Tag Archives: Robin Helweg-Larsen

Sonnet: ‘The Poem’

Poems are merely words you can remember
word for word. Question: What makes them so?
Think of the earliest nursery rhymes you know,
held from child’s January to old December:
rhymes, rhythms, imagery—rich as meringues.
Then complicate discussion, don’t reduce
odd imagery, words foolish, strange, diffuse—
aim for rijsttafel with tongue-tingling tangs.
Use richness to engage the memory:
conflicting quotes from Bible, Shakespeare, Yeats,
with Bach-like sense of heaven’s opening gates
or hall of mirrors, or sun-scattering sea…
Mesmerized readers have to puzzle out
in memory mazes what it’s all about.

My firm belief is that poetic structures originate as nothing more than memory aids, so that a work can be recited word for word. This was invaluable in preliterate societies and was used for tribal histories and spiritual revelations (Muhammad was illiterate, and the most powerful passages of the Quran are in strongly rhythmical rhyme) as well as for lullabyes and love songs. But the use of our human love of rhythmic beat, and our enjoyment of rhyme and wordplay, have helped verse develop into elaborate, engaging, memorable forms, varying by culture because of the different opportunities of the different languages. Enjoy the diversity, and the complexity!

This sonnet, like ‘The Four Duties‘, has just been published in the Winter 2020 edition of The Orchards magazine of formal poetry.

Photo: “Indonesisch Rijstafel” by johl is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Sonnet: ‘The Four Duties’

First, to your family, the spouse you chose,
children you gained who themselves had no choice;
to give a space wherein to find their voice
with safety, happiness, as each one grows.

To self: to keep yourself happy and whole,
free of both physical and mental pain
through yoga, exercise, good stress, good strain,
a moderate diet, peaceful self-control.

To all humanity: using some gift,
some insight, skill set, asset, useful tool
to better people’s lives through work or school,
some mast and sail or oar for those adrift.

And to the Muse that underlies the world:
express yourself—banners are useless furled.

This sonnet feels a little uncomfortably preachy, pretentious, self-righteous, and generally out of touch with the flippant persona I prefer. But it’s what I actually believe deep down. To me, it’s self-evident in terms not just of personal morality, but also as regards what makes a person feel fulfilled and happy. And the last bit is important: everyone has a creative aspect, and everyone has a Muse. The Muse is just part of how the world works, perhaps how your creative subconscious communicates with your conscious mind, perhaps how God or gods or angels communicate with you… it’s a little mysterious, but it’s part of your reality. And the correct thing to do is to express yourself creatively when you have an idea for it: that turns on the tap for further creativity. Not doing anything with the creative idea you get turns the tap off, and reduces future creativity. You need to honour the Muse when he/she/it appears.

‘The Four Duties’ has just been published in the Winter 2020 edition of The Orchards magazine of formal poetry. A few days late for that year, perhaps, but I just saw a weather forecast for “six more weeks of 2020”. Indeed, a sense of calm and responsibility is what the world needs, now and always.

Photo: “Her duty” by Go-tea 郭天 is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Sonnet: ‘Mythic Memories’

From all the mythic memories we make
Of childhood’s forests, gardens, beaches, seas,
Disturbed by adults’ eccentricities,
Come all the world’s religions – Tree and Snake,
Hero and Mother, Martyr, Saint and Fake.
Then let us make our mythic memories
(Implying endless possibilities)
From all that follows in the island’s wake:

Climbing up banyans, palms and tamarinds –
Firelight and starlight – total black of caves –
Spearing a lionfish – running on pink sand –
And unknown flowers scented on sea winds –
And jagged cliff heights where the ocean raves –
And views of huge horizons past all land.

I think it is important for children to experience the diversity of the world in different ways: when very small they need to feel the rhythms of day and night, winter and summer, and celebrate them with memorable festivals. When they are a little older, say six to eight, it is useful to experience the diversity of the world: if they live in cities, to go to farms and mountains and forests and beaches; if they grow up in a rural area as I did, it is a huge experience to spend a few days in a city. In either of those cases, the experiences make school learning much more relevant, something that can understood and believed in, because of the personal memories. I was fortunate to experience cities and countryside, jungles and deserts, before I started school. History, geography and languages were always very interesting as a result.

For even older children our family advocates a further step: in grade 10–i.e. at age 15–each of our kids got to choose where they were going for a year of schooling overseas. The only restriction was: Not an English-speaking country! They went away for Grade 11 and returned to finish high school with their friends for Grade 12. They went through competent organizations (YFU–Youth For Understanding, and AFS… though one went to the family of a boy we had hosted the previous year). The normal structure was that they went to a family (best if there are other children in the family) in which one parent spoke English; they had a week or two of prep time with the organization in the new country before the school year started; in school, initially they sat at the back of the class and didn’t know what was being said except in English classes and maybe Maths; by Christmas they understood everything; by Easter they spoke fluently; by the end of the year they had acquired the regional accent. The five kids each chose different countries: Denmark, Costa Rica, Italy, Japan and France.

