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Poetry

Shelley in Italy

Sunday, 8 July, 2018

On this day in 1822, the English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley drowned when his boat, the Don Juan, sank during a storm in the Gulf of La Spezia off the north-west coast of Italy. He was 30. Shelley’s ashes were interred in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome and his gravestone bears the Latin inscription, Cor Cordium (Heart of Hearts).

Plagued by health worries and pursued by creditors, Shelley and his wife, the writer Mary Shelley, escaped from England to Italy in 1818 and there he produced some of his best work, including Ode to the West Wind. Like many before and after him, Shelley was enchanted by Italy and remained under its spell until the end of his short, dazzling life.

To Italy

As the sunrise to the night,
As the north wind to the clouds,
As the earthquake’s fiery flight,
Ruining mountain solitudes,
Everlasting Italy,
Be those hopes and fears on thee.

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792 – 1822)

Italy


Footfall tapping secrecies of stone in July

Sunday, 1 July, 2018

The poet Patrick Kavanagh lived the formative years of his life in a rural Ireland that was steeped in history and rich with community life but, as Inniskeen Road: July Evening shows, Kavanagh was, in the midst of all this activity, as isolated and lonely as Robinson Crusoe on his desert island. He wasn’t “a great mixer,” as John Anthony said recently, when discussing relationships.

Inniskeen Road: July Evening

The bicycles go by in twos and threes –
There’s a dance in Billy Brennan’s barn to-night,
And there’s the half-talk code of mysteries
And the wink-and-elbow language of delight.
Half-past eight and there is not a spot
Upon a mile of road, no shadow thrown
That might turn out a man or woman, not
A footfall tapping secrecies of stone.
I have what every poet hates in spite
Of all the solemn talk of contemplation.
Oh, Alexander Selkirk knew the plight
Of being king and government and nation.
A road, a mile of kingdom, I am king
Of banks and stones and every blooming thing.

Patrick Kavanagh (1904 – 1967)

The Top Road


Donald Hall kept country hours

Monday, 25 June, 2018

The death has taken place of the American poet Donald Hall, who wrote about a handful of themes that included his childhood, baseball, sex, farming, the death of his parents and the loss of his second wife and fellow poet, Jane Kenyon. They met in 1969, when she was his student at the University of Michigan. By the mid-70s they were married and living at Hall’s beloved home, Eagle Pond Farm, built in 1803 and belonging to his family since the 1860s. But Kenyon was diagnosed with leukaemia and died in 1995, when she was 47. Hall never stopped mourning her and had arranged to be buried next to her. Now, they are united again.

In one obituary today, it said: “He kept country hours for much of his working life, rising at 6am and writing for two hours.” The Black-Faced Sheep is beautiful and honest.

The Black-Faced Sheep

Ruminant pillows! Gregarious soft boulders!

If one of you found a gap in a stone wall,
the rest of you — rams, ewes, bucks, wethers, lambs;
mothers and daughters, old grandfather-father,
cousins and aunts, small bleating sons —
followed onward, stupid
as sheep, wherever
your leader’s sheep-brain wandered to.

My grandfather spent all day searching the valley
and edges of Ragged Mountain,
calling “Ke-day!” as if he brought you salt,
“Ke-day! Ke-day!”

When the shirt wore out, and darns in the woollen
shirt needed darning,
a woman in a white collar
cut the shirt into strips and braided it,
as she braided her hair every morning.

In a hundred years
the knees of her great-granddaughter
crawled on a rug made from the wool of sheep
whose bones were mud,
like the bones of the woman, who stares
from an oval in the parlor.

I forked the brambly hay down to you
in nineteen-fifty. I delved my hands deep
in the winter grass of your hair.

When the shearer cut to your nakedness in April
and you dropped black eyes in shame,
hiding in barnyard corners, unable to hide,
I brought grain to raise your spirits,
and ten thousand years
wound us through pasture and hayfield together,
threads of us woven
together, three hundred generations
from Africa’s hills to New Hampshire’s.

You were not shrewd like the pig.
You were not strong like the horse.
You were not brave like the rooster.

Yet none of the others looked like a lump of granite
that grew hair,
and none of the others
carried white fleece as soft as dandelion seed
around a black face,
and none of them sang such a flat and sociable song.

Now the black-faced sheep have wandered and will not return,
even if I should search the valleys
and call “Ke-day,” as if I brought them salt.
Now the railroad draws
a line of rust through the valley. Birch, pine, and maple
lean from cellarholes
and cover the dead pastures of Ragged Mountain
except where machines make snow
and cables pull money up hill, to slide back down.

