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Harry Wilmans -- Edgar Lee Masters

Guest poem submitted by Bill Cater:
(Poem #1875) Harry Wilmans
 I was just turned twenty-one,
 And Henry Phipps, the Sunday-school superintendent,
 Made a speech in Bindle's Opera House.
 "The honor of the flag must be upheld," he said,
 "Whether it be assailed by a barbarous tribe of Tagalogs
 Or the greatest power in Europe."
 And we cheered and cheered the speech and the flag he waved
 As he spoke.
 And I went to the war in spite of my father,
 And followed the flag till I saw it raised
 By our camp in a rice field near Manila,
 And all of us cheered and cheered it.
 But there were flies and poisonous things;
 And there was the deadly water,
 And the cruel heat,
 And the sickening, putrid food;
 And the smell of the trench just back of the tents
 Where the soldiers went to empty themselves;
 And there were the whores who followed us, full of syphilis;
 And beastly acts between ourselves or alone,
 With bullying, hatred, degradation among us,
 And days of loathing and nights of fear
 To the hour of the charge through the steaming swamp,
 Following the flag,
 Till I fell with a scream, shot through the guts.
 Now there's a flag over me in Spoon River!
 A flag! A flag!
-- Edgar Lee Masters
        From the "Spoon River Anthology"

I thought that this poem offered a more realistic take on the
not-so-glorious experience of war and would be very appropriate to the week
of Memorial Day.  Having performed in the stage version of "Spoon River" a
number of years ago, and worked backstage on another production many years
earlier, I must credit Masters with helping to develop my interest in
poetry.  After all, how many poets have had their work transformed into a
very successful stage production?

Bill Cater.


"Spoon River Anthology" (1915), by Edgar Lee Masters, is a collection of
unusual, short, free-form poems that collectively describe the life of the
fictional small town of Spoon River, named after the real Spoon River that
ran near Masters' hometown. The collection includes two hundred and twelve
separate characters, all providing two-hundred forty-four soliloquies.

Each poem is an epitaph of a dead citizen, delivered by the dead themselves.
They speak about the sorts of things one might expect. Some recite their
histories and turning points, others make observations of life from the
outside, and petty ones complain of the treatment of their graves, while few
tell how they really died. Speaking without reason to lie or fear of the
consequences, they construct a picture of life in their town that's shorn of
all facades. The interplay of various villagers -- e.g. a bright and
successful man crediting his parents for all he's accomplished, and an old
woman weeping because he is secretly her illegitimate child -- forms a
gripping, if not pretty, whole.


The entire anthology is available here:

Firelight -- Edwin Arlington Robinson

(Poem #1874) Firelight
 Ten years together without yet a cloud
 They seek each other's eyes at intervals
 Of gratefulness to firelight and four walls
 For love's obliteration of the crowd.
 Serenely and perennially endowed
 And bowered as few may be, their joy recalls
 No snake, no sword; and over them there falls
 The blessing of what neither says aloud.

 Wiser for silence, they were not so glad
 Were she to read the graven tale of lines
 On the wan face of one somewhere alone;
 Nor were they more content could he have had
 Her thoughts a moment since of one who shines
 Apart, and would be hers if he had known.
-- Edwin Arlington Robinson
For those familiar with Robinson's work, today's poem treads familiar
territory - he was at his best when depicting that class of people held up
to common admiration (and perhaps a little envy), and then taking a brief,
but devastating glance beneath the alluring surface.

It would be easy to call him cynical - very few poets manage to strip
humanity's various comfortable masks away as economically and effectively as
he does - but there is always a genuine strain of sympathy to his poetry, a
compelling sense of "there, but for the grace of God, go I", that belies any
such charge. Rather, I believe the import of his poetry is not "see these
men you have held up and adulated - rejoice, for they are no better off than
you", but instead, "you who have hidden your pain from the world beneath a
mask of gaiety, take comfort, for you are far from alone".



Wikipedia article:
  Edwin Arlington Robinson (December 22, 1869 - April 6, 1935) was an American
    poet, who won three Pulitzer Prizes for his work.

For a lighter take on the theme, there's Christine Lavin's classic "Good Thing
He Can't Read My Mind":
  [broken link]

All the World's a Stage -- William Shakespeare

Guest poem submitted by Rupindar Millington:
(Poem #1873) All the World's a Stage
 All the world's a stage,
 And all the men and women merely players:
 They have their exits and their entrances;
 And one man in his time plays many parts,
 His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
 Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms.
 And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
 And shining morning face, creeping like snail
 Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
 Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
 Made to his mistress' eyebrow. Then a soldier,
 Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
 Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
 Seeking the bubble reputation
 Even in the cannon's mouth. And then the justice,
 In fair round belly with good capon lined,
 With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
 Full of wise saws and modern instances;
 And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
 Into the lean and slipper'd pantaloon,
 With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
 His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
 For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
 Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
 And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
 That ends this strange eventful history,
 Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
 Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
-- William Shakespeare
A recent submission, "Childhood" by Frances Cornford (Poem #1872), reminded
me instantly of this great poem from Shakespeare's As You Like It, 1600.
The link between childhood and old age, the full circle of life in which at
the first and last stages we are helpless - back to square one:

        Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
        Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

Is our life marked out?  Do we merely go through the stages of our life
acting it out?  Are there really seven stages?  Are some of us better
actors/actresses than others?  Something to debate; no wonder I recall it so
well - it was part of my English Literature Syllabus :-)... or perhaps I'm
having a mid-life crisis!!


