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Synchronicity II -- Gordon Matthew 'Sting' Sumner

Guest poem submitted by Amit Chakrabarti, the
first in a guest theme:
(Poem #929) Synchronicity II
 Another suburban family morning
 Grandmother screaming at the wall
 We have to shout above the din of our rice krispies
 We can't hear anything at all
 Mother chants her litany of boredom and frustration
 But we know all her suicides are fake,
 Daddy only stares into the distance
 There's only so much more that he can take.
 Many miles away something crawls from the slime
    at the bottom of a dark Scottish lake.

 Another industrial ugly morning
 The factory belches filth into the sky
 He walks unhindered through the picket lines today,
 He doesn't think to wonder why.
 The secretaries pout and preen like cheap tarts in a red light street,
 But all he ever thinks to do is watch,
 And every single meeting with his so-called superior
 Is a humiliating kick in the crotch.
 Many miles away something crawls to the surface
    of a dark Scottish loch.

 Another working day has ended.
 Only the rush hour hell to face
 Packed like lemmings into shiny metal boxes
 Contestants in a suicidal race.
 Daddy grips the wheel and stares alone into the distance
 He knows that something somewhere has to break
 He sees the family home now looming in the headlights,
 The pain upstairs that makes his eyeballs ache.
 Many miles away there's a shadow on the door of a
    cottage on the shore of a dark Scottish lake.
-- Gordon Matthew 'Sting' Sumner

The British rock trio known as "The Police" were on the verge of a breakup
and Sting was setting out on his singer-songwriter solo career when this
song was written. Thus, it captures Sting the Songwriter in his early years.
Already apparent are his gifts for vivid imagery and his ability to bring
out a bigger picture through little snapshots. Notice how with just a
handful of descriptive words Sting adds life to his scenes, e.g. "packed
like lemmings into shiny metal boxes" -- no mention of trains and noise and
crowds and jostling, but can't you just see it? Again, we're not told what
"pain upstairs" is seen "looming" in the headlights (lovely choice of word),
but we can guess.

To cap it all, Stings add a touch of surrealism by setting off his images of
urban angst against an ominous refrain involving the (never directly
mentioned) Loch Ness monster. What a touch!



For those who want to hear the song, it's on the hugely popular 1983 album
called "Synchronicity". The accompanying music features some nice interplay
between the band members, and cool Loch Ness monster sound effects.


Other Sting songs on Minstrels:
Poem #114 "The Soul Cages"
Poem #287 "Mad About You"


Sting seems to've bought the (possibly Disney-created) myth that Lemmings
commit group suicide every now and then when their population increases too
much. I can't claim to know what the truth
is, but see this site

[On the theme]

It occurred to me that rock/pop lyrics are a vast enough body of work to be
able to supply a theme by themselves. Anyway, I recently noticed that three
very unrelated songs I like happen to talk about "urban problems" in a broad
sense. Hence the theme.

Quiescent, a Person Sits Heart and Soul -- Ring Lardner

(Poem #928) Quiescent, a Person Sits Heart and Soul
 Quiescent a person sits heart and soul
 Thinking of daytime and Amy Lowell.

 A couple came walking down the street;
 Neither of them had ever met.
-- Ring Lardner
To quote the inimitable Calvin[1], "I try to make everyone's day a little more
surreal". And the equally inimitable Ring Lardner is surely a fitting weapon
of mass surreality - today's poem has the kind of inspired idiosyncracy that
leaves the reader wondering just how it was pulled off.

Indeed, I find it impossible to say just what it is about this poem that I
like. On the face of it, it is just a couple of random images stuck together
and called a poem. It is not even, as might be expected, a parody of Lowell
(or if it is, I'm missing it). There's just something about the perfect
balance of incongruity and poker-faced pointlessness that appeals to me.

[1] [broken link]



  Bob Blair ran this poem a few months ago:

  Amy Lowell on Minstrels:
    Poem #102, "Generations"
    Poem #644, "Patterns"


I'm not saying anything against Alexander -- Bertolt Brecht

Guest poem submitted by Nick Blackburn:
(Poem #927) I'm not saying anything against Alexander
 Timur, I hear, took the trouble to conquer the earth.
 I don't understand him.
 With a bit of hard liquor you can forget the earth.

 I'm not saying anything against Alexander,
 Only I have seen people who were remarkable,
 Highly deserving of your admiration
 For the fact that they were alive at all.

 Great men generate too much sweat.
 In all of this I see just a proof that
 They couldn't stand being on their own
 And smoking and drinking and the like.
 And they must be too mean-spirited to get
 Contentment from sitting by a woman.
-- Bertolt Brecht
There is a program on BBC Radio 4, Sunday mornings at 6 a.m. called
Something Understood. It seeks to be a rambling multi-faith, multi-(audio)
medium session, exploring a given topic. It is rarely engrossing, often
annoying, usually has something worth noting and every once in a while has
something worth waking up for on a Sunday morning.

Last Sunday's was entitled Feet of Clay. It included a sequence of poems,
which worked together beautifully, written by Brecht, Kipling and Belloc.

I don't think any of the three poems have appeared on WM and though Kipling
and Belloc are represented on the site, there is no Brecht. In fact, I
cannot find the Brecht anywhere. This presents a few difficulties:

1. I'm not sure it is a poem - maybe it is just lines from a play. No
matter, it sounds like a poem.
2. Having failed to find it, I have had to transcribe it (I recorded the
repeat on Sunday night). Inventing the line structure for a poem you have
only ever heard is an interesting challenge - have a try.
3. Some of the words are wrong. I always have this problem with pop-songs -
I can hum the tune but only guess at the words. I'm sure most are right in
this case but real egg on face - the first word is almost certainly wrong.
It sounded like "Timor" but the only reference I can find to Timor on the
net is the island of East Timor. So it goes [1].

On the poem itself, I agree almost completely with the sentiments and love
two lines in particular - "Great men generate too much sweat" and the final
sentence. Overall it is a fine complement to my favourite Shakespeare
sonnet, "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun". They are both saying
that ... well see for yourself.


[1] Brecht is almost certainly referring to the Mongol conqueror Timur
("born 1336, Kesh, near Samarkand, Transoxania [now in Uzbekistan]; died Feb
19, 1405, Otrar, near Chimkent [now Shymkent, Kazakstan]; also spelled
Timour, byname Timur Lenk, or Timurlenk (Turkish: "Timur the Lame"), English
Tamerlane, or Tamburlaine; Turkic conqueror of Islamic faith, chiefly
remembered for the barbarity of his conquests from India and Russia to the
Mediterranean Sea and for the cultural achievements of his dynasty." -- EB).

[Minstrels Links]

Poem #506, Lament for Zenocrate  -- Christopher Marlowe
Poem #44, My Mistress' Eyes are Nothing Like the Sun (Sonnets CXXX)  --
William Shakespeare

Dirge Without Music -- Edna St Vincent Millay

(Poem #926) Dirge Without Music
 I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
 So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
 Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
 With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.
 Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
 Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
 A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
 A formula, a phrase remains,--but the best is lost.
 The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love, --
 They are gone. They are gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
 Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve.
 More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.
 Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave,
 Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
 Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
 I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.
-- Edna St Vincent Millay
 Rhyme scheme: abab.
 Metre: irregular.