At South Danbury Church twelve of us sit —
cousins and aunts, sons —
where the great-grandfathers of the forty-acre farms
filled every pew.
I look out the window at summer places,
at Boston lawyers’ houses
with swimming pools cunningly added to cowsheds,
and we read an old poem aloud, about Israel’s sheep,
old lumps of wool, and we read

that the rich farmer, though he names his farm for himself,
takes nothing into his grave;
that even if people praise us, because we are successful,
we will go under the ground
to meet our ancestors collected there in the darkness;
that we are all of us sheep, and death is our shepherd,
and we die as the animals die

Donald Hall (1928 – 2018)

The black-faced sheep


Summer solstice stars

Thursday, 21 June, 2018

Today, Thursday, 21 June, marks the summer solstice in the Northern Hemisphere. We celebrate the longest day in the year with Summer Stars by Carl Sandburg.

Summer Stars

Bend low again, night of summer stars.
So near you are, sky of summer stars,
So near, a long arm man can pick off stars,
Pick off what he wants in the sky bowl,
So near you are, summer stars,
So near, strumming, strumming,
So lazy and hum-strumming.

Carl Sandburg (1878 – 1967)


Tearing secrets from yielding flesh

Saturday, 2 June, 2018

It was the Megan and Harry wedding of its day when the poet Vita Sackville-West married the diplomat Sir Harold Nicolson in the chapel of the family home at Knole in Kent in 1913. The society columnists enthused over the 21-year-old bride’s beauty and her magnificent gown. The outfit was made by Reville & Rossiter, whose clientele included Queen Mary, and the wedding expenses were fabulous. Nicolson inspected “over 100 emerald and diamond rings” before he settled on “a lovely one” for £185, and on 14 October Vita Sackville-West settled the bill at Reville & Rossiter, “nearly £400, the wedding dress cost 50 guineas”.

Along with their landscaping work at Knole, Nicolson and Sackville-West created one of England’s most famous gardens at Sissinghurst Castle, but in between the horticulture both indulged in many same-sex affairs during their long marriage, which ended with Sackville-West’s death on this day in 1962. Her most famous intrigue was with Virginia Woolf, who celebrated their relationship in the 1928 novel Orlando. Vita Sackville-West responded with this verse to her mistress:

Lost poem

When sometimes I stroll in silence, with you
Through great floral meadows of open country
I listen to your chatter, and give thanks to the gods
For the honest friendship, which made you my companion
But in the heavy fragrance of intoxicating night
I search on your lip for a madder caress
I tear secrets from your yielding flesh
Giving thanks to the fate which made you my mistress

Vita Sackville-West (1892 – 1962)

R&R


Harry and Meghan and the Whit Wedding

Monday, 21 May, 2018

Once upon a time, Whit Saturday was a popular day for weddings in the UK. This historical fact, however, was unnoticed by the Reverend Michael Curry in his sermon during the Royal Wedding as Whit Saturday was turned into Windsor Saturday. The British poet Philip Larkin would have been bemused.

The Whitsun Weddings is one of Larkin’s best-known poems and it was published in 1964, the year The Rolling Stones released their debut album. Larkin, who was more of a Beatles man, describes a train journey on a hot Whit Saturday. The windows are open and he becomes aware that the passengers boarding the train at its several stops are members of Whit wedding parties. He observes the people and imagines the venues where the wedding receptions have been held. As the train approaches London, his thoughts turn to the meaning of what the newly-weds have done.

The Whitsun Weddings

That Whitsun, I was late getting away:
Not till about
One-twenty on the sunlit Saturday
Did my three-quarters-empty train pull out,
All windows down, all cushions hot, all sense
Of being in a hurry gone. We ran
Behind the backs of houses, crossed a street
Of blinding windscreens, smelt the fish-dock; thence
The river’s level drifting breadth began,
Where sky and Lincolnshire and water meet.

All afternoon, through the tall heat that slept
For miles inland,
A slow and stopping curve southwards we kept.
Wide farms went by, short-shadowed cattle, and
Canals with floatings of industrial froth;
A hothouse flashed uniquely: hedges dipped
And rose: and now and then a smell of grass
Displaced the reek of buttoned carriage-cloth
Until the next town, new and nondescript,
Approached with acres of dismantled cars.

