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Poetry

Sweeney by Matthew Sweeney

Thursday, 9 August, 2018

On Sunday morning, in Cork, the poet Matthew Sweeney succumbed to a cruel ailment that causes its sufferers so much agony as it wastes away the human body irreversibly: Motor Neuron Disease. Matthew Sweeney was 66 when he died and his poem Sweeney hints at the heart-breaking destruction he experienced in his final year.

Sweeney

Even when I said my head was shrinking
he didn’t believe me. Change doctors, I thought,
but why bother? We’re all hypochondriacs,
and those feathers pushing through my pores
were psychosomatic. My wife was the same
till I pecked her, trying to kiss her, one morning,
scratching her feet with my claws, cawing
good morning till she left the bed with a scream.

I moved out then, onto a branch of the oak
behind the house. That way I could see her
as she opened the car, on her way to work.
Being a crow didn’t stop me fancying her,
Especially when she wore that short black number
I’d bought her in Berlin. I don’t know if she
noticed me. I never saw her look up.
I did see boxes of my books going out.

The nest was a problem. My wife had cursed me
for being useless at DIY, and it was no better now.
I wasn’t a natural flier, either, so I sat
in that tree, soaking, shivering, all day.
Everytime I saw someone carrying a bottle of wine
I cawed. A takeaway curry was worse.
And the day I saw my wife come home
with a man, I flew finally into our wall.

Matthew Sweeney (1952 – 2018)

Matthew Sweeney


Reading the mnemogenic Larkin on reading

Tuesday, 7 August, 2018

A Study of Reading Habits

When getting my nose into a book
Cured most things short of school,
It was worth ruining my eyes
To know I could still keep cool,
And deal out the old right hook
To dirty dogs twice my size.

Later, with inch-thin specs,
Evil was just my lark:
Me and my cloak and fangs
Had ripping times in the dark.
The women I clubbed with sex!
I broke them up like meringues.

Don’t read much now: the dude
Who lets the girl down before
The hero arrives, the chap
Who’s yellow and keeps the store,
Seems far too familiar. Get stewed:
Books are a load of crap.

Philip Larkin (1922 — 1985)

The wonderful thing about Philip Larkin was his honesty. He was able to see through the many boring, cynical rituals that make up much of modern life and compress his visions into verse that remains shocking and hilarious.

Language Note: Martin Amis, in his Poems by Philip Larkin, honours the poet for his “frictionless memorability”, and, he adds, “To use one of Nabokov’s prettiest coinages, he is mnemogenic.” The word was coined by Nabokov in Bend Sinister, where a character named Professor Adam Krug describes a dream of his schooldays, and mentions gaps left by “those of his schoolmates who proved less mnemogenic than others”. From the Latin: mamma + –genesis, the noun “mammogenesis” refers to the growth and development of the mammary gland.


Nor all, that glisters, gold

Monday, 30 July, 2018

On this day in 1771, Thomas Gray, poet, classical scholar and Cambridge professor died. Although he published only 13 poems in his lifetime, his Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard has ensured perpetual fame. Gray was a poetic genius and even his light-hearted verse is filled with sparkling wit and brilliant observations on the human condition. Ode On The Death Of A Favourite Cat Drowned In A Tub Of Goldfishes contains this ageless wisdom: “Not all that tempts your wand’ring eyes / And heedless hearts is lawful prize.” And this: “A Fav’rite has no friend!”

Ode On The Death Of A Favourite Cat Drowned In A Tub Of Goldfishes

‘Twas on a lofty vase’s side,
Where China’s gayest art had dy’d
The azure flow’rs that blow;
Demurest of the tabby kind,
The pensive Selima, reclin’d,
Gazed on the lake below.

Her conscious tail her joy declar’d;
The fair round face, the snowy beard,
The velvet of her paws,
Her coat, that with the tortoise vies,
Her ears of jet, and emerald eyes,
She saw: and purr’d applause.

Still had she gaz’d; but ‘midst the tide
Two angel forms were seen to glide,
The Genii of the stream;
Their scaly armour’s Tyrian hue
Thro’ richest purple to the view
Betray’d a golden gleam.

The hapless Nymph with wonder saw:
A whisker first and then a claw,
With many an ardent wish,
She stretch’d in vain to reach the prize.
What female heart can gold despise?
What cat’s averse to fish?

Presumptuous Maid! with looks intent
Again she stretch’d, again she bent,
Nor knew the gulf between.
(Malignant Fate sat by, and smil’d)
The slipp’ry verge her feet beguil’d,
She tumbled headlong in.

Eight times emerging from the flood
She mew’d to ev’ry wat’ry god,
Some speedy aid to send.
No Dolphin came, no Nereid stirr’d;
Nor cruel Tom, nor Susan heard.
A Fav’rite has no friend!

From hence, ye Beauties, undeceiv’d,
Know, one false step is ne’er retriev’d,
And be with caution bold.
Not all that tempts your wand’ring eyes
And heedless hearts is lawful prize,
Nor all, that glisters, gold.

Thomas Gray (1716 – 1771)


Connie Bensley at 89

Sunday, 22 July, 2018

The English poet Connie Bensley was born in 1929, in south-west London, where she still lives. She worked first as a secretary and later as a medical copywriter and filled her rare spare moments between office and home with verse that evokes the fastidiousness of a career where words counted. In her descriptions, there are flashes of Betjeman’s wit and notes of Larkin’s sharpness when observing what Jean Hartley called “ordinary people doing ordinary things”.

Apologia

My life is too dull and too careful–
even I can see that:
the orderly bedside table,
the spoilt cat.

Surely I should have been bolder.
What could biographers say?
She got up, ate toast and went shopping
day after day?

Whisky and gin are alarming,
Ecstasy makes you drop dead.
Toy boys make inroads on cash
and your half of the bed.

Emily Dickinson, help me.
Stevie, look up from your Aunt.
Some people can stand excitement,
some people can’t.

Connie Bensley


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