Tag Archives: George Simmers

Review: ‘Old and Bookish’ by George Simmers

George Simmers has chosen a title for his latest collection of poems that describes it very well: “Old and Bookish”; and also–if being merely in our 70s isn’t premature–self-deprecatingly describes himself. But though he writes with understanding about oldness and bookishness, he makes it clear that he is not being autobiographical: The first section is called “from The songs of the Old Man”, the title immediately followed by: “Note: The Old Man is not me, but I know how he feels.”

The Old Man Walks his Dog; The Old Man Visits a Very Old Woman; even The Old Man’s Song About the Crematorium… poems about the kind of thoughts the Old Man has:
Both the slutty and the proper,
Both the crooked and the copper,
Those who decorate interiors,
And the very very serious,
Both the fervent Corbynista
And her fashionista sister
Who’s obsessed by the length of a hem –
They’ll all end up at the crem crem crem
They’ll all end up at the crem.

That gives a sense of Simmers’ work–smooth and amused in rhythm and rhyme, in tone and in message. Or take The Old Man’s Heaven–how would a music lover imagine eternity in the afterlife? Discounting the “hoity-toity… operatic… Bayreuth-y” and the alternative punk “one long mosh pit”, the Old Man with gentle amusement envisages an older blonde in a piano bar:
With a voice of smoky yearning,
A lady who has seen too much,
But she keeps the old torch burning.

She sings that life is made for love,
And time will kill the pain.
She sings that though your love’s gone bad
You still should love again.
She sings that there is always hope
And those who love are wise.
Yes, I could spend eternity
Hearing those lovely lies.

The second section of the book moves away from the internal view of the Old Man to the external view of Some Oldies. It begins with Rachel, the most energised:
Old Rachel’s fierce and heavy-browed
Her views are strong; her voice is loud.
She says the councillors are crooks;
She says the mayor cooks the books.
She says the government’s a mess –
Don’t start her on the NHS –
While London, which survived the Blitz,
Is being bought by foreign shits,
By criminals and sheiks and sharks,
And kleptocrats and oligarchs…

and ends with Christopher, aware of his life winding down, dozing off with a smile
For he is entering a dream –
A joyous dream where he’s pursued
By several plump and laughing women
In the pink bumgorgeous nude.

The third, final, and largest section of the book is where we get to Bookish. Here are poems on poetry, on poets, on words, on English. There is a 26-line Elsinore Alphabet that starts at the beginning of Hamlet:
A is for armour, which kingly ghosts wear.
B is for battlements, where the guards stare.

and works its way through to the very end:
Y, they’re all dead as Yorick, once such a great hoot.
Z’s for zero plot left. Bid the soldier-chaps shoot.

There is two-page book review in limericks of a book of limericks. And there is my favourite poem of the book, ‘Poets in Residence’. Simmers having been a schoolteacher, he takes obvious delight in his tale of a headmaster who invites all the best English poets to the school. Here are eight of the 33 couplets:
Geoffrey Chaucer came first, on an equable horse,
And Spenser, and Marlowe, and Shakespeare, of course…
Keats arrived coughing, Kipling marched vigorously;
Matthew Arnold began to inspect the school rigorously…
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…

Unfortunately for the Headmaster, there is a Romantic Revolt:
Shelley’d gathered the students out in the main quad,
And roused them to rise against school, Head, and God…
The bards of the thirties were equally Red,
And Milton explained how to chop off a head…
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…

And the Head is left amidst the rubble, cursing all poets and poetry.

It all makes for a thoroughly enjoyable romp through the many aspects of ageing, viewed both internally and externally; and the consolations and disconsolations of poetry itself. It is an easy read, the ease belying the breadth and depth of Simmers’ thought, his lifetime of experience including the 25 years he has spent editing and publishing that excellent monthly online poetry magazine, Snakeskin.

Old and Bookish is an excellent and memorable collection of verse.

Even the cover illustration gets a little write-up at the end of the book, including a last poem by Simmers:

“I am very grateful to Bruce Bentzman for permission to use again his ‘Raven’ drawing, which made an earlier appearance in our Animals Like Reading collaboration. I approve of this bird, both for his obvious appetite for reading, and for his air of scepticism, which once inspired this rhyme:
‘Human nature? Bloody chronic!’ Raven caws in tones sardonic,
And adds: ‘I’ve read some rubbish as I’ve studied human lore,
But I’ve read no book that’s dopier than Sir Thomas More’s Utopia,
Which imagines human harmony and man (that carnivore!)
Being so nice to his neighbour he abjures all thoughts of war.’
Quoth the raven: ‘Never, More.’

And as for that Raven’s comment about warfare: it should be noted finally that George Simmers also authors a blog called Great War Fiction plus which focuses on fiction of the First World War, but also goes off on whatever tangents seem interesting.