Rupindar Millington

Song -- Rupert Brooke

(Poem #1872) Song
 All suddenly the wind comes soft,
       And Spring is here again;
 And the hawthorn quickens with buds of green,
       And my heart with buds of pain.

 My heart all Winter lay so numb,
       The earth so dead and frore,
 That I never thought the Spring would come,
       Or my heart wake any more.

 But Winter's broken and earth has woken,
       And the small birds cry again;
 And the hawthorn hedge puts forth its buds,
       And my heart puts forth its pain.
-- Rupert Brooke
  frore (adj., archaic): Extremely cold; frosty.

It's been a while since I ran anything by Brooke - something I thought I'd
amend today. "Song" is actually not a poem I've read before; I was leafing
idly (and a trifle sleepily) through Brooke's collected poems, looking for
some old favourite I might have overlooked, when I was startled into
awareness by the fourth line.

Brooke is usually a poet I find soothing, even at his bitterest - his words
often speak of restlessness and heartache, but they do it with a quiet
melancholy and philosophical tone that convey an unspoken measure of
acceptance. Today's poem stands in sharp contrast - it is stripped of the
usual 'detached observer' voice that runs in constant counterpoint through
most of Brooke's poetry, the words and expression are simple to the extent
that from a lesser poet they'd have degenerated into amateurishness. Here,
instead, the net result is that the words get out of the way, and let the
poem's emotional content through, in a manner very reminiscent of Teasdale
(normally not someone I would compare to Brooke at all).

One of the things I enjoy most about running Minstrels is the way it has
forced a shift in the way I read poetry, from a passive intake of other
people's selections to an active search through reams of verse, looking with
an anthologist's eye for a more than usually good one. Today's poem is an
excellent example of the rewards of such an endeavour - an uncharacteristic
Brooke poem that I'd likely never have come across were I not systematically
reading through his collected works, but one that I am very glad to have



Wikipedia on Brooke:

The Collected Poems of Rupert Brooke:

Calling it Quits -- Aimee Mann

Guest poem submitted by J. Goard:
(Poem #1871) Calling it Quits
 He's a serious Mister;
 shake his hand and he'll twist your arm.
 With monopoly money
 we'll be buying the funny farm.
 So I'll do flips,
 and get paid in chips
 from a diamond as big as the Ritz -
 then I'm calling it quits.

 Eyes the color of candy,
 lies to cover the handicap -
 though your slippers are ruby,
 you'll be led to the booby trap.
 And there's no prize,
 just a smaller size,
 so I'm wearing the shoe 'til it fits -
 then I'm calling it quits.

 Now he's numbering himself among the masterminds,
 cause he's hit upon the leverage of valentines,
 lifting dialogue from Judy Garland storylines
 where get-tough girls turn into goldmines.

 But oh, those polaroid babies,
 taking chances with rabies,
 happy to tear me to bits -
 well, I'm calling it quits,
 yes, I'm calling it quits.
-- Aimee Mann
I've been wanting to post an Aimee Mann lyric for some time now, and what's
been holding me back has really been the choice of song.  Her list is chock
full of masterfully depressing poems, sometimes oddly spliced with jangly
pop or ultra-mellow Bacharach kinds of sounds, with an abundance of
interestingly mangled idioms that can't be anything but deliberate.  Some of
her songs ("Save Me", "Little Bombs") move me deeply.  But I finally settled
on "Calling it Quits" for being a concentrated example of her particularly
*poetic* sense: the use of sonics, the wordplay, and, most especially, the
way in which her lyrics mesh with the melodic rhythm.

This song has a particularly autobiographic basis. After leaving the band
"Til Tuesday" and releasing two solo albums on a major label, Mann was
basically on the outs with the industry, and dropped away for several years
before coming back big with her 1999 soundtrack to the film "Magnolia", and
with her independently released 2000 album "Bachelor No. 2".  Since then,
she has released two more albums independently.  While the theme of "Calling
it Quits" may not be mindblowingly original, the way in which she puts it
together reveals a truly rare lyrical talent.

The first thing you notice upon hearing a song like this, if you're me ;-),
is consistency in the rhythm of the lines, between parallel musical lines
and between verses.  Just shy of my thirtieth birthday, I risk sounding like
a fogey, but: this is just something all of the great songwriters and
songwriting duos were able to do a few generations ago, except when they had
a reason to want not to.  Compare Cole Porter and Dorothy Fields and Oscar
Hammerstein with today's rock and pop hits, and for the most part the common
denominator is that today's poetics are much crappier.  The lyrical content
might be interesting, the musical craft might be top-notch, and the song
ultimately moving, but the lyrics typically come across as a barely-edited
cocktail napkin draft, with lines of erratic lengths and rhythms basically
crammed onto the vocal melody.  Not to name names.  Moreover, the critical
establishment in popular music seems oblivious to this aspect of the craft
which is so visceral for me, such that when exceptions like Billy Joel or
Elvis Costello or Linford Detweiler (Over the Rhine) get a lot of ink, it
still misses a big part of their talents as songwriters.

Take, for example, the bridge lyrics to "Calling it Quits" ("now he's
numbering...").  The first three lines are sung in eighth notes, except for
the antepenultimate syllables which get a whole beat, and then the fourth
line is highly punctuated poetically and musically, stressed more or less
like this:

  - - - ' - - - ' - ' - * - '
  - - - ' - - - ' - - - * - '
  - - - ' - - - ' - ' - * - '
    - * * * - * - * *

And the natural linguistic cadence of the lyrics fits this scheme perfectly:
big words creating unstressed or weakly stressed syllables in the first
three lines, and chunky compounds in the fourth.

