Category Archive 'Poetry'
13 Nov 2017

Poem

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FROM MYTHOLOGY

First there was a god of night and tempest, a black idol without eyes, before whom they leaped, naked and smeared with blood. Later on, in the times of the republic, there were many gods with wives, children, creaking beds, and harmlessly exploding thunderbolts. At the end only superstitious neurotics carried in their pockets little statues of salt, representing the god of irony. There was no greater god at that time.

Then came the barbarians. They too valued highly the little god of irony. They would crush it under their heels and add it to their dishes.

–Zbigniew Herbert

22 Oct 2016

“A Case For Jefferson”

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robertfrost

A Case for Jefferson
by Robert Frost

Harrison loves my country too,
But wants it all made over new.
He’s Freudian Viennese by night.
By day he’s Marxian Muscovite.
It isn’t because he’s Russian Jew.
He’s Puritan Yankee through and through.
He dotes on Saturday pork and beans.
But his mind is hardly out of his teens:
With him the love of country means
Blowing it all to smithereens
And having it all made over new.

Hat tip to neo-neocon via Vanderleun.

09 Jun 2016

Under Ben Bulben

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benbulben

Under Ben Bulben

I

Swear by what the sages spoke

Round the Mareotic Lake

That the Witch of Atlas knew,

Spoke and set the cocks a-crow.

Swear by those horsemen, by those women

Complexion and form prove superhuman,

That pale, long-visaged company

That air in immortality

Completeness of their passions won;

Now they ride the wintry dawn

Where Ben Bulben sets the scene.

Here’s the gist of what they mean.

II

Many times man lives and dies

Between his two eternities,

That of race and that of soul,

And ancient Ireland knew it all.

Whether man die in his bed

Or the rifle knocks him dead,

A brief parting from those dear

Is the worst man has to fear.

Though grave-diggers’ toil is long,

Sharp their spades, their muscles strong.

They but thrust their buried men

Back in the human mind again.

III

You that Mitchel’s prayer have heard,

“Send war in our time, O Lord!”

Know that when all words are said

And a man is fighting mad,

Something drops from eyes long blind,

He completes his partial mind,

For an instant stands at ease,

Laughs aloud, his heart at peace.

Even the wisest man grows tense

With some sort of violence

Before he can accomplish fate,

Know his work or choose his mate.

IV

Poet and sculptor, do the work,

Nor let the modish painter shirk

What his great forefathers did.

Bring the soul of man to God,

Make him fill the cradles right.

Measurement began our might:

Forms a stark Egyptian thought,

Forms that gentler Phidias wrought.

Michael Angelo left a proof

On the Sistine Chapel roof,

Where but half-awakened Adam

Can disturb globe-trotting Madam

Till her bowels are in heat,

Proof that there’s a purpose set

Before the secret working mind:

Profane perfection of mankind.

Quattrocento put in paint

On backgrounds for a God or Saint

Gardens where a soul’s at ease;

Where everything that meets the eye,

Flowers and grass and cloudless sky,

Resemble forms that are or seem

When sleepers wake and yet still dream.

And when it’s vanished still declare,

With only bed and bedstead there,

That heavens had opened.

Gyres run on;

When that greater dream had gone

Calvert and Wilson, Blake and Claude,

Prepared a rest for the people of God,

Palmer’s phrase, but after that

Confusion fell upon our thought.

V

Irish poets, learn your trade,

Sing whatever is well made,

Scorn the sort now growing up

All out of shape from toe to top,

Their unremembering hearts and heads

Base-born products of base beds.

Sing the peasantry, and then

Hard-riding country gentlemen,

The holiness of monks, and after

Porter-drinkers’ randy laughter;

Sing the lords and ladies gay

That were beaten into the clay

Through seven heroic centuries;

Cast your mind on other days

That we in coming days may be

Still the indomitable Irishry.

VI

Under bare Ben Bulben’s head

In Drumcliff churchyard Yeats is laid.

An ancestor was rector there

Long years ago, a church stands near,

By the road an ancient cross.

No marble, no conventional phrase;

On limestone quarried near the spot

By his command these words are cut:

Cast a cold eye

On life, on death.