 What can one say about a poem as magnificent as this? That it's defiant,
and courageous, and resolute? Or that it's sad, and lonely, and vulnerable?
That it's finely crafted, meticulously detailed, skilfully plotted? Or that
it's raw, visceral, spontaneous? Choose what adjectives you will (and to be
honest, I think _all_ of the above apply); the truth is, the poem speaks for
itself more powerfully than any second-hand description could ever hope to
do. So go, read it again, and think, and feel, and be grateful for Millay,
for Yeats, for Auden, for William Shakespeare and Dylan Thomas and John
Donne, for Robert  Browning, John Keats, Rudyard Kipling, for Tennyson and
Eliot and Pound and Dickinson, for Li Po, Omar Khayyam, Matsuo Basho -- in
short, for all the wonderful poets who've written all the wonderful poems
that it has been my privilege and joy to share with this list.


[Minstrels Links]

Edna St. Vincent Millay:
Poem #34, First Fig
Poem #49, The Unexplorer
Poem #108, The Penitent
Poem #317, Inland
Poem #590, Sonnet XLIII
Poem #604, Euclid Alone Has Looked On Beauty Bare
Poem #817, Grown-up
Poem #860, Sonnet: Love Is Not All
Poem #905, Sonnet: I will put Chaos into Fourteen Lines

Elegies and the like:
Poem #38, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night  -- Dylan Thomas
Poem #46, Lament for Boromir  -- J. R. R. Tolkien
Poem #50, In Memory of W. B. Yeats  -- W. H. Auden
Poem #144, On the Eve of His Execution  -- Chidiock Tichborne
Poem #157, O Captain! My Captain!  -- Walt Whitman
Poem #220, Lament for Eorl the Young  -- J. R. R. Tolkien
Poem #256, Funeral Blues  -- W. H. Auden
Poem #286, An Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog  -- Oliver Goldsmith
Poem #335, After the Funeral (In memory of Ann Jones)  -- Dylan Thomas
Poem #392, Good  -- R. S. Thomas
Poem #448, To The Immortal Memory of the Halibut,
  On Which I Dined This Day, Monday, April 26, 1784  -- William Cowper
Poem #500, A Dirge  -- Percy Bysshe Shelley
Poem #574, Growltiger's Last Stand -- T. S. Eliot
Poem #672, Death -- Thomas Hood
Poem #707, The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner -- Randall Jarrell
Poem #751, Elegies -- Guillevic
Poem #770, A Thing of Beauty is a Joy for Ever -- John Keats
Poem #774, Ray -- Hayden Carruth
Poem #796, Death Be Not Proud (Holy Sonnets: X) -- John Donne
Poem #918, John Kinsella's Lament for Mrs Mary Moore -- William Butler Yeats

Poem #921, Charlie Freak -- Steely Dan

Candlesong -- Lee Tzu Pheng

Guest poem submitted by Ann Ang:
(Poem #925) Candlesong
 As my years burn down
 you put me to new use,
 place me upon the palm
   held up to you,
   that I may light
   a way for two:
   just so, in time,
   his light may be
   upon another hand
 outstretched, like me.
-- Lee Tzu Pheng

This is one of those poems which are short, yet effective (yes, like a short
candle). The form of this poem, not surprisingly, looks like a candle if one
includes the title. But what really made an impression on me, was the simple
yet effective rhythm, slow and languorous in the first few lines, then
faster and faster, almost the way a candle burns: "that I may light / a way
for two" has two beats in each line, because of the fact that a light is
being passed from one person to another. It may also symbolize the passing
of time: tick-tock... though this may be reading too much into the poem.

Come to think of it, this poem has perfect symmetry, the narrator is at once
the candle, holding it and passing it on... well, I won't mangle the poem
too much, so you guys can enjoy it for yourselves.

[About the poet]

Lee Tzu Pheng is a Singaporean poet and was awarded the Singapore Cultural
Medallion for Literature in 1985 and the Southeast Asia WRITE Award in 1987.
All her three published collections of poetry 'Prospect of a Drowning,'
'Against the Next Wave', and 'The Brink of an Amen', have won the Singapore
National Book Development Council's award for poetry.

Actually, I have to say that Southeast Asian poets are rather
under-represented in this group, and Singapore isn't exactly the cultural
dearth that some people think it is, what with the 'national book
development council' etc...


[Minstrels Links]

Today's poem is an example of emblematic verse - that is, verse formatted so
as to visually resemble its theme. Other examples to have featured on the
Minstrels include:
Poem #349, A Prayer to the Sun  -- Geoffrey Hill
Poem #497, Landscape: I  -- bpNichol
Poem #567, Easter Wings -- George Herbert
Poem #600, The Mouse's Tale -- Lewis Carroll

Here are some (near-)contemporary South Asian poems that we've run on the
Poem #382, A River  -- A. K. Ramanujan
Poem #434, Extended Family  -- A. K. Ramanujan
Poem #767, A Scroll Painting -- Arthur Yap
Poem #603, Marriages are Made -- Eunice de Souza
Poem #682, Advice to Women -- Eunice de Souza
Poem #72, Madhushala (The Tavern)  -- Harivansh Rai Bachchan
Poem #617, The Cake that Floats in Water -- Ho Xuang Huong
Poem #662, Cat -- Jibanananda Das
Poem #446, Banalata Sen  -- Jibanananda Das
Poem #804, The Looking Glass -- Kamala Das
Poem #516, The Patriot  -- Nissim Ezekiel
Poem #579, The Professor -- Nissim Ezekiel
Poem #714, Night of the Scorpion -- Nissim Ezekiel
Poem #177, Where The Mind is Without Fear  -- Rabindranath Tagore
Poem #367, Krishnakali  -- Rabindranath Tagore
Poem #673, The Flower-School -- Rabindranath Tagore
Poem #642, The Poetics of Desire -- Rina Singh
Poem #843, Love in a Bathtub -- Sujata Bhatt
Poem #853, Stew Much -- Sukumar Ray
Poem #650, All You Who Sleep Tonight -- Vikram Seth
Poem #754, Protocols -- Vikram Seth
Poem #460, Round and Round  -- Vikram Seth
(Yes, they're mainly by Indian poets, that being the group with which Martin
and myself are best acquainted).

Christian -- Ambrose Bierce

CHRISTIAN, n. One who believes that the New Testament is a divinely inspired
book admirably suited to the spiritual needs of his neighbor. One who
follows the teachings of Christ in so far as they are not inconsistent with
a life of sin.
(Poem #924) Christian
 I dreamed I stood upon a hill, and, lo!
 The godly multitudes walked to and fro
 Beneath, in Sabbath garments fitly clad,
 With pious mien, appropriately sad,
 While all the church bells made a solemn din --
 A fire-alarm to those who lived in sin.
 Then saw I gazing thoughtfully below,
 With tranquil face, upon that holy show
 A tall, spare figure in a robe of white,
 Whose eyes diffused a melancholy light.
 "God keep you, stranger," I exclaimed. "You are
 No doubt (your habit shows it) from afar;
 And yet I entertain the hope that you,
 Like these good people, are a Christian too."
 He raised his eyes and with a look so stern
 It made me with a thousand blushes burn
 Replied -- his manner with disdain was spiced:
 "What! I a Christian? No, indeed! I'm Christ."
-- Ambrose Bierce
        (from 'The Devil's Dictionary', under the 'pseudonym' G.J.)

  G.J.: Father Gassalasca Jape, S. J., one of the many pseudonyms Bierce
  attributed the verses in the Devil's Dictionary to.

Today's poem expands upon a far-from-original idea, true, but it does so
uncommonly well. Bierce's verse is scalpel sharp and scathing; it performs,
furthermore, the difficult feat of pulling no punches while simultaneously
avoiding the least trace of heavyhandedness. Similarly, the fact that the
reader can see the ending coming robs it of very little of its impact - the
sheer precision and vividness of the writing gets the point across
admirably, far more than the twist in the ending does.



