Category Archive 'Poetry'
29 Jan 2014

Two New Poems by Sappho Discovered


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


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


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.


“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.


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.


Biała magia

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

I wtedy jak dzban – Å›wiatÅ‚em
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 siÄ™ powoli zapadnie,
a czas melodyjnie osiÄ…dzie
kaskadÄ… blasku na dnie.

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

4 I 1942


(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.


Read aloud in Polish:


04 May 2013

When I am an Old Horsewoman


Emily Hacker whipping for Melvin Poe’s Bath County Hounds

When I am an Old Horsewoman

When I am an old horsewoman
I shall wear turquoise and diamonds,
And a straw hat that doesn’t suit me
And I shall spend my social security on
white wine and carrots,
And sit in my alleyway of my barn
And listen to my horses breathe.

I will sneak out in the middle of a summer night
And ride the old bay gelding,
Across the moonstruck meadow
If my old bones will allow
And when people come to call, I will smile and nod
As I walk past the gardens to the barn
and show instead the flowers growing
inside stalls fresh-lined with straw.

I will shovel and sweat and wear hay in my hair
as if it were a jewel
And I will be an embarrassment to all
Who will not yet have found the peace in being free
to have a horse as a best friend
A friend who waits at midnight hour
With muzzle and nicker and patient eyes
For the kind of woman I will be
When I am old.

-By Patty Barnhart, originally published in The Arabian Horse World magazine in l992.

Hat tip to Bird Dog.

15 Apr 2013

Contemporary Poetry: High-Minded and “Evolved”


poetry reading

David Yezzi kicks the simpering, prating, effeminate ass of contemporary poetry around the block.

Poetry has become so docile, so domesticated, it’s like a spayed housecat lolling in a warm patch of sun. Most poets choose to play it safe, combining a few approved modes in a variety of unexceptional ways: lyrical, pastoral, whimsical, surrealist, lyrical-pastoral, pastoral-surrealist, interior-lyrical, whimsical-lyrical-interior-surrealist, and so on. These poems feel at home in coffee shops and on college campuses; they circulate breezily among crowds of like-minded poems and all of them work hard to be liked. (They are also beloved of prize committees and radio hosts.) Not since the Edwardians has a period style felt so pinched, though, ironically, today’s poetry is offered as “new”—either ground-breakingly populist or transgressively avant-garde. As Joshua Mehigan puts it in a recent issue of Poetry:

    In the end, poetry looks radical only to the outside world, which ignores it, while from inside it looks static. Poets got out of these situations before by doing something new, but novelty is superfluous now. There is no way to get into the game without upping the ante, and there is no way out without bluffing or folding or everyone agreeing on a new game.

How did the main effects of poetry ever boil down to these: the genial revelation, the sweetly poignant middle-aged lament, the winsome ode to the suburban soul? The problem is that such poems lie: no one in the suburbs is that bland; no reasonable person reaches middle age with so little outrage at life’s absurdities. What an excruciating world contemporary poetry describes: one in which everyone is either ironic, on the one hand, or enlightened and kind on the other—not to mention selfless, wise, and caring. Even tragic or horrible events provoke only pre-approved feelings.

Poetry of this ilk has a sentimental, idealizing bent; it’s high-minded and “evolved.” Like all utopias, the world it presents exists nowhere. Some might argue that poetry should elevate, showing people at their best, each of us aspiring to forgive foibles with patience and understanding. But that kind of poetry amounts to little more than a fairy tale, a condescending sop to our own vanity.

14 Mar 2013

Czeslaw Milosz in Exile in California

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Czeslaw Milosz — 1911, Szetejnie, Lithuania — 2004, Cracow

Milosz’s defection from Communist Poland resulted in exile, exile from history, from European civilization, from memory, and from the Northern landscapes of Poland and Lithuania to California, the uniquely American hybridized version of Botany Bay blended with the country of the Lotus-eaters, of chaparral desert and Pacific fog, of ahistoric imbecility and unbridled consumption, California which turns its back on history and civilization, yet preternaturally offers constant sharp glimpses of the dystopian future.

Cynthia L. Haven offers a nice appreciation of the exquisite character of Milosz’s fate: an exile as remote and barbarous as Ovid‘s at Tomis on the Black Sea, yet deprived of tragedy by the plush privileges of an elite University appointment and all the wine shops, shopping malls, and restaurants of the most self-indulgent region of the New World.

She offers a nice quotation from the poet himself:

I did not choose California. It was given to me.
What can the wet north say to this scorched emptiness?
Grayish clay, dried-up creek beds,
Hills the color of straw, and the rocks assembled
Like Jurassic reptiles: for me this is
The Spirit of the Place.

Ms. Haven does a nice job of describing the ambivalence of the experience of California of the civilized man in exile, the fear of real assimilation, of being unable to do without one’s favorite restaurants, of growing weakly dependent on a Riviera-like climate, of becoming happily Californian.

Miłosz returned to Poland for good in 2000, coming back to California only as his wife was dying in a Berkeley hospital in 2002. At her funeral, he whispered to Hass, “I’m afraid this place will catch me.” The return to Poland allowed him to turn against the land that had alternately embraced and ignored him.