Horseman, pass by!

— William Butler Yeats (1939)

15 Feb 2016

John Skelton’s “Speke Parrott”

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The pronunciation of English 500 years ago was a trifle different. John Skelton entry in Wikipedia.

The “Katheryne incomporabyll” referred to would be Catherine of Aragon, Queen from June 1509 until May 1533.

29 Jan 2016

“Growing Old”

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JohnSparrow
John Sparrow (1906-1992), Warden of All Souls College, Oxford 1952-1977.

I’m accustomed to my deafness
To my dentures I’m resigned
I can cope with my bifocals
But –of dear!– I miss my mind.

09 Sep 2015

The Culture and the Monsters

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Beowulf_Cotton_MS_Vitellius
Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, British Library.

The Book section of the Economist describes the curious journey of a Dark Age epic to a firm position in the literary canon and in popular culture as well.

Few works of literature have intimidated readers as much as “Beowulf”, and few have been the cause of such obsession. The Anglo-Saxon epic of a mythic Scandinavian warrior and his monstrous foes is generally seen as the first great work in the English canon. Unfortunately, it is also one of the least accessible. These three thousand lines of dense, alliterative Old English are utterly incomprehensible to speakers of the modern variety, and even in translation the obscure Norse mythology is about as hospitable to the uninitiated reader as an axe to the skull. For most of its history, the poem has behaved like one of the monsters within it, scattering almost everyone in its path, to be confronted only by a handful of compulsive souls.

The poem’s history in the popular imagination is surprisingly short, given that it is set in sixth-century Scandinavia, and may have been composed around that time: it was published just 200 years ago this year. Though the oral folktale passed for generations from bard to bard, and was written down by two unknown scribes at the dawn of the last millennium, it vanished as the Dark Ages receded. The sole surviving manuscript reappeared in the 1500s, and circulated among private collectors before finding its way into the extensive archives of Sir Robert Cotton. These were damaged by a fire at the ominously named Ashburnham House in 1731. Two decades later, in 1753, the flame-singed codex was stowed in the bowels of the British Museum, lost and long forgotten. In all this time a tiny snippet of the poem appeared only once in print.

That “Beowulf” was ever brought to public attention at all was thanks to its chance rediscovery by Grimur Jonsson Thorkelin—an Icelandic antiquarian who stumbled upon it in 1786, and devoted 29 painful years to rendering it in Latin. The tale of Thorkelin (and his ill-fated edition) has something of a Dark Ages quest about it. Having been promised the prestigious role of Keeper of the Royal Privy Archives in Copenhagen, he set sail for Britain in the hope of finding Norse fragments, and chanced upon the “Beowulf” manuscript while scouting in London. As he set about dissecting the muscular Anglo-Saxon verse, he might have chuckled at the parallel with the warrior prince Beowulf, who had also travelled far from his Geatland home in search of glory—albeit of the sort gained by protecting the king of Denmark from man-eating foes.

08 Aug 2015

Yeats Headstone

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14 Mar 2015

It’s an Ill Wind That Blows Nobody Any Good

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IrishPoem

‘Bitter is the wind tonight

It tosses the ocean’s white hair

Tonight I fear not the fierce warriors of Norway

Coursing on the Irish sea‘

This anonymous poem is written in the margins of an Early Irish manuscript that now resides in the monastery of St. Gall in Switzerland. Most likely dating from around 850 AD, the text may have been complied in a northern Irish monastery such as Nendrum or Bangor (both in Co. Down). In a just a few, short words it conveys the sense of dread that was permeating through Irish monastic communities in the 9th century AD. During this period Viking raids were an every present danger and the Irish Annals’ record numerous attacks on monasteries.

From Irish Archaeology via Ratak Monodosico.

28 Dec 2014

“The Old Order Changeth”

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ArthurintheBarge


Then loudly cried the bold Sir Bedivere:
‘Ah! my Lord Arthur, whither shall I go?
Where shall I hide my forehead and my eyes?
For now I see the true old times are dead,
When every morning brought a noble chance,
And every chance brought out a noble knight.
Such times have been not since the light that led
The holy Elders with the gift of myrrh.
But now the whole Round Table is dissolved
Which was an image of the mighty world,
And I, the last, go forth companionless,
And the days darken round me, and the years,
Among new men, strange faces, other minds.’