  The Devil's Dictionary:
    [broken link]

  Bierce poems on Minstrels:
    Poem #148, "With a Book"
    Poem #320, "Rimer"
    Poem #400, "Elegy"
    Poem #735, "Decalogue"
    Poem #879, "The Mad Philosopher"

  "Decalogue", in particular, makes an interesting companion piece to
  today's poem.


Leave-Taking -- A C Swinburne

Guest poem submitted by Aseem Kaul:
(Poem #923) Leave-Taking
 Let us go hence, my songs; she will not hear.
 Let us go hence together without fear;
 Keep silence now, for singing-time is over,
 And over all old things and all things dear.
 She loves not you nor me as all we love her.
 Yea, though we sang as angels in her ear,
   She would not hear.

 Let us rise up and part; she will not know.
 Let us go seaward as the great winds go,
 Full of blown sand and foam; what help is here?
 There is no help, for all these things are so,
 And all the world is bitter as a tear.
 And how these things are, though ye strove to show,
   She would not know.

 Let us go home and hence; she will not weep.
 We gave love many dreams and days to keep,
 Flowers without scent, and fruits that would not grow,
 Saying 'If thou wilt, thrust in thy sickle and reap.'
 All is reaped now; no grass is left to mow;
 And we that sowed, though all we fell on sleep,
   She would not weep.

 Let us go hence and rest; she will not love.
 She shall not hear us if we sing hereof,
 Nor see love's ways, how sore they are and steep.
 Come hence, let be, lie still; it is enough.
 Love is a barren sea, bitter and deep;
 And though she saw all heaven in flower above,
   She would not love.

 Let us give up, go down; she will not care.
 Though all the stars made gold of all the air,
 And the sea moving saw before it move
 One moon-flower making all the foam-flowers fair;
 Though all those waves went over us, and drove
 Deep down the stifling lips and drowning hair,
   She would not care.

 Let us go hence, go hence; she will not see.
 Sing all once more together; surely she,
 She too, remembering days and words that were,
 Will turn a little toward us, sighing; but we,
 We are hence, we are gone, as though we had not been there.
 Nay, and though all men seeing had pity on me,
   She would not see.
-- A C Swinburne
I've always thought of Swinburne as being the quintessential Victorian poet
- his poems like poppies in a field, crying to be plucked, to be read aloud,
but withering so quickly when one searches them for depth of image or
meaning. This poem is no exception. I can find little in it that is
obviously original, yet having read it once I find that its sweet, poisonous
ache will not leave me.

What I love about it is not just the effortless way in which Swinburne (as
always) carries off an incredibly difficult verse pattern (aababaa ccacacc
and with a common pattern to each starting and ending line) but the way in
which the poem incessantly peaks and dies and peaks again. Every stanza
begins with with a new rebellion, a coming together of forces in defiance,
and every stanza winds irrevocably down to the heartstopping finality of
that last brutal line. This is a poem as restless and as endlessly
repetitive as the sea it was undoubtedly written by and it's Swinburne's
ability to capture that restlessness, that 'repetition of salutes' that
makes this a truly great poem.


[Minstrels Links]

Algernon Charles Swinburne:
Poem #99, Nephelidia
Poem #857, Chorus from 'Atalanta in Calydon'
Poem #923, Leave-Taking

What Father Knows -- Edgar Guest

(Poem #922) What Father Knows
 My father knows the proper way
   The nation should be run;
 He tells us children every day
   Just what should now be done.
 He knows the way to fix the trusts,
   He has a simple plan;
 But if the furnace needs repairs
   We have to hire a man.

 My father, in a day or two,
   Could land big thieves in jail;
 There's nothing that he cannot do,
   He knows no word like "fail."
 "Our confidence" he would restore,
   Of that there is no doubt;
 But if there is a chair to mend
   We have to send it out.

 All public questions that arise
   He settles on the spot;
 He waits not till the tumult dies,
   But grabs it while its hot.
 In matters of finance he can
   Tell Congress what to do;
 But, O, he finds it hard to meet
   His bills as they fall due.

 It almost makes him sick to read
   The things law-makers say;
 Why, father's just the man they need;
   He never goes astray.
 All wars he'd very quickly end,
   As fast as I can write it;
 But when a neighbor starts a fuss
   'Tis mother has to fight it.

 In conversation father can
   Do many wondrous things;
 He's built upon a wiser plan
   Than presidents or kings.
 He knows the ins and outs of each
   And every deep transaction;
 We look to him for theories,
   But look to ma for action.
-- Edgar Guest
A delightfully funny poem - Guest takes a simple idea and expands upon it
cleverly and with a nice sense of verse. The poem is, however, spoilt
slightly by the penultimate verse, which not only contains the awkward
phrase "as fast as I can write it", but, in its last line, ruins the impact
of the final verse - IMO "ma" should have been left out until the very end,
to be produced with a flourish and provide a conclusion rendered funnier by
its unexpectedness. Still, overall a poem I was glad to discover.


We've run two of Guest's poems on Minstrels:
  poem #496 (with biography)
  poem #733

My semiregular Poets' Corner plug:


Charlie Freak -- Steely Dan

(Poem #921) Charlie Freak
 Charlie Freak had but one thing to call his own.
 Three weight ounce pure golden ring, no precious stone.
   Five nights without a bite,
     No place to lay his head,
 And if nobody takes him in he'll soon be dead.

 On the street he spied my face, I heard him hail.
 In our plot of frozen space he told his tale.
   Poor man, he showed his hand,
     So righteous was his need,
 And me so wise I bought his prize for chicken feed.

 Newfound cash soon begs to smash a state of mind.
 Close inspection fast revealed his favorite kind.
   Poor kid, he overdid,
     Embraced the spreading haze,
 And while he sighed his body died in fifteen ways.

 When I heard I grabbed a cab to where he lay.
 'Round his arm the plastic tag read D.O.A.
   Yes Jack, I gave it back,
     The ring I could not own
 Now come my friend I'll take your hand and lead you home.
-- Steely Dan
 Steely Dan defy categorization. For 30 years now, the songwriting duo of
Walter Becker and Donald Fagen have been penning wry, ironic commentaries on
urban decay, set to elegant jazz-inflected pop. Their songs are lyrically
and instrumentally complex, meticulously crafted and quite self-consciously
intellectual; amazingly, the band still manages to rock as righteously as
just about anyone.

 "Charlie Freak" is from my favourite Dan album, 1974's "Pretzel Logic". The
black humour (with more than a touch of pathos) is typical Dan, as is the
unusual melodic structure and careful craftsmanship (note especially the
strict pattern of internal rhymes). Mmmm, I think I'm going to have to go
and listen to it again now...


The Erl-King -- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Guest poem sent in by Vivian
(Poem #920) The Erl-King
 Who rides there so late through the night dark and drear?
 The father it is, with his infant so dear;
 He holdeth the boy tightly clasp'd in his arm,
 He holdeth him safely, he keepeth him warm.

 "My son, wherefore seek'st thou thy face thus to hide?"
 "Look, father, the Erl-King is close by our side!
 Dost see not the Erl-King, with crown and with train?"
 "My son, 'tis the mist rising over the plain."

 "Oh, come, thou dear infant! oh come thou with me!
  Full many a game I will play there with thee;
  On my strand, lovely flowers their blossoms unfold,
 My mother shall grace thee with garments of gold."

 "My father, my father, and dost thou not hear
 The words that the Erl-King now breathes in mine ear?"
 "Be calm, dearest child, 'tis thy fancy deceives;
  'Tis the sad wind that sighs through the withering leaves."

 "Wilt go, then, dear infant, wilt go with me there?
 My daughters shall tend thee with sisterly care.
 My daughters by night their glad festival keep,
 They'll dance thee, and rock thee, and sing thee to sleep."

