Tag Archives: Poetry

Review: “A Joy Proposed” by T.H. White

‘A Joy Proposed’ is a nice, somewhat strange, assembly of 57 often derivative poems from across the life of T.H. White. Many of the pieces were written in Ireland where White lived as a Conscientious Objector throughout the Second World War. His love of the countryside and his previous experiences as a schoolmaster (including at Stowe, a boarding school in rural Buckinghamshire with 600 acres of grounds) shine through in the constant juxtaposition of poems about game birds, dogs and landscapes alongside anger and bitterness about innocent lives lost to war.

The style varies from extreme simplicity, as in ‘A Choirboy Singing’:

Know not, but sigh.
Think not, but die.
Hope not, but high
Ache against ill.

to outpourings evocative of Whitman or Hopkins, as in ‘A Dray Horse’:

Meek Hercules – passion of arched power bowed in titanic affection,
Docile though vanquishing, stout-limber in vastness, plunging and spurning thy road –
Tauten thy traces, triumph past me, take thy shattering direction
Through misty Glasgow, dragging in a tremendous beer-waggon thy cobble-thundering load.

His pessimism, or perhaps mere sadness, at the human condition comes through again and again in the sense of the young lives he has been educating that will now be thrown away:

When I look at your comely head
And the long fingers delicately live
And the bright life born to be dead
And the happy blood to be shed
(…)
I die within me. And I curse
The witless fate of man without all cure.
Music I curse, and verse,
And beauty worse,
And every thing that helps us to endure.

… but mitigated always by his love of Nature, both hunting (as in kestrels and dogs he owned) and hunted (as in game birds he shot).

White is primarily known for his ‘Once and Future King‘ retelling of the Arthurian legends, and those novels soon went to stage and screen as the musical ‘Camelot’ and the Disney animation ‘The Sword in the Stone’. If it wasn’t for those novels, his other novels would probably be forgotten today and his poetry would be unknown. It isn’t great poetry, and yet I have read it and reread it. He was a writer and with it he was lonely, alcoholic, bitter, witty, learned, compassionate, and alive to the natural world. All of that comes through in these verses, with his self-awareness of who he was and what he was achieving. As he wrote in ‘Lines Cut on the Cottage Window’:

A bitter heart lay here and yet
It was not bitter to the bone.
It made what Time does not unmake
All hopeful, and alone.

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Review: “Strange Victory” by Sara Teasdale

“Strange Victory” is a thin, competent but uninteresting collection of short poems by Sara Teasdale, produced shortly before her suicide.

Moon, worn thin to the width of a quill,
In the dawn clouds flying,
How good to go, light into light, and still
Giving light, dying.

However, as this is neither her best selling “Rivers to the Sea” nor her Pulitzer Prizewinning “Love Songs”, perhaps one of those volumes would provide a better assessment of her worth as a poet.

Not recommended.

Poem: Sonnet: “The Unconscious Gets No Respect”

Today’s poem is about the unconscious, again. It was paired with the “Thunder-Galloping” one when published in Snakeskin, November 2016.

THE UNCONSCIOUS GETS NO RESPECT

The unconscious is a melancholy drunk
It prattles on in dreams with brutal truth.
“I’m getting ugly and I’ve lost my youth.”
“In useless youth I was a stupid punk.”
It evilly summons loved ghosts from the past –
Bobs this one’s hair and dyes it a rich red –
Conflating one who’d never shred their head
With unrelated one who lives life fast.
It sings its nonsense songs like Lear’s poor fool,
Nonsense that turns out sane in retrospect;
Is treated with contempt, or else neglect;
Unrecognized for what it is: a tool,
A genius program for decoding life,
A mental multi-blade Swiss Army knife.

This poem was written four weeks after “My Thunder-Galloping Unconscious Mind”. It repeats my attitude towards the unconscious: that it is powerful, deserves respect, and when respected provides health, direction and inspiration. I go through periods of writing about the same subject, just as an artist may do several versions of the same landscape either to try to capture the ineffable or simply to experiment with different weathers and lights and moods.

