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Ghazal of the Lagoon -- John Drury

Guest poem sent in by Mark G. Ryan
(Poem #1161) Ghazal of the Lagoon
 Morning, on the promenade, there's a break in the light
 rain here in the serene republic.  I take in the light.

 Every walker gets lucky at this gaming table,
 where the gondoliers, like croupiers, rake in the light.

 Through the glare of a restaurants window, I see
 fish glinting, like spear points that shake in the light.

 I could sit on the edge and get wet forever,
 all to consider a speed boat's wake in the light.

 Furnaces burn.  We sweat until we shine, fired up
 by the wavy vases glassblowers make in the light.

 Row me out, friars, in your _sandolo_ on the waves
 that glitter like ducats, for God's sake, in the light.
-- John Drury
                   (see footnote [1] for source)

I know little of John Drury except that he has written two books
(The_Poetry_Dictionary and a collection of poems called
The_Disappearing_Town), and that he teaches creative writing at the
University of Cincinnati, where he has won awards for his teaching [2].

This poem caught my eye because it is an almost perfect example of a
ghazal.  The difficulty of pulling off the ghazals form in English is
obvious. But Drury follows the form closely for the most part,  and the
result looks effortless.  The rhymes do not seem forced and the refrain
is noticeable without calling attention to itself.

The only traditional ghazal feature _not_ exemplified in this poem is
the use of the author's pen name in the final couplet.  It is also
short by one couplet, the usual number being 7 to 12.  Given the
scarcity of rhyming words in English, shorter is probably better.

The poem appears on the surface to be little more than a travelogue,
but one senses the presence of another person--a woman--throughout,
especially in the lines:

        Furnaces burn.  We sweat until we shine, fired up
        by the wavy vases glassblowers make in the light.

This fits with the original Arabic meaning of "ghazal", which was
talking about women. The eroticism in this poem is less overt than
in some ghazal, but this does not make it any less real.

Experts mostly agree that the ghazal originated in Arabia.  Today it
is best known from examples in the Persian (Farsi) and Urdu languages,
but Medieval examples exist in Turkish, Pushto, Hebrew and even Spanish.
Interestingly, "This eighth-century form was popularized in the West
by German Romanticists." [3]   It seems to be undergoing a new burst
of popularity today.

One criticism of the last couplet: I am not sure where the "friars" fit
in with the rest of the poem (and the final use of the refrain is a
little disappointing).  But it is a deeply mysterious image, and one that
contrasts strongly with the two lines quoted above.

For anyone interested in the ghazal form and traditional aesthetic,
here is one possible description [4]:


        1. Five to twelve couplets.

        2. Absolutely no enjambment between adjacent couplets.

        3. Both lines of the first couplet must end with a rhyme
          and then a refrain:
                ----------------------- RHYME_A + REFRAIN
                ------------------------RHYME_A + REFRAIN
           The rhyming word must immediately precede the refrain
           in both lines

        4. Each succeeding couplet ends with same rhyme and refrain
           in the second line:
                ------------------------RHYME_A + REFRAIN
           Thus, the rhyme scheme is AA, BA, CA, DA, EA, etc.
           The rhyming word must immediately precede the refrain.

        5. Each line must be of the same length and metrical pattern
           (this is always the case in Urdu and Farsi).  The specific
           meter and pattern depends on the language in which the poem
           is written.

        6. The last couplet usually is a signature couplet, where the
           poet includes his or her pen name.  It can be written in the
           first, second or third person.


        1. The opening couplet should establish the mood and tone for the poem.

        2. The mood of the ghazal in Urdu and Persion is "melancholy and
           amorous" [5].  "What defines the ghazal is constant longing" [6].

        3. Each couplet should be self-sufficient unit, quotable and
           "jewel-like".  Qualities that may be present: epigrammatic
           terseness, lyricism, wit.  Different couplets need not
           express a unity or continuity of thought.

        4. The second line of the couplet usually amplifies the thought
           in the first, or provides a twist or surprise.

Notes on sources:

[1] Collected in:  Agha Shahid Ali, ed. Ravishing Disunities: Real
Ghazals in English (Wesleyan University Press, 2000. p. 54.)


[3] Jack Myers and Michael Simms.  The Longman Dictionary of Poetic
Terms. New York: Longman, 1999.

[4] Loosely based on: Agha Shahid Ali, op. cit., pp. 183-184.

[5] Ahmed Ali, The Golden Tradition. New York, Columbia University Press,
1973; p. 2-22.

[6] Agha Shahid Ali, op. cit., p. 183.

Ghazal (Untitled) -- Ghalib

Guest poem sent in by seema bhakthan nair
(Poem #1160) Ghazal (Untitled)
 Even in prayer, we are so unfettered and self-examining;
 In case the door of Kabla was not open, we would just come back
 (instead of knocking and seeking admittance)

 Everyone accepts your claim for being unique,
 No idol, reflecting you as a mirror, can come face to face with you

 The compliant which does not reach the lips leaves a mark on the heart;
 The drop of water that fails to become a river is simply food for dust on

 If, at the time of telling, blood does not flow from each eyelash,
 The story would not be of love merely (but simply as) the story of Hamza.

 If it cannot see the entire Tigris in a drop and the whole in a part,
 Such an eye would merely be a child’s game, not the eye of a wise man
-- Ghalib
        (Mirza Asadullah Beg Khan)

Note: A literal translation from "Ghazals of Ghalib - versions from the
Urdu", edited by Aijaz Ahmad.

Translations might not be the best way to read and comprehend Ghalib but
nonetheless each couplet in this ghazal has the strength to stand-alone and
spur thought that carries us deep into ourselves. The last couplet I thought
summarizes the essence of the ghazal, quite well. Seeing the whole in the
part, of part being the whole, of the part being nothing if it does not
signify the whole.

My favourite parts are, of prayer being reduced to another effort of man’s
justifications of existence and about how the power of a love story and
oneness is not really powerful enough unless it brings bloods flowing as

Pure, mad passion. Ghalib for you.


[Martin adds:]

Being unfamiliar with ghazals, I took the unusual step of asking the
discussion group for suggestions and useful links before I ran this. Many
thanks to Gary Blankenship and Salima Virani for their help and input. The
comments after the last four links are Gary's.

  [broken link]
    links to a biography of Ghalib and a definition. Seema notes that while
    the biography is uncredited, it is by Aijaz Ahmad, from the foreword of
    "Ghazals of Ghalib"
    a zine for ghazals, the link above is to their link page and actually the
    only one you need
    a good essay, also with good links
    perhaps the best essay

  and [broken link]
    for what is a list of oriental links without one by Jane Reichhold

A Night Abroad -- Du Fu

Guest poem sent in by Raj Bandyopadhyay
(Poem #1159) A Night Abroad
 A light wind is rippling at the grassy shore....
 Through the night, to my motionless tall mast,
 The stars lean down from open space,
 And the moon comes running up the river.
 ..If only my art might bring me fame
 And free my sick old age from office! --
 Flitting, flitting, what am I like
 But a sand-snipe in the wide, wide world!
-- Du Fu
    (Translated by Witter Bynner, 1929)

Here's another translation of the same poem, by Vikram Seth

  "Thoughts While Travelling at Night"
  (Translated by Vikram Seth, 1992)

  Light breeze on the fine grass
  I stand alone at the mast.
  Stars lean on the vast wild plain
  Moon bobs in the great river's spate.
  Letters have brought no fame
  Office? Too old to obtain.
  Drifting, what am I like?
  A gull between the earth and sky.


I finally received a copy of Vikram Seth's 'Three Chinese poets' after a
long wait, and had to send out a nice one!!!

Du Fu (712-770 AD), one of the most well known Tang Dynasty Chinese poets,
along with Li Bai and Wang Wei. This dynasty (618-907 AD) is considered
the golden period of Chinese poetry, probably well-known to westerners
through the collection : 300 Tang Dynasty poems. This collection is a
must-read for every Chinese schoolkid. Both the originals and translations
are online at an excellent archive at

I personally find this kind of poetry appealing, even in translation,
because of the simplicity and universal appeal of the ideas. Chinese
poetry loses most of the lyrical beauty in translation, hence different
translations have really different degrees of impact: a point I want to
make here.

