July 12, 2006

11th July 2006

Posted in Current Affairs, Poetry at 2:56 am by falstaff


How shall we answer such hatred?

How shall we stitch together,
Word by careful word,
This torn page?

It is not a question
Of condemnation
Or forgiveness –
We have strength enough for neither.

Nor is it simply a matter
Of measuring the wounds
And adding them all up.

Statistics will not help us now.
We cannot hope to understand
What is inherently senseless.
We can only try to acknowledge
The truth of it,
Bear witness to it,
The way the negative bears witness to the image.

We can only try
Not to turn away.

And yet there can be no doubt of our judgement here:
For the windows of our city
Shake with outrage,
And against such horror
Even the light is defiance.

We are afraid, yes,
But fear too is an affirmation –
The trembling of leaves
That denies the wind.

If our silence has been shattered
So that we no longer recognise ourselves in it;
If our very shadows
Have turned to ghosts;
Do you really think we shall let this defeat us?
Do you really think we shall give in
So easily?

No, tonight we shall find no comfort
In our own safety,
But live, in our imagination,
In a stranger’s house,
In a stranger’s place.

Except that there are no strangers now,
For the spilling of our common blood
Make us all family –
What we feel in these first moments
Is not sympathy,
But the grief of our own loss.

Time will mend all, we are told.
But Time cannot dismantle the explosions,
Or undo the pain;
Time can help us to forget,
But do we really want to?

It is up to us to retain
Our diminished humanity;
Up to us to recognise
That Death is not a visitor
We would wish on any other.

It is up to us to defuse
The anger ticking away inside us,
Waiting to explode.

It comes down to this then:
That we dare neither heal our wounds
Nor celebrate them;
That we can no longer tell
Relief from guilt,
Hope from complicity,
Moving on from desertion;

That our very need for prayer
Makes God impossible.

It comes down to this:
That the familiar ways are lost,
And the route back to peace
Is long and difficult.
It will be some time, at least,
Before all of us
Are safely home.


What can I do, in times like these, but write?

This post in special appreciation of the efforts of the folks at Mumbai Help, who did an amazing job last night of helping people get in touch with their loved ones.


July 9, 2006

White Goddess, Green Eyes

Posted in Poetry at 12:41 pm by falstaff

Don’t you just love it when poets get peevish?

Take Robert Graves. At some point, some woman (I’m guessing it must have been Laura Riding, though I’m not sure) goes and leaves him to marry some other guy. So what does Graves do? He goes ahead and writes a whole bunch of poems about how women hook up with undeserving men.

First we get this:

Beauty in trouble flees to the good angel
On whom she can rely
To pay her cab-fare, run a steaming bath,
Poultice her bruised eye;

Will not at first, whether for shame or caution,
Her difficulty disclose;
Until he draws a cheque book from his plumage,
Asking how much she owes;

(Breakfast in bed: coffee and marmalade,
Toasts, eggs, orange-juice,
After a long, sound sleep – the first since when? –
And no word of abuse.)

Loves him less than only her saint-like mother,
Promises to repay
His loans and most seraphic thoughtfulness
A million-fold one day.

Beauty grows plump, renews her broken courage
And, borrowing ink and pen,
Writes a news-letter to the evil angel
(Her first gay act since when?):

The fiend who beats, betrays and sponges on her,
Persuades her white is black,
Flaunts verpertilian wings and cloven hoof;
And soon will fetch her back.

Virtue, good angel, is its own reward:
Your guineas were well spent.
But would you to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediment?

– ‘Beauty in Trouble’

(As an aside, do you think we’ll ever be able to read the word gay in its original sense again?)

Next Graves writes:

A perverse habit of cat-goddesses –
Even the blackest of them, black as coals
Save for a new moon blazing on each breast,
With coral tongues and beryl eyes like lamps,
Long-legged, pacing three by three in nines –
This obstinate habit is to yield themselves,
In verisimilar love-ecstasies,
To tatter-eared and slinking alley-toms
No less below the common run of cats
Than they above it; which they do not for spite,
To provoke jealousy – not the least abashed
By such gross-headed, rabbit coloured litters
As soon they shall be happy to desert.

– ‘Cat-goddesses’

And finally, just in case that was too subtle for you:

Why have such scores of lovely, gifted girls
Married impossible men?
Simple self-sacrifice may be ruled out,
And missionary endeavour, nine times out of ten.

Repeat ‘impossible men’: not merely rustic
Foul-tempered or depraved
(Dramatic foils chosen to show the world
How well women behave, and always have behaved).

Impossible men: idle, illiterate,
Self-pitying, dirty, sly,
For whose appearance even in City parks
Excuses must be made to casual passers-by.

Has God’s supply of tolerable husbands
Fallen, in fact, so low?
Or do I always over-value woman
At the expense of man?
Do I?
It might be so.

– ‘A Slice of Wedding Cake’

Phew! Talk about Petulant Pterodactyls.

On a separate note, we’re thinking about running a series of poetry by people better known for their prose over at Poi-tre. Trouble is, there’s a whole bunch of people on the cusp about whom I can’t make up my mind. So I’m leaving it open to readers of this blog. What would you say would be the primary classification of each of the people listed below – Poet / Prose Writer:

1. Robert Graves
2. Jorge Luis Borges
3. Thomas Hardy
4. Rudyard Kipling
5. Lewis Carroll

July 6, 2006

Gene who?

Posted in Poetry at 12:12 pm by falstaff

I’m fascinated by old poetry anthologies. It’s both interesting and deeply humbling to read something that purports to be a collection of classics from its time and discover how much literary ‘taste’ has changed over the years, and how differently we (or at least I) view things today from the way we did, say, 50 years ago.