 "My father, my father, and dost thou not see,
 How the Erl-King his daughters has brought here for me?"
 "My darling, my darling, I see it aright,
  'Tis the aged grey willows deceiving thy sight."

 "I love thee, I'm charm'd by thy beauty, dear boy!
 And if thou'rt unwilling, then force I'll employ."
 "My father, my father, he seizes me fast,
 Full sorely the Erl-King has hurt me at last."

 The father now gallops, with terror half wild,
 He grasps in his arms the poor shuddering child;
 He reaches his courtyard with toil and with dread,
 The child in his arms finds he motionless, dead.
-- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
   Translated in the original metres by Edgar Alfred Bowring, 1853

Goethe's "Elf-King" is probably the grand-daddy of all literary ballads
about charming but devastating elves. I had to commit this to memory in the
original in my first-year German class in high school, and the duality of
these fey creatures has remained constant for me ever since. This is a drama
in three voices -- the narrator -- a "camera" that reports the facts, the
feverish child moving from a kind of puzzled interest to sheer terror, the
father who seeks to reassure the child through denial and by calling him
back to the natural world and  the seductive Elf-King, luring the boy with
childish delights and implied promises of the erotic. Essential listening:
Franz Schubert's setting of this poem, of which there are recordings by any
number of male and female singers.



  A biography of Goethe:

  A Gutenberg copy of Bowring's "Poems of Goethe":
    [broken link]

  An extensive Goethe page:
    [broken link]

  Today's poem was a followup to Allingham's "The Fairies": poem #919

  And while on the subject of Goethe, don't miss Thackeray's "Sorrows of
  Werther": poem #183

The Fairies -- William Allingham

(Poem #919) The Fairies
 Up the airy mountain
      Down the rushy glen,
 We daren't go a-hunting,
      For fear of little men;
 Wee folk, good folk,
      Trooping all together;
 Green jacket, red cap,
      And white owl's feather.
 Down along the rocky shore
      Some make their home,
 They live on crispy pancakes
      Of yellow tide-foam;
 Some in the reeds
      Of the black mountain-lake,
 With frogs for their watch-dogs,
      All night awake.

 High on the hill-top
      The old King sits;
 He is now so old and gray
      He's nigh lost his wits.
 With a bridge of white mist
      Columbkill he crosses,
 On his stately journeys
      From Slieveleague to Rosses;
 Or going up with music,
      On cold starry nights,
 To sup with the Queen,
      Of the gay Northern Lights.

 They stole little Bridget
      For seven years long;
 When she came down again
      Her friends were all gone.
 They took her lightly back
      Between the night and morrow;
 They thought she was fast asleep,
      But she was dead with sorrow.
 They have kept her ever since
      Deep within the lake,
 On a bed of flag leaves,
      Watching till she wake.

 By the craggy hill-side,
      Through the mosses bare,
 They have planted thorn trees
      For pleasure here and there.
 Is any man so daring
      As dig them up in spite?
 He shall find the thornies set
      In his bed at night.

 Up the airy mountain
      Down the rushy glen,
 We daren't go a-hunting,
      For fear of little men;
 Wee folk, good folk,
      Trooping all together;
 Green jacket, red cap,
      And white owl's feather.
-- William Allingham
Viewed against the Blytonised, Disneyfied and generally "made to sound all
soft and sappy / just to keep the children happy" version of fairies and
elves that is currently prevalent, today's poem strikes a rather discordant
note. Where, after all, does the "fear of little men" come in? What could
one possibly have to fear from little, gauzy-winged creatures resplendent in
primary colours?

The following, somewhat tangentially related quote from Pratchett comes to

  Elves are wonderful. They provoke wonder.
  Elves are marvellous. They cause marvels.
  Elves are fantastic. They create fantasies.
  Elves are glamourous. They project glamour.
  Elves are enchanting. They weave enchantment.
  Elves are terrific. They beget terror.

  The thing about words is that meanings can twist just like a snake, and if
  you want to find snakes look for them behind words that have changed their

        --Terry Pratchett, "Lords and Ladies"

However, in Irish folklore, the primary characteristic of the sidhe is not
that they are *evil*, per se, but that they are powerful and capricious, and
have ways of thought and action not altogether human.

  Who are they? "Fallen angels who were not good enough to be saved, nor bad
  enough to be lost," say the peasantry. "The gods of the earth," says the
  Book of Armagh. " The gods of pagan Ireland," say the Irish antiquarians,
  "the Tuatha De Danan, who, when no longer worshipped and fed with
  offerings, dwindled away in the popular imagination, and now are only a
  few spans high."

        -- William Butler Yeats, "Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry"

The third verse of today's poem is an excellent illustration; the almost
casual playfulness of the wee folk -  "they took her lightly back" contrasts
starkly with the plight of the hapless child, who is, unbeknownst to her
captors, "dead with sorrow".

In almost dissonant contrast to the "fear of little men" note is the light,
tripping metre of the poem; a reminder that the wee folk are indeed wondrous
and magical, and a harbinger, in its nursery-rhyme sing-song, of a time when
they would dwindle in significance to "fairy tales".


  Born in Ballyshannon, Co.Donegal, where he was in the Customs Service,
  Allingham published his first book of poems in 1850. He visited London in
  1847, and in 1851 began a lifelong friendship with Tennyson, the star of
  the Diary ­ Tennyson talking and walking, airing his prejudices, reading
  his poems. Browning and Carlyle in London feature prominently, and Leigh
  Hunt, Thackeray, Emerson, George Eliot, William Morris, the Rossettis,
  Patmore, William Barnes, Froude, Palgrave, Burne-Jones, Turgenev are other
  dramatis personae of a diary covering nearly half a century.

  Allingham's poem The Fairies ­ Up the airy mountain, Down the rushy
  glen... ­ continues to be widely known and loved, whilst his verse-novel
  Laurence Bloomfield in Ireland was admired, not least by Turgenev.

  He died in Hampstead, London, in 1889; his urn lies buried in the
  churchyard at Ballyshannon.

        -- "William Allingham's Diary 1847-1889"
        [broken link]


  'Fairies' was set to music by Sir Arnold Bax:

  An excellent collection of Celtic folklore and mythology
    [broken link]

  See, especially, Yeats on the Trooping Fairies:
    [broken link]

  "Some Disturbing Thoughts About Fairies" - long, but interesting essay


John Kinsella's Lament for Mrs Mary Moore -- William Butler Yeats

(Poem #918) John Kinsella's Lament for Mrs Mary Moore
 A bloody and a sudden end,
   Gunshot or a noose,
 For Death who takes what man would keep,
   Leaves what man would lose.
 He might have had my sister,
   My cousins by the score,
 But nothing satisfied the fool
   But my dear Mary Moore,
 None other knows what pleasures man
   At table or in bed.
       What shall I do for pretty girls
       Now my old bawd is dead?

 Though stiff to strike a bargain
   Like an old Jew man,
 Her bargain stuck we laughed and talked
   And emptied many a can;
 And O! but she had stories,
   Though not for the priest's ear,
 To keep the soul of man alive,
   Banish age and care,
 And being old she put a skin
   On everything she said.
       What shall I do for pretty girls
       Now my old bawd is dead?

 The priests have got a book that says
   But for Adam's sin
 Eden's Garden would be there
   And I there within.
 No expectation fails there,
   No pleasing habit ends,
 No man grows old, no girl grows cold,
   But friends walk by friends.
 Who quarrels over halfpennies
   That plucks the trees for bread?
       What shall I do for pretty girls
       Now my old bawd is dead?
-- William Butler Yeats
 From "Last Poems, 1936-39".
 Note on typography: the final couplet of each stanza is in italics in the
original, and unindented.