Traditional translations in the 19th and early 20th centuries try to
translate in a way which results in 'English poetry', sometimes taking
undue (IMHO) liberties with language or concepts. Modern translations such
as those of Seth (not many people know of his expertise in Chinese
literature!) keep the English language simple, maintain the sentence
structure and attempt to get the elegance of the ideas across. Some people
consider Seth's style inferior. I will reserve final judgement until I can
understand these poems in the original. Meanwhile, other opinions are

So here goes! The poem itself I chose because I sometimes strongly
identify with the feelings of aimlessness and smallness described. I
personally feel the Bynner translation as more descriptive, but the Seth
translation more emotionally appealing and overall, understandable. I
might just be stupid... :-)

1) Witter Bynner: The Jade Mountain (1929), also at the UVA website above
2) Vikram Seth: Three Chinese Poets (1992)

Music -- Stephen Vincent Benét

(Poem #1158) Music
 My friend went to the piano; spun the stool
 A little higher; left his pipe to cool;
 Picked up a fat green volume from the chest;
 And propped it open.
 Whitely without rest,
 His fingers swept the keys that flashed like swords,
 . . . And to the brute drums of barbarian hordes,
 Roaring and thunderous and weapon-bare,
 An army stormed the bastions of the air!
 Dreadful with banners, fire to slay and parch,
 Marching together as the lightnings march,
 And swift as storm-clouds. Brazen helms and cars
 Clanged to a fierce resurgence of old wars
 Above the screaming horns. In state they passed,
 Trampling and splendid on and sought the vast—
 Rending the darkness like a leaping knife,
 The flame, the noble pageant of our life!
 The burning seal that stamps man's high indenture
 To vain attempt and most forlorn adventure;
 Romance, and purple seas, and toppling towns,
 And the wind's valiance crying o'er the downs;
 That nerves the silly hand, the feeble brain,
 From the loose net of words to deeds again
 And to all courage! Perilous and sharp
 The last chord shook me as wind shakes a harp!
 . . . And my friend swung round on his stool, and from gods we were men,
 "How pretty!" we said; and went on with our talk again.
-- Stephen Vincent Benét
I loved this poem - Benet achieves a passionate intensity that spills
through his writing, that stirs me and makes me shiver. (His "Winged Man"
[Poem #609] remains my favourite poetic discovery since we started
Minstrels.) There is, indeed, a certain measure of self-reference in today's
poem, in that it works best if you're in the same frame of mind as the
narrator is - if, like someone listening to a piece of music, you are
prepared to *feel* as much as interpret the words.

On the other hand, the poem's very intensity of emotion leaves it open to
criticism - it is very, very hard to combine a high degree of passion with
the perfect, elegant control that the ideal poem would demand, and Benet has
opted here to err on the side of passion. If someone wished, he or she could
doubtless pin the poem to a dissecting board, and examine its flaws in
minute detail. Personally, I'd rather enjoy it.

Which brings us to the other remarkable feature of today's poem - the
brilliantly crafted sting in its tail. Benet has captured a common problem -
expressions of genuine appreciation have all too often been replaced by
banalities that sound almost more dismissive than appreciative. Whether from
inarticulateness, or from a desire to appear 'sophisticated' by not being
too openly impressed, the pattern is one that I'm sure everyone has observed
at some point or the other.

And finally, this too could be self-referential - the unappreciatedness of
poets is a common poetic theme. Wonder why :)


Love Sonnet XI -- Pablo Neruda

Guest poem sent in by atheos
(Poem #1157) Love Sonnet XI
 I crave your mouth, your voice, your hair.
 Silent and starving, I prowl through the streets.
 Bread does not nourish me, dawn disrupts me, all day
 I hunt for the liquid measure of your steps.

 I hunger for your sleek laugh,
 your hands the color of a savage harvest,
 hunger for the pale stones of your fingernails,
 I want to eat your skin like a whole almond.

 I want to eat the sunbeam flaring in your lovely body,
 the sovereign nose of your arrogant face,
 I want to eat the fleeting shade of your lashes,

 and I pace around hungry, sniffing the twilight,
 hunting for you, for your hot heart,
 like a puma in the barrens of Quitratue.
-- Pablo Neruda
This is the first thing that comes to mind when I think Neruda. I
read it quite a while back but it has stayed with me... The sheer
intensity of what he's feeling comes through, and grips you and
elevates you. It makes me feel like there is music and drama and
poetry in living, that makes it hard to feel indifferent, numb.
Every time I read it, I catch my breath; I am swept up by it all
over again.

If I were to analyse it tongue in cheek, I would say it should be
titled My Love to Me a Meal Is. And proceed to demonstrate how
he's sublimating his passion by using verbs of the culinary
persuasion. Grin. Alternatively, I could choose to take him
literally, and proceed to demonstrate that this is Dr. Hannibal
Lecter, who's taken over Neruda's life. After eating him, of

More seriously, though, I think it's a beautiful poem. There are
references to him as a hunter - I think of a large, beautiful
jungle cat padding around on empty, cobbled streets. I can see the
twitch of its tail and the flare of nostrils. Hungry. Hunting.
His (the translator's?) turn of phrase is lovely; "Bread does not
nourish me" "the liquid measure of your steps" "for your hot
heart" - all these sound so right that the rightness, the
resonance of the words leaves you dazed.

I think it's a good counterpoint to the other poem we saw a few
days back [Poem #1149], don't you?


A Psychological Tip -- Piet Hein

Guest poem sent in by Seema Ramanarayanan
(Poem #1156) A Psychological Tip
 Whenever you're called on to make up your mind,
 and you're hampered by not having any,
 the best way to solve the dilemma, you'll find,
 is simply by spinning a penny.

 No - not so that chance shall decide the affair
 while you're passively standing there moping;
 but the moment the penny is up in the air,
 you suddenly know what you're hoping
-- Piet Hein
I had the hardest time deciding which of the Piet Hein poems to send in to
this list :). They're all absolutely WONDERFUL. He calls his poems "Grooks"
and apparently he wrote em in several languages!  I had read this poem years
ago and went back looking for it when a friend of mine responded to my last
guest poem ("The instruction manual") complaining that I never send him a
poem that can make its point without being 300 words long.

Piet Hein (1905-1996) was a Danish poet and scientist with wide ranging
interests. Millions of his countrymen knew him as Kumbel, the pen name he
used for his poetry. He was a genius with many different sides. In addition
to discovering the Soma cube, he created a new geometrical form, the
"super-ellipse", which is something in between the rectangle and the
ellipse. The form also came in a 3D version and was then called "the super
egg" or "the super-ellipsoide".  As an artist and constructor, Piet Hein in
the 50's and 60's gave form to beautiful pieces of furniture, and he
contributed to make "Scandinavian design" become an international
conception. Internationally he always tried building a bridge between the
"hard" technical and natural sciences and the "soft" humanistic subjects.

Here's the link to the website I copied the biography from and it also has
his other poems. Enjoy!!!

[broken link]


Betrayal -- A S J Tessimond

Guest poem sent in by Roberta Sutton
(Poem #1155) Betrayal
 If a man says half himself in the light, adroit
 Way a tune shakes into equilibrium,
 Or approximates to a note that never comes:

 Says half himself in the way two pe!
 Flow to each other and softly separate,
 In the resolute way plane lifts and leaps from plane:

 Who knows what intimacies our eyes may shout,
 What evident secrets daily foreheads flaunt,
 What panes of glass conceal our beating hearts?
-- A S J Tessimond
I wish that the title, “Betrayal”, came at the end of this poem, if at all.
The word is quickly associated with fury and shame (something about feeling
mistaken and foolish for sharing so much with another instead of being
recognized and enlightened). The poem is too beautiful to be disposed so
quickly as a melancholy work or a void. In fact, the betrayal spoken of here
is not perjury as much as it is a deeper betrayal. These lines are examples
of sad incompletes, denials of the truth, the quest for absolute and the
effort to express them as a person in love or a person to themselves. Love
is the best opportunity to try these life lessons. This is the best poem
I've seen on a difficult topic; this voice is sweet while remembering the
beauty of love and its potential rather than the bitter remedy of loss,
vengefulness. It does not mourn what was missing or lost; it celebrates what
can be. Not an Anti-Valentines’ Day poem, after all (though, happily, this
is a poem about the stride for authenticity for the single and the coupled).


Address to a Haggis -- Robert Burns

In honour of Robert Burns's birthday, here's a guest poem from David McKelvie, about that most endearing of Scottish
(Poem #1154) Address to a Haggis
 Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face,
 Great chieftain o' the pudding-race!
 Aboon them a' yet tak your place,
 Painch, tripe, or thairm:
 Weel are ye wordy o'a grace
 As lang's my arm.

 The groaning trencher there ye fill,
 Your hurdies like a distant hill,
 Your pin was help to mend a mill
 In time o'need,
 While thro' your pores the dews distil
 Like amber bead.

