If my valentine you won’t be, I’ll hang myself on your Christmas tree.
This is the 88th and last poem of the ‘Complete Poems’ of Ernest Hemingway (edited with introduction and notes by Nicholas Gerogiannis). Given that Hemingway ended his life by suicide, this might seem a worrying final poem; but he wrote it five years before his death, and it was truly light-hearted.
He was living with his fourth wife, Mary Welsh Hemingway, at “Finca Vigía” (“Lookout Farm”), a 15-acre property he bought and lived in for 22 years. She writes that he became so fond of the Christmas tree that he wouldn’t allow it to be removed for months after Christmas. This was his 1956 Valentine for her.
Hemingway’s poems are unremarkable at best (despite Eliot having apparently told him that he had promise as a poet). They are not what he won the Nobel Prize for in 1954. But if you like reading biographies, reading his poems is an interesting way of finding out about his thoughts and activities.
Louis MacNeice was born in 1907. By his early 30s he had published four volumes of verse (as well as other material), sufficiently good and well-received for him to publish this early selection in 1940. The tone is set with the opening lines of the first piece, ‘An Eclogue for Christmas’:
A: I meet you in an evil time.
B: The evil bells
Put out of our heads, I think, the thought of everything else.
A: The jaded calendar revolves,
Its nuts need oil, carbon chokes the valves,
The excess sugar of a diabetic culture
Rotting the nerve of life and literature.
Throughout the book we have the passage of time with the deterioration of society, culture and one’s own life, expressed in a blending of old and new images, in rhyme. They are poems of the 1930s, of the Great Depression and the imminent war, all from the same man, all on the same theme.
And yet one or two stand out: ‘The Sunlight on the Garden’ is one of the best poems in the English language, casting a spell with its dazzling intricate rhymes sustained over four stanzas, insightful, wistful, immediately memorable, endlessly anthologised. It relates specifically to his first wife having left him – he wrote this “love-song” for her after their divorce was finalised.
The sunlight on the garden
Hardens and grows cold,
We cannot cage the minute
Within its nets of gold,
When all is told
We cannot ask for pardon.
‘Bagpipe Music’ is also very commonly anthologised because of its bounce, cynicism and humour:
The Laird o' Phelps spent Hogmanay declaring he was sober,
Counted his feet to prove the fact and found he had one foot over.
Mrs. Carmichael had her fifth, looked at the job with repulsion,
Said to the midwife 'Take it away; I'm through with over-production'.
A good question, then, is why these two poems stand out against the rest in the book. What makes them so successful, with their very different moods? I think their common quality, largely lacking in all the other pieces, is that they are very easy to learn by heart and recite, they are almost singable even on a first reading. Pure poetry.
In youthful blooming years was I, When I that practice took Of perpetrating piracy For filthy gain did look. To wickedness we all were bent, Our lusts for to fulfil; To rob at sea was our intent, And perpetrate all ill.
I pray the Lord preserve you all And keep you from this end; O let Fitz-Gerald’s great downfall Unto your welfare tend. I to the Lord my soul bequeath, Accept whereof I pray; My body to the earth beneath: Dear friend, adieu for aye.
Written by the 21-year-old John Fitz-Gerald of Limerick, Ireland, apparently on the night before his execution. It is quoted in The Pirates of the New England Coast, 1630-1730 (Rio Grande Press, 1923), which in turn is proudly excerpted by the Online Review of Rhode Island History, as well as by David Cordingly’s extensive history and analysis of the Golden Age of piracy, Under the Black Flag.
On 11th June 1723, Captain Peter Solgard, commander of His Majesty’s Ship Greyhound, a man-o-war, engaged two pirate sloops off Long Island, New York, capturing one of them, Ranger, and taking 37 of its 48 crew alive. He brought them in to Newport, Rhode Island, and they went on trial the following month. Those who could show that they had been forced to join the pirates and had not taken part in violence were released, but the pirate captain and 25 others–including our young poet, of course–were “hanged by the neck until dead” on 19th July 1723, between twelve and one o’clock in the afternoon.
There flows in my veins the most ancient of ardours: not power, or love, nor yet worship of God; the fight that each tiniest baby fights hard as fought earliest man: “Understand!” Pry and prod with unquenchable flame of the world-disregarders for Truth! – be it complex, destructive or odd. If this fire is from Heaven, then Heaven I’ve earned; so write on my grave: “This stone too shall be turned.”
This teasingly paradoxical little poem was originally published in the Shot Glass Journal, a thrice-a-year journal of 20-30 American poems and an equal number of international ones. Why the name? Because this is a journal for short poems, none over 16 lines. Most of the material they publish is free verse, but they like to have a full range of styles in each issue… which is good news for formal poets.
We’re only children, making castles in the sand. Enjoy the day. Night comes, and tides wash all away.
The northern summer is over. Snowy places have snow. Even in the Bahamas and Florida the water temperature is dropping below what locals will swim in (though it doesn’t bother tourists). The day ages towards dark. The year ages towards winter. And we age too. But we know this when we sign up for morning, for spring, for life–and we sign up for everything because there is so much joy, beauty, discovery and love to be experienced.
