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The Railway Children -- Seamus Heaney

Guest poem submitted by Tim Cooper:
(Poem #1547) The Railway Children
 When we climbed the slopes of the cutting
 We were eye-level with the white cups
 Of the telegraph poles and the sizzling wires.

 Like lovely freehand they curved for miles
 East and miles west beyond us, sagging
 Under their burden of swallows.

 We were small and thought we knew nothing
 Worth knowing. We thought words travelled the wires
 In the shiny pouches of raindrops,

 Each one seeded full with the light
 Of the sky, the gleam of the lines, and ourselves
 So infinitesimally scaled

 We could stream through the eye of a needle.
-- Seamus Heaney
Your villanelle by Heaney the other day made me think of this almost-sonnet.
The more I read it, the more I find in it. The title immediately makes you
think of the film and all those images of carefree childhood. The final line
perfectly balances the two long "ee" sounds around the long "eye". These
open vowel sounds, which here express freedom, and the religious image of
the eye of a needle (never exactly equated to the entrance to heaven in the
gospels, but the relationship is there to anyone raised in a christian
household) give an exhilarating ending.

If you now go back to the rest of the poem, you notice the bubbling sounds -
"cl - imbed", "sl - opes" "cu - ps", "lo-vely", "sw - allows" "words"
"worth". Indeed, all the stressed vowel sounds are short. And then there is
the open "a" of "scaled", right at the moment of epiphany, the first time
that vowel sound is stressed.



In Praise of My Sister -- Wislawa Szymborska

Guest poem submitted by Kimbol Soques:
(Poem #1546) In Praise of My Sister
 My sister doesn't write poems,
 and it's unlikely that she'll suddenly start writing poems.
 She takes after her mother, who didn't write poems,
 and also her father, who likewise didn't write poems.
 I feel safe beneath my sister's roof:
 my sister's husband would rather die than write poems.
 And, even though this is starting to sound as
 repetitive as Peter Piper,
 the truth is, none of my relatives write poems.

 My sister's desk drawers don't hold old poems,
 and her handbag doesn't hold new ones.
 When my sister asks me over for lunch,
 I know she doesn't want to read me her poems.
 Her soups are delicious without ulterior motives.
 Her coffee doesn't spill on manuscripts.

 There are many families in which nobody writes poems,
 but once it starts up it's hard to quarantine.
 Sometimes poetry cascades down through the generations,
 creating fatal whirlpools where family love may founder.

 My sister has tackled oral prose with some success,
 but her entire written opus consists of postcards from vacations
 whose text is only the same promise every year:
 when she gets back, she'll have
 so much
 much to tell.
-- Wislawa Szymborska
        tr. Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh

NPR is so handy for the well-intentioned American autodidact!  When
Szymborska won the Nobel Prize for Poetry in 1996, _All Things Considered_,
the NPR evening news show, ran one of her poems.  I fell enough in love to
cause my loved ones to give me two of her translated books for Christmas.
This poem is from "View with a Grain of Sand: Selected Poems" (Harcourt
Brace and Co., 1995).  I don't have the original Polish, or I'd try to
reproduce it.

As for a gloss on this one -- it made me think of my own sister, and it made
me laugh.  What better reason to share?

For a pithy biography - and good head shot! - see

Kimbol Soques.

Ars Poetica -- Czeslaw Milosz

Guest poem submitted by Aseem Kaul:
(Poem #1545) Ars Poetica
 I have always aspired to a more spacious form
 that would be free from the claims of poetry or prose
 and would let us understand each other without exposing
 the author or reader to sublime agonies.

 In the very essence of poetry there is something indecent:
 a thing is brought forth which we didn't know we had in us,
 so we blink our eyes, as if a tiger had sprung out
 and stood in the light, lashing his tail.

 That's why poetry is rightly said to be dictated by a daimonion,
 though its an exaggeration to maintain that he must be an angel.
 It's hard to guess where that pride of poets comes from,
 when so often they're put to shame by the disclosure of their frailty.

 What reasonable man would like to be a city of demons,
 who behave as if they were at home, speak in many tongues,
 and who, not satisfied with stealing his lips or hand,
 work at changing his destiny for their convenience?