 His knife see rustic Labour dight,
 An' cut you up wi' ready sleight,
 Trenching your gushing entrails bright,
 Like ony ditch;
 And then, O what a glorious sight,
 Warm-reekin', rich!

 Then, horn for horn, they stretch an' strive:
 Deil tak the hindmost! on they drive,
 Till a' their weel-swall'd kytes belyve
 Are bent like drums;
 Then auld Guidman, maist like to rive,
 Bethankit! hums.

 Is there that owre his French ragout
 Or olio that wad staw a sow,
 Or fricassee wad make her spew
 Wi' perfect sconner,
 Looks down wi' sneering, scornfu' view
 On sic a dinner?

 Poor devil! see him owre his trash,
 As feckles as wither'd rash,
 His spindle shank, a guid whip-lash;
 His nieve a nit;
 Thro' blody flood or field to dash,
 O how unfit!

 But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed,
 The trembling earth resounds his tread.
 Clap in his walie nieve a blade,
 He'll mak it whissle;
 An' legs an' arms, an' hands will sned,
 Like taps o' trissle.

 Ye Pow'rs, wha mak mankind your care,
 And dish them out their bill o' fare,
 Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware
 That jaups in luggies;
 But, if ye wish her gratefu' prayer
 Gie her a haggis!
-- Robert Burns
I like Robert Burns; I like him in two distinct ways.

Firstly, because of who and what he is. One of the main foundations of the
Romantic period that followed him; one of the few truly international poets
(the Russians love him apparently); a humanist at a time when such attitudes
were seen as bizarre (one critic of his day said of the socialist anthem
"For a' that and a' that": "This song may be said to embody all the false
philosophy of [his] time") and to top all of that off, a bit of a rogue.
Casanova eat your heart out! Oh, and did I forget to mention that he is a
superb poet with music running through his veins?

The second reason is because my dear maternal great-grandmother claimed that
we were descended from him. I haven't got round to checking my mother's side
of family tree. It might not be true. It probably isn't. But while there's
doubt, there's hope. So I don't think I'll be checking my family history
just yet..... :) And another personal note: my very first anthology of
poetry was given to me by my father. He won this as first prize in a Burn's
Recitation competition when he was at school. So, my liking for Burns may be
either genetic or purely down to my father's skills at recitation!

This poem is traditionally recited at Burns Suppers held on the 25th January
to celebrate his date of birth. How many other nations in the world (the
Western world at least) have an annual celebration centrered the recitation
of poetry? The poem itself is typical Burns: strong rhythms, even stronger
dialect (yes, I have great difficulty with it and I'm Scottish) and typical
earthy Burns humour directed at the those with their fancy ways and French
ragouts. And to top it off, my copy of his Colected Poems claims that he
pretty much improvised and recited this poem on the spot. Now that's just
showing off....

And if you've come this far and want to know what a haggis is....
[broken link] has lots of information on the Bard and a glossary for
all those tricky words.


[David also sent me a bit about the tradition of Burns Suppers - I've included
it below - martin]

The 25th January is the birthday of Robert Burns and here in Scotland (and all
over the world amongst scottish folk) there will be Burns Suppers. Here's an
extract from about them:

"The annual celebratory tribute to the life, works and spirit of the great
Scottish poet, Robert Burns (1759-1796). Celebrated on, or about, the Bard's
birthday, January 25th, Burns Suppers range from stentoriously formal
gatherings of esthetes and scholars to uproariously informal rave-ups of
drunkards and louts. Most Burns Suppers fall in the middle of this range, and
adhere, more or less, to some sort of time honoured form which includes the
eating of a traditional Scottish meal, the drinking of Scotch whisky, and the
recitation of works by, about, and in the spirit of the Bard.

Every Burns Supper has its own special form and flavour, though there are
probably more similarities than differences among these gastro-literary
affairs. Individual tastes and talents will determine the character of your
Burns Supper. Some celebrants may contribute the composition of original songs
or poems; some may excel at giving toasts or reciting verse; while others may
be captivating storytellers. A particular group of celebrants will, over time,
develop a unique group character which will distinguish their Burns Supper
celebration from every other."

Meeting the British -- Paul Muldoon

Guest poem sent in by Mel Benson
(Poem #1153) Meeting the British
 We met the British in the dead of winter.
 The sky was lavender

 and the snow lavender-blue.
 I could hear, far below,

 the sound of two streams coming together
 (both were frozen over)

 and, no less strange,
 myself calling out in French

 across that forest-
 clearing. Neither General Jeffrey Amherst

 nor Colonel Henry Bouquet
 could stomach our willow-tobacco.

 As for the unusual
 scent when the Colonel shook out his hand-

 kerchief: C'est la lavande,
 une fleur mauve comme le ciel.

 They gave us six fishhooks
 and two blankets embroidered with smallpox.
-- Paul Muldoon
I find this poem slightly chilling, to be honest. It seems almost innocent
until the final word, which suddenly makes the entire poem incredibly
ominous. The half rhymes increase the growing sense of unease as the native
Americans in Canada meet the British colonisers and the reader becomes
gradually aware of all the consequences of this meeting. There is no real
point of first contact between the two sides shown in the poem - the native
American narrator is already able to describe the sky and snow as lavender,
which blurs the narrative voice somewhat [That would have been through their
earlier contact with the French, though. Still, I see Mel's point -martin].
Muldoon makes full use of hindsight and poetic device to create a poem sinister
yet political.



Biography of Muldoon:

Some Paul Muldoon pages:
  [broken link]

A very readable interview:
  [broken link],4273,4185192,00.html

Lament for Sion -- Lewys Glyn Cothi

Guest poem sent in by Dave Fortin , who writes:

A poem that I have always appreciated that fits in with the recent postings is
the Lament for Sion y Glyn by Lewys Glyn Cothi (1447-1489).

Sion y Glyn was the poet's five-year-old son.  In the poem, the poet appeals
to Dwynwen, patron saint of lovers and wishes that Sion could be brought
back to life by the patron saint of North Wales, St. Beuno.
(Poem #1152) Lament for Sion
 One son was my darling--Dwynwen!
 Woe to his father is his birth.
 Woe to him who's left to grieve
 for love evermore with no son.
 The death of my little die has made
 my ribs ache for Sion y Glyn.
 I am forever wailing
 for the lord of boyhood tales.

 The lad loved a sweet apple
 and a bird, and white pebbles;
 a bow made of a thorn branch,
 a flimsy wooden sword;
 he feared the pipe and bogey,
 he begged his mam for a ball;
 he would sing a note to all,
 he would sing "oo-o" for a nut;
 he would fondle and flatter,
 he would get angry with me,
 and make up for a bit of wood
 and for dice that he loved.

 Oh that Sion, pure gentle boy,
 were another Lazarus.
 Beuno brought back to life
 seven who had gone to heaven;
 woe, once again, my true heart,
 that Sion's soul cannot make eight.
 Oh Mary, alas that he lies dead,
 woe for my ribs that his grave is closed.
 Sion's death is like a stab wound
 implanted deep in my breast;
 my son, my baby's playpen,
 my bosom, my heart, my song,
 he was my mind in my lifetime,
 my wise poet, he was my dream,
 he was my toy, my candle,
 my fair soul, my one deceit,
 my chick learning my song,
 my Isolde's garland, my kiss,
 my strength, woe is me after him,
 my skylark, my magician,
 my love, my bow, my arrow,
 my beseacher, my boyhood.
 Sion is sending to his father
 a pang of longing and love.
 Farewell, the smile on my lips,
 farewell to the laughing mouth;
 farewell now, sweet amusement,
 and farewell to games with nuts,
 and farewell, ball, for ever,
 and farewell to loud singing,
 and farewell, my cheery friend,
 buried while I live, Sion my son.
-- Lewys Glyn Cothi
        (trans. Richard Loomis)

[Note: 'Sion' is pronounced 'shon', essentially 'shop' with an 'n' rather
than a 'p' at the end. It's the Welsh equivalent of 'John' --martin]

Lewys Glyn Cothi (1447-1489) was one of the most well-known and respected
poets of 15th century Wales and is known for his poems associated with the
Herberts and Tudors during the Wars of the Roses.  He is generally
associated with Carmarthenshire, but wrote for patrons throughout Wales.

Here we find the poet at the top of his form using all of his skills to
compose what has to be the saddest lament I have ever encountered.  Sion y
Glyn was the poet's five-year-old son.  In the poem, the poet appeals to
Dwynwen, patron saint of lovers and wishes that Sion could be brought back
to life by the patron saint of North Wales, St. Beuno.