Another aspect of this song's craft is alliteration and complex internal
rhyme.  In each of the first two verses, the first four lines have a
parallel rhythm, with an AABB rhyme scheme - except that an extra syllable
connects lines 2 and 4 as well.  The effect of having all of this rhyme
expectation collide at the end of lines 4 in expressions that also serve as
punchlines of sorts, is remarkable.

Some of the alliteration is obvious (color-candy-cover-cap) or not original
(funny farm), but some is more subtle, as the abundance of sibilants in the
first line and a half.  Most interesting is the movement of consonants in
the bridge verse.  Line 1 is full of [m]s, with one [b].  Line 2 creates a
clever expression "leverage of valentines" that plays off a reversal of [l]
and [v], and then line 3 moves into a lot more [l]s.  The weighty line 4
picks up on the [g] of "Garland" and bashes us with it.  And look at how the
last half-verse, which (relative to the first two verses) is already gaining
momentum by not having the syllable at the end of line 2, keeps the [b]s
going with "bits".

Finally, there isn't just phonetic but semantic fun going on here.
"Monopoly" isn't capitalized in the online lyrics sites I checked, and I'll
run with that, since the sense of economic monopoly among music producers
relative to artists seems to be as relevant as the sense of the popular
game's fake money (many empty promises of wealth).  "Buying the farm" means
dying, of course, "funny farm" means madness, and merging the two is classic
Aimee Mann idiom mangling.  "Lies to cover the handicap" is a striking line,
drawing out double senses of "cover" and "handicap": that is to say, it can
mean "obscure the disability" or "compensate for the skill differential".
"Smaller size" evokes the pressure on female stars to be very thin while
also fitting the shoe reference.

All in all, there is just so much craft in this song (as in so many of her
others) that could easily escape a first or twentieth listen.  But if you
get to the point of appreciating what Mann does with words, and if you
respond to this style of tightly crafted pop, it can be truly engrossing.

J. Goard

Aimee Mann official site:

A Terrible Infant -- Frederick Locker-Lampson

(Poem #1870) A Terrible Infant
 I recollect a nurse called Ann,
 Who carried me about the grass,
 And one fine day a fine young man
 Came up, and kissed the pretty lass:
 She did not make the least objection!
 Thinks I, "Aha!
 When I can talk I'll tell Mamma"
 - And that's my earliest recollection.
-- Frederick Locker-Lampson
A fun little piece to brighten up a dull moment - again, the humour is
mostly in the tone of voice, coupled with a perfect sense of timing. I don't
think this would have been nearly as good were it either longer or shorter.

Locker-Lampson (who I discovered when leafing through Burton Stevenson's
"Home Book of Verse" on Gutenberg) is a rather "odd" poet - odd in that I
can seldom quite decide whether I like any given poem of his. He has written
some very nice stuff ("polished and witty", as the anonymous biographer ove
at Wikipedia described it), but his longer poems seem to stagger back
and forth across the fine line between fluent and mechanical; there is
always the temptation to skim, counterbalanced by the feeling that I'll miss
some passing gem if I do.  Today's poem is definitely a winner, though -
short, crisp and funny, with not a word or a beat out of place.




Home Book of Verse:

Refugee Blues -- W H Auden

Guest poem submitted by David Croll:
(Poem #1869) Refugee Blues
 Say this city has ten million souls
 Some are living in mansions, some are living in holes:
 Yet there's no place for us, my dear, yet there's no place for us.

 Once we had a country and we thought it fair,
 Look in the atlas and you'll find it there:
 We cannot go there now, my dear, we cannot go there now.

 In the village churchyard there grows an old yew,
 Every spring it blossoms anew:
 Old passports can't do that, my dear, old passports can't do that.

 The consul banged the table and said,
 "If you've got no passport you're officially dead":
 But we are still alive, my dear, but we are still alive.

 Went to a committee; they offered me a chair;
 Asked me politely to return next year:
 But where whall we go to-day, my dear, but where shall we go to-day?

 Came to a public meeting; the speaker got up and said;
 "If we let them in, they will steal our daily bread":
 He was talking of you and me, my dear, he was talking of you and me.

 Thought I heard the thunder rumbling in the sky;
 It was Hitler over Europe, saying, "They must die":
 O we were in is mind, my dear, O we were in his mind.

 Saw a poodle in a jacket fastened with a pin,
 Saw a door opened and a cat let in:
 But they weren't German Jews, my dear, but they weren't German Jews.

 Went down the harbour and stood upon the quay,
 Saw the fish swimming if they were free:
 Only ten feet away, my dear, only ten feet away.

 Walked through a wood, saw birds in the trees;
 They had no politicians and sang at their ease:
 They weren't the human race, my dear, they weren't the human race.

 Dreamed I saw a building with a thousand floors,
 A thousand windows and a thousand doors:
 Not one of them was ours, my dear, not one of them was ours.

 Stood on a great plain in the falling snow;
 Ten thousand soldiers marched to and fro:
 Looking for you and me, my dears, looking for you and me.
-- W H Auden
This poem first struck my attention in the fall of 2003, when I was engaged
in preparation for the university-entrance diploma exams. Second, I was
getting to know my girlfriend then, for whom I translated it into German. A
few people said I was fallen in love when they read the translation, and
they were right.

