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Tag: poetry

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


Gunn and Vuillard: Coffee people

Tuesday, 29 August, 2017 0 Comments

In a poem from his 1982 collection The Passages Of Joy, Thom Gunn declared: “I like loud music, bars, and boisterous men.” Gunn was born on this day in 1929 in Gravesend in Kent and died on 25 April 2004 in Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco. He moved from England to California in 1954 to live with his male lover and to immerse himself in San Francisco’s bath-house culture. Gay life, however, was not his sole poetic focus. Celebration, endurance, mortality and reading, in their broadest senses, were his themes. “Deep feeling doesn’t make for good poetry,” he said once. “A way with language would be a bit of help.”

Thom Gunn’s meditation on Deux femmes buvant leur café, a remarkable painting by Édouard Vuillard now housed in the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, is filled with the poet’s love of people and places and art and coffee.

Painting by Vuillard

Two dumpy women with buns were drinking coffee
In a narrow kitchen — at least I think a kitchen
And I think it was whitewashed, in spite of all the shade.
They were flat brown, they were as brown as coffee.
Wearing brown muslin? I really could not tell.
How I loved this painting, they had grown so old
That everything had got less complicated,
Brown clothes and shade in a sunken whitewashed kitchen.

But it’s not like that for me: age is not simpler
Or less enjoyable, not dark, not whitewashed.
The people sitting on the marble steps
Of the national gallery, people in the sunlight,
A party of handsome children eating lunch
And drinking chocolate milk, and a young woman
Whose t-shirt bears the defiant word WHATEVER,
And wrinkled folk with visored hats and cameras
Are vivid, they are not browned, not in the least,
But if they do not look like coffee they look
As pungent and startling as good strong coffee tastes,
Possibly mixed with chicory. And no cream.

Thom Gunn (1929 – 2004)

Vuillard


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


The dailiness of life

Sunday, 23 July, 2017 0 Comments

“The motives of honesty, courage and inconsolable life of life are here submitted to the conditions of poetry and fulfilled in them.” So wrote Delmore Schwartz when reviewing a collection of verse by Randall Jarrell. In 1965, Jarrell walked onto US highway 15-501 near Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and stood in front of an oncoming truck. He was 51.

Within living memory, buckets of well water were drawn daily for every aspect of domestic washing and cleansing. At the same time, well water from ancient, sacred places was used to ward off the illness and evil which threatened to disrupt what Randall Jarrell so beautifully expressed as “the dailiness of life.”

Well Water

What a girl called “the dailiness of life”
(Adding an errand to your errand. Saying,
“Since you’re up…” Making you a means to
A means to a means to) is well water
Pumped from an old well at the bottom of the world.
The pump you pump the water from is rusty
And hard to move and absurd, a squirrel-wheel
A sick squirrel turns slowly, through the sunny
Inexorable hours. And yet sometimes
The wheel turns of its own weight, the rusty
Pump pumps over your sweating face the clear
Water, cold, so cold! you cup your hands
And gulp from them the dailiness of life.

Randall Jarrell (1914 – 1965)

Water


Apple and the War of the Ems and the Ens

Tuesday, 11 July, 2017 0 Comments

In short: Apple’s upcoming iOS 11 will replace the convention of typing two hyphens to obtain a “long dash”, the so-called em dash —. So today, if you type – – it’s turned into —. With iOS 11, however, two hyphens become the shorter en dash: –. And to get an em dash, you’ll have to type three hyphens - - -.

Is this important? Glenn Fleishman thinks it is and he has devoted a detailed post to the matter. His conclusion: This change appears in the beta release of iOS 11, so it may not end up in the final version later this year.

By the way, the most famous em dash user was Emily Dickinson, who employed it in her poetry to emphasize emotion and punctuation —

Luck is not chance

Luck is not chance—
It’s Toil—
Fortune’s expensive smile
Is earned—
The Father of the Mine
Is that old-fashioned Coin
We spurned—

Emily Dickinson (1830 — 1886)


Put the kettle on!