Unlike many laments written by professional bards for their patrons or for
political figures, this one is highly passionate, personal and deeply
touching.  Note how Lewys describes all of the little things that he enjoyed
with his son in the first stanza, and then returns to these in the final
stanza to bid them all farewell. This, combined with the repetition at the
end, heightens the poignancy.  While this is written in a form likely to
have been spoken, I suspect that it was written for the poet alone.

Even in translation and despite the accumulation of over 500 years, I have
trouble reading this without getting emotional...

Dave Fortin
Doctoral Candidate
Medieval History
The Catholic University of America

The Death of Emmett Till -- Bob Dylan

The US has just celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. day; here's an appropriate
guest poem sent in by Rohit Grover
(Poem #1151) The Death of Emmett Till
 'Twas down in Mississippi not so long ago,
 When a young boy from Chicago walked through a Southern door.
 This boy's fateful tragedy you should all remember well,
 The color of his skin was black and his name was Emmett Till.

 Some men they dragged him to a barn and there they beat him up.
 They said they had a reason, but I disremember what.
 They tortured him and did some things too evil to repeat.
 There was screamin' sounds inside the barn, there was laughin' sounds out
     on the street.

 Then they rolled his body down a gulf amidst a blood red rain
 And they threw him in the waters wide to cease his screamin' pain.
 The reason that they killed him there, and I'm sure it was no lie,
 Was just for the fun of killing him and to watch him slowly die.

 And then to stop the United States of yelling for a trial,
 Two brothers they confessed that they had killed poor Emmett Till.
 But on the jury there were men who helped the brothers commit this awful
 And so this trial was a mockery, but nobody seemed to mind.

 I saw the mornin' papers but I could not bear
 To see the smiling brothers walking down the courthouse stairs.
 For the jury found them innocent and the brothers they went free,
 While Emmett's body floats the foam of a Jim Crow southern sea.

 If you can't speak out against this kind of thing, a crime that's so unjust,
 Your eyes are filled with dead men's dirt, your mind is filled with dust.
 Your arms and legs they must be in shackles and chains, and your blood it
     must refuse to flow,
 For you'd let this human race fall down so God-awful low!

 This song is just a reminder to remind your fellow man
 That this kind of thing still lives today in that ghost-robed Ku Klux Klan.
 But if all of us folks that thinks alike, if we give all we could give,
 We'd make this great land of ours a greater place to live.
-- Bob Dylan
I just watched a PBS documentary on the death of Emmett Till. Emmett Till's
death sparked off the civil rights movement in the US. He was lynched for
whistling at a white woman, and the (white) killers were later acquitted by
an all-white jury in Mississippi. What made my blood boil was that the
killers *confessed* after being acquitted, but the case was not reopened.

Why does this bother me? Those not from India should read Rohinton Mistry's
'A Fine Balance' - there's a disturbing parallel in the Indian caste system.
My generation has grown up with the mantra of no casteism, secularism and so
on. But then I pick up a newspaper (or visit the website here) and read
about Dalit's being lynched, or raped. And it's not just villages - even in
cities like Mumbai caste becomes all-important. Among people from my
generation - engineers, doctors - well-educated, seemingly scientific

Bob Dylan's song captures the frustration so well - and does so beautifully.
The few people who took the witness stand in the Emmett Till case in support
of the prosecution were brave beyond belief.


[Martin adds]

An appropriate companion piece is Phil Ochs's "Too Many Martyrs":

And here's Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech:

The Instruction Manual -- John Ashbery

Guest poem sent in by Seema Ramanarayanan
(Poem #1150) The Instruction Manual
As I sit looking out of a window of the building
I wish I did not have to write the instruction manual on the uses of a new
I look down into the street and see people, each walking with an inner peace,
And envy them--they are so far away from me!
Not one of them has to worry about getting out this manual on schedule.
And, as my way is, I begin to dream, resting my elbows on the desk and leaning
    out of the window a little,
Of dim Guadalajara! City of rose-colored flowers!
City I wanted most to see, and did not see, in Mexico!
But I fancy I see, under the press of having to write the instruction manual,
Your public square, city, with its elaborate little bandstand!
The band is playing Scheherazade by Rimsky-Korsakov.
Around stand the flower girls, handing out rose- and lemon-colored flowers,
Each attractive in her rose-and-blue striped dress (Oh! such shades of rose and
And nearby is the little white booth where women in green serve you green and
    yellow fruit.
The couples are parading; everyone is in a holiday mood.
First, leading the parade, is a dapper fellow
Clothed in deep blue. On his head sits a white hat
And he wears a mustache, which has been trimmed for the occasion.
His dear one, his wife, is young and pretty; her shawl is rose, pink, and
Her slippers are patent leather, in the American fashion,
And she carries a fan, for she is modest, and does not want the crowd to see
    her face too often.
But everybody is so busy with his wife or loved one
I doubt they would notice the mustacioed man's wife.
Here come the boys! They are skipping and throwing little things on the
Which is made of gray tile. One of them, a little older, has a toothpick in his
He is silenter than the rest, and affects not to notice the pretty young girls
    in white.
But his friends notice them, and shout their jeers at the laughing girls.
Yet soon this all will cease, with the deepening of their years,
And love bring each to the parade grounds for another reason.
But I have lost sight of the young fellow with the toothpick.
Wait--there he is--on the other side of the bandstand.
Secluded from his friends, in earnest talk with a young girl
Of fourteen or fifteen. I try to hear what they are saying
But it seems they are just mumbling something--shy words of love, probably.
She is slightly taller than he, and looks quietly down into his sincere eyes.
She is wearing white. The breeze ruffles her long fine black hair against her
    olive cheek.
Obviously she is in love. The boy, the young boy with the toothpick, he is in
    love too;
His eyes show it. Turning from this couple,
I see there is an intermission in the concert.
The paraders are resting and sipping drinks through straws
(The drinks are dispensed from a large glass crock by a lady in dark blue),
And the musicians mingle among them, in their creamy white uniforms, and talk
About the weather, perhaps, or how their kids are doing at school.

Let us take this opportunity to tiptoe into one of the side streets.
Here you may see one of those white houses with green trim
That are so popular here. Look--I told you!
It is cool and dim inside, but the patio is sunny.
An old woman in gray sits there, fanning herself with a palm leaf fan.
She welcomes us to her patio, and offers us a cooling drink.
"My son is in Mexico City," she says. "He would welcome you too
If he were here. But his job is with a bank there.
Look, here is a photograph of him."
And a dark-skinned lad with pearly teeth grins out at us from the worn leather
We thank her for her hospitality, for it is getting late
And we must catch a view of the city, before we leave, from a good high place.
That church tower will do--the faded pink one, there against the fierce blue of
the sky. Slowly we enter.
The caretaker, an old man dressed in brown and gray, asks us how long we have
    been in the city, and how we like it here.
His daughter is scrubbing the steps--she nods to us as we pass into the tower.
Soon we have reached the top, and the whole network of the city extends
    before us.
there is the rich quarter, with its houses of pink and white, and its
    crumbling, leafy terraces.
There is the poorer quarter, its homes a deep blue.
There is the market, where men are selling hats and swatting flies
And there is the public library, painted several shades of pale green and
Look! There is the square we just came from, with the promenaders.
There are fewer of them, now that the heat of the day has increased.
But the young boy and girl still lurk in the shadows of the bandstand.
And there is the home of the little old lady--
She is still sitting in the patio, fanning herself.
How limited, but how complete withal, has been our experience of Guadalajara!
We have seen young love, married love, and the love of an aged mother for her
We have heard the music, tasted the drinks, and looked at colored houses.
What more is there to do, except stay? And that we cannot do.
And as a last breeze freshens the top of the weathered old tower, I turn my
Back to the instruction manual which has made me dream of Guadalajara.
-- John Ashbery

This poem is from Ashbery's first book of poems. I consider it Ashbery's ode
to the power of imagination.  It immediately evokes an image of someone
staring outside the window lost in a world of their own - a situation i
frequently find myself in except not producing anything quite as beautiful
as this poem.

