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The Puffin and Nuffin -- Robert Williams Wood

For a change of pace...
(Poem #1835) The Puffin and Nuffin
 Upon this cake of ice is perched
 The paddle-footed Puffin:
 To find his double we have searched,
 But have discovered - Nuffin!
-- Robert Williams Wood
Note: Illustration at [broken link] http://www.geocities.com/Vienna/2406/rww/pg27.html

A few years ago, we ran Wood's "The Auk and the Orchid", a wonderfully
quirky little poem with an equally wonderful illustration to accompany it.
Quoting Ajit's commentary on that poem:

  When "How To Tell the Birds from the Flowers" was published (in 1907, I
  think), it was primarily a children's book, but has been described as a
  book of comic verse pretending to be a nature book. Wood was a fine
  illustrator as well as a writer; with each poem in the book he also drew
  two pictures, one of the bird and another of the flower, with such skill
  that they actually _do_ look almost indistinguishable! In truth, his poems
  (this one included) lose much of their comic appeal without the pictures
  that go with them, and the whole book, with the pictures and the verse,
  can be viewed on several sites on the net, such as
        [broken link] http://www.geocities.com/Vienna/2406/cov.html

The aforementioned book is indeed full of several delightful poems and
brilliantly executed pictures, pairing each bird with a sound-alike plant;
today's poem is an added bonus at the very end of the (short, worth reading
in one sitting) book. Most of the poems made me smile; this one made me
laugh out loud.

martin

[Links]

"The Auk and the Orchid" [Poem #1292]:
  http://www.cs.rice.edu/~ssiyer/minstrels/poems/1292.html

Wikipedia on Wood:
  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_W._Wood

Verses Turned... -- John Betjeman

Guest poem submitted by Mac Robb:
(Poem #1834) Verses Turned...
 Across the wet November night
 The church is bright with candlelight
 And waiting Evensong.
 A single bell with plaintive strokes
 Pleads louder than the stirring oaks
 The leafless lanes along.

 It calls the choirboys from their tea
 And villagers, the two or three,
 Damp down the kitchen fire,
 Let out the cat, and up the lane
 Go paddling through the gentle rain
 Of misty Oxfordshire.

 How warm the many candles shine
 Of Samuel Dowbiggin's design
 For this interior neat,
 These high box pews of Georgian days
 Which screen us from the public gaze
 When we make answer meet;

 How gracefully their shadow falls
 On bold pilasters down the walls
 And on the pulpit high.
 The chandeliers would twinkle gold
 As pre-Tractarian sermons roll'd
 Doctrinal, sound and dry.

 From that west gallery no doubt
 The viol and serpent tooted out
 The Tallis tune to Ken,
 And firmly at the end of prayers
 The clerk below the pulpit stairs
 Would thunder out "Amen."

 But every wand'ring thought will cease
 Before the noble altarpiece
 With carven swags array'd,
 For there in letters all may read
 The Lord's Commandments, Prayer and Creed,
 And decently display'd.

 On country mornings sharp and clear
 The penitent in faith draw near
 And kneeling here below
 Partake the heavenly banquet spread
 Of sacramental Wine and Bread
 And Jesus' presence know.

 And must that plaintive bell in vain
 Plead loud along the dripping lane?
 And must the building fall?
 Not while we love the church and live
 And of our charity will give
 Our much, our more, our all.
-- John Betjeman
How wonderful now to be into John Betjeman! If we were to work our way
through Philip Larkin's version of the English canon Betjeman of course
ranks high on the roll. Here is another [poem by him; see Poem #1815 for the
previous example -t.], from Betjeman's survey of English country churches.
You don't have to be a staunch Anglican or an Anglican at all to enjoy these
poems. (Possibly these days that is a bit of an oxymoron in any case, but
I'm certainly far from it, either by ancestry or conviction. I am, though,
an anglophone of some few generations' standing and it's my adoptive
culture, so to speak. Doubtless at least some subscribers to the Minstrels
share that view.)

The pieties in Betjeman's lovely little poem about the parish church at
Chislehampton in Oxfordshire (for so it is) are in the long view of these
things a little off the mark. But it contains a potted history of matters
which while now vastly irrelevant at one time issues considerably exercised
the full range of national life in England, from ecclesiastical potentates
to the judicial committee of the Privy Council to ordinary churchgoing
citizens. Readers of Jane Austen, George Eliot and Charles Dickens will be
well attuned to them, quaint though they may now seem.

The actual church is indeed a lovely little gem of Georgian (the 18th, not
the 20th century Georges) elegance, with, certainly,

  a.. The "high box pews of Georgian days." Eighteenth century Anglican
churches had box pews in which the congregation sat facing each other
screened from each others' view for the decidedly non-sacramental recitation
of prayers, the hearing of a sermon and the singing of hymns led by a band
in the gallery.
  b.. The Ten Commandments on the wall over the Communion Table (sic, for
certainly that's what it was in the 18th century - no "altars" in those
days). This was the standard decoration if, indeed, the chancel wasn't
entirely blocked off from view so as not to cause anyone erroneously to
infer any "popery" from the unseemly display of the pre-Reformation site of
the altar.
  c.. A lofty pulpit for "pre-Tractarian sermons./Doctrinal, sound and dry."
Well, maybe they were dry, but generations of the faithful seem to have
found them sustaining and indeed Methodism sought to raise the sermon to
even greater prominence.
  d.. Below the pulpit, the desk where "firmly at the end of prayers/The
clerk.[w]ould thunder out 'Amen.' The Prayer Book services of Morning and
Evening Prayer were in some measure a duet between the parson and the clerk,
who took the part of the congregation, in the manner that in pre-Vatican II
Catholic churches there was a duet between the presiding celebrant and the
altar boy.
  e.. And a west gallery for a parish band to lead in "Tallis's tune to Ken"
(ie the non-jurant bishop Thomas Ken's Morning and Evening Hymns - "Glory to
thee who safe has kept/And hast refresh'd me while I slept" and "All praise
to thee my God this night/For all the blessings of the light/". "Praise God
from whom all blessings flow/Praise him all creatures here below." The 19th
century saw the introduction of pipe organs and elegant chancel choirs,
possibly robed in cassock and surplice - somewhat known beyond Anglicanism
by the popular recordings of choirs such as those of Kings College Cambridge
and Westminster Abbey, and also in prosperous evangelical Protestant
denominations of other historical traditions - but 18th century parish
worship was heartily led by a gallery band of trumpets, strings, and other
catch-as-catch-can instruments.

It is, indeed, a considerable anachronism: a parish church whose "living" is
(or till recently was - haven't checked up on the current state of affairs)
in the gift of the local squire. Betjeman rather gilds the lily with 19th
century piety when he suggests sacramental small-c catholicism in such a
place: it is quintessentially of the kind of stoutly Protestant Anglicanism
that Samuel Pepys knew in the 1660s - when he spoke of going to "hear Mr X
preach," assuredly not to "take the sacrament."

An old friend of mine is a Canadian Anglican prelate and a cousin of the
squire of Chislehampton who vastly relishes the quaint family prerogative of
visiting there and dressing up in 18th century rig complete with clerical
bands (alas, not a wig though) to say Morning Prayer or Evensong. Far more
Congregationalist or Presbyterian than Anglican by current sensibilities, to
be sure, but authentically a part of English history.

Mac Robb
Brisbane, Australia

External links: John Betjeman home page
  [broken link] http://www.johnbetjeman.com/oldhome.htm

Lying -- Jane Hirshfield

       
(Poem #1833) Lying
 He puts his brush to the canvas,
 with one quick stroke
 unfolds a bird from the sky.
 Steps back, considers.
 Takes pity.
 Unfolds another.
-- Jane Hirshfield
      (November 1994)

Hirshfield's another new-to-me poet - I stumbled across this little gem
while randomly surfing poetry sites and was instantly captivated. There is a
wonderful balance between the static and the dynamic - the explicit
description of painting leads me almost subconsciously to visualise the poem
itself as a painting, beautiful and self-contained, and then a metaphorical
step backwards reveals a temporal, almost balletic aspect that paradoxically
enhances rather than shattering the impression of containedness.