 A magnificent and touching elegy that paints a vivid picture of the
confused emotions of mourning. The poem's narrator, John Kinsella, is
initially angry with Death, with its arbitrary (and cruel) high-handedness
in taking away the one person he cannot do without, his "dear Mary Moore".
Rage, though, gives way to nostalgia, as he reflects tenderly on the times
spent his sweetheart, times filled with a bawdy joy, a fierce lust for life,
passionate and true. And nostalgia is in turn replaced by a wistfulness, a
longing for release, into a paradise where "No man grows old, no girl grows
cold / But friends walk by friends". This is a closure of sorts, though not,
perhaps, an entirely peaceful one.

 Note especially the (characteristically brilliant) use of a refrain: "What
shall I do for pretty girls / Now my old bawd is dead?", which captures both
the desolation of impending loneliness and the quality of the love that
Kinsella feels for Moore, a love that's based not on prettiness or passion,
but on comfort, and companionship, and closeness. Beautifully done.


[Minstrels Links]

William Butler Yeats is one of my favourite poets:
Poem #1, The Song of Wandering Aengus
Poem #21, Sailing to Byzantium
Poem #32, An Irish Airman Foresees His Death
Poem #60, Byzantium
Poem #79, Red Hanrahan's Song About Ireland
Poem #160, The Realists
Poem #237, The Ballad of Father Gilligan
Poem #289, The Second Coming
Poem #309, The Lake Isle of Innisfree
Poem #324, Three Movements
Poem #407, Solomon and the Witch
Poem #436, When You Are Old
Poem #451, Leda and the Swan
Poem #511, Beautiful Lofty Things
Poem #577, The Cat and the Moon
Poem #597, He wishes for the Cloths of Heaven
Poem #641, The Road at My Door
Poem #655, No Second Troy

Dylan Thomas is said to have liked today's poem very much; his own work
shares many of its qualities:
Poem #14, Prologue
Poem #38, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night
Poem #58, The Force that Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower
Poem #138, Fern Hill
Poem #225, Poem In October
Poem #270, Under Milk Wood
Poem #335, After the Funeral (In memory of Ann Jones)
Poem #405, Altarwise by Owl-Light (Stanzas I - IV)
Poem #476, In my craft or sullen art
Poem #568, Especially when the October Wind

A Considerable Speck -- Robert Frost

(Poem #917) A Considerable Speck

 A speck that would have been beneath my sight
 On any but a paper sheet so white
 Set off across what I had written there.
 And I had idly poised my pen in air
 To stop it with a period of ink
 When something strange about it made me think,
 This was no dust speck by my breathing blown,
 But unmistakably a living mite
 With inclinations it could call its own.
 It paused as with suspicion of my pen,
 And then came racing wildly on again
 To where my manuscript was not yet dry;
 Then paused again and either drank or smelt--
 With loathing, for again it turned to fly.
 Plainly with an intelligence I dealt.
 It seemed too tiny to have room for feet,
 Yet must have had a set of them complete
 To express how much it didn't want to die.
 It ran with terror and with cunning crept.
 It faltered: I could see it hesitate;
 Then in the middle of the open sheet
 Cower down in desperation to accept
 Whatever I accorded it of fate.
 I have none of the tenderer-than-thou
 Collectivistic regimenting love
 With which the modern world is being swept.
 But this poor microscopic item now!
 Since it was nothing I knew evil of
 I let it lie there till I hope it slept.

 I have a mind myself and recognize
 Mind when I meet with it in any guise
 No one can know how glad I am to find
 On any sheet the least display of mind.
-- Robert Frost
Today's poem works wonderfully on several levels. It is amusing, true, and
not least for the unexpected and keenly trenchant ending. But it is also a
gently moving poem, catching the reader up in the plight of the mite[1], as
it frantically endeavours "To express how much it didn't want to die." And
furthermore, if we can indeed identify the narrator with the poet[2], it gives
us a glimpse into that part of Frost's mind that, while he claims to

    ... have none of the tenderer-than-thou
    Collectivistic regimenting love
    With which the modern world is being swept

can nevertheless sympathise with a creature so patently aware, and
terrified, of its upcoming fate.

This is doubtless the point at which people of a certain cast of mind will
be muttering words like 'anthropomorphic' and perhaps even 'pathetic
fallacy'[3], but I was reminded more of the popular science fictional problem
of recognising and responding to nonhuman intelligences (and the symmetric
problem of how they will react to us). Frost summed it up admirably in the
penultimate couplet:

    I have a mind myself and recognize
    Mind when I meet with it in any guise

and I can't help but think that he takes an altogether more attractive
approach to the situation than Lear's "As flies to wanton boys, are we to the
gods; They kill us for their sport."

[1] sorry!
[2] at least plausible, if, as the essay in the links claims, it was indeed
inspired by a real episode
[3] yes, i know that doesn't strictly apply


  There's a biography of Frost at [broken link] has an audio file of
  Frost reading several poems, "Considerable Speck" among them is an interesting
  essay on the poem, suggesting that it was based on an actual incident.

  Frost poems on Minstrels:

    Poem #51, "The Road Not Taken"
    Poem #155, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"
    Poem #170, "The Need of Being Versed in Country Things"
    Poem #336, "A Patch of Old Snow"
    Poem #681, "The Secret Sits"
    Poem #730, "Mending Wall"
    Poem #779, "Fire and Ice"


Question and Answer in the Mountains -- Li Po

(Poem #916) Question and Answer in the Mountains
 They ask me why I live in the green mountains.
 I smile and don't reply; my heart's at ease.
 Peach blossoms flow downstream, leaving no trace --
 And there are other earths and skies than these.
-- Li Po

 Mandarin Chinese, mid-8th century.
 Translated by Vikram Seth, in "Three Chinese Poets" (Faber 1992).


 Li Po combines the elegant, evocative minimalism of haiku with the oblique
philosophy of the best Zen koans, and mixes them both with a romantic
mysticism that's entirely his own [1]. His poems are suffused with an air of
otherworldliness, a melancholy that's not quite sad, a joy that's not quite
happy. And he's a consummate craftsman, wonderfully adept at getting the
most out of the least: with a few deft strokes of the calligrapher's brush,
he creates worlds of meaning, "other earths and skies than these". Mmmmm.


[1] Note to the nitpick-inclined: Yes, I know, Li Po's poetry predates both
the invention of the haiku form, and the founding of the Zen school of
Buddhism. So sue me.

[Minstrels Links]

 Li Po:
Poem #504, About Tu Fu
Poem #683, To Tu Fu from Shantung
Poem #749, Parting
Poem #794, In the Quiet Night
Poem #826, Self-Abandonment
Poem #916, Question and Answer in the Mountains

 Vikram Seth:
Poem #650, All You Who Sleep Tonight
Poem #754, Protocols
Poem #460, Round and Round

 Another of the Three Chinese Poets of Seth's book:
Poem #855, Lady Xi -- Wang Wei

The Lovers -- Phoebe Cary

(Poem #915) The Lovers
 Sally Salter, she was a young teacher who taught,
 And her friend, Charley Church, was a preacher who praught,
 Though his enemies called him a screecher who scraught.

 His heart, when he saw her, kept sinking and sunk,
 And his eye, meeting hers, began winking, and wunk;
 While she, in her turn, kept thinking, and thunk.

 He hastened to woo her, and sweetly he wooed,
 For his love grew until to a mountain it grewed,
 And what he was longing to do then he doed.

 In secret he wanted to speak, and he spoke,
 To seek with his lips what his heart long had soke;
 So he managed to let the truth leak, and it loke.

