Category Archive 'Poetry'
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 –o 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.

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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.

30 Sep 2013

Dewar’s Commercial

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Charles Bukowski, so you want to be a writer

06 Aug 2013

Death of a Poet

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Krzystof Kamil Baczynski (1921-1944)

My Polish correspondents have been remembering the anniversary (two days ago) of the death of Krzystof Kamil Baczynski, one of the greatest Polish poets of the last century, on the 4th day of the Warsaw Uprising at the mere age of 23.

Baczynski served in the Polish Resistance (Armia Krajowa) in which he fought with Battalion Zoska, a reconnaissance/ranger battalion largely recruited from former Polish Boy Scouts. He served during the Warsaw Uprising in Battalion Parasol, an elite unit (also largely made up of former Boy Scouts), intended eventually to become part of a parachute brigade, which specialized in attacks on the Gestapo.

Zbigniew Czajkowski-Dabczynski, in his book Dziennik Powstanca (Diary of an Insurgent), gives a detailed report of his death:

It was then that I saw Krzysztof for the last time, because they left for a new position at Palac Blanka [in the Warsaw Old Town area] without me. That day I heard from a buddy that he was hunting Germans with great success from the ruins of the Opera House. The next day a call came for a first-aid patrol to come help a wounded in the Palac Blanka. Not having much to do I joined them. At his post, in a corner room, we found Krzysztof lying on a Persian rug with a huge wound in his head. [He had been shot by a German sniper.] He was dead. Nurses carried the body over to the City Hall (next door). That same evening the funeral was held. It was rather solemn. The grave was dug in the City Hall courtyard. Some sixty people, soldiers, officers, civilians, were present. Someone said a few words. The body was lowered to the grave. We all sang the National Anthem, then the grave was filled.”

The Polish writer and critic, Stanislaw Pigon, had this to say at the news of Baczynski’s death: “What can we do? We belong to a nation whose lot it is to shoot at the enemy with diamonds.”

His pregnant wife Barbara, the subject of the famous erotic poems, was killed September 1st.

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Biała magia

Stojąc przed lustrem ciszy
Barbara z rękami u włosów
nalewa w szklane ciało
srebrne kropelki głosu.

I wtedy jak dzban – światłem
zapełnia się i szkląca
przejmuje w siebie gwiazdy
i biały pył miesiąca.

Przez ciała drżący pryzmat
w muzyce białych iskier
łasice się prześlizną
jak snu puszyste listki.

Oszronią się w nim niedźwiedzie,
jasne od gwiazd polarnych,
i myszy się strumień przewiedzie
płynąc lawiną gwarną.

Aż napełniona mlecznie,
w sen się powoli zapadnie,
a czas melodyjnie osiądzie
kaskadą blasku na dnie.

Więc ma Barbara srebrne
ciało. W nim pręży się miękko
biała łasica milczenia
pod niewidzialną ręką.

4 I 1942

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(translated by Alex Kurczaba)

White Magic

Standing before the mirror of silence
with her hands in her hair,
Barbara pours into her glass body
silver droplets of her voice.

And then like a jar
she fills with light and glasslike
filters stars through herself
and the white dust of the moon.

Through the quivering prism of her body
in the music of white sparks
minks will glide past
like fluffy leaves of sleep.

Hoarfrost will coat the bears in it
brightened by polar stars
and a stream of mice will weave through
flowing in a loud avalanche.

Until filled up with milk
she’ll slowly sink into sleep
as melodically time will settle at the bottom
in a cascade of glare.

And so Barbara has a silver body. In it
the white mink of silence stiffens softly
under an unseen arm.

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Read aloud in Polish:

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