Saturday, September 29, 2007

Donald Hall

Never, never, never show a poem to anybody until you have worked on it in solitude for at least six months.

from Flying Revision's Flag

Friday, September 28, 2007


this is the garden:colours come and go,
frail azures fluttering from night's outer wing
strong silent greens serenely lingering,
absolute lights like baths of golden snow.
This is the garden:pursed lips do blow
upon cool flutes within wide glooms,and sing
(of harps celestial to the quivering string)
invisible faces hauntingly and slow.

This is the garden. Time shall surely reap
and on Death's blade lie many a flower curled,
in other lands where other songs be sung;
yet stand They here enraptured,as among
the slow deep trees perpetual of sleep
some silver-fingered fountain steals the world.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

This is how metrical verse is done

Quite apart from formal considerations, this is a beautiful, moving elegy: "Long Distance II" by the English poet Tony Harrison (b. 1937).
Stephen Fry's Poetry Exercise 19

Write a Petrarchan Sonnet on Electoral Apathy.

I haven't attempted a Petrarchan sonnet in close to 20 years. I did produce a draft in an hour and a half, a draft that will not be shared here in its entirety. I liked exactly two lines of my effort, the opening and closing lines of the octave:

The apathetic voter shrugs his mind


He joins the party of the disinclined.

[Addendum, Saturday: Come to think of it, that first line is rather redundant, isn't it? If the voter "shrugs his mind," it's clearly implicit that he is apathetic, or at least indecisive ...]

My sestet (rhymed cdeedc) began with three rather facile lines, intended to be ironic:

Behold the politician smiling bright
A public servant in the truest sense
Noble self-sacrificial and the rest

But from there, if such a thing can be imagined, it got worse. I resorted to slant rhyme, all manner of cliché (vide supra, "smiling bright"), etc. ... The best that could be said about the effort is that it scanned well. Too well, in fact. No metrical roughness, no variation ...

I think that Fry's exercises result (for me, at least) in rather sad adventures in pseudo-neo-formalism. When a poem is a homework assignment, given by someone else, I tend to flounder. I do a little better when I'm my own taskmaster, when the poem is (tired phrase, but apt) a labor of love.

But I thought I'd try these exercises, some of them anyway, because I've just emerged from four years of having attempted no poetry at all, and I need the practice, no matter how cringe-inducing the result.

The Cage
by David Gascoyne (1916-2001)

In the waking night
The forests have stopped growing
The shells are listening
The shadows in the pools turn grey
The pearls dissolve in the shadow
And I return to you

Your face is marked upon the clockface
My hands are beneath your hair
And if the time you mark sets free the birds
And if they fly away towards the forest
The hour will no longer be ours

Ours is the ornate birdcage
The brimming cup of water
The preface to the book
And all the clocks are ticking
All the dark rooms are moving
All the air’s nerves are bare

Once flown
The feathered hour will not return
And I shall have gone away.

September Sun: 1947
by David Gascoyne

Magnificent strong sun! in these last days
So prodigally generous of pristine light
That’s wasted only by men’s sight who will not see
And by self-darkened spirits from whose night
Can rise no longer orison or praise:

Let us consume in fire unfed like yours
And may the quickened gold within me come
To mintage in due season, and not be
Transmuted to no better end than dumb
And self-sufficient usury. These days and years

May bring the sudden call to harvesting,
When if the fields Man labours only yield
Glitter and husks, then with an angrier sun may He
Who first with His gold seed the sightless field
Of Chaos planted, all our trash to cinders bring.


From the poet's obituary, a fascinating biographical datum:

[...] depression, fuelled by amphetamine abuse, took its toll. The writing dried up, and, in the 1960s, Gascoyne retreated in despair to his parents' home on the Isle of Wight, fetching up, after his father's death, in the local asylum. There, a miracle occurred. A therapist named Judy Tyler Lewis read one of his poems, September Sun, to the inmates. When he claimed it as his, she thought it one more of his delusions. But they married, and lived happily thereafter on the island.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

(half a lifetime ago!)

The song that made the world aware of Tracy Chapman:

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Another silly quiz

Not sure how true this is. I expected the percentage to be a wee bit higher:

You Are 36% Slacker

You have a few slacker tendencies, but overall you tend not to slack.
You know how to relax when the time is right, but you aren't lazy!

Monday, September 24, 2007

Some real poetry

Dylan Thomas reading "The Force that Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower":

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.

The force that drives the water through the rocks
Drives my red blood; that dries the mouthing streams
Turns mine to wax.
And I am dumb to mouth unto my veins
How at the mountain spring the same mouth sucks.