I was reminded strongly of Basho's famous haiku

  old pond.....
  a frog leaps in
  water's sound

(Poem #23, and see also Poem #1455 and
http://www.bopsecrets.org/gateway/passages/basho-frog.htm) - there is the
same impression of a sequence of events captured within a bounded whole,
though Hirshfield's penultimate "Takes pity" adds a human element that takes
it beyond the isolated beauty of the haiku.

martin

[Links]

Biography: American Poet, 1953-
  http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/563
  [broken link] http://www.sunyulster.edu/people/Hirshfield.asp

Interesting articles:
  [broken link] http://www.poems.com/hirinter.htm
  http://www.salon.com/weekly/hirshfield.html

Even Such is Time -- Sir Walter Raleigh

Guest poem submitted by Steve Cookinham
(Poem #1832) Even Such is Time
 Even such is time, that takes in trust
 Our youth, our joys, our all we have,
 And pays us but with earth and dust;
 Who, in the dark and silent grave,
 When we have wandered all our ways,
 Shuts up the story of our days:
 But from this earth, this grave, this dust,
 My God shall raise me up, I trust.
-- Sir Walter Raleigh
I'm 59 years old, and though a lifetime avid reader (mostly history) I
really hadn't often "clicked" with a poem and so hadn't done much
exploration of the genre before stumbling onto your site a couple of years
ago.

While on what was supposed to be a 'round the world bicycle trip - Odyssey
2000 - I missed a turn in the Drakensberg range in the Transvaal in South
Africa and augured into a mountainside, breaking my pelvis, sacrum and some
ribs.  End of trip for me, and after surgery I spent a couple of months
living in the home of a Boer couple in Mpumalanga.  In a way the accident
wasn't a completely bad thing, in that our discussions provided each of us
insights into the others' country we didn't have before and I got to know
some wonderful people.

While I was recovering they took me one day to a used bookstore, where Petra
found a 19th century anthology of English poetry and gave it to me.  I
stumbled onto Sir Walter Raleigh's "Even Such is Time" and in my near-death
experience PTSD frame of mind it struck a deep chord. I loved this poem so
much I even posted most of it on my country-store website along with a local
photograph of a spot which always reminds me of the poem:
[broken link] http://www.dayvillemerc.com/time.htm

Steve Cookinham.

My Name -- Mark Strand

Guest poem submitted by Masha Saakova:
(Poem #1831) My Name
 One night when the lawn was a golden green
 and the marbled moonlit trees rose like fresh memorials
 in the scented air, and the whole countryside pulsed
 with the chirr and murmur of insects, I lay in the grass
 feeling the great distances open above me, and wondered
 what I would become -- and where I would find myself --
 and though I barely existed, I felt for an instant
 that the vast star-clustered sky was mine, and I heard
 my name as if for the first time, heard it the way
 one hears the wind or the rain, but faint and far off
 as though it belonged not to me but to the silence
 from which it had come and to which it would go.
-- Mark Strand
You already have three Mark Strand poems up, but this one is, by far, my
favorite. I saw it last year in The New Yorker.  I don't want to dissect
this poem too much because I have read it over and over again simply for the
experience. It also seems that Strand poems do not necessarily have a
singular or definite meaning, and that's really part of their beauty. "My
Name" needs to be read aloud -- the sounds are musical (he does a lot of
near-rhymes, consonsance, assonance, alliteration.) I love the stillness
and, yet, the suspense and darkness of the night. The numerous details
convey his awareness of self and of the nature, the surroundings, the world
of which he is a part and still separated from.  To me (emphasis on me,)
this poem is about enjoying a moment and the world that is all ours to take
in, but it is also about realizing our insignificant role in it. I've read
this poem at least a dozen times, and each time I make a discovery -- I
think that's what Strand intended. Hope you like it.

Thanks for your time,
Masha

The Dentist -- A P Herbert

Guest poem submitted by William Grey:
(Poem #1830) The Dentist
 Yes, yes, the dentist talks a lot
 For he's content and you are not.
 He is the tiger in the house
 And you are, as it were, the mouse.
 No wonder, then, as you come in
 He greets you with a happy grin
 And drops hilarious remarks
 About the flowers in the parks,
 About the holidays he's had,
 About the weather, good or bad,
 Though at the moment, as he knows,
 You don't care if it rains or snows.

 For ever since the date was made
 You've been dejected and afraid.
 You dreamed of drills, in vain you chewed
 Your favourite forbidden food,
 Since every bite reminded you
 Of this repugnant interview.
 And now that you are in the chair,
 You cannot think what brought you there,
 In fact you hardly like to name
 The tusk you fancied was to blame.
 At least it is quiescent now
 Why stir it up and cause a row?

 And he who has the notion too
 That there is nothing wrong with you
 With cruel steel goes picking round
 A tooth that's absolutely sound
 Deliberately tries to bore
 A hole where there was none before!

 You splutter "That is not the one!"
 He answers "Plenty to be done"
 And makes a systematic mess
 Of all the teeth that you possess.
 Then still with gossip bright and gay
 He moves the horrid wheel your way
 And from a crowd delights to draw
 The largest drill you ever saw.

 The rest's too painful to be read.
 I think that Aristotle said
 That children of a certain age
 Should not be eaten on the stage
 And there are things too dark and solemn
 To be recorded in this column,
 Whose purpose after all is just
 To show the bread beneath the crust
 And how the darkest cloud is lined
 With silver of the brightest kind.

 Well then, I will not dwell on all
 The horrors that may now befall
 The things with which he stuffs your mouth,
 The cotton wadding, north and south,
 The pumps which suck with such a will
 But seem to make you wetter still,
 And when the fun begins to flag,
 The grisly gutta-percha gag.

 But I implore you all the time
 To concentrate on the Sublime.
 Remember in the woods of June
 The nightingale salutes the moon,
 The Thames keeps rolling up and down,
 In Autumn all the leaves are brown,
 The bluebells still will flood the copse
 However many teeth he stops.
 And if you still remain distressed
 Hug this reflection to your breast
 That some poor fellows, after all,
 Have not got any teeth at all.
-- A P Herbert
Although dental technology has advanced considerably in the last 80 years,
many elements of the dental surgery are instantly recognizable, and the
affective impact of a visit to the dentist is little changed. Some
biographical notes on the poet were included with [1] to which this is a
marvellous companion piece. Herbert's representations on Minstrels remain
sparse [1], [2]. More details about his life can be found in his
autobiography [3].

William Grey

[1] Poem #1805, The Doctor -- A.P. Herbert
[2] Poem #732, To the Lady Behind Me at the Theatre --  A.P. Herbert
[3] A.P.H.: His Life and Times (1970) -- A.P. Herbert

Poet -- Hugo Claus

Guest poem submitted by Dimitri Avgoustakis []
(Poem #1829) Poet
 Autumn. Listen. Crackling. Can you hear that heavy rattling?
 It draws near in our clothes, in our hair.
 Lice of sound. What is this leprous mumbling?
 Child, it's the poets outside, their teeth chattering.

 The closer the poets get to their moment of dying
 The more furiously they groan for the stars.
 In the morning mist in which their images melt
 The poets freeze in a recognisable jacket.

 Hear how feverishly they explain their imminent demise
 For their death rattle has to be transparent,
 Cause their widow readers to sob.

 'Oh, our ego was too obscure!' they complain.
 'Time required that, polyinterpretable like us!'
 And look, they crawl out the swathes of their souls,
 Their mouths full of rissoles and prayers for mercy
 For their prostates, their plagiaries.

 Oh close to death the poets suddenly discover
 The calming miracles of gods, aphorisms,
 Aspirins, caresses. For the first time their love
 Can read something of her love with her lips.

 And before the poets, loose winter apples
 Rejected by the pickers because undersize
 Finally also fall in November
 They want to fall for ever comprehensible to the
 neighbours. In milkman language, bruised fruit.

 They continue to listen bitterly to the crumpling
 Of the newspaper than keeps on spelling their name wrong
 And they do their crosswords
 Full of anecdotes, fear and stumbling loves.

 But too late, too deaf, the poets realise
 That what was obscure and obtuse in their verses
 Does not become clearer by wear, by duration,
 But that it goes on decaying. Their house, their word,
 The equator, the azure remain unfathomable.
 Their surly dark remains as volatile as money
 And as vulgar as death.