What Auden conveys so convincingly is the apparent futileness of intellect
in face of circumstances like the mass extermination of Jews during the
Second World War; and because most of the killed Jews have not been
intellectual masterminds like Auden was, he correctly puts the words on the
tongue of laymen: They can't understand anything about their doom, because
doom just waits for them. They resort to analogies they understand (birds,
fishes, the lameness of bureaucracy) and know how to use them - but they use
them with striking efficacy.

David Croll.

[thomas adds]

Vikram Doctor's commentary on Poem #427, "The Two", is worth reproducing

        The other Auden poems we've had so far show his lyrical
        side or his questioning intelligence. But this poem has
        another aspect of Auden's - the ability to create a
        picture of nightmarish fear, of being hunted and pursued,
        of having 'them' after you. Not for nothing is Auden the
        dominant poet of the Thirties, the worst, most frightening
        and disturbed decade of our century. The Depression, the
        rise of fascism and other tyrannies, all the cowardices
        and compromises of what he called 'a low dishonest decade',
        it all seeps into Auden's verse, and what he does with it
        is unforgettable.


See also:
        Poem #371, "O What Is That Sound?"
        Poem #386, "The Unknown Citizen"
        Poem #889, "September 1, 1939"
        Poem #1508, "O Where Are You Going?"
for more examples of Auden's reaction to the nightmare of WWII.

The Talented Man -- Winthrop Mackworth Praed

(Poem #1868) The Talented Man
 Dear Alice! you'll laugh when you know it, --
     Last week, at the Duchess's ball,
 I danced with the clever new poet, --
     You've heard of him, -- Tully St. Paul.
 Miss Jonquil was perfectly frantic;
     I wish you had seen Lady Anne!
 It really was very romantic,
     He *is* such a talanted man!

 He came up from Brazenose College,
     Just caught, as they call it, this spring;
 And his head, love, is stuffed full of knowledge
     Of every conceivable thing.
 Of science and logic he chatters,
     As fine and as fast as he can;
 Though I am no judge of such matters,
     I'm sure he's a talented man.

 His stories and jests are delightful; --
     Not stories or jests, dear, for you;
 The jests are exceedingly spiteful,
     The stories not always *quite* true.
 Perhaps to be kind and veracious
     May do pretty well at Lausanne;
 But it never would answer, -- good gracious!
     Chez nous -- in a talented man.

 He sneers, -- how my Alice would scold him! --
     At the bliss of a sigh or a tear;
 He laughed -- only think! -- when I told him
     How we cried o'er Trevelyan last year;
 I vow I was quite in a passion;
     I broke all the sticks of my fan;
 But sentiment's quite out of fashion,
     It seems, in a talented man.

 Lady Bab, who is terribly moral,
     Has told me that Tully is vain,
 And apt -- which is silly -- to quarrel,
     And fond -- which is sad -- of champagne.
 I listened, and doubted, dear Alice,
     For I saw, when my Lady began,
 It was only the Dowager's malice; --
     She *does* hate a talented man!

 He's hideous, I own it. But fame, love,
     Is all that these eyes can adore;
 He's lame, -- but Lord Byron was lame, love,
     And dumpy, -- but so is Tom Moore.
 Then his voice, -- *such* a voice! my sweet creature,
     It's like your Aunt Lucy's toucan:
 But oh! what's a tone or a feature,
     When once one's a talented man?

 My mother, you know, all the season,
     Has talked of Sir Geoffrey's estate;
 And truly, to do the fool reason,
     He *has* been less horrid of late.
 But today, when we drive in the carriage,
     I'll tell her to lay down her plan; --
 If ever I venture on marriage,
     It must be a talented man!

 P.S. -- I have found, on reflection,
     One fault in my friend, -- entre nous;
 Without it, he'd just be perfection; --
     Poor fellow, he has not a sou!
 And so, when he comes in September
     To shoot with my uncle, Sir Dan,
 I've promised mamma to remember
     He's only a talented man!
-- Winthrop Mackworth Praed
This is an unexpectedly funny poem - I started off smiling, but had to laugh
out loud before I was done. It's hard to write a humorous poem where the
intent is that the reader laugh at the narrator; it's even harder when the
main element of the poem's humour is that indefinable quality, "tone of
voice". But Praed not only manages to thread the poem through with a
delightful vein of sly humour, he makes the whole thing look wonderfully
effortless - indeed, I was almost tempted to dismiss this as a funny but
essentially trivial poem, until I started to think about just how chancy a
thing humour can be. It's still a trivial poem, mind you, but it's also an
impressive one.

That humour of this sort is indeed tricky to handle is unfortunately
revealed with a jar in the last verse, which has a definite "I have no idea
how to end this" feel to it. The supplied punchline is superficially funny,
but it is a tired, cliched sort of humour, and one inconsistent in tone with
the rest of the poem. Happily, it doesn't detract from the rest of the poem -
there is a slight sense of letdown at the end, but, at least for me, the
lingering impression is entirely positive.


