable of expressing himself in rhyme, as in his Petrarchan sonnet on his blindness, When I Consider How My Light Is Spent. Paradise Lost attracted a lot of criticism for its boring lack of rhyme (as well as a lot of unthinking religious approval for its wretched matter). At the front of the second edition of his Paradise Lost in 1674, John Milton defends his books-long use of blank verse:

“The measure is English heroic verse without rime, as that of Homer in Greek, and of Virgil in Latin—rime being no necessary adjunct or true ornament of poem or good verse, in longer works especially, but the invention of a barbarous age, to set off wretched matter and lame metre; graced indeed since by the use of some famous modern poets, carried away by custom, but much to their own vexation, hindrance, and constraint to express many things otherwise, and for the most part worse, than else they would have expressed them. Not without cause therefore some both Italian and Spanish poets of prime note have rejected rime both in longer and shorter works, as have also long since our best English tragedies, as a thing of itself, to all judicious ears, trivial and of no true musical delight; which consists only in apt numbers, fit quantity of syllables, and the sense variously drawn out from one verse into another, not in the jingling sound of like endings—a fault avoided by the learned ancients both in poetry and all good oratory. This neglect then of rime so little is to be taken for a defect, though it may seem so perhaps to vulgar readers, that it rather is to be esteemed an example set, the first in English, of ancient liberty recovered to heroic poem from the troublesome and modern bondage of riming.”

Tell that to Geoffrey Chaucer; his Canterbury Tales is longer, rhymed, more varied and more engaging. As Samuel Johnson wrote, “Milton formed his scheme of versification by the poets of Greece and Rome, whom he proposed to himself for his models so far as the difference of his language from theirs would permit the imitation.” And that’s the problem: Greek and Latin poems are simply not appropriate models for a Germanic language’s poetry.

One of the benefits of rhyme is that it prevents a writer from rambling on fluffily and indefinitely, the way anyone capable of writing blank verse can do. Indeed, when you look at a modern poet’s recent collection you are likely to see short, tight half-page pieces that rhyme, and longer, looser multi-page pieces that don’t. I invariably prefer the former. I find them more enjoyable to read, more succinctly expressed, easier to appreciate, more fun to remember and quote. The others are just lazy, uninspired fillers, or politico-religious pamphlets where zeal has replaced poetry… cf. Paradise Lost.

Illustration: ‘Rhymes‘ by Zach Weinersmith, who publishes a Saturday Morning Breakfast Comics (or SMBC) cartoon daily. He is the author of several brilliant and provocative books, including the previously reviewed ‘Shakespeare’s Sonnets: Abridged Beyond the Point of Usefulness‘.

Review: ‘A Little History of Poetry’ by John Carey

A fascinating overview of the history of world poetry with a decidedly Anglo-American slant, very engaging and informative and yet inevitably irritating for wasting space on some aspects while ignoring other favourite poets–depending on the reader’s bias, of course.

Consisting of 40 seven- or eight-page chapters, the book leads with Gilgamesh and information new to me despite my familiarity with the poem; then the Greek and Latin classics, where I am vaguely interested but uninformed; then Anglo-Saxon poetry where I am incited to read more. And so it goes: a bit of this, a bit of that, with a lot of chatty biographical tidbits, clarifying who I want to read more of (Chaucer, Wordsworth, Hardy, the Thirties Poets, the Movement), confirming who is of no interest to me (Spenser, Milton, American Modernists, American Confessional poets). The chapter on Dickinson and Whitman had a very useful perspective; the one on Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop was a waste of space. There seemed less insight in general as we moved into the 20th century, especially regarding American poets.

One thing that surprised me was to find how the hymns quoted in the chapter ‘Communal Poetry’–‘When I survey the wondrous cross’, ‘Rock of ages, cleft for me’, ‘Amazing grace’, ‘Abide with me’–summoned up my decade of boarding school’s daily religion and made for a long meditation on the role of religious poetry in the forced familiarity with meter and rhyme. It almost justifies daily church attendance. But missing from this History is the similar role in other religions: the hymns of Hinduism, the Hebrew chants, the hypnotic rhythm and rhyme of the Quran… all aspects of verse being used to make a message word-for-word memorable, all building the use of poetry.

The other omissions were of English-language poets outside the Anglo(including Irish)-American sphere: I think McCrae is the only Canadian mentioned (for ‘In Flanders Field’), and Claude McKay (who?) and Derek Walcott the only other Commonwealth poets; also missing are modern ballad-writing poets like Bob Dylan; and, my particular peeve, no mention of either e.e. cummings or Gwendolyn Brooks.

I find Brooks and cummings the greatest American poets of the 20th century with the exception of Auden and Eliot (however you like to classify their nationalities). Their omission may reflect ignorance on the part of author John Carey, or they may have been left out as not fitting into his groupings of Modernists and members of the Harlem Renaissance. Whatever the reason, it’s a major flaw… in what is still a highly readable and rereadable history.