 'But, by the way, yourself? Yes, you! Did you not revere
 Fission, ferment rather than the monument?
 Also seek an epitaph in each motet?
 Wring an emblem out of each injury?
 Find your dented ego in each plate of thymus?'

 - 'Oh yes. Still upright I dream of the literal.
 For sure. Until the end those worries, roses.
 Paradises, radishes, dried-out likenesses. With
 To this sheet of paper these corpses of letters.'

 Adieu the poets write all life long
 And greying like lavender in November
 They continue - gangrene and jest and puzzle -to
 pitifully beg for sympathy,
 As I for the wear and tear on my ears and eyes
 That loved you, love you.
-- Hugo Claus
       (c) Translation: 2005, John Irons

I am not one for strong patriotism but I was amazed you never run a Hugo
Claus poem.

A highly versatile and prolific Belgian author writing in Flemish, Claus's
oeuvre includes poetry, novels, dramas, short stories, screenplays, essays
and translations. He has also worked as a stage and film director - his
films have been regarded as scandalous due to their eroticism and bluntness.
Most of Claus's writing has an experimental quality. He has for decades been
the dominant figure in Belgium's postwar Dutch-language literature. Claus's
attacks on conventional bourgeois mores, religious bigotry, and his
anti-authoritarianism have aroused much controversy in his own country. In
1983 Claus made his international breakthrough with the postmodern novel The
Sorrow of Belgium.
       -- http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/hclaus.htm

"Poet" is one of my favorite poems from him, translated into English by John
Irons. The original Dutch poem is included bellow:

 "Dichter"

 Herfst. Hoor. Geknetter. Hoor je dat zwaar geratel?
 Het nadert in onze kleren, in onze haren.
 Luizen van geluid. Wat is dit melaats geprevel?
 Kind, het zijn de dichters buiten die klappertanden.

 Hoe dichter de dichters bij hun sterven geraken
 Des te grimmiger kermen zij naar de sterren.
 In de ochtendmist waarin hun beelden smelten
 Bevriezen de dichters in een herkenbaar colbert.

 Hoor hoe koortsig zij hun naderend vergaan verklaren
 Want hun laatste gereutel moet doorzichtig zijn,
 Hun weduwen van lezers doen snikken.

 'O, ons ego was te duister!' klagen zij.
 'Dat vroeg de tijd, polyinterpretabel als wij!'
 En kijk, zij kruipen uit de windsels van hun ziel,
 De mond vol kroket en gebed om genade
 Voor hun prostaat, hun plagiaat.

 Ei op sterven na ontdekken de dichters plots
 De bedarende mirakels van goden, aforismen,
 Aspirines, tederheden. Voor het eerst kan hun lief
 Iets van haar lief met haar lippen lezen.

 En voordat de dichters, loze winterappels
 Daar de plukkers als ondermaats versmaad
 Uiteindelijk ook vallen in november
 Willen zij voor eeuwig voor de buren verstaanbaar
 Vallen. In melkboerentaal, als ooft natuurlijk beurs.

 Zij blijven bitter luisteren naar het gefrommel
 Van de krant die hun naam verkeerd blijft spellen
 En zij vullen hun kruiswoordraadsels in
 Vol anekdotes, angst en struikelende liefdes.

 Maar te laat, te doof worden de dichters gewaar
 Dat wat duister en bot was in hun verzen
 Niet lichter wordt door sleet, door de duur,
 Maar dat het blijft bederven. Ondoorgrondelijk
 Blijven hun huis, hun woord, de evenaar, het azuur.
 Hun stuurse donkerte blijft gemeen als geld
 En als de dood zo vluchtig.

 'Maar apropos, jij zelf? Ja, jij! Vereerde jij ook niet
 De splitsing, de gisting eerder dan het monument?
 Zocht jij ook niet in elk motet een epitaaf?
 Wrong jij niet een embleem uit elk letsel?
 Vond jij je geblutste ik niet in elk bord zwezerik?'

 -  'Jawel. Nog overeind droom ik van het letterlijke.
 Zeker. Tot het einde toe die muizenissen, rozen,
 Paradijzen, radijzen, voze gelijkenissen. Met
 Tot op dit papier deze lijken van letters.'

 Adieu schrijven de dichters een leven lang
 En vergrijzend als lavendel in november
 Blijven zij, gangreen en grap en raadsel,
 Erbarmelijk bedelen om mededogen,
 Zoals ik voor de sleet op mijn oren en ogen
 Die jou beminden, beminnen.

       -- Hugo Claus
       (c) 1993, Hugo Claus

Silence -- Marianne Moore

Guest poem submitted by Aseem Kaul
(Poem #1828) Silence
 My father used to say,
 "Superior people never make long visits,
 have to be shown Longfellow's grave
 nor the glass flowers at Harvard.
 Self reliant like the cat --
 that takes its prey to privacy,
 the mouse's limp tail hanging like a shoelace from its mouth --
 they sometimes enjoy solitude,
 and can be robbed of speech
 by speech which has delighted them.
 The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence;
 not in silence, but restraint."
 Nor was he insincere in saying, "Make my house your inn."
 Inns are not residences.
-- Marianne Moore
Such a wonderfully exact poem this. I love that it expresses so precisely
the attitude one has (or would like to have) towards guests, but manages, in
a brief 14 lines, to be both profound ("The deepest feeling always shows
itself in silence / not in silence, but restraint" [1]) and so brilliantly
visual ("the mouse's limp tail hanging like a shoelace from its mouth"). To
read Moore is to have the sense of language being carefully polished, of the
importance of ideas as subject matter for poetry. This poem, with its quiet,
balanced tone, captures that so perfectly.

Aseem

[1] I am reminded of Ezekiel (Poem # 1736): "The slow movement seems,
somehow, to say much more".

An Ancient Gesture -- Edna St Vincent Millay

       
(Poem #1827) An Ancient Gesture
 I thought, as I wiped my eyes on the corner of my apron:
 Penelope did this too.
 And more than once: you can't keep weaving all day
 And undoing it all through the night;
 Your arms get tired, and the back of your neck gets tight;
 And along towards morning, when you think it will never be light,
 And your husband has been gone, and you don't know where, for years,
 Suddenly you burst into tears;
 There is simply nothing else to do.

 And I thought, as I wiped my eyes on the corner of my apron:
 This is an ancient gesture, authentic, Greek;
 Ulysses did this too.
 But only as a gesture - a gesture which implied
 To the assembled throng that he was much too moved to speak.
 He learned it from Penelope...
 Penelope, who really cried.
-- Edna St Vincent Millay
I've been reading a lot of Millay recently, trying to figure out precisely
what it is I find so compelling about her poetry. She's moved, in a
remarkably few years, from someone I'd barely heard of to my favourite poet
after Kipling - indeed, I think my primary wonder nowadays is not that I
like her so much, but that it took me so long to discover her.

Part of it, I think, is that (again, like Kipling), almost all of her work
appeals to me. Contrast this with, say, Keats - at his best he is
unutterably brilliant, but those poems that are *not* among his best give
me very little pleasure; I don't think I could spend an afternoon randomly
dipping into his work. Millay, on the other hand is delightful (I hesitate
to use as objective a word as 'good' here, because this is definitely a
personal thing) all the way through, from deservedly famous gems like her
Sonnet XLIII (Poem #590; I'd rank it up there with anything Shakespeare
wrote) to minor pieces like "Grown Up" (Poem #817).

Today's poem is a good case in point - I wouldn't ever expect to see it in a
"Best Poems" anthology, but I'd be totally unsurprised at its inclusion in
someone's "Favourite Poems" collection[1]. It has that typically Millay
combination of beauty and unexpectedness, combined with such perfect timing
that your breath catches at the end, and such precise imagery that lines
continue to haunt you long after the rest of the poem has faded.

martin

[1] and indeed, a quick google search brings up
    [broken link] http://katebenedict.com/LectioMillay.htm

[Links]

Wikipedia on Millay:
  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edna_St._Vincent_Millay

Ulysses and Penelope:
  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penelope

An interesting companion piece is Dorothy Parker's "Penelope":
  http://www.poemhunter.com/p/m/poem.asp?poet=6640&poem=52488

Planting a Sequoia -- Dana Gioia

Guest poem submitted by Filip Comley:
(Poem #1826) Planting a Sequoia
 All afternoon my brothers and I have worked in the orchard,
 Digging this hole, laying you into it, carefully packing the soil.
 Rain blackened the horizon, but cold winds kept it over the Pacific,
 And the sky above us stayed the dull gray
 Of an old year coming to an end.