Wikipedia entry:
  [Praed seems to have led an interesting and active life]

Childhood -- Frances Cornford

Guest poem submitted by Jaideep Krishnan:
(Poem #1867) Childhood
 I used to think that grown-up people chose
 To have stiff backs and wrinkles round their nose,
 And veins like small fat snakes on either hand,
 On purpose to be grand.
 Till through the banister I watched one day
 My great-aunt Etty's friend who was going away,
 And how her onyx beads had come unstrung.
 I saw her grope to find them as they rolled;
 And then I knew that she was helplessly old,
 As I was helplessly young.
-- Frances Cornford
I love this poem because of its simplicity of expression. The narrative
point of view is that of a child who grows up in an instant of realisation.


The Atavist -- Robert Service

(Poem #1866) The Atavist
 What are you doing here, Tom Thorne, on the white top-knot o' the world,
 Where the wind has the cut of a naked knife and the stars are rapier keen?
 Hugging a smudgy willow fire, deep in a lynx robe curled,
 You that's a lord's own son, Tom Thorne -- what does your madness mean?

 Go home, go home to your clubs, Tom Thorne! home to your evening dress!
 Home to your place of power and pride, and the feast that waits for you!
 Why do you linger all alone in the splendid emptiness,
 Scouring the Land of the Little Sticks on the trail of the caribou?

 Why did you fall off the Earth, Tom Thorne, out of our social ken?
 What did your deep damnation prove? What was your dark despair?
 Oh with the width of a world between, and years to the count of ten,
 If they cut out your heart to-night, Tom Thorne, *her* name would be
    graven there!

 And you fled afar for the thing called Peace, and you thought you would
    find it here,
 In the purple tundras vastly spread, and the mountains whitely piled;
 It's a weary quest and a dreary quest, but I think that the end is near;
 For they say that the Lord has hidden it in the secret heart of the Wild.

 And you know that heart as few men know, and your eyes are fey and deep,
 With a "something lost" come welling back from the raw, red dawn of life:
 With woe and pain have you greatly lain, till out of abysmal sleep
 The soul of the Stone Age leaps in you, alert for the ancient strife.

 And if you came to our feast again, with its pomp and glee and glow,
 I think you would sit stone-still, Tom Thorne, and see in a daze of dream,
 A mad sun goading to frenzied flame the glittering gems of the snow,
 And a monster musk-ox bulking black against the blood-red gleam.

 I think you would see berg-battling shores, and stammer and halt and stare,
 With a sudden sense of the frozen void, serene and vast and still;
 And the aching gleam and the hush of dream, and the track of a great
    white bear,
 And the primal lust that surged in you as you sprang to make your kill.

 I think you would hear the bull-moose call, and the glutted river roar;
 And spy the hosts of the caribou shadow the shining plain;
 And feel the pulse of the Silences, and stand elate once more
 On the verge of the yawning vastitudes that call to you in vain.

 For I think you are one with the stars and the sun, and the wind and the
    wave and the dew;
 And the peaks untrod that yearn to God, and the valleys undefiled;
 Men soar with wings, and they bridle kings, but what is it all to you,
 Wise in the ways of the wilderness, and strong with the strength of the Wild?

 You have spent your life, you have waged your strife where never we
    play a part;
 You have held the throne of the Great Unknown, you have ruled a kingdom vast:
     . . . . .
 But to-night there's a strange, new trail for you, and you go, o weary heart!
 To the peace and rest of the Great Unguessed ... at last, Tom Thorne, at last.
-- Robert Service
Today's poem is Service doing what he does best - a searing, highly coloured
narrative of a larger-than-life character in a vivider-than-life setting,
the images far more evocative than original, and none the worse for that.
Sadly, this seems to be a form of poetry that is dying out today - the
oversaturated imagery gives it a definite dated feel - and yet, for sheer
romance, it is a style that has no substitute. It may not be "literary", it
may not unfold with layer upon layer of meaning, but all that counts for
nothing as we are caught up in the magnificent sweep and flow of the words
and images.

Speaking of Service, every time I read his poetry I realise anew just how
strongly it is defined and shaped by the Land. Service has (perhaps
inevitably) been called the Canadian Kipling, and in an earlier commentary
[Poem #781] I expanded a bit upon the similarities between their poetry; on
the other hand, if I had to put my finger on the primary difference between
them, it would be this geocentricity of Service's. Kipling's poems, while
they shared much of the same style and feel as Service's, were far more
human-focused, the foreground was almost always the People, and the Land
defined by their relationship to it. In contrast, in today's typically
Service poem, Tom Thorne has a nominal lead role, but for much of the poem
he serves merely as a device for Service to speak of his beloved Yukon
wilderness, and only thereby of the men who love and brave it.


Song of a Nightclub Proprietress -- John Betjeman

(Poem #1865) Song of a Nightclub Proprietress
 I walked into the nightclub in the morning,
 there was Kummel on the handle of the door,
 the ashtrays were unemptied,
 The cleaning unattempted,
 And a squashed tomato sandwich on the floor.

 I pulled aside the thick magenta curtains
 So Regency, so Regency, my dear
 And a host of little spiders
 Ran a race across the ciders
 To a box of baby 'pollies by the beer.

 Oh sun upon the summergoing bypass
 Where ev'rything is speeding to the sea,
 And wonder beyond wonder
 that here where lorries thunder
 The sun should ever percolate to me.