And slowly answered Arthur from the barge:
‘The old order changeth, yielding place to new,
And God fulfils himself in many ways,
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.
Comfort thyself: what comfort is in me?

–Alfred Lord Tennyson, Idylls of the King.

24 Jul 2014

Tam O’Shanter

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SulkySullenDame

Over at her own blog, my wife Karen has posted one of my favorite poems:

WHEN chapman billies leave the street,
And drouthy neibors, neibors, meet;
As market days are wearing late,
And folk begin to tak the gate,
While we sit bousing at the nappy,
An’ getting fou and unco happy,
We think na on the lang Scots miles,
The mosses, waters, slaps and stiles,
That lie between us and our hame,
Where sits our sulky, sullen dame,
Gathering her brows like gathering storm,
Nursing her wrath to keep it warm.

Glossary: “chapman billies” sellers of chapbooks and broadsides; “drouthy” thirsty’ “bousing” boozing; “nappy” pub tablecloth; “fou” full; “slaps” slopes.

Continued here.

29 Jan 2014

Two New Poems by Sappho Discovered

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Sappho, Roman wall painting from Pompei.


James Romm
, at the Daily Beast, has some very important news.

[T]wo poems came to light when the owner of an ancient papyrus, dating to the 3rd century A.D., consulted an Oxford classicist, Dirk Obbink, about the Greek writing on the tattered scrap. Dr. Obbink, a MacArthur fellow and world-renowned papyrologist, quickly realized the importance of what the papyrus contained and asked its owner for permission to publish it. His article, which includes a transcription of the fragmentary poems, will appear in a scholarly journal this spring, but an on-line version has already been released.

Despite Sappho’s fame in antiquity and huge literary output, only one complete poem of hers survives today, along with substantial portions of four others. One of those four was substantially recovered only in 2004, also from a scrap of papyrus. Dr. Obbink’s new find adds a precious sixth poem to the body of Sappho’s surviving work and inspires hope that more such recoveries lie ahead.

“The new Sappho is absolutely breath-taking,” said Albert Henrichs, a Harvard classics professor who examined the papyrus with Dr. Obbink. “It is the best preserved Sappho papyrus in existence, with just a few letters that had to be restored in the first poem, and not a single word that is in doubt. Its content is equally exciting.” One of the two recovered poems, Prof. Henrichs notes, speaks of a “Charaxos” and a “Larichos,” the names assigned by ancient sources to two of Sappho’s brothers but never before found in Sappho’s own writings. It has as a result been labeled the Brothers poem by Prof. Obbink.

“There will be endless discussion about Charaxos and Larichos, who may or may not be Sappho’s brothers,” Prof. Henrichs commented. One important point in that debate will be the Brothers poem’s clear implication that Charaxos was a sea-going trader. The historian Herodotus, writing about two centuries after Sappho, also describes Charaxos as a wayfarer—a man who traveled to Egypt, where he spent a fortune to buy the freedom of Rhodopis, a beautiful slave he had fallen in love with. Upon his return home, Herodotus relates, Sappho brutally mocked her brother’s lovestruck folly in one of her poems.

The Brothers poem contains no such mockery, but rather depicts an exchange between two people concerned about the success of Charaxos’ latest sea voyage. The speaker—perhaps Sappho herself, but the loss of the poem’s initial lines makes this unclear—advises that a prayer to Hera would be the best way to ensure this success, and expounds on the power of the gods to aid their favorites. The poem’s final stanza speaks of Larichos, presumably Sappho’s younger brother, “becoming a man…and freeing us [Sappho’s family?] from much heartache.”

A horizontal line on the papyrus indicates the end of the Brothers poem and the beginning of the next, an address to the goddess Aphrodite. Only scattered words from this second poem can be recovered from the papyrus, which grows more tattered and illegible toward the bottom. To judge by what is known of Sappho’s poetry generally, this poem may have taken the form of a request that Aphrodite aid Sappho in the pursuit of a beloved, whether male or female.