Take this collection called the Pocket Book of Modern Verse edited by Oscar Williams and first published in 1954, that I bought a while ago and am in the process of leafing through again. It claims to be an anthology of the best ‘modern’ poems published in the 100 years from 1855 – 1954, starting from Whitman and going all the way up to Ted Hughes. The reason I bought it, the reason I’m re-reading it, is because it offers a view of the development of poetry from the 1850s to the 1950s that is in many ways strikingly different from the one I typically carry around in my head. If I were to put together an anthology of poetry from that period, it would look very, very different.

Not that there wouldn’t be some overlap. Some things simply cannot be argued with – Whitman’s Song of Myself, Hopkins’ sonnets, Crane’s Brooklyn Bridge, cummings’s somewhere I have never travelled – all these would find a place in practically any anthology of the period, as they do here. And to give Williams’ credit, he does a fine job, in my opinion, of picking poems by Dylan Thomas, Emily Dickinson and W.H. Auden. Most of the usual favourites are there, plus a few poems that are less well known, but equally deserving.

It’s when you get beyond the obvious, that Williams selections grow startling. The anthology includes exactly one William Carlos Williams poem – this thing called The Yachts – but we have long sections devoted to Vachel Lindsay, W.S. Gilbert (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame) and James Joyce. Even Herman Melville gets more space than W.C.Williams. More, in a book supposedly dedicated to ‘modern’ poetry, we have long selections from Thomas Hardy, Algernon Charles Swinburne, Walter de la Mare and A.E. Housman.

As we get closer to the editor’s contemporaries matters only get more baffling. First, one is now treated to a bunch of names that I, at any rate, have never heard of. I mean seriously, has anyone ever read any of the following: Gene Derwood, Julian Symons, F.T. Prince, Joseph Bennett, Dustan Thompson or Frederick Mortimer Clapp? Okay, so some of them have only one or two poems included, but even so the book puts them on equal footing with Philip Larkin, Robert Lowell, Frank O’Hara and William Empson. Allen Tate doesn’t just get Ode to the Confederate Dead, he gets a section as long as Ezra Pound’s all too himself. Edith Sitwell doesn’t just get Still falls the Rain, she gets half a dozen poems. And you finally discover that Richard Eberhardt did, in fact, write something other than the Groundhog and the Fury of the Aerial Bombardment. Oh, and there’s the 10 page long section of Oscar Williams’ own poems, about which the less said the better.

Understand, I’m not saying that these poets don’t deserve to be there (though, actually, in the case of both Oscar Williams and Edith Sitwell, I am saying that – their poems are, frankly, unreadable). I certainly don’t claim to be an expert on early 20th century poetry, and am in no real position to judge (even assuming objective judgement were possible) the relative merits of different poets from that era. I just think it’s interesting that so many of the poets that Oscar Williams clearly saw as being seminal to his time have faded into relative obscurity in a mere 50 years, while others, whom he ignores completely (Langston Hughes isn’t included, for instance), continue to delight us. So much for verse being immortal.

And it isn’t just the selection of poets that seems strange. It’s also the poems that Williams chooses to include. Take Yeats. We get some of the usual anthology pieces – The Second Coming, When you are Old and Grey, Sailing to Byzantium, Lake Isles of Innisfree. But no Leda and the Swan, no Byzantium, no Among School Children, no Easter, 1916. Instead we get A Bronze Head, John Kinsella’s Lament for Mrs. Mary Moore, The Three Bushes and Politics. The Wallace Stevens selection includes The Idea of Order at Key West and Sunday Morning, but it also includes The Woman That Had More Babies Than That, The President Ordains the Bee to Be and On an Old Horn. Again, I’m not saying these are bad poems (I’m not sure Wallace Stevens wrote a bad poem in his life) but it’s surprising to me that they are the poems anyone would pick as being the ‘best’ / most representative of their respective poet’s work.

Of course, one could argue that this is just Williams’ bias and he has a right to his opinion, etc. etc. I’m not disputing that. But I think it’s more generally true that anthologies, especially old anthologies, always surprise me with what they decide to include and what they choose to leave out. And that, for me, is a big part of what makes them worth reading.

Now if I can only find a selection of Gene Derwood’s verse in my library.

July 4, 2006


Posted in Poetry at 2:52 pm by falstaff

for S., who gets married today. Wishing her every happiness.


The Wedding“Permit me voyage, love, into your hands…”

– Hart Crane, ‘Voyages’

Every wedding is an afterthought.

The real choice begins elsewhere:
In some inaccessible cavern of the heart
Where love melts like a slow glacier
And two springs of Yes flow
Into the mutual valley,
Join in a silver kiss.

The decision
A singing stream,
Pure as water.

All else is descent:
Waterfalls of joy
Tempt the precipice into approval,
Cascades of feeling
Overleap the most obdurate stones;
And the light dances like butterflies
Over the acknowledged river
Making tributaries of friends,
Turning gravity to resolution.

Then onward, to where the world
Is measured in horizons,
And distance, breathless with its own daring,
Opens its arms in welcome.

Who would have thought
The journey to togetherness
Would take them so far?

Past forests of doubt
That finger them as they pass,
Past fields ripening slowly
To autumn promises,
And cities of tradition and detail
Whose traffic of questions
Leaves them muddied,

Silted with days,
They outgrow the speed of their beginnings,
Meander patiently
Through this unyielding landscape,
Clinging only to their intent
And to the slow drift of their daydreams,
Lazy as boats.

And then, at last,
The private fanning into public,
The delta of this final ceremony,
Where the soft lapping of their hearts
Is lost amid a larger roar,
And the seagulls wheel over them
Like blessings,
And they empty themselves
Into a more endless adventure,
To the loud acclaim of the waves.

Every wedding is an afterthought.
We celebrate
The end of anticipation,
The beginning of promise.

– 4th July 2006