 When Boris used to call in his Sedanca,
 When Teddy took me down to his estate,
 When my nose excited passions,
 And my clothes were in the fashion,
 When my beaux were never cross if I was late,

 There was sun enough for lazing upon beaches
 There was fun enough for far into the night;
 But I'm dying now and done for,
 What on earth was all the fun for?
 I am ill and old and terrified and tight.
-- John Betjeman
  Kümmel: a sweet, colorless liqueur flavored with caraway seed, cumin, and

  The "box of baby 'pollies" appears to be a bit of a mystery:

This is one of Betjeman's bleaker pieces, and, I think, one of his most
memorable. Nearly all Betjeman's poems show a keen insight into humanity,
and an enviable ability to share that insight with his readers, but it is in
his 'serious' poems that that gift shows up to its best advantage, and
today's poem is an exquisite illustration of that fact.

Another thing I really like about Betjeman is the way he handles
first-person poetry - he paints extremely sympathetic, engaging characters,
and gives them powerful, haunting voices. Even a poem as superficially
lighthearted as "Indoor Games Near Newbury" [Poem #1098] is poignant and
moving; today's poem, with its theme of explicit despair, is far more so.


On the Porch -- Michael Ondaatje

Guest poem submitted by Nandini Chandra:
(Poem #1864) On the Porch
 On the porch
 thin ceramic

        Ride wind
 off the Pacific

 bells of the sea

        I do not know
 the name of large orange flowers
 which thrive on salt air
 lean half drunk
 against the steps

 Untidy banana trees
 thick moss on the cliff
 and then the plunge
 to black volcanic shore

 It is impossible to enter the sea here
 except in a violent way

      How we have moved
 from thin ceramic

 to such destruction
-- Michael Ondaatje
 One of several poems under the collective title "Tin Roof".
 Published in "The Cinnamon Peeler: Selected Poems by Michael Ondaatje".
 Picador, 1989, p.110.

Not your classic sea poem, but what I like precisely is its deceptive
desultory saunter from the chimes and large orange flowers etc. to the
sudden heart of the matter. There is a narrative thrill in the descent, an
inevitability to the acknowledgement that there is a certain demand for
violence, which is not without its disturbing gratification.

Nandini Chandra.

Apartment in Leme -- Elizabeth Bishop

Guest poem submitted by Aseem Kaul:
(Poem #1863) Apartment in Leme

 Off to the left, those islands, named and renamed
 so many times now  everyone's forgotten
 their names, are sleeping.

 Pale rods of light, the morning's implements,
 lie in among them tarnishing already,
 just like our knives and forks.

 Because we live at your open mouth, oh Sea,
 with your cold breath blowing warm, your warm breath cold,
 like in the fairy tale.

 Not only do you tarnish our knives and forks
 - regularly the silver coffee-pot goes into
 dark, rainbow-edged eclipse;

 the windows blur and mirrors are wet to touch.
 Custodia complains, and then you frizz
 her straightened, stiffened hair.

 Sometimes you embolden, sometimes bore.
 You smell of codfish and old rain. Homesick, the salt
 weeps in the salt-cellars.

 Breathe in. Breathe out. We're so accustomed to
 those sounds we only hear them in the night.
 Then they come closer

 but you keep your distance.


 It's growing lighter. On the beach two men
 get up from shallow, newspaper-lined graves.
 A third sleeps on. His coverlet

 is corrugated paper, a flattened box.
 One running dog, two early bathers, stop
 dead in their tracks; detour.

 Wisps of fresh green stick to your foaming lips
 like those on horses' lips. The sand's bestrewn:
 white lilies, broken stalks,

 white candles with wet, blackened wicks,
 and green glass bottles for white alcohol
 meant for the goddess meant to come last night.

 (But you've emptied them all.)


 Perhaps she came, at that. It was so clear!
 And you were keeping quiet: roughened,
 greeny-black, scaly

 as one of those corroded old bronze mirrors
 in all the world's museums (How did the ancients
 ever see anything in them?)

 incapable of reflecting even the biggest stars.
 One cluster, bright, astringent as white currants,
 hung from the Magellanic Clouds

 above you and the beach and its assorted
 lovers and worshippers, almost within their reach
 if they had noticed.

 The candles flickered. Worshippers, in white,
 holding hands, singing, walked in to you waist-deep.
 The lovers lay in the sand, embraced.

 Far out, saffron flares of five invisible
 fishing boats wobbled and hitched along,
 farther than the stars,

 weaker, and older.


 But for now the sun. Slowly, reluctantly,
 you're letting go of it; it slowly rises;
 metallic; two-dimensional.

 You sigh, and sigh again. We live at your open mouth,
 with your cold breath blowing warm, your warm breath cold
 like in the fairy tale

 no - the legend.
-- Elizabeth Bishop
Another glorious poem about the sea.

In the fragments of an essay collected as part of the newly released Edgar
Allan Poe and the Juke Box [1] (from which this poem is also taken), Bishop
writes that three qualities she admires most in poetry are Accuracy,
Spontaneity and Mystery. I can't say this poem is particularly mysterious,
nor does it feel particularly spontaneous to me (though there are a few nice
surprises). But it is accurate, undeniably so.

Bishop, a former protegee of Marianne Moore, has a lovely eye for detail and
her images have that rare quality of being both instantly recognisable and
dizzyingly beautiful ("Pale rods of light, the morning's implements,/ lie in
among them tarnishing already,/just like our knives and forks."). Reading
this poem, you can picture the scene perfectly - first the house near the
sea, its damp, ubiquitious presence; then the pre-dawn stroll on the beach;
then the luminous flashback to the previous night, with its hushed,
flickering imagery, and finally the sun rising and the return to the
everyday singled by the repetition of that second stanza.