Am pasting an excerpt from David Lehman's book on the New York School of
Poetry, 'The Last Avant-Garde':

  "In the end, the New York School of poetry has less to do with the city
  than with a state of mind to which the poet would like to travel. "The
  Instruction Manual," the most admired poem in Ashbery's first book, Some
  Trees, tells of this state of mind. The poem records a daydream about
  escaping from a boring office in New York City, where the task of writing
  a manual "on the uses of a new metal" faces the dreamer, a professional
  writer, who succeeds in willing himself-- temporarily-- to sunny

  The dreamer beholds a storybook spectacle whose charms are all on the
  surface....  The poem is not really about Guadaljara at all. It is rather
  a parable of the imagination with its power to fulfil desire and supply
  any lack. The imagination provides a vehicle of escape into a Guadaljara
  better than the real thing if only because the metal traveler is spared
  the inconveniences of packing bags, booking rooms, exchanging currency,
  and suffering from indigestion. But the vision also has a tragic
  propensity for vanishing. "What else is there to do but stay, and that we
  cannot do," Ashbery writes in a modern restatement of the pathos at the
  end of the departed vision in Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale" ("Adieu! The
  fancy cannot cheat so well / As she is famed to do, deceiving elf")....
  Ashbery... is at heart a Romantic poet, who conceives of the Imagination
  as a realm apart from experience, or reality, or time, to which it lends
  the redemptive enchantment that we seek in art and that may come closer to
  fulfilling the promise of happiness than any form of human activity. "

        -- [broken link]



 Here's a link to a biography:

 Here are links to other poems by Ashbery:
 [broken link]

[Martin adds]

I was strongly reminded of Gibson's "The Ice Cart" [Poem #622].

And, speaking of Guadalajara and dreams thereof, don't miss Lehrer's "Old

Don't Go Far Off -- Pablo Neruda

Guest poem sent in by Sitaram Iyer
(Poem #1149) Don't Go Far Off
 Don't go far off, not even for a day, because --
 because -- I don't know how to say it: a day is long
 and I will be waiting for you, as in an empty station
 when the trains are parked off somewhere else, asleep.

 Don't leave me, even for an hour, because
 then the little drops of anguish will all run together,
 the smoke that roams looking for a home will drift
 into me, choking my lost heart.

 Oh, may your silhouette never dissolve on the beach;
 may your eyelids never flutter into the empty distance.
 Don't leave me for a second, my dearest,

 because in that moment you'll have gone so far
 I'll wander mazily over all the earth, asking,
 Will you come back? Will you leave me here, dying?
-- Pablo Neruda
In passing through a transient spell of self-inflicted grief, I'm
finding a certain measure of solace in several of Neruda's poems -- not
so much as a distraction, but as a gentle voice that understands and
speaks the pain. Although this poem reflects only an approximation of
the sentiment, the metaphors strike the right sort of chord, helping
convey the appropriate sense of (potential) loss. (I'll get over this
bottomless black mood in a few days, so don't bother sympathizing :))


Misty -- Ruth Padel

Guest poem sent in by Belinda Beresford
(Poem #1148) Misty
 How I love

 The darkwave music
 Of a sun's eclipse
 You can't see for cloud

 The saxophonist playing 'Misty'
 In the High Street outside Barclays

 Accompanied by mating-calls
 Sparked off
 In a Jaguar alarm

 The way you're always there
 Where I'm thinking

 Or several beats ahead.
-- Ruth Padel
From "Rembrandt Would Have Loved You"

This poem was part of the Poems on the Underground, a series of poetry
which appeared in advertising spaces on the tube. It is a sparse poem,
yet I find it incredibly evocative of London. And yes, of course, I did
meet someone who made me think of this poem, so I gave him a copy of
the poster. About a month later he told me the poem expressed the way
he felt about me - and then ran like hell...


  The Ruth Padel Official website:
    [broken link]

    [broken link]

  A picture of the Underground poster with today's poem:

The Ballad of the Imam and the Shah -- James Fenton

Guest poem sent in by Reed C. Bowman
(Poem #1147) The Ballad of the Imam and the Shah
(An Old Persian Legend)

to C. E. H.

 It started with a stabbing at a well
 Below the minarets of Isfahan.
 The widow took her son to see them kill
 The officer who'd murdered her old man.
 The child looked up and saw the hangman's work --
 The man who'd killed his father swinging high,
 The mother said: 'My child, now be at peace.
 The wolf has had the fruits of all his crime.'

  From felony to felony to crime
  From robbery to robbery to loss
  From calumny to calumny to spite
  From rivalry to rivalry to zeal

 All this was many centuries ago --
 The kind of thing that couldn't happen now --
 When Persia was the empire of the Shah
 And many were the furrows on his brow.
 The peacock the symbol of his throne
 And many were the jewels and its eyes
 And many were the prisons in the land
 And many were the torturers and spies.

  From tyranny to tyranny to war
  From dynasty to dynasty to hate
  From villainy to villainy to death
  From policy to policy to grave

 The child grew up a clever sort of chap
 And he became a mullah, like his dad --
 Spent many years in exile and disgrace
 Because he told the world the Shah was bad.
 'Believe in God,' he said, 'believe in me.
 Believe me when I tell you who I am.
 Now chop the arm of wickedness away.
 Hear what I say, I am the great Imam.'

  From heresy to heresy to fire
  From clerisy to clerisy to fear
  From litany to litany to sword
  From fallacy to fallacy to wrong

 And so the Shah was forced to flee abroad.
 The Imam was the ruler in his place.
 He started killing everyone he could
 To make up for the years of his discgrace.
 And when there were no enemies at home
 He sent his men to Babylon to fight.
 And when he'd lost an army in that way
 He knew what God was telling him was right.

  From poverty to poverty to wrath
  From agony to agony to doubt
  From malady to malady to shame
  From misery to misery to fight

 He sent the little children out to war.
 They went out with his portrait in their hands.
 The desert and the marshes filled with blood.
 The mothers heard the news in Isfahan.
 Now Babylon is buried under dirt.
 Persepolis is peeping through the sand.
 The child who saw his father's killer killed
 Has slaughtered half the children in the land.

 From felony
 to robbery
 to calumny
 to rivalry
 to tyranny
 to dynasty
 to villainy
 to policy
 to heresy
 to clerisy
 to litany
 to fallacy
 to poverty
 to agony
 to malady
 to misery --

 The song is yours. Arrange it as you will.
 Remember where each word fits in the line
 And every combination will be true
 And every permutation will be fine:

  From policy to felony to fear
  From litany to heresy to fire
  From villainy to tyranny to war
  From tyranny to dynasty to shame

  From poverty to malady to grave
  From malady to agony to spite
  From agony to misery to hate
  From misery to policy to fight!
-- James Fenton
[Note: if you can't get this by e-mail, the ""
sections, as well as the first part of the title, "The Ballad of the
Imam and the Shah", should be set in italics.]

I heard this poem on BBC Radio 4, read by the poet. 'Read' is an
insufficient word, though, for the passionate, angry, bitter rendition
he gave. I've been trying to get them to put up the audio file on so it can be heard more widely, but I was impressed upon
finding it and reading it to see how strongly it encourages the style of
reading Fenton gave. It was read fast, and staccato, with heavy emphasis
on the line endings. The first and second normal verses start out a bit
slower, less emphasized and broken, but the emphasis and staccato feel
increases with the speed from the first to the second to the third,
while the refrain is all but spat out full speed from the beginning.

Now that I've got a book of his poems (Out of Danger, Noonday Press
1994), I find he frequently uses repetitions and permutations with
similar effect. In some ways the strange and bleak refrain running
through this poem could start to sound like Dr. Suess, but for the
actual vocabulary employed.

This poem could in one respect be summarized by the phrase 'plus ça
change, plus c'est la même chose'. The will to end the oppression of the
Shah brings about another oppression no less horrible. It is about
repetition, the historical perpetuation of violence and oppression, and
repetition and circularity occurs on several levels in the poem, and is
driven home by the final part, encouraging you to rearrange the terms,
causes and effects as you will, and come up with truth in each and every
permutation. But also the whole poem, which keeps up the pretense of
speaking of times long past, in the atemporal terms of a legend, reminds
us that this is the way things were in the beginning, are now, and ever
shall be.

The structure of almost every line reinforces the
crumbling-and-tumbledown-and-crash rhythm with which Fenton read it,
which makes it all the more bleak and grim. The curious, surprising,
direct repetition in the beginning of each line of what I'm calling the
refrain - 'From x to x to y' - drives home the cyclic nature of the
errors and horrors, and yet sees, or foresees, the final collapse into
the worst, final consequence of its monosyllabic end.


[Martin adds:

 In later correspondence, discussing the oddly scanning line "The peacock
 the symbol of his throne", which I thought perhaps missing a word in the
 transcription, Reed confirmed that the line was correct, and added:

   The poem, as perhaps I should have mentioned, was set to music, along
   with several others in the book, mostly about horrible, bleak wars
   and tyrannies of recent history, in a 'pocket musical' called 'Out of
   the East' (which is also the title of an incredible poem, similarly
   depressing and yet drivingly energetic, about the war in Cambodia and
   the making of the Khmer Rouge). It was performed in 1990 as a song.
   But when I heard it on the BBC it was just a reading by the author,
   however energetically performed. In the musical version, that
   hypometric line could sound natural - I'd love to hear it.