 It's true that what is morbid is highly valued today,
 and so you may think that I am only joking
 or that I've devised just one more means
 of praising Art with the help of irony.

 There was a time when only wise books were read
 helping us to bear our pain and misery.
 This, after all, is not quite the same
 as leafing through a thousand works fresh from psychiatric clinics.

 And yet the world is different from what it seems to be
 and we are other than how we see ourselves in our ravings.
 People therefore preserve silent integrity
thus earning the respect of their relatives and neighbors.

 The purpose of poetry is to remind us
 how difficult it is to remain just one person,
 for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors,
 and invisible guests come in and out at will.

 What I'm saying here is not, I agree, poetry,
 as poems should be written rarely and reluctantly,
 under unbearable duress and only with the hope
 that good spirits, not evil ones, choose us for their instrument.
-- Czeslaw Milosz
It's been little over a month now since Milosz died and I've finally managed
to find the courage to send in a poem to mark his passing. I do this not
because I feel I have something special to say about Milosz (I admit to
having discovered him only about a year ago) but because as a long-time
devotee of Minstrels I feel it would be a shame if so great a poetic voice
passed away from among us and we said nothing. All his life Milosz found the
words to make loss quiet and exact - exiled by silence, he found a way to
fight it without screaming back. Now that he's dead, we owe it to him not to
let the silence win.

This poem is a good demonstration of just why Milosz, was, IMHO, so
important to the poetry of his century. It was a century that Milosz himself
described as a time when "We were permitted to shriek in the tongues of
dwarfs and demons / But pure and generous words were forbidden / Under so
stiff a penalty that whoever dared to pronounce one / Considered himself a
lost man" (Milosz - A Task) - too much of the literary legacy of the century
lies with Plath and Ginsberg, with Auden and Eliot, with Langston Hughes and
Bishop and Berryman, with Neruda and Paz. This is not to say, of course,
that these poets do not deserve their stature (far from it - their influence
is clearly well deserved) or that they are the only ones from the last
hundred years who "matter" - only that Milosz represents another and no less
authentic strain of the poetic measure. As he put it himself: "in me there
is no wizardry of words. I speak to you with silence, like a cloud or a

Milosz's voice is the voice of a twilight between the silence and the cry,
at once gentle and threatened and uncertain. Milosz speaks from the heart,
but his poems are not to be shouted or declaimed, they are to be read
softly, as among a circle of intimates. He is not a flame - he is a lamp,
his light low yet illuminating.

Of course, Milosz is not alone here - much of Brodsky resonates with the
same voice and at least some of Walcott. What makes Milosz special, I think
(and I can't explain this) is that his voice is more humble because wiser,
less bitter because more forgiving, more apt to find, if not joy, than at
least peace. Irony is not a major theme for Milosz - on the contrary he
specialises in making moral judgements straight to his reader's face (what
other poet in the last fifty years would say "There was a time when only
wise books were read"). Many people would argue that Milosz is less
important than I make him out to be here (though fifty years of incredible
poetry and a Nobel prize are pretty hard to argue with) and Milosz would be
the first to agree with them.

As I said earlier, this poem is a stunning summary of what Milosz's poems
are about. As we think about his work, I think there are few better ways to
remember him than as the poet who wrote "reluctantly / under unbearable
duress and only with the hope / that good spirits, not evil ones, choose us
for their instrument". It's a test that few poets today could pass.


[Minstrels Links]

Poems about poetry:
  Poem #187, Poetry for Supper  -- R. S. Thomas
  Poem #188, Ars Poetica  -- Archibald MacLeish
  Poem #189, dear Captain Poetry  -- bpNichol
  Poem #190, Young Poets  -- Nicanor Parra

Czeslaw Milosz:
  Poem #837, Child of Europe
  Poem #1229, You Whose Name

You are old, Father William -- Lewis Carroll

Guest poem submitted by Ramón Fallon:
(Poem #1544) You are old, Father William
 "You are old, father William," the young man said,
 "And your hair has become very white;
 And yet you incessantly stand on your head --
 Do you think, at your age, it is right?