Poem: ‘Poems Like Mice’

Poems should be concise:
quick, small, like mice.
Then one day you find
they’ve made a nest in your mind.

I seem to be writing shorter, more epigrammatic verse recently. Probably influenced by reading too much FitzGerald/Khayyam.

This little poem was published in the December 2020 issue of Snakeskin–which celebrates 25 years as a monthly online poetry magazine, presumably the oldest (or rather “the most venerable”) such magazine in the world. Congratulations to its creator and sustainer, George Simmers!

Photo: “Look at the cute mouse ^^” by letmehearyousaydeskomdeskom is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Poem: “The Silence”

“Pareja (Couple)” by Daquella manera 

On those days when, because you felt attacked,
you just won’t speak, it’s like a dress rehearsal
for one of us being dead. (So, a prehearsal?)
Can’t speak for you, how you’d react,
but for myself, if you die, I know only:
I’d be lonely.

After the slow dispersal
of the acquisitions of the years
from yard sales, impulses, unfinished plans–
after the children’s and grandchildren’s tears,
(their own mortality foretold in Gran’s)
there’d be an emptiness.

Routine unravels:
I’d need an act of will to even shave–
the dogs don’t care how I behave.
All I need’s here in cupboards, shelves, on line.
I’d be just fine…
apart from growing restlessness.

I guess I’d restart travels.
Meanwhile I’ve learned how it will be
to live without you, just your memory,
a silent apparition in this room and that,
the ghost of one who used to laugh and chat.

Think of this as a melancholy love poem, written in a temporary (thank goodness) state of being that can occur in any relationship.

This poem was published this month in Snakeskin No. (or #) 276. I feel proud to be in the issue, as I rate it as one of the best ever in the 20+ years that George Simmers has been putting the magazine out. Though much of the poetry is formless (but still worth reading!), there is some truly impressive work by Tom Vaughan and Scott Woodland, with well-structured work by Robert West, Nick Browne and Jerome Betts, and with interesting innovations in form by Marjorie Sadin, Claudia Gary and George himself–in this last, the character of the verse becomes more lively as the character in the verse becomes more alive.

Technically the form of the poem–uneven lengths of iambics, all lines rhyming but not in a structured way–is one that allows the line breaks to echo your intact chunks of thought as well as the rhythms of speech. It is the form of Eliot’s Prufrock and, earlier, of Arnold’s A Summer Night:

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;

It is a casual form, but it retains enough of the hooks of more formal verse to make it easy to memorise and recite.

The Spectator Competition: “Paradise Lost in four lines”

Milton Dictating to his Daughter, 1793, Henry Fuseli

Lucy Vickery runs a competition in the British weekly The Spectator–a truly venerable publication which recently reached its 10,000th weekly issue. Its politics are a bit too conservative for my taste, but the competition is in a class of its own (The New Statesman having dropped its similar competition a few years ago).

The most recent challenge was this: “In Competition No. 3163 you were invited to submit well-known poems encapsulated in four lines.” The gorgeous responses prompted Lucy Vickery to call the results “Paradise Lost in four lines”, after this entry by Jane Blanchard:

Satan found himself in hell —
Eve and Adam also fell —
Good gone bad got even worse —
Milton wrote too much blank verse —

(which exactly reflects my feelings, having had to waste too much of my A Level studies on Paradise Lost at the expense of more interesting poets such as John Donne and Matthew Arnold.)

My personal delight in The Spectator’s competitions is in seeing so many Potcake Poets there (in this case not just Jane Blanchard, but also Chris O’Carroll, Martin Parker, Jerome Betts, George Simmers and Brian Allgar), and in identifying more poets to keep an eye on for possible future chapbooks.

Anyway, if you want to see nice condensations of famous poems, have a look at that specific competition’s results. My favourite is Martin Parker’s take on e.e. cummings’ ‘may i feel said he‘:

foreplay
(more play)
errings, ummings
(and cummings)

Poem: “Time”

Time takes the young child by the hand
and leads it through a golden land
so timeless it will never note
Time’s other hand is at its throat.

This little poem was just published in Snakeskin, in one of its richest issues ever. I’m glad to have been included, along with several others–Claudia Gary, Tom Vaughan, George Simmers, Marcus Bales–of the formalist poets who appear in the Potcake Chapbooks. And a shout-out to Nikolai Usack, who made me clear up clumsy pronouns in the original draft.

Potcake Poet’s Choice: George Simmers, “The Old Man’s Heaven”

George Simmers

George Simmers

Do those whose taste in music
Is grandly hoity-toity
Think Heaven’s operatic
And ineffably Bayreuth-y?
Do those who go for punky gigs
Think paradise less posh,
Packed hard with spit and violence,
So Heaven’s one long mosh?