The Young British Soldier -- Rudyard Kipling

Continuing the current war poems theme, a guest poem sent in by
Mark G. Ryan :

Here's another addition to the war poem series.  This one is much earthier
than the Andrew Motion poem [Poem #1143], and a lot more fun.  The last
stanza has a particular relevance to current events, and I've added some
history in the notes.
(Poem #1146) The Young British Soldier
 When the 'arf-made recruity goes out to the East
 'E acts like a babe an' 'e drinks like a beast,
 An' 'e wonders because 'e is frequent deceased
 Ere 'e's fit for to serve as a soldier.
       Serve, serve, serve as a soldier,
       Serve, serve, serve as a soldier,
       Serve, serve, serve as a soldier,
          So-oldier _of_ the Queen!

 Now all you recruities what's drafted to-day,
 You shut up your rag-box an' 'ark to my lay,
 An' I'll sing you a soldier as far as I may:
 A soldier what's fit for a soldier.
       Fit, fit, fit for a soldier . . .

 First mind you steer clear o' the grog-sellers' huts,
 For they sell you Fixed Bay'nets that rots out your guts --
 Ay, drink that 'ud eat the live steel from your butts --
 An' it's bad for the young British soldier.
       Bad, bad, bad for the soldier . . .

 When the cholera comes -- as it will past a doubt --
 Keep out of the wet and don't go on the shout,
 For the sickness gets in as the liquor dies out,
 A' it crumples the young British soldier.
       Crum-, crum-, crumples the soldier . . .

 But the worst o' your foes is the sun over'ead:
 You must wear your 'elmet for all that is said:
 If 'e finds you uncovered 'e'll knock you down dead,
 An' you'll die like a fool of a soldier.
       Fool, fool, fool of a soldier . . .

 If you're cast for fatigue by a sergeant unkind,
 Don't grouse like a woman nor crack on nor blind;
 Be handy and civil, and then you will find
 That it's beer for the young British soldier.
       Beer, beer, beer for the soldier . . .

 Now, if you must marry, take care she is old --
 A troop-sergeant's widow's the nicest I'm told,
 For beauty won't help if your rations is cold,
 Nor love ain't enough for a soldier.
       'Nough, 'nough, 'nough for a soldier . . .

 If the wife should go wrong with a comrade, be loath
 To shoot when you catch 'em -- you'll swing, on my oath! --
 Make 'im take 'er and keep 'er:  that's Hell for them both,
 An' you're shut o' the curse of a soldier.
       Curse, curse, curse of a soldier . . .

 When first under fire an' you're wishful to duck,
 Don't look nor take 'eed at the man that is struck,
 Be thankful you're livin', and trust to your luck
 And march to your front like a soldier.
       Front, front, front like a soldier . . .

 When 'arf of your bullets fly wide in the ditch,
 Don't call your Martini a cross-eyed old bitch;
 She's human as you are -- you treat her as sich,
 An' she'll fight for the young British soldier.
       Fight, fight, fight for the soldier . . .

 When shakin' their bustles like ladies so fine,
 The guns o' the enemy wheel into line,
 Shoot low at the limbers an' don't mind the shine,
 For noise never startles the soldier.
       Start-, start-, startles the soldier . . .

 If your officer's dead and the sergeants look white,
 Remember it's ruin to run from a fight:
 So take open order, lie down, and sit tight,
 And wait for supports like a soldier.
       Wait, wait, wait like a soldier . . .

 When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains,
 And the women come out to cut up what remains,
 Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
 An' go to your Gawd like a soldier.
       Go, go, go like a soldier,
       Go, go, go like a soldier,
       Go, go, go like a soldier,
          So-oldier _of_ the Queen!
-- Rudyard Kipling
Here we have Kipling's view of what the ordinary soldier was likely
to encounter in "the East".   Anyone feel like volunteering?

The colorful advice he gives the soldier about how to treat his rifle
("Don't call your Martini a cross-eyed old bitch") reminds me of of the
guest poem by General Rupertus [Poem #1115].  Unlike that poem, this one is
unlikely to win many new recruits, since it goes into some of the less
romantic aspects of the life of an Imperial soldier (e.g., sunstroke and

While the Ruptertus poem was painfully sincere, this one is tinged by irony
(at least to my ears).  Poems in dialect aren't popular these days, but as a
dramatic device it does put some distance between the author and the
sentiment expressed in the poem.  Here it allows Kipling to write on two
levels at once, and no doubt contributed to his popularity, so that both an
infantryman and a liberal could find something to like in this poem.

Kipling also has an accurate ear for speech and a sense of humor -- not
common traits in poets of any age.

It has long been popular to regard Kipling as a jingoist, despite the
efforts of Randall Jarrell (in the 1960s) and other critics to rehabilitate
him.  Yet Kipling here shows compassion for his young soldier, and in other
poems and in his fiction he writes about people high and low, from Rajahs to
prostitutes.  His viewed colonial life was steady and he viewed it whole, as
the saying goes.  While today we can not abide Kipling's language (e.g.,
his poems about "Darkies" and "Fuzzy-Wuzzies"), we might do well to emulate
his sympathy for ordinary people and the knowledge of the cultures he writes
about, gained as both a journalist and a resident in India. (Kipling would
probably have found the American terms "freedom fighter" and "collateral
damage" equally distasteful.)

In the context of this poem, it is a bit sobering to reflect on the British
experience in Afghanistan, which they conquered three times but never held,
despite vast improvements in British equipment and use of successively
larger forces.  This is worth telling in some detail.

Britain had a fairly easy time taking Kabul during the first Afghan war of
1838, but by the end only a single man returned alive.  Their invasion force
consisted of 9,500 men of the East India Company and 6,000 men of Shah
Shajan's army, an individual who was deeply unpopular in Afghanistan, but
whom the British were trying to install on the Afghan throne.  This mixed
force was referred to as the Army of the Indus.

After a detour in order to settle an old score in the Sind, the army reached
the Bolan Pass.  The first difficulty encountered they encountered in
Afghanistan was the lack of food.  The army had been expected to live off
the land, but this proved not to be possible in the Afghan winter.
Fortunately, they were able to buy 10,000 sheep from the Baluchis, "albeit
at a grossly inflated price." [1]

On April 25, 1839, Kandahar was taken without resistance, its ruler having
fled to Kabul.  Women through flowers and cheered as the Army marched though
the streets.  However, when Shah Shajan decided to hold a ceremonial durban
in his own honor outside the city, with General Keene parading the British
troops, only about 100 Kandaharis turned out to watch the show.  This should
have been a clue to the British, who instead proclaimed the taking of
Kandahar a great victory.

The next town, Ghazni, was fortified with high stone walls and proved a
harder nut to crack.  The British had no siege guns, and weren't prepared to
wait for any to be brought up.  An ingenious plan and treachery inside the
city allowed British sappers to demolish the city gates.  At the crucial
moment a bugler became confused and blew retreat instead of advance.
Fortunately the mistake was soon rectified, and in less than an hour the
city was taken, the British losing only 17 men.

The army advanced to Kabul without meeting serious resistance, and took the
city in the first days of July without a shot being fired.  The British
installed Shah Shajan and quickly returned to business as usual.  The bulk
of the army withdrew and the British settled down a life not markedly
different from the Indian hill stations, which included race meetings,
amateur dramatics, polo and cricket.  Some of the men had brought their
families.  Among the others, liaisons between British men and afghan women
were common, many of which women already had Afghan husbands.  Meanwhile,
the cantonment was not well situated for defense and every move the British
made was watched from the surrounding hills.

For a year nothing happened.  Then on November 2, 1840, a mob gathered at
the residence of Alexander Burnes, the deputy British envoy and one of the
chief womanizers, who had foolishly chosen to live in the city rather than
in the cantonment. When the crowd could not be induced to disperse, Burnes
ordered his Sepoy guard to open fire.  Burnes, his Sepoys and his entire
household were killed.  One account says that Burnes tried to escape in
native disguise, but was discovered in the garden and hacked to pieces.  The
force sent by Shah Shajar to assist Burnes was forced to turn back.

In the cantonment, the firing could be heard, but senior envoy Sir William
Mcnaughten, perhaps concerned about his career, apparently could not decide
on a course of action.  Some troops were sent into the city, but not the
residence.  When the expected British retaliation did not occur, the riot
turned into a general uprising and a siege.