 "In my youth," father William replied to his son,
 "I feared it might injure the brain;
 But, now that I'm perfectly sure I have none,
 Why, I do it again and again."

 "You are old," said the youth, "as I mentioned before,
 And you have grown most uncommonly fat;
 Yet you turned a back-somersault in at the door --
 Pray what is the reason for that?"

 "In my youth," said the sage, as he shook his grey locks,
 "I kept all my limbs very supple
 By the use of this ointment -- one shilling a box --
 Allow me to sell you a couple?"

 "You are old," said the youth, "and your jaws are too weak
 For anything tougher than suet;
 Yet you finished the goose, with the bones and the beak --
 Pray, how did you manage to do it?"

 "In my youth," said his fater, "I took to the law,
 And argued each case with my wife;
 And the muscular strength, which it gave to my jaw,
 Has lasted the rest of my life."

 "You are old," said the youth, "one would hardly suppose
 That your eye was as steady as ever;
 Yet you balanced an eel on the end of your nose --
 What made you so awfully clever?"

 "I have answered three questions, and that is enough,"
 Said his father. "Don't give yourself airs!
 Do you think I can listen all day to such stuff?
 Be off, or I'll kick you down stairs.
-- Lewis Carroll
Here's a poem by Lewis Carroll who is already well represented on your site
[1], but I think this one is incredibly good. First of all it is really
really catchy - in the musical sense even - it has the kind of lines that
you find yourself unconsciously repeating, like you might whistle a tune.
Also, it has plenty of fantasy in it, as one might expect from Carroll, but
its real crowning achievement, is, in fact, its reality.

Sure, as a poem, it entertains, it indulges, but behind it all it is dealing
with a fundamental issue. Youth's attitude to Age. I find it to be highly
accurate in this sense. Youth is the unrecoverable gift this life gives us,
and this apparently trivial poem frames the situation perfectly.

The youth is quite arrogant, and repeats himself each time with the
subversive aim of reminding Father William how old he is. He's also been
very observant about Father William's actions, which are indeed
awe-inspiring, but his surprise is always in relation to the age of Father
William. It is clear that the youth is more age-obsessed than the father.

If anything Father William is portrayed as quite a happy person, despite his
age, and there is the feeling the youth wants to dissolve that happiness
with his insistence. In the end, I think, the father loses his exuberance at
the unremitting reminders of his age, decides to dispatch the arrogant youth
forthwith  - as you might say.

It's so great to have such masterly crafted set of words, with both great
fun and profound meaning in them!


[1] [broken link] --

Untitled - Haiku -- Issa

Guest poem submitted by Sarah:

 Here's one for Minstrels' collection of cat poems...
(Poem #1543) Untitled - Haiku
 After a long nap,
 the cat yawns, rises, and goes out
 looking for love
-- Issa
 (tr. Sam Hamill)

Liberally quoting Martin :) "What I personally like about haiku is the
concentration of the imagery, and the way in which each poem is a
free-floating, perfectly self-contained entity."

In this case, I see a perfectly contented, smug little cat who takes a nap,
languidly stretches herself, and then goes about life. Who knows what she's
looking for - love, a mouse, or just some amusement ?

Minstrels has featured one of Issa's poems, along with the above mentioned
quote, before:


Song of the Stygian Naiades -- Thomas Lovell Beddoes

Guest poem submitted by Catherine Pegg:

I haven't seen much Beddoes on your (excellent) site, so I thought I'd
contribute some:
(Poem #1542) Song of the Stygian Naiades
 Proserpine may pull her flowers,
   Wet with dew or wet with tears,
   Red with anger, pale with fears,
 Is it any fault of ours,
 If Pluto be an amorous king,
   And comes home nightly, laden,
 Underneath his broad bat-wing,
   With a gentle, mortal maiden?
 Is it so?  Wind, is it so?
 All that you and I do know
 Is, that we saw fly and fix
 'Mongst the reeds and flowers of Styx,
     Where the Furies made their hay
     For a bed of tiger cubs,
     A great fly of Beelzebub's,
     The bee of hearts, which mortals name
     Cupid, Love, and Fie for shame.

