Tag: poet

To the Reader

Saturday, 11 June, 2016 0 Comments

Ben Jonson’s most famous play is Volpone, the story of an ageing Venetian nobleman whose only passion is greed. The first three lines set the tone, when Volpone says:

“Good morning to the day; and next, my gold!
Open the shrine, that I may see my saint.
Hail the world’s soul and mine!”

The poet and playwright Ben Jonson was born in London on this day in 1572. His father died shortly before his birth and his mother remarried a bricklayer. Ben attended Westminster School, worked as a bricklayer, fought in Flanders and became an actor and playwright. In 1598, he wrote Every Man in His Humor and in one production a young actor called William Shakespeare appeared in a leading role. Shortly after the play opened, Jonson killed Gabriel Spencer in a duel and was tried for murder. He was released by pleading “benefit of clergy” (by proving he could read and write in Latin). “Language most shows a man,” Ben Jonson said, “speak that I may see thee.”

To the Reader

Pray thee, take care, that tak’st my book in hand,
To read it well: that is, to understand.

Ben Jonson (1572 — 1637)


Old houses go on keeping their vigil

Saturday, 28 May, 2016 0 Comments

The American poet Robert Cording writes about faith, grief and grace. Explaining his approach in an interview with Holy Cross Magazine, he said, “It’s self-reflective about your relationship to mortality, to the world, to those fundamental questions: Who are we? Where are we going? Why are we here? That’s what started me writing — those kinds of questions.”

Old Houses

Year after year after year
I have come to love slowly

how old houses hold themselves —

before November’s drizzled rain
or the refreshing light of June —

as if they have all come to agree
that, in time, the days are no longer
a matter of suffering or rejoicing.

I have come to love
how they take on the color of rain or sun
as they go on keeping their vigil

without need of a sign, awaiting nothing

more than the birds that sing from the eaves,
the seizing cold that sounds the rafters.

Robert Cording

Where once we visited


Housman in the happy field of hay

Saturday, 30 April, 2016 0 Comments

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

On this day in 1936, the poet A. E. Housman died. He’s best known for A Shropshire Lad, a lyrical cycle of poems that celebrates and mourns a rural English way of life that has disappeared. The beauty of the poems is captivating; their simplicity is deceptive and Housman’s epigrammatic observations about the fleeting nature of life and love are wistful and wise. Note: The image that accompanies poem XXIII is of the painting “Haymaking” by the Irish artist John Morris.

XXIII

In the morning, in the morning,
In the happy field of hay,
Oh they looked at one another
By the light of day.

In the blue and silver morning
On the haycock as they lay,
Oh they looked at one another
And they looked away.

A.E. Housman (26 March 1859 – 30 April 1936)

Haymaking


A human head in bronze

Sunday, 20 March, 2016 0 Comments

The poet Edwin Morgan was born in Glasgow in 1920 and studied English at Glasgow University. During the Second World War he became as a conscientious objector, to the horror of his loyal Presbyterian parents, but he compromised by serving in the Royal Army Medical Corps in Egypt, the Lebanon and Palestine. A true original, he lived on his own all his life and when he won the Soros Translation Award in 1985, he spent the prize money on a day trip to Lapland on the Concorde.

This poem brings back memories of a trip to Holy Cross Abbey, a restored Cistercian monastery near Thurles, County Tipperary, Ireland.

A human head

A human head would never do
under the mists and rains or tugged
by ruthless winds or whipped with leaves
from raving trees. But who is he
in bronze, who is the moveless one?
The poet laughed, It isn’t me.
It’s nearly me, but I am free
to dodge the showers or revel in them,
to walk the alleys under the stars
or waken where the blackbirds are.
Some day my veins will turn to bronze
and I won’t hear, or make, a song.
Then indeed I shall be my head
staring ahead, or so it seems,
but you may find me watching you,
dear traveller, or wheeling round
into your dreams.

Edwin Morgan (1920 – 2010)

Holy Cross Abbey, Tipperary


The dreamy, liquid daybreak of Stephen Spender

Sunday, 28 February, 2016 0 Comments

On this day in 1909, Stephen Spender was born. A member of a generation of British poets who came to prominence in the 1930s, he counted W. H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, Cecil Day Lewis and Louis MacNeice as contemporaries. Like many daring young intellectuals of the era, Spender became a member of the Communist party and was adventurous in his sexuality. His autobiographical World within World, published in 1951, created a commotion with the disclosure of a homosexual relationship he had had at the time of the Spanish Civil War, but the affair ended when Spender married.