At first, I didn’t notice what a noise
The weddings made
Each station that we stopped at: sun destroys
The interest of what’s happening in the shade,
And down the long cool platforms whoops and skirls
I took for porters larking with the mails,
And went on reading. Once we started, though,
We passed them, grinning and pomaded, girls
In parodies of fashion, heels and veils,
All posed irresolutely, watching us go,

As if out on the end of an event
Waving goodbye
To something that survived it. Struck, I leant
More promptly out next time, more curiously,
And saw it all again in different terms:
The fathers with broad belts under their suits
And seamy foreheads; mothers loud and fat;
An uncle shouting smut; and then the perms,
The nylon gloves and jewellery-substitutes,
The lemons, mauves, and olive-ochres that

Marked off the girls unreally from the rest.
Yes, from cafés
And banquet-halls up yards, and bunting-dressed
Coach-party annexes, the wedding-days
Were coming to an end. All down the line
Fresh couples climbed aboard: the rest stood round;
The last confetti and advice were thrown,
And, as we moved, each face seemed to define
Just what it saw departing: children frowned
At something dull; fathers had never known

Success so huge and wholly farcical;
The women shared
The secret like a happy funeral;
While girls, gripping their handbags tighter, stared
At a religious wounding. Free at last,
And loaded with the sum of all they saw,
We hurried towards London, shuffling gouts of steam.
Now fields were building-plots, and poplars cast
Long shadows over major roads, and for
Some fifty minutes, that in time would seem

Just long enough to settle hats and say
I nearly died,
A dozen marriages got under way.
They watched the landscape, sitting side by side
— An Odeon went past, a cooling tower,
And someone running up to bowl — and none
Thought of the others they would never meet
Or how their lives would all contain this hour.
I thought of London spread out in the sun,
Its postal districts packed like squares of wheat:

There we were aimed. And as we raced across
Bright knots of rail
Past standing Pullmans, walls of blackened moss
Came close, and it was nearly done, this frail
Travelling coincidence; and what it held
Stood ready to be loosed with all the power
That being changed can give. We slowed again,
And as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled
A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower
Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.

Philip Larkin (1922 – 1985)

Today, Whit Monday, was declared a bank holiday in the UK in 1871 but it lost this status in 1972 when the Spring Bank Holiday was created in its place.


Cavafy on the Mediterranean migrants

Monday, 14 May, 2018 0 Comments

One can read C.P. Cavafy’s In the Harbour-Town as a poem about home-sickness or a poem about migration, or both, as the two are often intertwined. In another way, it can be interpreted as a poem that speaks to our times because he mentions “a Syrian harbour” in the same breath as “the great pan-Hellenic world”. Recent reports of a rise in unaccompanied child migrants reaching Greece and Cyprus through the Central and Western Mediterranean Routes make this Cavafy poem sound uncannily prescient.

In the Harbour-Town

Emis – young, twenty-eight –
reached this Syrian harbor in a Tenian ship,
his plan to learn the incense trade.
But ill during the voyage,
he died as soon as he was put ashore.
His burial, the poorest possible, took place here.
A few hours before dying he whispered something
about “home,” about “very old parents.”
But nobody knew who they were,
or what country he called home
in the great pan-Hellenic world.
Better that way; because as it is,
though he lies buried in this harbour-town,
his parents will always have the hope he’s still alive.

C.P. Cavafy (29 April 1863 – 29 April 1933)

Translated from the original Greek by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard.

Harbour town


Cavafy in April on Candles

Sunday, 29 April, 2018 0 Comments

Hosted by the Cavafy Archive and the Onassis Foundation, the International Cavafy Summer School will take place from 9 to 15 July in Athens. “Knowledge of Modern Greek is not a prerequisite, but familiarity with Cavafy’s work is,” say the organizers.

W.H. Auden famously observed that the poetry of Cavafy seemed to survive translation remarkably well, and that it was marked by “a tone of voice, a personal speech immediately recognizable as a poem by Cavafy; nobody else could possibly have written it.” Born on 29 April 1863, Constantine P. Cavafy died on 29 April 1933.

Candles

Days to come stand in front of us,
like a row of burning candles —
golden, warm, and vivid candles.
Days past fall behind us,
a gloomy line of burnt-out candles;
the nearest are still smoking,
cold, melted, and bent.
I don’t want to look at them: their shape saddens me,
and it saddens me to remember their original light.
I look ahead at my burning candles.
I don’t want to turn, don’t want to see, terrified,
how quickly that dark line gets longer,
how quickly one more dead candle joins another.