 In Sicily a father plants a tree to celebrate his first son's birth-
 An olive or a fig tree-a sign that the earth has one more life to bear.
 I would have done the same, proudly laying new stock into my father's
orchard,
 A green sapling rising among the twisted apple boughs,
 A promise of new fruit in other autumns.

 But today we kneel in the cold planting you, our native giant,
 Defying the practical custom of our fathers,
 Wrapping in your roots a lock of hair, a piece of an infant's birth cord,
 All that remains above earth of a first-born son,
 A few stray atoms brought back to the elements.

 We will give you what we can-our labor and our soil,
 Water drawn from the earth when the skies fail,
 Nights scented with the ocean fog, days softened by the circuit of bees.
 We plant you in the corner of the grove, bathed in western light,
 A slender shoot against the sunset.

 And when our family is no more, all of his unborn brothers dead,
 Every niece and nephew scattered, the house torn down,
 His mother's beauty ashes in the air,
 I want you to stand among strangers, all young and ephemeral to you,
 Silently keeping the secret of your birth.
-- Dana Gioia
To me, this is so moving.  You can sense the grief in the rythym of the
lines.  I like the way Gioia uses the customs of a new birth to contrast
with their remembrance of their child.  The use of weather is evocative,
too.  It is cold winds that hold off the blackness.  The other thing which
strikes me is the how the solidity and age of the Sequoia is set against the
very short life of their son.

It suprised me to find that any of Gioia's poems haven't been included
already.  I discovered him when listening to 'Money' on the BBC Radio 4
program "Poetry Please", a great program based entirely on viewers
recommendations.

Fil.

The Hunter -- Ogden Nash

       
(Poem #1825) The Hunter
 The hunter crouches in his blind.
 'Neath camouflage of every kind.
 This grown-up man, with luck and pluck,
 Is hoping to outwit a duck.
-- Ogden Nash
Scratch practically any human activity, and you'll find underneath a rich
current of the ridiculous - a fact gleefully exploited by generations of
humorists. And few poets did it better than Nash, with his keen sense of the
humour inherent in language itself - not just the meaning, but the sound and
feel of the words, and the unconscious rules behind grammar, syntax and
etymology. Consider, for example, one of his very finest lines,

  The Cold Crusading for Democracy;
  The F├╝hrer of the Streptococcracy.

(from "The Common Cold", Poem #325) - the gleefully coined word
"streptococcracy" lends that extra touch of hilarity to the already funny
image, elevating the whole to the sublimely ridiculous.

Today's poem is nice example of Nash's art and craft, chosen to show that
he can be amusing even without resorting to typically Nashian 'tricks'
like invented words, strained rhymes and comically exaggerated and varied
line lengths[1]. The fish-in-a-barrel shot at the unfortunate breed of duck
hunters and the four-line form (ideally suited to laconic humour, as I've
noted on several occasions) are given that little extra fillip by the bonus
rhyme, making the reader (whether he realises it consciously or not) laugh
at the *sound* of the words as well as their sense. Try substituting "with
skill and pluck" in the third line to see what I mean - the poem immediately
loses a certain indefinable something.

[1] Which is not to denigrate those tricks - they have, in Nash's capable
hands, produced works of rare genius. It's just that people tend to think of
them first and foremost when they think of Nash; I wanted to run a more
'normal' poem to demonstrate that such devices were a technique used by an
already-witty writer, not a crutch to evoke a cheap and easy laugh.

martin

[Links]

Wikipedia on Nash: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ogden_Nash

When I have Fears that I may Cease to Be -- John Keats

Guest poem submitted by Janice :
(Poem #1824) When I have Fears that I may Cease to Be
 When I have fears that I may cease to be
    Before my pen has glean'd my teeming brain,
 Before high-piled books, in charactery,
    Hold like rich garners the full ripen'd grain;
 When I behold, upon the night's starr'd face,
    Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
 And think that I may never live to trace
    Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
 And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
    That I shall never look upon thee more,
 Never have relish in the faery power
    Of unreflecting love;--then on the shore
 Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
 Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.
-- John Keats
Keats has been my one true love. Apart from the other, perhaps more famous
odes, this poem has been an eternal favourite. It is sad, it is beautiful.
It starts on an almost cliched note, the theme of dying and living an
unfulfilled life but Keats' lyricism, style and simplicity lifts it above
the mundane... and when you reach "then on the shore of the wide world I
stand alone, and think / Till love and fame to nothingness do sink" the
imagery and power of those final lines take your breath away. I could go
on... but the beauty of the poem I think lies in the fact that you are left
with that image... and everytime you read it and re-read it it still strikes
just as hard. He was, after all, 26 when he died.

Janice.

Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye -- Leonard Cohen

Guest poem submitted by Rama Rao:
(Poem #1823) Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye
 I loved you in the morning, our kisses deep and warm,
 your hair upon the pillow like a sleepy golden storm,
 yes, many loved before us, I know that we are not new,
 in city and in forest they smiled like me and you,
 but now it's come to distances and both of us must try,
 your eyes are soft with sorrow,
 Hey, that's no way to say goodbye.

 I'm not looking for another as I wander in my time,
 walk me to the corner, our steps will always rhyme
 you know my love goes with you as your love stays with me,
 it's just the way it changes, like the shoreline and the sea,
 but let's not talk of love or chains and things we can't untie,
 your eyes are soft with sorrow,
 Hey, that's no way to say goodbye.

 I loved you in the morning, our kisses deep and warm,
 your hair upon the pillow like a sleepy golden storm,
 yes many loved before us, I know that we are not new,
 in city and in forest they smiled like me and you,
 but let's not talk of love or chains and things we can't untie,
 your eyes are soft with sorrow,
 Hey, that's no way to say goodbye.
-- Leonard Cohen
I have hesitated for a long time to send this. One associates Cohen with the
haunting lyrics of Suzanne (Poem #116, where his bio is also included) or
his other songs (some of which are already on the Minstrels) and this poem
is mushy by comparision. But I'm encouraged by Martin's comment that
"sometimes even a single line" can make a poem. And ever since I first came
across the line "It's just the way it changes, like the shoreline and the
sea" more than three decades ago, it has stuck in my mind as an example of
'sheer poetry'. What a simple but brilliant analogy of constant change in
togetherness.

Rama Rao.

The Nightingale Near the House -- Harold Monro

       
(Poem #1822) The Nightingale Near the House
 Here is the soundless cypress on the lawn
 It listens, listens, Taller trees beyond
 Listen. The moon at the unruffled pond
 Stares. And you sing, you sing.

 That star enchanted song falls through the air
 From lawn to lawn down terraces of sound
 Darts in white arrows on the shadowed ground
 While all the night you sing.

 My dreams are flowers to which you are the bee
 As all night long I listen, and my brain
 Receives your song, then loses it again
 In the moonlight on the lawn.

 Now is your voice a marble high and white
 Then like a mist on fields of paradise
 Now is a raging fire, then it is like ice
 Then breaks and it is dawn.
-- Harold Monro
Every now and then, I read a poem where all I can think, at the end, is that
the poet *really* should have quit while he was ahead. Today's poem sadly
falls into that category - the first verse is absolutely beautiful, the
second merely okay, and the final two are (despite some nice images) just
plain weak.

So why am I even bothering to run this? Well, as I have observed before, a
good enough segment - indeed, sometimes even a good enough line - can be
worth reading an otherwise mediocre poem for, and I think the first verse of
today's poem definitely qualifies. Indeed, it would have been an excellent
poem in its own right - consider:

   Here is the soundless cypress on the lawn
   It listens, listens, Taller trees beyond
   Listen. The moon at the unruffled pond
   Stares. And you sing, you sing.