The British still had 4,500 men and considerable artillery in Kabul.  The
Afghans never directly assaulted the cantonment, preferring to snipe from a
hundred vantage points.  A British sortie to destroy two Afghan guns was
successful, but was soon surrounded when its own gun overheated, and forced
to fight its way back to cantonment, leaving 300 dead "on Afghanistan's

There were now 30,000 Afghan troops in Kabul, led by Akbar, the son of the
deposed leader, Dost Mohammed.  He gave an order to cut off all food to the
cantonment on pain of death.  Then, surprisingly, he proposed a truce if the
British would quit Kabul and take the hated Shah Shajar with them.

Instead, Mcnaughten negotiated a treated that would keep Shajar on
the throne and allow the British troops to remain until the spring and have
what we would call "peace with honor".  A meeting was arranged to cement
the new agreement.

Mcnaughten responded angrily when he was warned that this might be a trap.
Nonetheless he and three British political officers rode to the meeting and
to their deaths on December 23, 1840.  Later that day Mcnaughten's corpse,
with the head and limbs cut off, was hung from a pole in the bazaar.

The British military commander, Gen. Elphinstone, a 60 year-old veteran of
Waterloo, still did not feel able to retaliate.  As a result, surviving
deputy envoy Eldred Pottinger, who had tried to warn Mcnaughten of the
danger around Kabul, was forced to accept the Afghan terms with only a few
modifications.  These were that the British leave officers as hostages in
Kabul in return for safe passage to India.

Pottinger urged Gen. Elphinstone not to trust Akbar to move his force into
Bala Hissar which could be defended, but Elphinstone refused.  On January 6,
1842, the British contingent of 17,000 began their retreat to India.  About
700 of these were Europeans, soldiers and civilians.  The nearest British
garrison was in Jalalabad, over 90 miles away: not a huge distance, but
across snow-covered mountain passes.

There was no sign of Akbar's promised escort, and in the first hour of the
retreat the rear guard came under fire from snipers. During the first day,
Afghan horseman rushed the column again and again, driving off baggage
animals.  When the army made camp at the end of the first day, only 5 miles
had been made and only one tent remained from the baggage.

On the second day, the Afghans captured two of the five British field guns.
Akbar's representatives suggested that the British halt for the day while he
negotiate passage through the next stage, and amazingly, Elphinstone
complied.  Elphinstone also gave in to Akbar's demand that he surrender
three political officers (including Pottinger) as hostages.  Ironically, it
was to save their lives.

An ambush was waiting at the Koord-Cabool pass.  Withering fire poured down
from both sides.  A stream below the pass had to be forded some 13 times,
leaving the column totally exposed.  Perhaps 3000 were lost. Akbar himself
rode through the melee shouting in Persion (which many of the British knew)
to spare the British, and in Pushto (which the tribesmen knew) to kill

On the third day, Akbar offered his protection to any families that would
surrender.  Elphinstone again trusted Akbar.  9 children, 8 women, and 2 men
accepted.  Though held captive many months, they too would survive.  The
attacks on the column continued.

By the forth day, on 700 soldiers and 4000 civilians remained alive.  Most
had fallen victim to the extreme cold, and any unable to march because of
frostbitten were left behind for the Afghans.

By the fifth day, when Elphinstone again rode into Akbar's camp to
negotiate, Akbar had lost whatever control he had had of the tribesmen.
Elphinstone was taken hostage, but managed to smuggle out a message to the
army to move on immediately.

That night the column found its path blocked by a barrier of thorns.  In the
darkness, the Red Coats attempted to cut an opening, but were discovered. In
the ensuing melee, all semblance of discipline broke down.  Dr. Brydan, an
army surgeon, was pulled off his horse by a knife-wealding Afghan, and only
an old copy of Blackwood's magazine, which he had thrust in his cap, saved
his life.  After managing to continue a way on foot, he met a mortally
wounded Indian soldier, who told him "Take my horse, and God send that you
get to Jahalabad in safety."

Only two groups survived the battle, one of one of 14 mounted men that Dr.
Brydan joined, and one of 45 soldiers and 20 officers.  The latter group got
as far as the village of Gandamak, only 30 miles from Jalalabad.  Surrounded
by Afghans and with only 40 rounds of ammunition left, all but 4 were slain.

Brydon's group did not get as far. In the village of Futtebad, apparently
friendly villages offered the British food.  This was another trap.  As the
British rested, scores of Afghan horsemen swarmed into the village.  all but
four were slain.  Three of the survivors were subsequently captured and

Brydan escaped on horseback.  He was pursued and repeatedly attacked. The
blade of his sword, his only weapon, was broken by a jezail bullet.  In the
last mile before Jalalabad, he threw the hilt of his sword into the face of
an Afghan attacker.  He thus became the only person to complete the
retreat-- the worst in British military history.

The Second Afghan War of 1878-1879 was less disastrous, but involved
setbacks that sound all too familiar today. Viceroy Lord Northbroke resigned
his post rather than follow orders from ministers "whose judgment he
believed to be disastrously distorted by Russaphobia." [3] Nevertheless, the
war begin Nov. 22, 1878 when a small British force of 37,500 invaded
Afghanistan.  The British fought their way through the high mountain passes
and were able to take Kabul, where they installed a government friendly to
Britain and signed a peace treaty.  But on September 2, 1879 the British
residency in Kabul was wiped out by a mob, with only a few able to escape.
British forces stationed in the Khyber Pass immediately set out to retake
Kabul, which they accomplished in October, removing the government they had
installed two months earlier and leaving the throne vacant.  A Holy War
(Jihad) was called for and c. 100,000 Afghans rallied to the cause." [3]
The British quickly found themselves trapped in Kabul.  They were forced to
leave Kabul and marched on Kandahar, which they took in the final action of
the war.  From a total force of 40,000, the British suffered 2,500
casualties, including 500 from cholera. [3]

(Interestingly, a recent report by the US Department of Defense concluded
that disease was a significant factor in Soviet losses in Afghanistan, which
led to Russia's decision to abandon its Afghan campaign.  So at least one
thing had not changed between 1878 and the 1980s.)

In 1901, the British instituted a policy of regular payments to the Afghan
tribes as a means to reduce border conflicts, although for the next decade
the British continued to fight against the Mahsud, Waziri, and Zakka Khel
Afridi tribesmen. [2]

There was yet a Third Anglo-Afghan War in 1919.  It begin when Afghan
monarch Amanullah Khan decided to attack across the Indian border in May,
1919.  The attack, described as a "Jihad", was timed to take advantage of
the unrest in India (the massacre by the British at Amritsar had just taken
place). It took the British by surprise and managed to capture a few
towns.[4]  The British responded with a massive invasion of Afghanistan
through the Khyber Pass.  This ground down to a stalemate where Amanullah
was forced to sue for peace.

The British experience is worth relating because, as of this moment,
American troops are still conducting operations in Afghanistan.  Some people
have forgotten this because of the looming war in Iraqi and the crisis in
North Korea.  But as we have seen, there is really no "all quiet" in

As to the larger questions of whether all this past carnage or current
military adventures are justified or achieved any lasting purpose, I leave
that to the reader.

On-line sources:

First Anglo-Afghan War: [1]
[broken link] (great site with map
and pictures)

Second Anglo-Afghan War: [2]
[broken link] [3]
[broken link]

Third Anglo-Afghan War:
[4] [broken link]
[5] [broken link]

War Song of the Saracens -- James Elroy Flecker

Guest poem sent in by Frank O'Shea
(Poem #1145) War Song of the Saracens
 We are they who come faster than fate: we are they who ride early or late:
 We storm at your ivory gate: Pale Kings of the Sunset, beware!
 Not on silk nor in samet we lie, not in curtained solemnity die
 Among women who chatter and cry, and children who mumble a prayer.
 But we sleep by the ropes of the camp, and we rise with a shout, and we tramp
 With the sun or the moon for a lamp, and the spray of the wind in our hair.

 From the lands, where the elephants are, to the forts of Merou and Balghar,
 Our steel we have brought and our star to shine on the ruins of Rum.
 We have marched from the Indus to Spain, and by God we will go there again;
 We have stood on the shore of the plain where the Waters of Destiny boom.
 A mart of destruction we made at Jalula where men were afraid,
 For death was a difficult trade, and the sword was a broker of doom;

 And the Spear was a Desert Physician who cured not a few of ambition,
 And drave not a few to perdition with medicine bitter and strong:
 And the shield was a grief to the fool and as bright as a desolate pool,
 And as straight as the rock of Stamboul when their cavalry thundered along:
 For the coward was drowned with the brave when our battle sheered up like a
 And the dead to the desert we gave, and the glory to God in our song.
-- James Elroy Flecker
The recent Andrew Motion poem [Poem #1143] is a good reminder of the reasons
people go to war, all the more relevant in view of the gadarene buildup
going on as I write.