The structure of the poem – well, it is in reasonable iambic pentameter, but I’d say it’s a technically weaker sonnet than its twin, with a regular but less admirable rhyme scheme. The octet breaks satisfactorily into two quatrains and the volta is acceptable; but though the sestet has a concluding couplet, it’s actually a bit scrappy.

Be all that as it may, I like the poem; and publication in Snakeskin is always a good seal of approval.

Poetry Resources: A.Word.A.Day

One of the greatest resources for any lover of words is the (free) email subscription to A.Word.A.Day from wordsmith.org, founded by Anu Garg in 1994. Of course, you may well be getting this already as one of the 400,000 subscribers in 170 countries, enjoying the definition, pronunciation, etymology, usage and visual illustration of a not-quite-random word five days a week. Added bonuses include a quotation from a writer on their birthday, and limericks, anagrams and puns in the readers’ comments on the weekend.

This week’s theme is words used by singer-songwriter Roy Zimmerman, and is the trigger for my posting about A.Word.A.Day. Roy Zimmerman, as guest editor for A.Word.A.Day, writes:

“When my wife Melanie and I write a song, the Idea is out in front. People often ask which comes first, the melody or the lyrics. We say the Idea, with a capital I. The Idea takes shape as a hook — a little snatch of lyrics and melody — and the hook gives birth to a tune, a meter scheme, and a rhyme scheme.

We both love words. We’re both aware that words do real work in the world, especially words that rhyme and meter well. That’s what we’re trying to do with these songs — provide context, history, laughter, and encouragement for the work of social justice.

The description of the sequence for songwriting is virtually identical to that for writing poetry – and although poetry doesn’t necessarily have a tune, poetry definitely has a tone, a mood, that forms in the same place. Songs and poetry are very close siblings. Sometimes songs are forgiven weak lyrics because of a strong melody; sometimes poems are forgiven their lack of rhythm and rhyme because of their strongly expressed ideas and images. But at their most memorable they fuse as catchy songs that can also be fully enjoyed as poems without the music.

In either case, they are completely dependent on words. And to prod your word awareness, there is nothing simpler than the daily email from Anu Garg.

Poem: Sonnet: “My Thunder-Galloping Unconscious Mind”

A sonnet from a couple of years ago, published in Snakeskin, November 2016 :

Fire Horse

“fire horse” by sk8rboi90 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

 

MY THUNDER-GALLOPING UNCONSCIOUS MIND

My thunder-galloping unconscious mind –
On which I, jolly joking jockey, perch
And whose divine intentions I besmirch
With claims its selfishnesses I’ve divined –
This powerhouse, this generator blind,
With pattern-seeking data-crunch research,
Unschooled, ungoverned, then will trip and lurch
Drunk as a soul must be in a mad mind.
But loved and honoured it’s a thundering horse
That powers all the body’s work and health
And flushes poisons in its daily course
And monitors all dangers in its stealth
And feeds uplifting feelings, love and right…
And gifts these images to me at night.

This encapsulates a lot of my thoughts about the way the world works: a lot goes on under the surface of the mind, and we are not as much in charge as we think. In that sense I agree with those who say there is no free will – we think we are consciously deciding to act, but when the brain is monitored we find that we begin to act before the conscious decision – the conscious mind merely rubber-stamps the decision already taken by the unconscious and then, like any figurehead, takes credit for the action.

Also, I am of the opinion that acknowledging the power and healthfulness of the subconscious is key to a happy, balanced and creative life.

The structure of the poem – well, it’s a sonnet, but not pure in form. The first lines rhyming ABBA ABBA are Petrarchan, but after the (weak) volta the CDCD EE is Shakespearean. The effect to a purist is messy, muddy. But honestly, the awareness of four-line chunks is driven by either of those types of fundamental rhyme, just as it is by a rubaiyat’s AABA. When the final couplet comes, the sonnet feels complete – and this couplet is the strength of the Shakespearean sonnet. (The Petrarchan would have ended CDE CDE.)

