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Poetry

A day for shriving, for making shrift

Tuesday, 13 February, 2018 0 Comments

It’s Shrove Tuesday. It’s the day when many people get ready to sacrifice something they enjoy for the next 40 days and nights so that their lives will be filled, perhaps, with something different. The extravagant Mardi Gras feasting of today will be replaced tomorrow by Ash Wednesday’s cold embers, a reminder that so much of what we treasure is momentary, that the things we want to keep forever cannot be kept forever. T. S. Eliot addressed this, and much more, in his poem The Four Quartets, specifically in the fourth section, “Little Gidding“, from which this passage is taken:

The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre—
To be redeemed from fire by fire.

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.


So. Farewell Then. The Awl

Thursday, 1 February, 2018 0 Comments

The recent demise of the high-brow digital magazine, The Awl, and its sister publication (especially for the sisterhood) The Hairpin, brings to mind the work of the Private Eye spoof teenage poet E. J. Thribb (17), notorious for his “So. Farewell Then…” poems. For those unfamiliar with his work, an example: This particular verse was composed on the occasion of the death of Magnus Magnusson, an Icelandic journalist celebrated for his hosting of the BBC’s Mastermind programme.

So. Farewell
Then Magnus
Magnusson.

Famed inquisitor of
Mastermind.

Your catchphrase was
“I’ve started so I’ll
Finish.”

And now
you have.

And how would E. J. Thribb (17) have reacted to the news that the fickle masses have rejected the thoughts of those “smart-as-a-whip” scribblers, with their fine Creative Writing qualifications, for cat videos and selfies? With mercy and tenderness, of course.

So. Farewell
Then The Awl
It’s all over.
It’s over, Awl.


Waking At 3 A.M.

Wednesday, 17 January, 2018 0 Comments

The American poet William Stafford was born on this day in 1913 in Hutchinson, Kansas, and he died at his home in Lake Oswego, Oregon on 28 August 1993, having written a poem that morning containing the lines, “‘You don’t have to / prove anything,’ my mother said. ‘Just be ready / for what God sends.'”

Stafford’s poetry career is remarkable in that he was 46 years old when his first major collection, Traveling Through the Dark, appeared. It went on to win the 1963 National Book Award for Poetry. Stafford is said to have written a daily journal for 50 years, and he composed nearly 22,000 poems, of which some 3,000 were published. For all those who have trouble sleeping, this offers comfort.

Waking At 3 A.M.

Even in the cave of the night when you
wake and are free and lonely,
neglected by others, discarded, loved only
by what doesn’t matter — even in that
big room no one can see,
you push with your eyes till forever
comes in its twisted figure eight
and lies down in your head.

You think water in the river;
you think slower than the tide in
the grain of the wood; you become
a secret storehouse that saves the country,
so open and foolish and empty.

You look over all that the darkness
ripples across. More than has ever
been found comforts you. You open your
eyes in a vault that unlocks as fast
and as far as your thought can run.
A great snug wall goes around everything,
has always been there, will always
remain. It is a good world to be
lost in. It comforts you. It is
all right. And you sleep.

William Stafford


Kavanagh’s Christmas Childhood was ours, too

Monday, 25 December, 2017 0 Comments

The world evoked in A Christmas Childhood by Patrick Kavanagh is both magical and real, and for those who grew up in the rural Ireland of the 20th century, this poem from a Christmas when he was six years old captures that mysterious childhood moment when the ordinary becomes extraordinary. “One side of the potato-pits was white with frost,” he notes factually in one line but in another three whin bushes on the horizon are transformed into the Three Wise Kings. The passing of time, says Kavanagh, erases the innocence of childhood but it does resurface, especially at Christmas. Then: “How wonderful that was, how wonderful!”

A Christmas Childhood is dedicated to Kit and Mick Fitzgerald, honourable people, who made our childhood Christmas wonderful.

A Christmas Childhood

I

One side of the potato-pits was white with frost –
How wonderful that was, how wonderful!
And when we put our ears to the paling-post
The music that came out was magical.

The light between the ricks of hay and straw
Was a hole in Heaven’s gable. An apple tree
With its December-glinting fruit we saw –
O you, Eve, were the world that tempted me

To eat the knowledge that grew in clay
And death the germ within it! Now and then
I can remember something of the gay
Garden that was childhood’s. Again

The tracks of cattle to a drinking-place,
A green stone lying sideways in a ditch,
Or any common sight, the transfigured face
Of a beauty that the world did not touch.

II

My father played the melodion
Outside at our gate;
There were stars in the morning east
And they danced to his music.

