Tag Archives: Poetry

Review: “Aniara” by Harry Martinson

Aniara has fascinated me for a long time because it combines three of my favourite literary interests: science fiction, poetry, and the works of Nobel Prizewinners.

Harry Martinson wrote the book in the 1950s, a decade after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki but before Sputnik launched the Space Age. It is the story of mass migration to Mars from the destroyed Earth, centred on a miles-long spaceship with thousands of emigrants that is knocked off course and is headed out of the solar system on a hopeless journey.

The existentialism of the situation – living lives of no destination in an inescapable vessel – is in practical terms no different from our own endless circling of the Sun… The issues of whether this feels different, and whether it should feel different, are never addressed but resonated with me nevertheless.

The characters are diverse and interesting. With the book having been written by a male, and with the narrator having a variety of sexual relationships with women, I was surprised to find that the recent film version has a female protagonist. Well, why not make it into a lesbian sf movie, though?

The book is divided into 103 ‘songs’ of half a page to seven pages in length – only 102 in the English translation by Hugh MacDiarmid and Elspeth Harley Schubert, as they and the author agreed that Song 42 is untranslatable.

This raises the question of what the verse is like in the original Swedish. A mixture of formal and free verse, apparently, but with much more rhyme and structure than in the translation. (That the translation is weaker is natural enough, but unfortunate). While I wait to find a full copy in Swedish (which I will be able to work my through, with the English translation in my other hand), I am glad to have found a Swede’s Goodreads review in English which gives samples of the poetry in both languages. (Thank you, Lisa!) For example:

“Försök till räddning genom tankeflykt
och överglidningar från dröm till dröm
blev ofta vår metod.
Med ena benet dränkt i känslosvall
det andra med sitt stöd i känslodöd
vi ofta stod.
Jag frågade mig själv men glömde svara.
Jag drömde mig ett liv men glömde vara.
Jag reste alltet runt men glömde fara. –
Ty jag satt fånge här i Aniara.”

In the MacDiarmid/Schubert translation:

“Attempts at respite through the flight of thought
and constant transference from dream to dream
was often our method of seeking relief.
With one leg steeped in a flood of feeling
and one supported by a lack of feeling
we often stood.
I questioned myself but quite forgot to answer.
I dreamt of life but quite forgot to live.
I ranged the universe–but could not travel farther
for I was imprisoned here, in Aniara.”

The MacDiarmid/Schubert translation is not great, as shown in this excerpt. Not only is there a general lack of rhyme, but the second-to-last line would translate correctly as “I traveled all around but forgot about danger”. The only justification for changing the meaning is to make the (very weak) rhyme of “farther” with “Aniara”.

But then again, translating poetry into a different language’s poetry is at least as difficult as translating a written story into a film… so, as for this translation: I’ll give it five (out of ten, for the try). But the original? From what I can see and guess, ten out of ten!

Poem: “Post-literacy”

Yes, I know it seems unlikely
but I simply can’t help feeling
there’s an urgency to writing:
and in verse, and fluently.

We’ve our cultural traditions
that have coevolved with language
and each language has its verse forms
that are aids to memory.

It’s all fine that we are moving
to post-literate existence
where the things all talk and tell you
everything you need, you must

when the neon signs and fridges
can discuss with you their content,
you don’t need to read or count, if
their integrity you trust.

But embedded in our braincells
are the patterns of our language
and our need to think in patterns
drives our songs, makes us a folk,

it gives dub and rap and hip hop,
it drives rhetoric in speeches,
and the false anticipation
of the punchline of a joke.

With our cultures integrating
with AI and with each other,
we risk losing all our history,
all our culture and, what’s worse,

Our minds! So sing to babies,
have kids memorise long poems,
learn the maths of songs and music –
learn and read and write in verse!

This poem, recently published in Bewildering Stories, speaks to the heart of the matters that this blog deals with. Songs and music, rhyme and rhythm, dance, melodies, alliteration and assonance, structures and patterns and verses and choruses, are all part of something that is deeply human. It starts for us with the heartbeat in the womb, is nurtured with lullabyes and rocking, carries on through the songs and music and dance that are important to every generation of teenagers. It is such a fundamental part of our humanity that educational systems that ignore it are ignoring a powerful natural teaching tool.

The issue is larger than the fact that learning verse by heart is easier than learning prose by heart. Larger than the benefits of developing the ability to remember and memorise accurately. It is about recognising and nurturing those inner forces that make us human. It is about not letting our humanity be eroded by a culture that doesn’t acknowledge the rhythms that permeate our lives.

This blog is about the value of formal verse. Part of that value is poetry’s contribution to the sanity that comes from being a complete human being.