Lovely, isn't it? Well, consider that your poem for today, and feel free to
ignore the rest. I certainly did.

martin

[Links]

Wikipedia page:
  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harold_Monro

We've run a couple of Monro's poems before, including the delightful
"Overheard on a Salmarsh":
  http://www.cs.rice.edu/~ssiyer/minstrels/poems/594.html

Well I Remember -- Walter Savage Landor

Guest poem submitted by Aseem Kaul
(Poem #1821) Well I Remember
 Well I remember how you smiled
   To see me write your name upon
 The soft sea-sand-'O! what a child!
   You think you're writing upon stone!'

 I have since written what no tide
   Shall ever wash away, what men
 Unborn shall read o'er ocean wide
   And find Ianthe's name again.
-- Walter Savage Landor
Yesterday's Spenser made me think of this other version of the 'not marble,
nor the gilded monuments' theme. (Milosz writes: "It's hard to guess where
that pride of poets comes from"). What I like about Landor is how quickly he
cuts to the chase - this is not some lengthy meditation on art and
immortality, this is the poem as an act of schoolboy vanity, the very
arrogance of the claim founded in a deep insecurity, in the memory of being
laughed at, of not being taken seriously.

It is also, a more intensely personal poem, more intimate and somehow more
pathetic. Plus I love the sequence of thought that connects 'no tide shall
ever wash away' to 'read o'er ocean wide'. This is not, in my view, a great
poem, but it is an interesting take on an age old theme.

Aseem.

P.S. A note on the text. The text (and title) here comes from bartleby. My
edition of the Penguin Book of English Verse titles this poem Ianthe (which
is misleading, I think, because Landor has a number of poems with that
title) and has a slightly different text:

 WELL I remember how you smiled
   To see me write your name upon
 The soft sea-sand...'O! what a child!
   You think you're writing upon stone!'
 I have since written what no tide
   Shall ever wash away, what men
 Unborn shall read o'er ocean wide
   And find Ianthe's name agen.

One Day I Wrote Her Name Upon the Strand (Amoretti LXXV) -- Edmund Spenser

       
(Poem #1820) One Day I Wrote Her Name Upon the Strand (Amoretti LXXV)
 One day I wrote her name upon the strand,
 But came the waves and washed it away;
 Again I wrote it with a second hand,
 But came the tide and made my pains his prey.
 "Vain man," said she "thou dost in vain assay
 A mortal thing so to immortalize,
 For I myself shall like to this decay,
 And eke my name be wiped out likewise."
 "Not so," quoth I "let baser things devise
 To die in dust, but you shall live by fame:
 My verse your virtues rare shall eternize,
 And in the heavens write your glorious name;
 Where, whenas death shall all the world subdue,
 Our love shall live, and later life renew."
-- Edmund Spenser
Note: The Amoretti are a series of eighty nine sonnets Spenser wrote to
  commemorate his courtship of his second wife, Elizabeth Boyle. A companion
  piece, 'Epithalamion', honours their wedding.

It's hard to believe I've never come across Spenser's Amoretti before, but
the fact remains that they are simply not very well represented in
anthologies, recommendations, etc. . I have to wonder if their closeness in
theme, form, feel and publication date to Shakespeare's more famous sonnets
has to some extent led to their being overshadowed and relatively ignored -
Palgrave declines to include one, for instance - but for whatever reason, I
have managed to live in blissful ignorance of them.

Anyway, I've made up for that now, having spent a happy evening reading
through the sonnets - not really the recommended way to read them, of
course, but I was pleasantly surprised by their variety, all the more
impressive considering the short period in which they were written, and by
the reasonably consistent quality of the poems.

I chose to run today's sonnet because I was drawn by its resemblance to one
of my favourites from Shakespeare, "Nor Marble, nor the Gilded Monuments"
[Poem #1575], but this is in reality a very different sort of poem, more
playful and less self-absorbed than Shakespeare's despite its superficial
thematic similarity. (It is also not as good a poem, but then, few could
compare to Shakespeare on what was practically his home ground.) The theme,
as I have remarked before, is one beloved of poets through the ages, but the
anecdotal tone of Spenser's poem lends it a certain extra charm and intimacy.

martin

[Links]

Biography of Spenser:
  http://www.bartleby.com/65/sp/Spenser.html

On the Amoretti:
  http://www.bartleby.com/213/1207.html

An essay on Spenser:

http://www.themediadrome.com/content/articles/words_articles/poems_spenser.htm

The complete Amoretti:
  http://www.theotherpages.org/poems/spenser1.html

The Winter Palace -- Philip Larkin

Guest poem submitted by Paul E. Collins:
(Poem #1819) The Winter Palace
 Most people know more as they get older:
 I give all that the cold shoulder.

 I spent my second quarter-century
 Losing what I had learnt at university.

 And refusing to take in what had happened since.
 Now I know none of the names in the public prints,

 And am starting to give offence by forgetting faces
 And swearing I've never been in certain places.

 It will be worth it, if in the end I manage
 To blank out whatever it is that is doing the damage.

 Then there will be nothing I know.
 My mind will fold into itself, like fields, like snow.
-- Philip Larkin
This is a beautifully bleak little poem. Instead of the cynical bitterness
that characterises some of Larkin's most popular pieces, here we have a
dreary despair where nothing is worth knowing or doing, matched by an
uncertain, halting rhythm and carried along by a progression of ideas in
sharply delineated couplets.

Larkin's chatty, colloquial tone is in evidence here, but somewhat subdued.
It feels more that we are eavesdropping on the narrator's private thoughts
("it will be worth it ... in the end") than that he is talking to us
directly. The poem is enlivened, too, by a certain self-deprecating wit: the
second couplet, with its clownish half-rhyme and casual jab at the
irrelevance of formal education, is wonderfully quotable.

For a poem about apathy and brain-death, _The Winter Palace_ evokes plenty
of thoughts and emotions. Can the narrator, who initially boasts of giving
the "cold shoulder" to knowledge and experience, genuinely be pleased with
his detachment from society, or is it some sort of last-ditch defence
mechanism against his failure to fit *into* society? It is surely part of
him that is "doing the damage", not (as he half-heartedly proposes) some
consequence of the external things he has learned.

The last couplet is simple but remarkably poignant, evoking a kind of mental
shutdown that is tantamount to suicide.

The Orange Tree -- John Shaw Neilson

Thanks to Ian Baillieu for introducing me to today's poem...
(Poem #1818) The Orange Tree
 The young girl stood beside me. I
 Saw not what her young eyes could see:
 - A light, she said, not of the sky
 Lives somewhere in the Orange Tree.

 - Is it, I said, of east or west?
 The heart beat of a luminous boy
 Who with his faltering flute confessed
 Only the edges of his joy?

 - Was he, I said, home to the blue
 In a mad escapade of Spring
 Ere he could make a fond adieu
 To his love in the blossoming?

 - Listen! The young girl said. There calls
 No voice, no music beats on me;
 But it is almost sound: it falls
 This evening on the Orange Tree.

 - Does he, I said, so fear the Spring
 Ere the white sap too far can climb?
 See in the full gold evening
 All happenings of the olden time?

 Is he so goaded by the green?
 Does the compulsion of the dew
 Make him unknowable but keen
 Asking with beauty of the blue?

 - Listen! The young girl said. For all
 Your hapless talk you fail to see
 There is a light, a step, a call,
 This evening on the Orange Tree.

 - Is it, I said, a waste of love
 Imperishably old in pain,
 Moving as an affrighted dove
 Under the sunlight or the rain?

 Is it a fluttering heart that gave
 Too willingly and was reviled?
 Is it the stammering at a grave,
 The last word of a little child?

 - Silence! The young girl said. Oh why,
 Why will you talk to weary me?
 Plague me no longer now, for I
 Am listening like the Orange Tree.
-- John Shaw Neilson
      (1919)

The eternal conflict between those who 'talk' and those who 'listen'
(perhaps 'analyse' and 'feel' would be better labels, or 'think' and
'feel' in the terminology of the Myers-Briggs classification) is a theme
that has attracted and inspired countless poets. What makes it particularly
interesting is that the popular perception of poetry is that it should be
about feelings - Wordsworth's overquoted "spontaneous overflow of powerful
feelings" - but the very act of writing a (good!) poem, even if it is
inspired by feelings, involves a significantly analytcal process whereby
those feelings are translated into words.