It's a humbling thought that Bishop considered so lovely a poem unworthy of
being published.


[1] A collection of unpublished (often fragmentary) poems and prose pieces
written by Bishop, put together by Alice Quinn and released recently by
Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Atavism -- Laurence Hope

Resending this, since it doesn't appear to have made it through the first
(Poem #1862) Atavism
 Deep in the jungle vast and dim,
 That knew not a white man's feet,
 I smelt the odour of sun-warmed fur,
 Musky, savage, and sweet.

 Far it was from the huts of men
 And the grass where Sambur feed;
 I threw a stone at a Kadapu tree
 That bled as a man might bleed.

 Scent of fur and colour of blood:--
 And the long dead instincts rose,
 I followed the lure of my season's mate,--
 And flew, bare-fanged, at my foes.

          *        *        *

 Pale days: and a league of laws
 Made by the whims of men.
 Would I were back with my furry cubs
 In the dusk of a jungle den.
-- Laurence Hope
This is one of those poems that it is easy to criticise on the grounds that
it is unoriginal and even cliche-ridden, saying nothing new and saying it in
no particularly new way. However, to do that is to miss the sheer pleasure
of the poem, the fact that, cliched or not, it *works*, conjuring up a rich,
vivid, and gratifyingly visceral series of images reminiscent of Kipling or
Flecker, and enjoyable for many of the same reasons. Nothing much by way of
analysis or criticism to offer today - just one of those times when I step
back and run a poem for no better reason than that I found the imagery



Wikipedia article:
  Adela Florence Nicolson (née Cory) (9 April 1865- 1904)

Unclaimed -- Vikram Seth

Guest poem submitted by Aseem Kaul:
(Poem #1861) Unclaimed
 To make love with a stranger is the best.
 There is no riddle and there is no test. --

 To lie and love, not aching to make sense
 Of this night in the mesh of reference.

 To touch, unclaimed by fear of imminent day,
 And understand, as only strangers may.

 To feel the beat of foreign heart to heart
 Preferring neither to prolong nor part.

 To rest within the unknown arms and know
 That this is all there is; that this is so.
-- Vikram Seth
I've never been big on Vikram Seth as a poet. Sure, his poems are clever
enough (and some of his translations are exquisite) - he's witty and has a
good ear for rhyme - but his poems always seem to me to lack something
vital. As a poet, Seth takes the easy way out too often, lapses too quickly
into cliches, has too pronounced a tendency to be trite or banal. Don't get
me wrong - I LOVED Golden Gate, but as an exercise in verse, not poetry (oh,
and I think he's an incredible novelist - An Equal Music has to be one of my
favourite books - but that's another story).

This poem is the one exception - a poem so beautiful, so heartbreakingly
perfect, that it makes me forgive all his other silliness. It's a simple
enough poem - the entire idea flatly stated in the first line (and what an
incredible honest idea it is, reminding me always of Joan Baez's Love Song
to a Stranger - another song that deserves to be on Minstrels) - but its
plain couplets (such a wonderful use of form - the two by two rhythm of
desire and receive, demand and surrender, reach and completion) capture
perfectly that sense of restless and deeply physical intimacy that exists
between two people discovering each other through touch. Seth takes
something we usually think of as cheap and turn away from and converts it
into something achingly lovely - a touchstone of desire freed of all other
obligations. There are some beautiful phrases here "not aching to make sense
/ of this night in the mesh of reference" but somehow what comes across is
not the (somewhat clunky) cleverness of the words, but the honesty with
which Seth speaks of something so pure, so elemental.


P.S. I can't believe you don't already have this!

The Vigil-at-Arms -- Louise Imogen Guiney

(Poem #1860) The Vigil-at-Arms
 Keep holy watch with silence, prayer, and fasting
 Till morning break, and all the bugles play;
 Unto the One aware from everlasting
 Dear are the winners: thou art more than they.

 Forth from this peace on manhood's way thou goest,
 Flushed with resolve, and radiant in mail;
 Blessing supreme for men unborn thou sowest,
 O knight elect! O soul ordained to fail!
-- Louise Imogen Guiney
          (from 'A Roadside Harp', 1893)

I didn't really understand what this poem was all about until I went and
looked up the vigil at arms. One website had this to say:

  After this, the squire attended a banquet where they had the last food
  they would recieve for many hours. that night, they laid their weapons
  on the altar of the chapel so they could be blessed by the priest. The
  spent the rest of the night praying. This part of the ceremony was
  called the Vigil at Arms and it reminded the squire to only use his
  weapons for the service of to only use his weapons for the service of

The poem matches its subject matter well - the weighty, solemn tone of the
ceremony comes through nicely, and even though this is not a poem that has
aged gracefully, serendipitously the dated, Victorian feel of the lines
actually helps take the reader back to a still earlier age, increasing the
sense of immersion in a now-vanished ritual.

I must admit, though, that I don't care for the last line. While I see what
Guiney is aiming for, it strikes a dissonant note that, while it does make
the reader step back and take a second look, does not really enhance the



  [broken link]

We've run one Guiney poem before, from her "London: Twelve Sonnets":

Full text of "A Roadside Harp":
  [broken link]

A Singular Metamorphosis -- Howard Nemerov

Guest poem submitted by Paul E. Collins:
(Poem #1859) A Singular Metamorphosis
 We all were watching the quiz on television
 Last night, combining leisure with pleasure,
 When Uncle Harry's antique escritoire,
 Where he used to sit making up his accounts,
 Began to shudder and rock like a crying woman,
 Then burst into flower from every cubbyhole
 (For all the world like a seventy-four of the line
 Riding the swell and firing off Finisterre).