When critic Helen Vendler compared Spender and Auden she concluded that no two poets could have been more different. “Auden’s rigid, brilliant, peremptory, categorizing, allegorical mind demanded forms altogether different from Spender’s dreamy, liquid, guilty, hovering sensibility,” she wrote, adding: “Auden is a poet of firmly historical time, Spender of timeless nostalgic space.” Daybreak is dreamy and timeless.

Daybreak

At dawn she lay with her profile at that angle
Which, when she sleeps, seems the carved face of an angel.
Her hair a harp, the hand of a breeze follows
And plays, against the white cloud of the pillows.
Then, in a flush of rose, she woke and her eyes that opened
Swam in blue through her rose flesh that dawned.
From her dew of lips, the drop of one word
Fell like the first of fountains: murmured
‘Darling’, upon my ears the song of the first bird.
‘My dream becomes my dream,’ she said, ‘come true.
I waken from you to my dream of you.’
Oh, my own wakened dream then dared assume
The audacity of her sleep. Our dreams
Poured into each other’s arms, like streams.

Stephen Spender (1909 – 1995)

Dawn


Auden in a time of public shaming

Sunday, 21 February, 2016 0 Comments

On this day in 1907, the poet Wystan Hugh Auden was born. Alexander McCall Smith, author of What WH Auden Can Do For You, describes him as an astonishingly versatile lyricist who “wrote about rocks, about love, about psychoanalysis, about the bacteria that live on our skin, about war and about cooking. In the Thirties he was a political poet; after going to America he re-embraced Christianity. In his later years he became positively Horatian in his tastes, preaching the virtues of the domestic life and simple pleasures.” Auden is kaleidoscopic and timeless; At Last the Secret is Out is the proof.

    Background: The British writer/actor Stephen Fry made headlines earlier this week with a joke about his friend, costume designer Jenny Beavan. Following Beavan’s appearance at the BAFTA film awards, Fry said, “Only one of the great cinematic costume designers would come to the awards ceremony dressed like a bag lady.” Furious accusations of misogyny followed and, appalled by the humourlessness of the PC mob, Fry quit Twitter.

Jon Ronson explores this kind of public humiliation in So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, a book about reputation in an era of hysteria and recreational rage. The flames of shame are fanned today on social media but this is just an amplification of what was common in Auden’s time because “there is always a wicked secret” and it will out.

At Last the Secret is Out

At last the secret is out,
as it always must come in the end,
the delicious story is ripe to tell
to tell to the intimate friend;
over the tea-cups and into the square
the tongue has its desire;
still waters run deep, my dear,
there’s never smoke without fire.

Behind the corpse in the reservoir,
behind the ghost on the links,
behind the lady who dances
and the man who madly drinks,
under the look of fatigue
the attack of migraine and the sigh
there is always another story,
there is more than meets the eye.

For the clear voice suddenly singing,
high up in the convent wall,
the scent of the elder bushes,
the sporting prints in the hall,
the croquet matches in summer,
the handshake, the cough, the kiss,
there is always a wicked secret,
a private reason for this.

W. H. Auden (1907 – 1973)

WH Auden


The feast day of Saint Brigid

Monday, 1 February, 2016 0 Comments

“Anois teacht an Earraigh
beidh an lá dúl chun shíneadh,
Is tar eis na féil Bríde
ardóigh mé mo sheol.”

So wrote Raftery (1779 – 1835), the last of the wandering Gaelic poets. His verse says that spring is coming and the days will begin to lengthen, so he’s going to move out in the world once the feast of St Brigid has been celebrated.

Today, 1 February is the Saint Brigid’s Day that Raftery commemorated in Anois teacht an Earraigh (“Now, the coming of the Spring”), but there’s little evidence of the coming of spring where Raftery once roamed. The weather there is anything but vernal. To be sure, there’s “a stretch in the evening”, as the people say, but it’s wild, wet and windy in Mayo. An unscientific analysis of Raftery’s poem then might lead one to conclude that our winters are getting colder, not warmer, as some now claim. The poet certainly suggests that it was quite mild in early February at the beginning of the 19th century.