Technically this poem’s lines could be described as iambic tetrameter, which each fourth line being truncated and rhymed. But I prefer to read it almost as a patter song with each line composed of two tertius paeons, Short-foot-meter.svg Short-foot-meter.svg Long-foot-meter.svg Short-foot-meter.svg (each fourth line still being truncated and rhymed). In other words, it is designed to have the third and seventh syllables in each line be the ones with the greatest stress or emphasis. And that includes the rhymes, naturally.

Review: “Selected Poems” by W.H. Auden

Auden

The best of Auden’s poems are so many, so varied, so technically accomplished and so witty that he stands with the greatest poets of the 20th century. My list of favourites includes:

“O where are you going?” said reader to rider
O what is that sound that so thrills the ear
A shilling life will give you all the facts
Look, stranger, at this island now
Miss Gee
As I walked out one evening
In Time of War
Musee des Beaux Arts
In Memory of W.B. Yeats
Law, say the gardeners, is the sun

and what many consider the greatest love-poem of the last 100 years:
“Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm”.
There is a universality about Auden’s depiction of relationships, an indeterminate quality that allows his thoughts to be applied to all people. This is in keeping with the fact that he was gay, and writing in a time when homosexuality was illegal. It provides an unexpected strength for his verse.

And yet, and yet… all of those poems listed above were written before he turned 33. He lived to age 66, writing longer and longer works, moving further and further away from traditional verse, and with less of the memorable genius of his youth.

It is therefore somewhat depressing to read these “Selected Poems” because they are set out chronologically, and the writing gets less interesting the further you read. Halfway through the book you run into the poem sequence “The Sea and the Mirror – a commentary on Shakespeare’s The Tempest”, which includes 25 pages of prose crammed with dense imagery and argument. Apparently Auden preferred this prose section, “Caliban to the Audience”, over all his other work. This preference was expressed at the time that he was rewriting the excellent poems of his youth to reflect his newer American, Christian, self-important academic personality. I found it unreadable.

The first edition of “Selected Poems” (selected and edited by Edward Mendelson) contains 100 poems. A more recent edition adds another 20 poems, “broadening its focus to better reflect the enormous wealth of form, rhetoric, tone, and content in Auden’s work. Newly included are such favorites as “Funeral Blues” and other works that represent Auden’s lighter, comic side”.

Unfortunately I only have the 100-poem version. If you buy a copy of this book, make sure it has the 120 poems!

Review: “Frozen Charlotte” by Susan de Sola

Frozen Charlotte

Susan de Sola’s ‘Frozen Charlotte’ is a book of strong poetry, both formal and free verse, collected after prior publication in 30 publications as diverse as Able Muse, Ambit, American Arts Quarterly, Amsterdam Quarterly… and The Dark Horse, and Light, and Measure. One of the pieces in this collection, ‘Twins’, has already been reprinted in the Potcake Chapbook ‘Families and Other Fiascoes’.

Her casual comfort with verse forms is shown in the last poem of the book, ‘Bounty’:

The fruit flies find our fruit, they slip
beneath the lid, a silver dome.
The dark fruit scent has drawn them in,
no other lures them out again.
They settle on apples, puckered figs,
they gorge in perpetuity,
may never fly back to their home,
(if they have ever had a home).
An allegory of choice? Well, yes–
in that we have no choice.
The fruit is fine, the day is long.
Let us feed, buzz, rejoice.

The poem divides into two pieces: the first eight lines describe the scene, and are in iambic tetrameter with mere hints of rhyme. The last four lines step back and philosophise, and alternate tetrameter and trimeter, the trimeters rhyming.

Personally, though I like the whole poem, I find the last four lines far more satisfying. The change of rhythm is good, but I don’t see any reason not to embed more formal rhyme in the first part. She is capable of sustained rhyme, as in another of my favourites, ‘Holistic Practice’. Here a middle-aged holistic therapist who has failed to create a whole life for herself – living in a one-room flat and with no family – is depicted in ten 5-line stanzas as she comes for a visit and shares pictures of her cat. The last stanza is:

But no, her Boop, he was her treasure;
her angel and her source of pleasure.
“Oh , look, how cute!”–a cat bow tie!
I grin and nod, divided by
a deep, holistic urge to cry.

I will admit that her free verse can be very engaging as well, as in her ‘ATM’:

Somehow, it’s sexual,
the rim crotch-high,
the shuffling buttocks,
the hands fumbling in secret.

Gone the dainty dialogue,
the date stamp in a little leathery
book of records, at set times. Now,
an onanism of cash, walls with mouths.

This is an example of a poem that I would hesitate to modify into a formal structure for fear of losing the way that each short line is a punchline in itself. But for the most part the less formal poems, though they often have rich ideas, are not as memorable as the well-structured ones. Blank verse in itself has no merit for me – Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ rambles tediously, without the need for concision imposed by rhyme. Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’ may be long but it is packed with many more stories. It rhymes, and that leaves no room for waffle. No surprise then that with Susan de Sola’s work the longest poems are unrhymed and the least tight.