I am only aware of one sonnet where switching between Petrarchan and Shakespearean was done deliberately and appropriately: a sonnet by Keats in which he was discussing form, and clarifying his new-found preference for the Shakespearean over the Petrarchan.

In anyone else, switching is not ideal, but it’s also not a major obstacle. It is a sign of slight imperfection. But I think this poem still holds. 

Poetry Resources: Rat’s Ass Review

Rat’s Ass Review, as you can guess from its name, is one of those in-your-face Rat's Ass Reviewpublications where a poet can place material that some of the more delicate magazines would blush to read. Edited by Roderick (“Rick”) Bates since 2014, and by founder David M. Harris before that, it is defined by the editor as “an online poetry journal whose editorial fancies are no more arbitrary than any other; they are simply more overtly so. I publish what I like.”

Rick, and David before him, are refreshingly open about their prejudices and preferences in the very long, useful and thought-provoking Submission Guidelines page. “There’s only one editor here, one person whose taste determines what gets into the RAR, and if you don’t like my taste, I don’t give a rat’s ass. Go someplace else for your poetry dose. (I don’t really think that makes me different from all the millions of others with online poetry zines, but I’m willing to admit it.) Send me your best poetry. I don’t particularly care whether it’s formal or informal, metrical or free verse, rhyming or not. I’ve written all those possibilities myself. A good poem isn’t one that gets the grades for following particular rules. And I’m sure I’ll reject plenty of good poems anyway. I’m not even sure I’m looking for good poems. I’m looking for my kind of poems.

So RAR is clearly formal-friendly… but formal isn’t good enough in itself, no matter how technically accomplished. The poem has both to be immediately accessible, and to provide deeper thoughts on rereading. It has to appeal the editor, whose idiosyncrasies you can only guess at. The best thing to do, of course, is to read through a couple of issues of the magazine. Apart from the two regular issues a year, there have been other unique ones: “Love and Ensuing Madness” and, given the current state of society and politics in the US, “Such an Ugly Time“. So there’s a clue to what the editor is looking for! The magazine boasts of its brash good humour and world-weary cynicism. And the word “fuck” appears as casually here as it does in British material like The Economist or John Oliver’s rants.

Detailed technical submission requests include “type your poems using Times or Times New Roman, font size 12, left justified, and don’t capitalize the first word of every line as though you were writing with a quill pen.

And the most helpful piece of advice for anyone unsure whether their material will be appreciated or accepted is simply this: “Go ahead and Submit.”

 

Poetry Resources: Lighten Up Online

Lighten Up Online appears four times a year, in the third month of each quarter. Lighten Up balloonFounded over ten years ago by Martin Parker, it is now edited by Jerome Betts – both of them being accomplished formal poets, of course. They and the magazine are very English (reflected, to the bemusement of Americans, in some of the spelling, rhymes, slang and references) but contributors come from around the globe. Their front page states:

“We believe that light verse is very far from being the poor relation of ‘proper’ poetry. On this site you will find work by light verse specialists as well as by some of the many ‘proper’ poets who enjoy it and write it and agree that light verse deserves a wider audience than it is normally given.” 

The technical standards are very high, and wordplay including puns is always welcome. Here is just such a piece by the editor himself in the current issue:

Stiff Upper Lip

When uncle slipped, near roadside tippings,
As light snow hid the ice beneath,
And fell face down in sharp-edged chippings,
Did foul words further blast the heath?
Ah no, despite the pain’s cruel nippings
He just said ‘Ouch!’, through gritted teeth.

Lighten Up Online is always open to submissions, but of course anyone sending work to it should read a couple of issues first to get a sense of what the magazine is all about. A lot of very short pieces are published, and every issue ends with the results of the previous issue’s competition and the announcement of the new one.

An extremely enjoyable read, and a good way to find new poets you might like.