This is not to say that I don't enjoy such poems - today's poem was
beautifully lyrical (as indeed was that most famous example of the genre,
Whitman's "When I Heard the Learned Astronomer") - but I cannot help but
think that the poets mock something that they will not understand.

On another level, though, this was a very satisfying poem in that it speaks
to the related (but subtly different) conflict between evoking and
describing. And here Neilson displays an easy mastery of the form, lines
like

  Listen! The young girl said. There calls
  No voice, no music beats on me;
  But it is almost sound: it falls
  This evening on the Orange Tree.

show an appreciation of the fine line between calling forth a response from
the reader's heart and overwhelming that response with the poet's point of
view.

Poetry along these lines contains an inevitable component of self-reference,
so it is only fair to ask if Neilson's poem lives up to its own standards.
And in this case, I feel it definitely does - the two halves of the poem are
perfectly balanced aspects of a self-contained "a poem should not mean but
be" whole, so that, in the end, the subtle magic of the words takes over,
and the poem *is* the orange tree.

martin

[Links]

Wikipedia page:
 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shaw_Neilson
 [Australian poet, 1872-1942]

Brief biography and assessment from the foreword to his Selected Poems:
  http://www.middlemiss.org/lit/authors/neilsonjs/selectedpoems.html

The Bell Buoy -- Rudyard Kipling

Guest poem submitted by Benjamin A. Okopnik :
(Poem #1817) The Bell Buoy
 They christened my brother of old --
   And a saintly name he bears --
 They gave him his place to hold
   At the head of the belfry-stairs,
   Where the minister-towers stand
 And the breeding kestrels cry.
   Would I change with my brother a league inland?
 (Shoal!   'Ware shoal!)   Not I!

 In the flush of the hot June prime,
   O'er sleek flood-tides afire,
 I hear him hurry the chime
   To the bidding of checked Desire;
   Till the sweated ringers tire
 And the wild bob-majors die.
   Could I wait for my turn in the godly choir?
 (Shoal!   'Ware shoal!)   Not I!

 When the smoking scud is blown --
   When the greasy wind-rack lowers --
 Apart and at peace and alone,
   He counts the changeless hours.
   He wars with darkling Powers
 (I war with a darkling sea);
   Would he stoop to my work in the gusty mirk?
 (Shoal!   'Ware shoal!)   Not he!

 There was never a priest to pray
   There was never a hand to toll,
 When they made me guard of the bay
   And moored me over the shoal.
 I rock, I reel, and I roll --
 My four great hammers ply --
   Could I speak or be still at the Church's will?
 (Shoal!   'Ware shoal!)   Not I!

 The landward marks have failed,
   The fog-bank glides unguessed,
 The seaward lights are veiled,
   The spent deep feigns her rest:
   But my ear is laid to her breast,
 I lift to the swell -- I cry!
   Could I wait in sloth on the Church's oath?
 (Shoal!   'Ware shoal!)   Not I!

 At the careless end of night
   I thrill to the nearing screw;
 I turn in the clearing light
   And I call to the drowsy crew;
   And the mud boils foul and blue
 As the blind bow backs away.
   Will they give me their thanks if they clear the banks?
 (Shoal!   'Ware shoal!)   Not they!

 The beach-pools cake and skim,
   The bursting spray-heads freeze,
 I gather on crown and rim
   The grey, grained ice of the seas,
   Where, sheathed from bitt to trees,
 The plunging colliers lie.
   Would I barter my place for the Church's grace?
 (Shoal !   'Ware shoal !)   Not I!

 Through the blur of the whirling snow,
   Or the black of the inky sleet,
 The lanterns gather and grow,
   And I look for the homeward fleet.
   Rattle of block and sheet --
 "Ready about - stand by!"
   Shall I ask them a fee ere they fetch the quay?
 (Shoal!   'Ware shoal!)   Not I!

 I dip and I surge and I swing
   In the rip of the racing tide,
 By the gates of doom I sing,
   On the horns of death I ride.
   A ship-length overside,
 Between the course and the sand,
   Fretted and bound I bide
        Peril whereof I cry.
   Would I change with my brother a league inland?
 (Shoal!   'Ware shoal!)   Not I!
-- Rudyard Kipling
        1896.

As a seaman and a live-aboard sailor of many years, I find that much of
Kipling's poetry feels like home to me. There are many popular poets and
writers who have scribbled a muckle of lines extolling the virtues of the
"romantic" Ocean, but whose work makes me frown and mutter "stick with what
you know, would you?". In contrast, Kipling's poetry of the sea stands
unassailable in its "saltiness", its power, its clarity of expression, and
most of all, in the meaning of what is real and true in the heart of those
who "go down to the sea in ships".

As I sit here aboard S/V "Ulysses", my dog-eared volume of his "Complete
Verse: Definitive Edition" reposes comfortably on my bookshelf; it has been
with me through several ships and through many years. The virtues of
seamanship, which I've taught along with the practice of it to a number of
people over the years, have often been phrased as quotes from this very
book, or even entire passages to illustrate the point:

``
 "Let Zeus adjudge your landward kin whose votive meal and sale
 At easy-cheated altars win oblivion for the fault,
 But you the unhoodwinked wave shall test -- the immediate gulf condemn --
 Except ye owe the Fates a jest, be slow to jest with them.

 Ye shall not clear by Greekly speech, nor cozen from your path
 The twinkling shoal, the leeward beach, or Hadria's white-lipped wrath;
 Nor tempt with painted cloth for wood my fraud-avenging hosts;
 Nor make at all, or all make good, your bulwarks and your boasts.

        -- from "Poseidon's Law"
''

Unlike Joseph Conrad or Richard Henry Dana, Kipling was never a professional
seaman, but his writing shows that he truly understood the very heart of
seamanship. Whatever his other faults, his poetry of the sea is sublime.

Rudyard Kipling's Biography:
  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rudyard_Kipling

Ben Okopnik.

Shake and Shake the Ketchup Bottle -- Richard Armour

       
(Poem #1816) Shake and Shake the Ketchup Bottle
 Shake and shake the ketchup bottle
 None'll come, and then a lot'll
-- Richard Armour
This delightful little couplet is not nearly as well known as it deserves to
be, and, to make matters worse, is consistently misattributed to Ogden
Nash. I'd always thought that the latter was merely due to the fact that it
"sounded Nashian", but apparently the story is deeper than that - as Eric
Shackle writes:

  According to Nash's grand-daughter, Frances R. Smith of Baltimore,
  Maryland, (and she should know) what he actually wrote was:

      "The Catsup Bottle"
      First a little
      Then a lottle

  (Catsup is another American word for ketchup. Brits and Aussies call it
  tomato sauce.)

  Then, in 1949, another US humorist, Richard Willard Armour (1906-1989),
  seems to have gleefully seized on Nash's rhyme, and produced the couplet
  that many people enjoy reciting to this day.

    -- http://www.bdb.co.za/shackle/articles/ketchup.htm

As with Augustus de Morgan's rewriting of Swift's verse about the flea (see
the comment upon Poem #797), Armour's verse is a distinct improvement on the
original, and I feel he deserves the credit for it.

martin

[Links]

The poem is quoted in a wonderful article about *why* ketchup behaves thus:
 http://exploration.nasa.gov/articles/07jun_elastic_fluids-liftoff.html

Biography:
  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Armour_(poet)

Armour has also written several hilarious (and, I believe, out-of-print)
books - keep an eye out for them.

Ancient one, I'm drunk with the voice -- Eugenio Montale

Guest poem submitted by Aseem Kaul:
(Poem #1815) Ancient one, I'm drunk with the voice
 Ancient one, I'm drunk with the voice
 that comes out of your mouths
 when they open like green bells,
 then implode and dissolve.
 You know the house of my long-gone
 summers stood by you,
 there in the land where the sun bakes
 and mosquitoes cloud the air.
 Today as then I turn to stone
 in your presence, sea,
 but no longer feel worthy
 of the solemn admonition of your breathing.
 It was you who first told me
 the petty ferment of my heart was no more
 than a moment of yours; that deep in me
 was your hazardous law: to be vast
 and various yet fixed:
 and so empty myself of all uncleanliness
 like you who toss on the beaches
 among cork and seaweed and starfish
 the useless rubble of your abyss.
-- Eugenio Montale
        From "Mediterraneo"
        Translated by Jonathan Galassi

I miss the sea. One of the disadvantages of living in a land-locked city is
that you no longer have the murmuring presence of the ocean for a neighbour,
no longer observe the ritual of turning that corner onto Marine Drive and
having the Arabian Sea fling open its arms to greet you. Montale, elsewhere
in Mediterraneo, speaks of being "dumbfounded / like a man deprived of
memory / whose country come back to him" on hearing the sea again. That's
the kind of nostalgia that the ocean demands.