In Kipling’s ‘Just So Stories‘ one of my favourite passages is the beginning of the story, ‘The Crab That Played With The Sea’:
Before the High and Far-Off Times, O my Best Beloved, came the Time of the Very Beginnings; and that was in the days when the Eldest Magician was getting Things ready. First he got the Earth ready; then he got the Sea ready; and then he told all the Animals that they could come out and play. And the Animals said, ‘O Eldest Magician, what shall we play at?’ and he said, ‘I will show you.’ He took the Elephant—All-the-Elephant-there-was—and said, ‘Play at being an Elephant,’ and All-the-Elephant-there-was played. He took the Beaver—All-the-Beaver-there-was and said, ‘Play at being a Beaver,’ and All-the Beaver-there-was played. He took the Cow—All-the Cow-there-was—and said, ‘Play at being a Cow,’ and All-the-Cow-there-was played. He took the Turtle—All-the-Turtle there-was and said, ‘Play at being a Turtle,’ and All-the-Turtle-there-was played. One by one he took all the beasts and birds and fishes and told them what to play at.
To me this is one of the great secrets of happiness: Play! Play at being who you are, what you are. That includes all your dreams and aspirations, because they are part of who you are. So play at them, as part of playing at what is to be done today. Just play. Play at being yourself.
‘Sandcastles’ was originally published in The Asses of Parnassus, a Tumblr site of “short, witty, formal poems”. This poem isn’t particularly formal, but it has iambics and a rhyme… and it’s short.
That James Joyce would have written and published formal poetry seems out of keeping with his image of the writer of chaotic language (as in how he chose to spell his work’s title rather than Poems, a penny each), but the poems he wrote in the early 20th century are in the language of the time… moderated by his rich words.
Wind whines and whines the shingle, The crazy pierstakes groan; A senile sea numbers each single Slimesilvered stone.
His poetry is often repetitive, but occasionally rich and memorable. (Another of his slim volumes, “Chamber Music”, is arguably more interesting than “Pomes Penyeach”.)
Pomes Penyeach was so small–14 poems of less than a page each–that when Faber republished it they added three more pieces: The Holy Office, Gas from a Burner, and Ecce Puer. The first two are early, crude and bombastic multi-page rants against poets and publishers:
Thus I relieve their timid arses, Perform my office of Katharsis.
Ecce Puer (“Behold the Boy”) is a later light, sweet meditation on his newborn grandson:
Young life is breathed On the glass; The world that was not Has come to pass.
You never know quite what you’re going to get with Joyce, and that in itself is one of the pleasures of reading him.
Wheer ‘asta beän saw long and meä liggin’ ‘ere aloän? Noorse? thoort nowt o’ a noorse: whoy, Doctor’s abeän an’ agoän; Says that I moänt ‘a naw moor aäle; but I beänt a fool; Git ma my aäle, fur I beänt a-gawin’ to breäk my rule.
This is the opening stanza of Alfred, Lord Tennyson‘s poem ‘The Northern Farmer: Old Style’. The farmer is dying, but obstinately overrules the doctor’s order that he not drink any more ale, just as he obstinately clings to traditional attitudes towards land and class, farming and money.
Where have you been so long and me lying here alone? Nurse? You’re no good as a nurse; why, the doctor’s come and gone: Says that I mayn’t have any more ale; but I’m not a fool; Get me my ale, because I’m not going to break my rule.
It’s one of a series of poems he wrote that recapture the dialect of his Lincolnshire youth, and that reflect the old traditions and the modern changes of that part of the country. It is paired specifically with ‘The Northern Farmer: New Style’–Here the “new style” farmer, out in a cart with his son Sammy, hears the horse’s hooves clip-clopping “Property, property” and chides his son for not thinking enough about money:
Me an’ thy muther, Sammy, ‘as been a’talkin’ o’ thee; Thou’s beän talkin’ to muther, an’ she beän a tellin’ it me. Thou’ll not marry for munny–thou’s sweet upo’ parson’s lass– Noä–thou ‘ll marry for luvv–an’ we boäth of us thinks tha an ass.
Seeä’d her todaäy goä by–Saäint’s-daäy–they was ringing the bells. She’s a beauty, thou thinks–an’ soä is scoors o’ gells, Them as ‘as munny an’ all–wot’s a beauty?–the flower as blaws. But proputty, proputty sticks, an’ proputty, proputty graws.
or, in more modern words:
Me and your mother, Sammy, have been talking of you; You’ve been talking to mother, and she’s been telling me. You don’t want to marry for money–you’re sweet on the parson’s daughter– No, you want to marry for love–and we both think you’re an ass.
Saw her today going by–Saint’s day–they were ringing the bells. She’s a beauty, you think–and so are scores of girls, Those with money and everything–what’s a beauty?–a flower that fades. But property, property sticks, and property, property grows.
Tennyson was meticulous in trying to recapture the life and language of his youth. He wrote:
When I first wrote ‘The Northern Farmer’ I sent it to a solicitor of ours in Lincolnshire. I was afraid I had forgotten the tongue and he altered all my mid-Lincolnshire into North Lincolnshire and I had to put it all back.