As for ‘Frozen Charlotte’, the title of the book and of one of its poems, I can only say I am grateful that a page of notes at the end gives the explanation that this was a common, naked, 19th century German doll that acquired its nickname in the US in relation to some ballads. I was unfamiliar with Frozen Charlottes. As a book title it seems memorable but disconnected, as Susan de Sola’s poems are, above all, full of warmth and life.

Review: “Send Bygraves”, by Martha Grimes

Send Bygraves

Martha Grimes is best known as an American author of mysteries set in England, each with the unlikely name of a pub for its title. Here she provides a thrilling piece of well-versified pseudo-murder-mystery nonsense: the enigmatic Bygraves appears in the distance of the characters’ views and of the book’s illustrations. Is he the most brilliant detective, or possibly the murderer, or perhaps the undefined victim… is it conceivable he is all three?

Mystery. It’s all the same:
Questions without end or aim.
What will lead us to the dead?
Footprints in the flower bed.
What appeals were made too late?
Sift the ashes in the grate.
What was fatal in the mug?
Pick the fragments from the rug.

The story, told in a range of voices and in styles from sonnet and pantoum to free verse, never clarifies quite what is going on.

We’re a decent lot. We cause no trouble.
(That spot of bother with the poisoned dogs
At Smythe-Montcrieff’s? We’d nothing to do with that!)
You standing, Sergeant? Ah, thank you, I’ll have a Double
Diamond. Jameson on the side. That fog’s
Thick as pea soup innit? I’ll tell you flat:
We don’t much like the Yard nosing about
In Little Puddley.

I would have given it five stars on first reading because it is so original and well-crafted. Rereading it some years later (with my expectations higher), I find the verse less inspired, the characters excessive to the point of being undifferentiated… but this is not a novel, this is a piece of art work (and the illustrations by Devis Grebu are a solid component of it). It gives the tone, the impression of an Agatha Christie or Peter Dickinson novel, but it is a smaller, more delicate and decidely more enigmatic work.

Constable Feathers, I see
Nothing unusual here:
The tradespeople, the gentry,
The servants, the village lout–
All of the villagers out
To murder one another
In typical English fashion.
I wander through the fog,
Pondering the red herrings:
The bloodstained glove, the dogs,
The marmalade, the locket–

It deserves a place on the bookshelf, not with the regular mysteries, but maybe between Edward Gorey and Jorge Luis Borges.

Sonnet Contest: Cash prizes, no entry fee!

poetry magazine, Better than Starbucks logo

Better Than Starbucks has just opened its annual sonnet contest, an opportunity for all lovers of formal poetry to practice their skills and show off their best work.

Open through October and November (closes December 1), the contest has no entry fee but awards prizes of $100, $50 and $25 for the top three sonnets, which will be published in the magazine along with seven runners-up.

Expect the competition to be fierce! Better Than Starbucks already has a solid following among formal poets. Last year’s competition drew 560 sonnets, this year’s will undoubtedly see more. And you can only send two sonnets. Make sure they are good!

What “good” means can be gleaned from looking at last year’s results in the January 2019 issue, and more sonnets on the Formal Poetry page in March 2019. There are explanatory notes on the contest page, showing some leniency in the definition, and clarifying that previously-published work is acceptable:

This contest is for a metrical sonnet.
Your sonnet can be shakespearean, petrarchan, spenserian, rhymed, or slant-rhymed.
Blank verse is fine, as long as the sonnet form is clearly identifiable.
We’ll consider tetrameter, hexameter, etc. as well as pentameter.
Some metrical variation is fine, but don’t forget the volta!
As always, we do accept previously published work.

Good luck!

Poem: “My Outside”

My outside stroking your inside
Your inside gloving my outside
My outside stroking your
Inside gloving my
Stroking your
Gloving my
Stroking
Gloving
Stroking
Gloving
My your my your my your
Our

This poem was originally published in “The Fifth International Anthology on Paradoxism“, edited by Florentin Smarandache – who appears to live as a mathematician in a universe of paradox. It was republished in the Experimental section of Better Than Starbucks.

This blog advocates for the use of form, to the extent of questioning whether a piece that doesn’t rhyme and scan can even be considered poetry. Is this poetry, then? I think it hovers paradoxically on the edge. It may not rhyme or scan, but it has certain qualities of form:

It is word-for-word memorable through its expression. After all, it only uses seven different words, and they are clearly structured.

The lines are paired all the way, the second of each pair mirroring (or even fusing) the first.

There is a rhythm – a very human rhythm – to the piece, even if it doesn’t fall within poetic norms.

There is even, if you care to consider it, an aspect of concrete poetry about it.

And, if read in my English accent, the last word is a pun, being pronounced “Ahh!”

The simplicity of words, the structure of the lines, the rhythm of the piece, the aspect of concreteness and the pun all contribute to what the poem is trying to communicate.

If it is a poem.