Across the wild bogs his melodion called
To Lennons and Callans.
As I pulled on my trousers in a hurry
I knew some strange thing had happened.

Outside in the cow-house my mother
Made the music of milking;
The light of her stable-lamp was a star
And the frost of Bethlehem made it twinkle.

A water-hen screeched in the bog,
Mass-going feet
Crunched the wafer-ice on the pot-holes,
Somebody wistfully twisted the bellows wheel.

My child poet picked out the letters
On the grey stone,
In silver the wonder of a Christmas townland,
The winking glitter of a frosty dawn.

Cassiopeia was over
Cassidy’s hanging hill,
I looked and three whin bushes rode across
The horizon — the Three Wise Kings.

And old man passing said:
‘Can’t he make it talk –
The melodion.’ I hid in the doorway
And tightened the belt of my box-pleated coat.

I nicked six nicks on the door-post
With my penknife’s big blade –
There was a little one for cutting tobacco.
And I was six Christmases of age.

My father played the melodion,
My mother milked the cows,
And I had a prayer like a white rose pinned
On the Virgin Mary’s blouse.

Patrick Kavanagh (1904 – 1967)


Haiku for a drowned oBike

Tuesday, 5 December, 2017 0 Comments

The oBike company from Singapore is not feeling the spirit of Christmas in Europe this Advent. Is it playing fast and loose with users’ data? Some allege that it is. Is it creating an urban blight of cheap bicycles? The evidence is mounting. In some cities, citizens are taking matters into their own hands by damaging or discarding the bikes. The semi-submerged example in our photo was seen in Munich’s Olympiapark.

oBike rage rising
Olympian grave beckons
Splash! Stillness surrounds.

oBike

Note: The haiku follows a strict form: three lines, with a 5-7-5 syllable structure. That means the first line must have five syllables, the second line seven syllables and the last line must have five syllables. A haiku does not have to rhyme or follow a certain rhythm as long as it adheres to the 17-syllable count.


Rain on the road

Monday, 13 November, 2017 0 Comments

On this day in 1850, the British novelist, poet, essayist, and travel writer Robert Louis Stevenson was born. In his short life, he enriched the world with works such as Treasure Island, Kidnapped, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and A Child’s Garden of Verses:

Rain

The rain is raining all around,
It falls on field and tree,
It rains on the umbrellas here,
And on the ships at sea.

Robert Louis Stevenson (1850 – 1894)

Brolly


Poem in October for Sarah

Sunday, 29 October, 2017 0 Comments

Poem in October by Dylan Thomas is dedicated to Sarah Fitzgerald, who has not yet reached her thirtieth year to heaven. “And I rose / In rainy autumn / And walked abroad in a shower of all my days.” Happy birthday, Sarah.

Poem in October

It was my thirtieth year to heaven
Woke to my hearing from harbour and neighbour wood
And the mussel pooled and the heron
Priested shore
The morning beckon
With water praying and call of seagull and rook
And the knock of sailing boats on the net webbed wall
Myself to set foot
That second
In the still sleeping town and set forth.

My birthday began with the water–
Birds and the birds of the winged trees flying my name
Above the farms and the white horses
And I rose
In rainy autumn
And walked abroad in a shower of all my days.
High tide and the heron dived when I took the road
Over the border
And the gates
Of the town closed as the town awoke.

A springful of larks in a rolling
Cloud and the roadside bushes brimming with whistling
Blackbirds and the sun of October
Summery
On the hill’s shoulder,
Here were fond climates and sweet singers suddenly
Come in the morning where I wandered and listened
To the rain wringing
Wind blow cold
In the wood faraway under me.

Pale rain over the dwindling harbour
And over the sea wet church the size of a snail
With its horns through mist and the castle
Brown as owls
But all the gardens
Of spring and summer were blooming in the tall tales
Beyond the border and under the lark full cloud.
There could I marvel
My birthday
Away but the weather turned around.

It turned away from the blithe country
And down the other air and the blue altered sky
Streamed again a wonder of summer
With apples
Pears and red currants
And I saw in the turning so clearly a child’s
Forgotten mornings when he walked with his mother
Through the parables
Of sun light
And the legends of the green chapels

And the twice told fields of infancy
That his tears burned my cheeks and his heart moved in mine.
These were the woods the river and sea
Where a boy
In the listening
Summertime of the dead whispered the truth of his joy
To the trees and the stones and the fish in the tide.
And the mystery
Sang alive
Still in the water and singingbirds.

And there could I marvel my birthday
Away but the weather turned around. And the true
Joy of the long dead child sang burning
In the sun.
It was my thirtieth
Year to heaven stood there then in the summer noon
Though the town below lay leaved with October blood.
O may my heart’s truth
Still be sung
On this high hill in a year’s turning.