The hand that whirls the water in the pool
Stirs the quicksand; that ropes the blowing wind
Hauls my shroud sail.
And I am dumb to tell the hanging man
How of my clay is made the hangman's lime.

The lips of time leech to the fountain head;
Love drips and gathers, but the fallen blood
Shall calm her sores.
And I am dumb to tell a weather's wind
How time has ticked a heaven round the stars.

And I am dumb to tell the lover's tomb
How at my sheet goes the same crooked worm.

Near-record heat expected

tomorrow and Wednesday. Hurrah, etc. Let joy be unconfined.
Stephen Fry's Poetry Exercise 3
from his book The Ode Less Travelled

Write five pairs of blank (non-rhyming) iambic pentameter in which the first line of each pair is end-stopped and there are no caesuras.

Now write five pairs with (give or take) the same meaning in which there is enjambment.

Make sure that each new pair also contains at least two caesuras.


To make it easier I will give you a specific subject for all five pairs.

1. Precisely what you see and hear outside your window.
2. Precisely what you'd like to eat, right this minute.
3. Precisely what you last remember dreaming about.
4. Precisely what uncompleted chores are niggling at you.
5. Precisely what you hate about your body.

The suggested time limit for this exercise was 45 minutes. I failed miserably. I enjambed when I didn't mean to, and had difficulty with my caesuras. I may post the results later tonight, with the exception of the dream couplets. My dreams don't translate well into ordinary language.


Here they are. Written last Wednesday evening.

1a Outside the Window
The field where our town's high-school football players
Practice, it seems, for sixteen hours a day.

2a What I'd Like to Eat
I'm full from pizza but suppose I could
Have a few wheat thins or potato chips.

4a Pesky Tasks Overdue
Although the laundry piles up in the basket,
I think I'll put it off until next week.

5a Portrait of the Artist
A forty-six-inch waist and coffee-breath.
Unmanageable hair. A scruffy beard.


The Cougars practice. How long have they been
Out there? Since time began? A whistle blows.

Wheat thins, potato chips, you sit inside
My kitchen cabinet. Right now I'm stuffed.

Downstairs. Into the cellar, where the clothes
Get washed and dried. Not now. Too much to do.

Excessive girth. A buzz-cut that won't grow
Back properly. An unattractive face.


I enjambed couplets 1a and 2a, and arguably put a caesura in the second line of 5a. So I didn't do the exercise exactly right. But there you have it.

I think that Mr Fry's book, The Ode Less Travelled, is intended for poets and would-be poets who have never ventured rhyme and meter before. I don't think I'll attempt all the exercises in the book. (Poetry Exercise 13: Write a dramatic monologue in heroic couplets in the voice of someone who is clearly stoned out of his mind and trying to explain to the cops the half-ounce of cannabis they found on his person. Exercise 14: Write a villanelle. Exercise 15: Write a sestina.) I have done some of those things before -- guess which one I haven't done! -- but doubt strongly that I could produce examples of those forms on command. For now, I'm having fun with the easier exercises ...
Theodore Roethke

Reason? That dreary shed, that hutch for grubby schoolboys!
The hedgewren's song says something else.

from "I Cry, Love! Love!"

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Sonnet XVII
by Pablo Neruda (1904-73)

I don't love you as if you were the salt-rose, topaz
or arrow of carnations that propagate fire:
I love you as certain dark things are loved,
secretly, between the shadow and the soul.

I love you as the plant that doesn't bloom and carries
hidden within itself the light of those flowers,
and thanks to your love, darkly in my body
lives the dense fragrance that rises from the earth.

I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where,
I love you simply, without problems or pride:
I love you in this way because I don't know any other way of loving

but this, in which there is no I or you,
so intimate that your hand upon my chest is my hand,
so intimate that when I fall asleep it is your eyes that close.


No te amo como si fueras rosa de sal, topacio
o flecha de claveles que propagan el fuego:
te amo como se aman ciertas cosas oscuras,
secretamente, entre la sombra y el alma.

Te amo como la planta que no florece y lleva
dentro de sí, escondida, la luz de aquellas flores,
y gracias a tu amor vive oscuro en mi cuerpo
el apretado aroma que ascendió de la tierra.

Te amo sin saber cómo, ni cuándo, ni de dónde,
te amo directamente sin problemas ni orgullo:
así te amo porque no sé amar de otra manera,

sino así de este modo en que no soy ni eres,
tan cerca que tu mano sobre mi pecho es mía,
tan cerca que se cierran tus ojos con mi sueño.

(100 Love Sonnets: Cien Sonetos De Amor, trans. by Stephen Tapscott)


According to Wikipedia, today is the 34th anniversary of Pablo Neruda's death. May God have mercy on the old communist so-and-so: he could write beautifully.