The two poems share a common meter, the so-called Sapphic stanza, a verse form perhaps devised by Sappho and today bearing her name. Both belonged therefore to the first of Sappho’s nine books of poetry, and their recovery gives a clearer glimpse than scholars have ever had into the makeup and structure of that book. “All the poems of Sappho’s first book seem to have been about family, biography, and cult, together with poems about love/Aphrodite,” Dr. Obbink writes, adding that the two thematic groups may have alternated throughout the book as they do on the papyrus.

Sappho wrote in a dialect of Greek called Aeolic, significantly different in sound and spellings than the Attic Greek that later became standard. The papyrus in fact contains a few markings where a scribe, judging that Aeolic Greek might be unfamiliar to readers, made cues for correct pronunciation. It also bears the marks of an ancient tear and a patch job—a place where, after some rough handling, the original scroll was spliced back together with a pasted-on papyrus strip.

The handwriting on the papyrus allowed Dr. Obbink to establish its date as late 2nd or 3rd century A.D., almost a millennium after Sappho first wrote. It was not long after this time that texts written in Aeolic and other non-standard dialects began to die out in the Greek world, as the attention of educators and copyists focused increasingly on Attic writers. Sappho, along with many other authors, became a casualty of the narrowing Greek school curriculum in late antiquity and the even greater selectivity of the Middle Ages when papyrus scrolls were recopied into books.

———————–

Greek Reporter:

The new Sappho is the best preserved Sappho papyrus in existence, with just a few letters that had to be restored in the first poem, and not a single word that is in doubt. Its content is equally exciting,” said a Harvard classics professor upon examining the papyrus.

One of the two recovered poems speaks of a Charaxos and a Larichos, the names assigned by ancient Greeks to two of Sappho’s brothers, though never before found in Sappho’s own writings. The poem is set to cause discussions about whether or not the two men are Sappho’s brothers. It depicts an exchange between two people concerned about the success of Charaxos’ latest sea voyage. The speaker may be Sappho herself, but the loss of the poem’s initial lines makes this unclear.

A horizontal line on the papyrus indicates the end of the first poem and the beginning of the next, an address to the goddess Aphrodite. Only scattered words from this second poem can be recovered from the papyrus, which grows more tattered and illegible to the end.

The two poems share a common meter, the so-called Sapphic stanza, a verse form perhaps devised by Sappho and today bearing her name. Both belonged, therefore, to the first of Sappho’s nine books of poetry and their recovery gives a clearer glimpse into the makeup and structure of that book. “All the poems of Sappho’s first book seem to have been about family, biography, and cult, together with poems about love/Aphrodite,” Dr. Obbink writes.

21 Dec 2013

Ha’naker Mill

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Ha’nacker Mill

Sally is gone that was so kindly,
Sally is gone from Ha’nacker Hill
And the Briar grows ever since then so blindly;
And ever since then the clapper is still…
And the sweeps have fallen from Ha’nacker Mill.

Ha’nacker Hill is in Desolation:
Ruin a-top and a field unploughed.
And Spirits that call on a fallen nation,
Spirits that loved her calling aloud,
Spirits abroad in a windy cloud.

Spirits that call and no one answers —
Ha’nacker’s down and England’s done.
Wind and Thistle for pipe and dancers,
And never a ploughman under the Sun:
Never a ploughman. Never a one.

–Hilaire Belloc

Wikipedia:

Halnaker Mill was first mentioned in 1540 as belonging to the manor of “Halfnaked”. It was built for the Duke of Richmond as the feudal mill of the Goodwood Estate. The surviving mill is thought to date from the 1740s and is known to have been standing c.1780. Halnaker Mill was working until struck by lightning in 1905, damaging the sails and windshaft. The derelict mill was restored in 1934 by Neve’s, the Heathfield millwrights as a memorial to the wife of Sir William Bird. Further repair work was done in 1954 by E Hole and Sons, The Burgess Hill millwrights. The mill was again restored in 2004. The mill is owned by West Sussex County Council.

Halnaker Mill (or Ha’nacker Mill, reflecting the true pronunciation) is the subject of a poem by the English writer Hilaire Belloc in which the collapse of the Mill is used as a metaphor for the tragic decay of the prevailing moral and social system.