They came back several years more mature than when they left. Instead of dreaming of owning a car, they none of them wanted a car particularly: they had learned to get around a strange city by bus and metro, which is cheap and flexible. Instead of believing that there is only one appropriate style of clothing and only one good type of music for their generation, they realized that even if all teens think that, those clothes and music are different in different countries, and it is a matter of choice. Instead of fighting with us, their parents, over teenage complaints of lack of freedom, they came home delighted to return to the rules and life they had known, with a year of living differently under their belt. And they had seen a lot of the world in a very deep way, the childhood and school experience, the local family experience, all the seasonal foods and songs and rituals, something that is very hard for an adult to ever experience in a foreign country.

And as it is from our childhood experiences that we derive our understanding of the world, and make the myths we live by and the goals we strive for, it is beneficial for us to have as wide and deep a range of childhood experiences as possible. So I believe, anyway.

This poem was originally published in Snakeskin. It may feel like an unfortunate post for a time of Covid and lockdowns in various parts of the world, but the days of good travel should return soon, and we can start planning…

Photo: “Pink Sand Beach” by Cédric Z is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Sonnet: ‘Where Are The Lightning Bolts’

Where are the lightning bolts of poetry?
The rolls of thunder and the shattered oaks?
Where, beyond anger, is the ecstasy?
There must be more than parodies, kitsch, jokes–
Elvis-on-velvet, kittens in a room,
jibes at the Lords, the House, the Holy See,
unmetered waffling on a flower in bloom…
Come now, tap Earth’s potential energy!

Our planet on which tens of millions die
from some war, ’flu, government famine, plague–
we pillage land and sea, yet learn to fly
while stories, music, art, reshape the vague
into sublime, emotional or vatic…
Humans can’t last – so be brief, be ecstatic!

Here we are, putting the chaos of 2020 behind us, moving optimistically into the forever-changed and forever-changing future. The storm gods appear to rule our lives: our ape cousins respond in their way, and we should respond to the bigger forces we feel with the wider range of creative outlets that we have–dance, poetry and ecstasy are all appropriate!

This sonnet was first published in The Orchards Poetry Journal, edited by Karen Kelsay Davies who also heads up the four imprints of Kelsay Books. Technically it’s a Shakespearean sonnet by the rhyme scheme, but there is no particular significance in that. Sonnets of all kinds share the compression to 14 lines, and the volta, the redirection of discussion after the halfway mark, and, typically, the sonorous rhetoric of the iambic pentameter. But the driving need of the argument and the near inevitability of the best words will tend to move the rhyme scheme into one form or another. It is better to say powerfully what the poem demands, rather than to weaken the words by trying to strengthen a preconceived rhyme scheme. As elsewhere, “Go with the flow” has a logic to it here.

Photo: “Lightning Bolt Over Atlantic Ocean from Jupiter Coast” by Captain Kimo is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Poem: ‘Gods On Trial’

When all the old gods go on trial, loud cursed
In the High Court of Public Thought Review,
Jehovah (tribal god of bronze age Jews)
Stands of his vast pretentiousness accused:
Claims he created Heaven and Earth
When he was born six thousand years ago!
(Can’t define Heaven, doesn’t even know
If there’s a difference between Earth and Universe.)
God of the Christians and the Muslims too!
Won’t do anything against the AI
Displacing all the gods. Thor in the dock
Scratches his bull-neck, Odin his empty eye,
Zeus his cock.
The gods are human, know they face death, forgotten
As any carven deity, buried, rotten.
Concerned, they fidget restlessly –
Only Jehovah, the least self-aware,
Storms he’s exempt, blusters with beard and hair,
Thinks his small tribe is all that there can be.

I have a lot of sympathy with apocalyptic thinking: the end of the world as we know it is always happening, being replaced by something with unfamiliar and disturbing aspects. All the old ways are always ending. And those who grow up with the new ways, which is all children, mature and age and find their ways displaced in turn. But the scale of displacement varies… a war raging across your homeland is worse than a wave of new immigrants, though both of these are familiar problems. But the rise of AI and a host of new technologies, and the wholesale washing away of gods and pre-scientific explanations, is leading to a future where not even the make-up of the human can be known for sure. The gods shrink and become amusing.

The poem was originally published in Snakeskin. It’s a bit slapdash, mostly in iambic pentameter, mostly rhyming, but not technically great. But then, I was always one of those students whose report cards read “Could try harder”, “Could do better”.