Dylan Thomas (27 October 1914 – 9 November 1953)


Never closer the whole rest of our lives

Tuesday, 5 September, 2017 0 Comments

When poets remember their mothers, they portray the complexities of a relationship in which the mother is both intimately known and yet oddly mysterious. In Seamus Heaney’s sequence Clearances, written in memory of his mother, he includes a sonnet about the beautiful ordinary moments that happened while he and his mother peeled potatoes in the kitchen. The silences are broken by “pleasant splashes” of water as the potatoes drop into a bucket.

But the next sounds we hear are of sobbing and of murmured prayers: “some were responding and some crying”. As his mother dies, Heaney recalls the peeling of those potatoes “when all the others were away at Mass” and “our fluent dipping knives — Never closer the whole rest of our lives.” The beauty of that moment is heartbreaking.

In memoriam M.K.H., 1911 – 1984

When all the others were away at Mass
I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.
They broke the silence, let fall one by one
Like solder weeping off the soldering iron:
Cold comforts set between us, things to share
Gleaming in a bucket of clean water.
And again let fall. Little pleasant splashes
From each other’s work would bring us to our senses.

So while the parish priest at her bedside
Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying
And some were responding and some crying
I remembered her head bent towards my head,
Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives —
Never closer the whole rest of our lives.

Picking the potatoes


The wolves among us and around us

Sunday, 3 September, 2017 0 Comments

Homo homini lupus est is a Latin proverb meaning “A man is a wolf to another man.” And this truth is a lesson that life teaches again and again. The proverb’s wisdom is incorporated in Wolves, one of Louis MacNeice’s best-known poems. He wrote it in 1934 and it’s often viewed as a meditation on that dark decade and an expectation of the horrors that were to come, but treating Wolves merely as a relic of those days doesn’t do it justice because the idea of wolves lurking on the edges of civilization goes far deeper than any specific historical period. “He’d remind you of a wolf,” my mother would say when viewing a particularly lupine individual prowling past her front window.

Louis MacNeice was a Northern Irish poet and a member of the lyrical generation of that included W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender and Cecil Day-Lewis. Born in Belfast on 12 September 1907, he died in London on this day, 3 September, in 1963.

Wolves

I do not want to be reflective any more
Envying and despising unreflective things
Finding pathos in dogs and undeveloped handwriting
And young girls doing their hair and all the castles of sand
Flushed by the children’s bedtime, level with the shore.

The tide comes in and goes out again, I do not want
To be always stressing either its flux or its permanence,
I do not want to be a tragic or philosophic chorus
But to keep my eye only on the nearer future
And after that let the sea flow over us.

Come then all of you, come closer, form a circle,
Join hands and make believe that joined
Hands will keep away the wolves of water
Who howl along our coast. And be it assumed
That no one hears them among the talk and laughter.

Louis MacNeice (1907 – 1963)

Wolf


Korea: Stony seaboard, far and foreign

Friday, 11 August, 2017 0 Comments

In his poem Ireland With Emily, John Betjeman wrote of:

Little fields with boulders dotted,
Grey-stone shoulders saffron-spotted,
Stone-walled cabins thatched with reeds,
Where a Stone Age people breeds
The last of Europe’s stone age race.

The same poem contains the couplet “Stony seaboard, far and foreign / Stony hills poured over space,” and those lines could be applied to Korea, North and South. One of the highlights of our trip to Jeju Island in the Korea Strait, which connects the East China Sea and the Sea of Japan, was the time spent in the Stone Park and its museum devoted to “the history of stone culture.”

Jeju Stone Park

Jeju Stone Park


Philip Larkin at 95

Wednesday, 9 August, 2017 0 Comments

Today marks what would have been the 95th birthday of the English poet Philip Larkin. He rejected the romantic style of W.B. Yeats and Dylan Thomas and focused instead on intense personal emotion. “I have no enemies. But my friends don’t like me,” said Larkin. There is no sentimentality or self-pity in his work, which is why he continues to be so original, so refreshing, so great. Every word here is true.

Home Is So Sad

Home is so sad. It stays as it was left,
Shaped to the comfort of the last to go
As if to win them back. Instead, bereft
Of anyone to please, it withers so,
Having no heart to put aside the theft

And turn again to what it started as,
A joyous shot at how things ought to be,
Long fallen wide. You can see how it was:
Look at the pictures and the cutlery
The music in the piano stool. That vase.

Philip Larkin (1922 – 1985)

Mick Upton and Mick Meade