Sunday, 11 June, 2017 0 Comments

Drinking coffee and tea might offer us a vital life-saving benefit: protection from liver disease. A new study out of the Netherlands shows frequent coffee and even a small amount of tea can protect against liver fibrosis, part of the process of liver disease. The study’s lead author was Louise J. M. Alferink of the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam and the results were published in the Journal of Hepatology. The Dutch studied some 2,500 people, tracking their coffee and tea consumption as well as liver stiffness, which measures liver fibrosis. Lots of coffee and just a cuppa “were significantly associated with lower liver stiffness values.”

John Agard was born in June 1949 in British Guiana and now lives in Britain. In 2012, he was selected for the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry. The Kettle is quintessentially British and it contains a great deal of Agardian wisdom that Theresa May might benefit from now, in her hour of need. “It’s not whether you lose / It not whether you win / It’s whether or not you’ve plugged the kettle in.”

The Kettle

Put the kettle on.
Put the kettle on.
It is the British answer
to Armageddon.
Never mind the taxes rise,
never mind trains are late.
There’s one thing you can be sure of
and that’s the kettle mate!
It’s not whether you lose,
It not whether you win,
It’s whether or not you’ve
plugged the kettle in.
May the kettle ever hiss,
may the kettle ever steam,
it is the engine that drives our nations dream.
Long live the kettle
that rules over us.
May it be lime scale free
and may it never rust.
Sing it on the beaches,
sing it from the house tops;
the sun may set on empire
but the kettle never stops.

John Agard


Ten O’Clock

Wednesday, 12 April, 2017 0 Comments

In his poem Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock, Wallace Stevens uses the word “ceintures”. A misspelling of “centuries”? Not quite. The etymology shows it as a borrowing from the French ceinture, which is a term in dressmaking for a belt or girdle.

Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock

The houses are haunted
By white night-gowns.
None are green,
Or purple with green rings,
Or green with yellow rings,
Or yellow with blue rings.
None of them are strange,
With socks of lace
And beaded ceintures.
People are not going
To dream of baboons and periwinkles.
Only, here and there, an old sailor,
Drunk and asleep in his boots,
Catches tigers
In red weather.

Wallace Stevens (1879 – 1955)

Ten


Shamrock of stone

Friday, 17 March, 2017 0 Comments

When the British poet and war-time diplomat Sir John Betjeman visited the west of Ireland in the 1940s, he stayed with Lord Hemphill and his beautiful American wife Emily. She had met her titled husband while riding in the Borghese Gardens in Rome in 1926 and they married a year later in New York. The couple then moved to Tulira Castle, the Victorian bastion built in Galway by Edward Martyn and immortalized in George Moore’s Hail and Farewell. By the time Betjeman arrived, however, Emily was involved in a passionate affair with Ion Villiers-Stuart, as she revealed to him when they cycled through the primeval-looking landscape of The Burren. That day’s events led to one of Betjeman’s finest poems, Ireland with Emily. Happy Saint Patrick’s Day!

Ireland with Emily

Bells are booming down the bohreens,
White the mist along the grass,
Now the Julias, Maeves and Maureens
Move between the fields to Mass.
Twisted trees of small green apple
Guard the decent whitewashed chapel,
Gilded gates and doorway grained,
Pointed windows richly stained
With many-coloured Munich glass.

See the black-shawled congregations
On the broidered vestment gaze
Murmer past the painted stations
As Thy Sacred Heart displays
Lush Kildare of scented meadows,
Roscommon, thin in ash-tree shadows,
And Westmeath the lake-reflected,
Spreading Leix the hill-protected,
Kneeling all in silver haze?

In yews and woodbine, walls and guelder,
Nettle-deep the faithful rest,
Winding leagues of flowering elder,
Sycamore with ivy dressed,
Ruins in demesnes deserted,
Bog-surrounded bramble-skirted —
Townlands rich or townlands mean as
These, oh, counties of them screen us
In the Kingdom of the West.

Stony seaboard, far and foreign,
Stony hills poured over space,
Stony outcrop of the Burren,
Stones in every fertile place,
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.

Has it held, the warm June weather?
Draining shallow sea-pools dry,
When we bicycled together
Down the bohreens fuchsia-high.
Till there rose, abrupt and lonely,
A ruined abbey, chancel only,
Lichen-crusted, time-befriended,
Soared the arches, splayed and splendid,
Romanesque against the sky.