Constantine P. Cavafy

Candles in Milan


Rainy Day in the Galtee Mountains

Friday, 20 April, 2018 0 Comments

Regular reader and intermittent poet, Liam Murray, is so captivated by this blog’s title and header photo that he has combined the two in verse. The Galtee Mountains pictured above were the fons et origo of our great mother, God rest her soul, and they remain our spiritual home. The Golden Vale mentioned below was a tract of nearby pasture land that represented a form of earthly paradise for mother and father, who cultivated their own fields and gardens as if they, too, were golden. And they were.

Rainy Day in the Galtee Mountains

The gathering clouds announce a change
The Galtee Mountains turn a shadowed blue
Quieter birds in hedge rows sense the mood
Distant rolling thunder fills the ear.

Clouds carrying rivers of rain
Continue to flow across the plain
Bushes shake in windy salute,
In the moist filled air across the Golden Vale.

The deluge pours on expectant fields
Blades of grass glisten; laced with rain drops
Sails of cloud continue to unfurl,
Above it all the sun still shines.

Liam Murray

Cullane Garden


Done is a battell on the dragon blak

Wednesday, 28 March, 2018 0 Comments

Easter approacheth. Time for a preparatory poem and our choice is a masterpiece of Scottish medieval verse, Surrexit Dominus de sepulchro (Christ is risen from the grave), by William Dunbar (1460 – 1520). This is one of the greatest of early Easter poems in English and it has one of the greatest of all opening lines: “Done is a battell on the dragon blak” (The battle against the black dragon is done). The theme is the Resurrection and Christ is cast in the role of a noble knight.

Some of the language is easily decrypted but the gulf between our 21st global century and Dunbar’s early 16th-century Scotland is apparent. Here’s how he depicts evil:

The auld kene tegir, with his teith on char,
Whilk in a wait has lyne for us so lang,
Thinking to grip us in his clowis strang

In modern English, this can be rendered as, “The old sharp tiger with his teeth ajar / Which has lain in wait for us so long / Hoping to grip us in his strong claws.” Those “clowis” give bite to Dunbar’s language, which is a miscellany of elemental sounds and delightful alliteration: “Whilk in a wait” is wonderful. By the way, here’s a modern translation of the poem. And now, a snippet of the original:

Surrexit Dominus de sepulchro

Done is a battell on the dragon blak,
Our campion Chyrst confoundit has his force;
The yettis of hell are broken with a crak,
The signe triumphall raisit is of the cross,
The divillis trymmillis with hiddous voce,
The saulis are borrowit and to the bliss can go,
Chyrst with his bloud our ransonis dois indoce:
Surrexit Dominus de sepulchro.

Dungin is the deidly dragon Lucifer,
The crewall serpent with the mortall stang;
The auld kene tegir, with his teith on char,
Whilk in a wait has lyne for us so lang,
Thinking to grip us in his clowis strang;
The merciful Lord wald nocht that it were so,
He made him for to failye of that fang.
Surrexit Dominus de sepulchro.

The Dragon Blak


Synge Prelude

Saturday, 24 March, 2018 0 Comments

On this day in 1909, the playwright, poet and collector of folklore John Millington Synge died. He was just 37 years old. Synge was a key figure in the Irish Literary Revival and one of the co-founders of the Abbey Theatre, and it was in thanks to the Abbey Theatre that he entered history. The occasion was the 1907 Abbey premiere of his wonderful play, The Playboy of the Western World, and the surrounding events exposed the sordid absurdity that has powered so much of Irish nationalism.

One source of audience hostility to the play was that the plot combined an idealization of parricide with an unhappy ending, but what triggered the violence was Christy Mahon’s comment about “a drift of chosen females, standing in their shifts itself.” The very mention of an undergarment led The Freeman’s Journal of Monday, 28 January 1907 to condemn the play as an “unmitigated, protracted libel upon Irish peasant men and worse still upon peasant girlhood.” Rioting ensued and the police had to enforce security during each performance, making nightly arrests of outraged nationalists filled with hatred of an artistic expression that did not reflect their chosen insanity.

The Playboy of the Western World has survived time and terror and Synge’s poetry remains true to the landscape that gave him so much happiness during his short life.

Prelude

Still south I went and west and south again,
Through Wicklow from the morning till the night,
And far from cities, and the sights of men,
Lived with the sunshine, and the moon’s delight.

I knew the stars, the flowers, and the birds,
The grey and wintry sides of many glens,
And did but half remember human words,
In converse with the mountains, moors, and fens.

John Millington Synge (1871 – 1909)

Wicklow