And who better to render that nostalgia but Montale (who remains, thus far,
unrepresented on Minstrels) that most brooding of sea poets, whose
relationship with the sea is one of endless return, as though the tide of
his language, retreating, left little images of the sea behind like pools.
What Montale captures beautifully here, I think, is the duality of the sea,
the coming together of stillness and motion, of restlessness  and an abiding
sense of calm. "To be vast and various yet fixed". It's this dependability -
this gift of constant surprise - that makes both Montale and the sea an
object of potentially endless contemplation.

Aseem

Montale biography:
 http://nobelprize.org/literature/laureates/1975/montale-bio.html

And for those who'd like the poem in the original (incidentally, I'd love to
know how good the translation is - I'm a little suspicious):

 "Antico, sone ubriacato dall voce"

 Antico, sone ubriacato dall voce
 ch'esce dalle tue bocche quando si schiudono
 come verdi campane e si ributtano
 indietro e si disciolgono.
 La case dell mie estati lontane
 t'era accanto, lo sai,
 la nel paese dove il sole cuoce
 e annuvolano l'aria le zanzare.
 Come allora oggi in tua presenza impietro,
 mare, ma non piu degno
 mi credo del solenne ammonimento
 del tuo respiro. Tu m'hai detto primo
 che il piccino fermento
 del mio cuore non era che un momento
 del tuo; che mi era in fondo
 la tua legge rischiosa: esse vasto e diverso
 e insieme fisso:
 e svuotarmi cosi d'ogni lordura
 come tu fai che sbatti sulle sponde
 tra sugheri alghe asterie
 la inutili macerie del tuo abisso.

        -- Eugenio Montale

A Wandering Minstrel I -- W S Gilbert

About time we ran this one...
(Poem #1814) A Wandering Minstrel I
 A wandering minstrel I --
 A thing of shreds and patches,
 Of ballads, songs and snatches,
 And dreamy lullaby!
 My catalogue is long,
 Through every passion ranging,
 And to your humours changing
 I tune my supple song!
 I tune my supple song!

 Are you in sentimental mood?
 I'll sigh with you,
 Oh, sorrow, sorrow!
 On maiden's coldness do you brood?
 I'll do so, too --
 Oh, sorrow, sorrow!
 I'll charm your willing ears
 With songs of lovers' fears,
 While sympathetic tears
 My cheeks bedew --
 Oh, sorrow, sorrow!

 But if patriotic sentiment is wanted,
 I've patriotic ballads cut and dried;
 For where'er our country's banner may be planted,
 All other local banners are defied!
 Our warriors, in serried ranks assembled,
 Never quail -- or they conceal it if they do --
 And I shouldn't be surprised if nations trembled
 Before the mighty troops of Titipu!

     Chorus:
     We shouldn't be surprised if nations trembled,
     Trembled with alarm
     Before the mighty troops,
     The troops of Titipu!

 And if you call for a song of the sea,
 We'll heave the capstan round,
 With a yeo heave ho, for the wind is free,
 Her anchor's a-trip and her helm's a-lee,
 Hurrah for the homeward bound!

     Chorus:
     Yeo-ho -- heave ho --
     Hurrah for the homeward bound!

 To lay aloft in a howling breeze
 May tickle a landsman's taste,
 But the happiest hour a sailor sees
 Is when he's down
 At an inland town,
 With his Nancy on his knees, yeo ho!
 And his arm around her waist!

     Chorus:
     Then man the capstan -- off we go,
     As the fiddler swings us round,
     With a yeo heave ho,
     And a rum below,
     Hurrah for the homeward bound!
     With a yeo heave ho,
     And a rum below,
     Yeo-ho, heave ho,
     Yeo-ho, heave ho,
     Heave ho, heave ho, yeo-ho!

 A wandering minstrel I --
 A thing of shreds and patches,
 Of ballads, songs and snatches,
 And dreamy lullaby!
 And dreamy lulla-lullaby,
 Lullaby!
-- W S Gilbert
Note: From "The Mikado", sung by the character Nanki Poo

Unsurprisingly enough, the main motivation for today's poem is historical -
as long-time readers of the list are aware, it was Gilbert's "wondering
minstrel" who inspired our name. That aside, this is a wonderful song from
my favourite operetta, and one that would happily take its place in any
best-of collection.

There is one minor problem with running it here, though - while the
collaborative genius of Gilbert and Sullivan melded three very different
pieces smoothly and neatly into a single song, it doesn't quite work on the
printed page; the transitions are disconcertingly abrupt without the music
to ease them along. If you're unfamiliar with the music, I suggest viewing
this as a sequence of three poems (they're nicely self-contained) and not
being unduly distracted by the differences in style between them.

The first segment is by far the weakest (excepting the initial four lines,
which serve more as an introduction to the whole) - Gilbert's weakness at
writing love songs, even (or perhaps especially) in parody, shows up once
again, and even Sullivan's music strikes me as uncharacteristically lacking.

The improvement in the next piece is immediate - both Gilbert and Sullivan
are in their element here, with wonderfully quotable (and singable!) bits
like
  Our warriors, in serried ranks assembled,
  Never quail -- or they conceal it if they do --

Gilbert at his satirical finest.

And finally, for yet another shift in tone, the "song of the sea" is a
different kind of 'parody' altogether - despite the twist on the traditional
theme, I find it more thought-provoking than satirical. Sailors in the
audience, feel free to chime in :)

martin

p.s. While on the subject of The Mikado, I cannot resist sharing this
delightful cryptic clue by Thomas Thurman:

  What the town of Titipu was to the Mikado (8)

The answer in ROT13 (paste into the box at http://www.retards.org/projects/rot13/ to decipher):
FHOGVGYR (gur pbzcyrgr gvgyr vf "Gur Zvxnqb, be Gur Gbja bs Gvgvch")

Nothing to Fear -- Kingsley Amis

Guest poem submitted by Derek Lowe:
(Poem #1813) Nothing to Fear
 All fixed: early arrival at the flat
 Lent by a friend, whose note says Lucky sod;
 Drinks on the tray, the cover-story pat
 And quite uncheckable; her husband off
 Somewhere with all the kids till six o'clock
 (Which ought to be quite long enough);
 And all worth while: face really beautiful,
 Good legs and hips, and as for breasts - my God.
 What about guilt, compunction and such stuff?
 I've had my fill of all that cock;
 It'll wear off, as usual.

 Yes, all fixed. Then why this slight trembling;
 Dry mouth, quick pulse-rate, sweaty hands,
 As though she were the first? No, not impatience,
 Nor fear of failure, thank you, Jack.
 Beauty, they tell me, is a dangerous thing,
 Whose touch will burn, but I'm asbestos, see?
 All worth while - its a dead coincidence
 That sitting here, a bag of glands
 Tuned up to concert pitch, I seem to sense
 A different style of caller at my back,
 As cold as ice, but just as set on me.
-- Kingsley Amis
Kingsley Amis was one of the major British novelists of the last half of the
20th century, but he began as a poet. (His close friend Philip Larkin, for
his part started out as a novelist). In his literary criticism, Amis hated
to see authors dealt with as if their characters' views were the same as
their own, but there's little doubt that this poem is at least partly
autobiographical.

Amis, as his novelist son Martin put it, "lived for adultery", especially
during the 1950s and 60s. (Historian and writer Robert Conquest was one
flat-lender from this era; there were surely many others). He left his first
wife and their three children for another woman, but that relationship fell
apart eventually. Amis actually spent his last years living again with his
first wife - and her current husband. This seems to have worked out rather
well...

Derek Lowe.