There in pinnacled protection,
One extinguished family waits
A Church of Ireland resurrection
By the broken, rusty gates.
Sheepswool, straw and droppings cover,
Graves of spinster, rake and lover,
Whose fantastic mausoleum,
Sings its own seablown Te Deum,
In and out the slipping slates.

John Betjeman (1906 – 1984)

The Building, Ballylanders, Limerick, Ireland


An Auden villanelle

Tuesday, 21 February, 2017 0 Comments

On this day in 1907, the English poet Wystan Hugh Auden was born and we’re celebrating his birthday with one of his lesser-known works written in the ‘villanelle’ form. The villanelle emerged during the Renaissance and the word comes from the Italian villano, or peasant. What began as Italian folksong turned into nineteen-line poems with two rhymes throughout, consisting of five tercets and a quatrain, with the first and third lines of the opening tercet recurring alternately at the end of the other tercets and with both repeated at the close of the final quatrain. The most famous villanelle in English is Dylan Thomas’s Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night.

WH Auden Written in 1940 during the darkest days of the Second World War, If I Could Tell You conveys Auden’s sense of uncertainty about the future of life and love.

If I Could Tell You

Time will say nothing but I told you so
Time only knows the price we have to pay;
If I could tell you I would let you know.

If we should weep when clowns put on their show,
If we should stumble when musicians play,
Time will say nothing but I told you so.

There are no fortunes to be told, although,
Because I love you more than I can say,
If I could tell you I would let you know.

The winds must come from somewhere when they blow,
There must be reason why the leaves decay;
Time will say nothing but I told you so.

Perhaps the roses really want to grow,
The vision seriously intends to stay;
If I could tell you I would let you know.

Suppose the lions all get up and go,
And the brooks and soldiers run away;
Will Time say nothing but I told you so?
If I could tell you I would let you know.

WH Auden (21 February 1907 – 29 September 1973)


Ausonius and Attusia and Valentinian

Tuesday, 14 February, 2017 0 Comments

Decimus Magnus Ausonius was the most famous poet of his time and Emperor Valentinian I summoned him to Rome to teach his son Gratian. He spent the years between 365 and 388 there and then returned to his native Bordeaux. In this epigram for his wife, Attusia, he pictures them still youthful in their old age. It is a haunting vision of a couple fully in love ageing together… and it’s entirely imaginary because Attusia died when she was 28. Forty years later, Ausonius wrote Ad Uxorem (To His Wife).

To His Wife

Love, let us live as we have lived, nor lose
The little names that were the first night’s grace,
And never come the day that sees us old,
I still your lad, and you my little lass.
Let me be older than old Nestor’s years,
And you the Sibyl, if we heed it not.
What should we know, we two, of ripe old age?
We’ll have its richness, and the years forgot.

Translation from the Latin by Helen Waddell (1889 – 1965)

Ad Uxorem

Uxor, vivamus quod viximus et teneamus
nomina quae primo sumpsimus in thalamo;
nec ferat ulla dies, ut commutemur in aevo,
quin tibi sim iuvenis tuque puella mihi.
Nestore sim quamvis provectior aemulaque annis
vincas Cumanam tu quoque Deiphoben,
nos ignoremus quid sit matura senectus,
scire aevi meritum, non numerare decet.

Ausonius (310 – 395)


A cold coming we had of it

Friday, 6 January, 2017 0 Comments

Was it the birth of a new world (Christianity) or the death of an old one (polytheism) that caused his crisis in belief? The speaker in The Journey Of The Magi says that since returning home following their visit to see the infant Christ, he and his companions have felt uneasy among their compatriots, who now seem to be “an alien people clutching their gods” (in contrast to the believers in the newly arrived Jesus, who worship one god only).

T. S. Eliot converted to Christianity in 1927, the same year he wrote Journey of the Magi in a single day, one Sunday morning. “I had been thinking about it in church,” Eliot told his wife Valerie years later, “and when I got home I opened a half-bottle of Booth’s Gin, poured myself a drink, and began to write. By lunchtime, the poem, and the half-bottle of gin, were both finished.” This is for the Feast of the Epiphany.

The Journey Of The Magi

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

T. S. Eliot (26 September 1888 — 4 January 1965)

A cold coming