Photo: “Wäinämöinen” by Teppo is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Poem: ‘Unexplained’

I’ve only once in my six decades–
Years spent in many lands and islands–
Had a crow fly to and caw at me…
It flew ahead and cawed from a second tree…
Then flew ahead to a fence post,
Cawed a third time as we came close.
Then flew away. This in the driveway
Of a well-treed hotel outside Nairobi.
Kenyans have no tradition of the crow
As messenger of death… but we sure do.
We checked the time: 1:05 pm.
As it turns out, that was the moment when
In the night in British Columbia
My favourite in-law, my children’s grandmother,
Died.

This is not exactly formal poetry… I can read it with four beats to a line, but only just; and as for rhyming couplets, yes, it has them, if you’re prepared to allow “rhymes” like driveway-Nairobi. Normally the needs of rhyme and meter will shape the finish of my poems, may alter its details, often add to its meaning in the process. But with this one, it was more important to me to stay as exact to the event as possible. I’ve short-changed the description by leaving out the presence of my wife Eliza, who was also close to my ex-mother-in-law; and a couple of other British Columbia-related coincidences that occurred in the previous hour in Kenya.

This poem was published appropriately enough in ‘Bewildering Stories‘. My suspicion is that everyone on very rare occasions experiences some woo-woo event that defies logic or probablility. In this case, say the event lasts a minute; to be generous to the gods of chance, let’s say it was accurate to within an hour on Molly’s death. Say I’ve been awake 16 hours a day for 60 years since childhood: that’s over 350,000 hours. Say that half a dozen people who I’ve felt really close to have died in that time. The chance that the one and only time a crow very deliberately comes up to me and caws three times is in one of the half-dozen hours that someone close has died, is therefore less than one in 50,000. That’s not impossible, of course. There are one-in-a-million lightning strikes and lottery wins. But crows have a reputation for doing exactly this.

I reject a mystical solution. I want to know the science of what happened. My purely speculative guess is that some quantum entanglement happens between people who are close (especially twins, or mother and child) and when there is a change of state in one, it registers with the other. Further speculation: that crows are so sensitive to the smell of death that they can register it in the changed state of a living but quantumly entangled person. Sorry, that’s admittedly unscientific, but at least it’s an attempt at a material rather than a spiritual answer.

Anyway, it happened.

“Carrion crow, cawing” by Drbrown1970 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Sonnet: ‘The Body Retreats’

Loss of response of toes, legs turned to jelly,
we’re fighting rearguard actions through the body:
the hair deserting, skin becoming shoddy,
strengths all withdraw – to reinforce the belly.
Under sustained attacks, the ankles fail,
cannot provide support. Legs mutiny,
they seize the muscles when no scrutiny
at night stops leg cramps grabbing to impale.

Stamina fading in both heart and lung,
sex organs weakened, bold lusts dying back,
skull’s the last stronghold where all force retreats.
With fading senses out the window flung,
success is redefined not as Attack,
but barely maintained memory and wits.

In the aftermath of the no-holds-barred wrestling match for the US Presidency by Trump and Biden, both septuagenarians, let us remember that they are past the “threescore years and ten” that humans are allocated by the Bible–to which both wrestlers profess to adhere. Things are going downhill at this point, regardless of how much care you take.

It’s time for science, the medical profession and gengineers specifically, to step up and give us all the tools to stop us ageing. Thank you, and I personally would appreciate it sooner rather than later!

This sonnet was originally published in Snakeskin, currently prepping for its 25th anniversary as a monthly online poetry magazine–likely the oldest such in the world!

“Getting old in dignity…” by ЯAFIK ♋ BERLIN is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Poem: ‘An Atheist Demands Access to Heaven’

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.

Photo: “Atheist Campaign on Tube Train” by Loz Flowers is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Poem: ‘Chrysalis’

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 as A 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.

Photo credit: “Cicada emerging from old exoskeleton” by Shek Graham is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Poem: ‘Lizard an Mosquito’

Mosquito bite yuman,
Now e full a blood.
Lizard eat mosquito
Say, man dis is good.

Lizard help hatch mosquito,
Raise dem up good.
Send dem out like good daddy
Fe go find yuman blood.

Mosquito so happy
Dem eat plenty blood.
Lizard so happy
Dem mosquito taste good.

Politician same like dis:
Yu clap an yu sing,
Yu eleck im an den
E tax yu ting an ting.

I don’t normally write dialect verse, but it seemed appropriate for this idea. It was originally published in Snakeskin, republished in both The Hypertexts and Better Than Starbucks. The Bahamian accent can sound impenetrable to foreigners, but the words and grammar are not so different from standard English. By the way, “ting an ting” is just the non-specific plural of “tingum”–unspecified “stuff” rather than a specific “thing”.

Photo: “Brutality against mosquitoes.” by Bobinson K B is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0