Hass told me in an interview shortly after Miłosz’s death: “I just think he had some years of bitter loneliness, and what came back to him, when he came here to California again, was that. The isolation. When he first came here, he didn’t much like California. Then you follow, in some of his writings, he’s become a Californian and is quite loyal to it. As soon as he got back to Poland, then he could hate and resent his time in California.” He couldn’t divide his loyalties—but the rest of us do it daily, teetering on the ambivalences that make up our relationship to our adopted home on the West Coast.

Milosz lived in Berkeley on the lower slopes of the mountains offering this view.

27 Feb 2013

Kipling Poems Found


The BBC reports that more than 50 unpublished poems by Rudyard Kipling have been unearthed by an American scholar who intends to release them shortly.

Thomas Pinney found the manuscripts in a number of places including a Manhattan House that was being renovated and among the papers of a former head of the Cunard Line.

Pinney described it as a “tremendously exciting time for scholars and fans”.

The poems will be published alongside 1,300 others in the first ever complete edition of Kipling’s verse on 7 March.


Let’s hope he found more like this:

The Young British Soldier

When the ‘arf-made recruity goes out to the East
‘E acts like a babe an’ ‘e drinks like a beast,
An’ ‘e wonders because ‘e is frequent deceased
Ere ‘e’s fit for to serve as a soldier.
Serve, serve, serve as a soldier,
Serve, serve, serve as a soldier,
Serve, serve, serve as a soldier,
So-oldier OF the Queen!

Now all you recruities what’s drafted to-day,
You shut up your rag-box an’ ‘ark to my lay,
An’ I’ll sing you a soldier as far as I may:
A soldier what’s fit for a soldier.
Fit, fit, fit for a soldier . . .

First mind you steer clear o’ the grog-sellers’ huts,
For they sell you Fixed Bay’nets that rots out your guts —
Ay, drink that ‘ud eat the live steel from your butts —
An’ it’s bad for the young British soldier.
Bad, bad, bad for the soldier . . .

When the cholera comes — as it will past a doubt —
Keep out of the wet and don’t go on the shout,
For the sickness gets in as the liquor dies out,
An’ it crumples the young British soldier.
Crum-, crum-, crumples the soldier . . .

But the worst o’ your foes is the sun over’ead:
You must wear your ‘elmet for all that is said:
If ‘e finds you uncovered ‘e’ll knock you down dead,
An’ you’ll die like a fool of a soldier.
Fool, fool, fool of a soldier . . .

If you’re cast for fatigue by a sergeant unkind,
Don’t grouse like a woman nor crack on nor blind;
Be handy and civil, and then you will find
That it’s beer for the young British soldier.
Beer, beer, beer for the soldier . . .

Now, if you must marry, take care she is old —
A troop-sergeant’s widow’s the nicest I’m told,
For beauty won’t help if your rations is cold,
Nor love ain’t enough for a soldier.
‘Nough, ‘nough, ‘nough for a soldier . . .

If the wife should go wrong with a comrade, be loath
To shoot when you catch ’em — you’ll swing, on my oath! —
Make ‘im take ‘er and keep ‘er: that’s Hell for them both,
An’ you’re shut o’ the curse of a soldier.
Curse, curse, curse of a soldier . . .

When first under fire an’ you’re wishful to duck,
Don’t look nor take ‘eed at the man that is struck,
Be thankful you’re livin’, and trust to your luck
And march to your front like a soldier.
Front, front, front like a soldier . . .

When ‘arf of your bullets fly wide in the ditch,
Don’t call your Martini a cross-eyed old bitch;
She’s human as you are — you treat her as sich,
An’ she’ll fight for the young British soldier.
Fight, fight, fight for the soldier . . .

When shakin’ their bustles like ladies so fine,
The guns o’ the enemy wheel into line,
Shoot low at the limbers an’ don’t mind the shine,
For noise never startles the soldier.
Start-, start-, startles the soldier . . .

If your officer’s dead and the sergeants look white,
Remember it’s ruin to run from a fight:
So take open order, lie down, and sit tight,
And wait for supports like a soldier.
Wait, wait, wait like a soldier . . .

When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.
Go, go, go like a soldier,
Go, go, go like a soldier,
Go, go, go like a soldier,
So-oldier of the Queen!

02 Feb 2013

On Wenlock Edge the Wood’s in Trouble

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On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble
His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves;
The gale, it plies the saplings double,
And thick on Severn snow the leaves.

‘Twould blow like this through holt and hanger
When Uricon the city stood:
‘Tis the old wind in the old anger,
But then it threshed another wood.

Then, ’twas before my time, the Roman
At yonder heaving hill would stare:
The blood that warms an English yeoman,
The thoughts that hurt him, they were there.

There, like the wind through woods in riot,
Through him the gale of life blew high;
The tree of man was never quiet:
Then ’twas the Roman, now ’tis I.

The gale, it plies the saplings double,
It blows so hard, ’twill soon be gone:
To-day the Roman and his trouble
Are ashes under Uricon.

–A.E. Housman, A Shropshire Lad

08 Mar 2010

Obama at the Bat

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Excellent 4:50 PJM video.

From Vanderleun via Karen L. Myers.

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