07 Dec 2013

Poem of the Day

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Robert Clairmont (1902-?)

Poet Laureate of Greenwich Village

Wikipedia article on the poet Tom Boggs:

Boggs and fellow student Robert Clairmont met in Pittsburgh and became literary friends. Clairmont, a poet who inherited $350,000 under strange circumstances in 1925, left for New York, where he became an extravagant character in the Greenwich Village Bohemian scene and invited Boggs to join him. Boggs recorded many of their wild escapades in a novelized biography called “Millionaire Playboy.” He also started a short-lived literary journal, bankrolled by Clairmont and launched on April Fools’ Day 1927, called “New Cow of Greenwich Village” (A Monthly Periodical Sold on the Seven Arts as Such).

“When did the world begin and how?”
I asked a lamb, a goat, a cow:
“What’s it all about and why?”
I asked a hog as he went by:
“Where will the whole thing end and when?”
I asked a duck, a goose, a hen:
And I copied all the answers too,
A quack, a honk, an oink, a moo.

04 Nov 2013

“When the Frost Is on the Punkin”

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When we get up in the morning recently we’ve been finding the first frosts of the season here on the farm in Central Pennsylvania. I looked out the window this morning and the opening lines of the old poem came into my head.

“James Whitcomb Riley,” I thought, but I wasn’t positive that I was right, and I couldn’t remember any of it after “the struttin’ turkey-cock.”

When I looked it up, I found that I had indeed remembered the name of the poet rightly. It was James Whitcomb Riley (1853–1916).

Imagine a time in America when you could become rich and famous delivering readings all over the country and at major universities of poetry written in rustic American dialect.

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“When the Frost is on the Punkin”

WHEN the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock,
And you hear the kyouck and gobble of the struttin’ turkey-cock,
And the clackin’ of the guineys, and the cluckin’ of the hens,
And the rooster’s hallylooyer as he tiptoes on the fence;
O, it’s then the time a feller is a-feelin’ at his best,
With the risin’ sun to greet him from a night of peaceful rest,
As he leaves the house, bareheaded, and goes out to feed the stock,
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock.

They’s something kindo’ harty-like about the atmusfere
When the heat of summer’s over and the coolin’ fall is here—
Of course we miss the flowers, and the blossoms on the trees,
And the mumble of the hummin’-birds and buzzin’ of the bees;
But the air’s so appetizin’; and the landscape through the haze
Of a crisp and sunny morning of the airly autumn days
Is a pictur’ that no painter has the colorin’ to mock—
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock.

The husky, rusty russel of the tossels of the corn,
And the raspin’ of the tangled leaves as golden as the morn;
The stubble in the furries—kindo’ lonesome-like, but still
A-preachin’ sermuns to us of the barns they growed to fill;
The strawstack in the medder, and the reaper in the shed;
The hosses in theyr stalls below—the clover overhead!—
O, it sets my hart a-clickin’ like the tickin’ of a clock,
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock.

Then your apples all is gethered, and the ones a feller keeps
Is poured around the cellar-floor in red and yaller heaps;
And your cider-makin’s over, and your wimmern-folks is through
With theyr mince and apple-butter, and theyr souse and sausage too!…
I don’t know how to tell it—but ef such a thing could be
As the angels wantin’ boardin’, and they’d call around on me—
I’d want to ‘commodate ’em—all the whole-indurin’ flock—
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock.

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In my day, 50 years ago, elementary school English instruction included memorizing lots of old chestnut poems like this from standard reader anthologies. From what I understand, the educational powers-that-be have since concluded that memorizing poetry is bad for children and they have moved in a supposedly more creative and spontaneous direction.

It seem a pity. There was a time when the likes of Longfellow, Whittier, and Riley were part of a univerally-shared American culture. What they seem to be sharing today are a collection of accusatory sob stories, all about slavery, discrimination, and just how mean everyone was to today’s privileged victim groups in the wicked American past. “The kyouck and gobble of the struttin’ turkey-cock” has given way to left-wing agitprop.

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