 Proserpine may weep in rage,
   But, ere I and you have done
   Kissing, bathing in the sun,
 What I have in yonder cage,
 Bird or serpent, wild or tame,
   She shall guess and ask in vain;
 But, if Pluto does't again,
   It shall sing out loud his shame.
 What hast caught then?  What hast caught?
 Nothing but a poet's thought,
 Which so light did fall and fix
 'Mongst the reeds and flowers of Styx,
     Where the Furies made their hay
     For a bed of tiger cubs, -
     A great fly of Beelzebub's,
     The bee of hearts, which mortals name
     Cupid, Love, and Fie for shame.
-- Thomas Lovell Beddoes
Notes:  Pluto is the Roman God of the Dead (known on the Greek side as
Hades).  One of his stories is about his kidnapping of Proserpina, Goddess
of Spring, and his marriage of her.  The Styx is the river separating the
living world from the Land of the Dead, and a Naiad is a young lady with no
kit on who lives in a river, possibly drowning people.  The Furies are three
very scary ladies whose business was vengeance on oathbreakers and
kinslayers, and Cupid (Eros) is the Roman God of Love.

Why do I love this poem?  Is it the hilarity sneaking out of a mythological
theme?  The visuality and oddity of the Furies making a bed for the tiger
cubs?  The lovely metrical scanning and rhyme that characterises Beddoes'
work?  All of them, I guess.

Beddoes is known for his gory, macabre poetry, but he also did some
wonderful love songs, too.  Here's another one that I like:

 How many times do I love thee, dear?
   Tell me how many thoughts there be
        In the atmosphere
        Of a new-fall'n year,
 Whose white and sable hours appear
   The latest flake of Eternity;
 So many times do I love thee, dear.

 How many times do I love again?
   Tell me how many beads there are
        In a silver chain
        Of evening rain,
 Unravelled from the tumbling main,
   And threading the eye of a yellow star:
 So many times do I love again.

It had these beautiful images, and this nice tight metre that we just don't
see anymore, dammit.  Poetry took a turn for the worse when poets stopped
rhyming.  Not that there haven't been some wonderful free-verse poems, but
it encourages laziness and sloppy technique.  Sorry for the rant, there,
it's a pet peeve of mine.

I think there was an anniversary or festival for Beddoes last year, though
don't quote me on that.  His life and death were sad, macabre, and funny
which, considering his poems, he might have approved of.

All the best,

John Muir on Mt. Ritter -- Gary Snyder

Guest poem submitted by Kaustubh Rau:
(Poem #1541) John Muir on Mt. Ritter
 After scanning its face again and again,
 I began to scale it, picking my holds
 With intense caution. About half-way
 To the top, I was suddenly brought to
 A dead stop, with arms outspread
 Clinging close to the face of the rock
 Unable to move hand or foot
 Either up or down. My doom
 Appeared fixed. I MUST fall.
 There would be a moment of
 Bewilderment, and then,
 A lifeless rumble down the cliff
 To the glacier below.
 My mind seemed to fill with a
 Stifling smoke. This terrible eclipse
 Lasted only a moment, when life blazed
 Forth again with preternatural clearness.
 I seemed suddenly to become possessed
 Of a new sense. My trembling muscles
 Became firm again, every rift and flaw in
 The rock was seen as through a microscope,
 My limbs moved with a positiveness and precision
 With which I seemed to have
 Nothing at all to do.
-- Gary Snyder
I recently picked up a wonderful book titled 'The High Sierra of
California'. The book contains woodcut prints of the Sierra Nevada by Tom
Killion in the manner of the Japanese masters Hokusai and Hiroshige. The
beauty of the prints is further brought out by notes, commentaries and poems
by Gary Snyder. The poem really brought out for me the fine line between
control and diaster that a mountain climber deals with, along with the waves
of panic he has to stave off to get to the  top. That it is about John
Muir's first ascent of Mt Ritter is of added significance.