 He asked her to ride to the church, and they rode;
 They so sweetly did glide that they both thought they glode,
 And they came to the place to be tied, and were toed.

 Then homeward, he said, let us drive, and they drove,
 And as soon as they wished to arrive, they arrove,
 For whatever he couldn't contrive, she controved.

 The kiss he was dying to steal, then he stole;
 At the feet where he wanted to kneel then he knole;
 And he said, "I feel better than ever I fole."

 So they to each other kept clinging, and clung,
 While Time his swift circuit was winging, and wung;
 And this was the thing he was bringing, and brung:

 The man Sally wanted to catch, and had caught;
 That she wanted from others to snatch, and had snaught;
 Was the one that she now liked to scratch, and she scraught.

 Anc Charley's warm love began freezing, and froze,
 While he took to teazing, and cruelly toze
 The girl he had wished to be squeezing, and squoze.

 "Wretch!" he cried, when she threatened to leave him, and left,
 "How could you deceive me, as you have deceft?"
 And she answered, "I promised to cleave, and I've cleft."
-- Phoebe Cary
Today's poem takes a delightfully silly look at English and its rather
irregular collection of past tenses. I've seen it done before, but seldom
better - "Lovers" actually manages to be funny all the way through, the joke
not palling after a couple of verses as one might expect. And, of course,
there's the extra bonus in the ending, where Cary plays on the double
meaning of cleave ("to stick to" and "to split apart").

  [broken link]


  We've run one of Cary's poems before - her slyly hilarious parody 'Ballad
  ot the Canal': poem #607


In Time of War, XII -- W H Auden

Guest poem submitted by J. Goard:
(Poem #913) In Time of War, XII
 And the age ended, and the last deliverer died.
 In bed, grown idle and unhappy; they were safe:
 The sudden shadow of the giant's enormous calf
 Would fall no more at dusk across the lawn outside.

 They slept in peace: in marshes here and there no doubt
 A sterile dragon lingered to a natural death,
 But in a year the spoor had vanished from the heath;
 The kobold's knocking in the mountain petered out.

 Only the sculptors and the poets were half sad,
 And the pert retinue from the magician's house
 Grumbled and went elsewhere. The vanished powers were glad

 To be invisible and free: without remorse
 Struck down the sons who strayed their course,
 And ravished the daughters, and drove the fathers mad.
-- W H Auden
The relevance of this poem to today's climate hardly needs mention, although
I suspect that, depending upon one's own viewpoint, it could be interpreted
in different ways.  This is the final sonnet from "In Time of War", looking
forward to an extended period of peace in Europe after WWII, not with
celebration but with warning.  The metaphor of ancient mythical monsters
reinforces our feeling that this cycle has been going since the beginning of

The alexandrine (iambic hexameter) isn't used very often these days, and in
fact it's even difficult to find decent examples from the past.  As Auden's
sonnet shows, however, the alexadrine isn't merely a curiosity, but a
vibrant form.  In my opinion, very few lines of pentameter flow as smoothly
and somberly as the second quatrain does here.  Most interesting is the
unexpected shift in the final two lines, to tetrameter and pentameter. When
I read this out loud, my feeling is a swift violence in line 13 and then,
reinforcing the theme, a feeling that the pace of life has changed. About as
good an example as you'll find of form matching content.


[Minstrels Links]

W. H. Auden:
Poem #50, In Memory of W. B. Yeats
Poem #68, Musee des Beaux Arts
Poem #256, Funeral Blues
Poem #307, Lay your sleeping head, my love
Poem #371, O What Is That Sound
Poem #386, The Unknown Citizen
Poem #427, The Two
Poem #491, Roman Wall Blues
Poem #494, The Fall of Rome
Poem #618, The More Loving One
Poem #677, Villanelle
Poem #708, Five Songs - II
Poem #728, from The Dog Beneath the Skin
Poem #762, Miranda
Poem #868, Partition
Poem #889, September 1, 1939
Poem #895, August 1968

Tit for Tat -- Christopher Morley

(Poem #914) Tit for Tat
 I often pass a gracious tree
      Whose name I can't identify,
 But still I bow, in courtesy
      It waves a bough, in kind reply.

 I do not know your name, O tree
      (Are you a hemlock or a pine?)
 But why should that embarrass me?
      Quite probably you don't know mine.
-- Christopher Morley
An utterly trivial, but nonetheless charming poem. One of Morley's
particular gifts is to peer at the commonplace and reveal unexpectedly
viewpoints therein, and today's poem is no exception. "Tit for Tat" is not
really a 'funny' poem, in the laugh-out-loud sense, but it strikes a
pleasing note of gentle humour and whimsy.


We've run two of Morley's poems:

  poem #553 contains a biography and some notes on Morley

  poem #833 is another nice example of a mundane detail elevated into


The Waking -- Theodore Roethke

Guest poem submitted by Monica Bathija:
(Poem #912) The Waking
 I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
 I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
 I learn by going where I have to go.

 We think by feeling. What is there to know?
 I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
 I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

 Of those so close beside me, which are you?
 God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,
 And learn by going where I have to go.

 Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?
 The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;
 I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

 Great Nature has another thing to do
 To you and me; so take the lively air,
 And, lovely, learn by going where to go.

 This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
 What falls away is always. And is near.
 I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
 I learn by going where I have to go.
-- Theodore Roethke
What attracted me to this poem first was the first line - "I wake to sleep
and take my waking slow". It seemed perfect for a dreamy lazy not-morning
person :). And of course "I learn by going where I have to go". Now every
time I read this poem I find it has something new to tell me through each
and every line. Besides the whole musicality of it.


[Minstrels Links]

Named Poetic Forms:
Poem #904, The Shrinking Lonesome Sestina -- Miller Williams
Poem #905, I will put Chaos into fourteen lines -- Edna St. Vincent Millay
Poem #906, To a Fat Lady Seen From the Train -- Frances Cornford
Poem #907, Miss Charlotte Brown, Librarian, Goes Mad -- Felix Jung
Poem #908, Haiku -- Yosa Buson
Poem #909, The Limerick Packs Laughs Anatomical -- Anon.

Poem #38, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night  -- Dylan Thomas
Poem #202, Missing Dates  -- William Empson
Poem #393, One Drunken Night  -- Peter Schaeffer
Poem #677, Time will say nothing but I told you so  -- W. H. Auden
Poem #706, It is the pain, it is the pain endures  -- William Empson

Theodore Roethke:
Poem #267, The Meadow Mouse

The Traveled Man -- Ella Wheeler Wilcox

(Poem #911) The Traveled Man
 Sometimes I wish the railroads all were torn out,
 The ships all sunk among the coral strands.
 I am so very weary, yea, so worn out,
 With tales of those who visit foreign lands.

 When asked to dine, to meet these traveled people,
 My soup seems brewed from cemetery bones.
 The fish grows cold on some cathedral steeple,
 I miss two courses while I stare at thrones.

 I'm forced to leave my salad quite untasted,
 Some musty, moldy temple to explore.
 The ices, fruit and coffee all are wasted
 While into realms of ancient art I soar.

 I'd rather take my chance of life and reason,
 If in a den of roaring lions hurled
 Than for a single year, ay, for one season,
 To dwell with folks who'd traveled round the world.

 So patronizing are they, so oppressive,
 With pity for the ones who stay at home,
 So mighty is their knowledge, so aggressive,
 I ofttimes wish they had not ceased to roam.

 They loathe the new, they quite detest the present;
 They revel in a pre-Columbian morn;
 Just dare to say America is pleasant,
 And die beneath the glances of their scorn.