Why was the wandering poet Raftery so aware of St Brigid’s Feast? Back in his day, the first of February was considered the start of the growth season in rural Ireland. The date had long been held sacred as Imbolg, the Celtic festival of Spring, but after Christianity arrived, Saint Brigid was honoured instead of the pagan gods. The Greatest! She was a fifth-century mystic who became the patron saint of blacksmiths and healers. My mother always attended the “blessing of the scarves” in the local church on this day and, like many believers, she regarded the wearing of such a scarf to be far better protection against a sore throat than any amount of antibiotics. Saint Brigid was also the patron saint of poets, a second reason, perhaps, for Raftery’s mentioning of her feast day.

Being a saint, Brigid was able to perform miracle. Most of hers involved the multiplication of food such as providing butter for the poor, and the not-so poor. It is said that she once caused cows to give milk three times the same day to enable some visiting bishops to have enough to drink. As Irish monks wandered through Europe, they carried their belief in Brigid with them. In England, many churches were dedicated to her, most notably St. Bride’s Church in London’s Fleet Street. Designed by Wren, it was the spiritual home of the printing and media trades for 200 years. And now it’s in cyberspace — where most hacks and ink-stained drudges such as St. Matt (?) hang out.

RTE logo 1961 Apart from the blessed scarves, the last vestiges of the Brigid devotion in Ireland today are plaited crosses fashioned from rushes. In 1961, when the Irish Republic decided to launch a national television service, the St Brigid’s Cross was chosen as its logo and it remained part of the station’s corporate identity for many years before being reduced to such a stylized form as to be all but unrecognizable.

The spiral of the Saint Brigid’s Cross invokes the pattern that the seven stars of the Plough asterism makes in the night sky during the course of a year. The Plough turns through the seasonal year like the hands of a clock and it is now bringing us into the spring of renewal. Anois teacht an Earraigh…


Waiting for the Barbarians in Paris, Berlin, London

Sunday, 15 November, 2015 0 Comments

«la France sera impitoyable à l’égard des barbares» said French President François Hollande in response to the Islamist terror that left 129 people dead in Paris on Friday night. Hollande’s evocation of “the barbarians” makes Waiting for the Barbarians, written by the Alexandrian Greek poet Constantine Cavafy in 1898 and published in Egypt in 1904, seem particularly prescient today.

In a huge square in an unnamed city (Athens? Rome? Constantinople?), the emperor is preparing to present a “scroll” that is “replete with titles” to the designated barbarian leader. Not that the brutal fighter will care. He can take what he wants, anyway, and there will be no negotiations. As Cavafy notes, the barbarians are “bored by rhetoric and public speaking.” Oratory and punditry, laziness and luxury have made the empire cynical and soft and the citizens have lost interest in politics: “What laws can the senators make now? Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.”

Cavafy delays until the last two lines before tossing in the hand grenade. The crowd is, in fact, waiting eagerly for the barbarians: “They were, those people, a kind of solution.”

One can picture a decadent polis, after a lengthy culture war, longing for a radical solution to the empire’s crisis. Cavafy’s bigger point is that barbarians have been at the gates since the dawn of civilization and their presence always poses an existential test for leaders and nations. When the barbarians arrive, when concert-goers and diners are being slaughtered, action is needed. That’s why the supine appeasement Cavafy brilliantly evokes in Waiting for the Barbarians is so loathsome.

Waiting for the Barbarians

What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?
     The barbarians are due here today.

Why isn’t anything happening in the senate?
Why do the senators sit there without legislating?

     Because the barbarians are coming today.
     What laws can the senators make now?
     Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.

Why did our emperor get up so early,
and why is he sitting at the city’s main gate
on his throne, in state, wearing the crown?

     Because the barbarians are coming today
     and the emperor is waiting to receive their leader.
     He has even prepared a scroll to give him,
     replete with titles, with imposing names.

Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
and rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
Why are they carrying elegant canes
beautifully worked in silver and gold?

     Because the barbarians are coming today
     and things like that dazzle the barbarians.

Why don’t our distinguished orators come forward as usual
to make their speeches, say what they have to say?

      Because the barbarians are coming today
      and they’re bored by rhetoric and public speaking.

Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion?
(How serious people’s faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home so lost in thought?

      Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.
      And some who have just returned from the border say
      there are no barbarians any longer.

And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution.

Constantine Cavafy (1863 – 1933). Translated by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard


Home Is So Sad

Sunday, 9 August, 2015 0 Comments

On this day in 1922, the English poet Philip Larkin was born. “I can’t understand these chaps who go round American universities explaining how they write poems,” he once said. “It’s like going round explaining how you sleep with your wife.” The savage brilliance of Larkin’s epigrams continues to impress: life (“slow motion dying”), sex (“almost as much trouble as standing for parliament”), health (“Depression hangs over me as if I were Iceland.”).

In Home Is So Sad, Larkin says that our home protects us and is a safe haven. When you leave your home, it feels empty and it is only complete when you return.

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)

That vase


Nothing is more permanent than the temporary

Sunday, 12 July, 2015 0 Comments

All eyes have been on Greece this week. We’re on topic today, but is a somewhat oblique way. A. E. Stallings studied classics in Athens, Georgia, and has lived since 1999 in Athens, Greece. She has published three books of poetry and is the recipient of fellowships from the MacArthur Foundation and the Guggenheim Foundation. Her husband, John Psaropoulos, is the former editor of the former Athens News and now blogs at The New Athenian. Together, they’re raising a small argonaut, Jason.

After a Greek Proverb

We’re here for the time being, I answer to the query—
Just for a couple of years, we said, a dozen years back.
Nothing is more permanent than the temporary.

We dine sitting on folding chairs — they were cheap but cheery.
We’ve taped the broken window pane. TV’s still out of whack.
We’re here for the time being, I answer to the query.

When we crossed the water, we only brought what we could carry,
But there are always boxes that you never do unpack.
Nothing is more permanent than the temporary.

Sometimes when I’m feeling weepy, you propose a theory:
Nostalgia and tear gas have the same acrid smack.
We’re here for the time being, I answer to the query—

We stash bones in the closet when we don’t have time to bury,
Stuff receipts in envelopes, file papers in a stack.
Nothing is more permanent than the temporary.

Twelve years now and we’re still eating off the ordinary:
We left our wedding china behind, afraid that it might crack.
We’re here for the time being, we answer to the query,
But nothing is more permanent than the temporary.

A. E. Stallings

A.E. Stallings


Czeslaw Milosz predicted CRISPR

Sunday, 28 June, 2015 0 Comments

CRISPR is much in the news these days. It’s a revolutionary technique that makes editing the genes of living beings relatively easy. The implications — both frightening and promising — are such that the scientists who discovered CRISPR have recommended a field-wide moratorium on using the method to edit human embryos. They encourage continued work in editing mature human cells, but draw the line at changing DNA prior to birth. They’re a bit late in bolting the lab door, however, because Chinese scientists have already genetically modified human embryos using CRISPR.

Like artificial intelligence, genome editing is outstripping our ability to understand its ethical implications. But while we wait for Pope Francis or President Obama or Chancellor Merkel to take a position on this issue, let’s read Czeslaw Milosz, the Polish poet who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1980. Normalization, as translated by Clare Cavanagh, prepares us for the “onset of universal genetic correctness,” which is even more terrifying than political correctness.

Normalization

This happened long ago, before the onset
of universal genetic correctness.

Boys and girls would stand naked before mirrors
studying the defects of their structure.

Nose too long, ears like burdocks,
sunken chin just like a mongoloid.

Breasts too small, too large, lopsided shoulders,
penis too short, hips too broad or else too narrow.

And just an inch or two taller!

Such was the house they inhabited for life.

Hiding, feigning, concealing defects.

But somehow they still had to find a partner.

Following incomprehensible tastes—airy creatures
paired with potbellies, skin and bones enamored of salt pork.

They had a saying then: “Even monsters
have their mates.” So perhaps they learned to tolerate their partners’
flaws, trusting that theirs would be forgiven in turn.

Now every genetic error meets with such
disgust that crowds might spit on them and stone them.

As happened in the city of K., where the town council
voted to exile a girl

So thickset and squat
that no stylish dress could ever suit her,

But let’s not yearn for the days of prenormalization.
Just think of the torments, the anxieties, the sweat,
the wiles needed to entice, in spite of all.

Czeslaw Milosz (1911 – 2004)