Gary Snyder's biography:

Snyder was born in San Francisco, and brought up in Oregon and Washington
State. He received his BA in anthropology at Reed College, Portland, in
1951. His subsequent career has been a remarkable combination of the
academic and the contemplative, spiritual study and physical labour. Between
working as a logger, a trail-crew member, and a seaman on a Pacific tanker,
he studied Oriental languages at Berkeley (1953-6), was associated with Beat
writers such as Ginsberg and Kerouac, lived in Japan (1956-64), later
studied Buddhism there, and won numerous literary prizes, including a
Guggenheim fellowship (1968) and the Pulitzer Prize (1975). He now teaches
literature and 'wilderness thought' at the University of California at

Kaustubh Rau.

I'm not Lonely -- Nikki Giovanni

Guest poem submitted by Aseem:
(Poem #1540) I'm not Lonely
 i'm not lonely
 sleeping all alone

 you think i'm scared
 but i'm a big girl
 i don't cry
 or anything

 i have a great big bed
 to roll around
 in and lots of space
 and i don't dream
 bad dreams
 like i used
 to have that you
 were leaving me

 now that you're gone
 i don't dream
 and no matter
 what you think
 i'm not lonely
 all alone
-- Nikki Giovanni
Nikki Giovanni is (IMHO) one of the most under-represented poets on
Minstrels - you have just one poem by her! So figured I would put in one of
my favourites to even things up a little. Actually started thinking about
her after reading National Brotherhood Week, reading her more political
poems (see the Funeral of Martin Luther King Jr, for example) but finally
settled on this one to send in.

What I love about this poem is the aching simplicity of it - the almost
tearful courage of lines like "i'm a big girl / i don't cry or anthing" and
the bitter irony of getting over your bad dreams by having them come true
(also the brilliant double edge to "now that you're gone / i don't dream").
The real beauty here is that Giovanni does not protest too much - there's a
part of you that's tempted to believe her and there's a part of you that
knows it isn't true and you kind of get the sense that she doesn't believe
herself either. But would like to.


National Brotherhood Week -- Tom Lehrer

Guest poem submitted by Anita B.:
(Poem #1539) National Brotherhood Week
 Oh, the white folks hate the black folks,
 And the black folks hate the white folks;
 To hate all but the right folks
 Is an old established rule.

 But during National Brotherhood Week,
 National Brotherhood Week,
 Lena Horne and Sheriff Clark are dancing cheek to cheek.
 It's fun to eulogize
 The people you despise
 As long as you don't let 'em in your school.

 Oh, the poor folks hate the rich folks,
 And the rich folks hate the poor folks.
 All of my folks hate all of your folks,
 It's American as apple pie.

 But during National Brotherhood Week,
 National Brotherhood Week,
 New Yorkers love the Puerto Ricans 'cause it's very chic.
 Step up and shake the hand
 Of someone you can't stand,
 You can tolerate him if you try!

 Oh, the Protestants hate the Catholics
 And the Catholics hate the Protestants,
 And the Hindus hate the Muslims,
 And everybody hates the Jews.

 But during National Brotherhood Week,
 National Brotherhood Week,
 It's National Everyone-Smile-At-One-Another-Hood Week.
 Be nice to people who
 Are inferior to you.
 It's only for a week, so have no fear;
 Be grateful that it doesn't last all year!
-- Tom Lehrer
This song is from Tom Lehrer's album 'That was the year that was'. I heard
it for the first time in a friend's house where we laughed out loud for
nearly 5 minutes after listening to this one. The song is a very good
example of how politically incorrect he can get. The man starts being
irreverent from the word go. When you think about it you realise he has
neatly packaged all the superficiality of brotherhood days, or 'any other
cause' days for that matter, when it really does not make a major
difference. Totally cynical but I guess also too true. The best way to enjoy
this song of course is to listen to Lehrer say 'national brotherhood week'
in lofty tones and then deliver his punch lines in a bland understated

There is already a lot of background material on Lehrer in the Minstrels
archives, so I shall not include more. On this song specifically: when it
was performed live, Lehrer introduced it with these words: "During National
Brotherhood Week various special events are arranged to drive home the
message of brotherhood -- this year, for example, on the first day of the
week, Malcolm X was killed, which gives you an idea of how effective the
whole thing is. I'm sure we all agree that we ought to love one another, and
I know there are people in the world who do not love their fellow human
beings, and I hate people like that! Here's a song about National
Brotherhood Week. "

Anita B.