 They are increasing at a rate alarming,
 Go where I will, the traveled man is there.
 And now I think that rustic wholly charming
 Who has not strayed beyond his meadows fair.
-- Ella Wheeler Wilcox
A straightforward but fun poem - it lacks, perhaps, the biting wit of
Dorothy Parker or the sparkling brilliance of Gilbert, but it flows through
with an easy assurance that makes the narrator's point both well and

The form is interesting - iambic pentameter, but with an extra syllable at
the end of alternate lines (varying feminine and masculine rhymes) that
gives the poem a flowing rhythm quite different from the usual 'formal' use
of the meter.

The only complaint i have against the poem is the weakness of the ending -
it is slightly too abrupt, and does not wrap up the poem well enough, IMO,
although the intent is clear.


  [broken link] has a nice
  biography, with emphasis on her literary output.

  [broken link] is an
  extensive collection of biographies, linked to from the main Wilcox site,
  [broken link]

Minstrels Links:

  Leacock's "Social Plan" is another look at an annoying class of
  individual: poem #789

  The penultimate verse recalls Gilbert's "I've Got a Little List":
    poem #135


On the Grasshopper and the Cricket -- John Keats

Guest poem submitted by Mike Christie:
(Poem #910) On the Grasshopper and the Cricket
 The poetry of earth is never dead:
   When all the birds are faint with the hot sun,
   And hide in cooling trees, a voice will run
 From hedge to hedge about the new-mown mead;
 That is the Grasshopper's -- he takes the lead
   In summer luxury -- he has never done
   With his delights; for when tired out with fun
 He rests at ease beneath some pleasant weed.
 The poetry of earth is ceasing never:
   On a lone winter evening, when the frost
   Has wrought a silence, from the stove there shrills
 The Cricket's song, in warmth increasing ever,
   And seems to one in drowsiness half lost,
   The Grasshopper's among some grassy hills.
-- John Keats
It's cricket season here in Texas, and the other day a cricket found its way
into our office and started serenading us from a coworker's desk.  We
eventually tracked him down and released him outside, though the corpses of
dozens of his brethren are littering our parking lot, lobby and staircase.

Anyway, he reminded me of Keats' sonnet above, which I've liked since I read
it decades ago.  As I recall, the sonnet was written relatively early in
Keats' career, and was the result of a competition with a friend to write a
sonnet on a grasshopper.  I've never known who the friend was or how his
sonnet came out, though I rather suspect Keats won the competition.  If
anyone can find out I'd love to know.

Mike Christie.

[Minstrels Links]

Other poems by Keats:
Poem #12, On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer
Poem #182, La Belle Dame Sans Merci
Poem #316, Ode to a Nightingale
Poem #433, Why did I laugh tonight? No voice will tell
Poem #575, To Mrs Reynolds' Cat
Poem #696, Last Sonnet
Poem #770, A Thing of Beauty is a Joy for Ever
Poem #910, On the Grasshopper and the Cricket

Poetry competitions seem to have been quite popular with the Romantics; see
Poem #22, Ozymandias  -- Percy Bysshe Shelley
and its companion piece:
Poem #285, On a Stupendous Leg of Granite, Discovered Standing by Itself in
the Deserts of Egypt, with the Inscription Inserted Below  -- Horace Smith

The Limerick Packs Laughs Anatomical -- Anonymous

(Poem #909) The Limerick Packs Laughs Anatomical
 The limerick packs laughs anatomical
 Into space that is quite economical.
 But the good ones I've seen
 So seldom are clean -
 And the clean ones so seldom are comical.
-- Anonymous
The poem says it all <g>.

More seriously, while there are several excellent clean limericks, the vast
majority do tend to be - well, as Don Marquis put it, there are three
distinct types: "Limericks to be told when ladies are present; limericks to
be told when ladies are absent but clergymen are present--and LIMERICKS".

As I said in a previous commentary, the limerick is a nicely balanced
combination of a clever and entertaining structure and a fairly low entry
barrier; this has been responsible for a flood of limericks that is,
conceivably, greater in volume than the sum total of all other amateur
verse. And, while the form was popularised by the decidedly clean (but so
seldom comical[1]) limericks of Lear, somewhere along the line it became
inextricably intertwined with the bawdy.

[1] please don't flame me :)

An intriguing thing about limericks is that, while few of them are
attributed, they nonetheless have a surprising spreading power and lifetime.
There is a large body of famous limericks, many of them in several minor
variations, that seem to have entrenched themselves in the collective canon
without much benefit of formal publication or compilation. The humour
definitely helps here, as does the simple, and easily memorised verse form -
good limericks can and do get spread very rapidly by word of mouth (and
now, of course, the internet).

One drawback (if you can call it that) of the form is that it is almost
irretrievably frivolous. It's nigh impossible to write a serious poem in
limerick form (though I have seen some scattered examples), and most people
don't even bother trying. Also, the limerick is a very self-contained form;
while I've seen several poems with each verse consisting of a limerick, I
feel that the technique doesn't really work, because of the irresistible
feeling of closure when the reader reaches the fifth line.

Links: is an
  excellent essay on limericks has a
  nice collection of links

  We've run a couple of limericks on Minstrels:
    Poem #378: "There Was an Old Man with a Beard", Edward Lear
    Poem #801: "A Mosquito Was Heard to Complain", Dr. D. D. Perrin


Haiku -- Yosa Buson

Guest poem submitted by Radhika Gowaikar:
(Poem #908) Haiku
 Departing spring
 in the late cherry blossoms
-- Yosa Buson
In the Indian summer Goldrush blossoms everywhere. It is brightest yellow at
the height of summer - in fact, the trees are without leaves then, only the
flowers are seen - and slowly, as the rains set in, the leaves reappear and
the Goldrush makes a half-hearted attempt at retaining colour. It fails
miserably, managing only a sad off-white, before the green takes over

The setting in the haiku is obviously different, but it is always the
gradualness of the change that I am struck by and I think Buson captures it
admirably. The fact that he manages it in a haiku only adds to the effect.



I am not into painting - never have been. However, an opportunity to visit
the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) presented itself yesterday.
Among the other things on display, was a set of 20 paintings by one Stanton
MacDonald-Wright. All of these sought to "represent" a haiku.  Only a few of
them were literal relative to the haiku - most were an abstraction. I played
a small game - reading a haiku arbitrarily and then going around trying to
see which painting it corresponded to. (This was possible since the haikus
were listed separately and numbered.) To my surprise, some of the more
abstract ones were the easiest to correlate and somehow seemed instinctively
'right'. The above haiku was one of them.

Also, I like to think that the connection with the words helped me
appreciate the painting better.

About the painter: Stanton MacDonald Wright (1890-1973), co-founder of
Synchromism, was apparently strongly influenced by Japanese culture and art.
These 20 paintings were done in woodblock - a Japanese technique. and are

Google gives some leads on Synchromism -


[Martin adds]

On the haiku:

  In Japan in the 15th century, a poetic form named "renga" blossomed.

  Renga is a poem several poets create cooperatively. Members alternately
  add verses of 17 syllables (5, 7, and 5 syllables) and
  those of 14 syllables (7 and 7 syllables), until they complete a poem
  generally composed of 100 verses.

  Renga was an dignified academic poem. Members were traditionally demanded
  to present their verses following the medieval
  aesthetics and quoting the classics.

  In the 16th century, instead of renga, it was haikai - humorous poem -
  that became popular. Haikai (haikai-renga) is a poem made of verses of 17
  and 14 syllables like renga, but it parodies renga introducing modern
  vulgar laughter. Haikai poets used plays on words and treated preferably
  things of daily life renga hadn't found interesting.