As a follow-up, I suggest the following Flecker warning - surprisingly, it
has not been run before. It's from a different age, but the pale kings of
the sunset who lie in silk and samet might do well to remember that as
Michael Collins put it long ago "The victory is not to those who can inflict
the most but to those who can endure the most" (or something like that).

Think of the billions invested in the Star Wars program and then read the
chilling "The shield was a grief to the fool and as bright as a desolate
pool." Scary.


[Martin adds]

As is often the case with Flecker, I find myself getting swept along by the
sheer magnificent sound and rhythm of the words, and the almost overly-vivid
imagery. This may have elements of warning in it, but in tone and feel it is
very much a war poem. You can almost hear the drums in the background, and
the pounding of horses' hooves. Not a 'pretty' poem, but one with a
visceral, shiver-inducing intensity that grips the reader whether or not he
agrees with the sentiment.

The Stare's Nest by My Window -- William Butler Yeats

Guest poem sent in by Matt Chanoff
(Poem #1144) The Stare's Nest by My Window
 The bees build in the crevices
 Of loosening masonry, and there
 The mother birds bring grubs and flies.
 My wall is loosening; honey-bees,
 Come build in the empty house of the stare.

 We are closed in, and the key is turned
 On our uncertainty; somewhere
 A man is killed, or a house burned.
 Yet no clear fact to be discerned:
 Come build in the empty house of the stare.

 A barricade of stone or of wood;
 Some fourteen days of civil war:
 Last night they trundled down the road
 That dead young soldier in his blood:
 Come build in the empty house of the stare.

 We had fed the heart on fantasies,
 The heart's grown brutal from the fare,
 More substance in our enmities
 Than in our love; O honey-bees,
 Come build in the empty house of the stare.
-- William Butler Yeats
           ("Meditations in Time of Civil War - VI", 1928)

  stare: starling

The build-up of US troops facing Iraq seems ready to boil over into war,
sometime around Valentine's day.  I was thinking about love and war, and
came across this Yeats, which seems brilliantly about both.  The thing this
poem does for me is not to compare love and war (passion, intensity,
uncertainty, etc.) and not to contrast them either (intimacy vs distance,
hope vs dread etc). Rather, it talks about both in the same terms, meaning
different things by the terms. Look at the second stanza. The text there is
war, but the subtext is love going wrong. Then look at the last stanza.
There, the text is love and the subtext war.

I don't understand the central metaphor. I thought at first that the house
of the stare (starling) had been vacated, and then the bees moved in, and I
was wondering if Yeats was thinking of the bees in terms of their honey or
in terms of their stings, or maybe their military-like organization.  But
the mother birds "bring" grubs and flies, so why is the house empty? And why
are there multiple mothers? Don't know.  Maybe the point isn't so much about
the birds vs bees, but about the collapse of the masonry which lets both in,
and echoes with the barricade in stanza 3.

Anyway, the last stanza is just haunting, and I thought deserved a place on
Minstrels even though Yeats is so well represented already.


Causa Belli -- Andrew Motion

Guest poem sent in by Steve Axbey , who writes:

A bit late for your series on war poems, but topical nonetheless is the
latest poem by Andrew Motion the Poet Laureate.  (The United Kingdom's
poet laureate I should say).
(Poem #1143) Causa Belli
 They read good books, and quote, but never learn
 a language other than the scream of rocket-burn
 Our straighter talk is drowned but ironclad;
 elections, money, empire, oil and Dad.
-- Andrew Motion
Here's some references, with some commentary
[broken link],2763,871251,00.html

The role of Poet Laureate is an odd one, and I have been unable to
Google out an official definition.  However here's an interview with
Andrew Motion who talks a bit about what he thinks the role is

The poem itself I find disappointing - I've thought about it a bit now,
but I'm not at sure I know what he's really trying to say...or is that
just me?

But it must be anti-war, anyway - it says so in all the newspapers :-)

Steve Axbey

[Martin adds]

Apparently Steve wasn't the only one disappointed - take a look at
[broken link]

My favourite quote: "Call me old-fashioned but I don't think you can
extensively parody a poem without a guest turn from at least one dear

Amen, say I :)

In Paris with You -- James Fenton

Guest poem sent in by ochemma
(Poem #1142) In Paris with You
 Don’t talk to me of love.  I’ve had an earful
 And I get tearful when I’ve downed a drink or two.
 I’m one of your talking wounded.
 I’m a hostage. I’m maroonded.
 But I’m in Paris with you.

 Yes, I’m angry at the way I’ve been bamboozled
 And resentful at the mess that I’ve been through.
 I admit I’m on the rebound
 And I don’t care where are we bound.
 I’m in Paris with you.

 Do you mind if we do not go to the Louvre,
 If we say sod off to sodding Notre Dame
 If we skip the champs Elysees
 And remain here in this sleazy
 Old hotel room
 Doing this or that
 To what and whom
 Learning who you are,
 Learning what I am.

 Don’t talk to me of love. Let’s talk of Paris,
 The little bit of Paris in our view.
 There’s that crack across the ceiling
 And the hotel walls are peeling
 And I’m in Paris with you.

 Don’t talk to me of love.  Let’s talk of Paris.
 I’m in Paris with the slightest thing you do.
 I’m in Paris with your eyes, your mouth,
 I’m in Paris with…..all points south.
 Am I embarrassing you?
 I’m in Paris with you.
-- James Fenton

This is one of my recent discoveries by James Fenton, currently holding the
Auden chair at Oxford. A poem about Love which rejects sentimentality and
yet, in its simplicity, manages to convey it all the more. I particularly
love the last verse which substitutes ‘Paris’ for love whilst ‘loving’ love
all the while. Fenton’s gentle and light hearted touch sings a sensual and
loving poem.

Marina Furniss-Roe


  Here's a biography of Fenton:

  An excerpt from his book 'Slave to the Rhythm', on the uses of rhyme:
    [broken link],12098,819318,00.html

I So Liked Spring -- Charlotte Mew

(Poem #1141) I So Liked Spring
 I so liked Spring last year
   Because you were here; --
     The thrushes too --
 Because it was these you so liked to hear --
     I so liked you.

 This year's a different thing, --
     I'll not think of you.
 But I'll like Spring because it is simply Spring
     As the thrushes do.
-- Charlotte Mew
One of the things I enjoy about love poetry is the thousand subtle
variations played upon every theme, the appeal to universal emotions and
experiences that manage to be at once common to every poem and different in
each one of them.

Today's poem is, indeed, combined out of several common themes and elements.
Where its beauty lies is in the delicate arrangement of those elements, the
simple but precise combination of images and the way they blend into a
complete poem. Even the rather faltering metre and phrasing are a deliberate
and carefully crafted effect, echoing the narrator's 'simple' outlook - as
Shine Kannikkatt put it in his comment to Poem #1084, there is a
  'vulnerability' evident in this and others like Teasdale's works [...]
  poems which remind us of the preciousness of life / small things which
  does have big impacts and 'longing' etc.
that definitely adds to the poem's appeal.


    [broken link]

  Minstrels Links:
    Poem #315: Hilaire Belloc, 'Juliet'
    Poem #430: Sara Teasdale, 'Wild Asters'

What One Approves, Another Scorns -- Arthur Guiterman

(Poem #1140) What One Approves, Another Scorns
 What one approves,
 another scorns,
 and thus
 his nature each discloses.
 You find the rosebush
 full of thorns,
 I find the
 thornbush full of roses.
-- Arthur Guiterman
The combination of a good epigram and good verse is one I can seldom resist,
and while today's poem is hardly earthshattering in its originality, the
delightful way in which it is worded more than makes up for it. It doesn't
really have a 'punchline' in the way "On the Vanity of Earthly Greatness"
([Poem #24], and yes, Guiterman was way overdue to show up again <g>) does -
but it doesn't suffer for the lack. I'm reminded of bits of Piet Hein, and, to
a lesser extent, Stephen Crane. This definitely goes on my list of poems that
are both memorable and quotable.


  Thanks to H. Paul Lillebo, whose wonderful poetry site provided not just
  today's poem, but a long-sought online biography of Guiterman:

  Someday, this shall be a complete collection of epigrams on Minstrels :)
    [broken link]