Let me describe the paradise
My ageing heart prefers–
A dimly-lit piano bar
And a bottle-blonde chanteuse.
Some broad who’s been around the block,
With a voice of smoky yearning,
A lady who has seen too much,
But she keeps the old torch burning.

She sings that life is made for love,
And time will kill the pain.
She sings that though your love’s gone bad
You still should love again.
She sings that there is always hope
And those who love are wise.
Yes, I could spend eternity
Hearing those lovely lies.

George Simmers writes: “I’ve sent this poem as a favourite because it starts off very definitely as light verse, but then modulates into something else. I like poems like that (and dislike the opposite – the ones that start off sounding deep, but then opt out and end up flippantly).

In the description of the singer and her music, I’m celebrating the kind of music I most enjoy – the torch-songs of the Great American Songbook, mostly from that golden age between 1920 and 1960. As I listen, I enjoy remembering that this is the kind of popular song that in its time was fulminated against by vicars and Leavisites for being popular and shallow (but more deeply perhaps because such folk were made uncomfortable by the Jewish melodies and African rhythms). Great singers like Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan made perfect art of it, but I prefer to think of a more imperfect one, a singer in a smallish bar, provincial, earning her rent doing what she loves, and finding in the songs a way of expressing the trials and yearnings of her own imperfect life. The customers drink, and maybe some of them chat. She sings.

Her repertoire is heavy on the music of Harold Arlen, but there is plenty of Rogers and Hart there, too, and Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin, and Gershwin, of course. And yes, Herman Hupfeld and… you name them.

I’m amazed, when looking into anthologies of twentieth-century American poetry, that they do not include ‘The Man I Love’ or ‘I Wish I were in Love Again’ or ‘Blues in the Night’. These are words that will surely outlast those of the poets academically respectable in their day. My poem is a tribute to those songwriters.”

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.
https://greatwarfiction.wordpress.com/
http://www.snakeskinpoetry.co.uk/

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Dervla Ramaswamy, “Woman vs The Virus”

Dervla Ramaswamy

Dervla Ramaswamy

Dervla Ramaswamy writes:

The poem of mine that you will print is my most recent, which contains my thoughts on the Coronavirus epidemic:

WOMAN vs THE VIRUS

the virus is the virus

the old and the debilitated
sadly become victims to its power

the doctors quake
the politicians tremble
but
I am woman

the power of woman confronts
the virus
for males are fifty
percent more likely to expire
due to the virus

such is the fortitude of women
I am the strength of women

yes, for my hips are monstrous
my belly is glorious
my appetites are profound
my cunt terrifies clergymen
power must bend before me

I am woman
I am the strength of all women
I am Marie Curie
I am Marilyn Monroe
I am Viginia McKenna
I am Jiang Qing
I am Winnie Mandela
I am Meghan Markle
I am our NHS
I am woman

Undefeated

Dervla Ramaswamy’s Potcake Poet bio simply states: “Poet. Thinker. Woman.”

She is hard to track down. Through our mutual friend George Simmers, Editor of Snakeskin, I heard she had entered a two-year writing retreat somewhere in the Balkans, with the project of creating a thirteen-line sonnet. “Luckily,” he continued, “the Mother Superior of the convent where she is currently on retreat is an ex-girlfriend of mine.”

This led to Dervla Ramaswamy herself suggesting that Potcake Chapbooks should publish what she describes as “my major work. It is a 4,000 line epic in free verse, describing the grim struggles of a family of Bulgarian potato farmers through seven depressing decades. I think you will enjoy it.”

Perhaps. But there are shorter, more traditional poems of hers which I look forward to including in future Potcake Chapbooks.

 

Poem: “The Ape in the Landscape”

Ape

I. THE APE

Like a chimp in a storm
we revert to a norm,
tree-swinging, branch-breaking,
stick-shaking, noise-making;
each baby’s a bomb
and their poise and aplomb
is a jack-in-a-box
full of fireworks and shocks,
full of colour, noise, light
full of anguish, delight,
rending, mending and tending,
exploiting, befriending,
and losing and finding,
abusing and minding,
both stupid and clever
but moving forever,
and dancing and singing
thought-prancing, word-winging,
for there’s no escape
from the million year ape,
from our in-built, inherited shape.

II. EXTERNAL LANDSCAPE

Somewhere a cleft cliff overhang, a cave
where we can stay dry, have a fire, and sleep;
though lions and bears growl outside, we feel brave–
Worship the Cave, Earth’s Deep.

Somewhere, huge in an open plain, a tree–
to climb for refuge, or the whole world see,
loving its fruit, leaves, wood, its shade from glare–
Worship the Tree, Earth’s fountain into air.

Somewhere a river ends where sea’s begun
and marshlands hold vast clouds of birds and fish,
and moon and tides swing like the winds and sun–
Worship the Waters, fresh, salt, both Earth’s gifts.

