Tag Archives: Kipling

Review: “The Chatto Book of Modern Poetry, 1915-1955”

Chatto Modern Poetry

1915 to 1955 provides quite a range of poetry! From Hardy, Housman, Kipling, Yeats, through two world wars, to Dylan Thomas and twenty poets younger than him. Editors C. Day Lewis and John Lehmann confined themselves to (loosely defined) British poets, and to those aged at least 30 by their final selection. Among the 260 poems are many standards–Hardy’s ‘Afterwards’, Yeats’ ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, Eliot’s ‘East Coker’, Auden’s ‘Lay Your Sleeping Head’, Dylan Thomas’ ‘Fern Hill’–but the real joy is in discovering good work by less well known poets. I give a few excerpts as examples: pastoral, autobiographical, of mortality, a war poem, wistfulness:

Andrew Young, ‘Wiltshire Downs’

The cuckoo’s double note
Loosened like bubbles from a drowning throat
Floats through the air
In mockery of pipit, land and stare.

And one tree-crowned long barrow
Stretched like a sow that has brought forth her farrow
Hides a king’s bones
Lying like broken sticks among the stones.

Laurie Lee, ‘First Love’

Then it was she put up her hair,
inscribed her eyes with a look of grief,
while her limbs grew as curious as coral branches,
her breast full of secrets.

But the boy, confused in his day’s desire,
was searching for herons, his fingers bathed
in the green of walnuts, or watching at night
the Great Bear spin from the maypole star.

Alun Lewis, ‘Water Music’

Cold is the lake water
And dark as history.
Hurry not and fear not
This oldest mystery.

This strange voice singing,
This slow deep drag of the lake,
The yearning, yearning, this ending
Of the heart and its ache.

Keith Douglas, ‘How to Kill’

Now in my dial of glass appears
the soldier who is going to die.
He smiles, and moves about in ways
his mother knows, habits of his.
The wires touch his face: I cry
NOW. Death, like a familiar, hears

and look, has made a man of dust
of a man of flesh. This sorcery
I do. Being damned, I am amused
to see the centre of love diffused
and the waves of love travel into vacancy.
How easy it is to make a ghost.

Sidney Keyes, ‘The Gardener’

Do you resemble the silent pale-eyed angels
That follow children? Is your face a flower?
The lovers and the beggars leave the park–
And still you will not come. The gates are closing.
O it is terrible to dream of angels.

As a collection the poetry is overwhelmingly formal, rural and male. It is titled ‘The Chatto Book of Modern Poetry’, but it predates the formless chaos of what we now call “modern poetry”, the unstructured confessional outpourings of the past half century. The anthology isn’t perfect, but very rewarding for lovers of traditional poetry. (Not hard to find. Used hardcovers are available from $0.99 on Amazon.)

Poem: “Eight Legs”

Eight Legs

Odin had a spider
In a web above his throne.
“Out!” he said; it came to him.
“And up!” he said; it grew.
“Legs go this way, legs go that!”
The wind began to moan.
Odin touched a spur to Sleipnir,
Through the storm they flew.

This little poem was published in Anima, a magazine of “Poems of Soul and Spirit” which is now, as they say, quiescent (though it continues to publish books). Odin is very much a god of magic, transformation, journeys, knowledge and poetry – as well as of war and death.

To get hold of the Mead of Poetry, which was in three vats guarded in a mountain cave by a giant’s daughter, Odin changed into a snake to get inside the cave; changed into a handsome young man to persuade the giantess to give him three sips in exchange for sleeping with her for three nights; drank each vat in a single sip; and changed into an eagle to fly back to Asgard where the other gods had prepared a big cauldron for the mead. Chased by the angry giant (also in the form of an eagle) and slowed down by all the mead inside him, Odin was so scared that he shitted some of it out as he flew – but he made it to Asgard, and disgorged the bulk of the mead into the cauldron. This is the gift that the gods give when they want to make someone a good poet. And  bad poetry? That’s when you’ve been consuming the stuff Odin shitted out.

Technically, you could discuss whether “Eight Legs” is in flawed trochaics, and whether the line break between the first two lines is in the right place, and so on… But if you read it aloud, I think you’ll find it has strong stresses, weak stresses, and unstressed syllables – or else consider it as quadrisyllabics (one stressed and three unstressed syllables). I would read it as:

Odin had a spider in a web above his throne. (pause)
“Out!” he said; it came to him. “And up!” he said; it grew. (pause)
Legs go this way, legs go that!” The wind began to moan. (pause)
Odin touched a spur to Sleipnir, through the storm they flew.

Not too different from

I had a duck-billed platypus when I was up at Trinity
With whom I soon discovered a remarkable affinity
– Patrick Barrington, The Diplomatic Platypus

or

I am the very model of a modern major-general
– W.S. Gilbert, The Pirates of Penzance

or

Not always was the kangaroo as now we do behold him
– Rudyard Kipling, The Sing-Song of Old Man Kangaroo, in The Just So Stories

Poetry is very close to song; or, song is the bridge between poetry and music. Reading poetry aloud is very important for its appreciation, to bring out its rhythm (and sometimes even musical notes that flow into it naturally). That’s why poetry can be set to music, and why songs are invariably printed out in poem format.

In that context, even the line of spondees in Samuel Coleridge’s “Metrical Feet” has, like all the other lines, four stresses:

Trochee trips from long to short.
From long to long in solemn sort
Slow spondee stalks; strong foot yet ill able
Ever to run with the dactyl trisyllable.
Iambics march from short to long.
With a leap and a bound the swift anapests throng.

… because poetry in its origins (in the preliterate times of both the tribal fire and modern nursery) is designed to be memorised, so it can be chanted or sung or otherwise recited.