Please Remember To Wash Your Hands -- Sandra Greaves

       
(Poem #1812) Please Remember To Wash Your Hands
 There are wolf thickets.
 There are culverts full of bears.
 There are alpine hares
 that were lost children.

 Do not talk to strangers.
 Do not cross the road.
 Make a ring of fire.
 Do not play with matches.

 There are migrant birds
 that shouldn't be here.
 There are people listening.
 There are ill considered
 consequences. There are
 no answers to your liking.

 There are precautions
 you can take. Switch off
 the lights. Remove
 sharp objects on entering
 the liferaft. Suck fish eyes
 to stave off thirst.

 There are many things
 that do not come alive
 except in the small hours
 before the day makes it.

 Wolf thickets.
 Half silences.
 The distance
 between lovers.
-- Sandra Greaves
This is a marvellously quiet poem; Greaves makes very effective use of the
repeated, passive "there are" to stitch together a series of images into a
compelling, coherent whole. I love the way it starts off as a parody of the
litany of advice children are subjected to, and then gradually gets darker
and more serious, pivoting around the lines

  There are ill considered
  consequences. There are
  no answers to your liking.

and then taking another wholly unexpected turn in the penultimate stanza
until the whole poem crystallises in the last two lines.

I was reminded of my favourite Atwood poem, "Variations on the Word 'Sleep'"
[Poem #1093] - there is the same sense, towards the end, of being gradually
enveloped in a tangible, organic silence that is composed in equal parts of
love and distance. There is also, in counterpoint, a pervasive note of
darkness and night that conjures up terrors only reinforced by the
"childish" tone at the start, the whole adding up to a poem whose richness
and depth belies its surface simplicity.

martin

[Links]

I couldn't find out much about Greaves;
http://www.thepoem.co.uk/limelight/greaves.htm says "Sandra Greaves was born
in Edinburgh and now lives in London." Anyone knowing more about her is, as
usual, encouraged to write in.

A Drinking Song -- William Butler Yeats

Guest poem submitted by Janice:
(Poem #1811) A Drinking Song
 Wine comes in at the mouth
 And love comes in at the eye;
 That's all we shall know for truth
 Before we grow old and die.
 I lift the glass to my mouth,
 I look at you, and I sigh.
-- William Butler Yeats
I was going through the Yeats collection on Minstrels and noticed that this
wasn't part of it. "A Drinking Song" has been one of my favourite poems for
years. It captures, at least I feel it does, the sweet, underlying sadness
that runs through a large number of his poems ("The Song of Wandering
Aengus", "He Gives his Beloved Certain Rhymes", "Cloths of Heaven", "Adam's
Curse" and many more), this sense of great loss and longing, of something
that remains just out of reach. I love the simplicity of these lines, their
poignancy, the inbuilt harshness of 'before we grow old and die' and the
soft despair of 'I look at you, and I sigh'. And though the title evokes a
celebration, it's a song mingled with sorrow. Probably the best kind.

Hope you enjoy the poem,
Janice.

In a Bath Teashop -- John Betjeman

       
(Poem #1810) In a Bath Teashop
 "Let us not speak, for the love we bear one another --
 Let us hold hands and look."
 She, such a very ordinary little woman;
 He, such a thumping crook;
 But both, for a moment, little lower than the angels
 In the teashop's ingle-nook.
-- John Betjeman
I must admit, when I first read this poem (several years ago), it did not
strike me as being particularly noteworthy. Pleasant enough, perhaps,
enjoyable and well-crafted as Betjeman always is, but more reminiscent of a
poem dashed off in an idle moment than anything really great.

And yet - there are some poems that my mind packs away, holding them in
readiness for the right trigger, when it will produce them with a flourish,
mostly for the sheer pleasure of finding an apt quotation, but as a welcome
side effect, giving me the chance to examine the poem in a new light.

"In a Bath Teashop" is one of those poems that I've found myself mentally
quoting on several occasions, but it was only yesterday, when a friend said
something that brought it to mind again, that I realised why my subconscious
at least had found it so memorable - it sums up a universal truth with
surprising simplicity and elegance, so much so, in fact, that its beauty is
entirely unobtrusive. Many of Betjeman's poems have a salient, sparkling
brilliance that impresses me anew each time I read them, and is, indeed, the
main reason I enjoy his poetry so much; today's poem, with its quiet
perfection, may not have struck me as forcibly, but over time I have come to
believe that it is one of his finest.

martin

In Memoriam A. H. H., Section 5 -- Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Guest poem submitted by Mark Penney :
(Poem #1809) In Memoriam A. H. H., Section 5
 I sometimes hold it half a sin
 To put in words the grief I feel;
 For words, like Nature, half reveal
 And half conceal the Soul within.

 But, for the unquiet heart and brain,
 A use in measured language lies;
 The sad mechanic exercise,
 Like dull narcotics, numbing pain.

 In words, like weeds, I'll wrap me o'er,
 Like coarsest clothes against the cold;
 But that large grief which these enfold
 Is given outline and no more.
-- Alfred, Lord Tennyson
So _In Memoriam_ is vast, and kind of out of style.  But that doesn't mean
that it doesn't have some great stuff in it.

A. H. H. stands for Arthur Henry Hallam.  Hallam was a close friend of
Tennyson's who was also engaged to Tennyson's sister.  He died before the
wedding; he was 22.  Naturally enough, this caused Tennyson to be catatonic
with grief.  As a way of working through it, Tennyson wrote _In Memoriam,_
which consists of 133 sections; each section is in turn composed of
quatrains of iambic tetrameter rhymed abba.  Since Tennyson invented that
stanza form for this poem, and since you've read several hundred of them by
the time you're done reading the poem, that form is called the "In Memoriam
stanza".

The poem as a whole, as you might expect, is about coming to terms with
grief.  Tennyson assays his grief, expiates it, and finds a way to move on.
That's the arc, anyway.  In the midst of that, you get an idea of who Hallam
was and what he meant to Tennyson.  There are also digressions on a few
other topics.  The In Memoriam stanza is a perfect microcosm of the arc of
the poem as a whole:  abba:  conflict, then resolution.  Does that make any
sense?

I love this section in particular: it's about the inadequacy of words to
express grief; and yet at the same time words are the only tool we have.  So
what can you do?  Wrap yourself in words, like weeds.  Weeds, as in mourning
dress, but also weeds as in the plants that clog an untended garden.  Words,
too, like narcotics, numbing the pain.  And what is this poem, but words?
The grief is literally too large to be contained here, but somehow he has to
find a way to cram it in, so he knows his project will never work: it's
"given outline, and no more".  In short, words must fail, yet _must_
succeed.  There's a lot of punch packed into these twelve lines.

Mark.

Looking Out -- Mitsuye Yamada

Apologies for the hiatus - this should mark a return to your regularly
scheduled Minstrels...
(Poem #1808) Looking Out
 It must be odd
 to be a minority
 he was saying.
 I looked around
 and didn't see any.
 So I said
 Yeah
 it must be.
-- Mitsuye Yamada
How can you not love a poem like this? I had never heard of Yamada before I
read today's little gem, but the combination of pointed message and dry wit
she displays here have definitely marked her as someone I need to read more
of (recommendations welcomed!).

A quote I found in her Wikipedia entry is telling:

  "I have thought of myself as a feminist first, but my ethnicity cannot be
  separated from my feminism."

It is an uncomfortable truism, but a truism nonetheless, that "minority
artists" are almost forced into having their minority status inform their
work, if only by the legions of critics who insist on loudly analysing their
output through that lens, or by other members of the group who expect them
to be Making a Statement. Yamada's poem is richly ironic when viewed in that
light, simultaneously speaking for her status as an ethnically Japanese
American and shaking her head at people who can't see her as anything else.
To quote her again:

"White sisters should be able to see that political views held by women of
color are often misconstrued as being personal rather than ideological.
Views critical of the system held by a person in an out-group are often seen
as expressions of personal angers against the dominant society."

martin

[Links]

  Yamada's Wikipedia entry:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mitsuye_Yamada

  An essay on "Cultural Diversity and the Use of Literature":
    [broken link] http://www.mtsu.edu/~socwork/frost/crazy/culturaldiversitypaper.htm