Somewhere the lightning strikes, a forest burns;
only one thing runs to it, not away,
one creature uses it to make night day,
cook food, stay warm, make tools, dance round and play–
Worship the Fire, on which being human turns.

Somewhere the landscape most potential shows:
more people, and some wary bird or beast;
by integrating them the human grows
into the landscape’s richness, Nature’s feast–
Worship the Richness with which life’s increased.

III. INTERNAL LANDSCAPE

Climbing, foraging and hunting,
running, loping, chasing something–
we were built for this.

An open field with a large tree,
a path towards a far blue sea–
the landscape we think bliss.

Keeping dogs, cats, birds as friends,
sharing food for no clear ends–
extended family.

Pigs, cows, sheep, ducks, geese as pets,
eating them without regrets–
that’s humanity.

And talking, dancing, running, singing,
friends and lovers, parents, children,
social, single, energetic,
meditative or frenetic…
we’re a tribal ape at heart,
without the wild we fall apart,
the ape’s our essence, end as well as start.

This poem was just published in Snakeskin, a very appropriate magazine from the point of view of its name, whose meaning is spelled out in the Credo in its first issue back in 1995:

The serpent whispered unto Eve:
“Think and feel; don’t just believe.”
This made the earth’s foundations shake.
We are the kindred of that snake. (…)

We trust no level tones; we ride
The roller-coaster of our pride.
The gonads’ rage, and yearning’s ache
Speak through the kindred of the snake.

In other words, no matter how much we develop our civilisation, no matter how much we tinker with our genetics, no matter how much we turn our decision-making over to AI, we need to acknowledge and work with – and enjoy – the primitive drivers and needs that are inherent in our physical and psychological makeup.

In other words (this time Nietzsche’s), “Stay true to the earth, my brothers,” even while looking forward to the coming of the Superman, for we are still part ape, and our coheret progress depends on our awareness of that, and of self-knowledge in general.

Technically the poem is a mish-mash of forms, somewhat casual in structure by formal standards, but rich in rhythm and rhyme. And this too is in keeping with Snakeskin’s Credo:

Nor shall we sit to lunch with those
Who moralise in semi-prose.
A poem should be rich as cake,
Say the kindred of the snake.

Enjoy! And my thanks to Snakeskin’s George Simmers.

 

Launch: Potcake Chapbook 6, “Wordplayful”

06 Wordplayful

The sixth in the series of Potcake Chapbooks, ‘Wordplayful – poems to amuse and amaze’, is now beginning to wander around on both sides of the Atlantic (and hopefully further afield). This one is a little different from the earlier ones in the series: puns and puzzles, poems that can be read vertically or in reverse, wordplay in a variety of forms… but, yes, all formal poems, stuffed full of rhyme, rhythm and rich language.

Returning Potcake poets are Marcus Bales, John Beaton, Ed Conti, Daniel Galef, Chris O’Carroll, George Simmers, Alicia Stallings, Rob Stuart and myself; newcomers are Sam Gwynn, Bob McKenty, the unlikely Noam D. Plum and the elusive Dervla Ramaswamy. Mini-bios and photos for most of them are on the Potcake Poets page.

Alban Low has again provided all the art work, but he will now be taking a five or six month break to work on other things, especially the annual Art of Caring exhibition which opens in St George’s Hospital in Tooting in London in May, and moves to St Pancras Hospital in July – or at least it did in 2019. But Alban promises to re-engage with us in the early summer, by which time we may have more idea of what further Potcake Chapbook themes to pursue.

Sonnet: “Unanswered”

The Afterlife – some Happy Hunting Ground?
Or Jesus, virgins, merging flesh and breath?
Or god of your own world, white-robed and crowned?
Or ghost? Rebirth? Just, please, no final death!

The sparrow through the Saxon hall at night –
Brief light and warmth, then cold obscurity.
Is this our life? But yet the bird in flight
lived in the dark, both pre and post. Do we?

Frogs, living in a buried water tank,
spend all their time in darkness. Then the lid
is lifted and sun shines into the dank –
lid down, light gone… but they live on, though hid.

We work and play throughout our brief day’s sun –
Day raises many questions – night, just one.

This sonnet was published in Snakeskin No. 265, edited by George Simmers. I write both religious and irreligious poetry as the muse suggests, but my own personal views are Fundamentalist Agnostic: “Nescio et tu quoque”, “I don’t know and neither do you.” The sparrow reference is to a passage in the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People which usually seems to resonate well.

Technically the sonnet is Shakespearean: iambic pentameter rhyming ABAB CECD EFEF GG. The three quatrains are each self-contained, but leading to the resolution (or lack of resolution) in the couplet. The last line is the strongest, which is always satisfying.