 Extraordinary sight! Its delicate legs
 Thickened and gnarled, writhing, they started to root
 The feet deep in a carpet of briony
 Star-pointed with primula. Small animals
 Began to mooch around and climb up this
 Reversionary desk and dustable heirloom
 Left in the gloomiest corner of the room
 Far from the television.

                                   I alone,
 To my belief, remarked the remarkable
 Transaction above remarked. The flowers were blue,
 The fiery blue of iris, and there was
 A smell of warm, wet grass and new horse-dung.

 The screen, meanwhile, communicated to us
 With some fidelity the image and voice
 Of Narcisse, the cultivated policewoman
 From San Francisco, who had already
 Taken the sponsors for ten thousand greens
 By knowing her Montalets from Capegues,
 Cordilleras from Gonorrheas, in
 The plays of Shapesmoke Swoon of Avalon,
 A tygers hart in a players painted hide
 If ever you saw one.

                              When all this was over,
 And everyone went home to bed, not one
 Mentioned the escritoire, which was by now
 Bowed over with a weight of fruit and nuts
 And birds and squirrels in its upper limbs.
 Stars tangled with its mistletoe and ivy.
-- Howard Nemerov

Here's a fun American poem that deserves a little recognition.

The theme is agreeably whimsical: an old escritoire (or writing-desk)
spontaneously bursts into bloom and wildlife, and nobody notices because
they are watching the television. The language, for the most part, is
equally absurd. Small animals "mooch around", the escritoire is dubiously
likened to a battleship, and - in a delightful piece of verbosity - we are
told that only the narrator "remarked the remarkable transaction above
remarked". Of course, there are some compelling phrases, too: we can imagine
the legs of the escritoire becoming "thickened and gnarled, writhing" among
the "fiery blue of iris", and the vividness of that image mocks the scornful
"some fidelity" that is all the television can achieve.

Beneath the silliness we note a clear revulsion towards the stereotype of
Narcisse on the TV gameshow, who is amassing unearned dollars by
regurgitating factoids. Here is somebody who "[knows] her Montalets from
Capegues, Cordilleras from Gonorrheas" (garbled references to Shakespearean
characters); Shakespeare himself and his home town of Avon are likewise
churned into garbage. There is a nod to Greene's criticism of his
contemporary (whom he styled "an upstart crow ... with his tyger's heart
wrapt in a player's hide"), but here it seems to refer to the contestant,
aggressive and greedy under a veneer of sophistication, and by extension to
all the viewers who "[combine] leisure with pleasure" - a marketing
catchphrase for empty materialism.

What of the antique escritoire? It is a striking metaphor for manual,
thoughtful work ("where he used to sit making up his accounts") and so the
antithesis of passively watching television. Ignored for too long, the
wooden escritoire shrugs off its workmanship, reverts to its natural state,
that of a tree, and turns the "gloomiest corner of the room" into a blaze of
genuine beauty. This is the heart of Nemerov's message: that we too, by
letting ourselves sink into a swamp of style over content, risk losing our


Poet Bio:

Beyond the Ash Rains -- Agha Shahid Ali

Guest poem submitted by Aseem Kaul:
(Poem #1858) Beyond the Ash Rains
 'What have you known of loss
  That makes you different from other men?'
  - Gilgamesh.

 When the desert refused my history,
 Refused to acknowledge that I had lived
 there, with you, among a vanished tribe,

 two, three thousand years ago, you parted
 the dawn rain, its thickest monsoon curtains,

 and beckoned me to the northern canyons.
 There, among the red rocks, you lived alone.
 I had still not learned the style of nomads:

 to walk between the rain drops to keep dry.
 Wet and cold, I spoke like a poor man,

 without irony. You showed me the relics
 of our former life, proof that we'd at last
 found each other, but in your arms I felt

 singled out for loss. When you lit the fire
 and poured the wine, "I am going," I murmured,
 repeatedly, "going where no one has been
 and no one will be... Will you come with me?"
 You took my hand, and we walked through the streets

 of an emptied world, vulnerable
 to our suddenly bare history in which I was,

 but you said won't again be, singled
 out for loss in your arms, won't ever again
 be exiled, never again, from your arms.
-- Agha Shahid Ali
There's something hypnotic about this poem - some reason that I've never
been quite able to put my finger on, which makes the landscape it describes
come so vividly alive. It's not just the individual lines, though some of
them are truly brilliant ("I had still not learned the way of nomads: / to
walk between the rain drops to keep dry"), nor the way, towards the end,
that Shahid invokes the conversational tone so perfectly ("won't ever again
/ be exiled, never again, from your arms.). It's not even Shahid's trademark
trick (learned from years of studying Urdu poetry) of using the most
beautiful, evocative words (monsoon, exile) so that to read his poems is to
taste the rich, full sweetness of the language.

No, there's something else about this poem. The sense, perhaps, of reliving
some ancestral dream. Of that moment when you first awake and can just sense
the images of last night's vision slipping through your fingers. It is a
testament to Shahid's amazing gift that his poems make you feel a nostalgia
for places you've never been to, people you've never met, all the lost
tribes of ancestors that you can suddenly feel aching in your bones.