  The first verse of renga and haikai is called "hokku". Haikai poets
  sometimes presented their hokkus as independent poems.
  These were the origin of haiku.

        -- Ryu Yotsuya, "History of the Haiku"

Noteworthy is the fact that today's poem, in translation, does not conform
to the 5-7-5 syllable pattern. This is not a mistake - the syllable count
restriction is very different in English and Japanese, and 17 English
syllables can convey a lot more than 17 Japanese ones.

The following essay on English haiku goes into more detail on this:
  [broken link] is an excellent collection of haiku links

The chapter on Buson, from the aforequoted 'History of the Haiku':

And a biography of Buson:
  [broken link]

Miss Charlotte Brown, Librarian, Goes Mad -- Felix Jung

Next on our list of named verse forms, the pantoum:
(Poem #907) Miss Charlotte Brown, Librarian, Goes Mad
 Today, I have decided
 to read every poem ever written
 in the short history of our civilization.
 I know it is a selfish thing

 to read. Every poem ever written
 has its good intentions. I know,
 I know, it is a selfish thing.
 I want to believe that. Poetry

 has its good intentions. I know
 reading poems can't help much.
 I want to believe that poetry
 books have the answer. I'll start

 reading. Poems can't help much
 in the short history of our civilization.
 Books have the answer. I'll start
 today. I have decided.
-- Felix Jung
[Note on form]

"Ernest Fouinet introduced the Malayan pantoum into French versification,
and Victor Hugo popularized it in the Orientales. It is written in four-line
stanzas; and the second and fourth line of each stanza become the first and
third of the succeeding stanza. In the last stanza, the second and fourth
lines are the third and first of the first stanza; so that the opening and
closing lines of the pantoum are identical. The rhyme scheme would then be:
1, 2, 1, 2;   2, 3, 2, 3;   3, 4, 3, 4;   . . .   n, 1, n, 1."
        -- Clement Wood, the Doubleday Rhyming Dictionary (1936)


This is not a particularly brilliant poem (I find the title, especially,
rather facetious and even a bit cruel), but it is a good example of that
most fiendishly difficult of verse forms, the pantoum. Sestinas,
villanelles, triolets, rondeaux - they each have their peculiar contortions
and convolutions, but pantoums are the trickiest of the lot [1]. To write a
pantoum that parses naturally is no mean task; to write one that expresses a
logical sequence of ideas (no matter how hackneyed) without tying itself up
in lexical knots is very impressive indeed.


[1] Isn't it interesting how repetitive verse forms tend to be imported into
English from other languages? Sestinas from the Italian, villanelles,
triolets and rondeaux from the French, pantoums from the Malay... is there
something about these languages which makes it easier to play around with
sentence patterns?

Contrariwise, poetry written in English tends to be rhymed much more often
than that in other languages. Is this due to the abundance of end-rhymes
available in English?

Douglas Hofstadter addresses these questions, and much much much more, in
his magnificent "Le Ton beau de Marot", a stunning investigation of
translation and the essence of language which I _strongly_ reccomend.


The subject material of today's poem seems especially apt in light of a very
thought-provoking thread that's been running on [minstrelsd] of late [2],
about the importance of _context_ to poetry. Can/should one judge art from a
moral standpoint? Is there a difference between poetry and other forms of
expression (eg. music) in the level of abstraction they offer? How important
are the poet's intentions? What about the circumstances under which a given
poem was written, are they important, or are they artefacts of the dead

[2] In case you missed it, [minstrelsd] is a parallel discussion group to
[minstrels], where list-members (not just Martin and myself) exchange
occasional emails about the poems we run, poets, and poetry. If you'd like
to join, simply send a blank mail to .

[Mintstrels Links]

This week's theme: "named verse forms".
Sestina: Poem #904, The Shrinking Lonesome Sestina -- Miller Williams
Sonnet:  Poem #905, I will put Chaos into fourteen lines -- Edna St. Vincent
Triolet: Poem #906, To a Fat Lady Seen From the Train -- Frances Cornford
Pantoum: Poem #907, Miss Charlotte Brown, Librarian, Goes Mad -- Felix Jung

For a truly brilliant pantoum, see
Poem #195, Juggler, Magician, Fool - A Pantoum  -- Peter Schaeffer

To a Fat Lady Seen From the Train -- Frances Cornford

Moving on with the named verse form theme, here's a triolet...
(Poem #906) To a Fat Lady Seen From the Train
 O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
      Missing so much and so much?
 O fat white woman whom nobody loves,
 Why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
 When the grass is soft as the breast of doves
     And shivering sweet to the touch?
 O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
     Missing so much and so much?
-- Frances Cornford
triolet: a poem or stanza of eight lines in which the first line is repeated
  at the fourth and seventh and the second line as the eight with a rhyme
  scheme of ABaAabAB.

  The English pronunciation is tr<e>i;olet, though it is tree-o-lay in

Today's poem is not particularly great, except for one thing - it makes
excellent use of the triolet form. Rather than employ the more modern custom
of attempting to vary the reading of the repeated lines, Cornford structures
the poem so that the repetition reads easily and naturally - it's not
obscured, but it doesn't need to be, since it adds to, rather than
detracts from, the poem.

As for the content of the poem, the "O fat white woman whom nobody loves"
is rather jarring to modern sensibilities; I can't imagine it being
too far otherwise even to her contemporaries. In particular, I find the
'whom nobody loves' a rather odd sort of deduction to make from a train
window, and have to wonder if it was intended as a comment on the narrator
as much as on the woman.

Like 'Trees', like 'The Ballad of the Tempest', today's poem has just that
combination of popular and annoying qualities that make it almost guaranteed
to attract parodies. Chesterton was moved to reply on the woman's behalf:

  Why do you rush through the fields in trains,
  Guessing so much and so much.
  Why do you flash through the flowery meads,
  Fat-head poet that nobody reads;
  And why do you know such a frightful lot
  About people in gloves and such?
    -- Chesterton, 'The Fat White Woman Speaks'
        (c. 1933); an answer to Frances Cornford.

and Housman skewered the poem rather neatly:

  O why do you walk through the fields in boots,
       Missing so much and so much?
  O fat white woman whom nobody shoots,
  Why do you walk through the fields in boots,
  When the grass is soft as the breast of coots
       And shivering-sweet to the touch?

    -- Housman; see [broken link] for the rest
    of the (excellent) piece on Housman's reworking of other poets' poems.

On Triolets:

  Like most of the repeated line verse forms, triolets are influenced rather
  heavily by the constraint. Unlike the villanelle, however, the poem itself
  is short enough that the repetition can be worked with, rather than
  around, a lot more easily (though workarounds are, of course, popular,
  from the shifting of punctuation and parts of speech to the use of
  homophones and homonyms, taking advantage of the fact that the repeated
  lines merely have to *sound* identical).

  Here are some essays on the triolet:

    Going back at least to the thirteenth century, triolets are short,
    usually witty poems, just perfect for tucking into a box of candy or
    some flowers. Its name comes from the repetition of the key line three
    times (French "tri").

      -- [broken link]

    [broken link] is a
    self-referential triolet

    [broken link]
    is another amusingly self-referential piece about the English/French
    pronunciation differences (the triolet is, in general, a fun form to
    play with, and popular among amateur writers of light verse).

    [broken link] is
    another nice essay

    The earliest English triolets were of a devotional nature composed by
    Patrick Carey, a Benedictine monk, in 1651. It was reintroduced by
    Robert Bridges in 1873.


A brief biography of Conford:

Minstrels Links:
  Poem #84: "From a Railway Carriage", R. L. Stevenson
  Poem #212: "To Alice-Sit-By-The-Hour", Franklin Adams