And apart from the accuracy of the dialect, Tennyson was as skilled as ever with his carefully conversational metre, and natural rhymes working comfortably with the natural breaks of the lines.
You wake and see dew on the grass in spring But I see futures present changes bring: Global warming replacing dew with drought, Nanotech replacing grass with grout, A.I. replacing people’s minds and thought, Genetic mods replacing us—with what? In other words, our world’s about to pass. Poetry must be more than dew on grass.
I was honestly a little surprised when Light Poetry Magazine told me they would publish this poem. I mostly associate them with their snippy, jokey little poems that appear weekly on topical subjects, Poems Of The Week. Maybe this is unfair, as their full twice-yearly magazine profiles individual poets and has useful book reviews as well as poetry from a couple of dozen formal poets. Be that as it may, I felt this poem might be a little more Dark than Light.
Not that I’m pessimistic about the future. I’m intrigued, and resigned. Just as in William Golding’s ‘The Inheritors’ in which a tribe of early humans finds modern humans moving in and displacing them, so modern humans look like being displaced by something we can’t yet identify. We are like Native Americans when the Europeans started arriving, like White America as the demographic shifts to a more globally representative population, or like every generation that finds the children and grandchildren listening to unrecognisable music and using incomprehensible technology. Is any of this bad? It can be handled well or badly, but it is a natural and unending process.
And now we’re facing a variety of technologies that together can completely remake the human: genetic engineering, A.I., robotics, infinite data-crunching, nanotechnology… Will we casually and irresponsibly start remaking humans? Of course. It’s inevitable. If one country clamps down on it, it will simply happen elsewhere. And what is the likely outcome? I haven’t a clue, but I’m intrigued.
So Louise Glück has won the 2020 Nobel Prize for Literature, “for her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal.” This is all very well–she has powerful insights, strong images, and these translate well into other languages. But as an advocate of the use of poetic tools inherent in language–rhyme and rhythm in particular, for English–I can’t classify the expressions of her poetic voice as poetry.
The simplest touchstone is this: How easy is it learn the passage by heart, to recite it word for word from memory? Because that is why we developed the tricks of poetry, the different rhythms for different moods, the different forms for different levels of complexity. Poetry is song with the emphasis shifted from the melody to the words; but the music is still there in shadow form.
It is very hard to keep the actual poetry when a poem is translated from one language to another. It is easy enough to translate the insights and imagery, but what of the music of the language? It can be done by a skilful translator, but the fidelity is often compromised to remake the poetry. Yeats was very free with the French of Pierre de Ronsard when he wrote
When you are old and grey and full of sleep, And nodding by the fire, take down this book, And slowly read, and dream of the soft look Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
but he captured the poetry and made it into one of his own best-loved pieces. James Joyce translated the German of Gottfried Keller as
Now I have fed and eaten up the rose Which then she laid within my stiffcold hand. That I should ever feed upon a rose I never had believed in liveman’s land.
It’s Keller, but it’s also poetry, and with Joyce’s own voice. Glück indeed has a voice, but how simple is it to learn her work and recite it word for word, compared with the Yeats or Joyce work above? And if you learn it by heart, will you still be able to recite it verbatim years later? I think not. So I submit that her work is not poetry.
That doesn’t mean that it isn’t literature. It just means that we need a word for such work, writing that is too poetic to be called prose, but too prosaic to be called poetry. Poetry needs its undercurrent of song. When the Nobel Prize was being awarded for poetry, Bob Dylan was a far wiser choice than Louise Glück.
After a billion years of larval hit-and-miss humans emerged, stood up, and fed, and grew, started to build their city chrysalis from which, 3,000 years entombed, now formed anew, they burst in wild bright flight with wings deployed out to the stars. The egg case of this final birth, the Earth, was, naturally, destroyed.
We have good news and bad news. The bad news is that the rate of change is ever-increasing in all aspects of human life–from our bodies to our planet–and we will never return to the old normal. The good news is that this is the process by which life advantages to higher levels of organisation and intelligence.
This poem was originally published in Star*Line, one of the two magazines of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association (SFPA). The other magazine is Eye to the Telescope (ETTT).
The poem rhymes and is written in iambics; but the rhymes are not structured to a pattern, and the lines are of uneven length. This casual form is used by Matthew Arnold and T.S. Eliot among others, in some of my favourite poems such asA Summer Night (I have always loved the three paragraphs beginning with:
For most men in a brazen prison live, Where, in the sun’s hot eye, With heads bent o’er their toil, they languidly Their lives to some unmeaning taskwork give, Dreaming of naught beyond their prison wall.)
and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. The form doesn’t have the musicality of more regular forms like the sonnet or limerick, but it provides all the memorising strength of rhythm and rhyme within a more conversational flow, and facilitates different lengths of thought including, if wanted, a punchline.
We live in difficult times, what with the unprecedented challenges of climate change, mass migration, infectious diseases, unpredictable technological advances in weaponry, and more. And the problems will continue to multiply and get larger, even as we develop solutions to the smaller, simpler ones. And from the inevitable destruction of our form of life will emerge… what? We cannot know, we probably cannot even imagine.